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About Order & Entropy

For centuries there has been a tenuous peace through the ruins of the Corinthian Empire.  One bought with the blood of countless thousands, and floundering in the shadows of a cold war fueled by magic, faith, and dragons.  The memory of mages may be long, but time brings complacency, and ambition is a wolf ever circling at the door.

Three children are cast into the royal court of the small western kingdom of Avrale.  A land ever caught between the true power brokers of their world.  Yet the forces of fate spiraling around the Ashton children hint at a larger picture.  That nothing about them is at all ordinary, even if all they want is to live their lives, and find their place in a world that seems to always have other plans.  They will learn that gifts can be burdens, and that great power is never without consequence.

  • New Readers Start Here: Chapter 1
  • Returning readers check the Book menu to find your last read chapter.
  • New chapters will generally be posted weekly on Sunday.
  • Extras when I find the time.

 


 

Decades in the making, the four planned books of the Storm Cycle remain a work in progress.  Two completed books are in draft stages, a third started, and the ending of the fourth already written.  Not to mention many side stories, including a half finished novel set before the “Age of Kings.”  I have decided to release the chapters of Book 1 in serial format to begin building a following, and eventually hope to release final versions as full books, with professional editing.

If you aren’t sold yet, then let me give you a hint of what to expect.  I may start with small children, but this was an outgrowth of needing to set the stage for the adults I first tried to tell the tale of.  This is a tale ever about the humanity and foibles of those who find the strength to stand up, and be what the world needs, even if they will never quite be what world wants.

Though the story told is set, these pages are self edited, and any corrections or feedback are greatly appreciated.  Thank you, and enjoy.

All site content ©2017 K. Quistorff unless otherwise specified.
Not for resale or distribution without written consent.

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Featured

Chapter 1

CoverEarly

There is an ancient ash,
there upon a rolling hill,
‘bove a winding road,
‘midst a peaceful field,

none know how long it stood,
does seem ‘tis always been,
old thick ‘n tangled branches,
grown nowhere near such kin,

an’ for that forlorn sentinel,
there sprouted far from home,
the lands and those err born,
were ever named Ashton…

– Ballad of Adel Ashton, 620 E.R.

The Autumn Child

Who is to say if the word of a god can be trusted?  Not I.  I’ve met but the one, and am most hopelessly biased on the subject.  Still, to have walked in such circles, to have seen the things I have, it is not unreasonable to confirm the basics, and take a great deal more on well earned faith.

Many things will be written on the matter, some of them even true.  It is less my concern if any such lies and follies might flatter.  Ascension tends to do well enough with that.  One worries more for a mortal legacy, all too easily lost in the long shadow divinity might cast.

It does not begin grandly, nothing ever truly does.  Oh surely I could start with kings and emperors, dragons and old gods.  One could wallow in such hallowed trappings for a time, set the stage for what was to come.  Perhaps some of these – those the world holds in such high regard – were even more than petty pawns.

No.  It must begin with the simple and unadorned truth.  

On the seventh day of autumn, by a calendar that marked over six centuries from the dawn of a great empire – even then, long gone – a child was born.  It was a beginning far removed from the mighty bastions of power in the world, and witnessed by precious few to remember even so much as a name.

If he was truly important, or merely a quirk in far grander schemes is open for debate.  From far above the vantage of mortal eyes, it might be observed that through all the countless permutations of fate, there was but one in which he even lived.  That it was this, of all possible worlds, that might endure.

It is said that the humble butterfly, by no more than flapping its delicate wings, can change the inevitable course of a mighty storm.  Surely such an insect holds no hopes to be remembered, but a small child might.  For while his birth was ostensibly common, much that followed would not be.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Candle

Jovan 7th, 636 E.R.

The sun was only just threatening to rise, as two dark haired girls stirred at a roosters crow.  They were a pale freckled pair, fairer than the mother they lay to either side of – an olive skinned woman, typical of the land, particularly in such northern reaches.   Even with a sickly pallor she was a shade darker than any of her children.

One can only imagine – and would rather not – the look in those matching green eyes as they woke.  Their cheeks still streaked with tracks of tears.  Marks that stood alongside a flickering candle as testament to a long night’s anxious vigil.

Promises that the worst was passed had lulled the girls into fitful sleep barely an hour before.  Upon waking it was apparent that things were no better, if not far worse.  They could see she wasn’t well, felt it in their bones.  They knew something was terribly wrong.

Shivering against the cold morning air they shook their mother, baring no mind to the silent bundle lain at her bosom.  They were desperate, afraid, death unfortunately was not new to these darling creatures.  They had seen it once before.

The auburn haired woman drew a deep labored breath, and her blue eyes fluttered open.  She seemed barely there as she brushed a tear gently from the face of the girl on her left.  “My Kat,” she said softly, a tear running down her own cheek.  “My Kia,” she said turning her head to the right, and doing the same for the other.

She wrapped her arms weakly around the silent bundle at her chest.  “My Ren…” she said in barely a whisper, and was gone again.  No further shaking or cries could rouse her.  Her arms went limp, the babe rested on her chest remained silent, and only long shallow breaths gave any proof either still lived.

Both girls broke again into sobs, and cried until they could not shed another tear.  Katrisha – as her name was properly – was the first to grow silent.  Then, with all the reluctant determination due a small child setting herself to do something difficult and dubious, she crawled from her mother’s side and down off the bed.

With stumbled steps she trod from the cramped bedroom, and into the narrow front of the house.  She stopped, rubbed her eyes, and glanced up at a plain tan coat that hung just above her reach.

Katrisha leaned against the wall, and got up on the tips of her toes.  Even then she barely managed to get hold of the coat’s trim with the tips of her fingers.  It, much like the simple gown she wore was a raggedy looking thing.  It was made with uneven stitching, and had all the hallmarks of crude homespun apparel.  She tugged at the coat until it pulled free of the peg, and fell over her awkwardly.  She wrestled from beneath the offending garment, and gave a huff of frustration before pulling it on.

She had slipped her right foot into a simple sandal shoe when a hoarse voice behind her stopped her short of the second.  “Wher’ you going?” her sister demanded, her words cut with gentle sobs.  Kiannae stood clinging to the door frame for support.  Doubt, worry, and the same horrifying realizations that had driven Katrisha from bed, were written plainly across her twin’s face.

It hadn’t been the real question – such might have been, ‘Should we go?  Should we stay?  Will it get better?  What do we do?’

“To get help,” Katrisha answered, and pressed her lips together grimly.  “Ma isn’t well.  I…I think she’s dying, like gran’pa.”

“Dun say that,” Kiannae commanded defiantly.  She didn’t want to believe it, but she knew in her heart it was true.

“Going for help, Ki,” Katrisha said shakily, as tears tried vainly to well up again.

“I’m coming,” Kiannae declared after a moment of labored hesitation.

“Shouldn’…one of us stay?” Katrisha asked, doubt now foremost in her own voice.

Kiannae walked over, and struggled to reach her own coat.  “She needs help, we go,” she said tersely.  The two had each played their role, the argument was settled, and their course set.  Katrisha moved to help her sister reach higher, and when at last Kiannae got hold of her coat she pulled hard, and both fell over as it came loose.

Once their coats and shoes were on, the two stepped out into the cold light of dawn.  Their simple attire was insufficient to cut the morning chill, and they huddled together as they walked the long path down towards the main road.  Everything smelled of dust, and dry grass.  The air was quiet and still, cut only by the soft clucking of chickens that had wandered out not long before, and were pecking at the dry packed earth.

The farmhouse was a lonely place set on a high hill.  It stood among rolling fields almost so far as the eye could see.  It seemed the sort of place one might put a manor, or keep to watch over the land, yet only a large weathered barn and a gnarled old ash gave the small house any company.  The tree stood aside, perched on its own little mound above the road, and the path wound down around it.

The two girls strayed from the path, and stopped beneath the branches of that weary old Ash.  The leaves were turning, and a few had fallen.  It seemed much too early for that.  The fall did not normally come till the nights grew longer than the days, and that was still a month away.  It was also colder than it should be for the skies were clear.  The skies were almost always clear.  Everything felt as though it was dead or dying, hanging on to a final breath.

They looked first at each other, and then up and down the winding road below.  “Which way?” Katrisha asked, her expression betraying more second thoughts.

Kiannae frowned deeply, looked both ways again, and closed her eyes.  “Which way Mr. Tree?” she whispered under her breath.  “I don’ remember,” she added fretfully.

Katrisha looked at her sister, and up at the old ash.  She had always taken it on faith the tree had spoken to her twin once.  Father had agreed that some trees might, and so Katrisha merely implored with her own gaze for an answer – lest instead they leave their mother’s fate to chance.

“This way,” Kiannae said stepping down the hill to the left, and southward.  “The way gran’pa use to.”  She looked back at her sister, and then to the tree.  “Thank you,” Kiannae offered under her breath.  The wind had reminded her, and though even she was unsure if the tree had truly answered, it seemed prudent to show gratitude.  He had always been such a good listener, after all.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

By mid morning, even youthful vigor failed short legs on an indefinite march.  They had stopped to rest beneath a sickly apple tree that stood along the roadside.  With scarce sleep, and no food in their bellies the twin girls sat sullen on the dry grass.  They were all but hopeless as each nibbled dubiously on an apple.  They were small, there were few to chose from, and only the most recently fallen had not been gnawed or pecked to pieces.

The girls had passed five empty farms along the way towards town, and could only guess how much farther they would have to go.  Neither had ever been so far from home.  Each house they had found boarded up and abandoned.  They had been too young the previous year to understand, nor close at hand to hear the words of adults arguing, as their grandfather politely refused the King’s men.

The farms were all barren.  Years of gripping drought had taken their toll, and the residents had been moved to work more fertile lands for southern barons, and the crown.  What few crops still grew on the family farm – that kept them and their few animals fed – had often brought tears to their mother’s eyes.  She had said she was grateful.  Yet that year had been more meager than the last.  Before he passed their grandfather had always provided what wouldn’t grow, but he was gone.

Kiannae got up to move on, but fell, and shrieked after only a few steps.  Katrisha hurried to her sister’s side, as Kiannae pulled her foot from a bramble covered burrow.  She clutched at her scratched and twisted ankle gingerly, and winced in pain, but the tears would not come.  She tried to get up, but it hurt too much – it was all too much.  She simply collapsed on her side and whimpered.

Katrisha knelt beside her and pulled her close. “You ok?”

“No,” Kiannae croaked, “It hurts – ca’n get up.”

“I go,” Katrisha said softly, “I get help, for ma, for you. Ca’n be far…”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha was wrong.  She passed four more empty farms as the day wore on.  She had been little more than halfway to the closest village when she left her sister.  It was just after noon when she finally caught sight of buildings ahead.  The cold morning had given way to a hot day, and her feet screamed with every step, but she pressed on, with the promise of an end at last in sight.  Yet as she approached her heart sank to see more boarded up windows.

Rounding an abandoned building and into the town square returned the spark of hope, as the first people she had seen came into view.  The closest of them stood gathered between an open shop and a curious horse drawn coach.  The carriage held her gaze for just a moment, there was something odd about it she could not place.  She had never seen a such a thing before, but it appeared simple enough, no more than a fancy wagon.  Something blue seemed to glimmer and catch her eye, but all at once there seemed nothing there.  Whatever peculiar property might have cause it was quickly forgotten in the bright noon sun, and with the memory of far more pressing concerns.

Katrisha shook her head from the distraction, and with the last of her will trod towards the small crowd.  She found she could not speak, let alone yell.  Her throat was too dry.  She tugged at a woman’s long red skirt only to be shooed off.  With that the last of her resolve gave way.  She dropped to her knees, and leaned weakly on one arm.

She was not fully aware as a tall man in fine brown robes emerged from the murmuring crowd.  His complexion was paler than the mixture of olive, and  some darker shades that gathered around him.  She did not notice when he held up his hand for silence from the gathered citizenry, as they continued to pester him.  The sudden quiet struck her, somewhere far away, but she remained mostly oblivious as he stood over her for a moment, stared down, and stroked his brown beard, flecked with the first hints of gray.

When Katrisha failed to acknowledge the man’s presence, he got down on one knee, and straightened her upright.  He then tilted her head up with a gentle finger beneath her chin, and her gaze relented to meet his kind silver eyes.

“Are you alright, little one?” the man asked in a soothing, measured tone.

“No,” Katrisha managed in a small horse voice, and had little luck thinking clearly, “no – ma, sis…” she continued, interrupted by a tiny cough.  This made her wince, and not at all inclined to speak again.

“What is it, Laurel?” another voice came from the crowd, and a shorter, broad shouldered man shrugged his way through.  He looked more like his countrymen – in most ways – though his stocky heavy build stood out.  His pale hair also seemed an aberration.  It was thinning, cropped too short to do much with, and so lay or stood largely as it wished atop his head.

“Horence, water,” Laurel said in a soft, but commanding tone.  “What about your mother, and sister little one?” he pressed with some concern, as the shorter man hesitated a moment, tried to make sense of what was going on, and then marched past towards the coach as he had been ordered.

“Ma’s sick, won’t wake up, and Ki…” Katrisha trailed off, her eyes cloudy, and her head swimming.

“Where do you live little one?” Laurel asked his brow furled.

Katrisha pointed the way she had entered town.  “Nine farms…” she said hesitantly, wiggling her fingers as though to count.  “I think…”

Horence returned with a canteen of water, it’s cap already dangling.  Laurel took it.  “Here, drink,” he said, and offered it to Katrisha.  She gripped it a bit awkwardly, and sipped from it clumsily, spilling more than she drank down her neck in the first attempt.  Her eyes widened as the unexpectedly near icy water hit her parched throat, and something new appeared in Laurel’s already curious analytical gaze.

He watched the girl all the more intently as she tried to gulp, and relented to sip when she found it above her ability.  “What is your name little one?” Laurel asked transfixed by the girl’s brilliant green eyes.  He had decided they were not quite right, not entirely human.  Her pupils became faintly oblong in the bright midday sun.  He took note for the first time of her pale freckled complexion, which seemed meaningful only in the context of a growing list of peculiarities.

“Kat,” she said softly.  “Katrisha,” she corrected herself, but did not pronounce it well.  There had been talk at times of how to introduce oneself, though not so often as commands to do no such thing.  There had been something about cousins, she remembered, but it didn’t matter, and the whole train of thought slipped away.

Laurel reached out, and brushed the girl’s hair back.  He hoped it passed as a soothing act, but he worried it was far too familiar, even as his curiosity demanded more proof.  Here ear was not altogether unusual, just like the eyes, easily missed, and until then covered beneath her dark locks.  There was a slight point where one should not be – or perhaps should, as the last confirmation.  He withdrew his hand.

Laurel looked up at his companion.  “I think young miss Kat here could use our assistance.  Much as I hate to delay our journey, or deprive these fine folks of our company.”  He inclined his head towards the crowd behind him briefly, but his expression was less than sincere on the point.

“Are you quite sure the villagers cannot deal with the matter?” Horence asked hesitantly.

“I am strongly of the impression this does require my specific attention,” Laurel said firmly, and looked back at Katrisha for a moment.  There was a sudden hesitation, and a frown crept across his face for a fleeting second.  It was like a memory, the kind he didn’t like, the kind that came before something happened.  He pushed it aside, and scooped the girl up in his arms.  “This trip was procedural anyway.  I’ve no doubt that nothing has changed with the border wards, and there is no evidence Osyrae is on the march,” he added.

A woman tentatively attempted to recapture Laurel’s attention, but stopped as a cold gust of wind whipped over the crowd.  She and the other villagers seemed to shift away.

“My name,” the man said softly, returning his attention to the girl in his arms, “is Laurel.  Horence, and myself will be helping you – if that is all right?”

“Yes,” Katrisha replied sleepily, “yes please.”  She rested her head on Laurel’s shoulder as he carried her.  There was something soothing about his presence.  He felt like the old book her grandfather used to read to her from, the feel of well worn pages, and cleverness.  She fell asleep before they even reached the coach, and was unaware of a brief round of questions asked of the villagers, or how unfruitful the inquiry proved.  No one seemed to have any idea who the little girl was.  Least of all to Laurel’s unspoken suspicions.

It was well after the coach had left town that a woman recalled mention almost two years prior, of twin girls, purportedly cousins then visiting the Ashton farm.  She had not remembered off hand, as it had only been a fleeting conversation with a gossip obsessed friend.  That friend had insisted something did not add up.

The following year had been the great exodus to the south, as families were moved away from the drought, and most of the gossips along with them.  The woman put the matter aside, and went back about her day.  She decided if asked again, she would relate what she had remembered – for all it was worth.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha stirred as the coach halted, and Laurel spoke beside her.  “You certainly look familiar, little one.  I think perhaps I found someone who has misplaced you.”  He was looking out the window.

“I’m hurt, ma’s sick” came a small strained voice from beside the coach, “please help.”

Katrisha’s eyes went wide as she stirred from a half sleeping state.  “Ki!” she declared.

Laurel opened the coach door, slid from his seat, and scooped the little girl up from beside the road.  He held her up for a moment at arms length in the sun, and examined her eyes.  “Yes,” Laurel said with confidence.  “Yes, I do believe we have found your sister.”

“Ka!” Kiannae said with great relief in her voice to see her sister in the coach behind the man.  Laurel turned, and set her beside Katrisha in the coach.

Horence peeked in through the window behind his seat.  “Twins,” he remarked with mild interest.

“Indeed,” Laurel said with an inscrutable expression.  “So young miss..Ki was it?  How far to your farm?”

“Four farms,” Kiannae said with some confidence.  “Ma calls me Kia…Kiannae when she’s mad.”  The girl visibly saddened again at mentioning her mother.  Katrisha had clung to her sister firmly, and seemed almost asleep again.

Laurel leaned across, and ruffled Kiannae’s hair gently.  He tried to reassure her, “We are seeing if we can help your mother.”

“Baby too,” Kiannae said after a moment, “very quiet.”

“We’ll check on the baby as well,” Laurel nodded, but grew more concerned as the number of mystery children grew.  He wondered how three small children were still so far up north after the evacuation, but he wagered a guess.  “Is it a new brother, or another sister?” he asked to make conversation, and perhaps distract Kiannae from her morose.

Kiannae looked thoughtful for a moment, and Horence started them moving again, which stirred Katrisha who answered instead, “Brother.”

“I think so,” Kiannae said.  “Saw a little thing last night, like the boy goats have.”  Kiannae rubbed her ankle gingerly, and winced.

“You hurt yourself miss Kia?” Laurel asked softly.

“I fell…could’n walk.  Tried, didn’ get far,” Kiannae replied seemingly embarrassed.

“Let me see,” Laurel said reaching out a hand.  Kiannae lifted her foot up so he could look more closely at her ankle.  His touch was very delicate, strange, but also oddly familiar.  “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, “yes, just a sprain.  I can heal that.”  There was a great deal of warmth, like summer sun on the skin, and just the slightest glow.

Kiannae gasped in surprise, and jostled her sister again, who looked at her crossly.  “You, you’re like daddy!” she declared, and then immediately thought better of it.

“Am I now?” Laurel said with a knowing air as he continued to work.  “Your father can heal sprains?  What else?”

Katrisha gave her sister a stern look, and Kiannae looked back and forth between the two, and pursed her lips with frustration.  “Ma said not to talk ‘bout daddy,” Kiannae said uncomfortably.

“Why doesn’t she want you to talk about your father?” Laurel inquired, pushing just a little bit.

“Made her sad,” Katrisha said uncertainly.

“Gran’pa said it too,” Kiannae countered, and frowned, “he wasn’t sad.”

“Ma said not to talk ‘bout gran’pa either,” Kiannae retorted, “…said they gone, talking din’ change it,” Kiannae said tight lipped.

“So your father, and grandfather are dead…I’m very sad to hear that,” Laurel offered gently.

“Dun remember much,” Kiannae said sadly, and looked away.

“Men yelling, big mess,” Katrisha offered, only able to bare Laurel’s inquisitive gaze for a moment.

“Dad gone, an’ gan’pa died,” Kiannae added.

Laurel’s brow furrowed deeply, and he paused in his work.  “What kind of men?” he asked, a bit of the softness in his voice lost.

“Dun know,” Kiannae said obviously trying to remember, “tall, mad, talked funny.  Talked like daddy does, when he’s angry.”

Laurel closed his eyes, and continued to work on Kiannae’s sprain in silence.  He was very bothered by the strange jumble of circumstances the day had brought him.  A lot of little pieces that painted an incomplete, and quite worrisome picture.  He considered the possibility it could portend very little, or a great deal of trouble.  By the time he finished with Kiannae’s ankle, both girls seemed to be asleep.

Laurel looked up from the girls.  He considered Horence, who sat behind him driving the coach.  The shade was open, and if he was listening he could have heard all of it.  Laurel knew Horence was quite annoyed, and quietly bearing the situation.  He felt some pity for the man, his orders were more than a bit muddled by that point.

Strictly speaking he had been ordered to the border, and to accompany Laurel.  Friendship – such as it was – tempered frustration, but not without straining it.  Further they were more friendly adversaries, sparring partners, not confidants of any sensible description.

Laurel considered telling Horence what he had discerned, it seemed right, but something held him back.  He needed to think, needed to make decisions, and decisions required he knew more.  The girls’ mother would provide the answers he needed – or at least he hoped – he feared otherwise.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Is this it?” Laurel asked, as he gently nudged the girls awake.  They rubbed their eyes, and moved to the window.  A long path lead off the road, and past an old ash tree that grew on its own little hill.

“Yes,” the twins said in unison, and Horence started the coach up the path.  There was no sign of activity as the coach pulled up to the house.  There were distant sounds of unhappy animals, not tended yet that day, but nothing more.  “Take me to your mother,” Laurel said with kind command as he opened the coach door, and helped each girl down.

The house was quiet, it felt wrong to Kiannae, and she noticed the hesitance in Laurel.  As they entered their mother’s room the only sound was a fly buzzing at the window.  It seemed quite intent to get out.  Katrisha and Kiannae both moved to climb onto the bed beside their mother, but Laurel motioned suddenly, and Horence held the girls back.

Laurel leaned cautiously over the bed, and noted a few dead flies scattered about the sheets. He focused on the auras of the infant and mother, his eyes out of focus, for it was easiest to see almost out of the corner of the eye.  He moved a hand over the two feeling it, like velvet, and yet tingled like the hand had gone to sleep.  That wasn’t right.  The woman was dead – he grimaced – more than dead.  She had no more aura than a rock, less perhaps.  That was unnatural, even for the long deceased.  The child though, if he squinted just right, he glowed like the sun, and all at once seemed a dark spot that held a tangible pull on all around him.  Yes the boy was alive, but quite dangerous.

Laurel steeled himself, clung tightly to his own life energies, and lifted the baby.  Even so he felt a bit of his own vital force soak into the child, like water into a sponge.  The baby stirred a bit in his arms, and he felt the pull lessen, as the boy met resistance his mother had not given.  The woman had sacrificed every last drop of her own fading life.  She had done so willingly, to keep her newborn alive, and the child, innocent to the consequences, had taken all that was offered, all that was left, and instinctively sought even more.

Laurel held back tears as he felt a struggle take place in his arms, as an older presence briefly became distinct, like a ripple of blue across his almost yellow aura,  a thing that felt like a warm summer breeze, and almost left a hint of mint in the back of the throat.  The older presence tempered the younger, made him stop.  It was a sense altogether more vivid, and obtuse than any Laurel could recall.

“What,” Laurel asked in a choked voice, “what is the boy’s name?”

The twins looked at each other.  “Wren – I ‘member Mama saying Wren,” Katrisha said uneasily.

“Like the little birds, ma always liked the little birds,” Kiannae offered.

Kiannae could feel something was wrong, something familiar and terribly sickening, but she pushed the feeling back.  “Ma…is ma ok?”

Laurel visibly shrank.  He looked for delicate words, but the infant’s pull was taxing.  “I’m sorry, both of you, I’m sorry.  Your mother has passed from this world.”  He winced as he feared there was something of a lie in this.  He looked to the boy’s face, still paler than a northerner should be, but not quite so much as his sisters.  It was hard to tell in the dim light if his eyes had the same peculiarity, even as they shown up at him with a striking blue, but the ear still had the same shape.

“NO!” Katrisha yelled, and broke free of Horence’s grasp.  Kiannae was right behind her.  They both climbed into the bed.  “No…ma…ma please,” they sobbed in near perfect unison, and shook her.  But they could feel it, a memory of what it had been when their grandfather had died.  There was a coldness where there had always been warmth.  The the familiar feeling of life was gone.  Still they pleaded, each in turn.

“Horence,” Laurel said, his voice strained.  “I’m sorry, but tend to things here.  Deal…with their mother.  I must take this one for help.”

“What’s wrong,” Horence said, and reached to push aside the blanket hiding the little boy’s face, only to find his hand rebuffed firmly by Laurel.

“He is a danger – through no fault of his own,” Laurel said firmly.  “I can only think of one place to go.  Please, care for matters here, I must leave – now.”  Horence stepped back, at a bit of a loss, and watched as Laurel rushed past him out the door.  After a moment of disbelief he turned to the two sobbing girls, still clinging to their dead mother.

Horence had woken that morning prepared for the possibility of encountering death, steeled himself as any good soldier heading out into the world would.  This however was nothing he could have expected, or prepared for.  He frowned, as he further realized the trouble he would inevitably face had grown much worse.  Orders were orders, he could surely make the case that his orders had been superseded, and that was true, but it would not go over well.  Not at all.

“A simple border inspection,” he muttered quietly under his breath.  He walked to the front door, and watched as Laurel deftly unhooked the harness from one of the horses.

The horses seemed spoked.  Horence noticed with some concern that the freed stallion was edging away from Laurel nervously, kicking the dirt ever so slightly.  It was a well trained horse, and should not have been acting that way.  Horence was about to say something, when the horse bolted free of the loose harness, and watched in amazement as Laurel grabbed the reins, a seemingly damned fool thing to do under the circumstances.

Horence rushed forward to help, but stopped in his tracks as he saw Laurel hold steady against everything the horse could muster.  Horence inched forward, not quite certain what, if anything to do.  He didn’t think it wise to approach the horse, and before he took a third step Laurel sprang forward, and in one smooth, seemingly impossible motion, was up, and riding off under the speed of an animal frantic with fear.  Horence almost thought he had seen the slightest flicker of the magic Laurel had used, and assured himself he must have used magic.  There was no other way the feat could have been done.  Not while encumbered with an infant in one’s arms to be certain.

Horence ran his hand through his hair, as he watched Laurel go.  It was settled, and settled without time frame, or a ruddy clue what was going on.  He moved to calm the second horse, and insured it was still secure.  ‘One step at a time,’ he thought, calming himself.  That was always the best way when things fell apart.  Break it down, move forward, do what needs doing right at the moment.

Sure that the second horse was comfortable enough, and not going anywhere, Horence walked back into the house, and stared at the sobbing girls.  He had never been great with small children.  Even if they seemed to like him, he always felt awkward.  He leaned against the doorframe, and looked for a first step.  Pushing himself off the wall he marched to the closest girl, and gently touched her shoulder.  “Kat, was it?” he asked.

The girl stiffened.  “Kia,” she corrected him.  Horence grimaced for losing track, and realized that could make things all the more difficult, but pressed on.

“You said your grandfather died,” he continued setting aside his mistake.  “Where was he buried?”

“What?” Kiannae managed in a seemingly bewildered tone.

“By the trees,” Katrisha answered between sobs.

Horence turned, and walked back out through the still open front door.  He scanned the surrounding terrain to be sure, and it was as he remembered.  A few small trees dotted disused fields across the road, and a forest edge lay miles away at the base of foothills.  Surely too far to be what the girl had referred to.  He took stock of the rest of his surroundings.  A rooster stood at the apex of an old barn, that sat above a field where a few scattered goats chewed on dry sparse grass, and glanced expectantly up at the farm house.

An old donkey could be seen in a further field, and a handful of chickens milled about pecking at the dirt.  Something struck Horence for the first time as he looked back down the path to the main road, and considered the lone ash that stood there, and seemed out of place.  Several half formed thoughts collided unhelpfully, and the least useful sprung to the front – verses from a poem.

He shook his head, and thought instead of geography.  Were they far enough north he wondered?  Where they up where the great forest jutted out near the border.  He started around the house, and as he moved the words from the poem returned.  It had been so long ago, and he barely remembered.  He was surprised he remembered at all, and yet as he rounded the corner, and saw the tree line it all snapped into place, and he recited it under his breath:

such noble folk there reside,
strong of blood and bone,
salt of Avrale preservers,
one fine woman stood alone,

there defended home ‘n child,
with pitch fork raised on high,
to wound the dreaded drake,
that it might no more fly,

A path lead down the hill between the farmhouse and the barn, and there by the forest edge stood a small grey structure.  Though far away, Horence could just make out the white shape set beneath the eave, and above a heavy stone door.  He tried very hard to remember the rest.  It seemed such an easy, and awful thing to forget.

‘n though she did perish,
be it so we do remand,
the valiant Adel Ashton,
‘n return her to the land,

the wounded drake did end,
by kingsmen brave and tall,
yet ne’er a one where nobler,
than she who did there fall,

no knight or dame was she,
High Vale’s true ‘n errant girl,
who wed a man of Ashton,
an’ bore a lonely child,

O’ fickle world conspired,
turned healer to other fates,
O’ mortal lips speak kindly,
of she who was no saint,

O’ let all long remember,
a drake’s skull doth attest,
none are more revered,
than those unexpected,
who gave their last.

Horence leaned against a side of the house in disbelief.  He had been there once before, long ago as a child.  He had stood beside his father, a soldier as he was then, and watched the Elder King honor a common woman, who had died with uncommon valor.

The girls were the granddaughters of Adel Ashton.  Little as they were they couldn’t quite be four, and one had walked at least ten miles to try and save her mother.  It had not been enough, and more tragedy had been visited upon those who it seemed deserved far better.

Horence walked along the back of the house, and peered in on the crying girls through the bedroom window, and once again tried to figure out what to do.  He realized with a grimace that had he been less distracted he might have noticed the trees through that very window.

He rubbed his head wearily, and looked around.  Small patches of sickly wildflowers could be seen blooming in a field down the hill, defying the parched land.  With a glimmer of inspiration he headed back into the house.  The first thing, he had settled on, was to be rid of the grieving children long enough to begin dealing with the body.

For a moment Horence stood silently at the bedroom door, uneasy at the thought of disturbing the twin’s sorrow.  He took a slow deep breath, and spoke firmly, “There are flowers in the east field.  They would look lovely in your mother’s hair.  Please go gather them.”

Two pairs of green eyes turned to harry him with wounded glares, capable of shattering a heart of stone.  It was all he could do to simply endure their gaze, until at last the girls obeyed his command, with all the reluctance they were due.  They crawled from their mother’s bed, walked from the room, out the back door, and slowly down the path towards the field.

Horence gritted his teeth and considered his task.  The dead woman before him was a bit of a mess.  It felt wrong for her to be buried that way, but what could he do about it…without…no that wouldn’t do.  He wasn’t even keen to see what lay beneath the sheets that covered her.  He’d never seen the aftermath of a birth, but knew enough to be sure he did not wish to.  Though the rest he had seen before, a woman dead from childbirth, lain beneath a sheet, and disheveled.

He put the uncomfortable memory from his mind, and tried to remember the name of the girl before him.  It had been so many years before, and it escaped him.  He remembered her that day though, flowers crushed to her chest, and tears streaming down her cheeks.  A lovely, and terrible sight to behold.  He could even remember the dress she wore, not so fine as those from the court that were present, but it seemed better than any of the other commoners.

That thought was odd – it had never meant anything to him before, but it was odd.  If it had been provided by the court, it would have been of better quality.  If it had been provided by her father, it seemed too nice.  He looked around – there were a lot of things just a little nicer than they should have been.  Little details that belied the humble stature, or scope of the house, as well as how the girls were dressed.  He wrote it off, and moved on, he needed to act before the children were again in his way.

Resolving himself that all was the best it would be, Horence wrapped the woman’s body tighter in the sheets, and lifted her into his arms.  He carried her from the house, and somberly down the hill.  He watched the tree line as he walked, and thought.  Something was bothering him, something he knew he would feel foolish for missing, but he could not place it.  It wasn’t the contrary details of the house, or clothing – it was something else.

He had been distracted on the ride up to the farm, worrying about timetables, and orders, and things he couldn’t really control.  He had let Laurel do all the talking, and stewed.  Letting Laurel do the talking was never a bad idea he thought, but failing to listen, no that was right stupid.

Horence set the woman’s body before the heavy stone door of the crypt.  As he lay her down, her arm tumbled from the sheets, and a simple gold band, with a lone garnet caught his eye.  She wore it like a wedding band he noticed.  He mulled it over for a moment.  It felt wrong to remove a ring from a dead woman’s hand, but he decided that one day one of her children might want their mother’s ring.  He worked it off her finger gingerly, and placed it in a pocket.

Horence gazed up at great skull that hung beneath the carved stone eve.  It was a brilliant white against the somber grey.  It struck him quite sad that Adel’s husband had passed without word even reaching the court – or if it had, nothing had trickled down to him.  Now his daughter was dead as well.  He sneered at the thought, there was no doubt she would still be alive had anyone thought to keep tabs on the family.  What was all this for he wondered at the crypt – adorned with such a rare treasure as a drake skull – if they were just to be forgotten?

He put his agitation into moving the heavy stone door.  This proved no small, or quick task.  After several minutes of struggle, and with the door only half open Horence rested, and looked at the slight form of the body that lay behind him.  He was at a loss to explain how she had done this herself – much less presumably alone, and pregnant.  The father had already been gone, that was what the girls had implied he remembered vaguely.

Horence stepped into the crypt, and glanced at the two engraved stones covering the final resting places of Adel – he looked to the other cover to remind himself – and ‘James.’  It was said the King’s men had feared his wrath for keeping him from the hunt, nearly as much as the drake itself.  Such were the legends he thought.  He had died in the end none the less.  If by age, or in battle after all was unclear he thought, as he began to remember some of what he had overheard.

The Elder King had been generous in constructing the crypt Horence considered.  Six more places waited for future generations, and one more stone was already engraved.  He looked at the cover in the dim light, ‘Meliae,’ it read.  Its intended occupant would join her parents that day.  Horence turned as he heard small footsteps crunching dry grass down the hill. Two girls stood staring at him, and at their mother’s prone form.  Bundles of little flowers were clutched in their arms.  They were the very image of their mother all those years before, if much dirtier.

Nodding approvingly Horence knelt down before the girls and took a flower from each, then turned and placed them in Meliae’s hair.  He gestured for the girls to do the same with the rest, and sat back for a moment trying to shake it all.

“She looks pretty,” Katrisha said softly as the last flower was woven with the rest.

“Yes she does, and at peace,” Horence said firmly.  “She passed bringing new life into this world.  In you two, and your brother she will live on.”  He paused a moment, looking at the lovely young woman before him – a waste was all he could think.  She should not have been alone, any half competent healer could have saved her.

He hesitated in his ire.  His mother had died after all, in spite of all efforts, but that was different, her heart was flawed, and the damn priest hadn’t realized.  He was a worthless preacher more than a real healer…he clenched his fist.  Where was the children’s father, the King’s men, the villagers, anyone – it all seemed senseless and wrong.  He struggled with the weakness the circumstances brought out in him.

It also didn’t add up, and then it did, or started to.  ‘Tall men who talk funny,’ he winced, and wanted to curse, but thought better of it.  The forest, Laurel’s dodgy behavior, no one knowing the girls were there.  He looked to their faces, paler even than their dead mother, and caught a glimpse of their eyes.  It was such a little thing.  Not just the shape of the pupils, but the angle at which they were set.  Everything fit, and Horence felt at once clever, and a fool.  He took a deep breath, set it aside, and locked it away under things that might or might not matter, yet were good to know.

Horence looked to his left, and considered the door to the crypt.  It was open enough he decided.  “Come,” he said as he leaned forward, and lifted Meliae again.  “Let us lay her to rest.”

Chapter 2 >

12b: Afternoon in Aldermor

This is quite a bit sexier than anything else in Book 1, and about on par with a number of sections in Book 2.  That’s not quite the reason it didn’t make the cut for Chapter 12, and more that while I like the scene, and consider it cannon I felt it broke the flow a bit, and threw, actually quite a few things in the reader’s face more than I wanted to.  It was also written well after Chapter 12’s first draft.

While there is nothing here I would consider a true spoiler (for anyone up through Chapter 12,) the very observant among my readers may feel a bit more clever, and the slightly less observant might go, “oh.”  Anything else is mere speculation.  Read or don’t, at your prerogative.

PG-13 for adult themes, and conversations.

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Continue reading “12b: Afternoon in Aldermor”

Chapter 16

Of Moon’s children it is known,
wolves in numbers thin the heard,
a proud lynx stalks alone,

Yaun’s seed walk either path,
to play each game at once is apt,
‘tis best, friend to watch your back.

– unattributed, circa 100 B.E.

Cats Among Wolves

Coria 5th, 645 E.R.

Katrisha and Kiannae sat to the right of Princess Maraline at dinner as was often enough the case.  She had returned just that afternoon from a full month stay in South Rook, her second visit since escorting Lukus home in the fall.  She had a look of absolute exuberance on her face, to the point of being almost concerning to look upon. Servants were setting out the second course when Katrisha finally asked the question on the mind of many around the almost giddy young woman.  “What has you so excited, Maraline?”

Maraline bit her lip in a less than dignified way.  “The wedding at South Rook was so romantic,” she said, but clearly this was not the entirety of what was on her mind.

“It does not seem right that the Duchess has remarried,” Charles protested.

“Why?” Kiannae demanded firmly.  “Her marriage to the traitor was annulled by the king.  I was there.”

“Parin is a remarkable man,” Maraline said quite defensively.  “A commoner by birth, yes, but that only makes what he has done in such a short time all the more impressive.  Even the most stubborn of the barron’s no longer question him.  I dare say he will be a better Duke than Fenlin ever was.”

“Surely the Duchess deserves some credit,” Katrisha chided.

“Oh and he gives her every bit, and she in turn insists it is him, it is almost painfully charming,” Maraline said covering her mouth to retrain her humor.

“It is unfortunate,” Adrien added diplomatically, “that events have transpired as they did.  Yet I do concur that for all the misfortunes involved, that things are going well in South Rook.  I am very happy for the Duchess, and new Duke Regent.”

Charles simply stared down at his plate.

“Lukus is much happier,” Maraline offered.  “Parin adores him.  The poor boy was dubious of course at first, but after the King consented to allow him to return, they have more than made peace with the arrangement.  Lukus taught his new father how to fence, and now, to watch how fervently they can go at it, then hug afterward, it is heartening.”  She only seemed more excited.

“Clearly you are happy for Lukus,” Katrisha said.  “Yet I suspect you are still holding something back.”

Maraline nodded.  “We danced quite a lot at the wedding reception…and…” she blushed slightly, “When we were alone, on a balcony overlooking the city.  He kissed me.”

“This is what has you so excited?” Kiannae laughed almost exasperatedly.

“I felt as though my heart would positively burst from my chest,” Maraline contested the downplay of her news.

“I feel like that by the time I’ve beaten Katrisha in a sparring match,” Kiannae countered.

“You two,” Maraline shook her head.  “You are like boys.”

“Now you insult us?” Katrisha chided with a touch of feigned offense, and a slight laugh.  “We are much better than boys.”  She shot a look at Charles who she saw from the corner of her eye staring at her curiously.  He quickly averted his gaze back to his plate.  She did not know what to make of the look.  “Besides, I am quite happy for you.  Clearly he is interested, and you approve of his interest, it would seem?”

“I know mother has wanted this all along,” Maraline said, “but yes, yes a thousand times yes.  He has been so much more charming since he left, and on my visit.  I think, I believe he may propose on my next.”

Philip prodded at the venison roast that had been placed before the children at the table, and then took a cut.  “Seems a bit lacking,” he commented.

“Hunters have been struggling finding many deer in the north woods,” Adrien said as he looked for a suitable cut for his own tastes.

“Is the herd thin this year?” Charles asked.

“It looks as though something has been hunting,” Adrien answered, “no one is sure what.  More than a few corpses picked clean, but the trackers have had little luck identifying what is to blame.”

“Wolves perhaps?” Philip offered.

“Doesn’t seem that way,” Adrien said.  “Been over a century since there were wolves in the forests around Broken Hill anyway.”

“Maybe a mountain lion has come down from the higher hills?’ Charles suggested.

“Perhaps,” Adrien said.  “Or several.  The occasional mountain lion hasn’t thinned the heard this much though.”

“There are wolves east of the mountains aren’t there?”  Kiannae offered.

“There are quite a few things east of the mountains,” Adrien offered.  “I suppose with all our attempts to clear the pass something could have come over.  Seems quite the trek though.  It would explain why the trackers haven’t been able to identify the culprit, if it is something they are not familiar with.”

“Hopefully it is nothing dire,” Katrisha offered.

“I would hope not,” Adrien said uncomfortably.  “I don’t know if dire animals are known for keeping to themselves though.  Very teritorial.  The hunters have not been bothered, just coming up short of game.”

“I’m not sure,” Kiannae said.  “I don’t think all dire creatures are the same.  Perhaps this one has decided not to meddle with humans.” 

“I still prefer to think it is mountain lions,” Adrien said taking another bite.  “Far less unsettling.”

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Coria 15th, 645 E.R.

Laurel stood on the western wall of the Castle at Broken Hill, looking out over the sunset.  He drew a deep breath from the cool spring air, and ignored the sound of footsteps behind him, presuming it was merely a guard on his rounds.

“Good evening,” came Arlen’s voice in greeting.

Laurel turned from his position, and considered the Knight Commander with a somewhat perplexed expression.  The two had never been particularly friendly, more likely to ignore one another unless official necessity required otherwise.

“To you as well, Arlen,” he offered.

“What brings you to the wall this evening?” Arlen asked.

Laurel turned back to the sunset.  “Merely a desire for some fresh air,” Laurel answered, puzzling over the possible reasons the man had to make small talk with him.  None immediately came to mind.

“I felt the same.  Took a patrol from one of the guards.  He didn’t much complain.”  He paused a moment, and leaned into another notch in the wall.  “Quite concerning, the reports from the north wood,” Arlen offered.

“It is,” Laurel agreed.  “I’m growing convinced we should issue orders not to travel alone, or on foot, and see that coaches are manned by a soldier.”

“Yes, that does seem prudent,” Arlen consented without argument.  There was another long pause.   “Have you considered the possible futures of your two girls?” Arlen asked pointedly, and rather out of the blue.

“I spend a great deal of time considering many aspects of such,” Laurel offered measuredly.

“Theirs is an odd lot; inheritance and illegitimacy, education and limited position.  There will be complexity in finding them good matches.”

“That will be their affair when they are old enough to consider it.”

“Which could be sooner than you imagine.  How disappointing – will you really leave the disposition of their future to their fickle hearts?”

“Theirs is a precarious position – in truth a good match is still a bad one.  As mages, the possible influence they can inherit chafes with the limits of such authority permitted.  I will certainly not go without some comment on their selections, but truly the awkward nature of their position in my estimation allows no merit in forcing them against their own affinity, save if I believe either to have made a very bad choice.”

“So you would not object then, to either being courted by a knight’s son?”

“If it is his wish, and with their tolerance, surely.  Though few such young men have not found a way to run afoul of their tempers, which I have – with some difficulty – retrained.  I would expect any position conscious family to consider them a poor match.”

“Position, and propriety are not in agreement surely.  They are, as we agree, a very mixed affair, but their wealth – held in trust – and the sketchy right to land now freshly returning to worth as rain falls again in the north, could surely turn the eye of some.”

“Of you?” Laurel said without too clear an air of disapproval, but more certainly one of disbelief.  “I would hardly think anything about them to your liking – or you in want for capital, political, or otherwise.  You have after all styled yourself down, not up.”

“My standing is an act of choice – of conscious decision to be where I feel myself most needed.  This does not mean I – or I will admit much more fervently my wife – are above or below considering all possibilities.  I will admit the merit of extending my family’s influence beyond Wesrook.  The north has floundered for generations at the permission of the crown – but it is only that – permission.  Better use could be put to that land, and perhaps the right suitor could guide the elder of the two?  Which is that, by way of curiosity?”

“I say that there is no evidence on their part to gauge.  It is best to assume any inheritance equally divided when they are of proper age.”

“Then I will admit – without preference myself – of late my son has not looked unfavorably upon the one that loves the snow.”

“This would be as much a surprise to me as to her.  You know well the clashes the two have had.”

“Young men, are, as young women, temperamental in their own way.  I am sure that each has maintained some animosity upon some varied chain of wrongs, each committed in turn for the last.  Still – it is my understanding that Katrisha has made some moves to mend that affair.”

“Some, long ago, at my urging.  I do not think it has change as much as you hope, but the cycle of anger between the two needed to be addressed.  I do love my dear girl, but she is more than capable of doing harm to a grown knight had she sufficient incentive – or folly.”

“While I do preference a woman that knows a humble disposition, I will not deny some admiration for her power.  Strength has its merits, even if it expresses itself belligerently.  I think this something adjustable yet in her disposition – children are in my opinion more likely to be similar, than different.  The importance of directing a young woman towards feminine activities is to prepare her for those natural proclivities, as womanhood comes upon her.”

“I have not found this at all to be the case,” Laurel countered.  “Though I do agree on the first part, I have not found a young woman to change in any particular way that a young man does not.”

“And you have much experience on this matter?”  Arlen seemed incredulous to Laurel’s credentials of judging children.

“More than one might expect.  I had first of all a sister – and was placed such to observe her coming of age.  I have also seen the glimpses of young notables across this world, as I might see them some years separated between meetings, during my travels.  The seeds of youth most often grow into the adult in my estimation.”

“Yet you do so little to correct your charges to the proper path?”

“I do all that I can in this regard,” Laurel stated tersely.  “They are not to be humble wives relegated to some back room.  The girls you enquire of have gifts to make mine seem pale.  They need a managed temper, restraint, clarity of purpose, intention and thought, as well as a desire to be meaningful.  There is little place in them for idle reliance on a man.  I assure you it is better that a man marry up to them, than the reverse.”

“We shall keep then our own council on the matter.  You however do not object?”

“That I leave to them.  Consider that if they do, I will not hear of undue persistence.”

“Nor should you expect it.  I am, I admit, more asking at my wife’s insistence.  She has been enamored with the idea ever since having met them again in Wesrook.”

“Then guardedly,” Laurel laughed in spite of himself, “I say, let the boy try to get in their better graces.  I’ll have no qualms with him at least making peace.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 12th, 645 E.R.

Mercu considered his opponent shrewdly.  She showed no signs of seeing the trap set for her, and he was quite sure that if she had not been warned, she would not see it coming.  He might have felt guilty for being so ruthless against a girl a quarter his age, if she hadn’t already proven herself more than an adequate challenge.  He reminded himself that while what sat before him was a thirteen year old, she was in many ways at least his equal, and in some his superior, particularly, and vastly regarding magic.  The small twinge of jealousy for her gift was more than enough to alleviate any shred of guilt.

Kiannae eyed the chess board before her, Mercu’s queen was so tempting where it sat in reach of one of her pawns.  She couldn’t fathom why he had made the move, it had cost her a knight, but hardly a fair trade for a queen.  Convinced it couldn’t hurt her, and that it would put Mercu dangerously close to checkmate she took his queen, and set it proudly beside her small collection of his pieces.

“Why are they called Rooks?” Kiannae asked.  “I mean we have Wesrook, and South Rook, and all those, but we call the towers here…towers.”

“Also isn’t it Tower of Wesrook?” Katrisha cut in from across the room.

“Actually, the mystery goes both ways,” Mercu said, hesitating from his move to answer.  “It’s an old Osyrean word meaning rock.  The earliest version of chess came with the Magi down from Osyrae.  The legends say that Queen Navi not only was a master of the game the first time she played it, but reinvented it, and that the modern version is hers.  Those are the legends any way.  Some propose that the Rooks are named such, because they are built ‘on the rock,’ or are the rock upon which things are built.  Which then is truly named for which?”

Mercu shrugged, and then returned to his move.  He nudged a pawn into the last row on Kiannae’s side of the board, reached for his freshly captured queen, and switched the two pieces out.  “Check mate,” he declared.

“You…you can’t do that,” Kiannae protested indignantly.

“He can,” Katrisha laughed, which made her wince.  She rubbed her shoulder, which was still sore from their morning practice.  The little black cat in her lap looked up in objection over her petting herself, instead of him, and hopped down.  “He pulled that one on me the other day while you got bored watching.  I made him show me the rule in a book.  Any pawn which makes it to the last row may be promoted to any captured piece.  I was a bit annoyed, but I beat him anyway, barely.”

“Still, you tricked me,” Kiannae sighed.

“Such is the way of pawns,” Mercu laughed, “some times, when they are very lucky, they may become queens.”  He reached down to pet Mar who had begun rubbing up against his leg insistently.

“Aren’t pawns foot soldiers?” Kiannae said still defiantly trying to escape her loss.

“Pikemen shield bearer’s, technically,” Mercu corrected.  “At least that’s what they became at some point.  The naming gets more interesting than rooks really.  Particularly if you go back to the original Osyrean version…”

“Aren’t all soldiers, particularly pikemen, men?” Kiannae prodded, ignoring the distraction.

“I suppose I’ve never heard of a female pikeman,” Mercu admitted.  “I once met a woman who was a Knight of the Empire thought, there was also definitely a paladin Queen of Palentine…”

“Then how can a man become a queen,” Kiannae declared victoriously, and crossed her arms, hanging on the point of the pikeman.

“It’s not stopped some kings,” Mercu said thoughtfully, and Mar gave up, unsatisfied with the amount of attention he was receiving for his effort, and wandered off to fall asleep in the sun.

“Wait…what?” Kiannae demanded shaking her head in confusion.

Mercu laughed, but there was something awkward there.  “The queen is often the king’s closest advisor and confidant,” Mercu said dodging his own joke, “some Kings have reigned without a queen consort, and instead surrounded themselves with men who fill most of her duties.”

“Sounds lonely,” Katrisha interjected.

Mercu laughed.  “I think every one I am aware of eventually relented to have a queen, if only to bear him an heir.”

“I wouldn’t be queen to any man who accepted me only to bear him children,” Katrisha declared indignantly.

“Good on you then,” Mercu laughed.

Kiannae sighed, and knocked over her king where it stood.  “You win again,” she said shaking her head.

“Don’t feel so bad,” Katrisha said comfortingly, leaned over, and hugged Kiannae.  “I’ve only beat him three times, and you’ve gotten him twice.  You also beat Laurel, which I think even Mercu hasn’t done.”

“I suppose,” Kiannae permitted, still obviously unsatisfied.

“I beat him once,” Mercu said defensively, “years ago though, in a moving wagon.  We still argue if that one counts.  He swears one of the pieces shifted when the wheel hit a pothole.”

Kiannae laughed at that.  “Ok, I think I’d be more annoyed by that than not knowing about the pawn trick.”

“Sure take his side,” Mercu laughed.  “I still swear that piece stayed put.”

The twins giggled when he held an indigent pose for some time.  He glanced back at them and smirked.  “I was thinking of going down to the village today,” he said as he leaned back and stretched.  “If you two would like to join me.  I need some new paints, and I believe you both could use some new notebooks.”

“Alright,” Kiannae said excitedly at the rare chance to leave the castle.

“Sure,” Katrisha said hesitantly, “could we visit the jeweler as well?”

“Perhaps,” Mercu said shaking his head. “I suppose I owe you two some small commission from Baron Carlen’s portrait for pointing out that his favorite overcoat has seven silver buttons, and not six.  Nothing over two silver pieces though.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Procuring a coach proved easy for Mercu for once.  Though what lurked in the north woods remained open for debate, an abundance of caution had insured that all travel to, and from the castle was by coach, driven by at least one soldier.

Katrisha was deep in thought, fiddling with a complex spell of no obvious purpose when Kiannae shot bolt upright from a lazy daydream.  The ride suddenly became bumpy as the coach lurched forward.

“What’s going on?” Mercu demanded startled from his own abstract thoughts.

“Horses are spooked,” Eran called back from the head of the coach.

Kiannae grabbed hold of the window, and stared out into the forest.  “Oh fates,” she cried, and pulled back into the coach wide eyed, her arms clutched around herself.  Katrisha barely moved into a position to see a flash of something large rush from the forest, before it vanished from view towards the head of the coach.  There was a loud neigh of a horse, that sounded more like a scream, and another more frightened sounding one.

There were some decidedly loud, and vulgar curses from Eran, and the coach shuddered and swerved, tossing its passengers about, and out of their seats.  It tipped slightly, jerked around straight, and came to a trembling stop.

Mercu got wobbly up from the floor of the coach, and looked out the window only to see a dead horse beside them, and a large white cat with black patches tearing into its prey.  It glanced up from its kill, and fixed upon him.  Mercu immediately threw himself back into the sheltered shadows of the carriage, and was white as a sheet.  He tried to gage what he had seen, the head of the cat had been as large as horse’s, its body more than half the size.

As if to confirm his perceptions there was a soft thud at the door, and the vast head presented itself in the window.  Closer examination showed scales along the cat’s nose, and brow.  “Oi,” came a call from outside, and a stone struck the side of the cat’s head, and landed in the cairage.  The cat instantly snapped away from the coach after its assailant.

“What in the abyss is that?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.

“Dire cat,” Mercu said steadying himself, “cougar I think.”  He moved cautiously to the window, and looked out.

Eran was clearly already wounded from the fall, and the cat’s first pass.  Though his armor had taken some of the blow – his tunic was ripped away revealing scarred leather underneath, and some blood seeping over it.  He was holding his sword, pointed somewhat feebly at the beast that was easily larger than him.  The cat seemed to be favoring one leg, and not ready to underestimate Eran again.

Katrisha forced her way next to Mercu who tried to push her back, but she had none of it.  The cat leapt at Eran, and Katrisha thrust out a hand, the cat flailed awkwardly in the air, and fell just short of Eran who swung, but the lynx managed to lurch back, bristling, and avoided the swing.  It pulled itself sluggishly free of of the spell Katrisha had formed, and paced slightly at the edge.

Katrisha opened the door, and Mercu tried to grab hold of her, but found that she easily pulled free of his grasp.  Rather than keeping Katrisha in the coach Mercu fell out.  Kiannae was right behind her sister, leaping over the prone man.  The cougar glanced rapidly between Eran, and the twins, snarled, and rushed with blinding speed at the two girls, and the dazed lump of a man sprawled behind them.

Katrisha tried her spell again, but the cat barely slowed, and with a loud crack Kiannae narrowly threw up another spell.  The force sent wild ripples through the fur, and skin of the cat, but pushed it back only a few feet.  Eran rushed to strike the cat from behind skewering its right flank with his sword, earning a terrible hiss.  The cat spun, catching Eran hard in the chest with a swipe, and threw him back in a tumbling ball.  His sword clatteried across the ground away from him.

Katrisha shot a bolt of frost through the cat’s front right shoulder, earning ear splitting howl.  It flipped around, and threw itself at the twins again, but sailed to the side as Kiannae threw all the force she could muster into it.  The hasty spell however threw as much force into the surrounding air, and quite a bit into Kiannae herself who flew back into Mercu.  He had only begun to get up, and was knocked against the coach painfully, but cushioned her impact.

The sudden hurricane gust of wind toppled Katrisha, and though dazed and cautious the cougar was quickly upright from its tumble.  It lept for the prone girl who threw up another barrier without caution.  She could feel her skin sting as her barrier powerfully pulled all energy out of the air around her – heat, and movement alike.  It was like being stuck in freezing pitch, but it stopped the cat for a moment above her, and gave her just a burning cold breath to think.

She had a tremendous amount of energy at her disposal at that moment, as the spell was all but stopping the cat from even falling.  Katrisha tried for fire, sending a profound burst of burning energy gathered from her barrier up into the cat, and at the same moment threw herself sideways, stealing what little energy was left.  She tumbled harshly across the ground.

The cat roared in agony, and Katrisha saw in several swirling glimpses as it bathed in flame, before she came to rest dazed on her face, her head spinning. She tried to tell up from down for a second, and then looked back at the cat which thrashed, hissed, and screamed, trying to put out the flames in its fur.

A bolt of lightning momentarily blinded Katrisha, and staggered the already struggling cougar which fell back, and limped, but still pulled upright.  Another dazzling strike from Kiannae again blinded all, and stunned the cat.  Yet even a third seemed to phased the cat less.  Katrisha took a breath, and focused everything on precision.  She sent a bolt of razor sharp ice larger than both arms rushing at the cat while it was still shaking off her sister’s attacks.

The spear tore through the chest of the cat, which did not roar, but threw open its mouth as though trying to.  It fell trembling to the ground, shuddered violently, and then stopped with only a few further small twitches.  Mercu glanced at Kiannae who was not too much the worse for wear, but had a look of shock, and horror on her face.  He followed her gaze, and frantically rushed towards Katrisha.

This struck Katrisha oddly for a moment as she slumped on one arm.  She hurt a bit more than after her morning training session, but also felt rather numb.  She noticed something wet, and reached up to her face as she instinctively closed her right eye.  Her fingers came back with blood, and she stared at them a bit uncertainly.  “Huh,” she said even as Mercu was knelt down in front of her, and wiped her face gently with a white cloth pulled from a vest pocket.

“Are you alright?” Mercu demanded.

“I…I think so?” Katrisha muttered, and opened her eye again after the blood was wiped away.  Mercu held the cloth to her head.

Kiannae was only a moment behind Mercu.  She pushed Mercu’s hand away, and was quick to try her hand at healing the gash on her sister’s forehead.  This hurt slightly, and Katrisha recoiled, strained muscles, and bruises suddenly making themselves known as shock wore off.

“Stay still,” Kiannae said firmly.

Eran walked up nursing his own wounds, and sat down near by.  He faced the cat, and not quite trusting it to stay dead.  “You know what you are doing?” he asked.

“Not really,” Kiannae admitted.

“Stop the bleeding,” Eran said, “I’ll give it a look after I’m in better shape.”

Mercu took his eyes off Katrisha, and looked at the cat, the dead horse, and the coach.  He flopped down himself, and moved to wipe his face, only to reconsider it, and hand the blood soaked cloth to Kiannae.  He started breathing very quickly for a moment, and then calmed again.  “So that’s what has been hunting all the deer,” he remarked shakily.

“Was,” Eran agreed.  “Hopefully it was the only one.”

“Should be,” Mercu said hopefully.  “Most dire animals are solitary.”

“Unless they have young,” Eran countered.

“Oh please don’t remind me of that.”

“I don’t think it did, we probably would have found a den of kits.”

“Yes, let’s pretend that for now.”

“Second horse got away, but she’s long gone.”

“So walking then – back, or forward?”

“Forward, two thirds of the way there, the bridge is just around the bend.”

Mercu looked around, recognized where they were, and nodded.

Katrisha started crying, and Kiannae looked flustered for her sister’s movement interfering with her healing.  Then relented just to hug her close, deciding it was good enough for the moment.  “It’s ok,” she said, “we did it.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Four beleaguered, and moderately bloodied travelers stumbled into Brokhal drawing quite a lot of looks, and a few who rushed to their aid.  Katrisha had ultimately been carried most of the trip as even with Eran’s healing her ankle was not up to the long walk.  This however had taken alternation between Eran, and Mercu, as the prior had his own injuries to nurse, and the latter could only do so for short periods.

As the four answered the questions of concerned citizens Eran let Katrisha down, who hobbled slightly over to a nearby porch stair, and sat.  Kiannae was immediately beside her twin, and hugged her close.  Katrisha had been alternating between stony faced, troubled, and elated in the wake of the battle.  She had fallen asleep in Mercu’s arms at one point, only to awake with a start, and almost be dropped as she had grabbed his collar.

“We killed it,” Katrisha muttered, as Kiannae leaned into her.

“It was trying to kill us,” Kiannae said somewhat frustratedly.  It was not the first time Katrisha had alluded to some remorse over the fight, but the most clear.

“I just…” Katrisha sighed.  “I wish we didn’t have to.  It was beautiful.”

“And if we hadn’t, what of the next travelers it attacked?”

Katrisha clung a little more tightly, but said nothing.

“It’s our duty, to protect others.”

Katrisha sniffed somewhat determinedly.  “You are right.”  She ran a finger along the scar on her forehead, it would fade with more healing, but such subtlety had not been practical under the circumstances.  The twins lacked the skill, and Eran had exhausted himself between the fight, and his own injuries.  “We must always do our part,” Katrisha added firmly.

“Always,” Kiannae affirmed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Two hours were consumed talking with the Knight Commander of Brokhal, a man who in spite of his position rarely left the town to visit the castle.  He was a stern, and haggard man, who asked many of his questions repeatedly, but as he got the same story each time out of the four, his expression had slowly softened to one of bewilderment.  He was not used to dealing with mages, and had begun to stare dubiously at the twins by the end.

Once that was finished Eran had left their company to recruit people to look for the second horse, clean up the remains of the dire cougar, and recover the coach.  Mercu had pressed that Eran should have someone more skilled look at his wounds, only to receive a darkly humorous glare that got a knowing chuckle out him.

In spite of his own understanding of Eran’s disinterest in seeking out the town’s healer, Mercu decided it was prudent to get Katrisha better looked at.  This however did not work out, as Idolus was not in.  Katrisha insisted she was fine, though she still favored her injured leg, and the trio began the shopping they had originally come for, with Katrisha taking frequent occasions to rest.

Katrisha sat on a shop step, and idly watched the way filaments danced above her outstretched hand.  She had started to form a spell boredly, but reached indecision as to which, and became fascinated instead by catching her own magic half formed.  It seemed to form little crystals that grew, and crumbled, and tried to stabilize.  This wanted to become ice, to form a familiar spell but she held it off.  She kept it from resolving as long as she could, and then suddenly it snapped to a thin lattice of frozen air that drifted a moment before falling apart.  There had been something there more than random shapes Katrisha was sure, but what eluded her.

Kiannae stood by a railing, and glaneced at her sister.  Shook her head, reassuring herself everything would be fine.  She stared at her upturned index finger and filaments licked off it, almost like fire up a candle wick, broke free and formed a wavering flame, a tangled knot of entropic madness at it’s heart, ripping apart the air, and burning what was left.  There was no smoke, and the heat was mostly directed upward.  Then the air snapped cold, turned to fractured glittering ice with a sizzling center of liquid air in the flames shape.  Then the energy reversed, and the flame came back to life.  She made it look quite easy, but in truth it was practice, because it seemed almost a little harder than it should be.  The flame was a bit easier, but turning air to crystal was finicky.  Something Kat did with such ease.

“Beware the sins of the flesh, the distractions that bind us to this world, and leave us to fall into the abyss when our lives come to their end,” came a call from a man in brown robes trimmed in while walking down the street.  “Beware the sins of the dragons, whose dark magic maintain them in this world, but at what cost?”

“What is your name, and these sins you speak of?” Katrisha asked idly when the passing preacher glanced down at her.

“I am Idolus Syberus,” the man said with some surprise, “and I speak of the decadent sins of desire child, the distractions from the path of ascension, and eternal life.”

“If desire is a sin, then is not the very desire for eternal life a distraction?” Kiannae asked incredulously.  She was displeased to find that the healer they had sought earlier had been absent to waste time on preaching through the streets.  She had never heard a good word spoken of him, and both had heard his name before.

“The desire for the heavens, to ascend into the light is no sin,” Idolus said irritably, “it is what will raise us above this temporal existence, this fleeting life at the edge of the abyss.  It is the very purpose of our elevated species to ascend above the animal world that made us.”

“Nothing can rise, without something equal descending,” Katrisha said absently – suddenly glad to have not had to spend more time with the man to be healed.  “You can not create, or destroy energy itself, only move it, borrow it, or suppress it.”  Katrisha formed a brilliant ball of light in one hand, and a shimmering shard of frozen air in the other.  “For this light, this soul to ascend to the heavens, then what is this that must as surely descend into the abyss to provide the energy of ascension?”

“The flesh,” Idolus said sternly, and suddenly realized who he was speaking to.  He had barely caught glimpses of the two over the years, yet two young, identical mages could be no others.  His airs grew more disdainful.  “The uselessness of the physical body.  The vessel that is shed, that we might walk into the light.”

“There is nothing material in the aether,” Kiannae laughed, “this is why it is ‘aethereal’ after all, so how do you propose to walk into it?”

“Figuratively,” the Idolus growled, “our minds might at first perceive it as walking though, to put it into contexts we are familiar with.  Or flying.  The life eternal is what we make of it.”  He said as Mercu emerged from the shop behind the girls.  His ire deepened, and his frown turned to an abject scowl as he recognized him.

“So then, could we perceive the life eternal, as life is lived here in the mortal world?” Mercu mused on the man’s statement, “do we sacrifice the now, for the dream, and then live the life we had forsaken in such illusion?”

“Those who will live the life eternal care not for the material world,” Idolus said indignantly, “they would have no desire to recreate it.”

“Desire or not, I fear they would not have the imagination,” Mercu laughed, “and what proof do you offer that the aether is a place of bliss, and goodness?  What makes this place of brilliant energy, any less terrifying than the idea of stepping into a roaring fire?”

“That which is not of flesh need not fear the flame,” the priest said dismissively.

Kiannae drew a lattice of shimmering light in the air.  “If this is a soul,” she said.  She formed a flame and passed it through the swirling lattice.  It dissolved and coiled, and twisted.  “Though it is not of flesh, and it may not burn, none the less within the flame it is torn apart.  Is this land of light, this glorious heaven you wish to ascend to, eternal life, or merely a quick road to destruction?”

“Might not the fall into the abyss be the more peaceful end?” Mercu added questioningly, “where all become one within its depths, rather than scattered to the winds by the flames of heaven.  If this is even the fate to come of course, as none has ever peered past the Veil, not even the ghosts may speak to what lays beyond, nor your precious Avatar.”

“The Avatar is proof of the life eternal!” Idolus snapped.

“The Avatar is a sin of presumed eternal life in this so called material world,” Mercu cut back. “What difference is there between him and the dragons?”

“I….I will listen to no more of your sacrilege,” Idolus fumed, and stormed off.  In his irate haste he dropped one of the books he carried.

Katrisha got up a bit feebly to her feet, and scooped up the lost book before Idolus could realize he dropped it.  She dusted it off, and admired the elaborate S imprinted in silver on its cover.  She had seen somewhere before.  “You dropped this,” she called after him tauntingly.  Idolus stopped, turned, and glared at Katrisha, who walked up to him with a slight limp, and handed him the book.  For the first time he noticed the scar on her forehead, and the blood on her collar.

Idolus paused to consider if he had any duty to heal her, but she seemed above the point he was bound to intervene.  He reached down, and took the book from her, but as he did he brushed her hand, and a strange look of shock replaced the anger on his face.  For just a moment he stared at her blankly.  He retracted his arm slowly, backed up a step, turned, and all but ran.

“What in the seven rivers was that about?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said slightly unnerved.  “I think I liked his expression better when he was scowling.”

“Bare him no mind girls,” Meruc sighed.  “You have all that you needed yes?”

“Do you?” Katrisha asked, and sat back down patting a medium sized stack of books, and eyeing a rather small bundle under Mercu’s arm.

“Enough paint to finish my current projects, yes,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I don’t like to buy too much at once, it get’s more fussy to work with as it ages.”

“So about the jeweler…” Katrisha prodded.

“Yes,” Mercu said eyeing the girls shrewdly, “It seems the heroes of the day deserve more than two silver.  Plus you gave me such a nice opportunity to irritate Idolus.”

“Really?” Katrisha said excitedly.

“Yes, but don’t let it go to your head and do it again,” Mercu laughed.

“Which?” Kiannae pressed.

“Either.  Idolus is sneakier than a cat, and don’t let his appearances fool you, he has claws.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Upon returning to the castle all had changed, and washed from the trials of their day, and Laurel had been stuck between commending, and reprimanding his charges for their deeds.  He had listened at length to the account of what had happened as he finished healing Katrisha, and removed the scar from her forehead.  He had ultimately consented to Mercu’s interpretation that Eran would surely have died if it had not been for Katrisha’s quick intervention.  The girls however had been dismissed for whatever remained of the conversation.

That evening the twins sat in one of their window seats, by the light of the setting sun.  Katrisha admired the large green round of glass set in her new silver pin.  Kiannae sat opposite her, and fiddled absently with a delicate silver flower pendant on a matching fine chain.  Mercu for his part was behind a medium sized canvas, working to finish a portrait he had started of the girls weeks before.  

“Earlier,” Kiannae suddenly started, and then seemed to think for a moment, “you seemed to know that Clarion priest quite well, that you were so happy to irritate him.”

“Yes, Idolus comes to court now and then,” Mercu said as he cleaned, and switched his brush, “he never speaks himself, since he has no real authority in the kingdom.  Always has Sir Arlen speak for him, usually some wild accusation about insuring that the Clarion’s are properly represented.  Complete with reminders about how many people of the kingdom adhere to the faith.  It’s nothing but thinly veiled threats of religious uprising if you ask me…but it’s always so carefully worded in diplomatic terms.”

“So he’s a bad man then?” Katrisha asked.

“He’s never done any direct harm to anyone,” Mercu said biting the handle of his brush thoughtfully, “no more harm than any other Clarion preacher of course.  He also frequently volunteers for expeditions – I think to win favor over any sense of duty.  Laurel has had to put up with him more than I.  Still gets people to waste their lives, sacrifice their own happiness, to harass one another over living their lives, all for promises of forever…that, well…you know the rest.  I don’t think much of the offer myself, as I’ve told you, nor does Laurel.  Bad might still be a strong word, but misguided, counterproductive to the best interest of the people, those all work.”

“Why do people believe in what the Clarions teach?” Kiannae asked irritably.

“The common folk, I can only assume don’t know any better, never have time or pressing enough reason to reconsider what they are taught by their parent’s growing up, or listen to cleaver fiery words of a preacher, and are taken in by the idea,” Mercu said sadly.  “As to what compels those with the gift, to be quite fair there is no real proof the Clarions are wrong.  Not in a material sense at least, just as there is no proof they are right.  Years of being taught what to think, of focusing on their spirit and gift, and forsaking ‘the flesh,’ I suppose they might not realize any more that they are more than a spirit trapped in their mortal bonds.  It might not seem a loss to give up a world they have already let go, to live forever as pure thought, or whatever nonsense.”

“Don’t they learn about magic, don’t they learn to see the flaws in their ideas?” Katrisha said sadly.

“Oh, there are countless Clarion Arcanists, and even high mages of the Council that adhere to Clarion teaching,” Mercu laughed darkly.  “A clever mind can build all the more convincing excuses to believe what they have invested themselves in.  They can build up their ideas about as well as we can tear them down.  Since there is no proof, only conjecture, and opinion.”

“Are they ever happy?” Kiannae asked with a frown.

“Happiness is relative,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I’ve seen enough be smug and self satisfied when they think they are winning an argument against a non-believer.  Really, not all adherents live by the letter of the doctrine, they take this guideline, or that rule, and call it good enough.  Some of those seem happy enough, when someone isn’t challenging their world view.  Some, the ones I can almost respect, just shrug other’s opinions off, and leave them be.”

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Chapter 15

I see a child who stands before,
ancient eyes dead and hollow,
he longs for glories lost to men,
this abyss bound princely one,

he skulks in crypts beneath his home,
his heart to dark schemes doth turn,
the blood of kings and common man,
shall stain claw sword and hand,

as shadow he is betrayer to one and all,
his hunger unmatched in mortal downfall,
he becomes what was not again to be,
and brings an end to the way of peace.

– Diary of Cassandra Alm, 621 E.R.

Marks of the Passed

Coria 39th, 644 E.R.

Mercu idly stroked a small ball of black fur held in his arms, and it purred contentedly for the attention.  He didn’t like the situation he was in.  The delivery had come to him explicitly, but with no real explanation save the origin – a final mocking stab of an old woman he barely knew, and certainly did not like.  He lifted the tiny kitten up and looked it in the eye for the third time since it had arrived.  It didn’t seem evil, or deranged.  In fact it could hardly have been more docile.

He tried to think who he could pawn it off on before the girls discovered it, and invariably fawned over it for the adorable little creature that it was.  Not that he thought it was necessarily a bad idea that the girls have a pet, but the source was questionable.  The only contact the girls had ever had with Cassandra was a singular unsettling encounter, and Mercu could not guess the reason behind her parting gifts.  He’d yet to even thoroughly examine the contents of a trunk that had come along with the cat.  There were several books, and smaller boxes, but no note.

He cringed as his door opened, but was relieved to only see Laurel walk in, who gave the tiny ball of fluff a strange look.  “A kitten?” he said in a curious questioning tone.

“Your grasp of the obvious is astounding,” Mercu muttered.

“It’s adorable…but is it what I think?” Laurel asked moving to examine the cat more closely.

“Yes, probably,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “It seems the same Cassandra owned when we knew her on the road all those years ago.”

“Impressive work then,” Laurel said curiously, “but what is it doing here?”

“Outliving its owner, it seems.” Mercu sighed.  “I feel, I don’t know, dirty somehow – besmirching the parting gift of a dead woman, but I have a hard time thinking it’s a genuine thought on her part.”

“It’s just a cat, whatever magic may have been done to keep it a kitten for so long,” Laurel said incredulously.  “You don’t think it’s been trained to kill or something, do you?” he laughed, but stopped to consider if that was a legitimate possibility.  His knowledge in the field of shaper magic was spotty enough to give him a moment of pause.

“No,” Mercu said shaking his head.  “Cassandra was insufferable, full of herself, but harmless.  I can’t imagine what she intended though.  Perhaps I was the only person she could think to send the poor old thing to.  It’s been in the custody of the staff while we have been traveling.  I think that trunk is possibly everything else she owned.”  He nodded across the room.

“Don’t worry too much then I guess, though we should keep it away from the girls, it can’t have long left to live,” Laurel said with a frown.

“Well, I’m not even sure it’s the same cat,” Mercu said uncertainly.  “I’ve read a bit about shaped creatures over the years, some of them live for centuries, others have fairly mundane life spans.  Anything is possible.  I suppose tomorrow it could sprout wings and fly away.”

“Technically…” Laurel said trailing off.  “Give it here I want to see if I can work out how much longer it has before we decide what best to do with it,” Laurel took the kitten, which immediately rubbed it’s head against his chest, before curling more comfortably into his arm.  “Do you even happen to know its name?”

“I’m sure I heard Cassandra call it by name a dozen times, but that was so long ago,” Mercu said trying to think back.  “I think it might be Mar’etten.”

“She named it after him of all…” Laurel laughed.  “Who in the burning heavens names a cat after a greater black dragon?”

“Am I now the expert on the minds of mad seers?  Maybe she thought it would one day betray her, and spoil her evil schemes of world conquest?”

“Or wind up living with the enemy?” Laurel laughed uncomfortably.

“I hardly think she ever thought of me as an enemy.  Try as I might have, I always got the unsettling impression she liked me.”

“You think everyone likes you,” Laurel chided.

“Don’t they?” Mercu said with a wounded glance.

“Most do, but don’t play, you are not so daft to think Arlen – for instance – has any tolerance for you at all,” Laurel countered.

“Ah yes, Arlen.  He is stewing quite grimly,” Mercu noted casually.

“What else is new?” Laurel shook his head.

“He’s the look of a man playing chess, and losing badly.  I don’t trust it.”

“What can he do?” Laurel pressed.

“For the moment nothing, but Fenlin was a friend to him, and nothing tells me that Arlen is anything but a patient man when it comes to grudges.”

“I would hardly call it patience,” Laurel countered.

“Something less noble then.” Mercu sighed.  “I stand by the point.”

“And what would you have us do?”

“Watch him?” Mercu shrugged.

“That, good sir, is your job, or have you forgotten?”

“Yes, well, it does little good for me to watch if I do not report,” Mercu answered with some humor.

Mar grew restless, and began to climb the front of Laurel’s robe, to his clear displeasure, but he seemed uncertain how to dissuade the cat as it crawled onto his shoulder precariously.  “Were my arms not good enough you, troublesome thing?” he demanded, dodging a snaking tail.

Mercu got up, and grabbed the kitten by the scruff of the neck, rendering it momentarily placid, and set it back in Laurel’s arms.  “Do not worry, I am adept in the ways of handling errant cats.”

“Yes, I am well aware,” Laurel cut back.

“Speaking of grudges,” Mercu frowned.  “Are you to now start holding such things over me?  She is such a lovely woman, and hardly a threat.  I assure you, her heart is many other places before me, not the least of which is some man she will not name – most curious that – and mine still is most assuredly where you last checked.”

“So you are not her only attachment, outside of that woman that shares her bed?” Laurel asked curiously.

“I’ve only the confidence from her to know of the matter in vaguest terms, but I will wager his name is John,” Mercu said pointedly.  The look in his eyes said he had more assurance than that, and that he was even in their confidence playing the truth of it close to the chest.

Laurel was shrewd then.  “That could be trouble.  Is this a recent development?”

“No,” Mercu said firmly.  “Very long past by my estimation, but lingering.  First love, I would guess.  The matter had that sort of wistful quality to it.  The man in question surely plays a part in her manner about it though.  I’ve heard he was quite a rapscallion, and there are long faded whispers that would put him in the company of a Lucian girl in his youth.  Well, less faded after recent events I suppose.”

Laurel sighed, and softened.  “What you are, is useful, in more ways than one.  You know I do not feel right to judge, so forgive me my occasional displeasure on the matter, and a touch of ill humor?”

“So long as it is humor,” Mercu pressed kindly, rested his hand on Laurel’s shoulder and smiled, “then by all means, accuse me of all manner of feline knowledge.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 644 E.R.

“It’s not right,” Charles said rather out of the blue, having walked up on Katrisha in the upper court of Broken Hill.  They had not spoken since Wesrook, always a buffer of the new children from South Rook between them, mostly surrounding Charles.  It seemed an ill advised situation to permit, as much as they shared temperaments, but she did not speak her mind on the matter.  His declaration though seemed wildly devoid of context.

Katrisha turned to glare at him, more out of habit than specifically based on what he had said.  Though as it sunk in she became quite certain she should be annoyed with his words, and not just his presence.

“What gibberish are you on about now?” Katrisha demanded, narrowing her eyes at the irksome boy.

“That brother of yours,” Charles said in an almost dismissive tone, as though it should have been obvious.  This again caused as much irritation as the words themselves.

“What…” Katrisha started angrily, only to be interrupted by her own fears well before Charles.  Some part of her worried that others had come to the same suspicions she kept to herself after South Rook, but how.  No one else knew about what Varmun had told her.  She had found nothing in any books.

“He’s not much of a boy,” Charles answered, “more a girl than anything.  Should just call him your sister.”

Katrisha was more than a bit bemused.  Fully offended, but it was taking her a moment to process all the possible ways.  She wasn’t sure if she should be more defensive of Wren, insulted herself, or relieved that it was something so absurd.  “What possibly could be wrong about the way Wren is?  He’s sweet and kind, and more than a bit smarter than you.”

“He’ll never be a proper man,” Charles countered, “he’s having all that crushed out of him by those terrible women.”

Katrisha clenched her fist.  “Renae is a wonderful woman.  She loves Wren like a son.”  She was in no mood to hear more hatred for the Sisterhood after all that she had heard, and seen in South Rook.  Yet she was not surprised by the source, and suspected that South Rook had everything to do with riling Charles into his current snit.

“Like a daughter perhaps,” Charles countered, seeming smug as ever.  “They hate men, hate everything about men.  It’s why they lay with each other.  It’s not right for a boy to be there.  You should demand he be taken out of that awful place.”

“The only awful thing about that place, from all he has ever told me, is another boy,” Katrisha growled taking two firm steps towards Charles.  “Oh and he’s a boy alright, like you think they should be.  A bully, a brute, a nasty little piece of work.  Yes, everything a male should be, right?  Just like you.”  Katrisha’s aura could be felt even by one as ungifted as Charles, it was furious thing, oppressive, like a thick fog smothering him.  “Clearly they don’t crush the man out of them well enough up there.  Wren is, who Wren is.”

Charles stood his ground.  “If he wasn’t so weak, he wouldn’t have a problem.  They made him weak, like a girl.”  He insisted.

“Am I weak?” Katrisha snapped at Charles, stepping right up to him, her face in his.  He was a few inches taller than her, and yet oddly he felt very small just then.  “I could hurl your worthless hide across this courtyard with ease.”

“With magic,” Charles said defiantly, and defensively in the most unproductive sense.  It seemed a futile argument, and ill advised under the circumstances.

“And with leverage a smaller man, can throw a larger one to the ground,” Katrisha countered, “are we to judge only brutish force to be the measure of strength?  How about the fact I have not broken you.  That takes more strength than you could ever possess.  Men are weak.  In more ways than one.  The gifts of women are stronger, did you know?”

“What?” Charles asked a bit put off, by the seeming change of topic, and further by the assertion.

“Take any man, and any woman of the same lineage,” Katrisha explained very heatedly, and took several breaths, trying to calm herself with rational argument, “and seven out of ten of the women will have a stronger gift than the man – measurably, if not obviously. Many times in history training of women as mages has been limited, or outlawed.  Women were directed into the healing arts, yet this is not the reason you find so few men as healers.  Most simply cannot do it, they do not simply lack the temperament, they lack the power, the raw gift to be good healers.  They, are, weak.”

Katrisha watched Charles’ face.  It actually did seem new information to him, caught somewhere between disbelief, and understanding.  He looked as though he wished to question, to debate, to counter – but he knew nothing of it.  It grated against his prejudices, but he knew he was ignorant on the topic, and he did not doubt a word of how easily Katrisha could break him.  He was no mage, just a young noble.  He also really hadn’t meant to offend, and he struggled to understand it.  He had just said the truth as he saw it, the crime he saw in what had been made of her brother.  He hadn’t meant to ridicule him, rather his perceived treatment.  It had gone off track at some point, and then he had gotten carried away.

“I’m sorry,” he tried, not quite meekly, but with the tenor of one who knew they were in some peril.  He wasn’t really sorry, for he lacked the understanding of precisely what he should be apologizing for.  The world had an order as he understood it, men above women – and a boy lowered to a girl’s temperament he believed was wrong.  Yet as he struggled with it he did understand the unspoken order of the world, mages above commoners, perhaps even nobles.  It was a tricky hierarchy, the laws outlined it, but that was more fancy words than he had ever been good with.  The history was muddier.

Laurel served at the pleasure of the King, and the King reigned at the sufferance of the council.  A Court Mage served the King, but Charles had not been entirely deaf to the King, or to his own mother, ‘Those who lead, must serve those who follow.’  It did not quite seem to apply, and yet it stuck there in his thoughts.  Surely Laurel was above him.  It was more vague where his apprentice lay.  She was more powerful than he could ever be, perhaps even than his father…

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, and this time his voice was different.  For it sounded as though he at least thought he should mean it, even if he was still not sure why.

Katrisha’s face shifted.  Her rage abated, but not her disdain.  She walked away, with barely a further sidelong glance at Charles.  He watched her go with a curious opinion, that was not had for the first time.  She did not walk like a noble, nor like a servant.  Her grace was not lost on him, but it was not that of a lady of the court, nor of a young man.  It was proud, and singular – even perhaps distinct from her sister.

He did not like that thought particularly, but it did make some things easier, even if he was utterly terrible at moving events in that direction.  He steadied himself, and put it out of his mind.  He had other orders to deal with.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 4th, 644 E.R.

Kiannae peaked into Mercu’s room.  She had knocked, but guessed he wasn’t in to begin with.  She walked over to one of his bookcases, looking for a book Laurel told her he had borrowed from the tower library.  She was terribly bored, and Katrisha was constantly trying to make friends with the guests – or prisoners, depending how you framed it.  Neither girl liked them much, though Lukas was pleasant enough, but a bit quiet to be of any interest.  Kiannae couldn’t understand why Katrisha bothered.  The King surely wouldn’t keep them long, the maneuver had the intended effect, but it was not clear if it could persist.  Their enemies knew all too well what they were not capable of.  It was proprietary keeping them in check, not fear.

Kiannae did not see what she was looking for, and checked the next to no more success.  She considered it could have been on one of the upper shelves, but thought that unlikely.  She checked the desk, paying little attention to an open chest beside it.

There were several curious things strewn about, but no sign of the book.  She considered two stacks of cards, and picked one up.  The card was pleasant to look at – about the size of the palm of a man’s hand.  On the back an elaborate pattern surrounded a spiral formed of three lobes, one black, one red, one white, the last outlined half in each.  Red, and black were the colors the cards were printed in throughout, though fields of white formed a third color, always outlined in red or black to an edge.

It was obviously a printed work, stamped with the same clean lines over, and over again.  It was always distinct from hand done scribe work.  Kiannae could never understand why so many preferred scribed works to printed.  It was always crisper, and cleaner.  She turned the card over, her curiosity piqued.

On the face a variety of art was displayed, but there was some consistency.  In the upper left, and lower right corner of each card there was one of three symbols; a four pointed black star, a heart of red, or a flame of white.  Most were accompanied by a either a number, or a letter.  The primary color of the card seemed dictated by these symbols, but all used fields of each to artistic effect.

Each card that depicted persons seemed composed of two busts, blended at the midriff, and facing a different way from one another, some forward, some moonward, some sunward.  The joined busts each seemed a man on the one side, or a woman on the other.  Kiannae considered the letters, M, C, or K, and the dress of each.  The K was obvious, most bearing shield and sword, and some plumed helms – they were Knights.  The M and the C were more perplexing, they looked royal, like a King, and Queen, but each was the other if the card was reversed.  Monarch, Kiannae decided, and Consort.

On each card that had no number on its corner stood a different object.  The hearts held a Tower, the Stars a Sun, and the Flames a Sword atop a Shield.  The remaining cards of each type had arrangements of the chief symbol, that matched the number on the card.  There were ten of each, one for the object, six arrays, and the three face cards.  They were well worn along the edges, soft with use and time, but overall seemed in good condition.

Kiannae was not certain, but had a guess of the purpose of the cards.  ‘Playing Fates,’ she’d heard the term, and had guessed that it involved cards.  It was a form of gambling, frowned upon by some, loved by others.  Another stack of cards sat beside where the first had been.  She returned the playing cards, and picked up the others.

These were quite different, and a little longer than the first.  No symbols on the corners, no sets that were instantly recognizable, the backs a plain brown.  Each had a name along the bottom, and upside down along the top, but some were hard to read, some seemed spelled wrong, or to use odd letters.  There was a semblance of groupings, people, things, and others.  They seemed painted, and there was a faint enchantment on them, protective certainly, but each seemed vaguely different.  There were quite a few more of them, she counted in the back of her head as she examined them.

There were forty-nine.  She sorted them into obvious groups.  People who seemed kings, queens, mages, knights, and one quite contrary, who stood at a crossroads, not upon the road, but upside down beneath the sign.  There were things of the night sky, though many of these also held the faces of people, still they seemed to go together.  There were animals, common folk, and elemental forces.  There were objects made by people, a sword, a shield, a tower, a wheel, others, and there were quite a few she couldn’t place.

Kiannae pondered one of the celestial cards at length.  It was a simple unassuming thing, but it’s label could be more clearly read than most, ‘The North Star.’  This struck Kianne oddly.  There was a South Star, it made sense for there to be a north one as well, yet in Laurel’s astronomy lessons he had not mentioned it that she could recall.  Stranger still there was no south star in the deck.  She set it aside with its like, and pondered other mysteries.

Some of the cards bore two faces like the first deck.  A king, and a queen most notably, yet unlike the playing cards the opposite bust was different in pose, and tone, but not gender.  The king bore a scepter on one side, and a thorned rose on the other, his robe open, with a knowing smile.  The queen wore a crown, and a regal air at one end, and the other her chest was bare.  At one end she held a cup, a dagger at the other.

She shuffled things around for a bit, it seemed seven was the operative number, so surely seven sets of seven.  There were a few that could go into one set or another.  One perplexing card showed a river, which divided seven times, and then each of those streams divided seven more.  The seven rivers it was labeled.  Another was a solitary coin.  She pondered these, and of each set that perplexed her, she found that one might be pulled out, and placed between.  One coin, a two forked road, three women – labeled The Fates – a sprout with four leaves, five men, a crown with six stars, and lastly the seven rivers.

Everything seemed in order, as though they belonged together.  What these cards were she was uncertain.  The other stack, less than half the number was used for playing a game, a game of chance which alluded to fate.  She frowned.  Divination, prophecy, these were all things Laurel would not touch upon.  They were rubbish at best, and dangerous at worst, and something of them spoke to that end.

Kiannae considered why Mercu kept them – he was no fan of such matters either.  They did seem lovely to look upon though, finely crafted.  Perhaps he kept them for that reason.  The gambling cards were no guess she thought, not as exquisite, but well made, and he would play a game like that most assuredly.  She gathered the groups of cards up, but one slipped away from the lot.  It showed a child, and as she moved to place it on top the stack, the storm that raged there caught her eye as she set the child onto it.

The child at the eye of the storm.  The words returned to her, she frowned, and pushed it willfully from her mind, flipping the deck over, and returning it to it’s place on the desk.

Try as she might, one last thing held her eye.  A large scrap of paper, clearly a note.  More snooping than she was already guilty of, and yet she could not resist.  She picked it up, and eyed the words dubiously:

I’ve seen such love in the eyes of the child foretold,
to bend even the unshakable wills of fates of old,
she who rides the storm was meant to walk alone,
cruel fate by kind follies lays yet half atoned,
crooked is the path that leads to salvation,
when all else is bound ever to be forsaken,
a fool’s errand holds the only wisest course,
and the wisdom of elders shall bring remorse,
yet at last it comes err to a final hopeful pass,
though blood will spill from lips before the last,
an unlikely pair shall over many stars preside,
till shadowed days long past the end of time.

She put the note back unhappily, and finally understood.  It had not escaped her – much as Laurel, and Mercu had tried – that the cat Mar, had belonged to Cassandra.  The rest it seemed did as well.  She stepped away from the desk, and tried to forget the lot.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“What’s the North Star?” Kiannae asked of her sister as they sat alone in their room.  She had tried to let the whole thing go, but that bit was particularly odd to her, and seemed in itself harmless.

Katrisha looked bewildered a moment.  “Do you pay any attention to our astronomy lessons?” She final asked in lieu of an answer.

“Yes,” Kiannae growled defensively.

“Then you should know,” Katrisha sighed.

“Just tell me,” Kiannae grumbled.

“It’s the brightest star in the sky, though we will likely never see it.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Kiannae protested.

“You really haven’t been paying attention,” Katrisha laughed.

“Must you?” Kiannae winced.

“After your chiding me for failing Moriel’s spelling test…yes.”

“I still don’t see why, you read as well as me.”

“Better,” Katrisha countered, “according to Moriel.”

“Which makes even less sense, you read half as much as me.”

“Perhaps you are trying too hard,” Katrisha offered.

“Can you just tell me what the North Star is,” Kiannae snapped.

Katrisha closed her book, folded her arms over it, and stared at her sister a moment.  “Very well,” she said, and with a flick of her wrist an orb appeared before her.  “Let’s say this is Thaea,” she continued.  “You do remember the South Star, yes?”

“Yes,” Kiannae rolled her eyes.

“Just checking,” Katrisha laughed.  “The South Star appears steady in the sky, because it is here.”  She placed a bright point of light below the sphere.  “It is called a pole star, because it is roughly above the pole.”  She drew a line from the bottom of the sphere.  “The North Star is its opposite,” she drew a line from the top of Thaea.  “It is roughly above the north pole,” she placed another bright point of light.

“And you said it’s the brightest star?”

“Except for the sun of course.”

“Of course,” Kiannae responded irritably.  “And we won’t see it because Thaea is in the way.”

“Exactly.”

“Why would anyone care about it though?” Kiannae frowned.  “A star no one will ever see.”

“Other than Laurel, and now you, I’ve only ever heard one person mention it before.”  Katrisha pursed her lips.  “It was one of the soldiers, said he was looking for his ‘north star.’”

“Odd.”

“Very,” Katrisha greed.  “I asked Mercu about it, he said it is a very old saying.”

“How old?”

“‘Ancient beyond reason,’ I believe were his exact words.”  There was a long pause, and Kiannae nearly returned to her reading, when Katrisha pressed the point.  “Why the interest in the North Star?”

“It was a painted card on Mercu’s desk,” Kiannae said, not mentioning the rest.

“Curious,” Katrisha said.

“I thought so,” Kiannae agreed.

“The south star is used for guidance, to know east from west, north from south.  Though I believe Mercu said tradition holds to turn your back on the south star, and face north.  That the coming day is on your right hand, and the passing night on your left.”

“That’s how most maps are drawn,” Kiannae considered.

“It would seem easier to face them the other way, wouldn’t it,” Katrisha noted with some humor.  “I asked Mercu about that too.  How did he put it…”  She seemed thoughtful.  “Traditions are like dragons, immortal, full of teeth, and best not questioned.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 12th, 644 E.R.

“Another attack, brutal as the last,” the King growled.

“Worse technically,” Arlen noted.  “No survivors at all, not even any of our men guarding it.”

“I would wager far less was taken, than burned with the wagons,” Laurel said.  “This remains clearly an act meant to terrorize caravans back away from the east road, rather than any effective form of robbery.  Now, after only two have finally passed that way again, after all these years.  It will be prove more effective than the last.”

“And all hope for an eastern pass is lost to us,” the King rested his head in his hand.  “After South Rook there will be no political will to undertake the task, even if it were doable.  Which it is, but only at wild costs we could never afford.”

“Such is the way of disrupting succession so,” Arlen said in a measured tone, that hid nothing of his real opinion.

“Do not tempt Us, to disrupt it further,” the King said coldly.

“I merely state the facts,” Arlen said with thin, practiced calm.

“Do not begrudge a man some displeasure for the fall of his friends,” Laurel offered diplomatically.  “They did fall very far, conspiring to reward those responsible for the deaths of innocents, and prosecute more innocents in their place.  Surely, such was a singular aberration of two men more corrupt than truly pious.  Whoever he once knew them as.”

“Surely,” Arlen agreed uneasily, he didn’t seem to like the opinion implied, but did so anyway.  “The costs are none the less evident.  It will take years, if not decades to mend the damage done.”

“There is hope in good Maraline,” the King noted.  “Lukus takes well to her comforts still, and though I was ready to let him return to South Rook, to ease these tensions, he of his own accord petitioned to stay another month.  Should they wed one day, and Parin step aside for the boy who remains the rightful heir, it will go a long way.”

“It would,” Arlen agreed though he hardly seemed overly pleased with that thought either.

“The damage is done,” the King said.  “On all counts.  Have a light scouting team probe the forest carefully.  No big show of force this time to rouse the Sylvans.  Should they go missing, or find anything to report then we can act, yet it seems reasonable to suspect these ‘bandits’ will have vanished again.”

“Unless they are waiting to insure another caravan does not brave it,” Laurel noted.

“All the more reason to be quick in scouting, in the implausible event we should be so lucky,” Arlen agreed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 20th, 644 E.R.

Eran looked uneasy.  At least that was Katrisha’s best guess at precisely what the man was feeling.  “Do you know when Laurel will be back?” he asked after a moment of considering the young woman that had answered his knock at the study door.

“Soon, I would think,” Katrisha answered.  “He went to get us both food from the kitchen.  He would have sent me, but left muttering something about wanting to actually have some of the food arrive at the study.”

Eran superseded a laugh, and looked about.  “Where is your sister?” he asked in lieu of anything else to fill the silence.

“Reading somewhere along the wall I expect,” Katrisha shrugged.  “She said she felt like some sun.”

More silence followed.

“You can come in and sit if you like,” Katrisha finally offered.

Eran considered Katrisha, the room, and after a moment of hesitation nodded, and entered.  Katrisha closed the door behind him.  Eran glanced about curiously for a moment, before Katrisha gestured to a chair beneath one of the bookcases that lined the round lower tier of the study.  Eran nodded again, and took a seat, but did not lose the curious flitting looks about the room.

“Have you never been in the tower?” Katrisha asked after a bit.

“No,” Eran answered, “can’t say as I have.”

“What did you need to speak to Laurel about?” Katrisha enquired curiously.

“I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for me to say.”  Eran frowned, but continued to look a bit nervous.

“I am an apprentice of the Court Mage, am I not?” Katrisha pressed.

“So you are,” Eran consented, “but while you may be privileged enough to hear what I have to say, I am not sure it is fit for your ears.”

“I’m not a child,” Katrisha protested.

“Aren’t you?” Eran raised an eyebrow.

“I am eleven,” Katrisha stated firmly.  “I am a young lady now, Mercu says so.”

“And what I have to speak with Laurel about is not fit for the ears of ladies, I assure you,” Eran countered.

“Rubbish,” Katrisha sneered.  “I’ll not be treated like some delicate flower.”

Eran smiled.  “Yes, you are more like the women I knew before I came to the castle.”  Katrisha looked perplexed for a moment, and Eran amused, if in a sad sort of way.  “No, no you are quite right.  Do you wish to hear my report?”

“Yes,” Katrisha said flatly, and crossed her arms.

“I have returned from the north,” Eran began.  “Scouting for bandits – our last expedition some years ago found them to have fled after a bloody, and impressive fight with the Sylvans, and then nothing till recently, but I assume you have heard about the most recent attack?”

“Yes.  Just when caravans had started to take the eastern road again in earnest.  Terrible news, killed everyone again.  I was so relieved to hear it wasn’t Mercu’s sister.”  Katrisha looked a bit ill thinking about it.

“Rather than send a full expedition it was scouts only this time – moving light, avoiding rousing the Sylvans, or hopefully getting ambushed ourselves.  Track and report only.”

“I presume you found something?” Katrisha pressed.

“Yes, I found the bandits,” Eran nodded, “or I can only presume what was left of them.”

“Did some form of justice meet them again before the Kings?” Katrisha asked hopefully – she had been worried that Laurel would have to go again.  Particularly when she had snuck a peek at the report, and seen that the caravan had been destroyed in spite of two mages in their employ.

“Perhaps,” Eran narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.  “I was the deepest scout – the others were not willing to go in that far, not after last time.  I found the ruins of a camp.  Most would chalk it up to the bandit’s luck having run out again.”

“Not you?” Katrisha asked.

“I can not say I know much of Sylvan tactics, or gifted abilities,” Eran prefaced hesitantly, “but what I saw, gruesome as it was, did not look like an attack from the outside.  Not like last time.”

“What did it look like?”  Katrisha crossed her arms again, so far unimpressed, but very curious.

“Like a monster was dropped in their midst,” Eran shrugged, but he clearly was holding something back.

“What kind of monster?” Katrisha pressed.

“Are you sure you wish to hear the details?” Eran countered.

“Yes,” Katrisha assured him.

“Very well,” Eran said, and leaned back.  “The kind of monster that only a mage can be.”  He paused for effect, and seemed almost amused at Katrisha’s cross expression.  “With the exception of some bodies flung against trees, or farther out into the woods – which had been heavily eaten by scavengers – most were circled around the shredded ruins of a tent.”  He paused, it seemed less for effect, than to steal him self.  “Those that weren’t eaten by animals appeared to have been burned alive.  Based on their contorted possess, and stricken expressions.  I don’t think it was a quick death.”

“And you don’t think it was the Sylvans because the bodies were centered around the camp?” Katrisha asked, holding her composure at the gruesome thought.

“Yes,” Eran nodded.  “They didn’t look like they were fighting a force on the outside, but something from within.  Clearly a mage, or some other gift, but I’d say it would have to be a mage.  We’ve long suspected from the caravan wreckage from both attacks, the wards, the damage at the campsite previous, that there is a mage in the bandit’s midst.  Now I would say either they turned on the mage, or the mage turned on them.  Why we can’t guess, but the results are the same.”

“So the bandits are dead then?” Katrisha asked.  “The east road is safe?”

“Perhaps – for now,” Eran shook his head.  “There was no evidence of the mage himself amongst the bodies.  Whoever killed his compatriots likely still lives, and it looked like someone was dragged out of the camp to the north west.  The Sylvans are watching that camp site, a warning shot from them drove me off before I could search for any firm evidence.  There is no telling what the mage might do in future, but the numbers of his force are seemingly dwindled.  That’s two lost camps now, maybe he will give up.”

“You think the mage was the leader?”

“Would you expect otherwise?”

“No.”

“I’ll press you not repeat this, though it’s reached my ears so it can be no great secret.  There are rumors, and speculations to say the mage leading these attacks is a character known as The Wolf.  A Duke of Osyrae, and as nasty a piece of work as I’ve ever heard of.”

“And you believe these rumors?”

“Burning traitors, or failures alive would seem in keeping with what I have heard of the man in question. Still, these games, playing in the shadows like this does not fit.  He was the favored younger son of the mad king after all, a proud man obsessed with honor.  Regardless, I don’t foresee caravans returning to the eastern road again, not for many years.  They will all do the smart thing, and wait for someone else to take the chance first.”

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Chapter 14

I looked there upon a lonely spire,
tall tower of those highland plains,
solitary sentinel, ‘bove the harvest grains,

proud amber heart of sovereign vales,
on all sides there about secured,
no walls she needed, nor ever were,

fair and placid lands, of humble Avrale,
could turn a prince’s eye with want,
to toil golden summer fields,

this was what young eyes knew,
now err a city sprouted from such fertile ground,
buried ancient farms, ne’er again to be ploughed,

was it for I, who took the lands fairest daughter,
did I not think time could march on without her,
we left that land, in bickering old elder’s hands.

– Prince Markus, 98 E.R.

The Voices of South Rook

The tower of South Rook was the tallest, and broadest of all the great towers of Avrale.  Standing above the near flat caldera of the southern highlands, it was a singular spectacle seen from miles in all directions.  A beacon drawing travelers in towards the sprawling city that centuries had grown around it.

Small towns sprung up like satellites along the arterial roads through the plains, and looking out at any great distance one could see these towns as clearly as the city.  It was a strange, and foreign place to those used to the deep shelter of the vales, and yet far off to all sides ridges came up to contain the vast southern farmlands.  Though a broad brake in the ridges gave way in the south, a pass that lead to the Southern Steps and cascaded down out of Avrale into Niven.

For every little town was a baron, a man of seemingly great self importance.  These invariably wished to greet, and offer food and comfort to the travelers.  All it seemed, with little pretext to gain audience with Laurel, and to bend his ear to this or that concern, and imply that perhaps word might reach the King.  The twins quickly understood why Laurel had been begrudgingly willing to take the more sedate northern route, which while even more rural, and typically ignored, avoided the officious sort of people they were constantly meeting.

Great shows of passing interest were heaped upon the twins, who quickly decided it was best to ignore the adults entirely, save to nod if directly addressed.  Wren found it easier to escape into the shadows, and seemed to draw less attention than his sisters.  The girls were painfully bored of it all, and spent a great deal of time each devising spells, and daring the other to do better, or find a flaw.

Even Wren participated in examining their work, and proved somewhat adept at spotting odd details, but was not altogether familiar enough with his sister’s magic to offer much concrete input.  Laurel appeared fascinated by the boy’s vague aptitude, but seemed to have nothing to say on the matter.  Wren’s interests seemed fleeting, even if there were signs of potential, and Laurel continued to have no interest in a third apprentice, and overly encouraging the matter was not to his benefit.

These were the highlights of the slow plodding trip.  While Wesrook had been a slightly farther from their start at Broken Hill, it had taken only two long days.  Four were taken to travel just as far as the city, which upon entry did have the three children’s full attention.  South Rook was taller, prouder, and cleaner than Wesrook, and yet had a meandering quality like Brokhal, if in a dense and overwhelming fashion.

One felt as though they could easily get lost in South Rook, and yet all the way through the streets, winding in a pattern that defied quick understanding, the tower loomed above as a constant landmark.  One always knew where the city center was if nothing else, and that spectacle only grew more imposing as they approached along one of the wide streets connecting to the inner promenade before the castle’s main gate.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 13th, 644 E.R.

Three children, and two weary men piled from their coach, and Horence lead it away to be stabled.

“It’s very big,” Katrisha finally remarked.

An understatement of the obvious, standing below the towers base it was evident how enormous the whole thing really was.  The walls of the castle around the tower staked out land nearly as large as the castle on Broken Hill, yet with the stables outside, and the walls less fortified, and filled with windows and small jutting turrets, one wondered at the vastness that might lay within.  

The tower itself was clearly several hundred feet across at the base, and slowly sloped up toward its high peak.  There was nothing small or humble about the sight, and the great gate before them stood open onto what looked to be a terraced garden courtyard.

A man was hustling out through that gate, and whipped off his hat, bowing before the new arrivals.  “My apologies, my Lord,” the man said slightly short of breath.  “There has been some chaos this morning, and reports of your arrival were slow, and scattered.  We’d thought it might be another day.”

“Not a problem,” Laurel said reassuringly.  “It is good to see you, Parin.”

“Ah yes, yes, sorry – Laurel.  I find it safest most of the time to stay in the more formal address with the locals.”

“You aren’t their servant,” Laurel chided.

“Please do not tell them this,” Parin laughed nervously.  “I prefer to play the part, and be able to do my job, than pretend to position, and be powerless.”

“Wise,” Mercu agreed with humor.

“Regardless, as you see, I am sent to greet you,” Parin noted, “and I would not have, if iI did not play along – even with this morning’s unrest.”

“The candid state of things?” Laurel pressed, but followed as Parin gestured for them to.

“The root of the commotion has been the collision of all our troubles I fear,” Parin said as they started to walk through the gates.  “Northern farmhands,” he said, and gave a tap to his own cap, “have rallied the others along with them, and are protesting slow payment.  They are sitting on bales, and locking silos.  Meanwhile several squabbles have lead to injuries.  Three Sisters have been tending to the wounded, and were given a small house by a baron siding with the workers.”  He grimaced.  “Then it all went so very much more wrong this morning.”

Laurel stopped.  “Tell me what has happened before we go farther.”

“There was a fire, at the house the Sisters were given.  Two dead in their care, and all are recovering from burns sustained both escaping, and trying to rescue the others.”

“Suspects?” Laurel asked harshly.

“Many,” Parin said.  “Lots of finger pointing.  I’m doing what I can, but I’ve lost any real hold over my people.  They think I’ve become one of the masters because I play the game, to get things done.  The Knight Commander has set up a camp near the area to keep the peace, but he’s going to have to start bloodying one side or the other, or he’ll just wind up fighting both.”

“Fine, take me to the Duke,” Laurel said tersely. “Mercu… find someone to set up our lodging.  This must be taken care of now.”

Mercu nodded, and Laurel was off even ahead of his guide.

“What’s going to happen?” Kiannae asked.

Mercu took a moment to think of the best response, but before he could even try to quiet the children’s fears, Wren offered his thoughts, “Bad things.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Night had fallen, and Laurel had not returned.  Mercu put the children to bed, and though suspicious of the twins being agreeable to lay down, he was not ready to question good fortune.  Such dubiously set aside suspicions were quite founded, and after Mercu had retired, the twins slipped from their room in secret.

After being cooped up for days with officious adults, and the rest of the time in a stuffy coach they had a new castle to explore, and every intention of doing so.  Katrisha peaked into Wren’s room, but found him sleeping, and Kiannae poked her.

“Leave him,” she whispered tersely.

Katrisha pursed her lips thoughtfully.  She had wanted to bring Wren along, but decided it was best to let him sleep when her sister simply continued to glare at her.  She closed his door, and the two slunk off down the hall, dodging into alcoves, and tapestries at the slightest sound of footsteps.

One such evasion took them onto a balcony overlooking the lower gardens, which they had only fleetingly seen during the day.  By the moonlight, and cast in the amber glow spilling out the tower windows it was breathtaking.  Their position high in the western wall of the castle let them see the many terraces, fountains, trees, and flowerbeds of the gardens.  Some fountains formed streams which cascaded in soft waterfalls between tiers.

The splendor of the place made Broken Hill seem quaint, and primitive, and all of it caught between blue and amber hues was vividly serene.  Even Kiannae, oft less taken by the night stared down beside her sister in abject wonder.  “Fates it’s pretty here,” she whispered appreciatively.  “Why isn’t this the capitol?”

“I don’t know,” Katrisha shrugged.  “I mean the view from the tower is very nice, high up above the valley.  They could do more with the court I suppose.  Move the stables outside the walls, cascade the upper court into the lower like this.  Then it might be better.”

“Eh,” Kiannae remarked, and peaked back into the hall they had ducked out of.  All was quiet, and with reluctance Katrisha followed Kiannae back inside.  The walls were covered in paintings, and tapestries everywhere they went.  It had an effect of being too much, and a single glance between the two confirmed they agreed on this.  Broken Hill might have needed some love in the landscaping, but the more sedate decoration was better in the twins opinion.

Sneaking into the main tower was mostly possible due to a dozing guard, and even as the twins slipped inside they heard a startled mutter behind them.  The door creek, and they had only just managed to duck out of sight before the guard took a step into the hall behind them.  He walked around a bit, but missed the displaced curtain the two had slipped behind, and Kiannae peeking out from it.  He returned to the door, took one more look around, and closed it properly.

The hall the twins had entered was a large ring inside the exterior walls of the tower, and overlooked a central chamber below that was mostly deserted.  Another guard was walking below, his heels making smart little clacks with every step.  The round lower chamber looked something like a mixture of the throne room at Broken Hill with the ballroom, yet grander and finer than either.  Overhead great stone arches came up to meet with the center of the chamber to support the roof and rooms above.

The twins found stairs down into the lower chamber more quickly than those that lead up, but were not interested in going down.  Checking that the stairs seemed clear the two hustled up into the next level of the tower.  It was a long two story climb that permitted the vast open area below, and the two were a bit winded from their haste.

Peaking out at the top of the stairs revealed a guard standing some distance away.  He seemed distracted, his ear to a door, listening to yelling that could be heard all the way from the stairs, and he easily missed the two as they bolted across the hall, and out of sight.

Katrisha stopped short, and listened at the corner.  She was fairly sure one of the voices she heard yelling was Laurel, and then confirmation as the guard moved out of the way, and the doors burst open dramatically.

“Do your duty you spineless cowards,” Laurel snapped, and turned angrily to face the room again.  “I want those responsible for this crime brought to justice.  Do not think that the Council’s authority ends at the King, and let me remind you the man that he is.  This is not merely an arson, but an assault, and two murders.  Two men died in that fire, and what company they kept, what linage they could claim is not your concern.  I want this handled with all the seriousness if they had been your own sons.  Do you hear me?”

Laurel pivoted again on his heel, and marched towards the stairs.  Katrisha and Kiannae scurried away down the hall they were hiding in, and well out of sight.  They leaned behind a pillar, huffed a few times excitedly, and when it was clear they had once again evaded detection they nodded approvingly to one another.

Footsteps coming their way caused the pair to hurry up the closest set of stairs they could find, and into another level filled with hallways, and doors.  Footsteps could be heard following them up the steps, and they rushed to one end of the hall where a balcony opened out over the gardens far below.  They hid with their backs flat to the wall, but there were still voices and footsteps coming their way.

“These northerners are heathens,” one man said angrily.  “They are wanton, and crass, yet they act as though they think themselves part of the nobility, with their dirt stained hands.  I do not know what madness the King has fallen under that he continues to permit their ‘representative’ at court.  He is perhaps the most common, and low born of the lot.  Worse than Perin, who at least shows proper deference, even if I still see in his eyes he thinks himself clever.”

“This is the travesty that we get for allowing such people to think they know anything of what is good for them,” another voice answered.  “They do not have the education, the refinement, the lineage for such thoughts.  When the drought ends, something must be done about the north.  They can not be allowed to continue like this.”

“There is another lowborn tavern now on the edge of the city.  Disgusting, and filled with women of ill repute.  Worse still some of them Lycian by their own admission.  Bad enough if such a place exists in some far corner of the farm lands, but here, in South Rook.  We are sinking lower even than Wesrook.  To think, worse than those fishers, unconscionable.”

The first man walked out onto the balcony, but did not notice the girls hiding in the dark.  He strode up to the rail, and leaned on it to stare out across the city, somewhere towards the horizon.  His attire, however subdued seemed of regal cut, his baring one of imposing command, under his barely restrained rage.

The second man had stopped just inside the tower.  “Their influence is out of control.  I caught one of my footmen swearing up a storm to the scullery maids, and them laughing it up.  I fired them all on the spot of course, and it is proving difficult to replace them on such short notice.  The state my house is in.”

“To think – I have been ordered to investigate the burning of that whore house.  Justice has already been served that it was burned to the ground.”

The second man stepped out, and looked up at the sky, before moving to stand beside his companion.  Katrisha and Kiannae glanced at eachother, softly stepped towards one another, and then slipped back into the tower, hiding again on the inside.  They were not done listening.

“Laurel, in the King’s name of all things, wants them punished…punished.  I’ll punish them with ranking positions in the guard I tell you.  Pin the whole mess on some degenerate farmers.  Sad I will not be able to give credit where it is due, but the least I can do is right by those cleansing the filth from our midst.  Perhaps they can do more good work, and with some subtlety, if placed properly.  Maybe that tavern can have an accident.”

“You’ve already determined who is responsible?”

“A short list at least,” the more regal man gave an absent gesture.  “Most I have seen attend sermons.  Good men.”  He turned, and leaned back against the rail, looking up, and closed his eyes.

“Are you sure you can shift the blame?”  His companion asked, and turned to look to his superior with doubt.  The twins each got a good look at their faces in the moonlight, before deciding it was better to duck back completely out of view.

“If a few fools can’t be bought, they can be made to look like liars, and accomplices.  There are always more peasants in need of coin, than those determined to stick out their necks.  When they see the way the wind is blowing, we will settle this mess.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

When the twins arrived outside their room they considered their options.  They had to tell Laurel what they had heard, which would mean explaining how they had heard it.  Reluctantly they check Laurel’s room, but found it empty, and considered that it might be better to wait till morning to tell him any way.  

Distracted thinking over her options, Katrisha collided with her sister when she stopped halfway through their chamber door, and nearly knocked both of them over.

“And what have you two been up to?” Laurel demanded, seated on their bed.  Mercu sitting beside him, looked groggy, and more unhappy to be awake than with the girls likely mischief.

“We heard some men talking,” Kiannae said defensively.

Laurel did not look impressed.

“They said they are going to blame the fire on people who didn’t do it,” Katrisha added hastily.

Laurel did not look less angry, but both twins were reasonably convinced he was no longer concerned with their sneaking out, and would listen to what they had to say.  Mercu also looked far less sleepy, and even less pleased.

“Can you identify the men who you heard talking?” Laurel demanded.

The girls glanced at each other.  “Yes,” they answered in unison.

“Good.”  Laurel stroked his beard. “I will be arranging to present you tomorrow to the court of South Rook.  I had hoped to avoid all the pomp of formal introduction, but that will be our best opportunity to be sure you see everyone of note.”  He took a breath, and steadied himself.  “Now you will tell me every single word you remember.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 14th, 644 E.R.

Laurel looked weary as Parin entered his room.  He gestured for the man to close the door behind him, and Parin did.

“Who here could replace Duke Fenlin, or Baron Castor?”

“Under what circumstances?” Parin asked shrewdly.

“Let us say, any.”

“Not many,” Perin answered.  “The Knight commander would of course be the logical replacement for his brother.  Yet if there is a problem with Fenlin, we will likely have it in time with James.”

“James is corrupt?”

“No,” Parin said firmly.  “He has been faithful in his duties, but strongly I feel he is his much the same man as his brother.  Put in his position, he will become more like him.  I also do not think in his heart he would want it.”

“Parin – you have been here for some years now.  Do you think you could do what these men do?”

“Either?” Parin asked.

“Both,” Laurel answered.

“Possibly,” Parin said, his grimace a bit hard to read.  “Though I do not know if I could rely on the same men they have.  In fact I know I cannot.  I know Baron Thomil to be embezzling, and Baron Comlin to be taking bribes.  I have other suspicions as well, but those are just the things I am certain of.”

“You haven’t reported this?”

“Just because I know it to be true, does not mean I’ve had sufficient evidence to make it stick.”

“You could still have reported your suspicions.”

“Your pardon Laurel, but let me be frank.  You and the King are good men, you would not have endured this, and the cost of rectifying the matter was easily as high as allowing it to endure.  Principle, and practicality do not always mix.”

“I am aware…”

“Regardless I have not been idle, I have been working to build the case in the event it becomes necessary.”

“Good – it may be.”

“What, if I may ask is happening?” Perin pressed.  There was a seriousness, and authority that slipped through then that belied his usual demeanor.  It would be useful, if things played out as Laurel expected.

“I have sent for the King.  Legally, I have the authority for what needs doing here without him, and I still need to settle some details, but I want his support.  This will be messy enough without relying only on the Council’s authority, and my position with the King.”

“Good fates.  The King is leaving Broken Hill?  He has not done so in decades.”

“I have sent a fast courier, but even if the King rushes, and he will, it will still be three days before he arrives.  We need to keep things from getting out of hand until then.  Who do you trust?”

“Baron Joshua,” Parin answered.  “No others with certainty.  He has been on our side from the start.  He is a good man, he gave those women the house, and now keeps them safe in his own.”

“Whoever Fenlin brings charges against I want them protected.  Use Joshua to make sure of it.  It may take things longer than three days to come to a head, but if they do, I will have the peace maintained, and I would prefer to know I am not acting alone.”

“You have me,” Parin nodded, “and you will have Joshua.”

“Good – you are dismissed, I have much to think on,” Laurel waved.

Parin nodded, and left promptly.  Laurel sighed when he was gone.

“Educational, you two?” he asked after a moment.

Katrisha, and Kiannae stepped out from behind a curtain.  “You knew we were here?” Kiannae asked.

“I could see your auras,” Laurel chided.

“Oh,” Katrisha said awkwardly.

“Other than that, I would not have known,” Laurel reassured them.  “I figured however if you were hiding in my room, you would not be skulking about the castle.”

“The King is coming here?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” Laurel said.  “I will still need you to identify for certain who you heard speaking last night, but I have strong suspicions.”

“The Duke, and Baron?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps I should not have let you listen,” Laurel frowned.  “Be sure of who you identify, do not let what you heard here skew your opinions.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

A small ball was held in the twin’s honor that evening.  It was officious, and filled with introductions.  Neither had any doubt that the men introduced as Duke Fenlin, and Baron Castor were the men they had heard, and seen, and heard talking.  This was established almost immediately, and then the rest of the evening was lost to formalities.

Though the pomp, and circumstance was grating, and boring, neither girl minded too much when young men, all mostly a year or two their elder asked them to dance.  Each did passably,  but had never had much practice.  Katrisha at least once stepped on a young man’s toes, who to his credit pretended nothing happened.

The ball gave way to banquet, and the banquet to more milling.  Though everything was prettier, and grander, the twins each found something lacking in the atmosphere.  There was a jovialness to balls at Broken Hill that was absent in South Rook, and each were glad enough to return to their room in the end.

The next day brought commotion, as arrests were made over the fire.  Some men protested their innocence, but otherwise went quietly, and though it seemed a mob might break out among the commoners, peace seemed to hold by a thread.  Just as quickly two men were commended publically for their part in identifying the culprits, and others came forward to attest to the innocence of the arrested.

Laurel saw personally to the accommodations of the accused, and though he was resisted, further chaos cut the matter off as Baron Thomil was brought up on charges of embezzlement, and Baron Comlin was found to have fled the city.  Amidst all of this word arrived of the King’s hasty travel to South Rook, and everything went into an awkward state of suspension preparing for his arrival, and trials were all but forgotten as haste was made to prepare for a grand banquet.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 18th, 644 E.R.

King John arrived to great fanfare in the streets of South Rook, but none could miss his displeasure as he stepped from the royal coach.  He was lead into the castle, and up the many steps, and tiers to the main floor of the tower.  Where upon the completion of formalities, including the herald announcing him, the King was in the mood to waste no more time.

“Where are the Ladies Ashton?” the King demanded harshly.

Katrisha and Kiannae stepped from the crowd nervously, all eyes upon them.  Ther curtsied to the King, as they had been told to maintain as much formality as they could.

“Good – then we can begin,” the King snapped, surveying the regality of South Rook.  “Tell us all what you heard dear girls.”

“The night of our arrival we were exploring,” Katrisha began, “and came upon the end of Laurel’s meeting with the Duke, and Barons of South Rook.”

“As we hid,” Kiannae added, “we heard a discussion between the Duke,” she pointed to Fenlin, “and the Baron Castor.”

“They were not happy to be asked to investigate the fire.  Saying that as,” Katrisha frowned, “in their words it was a ‘whore house, and justice had already been done.’”

“And which specifically said this?” the King asked.

“The Duke,” Kiannae answered.

“They then conspired to blame others for the crime they had been asked to investigate,” Katrisha added clenching her fist.

“And offer positions in the guard to those responsible,” Kiannae said furiously.  “Which they have.”

“They hoped to have the same happen to a tavern on the edge of the city,” Katrisha finished.

“What say you?” the King said facing the Duke fiercely.

“You take the word of these half breeds – these mongrels?” the Duke snapped venomously.

“Give us reason to doubt them?” the King answered unmoved.

As the Duke hesitated, trying to formulate a plan, the Baron stepped forward.  “We have done all that has been said, and it was right.  To punish those guilty of nothing more than the light’s work, of preserving us from the darkness in our own midst, those protected by a corrupt King.”  Guards rushed from the King’s side, and brought the Baron to his knees.  “Unhand me, I am of the faithful.  The King brings abominations into his court, whores, those of Sylvan blood, and one that can consume souls.”  Few saw a small boy looking down from the balcony above sink to his knees, torn between guilt and fury.

The Duke looked frozen, halfway between fleeing, and siding with the man who had just sealed his fate.  “Unhand the good Baron,” he commanded finally.  “We have committed no great crime, malcontents were to stand in the place of those who did right by this nation, and only a King unfit to rule would decree punishment for their actions.”

At least one of the guards holding the Baron looked uneasy, and some began shifting to stand behind the Duke, even as the King’s own guard moved more tightly around him.

“Your position is well known to Us.  There is nothing the twins have said that is found out of character, but these acts force Our hand.  You have abetted criminals, killers, and defied a direct, and lawful decree by a Court Mage.  You seek to reward those who undermine the sanctity of private and public property, and worse, even life.  You have spoken directly against the throne, and preached dissent against Our sanctioned rule.   Your position, your title, your land, and holdings are forfeit.”

The Duke lurched forward, but found himself tossed backwards into the guards behind him who caught him, and staggered themselves, one falling off balance.  There was a thunderous discord through the crowd, and though it was hard to make anything out, an undertone of sentiment for the Duke was suspect.

“Thank you, Laurel,” the King said quietly as the man stepped to his side before any other moves could be made.  “If it wouldn’t break any rules, it would be good to speak a bit louder, please,” the King asked kindly.

Laurel nodded, and formed a spell before the King, invisible to most.

“Were that We had spent my years on the throne in constructing jails enough to accommodate the lot of you,” the King’s voice echoed unnaturally across the chamber, and a slight smile tried to creep into the corner of his lips.  “Do not make Us begin such a task now.”  He turned to survey the crowd gathered around.  “Ours is a nation of free faith – without one decreed, or preferred.  If these are the actions upon which Our hand is to be forced, then you will not like the outcome.”

He turned back to the Duke, who suddenly had fewer guards standing behind him.  “We believe both of you could use a lesson in hard work, you were born to your wealth after all,” the King’s voice still echoed.  He waved his hand slightly, and Laurel dismissed the spell.

“I was born…”  The Duke sneered, and almost spat.  “You were born to royalty.  You sit on a throne inherited wrongly in the place of a good man, one who would have done right by this Kingdom. You know nothing of hard work – of managing the wellbeing of a people under a King that would let them fall to ruin.  You sit on your throne from on high, proclaiming this, and that to your whim.  All that you have was handed to you.  Even your whore of a sister would have been better, time has at least brought her to grace.”

“Every day,” the King said taking a great breath, “a King must deal with petty, greedy, arrogant fools.” There was fire in his voice, and it carrying well of its own accord across the chamber.  “Fools who cannot see the fields for the crops.  You, and your ilk, petty, grubbing, pious, and blind.  You will not even be given the dignity of sanctioned labor.  Find someone willing to hire you – not that you have any skills to ply as  trade.  You will not have gifts, or take refuge in some ally’s back room.  A royal decree shall bar you from all such places.  No court, no noble house may take you for six years.”

“You side with the harlots – the degenerates dragging us all into the abyss.  You are not fit to be King – you are old, and addled, and the dalliances of your youth clearly cloud your judgement,” the Baron said in defense of his Duke.

“Yes – we’ve all heard the rumors,” the Duke added, “that you took up with a Lycian whore when barely more than a boy.  Now in your dwindling years you prop them up, you let one of their perverse leaders walk through the halls of your court, honor her as a guest.  Does she sleep in your bed, does she have her way with you, and your Queen?  It is madness that the council does not see fit to purge you, and your lineage from the throne.”

The Duke rushed again, but even as Laurel moved to repel the attack he was assailed himself, from all sides.  The King’s guards blocked the Duke, and others moved to intervene on his behalf.  The Baron broke free, and drew his blade on the men that had held him.

Laurel threw the men off him with enough force that several collided with the crowd.  There were screams, and panic.  Blades were drawn, and Guards clashed without clear idea who was on which side.  One took this opportunity to stab one of the king’s guard from below, and behind, knowing well the weaknesses of their armor, and join the Baron, and the Duke in a tight circle.  Laurel scattered all of them to the floor with force, but again was made to defend himself from one of the men that had tried to restrain him before, who was charging him with a sword.

Kiannae knocked the man from his feet, but another was quickly then upon her.  Katrisha grabbed the man attacking her sister, and he shrieked in pain as ice formed over his arm.  He threw off Katrisha, but Kiannae knocked him back with enough force to send him sprawling across the floor.  The crowd had begun to flee the hall, or press back against the walls, away from the growing fight.  A few had stumbled, and were already been trampled.

“STOP!” a terrible voice boomed across the hall louder than the King’s had been moments before.  It was like getting caught in ice, it slowed even the heart, the senses, sound itself.  It trailed off, the tone changing under its own influence.  All did as the voice commanded.  Swords clattering to the floor, a few tipping over stiffly.

After a moment the combatants drew away from one another, more dropped their swords intentionally.  Some of the crowd fell to their knees glassy eyed.  All felt a terrible grip on them, even Laurel struggled against the power, and barely got to the King’s side as he teetered.  The Baron after a moment fainted, and the Duke trembled, and fell to his knees, wide eyed, and defiant, but unable to stand.

Kiannae shakily broke free, and rushed to her sister.

Katrisha had been more dazed by the fall than the voice.  It clung to her more like molasses than something rigid.  Like something borrowed rather than from outside.  She looked up, took her sister’s offered hand, and was pulled a bit unsteadily to her feet.

“What was that?”  Kiannae asked glancing around.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said looking over the silent, chaotic, and all but motionless crowd.

The King shrugged off Laurel’s assistance, and marched at the Duke, taking advantage of the illusion of subservience.  He grabbed a sword one of the guards had dropped, and held it to the man’s throat.  “You fools, you rail, and spit venom, and would dare to lay hands on the sanctioned King of these lands.  Most dishearteningly you have each born not a single word for your families, for your wives, and children.  In the event you do find a moment to spare a thought for those who you should be defending – and you shall have a great many of those to spare – rather than the persecution of those who have done you no harm, then know your King is not so cruel as to hold your families responsible for your actions.”

He took a steadying breath – resisting the urge to look around for what had caused the current dazed state of the crowd, and also the impulse to flick the sword he held across the throat bared before him.  “The Queen has nothing but good things to say of your wife.  She will take your place in title, as We will find a deep, and dark dungeon to hold you. It is left to her, if she seeks freedom from your union – surely she deserves no punishment such as to bare an empty bed for however many decades We lock you away.  Your children will come to court at Broken Hill, to continue their education, and insure that your poisonous ideas do not lead them to your fate.  Take them both away, forcefully, if they resist – find them a cell, and lock it well.”  He commanded, and even guards who had previously backed the Duke moved to take him by the arms, and force him to his feet.

The King glanced to the wounded member of his guard.  “Will some healer do their bloody duty?” he roared pointing to the wounded man.  A priest got up from his knees, rushed to the man’s side, and began healing the wound.

The crowd was slowly slipping free of whatever had gripped them, and some had begun to file quietly out of the hall, while others stood, and looked around, uncertain what to do.  The King seeing this returned to Laurel.  “The spell again,” he said tersely.  Laurel nodded, and did as he was bidden.

“People of South Rook,” the King began, his voice booming once more, but still like a whisper to the command that had stopped the fighting, and brought many to their knees.  “Corruption has visited the great houses of South Rook.  Though We hold the Duchess blameless in these matters, the corruption surely runs deeper than this incident.  As such we ask Representative Parin to step forth.”

Parin did as he was commanded, and wove from amid the chaotic gathering.  He knelt before the King, trembling.

“Rise,” the King said softly, but it still boomed above any normal voice.  “As an outsider, a man of the North, but familiar with the workings of South Rook, you are named Grand Baron, and commanded to aid the Duchess in her new duties.”

“As you will my King,” Parin nodded.

The King waved across his lips, and the spell was again removed.  “Now someone will tell me what in the burning heavens just happened here,” he growled in a harsh whisper, mostly looking to Laurel.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

No clear answers were come to easily.  The voice by all accounts had come from everywhere at once, and only the most gifted had resisted the power at all.  Many in the upper balcony remained dazed for hours after the event, and though the Clarion faith held no specific deity – however revered the Avatar – the event quickly became known as ‘the voice of god,’ in many a hushed whisper.  It was heard across half the city, though had no great power beyond the grand chamber of the tower.

Security proved a troublesome issue.  All of the visitors were moved to rooms surrounding commendations for the King, located high on the sixth level of the tower, and everyone above was ordered out.  Wren was found after the incident hiding in his room, sobbing, and refused to speak.  Katrisha spent much of the following days comforting her brother, while Kiannae often prefered to be near Laurel.

Katrisha did not mention her suspicions, least of all to her brother, but she remembered well what Varmun had said on that moonlit balcony.  She feared to tell anyone, for his sake.  Even if it was true she did not know what good it could amount to.

There was pomp, ceremony, and chaos in the long two weeks after the King’s decrees turned South Rook on its head.  The Duchess for her part was cordial through the whole matter, clearly torn deeply by the realities she faced.  The suspects in the fire we released on new testimony that placed them elsewhere, and two men given position in the guard were arrested, and tried for the crimes.

The King for his part personally visited those wounded in the fire, which caused a further stir, but most publicly accepted it as proper.  The twins continued their snooping, but caught wind of no more conspiracies, though Mercu did listen with interest when they spoke of Parin comforting the Duchess after a trying day, and her taking his hand.

The idea that the voice that had stopped the fighting was indeed somehow divine proved useful, as it seem to carry some weight in calming turmoil.  That the King had come out ontop under the command seemed proof to many that he was a ruler sanctioned above even the authority of the Council.  This view was not much loved by either the King or Laurel, and even less by their would be enemies, but the usefulness outweighed any discomfort.

When at last departures were arranged it was a far grander company than had set into South Rook not long before.  The Royal coach carried Laurel, and the King, while the twins and their brother were with Mercu.  Two more coaches joined the caravan to carry five more children – three of the Baron, and two of the Duke.  All of this was surrounded by knights, and soldiers on horseback.

Such a large group did not move quickly, and returned to Broken Hill almost a week after departure.  Renae waited very impatiently, and hugged the twins almost as fiercely as Wren.  She had been expecting her adopted son to be present when she arrived, and only learned from broken accounts that the King had left in great haste for South Rook several days before her arrival.

Renae was both furious, and relieved to learn of all that had transpired, and thanked the King emphatically for his interventions before departing with Wren in tow.  This left things to slowly settle back to normal, but there remained lingering disquiet in the court.  What had transpired, the King’s stand, a mysterious voice, had all left a mark that would not easily fade.

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Chapter 13

Upon the rock we stand,
above the sheltered bay,
watch over passing ships,
come with war or trade,

none shall carry us away,
ever we stand our own,
ne’er harm from the sea,
come to Avrale our home.

– The Watches of Wesrook, circa 40 B.E.

The Tower of Wesrook

Entering the courtyard of the Castle of Wesrook was not entirely unlike entering the lower court at Broken Hill.  Though as there was no upper court above, the keep doors stood prominently at one end, and the main tower loomed above, and drew one’s eyes up.  It was in fact slightly taller than the western spire at Broken Hill, slightly wider, but gave the illusion of being much more so.

The castle was situated just north of the rocky breakwater that formed Wesrook bay.  Even over the clamor of the city behind them, still murmuring into the evening, one could hear the crash of waves beneath the cliffs.  Four children piled out of the coach, followed by Mercu, and Laurel, as Horence dropped from the front, and patted, and rubbed the horse reassuringly.

A well dressed older gentleman walked up to greet the company, bowed to Charles, and nodded to Mercu curiously.  “Young Lord, and good sir,” he addressed Charles, and Mercu.  “Welcome to Wesrook – our Lady shall be along shortly, but the Duke Regent is indisposed for company this evening.”

“Chamberlain Faren,” Charles said in a manner that almost seemed pleased.

The twins were still on the far side of the coach with Laurel, and when Faren looked to Wren, with his long hair, he came to the wrong conclusion.  “Ah, is this one of the twins we’ve all heard of?”

Charles looked at Wren, and then laughed.  “That’s their brother,” he said just as the other’s rounded the coach.  “Though I can understand the confusion, he does rather look like a girl, doesn’t he.  Probably his upbringing.”

“Ah,” Faren said a bit embarrassed, “my apologies young sir.”  Wren nodded to Faren, but gave Charles a bit of an unkind look, as Laurel and the twins emerged from behind the coach.  “Court Mage Grey,” Faren said with a bow, “and these then, must be your twin apprentices.  We were not informed their brother would be joining them.”

“A last minute addition to our company, my apologies if it cause any trouble Faren,” Laurel nodded.

“No,” Faren said, “there is plenty of room in the tower, and the Lady does adore children.”

“That I do,” said a woman approaching from the direction of the keep.  She was tall, and elegant with flowing blond hair that wafted about as she walked.  She carried herself with a grace, and purpose, that contradicted the readiness with which she knelt down, and hugged Charles as she reached him.

“Hello mother,” Charles muttered with a clear air of embarrassment, but returned the embrace nonetheless.  She kissed her son on the forehead, and then stood up, taking stalk of the new arrivals.

“Laurel, Mercu, so good to see you,” the Lady said with a nod.

“Likewise Lady Meloria,” Mercu said with one of his more exaggerated bows.

“The twins are growing up quite nicely I see,” Meloria said with a smile, “They put on quite the show last I saw them.”  Katrisha, and Kiannae each shot each other a confused look.  “We were not properly introduced, so I am not surprised you do not recognize me,” Meloria added with a smile.

“You do look familiar,” Kiannae said.

“I believe I saw you dancing with Prince Darion,” Katrisha added.

“Ah, very good,” Meloria said.  “Yes, Darion was so sweet to offer to dance with me when my husband left early for the evening.”

“I’d have done the service myself,” Mercu said apologetically, “alas I was otherwise occupied.”

“Yes, with these two lasses here.”  Meloria laughed.  “The show was quite worth it, I assure you.”

A little golden haired girl about two years younger than the twins bounded across the courtyard, and all but pounced onto Charles.  “Charlie!” the girl squealed.

“Hello, Millarae,” Charles acknowledged with further embarasment, and hugged her.

“Your sister has been ever so anxious for your arrival,” Meloria commented.  “Then of course she took forever getting ready.  You should however call your brother by his proper name,” she admonished the girl lightly.

“Sorry Charles,” Millarae said sweetly.

Horence handed the reins of the horse over to the stable attendant, and came around to where the group was standing.  “My Lady,” he said with a bow.

“Horence, good Sir!” Meloria proclaimed, to Horence’s obvious surprise.  “How is your dear Alice?  Any children on the way?”  Horence looked more than a little uncomfortable.  “Have I been too forward?” Meloria asked apologetically.

“No,” Horence said.  “It is not something we had chosen to share yet.”

“Ah,” Meloria remarked thoughtfully.  “My apologies.  Come,” Meloria said gesturing towards the keep, “dinner will be served shortly.”

Katrisha tugged at Horence’s coat hem as the group walked towards the keep.  “Alice is having a baby?” she asked when Horence acknowledged her.

“Yes,” Horence answered simply trying to smile at the inquisitive little girl.

“Why haven’t you two told anyone?” Kiannae chimed in.

“Leave Horence alone you two,” Laurel scolded lightly, as he could see the poor man was a bit put out by the questions, and he suspected why.

“It’s alright,” Horence said somberly.  “It’s cause the first didn’t take, and we wanted to give this one time, to be sure.”  Horence said in a matter of fact tone, but his face betrayed his even demeanor.

“Why…” Katrisha started to ask, but stopped as Mercu gave her a stern look, which actually carried more weight than any scolding from Laurel, as it came so rarely.  Mercu patted Horence on the back consolingly, and they all walked into the keep.

Within the doors things were quite different from Broken Hill.  Rather than a corridor, with a throne room past it, a round room greeted the visitors upon entry.  It was not entirely unlike the throne room, as a balcony overlooked the lower floor, but there was no throne, and only a few benches were set against the wall, between stands holding vases, and other decorations.

At the far end of the foyer stairs followed the curve of the wall up to the balcony, and this was the way Meloria lead her guests.  “I hope you do not mind that we will be dining upstairs,” Meloria commented.  “I much prefer the rear dining hall for smaller affairs, it’s more intimate, and has a view out over the water.  You’ve arrived just in time for the last of sunset.”

“That’s fine,” Laurel said, “our apologies for the late arrival, it’s a long way from Aldermor, but we thought it better to try in a day rather than stop along the way.”

“Yes, it’s a tricky choice that,” Meloria acknowledged.  “I swear every other time I make the trip I change my mind on it, and neither way quite feels right.”

“One of these days they will have to invent a better horse,” Mercu suggested jokingly.

“They’ve already done that,” Laurel noted.  “Not many have bothered with the expense though.  So few people have the knack for shaper magic any more – though I have heard there may be a wild dire herd in Lycia that has promise for a sustainable breed.”

“I’ll have to have my steward look into that,” Meloria commented.  “My husband will give me some hassle on the expense I am sure, but to be able to more regularly visit my son would be worth bargaining with him over.”

Katrisha eyed the way young Millarae hung on her brother’s arm, and wondered if maybe Charles wasn’t as bad as she often thought him to be, if the little girl adored him so.  The girl looked up at her curiously, and Katrisha smiled back.

At the top of the stairs the party turned right down a well adorned corridor, and promptly arrived at double doors that opened on a small dining hall, big enough to seat about twelve.  The room was bathed in deep orange light from the setting sun that licked the distant hills of Carth, and flashed off the waves crossing the vast expanse of water below.

Though this sight held everyone’s attention for a moment, but it was impossible to ignore for long a well dressed man with pitch black skin who sat at the right end of the table.  At a glance one not familiar with his countrymen could be forgiven for mistaking him for the man from the city square.  Such however was clearly impossible, as that man could not have arrived before the coach that had passed him.  Further, upon closer examination he clearly had a much squarer jaw, and then all else could nearly be forgotten for a glimmer of his violet eyes.

“Might I introduce his Lordship Varmun Iverhn,” Meloria said addressing the new arrivals.  “He’s something of a remarkable man.  Born a royal to a tribe of the deep Northern Wastes, he has become a man of the sea, a trader, a diplomat, and even a musician.”  The man stood, and bowed.  “These,” Meloria continued in turn, “are Court Mage Grey, Sir Horence, Mercu, the young Ladies Ashton, their brother, and of course my son Charles.”

“A pleasure,” Varmun said in an almost frighteningly deep resonant voice with a thick unfamiliar accent.  “The Lady speaks far too kindly of me.”

“On the contrary,” Meloria protested, and guided her guests toward seats. “I dare say your story is more remarkable than I have let on.”  The three siblings were seated on the near side of the table, with Kiannae nearest the curious foreigner, Katrisha beside her, then Wren, and Mercu.  Laurel was offered the seat at the left end, and Meloria took a seat between her children with their backs to the view, leaving two seats open for Horence who sat at the far right of the table next to the stranger.

“Do please, tell your story again,” Meloria said insistently.

“It’s not so much,” the man said in his thick voice.  “I did only what many men so placed might have.”

“If many men of your land are so bold, or talented as you,” Meloria refuted, “I do not think you would be seeking allies so.  Osyrae would not stand a chance.”

Varmun laughed lightly, though even this was a bit of a low rumble.  “There are many quite bold in my land,” he replied, “but those of Osyrae are cold, cruel, and just as bold.”

“So they are,” Meloria nodded, “though not all of course.”

“No, not all of course,” Varmun admitted.  “Those who I am unfortunately most acquainted, have harassed, and enslaved my kind since before living memory.  Even the eldest shamans say it was so before their fathers, fathers, fathers.”

“You still have shamans in the north?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Oh yes, many,” Varmun nodded.  “I think there are more shamans left than free common men in the north.  Osyrae has enslaved all who can not fend for themselves.  The shamans have lead the free together, and ever farther north, to the deepest oasis.  I myself have the blood, as a chieftain’s son.”

“Does that make you a prince?” Katrisha asked.

“Much less I think,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “my father is Second Chief of the combined tribes, and I his fourth child, and third son, by his second wife.”

“Second wife?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“You have not yet heard of our First Chief,” Varmun said with a flash of white teeth between his deep burgundy lips.  “She has three husbands, and is the most powerful of all the shamans, she is.”

“How a woman could ever bare even two husbands I’ll never imagine,” Meloria laughed lightly, drawing a chuckle from Mercu.

“I was not so important by my birth,” Varmun continued, “not the most gifted of my father’s children, or even the strongest.”

“Yet the most clever,” Meloria offered.

“Hmm, yes,” Varmun nodded, “or so my mother would tell me.  Perhaps she is right, I can not say.  I did find I had more a way for the mage’s tricks, which did not earn me much more love.”

“I can not imagine why, your magic is spectacular,” Meloria protested.

“I have been told it is a gift all my own,” Varmun admitted, “but illusions are not much use – not compared to my eldest brother who’s strong as a wild dune walker, or my sister whose voice can bring any man, or woman to their knees, and call the wind to dance.”

“What’s a dune walker?” Katirsha asked.

“Perhaps I should show you,” Varmun hummed, and closed his eyes.  A swirl of dancing light formed to his right, and traced out the contours of a great horned head, and ears which hung as large sheets that flapped back, and forth occasionally.  The light traced back along a stout neck, to thick shoulders, and down legs at their narrowest point as hefty as a grown man’s chest.  A low slung belly, and high humped back formed last, and vanished back through the wall.

“They are noble, but fierce beasts of burden.”  Varmun smiled, and looked over the awestruck party.  Horence could be seen to lean slightly away as the apparition shifted its stance in his direction.  It started to unravel, and began to reform into a tall, broad shouldered man whose chest was indeed wider than the former illusions legs.  “This of course is my eldest brother, do you see the resemblance?”  He laughed leadingly.

The second form came apart in a swirl of birds that swooped around Varmun, and formed another luminous image to his left, that took on the face of a slender woman, with short densely curled hair.  “My sister,” Varmun said, and the woman bowed, before dancing across the room, and vanishing through a wall.

“That is a very impressive technique,” Laurel said shrewdly.  “I must say, I’ve only once seen the like.  A mage who fancied himself an entertainer.  His illusions were almost as elegant, but much smaller.  That swarm of birds would have been past his limit.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “You see, I am nothing special, even my gift is not unique.”

“Yet what you have done,” Meloria protested.  “Taking your small share of wealth, and turning it into a trading empire, all to travel far, and wide in search of allies for your people.”

“Wealth I have found,” Varmun nodded.  “A good life even, but allies, less so,” Varmun said sadly.

“I fear the Duke Regent, and myself each lack any authority on the matter,” Meloria said looking to Laurel.

“I can not say I agree with the Council on this,” Laurel offered carefully.  “Yet the treaty does not cover the lands north of Osyrae, and I fear they have lost the will to act, even if it did.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “So I have been told.  They will march south again you know, it is their way.”

“I know,” Laurel answered, “it seems inevitable.  Their great interest in your lands is resources, the deep desert mines are filled with rare, and precious stones.  Not the least of which is Amberite.  If they intend war, they will want as much of that as they can have.”

“Indeed,” Varmun agreed.  “We are nothing more than a practice war for them, in preparation for their real goals.  For the moment at least they remain unwilling to commit to more, so your Council, and your Kings ignore them.”

“We do not ignore,” Laurel said solemnly, “but we cannot act.  At best we start a war without support, at worst we find ourselves between Osyrae and the Council.”

Varmun looked sadly out to the darkening sky.  “As I say, I am not so much.  I try, and try, but this is always the answer.”

“What will you do?” Katrisha asked.

“As I have,” Varmun said looking to the little girl.  “I shall continue my travels, head south to other lands again.  Seek audience with the White One.”

“I wish you luck,” Laurel said hesitantly.

“I know I have little chance of gaining such favor,” Varmun said sternly.  “Yet as you say, if the Council will not aid us, only the former Empress sits beyond their authority.”

“There is little hope of her involving herself, unless the Black Flight joins Osyrae’s campaign.”  Laurel grimaced at his own framing.

“So it is, but what other choice do I have?” Varmun shrugged.

“None I fear,” Laurel admitted.  “It is no more a fool’s errand than to head east to Mordove, and there is the frightful possibility that Vharen will somehow drag the Black Flight to his side.  That I could only hope would move her…”

“A terrible thing to hang hopes upon,” Varmun said with displeasure.

“Yes,” Laurel said with a nod.  “It seemed he thought his conquest of a lesser dragon would win them over.  If anything, I personally expected the capital to be burned to the ground for the slight.”

“I have heard of this madness,” Varmun said narrowing his eyes.  “It is true then?”

“Yes,” Laurel said.  “Though nothing has happened so far, either way.  It is almost like the whole thing never happened – though reports say he has less humor than ever.  I consider that a good sign, such as they come.  That he won no favors for his theatrics.”

“Enough of such trying matters,” Meloria interjected as food began to arrive.

“Quite right,” Varmun agreed, seeming more cordial than genuine, there was still a sternness to his air.  “I am delighted to see what new your chef has created.”

“Of all the accomplishments Meloria listed,” Mercu remarked, “I fear we heard nothing of your music.”

Varmun’s posture softened, and he let out a long breath.  “Yes.  Though I was of music long before I became a man of the world.  I fear I left my instruments in my room.”

“You play more than one then?” Mercu asked.

“Three,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “more or less.  There is a flute like instrument native to my people, I learned to play when I was a boy.  The captain I hired for the first ship I bought played a violin, and taught me in the time he was in my employ.”

“And the third?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Well, that I do carry with me,” Varmun laughed.  With a wave of his hand strings of light formed before him of varied lengths, he plucked several experimentally.  There was a barely audible ring with each, halfway between a plucked cord, and a rung bell.  He ran his fingers along several of the strings, and then without further hesitation began to play a haunting melody, as food was placed at the table.

“Is it not spectacular?” Meloria asked pointedly.

“Quite,” Mercu remarked.

“It’s very clever,” Laurel nodded.  “Strung spell filaments tuned to musical chords, and solidified enough to interact with the air.  Much more portable than even the lightest instrument.”

“I think it’s lovely,” Kiannae said leaning against the table, and listening intently.

“It sounds like the lights,” Wren said with a furrowed brow.

“The lights?” Laurel asked curiously.

“The ones from the woods,” Wren said staring at the strings.

“I think he may mean wisps,” Mercu said incredulously.

“Wisps don’t…” Laurel started before Mercu interrupted.

“I know.”  Mercu sighed.  “Renae might have mentioned something about seeing wisps around him.  Though that was several years ago.”

“That is also something Wisps do not do,” Laurel shook his head.

The music stopped, and Varmun seemed to be considering the boy who was staring at him intently.  “Wisps,” he said thoughtfully.  “There are lights in the desert, as well as your forests.  There was a girl who’s mother died in childbirth, she was touched all her days, and would be seen to walk into the night, and the lights would come to her.”

Wren looked away.  “I see,” Varmun nodded, “my apologies.”

“A terrible business that,” Meloria nodded.

Katrisha pulled her brother closer.  “It’s ok,” she said softly.

“Let us eat,” Merloria suggested.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 7th, 644 E.R.

Katrisha lay staring out into the night – she had been for some time.  It was well after midnight, and she could not sleep.  She rolled over gently, and looked at her twin in the moonlight.  Kiannae was fast asleep, her face half buried in a pillow.  Katrisha closed her eyes, and listened to the rhythm of waves breaking far beneath the tower as she had for hours.  A faint melodic sound could be heard somewhere far away.  Completely frustrated, she slipped out of bed carefully, so as not to wake her sister.

Katrisha’s robe hung in a wardrobe by the door.  She put it on, gently opened, and then closed the chamber door behind her.  The hallway was very dark, and with a wave of her hand a bright blue orb illuminated her surroundings.  The distant sound of music could still be heard, and she strained to tell which direction it was from.  Deciding it was right she headed that way, and down a flight of stairs to a lower level of the tower.  As she passed westward windows out over the ocean she could hear the music more clearly above the rumble of crashing waves.

Down another flight of stairs Katrisha came to double doors, one of which stood half open onto a large moonlit balcony.  She waved away her light, and peaked through the open door.  There in the moonlight stood Varmun, leaned against the railing casually, staring up into the sky.  He strummed at his conjured harp, which scintillated with ethereal light.  It took a moment for Katrisha to notice he was not alone on the balcony.  Wren was lain against a wall, seemingly asleep.

“Come in,” Varmun said in his deep resonant voice.  “Or out, as it were.”

Katrisha had a start that she had been discovered, and sheepishly stepped out onto the balcony.  “Your brother came not so long ago,” Varmun nodded towards the sleeping boy.  “It seems none of us three could sleep, though it seems I have helped him in that regard.”

“I am sorry to intrude,” Katirsha said with a bow.

“Do not be,” Varmun said, and continued playing.  “This is a public place after all.”

“Why couldn’t you sleep?” Katrisha asked, but then thought perhaps the question was impertinent.

“Why couldn’t you?” Varmun asked in turn.

“I often can’t,” Katrisha admitted, “but I asked first,” she pressed childishly.

“We are much the same in this,” Varmun replied.  “I have always been a night walker.  This was how I knew the girl who called the lights.”

“I’ve heard of wisps before,” Katrisha said thoughtfully, “but never seen one.”

“Most only see them from afar,” Varmun hummed.  “It was only because of Eshai that I have seen one more closely,” there was a strange wistfulness to his voice as he spoke the girl’s name.

“Were you and Eshai close?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps,” Varmun said with an odd wobble of his head.  “She did not speak much, but when she did…”  He hummed deeply.  “She was a beautiful girl,” he sighed.  “Even those who scorned her could not deny this.  A delicate desert flower.  I loved her of course, I was a fool in many ways for this.”

“Why?” Katrisha asked walking closer to the large man whose face was almost a void against the twinkling stars.

“Why did I love her, or why was I a fool?”  Varmun laughed.

“A fool of course.”  Katrisha laughed more awkwardly.

“It is not polite to speak the reason,” Varmun frowned.  “I shall say only she was for no man.  Yet this, he said strumming the luminous strings before him.  One of many tricks I learned from an exiled foreigner, who lived amongst us.  It won me her friendship, if not more.”

Katrisha was curious what he had avoided, but held her tongue on the point.  She asked something else instead.  “Did she hear something else in the music, like Wren seems to?”

Varmun nodded.  “She said the lights whispered secrets, and sometimes those secrets were like a song.”  He ran his fingers along the strings, rather than plucking them.  The sound they made was hard to hear, distant and wavering.  “She said it was like this, but as though words – if not all she could understand.”

“What kind of secrets did they tell her?” Katrisha asked rapt.

“Warnings, portents, true names, and forgotten deeds,” Varmun shrugged.  “The things of seers, but also things they do not see.”

Katrisha frowned.  “I’ve been told not to listen to prophecy.  It’s unreliable.”

“Yes, it is,” Varmun nodded.  “Or so I am told.  To glimpse the future is not to see what will be, but a shifting thread in motion.  Most often you see only where it is, and not quite where it will land.  There is solace in this, that the future is not set in stone.”

“Where is Eshai now?” Katrisha asked leaning against the rail next to Varmun, and peaked over it at the distant shimmering waves below.

“Still home, and safe I hope,” Varmun replied.  “My sister guards her, and none refuse my sister – not father, not the shamans, or even the First Chieftain.  I have seen her voice bring great warriors to their knees.”

“How?” Katrisha asked.

Varmun shrugged.  “Your mages do not know everything, nor our shamans.  There are secrets still in the world, old, potent, and subtle too.  Eshai told me this, and I believe her – I believe also it is she that taught my sister this gift.  For I heard it first from her, to call wisps, wind, a tone command that could move the world, and tremble the land.  She even once called the Lady of the Sands herself.”

Katrisha’s eyes lit up.  “I’ve heard of her, she’s real?”

“Oh yes,” Varmun nodded.  “She comes like snakes whipping across the dune, and then rises ageless, beautiful, and naked as the day we are born.  No shame, and profound pride.  She gave a kiss to each of us three that night, and only I could not hold her gaze.  She made us a castle from the desert sands that stood for two days before it returned to dust.”

“How strange,” Katrisha said.

“Hmm, yes, the castle made the tribe whisper many things,” Varmun agreed.  “The kisses…” he shook his head, thinking better of his musings.

“What of them?” Katrisha pressed curiously.

“They showed me where ever my heart lay, it would have to lay elsewhere,” he answered, and resumed his playing thin lipped, and wove a mournful happy tune.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae stirred, and pulled her blankets more tightly around her.  As her eyes opened she was struck by the empty bed beside her.  It was not like Katrisha to wake before her, and most mornings, at least cool mornings such as it was, Kiannae would find her sister curled up to her.  She sat up groggily, looked around the room, and saw that Katrisha wasn’t in the room at all.

Kiannae walked over to the wardrobe, which had been left partly open.  She Pulled out her own robe, and slipped it on, before opening the door.  No one was around, though she thought she heard voices somewhere.  Taking a guess she walked towards the stairs, and down to a lower level of the tower where she found Laurel engrossed in conversation with Varmun.

“Will you truly not petition the Council on our behalf?” Varmun said a bit irritably.

“You misunderstand me,” Laurel said wincing in frustration.  “I will tell the Council all that you have told me.  Yet I am certain they have heard it all before – even from me they already have third hand reports that Osyrae had turned aggressive towards the north.”

Varmun looked like he wanted to protest further, but did not.

“Where’s Katrisha?” Kianane asked.

Laurel simply shrugged.  Varmun however looked to the little girl, and smiled.  “I believe your twin is in young Wren’s room.”

“Thank you,” Kiannae said, and turned towards the chamber doors.  She found however she wasn’t sure which room was Wren’s.  Mercu emerged from one, and Kiannae walked up to him.  “Which room is Wren’s?” she asked.

Mercu pointed to the room opposite his own, and rubbed his neck.  “Thank you,” Kiannae said again, walked across, and opened the door without knocking.  Katrisha, and Wren were both asleep, curled up together.

Kiannae had a twinge of jealousy.  Katrisha was her twin after all, and though some mornings extracting herself from her sister’s sleepy embrace was a bit of frustrating effort, it always felt nice to wake up to being held.  Kianane was also more than a little perplexed how they had wound up that way.

Kiannae walked over, nudged Katrisha who stirred only slightly.  This however woke Wren who was momentarily startled, and sat up with a start, which threw Katrisha’s arm off him, and rolled her onto her back.  This at least partially woke her.

Katrisha made an unintelligible murmur, and blinked up at her twin.  There was nothing particularly new about this to her at first, as Kiannae was often awake before her, and would wake her up.  She slowly realized that not only Kiannae was dressed, but she was as well.  Slowly she remembered having been too tired when Varmun had carried Wren back to bed, and rolled her head to the left where Wren was rubbing his eyes.

“Morning,” Katrisha half mumbled.

“Why are you down here?” Kiannae half demanded.

“Mmm, couldn’t sleep.”  Katrisha yawned.  “Heard music, and went down stairs, found Varmun playing, and Wren asleep on the balcony.  I think he put us both to bed up here.”

“Ok.” Kiannae frowned, there was still just a twinge of jealousy.  “I’m hungry,” she said putting it aside.  “I hope breakfast is soon.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Breakfast in the westward dining hall was much the same as dinner.  Though with fewer light shows, and far more disheveled children, particularly Katrisha, and Wren who had slept in their robes.  All three had failed to brush their hair by the point Kiannae had insisted she was too hungry, and so Mercu had fetched a brush which they had each been using in turn as food was served.  It not completely up to the best standards of decorum, but was passable for children.

Katrisha, and Kiannae had brushed their own hair in turn, and Katrisha was in the process of brushing Wren’s as their food was set in front of them.  Kiannae continued to having pangs of jealousy, but was feeling stupid, as she hadn’t offered to brush Katrisha’s hair either.

“I know you are not scheduled to stay long,” Meloria asked as her children began poking at their food.  “But what are your plans?”

“I have unexpected matters to attend to with Daven, if the Duke Regent has nothing of importance to report, and remains too unwell to speak with me,” Laurel answered.

“I do wish he would submit to healing, there is no cause to suffering through this cold he has,” Meloria said with some displeasure.

“He’s as devout with his convictions as his brother it seems,” Mercu said in an even, metered tone.

“Oh, I assure you,” Meloria smiled in a faintly disingenuous fashion, “no one is as devout as my husband.  Alas I fear the Duke Regent does not have his brother’s constitution.  No common ailment would dare challenge his noble form.”

“I do believe you are right,” Mercu remarked.  “I do not think I have seen Arlen sick a day in the past fifteen years.”

“I think I saw him sniffle once,” Katrisha offered.

“So not completely impervious,” Meloria laughed, “just insufferably close.”  She turned to Laurel, “What is your business with Daven?  If it is not too sensitive of course.”

“Not at all,” Laurel nodded.  “Just a small matter I was asked to see to personally.  I have enough apprentices of my own, and a gifted young man has manifested in Aldermor.”

“Oh,” Meloria said shrewdly, “you may not have luck there.  He’s two already, taken on just in the last three months.  Plus his own children, it’s slowed down his more complicated work.”

“Who were the parents?” Laurel asked more than a bit curious.  “Not a traveling mage I dare hope?”

“No, no.”  Meloria shook her head.  “Nothing so scandalous.  Stranger in fact, a blacksmith’s daughter on one hand, and a fishing captain’s son on the other.  Neither of them have linage, but each of their parents are contentedly married by all accounts.  It seems there is a rash of emergants.  Daven has expressed some consternation on the matter, he says they are quite strong too.”

“How peculiar,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “The mother of the young man I am to speak for confessed that while she did sleep with a traveling mage – she suspected the father was actually a local boy.  She blamed the mage for his sake.  Three strong emergents in one generation in Avrale.  That would be more than peculiar.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The inside of Daven’s flame was as curious a sight onto itself.  Most of the floors were open framework surrounded in tinted glass – with abstract arrangements of mirrors that helped it glimmer at dawn, and dusk.  It was no more stairs than Laurel was used to climbing back home, but still a tiresome endeavor to reach the study on the top floor.

“Ah Laurel,” an elderly man said as Laurel ascended the last step.  He began to walk over to his guest.  “Do forgive me for not coming down.  I do not trust these two alone for a minute.”  He gestured to a young man, and woman who sat opposite each other at a workbench, visibly glanced up at each other, and giggled.

“It’s most alright Daven, and I am glad you remember me.  We have only met the once when you visited Brokhal some years ago.  Are your new students troublemakers?” Laurel asked curiously.

“After a fashion,” Daven glared at the two, and any hint of giggling ceased.  “It’s no place of mine to judge, but I’ll not have their parents set upon me for them dallying under my roof.”  He offered a hand to Laurel.

“Ah the troubles of youth.”  Laurel nodded, and shook the older man’s hand.  “Initially my visit was to be on behalf of a young man from Aldermor, but on hearing the news of your two students – giving my word aside – curiosity insisted that I visit.  Is it true they are both emergent?”

“So it would seem,” Daven nodded.  “The fathers both trust their wives implicitly.  None the less…well let me show you.”  He walked over to a shelf, and picked up a rod, and a large instrument with two curved prongs.  “Strictly speaking this is all conjecture, but do you know what this is,” he raised the pronged object.

“I’ll wager it measures something,”  Laurel said with the tilt of his head.  “I don’t recall precisely what, it’s been years since I’ve dabbled in advanced enchantment.”

“Simply it measures strand density in magical effects,” Daven said absently.  “It’s not exactly a precise science, as it must be calibrated to ambient sources.  This here,” he indicated the rod, “is a calibration tool.  It’s an old one, but doing the math for decay I know precisely how strong it should be.  Now fluctuations happen all the time, we enchanters mostly ignore them, since they are hard to find a baseline to measure against.”

“And you think a fluctuation happened recently?” Laurel wagered a guess.

“Well, recently being a relative thing,” Daven nodded.  “You are aware of Vemdel’s law are  you not?’  Laurel searched his memory, but upon taking too long Daven simply sighed at him.  “Court mages, you always forget the basics.  Too caught up in politics, and flashy showmanship to really appreciate the academic.  Vemdel’s law says that the rate of decay of an enchantment is inversely proportional to the ambient strands available during infusion.”

“So the age of the rod is the key here?” Laurel wagered another guess.  It had been a long time since someone had lectured him on anything magical, and he had forgotten how much he did not like it.

“Yes, quite,” Daven placed the rod between the prongs, and a rune formed above it.  “Twice as strong as it should be, give or take.  That implies exceptional excess ambient strands at the time.  Now this rod, it’s old, usually I’d have thrown it out, but it was made by my daughter, her, first notable enchanting success.  As such I also know precisely when it was made, and that was within weeks of when these two,” he gestured at his clearly distracted students, “hypothetically would have been conceived.”  He stood up a bit straighter.  “Now, I’ve done some measurements against some of my own work at the time, under the guise of ‘checking in.’ All of it, within about a two month period has decayed about half as much as it should have.  With results to either end trailing off to within margins for error.”

“So there was a significant spike,” Laurel mused.  “You think that caused a rash of emergants?”

“The rash of emergents I can confirm,” Daven said firmly, “the rest remains speculative.  What is not speculation is the farther west, the more one can find.  Two here, fifteen on Carth.  That’s just counting the major ones, I think there are a lot extra minor gifts kicking around, that no one has, or will notice.”

“A third major one out east in Aldermor,” Laurel added.  “Assuming the mother is right, and the father wasn’t a passing caravan mage.”

“Is that so,” Daven mused.  “There is a bit more to my speculation.  You are a student of the sky are you not?  I seem to recall hearing you have quite the orrery built up in your tower at Broken Hill.”

“Yes,” Laurel admitted.  “A hobby of sorts.”

“You know then of the dark companion?” Daven pressed.

“The hypothesis, yes,” Laurel said curiously.  “There have been some theories put forth, mathematical proofs based on orbital anomalies that claim to predict the path, but no observation has been made to prove it’s existence.  That is in part why it is called ‘dark’ because if it is there, it cannot be seen.”

“There have been several major bursts of emergent gifts recorded since the dawn of the Empire, and a few implied by pre-imperial record,” Daven started again.  “Now the date ranges are all very fuzzy for most of these surges in gift, but checking against them, and the period of the observable spike, and conception of this latest batch of emergents – then checking it against several of the projected orbital paths, one matches up.  Or rather it matches up with approximately when Thaea would pass through the path of the ‘companion.’”

“Have you submitted your findings to the Council?” Laurel asked suddenly quite interested.

“Not yet,” Daven shook his head, “nor am I sure I will bother.  The council has been no fan of mine since I resigned, and further has taken a dim view on conjectures regarding the ‘dark companion’ for, truthfully as long as I was in their number.”

“Unfortunate,” Laurel said disappointedly.

“Yes,” Daven nodded.  “Perhaps I will get around to it.  I need to project the course forward a bit, and make some observational attempts.  I don’t expect to see anything, no one ever has.”  He paused for a moment.  “So the boy in Aldermor, what of him?  It seems he was the original reason for your visit?”

“I’m a obliged, as a matter of course to ask if you would take him on as an apprentice,” Laurel said with a shrug.  “Yet under the circumstances I have no illusions you will do so.”

“No,” Daven shook his head.  “Much too busy with those two,” he gestured at his students again.  “I saw that,” he raised his voice slightly.  The two pulled their hands apart quickly, and pretended to have been working the whole time.  “I will put the two of you in separate labs if you can’t stay on task.”

“I wish you the best of luck with that,” Laurel laughed reservedly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 9th, 644 E.R.

All were gathered in the courtyard at Wesrook Tower to bid goodbye to guests.  It was still early, and the twins were their usual sleepy selves.

“You are sure you can not stay longer?” Meloria implored more out of polite manner, than any real pressure.  She was actually quite aware of the schedules to be kept.

“Much as I would like to avoid South Rook entirely,” Laurel laughed, “I fear I must attend my appointments there.  At least by virtue of taking the western road I will have to stop there only once.”

“You must visit again,” Meloria said insistently.  “And bring these darlings with you again,” she added leaning a bit towards the twins, and Wren.  “And good Mercu as well,” she said with a smile.

“Wild horses could not keep me away my lady,” Mercu said with a nod of the head.

“Ah,” Meloria grinned, “but might they bring you?  I really must learn more of this breed from out east.”

“I will see you all at Broken Hill in a few weeks,” Charles said with a bow, seemingly directed particularly at Katrisha.

Millarae trotted up to Katrisha, and pulled slightly on her sleeve.  Confused Katrisha relented to lean closer.  Millarae got up on her toes, close to Katrisha’s ear, and failed entirely to whisper in spite of all other efforts to be conspiratorial, “My brother likes you.”

“I don…” Charles started defensively, and then cut himself off.  “I think you, and your sister are becoming fine ladies of the court.  Nothing more.”

“You like her,” Millarae said snootily, and stuck her tongue out at her brother.

Meloria covered her mouth to try and contain her laughter.  Katrisha narrowed her eyes at Charles – something seemed very fishy to her about the whole thing.  She was distracted however when Meloria spoke up.  “Should such a thing come to pass, it has my blessing.  Either of you girls would make darling additions to the family!”

“That might be a bit politically complicated,” Laurel offered, wary of Katrisha’s history with Charles, if not so many other issues.

“Ah but not strictly forbidden,” Meloria offered.  “If it is true love, ways can be found.”

“I assure you there is some distance to be walked along that road.”  Mercu cautioned, with humor.

“Ah, but that there is a road at all,” Meloria mused, “a lady can dream.”

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Chapter 12

The land did fold, the hills did swell,
mid valley deep and shallow dell,
twas born fair Avrale,

a Queen she rose, ‘fore days of kings,
she set the Rooks, she made the peace,
upon the Broken Hill,

from Summers North, to Evenings West,
Southern Hearth, and Morning’s Breath,
these fair Towers stand,

these keepers were, the keepers are,
of golden field, forest green, n’ winding vale,
in noble Avrale.

– Every Vale, circa 50 E.R.

The Western Road

Coria 5th, 644 E.R.

A well adorned coach rolled through the early morning streets of Brokhal.  Such adornment was appropriate, as it indicated the importance of some of the occupants.  It was not however as Laurel would prefer to travel, for he did not thrive on attention the way Mercu did.  When he had traveled to Nohrook his visit was to be discrete – to some extent.  An adorned royal coach headed north would have fanned fears for any who knew of affairs in Osyrae.  Such was the argument he had made, and there had been no protest on that occasion.

Had there been any argument for subtlety on a tour of western Avrale, it was moot, for Mercu insured that it was deemed vital that the young Ladies Ashton be presented in style, as future mages of Avrale.  As to the young Ladies in question, they slept that morning, given they had not for much of the previous night.

Mercu himself sat half awake next to the twins, and opposite Laurel.  He had claimed, once the effort of loading half sleeping children was past, that it had been his plan all along to keep them subdued and manageable.  He had after all done everything he could to fan their natural excitement leading up to the trip, and had paid with his own sleep deprivation in the end.  Laurel had been minimally impacted by the whole affair, and as such felt more pity than scorn for his weary companion that morning.

Laurel looked out the window as the coach turned up the northern fork of the road leading away from western Brokhal.  He grimaced.

With the knowledge that comes from years of close company, Mercu smiled, and spoke as though reading Laurel’s mind.  “You know I’m right, it’s better this way.”

“Oh you are right,” Laurel sighed, “but it’s the principle of it.  I hate these trips, and extending them for scenic detours goes against the grain for me.”

“And the reason you hate these trips is the attention, and the demands of the little people.”  Mercu laughed.  “Much quieter to take the scenic route.”

“You know it’s not the little people,” Laurel muttered.

“Oh but isn’t it?” Mercu said with a shake of his head.  “No one more little, and petty than the scattered pretenders to royal authority.  So tiresome.”

“And yet you adore their time, and attention,” Laurel counters incredulously.

“The most fun of things, are always tiresome.”  Mercu grinned impishly.

“Aren’t they though,” Laurel laughed.  “Though, I would be mindful of calling Duke’s petty, and tiresome, given one’s son is sitting up behind you.”

“Charles,” Mercu chimed, “remind me, does your father style himself Duke, or Knight Commander?”  There was no answer from the front of the coach, and though it was not visible to anyone but Horence beside him, the already put out young man scowled a bit more.  He was happy to be headed west, but not at all thrilled with the company he was being forced to keep, and as such had chosen not to sit inside the coach, next to two girls he was not always on the best of terms with.

After a rather long stretch of Laurel’s disapproving gaze Mercu shrank slightly.  “Sorry,” he said with a sigh, “just having a bit of fun.”  He paused, thinking of a way to change the subject.  “Speaking of tiresome fun,” he said thoughtfully.  “Is it just me, or was the Lady Alice positively glowing this morning?”

Laurel considered Mercu shrewdly.  “More than you know,” he said with a nod.  “I dare say her aura is brighter than it has been in years, since before she gave up her studies.”

“Interesting,” Mercu said leaning forward.  “Do you think?” he asked in a hushed tone.

“I suspect, yes,” Laurel nodded.

“How delightful,” Mercu laughed and leaned back.

Laurel hummed slightly, and stroked his beard.

“What hmm?” Mercu prodded.

“Well, look who’s awake,” Laurel said, making every effort to appear not to be dodging the question.

Mercu turned to see Kiannae leaned against the coach door, staring out at the passing scenery.

Kiannae rubbed her eyes.  “What time is it?” she asked sleepily.

Laurel held out his hand, and a series of concentric marked rings formed, with a bobbing pyramid at its center that turned, wobbled, and came to rest.  “Almost seven,” he said, and waved the intricate configuration away.  Kiannae looked back out the window – she had mostly mastered a basic version of the spell herself, but was too drowsy to have tried.

Katrisha shifted, and clung tightly to her sister’s arm, giving no indication she was ready to rouse fully herself.  Kiannae rocked her head against her sister’s, and began to draw glowing lines absently in the air.  She paid no mind to keep them in tow with her, and so they trailed through the coach past Laurel.

Kiannae grew bored of absent minded magic, and decided to practice the spell Laurel had used to tell the time.  She poked, and prodded at it a bit, being uninterested in watching the slow crawl of time, and the pyramid changed its behavior, going from following the sun, to pointing northward.  Kiannae scrunched up her face with some confusion.  “Why are we going north?” she asked with some surprise.

“Mercu’s idea,” Laurel said restraining mild consternation from his voice.  “More scenic route, and I believe he’s arranged a special meeting along the way.”

“What meeting?” Kiannae asked her curiosity piqued.

“I’d rather not say,” Mercu said shrewdly, “I wasn’t able to confirm the arrangement, so it might be nothing more than a pleasant detour.”

Kiannae pouted, but Mercu simply smiled at her, and eventually she gave up, and looked back out the window in a huff.  After several more minutes she crossed her arms, and declared, “I’m bored.”  The act of which pulled her arm from Katrisha, jostling her awake.  Katrisha rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked around.

“We’ve quite a ways still to Aldermor,” Laurel said taking a breath, and braced for dealing with the girls becoming difficult so soon.

“I have read there was a time when Sylvans lived in Aldermore,” Mercu offered thoughtfully.  “A group that had settled down from the highland tribes, that have also long since left Avrale.”

“I thought the Sylvan’s only lived in the great forest,” Kiannae said curiously.

“It was a long time ago,” Mercu nodded, “hundreds of years at least even before the empire came here.  “The Sylvans had tribes that extended through the highlands, while the people of Avrale dwelled in the valleys below.  Except in Aldermor, where the highlanders would trade with us lowlanders.  They say ever so often a child is stillborn there to this day, with adorned ears, or eyes like the two of you.”

“Why did the Sylvan’s leave?” Katrisha asked.

“War,” Mercu said with a frown, “but not between us and them.  When Osyrae came the first time into the northern vales, the highland Sylvans deemed themselves above the squabbles of lowlanders.  That started some bad blood I think.  What I’ve read though said they remained another thirty or so years, till the death of the reigning queen, when her son took the throne.  There seems to be consensus that is when the exodus began.”

“Did the new king make them leave?” Kiannae frowned.

“I can’t really say,” Mercu shrugged.  “There is no clear record of any direct action, no royal decrees in any of the books, but it was a very very long time ago.  So many wars, and changes of power, and the fall of the old tower at Broken Hill.  Who knows what happened that long ago.”

Katrisha and Kiannae were clearly displeased by the lack of any real answer, and Mercu shook his head.  “What I do have,” he carried on, “is an old story purportedly told by a Sylvan elder of Aldermor, to a scribe of the day.”  The two perked up, and Mercu smiled.

“It is said that the goddess Laeune had three children,” Mercu began. “Most lore agrees upon this number, or takes no stance.  Amongst them were Brother Wolf, Sister Lynx, and Yaun the Light, the first man – or woman – on this there is contention.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“Many believe Yaun to have been a man,” Mercu said with a shrug, “others contend the first as a man is a preposterous fallacy, as children inevitably resulted.  Forget that any which way you slice it, the myth is fraught with problems of how one human became many.  This though is the story of how Yaun, the youngest, came to rule.”

“Brother Wolf, and Sister Lynx one day argued over who was mother’s favored child.  Each brought before Laeune many gifts hunted from far and wide across the world, trying to earn Laeune’s favor, and spur her to declare a favorite.  For such a plan to work they could not tell their mother of their competition.  Laeune was pleased at first, but grew weary of her children pestering her with gifts.”

“Seeking quiet and rest, Laeune snuck away while her children scurried off to seek more offerings, and borrowed a boat from Vhale, her grandson, and floated down a river through a wide wood.  As she dreamt, at last free to slumber without bother, she wondered upon her youngest, who had long ago begun to wander and rarely returned home.”

“As Laeune’s boat drifted to the base of a great mountain, she found Yaun sunning upon a high rock by the river, and sleepily considering a brilliant gem of many colors in the sun’s light.  Laeune asked what her child held, and with a smile Yaun said that it was the most precious of things, a single tear Laeune had cried when Yaun’s first child was born.”

“A tear was a gem?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“There is a gem named such,” Laurel said thoughtfully, “and it does match the description.  It is a clear gem that refracts any light into many colors.  Still, it is not an actual tear.”

“The story says otherwise,” Mercu grumbled, and continued.  “It so happened that Brother Wolf and Sister Lynx each had come to hunt below the mountain that same day, and heard as Laeune proudly proclaimed Yaun her favorite, for such a treasured moment.  Each were infuriated and driven to rage.  They were bested by their younger sibling, and each plotted cruel vengeance for the slight.”

“How terrible.”  Katrisha crossed her arms and pursed her lips.

“Days later, Yaun strode the forest that was home to the eldest children of man, unaware of cold calculating eyes that watched her every step.  Nor were Brother Wolf or Sister Lynx aware they stalked the same prey.  As Wolf and Lynx pounced, they found themselves entwined with one another, and not their intended victim.  Yet anger fueled their fight even more, and their wounds were grievous.”

“There was much shame when Wolf and Lynx each woke to find their wounds tended by Yaun.  They could see in sad eyes, that Yaun knew what they had tried to do.  Nonetheless Yaun cared for each with such compassion.  Laeune, who had been dwelling near had seen the whole affair, and interceded upon Yaun’s behalf, misguiding her wrathful children to attack one another and not her most beloved.”

“Later, when Yaun was away, Laeune came before Wolf and Lynx.  She told them what she knew, and proclaimed that, ‘Never shall you, or your heirs rein.  Though I still love you, you have proven unworthy – but this one, whom you sought to harm, has shown you kindness.  To Yaun’s heirs I leave the all the world where my light falls.  Ever shall you pay your debt, as servant, and protector to Yaun’s blood, and in such you shall regain my respect.’”

“What did that have to do with the Sylvan’s leaving Aldermor?” Kiannae protested.

“It was a good enough story I suppose,” Katrisha consented, “but yes, what was the point?”

“Well,” Mercu laughed, “you see that is the story as I first read it, but I am told there is more.”

“Well?” Kiannae prodded.

“I knew a man,” Mercu answered, “a good fellow, though I must admit when I first met him I mistook him for a woman.”

“Did you now?” Laurel laughed.

Mercu gave Laurel a snide smile.  “He was a generation or so removed from the Sylvan lands, but his family kept some traditions alive.  I got him talking over drinks, that I bought in apology for my aforementioned mistake.  I’ll admit precisely how the topic came up I’m hazy, there were quite a few drinks involved.”

Laurel clearly repressed another laugh, and Mercu continued.  “At any rate, he said that the story, as he knew it, goes on to tell that Yaun’s children grew arrogant, and did not learn the lesson of Wolf and Lynx.  They set upon each other, and warred, and did many terrible things.  So it was that the Lynx’s children left the lands of men.  For you see – the Sylvans are the Lynx in the fable.”

“That’s why our eyes are the way they are?” Kiannae asked.

“We are part cat?” Katrisha laughed.  “Kat!  My name is Kat!  Is it true?”

“Well,” Laurel interjected, “that is the common wisdom, with what evidence there is.  Sylvans do normally bare both the slit eyes, and pointed tufted ears of a Lynx.  Half blood’s such as you two, and your brother tend to lack the ears, though you all, particularly Wren do have a slight point.”

Katrisha ran her fingers over her ear, and nodded.  

“One in a few hundred they say are born with fur, and decidedly feline features, maybe even a tail – which leads many to believe that ‘shaper’ magic was involved, that at some point in the past they made themselves part cat.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked scrunching her brow.

“Haven’t a clue.”  Laurel shrugged.  “It’s not even fully agreed upon theory.  The Sylvans by all account have nothing to say on the matter, they simply consider themselves to be, as they are.  Though I did once hear a man from Napir call them ‘the children of the wolves, and the cats.’”

“Wolves?” Katrisha asked a bit perplexed.

“There is another Sylvan forest, far to the east past Lycia,” Laurel answered stroking his beard, “More reclusive even than those who live to our north.  Purportedly they lack the slit eyes, but have even more pronounced ears – and there are tales of great, hulking wolf men among them.  I’ve never met one, nor do I know anyone who has.”

“But you were just talking about Napir,” Kiannae protested.

“Ah, yes,” Laurel said with a nod. “In the high passes, and south from the Storm Peak in Napir live small mixed tribes, purportedly of both breeds, but their bloodlines have been thinned with each other, and the common folk of the land.  Still, even amongst these are tall tales of ‘great lions’, and ‘mighty wolves.’  I couldn’t tell you if they are any more than tales though.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Aldermor was a small village, which seems to cling tenaciously to the edge on a wide raised tract of land that looked out over a very broad stretch of the local vale.  Fields stretched as far as the eye could see below, but only a few scattered alder trees broke up the rocky, overgrown area between the village, and the higher hills behind it.  Even the wild shrubs, and grasses seemed slightly sickly, and it was reasonable to assume the locals had long decided this land was of no use to try and cultivate, but a passable place for a village overlooking the fertile lands below.

Everyone but Horence had disembarked from the coach, which he had lead on across town to arrange a place to park it, and stable the horses.  Even the adults had rarely visited the quiet town, and all examined the area in more detail.

A long, freshly worn path lead off the main road from where they stood, to a far edge of the highland, where a small grove of trees stood beside the framework, and half finished walls of a large new structure. It rose defiantly where only crumbled low stone walls, and ancient foundations stood about.  This structure seemed odd, out of place even, but it meant little to the twins, who quickly lost interest in it.  

Charles seemed slightly more affected by the sight, which caught Katrisha’s curiosity for a moment before she recognized a woman in white, half surrounded by villagers.  She tugged at her sister’s sleeve, and then ran off towards Renae.  Kiannae followed at a more reserved pace, but cocked her head to the side when Katrisha veered off suddenly.

“Wren!” Katrisha yell, and then Kiannae noticed the boy, sitting on a short stone wall behind and to the side of the crowd.  At first Kiannae had not recognized her brother, who had let his hair get quite long, and had grown significantly in the past six months.

Wren looked up just in time to be scooped up by his taller sibling.  It was rather impressive to watch.  Wren was not much smaller than Katrisha, and did not look as though he could be so easily lifted by her – yet she had managed it, complete with spinning him about as she often did in greeting.

“Why aren’t you with your sister?” Charles asked, stepping up behind Kiannae, who had stopped to observe the curious chain of events.

“Why are you even here?” Kiannae asked crossly, as Mercu walked by towards the village shops, giving the pair’s exchange only a passing glance, and Laurel moved on towards Renae.

“I am going to visit my mother,” Charles said tersely.  “She lives in Wesrook, with my uncle, and my sister.”

“Yes,” Kiannae sighed, “but why are you here, with us?”

“I am no happier about it than you are,” Charles grumbled.  “It was my father’s idea.”

“Whatever for?” Kiannae said shaking her head.

“He said I should be nicer to the two of you,” Charles said uncertainly, as though it wasn’t exactly what he’d been told.  Kiannae had never though much more of Charles father, than the boy himself.  It seemed like a good thing, but it also seemed out of character, and the hesitation in the way Charles had said it seemed dubious.

Any further thought on the matter was abated as Renae walked up, crouched down, and hugged Kiannae to her.  “Hello dear,” she said sweetly, held the girl back out at arm’s length, then looked her up and down.  “How are you doing, and who’s your friend?”

“He’s n…” Kiannae started a bit terse, but thought better of it, “he’s Charles,” she finished instead.

“Ah,” Renae said considering the boy again.  “Sir Arlen’s son, yes?” Renae asked delicately, the boy had done nothing to earn her ire, but the way he looked at her was not particularly friendly.  It was apparent the boy was well aware of his father’s opinion of Renae, and knew who she was.  It was less clear how much stock he put in it.

“Yes,” Charles acknowledged, “heir of Wesrook.”

“Ah yes,” Renae said thoughtfully, she had heard pieces of that story.  “So it is true what I’ve heard, that your father is the Duke proper, and retains the right to the seat in his absence?”  Charles simply nodded.  “Curious,” Renae remarked, and stood, taking Kiannae’s hand.  “Come, let us join your sister, and Wren.”

Kiannae glanced back at Charles as they walked away.  She had heard Mercu before on the ride, but hadn’t really been paying attention.  She wasn’t really sure what to make of it, the annoying boy wasn’t a knight’s son after all.  It was worse, he was a duke’s.

“So what are you doing here?” Katrisha asked ruffling Wren’s long hair, which he went about straightening afterword.

“Renae is here to help oversee the construction of a new Cloister,” Wren said as he motioned to the distant half finished building.

“Another?” Katrisha said curiously.

“Yes,” Renae said as she walked up, Kiannae in tow. “Things are getting a bit cramped back home, and the locals have welcomed us here.  Though we needed to get assurance of the King’s consent.”

“Why wouldn’t the King approve?” Katrisha asked tilting her head.

“It’s not a question of whether the King would approve,” Renae said thoughtfully, “so much as if he would be willing to make his approval official.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“Not all care much for our order,” Renae said with a forced smile.

“Why?” Katrisha prodded in turn.  There had always been hints on the matter, but never answers.

“To be honest, I often wonder myself,” Renae said with a sigh.  She glanced at Charles, who had walked off in his own direction.  She was more than glad he would not do her the service of explaining.

“It’s because our kindness weakens their grip on the people’s hearts,” Wren said bitterly.  Everyone looked to Wren a bit curiously.  “That’s what Audry’s mother says,” he shrugged.

“She’s probably not wrong,” Renae agreed hesitantly.  She wasn’t happy to have the girl’s opinions stirred so.  They showed signs of growing into hot headedness, and expressing open anti-Clarion sentiments would do them no favors.  “Still, we grin, and bear life’s troubles – one can only do so much, and those who will not listen, will not be persuaded.”

Laurel walked up then, and looked a bit flustered.  “I must…thank you…for bringing that issue to my attention,” he said with some annoyance.

“I’m sorry,” Renae said, somewhat disingenuously.  “The boy’s trouble – I’m not keen on saddling the new Matron down here with that kind of fuss, but there is no question he is gifted.”

“No,” Laurel said shaking his head. “I don’t think that would do at all well, another year or two, and he’ll be running amok with any young girl who will give him the time of day.  No sense making that easier.”

“Indeed,” Renae said, “though perhaps it would rub off some of the rough edges.”

“I’ve told his grandfather I will speak to Daven personally.  I’ve already two apprentices of my own after all,” Laurel said looking to the twins.  “I’ve no wish for a third, and a troublemaker at that.  Given he’s already whipping up little dust devils on his own, with no training, I suspect he’ll turn a proper enchanter’s education into passable combat magic, and run off with a caravan in a few years.  It’s unfortunate the only druids that are easy to get ahold of are so far away, his talent seems suited to their practices.”

“I suspect you are right,” Renae said thoughtfully.  “I rather think the boy would do better with us, than Daven though.  I believe your predictions of his fate down that road are quite right, that’s a dangerous life to doom him to.”

“He might take to the discipline, and stick around.  It would be his choice of course, in the end,” Laurel said somewhat absently.  “Still, if you wish to convince the new Matron to take the boy on, it’s little difference to me.  It would keep him closer to his mother.  I’ve made my promise to speak on his behalf – then perhaps he will have options.  Though given the option, I haven’t much doubt what he will choose.”

Katrisha looked back, and forth between the two adults.  “You said mother, and grandfather,” she said curiously.

“Hasn’t he a father, why can none of them teach him?” Kiannae chimed in.

Laurel winced.  “His father, by all reasonable accounts was a caravan mage who passed through this town once.  He’s not been back.”

“How awful,” Katrisha frowned.

“If he’s got his father’s sense, he might be better off in a Cloister,” Laurel sighed.  “He’ll be less likely to cause a girl trouble that way.”

“What do you mean?” Kiannae asked.

Laurel looked to be half way through formulating a dodge for that question, when Mercu sauntered up, flowers in hand.  This seemed to distract him thoroughly.  “I bring a gift, dear lady,” Mercu said with a bow.

Renae didn’t seem quite sure what to do, and finally relented to reach out, and take the flowers.  “Aren’t these the one’s the shopkeeper had on the counter?” she asked.

“The same,” Mercu admitted.

“I have no where to put them,” Renae laughed.  “What ever were you thinking?”

“Of that darling perplexed look on your face, of course,” Mercu said with an impish grin.  “Yet far be it from me to make the lady carry the load.  I shall hold them for you until such time as we can find a place to set them properly.”  He held out his hand again, and took the flowers back, then proceeded to loop his arm with Renae’s.  “Off then we go, on a grand quest for a table!”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The Inn in Aldermor sat directly on the cliff face, and it’s dining hall protruded in an arc such that windows faced both west, and east down the valley.  It gave a lovely view of the sunset down the vale to the west, and surely did as well for sunrise.  The three siblings sat side by side, with Katrisha in the middle.  Wren was half asleep on her arm.  His energy had proved no match for his sisters’ as they explored the old ruins.  Though part of Wren’s exhaustion was owed to the fact he had sprained his ankle quite badly, and healed it himself.  Renae had found out anyway, and scold him for being reckless.

Laurel would likely have received most of the scolding, had Renae learned that in her absence the children had been allowed to run completely free.  Even without having attracted Renae’s ire, Laurel seemed a bit distant, and reserved as the company sat around the table for dinner.  The twins for their part were also tired enough to not enquire where Renae and Mercu had been most of the afternoon.

“I’ve been thinking,” Mercu said idly – setting his fork aside.  “This gifted boy,” he continued, “what are the odds of him having this gift, when his mother did not?”

“Little less than half,” Laurel said absently.  “Statistically speaking of course.  Maybe as much as ten percent to be as strong as it obviously is.”

“You think maybe the mother has some Sylvish blood in her?” Mercu pondered.

“Not impossible,” Laurel shrugged.  “Though there’s no sign of it.  Even a little might have skewed the odds in his favor.”

“Is that why we are so gifted?” Kiannae asked.

“Cause our father was Sylvan?” Katrisha added.

“Your mother was gifted as well,” Laurel said thoughtfully.  “From what I know of her, your grandmother was a woman of the Lycian Order.  A woman with the gift most often passes it to her children.”

“But not the father?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Correct,” Laurel nodded.  “Both parents contribute to the gift of their children, but conventional wisdom says the mother has the strongest influence on the presence of the gift, while the father has slightly more influence over the strength.  Still there are no guarantees.  True emergent gifts occur, even strong ones from no appreciable linage.”

“Do gifted parents ever have ungifted children?” Kiannae asked.

“No,” Laurel answered.  “If both have the gift it can diminish, but not disappear between generations.  That is why most Royal lines still have traces of the gift, since the most adequately prepared individuals at the time of the Council’s founding were gifted.  The Council wished to avoid returning to the cycle of mage kings, so they picked those with the best mixture of education, even temper, and where possible weaker gifts.”

“Why didn’t they want gifted people to rule?” Katrisha frowned.

“It seems kind of silly.  Wouldn’t the strongest mages make the best kings, and queens?” Kiannae added.

“That was the belief for a very long time,” Mercu interjected.  “Yet ruling a kingdom doesn’t require magic.  It wasn’t just rulership that the gifted people were pulled out of either, they were also removed from the armies.  The Dragon War carried a terrible price – so many mage lines were decimated, so many of the strongest, and most gifted lost – three fifths some say, others claim it was more.”

“So the Council decided,” Laurel said with a nod, “to pull together the surviving mage lines, to help rebuild our numbers.”

“And to discourage them from starting wars, by taking them out of the seats of power,” Mercu added.  “After all – mages have power enough to begin with.  Make one a King, and it’ll go to their head.”

“As if it wouldn’t go to your head,” Laurel shot back.

“What can I say,” Mercu laughed, “I’m a passionate sort.”

Laurel rolled his eyes, and glanced at Renae, who had seemed uneasy for some time, and was staring out the windows at the sunset.  She seemed not to want to make any eye contact, and stopped eating.  

“We are what we are,” Laurel said with a sigh – and picked at his plate.  “I don’t think the council is wrong in their stance,” he continued, shifting his tone.  “Nor do I think they are right.  Perhaps it’s a prudent precaution, but those few kingdoms who slipped through the cracks and are still ruled by minor mages…they aren’t causing any more trouble than the rest.”

“I hear the prince of Western Palentine is something of a nuisance,” Mercu retorted.

“Only to his cousin in the East,” Laurel laughed, “and that’s more of a Clarion-Lycian squabble than a magely one.  Also, far more political, than volatile.  Palentine is almost obnoxiously stable.  They bluster, and fuss openly, but behind the scenes things are quite tame.”

“True,” Mercu nodded thoughtfully.  “I suppose the bigger problem is a lack of rules regarding Paladin Kings.”

Laurel simply huffed with amusement.

“Excuse me,” Renae said, and looked as though she was about to get up.

Mercu caught her hand gently.  “Are you alright, dear Lady?”  He glanced at her plate.  “You have hardly eaten.”

“You are kind to worry.  Thank you, just things on my mind.  So much to do.”

“Have we somehow offended?”  Mercu pressed.

“Oh – no, not at all.  The company is charming, as always – if anything I feel I may have caused some.  Regardless, I will be honest that I am stuck upon something I cannot decide if I would rather remember, or forget.”

“Then unless you are truly feeling unwell, perhaps remain for the distraction?  Further if you are working yourself hard, you really should eat.”

Renae glanced at Laurel, the twins, and Wren.  “Perhaps you are right.  I do apologise if I am not talkative.”

“I assure you dear Lady, I can talk for two,” Mercu offered whimsically.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 6th, 644 E.R.

Breakfast brought the same view in reverse as dinner had the previous evening, with the sun shining down the valley from the east.  Wren was more awake that morning, while his sisters were the drowsiest ones at the table, with their heads lain on their arms over the table as they waited for food to arrive.

“Will I be joining you on your trip?” Wren asked as Laurel arrived late to the gathering.

“I am told that is the plan,” Laurel nodded, and rolled his head to the side, stretching his neck.  “I’ve no objections of course – you should have more time with your sisters.”

Katrisha perked up at this news.  “Wren’s coming with us?”

“Yes,” Mercu answered.  “I figured he could use a chance to see more of Avrale – so I arranged for Renae to bring him along on her trip here, and spent a good deal of time convincing her to let him join us.”

Renae laughed, and sipped at her cranberry juice.  “As if you worked so hard.”

“Enjoying one’s tasks does not make them a lack of work,” Mercu shot back, “it is rather the satisfaction of a job well done, that makes enjoying the work all the more pleasurable.”

“Well,” Renae smirked, “you did do quite well.”

“Must you two?” Laurel said rubbing his eyes tiredly.

Renae looked away, a bit embarrassed, but Mercu for his part casually shrugged.  The contrary illusion as to which of the two seemed the elder was for the moment exaggerated.  Any question as to the meaning of the exchange from the half awake children was cut off, as food arrived.

“You at least seem in better spirits this morning,” Mercu offered.

“I am, I thank you for encouraging me to stay for dinner last night.  Melancholy can become quite treacherous at my age.  Truly, I do not know what I was thinking trying to leave, there is more comfort at this table for what ails me.  I lost my daughter so long ago…and never got the chance to know my granddaughter.”

“I did not know you had a child,” Laurel commented, “or had lost her.  My condolences.”  That word seemed to make Renae cringe a bit.

“It was well before I met either of you.  She was a young woman before I first wandered from Avrale.  Neither I, nor my mother could keep her at the Cloister.  I have always thought at heart she wanted to be a mage, though I was the one who wandered afar in her absence.  When I returned both my mother, and daughter had passed, and my son in law wanted no part of me for his child.”

“That does sound a rough lot,” Mercu offered kindly.

“Were it not for Adria I would have felt entirely alone in the world.”

“Do forgive me if I am impertinent, but it was not a Clarion mater, was it?”  Mercu asked.  “I wonder only because such squabbles – and they are not always so gentle – were the subject when you thought to leave last night.”

“No – no, nothing quite so…” Renae sighed.  “You are not impertinent, I will assure you, but no I would rather not speak of it.”

“Forgive me then,” Mercu offered.

“If there is anything to forgive, it is on my part.  Let us eat,” Renae said with soft smile, only slightly forced.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Wesrook was not the largest city of Avrale, only the third.  Yet approaching it from the east, through the vineyards of the Serpent’s Spine, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for the largest city in all the western kingdoms.  The castle, and proud tower from which the city took its name sat on a bluff above a sheltered bay.  It brought commerce in from the island of Carth to the west, Osyrae and the free cities to the north, and from so far south as Napir.

Wesrook was rich, it was sprawling, and one could hear the clamor of the city in the day, all the way up in the high hills.  The view from the high road was like looking at a living map, the winding streets, and clustered buildings laid out below in an intricate web.  The impression lingered as well, as the road wound back and forth, a half mile at a time, to descend over five hundred feet to the city below.  It was a reminder – if the endless foothills that framed the valleys of the kingdom were not enough – that Avrale was built within a mountain range.

Far off in the distance, across a narrow straight, great hills could be seen to rise out of the mists, with a volcanic crater smoldering at the island’s north end.  This was the farthest vantage point visible from any of the roads of the old empire.  The distant mists of Carth, as seen from the high road were the things of famous poetry, and paintings.  One of which the twins had seen before, though neither could recall precisely where in the castle it hung.  It depicted the great eruption of the northern peak over a hundred years prior.

As the coach came lower, closer to the level of the city it became more evident that the tower of Wesrook was not its only prominence.  A great gleaming spire rose near the center of the city, much taller than even the highest mansions around it.  The structure did not seem to be stone, or even metal – there was only one thing that immediately came to mind from the way it glimmered – glass.

The coach would have been quite cramped, had all its occupants been fully grown.  Yet as most were young children, six sat in relative comfort, though Mercu found himself inclined to favor being pressed up against Laurel, giving the slightly gloomy boy to his right a wide berth.

As the twins pointed, and demanded to know what the tower was, Mercu explained.  “That is Daven’s Flame – home of the enchanter Daven, perhaps the greatest of his craft alive today.  He was once the Arch Enchanter of the Council in Mordove, and one of the richest men of the east.”

“Why does he live here now?” Kiannae asked.

“They say he fell in love with a woman of Carth, Caladine I believe she called herself,” Mercu said sagely, “a trader of magical wares that had traveled far, and wide, in spite of her young age.  This enchantress he believed far better than the station in life she happily maintained, and he proposed to her.  Something of a scandal really.”

“Did they marry, and move here to be closer to her home?” Katrisha asked.

“The story goes that Daven’s love would not stay in Mordove, and he, an important man, would not leave,” Mercu mused somberly.  “Years past before Caladine came again to Mordove, and wounded as his pride was, Daven proposed again, but again she left.”

“So he followed?” Wren asked curiously.

“Not at first, no,” Mercu said.  “Daven was a proud man, but pride comes before every fall.  Eventually his heart brought him here, to seek the woman he loved.  He renounced his seat on the Council, sold his holdings in the east, and came to a foreign land – with no more than a hope.  I won’t say he wasn’t a fool, for love makes fools of us all.  The woman he sought was a wanderer, and it was years before she returned to Wesrook, on her way home.  Daven had settled in well to the city by then, being little worse for wear in riches, or prestige.”

“She said no again, didn’t she?” Katrisha sighed.

“Well,” Mercu laughed, “not precisely.  It’s a bit much for even me to believe, but the stories say that she told him if he truly loved her, that he need not follow.  That if his love shone as brightly as he claimed, she would see it from the shores of Carth itself.”

“Difficult woman,” Laurel laughed.

“Well,” Mercu mused, “undoubtedly, but it would seem that Daven was as stubborn.  It took a few years as I’ve heard it, before inspiration struck him, one night as he watched a light house up the coast.  First he had a tall tower built upon the corner of his mansion in the city.  This alone was a grandiose act that drew much attention, but he had an exterior frame work fashioned around the tower, which caused even more perplexed rumors.  Lastly loads, literally tons of sand were delivered, and he cast out all the workers, and all his servants.”

No one seemed to have anything to say, and Mercu smiled.  “They say it happened in one night, that the crazy fool did it all himself.  He used magic to forge the sand into pristine, perfect sheets of glass, and set them into to the framework of the tower.  In the morning the people gathered around, and looked up at the new gleaming spire in the midst of their city.  In the evening it shone brilliantly in the setting sun, like a frozen flame.  Days passed, then weeks, then at last a well adorned ship flying the colors of Carth came into port.”

“You see,” Mercu laughed, “the woman Caladine, was not just an enchanter.  Caladine was not even her real name, she was Cadinae, a Princess of Carth.  She was the youngest of her father’s children, too far from the throne to be a real heir.  She had run away when she had been only fifteen, seen the world, crafted her wares, had many lovers.  A few she favored above the rest.  Only one had followed, only one had finally done something to impress her.”

Mercu paused, enjoyed the silence, and then shrugged.  “That’s the story, and by all accounts it is at least mostly true.  She married the man who build the glass tower over Wesrook.  Though she had gotten on in years by then, her gift was strong, and she was still fertile enough to bare him one son, and a daughter.  They live up there, in the tower he built, to this very day.”

“You have at least one thing wrong,” Charles said smugly.

“How would you know?” Katrisha said crossly.

“Because I know Daven,” Charles retorted.  “He has done a great deal of work for my mother, and she has been to the royal palace on Carth.  She told him once that you could see his “flame” all the way from there, and he told her that he knew, he had meant for it to be visible from the palace.”

“How did he know?” Mercu asked curiously.

Charles pondered for a bit.  “He’d been a man of some importance in Mordove, as you say.  When a man was caught harassing his…companion of the time, he interrogated him personally.  The man was an agent of her father, who had tracked her all the way to Mordove.  That was when she left the first time.”

“What a lovely bit of intrigue to the story,” Mercu laughed.  “I’ll have to remember that.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Upon entry, the city of Wesrook was not as clean as it appeared from afar – though it was evident that great efforts were made, as evidenced by men sweeping the streets.  One wondered readily if it was truly a complete exercise in futility, or how much dingier things would be without their diligent work.  

The three siblings were struck quite thoroughly by deep lustrous bronze skin of the occasional northerner they passed along the way, and almost as surprised by the remarkable pale complexion of those from the far south.  Foreign dignitaries were not entirely uncommon at Broken Hill, but none had come from Osyrae, or Napir in the time the twins had resided there.  

One man in fine clothing sat on a bench by the roadside, feeding pigeons.  His skin was nearly pitch black, a sight even Mercu seemed struck by.  After they had passed Mercu explained that the man was surely from the Northern Wastes, and that he had rarely seen one of such pure blood so far south.

Laurel added that peoples of northern climates tended to have darker skin, to endure the sun which did not wane in the winter months.  Further that the pale skin of people from Napir was believed to give them some advantage against the long cold nights of their winters.

A fountain square dominated the middle of of the town, directly beneath the gleaming spire of Daven’s Flame that had begun to shimmer orange in the evening sun.  They had passed inns, both questionable, and fine, but had not stopped at any.  The twins had begun to wonder exactly where they were going, and Wren had simply drifted off on Katrisha’s shoulder after a long day’s ride.

As the coach turned north again, Kiannae was about to ask when Mercu answered the question out of hand.  “We will be staying at Wesrook Castle,” he said with a smile, “I am told we will be expected.”

Charles had known his destination from the beginning, and suspected that the others would be coming.  He was none the less displeased at the final confirmation.  “Mother does love to host guests,” he offered masking his feelings on the matter as best he could.

“The Lady of Wesrook is a lovely woman,” Mercu laughed.  “I wish she would visit Broken Hill more often, but something it seems keeps her away.”

Charles glared at Mercu, but said nothing.  Mercu simply shrugged the accusatory stare off, and continued.  “I’ve never had the privilege of staying in Wesrook tower before, I hear the view is quite stunning.”

“We live in a tower back home,” Kiannae stated dubiously.

“What’s the difference?” Katrisha asked.

“The ocean,” Charles answered before Mercu could.

“It’s not strictly speaking the ocean,” Mercu noted.  “Though close enough.  Waves still crash against the rocks below the tower.”

“I thought you hadn’t been,” Kiannae protested.

“I’ve been through Wesrook several times in my travels,” Mercu defended himself.  “And I’ve slept in ear shot of the ocean many times.  The waves here are muted some by Carth blocking the full fury of the sea, but they should still crash quite pleasantly to the shore beneath the cliff – from what I’ve seen passing through before.”

“It is one of the things I miss back home,” Charles said, “the sound of the ocean at night.”

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Chapter 11

What fears he that would be king of kings,
great power bound in the smallest things,
the storm woke madness in dragon’s heir,
what portent restrains that conqueror fair,
shadows they move where none should be,
seek the power of one the world shall see.

– Diary of Cassandra Alm, 338 E.R.

Fools & Errands

Coria 15th, 642 E.R.

“Is it true what I have heard,” Maraline asked of the twins as she moved to sit beside them on a bench in the upper courtyard.

“And what have you heard?” Kiannae pressed, looking up from her book.

“That the dragon they captured in Osyrae is larger than any feral dragon on record,” Maraline countered.

“I would think you would know as much as us,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“Were it so,” Maraline said with a huff of displeasure.  “Father will not speak of the matter to me.”

“We have only Jeoffrey’s estimations,” Katrisha offered, “but the reports do imply that it is unreasonably large for a lesser dragon.  It is possible he has overstated the matter.”

“Jeoffrey may have something of Mercu’s sense of humor, but on such a sensitive matter I have not heard him to exaggerate,” Maraline countered.

“I’m not concerned,” Kiannae said.  “The bigger, the better.  It will just prove all the more dangerous when it finally breaks lose.  That will disrupt any plans they have for us.”

“And if they do tame it?” Maraline shook her head.  “Then will it be better that it is such a massive beast?”

“That has yet to happen,” Katrisha offered.  “Lesser dragons are very temperamental, with intelligence approaching that of a human.  Smart enough to know that they only have to wait till they have the advantage.”

“I have heard that lesser dragons have been tamed in Napir,” Maraline said shrewdly.

“Only by other dragons,” Katrisha countered.

“And not well tamed at that,” Kiannae added.  “They guard wide tracts of uninhabitable land, but they must be kept in check by their elders.  Rarely eat people, but I think that’s only because we are not meaty enough.”

“How, horrid,” Maraline said nervously.

“Yes, so I am not worried so much by how big the one in Osyrae is,” Kiannae pressed, coming back to her point.  “More trouble for them.  Should not be a factor for us.”

Maraline paused a moment thoughtfully.  “I had heard you two were to travel around Avrale soon.”

“There had been plans,” Katrisha acknowledged, “but I do not think Laurel wished to, and present circumstances have given him excuse to postpone such a trip.”

“Wise nonetheless,” Maraline offered.

“I was looking forward to traveling,” Kiannae said a bit melancholy.  “To actually see more of Avrale.”

“It is a shame, though I do love returning to Broken Hill,” Marline mused.

“How was your time in South Rook?” Katrisha asked.

“Lovely,” Maraline said with a knowing smile.  “I find the urge to walk, would either of you care to join me?  I’ll tell you more.”

“I think I shall finish my book,” Kiannae answered.

“I thought you wished to see more of Avrale?” Maraline chided.

“I’m well acquainted with the castle, the rest of this book seems less familiar territory,” Kiannae countered with a laugh.

“You’ve already read that one,” Katrisha cut back.

“Still, less familiar,” Kiannae said a bit tersely.

“I’ll come,” Katrisha offered.  “Since my sister is growing roots in the ground.”  Kiannae scrunched her nose up at the characterization, but returned to her book.

“Well, come along then,” Maraline said, getting up, and straightening herself.

Katrisha give her sister a quick hug, and hurried after the princess, towards the north rampart.

“It really was a lovely trip,” Maraline said as Katrisha caught up.  “A caravan was in town, with a woman in charge of all things.  I’ve so rarely gotten to go down when the caravans come through Brokhal, and that was a treat to see a woman bossing around all those scruffy old traders.”

“Samantha?” Katrisha asked with piqued interest.

“I believe so,” Maraline said with some surprise.  “I only got to speak with her briefly, she was very busy.”

“I’m guessing you did not catch her last name,” Katrisha said with a wry smile.

“I do not believe I did, no,” Maraline said with curiosity.  “Her first would have slipped my mind entirely had you not known it.  How did you?”

“Did neither Kiannae or I ever tell you?” Katrisha asked a bit at a loss.

“I am uncertain what,” Maraline considered, “so please do.”

“Her last name is Peregrine,” Katrisha said with a laugh.

“As in,” Maraline seemed quite amused, and stifled a laugh, “our dear Mercu?”

“Oh yes,” Katrisha said.  “Seems he was to inherit the troupe, and wanted nothing of it.  Apparently his sister has never quite forgiven him.”

“Forgiven him?” Maraline seemed bewildered by the idea, and stopped at the steps that lead up the outside of the north wall.

“Oh yes,” Katrisha said.  “How would you feel if your brother, suddenly, and quite without sufficient warning advocated the kingdom to you?”

“Me, Queen?” Maraline laughed, but she seemed vaguely pleased by the idea.

“With all the petty squabbles that come with it,” Katrisha redirected.

“Mortified, I suppose,” Maraline acknowledged, and started up the steps.

“And there are not a great many Queens who actually reign, are there?” Katrisha added.

“No, that does sound tiresome.”

“There are fewer women among the trade princes,” Katrisha noted.  “So while I am sure she is quite happy to be rich, and defy convention.  It has been a load of hassle for her, and the perfect excuse to berate her older brother when they meet.”

“Ah, now that alone sounds worth it,” Maraline said with good humor.

“What has Adrian done to irk you?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Nothing polite to speak,” Maraline said conspiratorially.

“Then I wish to hear it all the more.”  Katrisha laughed.

“You are terrible,” Maraline said in good humor.  “Still, no, no.  It is only a suspicion, somewhere I have seen his eye turn that I do not approve, and I would not forgive myself for speaking it aloud.”

“Are you certain?” Katrisha pressed.

“Yes, quite,” Maraline said, becoming thin lipped, and turned to look out over the forest far below.

“Speaking of where eyes turn,” Katrisha said stepping away from the topic the princess would not broach further.  “How did your trip to South Rook go beyond unknowingly meeting Mercu’s sister?”

“Spectacularly,” Maraline said with thinly restrained excitement.

“How so?” Katrisha asked, and hopped up onto the parapet beside her.

“I do think he truly likes me,” the princess said looking up at her less dignified younger friend, who thought nothing of having gotten up, and sitting there without a care.  She was a bit jealous of that, the carefree lack of restraint Katrisha often showed.

“Did you kiss?” Katrisha asked.

“What, no, no,” Maraline blushed.  “Nothing so forward, but we walked, we talked,” she grabbed Katrisha’s hand excitedly where it lay on the parapet, “we held hands!”

“So, just as we have done today?” Katirsha teased.  “Are we now to be engaged?”

The princess looked down at the hand she had grabbed, and released it turning a bit crimson.  “You are terrible,” she laughed.

“That is becoming something of a refrain,” Katrisha noted.  “Yet you seem amused.”

Another laugh.  “It means so much more for a young man and woman.  We are friends, dear Katrisha.  Lukus is a charming young, man and a suitor.  It means so much more.”

“As you say, I am glad you are happy,” Katrisha said with a smile.

“So very,” Maraline nodded.

Katrisha seemed thoughtful a moment.  “I’ve not heard word of a caravan coming into Brokhal.  Surely Samantha was headed north next?”

“West actually, I believe,” Maraline said, “to Wesrook.”

“That should mean they will come through Brokhal sometime soon then,” Katrish noted.

“I would think,” Maraline agreed.

“I must press Mercu about this,” Katrisha laughed.  “Can’t have him avoiding his sister again.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 20th, 642 E.R.

“He road it…”  Laurel looked befuddled staring at the note that had been handed to him.

“What?” Mercu asked not following at all.

“He road the light forsaken dragon.”

“What!?” Mercu repeated wide eyed.

“Either Jeoffery has lost all sense, someone has fooled with the communication, or prince Vharen has literally flown off on the back of a black dragon into the western mountains of Osyrae.”

“So he’s seeking the favor of the General then, not the Queen,” Mercu said rubbing his forehead, and trying to pluck something sensible from an otherwise absurd statement.

“I guess, it makes as much sense as anything.  The dragon was captured in the north.  Evens out the potential insult.  Not that anything makes sense.”

“Surely the stunt won’t work.  Maybe he will wind up dead?”

“I’m not fully sure that will even be that much of an improvement.  He road the dragon for abyss sake.  Who…how?  There is no record of anyone – ever – riding a dragon.  Let alone a feral one.”

“I’ve heard some stories out of Napir.  One of Roshana’s younger daughters, very fond of a certain monk.  I mean it is just a story, but yes.  It is hard to believe.”

“It is far beyond hard to believe, it is terrifying.  It is tantamount to recognition.  It would fit with the claims that much of the black flight was bound to the blood of Vhale.  It hints at a birthright for him to make claim to the flight.  If he does that…even if he doesn’t.  If Vharen is instead killed for posing as a proper heir, if he is just too clever for his own good, then…”

“Then the old stalemate will tear Osyrae apart.  The throne will be vacant, the General and Queen will fight over the capital, and Osyrae will not pose an immediate danger to anyone, but themselves.”

“Maybe…”  Laurel passed the note to Mercu, “but what do you make of this last bit?”

“The pawn that would be queen may yet be in play,” Mercu read half under his breath.  “I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Maybe he really has gone mad.”  Laurel shook his head.

“If the King has flown off into the sunset,” Mercu asked, “who is reigning in his stead?”

“His uncle,” Laurel said dourly, “as if Vharen was not bad enough.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 7th, 642 E.R.

A woman with long chestnut hair staggered slightly as a nine year old grabbed onto her without warning from behind, while calling her name.  “Samantha!”

“What, who, how?” she growled as she tried to catch sight of the interloper, and caught two vaguely familiar green eyes staring up at her.

“You grew your hair back out,” Mercu said walking up behind the scene with an identical girl in tow.

“And I didn’t even have to guilt you into coming down this time?” Samantha asked a bit incredulously, and patted Katrisha on the head.

“No, that one took care of it for you,” he said nodding to the girl still hugging Samantha’s side.  “Seems she’s fond of you.  Fates know why.”

“So to which one do I owe the honor?” Samantha asked.

“That would be Kat,” Kiannae offered.  “Though I’m quite happy to see you as well.”

“Well then get over here,” Samantha gestured, and Kiannae obliged to accept a hug as well.  “My you two have grown,” Samantha said when the two relented to let her go.  “It’s only been a year hasn’t it?”

“Roughly,” Mercu nodded.  “I didn’t expect you to be back through so soon.”

“Me either,” Samantha agreed, “and I’m regretting trading routes already.”

“So you’ve heard?” Mercu pressed.

“About the bloody dragon?  Of course I’ve heard,” she growled.

“Not at all relieved to hear it’s flown off to the west then?” Mercu laughed.

“Not particularly,” Samantha sighed.  “Though thanks for the confirmation on that part.  I’ve no desire to be in Osyrae if that all goes sideways for them.”

“Not the most pleasant proposition, no,” Mercu agreed.

“So you buying me a drink again?” Samantha laughed.

“After last time?” Mercu chided.

“Fine, come into my wagon then,” Samantha shrugged, “but you are paying me for the bottle.”

Samantha peaked into wagon curiously for a moment, sighed, and then climbed in with the others behind her.  It somehow seemed even more cramped, and packed than the year before, and something red shifted on the bed in the back.

“Back already dear?” came the yawning voice of a young woman in a red robe, and with hair almost to match, who rolled over, stretched, and stood up, rolling her shoulders.

“I’m not your dear, you troublemaker,” Samantha cut back.

Mercu stood in the door to the wagon for a moment, and looked confused.

“Oh, who’s this handsome creature you’ve brought me?”  The woman laughed.

“My brother,” Samantha grumbled, “and his two little girls.”

“Ah, shame,” she pouted, and then laughed.

“Mercu, Sasha,” Samantha introduced.  “Best healer I’ve had in ten years, and most trouble I’ve had since you exiled yourself.  Sasha, my brother, the only person to ever cause me more trouble than you.”

“Charmed,” Mercu said uncertainly, suddenly wondering if risking another trip to the Grey Lamb would have been the safer choice.

Sasha squeezed past Samantha, who jumped slightly at something unseen.  The redhead threw her arms around Mercu.  “Nice to meet you.  Any brother of this darling woman is surely marvelous company.”

“Nice to meet you too,” Mercu said with more reservation than anyone present had seen him show – particularly regarding a lovely younger woman.

She peeked around Mercu, and gave Katrisha and Kiannae a very curious look, and then nudged past him to kneel down infront of them.  “You two,” she began curiously.  “You are an interesting pair.  Such bright auras, green eyes,” she tilted her head to the side considering Kiannae’s at length.  “You are Wren’s sisters, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” both answered in unison, and with some surprise.

“Did you tell her?” Mercu asked curiously.

“No,” Samantha looked a bit confused.  “I’ve barely mentioned you.  She is from the cloister though, up north.  I met Wren myself when I was passing through.”

“Yes,” Sasha said considering the girls curiously for a moment.  “I know Wren, though only really in passing.  Interesting little boy.  Strange to see the male of a line with so much stronger of an aura, but I’ve heard the rumors of how that came to pass.”

Katrisha looked a bit cross, and Kiannar frowned.

“Ah, yes,” Sasha said.  “Sorry, that was rather callous of me.  My condolences, I apologise.”  She stood up.  “Well, sit, sit everyone.  I’ll grab a bottle.”  Samantha glared at her for being presumptuous.  “On me of course, dear, take it out of my pay.”

“Mercu is paying,” Samantha countered.  “And I’m not you dear.”

“If the lady wishes to pay,” Mercu offered, and at a single sidelong glance from his sister started fishing through his coin purse.  He flipped her a silver coin.  She perked a brow pointedly, and he flipped her another.

“Good enough,” Samantha said, and took a seat.

Sasha slipped past Mercu again, and he suddenly had a guess as to what had made Samantha jump before, and stared a bit bewilderedly at a flash of the girls yellow eyes.  He took a seat opposite his sister, and looked at her in a way that begged answers.  Her returned glare if anything simply said he had no right to be giving her such a look.

“Sasha,” Samantha began as the twins attempted to squeeze in next to Mercu, and Katrisha found she had to sit next to Samantha instead.  “She struck something of a bargain I couldn’t refuse.  That left her without proper accommodations on the trip between Napir, and Niven.  Too many goods to be moved.  I relented, somewhat reluctantly, with no other option but to permit her to stay in my wagon for the trip.”

“Niven is quite a ways south,” Mercu noted.

“Yes it is,” Samantha agreed, as a bottle was set on the table, and three glasses.

“How she managed to strike the bargain in Niven, to move even more goods to Wesrook I am not sure.  I could have sworn she never left the Caravan.”  Samantha added.  “Again she made a convincing case for sharing arrangements, and that the bargain was again too good to pass up.”

“Very convincing,” Mercu acknowledged with a somber nod, “I’m sure.”

Sasha was grinning silently, like the cat that ate the canary as she opened the bottle with a pop, and poured.  Mercu glanced up at her, and then across at Katrisha, and down at Kiannae, who both seemed – to his liking – a bit confused.  Not that he had any strong objects to explaining, but he felt that Laurel might be more than a bit cross on the matter.

“Now mind you,” Mercu noted.  “Wesrook is rather a ways west.”

“Yes,” Samantha said, “and someone misspoke thinking we had open space for passengers.”

“Was that a problem?” Sasha asked.  “They did agree to pay very well.”

“For passage all the way to Mintercreek,” Samantha said tight lipped.

“So nothing unusual,” Mercu nodded, playing along, hiding his own amusement.

“I assure you,” Samantha said, “that I have been up to no mischief.  I can speak for no one else in this wagon.”  She gestured about exaggeratedly.

“We haven’t been up to mischief,” Katrisha protested, and got a funny look from Mercu.

“Well, there was that orb that went flying through open court last week,” Kiannae admitted.  “Still an accident, it should have expired before then…it was Katrisha’s any way.”

“Oh, I’m sure you two will get around to it,” Sasha said with a laugh, and took one of the glasses.

“They are nine,” Mercu noted, somewhat sternly, then debated the wisdom of his protest in the thin hope the girls were still ignorant of the subtext.

“I was eleven,” Sasha said with a perked brow, and took a sip.  She eyed Mercu over her glass in a way that made even him glance away.

Samantha took more than a bit of a sip herself at that.

“To mischief, still fun even one way,” Sasha offered a toast.  Samantha turned almost as red as the younger woman’s hair, and Mercu struggled to keep a straight face as he took a glass, and consented to look back up, and clink his to Sasha’s.

Samantha stewed for a moment.

“It’s not polite not to clink glasses,” Kiannae offered unhelpfully, and Samantha gave a wounded glance to the girl, before relenting to do so.

“We don’t have anything to toast with,” Katirsha offered, also unhelpfully.  “Not that we really like wine.”

“I don’t think the two of you need toast to mischief,” Mercu said matter of factly – on several levels – and took a drink.  The others did in turn, Samantha drank enough to need refilling.  Which Sasha did without asking.

“Not that I have any interest to further navigate this matter,” Mercu said tentatively.  “But I’m surprised you invited us in, given you knew you had a gust.”

“My fault,” Sasha offered.  “I’d gone out earlier, and I don’t think Sam noticed me come back.”

“I had not,” Samantha concurred, and took another drink.

“So what are your plans,” Mercu launched into, quite ready to change the subject.

“The plans had been to follow the course north through Osyrae,” Samantha said.  “With events there though…”

“The alternative?” Mercu pressed.

“That would be the east road,” Katrisha answered.

“Unless she plans to double back,” Kiannae countered.

“No good options,” Samantha agreed.

“There has been no sign of further activity on the east road, nor in the forest,” Mercu offered.

“And you would like your own sister to test that, would you?” Samantha asked tersely.  “You seemed pleased I wasn’t last time.”

“I would like no one to have to test that,” Mercu offered kindly.  “Still, I think it will let me plead a far more personal case for what the King would surely offer you any way.”

“A full escort?” Samantha asked hopefully.

“A large one even,” Mercu added.  “Anything to get trade moving on that road again.  One attack, however brutal, and that further even managed to run the bandits afoul of the Sylvans, has shut down trade with Helm completely.  Osyrae has little interest in our goods, and caravans coming from the south have been picked clean of most of what we want.”

“Plead your case then,” Samantha said.  “If I get the escort, I’ll make the run.  The profits will be worth it.  Assuming of course I can get a replacement healer, or keep the current one on.”

“I maintain,” Sasha said, “that I can be convinced.”

“Will it take more than a circuit out through Mordove, Lycia, and Palentia to convince you?” Samantha asked incredulously.

“Tempting,” Sasha laughed.  “I’m sure you can think of something.”

“I like her,” Mercu laughed.

“You would,” Samantha cut back.

“She seems nice enough,” Katrisha offered with some confusion.

“Oh, you are darling to say so,” Sasha said leaning over to pat the girl on the head with a smile.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 20th, 642 E.R.

“Confirmation,” Laurel shook his head.  “After months of the capital left in the hands of his hardliner uncle…  Yet…no declarations, no fanfare.”

“You are babbling,” Mercu offered unhelpfully.

“Vharen has returned.  After riding off on a dragon.  No big show, no grand pronouncement, just back to business as usual…or whatever you can call that state of affairs.  Just nothing.”

“So the flight rejected him, nicely?” Mercu considered incredulously.

“I guess?”  Laurel ran his fingers through his hair.  “I mean there was a report that he was possibly seen back, and brooding over a week before this was sent.  I just don’t know what to make of it.  I want to take it all as a good sign, but this whole chain of events…seeking to capture a dragon, succeeding, and flying off into the actual sunset on it.  All this grandiose, unprecedented insanity…and now…nothing.”

“Hard to trust, I agree.”

“More troop movements, but none to our border.  Most north, some west – more enforcement along the forest border.  I think he may take one of the free cities, but they, just like the north…the Council will do nothing.”

Mercu grabbed Laurel by the shoulders, gave him a soft shake, and Laurel looked up, still bewildered.

“This is good news, such as good news comes these days.  There really isn’t anything to second guess, for now.”

“You are right.”  Laurel shook his head.  “I will compose this information for the Council, and send the message.  Then…” he laughed a bit darkly, “then I think I will sleep for a week, or until the surprise dragon attack burns the castle to the ground.”

“Good plan.”  Mercu nodded, and then was thoughtful a moment.  “Were there no more cryptic passages about pawns, and queens?”

“No – but he did say something about a shadow, a thief that goes unseen.”  Laurel shook his head.

“I hate to think that maybe we should pull him out of there.”

“I am getting concerned, as is the King.”  Laurel sighed, and set the message aside.

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