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About Order & Entropy

Book1_NewBook I Book2_NewBook II

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.”  To begin building a following the chapters of Book 1 have been released in serial format, and the chapters of Book 2 will be forthcoming.  Eventually the hope is to release final versions as ebooks books, with professional editing.

If you aren’t sold yet, then let me give you a hint of what to expect.  While the story starts at the very beginning with the young Ashtons, this is an outgrowth of setting the stage for the adults they become.  It 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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Chapter 1

Book1_NewFor those who were never satisfied
to be the damsel of another’s tale.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Candle2

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 >

Chapter 3

We are who once we were,
but never again the same,
as the world changes do we,
and cycles pass without name,

rely not on man to alter his way,
nor on the individual to remain,
we ghosts are believed eternal,
yet even ageless,
I have changed.

– Writings of Theseus Moria, circa 410 E.R.

State Decay

Estae 7th, 647 E.R.

The room was lush yet stark, dripping with showy regal splendor, from the tapestries on the walls to elaborate carpets with floral and geometric patterns.  Fine rare vases held flowers along the walls, if their ancient cracked surfaces could bear water.  Others – often in prominent positions – were clearly too old and fragile for actual use.

A blond haired man with a soft olive complexion considered the priest pacing his quarters.  His expression was hard to read, but seemed perhaps concerned for the agitated older man.  The priest, Idolus, wore a grey robe, and had recently shorn his hair down to the skin.  This in itself was arguably an improvement, as he had been balding for years.  Still, it seemed part of a larger, more unnerving pattern.  One that included the way he was pacing frantically, his arms behind his back, his hands wringing fervently.

“Arlen, you must listen to me, she is the void itself I tell you,” Idolus implored more than said to his host.

“A wild half Sylvan thing, surely.  A young woman of erratic nature without question, but the void itself, Idolus?” Arlen almost seemed amused past the look of concern that took over his face.

“What happened on that mountain…that she fought the dragon…naked…that is the least of it,” Idolus stopped, spun on his heel, and stared at his companion.  “The very ground where we found her – the stone where she fell – it had been reduced to something like brittle clay beneath her.  Like the very substance of the rock had been corrupted.”

“Perhaps it was merely an odd property of the area?” Arlen offered.

“No, no, no,” Idolus refused.  “It was the same stone as everything else, but brittle, crumbled at a touch to a fine powder.  Like the loadstone of an enchanted fire lamp.  Laurel, the fool did not see it for what it was…and the way…she burned into my mind.  I cannot think of anything but her.  She is like a scar on the world.  I see her face in dreams amidst a sea of light…but her hair…it has turned something wild, and more unnatural than those cursed eyes of hers.  I feel something in my very bones at the thought of it.”

“We all stray to the thoughts of the flesh,” Arlen said consolingly.  “Even the strongest of us.”

“No,” Idolus snapped, and slammed his fist on a table, his eyes wild.  “I have found it in the Black Book.  I have felt it since the first time she touched my hand in the square.  The storm child walks among us, and she is the abyss, the void.  She will tear this world into oblivion.”

“Idolus,” Alren said firmly.  “She is just a girl.  A mage, a troubled child, yes, but harmless.  I have even consented to my wife’s wishes that Charles seek her favor.  If her sister remains missing, then she stands to inherit a great swath of the north.  My family could control two duchies, we could rival the King to reign in this land, and perhaps one day cast out the heretics.”

“Are you not listening?” Idolus all but screamed.  “She is not what she appears.  She is not.  If you tie yourself to her…I will have no part of it.”

“Please,” Arlen said measuredly, “old friend.  Find your senses.  We will watch her, but consider her sister too bares the same face.  Have you not possibly mistaken one for the other?”  He did not really consider that any more likely, but it seemed an easy way to cast doubt.  Normally he had high respect for Idolus, but his behavior had become slowly unstable for some time.  Arlen no longer trusted his judgement as he once had.  He worried if the ordeal with the dragon had broken the man for good.

Idolus sat down stiffly, and then wept.  “I do not know, but the world is wrong.  Something terrible is shifting.  I must consult my books, I must understand.  Do not let her be your undoing my friend.  Be cautious of this one.”

“I will,” Arlen said, and set his hand on Idolus’ arm.  His pity was honest, and what was more he thought little of Katrisha’s character.  “Do not think I trust her,” he offered.  “My son is erant, and I fear there is no bastion of correction left to send him too within Avrale.  Wesrook is a cesspool that my brother can barely restrain.  South Rook has fallen to that miserable man Perin…that they now call him, Duke…”  He seemed ill.

“So what?” Idolus said trying to recover himself.  “You have given up on your child?”

“I am attempting to make the best of many bad situations,” Arlen said.  “If the boy is to be corrupt, then I shall at least exploit it for the greater good.  If he can wed the wild creature, then there is at least potential to tame her, and use her dubious birthright to accomplish better things.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 13th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha picked at her plate idly, not even looking up at those seated around her at dinner.  To her left sat princess Maraline, as was often the case.  The princess considered the melancholy girl with some concern, and brushed back an auburn lock that had come loose.

“You really should eat,” Maraline offered.  “You’ll do your sister no favors starving yourself.”

Katrisha looked up, and seemed almost startled.  “Sorry,” she said, “merely lost in thought.”

“You have been quite a lot of late,” the young man to Maraline’s left offered.  “Though I dare say there is no blame to be had for such distraction.  Were any of my dear relatives missing for so long, let alone a twin…” he seemed quite affected by the thought.

“Quite so Adrien,” Maraline said, “though it does for me present some trouble.  I have been thinking to ask Katrisha to stand as my maid of honor, but if she is so distracted…”

“I think I could manage to focus,” Katrisha offered with only a touch of excitement, tinged with a hint of bewilderment, and her persistent malaise.  “Though I had no idea I was being considered.”

“We’ve always been quite amiable,” Maraline offered.

“We have,” Katrisha agreed.  “Still, I would think you to have closer friends than I.”

“My brother, of course, dear cousin Philip,” she nodded across the table to another young man, “but they are hardly maids.  I dare say we are closer than any of my other cousins, or than I am to any of my servants.  My mother’s efforts to find me proper handmaidens, ones I could call friend, have been…mixed.  Yet all this aside, truly, to have a dragon slayer at my side, few brides could be so honored.”

“Attempted,” Katrisha corrected awkwardly.

“Yes,” Maraline agreed, “but that is not quite the tale being told in many quarters.  Still, I think we can find more appropriate attire for you in the wedding party.”  She smiled a bit coyly.

“I should hope,” Katrisha agreed, with a mixture of humor and embarrassment.  “I would be honored if it is your wish.”

“Then it is settled,” Maraline smiled.  “Perhaps you might even catch the eye of an eligible young nobleman.”

“I should hope Laurel would dissuade any such interest,” Katrisha countered.  “Truly I agree with his current refrain.  I am far more trouble than I am worth.”

“Nonsense,” Maraline protested, “you are becoming quite lovely, and I dare say I would give my title to be as capable as you.”

“Capable of misadventure,” Philip cut in.

“Cousin!” Maraline snapped, aghast.

“I merely agree with the young lady,” Philip said in lieu of apology for his poorly considered jab.

“Surely not all young men long for delicate flowers?” Maraline questioned.  “Truly, I am such a prize – I will not deny – but if a young woman’s heart can flutter for a dashing man, why not a man’s for a fiery young lass?  Surely you are as delicate as I, Philip,” she said with some restrained amusement.

“Alas,” Philip countered, “my delicacy, prefers delicacy.  Though I do not deny the lady is lovely, and that her roguish nature is not without charm.  What of you Charles?  Want you mouse, or lion?”

Charles had been quiet, and seemed thoughtful when questioned.  “Though we have not been without our differences,” he answered diplomatically, “I do agree Katrisha has some admirable qualities, and among them a budding beauty.  I’m of mixed opinion on the affair with the dragon.  On the one hand foolish, on the other quite brave.”

“Perhaps,” Adrien began, “there is little difference between the two.  I’ve heard that our dear girl thought herself acting in the interest of her mentor.  So brave then, for acting against the better judgement of her own well being, which then some would label foolish.  Perspective.”

“Was that the reason?” Maraline asked.

Katrisha looked unhappy to answer, but felt she must.  “Yes.  A dream told me that Laurel would return dead, and Kiannae had the same vision.  In that dream we were here when he returned.  This told us that if we waited…still it was foolish.”

“And brave,” Adrien concluded.

“Agreed,” Charles laughed.  Katrisha gave him a funny look, but found his expression amiable.  She looked back to her plate.

“Now surely,” Maraline said, “you’ve some interest in a fine young man to wed?”

“I’ve not thought much on it,” Katrisha answered.  “Not in some time anyway.  Such daydreams were more my fancy when I was small, but I’ve had other interests with age.”

“How contrary,” Maraline shook her head, “that with the blooming of womanhood you have lost interest in love.  We must see if we cannot get someone to catch your eye then.  I’m sure if your heart was in it, your lovely charms could win any young man you wished.”

Katrisha gave Maraline a funny look.  It all seemed to her a very misplaced endeavor, but the compliment suiter her a little all the same.  If Marline, who had always seemed to her very pretty, thought she could have her pick, that surely was worth something.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 42nd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha blocked the sun from her eyes as she moved to exit the coach that had carried her, and the Princess for the last leg of their journey.  She had not been pleased that accepting a place as Maraline’s maid of honor had meant traveling to South Rook.  Her last visit had not gone entirely well.

It had been an ever shifting set of plans, but ultimately it was decided that the wedding should occur there, to ease the lingering tensions from the events that had displaced the former duke.  The reasoning – as it was explained – was that it must be perceived that South Rook gained a princess, not lost the heir to the seat.  All very political, and Katrisha could not disagree with the premise, though she prefered the comforts of home.

She surveyed South Rook, and looked up to the tower that loomed high above.  It hardly seemed any less grand than when she had been much younger.  To her surprise, Katrisha found Charles offering her a hand down, which only earned an odd look from her.  She slipped from the seat without accepting the hand, and landed with grace.  She nodded to him more challengingly than cordially, and stepped aside.

The princess for her part took his hand, and got down more carefully.  “I do adore South Rook,” Maraline declared as she looked around the city.

“That is fortunate,” Katirsha laughed, “since you are marrying the man destined to rule it.”

“It is certainly some comfort,” Maraline agreed, ”given I must leave Broken Hill behind, and only visit.  Still, that the city and the man are a pair….  Yes, I dare say my heart is content in this.”

Charles bowed to Maraline, and showed almost as much difference to Katrisha, who found it more than a bit odd, but consented to nod to him politely as he walked off to see to his own affairs.

“Why is Charles here any way?” Katrisha asked quietly of Maraline as they began to walk towards the keep’s outer gate.

“Appearances, mostly,” Maraline answered.  “His whole family was invited.  His father had no interest, but I expect to see the Duchess of Wesrook, and…”  The princess covered her mouth, laughed, and Katrisha followed her gaze in the direction Charles had gone.

“Charlie!” could be heard as a blond haired girl a head shorter than the young man finished her run at her brother, and to even Katrisha’s amazement lifted him off his feet.

“My, she’s getting quite strong,” Maraline said trying to reign in her humor.  “I think she got that one from you.  The only other young woman I can think of who lifts her brother off his feet.”

“At least Wren is smaller than me,” Katrisha laughed, “and younger.”

“Millarae!” an equally fair haired older woman yelled as she walked up on the scene.  “Show some dignity, please!”

“Duchess Meloria,” Maraline nodded as she and Katrisha approached the family reunion.

“Princess Maraline, Lady Ashton,” the Duchess nodded.  “Curtsy dear,” she said nudging Millarae, who did as she was bid.  “It is Katrisha, I presume?  Do forgive me, I never did learn to tell you from your twin…who I believe I have heard is still, absent.  Oh dear… Forgive me, that was poorly done, wasn’t it.”

Katrisha was stony faced.  “Yes, on all counts,” she took a breath, “and you would not be the first to raise the issue in precisely that way.”

“Again, my apologies,” Meloria offered.  “Still, it is very good to see you.  It has been several years since I have found cause to visit Broken Hill.”

“And it is good to see you as well,” Katrisha nodded.  “I barely remember little Millarae from my visit to Wesrook.  Not quite so little any more, she seems to have caught up to me.”

“I remember you,” Millarae laughed, “mostly ‘cause Charles could not be quiet about you.”

“Only because you would not stop asking questions about her,” Charles cut back.

“I asked about both of them,” Millarae scrunched her face up at her brother.  “You were all Katrisha did this, Katrisha did that.  You would swear her sister wasn’t even there.”

“Millarae,” her mother chided with false calm.

“Oh,” Millarae said uncomfortably.  “Sorry…”

Katrisha was already over it, but found the stony look on Charles’ face perplexing.  She was interrupted from her curiosity as Mercu arrived.

“Lady Meloria,” Mercu declared as he walked up on the exchange.

“Oh, good Mercu,” Meloria said.  “A pleasure to see you.”

“More so on my account, I assure you,” Mercu offered his hand, and Meloria obliged for him to kiss hers.  “I’d hoped you might attend the wedding.”

“I would not miss the opportunity,” Meloria said with a wry smile.  “Not every day a princess marries the heir of South Rook, and clears up this whole mess about succession.”

“Indeed,” Mercu obliged.  “I’m sure you have no other designs in your visit.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Meloria said with a laugh.  “Never to early to nudge things along in the right directions.”

“Any particular directions in mind?” Mercu asked conspiratorially.

“That, would be telling,”  Meloria said with a smirk.  “Let us head in, so much to do.  So many details to wrap up.  Most unfortunate that so much of the affair has been left to the last minute over political waffling on locations.  Men,” she muttered.  “So worried about how things look, that they undermine getting everything to look right.”

“I’d know nothing about that,” Mercu offered with a chuckle.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha glanced across the ballroom.  She had begun to lose interest in balls some years before.  She loved the dresses the women wore, the grace of some of the dancers, but the pomp and posturing had worn thin on her.  She was also not terribly fond of dancing any more herself, though perhaps it was the game implied with the coming of age.  She had other interests, the whole thing seemed a frivolous distraction, and she had enough of those.

As much as she admired many of the dresses she had rejected all of the options presented to her, and gone for her finest formal black robe, with silver trim.  She wore her favorite silver pin, gemmed with green glass.  While cheap in fact it held up quite well in practice.

She had accepted, with less reluctance, a loan of emerald cuff earrings, and and a necklace to match.  Her hair was up, held in a bun with pins.  On the whole she looked like a more refined version of her usual self.  She had successfully avoided being asked to dance, and stood along a wall simply watching the affair absently.

Millarae had largely dominated her brother’s time on the dance floor, and Katrisha was oddly heartened by how much the girl adored him.  That he showed her a remarkable amount of deference stood in odd contrast to Katrisha’s usual opinion of the boy.  Certainly it seemed he had some virtues that had escaped her, though she was little more capable of naming them for the observation.

Katrisha sipped her drink, and began idly forming an arrangement of orbiting spheres.  This drew passing attention from the other guests near her.  She quickly became lost in her idle entertainment, and barely noticed as someone approached her.

“I do not believe I have seen you dance at all tonight,” Charles commented.

It took Katrisha a moment to even realize the words had been meant for her, and she gave the hand being held out to her a rather curious glance.  “I would not wish to deprive your sister of a partner,” she opened with, in an attempt to politely reject the extended offer.

“She has already found one,” Charles said gesturing across the ballroom where Millarae danced with a young man of about her age.

Katrisha considered her options, found a place to set her drink, and rather than dispel her array of spheres, scattered them out into a slow moving cloud around them.  She raised an eyebrow, and took the hand, permitting Charles to lead her onto the dance floor.  “I never had the impression,” she began as the song started, and Charles took her other hand, “that you, and I were on such amiable terms.”

“We’ve certainly had our issues,” Charles answered, “but you, I believe made the first efforts long ago to mend that.”

“And you have continued to bungle matters,” Katrisha counterrd frankly.

“Through no intention, I assure you,” Charles replied as they moved through the crowd that gave some space to Katrisha’s orbiting light show.  “I admit though that I have little understood how to speak with you.”

“Presumptions, I think have always been your problem,” Katrisha offered.  “You presume that the world is, as you have been taught.”

“To be fair,” Charles countered, “I have been taught, what I have been taught.  Am I to think otherwise?”

“Are you incapable of considering things for yourself, and reading of your own accord?”

“Fair,” Charles offered, with some displeasure to admit.  Failing to find a good argument he moved on.  “My mother, and sister certainly think highly of you.”

“Curious,” Katrisha said.  “I barely know either.”

“Ah, but they have made it their business to know of you,” Charles countered.

“Whatever for?”

“Mother’s reasons are her own, but I think you, and your sister have become something of an inspiration to Millarae.  She has refused all efforts to dissuade her from practicing with the guard trainees.  At first of course they would go easy on her, when she would jump into a practice against orders, and start swinging.  I hear however, that she has begun to require more serious effort to avoid embarrassing them.  My father is fuming that it has been permitted, my uncle disgusted with her behavior.  He even gave the order to knock her down in any way that wouldn’t leave a mark, which has only lead to her getting better,” he laughed lightly.  “Mother I think has made peace with it at least.”

“Have you spared with her?” Katrisha asked.

“I have.  No challenge, but I have many years on her,” Charles offered.

“You do not think it is merely because she is a girl then?” Katrisha challenged.

“She is younger, yes, but you are both of these as well, and have bested me.”

It seemed only a slight dodge.  Katrisha let it slide.  “No excuses this time?”

“Less an excuse, than a fact,” Charles answered.  “You are still the only opponent I have faced armed with a stave.”

“We could try again,” Katrisha offered.  “Perhaps in the morning?”

“Not enough dancing tonight?” Charles asked with nervous humor.

“More fun in the ring, I’m allowed to knock you on your rear,” Katrisha countered.

“Won’t you be busy though?”

“The wedding is not for another day,” Katrisha protested.  “Are you making excuses?”

“Only making sure.”  Charles laughed uncomfortably.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 1st, 647 E.R.

It was very early, but this had not stopped a collection of curious onlookers from gathering.  Word had spread quickly of a duel proposed between the young mage who had fought a dragon, and the heir of Wesrook.  Many whispers had curiously mentioned that it had been arranged over a dance, and the novelty of that alone had something of a draw.

Katrisha, for once, had been up very early, and been waiting for Charles for some time.  She was meditating as the crowd had gathered.  Meditation had never been her strong suit, so she was surprised to notice that she had missed the gathering, and Charles’ arrival.  She did her best to hide her foggy frame of mind as she glanced about.

Katrisha considered that there was quite a royal audience at the front.  The Duchess of Wesrook, and Millarae were behind Charles.  The King, Crown Prince, and Maraline to her left.  The Princess looked as though she was worried that her maid of honor might be bruised for her wedding day, in spite of Katrisha’s assurances that she could heal anything unsightly.  In of course the implausible event Charles could even land a blow.

The groom to be, and the sitting Duke Parin were to Maraline’s right.  Mercu stood a few steps behind, and had an uncharacteristic expression that was hard to read.  Something less than jovial, shrewd certainly.  She doubted he entirely approved of her little challenge, but had kept his silence.  He had no power to dissuade her, and wouldn’t think to do so now that a crowd had gathered.  Katrisha was less certain of the rest of the gathered onlookers, but she intended to put on a good show.  Mercu might not approve, but he had certainly taught her showmanship.

“So, sticking with sword and shield?” Katrisha asked as charles moved to arm himself.  She lept up, and struck a fighting stance, a little more exaggerated to be showy.  “The stave does still have the advantage of reach.”

“Though you said I was the only one you’ve fought with a stave,” Katrisha observed teasingly.

“Wasn’t really proper matches, just pointers.”

“And have you beaten Horence?” Katrisha asked.

“Once,” Charles said.

“Twice,” Katrisha smiled, and bowed to her opponent.

“Who opens?” Charles asked, and bowed himself.

“The one with the guts,” she taunted, and before Charles could set himself to it, she had already struck.  He was more than able to catch her blow, the shield providing defensive advantage, where the stave had reach.

Charles of course could not remain defensive, and maintain face, so made his own cautious move.  This was easily deflected into a counter strike, taken again loudly by his shield.  Neither move had been serious, not merely testing, but there was an unspoken showmanship that went with dueling before a large crowd.  You open slow, not merely to avoid overcommitting, but also to not finish quickly.

The following series of traded blows were faster than the first.  Charles parried with his practice sword, and tried instead an attack with the shield.  Early for such an opening gambit, but the surprise did earn him more effort, and some dramatic movement by Katrisha to deal with the threat.  Charles attempted to exploit this and get a thrust in, but she evaded it, and brought her staff around hard into another successful block.

“No magic,” Charles taunted.

“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction,” Katrisha laughed, and another series of quick blows were traded, parried, blocked.  Katrisha made ample use of the flexibility of the staff to deflect a blow, and carry through an attack with the other end.  Charles easily dealt with this, the independance of the sword, and shield showing advantage.

Katrisha came down from above with a swing, Charles brought himself under the wild move, blocking above, and thrusting forward, but Katrisha was already out of the way of the thrust, and flicked the sword away with the other end of the staff.

“Sure you aren’t using magic?” Charles laughed.

“Magic,” Katrisha said, “is spells.  The gift is in the blood, the bone, and the flesh.”

They exchanged more blows quickly to no advantage.  “Still seems like cheating to me,” Charles said.

“Would you have me hold back?  Tie a hand behind my back?”  Katrisha chided.  “You even use a bit of gift yourself, the blood of dukes, and all that.  Nothing worth training for magic, but I can read your stronger strikes before you make them, because you are channeling it.  Typically, I expect you would think you have an advantage in strength, being a man.”  She moved quickly, striking several times with great force, and pushing Charles onto defense.  “But I have the greater gift by far, so I can actually hit harder than you.”

“Still sounds like cheating,” Charles countered.

“Whatever helps you save face,” Katrisha laughed, and parried a series of his blows with no thought to counter any of them.  “Here, let me help.  I will tie a hand behind my back, more or less.”  She threw out a series of light orbs with sweeps of her staff that hovered around the edge of the ring.  “I’ll maintain these, while fighting you.  Just a little distraction to keep things interesting.  Of course if you get distracted by them too, that’s your problem.”

Charles dubiously tried several more attacks, but found Katrisha still more than capable.  He hardly trusted that what she had just done did not help her in some way.  She had however been honest, it was a distraction to do so, but the temptation to have some fun crept in.  She absorbed some of the force from every blow she blocked, storing it off into the orbs, making new ones if any showed signs of overloading.

“What are you up to?” Charles asked after their dance had gone on a while longer.

“Just a little fun,” Katrisha smiled.  “Nothing I’ll use on you, promise.  Really quite distracting.  I might have to start trying to fight you soon.”

Charles got more aggressive at the taunting, and true to her word Katrisha did have to start struggling with some of his blows, but not so much as to keep her from counter attacking frequently.  One particular parry let her get her staff behind his shield to strike his shoulder, and knock him off balance.  She parried a counter stroke that he tried anyway, and swept his leg landing him on his rear.

Exhilarated Katrisha came out of the sweep, and struck the ground hard, using all the stored energy she had to launch herself upward spectacularly, shattering the spheres, and cresting a good ten feet in the air.  She lacked the actual grace to control the resulting tumble, and had to use magic to correct it.  She shed the force of her fall into the air around her as she landed some distance behind the already downed Charles.  In truth she nearly toppled from the landing, but quick use of her stave for balance made the whole thing look quite nearly flawless.

She huffed several times wondering what had come over her.  It had felt so natural, riding a wave of adrenaline, but it had been wildly impetuous.  The stunned crowd started clapping for the finish.  Katrisha straightened up, and walked over to offer Charles her hand.  “Sorry, got carried away.”

He took the hand reluctantly.  “Shall we try that again, without showing off?”  He said.

“If you insist,” Katrisha laughed, “but it will only go worse for you.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“What do you all say?” Katrisha hollered, turning to look over the crowd. “Would you like an encore?  Without the flourish?”

“With!”  Someone yelled back.

“I’ll take another challenger after I give Charles his boring round,” Katrisha laughed.  Mercu’s expression underwent a barely perceptible shift.  “Or three!”  She turned back, and bowed to Charles, who returned it.  Already warmed up the two went quickly into real attacks, no longer really needing to test the other.  It was evident to Katrisha that Charles was putting everything he had into the match then, and she kept it simple, making sure that there was no chance it looked as though she did anything but fight him fair, and square.  However in simple truth he was at a disadvantage.

The match ended almost the same – save no dramatic aerial performance – but with a twirl that took her out of the path of a swing, and brought her staff behind Charles, knocking him forward.  She offered him her hand again, and he took it.

“Let’s hear a round for Charles,” Katrisha said, and there was some modest clapping, though more enthusiastic from his sister.  “Alright.  I’ll need three volunteers.  Let’s help the boy save some face by showing what I can really do.  I’m the girl who fought a dragon, who wants a go?”  What had become at times a thing of some embarrassment, right that moment, high from victory, was an almost giddy badge of honor.

The knight commander of South Rook stepped forth, as did two of the guard.  “You sure it’s a fair fight?” he asked.

“Only one way to find out,” Katrisha laughed, and grinned a bit impishly.  “But I will be going all in this time, magic and all.  Nothing too rough of course.”

The commander nodded.  “Alright, swords, and shields boys.”

“Little more room everybody,” Katrisha yelled out.  “Don’t want any bystanders getting in the way.”  She rolled her shoulders, and the three men armed with practices swords, and shields surrounded her.  Her barrier went up, a simple enough spell that would slow anything inert except her own stave, which she quickly enchanted to counter the effect.  She made sure though not to slow the incoming attacks too much, just for the sake of show.  It would give her a strong advantage, but not directly tip off ungifted observers what was going on.

“Gentlemen first.”  Katrisha laughed, and bowed.  Her three opponents returned it, though only two were in view.  Taking Katrisha’s comment as an instruction the commander opened.  His attacks were testing, and no real threat.  “Come on,” Katrisha chided the other two, “join in.  I want to make this interesting.”

The barrier slowed the strikes of her attackers just enough to allow Katrisha to deflect two separate blows with a single swing.  To them it felt as though they were striking molasses, and they could feel a chill in their blades.  The guard behind her, seeing she was distracted tried for obvious advantage, only to find his thrust parried, as Katrisha could sense it entering her field.  Though she largely had to guess where precisely the strike was, her staff made a broad sweep effective.  

She turned into the single opponent, gave him a quick thrust to the chest that he failed to block, and put him on his rear.  Pulling out of her previous attack, she came around again with a wave of force stored up in her barrier.  This knocked the other guard from his feet, and staggered the commander.

She dueled with the commander momentarily for fun, while the other two got back up.  He was good, much better than her, and in a fair fight she wouldn’t have stood a chance, but she wasn’t arranging a fair fight, she was showing off.  He was also gifted, even more so than Charles, which was still to his disadvantage.  She could read his moves before he made them, while he had to read her body language, and tells.  Something that decades of experience made him quite good at.

On the whole Katrisha suspected the man to be Horence’s equal at least, if not slightly his better.  He did not however have the same talent for reading the moves of gifted, and this in turn was in Katrisha’s favor.  On the whole it was only managing two other opponents that was making it a nearly fair fight.

Katrisha felt another strike coming from behind, and dodged, sweeping the leg of the second guard who had only just gotten back up, and returning him to the ground.  She struck the back of the man who had come from behind, and pushed him forward, forcing the commander to back off.  All three were then in front of her.  She brought her staff around for several more swings with reach, each of which were parried.  She made a move that was better to dodge than block, and forced the commander into position for a blow of force that teetered him, and forced the others to the ground.  He almost recovered before her next staff swing brought him down.

Katrisha bowed again, and the crowd clapped.  “Now that,” she laughed.  “Is how you cheat.”  She offered a hand to a guard who was still down, and then to the commander.  “Thank you,” she said, “I’ve never gotten to do that before.”  He did not look particularly more pleased.

Katrisha walked over to Maraline who was particularly enthusiastic with her applause.  She curtsied to the princess.  “So, still worried about me being marked up for tomorrow?”

“No, but I do have some concerns about my other guests,” Maraline laughed.

“Why?” Katrisha grinned, “I’ll protect them.”

“But who ever will protect them from you?”

“Their own good sense not to fight me?” Katrisha suggested.

“After today, I should hope.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 2nd, 647 E.R.

The wedding was a lovely affair.  Far grander than anything Katrisha had witnessed, and even for all the regal airs it did touch something in her.  Still, even a more spectacular ball than the one which had first welcomed the wedding party to South Rook, could not hold her interest for very long.  She had heard that there would be fireworks, and retreated to a higher floor, where from years past she recalled a public balcony.

The view out over South Rook was a lovely thing, and for a moment it brought Katrisha some peace.  Though a moment of calm from the storm growing in her mind, only provided opportunity for her to grapple with what was truly troubling her.  She was happy for Maraline, she was, she assured herself.  There was no question in her mind that Lukus was dear to her, and that she would be content in South Rook.  It was South Rook that bothered her.

Katrisha remembered all too well the conversation that she and her sister had overheard in that very spot years before.  The schemes of a duke and baron to elevate criminals, and blame the innocent.  As distasteful as that aspect was, it was her sister that bothered her.  Kiannae was gone, somewhere far away.  That was if she still lived, and Katrisha had to believe her sister had not come to some terrible end.  Yet believing so at that moment took far more effort that she was comfortable with.  Effort, that if Laurel’s theories were correct, Kiannae had not given to imagining Katrisha could have survived.  She waffled from sorrow, to anger, and then settled on thoughts of Maraline.

She was honored, and touched that Maraline had chosen her to stand as maid of honor, but also troubled by it.  Katrisha was unsure if she really considered Maraline a friend, but if she was not, then Katrisha had to accept she had none.  Wren counted, surely, even if he was blood, but the distinction whittled away at the thin comfort.

Even if Maraline was Katrisha’s friend, she would no longer reside at court on Broken Hill, and Wren lived in the north with Renae.  The wedding meant that Katrisha would be alone, with no confidant at all, save Laurel and Mercu.  However much she loved each they were like fathers to her, not the easy comfort of friendship, or her bond with her sister.

“I thought I saw you head up into the tower,” Charles commented behind her.  She was almost startled, but even distracted by her own thoughts, on some level she had known someone had approached, and stood there for some time.  Maybe even on some level knew who, Charles did have gift enough that his presence gave a unique impression.  Not unlike the feel of soft piled hay, a fleeting memory from a childhood home long gone.

Katrisha turned irritably to the young man, who for his part looked to her with none of the venom she offered.  He wore a kind smile, and regal attire appropriate to the day’s festivities.  His blond hair was swept to the side, and on the whole he was very put together.  For just a moment she could forget how often in her life he had annoyed her.  He had been trying so very hard to be better it seemed, yet she was ill at ease to release the grudges she held.

“I sought solitude,” Katrisha began, but then thought better of it, “and have come to question if I truly desire it.”  She was not inclined to encourage Charles to remain, nor as she thought on it entirely ready to be alone anymore.  She leaned against the rail, and crossed her arms, giving him a look she couldn’t have read herself.

“Tell me what it is you would prefer,” Charles offered.

“That I have any friends left in this world,” she offered in confidence that she immediately reconsidered.

“Surely you are Maraline’s friend,” Charles questioned, “she did name you her maid of honor.”

“She and I,” Katrisha began with some reservation, “are somewhat in the same predicament.  I’m not sure if either of us would readily say friend of the other, save to be polite, and not split hairs unnecessarily.  Yet what real confidence we have, I cannot say.  No, perhaps I am unfair.  She has often offered me confidence more than once regarding her beloved, now husband.  I’ve had nothing similar to offer in kind, nor do I know if I would have.  However much we have been raised in the same court, I feel none the less like we are part of different worlds.”

“I see,” Charles nodded, and stepped further onto the balcony.  He leaned on the rail a respectful distance away.  “Who has my confidence, I am also less than certain,” he offered.  “I’ve sparring partners certainly,” he said thoughtfully, “and a camaraderie of sorts that comes naturally with my fellow heirs.”

“What of Philip?” Katrisha pressed.  “The two of you have always seemed quite amiable.”

“Perhaps,” Charles seemed quite dubious on the suggestion. “Yet what interests do we really share?  Polite conversation over affairs of a nation that one day will actually be our responsibility?  He’s more favorable of the views my father holds than his cousin, or you…or the King.  It seems a losing proposition altogether.”

“Do I hear doubt in your voice for Clarion teaching?” Katrisha asked cautiously.

“Doubt…certainly,” Charles offered.  “Who in this world is without doubt?  Yet who am I to question, and all the more who am I to ignore that my betters question.  I cannot say that I do not find a sense of peace in the teaching, and yet there is so much fire that belies the harmony promised.”

“Life is suffering,” Katrisha mused.

“Not words I would imagine to hear from your lips,” Charles pressed curiously.

“And why wouldn’t I?”  Katrisha countered.  “My sister is lost to me, and I must cling defiantly to the hope that she lives.  I have no true friends, save my own brother who spends much of the year far away.  Further I have not felt entirely right since the mountain.”

“Surely your injuries were an ordeal, and the strain of the circumstances would linger,” Charles suggested kindly.

“I keep feeling it is more.”  Katrisha shook her head.  “That something other than the obvious is wrong.  Not even the shadow of a war that ever looms, but never comes, seems to answer the call of what troubles me.  I find that… I am drifting, losing focus.  That time sometimes slips by, and I fail to even notice.”

“You seemed focused enough in our duel,” Charles countered, “or when you defeated three grown men, expertly trained to fight.”

“When I have something to focus on,” Katrisha said, “particularly something as invigorating as a sparring, it is not so difficult.”

“Does conversation help?”

“It would seem,” Katrisha consented, and looked back out over the city.

“Then perhaps I will remain here with you.”

Katrisha glanced at the young man.  She was still not sure she liked him at all, but there was something pleasant in the way he looked at her.  She nodded, and turned back to the city.  “As you will.”

A series of fireworks began to light the darkening sky, and as lovely as they were, Katrisha found herself closing her eyes, and listening to the sound.  She felt a hand beside hers on the rail, nothing quite so forward as to place it atop hers.  She barely looked down, somewhat willfully ignored that Charles had moved closer, and returned to the display in the sky.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 12th, 647 E.R.

Laurel considered with some curiosity the complex array of orbs that buzzed about Katrisha’s tower chamber.  It filled most of the room, and was to his eye the most detailed recreation of the solar system he had ever seen, rivaling anything he had ever done himself.  Planets, moons, and even asteroids moved along projected arcs, and a great many arcane symbols followed, or labeled the courses.  Though he recognized most of the symbols, the notation meant nothing to him.  It seemed likely something of Katrisha’s own devising.

He dodged planets as he made his way towards where Katrisha sat, seemingly absent mindedly in bed.  His passage slightly disrupted the projected paths, but seemed to do little to the overall function of the spell.  He stopped to consider a number of runes that moved on their own curious paths not seeming to label anything obvious, but quickly became more concerned with Katrisha’s acknowledgement of his presence.

Taking less care to avoid the moving parts of the spell he waked to Katrisha’s bed.  Still she just sat there, staring distantly past the center of the room.

“Katrisha?” Laurel pressed, and received no response.  He grabbed her by the shoulders gently, still nothing.  He gave a light shake.   “Kat, wake up.”

Still Katrisha sat there unblinking, and Laurel could barely have cared less as a large planet and accompanying moons crashed into him, and dissolved in swirls of light that washed over them.

Katrisha blinked, and looked around.  “What?” she asked.

Laurel got down on his knees.  “Are you alright?”

“I think so,” Katrisha seemed confused.  “What’s going on?”

“That’s my question,” Laurel demanded.

“What?” Katrisha looked around even more confused.

“What were you doing?” Laurel asked in a measured tone.

“I wasn’t doing anything…I…”  She looked bewildered.  “I was just laying down for a nap.”

“When was the last time you ate?” Laurel asked befuddled, and worried.

“Breakfast,” Katrisha answered.

“Go get some lunch,” Laurel ordered, and Katrisha nodded somewhat absently.  She got up, and Laurel got out of her way as she walked out of the room.  There were no traces of the spell, and Laurel was less than certain if she had dispelled it, or if it’s decay had been what had finally woken her.

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The Sylvan Sta

I’m not going to share all my notes on what exactly all the Sylvan words and phrases in Book II are, but I will speak a bit about the Sylvan tongue, or sta/stan – speak/language.

Most of their language is comprised of brief roots, that in their script are typically one glyph.  Ta, te, ka, ki, ke, na, ha, un, ve, and so on are just a tiny sample.  Most if not all of these are words on their own.  There are a few modifiers like a, i, y, etc that can significantly change a word’s meaning.  Every key sound has an undertone of meaning ranging from quality, to gender, strength, and so on, but these are far from absolute.  They merely offer an extra level of emotional impact to the language for a learned speaker.

That all said, the language is a bit like english in that there has been a lot of degradation of the roots with time.  Most speakers have as such memorized words, and not roots.  Tepal (true-people) who re-root their speech are considered full of themselves, and too in their head.  That is except among the nobility, where it is common, and praised.  There is further massive use of idioms that have become as ingrained in their language as lol, or gun metaphors have infected english.

It is also what I (an amateur linguist at best) would call a half-tonal language.  Which is to say that tone, much like in english, mostly carries emotional import, or subtext.  The subtext however is almost more crucial in Testa (true-speech.)  It can change the meaning of words and phrases in ways that would be familiar to english speakers.  Question, or statement, doubt or certainty, command or request, and a number of hard to translate concepts.  Further, sarcasm is actually a built in feature of their language, and has at least three distinct forms ‘accusatory,’ ‘playful,’  and ‘leading.’

This obnoxiously introduces the idea of double-sarcasm, and is the point at which people learning Sylvan typically quit, or master it instantly.  This, in well used double-sarcastic form, would imply not judgement of either party, but props to the language.  In this case it would also mean about the same thing regardless of the form (tone), but there are nuanced untranslatable (most Sylvans even get a bit confused) meanings to each combination of tone in the double-sarcasm.  Very cheeky speakers may chain every other word in a differing sarcastic tone.  The effect of which is rather sing-song, and typically cheery sounding.  Just like in english, the speaker is probably making a total ass of themself for irritating effect.  A noble would never do this, at least not outside of very intimate company.


 

Side Notes:

Sylvan glyphs look similar (more rigid, and complex) to many runes used by mages, and there is some shared meaning with standard convention, but it is fragmentary at best.  Nonetheless being presented with Sylvan writing, rather than speech, Kiannae might have had a much easier time understanding some of it.

On pronunciation:

There is no direct z sound in Sylvan speech, but there is j, which is pronounced a bit like zj, and to be differentiated from g which is the strong gu.  I chose to use js over zs though for reasons, which the most astute amongst my readers might guess.  I also won’t cry over anyone juing instead of zjaing – its close enough.

Also when in doubt y is as in yet.


 

For kicks here is a translation of the first verse of Ivan’s song:

Vonjon vejon, jo os soer ven.
What-will-be will-be, [the] future not ours [to] see.

No, the rest does not translate into other parts of que sera sera.
It’s closer to “for every season turn turn,” but not quite.

For clarity: There is an idiomatic understanding of objectifying the future; which implies “will-be.”  A grossly literal and un-nuanced translation would read “what-future-being” “why-future-being.”   The objective n in Sylvan does a lot of complex things in various contexts, including changing vo (which) into von (what,) or ve (why,) into ven (see.)  The intent of vejon is a re-iteration of uncertain future, but again in an objective sense.  A more certain statement of “will be” would translate jo ji – but this is almost more like saying “[it] will be [done].”  A fairly proper answer to a superior, parent, elder, etc giving a command.

Now since I’ve given you ve (why,) then veve would best translate “why [ask] why?”


 

Feel free to speculate in the comments, I’d love to hear what you all think.  Keep in mind if you think it could be a spoiler please preface it for your fellow readers with [Book]:[Chapter]:Spoiler, or just “Speculative Spoiler:” if you think you have unraveled something far reaching. Thanks!

Chapter 2

What men walk the Sylvan wood,
these ones of blended ancient kin,

tall slim and proud they stand,
with quick feet and steady hand,

of most little more can be discerned,
but of shining eyes and ears adorned,

yet few of those noble born ne’er to rule,
those great lions broad stout and true.

– unknown origin, circa 200 E.R.

Out of the Woods

Coria 40th, 647 E.R.

A raven haired young woman awoke in a great deal of pain.  Everything was scratched and bruised, and she was deathly cold.  She could rarely remember being cold.  Winters had never bothered her much, and spring well underway.  Though it did not help she she had left her robe somewhere.  Where seemed an overly complicated and relative question at that point.  After a single excruciating breath, and a foolish attempt to move, her burning chest and throbbing leg easily drown out every other sense.

There was an instant of amazement as she realized what had stirred her back to consciousness.  She was moving, or rather someone was moving her – which hurt almost more than moving herself.  Her emerald eyes flicked around deliriously, but in the early morning light, and her dazed frame of mind the onlookers seemed little more than meaningless shadows.  Patches of darkness shifting through a sea of murky sapphire, flecked with the last bright stars of morning.  Those stars felt oddly closer than the people around her.

She tried to remember where she was, and how she had gotten there.  She remembered being hit, the sound of cracking bone, a sweep of starry sky, and then the ground rushing up to meet her.  She remembered trying to stop her fall, setting off the spell both too soon, sloppily, tumbling, and then the sound of her leg breaking from the impact at the end.  The sound was a sickening memory, but she hadn’t even felt it.  Just darkness washing over her, more stars, and a cold distant ache.  There were whispers, arguing, bickering, but it all slipped away, replaced with the world pulling her back in.

People were talking, and it took the girl a moment to actually process any of what was being said.  Her name slipped through a few times, stirring the deep quagmire of her mind.  Katrisha.  It was familiar, but it didn’t fully sink in.

The voice of her mentor and adoptive father clicked first.  “I swear, if I felt sure enough of either Eran or myself as a healer, I’d send you away now.  Your carelessness up on the cliffs made this already insane situation worse.”  Laurel was his name, Grey the family, by all accounts earned long ago for the striking silver eyes the line was known for.

Katrisha squinted and tried to focus on the man who was attempting to lay her on her back.  She recognized Idolus after a few moments, a somewhat troublesome priest she thought little of.  His services by her reckoning always came at a price, be it gold or influence. His glance barely acknowledged that he had noticed she was awake.  His left arm hung in a sling, even as he moved his right hand over her body seeking out critical injury.

“And you,” Laurel snapped, realizing Katrisha was conscious. “You stupid, arrogant, insufferable child.  If I wasn’t just glad to see you breathing, I’d tan your damned hide till you couldn’t sit for a month…even with healing.”

Katrisha just turned her gaze up, and stared at the slowly brightening sky.  She had never imagined pain like she was feeling.  It was bad enough that she couldn’t even scream.  Quick intakes of breath that came when the pain spiked caused deep burning agony that turned what would be guttural cries into pitiful squeaks.  Yet at once it all seemed vaguely detached and far away.  She glanced again at Idolus, and as much as she knew she needed his healing, she liked him less than ever.  There was something in the way he looked at her as he worked, that made her very unhappy she had opted to remove her robe before the fight.

What had made her do that?  She focused on it, trying to be anywhere but in that moment.  It had been a book, and a realization on the long ride into the mountains.  Even enchanted the robe would have done almost nothing to save her from a single swipe, or the crushing bite of the dragon.  Yet ironically the only strike that had even touched her – an accidental sweep of the tail – might, just maybe have not broken her ribs if she had kept it on, but just as any blunt force it probably wouldn’t have done much.  Further she was all the less certain if she would have avoided the rampaging dragon that could not see her, if she had kept the robe.

Which was it; a mistake, or the right move after all?  The whole thing was foolish, but the craziest detail made for a great distraction given she could legitimately question her own logic, focus on it, and almost ignore everything else…almost.  Pain is very good at breaking through even the best distractions.  It is not meant to be ignored.  It is meant to make you stop what you are doing, or at least think twice before you do it again.

Laurel railed on for several more seconds before thinking better of the fact he was clearly being ignored, and turned his ire instead to the knights and Eran, who he chastised mercilessly for not turning their backs on the scene.  Katrisha stifled a laugh, successfully, but simply drawing the breath to do so sent her head spinning with blinding agony, and she nearly passed out.

“She’ll live,” Idolus said in a matter of fact tone.  “Her insides are quite bruised, some significant internal bleeding in the broken leg, and multiple fractured, or outright broken ribs.  I can stabilize her enough to move her, but it will take an hour or more.”

Katrisha finally looked at Laurel, and focused long enough for his expression to actually sink in.  His scowl slowly softened to disappointment, concern, and for just a moment she felt embarrassed for what she had done.  Had there been another way?  It didn’t matter, he was alive, she was alive.  It didn’t matter if there had been another way.  Any pain was worth it that he was alive, that everyone was alive.  Even cursed Idolus.

Where was Kiannae she suddenly wondered?  And a touch of fear crept in around the edges.  The prophecy still hung on her.  Yet everyone else was there, and her sister had not been down in the ravine.  She wanted to ask, but could not draw a breath deep enough to do so.  She closed her eyes.  She had to be alright…she had to.  Didn’t she?  They had the talent of battle mages, gifts not plausibly won from only a single future fight, and Kiannae hadn’t even been in the fight.  Had she?  What had happened after Katrisha’s fall, she couldn’t know.

“In that case can you please get her to the point we can put her robe back on,” Laurel said in dismay.

“Y…yes,” Idolus said his voice slightly unnerved.  Katrisha screamed as he set her broken leg, and could feel as he began to mend severed veins, and knit broken bone.  She had felt healing magic before, but there was something cold and uncaring to Idolus’ touch.  It was precise, pinpoint, and did little to hide the pain caused by the injuries as they were mended.  His manner was stiff and dispassionate, even as she could feel his gaze wandering.  She wanted to be mad, embarrassed, she wanted to cover herself, but she could do nothing but lay there motionless, and be healed.

“Someone get a cursed blanket,” Laurel yelled at the knights.  Promptly Eran moved to a horse, removed the saddle, and took the blanket from underneath.  He handed it to Laurel who quickly  brought it over, and covered Katrisha.  He then gave the most reproving look she had ever seen to Idolus, that paled even to how he had been glaring at her.  She felt at once vindicated, and ill that he had seen something in the man’s gaze as well.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It was late evening when the slow march of horses stopped in a vaguely familiar village square.  The procession had been slow, and taken many breaks to rest, and insure that broken bones, and bruised organs remained healed.  It had been a long, miserable, and very somber day of few words.   Laurel had not even spoken to his wounded charge directly in hours.  Not even to answer about Kiannae as he sent Eran off in search of her.

Katrisha looked around tiredly, she was sore everywhere.  Most of her scrapes and bruises had been left.  Idolus had exhausted too much of his reserves dealing with her broken bones, other major injuries, and apparently his own, to manage minor details.  She doubted if he would have any way.  She had tried to deal with some of the more agitating annoyances along the ride, or at rest stops, but her skills were lacking, and her own reserves drained far more than she felt they should be.

Katrisha looked down at a knight who was offering to help her down off her horse, and reluctantly accepted.  Though the bone in her leg was mended, muscles were still strained, and slightly torn.  She found she walked painfully with a limp, even with the knights help.

There were a lot of side long glances from anyone in the street.  Knights and gifted coming from the north in sore shape drew interest, and concern, but not questions.  Only two knights remained, out of the four that had road with Laurel to the mountain.  One had gone on with Eran to search for Kiannae, and one had ridden on early in the day to give word to the King.  Idolus for his part had proceeded without stopping after a single fierce glance from Laurel.

Katrisha looked about at the tavern they entered, but said nothing as she was lead to a corner, and sat at a table almost forcefully.  She glanced at Laurel who was engaged in what – at that point of exhaustion – must have passed as lively debate over arrangements.  After a minute or two he walked over, a drink in each hand, and nearly slammed one down in front of her.

Katrisha looked up at Laurel with obvious confusion on her face.  She had only once been offered some wine before, and only vaguely remembered her distaste at the time.  Laurel just shook his head. “Drink, figure at this point it couldn’t hurt.  In fact it might help with the pain.”  Hesitantly she lifted the tankard, sniffed it, and wrinkled her nose at the odor.  She looked at Laurel again who pulled out a chair from the table and, sat down with great resignation, and then just seemed to watch her curiously.

At last Katrisha convinced herself to take a sip, and it was all she could do to not gag at the bitterness.  “Mercyful fates,” she cursed, “why would anyone ever willingly drink that?”

Laurel shrugged and took a long swig.  After a moment he leaned forward, and rested his head on his left hand, and sighed.  “It’s an acquired taste I guess,” he mused, “or perhaps it’s just a taste for distraction.”  Katrisha hesitantly tried another sip, but wrinkled her nose and shook her head, still disgusted.

“I could lecture you,” Laurel sighed.  “I could lecture you, and tell you how incredibly stupid you are…” he trailed off, his voice having risen more in tenor than he wished.  He took another drink, and sighed again, before continuing in a softer tone, “But it doesn’t seem to help, does it?  So what will…what do I have to do?”

Katrisha looked away, embarrassed, angry – angry at him, angry at herself, angry at things she couldn’t even name.  She wondered if there was something wrong with her.  Was she really just stupid, hopeless, foolish, reckless, and destructive?  Were these the words that would define her, that people would think of to describe her?

She had acted on a prophetic dream, one she was sure of, one that a voice had told her to.  Yet none of that was a sensible excuse.  For all Laurel had ever told her on the matter, she only felt it could make things worse to mention.  He was alive, she was alive, Kiannae – wherever she was – surely was alive.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said defiantly, but still looked away.  She watched the animated gestures of one of the knights.  He was talking to a barmaid, no doubt retelling the tale of the previous evening, with far more importance on himself.

“I wish you did,” Laurel muttered, and leaned back.  “I could really use the help.”

Katrisha tried a third sip of her beer, grimaced, and thought to herself that maybe it was about distraction.  If all you are thinking about is how bad it tastes, you aren’t thinking about anything else, and so she continued to nurse her drink quietly.  There were after all, a great many things she didn’t want to think about.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 647 E.R.

Katrisha rolled her shoulders, and winced even as the cracking in her neck made her feel slightly better.  She felt like she hadn’t slept well, though she had no memory of tossing or turning in the night.  Her head hurt, and she wondered if it had gotten knocked hard at some point she had forgotten, during either the fighting, or more likely the fall.

Laurel sat in a far corner of the tavern, and seemed disinterested that Katrisha had finally been dragged from bed by the staff.  A bar maid appeared from the kitchen, and urged her to a nearby table, setting bacon and eggs before her.  The woman stopped to consider her for a moment, and Katrisha recognized her as one the knight had been chatting up the evening before.

At last it seemed she got up the nerve to speak her mind.  “Is it true what those braggarts told me?”

“Depends what they told you,” Katrisha offered with some reservation.

“Did you really try to fight a dragon…naked?”

Katrisha winced, a part of her wanted to be proud, but really she did feel justifiably stupid for the first time.  “Maybe,” she said blushing, “maybe try isn’t even the right word.  I think I was winning till that damn priest decided he wanted a better view of the fight.”

The woman laughed, a bit uncomfortably, but there was a certain admiration in her obvious condemnation.  It had an oddly pleasing effect Katrisha could not place.  “Well, I dare say, you’ve got more balls than any man I’ve ever met.  Possibly less sense too, but that would be close, I’ve met some damn fools.”

Katrisha considered the smiling woman before her, it was her turn to laugh – which still hurt a bit.  “Yer right on the last count, I’ve accepted that.  I think maybe I’m not right in the head.  I also wasn’t doing it alone…” she trailed off.

“Yer sister, right?” the barmaid asked.  “Some kind of fancy illusion to make the dragon not see you?”

“Yeah,” Katrisha said prodding at the food in front of her, “something like that.”  She was an odd mixture of desperately hungry, and queasy.

“Sounds clever,” the woman continued, “for a damned fool stunt, anyway.”

Katrisha simply nodded, and started to eat as the woman walked away shaking her head.  In another corner of the tavern she saw two knights sitting, and quietly eating.  After a moment she realized Eran was also with them, and had fallen asleep at the table.  It took her a further strained thought to connect that he, and the second knight had been the ones searching for Kiannae.  They had not arrived till either very late, or after dawn.  She looked around, but there was no sign of her sister.

Katrisha was about to walk over and ask if there had been any sign of Kiannae, when she noticed that Laurel had moved, and was pulling out the chair across from her.  He looked her up and down, and then followed her repeated gaze to the knights.

“Eran arrived not long ago,” he began.  “He found her horse out east, but no sign of her.  He says it looked like she had run off into the woods.  He followed her trail a ways, but it vanished in a rocky area too close to Sylvan territory for comfort.”

Katrisha hung her head, and told herself her sister was fine, that she could take care of herself.  She looked back up at Laurel and tried hopelessly to read his expression, till at last he went off on another tangent.  “I doubt I told you, given how little we talked yesterday – so forgive me if you know this – but the dragon is dead.”

Laurel seemed to ponder for a moment.  “Frankly I think the thing would have died without my help, or one of the knights running the throat through to be sure.  Fates forbid I encourage you, but you two did quite a number on the beast.  I don’t think you are going to live down the fact you were fighting it naked.  Actually, I’m half tempted to make quite sure of that, in the hopes it will embarrass you into never trying anything so stupid again.”

Katrisha looked away, and tried to let it all go, but couldn’t.  “It seemed like the right way to do it at the time. I needed to be able to…move…” she trailed off, thinking better of trying to defend herself.

“That, I don’t get,” Laurel said shaking his head. “Even when you are being so impetuous, so foolish, and lacking any semblance of sense in your head, you find a way to do something that even though superficially justified…just makes it all the more insane.”

“I…” Katrisha sighed.  “We both had the same dream.  You were dead, being brought into the castle…it wasn’t…good.  My dream told me…literally, to ‘heed the warning.’  You…you wouldn’t have listened.  You were treating us like children.  We’ve fought before, we could have helped, but you would have gone off, and gotten yourself killed…rather than let us help, or trust our…” she trailed off.  Her anger, and frustration with everything faded.  She felt a fool again, sitting there scolding Laurel, but she also felt like she was right.

“Well you damn well acted like children,” Laurel snapped, but seemed to think better of it, or at least decided it wasn’t helpful.  “Fates know plenty of silly little kids have trotted off thinking they are going to slay a dragon, but usually a good six years younger, and a few hundred miles shorter of finding one, let alone almost doing it.”  He huffed, closed his eyes, and steadied his breath.

“Say that again?” Laurel asked sternly.

“What?”

“The dream ‘literally’ told you to head the warning?” Laurel asked uneasily.

“Yes,” Katrisha answered.

Laurel’s expression was hard to read.  There was a long pause, he shook his head, and looked away.  “I also had a dream,” he admitted, though it seemed almost like changing the subject.  “That you died.  I ignored it though, because there was no way I ever would have considered letting you go.  I ignored it…and you went.  Yet here you are alive.  Thank the merciful fates,” he muttered, and rubbed his face, looking on the verge of tears.

Katrisha nibbled on some bacon, and refused to make eye contact for some time.

Laurel moved on to rubbing his forehead, and looked down as well.  “You might be interested to hear,” Laurel started distantly, “that there were eggs.  Two were crushed in the fighting, or by flying debris, but three were intact.  I’ll have to ask the King what he wants to do about them.”

Katrisha scrunched her brow thoughtfully, and finally gave up and asked, “What is even the question?”

“Surely Mercu has told you at some point,” Laurel said perking a brow, “it’s his favorite bit of dragon lore.  Sometimes, very rarely, dragon eggs hatch into humans.  Even from a beastly lesser dragon like that one.  Though as big as it was, I have my doubts if it wasn’t a feral minor dragon.  Still it seemed the invisibility worked…I don’t know.”

Katrisha cocked her head to the side.  “Maybe I remember him saying that once, it was a terrible long time ago, and I don’t think I took him seriously.  Dragon born,” she half remembered.

“Oh it’s true,” Laurel said pulling at his beard.  “Poor things don’t stand much a chance born to a wild mother like that.  Invariably they wind up eaten by either the mother, siblings, or simply crushed by careless steps.”

Katrisha went white, and lost what little appetite she had.  “That’s horrid,” she said feebly.

“No doubt about it.  It is horrid.”  Laurel agreed.  “No telling yet with those eggs, they were very fresh, makes me worry.   Where is the mate?  She has been here a while.  I don’t know much about dragon reproduction…but that seems a stretch.”  He paused obviously lost in thought.

“The possibility of human offspring isn’t the only reason to hesitate in just getting rid of them,” Laurel said rubbing his face a bit tiredly.  ”The Storm Queen likes to try and rehabilitate lesser dragons, and a feral mother doesn’t really set the potential intelligence of the offspring in stone.  Napir is a bit far, but a good country to earn favor with.  I’d respect the Queen more for it on merit, but she actually has the one thing that makes that task doable; the allegiance of minor, and even greater dragons, not to mention Roshana herself.  Not that the former Empress would deign to wake from her multi-decade long naps to help.”

Katrisha looked at her plate, and considered trying to eat again.  Eventually she looked back to Laurel.  “I had no idea it was so involved.  I mean, I remember some of Mercu’s stories, but I didn’t realize that there were actually politics to consider regarding dragon eggs.”

Laurel huffed.  “Dear, there are politics regarding everything under the Sun, and frankly most things that aren’t.  Where it gets tricky, is that it is a long way to transport eggs that can hold a grown man.  Particularly through Niven.  They really don’t like dragons down there.”

“More so than anywhere else?” Katrisha asked mockingly.

“Oh fates yes,” Laurel laughed.  “Most kingdoms are wise enough to give a greater dragon a chance to speak, or show intentions before attacking it.  The people of Niven will try to kill any dragon on sight…or at least run.  I suppose I can’t blame the ones who run.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 42nd, 647 E.R.

As Kiannae woke she was surprised to be alone.  The camp had been pulled up, the meat was gone, and dirt covered the coals of the night’s fire.  After a moment of looking around she found Iven perched on a stump some distance away.  As she approached him she wondered why they had let her sleep through breaking camp, only to leave one of their own behind to escort her.

Kiannae stood by the stump a while, but Iven seemed to make no move to actually leave.  His glances acknowledged her presence, but largely he seemed not to care.  Eventually she tried to stir some kind of action and asked, “We go?”

Iven looked at her again, shook his head, leapt from his speech, and grabbed a small sack of meat that had been sitting beside him.  He gestured for her to follow as he walked away.

Before they left camp Kianne couldn’t help but notice the tracks left by the others lead another way.  That worried her.  She checked a spell that could tell where north was.  The tracks went north, they were headed east.

“Iven,” she said loudly to get his attention.  He stopped, hesitated, and finally relented to turn to face her.  She pointed to the tracks, and the direction they lead.  He looked at her, and for a moment she thought there was a touch of respect in his expression, but he shook his head, and then gestured the way he had been walking.  Offering nothing more, he moved on.  Kiannae sighed, and decided whatever it was leading to, resisting wouldn’t make it better.

They walked a very long ways.  Kiannae was sure it had been farther than she had in any of the previous days.  The many rest stops they made seemed more for her sake than his, and as night set in they made camp again without a word.  The most meaningful communication between them was in the form a gesture towards a prepared fire pit, which Kiannae lit.

That night she found it impossible to think of anything but her sister, and though she tried to maintain a brave face, inevitably she broke down into tears.  She cried for nearly an hour, before she noticed Iven sit down beside her, and looked to him with tear streaked cheeks.  His discomfort was obvious, even past her sorrow she could read in his body language that he was fighting very hard to not move away from her.

“What?” Kiannae finally demanded hoarsely.

Iven slowly moved closer, wrapped his arm around her shoulder, and pulled her head gently to his chest.  For a moment she was as reluctant as he obviously was, but finally, uneasily, she let go, clung to him, and continued to cry.

Softly under his breath he began to sing.  It was a somber, yet oddly joyous tune.  One she recognized only vaguely, one her father had sung to her and Katrisha as children.  It at once comforted and deepened her sorrow.

Vonjon vejon, jon os soer ven,
Fer kwo eno ely so, jo vyn so ji,
Jon gon jos, fer unsil hos won,
Je ungon so ky, wosil jos jo…

The first verse then repeated, ever more wistfully, and slowly her tears dried up, but the pain in the center of of her very being did not subside.  Though the hole felt ever less empty, filled by a distant warmth that eased the ache of loss.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 2nd, 647 E.R.

Days of walking finally came to an end at the edge of a steep hill looking down on what seemed to be a small village woven amongst the trees.  As they worked their way down the hill, a small child leapt from behind a rock, only to be tackled by another leaping from behind the opposite tree.

Iven laughed, which was a pleasant change in his demeanor.  He chattered at the two in a playful tone, and both looked at Kiannae, their eyes going wide, and fled down the path into the village, calling out wildly.  He glanced at Kiannae, and continued down after the children at a more casual pace than before.

What passed for a village seemed no more than six buildings.  Their shape was odd, and something out of place, but Kiannae did not let herself be distracted by curiosity, and rather became concerned that the population had split between a tightly packed group greeting them, and locking themselves away.

Five adults stood at the center of the square, and there was no sign of children any more.  Iven yelled out a greeting, and one of the women smiled, though the rest seemed fairly displeased, save an old woman whose shrewd gaze was hard to read.

The woman spoke first, and Iven shook his head with a one word response.  “Ye.”

She shook her head, and just stood there, staring at Kiannae.  Her presence was striking, like an old tree rooted deep into the bedrock.  One felt as though their own presence was pressing feebly against a mountain; that all of nature flowed around her like an island in the stream.  It stood in contrast with the other Sylvans, who all felt like something caught on the breeze, barely noticeable.  Even if there was an itch of strong gift under there somewhere.

“Then I must sta words of sen Empire,” the old woman said with a harsh rumbling voice, it seemed almost less an accent than the effects of age.  Kiannae was at once surprised and relieved to hear words she mostly understood.  The old woman smiled, though there seemed some darkness to her humor.  “Te.  I see you do not expect to hear sen own words.”  She pursed her lips, “Your,” she corrected herself, “words.  Forgive, it has been many years.  I know a few tongues.  Only two are of any use…often I question if I count this.”

“I am glad at last to be able to speak, and be understood,” Kiannae said with great relief.

“I see this, though you could come to much worse here unken,” the old woman said a bit coldly.  She smiled at Kiannae’s shocked expression.  “Not be offend, I speak simple truth.  Sure you know ‘Sylvan’ – you call us – do not like osjern?  Did you think se ken meant something?  It meant only se have come this far, but no more.  You are to be taken out, and left to…your osjern ken.”

“Oh,” Kiannae said, her moment of relief turning to disappointment, and a dash of renewed unease.

“I shall take you cross river,” she said bluntly, gesturing with her walking stick as she turned, “and leave you with ‘druids’ of sen ken, that we permit there by old treaty.”

Kiannae looked around at the unfriendly faces.  She looked to Iven who had been it seemed far kinder than most would have liked.  She bowed, and once more said, “Thank you,” before relenting to follow the old woman, who already stepped away from the square.  Kiannae turned back once more as she caught up, and saw a glimpse of Iven hugging the woman who had smiled at his greeting.  He offered her the sack of meat he had brought, and she looped her arm with his as they walked away.

“Ivan tahan,” the woman said, seemingly almost more to herself than Kiannae.  “He is good – boy – te that was word.  Treat my aunna-unna well, wish to be her Akoman.  So much trouble that.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“His mother unken,” she answered.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“En is the blood, the essence, ke the…power,” the woman said with some hesitation.  “Un is less, little.  Such a judgement for so little.  Generations pass, but that hair remains, the Osjrean blood.”  She stopped, shook her head, and glared at Kiannae.

The old woman glanced back the way they had come.  “Were up to san – me – I might offer a chance.” She pressed on toward a decrepit bridge.  It was a rickety crossing over a deep narrow stretch of a wide stream.  “I can speak freely away from Tepal.  Though only my aunna-unna knows any of the Empire’s words.”  There was a hint of kindness in her voice then, which gave Kiannae some relief.

“If it was true your wish to leave the osjern, and live with the Tepal, I would…understand,” she said hesitantly, as though doubting she had got the word right.  “I side with Hansjon, not Unjon.  After all, I…speak the words, it is my tetan – purpose, good I do – and my Akoman.  We speak, sometimes trade with osjern, for many years, just as my ken before.  I know the osjern, they not all so unta as some think.”

Kiannae took a moment to absorb what she could of that.  “Hansjon?” she asked at last.  She knew she had heard that before.  It had been something her father had said.  Never to her, only to her mother, several times.  He had always been so sad.

The old woman snorted.  “Yes, we hide from the osje – outside – world because we think us ta, or simply osjern so much…worse.  Maybe some, but I have unte – doubt – if this is…true.  Not any more.  We had peace, for uncounted…years.  Then we war with son own ken over to trade or os – not – with the osjern, all around us.  In end even to sta to your ‘druids,’” she shook her head, “we are forbidden.  Unosta, now.  Now Hanste sit in Akitrern.  Even if unki – little power.”

Kiannae sighed.  She understood most of what the woman was saying.  She guessed te was true, and ta was good, and the occasional correction helped fill in some gaps, but it was still a bit hard to follow.  She got the sense Sylvan language was filled with little root words, and was thankful for pressing Moriel on the concept in her instruction.  Not that they matched roots she was familiar with.

“I had hoped…”  Kiannae hesitated.  “I had hoped to find my father in these lands, to know why he was taken away from me by his people.”

The old woman gave Kiannae a strange long look.  There was something troubled in her eyes.  “I un-…” she stopped herself. “I little imagine, what would make Tepal to ‘take’ anyone.  Yet alone by force.  Those who leave are then as osjern, even atapal unwelcome.  Are sure of what you sta?”

“Was my father perhaps a criminal?” Kiannae asked with doubt, and disheartened.

The old woman seemed to ponder the prospect genuinely, and stopped to look Kiannae up and down.  “No,” she said flatly. “No, won you born these reign, the Unjon echk – kill – the Hansjon, all Haste, even Aunna!  If common untan, or unten, he be left to your pal…if he te – true – fer Unhansjon, you not be born.  No.  I wonder…” she trailed off.  “Un,” she shook her head, and tapped her forehead.

“Tell me?” Kiannae implored as the old woman turned, and walked on.

“Un,” the old woman repeated almost fiercely.  “It pains, but even true, this is fer ta.”  She considered Kiannae’s expression at her words.  “Good,” she corrected.  “Is fer good.”

Kiannae considered pressing the issue, but she was weary, and without any heart to put into it.  She struggled instead to keep her sister from her mind, and maintain some form of composure as she was marched away from the very goal she had set herself to.

They walked another five minutes in silence before the woman stopped again. “There,” she said, pointing with her walking stick through the trees.  “Not much more, there se find ‘druids.’  Go, and not return, you meet much worse fate.  I wish you ta unna.  Please not unten – not un-…less than understand.  This simply is.”

“Will you not introduce me?” Kiannae asked, not keen to march in amongst yet more strangers she knew nothing of.

“I not sta with them in many years.”

Kiannae struggled to hold any composure.  To think of any way she could turn the situation around.  She wanted to cry, yet the very want, and a rejection of using tears to get her way actually held them back.  All the same, the sorrow on her face was plain.

The old woman considered her with an inscrutable expression.  “What is name, unna?” she relented to ask, with nothing else it seemed to offer.

“Kiannae,” she managed meekly.

“Ki-Unna?” the woman asked with a stern shift in her expression.

“Annae,” she corrected.  “Kiannae.”

The woman pursed her lips, shook her head, and set her hand on Kiannae’s shoulder.  As she pulled it back she considered a stray dark hair between her fingers curiously.  She turned to walk away, and hesitated.  “I will not start to sta again this day, even if I miss arch-druid’s company…” She held a moment more, and turned back just long enough to say, “Should old Ezik live, tell him…Astia thinks of kykuman.”

Kiannae watched Astia walk back towards her village.  She tried to make sense of the parting exchange, but gave up, particularly as Astia grew distant.  She could ask no more questions, get no more answers.  Her one seeming chance to ever find her father had passed.  Perhaps that chance had never been there.

Kiannae turned towards where the woman had pointed.  She sighed and marched on, tired, and troubled.  Then her thoughts turned again to why she was there, and she cried.  She cried for her sister who she had failed – or who had failed her – she couldn’t decide.  For the first time she considered that it was Katrisha’s clever stupid plan.  She had insisted, she had gone down alone into that ravine to fight the dragon with only Kiannae’s spell between her, and the dragon’s teeth and claws.  Still she cried, even as she grew angry at her, she mourned her twin.

Kiannae’s arrival in the druid village did not go unnoticed, particularly with her obvious distress.  There were many side long glances, and men and women pointing for their fellows who had not yet noticed.  She bore them no mind, simply marched to a bench by a fountain in the center of the small square, and sat.  Her tears turned to weeping, and she waited for what fate would come to her next.  She was through trying to follow her own course, ready to simply be where the winds would take her.

Kiannae could feel as people gathered around her, and heard them start to murmur amongst themselves.  She did not bother to look up, not even when at last a young man’s voice spoke, “Are you alright?”

Kiannae sat there for a moment, gathering herself back together – just a bit – before finally a flippant answer fought its way past her lips, “Been better.”

She felt a hand at her chin, relented to its gentle instance, and looked up.  A young man of maybe sixteen, with a friendly concerned face considered her tear streaked, and quite dirty one.  There was a kindly nature to him, with hazel eyes, and black hair.  He was pale, moreso perhaps even than Laurel.  Clearly a man of the south east in origin.  “Yes,” he said after a moment, “I don’t doubt that.  I’ve not seen you around here before, and I might say it’s odd to have anyone come from across the river.  You see, the Sylvan’s don’t visit us any more.”

“So they told me,” Kiannae sighed.

“Oh did they now?  Who did you speak to, was it old Astia?  Does she still live?” the boy asked obviously curious.

“Y…yes, as a matter of fact,” Kiannae said with some surprise.  “She said to give a message to a man named Ezik.”

“Did she?” came the voice of an old man who had just arrived through a crowd that parted around him with respect.  “And what did she say, dear girl?”

“Glad you could make it grandfather,” the boy before Katrisha said with a loving, but almost mocking tone.

“I may be old, but I can still walk, Zale,” he said tapping his staff firmly to the ground as punctuation.

“Barely, grandfather,” Zale said, but there was a touch of sadness to his jab.

Ezik eyed his grandson unflatteringly.  “I’ll have no more of your lip.  Bring the girl to my house.  I would speak with her in private, and someone find my son, and Landri,” he commanded and turned away.  The crowd again shifted from his path.

“Well, you heard him,” Zale said offering Kiannae a hand, “Come along.”  Kiannae looked away, and considered the crowd.  She had really been quite ready to sit there for a while, and be a spectacle for all she really cared.  She glanced back to the hand Zale offered, and reluctantly took it.  She got to her feet, and followed him the way Ezik had gone.

As Kiannae approached Ezik’s house she noticed for the first time the way the houses of the village were constructed.  It was much the same as the Sylvan dwellings.  There was something more than curious about the architecture.  Suddenly it struck her as she noticed a green leaf growing from a twig that had sprouted from a timber at the side of the house.

Her eyes traced down to what should have been a foundation.  Yet there it flared into roots growing into the ground.  All of the timbers ended in roots.  Kiannae took a deep startled breath.  The houses were living trees.  She was awestruck with the beauty of it.  She had noticed the roofs were green before, but now she clearly saw the shingles were not coated in moss, but rather they were layers of leaves.  Kiannae looked at the arch of the door to the house, and at its windows, mesmerized by the craft of it all.  Branches bent fluidly around each door and a window, forming the frame.

The doors themselves did not appear to be living wood she noted, as one was opened before her.  It seemed a reasonable limitation, but hardly detracted from the rest.  A window stood open nearby, it too seemed to be separate from the house itself.  It was hard to tell at a glance if the panes of the window were in fact glass, or something more exotic.  Yet it seemed all the rest of the house was a living thing, she could feel the presence, soft, inviting, old, very old, but never aged.  She wanted to stop where she stepped, and take root in the floor.  It was a strange and alien feeling, yet all at once it felt like coming home for the first time.

As they entered Ezik could be seen seated at an old table beneath a skylight, and beside a large round window.  “Come, sit,” he said to Kiannae kindly.  Quietly she took a place across from him, and looked out the window to see what he was staring at.  Nothing apparent stuck out to her, he seemed to simply be gazing off into the forest.  “You have a message for me?” he asked after a few moments of silence.

“Only that she still thinks of,” Kiannae struggled to get the word right, “kykuman,” said worrying to disappoint with the brevity of it.  As she watched him frown she feared she was right, the message was not enough.

“I suppose I could not expect more…everything else aside we are old now, with little time left.  A shame to waste what remains though,” he said with a disheartened laugh.

“What would grandmother think to hear you say that?” Zale cut in with some discomfort in his voice.

“Hmph,” Ezik replied gruffly. “Do you know what kykuman means?”

“No,” Zale said exasperatedly.

“It would be directly translated as dear one of the activity of life.”  He let that sink in.  “You didn’t know your grandmother when she was younger.  You know she didn’t come from a circle.  I met her on the road – she bewitched me, took me to her bed.  She never would say why she stuck with me…she was the one who approached Astia, not I…not that I ever regretted the result.  Kykuman was more often what Astia would call her, than me.  It is a word most often for dear lovers of the same sex, since no children will result, but I guess as an outsider I count the same.”

“Eww,” Ezik said, seeming as though he wanted to spit.

“Oh yes, your grandmother was that way…perversion of nature…garbage…bending the rules I say.  All open to interpretation.  Took me many years to come completely to terms with it.  We bend nature to our will all the time, we shape it, guide it, not leave it to its own course.  How are such unions any different?  The Sylvans even have a word of endearment for it, and they are closer to nature than us.”

“Feh, fine – I don’t care.  Just don’t put such images in my head of grandmother,” Zale said with distinct expression of some one who had bitten into an unripe fruit.

“I suppose I can’t blame you for finding that aspect of it unsavory, no,” Ezik mused with wry humor.

Kiannae just sat silently observing the awkward exchange, distracted from some more uncomfortable aspects by dissecting new meaning from the words.  Yet trying to make sense out of the roots she thought she was discovering only seemed to make gibberish.  Ky was love or dear.  Ke was power.  Unna was girl.  Her name was not Ke or Ky-unna, Ki-aunna however was close.  Perhaps it was a sub group of Sylvans?

“What does aunna mean?” she asked.

Ezik glanced at her curiously.  “It means first, or honoured daughter.”

Kiannae dug her nails into her palm.  Confirmation, at last, that she was the first born.  That Cassandra’s prophecy fit the truth.  She was too angry to cry again.  Her very name felt like a dirty thing in that moment.

She turned with a start as the door opened behind her to see a man who looked much like an older version of Zale, and a elegant older woman behind him.  “Ah, good, they found you Xander, Landri.  You may leave, Zale,” he said dismissively.  At first Zale did not move, until he got a fiery glance.  It had been a command, not permission.

Xander waited till his grandson was out the open door, and closed it behind himself.  “I called for you at first because I thought there was news from the Sylvans,” he said to the new arrivals, who moved closer.  “Still, if nothing else our new arrival is worthy of discussion.  It occurs to me I haven’t yet asked your name yet, girl.”

“Kiannae,” she said with some reluctance.

“Hmm,” Ezik said thoughtfully.  “Not quite Sylvan, terribly close, imperialized certainly, yet your asking what aunna means tells me you know little of them.”

“Ashton,” Kiannae interjected her family name wearily.

“Now, that is definitely not Sylvan,” Landri, said as she moved to sit at the table, Xander in turn took a spot opposite her.  “It definitely has the sound of a northern name from Avrale, yet I am to understand you have come to us from the Sylvans?”

“Yes,” Kiannae said, not sure what to make of the questioning.

“And how did you come to be amongst them?” Xander pressed.

“Suppose I ran into them,” Kiannae said meekly.

“That’s no small feet,” Ezik said with interest, “and to come out in one piece I might add, on good terms, such as terms ever are these days.  Even for one of your linage.  Yes, I’ve noticed your eyes girl, if your name was not confirmation,” he added as he saw her expression shift.

Kiannae stared down at the table, not sure what to say, or what the people around her wanted her to.  Katrisha she thought was usually the better one at finding something clever to say, she held back a sob at the thought.

“I’m sorry, have I offended?” Ezik asked, his tone softening.

“No,” Kiannae said, trying not to cry, “no, it’s just…my sister…”

“What happened to your sister?” Xander asked kindly.

“Dragon…” Kiannae said for lack of being able to quite formulate it all.

“That’s…horrid,” Landri said, finding she didn’t quite have better words to respond.

“Where was this?  If you’ll forgive me pressing,” Ezik said softly.  “I’ve heard of no dragons in these parts, and the Sylvans are quite capable of keeping them at bay.  Even in the war Osyrae’s dragons struggled with the Sylvans to little gain.”

“Far away,” Kiannae sobbed, “mountains up north of Avrale.”

“I think I may have heard of a dragon up that way,” Landri said.

“What, was she doing up there?” Xander asked obviously a bit perplexed.

“She…” Kiannae trailed off looking out the window, “we…were trying to kill it.”

There was a distinct clap of hand to forehead, which pulled Kiannae’s tear streaked face back towards Ezik, who, once he recovered some composure looked her up and down, as though trying to make sense out of her.  The expressions on Xander, and Landri’s face were no less unsettled.

“So, I am to understand,” Ezik started in a measured tone, “that a half Sylvan girl, presumably from Avrale, went into the mountains with her sister, tried, and without much surprise, failed, to kill a dragon,” he paused for breath – there was not quite humor in his voice, but there was something darkly comical about his disbelieving manner, “and then, I can only guess having not yet filled her wish for death, ran into the Sylvan woods, only to catch a well un-deserved break, and be dropped here in our midst.”

Kiannae broke down sobbing, and dropped her head to her arms on the table.

“That was…uncalled for, father,” Xander said glaring at the old man disapprovingly.

“It was unkind,” Ezik said, almost a hint of apology in his voice, “but damn well called for.  The whole story is so preposterous that I am forced to assume that if the girl is not outright lying, she is either delusional, or utterly insane.  Even if it is all true, I believe at least one of those must still apply.”

“Enough,” Landri cut in with displeasure.  “I won’t deny there is truth to your words Ezik, but you are accomplishing nothing antagonizing the girl.  Her spirit is broken, be it from figments of her imagination, or from the trauma of it being real.  But there is something else, I can feel it even now, she’s ill, there is a poison in her very blood, and soul.”

“Yes,” Ezik said sourly, “I felt it when I first saw her.  I’ve met many mages in my travels, it’s that sickness of theirs, wild magic in the blood.  Never in all my years have I felt it so vividly, and in one so young…  They are blind to it of course, some Clarions and Lycians can sense it with great care, but her unnatural state is like a burning flame to us.”

“Is she going to be all right?” Xander asked with concern in his voice for the poor sobbing girl next to him.

“It can be treated, but not cured…” Ezik said trailing off.  “It is a curse they bear for the practice of magic.  Some never suffer for it, others grow ill with time, and age…but one so young…”

“If it’s the way they practice, then surely the cure is to practice differently?” Landri asserted firmly.

“Perhaps,” Ezik said dourly, “but I’ve never heard of the mage who gave it up, to spare themselves the sickness.  It doesn’t kill them, doesn’t even shorten their lives as paradoxical as it seems, just makes them frail, miserable, and addles their minds.  This though, this is different, I’ve never heard of the like.”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not even here,” Kiannae suddenly snapped viciously between sobs, sat up, and slammed her fist on the table.

“What would you have us do then, girl?” Ezik asked bluntly.

“I…I don’t know.  I don’t know anything, part of me just wants to die, to find out if there is an afterlife, and find my sister there,” Kiannae whimpered.

Ezik sighed.  “I’ll have none of that.  Life and death happen, as with all things of nature we may try to guide their course, but it is not ours to choose our end.”

“Nor is it necessarily ours to choose her fate either,” Xander interjected, “surely if she is a mage, there is some one in Avrale who trained her, and that will be missing her.”

“I won’t go back,” Kiannae sobbed.

“What is so horrible about returning to your home?” Landri asked softly.

“I won’t go back,” Kiannae simply repeated more tersely.

“Surely you still have family there who miss you?” Landri pressed again.

“Kat’s dead…” Kiannae cried. “I failed her…I didn’t stop her…I don’t know.  Our parents are long gone…Wren…” she muttered his name.  There was some hesitation in her voice, but it faded as her expression grew grim, and she looked out the window “…doesn’t need me.  I won’t face the others, what’s the point…”

“Enough,” Ezik sighed. “I will permit her to stay, as it is her wish, on the condition she learns our ways.  Landri, you will help her cleanse herself of this poison in her veins, and begin her training.  Take care to save it, there are those who will pay a greatly for the substance.”

“Are you sure that is wise father?” Xander pried gently.

“I have made my decision, and it stands until I find reason to reconsider, or until you are arch-druid,” Ezik said flatly.  “If asked, you will say only that she is an orphan, and that we are taking her in.  Not exactly a lie, yes?  Broken as she is, I sense great potential, and I fear it will be lost in turning her away.”

“And if some one from Avrale comes looking for her?” Landri asked with reservation.

“That will be reason to reconsider…won’t it?” Ezik grumbled, shook his head, and sighed.

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Chapter 1

Long after this time has passed,
long after fools breathe their last,
long after waters shimmer here,
long after the mists still appear,
long after blood washed away,
long after the curse shall stay,
long after trees grow all around,
long after the last, shall be found.

– Folk Lore of Avrale, Book II circa 510 E.R.

Into the Forest

Coria 40th, 647 E.R.

Sunlight filtered through the trees, and shone upon a young woman with long raven hair.  She sat against a tall ancient pine, her face and brown robes bloodied and smudged with dirt.  She was a mess, and as the comfort of oblivion slowly slipped away, it took a moment for her to notice she was not alone.  Not a dozen paces away a large silver furred wolf was eyeing her suspiciously.

The sight startled her fully awake, and too her feet.  Her emerald eyes glinted as intimidatingly as the wolf’s, and though some instincts in her might have been prepared, consciously she was only frightened.  She strained her injured shoulder scrambling up, and yelped when the pain caught up with her.  This startled the wolf in turn, which backed away, snarled, and when it felt it had enough distance ran off.

Kiannae was her name.  Freckle faced, and on the pale side for a girl of Avrale.  She was a bit more than a girl truly, and such distinctions easily belied her knowledge, power, and the follies she had been both witness and party to.  She watched the wolf go uneasily, and questioned her sanity for having wandered into deep woods in the dead of night, and thereafter fallen asleep.

Her mental state was indeed in question.  Sorrow and madness hovered around the edges, dogged close behind by guilt and prophecy.  Not for the first time she considered that she should return, that she should face the world she had left behind.  Yet what lay behind was intolerable to even consider.  The cold eyes of those she had failed, to see her twin sister’s broken body, as sure a mirror of herself dead as any could ever encounter.  To be blamed, to be held to account for having…what…she wasn’t even sure.  Was it that she listened to prophecy?  Was that her crime?  The pain and absurdity of it was laughable.

She had ignored one prophecy, and listened to another.  She had saved the man who would scold and scorn her, and had lost the other half of her very being, her twin, her blood.  She loved her mentor, he had been like a father to her, in fact as much as law.  That however made her all the less prepared to face him, and she hated him all the more for the words she imagined coming out of his mouth.  So she hated, and scorned herself instead.  He would not get the satisfaction.

It was to save Laurel that the twins had risked their lives.  To always defend others.  They had pledged it to one another, but that answered none of their crimes of foolishness, not really.  Why had she done it, why had her sister…why had she run?  In the cold light of day the whole thing seemed like an implausible dream, ending in a nightmare.

For the first time Kiannae wondered if it had all been for nothing.  She considered that after everything else, she had panicked, and ran.  If panic was even the word for it, she didn’t have better.  It was a madness that had driven her, tried to claw her skull apart from the inside.  It had burned, ached, and clouded out every thought.  It was almost as though something was screaming run, yet every comprehensible part of it had been the prophetic words of a woman long dead.  It didn’t matter, Laurel could have still died on that mountain, and it was all for nothing.  Everything for nothing…

She rejected the possibility, even as it threatened to bring her again to her knees.  Laurel was more capable, and yet the vision had shown him dead before.  She pushed aside the thought, but it settled all the more firmly in the back of her mind.  One more reason she could never turn back, she could never face what lay behind her.  If she could ever even understand why she had done it.

Kiannae nursed her injured shoulder, and still leaned against the tree.  She began once more trying to heal it properly, letting her gift flow into torn muscles.  She looked around, searching for which way she had come, but everything was different in the filtered daylight.  A dislodged clump of matted needles finally gave her some bearings, as she vaguely recalled slipping, and falling before she had crawled up to the tree, and passed out.

Convinced that her shoulder was noticeably improved, her parched throat came to the forefront of competing imperatives.  She had no water, and saw none immediately around.  Though she was not sure she could bring herself to drink water from the forest floor.  ‘Foolish girl,’ a small mocking voice rang out in the back of her head, it wasn’t quite Laurel’s, but it might as well have been.  She pushed off of the tree, and pressed on, moving away from the mark of the previous night’s fall, and farther into the deep wood.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae walked for hours, and save the rise and fall of the terrain it was quickly all the same, and her thirst only grew.  At last she came to the side of a small pool of water resting in rocky outcropping.  There was something odd about the water, out of place.  She sniffed it curiously as she looked closer.  It seemed clear, and clean, and she convinced herself that such incongruent purity amongst the moss, dirt, and bugs of the forest was what was odd.  She imagined to herself that it was a good thing.

Her hands were filthy she realized as she was about to take the clear water up in them.  There were other smaller pools in surrounding divots of the rock.  They also seemed clear.  She rinsed her hands in one of those, and returned to the largest again.  Tentatively she cupped her hands, and brought some of the water up, but hesitated to drink it.

Kiannae considered it once again in her pale scratched palms, and off the dark stone.  It was clear, perfect, refracting only her own dirty state.  Convinced the water was as clean and pure as it appeared, Kiannae took a sip, and as it hit her parched throat she was determined that it was the most glorious thing she had ever tasted.  She lay down on her stomach, and drank until she could hold no more, then rolled over.

She lay staring up at the sky.  Trees had grown sparsely around the clearing.  The stone was too hard, and unforgiving, which her back attested too as well.  She watched the clouds drift by, and tried to forget everything, but eventually the hard uneven stone convinced her to sit up.  She took one last sip of the water, and washed her face.  For want of a container to take more with her she reluctantly got up, and walked on, leaving the pool behind.

It was not long however before even a belly full of water no longer hid Kiannae’s growing hunger.  She pondered several suspicious berry bushes, until she found one she knew to be blackberry, and ate those until she began to feel sick from the sweetness.  She longed for meat, or bread, and idly considered trying to hunt.  The kill certainly would not be difficult for her, but the thought of trying to butcher and prepare whatever she killed quickly ended whatever remained of her appetite.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 647 E.R.

Kiannae woke in the night from a chill, and huddled more tightly in her robes.  Some dark part of her wished she had taken Katrisha’s robe when she ran, but the thought made her physically ill as soon as it had formed in her head.  She spiraled again, she wanted to die, she didn’t want to live without her sister.  A twisted part of her mind imagined setting herself ablaze amidst the forest and letting the trees fall in upon her, and crush her.  That – she thought – at least would be warm, and she laughed grimly.

Survival instincts pulled Kiannae from her dark revelry as a twig snapped not far away.  She glanced around frantically but could see nothing by the dim moonlight filtered through the trees.  At last she caught a vague silhouette moving in the mist, and instinctively she shuffled away from it, even as she tried to make out what it was.  It moved like a person, staying just out of sight in the fog.  This at once was reassuring – it wasn’t wolves – and terrifying, for a person could be even more dangerous.

At last sense came to Kiannae and she struck out her hand, and a ball of blue light shimmered into being.  She made it as bright as she could until at last its glow reached the boy standing only a few quick paces away.  It was a boy, it struck her decidedly, as he was quite naked, and barely older than her by the look of him.  She blinked in disbelief at the sight, and then he was gone, replaced only by shifting mist.  Kiannae shook her head, closed her eyes.  She looked again, trying to convince herself she had even seen the boy.  She got to her feet, and walked to where he had stood, looked around again, but found nothing.

Kiannae moved back to her tree, and stood there troubled, searching the night with her unnerved gaze.  She accepted that a part of her had gone stark raving mad, but she wondered if she had even begun to see things.  Minutes of scanning the surrounding forest revealed nothing, and at last the chill of the night began to overtake dwindling fear.  She gathered twigs, and fallen branches, still ever vigilant for a glimpse of a strange naked boy in the mist.

At last convinced she had enough for a fire Kiannae considered the thick mat of pine needles that covered everything.  Deciding she was no longer fond of the idea of burning, or taking the forest with her, she set to digging a small pit down to the soil to make her fire safely.  Digging with her hands quickly grew intolerable, and instead she started trying to push the needles aside with her shoes.  At last growing frustrated with that as well, she tried to blast it away with magic, which worked, but sprayed her with the filth of the forest floor.

Kiannae cursed, and growled as she tried to brush the fresh dirt from her robe, face and hair.  Vaguely more comfortable with the improvement to her cleanliness, she set about piling sticks and twigs together in the small pit.  The hard part done Kiannae simply set the pile aflame, and sat warming her dirty hands in the fire light with faint satisfaction.

For a while she managed to lose herself in watching the flame, and as the last of her scarce firewood was nearly burned up, she began to drift back off.  Her eyes slowly closed, and she almost did not notice the gradually approaching form in darkness.  Perhaps she simply didn’t care, but as the boy stepped clearly into the fire light, her eyes snapped back open.  He paused, seeming to consider her cautiously.

She struggled to decide what bothered her more, his unexpected presence, the fact he was naked, or at last it struck her that his skin had a strange indistinct color.  He seemed almost iridescent in the fading firelight.  The moment passed, and he simply sat opposite her without a word, and continued to look at her quizzically.

They sat in silence as the embers of the fire started to die down, and before she was left in the dark with the unknown young man, Kiannae finally resolved herself to ask, “Who are you?”

The boy simply cocked his head to the side.  Kiannae squinted at him in frustration.  “It’s not polite to walk up on a lady in the forest…naked…”

Still no response followed, save that after a moment he cocked his head to the other side.

Kiannae scowled.  “It’s even less polite to refuse to speak when spoken to…” More silence followed, and Kiannae began to grow very agitated. “Who, in the King’s name are you?” she yelled as she leaned forward and shook her arms for emphasis.

This the boy reacted to, but only by scooting backwards, and looking frightened, as though he was about to flee.

Kiannae dropped her face to her hands in exasperation.  She considered the complete obtuseness of the situation, and realized that when presented with a naked boy in the depths of the forest primeval, it was worth considering that he did not understand her language.  He wasn’t Sylvan, whatever he was, but if he knew a language it was probably theirs – one that she scarcely remembered the sound of in her father’s voice, let alone any meaning.

Steeling herself to that thought, she looked up to insure the strange naked boy remained.  He seemed on edge still, and she made a point of gesturing firmly to herself.  “Kiannae,” she said clearly as she could.

The boy seemed more curious than understanding, but seemed to relax again.  “Kiannae,” she repeated tapping her chest, then gestured to the boy, “you?” she questioned.  He cocked his head to the side again, and Kiannae did all she could not to snap at him.  At last he put his hands before him, cupped them, and feigned taking a drink.  Kiannae dropped her head to her hands once more, and shook it hopelessly.  When she looked up again the boy craned his head forward, as thought to emphasize the gesture, and again feigned drinking.

She rolled her eyes, looked to the sky and muttered almost more to herself than the boy, “Does it look like I have water?”  She looked at him again, and tried once more, gesturing to herself as before, “Kiannae.”  She paused.  “You?” she said in as questioning a voice as she could manage.  This time the boy gestured to himself, being sure to mimic the action as clearly as he could, then to Kiannae, and then after craning his head forward again mocked drinking from his cupped hands.

Kiannae threw her hands up in frustration, and leaned back against the tree closing her eyes.  “Hopeless,” she muttered.  When she looked again, the boy was gone, and there were only the mists.  She looked around, trying to figure out where he had gone, but the last embers of the fire gave little useful light.  She considered looking for the boy, she worried for a moment for his intent, but decided reluctantly that she no longer cared…even if he did wish her harm.  She leaned back against the tree and let herself fall asleep.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae woke to the chirping of birds, and it was obviously late in the morning.  She looked around.  There was no sign of the strange boy, and she wondered if she had simply hit her head harder falling from her horse than she thought.  She kicked some dirt onto the cold coals of her fire absently and looked around to pick a direction to hike.  Her stomach growled, and she was at once annoyed, and relieved by the absence of wild berries in the area.

She was half way through the idea of hunting again when she was snapped to attention by the distinctive twang of an arrow striking near her foot.  The start set her off balance, and she found herself on her back, cursing in pain as muscles and joints trice abused by falling from a horse, hiking, and sleeping in unfamiliar positions decided to make their vehement hatred felt upon further misuse.  The few seconds of distraction from pain were more than enough for Kiannae to find herself completely surrounded by three tall men.

Kiannae quickly realized one of them was markedly heftier than the others.  As she focused on his face, which seemed obscured in shadow, she realized his features were not really those of a man.  Dark fur covered all of him that was visible, and possibly the rest that was hidden by clothes.  His eyes were amber, and gleamed brightly, his nose more of a snout, though shallow like a cat’s.  All of this made sense to her on some level, it tracked with things she knew, but to see it for the first time was as bewildering, as unnerving.

The cat man was a hard sight to look away from, but in truth he was not the most threatening.  A redheaded archer held a bow taunt and fixed on her, and she had little doubt that the first shot was not a miss, and that his next would find a far more painful mark.  She could see an ear peeking from his long locks, and the tuft of matching red at its long point.

The third leaned down to examine her more closely, his two brown braids hanging close to her arm, and his ears tufted in black.

“Unna, ve er vyn?” he spoke in a clearly demanding tone, but it was gibberish to her ears.  It was familiar though, in form, and rhythm.  The faint memory of a man she had once called ‘pa’ was there, but no meaning she could discern.  The vague recollection of being corrected, ‘ha,’ and further corrected ‘pa,’ and squabbling between father and grandfather tried to intrude.  She could almost remember the words, ‘of no use’ winning the argument on her grandfather’s side.  The irony of it at that moment almost made her laugh, but it seemed ill advised.

“Sylvan?” she asked, in way of some kind of response.

The cat faced man snorted in a way that seemed derisive.  “Veve, osjern, os sta testan.”

“Un, os osjern, unken.”

“Untepal.”  It was hard to read the catlike features, but they seemed even more displeased as he uttered the word.  He was a he, Kiannae was at least mostly sure.  He was tall as Laurel, and all at once more stout than Horence.

The one kneeled over her shot a scolding look at the large one, and looked back at her, and though obviously frowning nodded tersely.  He offered her a hand to be polite, but there was some distaste in his eyes as she accepted his help.  Her stomach growled again, and the archer lowered his bow slightly.  There was an exchange of glances, and terse words between the three Sylvans – though they did not like that name.  She knew her father had said the right name at least once, and tried to find the memory as they seemed to descend into bickering.

“Susn.”

“Ve!”

“Unna unsus.”

“Ve je fer so?  Son os ch, osjern?”

“Sa os echk unna.  Se?”

The last word it seemed would go to the archer, with only another derisive snort from the large cat-man, and scolding glare and a nod from the third.  The cat tossed a small bundle to the brown haired Sylvan, who Kiannae decided must be the leader.  He unwrapped a corner and pulled out a long thin sheet of what seemed to be dried meat.  He offered it to Kiannae, obviously trying, and only partially succeeding to seem gracious.  Kiannae took the jerky, curtsied, and nodded.

“Thank you,” she added for good measure, though she was certain the words were lost on the Sylvans – though they did not seem to like the word.  Then she remembered, one of them had said it, but it wasn’t ‘Untepal’ though, she was certain it was Tepal.  “Thank you, Tepal,” she tried again.

This got a reaction, a not unpleased, but bewildered exchange of glances, and then a nod from the leader.  That was what they called themselves, and Kiannae found herself wondering what the addition of Un made it.  Was it simply not?  She had doubts.  ‘Osjern,’ had been used several times in the initial exchange.  It had been a curse on her father’s lips more than once, and it felt to her – more than sounded – like other, but something told her it was outsider.

Pulling herself from the thought, she turned to the others, and repeated the gesture, and thanks, feeling that it might be important to build good will.  The cat-man seemed to barely acknowledge her, and turned to walk away.  The red headed archer nodded, and plucked his arrow from the ground.  The leader behind her took her arm, and gestured the way the large one was walking.  “Elye.”

Kiannae simply accepted that prisoner or guest, it was best she followed the implied command promptly.  As she walked Kiannae nibbled at the jerky tentatively.  It was salty, meaty, decidedly smoky in fragrance let alone taste, and otherwise unidentifiable.  All that considered, under the circumstances it was heavenly delicious, even if she could tell it was a bit gamey.

She continued her ponderance on the meaning of Untepal as they walked.  It had sounded almost derisive, spiteful.  Yet if it was not outsider, or other, or simply not Tepal.  She thought through other ‘Uns’ in the exchange.  Unna, had been the first word said to her.  ‘Na,’ her father had once tried to teach her to say, and gestured to her mother.  Much as her mother had called her Kia, her father had tended to say ‘Annae,’ but that wasn’t right.  Annae was always what her mother corrected, ‘Aunna,’ had been what her father called her.  Unna he had said of Katrisha.

Thinking of her sister almost upset the whole train of thought, sent a tear running down her cheek, but she refused.  She was so close, she felt it.  It was a willful distraction, but she clung to the distraction.  If Na was mother, or perhaps woman, and un was not an oppositional prefix, then perhaps it was simply lesser.  Unna, perhaps simply meant daughter, or perhaps little woman, girl?  Untepal could then – since she had many times been told how Sylvan’s felt about outsiders – be almost insulting word.  What was worse than an outsider?  Something in between, something less than?  It would explain the distaste it was said with, and reproving glare for its use.  They had seemed to accept Tepal at least.

The logic all seemed sound, and all at once not promising.  The situation she had put herself in easily overwhelmed sorrow, and pushed back further tears.  Yet all at once she had gotten past the first hurdle.  Perhaps there was hope, or perhaps she was walking into an even worse situation.

The four walked through the forest wordlessly for more than a mile, until suddenly the large one stopped, crouched, and sniffed the air.  The others assumed similar postures, and Kiannae thought it best to do the same.  Seconds past in stillness, and then she heard the crack of a twig, which drew her eye to a huge stag emerging from behind a tree a hundred paces ahead.  There was a flicker of movement from the corner of her eye, and even before she could turn her head the arrow flew past with a hiss, and struck the distant stag in its side.

The cry of pain was rattling as the beast staggered, and a second arrow struck as is turned.  Surprisingly it didn’t flee, but charged.  A third shot, this time from a bow pulled by the leader struck, but still the stag bore down on their position.  The cat-man grabbed hold of the beast’s antlers, and nearly stopped it clean in its tracks, his large paw like feet digging into the needles, and dirt.  The stag thrashed his head, and broke free toppling the large Sylvan, and charged for the second closest, the leader.  Kiannae rolled out of the way on some instinct, and saw the leader had leapt clear at the last second, and almost unbelievably far.  If the leap itself was amazing, the draw of a short curved sword in the act, and a slice across the stag’s throat was utterly breathtaking, as a thin arc of blood trailed behind the swift action.

The beast’s cry of pain was garbled, and it obviously was choking, but not yet down.  It turned to Kiannae who was now the closest target.  Even before it could charge she struck hastily with lightning.  This stunned the stag, if not killed it.  It was hard to say if her blast or suffocation brought it down.  The leader looked at Kiannae with a displeased sneer, and convinced she was not about to use her magic on him, finished the beast off with a strong blow that took the head clean off.

The cat-man brushed the dirt off from where he had fallen, and gave Kiannae a look that was now more guarded than distasteful.  Only the archer seemed more cordial, and offered her a hand.  He nodded approvingly with a glance towards the now dead stag, and she took the offer.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It had taken most of the afternoon to bleed and cut the stag into pieces that even the largest of the company could manage, and move them back to the men’s camp.  The skin had been expertly removed, always keeping the meat from touching the ground, which was so expertly done it defied the unsettling aspects and kept Kiannae’s eyes on the process.  The antlers, ribs, even the organs were separated, and stored in clean furs like the meat, but the guts were left for what might take them, far from camp.  Lastly the skull was placed between the roots of a tree, and briefly honored by each of the men.  Kiannae did her best to mimic the act, it seemed a natural form of respect.  Something that had perhaps always been missing.  Meat had always just been, even if she understood intellectually where it came from.

Kiannae had mostly been left to be watched by the archer through the process.  None of the three men had tried to speak to her again, and their words to each other still meant little, even if there was an ever stronger sense of familiarity.  There had perhaps been some sense of approval when she moved to bow as they had to the head of the stag.  Though the cat-man was as always hard to read.  She wasn’t entirely sure it was just his features, or some aspect of his character.  Stoic was not quite the word.  He seemed to show distaste readily enough if it suited him to do so.  He had moments he showed clear joviality as well, though it always seemed biting or derisive to his fellows.  Aloof, Kiannae settled on.  He really did remind her of her cat Mar back home.  This thought was dismissed almost immediately for all that was attached to it.

The leader by that point was struggling to start the fire using his a bow, and a stick.  There were whiffs of smoke, and he seemed to know what he was doing, but the wood was simply too wet.  The archer seemed to be scratching his chin thoughtfully, and then looked very pointedly at Kiannae, and gestured to the unlit fire pit.

Kiannae considered, nodded, and walked over to where the leader still worked.   She knelt down opposite the man who gave her a very cross look.  She gestured to herself, cocked her head to the side, made what she thought was her most ‘helpful’ face, and gestured to the unlit fire as though to ask, ‘May I?’  The leader sneered, then softened his expression slightly.  He set his implements aside, and walked off in frustration.  Kiannae shrugged, and with little effort lit the fire.

Most of the meat was wrapped in stained furs for storage and travel, but each hunter had taken a choice piece to cook over the fire on a sharpened stick.  The archer however cut his piece in half, and offered it on a second stick for Kiannae to cook for herself, which she thanked him for, and smiled.

As the sun slowly set the trio of hunters became more chatty amongst themselves, and Kiannae tried in vain to catch any hint of the conversation.  When the sun had finally sunk below the tree line the leader, and the cat-man pulled blankets over themselves, and unceremoniously went to sleep.  This left Kiannae, and the archer who obviously had first watch.  Though she was surely one of the things to be watched.

Time passed in silence, until at last Kiannae grew frustrated and moved closer to the archer who eyed her cautiously.  “Kiannae,” she said gesturing to herself.

The archer gave her an odd look for some time, as though unsure what she was saying.  She repeated, gestured to herself, and then to the archer.

He looked to his sleeping companions, and after some hesitation gestured to himself, “Iven.”

“Thank you,” she said.  He perked a brow, but seemed to recognize the phrase by then.

Kiannae tried several more times as the night wore on to learn something from Iven, who seemed uninterested in learning either her words, or teaching his own.  Kiannae had almost drifted off when she was startled by the archers sudden movement.  She looked up to see him holding his bow taunt, and staring into the darkness beyond the fire intently.  She looked in the direction of his gaze, but at first saw nothing, then a slight shadow of movement in the darkness.

Kiannae could not quite make out the form, but it seemed the right height to have been the boy from the night before.  She worried that it was, and that the kindest seeming of Sylvans might kill him.  Not that she had reason to trust or like the mysterious naked boy, it just seemed wrong.  She looked back to Iven who obviously was scanning for any sign of what he had seen.  Kiannae actually caught the glimpse of the boy first at the edge of the fire light, even as Iven spun to train his bow on him.

Kiannae turned, and held up both hands raised to Iven in a gesture to stop.  He turned his eyes only slightly to her quizzically, but then his expression changed to something unsettled.  Kiannae turned back to where the boy had been, but saw nothing, just mist in the fire light.  She looked back to Iven who had lowered his bow, but seemed to be regarding her more cautiously than ever.  He moved to the opposite side of the fire from her, and gave every visible indication he did not wish her to come closer.

< Previous || Next >

Foreword

Book2_NewFor those who believed themselves but consort to the hero,
only to find they might yet author their own fortune.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Into every life there comes at least one moment that defines us.  A crystalline fragment of who we are, refracting a world in which we live.  We do not always chose this moment, but we always make it our own.  In the dead of a spring night, and the fifteenth year of her life, the girl Katrisha Ashton had such a moment.  There was not a thing humble about it.

Though she wore an enchanted robe to that fateful mountain, she knew it was a feeble excuse for protection.  It could not have saved her from a single misstep, and would only have served to slow her down.  She left it behind, and trusted her life to no more than skill, a clever plan, and absolute faith in her twin.  So it was that a young woman came to fight a dragon, naked, in the moonlight.

One could debate if any of Katrisha’s faith was misplaced.  By all reasonable measures the plan was working, until of course everything went completely wrong.  Then a brave, and daft young woman paid more attention to the fool who got in the way, than saving her own hide.

Before she flew from that cliff, Katrisha had two broken ribs, a serious case of whiplash, and had nearly lost consciousness.  What followed would almost destroy her twin.  The mocking voice of prophecy, and a soul rending pain that told Kiannae a very part of herself had died.  Her world crumbled in an instant, and nothing could matter any more.

Fleeing from such a fight was not truly in her nature.  It could not define her, though it would mark her as surely as any outcome.  Countless worlds in which she stood firm would have showed her true colors.  Yet she ran, and could never quite account for why.

Through all the innumerable permutations of fate, only one was found that could spare the life of all dear to her on that mountain.  Fates know, she tried.  There were worlds in which a midnight sun split the heavens, and ones where the dragon won.  There were worlds where only Kiannae stood by the end, and ones where only a single battered soldier was found to tell the bloody tale.  Yet in every version, the cost was too high.  Be it that night, or another.

Even a god can run out of time.  If that is even the word for it.  I have been told it is less like a matter of time, as moves.  That the game had played out, and that what was, would have to suffice.  That where so much nearly ended, was only the beginning.

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Afterword

< Book 1 || Book 2 >

With the final chapter of Book 1 now published, I thought I’d share my thoughts.  A small peak behind the curtain follows, so read if you like that kind of thing, or don’t if you prefer to maintain a deeper level of mystique.  Certainly finish Book 1:21 first!

This is far more about the author, and why the tale is as written, and not necessary to understand what is to come.  There may also be a very tiny spoiler in the middle for the highly observant, but it really is quite insignificant, and only a chapter away at that.

Continue reading “Afterword”

Chapter 21

The fire burns north,
‘n the ice lays south,
between these stand,
not but fear ‘n doubt,

always there’ve been,
the men of bold Osyrae,
‘n always there were,
Queens to hold storm at bay,

there was contention enough,
without dragons at each hand,
the kingdoms err between,
cling more tightly to their land.

– untitled bard song, circa 450 E.R.

Where the Dragon Lies

Coria 38th, 647 E.R.

The stables were always empty at night, save the horses.  The night attendant slept deeply, and rarely needed to be woken by a soldier running in to get him in the event of unexpected arrivals.  The twins none the less moved with the caution of mice sneaking through a cat bed.  They had already dodged all the patrols they knew by heart, not that there were a great many.

The twins had only cursory instruction on riding, most of which they had gotten at Horence’s insistence, as he argued if he was to train them to fight, he would train them to get to a fight.  Laurel had not protested the argument further.  They considered the bridles, and saddles, but their instruction on them had been too cursory, and their sense of urgency too great – to get out before they were discovered.  Particularly as the horses were already stirring uncomfortably over the unexpected night visitors.

“Simple harness, and bareback?” Kiannae suggested quietly.

Katrisha nodded, and each picked a horse they knew from their few times riding.  Katrisha picked a black mare with white spots, whose name she had forgotten.  Kiannae picked an older brown stallion named Golden, that had seemed to have a liking for her once.

The two put on the harnesses carefully, and then lead the horses out of their stalls.  “Let me go first,” Katrisha whispered.  She pushed open the stable doors enough for them to exit single file.  “Just before I reach the gate, when the guards have noticed me, make me vanish.  That should confuse them enough for you to slip through behind.

Kiannae pursed her lips doubtfully at the plan, but finally nodded agreement.

Katrisha considered the task of mounting without stirrups, carefully judged how much extra force she would need, and lept onto the horse’s back.  She gently snapped the reins, once, twice, three times, and the horse was off at a gallop.  She glanced back to be sure her sister was close behind.

Katrisha threw up a dim light orb.  Hoping that perhaps the use of spell craft, but not providing enough light to see, could make her be mistaken even for a moment for Laurel in the dark.  The guards shifted uncertainly, and then Katrisha released the orb, and vanished as she felt her sister’s spell weave around her.

The guards stepped back, both from what had been a fast approaching horse, and uncertainty as it vanished.  A second horse in the first’s wake only made them more doubtful what to do.  Stopping people leaving was rarely if ever their instructions, but there had been no expectation of a departure, and strange magical elements of the whole affair left them bewildered as the twins road off into the night.  They argued a good half hour as to who was going to report, or at least that was the report of the nightwatch on the tower, who finally took it upon himself when the others did not.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 39th, 647 E.R.

Kiannae considered a carefully copied map for some time, as her horse milled a bit at the crossroads they had stopped at.  She brightened her light several times trying to make out their sloppy penmanship.  Katrisha worked to soothe overworked muscles on her mare as Kiannae frowned, and glanced up the road she was fairly sure was the right one.

“We’ve been riding them hard for several hours,” Katrisha said.  “You should do something for Golden, even just a little.”

Kiannae tucked the map under her arm, and ran her hands down Golden’s shoulders.  She hadn’t really been trained as a healer, but she knew well what she did for her own sore shoulders after practice.  Golden calmed his insesent mulling, and snorted contently.  “I’m fairly sure this is the fork we want,” she said nodding her head up the left path towards the mountains.

“We should stop a good ways from the nest,” Katrisha sugested.

Kiannae checked the map.  “The nest is in a broad dry ravine behind a steep ridge, we can stop, and tie up the horses at the base.”  She tucked the map into her robe, and snapped the reigns twice, getting her up to a decent trot, but holding back a bit given how long they had been riding, and the territory they were headed into.

Katrisha moved to catch up, and glanced up at the hills nervously.  ‘Where the dragon lays,’ crossed her mind.  The words hung there quite a while on the ride.  She summoned a spell to check the time, a pyramid bobbed and spun towards the sun somewhere opposite the world.  It was half past one in the morning.  Miles up into the foothills, three or four hours at their current rate.  They would have time to work with in the dark for at least the first part of the fight.

The words wouldn’t go away as she tried to think about all the pertinent details, but what could be more important than the fact that a ‘dragon lies’ ahead.  She almost stopped her horse there, her heart certainly froze.  She remembered Cassandra’s eyes.  She heard the words, ‘the second is born and first to die.’  Another voice all but screamed ‘head the warning,’ in her head.  Which warning.  Laurel dead, one of them.  Katrisha started to cry.  She was the one going down, Kiannae was better at the spell that the whole plan hinged upon.  She would be at risk, her sister would be safe.

Beware did not mean it was the dragon that would kill one of them.  Beware meant to know the risks.  The risk of inaction was all but certain.  The warnings had been headed, they would be headed, she would do everything she could to prevent the alternative.  There was only forward, and Katrisha thought through every single book she had read.  She considered every advantage she could have in that fight.  Everything.

Her robe was enchanted, but really only against something sharp, fire, or spells.  A crushing blow, being stepped on.  If she was hit with a swipe of claw, or the crushing force of a bite it would do nothing.  If she did not avoid the attacks, it did not matter if the robe kept her from being stabbed or sliced, the force would still crush her.

If there was fire?  Katrisha considered worriedly.  The robe would not protect her head any way.  If there was fire, it was a greater dragon, and the whole plan was shot.  They had already thought through the contingencies to test.  Fire was not an issue.  By the moment the robe felt like a liability.  That had been what one book had asserted.  She laughed mutedly at that, no more than two quick almost soundless huffs through her nose.  Was it mad?  She shook her head, and road on, catching up with her sister who was trotting just a bit faster.

It would be fine.  They had a plan, and the alternative was foolish.  The alternative was to be blind, and stumble forward.  Her magic had sliced solid stone, she could do it.  She felt battle hardened, confident.  It wasn’t hers, it didn’t belong to that moment, but all at once, it was hers.  She was a battle mage, because her fate was to fight.  She wasn’t sure she liked that, but it came with confidence.  Those kind of instinct would not come from one encounter.  Kiannae had them as well.  It wouldn’t be just the one fight in their future.  This, was the right path.

Katrisha was certain of her course.  She was afraid, the animal facing danger filled with adrenaline, but the spirit, and mind were clear.  She had a destiny.  Prophecy was one thing, but destiny was another in her head.  They were words from stories, tales of adventure that Mercu liked to tell.  ‘Prophecy is what is handed to us, destiny is what we take, in spite of it.’

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The twins moved cautiously up the ridge in the dead of night.  Weaving around thorn bushes, and avoiding scattered twigs for fear of making any sound.   They had left the horses tied a few hundred yards below to keep them out of earshot, but still winced when they could make out a distant snort or clop of shuffling hooves.

So far Eran’s map had proved accurate – old trails and animal tracks winding off a little used road that lead into the mountains had brought the girls to that hesitant, breathless final stretch.  Getting to their knees they moved cautiously the last few feet to peer into the moonlit ravine below.  It was hard to make out clearly in the pale moonlight, but dark shimmering scales could be seen amidst the black rock.  The scales moved rhythmically with each of the dragons quiet shallow breaths.  Kiannae was relieved to see the creature was asleep for the moment, this would give them time to get a better vantage point.

They worked their way carefully down the crag, between sharp rocks, and through deep fissures in the stone.  Their hearts stopped every time loose stones shifted, and tumbled clattering down, sometimes dislodging others along the way.  At last they came to a small outcrop of rock on a ledge just above the beast.  Its breaths though soft could now be heard, and the outline of its form discerned clearly by the sheen of it’s scales in the moonlight.

It was larger than any living thing the girls had ever seen, one of the horses they had road on could fit easily inside it, and leave plenty of room for the both of them.  A chilling and all too likely outcome Katrisha realized, if their plans did not work out.  She continued to convince herself it would.  She leaned close to her sister and whispered in her ear, “See that boulder up there on the opposite cliff, I’ll nudge it loose, you turn it invisible, we’ll see what the dragon does when something it can’t see hits it.”

Kiannae nodded and closed her eyes for a moment, focusing.  Katrisha watched as the bolder shimmered and disappeared, leaving only a faint magical aura revealing it was still there.  She reached out and carefully formed a spell for directed force.  It unleashed in a burst which briefly revealed the bolder.  There was a sound of stone grinding on stone, and a loud crack as the heavy stone caught on a lip of the cliff wall, and vanished again.

The dragon’s head shot upright at the sound.  It could not see the bolder coming, but heard it as it scraped down the cliff face, and struck the floor of the ravine with great force.  It was not prepared as the boulder tumbled into the wing folded at its side, and let out a deafening roar with the impact as it staggered to its feet.

The great beast shuffled about cautiously, the weight of its steps producing loud thuds.  It spread its vast wings almost cliff to cliff, one twitching slightly where it had been struck.  It did not understand, did not see what had hit it.  Katrisha watched closely as one of the dragon’s legs stumbled over the invisible stone, causing it to turn violently and look for what it had tripped over.  Nothing was there, not to the dragon’s eyes at least.

The dragon sniffed the air and growled loudly.  It looked about suspiciously, but saw nothing, heard nothing of merit but the wind blowing down the canyon.  Slowly, cautiously it began to return to its resting spot, only to find a vexing invisible lump in its way.  The creature poked with a front claw at what it could not see, and the great stone rolled slightly under the force.

Displeased and perplexed the dragon backed away, and settled farther down the ravine, closer to the edge where the land plummeted into the valley below.  It lay, and stared intently at where the unseen bolder lay.

“Well that worked,” Katrisha whispered softly, “how are you holding up?”

“I’m fine,” Kiannae said softly, her eyes still clenched shut, focusing on maintaining the illusion.  “I could probably keep this up a good ten, fifteen minutes easily, but I would much rather reserve such efforts for when it counts.”

The sound of stray pebbles tumbling down the far cliff caused the dragon to turn its head away from the bolder, and Katrisha softly commanded, “Let it go.”  The bolder shimmered back into view at the periphery of the dragon’s vision, causing it to snap its head back and stare intently.  It could see the bolder then, could see what had hit it, but still did not understand.  The bolder just sat there.

Katrisha began stripping off her robe, drawing a perplexed look from her sister.  “What are you doing?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.

“This robe is too heavy,” Katrisha whispered softly, “Like the book said, if I’m going to move fast enough…it would just get in my way.”

“But the enchantments…” Kiannae protested with concern.

“Won’t do a bloody thing,” Katrisha said with a grimace.

“I…” Kiannae started hesitantly, for the first time doubt in her voice, “I’m not sure about this plan any more.”

Katrisha folded her robe on the rock and considered her sister for a moment.  She tried moving, but found the billowing of her undergarment worse than the robe, it was too loose, if not nearly as restrictive.  She pursed her lips doubtfully, took it off, and lay it atop the robe. Kiannae gave her an even more disbelieving look as she crouched naked in the moonlight.   “Can you maintain the spell?” she asked bluntly.

“Yes….yes,” Kiannae shot back defensively. “I… I’m just scared.  It’s bigger, much bigger than we thought.  I…don’t want to lose you…”

Katrisha leaned closer to her sister, and put her forehead to hers, “You won’t, the plan will work.  The dragon couldn’t see the bolder, it won’t be able to see me – at least, not long enough to catch me.”  She sighed, then half smiled.  “We have to do this.”  She kept all her reasoning to herself.  Kiannae didn’t need more to worry about, if she hadn’t yet realized.  Katrisha was fairly sure her twin hadn’t put together what she had.

“Ok,” Kiannae said reluctantly, looking her sister square in the eye.  She kept feeling like she had forgotten something, something very important, but it kept just out of reach.

Katrisha nodded, and Kiannae began the spell, wrapping light around her sister, turning her invisible to mundane eyes.  Katrisha was relieved that in the dark of night, the fuzzy outline of the world was almost easier to see.  Carefully she began to work her way down the broken cliff face, and moved to where the bolder now stood.  She could faintly see the thin slits of the dragons massive eyes reflecting light, and appearing to glow with their own brilliance.  They were almost closed, the dragon almost back to sleep.  It was less prepared for what was coming than it had been even for the bolder.

Gathering all of her focus Katrisha prepared the spell, and put a great deal of her power into the first shot, intending to make it count.  She could feel the spell around her falter, as she knew it would, her own magic interfering with it for a moment.  The dragon’s head shifted at the sight, just enough, as a spear of ice nicked its jaw, tearing scales away, and buried itself in its shoulder.

The beast’s roar of agony was deafening as it staggered to its feet, favoring its now slightly wounded front hip.  It glared at the tiny pale thing that had appeared from nowhere, and with barely a moment’s hesitation barreled towards the attacker, but she was gone.  Katrisha had already bolted from her position, and now stood with her bare back to the cold stone of the cliff face.  She forced her breath to be steady, slow, controlled, not to let it give her away.  She took comfort in the eerie world of shadowed outlines that let her know she was invisible, protected.

The spear of frozen air and water vapor boiled away slowly from the dragon’s shoulder, drawing ever more angered pained growls from the beast.  Katrisha gathered her strength again, pulling power from the air, from the stone, and from the aether.  Her heart was beating so fast, some part of her was afraid, but that part could gain no audience as exhilaration ruled uncontested in her mind.  

Katrisha struck again, and another shimmering spear shot forth, pulling the air into a solid razor sharp lance of ice, turning heat into velocity.  Even the stone hard scales of the dragon could not stop all of the force, but once again the wound was shallow, not even a foot of penetration into the immense bulk of the beast.  The dragon shrieked in pain with deafening volume, and turned toward the direction the attack had come from, barely catching a glimmer of the tiny thing that had been there.

Katrisha was forced to roll out of the way as the dragon charged again for the wall she had stood against.  She felt sharp stone and pebbles scratch and cut her skin, and winced.  She could smell the blood of the dragon, as large drops fell to the ground from the steaming wound in its side.  She crouched hesitantly, and considered moving – the dragon was far too close for comfort.

Katrisha analyzed the situation, her strikes were wounding the beast, but as much volume of blood now oozed from its wounds, these were nothing more than deep scratches to a beast its size.  Sure maybe they would fester, and the creature would die of infection, but she did not have weeks to work with.

Above this contest of wills, Kiannae risked her concentration to look up when she heard loose pebbles tumble down beside her.  She cursed softly and closed her eyes again when she saw four knights, Laurel, Eran, and Idolus all perched above her on the cliff.

Katrisha considered her new vantage point, the scales were layered, overlapping like shingles from head towards tail.  Her previous strikes had barely cut through the scales, but from this angle she wondered if she could wedge her attack under the scales, allowing it to penetrate deeper.

Gathering her strength Katrisha struck again, the brilliant glass like shard sliding almost effortlessly between the scales.  Several tore completely free under the force of the attack, and the spear disappeared entirely into the creature, only to boil forth slowly as steam from the deep wound.  The dragon thrashed wildly in agony, its wings crashing carelessly against the cliff walls as Katrisha once again sought a safer vantage, and tried to dodge falling rocks that were easily as deadly as the dragon.

Laurel and Idolus had made their way down to Kiannae by this point, and Laurel’s first harshly whispered demands for answers had been completely ignored by the deeply focused girl who sat before him.  The priest turned from the one sided staring contest and peered into the gorge below, perplexed at what he saw.   All too quickly he realized as another spear of ice shot into the dragon’s side, and Katrisha was again revealed, that the girl fighting the dragon below was quite naked.

He moved along the narrow ridge, trying to get closer to where he could vaguely make out the moving aura.  He watched in amazement as the graceful young girl struck again, her sweat soaked skin shining in the moonlight, and just as quickly vanished.  He looked then to the dragon which shuffled aimlessly, growling, snorting, and groaning constantly, seeking a target, any target in its pent up rage.

Katrisha moved quickly, quietly, constantly seeking a better, less visible angle of attack.  She could smell her own sweat, and dreaded for just a moment that her scent would give her away.  The dragon had moved to where she had last struck, it was learning, she was sure it hadn’t even seen her that time.  It sniffed at the air, turning its head back and forth.

Katrisha thought little of it as the creatures wings carelessly scraped along the top of the ridge.  Little of it that is, until she heard a man’s yell, and turned to see some one slide helplessly down the steep stone cliff face and crumple to the ground amidst shattered stone.

It was instinct, something automatic, she knew without even thinking that whoever had stumbled into this was dead if she didn’t act.  Katrisha struck again, wildly, recklessly this time, she put too much into the spell and was left staggered by it.  The shard of ice had been nearly as large as her, and even the gust from its departure nearly pulled her over.  It penetrated deeply into the dragon’s flank, drawing it back away from the trembling Idolus who lay desperately trying to heal his wounds.  The power of the spell had fed back through Kiannae’s illusion and broken her concentration, leaving Katrisha exposed as the dragon barreled towards her.

The Dragon was almost upon Katrisha before Kiannae could leap up to get eyes on her sister, and reform the illusion.  Katrisha was left little choice but to dive between the immense legs.  Heavy crashing feet barely missed her with force that would have left her little more than a smear on the cold stone.  The sound alone of each thunderous step was bone rattling, and her ears were left ringing.

Katrisha was scratched and bruised from her desperate maneuvers, but otherwise intact.  The beasts vast belly was suspended mere inches above her.  Part of her thought – for just a moment – of the perfect opportunity the angle presented her to strike what might be a mortal blow.  Her last reckless move however had left her too weak to try, and she realized she was too close to get any good acceleration on the attack.  Lastly in that moment of forced hesitation, a glimmer of sense came to her for how precarious her current position really was.

Katrisha turned her head in confusion as a bright flash of light caught her attention.  She rolled and scrambled to avoid the dragon’s shuffling claws as it was also drawn to the new distraction.  She had barely gotten to her feet as the dragon’s tail swept around, too low to the ground to avoid, the blow knocked the wind from her, and she heard a rib crack from the impact.  She felt the acceleration, the whole world tumble.

Katrisha didn’t see that the light had been Laurel on the cliff, trying to distract the dragon.  She only knew that past the pain, numbed by shock, she felt weightless.  It took her a moment, perhaps an eternity, perhaps only half a second of looking up at the moonlit sky, and twinkling stars to realize she was falling.  The dragon’s tail had swept her clean off the cliff at the end of the ravine.  Katrisha  rolled painfully in the air, and looked down in dazed terror at the oncoming rocks below.

Far above, Kiannae had lost her focus, and she watched as a wounded dragon landed precariously on a ledge not far away, sending pieces of stone tumbling into the ravine.  Laurel shattered the stone beneath the dragon’s feet, causing it to lose its grip, and tumble with terrible force to the ground below.  Kiannae panicked, she didn’t know where Katrisha was any more, and as she looked to the ravine floor below, and then the direction she had last been able to track her sister, she saw the cliff.  Then she felt something inside her snap, like ice piercing the very center of her.

Kiannae’s face went white, her thoughts spiraled unintelligibly out of control, and she ran, scrambling up the cliff where she had previously come down.  She stumbled half blind as tears formed, and blurred her vision.  She ran past Knights who could not quite get hold of her, and down the path she had climbed before.  It was all she could do to get onto the horse she had come on, even as someone was running after her.  She burned the reins away, that held the horse to the tree it was tied to.  The horse bolted from everything going on, and carried Kiannae away.

All she wanted then and there was to be anywhere else.  Dark thoughts plagued her mind, half formed, as she became certain, as the only plausible reality seared into her mind.  She had failed, she had not been good enough, and now, her heart broke, she couldn’t even bare to think the words she could finally remember, that she then knew to be true.  The words of an old woman from years before echoed in her head.

Kiannae wondered how she had forgotten, how Katrisha had forgotten.  Laurel had told them to, that was why.  They had come to save him, they had done it to save him, and…she trembled as she clung to the horse, all of her wild fear and fury driving it on.  They had never been completely sure which of them was born first, but now Kiannae was sure.  Katrisha was born second.

Kiannae began to cry without reservation, as the words rang so loud in her head someone could have been screaming them in her pounding ears, ‘first to die.’

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae lay against her horse’s back, bathed in moonlight as trees flew by at the roadside.  She had ridden for hours without direction, or clear thought, as overwhelming sorrow, weariness, and guilt plagued her delirious mind.  She didn’t know where she was, she didn’t care.  If the horse slowed she simply clenched her fingers into his fur tighter, and let all her sorrow and rage flow into the innocent creature as unformed wild energies spurred it on.

When exhaustion finally won the contest of wills with madness, Kiannae passed out.  No longer clinging tightly she slipped from horse’s back, and was shocked awake by the cold hard ground, as tumbled several times. For a moment pain pulled her from her fevered delusions.  She looked up to see the horse a dozen yards away, cautiously examining its former rider – torn between training, and the relief to have the wild creature off its back.  Kiannae winced as she moved, everything hurt, and her head seemed to be ringing like a bell.

Waveringly she managed to push herself up.  As she sat dazed on the road she became aware of the blood trickling over her lips, and down her chin.  She brought her hand to her nose, and touched it gingerly.   It was covered in blood that was almost black in the moonlight.  She laughed, she didn’t know why, it was a single short laugh with no humor in it.  She looked around absently, not caring for the horse that scratched at the ground and snorted a short distance away, nor the blood that still flowed from her face.

After a minute of vacantly surveying her surroundings Kiannae came enough to her senses to try to stop the bleeding from her nose.  She brought both hands to her face, and focused past every other screaming muscle and joint to stop the blood.  The delirious spiral of emotions that had consumed her abated for a moment, as a cold analytical state took over her shock addled mind.  The horror was still there, somewhere, at the edge of her consciousness, like swirling storm clouds on the horizon.  As she finished her nose she began to take stock of each cut, scrape, and strained joint.  This seemed to keep larger troubles at bay for the moment.

Finding her legs mostly intact Kiannae tried to get up, but fell with a shriek on the first attempt having found that her right shoulder could bear no weight.  She tried again using her left arm to help herself up, and managed to stumble to her feet.  She watched apathetically as the horse backed away farther, obviously uninterested in the possibility of her remounting it.

Kiannae looked up and down the unmarked forest road.  She could only guess at that point which way she had even come from.  For all she knew she had tumbled fully over in the fall, and the horse had circled around.  For a moment she considered returning, going back to the castle and facing the wrath of the the King, Laurel…everyone.

There was no point to it.  Returning would not bring Katrisha back, there was nothing there for her any more.  Not even Laurel, or Mercu – they had told her to ignore, to forget…she had, and then she hadn’t…but she wouldn’t…she was so angry, looking for anyone to blame but herself.  On a level she knew that, and yet there was a righteous indignation right behind that knowledge.  Why would she face their wrath…or Wren, who had lost his favored sister.  She had warmed to her brother, but not fully.  She wanted no part of it, not any of it.

She looked away from where she had come, or so she presumed.  She considered the road ahead – another kingdom, perhaps?  She was unsure where she was.  She could join a merchant caravan, if perhaps she could convince them she was older.  It would be a hard sell, however good she was at magic. What did it matter, what did she care for that life?  She stumbled to the side of the road, leaned against a tree, and found herself staring into the forest.

What forest was it, Kiannae wondered.  Had she been riding east?  She must have been given the mountains she had ridden from.  Was she on the edge of the great forest in which the Sylvans dwelled?  Could her half forgotten father be out there somewhere?  There was something to that, even as madness tried to take her again.  The cold inside of her, the place that felt like a hole where her sister had always been, ached.  She formed a spell that told her which way was north.  It had to be where she was, it was that forest, she was convinced.

As a child Kiannae had stood at the forest’s western border. She had tried to find the courage to cross the stream that ran behind her grandparent’s crypt…long since her mother’s too.  Her sister had taken her hand, and she had turned back.  She had let go of her father, and the mad idea of finding him.  Her sister wasn’t there to take her hand then.  Never would be again, Kiannae considered darkly as tears streamed down her cheeks.  She set herself to that unreasonable goal.  She left the road, the horse, and her ruined life behind – cast adrift like a loose filament of a failed spell, caught in the wind.

Fate had no more power over her, it had taken all it could.  From far above the vantage of mortal eyes, one could see it was so.  She was indeed a loose thread, still spiraling around greater events, her purpose long lost to another.  She was a wild card in a game she could not imagine the players of – a pawn just one square from the far side of the board.  No threat at all, to those still learning the rules of the game.

The Beginning…

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