For 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 such things with one’s own eyes, 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 so readily in high regard – were even more than petty pawns.
For dragons hatch, wet and mewling. Young emperors must first learn to walk. Kings as babes stood close at their mothers hem. To ignore this, is to forget what matters. That all who were great, started small. Even gods, most often come from nothing.
So 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.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
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 and James Ashton. 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 considered, 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.”