Chapter 7

Weathered stones rest round ‘n crumbled,
of that old broken tower tall ‘n noble,

there a weary eye might catch a glimmer,
of long satin robes that wave ‘n shimmer,
a glowing face bares timeless eyes,
‘n gossamer hair brushes ghostly thighs,

a beautiful form fair ‘n striking,
a hollow visage doth easily frighten,
do not tremble for our good white lady,
count again omens give kindly,

for should she smile broad and clear,
know you are ever welcome there,
O’ though should she frown ‘n glance to you,
heed her warning ill fortune comes due.

– Ballad of the White Lady, circa 400 E.R.

The Lady of the Hill

Estae 17th, 639 E.R.

Laurel heard the clatter of little feet coming up the stairs in great haste.  It was hardly warning enough for a six year old to grab hold of one leg, nor her sister in turn to glom onto the other, nearly toppling him in the process.

“Laurel,” Kiannae began in a panic, “there was a lady in our room.”

“But she wasn’t all there,” Katrisha added.

Laurel steadied himself, and considered the frightened children clinging to him.  He smiled in his usual way, and shook his head.  “So you’ve met Navi, have you?  I’ve seen her a few times myself, over the years.”

Katrisha loosened her grasp on Laurel’s leg, and glared up at him, startled by his matter of fact reaction.  “Na…Navi?” she stuttered.

“Yes,” Laurel said almost laughing, “Navi.  Though most call her the White Lady, or some other such thing.”

Kiannae now seemed to relax her grip a bit, and looked up, the worry on her face softening.  “Who is Navi?” she asked choking back her calming hysteria.  “Isn’t that the name of a mountain?”

“Yes – good.  She was the first official ruler of Avrale as a unified nation.  At least so far as the best histories I have found are concerned.” Laurel paused thoughtfully.  “She is one of the more curious ghosts I’ve ever heard of.”  The girls faces both tensed with unease at that word, but Laurel just laughed.

“Don’t worry dear ones,” he said patting them both on their heads, “first off ghosts are harmless.  I’ve only ever heard of one that can even interact with the world around him, and he’s…quite friendly.  As for Navi, I’ve only seen her a few times over the years, she’s exceptional in that she actually turns to look at people, sometimes smiles or frowns, but no one has ever seen her do more.”

He watched both girl’s expressions, their relief was clear but they were obviously still on edge.  “Come,” he said with gentle command in his voice.  “Come up to the main study, I will tell you more about ghosts, spirits, and other such things.”

Laurel gently pulled his legs free, turned, and headed back up the stairs.  The girls followed close behind.  “As to Navi herself I fear there isn’t much to tell,” he began as they passed a storage room door.  “She is very old.  She lived before the Empire by hundreds of years.  She is an imprint ghost, though an exceptional and unusual one given she seems aware of the living world.”

“Why is she,” Kiannae paused making sure she repeated the word correctly, “an ‘imprint?’”

“There are two main kinds of ghosts,” Laurel said pleased with the question. “There are those that manifest near their remains – these tend to be more aware and responsive.  Then there are those that appear near where they lived, or where important things happened.  These tend to just be after images.  Like reflections in a mirror.”

“You said though that she looks at people, even smiles,” Katrisha said with some consternation.  “She smiled at me, I saw it, I was just too scared at the time to realize.”

Laurel laughed. “I’m glad to hear Navi approves of you.  But yes, very astute.  In cases like Navi it is believed that more is imprinted upon the place than just an image, that a very small amount of the person remains.  She had the original north tower built here in her day, much of the work she may have even done herself – according to the legends.  Though that tower fell very long ago, some of the stone was reused, so she remains.”

“So she only appears here in the tower?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“No,” Laurel corrected, “she appears near any of the scattered stones of the old tower.  Including above the waters of the lake below, as many stones fell from the cliffs when the tower was destroyed.”  He turned the unseen latch hidden within the study door, pushed inward, and stepped into the study.

“Why do some people leave ghosts and others not?” Kiannae asked, a touch of grief in her voice.

Laurel sighed deeply. “The day you can answer that with any proof is the day you earn a permanent seat on the Council.  No one knows.  All the obvious reasons seem to fail the test time and time again.  Of all the most powerful mages in history few have manifested as ghosts of any sort.  Some have theorized it is a matter of ‘precise mediocrity’ – that those too powerful burnout in death, and those too weak leave no mark.”

“That isn’t it either is it?” Katrisha asked scrunching up her face thoughtfully.

Laurel smiled, “No, it doesn’t seem to be.  History is full of innumerable mages of highly mediocre ability, and power.  Yet few, very few ghosts.  In spite of all this the one determining factor does seem to be the gift, and more often magic.”

“Wait, what’s the difference?” Katrisha asked a bit confused.

“Take your brother, or Renae,” Laurel answered.  “Both quite gifted, but neither are mages, because they have not trained in our practices.  Though I suspect Renae knows a few things.  Magic though, they very word comes from the Maji, from their specific practices.  Spellcraft is magic.”

“I’ve heard Renae speak of the living magic,” Kiannae countered, as they moved into the central study.

“Yes,” Laurel frowned.  “And you will hear commoners refer to any gifted practice as magic.  Does it really matter?  No, I suppose not, but it is better to use a word with proper meaning, is it not?  The superstitious will speak of witchery, and witchcraft as well, and the legends say they wove spells, but there is little evidence there were ever such practitioners.  Would either of you care to be called a witch?”

“I don’t know…” Katrisha said hesitantly.  “People don’t seem to like witches.”

“But does it really matter, as you said once, a name is just what we call a thing.  This rune, or that?”

“Ah,” Laurel laughed appreciatively.  “Yet as Mercu would assure you the words we use are very important, each synonym has it’s use – and maintaining their meaning is of value.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Can you heal so well as your brother?” he pressed.

“I don’t think so,” Katrisha admitted, though she had little to base the statement on.

“Can he conjure dancing lights, and craft spells?” he tried again.

“No,” Kiannae answered a bit proudly.

“What he has studied, and what you have studied are very different things,” he paused pointedly, “why should we call them by the same name?”

“We shouldn’t,” Katrisha agreed.

Kiannae seemed to mull something over for a moment. “You said some ghosts can touch things?” She said returning to the prior topic.

Laurel nodded at Kiannae. “One can.  Some rare ghosts that manifest near their remains can speak, or even answer questions.  They tend to come and go quite erratically, and forget things between manifestations.  There is however one notable, spectacular exception.  Theseus Moire, an instructor who lived during the mid Empire.  Legend says he was so stubborn, that when he died between classes he went on to teach the next as a ghost!”

Laurel paused thoughtfully. “He is the only ghost I have ever…heard of who can move objects at will, and who can still limitedly perform magic.  Some say he grew smarter in death than in life, and that he never forgets…anything.  He kept teaching part time till Corinthia fell, then he was lost for at least a century.  Some…believe the Council found him, locked him away, and never said why.”

Laurel noticed the girl’s attention drifting, and said pointedly, “Ghosts are not the only such entities in the world however.  Spirits, or those commonly called elemental or half-flesh are individuals who have transcended the death of the body, and anchor their souls to this world through a surrogate form.  Not to be confused of course with true emergent elementals, as old Norbert was,” he added gesturing up to the core of the simulation over his head.

Laurel had never explained why the elemental had been called Norbert, and in fact had expressed his own personal bemusement on the matter.  He had however revealed that it had been used for less dignified things over the years, including keeping perishables cold, and staving off the heat of a northern summer.  Mercu had been able to tell some more interesting stories about the enigmatic crystal’s origin, none of which Laurel had been inclined to confirm or deny.  Though he did admit Mercu had done a fair amount of research into the history over the years, that he had not bothered to.

The short version of Mercu’s tales could be summed up that it was the spoils of a harrowing fight with a vicious elemental, in a very distant northern wild-land, far beyond the equator.  It had been the property of Laurel’s great grandmother, who had defeated it, and was probably worth an unfathomable amount of money, if it was not bound by successive wills to never be sold.

Satisfied he had their attention he continued.  “They are vastly rarer than ghosts, but much as Theseus they retain significant and persistent mental ability, but more so are often very powerful.  They range from stone men, to dryads, or even the fabled Lady of the Sands worshiped by several nomadic tribes of the northern wastes.  There existence is well documented, but none have ever consented to be studied.”

“Do they never die?” Katrisha asked with interest.

“Some argue they did die, in the conventional sense.  They don’t have living bodies as you or I any more.  As such they don’t age, though some do fade with time, while others seem absolutely immortal – even when forcibly scattered they reform eventually.”

“How did they get that way?” Kiannae asked.

“It varies,” Laurel said thoughtfully, “The process has never been observed, or replicated intentionally.  In a few cases the individual was known to have started the process in life, becoming deeply attuned with the nature of some material or another.  When death came to call, or in a time of desperation they abandoned their bodies, and became one with the practice they had long worked.”

“Why doesn’t anyone know?” Katrisha asked irritably.

“For over a millennia there are records of the study of all things gifted, and supernatural,” Laurel said, half sitting on the central table.  “I sometimes think more has been lost than is still known.  Yet one thing has never been done, or well proven to be done, no one can see beyond the Veil.”

“What is the Veil?” Kiannae asked vaguely remembering hearing the term several times, but not knowing what it meant.

“That itself is an open question,” Laurel laughed.  “Some think of the Veil as the boundary between our world and things unseen.”

“And others think?” Katrisha said scrunching her face.

“That the Veil is a bad term, overly weighted with old superstition, and misleading, but that it -is- the universe,” Laurel replied.  “I tend to believe that my self.”

“How does that work?” Kiannae asked looking confused.

“The easiest analogy is to imagine the surface of the ocean…” Laurel reconsidered his choice of words, realizing the girls had never seen the ocean, “or well how about the lake.  The Ether is the sky above, the Nether the water below, and you, me, and everything else are ripples on it’s surface.”

“Is that what’s on your face?” Katrisha asked innocently.

“Um, no,” Laurel said shaking his head, “Though I suppose that’s a fun way to look at it.”

“We don’t have any ripples,” Kiannae said looking back and forth between Laurel and her sister.

“That’s because you are young and simple, like calm little ponds, and I am old and complex as the stormy sea,” he said looming playfully over the girls who giggled at his antic.  He leaned back again and sighed. “Don’t worry if the idea doesn’t make sense to you, I barely fully grasp it at times…and it is just an idea, no real proof…well there is this.”

Laurel picked up a small ink well from the desk.  “There are two arguments about why this works,” he said as a shimmer appeared around the bottle, and then it simply disappeared.  “Can you still see it?” he asked.

The girls looked in wonder at the object Laurel seemed to imply was still in his hand.  There was something there, the tiniest refraction, and the faintest aura, but both were so subtle as to be hard to notice.

“I think so,” Kiannae said.

“There is an aura around it, but it’s hard to see inside of yours,” Katrisha said trying to focus.

“Ah, yes, here,” Laurel said setting the invisible bottle on the table beside him and sliding away.

“Yes I can see it,” Kiannae said, “it glows.”

“Yes, it’s not a very effective trick against those with the gift,” Laurel laughed as the bottle shimmered back into full view, “still, if you weren’t looking for it, you could miss it, yes?”

“I guess,” Katrisha said with a shrug, “it’s still neat.”

“Back to my point,” Laurel said shifting back closer to the center of the two.  “Two views, both…acceptable.  It is not a conventional spell, more akin to a conjuration.  One view holds that filaments are bending the light around the object, you can’t see it because light isn’t reflecting off it, or being blocked by it.  The other view holds almost the same, but contends that we are bending the Veil, that even filaments are part of it, the surface of reality is warped around it, and that light then simply flows around.  To me it feels more like I’m bending the Veil…but that’s a feeling, not a fact.”

“Aren’t feelings facts?” Kiannae asked looking confused.

Laurel rubbed his head.  “I suppose they are facts for the ones feeling them, but everyone feels different things.  Facts can be tested by multiple people, the same results seen again and again.”

“Don’t different people see different things too?” Katrisha asked.

“That’s where we get in a lot of trouble,” Laurel laughed.  “We take a lot of things on faith, as fact, without going to all the lengths of testing what others have before us.  What they observed, we accept, because of trust.  Or what they trusted that someone else observed…and so on.  Trust to a point, but when climbing a mountain, check your own rope I guess is the lesson.”

Laurel rapped his fingers thoughtfully on the table he was leaning on, and walked over to one of the many bookshelves lining the walls.  He tapped several as he scanned for the particular one he sought, and at last pulled it from it’s shelf.  “Here,” he said opening to about a quarter of the way in, flipping a few pages back and forth before settling on a chapter start, “Moriel tells me you are doing well with your reading, practice on this, and I will be back in a bit.”

Laurel wondered what was compelling him as he left the study, surely as long as he had been talking to the girls the apparition was long gone, yet suddenly he felt a need to see her for himself.  He stopped before the girl’s chamber door, and hesitated, mostly afraid to feel a fool, sure he would find nothing within.  Something else was bothering him, the impulse itself, but for once, on such a simple thing, he could not resist.

Laurel opened the door, and there she stood at the window, half there, a transparent vision of flowing white hair, robes, and luminous skin.  The presence of a ghost is a stranger thing than a living being.  It is hollow, thin, but still there.  She felt almost like a feather caught on the wind, and the wind itself.  She turned to face him, she smiled ever so briefly, but as she turned away Laurel saw a frown cross her lips, and before he could pointlessly demand a meaning, she dissolved away in swirls of shimmering light.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Mercu struggled as he often did, trying to get the twins into their bed, and at last exasperatedly declared, “If you two do not stop fidgeting, and lay down this very instant, there will be no story tonight.”  He turned at the sound of the door opening behind him, but the girls, distracted by his threat relented to lay down.

“I thought,” Laurel said looking at Mercu’s perplexed expression, “that since you often complain on the matter I would help you put them to bed this time.”  He looked to the girls who now lay ready to be tucked in, “But it seems I am too late.”

Mercu glanced back to the girls, shook his head, and covered his face with his palm, “I suppose it is the thought that counts, isn’t it?”  He looked back to Laurel.  “Well, I guess you may as well stay for the story.”  He turned to the girls again, and as he tucked them in asked, “What shall it be tonight?”

“Tell us a ghost story,” Kiannae declared.

“Yes,” Katrisha agreed.

“Still with the ghosts?” Mercu laughed.

“Don’t suppose I blame them, I saw her myself today,” Laurel chuckled.  “I’m afraid I’ll be of little help though, I’m quite well out of ghost stories of my own.”

“Still I must do all the work,” Mercu said feigning indignance.  “Very well,” he said tapping his finger to his chin, “Ghosts, ghosts…aha!  Yes, the tale of Thethis.”  He sat down, and picked up the old battered lute he often used when telling the girl’s stories.  “Long ago, and not that far away, where now only forests stand, there was a great lake, broad enough to have islands midst it’s wide expanse.”

“Now on these islands, and on the north eastern shores,” Mercu said with a strum of the lute, “there were a people who loved their lake, who were at one, and at peace with its still waters.  The waters served the villages of Thethis, they could walk, and dance upon that shimmering surface, as easily as its shores.”

Mercu waited a moment, strumming idly, and then continued.  “The people were happy, and good, respected, but not well loved by their neighbors.  Save one, a Princess who came to love a boy she had seen dance across the lake’s calm waters.  One day, she too caught his eye, and he took her out with him to dance upon the lake.  The King, the Princess’ father did not approve of the girl’s affections, and forbid the pair to meet again.”

“The Princess though loved the boy who would dance upon the lake, and ran away with him, to live, and hide among the island refuges,” Mercu strummed for emphasis, “but the King sent his men, who came to blows with the villagers of Tethis while seeking their Princess, and the boy.  It came to the verge of war, and word in due course reached the two lovers.  The Princess could not bear the price of her happiness, and set out across the waters with her love by her side.”

Mercu eyed the girls who still clung to consciousness, and strummed several soft notes before continuing, “But the King’s men, who had already made threats upon the people to not use their gifts, saw the two crossing the waters as a threat.  They had never seen their Princess walk upon the lake, nor did they recognize the clothes she wore that day, and archer’s shot both down.”

“The boy,” Mercu continued, “could not maintain control, and struggled helplessly as his love sank into the depths.  The waters though, bore him to shore within the night, barely still alive.  Fevered he asked why they had killed their own.  Realizing his mistake the commander cast the still living boy back into the depths, and lied to his King.  He said the people of Thethis had killed her, not his men.”

“So it was,” Mercu said darkly, “that the King did give a decree, in his anger, and sorrow, to kill all the people of the villages, every last one.  The people of Tethis fought bravely, to the last man, to the last woman, and even child.  And as the last of them, an old shaman lay dying, she whispered to her killer, ‘The lake will take you, two for every life lost for a lie.’  It is said, that as she let out her last breath, she simply whiffed away into the night, and was gone.”

Mercu strummed softly for a bit before finishing. “They say that most who were ever alone near that lake again would disappear, and that faces were seen in the mists.  People would forget, or grow bold, or foolish after a time, and even more would be lost.  There were also stories of people the lake almost took, who were just as mysteriously saved from their peril, and instead borne safely ashore by a strange boy, before he would disappear…”

“After many generations a King ordered the lake drained, and the river that fed it diverted.  Still,” Mercu said as he stood up, and leaned over the sleeping girls to kiss them each on the forehead, “there were stories of the faces in the mist, until slowly the forests took the land where the lake had once stood, and people would forget, save to remember the forest of mists, where none dare to tread.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 2nd, 639 E.R.

Mercu was hardly awake from the groaning and thwack of a door thrown opened in haste, when a bawling lump hurled into his bed with force unbefitting meager size.  Instinctively he backed away from the unknown assailant, before he could register the proportions, and obvious disposition as a crying little girl.

“What’s wrong dear?” he asked in a groggy, but still startled tone – trying desperately to get his wits about him.  Katrisha continued to sob.

A minute passed as Mercu tried to calm the shaking girl in his arms, before a second girl, seemingly more bewildered than frightened wandered into the moonlight beyond his door.  “What’s wrong?” Kiannae asked sleepily, “I woke to Ka screaming, and then she ran away.”

“I don’t know,” Mercu said in a frustrated tone, he had been having such a nice dream too, which momentarily danced at the edge of his memory.

“There was a lady,” Katrisha finally whimpered, “a ghost…I think,” she paused uncertainly, trying to think straight.  “She was on a throne, in the dark, and something was moving…so big, and the eyes, the huge yellow eyes, and…and it was a dragon!” she finally blurted out her face stricken with fear, as though she had just then realized what she had seen.  “Her voice was so loud I could not understand, it rattled everything, even my bones.”

“That’s quite the nightmare you had, poor dear,” Mercu said slightly relieved by the triviality of the matter.

“It was real,” Katrisha demanded, and then seemed to feel silly for saying it.  Mercu considered her for a moment.  There was a certain dwindling faith in her statement, though it was passing, but not without striking Mercu curiously.  It wasn’t impossible…he dismissed it.  There was no sense encouraging the idea on so many levels.

“It was a dream my dear,” Mercu said reassuringly, “there are no ghosts upon thrones here, nor dragons lurking in the dark.”

“But…” Katrisha protested, and then gave up arguing, and clung closer to Mercu, burying her face in his shoulder.

“Well,” Mercu sighed, “you may as well come in also,” he said looking at Kiannae, “and do please close the door.”

Kiannae slowly walked in, and closed the door behind her, before moving to Mercu’s bed, and crawling up opposite her sister.

“So, I have told you of dragons,” Mercu mused, “and how they came to be.  Let me tell you of the kindest of all.  A daughter of Lycia, who sat ever adoringly at her Empres’ side.”

“She was the woman Alara, a handmaiden to the eldest princess of the Empire.  She was a controversial appointment.  The Lycian Order was young then, not even named, their defiance of growing Clarion influence all the more fresh, and burning of an affront to true believers.  They were however growing in popularity, most particularly in Lycia, with whom the Empire was always closest, and most vehemently entwined.”

“Why do the Clarions hate the Sisterhood?” Kiannae asked tiredly.

“That…” Mercu said thoughtfully, “is a good question, but an ever so long and dull story.  Dull at least without the bits far too unfit for young ears.”  He paused a moment.  “Now, as to Alara, she was the princess’ favorite amongst her attendants.  She was her closest confidant, dearest friend, and…they were close.”  He trailed off trying to reframe his tale.

“By training, Alara was a healer, a shining example of kindness and selflessness.  Everything a Sister of the Order would come to be, but surely not the model of what people think of dragons.  Yet when the time came, when the Empress asked for volunteers to fight the Black Flight, to become as she, there was none she could have trusted more.”

“Why – you might ask,” Mercu continued tiredly after a few moments of silence, “would a healer, seek to become a dragon?  Lycians love life, you see, they do not chase ascension, even if some believe it possible.  Alara loved life as much as any, and she was old, very old when the war came.  She did – they say – wrestle with her choice.  That if what she loved of life, she would forgo in the power that would consume her frail form.  Still in the end, she made her decision.”

“So was reborn Alara’sae,” Mercu said in a soft but dramatic tone, “unique amongst all dragons.  For while it is known that all other such creatures maws are death incarnate – be it by flame, by tooth, or more exotic means – Alara could breath life itself.  While all other dragon’s fought upon the front lines, trying to strike down foes, at the back of Corinthia’s army was a healer beyond all measure.”

“A dragon healer?” Katrisha laughed incredulously, as sleep fought to take hold again.

“So it was, and is,” Mercu said.  “She dwells still in Lycia, where she returned after the war.  A few of her brood, and her mate Mar’etten dwell there with her.  None ever have been able to match her particular gift, though each of her dragon-born daughters and sons are known for their unmatched skill as healers.  Only the most gifted of the Sisterhood are granted audience with her, to partake of the breath of life, and perhaps learn from its powers.”

“What’s a dragon-born?” Katrisha asked half asleep, her sister already slumbering.

“As dragon’s came from mortal man, so to are born mortals of dragon blood,” Mercu answered, and kissed Katrisha softly on the forehead, and smiled as she finally slipped back to sleep.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 17th, 639 E.R.

Katrisha hugged Wren consolingly, as Kiannae watched through the cracked door beyond which Laurel and Renae had descended into uneasy discussion of the events that had delayed their regular visit.  Mercu for the first time Kiannae could remember did not seem pleased by Renae’s presence.

“It was a wonder even Randal survived,” Renae said grimly, “and barely at that.  They tried damn hard to insure no one was left.  Poor boy was always gifted, but to have lived with those injuries after having been left for dead…”

“Has he been able to say anything meaningful regarding the attackers?” Laurel asked with obvious distress.

“No,” Renae said in a dishearten tone, “he’s pretty well in shock.  Had more to say about some mercenary named Hamon, who gave the bandits a run for their money.”

“Hamon?” Mercu said his face going white, “who was the master of the caravan?” he abruptly demanded.

“Uh,” Renae said suddenly on edge from Mercu’s reaction, “a man named Valden I believe, did you know him?”

Mercu visibly shrank back, and looked away seemingly embarrassed.  “I think so…but not well,” he said after a heavy breath, “but Hamon I knew, he traveled with my father’s caravan for years.  I never thought I’d see the day he got taken down by a bunch of common thieves.”

“By all accounts he didn’t go down without a fight,” Renae said consolingly, “as I said, it seems to be about all Randal can remember is Hamon cutting down five of the attackers before buckling under an onslaught of arrows.”

“That’d be Hamon alright,” Laurel said with ill humor, “once saw that man take a dire boar with nothing more than a dagger, after the beast broke his sword.”

“Wren was there when Randall was brought to us,” Renae grimaced, “he didn’t take well to seeing his wounds – such a terrible thing on his birthday.  Even for all the healing Randal had done to himself he was an awful mess.  The patrol hadn’t been able to do much, and the clarions had turned him away as a lost cause.  I’ve seen worse myself, though not many, still turned my stomach a bit.  I’m not sure if he will ever be quite the same.”

Mercu caught sight of Kiannae peaking through the door, and cut between Laurel, and Renae, pushed the door open, and closed it behind him.  “So I’m guessing you’ve heard all that,” he said irritably, “not that I guess we went out of our way to keep out of earshot.”

“Why would people do such a thing?” Kiannae asked angrily.

“Greed, or desperation usually,” Mercu muttered, “and the effectiveness of the attackers, as well as the King’s willingness to relocate northerners  who suffered from the drought leaves me no doubt the answer is greed.”

“But why?” Katrisha insisted.

“We don’t always get what we want in life, and certainly not right at the moment,” Mercu said and walked towards the window.  “Even in the best of times there will be those willing to take what they want by force, and kill to keep their secrets.  I just can’t shake the feeling this is much more than it seems…” he said staring out into the valley below.

“What more could it be?” Kiannae asked with confusion.

“Not every bandit is a free agent, some,” Mercu said looking back at the children, “some are tools of rulers, and unscrupulous orders who wish to weaken, and test their enemies.  These are hardly the first bandits to pester the eastern road.  Laurel once saved Darion in route to Helm, that is how we came to reside here at court.  Those were common thieves…and fled, or surrendered at the slightest sign of magic.”

Wren who had been clench fisted since he had arrived held up his hand, and in his palm lay a single golden button.  “What’s that?” Katrisha asked.

“I’m not sure,” Mercu said walking up, and kneeling before Wren.  “May I have that?” he asked.  Wren nodded, and Mercu took the button and turned it in the light.  “That,” he said furrowing his brow at a thrones rose embossed on the button, “is the emblem of Osyrae’s royal house.”

“Does that mean that Osyrae did this?” Katrisha asked nervously, she had often heard the whispered fears of Osyrae starting a war, when adults had thought she was not paying attention.

“Perhaps,” Mercu said eyeing the button suspiciously.

“It is at once too convenient, and too little,” Mercu stood, and looked towards the door.  “We don’t want war.  If Osyrae does, then we would give them what they wish if we act, particularly on so little.  It is evidence none the less, that we must take precautions,” and with that he marched out the door.

He did not see as a white wispy form stepped from thin air, and seemed to look about as though confused.  The ghostly woman looked down upon the three children before her, but seemed to look more through, than at them.  She slowly knelt down before Wren, and seemed to consider him more directly.  The twins for their part stepped back, but Wren, though obviously nervous at the presence of this new stranger simply stared up into her hollow face.

There was a long uncomfortable silence, and all watched the unreadable expression of the ghost.  She seemed, almost to frown for a moment, but then smiled, and as quickly as she had come, was gone.  “All things pass,” Wren said sadly, and scrunched up his face, almost as though he did not understand his own words, “yet most will come again…”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 37th, 639 E.R.

Eran moved silently between the trees.  The tracks were clear, no more than a week old, and it had not rained enough to disrupt them.  Animals had done their damage, but not enough to render the trail untraceable.  A large company followed a good hundred yards behind their tracker, and were less silent, in spite of some of their best efforts.

Arlan wore armor too heavy for stealth, Horence was simply not so graceful trekking through the underbrush, and the priest in their midst did not seem to care.  Laurel for his part moved quietly enough, but at the center of a blundering lot, he was hardly inconspicuous.  No one seemed at all pleased to be there, or many with each other.  A group of common soldiers circled the leaders of the party, and more scouts kept watch at some distance out, in all directions.

Laurel only opened his eyes periodically to make sure he was not about to stumble over something, he was focused on less mundane matters.  Only the gifted of the group had any notion of the array of magical lines that circled the company, listening for arrows, spells, or other conventional threats.  Ready at a moment to snap into an active defense.  The range of the array was limited, but Laurel was focused on feeling to the extended senses it gave him.

When Eran stopped abruptly, Laurel was immediately aware, and gestured for the others to stop as well.  Soldiers readied themselves, the priest moved to the back, and Horence, and Arlen prepared for the worst.  Two short whistles, followed by a third long one lowered their guard somewhat.  The party moved forward in step, and came upon where Eran was perched on a ridge.  The markings on the forest floor below were anything but subtle.  It looked like a battlefield.

Huge scorch marks dotted the landscape, trees were toppled and blackened, a few corpses could be recognized even at a distance.  Laurel could sense there had been a ward on the hill where they stood, too faded to give any warning to its absent maker.  He wondered if it had been any use at all.  He hoped not.

Scouts slipped around the permitter, and two whistles, followed by a third sounded from each cardinal direction.  The soldiers moved down the hill, and circled the clearing as the leaders stepped in, followed by Eran.

“There’s a trail of blood here,” Eran said prodding some leaves.  “Couple more patches that way it looks like.  They were headed north west by the looks of it.  This is all as old as the tracks in,” Eran shook his head.  “They are long gone.”

“I’d hoped you would tell me this was it, that they hadn’t gotten away,” Laurel grimaced.

“Other than the patrol that never returned this is the most evidence we’ve seen of the bandits outside of the caravan,” Arlen growled.  “At least some of them met justice.”

“All this really tells us is that they fled into Osyrae.  Telling, with everything else, but useless,” Horence offered.

“It’s enough,” Arlen gripped the hilt of his sword tightly.

Laurel stooped down and stared at the dried blood.  “There is no way they were driven off by our lost patrol.  Those bodies also aren’t our men I’ll wager.”  He looked around.  “This is also far too much damage for even one mage fighting common soldiers.”

“We’ll have to look closer at the dead,” Eran said, “but no, there is no way they are ours.  I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Nor have I exactly,” Laurel rubbed his beard.  “I’ve had a few proper fights with skilled brigand mages, but never did either of us leave a mess like this.  This looks like the work of two or more full war mages duking it out.  Maybe Sylvans…”

One quick whistle, followed by a cry of pain turned all to the north east.  One of the scouts ran, and stumbled into the clearing past the circled soldiers.  He lost his balance backwards, and fell, the arrow in his shoulder pushing through from the impact.  Everyone took positions, prepared for an attack.

“I can feel them out there, they are keeping their distance,” Laurel said under his breath.

“A warning shot maybe?” Eran asked.

“A bit bloody for a warning shot,” Horence countered.

“They are savages by their nature,” the priest said dismissively.

“They are no such thing,” Laurel snapped harshly.  “Keep your vitriol to yourself, Idolus.”

The priest sneered back at Laurel with equal displeasure.  He mulled over things he could say to further incite the man’s protective urges.  He had long abandoned further ideas of saving him, and therefor tormenting him was fair game, and could show him, and his dubious charges as the corruptive influence he held them to be.  He decided not to press the matter under perilous circumstances.

Eran moved cautiously to the wounded man’s side, as he struggled to get up.  He helped him to his feet, and brought him to Idolus.  “This will hurt,” Idolus said plainly, and pulled the arrow through.  The man shrieked, and Idolus began healing the wound.

“Still holding position,” Laurel repeated.

“We should hold our ground,” Arlen said firmly.  “We can’t let this evidence be lost.”

“There is nothing worth fighting for here,” Eran snapped.

“We must retreat,” Laurel said sternly.  “As a Council representative, I will not have us intrude if the Sylvan’s claim this part of the forest.”

“This land is still Avrale’s,” Arlen snapped.

“This stretch of forest was abandoned by Avrale hundreds of years ago,” Eran countered.  “Even then we are right on the traditional border.”

“We are going,” Laurel said flatly.  “Everyone form ranks, and back out slowly,” he yelled with commanding volume.  Several quick whistles from Eran gave the message to the remaining scouts.

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