I see a child who stands before,
ancient eyes dead and hollow,
he longs for glories lost to men,
this abyss bound princely one,
he skulks in crypts beneath his home,
his heart to dark schemes doth turn,
the blood of kings and common man,
shall stain claw sword and hand,
as shadow he is betrayer to one and all,
his hunger unmatched in mortal downfall,
he becomes what was not again to be,
and brings an end to the way of peace.
– Diary of Cassandra Alm, 621 E.R.
Marks of the Passed
Coria 39th, 644 E.R.
Mercu idly stroked a small ball of black fur held in his arms, and it purred contentedly for the attention. He didn’t like the situation he was in. The delivery had come to him explicitly, but with no real explanation save the origin – a final mocking stab of an old woman he barely knew, and certainly did not like. He lifted the tiny kitten up and looked it in the eye for the third time since it had arrived. It didn’t seem evil, or deranged. In fact it could hardly have been more docile.
He tried to think who he could pawn it off on before the girls discovered it, and invariably fawned over it for the adorable little creature that it was. Not that he thought it was necessarily a bad idea that the girls have a pet, but the source was questionable. The only contact the girls had ever had with Cassandra was a singular unsettling encounter, and Mercu could not guess the reason behind her parting gifts. He’d yet to even thoroughly examine the contents of a trunk that had come along with the cat. There were several books, and smaller boxes, but no note.
He cringed as his door opened, but was relieved to only see Laurel walk in, who gave the tiny ball of fluff a strange look. “A kitten?” he said in a curious questioning tone.
“Your grasp of the obvious is astounding,” Mercu muttered.
“It’s adorable…but is it what I think?” Laurel asked moving to examine the cat more closely.
“Yes, probably,” Mercu said with a shrug. “It seems the same Cassandra owned when we knew her on the road all those years ago.”
“Impressive work then,” Laurel said curiously, “but what is it doing here?”
“Outliving its owner, it seems.” Mercu sighed. “I feel, I don’t know, dirty somehow – besmirching the parting gift of a dead woman, but I have a hard time thinking it’s a genuine thought on her part.”
“It’s just a cat, whatever magic may have been done to keep it a kitten for so long,” Laurel said incredulously. “You don’t think it’s been trained to kill or something, do you?” he laughed, but stopped to consider if that was a legitimate possibility. His knowledge in the field of shaper magic was spotty enough to give him a moment of pause.
“No,” Mercu said shaking his head. “Cassandra was insufferable, full of herself, but harmless. I can’t imagine what she intended though. Perhaps I was the only person she could think to send the poor old thing to. It’s been in the custody of the staff while we have been traveling. I think that trunk is possibly everything else she owned.” He nodded across the room.
“Don’t worry too much then I guess, though we should keep it away from the girls, it can’t have long left to live,” Laurel said with a frown.
“Well, I’m not even sure it’s the same cat,” Mercu said uncertainly. “I’ve read a bit about shaped creatures over the years, some of them live for centuries, others have fairly mundane life spans. Anything is possible. I suppose tomorrow it could sprout wings and fly away.”
“Technically…” Laurel said trailing off. “Give it here I want to see if I can work out how much longer it has before we decide what best to do with it,” Laurel took the kitten, which immediately rubbed it’s head against his chest, before curling more comfortably into his arm. “Do you even happen to know its name?”
“I’m sure I heard Cassandra call it by name a dozen times, but that was so long ago,” Mercu said trying to think back. “I think it might be Mar’etten.”
“She named it after him of all…” Laurel laughed. “Who in the burning heavens names a cat after a greater black dragon?”
“Am I now the expert on the minds of mad seers? Maybe she thought it would one day betray her, and spoil her evil schemes of world conquest?”
“Or wind up living with the enemy?” Laurel laughed uncomfortably.
“I hardly think she ever thought of me as an enemy. Try as I might have, I always got the unsettling impression she liked me.”
“You think everyone likes you,” Laurel chided.
“Don’t they?” Mercu said with a wounded glance.
“Most do, but don’t play, you are not so daft to think Arlen – for instance – has any tolerance for you at all,” Laurel countered.
“Ah yes, Arlen. He is stewing quite grimly,” Mercu noted casually.
“What else is new?” Laurel shook his head.
“He’s the look of a man playing chess, and losing badly. I don’t trust it.”
“What can he do?” Laurel pressed.
“For the moment nothing, but Fenlin was a friend to him, and nothing tells me that Arlen is anything but a patient man when it comes to grudges.”
“I would hardly call it patience,” Laurel countered.
“Something less noble then.” Mercu sighed. “I stand by the point.”
“And what would you have us do?”
“Watch him?” Mercu shrugged.
“That, good sir, is your job, or have you forgotten?”
“Yes, well, it does little good for me to watch if I do not report,” Mercu answered with some humor.
Mar grew restless, and began to climb the front of Laurel’s robe, to his clear displeasure, but he seemed uncertain how to dissuade the cat as it crawled onto his shoulder precariously. “Were my arms not good enough you, troublesome thing?” he demanded, dodging a snaking tail.
Mercu got up, and grabbed the kitten by the scruff of the neck, rendering it momentarily placid, and set it back in Laurel’s arms. “Do not worry, I am adept in the ways of handling errant cats.”
“Yes, I am well aware,” Laurel cut back.
“Speaking of grudges,” Mercu frowned. “Are you to now start holding such things over me? She is such a lovely woman, and hardly a threat. I assure you, her heart is many other places before me, not the least of which is some man she will not name – most curious that – and mine still is most assuredly where you last checked.”
“So you are not her only attachment, outside of that woman that shares her bed?” Laurel asked curiously.
“I’ve only the confidence from her to know of the matter in vaguest terms, but I will wager his name is John,” Mercu said pointedly. The look in his eyes said he had more assurance than that, and that he was even in their confidence playing the truth of it close to the chest.
Laurel was shrewd then. “That could be trouble. Is this a recent development?”
“No,” Mercu said firmly. “Very long past by my estimation, but lingering. First love, I would guess. The matter had that sort of wistful quality to it. The man in question surely plays a part in her manner about it though. I’ve heard he was quite a rapscallion, and there are long faded whispers that would put him in the company of a Lucian girl in his youth. Well, less faded after recent events I suppose.”
Laurel sighed, and softened. “What you are, is useful, in more ways than one. You know I do not feel right to judge, so forgive me my occasional displeasure on the matter, and a touch of ill humor?”
“So long as it is humor,” Mercu pressed kindly, rested his hand on Laurel’s shoulder and smiled, “then by all means, accuse me of all manner of feline knowledge.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 41st, 644 E.R.
“It’s not right,” Charles said rather out of the blue, having walked up on Katrisha in the upper court of Broken Hill. They had not spoken since Wesrook, always a buffer of the new children from South Rook between them, mostly surrounding Charles. It seemed an ill advised situation to permit, as much as they shared temperaments, but she did not speak her mind on the matter. His declaration though seemed wildly devoid of context.
Katrisha turned to glare at him, more out of habit than specifically based on what he had said. Though as it sunk in she became quite certain she should be annoyed with his words, and not just his presence.
“What gibberish are you on about now?” Katrisha demanded, narrowing her eyes at the irksome boy.
“That brother of yours,” Charles said in an almost dismissive tone, as though it should have been obvious. This again caused as much irritation as the words themselves.
“What…” Katrisha started angrily, only to be interrupted by her own fears well before Charles. Some part of her worried that others had come to the same suspicions she kept to herself after South Rook, but how. No one else knew about what Varmun had told her. She had found nothing in any books.
“He’s not much of a boy,” Charles answered, “more a girl than anything. Should just call him your sister.”
Katrisha was more than a bit bemused. Fully offended, but it was taking her a moment to process all the possible ways. She wasn’t sure if she should be more defensive of Wren, insulted herself, or relieved that it was something so absurd. “What possibly could be wrong about the way Wren is? He’s sweet and kind, and more than a bit smarter than you.”
“He’ll never be a proper man,” Charles countered, “he’s having all that crushed out of him by those terrible women.”
Katrisha clenched her fist. “Renae is a wonderful woman. She loves Wren like a son.” She was in no mood to hear more hatred for the Sisterhood after all that she had heard, and seen in South Rook. Yet she was not surprised by the source, and suspected that South Rook had everything to do with riling Charles into his current snit.
“Like a daughter perhaps,” Charles countered, seeming smug as ever. “They hate men, hate everything about men. It’s why they lay with each other. It’s not right for a boy to be there. You should demand he be taken out of that awful place.”
“The only awful thing about that place, from all he has ever told me, is another boy,” Katrisha growled taking two firm steps towards Charles. “Oh and he’s a boy alright, like you think they should be. A bully, a brute, a nasty little piece of work. Yes, everything a male should be, right? Just like you.” Katrisha’s aura could be felt even by one as ungifted as Charles, it was furious thing, oppressive, like a thick fog smothering him. “Clearly they don’t crush the man out of them well enough up there. Wren is, who Wren is.”
Charles stood his ground. “If he wasn’t so weak, he wouldn’t have a problem. They made him weak, like a girl.” He insisted.
“Am I weak?” Katrisha snapped at Charles, stepping right up to him, her face in his. He was a few inches taller than her, and yet oddly he felt very small just then. “I could hurl your worthless hide across this courtyard with ease.”
“With magic,” Charles said defiantly, and defensively in the most unproductive sense. It seemed a futile argument, and ill advised under the circumstances.
“And with leverage a smaller man, can throw a larger one to the ground,” Katrisha countered, “are we to judge only brutish force to be the measure of strength? How about the fact I have not broken you. That takes more strength than you could ever possess. Men are weak. In more ways than one. The gifts of women are stronger, did you know?”
“What?” Charles asked a bit put off, by the seeming change of topic, and further by the assertion.
“Take any man, and any woman of the same lineage,” Katrisha explained very heatedly, and took several breaths, trying to calm herself with rational argument, “and seven out of ten of the women will have a stronger gift than the man – measurably, if not obviously. Many times in history training of women as mages has been limited, or outlawed. Women were directed into the healing arts, yet this is not the reason you find so few men as healers. Most simply cannot do it, they do not simply lack the temperament, they lack the power, the raw gift to be good healers. They, are, weak.”
Katrisha watched Charles’ face. It actually did seem new information to him, caught somewhere between disbelief, and understanding. He looked as though he wished to question, to debate, to counter – but he knew nothing of it. It grated against his prejudices, but he knew he was ignorant on the topic, and he did not doubt a word of how easily Katrisha could break him. He was no mage, just a young noble. He also really hadn’t meant to offend, and he struggled to understand it. He had just said the truth as he saw it, the crime he saw in what had been made of her brother. He hadn’t meant to ridicule him, rather his perceived treatment. It had gone off track at some point, and then he had gotten carried away.
“I’m sorry,” he tried, not quite meekly, but with the tenor of one who knew they were in some peril. He wasn’t really sorry, for he lacked the understanding of precisely what he should be apologizing for. The world had an order as he understood it, men above women – and a boy lowered to a girl’s temperament he believed was wrong. Yet as he struggled with it he did understand the unspoken order of the world, mages above commoners, perhaps even nobles. It was a tricky hierarchy, the laws outlined it, but that was more fancy words than he had ever been good with. The history was muddier.
Laurel served at the pleasure of the King, and the King reigned at the sufferance of the council. A Court Mage served the King, but Charles had not been entirely deaf to the King, or to his own mother, ‘Those who lead, must serve those who follow.’ It did not quite seem to apply, and yet it stuck there in his thoughts. Surely Laurel was above him. It was more vague where his apprentice lay. She was more powerful than he could ever be, perhaps even than his father…
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, and this time his voice was different. For it sounded as though he at least thought he should mean it, even if he was still not sure why.
Katrisha’s face shifted. Her rage abated, but not her disdain. She walked away, with barely a further sidelong glance at Charles. He watched her go with a curious opinion, that was not had for the first time. She did not walk like a noble, nor like a servant. Her grace was not lost on him, but it was not that of a lady of the court, nor of a young man. It was proud, and singular – even perhaps distinct from her sister.
He did not like that thought particularly, but it did make some things easier, even if he was utterly terrible at moving events in that direction. He steadied himself, and put it out of his mind. He had other orders to deal with.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Estae 4th, 644 E.R.
Kiannae peaked into Mercu’s room. She had knocked, but guessed he wasn’t in to begin with. She walked over to one of his bookcases, looking for a book Laurel told her he had borrowed from the tower library. She was terribly bored, and Katrisha was constantly trying to make friends with the guests – or prisoners, depending how you framed it. Neither girl liked them much, though Lukas was pleasant enough, but a bit quiet to be of any interest. Kiannae couldn’t understand why Katrisha bothered. The King surely wouldn’t keep them long, the maneuver had the intended effect, but it was not clear if it could persist. Their enemies knew all too well what they were not capable of. It was proprietary keeping them in check, not fear.
Kiannae did not see what she was looking for, and checked the next to no more success. She considered it could have been on one of the upper shelves, but thought that unlikely. She checked the desk, paying little attention to an open chest beside it.
There were several curious things strewn about, but no sign of the book. She considered two stacks of cards, and picked one up. The card was pleasant to look at – about the size of the palm of a man’s hand. On the back an elaborate pattern surrounded a spiral formed of three lobes, one black, one red, one white, the last outlined half in each. Red, and black were the colors the cards were printed in throughout, though fields of white formed a third color, always outlined in red or black to an edge.
It was obviously a printed work, stamped with the same clean lines over, and over again. It was always distinct from hand done scribe work. Kiannae could never understand why so many preferred scribed works to printed. It was always crisper, and cleaner. She turned the card over, her curiosity piqued.
On the face a variety of art was displayed, but there was some consistency. In the upper left, and lower right corner of each card there was one of three symbols; a four pointed black star, a heart of red, or a flame of white. Most were accompanied by a either a number, or a letter. The primary color of the card seemed dictated by these symbols, but all used fields of each to artistic effect.
Each card that depicted persons seemed composed of two busts, blended at the midriff, and facing a different way from one another, some forward, some moonward, some sunward. The joined busts each seemed a man on the one side, or a woman on the other. Kiannae considered the letters, M, C, or K, and the dress of each. The K was obvious, most bearing shield and sword, and some plumed helms – they were Knights. The M and the C were more perplexing, they looked royal, like a King, and Queen, but each was the other if the card was reversed. Monarch, Kiannae decided, and Consort.
On each card that had no number on its corner stood a different object. The hearts held a Tower, the Stars a Sun, and the Flames a Sword atop a Shield. The remaining cards of each type had arrangements of the chief symbol, that matched the number on the card. There were ten of each, one for the object, six arrays, and the three face cards. They were well worn along the edges, soft with use and time, but overall seemed in good condition.
Kiannae was not certain, but had a guess of the purpose of the cards. ‘Playing Fates,’ she’d heard the term, and had guessed that it involved cards. It was a form of gambling, frowned upon by some, loved by others. Another stack of cards sat beside where the first had been. She returned the playing cards, and picked up the others.
These were quite different, and a little longer than the first. No symbols on the corners, no sets that were instantly recognizable, the backs a plain brown. Each had a name along the bottom, and upside down along the top, but some were hard to read, some seemed spelled wrong, or to use odd letters. There was a semblance of groupings, people, things, and others. They seemed painted, and there was a faint enchantment on them, protective certainly, but each seemed vaguely different. There were quite a few more of them, she counted in the back of her head as she examined them.
There were forty-nine. She sorted them into obvious groups. People who seemed kings, queens, mages, knights, and one quite contrary, who stood at a crossroads, not upon the road, but upside down beneath the sign. There were things of the night sky, though many of these also held the faces of people, still they seemed to go together. There were animals, common folk, and elemental forces. There were objects made by people, a sword, a shield, a tower, a wheel, others, and there were quite a few she couldn’t place.
Kiannae pondered one of the celestial cards at length. It was a simple unassuming thing, but it’s label could be more clearly read than most, ‘The North Star.’ This struck Kianne oddly. There was a South Star, it made sense for there to be a north one as well, yet in Laurel’s astronomy lessons he had not mentioned it that she could recall. Stranger still there was no south star in the deck. She set it aside with its like, and pondered other mysteries.
Some of the cards bore two faces like the first deck. A king, and a queen most notably, yet unlike the playing cards the opposite bust was different in pose, and tone, but not gender. The king bore a scepter on one side, and a thorned rose on the other, his robe open, with a knowing smile. The queen wore a crown, and a regal air at one end, and the other her chest was bare. At one end she held a cup, a dagger at the other.
She shuffled things around for a bit, it seemed seven was the operative number, so surely seven sets of seven. There were a few that could go into one set or another. One perplexing card showed a river, which divided seven times, and then each of those streams divided seven more. The seven rivers it was labeled. Another was a solitary coin. She pondered these, and of each set that perplexed her, she found that one might be pulled out, and placed between. One coin, a two forked road, three women – labeled The Fates – a sprout with four leaves, five men, a crown with six stars, and lastly the seven rivers.
Everything seemed in order, as though they belonged together. What these cards were she was uncertain. The other stack, less than half the number was used for playing a game, a game of chance which alluded to fate. She frowned. Divination, prophecy, these were all things Laurel would not touch upon. They were rubbish at best, and dangerous at worst, and something of them spoke to that end.
Kiannae considered why Mercu kept them – he was no fan of such matters either. They did seem lovely to look upon though, finely crafted. Perhaps he kept them for that reason. The gambling cards were no guess she thought, not as exquisite, but well made, and he would play a game like that most assuredly. She gathered the groups of cards up, but one slipped away from the lot. It showed a child, and as she moved to place it on top the stack, the storm that raged there caught her eye as she set the child onto it.
The child at the eye of the storm. The words returned to her, she frowned, and pushed it willfully from her mind, flipping the deck over, and returning it to it’s place on the desk.
Try as she might, one last thing held her eye. A large scrap of paper, clearly a note. More snooping than she was already guilty of, and yet she could not resist. She picked it up, and eyed the words dubiously:
I’ve seen such love in the eyes of the child foretold,
to bend even the unshakable wills of fates of old,
she who rides the storm was meant to walk alone,
cruel fate by kind follies lays yet half atoned,
crooked is the path that leads to salvation,
when all else is bound ever to be forsaken,
a fool’s errand holds the only wisest course,
and the wisdom of elders shall bring remorse,
yet at last it comes err to a final hopeful pass,
though blood will spill from lips before the last,
an unlikely pair shall over many stars preside,
till shadowed days long past the end of time.
She put the note back unhappily, and finally understood. It had not escaped her – much as Laurel, and Mercu had tried – that the cat Mar, had belonged to Cassandra. The rest it seemed did as well. She stepped away from the desk, and tried to forget the lot.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
“What’s the North Star?” Kiannae asked of her sister as they sat alone in their room. She had tried to let the whole thing go, but that bit was particularly odd to her, and seemed in itself harmless.
Katrisha looked bewildered a moment. “Do you pay any attention to our astronomy lessons?” She final asked in lieu of an answer.
“Yes,” Kiannae growled defensively.
“Then you should know,” Katrisha sighed.
“Just tell me,” Kiannae grumbled.
“It’s the brightest star in the sky, though we will likely never see it.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Kiannae protested.
“You really haven’t been paying attention,” Katrisha laughed.
“Must you?” Kiannae winced.
“After your chiding me for failing Moriel’s spelling test…yes.”
“I still don’t see why, you read as well as me.”
“Better,” Katrisha countered, “according to Moriel.”
“Which makes even less sense, you read half as much as me.”
“Perhaps you are trying too hard,” Katrisha offered.
“Can you just tell me what the North Star is,” Kiannae snapped.
Katrisha closed her book, folded her arms over it, and stared at her sister a moment. “Very well,” she said, and with a flick of her wrist an orb appeared before her. “Let’s say this is Thaea,” she continued. “You do remember the South Star, yes?”
“Yes,” Kiannae rolled her eyes.
“Just checking,” Katrisha laughed. “The South Star appears steady in the sky, because it is here.” She placed a bright point of light below the sphere. “It is called a pole star, because it is roughly above the pole.” She drew a line from the bottom of the sphere. “The North Star is its opposite,” she drew a line from the top of Thaea. “It is roughly above the north pole,” she placed another bright point of light.
“And you said it’s the brightest star?”
“Except for the sun of course.”
“Of course,” Kiannae responded irritably. “And we won’t see it because Thaea is in the way.”
“Why would anyone care about it though?” Kiannae frowned. “A star no one will ever see.”
“Other than Laurel, and now you, I’ve only ever heard one person mention it before.” Katrisha pursed her lips. “It was one of the soldiers, said he was looking for his ‘north star.’”
“Very,” Katrisha greed. “I asked Mercu about it, he said it is a very old saying.”
“‘Ancient beyond reason,’ I believe were his exact words.” There was a long pause, and Kiannae nearly returned to her reading, when Katrisha pressed the point. “Why the interest in the North Star?”
“It was a painted card on Mercu’s desk,” Kiannae said, not mentioning the rest.
“Curious,” Katrisha said.
“I thought so,” Kiannae agreed.
“The south star is used for guidance, to know east from west, north from south. Though I believe Mercu said tradition holds to turn your back on the south star, and face north. That the coming day is on your right hand, and the passing night on your left.”
“That’s how most maps are drawn,” Kiannae considered.
“It would seem easier to face them the other way, wouldn’t it,” Katrisha noted with some humor. “I asked Mercu about that too. How did he put it…” She seemed thoughtful. “Traditions are like dragons, immortal, full of teeth, and best not questioned.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Rhaeus 12th, 644 E.R.
“Another attack, brutal as the last,” the King growled.
“Worse technically,” Arlen noted. “No survivors at all, not even any of our men guarding it.”
“I would wager far less was taken, than burned with the wagons,” Laurel said. “This remains clearly an act meant to terrorize caravans back away from the east road, rather than any effective form of robbery. Now, after only two have finally passed that way again, after all these years. It will be prove more effective than the last.”
“And all hope for an eastern pass is lost to us,” the King rested his head in his hand. “After South Rook there will be no political will to undertake the task, even if it were doable. Which it is, but only at wild costs we could never afford.”
“Such is the way of disrupting succession so,” Arlen said in a measured tone, that hid nothing of his real opinion.
“Do not tempt Us, to disrupt it further,” the King said coldly.
“I merely state the facts,” Arlen said with thin, practiced calm.
“Do not begrudge a man some displeasure for the fall of his friends,” Laurel offered diplomatically. “They did fall very far, conspiring to reward those responsible for the deaths of innocents, and prosecute more innocents in their place. Surely, such was a singular aberration of two men more corrupt than truly pious. Whoever he once knew them as.”
“Surely,” Arlen agreed uneasily, he didn’t seem to like the opinion implied, but did so anyway. “The costs are none the less evident. It will take years, if not decades to mend the damage done.”
“There is hope in good Maraline,” the King noted. “Lukus takes well to her comforts still, and though I was ready to let him return to South Rook, to ease these tensions, he of his own accord petitioned to stay another month. Should they wed one day, and Parin step aside for the boy who remains the rightful heir, it will go a long way.”
“It would,” Arlen agreed though he hardly seemed overly pleased with that thought either.
“The damage is done,” the King said. “On all counts. Have a light scouting team probe the forest carefully. No big show of force this time to rouse the Sylvans. Should they go missing, or find anything to report then we can act, yet it seems reasonable to suspect these ‘bandits’ will have vanished again.”
“Unless they are waiting to insure another caravan does not brave it,” Laurel noted.
“All the more reason to be quick in scouting, in the implausible event we should be so lucky,” Arlen agreed.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Rhaeus 20th, 644 E.R.
Eran looked uneasy. At least that was Katrisha’s best guess at precisely what the man was feeling. “Do you know when Laurel will be back?” he asked after a moment of considering the young woman that had answered his knock at the study door.
“Soon, I would think,” Katrisha answered. “He went to get us both food from the kitchen. He would have sent me, but left muttering something about wanting to actually have some of the food arrive at the study.”
Eran superseded a laugh, and looked about. “Where is your sister?” he asked in lieu of anything else to fill the silence.
“Reading somewhere along the wall I expect,” Katrisha shrugged. “She said she felt like some sun.”
More silence followed.
“You can come in and sit if you like,” Katrisha finally offered.
Eran considered Katrisha, the room, and after a moment of hesitation nodded, and entered. Katrisha closed the door behind him. Eran glanced about curiously for a moment, before Katrisha gestured to a chair beneath one of the bookcases that lined the round lower tier of the study. Eran nodded again, and took a seat, but did not lose the curious flitting looks about the room.
“Have you never been in the tower?” Katrisha asked after a bit.
“No,” Eran answered, “can’t say as I have.”
“What did you need to speak to Laurel about?” Katrisha enquired curiously.
“I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for me to say.” Eran frowned, but continued to look a bit nervous.
“I am an apprentice of the Court Mage, am I not?” Katrisha pressed.
“So you are,” Eran consented, “but while you may be privileged enough to hear what I have to say, I am not sure it is fit for your ears.”
“I’m not a child,” Katrisha protested.
“Aren’t you?” Eran raised an eyebrow.
“I am eleven,” Katrisha stated firmly. “I am a young lady now, Mercu says so.”
“And what I have to speak with Laurel about is not fit for the ears of ladies, I assure you,” Eran countered.
“Rubbish,” Katrisha sneered. “I’ll not be treated like some delicate flower.”
Eran smiled. “Yes, you are more like the women I knew before I came to the castle.” Katrisha looked perplexed for a moment, and Eran amused, if in a sad sort of way. “No, no you are quite right. Do you wish to hear my report?”
“Yes,” Katrisha said flatly, and crossed her arms.
“I have returned from the north,” Eran began. “Scouting for bandits – our last expedition some years ago found them to have fled after a bloody, and impressive fight with the Sylvans, and then nothing till recently, but I assume you have heard about the most recent attack?”
“Yes. Just when caravans had started to take the eastern road again in earnest. Terrible news, killed everyone again. I was so relieved to hear it wasn’t Mercu’s sister.” Katrisha looked a bit ill thinking about it.
“Rather than send a full expedition it was scouts only this time – moving light, avoiding rousing the Sylvans, or hopefully getting ambushed ourselves. Track and report only.”
“I presume you found something?” Katrisha pressed.
“Yes, I found the bandits,” Eran nodded, “or I can only presume what was left of them.”
“Did some form of justice meet them again before the Kings?” Katrisha asked hopefully – she had been worried that Laurel would have to go again. Particularly when she had snuck a peek at the report, and seen that the caravan had been destroyed in spite of two mages in their employ.
“Perhaps,” Eran narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “I was the deepest scout – the others were not willing to go in that far, not after last time. I found the ruins of a camp. Most would chalk it up to the bandit’s luck having run out again.”
“Not you?” Katrisha asked.
“I can not say I know much of Sylvan tactics, or gifted abilities,” Eran prefaced hesitantly, “but what I saw, gruesome as it was, did not look like an attack from the outside. Not like last time.”
“What did it look like?” Katrisha crossed her arms again, so far unimpressed, but very curious.
“Like a monster was dropped in their midst,” Eran shrugged, but he clearly was holding something back.
“What kind of monster?” Katrisha pressed.
“Are you sure you wish to hear the details?” Eran countered.
“Yes,” Katrisha assured him.
“Very well,” Eran said, and leaned back. “The kind of monster that only a mage can be.” He paused for effect, and seemed almost amused at Katrisha’s cross expression. “With the exception of some bodies flung against trees, or farther out into the woods – which had been heavily eaten by scavengers – most were circled around the shredded ruins of a tent.” He paused, it seemed less for effect, than to steal him self. “Those that weren’t eaten by animals appeared to have been burned alive. Based on their contorted possess, and stricken expressions. I don’t think it was a quick death.”
“And you don’t think it was the Sylvans because the bodies were centered around the camp?” Katrisha asked, holding her composure at the gruesome thought.
“Yes,” Eran nodded. “They didn’t look like they were fighting a force on the outside, but something from within. Clearly a mage, or some other gift, but I’d say it would have to be a mage. We’ve long suspected from the caravan wreckage from both attacks, the wards, the damage at the campsite previous, that there is a mage in the bandit’s midst. Now I would say either they turned on the mage, or the mage turned on them. Why we can’t guess, but the results are the same.”
“So the bandits are dead then?” Katrisha asked. “The east road is safe?”
“Perhaps – for now,” Eran shook his head. “There was no evidence of the mage himself amongst the bodies. Whoever killed his compatriots likely still lives, and it looked like someone was dragged out of the camp to the north west. The Sylvans are watching that camp site, a warning shot from them drove me off before I could search for any firm evidence. There is no telling what the mage might do in future, but the numbers of his force are seemingly dwindled. That’s two lost camps now, maybe he will give up.”
“You think the mage was the leader?”
“Would you expect otherwise?”
“I’ll press you not repeat this, though it’s reached my ears so it can be no great secret. There are rumors, and speculations to say the mage leading these attacks is a character known as The Wolf. A Duke of Osyrae, and as nasty a piece of work as I’ve ever heard of.”
“And you believe these rumors?”
“Burning traitors, or failures alive would seem in keeping with what I have heard of the man in question. Still, these games, playing in the shadows like this does not fit. He was the favored younger son of the mad king after all, a proud man obsessed with honor. Regardless, I don’t foresee caravans returning to the eastern road again, not for many years. They will all do the smart thing, and wait for someone else to take the chance first.”