What men walk the Sylvan wood,
these ones of blended ancient kin,
tall slim and proud they stand,
with quick feet and steady hand,
of most little more can be discerned,
but of shining eyes and ears adorned,
yet few of those noble born ne’er to rule,
those great lions broad stout and true.
– unknown origin, circa 200 E.R.
Out of the Woods
Coria 40th, 647 E.R.
A raven haired young woman awoke in a great deal of pain. Everything was scratched and bruised, and she was deathly cold. She could rarely remember being cold. Winters had never bothered her much, and spring well underway. Though it did not help she she had left her robe somewhere. Where seemed an overly complicated and relative question at that point. After a single excruciating breath, and a foolish attempt to move, her burning chest and throbbing leg easily drown out every other sense.
There was an instant of amazement as she realized what had stirred her back to consciousness. She was moving, or rather someone was moving her – which hurt almost more than moving herself. Her emerald eyes flicked around deliriously, but in the early morning light, and her dazed frame of mind the onlookers seemed little more than meaningless shadows. Patches of darkness shifting through a sea of murky sapphire, flecked with the last bright stars of morning. Those stars felt oddly closer than the people around her.
She tried to remember where she was, and how she had gotten there. She remembered being hit, the sound of cracking bone, a sweep of starry sky, and then the ground rushing up to meet her. She remembered trying to stop her fall, setting off the spell both too soon, sloppily, tumbling, and then the sound of her leg breaking from the impact at the end. The sound was a sickening memory, but she hadn’t even felt it. Just darkness washing over her, more stars, and a cold distant ache. There were whispers, arguing, bickering, but it all slipped away, replaced with the world pulling her back in.
People were talking, and it took the girl a moment to actually process any of what was being said. Her name slipped through a few times, stirring the deep quagmire of her mind. Katrisha. It was familiar, but it didn’t fully sink in.
The voice of her mentor and adoptive father clicked first. “I swear, if I felt sure enough of either Eran or myself as a healer, I’d send you away now. Your carelessness up on the cliffs made this already insane situation worse.” Laurel was his name, Grey the family, by all accounts earned long ago for the striking silver eyes the line was known for.
Katrisha squinted and tried to focus on the man who was attempting to lay her on her back. She recognized Idolus after a few moments, a somewhat troublesome priest she thought little of. His services by her reckoning always came at a price, be it gold or influence. His glance barely acknowledged that he had noticed she was awake. His left arm hung in a sling, even as he moved his right hand over her body seeking out critical injury.
“And you,” Laurel snapped, realizing Katrisha was conscious. “You stupid, arrogant, insufferable child. If I wasn’t just glad to see you breathing, I’d tan your damned hide till you couldn’t sit for a month…even with healing.”
Katrisha just turned her gaze up, and stared at the slowly brightening sky. She had never imagined pain like she was feeling. It was bad enough that she couldn’t even scream. Quick intakes of breath that came when the pain spiked caused deep burning agony that turned what would be guttural cries into pitiful squeaks. Yet at once it all seemed vaguely detached and far away. She glanced again at Idolus, and as much as she knew she needed his healing, she liked him less than ever. There was something in the way he looked at her as he worked, that made her very unhappy she had opted to remove her robe before the fight.
What had made her do that? She focused on it, trying to be anywhere but in that moment. It had been a book, and a realization on the long ride into the mountains. Even enchanted the robe would have done almost nothing to save her from a single swipe, or the crushing bite of the dragon. Yet ironically the only strike that had even touched her – an accidental sweep of the tail – might, just maybe have not broken her ribs if she had kept it on, but just as any blunt force it probably wouldn’t have done much. Further she was all the less certain if she would have avoided the rampaging dragon that could not see her, if she had kept the robe.
Which was it; a mistake, or the right move after all? The whole thing was foolish, but the craziest detail made for a great distraction given she could legitimately question her own logic, focus on it, and almost ignore everything else…almost. Pain is very good at breaking through even the best distractions. It is not meant to be ignored. It is meant to make you stop what you are doing, or at least think twice before you do it again.
Laurel railed on for several more seconds before thinking better of the fact he was clearly being ignored, and turned his ire instead to the knights and Eran, who he chastised mercilessly for not turning their backs on the scene. Katrisha stifled a laugh, successfully, but simply drawing the breath to do so sent her head spinning with blinding agony, and she nearly passed out.
“She’ll live,” Idolus said in a matter of fact tone. “Her insides are quite bruised, some significant internal bleeding in the broken leg, and multiple fractured, or outright broken ribs. I can stabilize her enough to move her, but it will take an hour or more.”
Katrisha finally looked at Laurel, and focused long enough for his expression to actually sink in. His scowl slowly softened to disappointment, concern, and for just a moment she felt embarrassed for what she had done. Had there been another way? It didn’t matter, he was alive, she was alive. It didn’t matter if there had been another way. Any pain was worth it that he was alive, that everyone was alive. Even cursed Idolus.
Where was Kiannae she suddenly wondered? And a touch of fear crept in around the edges. The prophecy still hung on her. Yet everyone else was there, and her sister had not been down in the ravine. She wanted to ask, but could not draw a breath deep enough to do so. She closed her eyes. She had to be alright…she had to. Didn’t she? They had the talent of battle mages, gifts not plausibly won from only a single future fight, and Kiannae hadn’t even been in the fight. Had she? What had happened after Katrisha’s fall, she couldn’t know.
“In that case can you please get her to the point we can put her robe back on,” Laurel said in dismay.
“Y…yes,” Idolus said his voice slightly unnerved. Katrisha screamed as he set her broken leg, and could feel as he began to mend severed veins, and knit broken bone. She had felt healing magic before, but there was something cold and uncaring to Idolus’ touch. It was precise, pinpoint, and did little to hide the pain caused by the injuries as they were mended. His manner was stiff and dispassionate, even as she could feel his gaze wandering. She wanted to be mad, embarrassed, she wanted to cover herself, but she could do nothing but lay there motionless, and be healed.
“Someone get a cursed blanket,” Laurel yelled at the knights. Promptly Eran moved to a horse, removed the saddle, and took the blanket from underneath. He handed it to Laurel who quickly brought it over, and covered Katrisha. He then gave the most reproving look she had ever seen to Idolus, that paled even to how he had been glaring at her. She felt at once vindicated, and ill that he had seen something in the man’s gaze as well.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
It was late evening when the slow march of horses stopped in a vaguely familiar village square. The procession had been slow, and taken many breaks to rest, and insure that broken bones, and bruised organs remained healed. It had been a long, miserable, and very somber day of few words. Laurel had not even spoken to his wounded charge directly in hours. Not even to answer about Kiannae as he sent Eran off in search of her.
Katrisha looked around tiredly, she was sore everywhere. Most of her scrapes and bruises had been left. Idolus had exhausted too much of his reserves dealing with her broken bones, other major injuries, and apparently his own, to manage minor details. She doubted if he would have any way. She had tried to deal with some of the more agitating annoyances along the ride, or at rest stops, but her skills were lacking, and her own reserves drained far more than she felt they should be.
Katrisha looked down at a knight who was offering to help her down off her horse, and reluctantly accepted. Though the bone in her leg was mended, muscles were still strained, and slightly torn. She found she walked painfully with a limp, even with the knights help.
There were a lot of side long glances from anyone in the street. Knights and gifted coming from the north in sore shape drew interest, and concern, but not questions. Only two knights remained, out of the four that had road with Laurel to the mountain. One had gone on with Eran to search for Kiannae, and one had ridden on early in the day to give word to the King. Idolus for his part had proceeded without stopping after a single fierce glance from Laurel.
Katrisha looked about at the tavern they entered, but said nothing as she was lead to a corner, and sat at a table almost forcefully. She glanced at Laurel who was engaged in what – at that point of exhaustion – must have passed as lively debate over arrangements. After a minute or two he walked over, a drink in each hand, and nearly slammed one down in front of her.
Katrisha looked up at Laurel with obvious confusion on her face. She had only once been offered some wine before, and only vaguely remembered her distaste at the time. Laurel just shook his head. “Drink, figure at this point it couldn’t hurt. In fact it might help with the pain.” Hesitantly she lifted the tankard, sniffed it, and wrinkled her nose at the odor. She looked at Laurel again who pulled out a chair from the table and, sat down with great resignation, and then just seemed to watch her curiously.
At last Katrisha convinced herself to take a sip, and it was all she could do to not gag at the bitterness. “Mercyful fates,” she cursed, “why would anyone ever willingly drink that?”
Laurel shrugged and took a long swig. After a moment he leaned forward, and rested his head on his left hand, and sighed. “It’s an acquired taste I guess,” he mused, “or perhaps it’s just a taste for distraction.” Katrisha hesitantly tried another sip, but wrinkled her nose and shook her head, still disgusted.
“I could lecture you,” Laurel sighed. “I could lecture you, and tell you how incredibly stupid you are…” he trailed off, his voice having risen more in tenor than he wished. He took another drink, and sighed again, before continuing in a softer tone, “But it doesn’t seem to help, does it? So what will…what do I have to do?”
Katrisha looked away, embarrassed, angry – angry at him, angry at herself, angry at things she couldn’t even name. She wondered if there was something wrong with her. Was she really just stupid, hopeless, foolish, reckless, and destructive? Were these the words that would define her, that people would think of to describe her?
She had acted on a prophetic dream, one she was sure of, one that a voice had told her to. Yet none of that was a sensible excuse. For all Laurel had ever told her on the matter, she only felt it could make things worse to mention. He was alive, she was alive, Kiannae – wherever she was – surely was alive.
“I don’t know,” Katrisha said defiantly, but still looked away. She watched the animated gestures of one of the knights. He was talking to a barmaid, no doubt retelling the tale of the previous evening, with far more importance on himself.
“I wish you did,” Laurel muttered, and leaned back. “I could really use the help.”
Katrisha tried a third sip of her beer, grimaced, and thought to herself that maybe it was about distraction. If all you are thinking about is how bad it tastes, you aren’t thinking about anything else, and so she continued to nurse her drink quietly. There were after all, a great many things she didn’t want to think about.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 41st, 647 E.R.
Katrisha rolled her shoulders, and winced even as the cracking in her neck made her feel slightly better. She felt like she hadn’t slept well, though she had no memory of tossing or turning in the night. Her head hurt, and she wondered if it had gotten knocked hard at some point she had forgotten, during either the fighting, or more likely the fall.
Laurel sat in a far corner of the tavern, and seemed disinterested that Katrisha had finally been dragged from bed by the staff. A bar maid appeared from the kitchen, and urged her to a nearby table, setting bacon and eggs before her. The woman stopped to consider her for a moment, and Katrisha recognized her as one the knight had been chatting up the evening before.
At last it seemed she got up the nerve to speak her mind. “Is it true what those braggarts told me?”
“Depends what they told you,” Katrisha offered with some reservation.
“Did you really try to fight a dragon…naked?”
Katrisha winced, a part of her wanted to be proud, but really she did feel justifiably stupid for the first time. “Maybe,” she said blushing, “maybe try isn’t even the right word. I think I was winning till that damn priest decided he wanted a better view of the fight.”
The woman laughed, a bit uncomfortably, but there was a certain admiration in her obvious condemnation. It had an oddly pleasing effect Katrisha could not place. “Well, I dare say, you’ve got more balls than any man I’ve ever met. Possibly less sense too, but that would be close, I’ve met some damn fools.”
Katrisha considered the smiling woman before her, it was her turn to laugh – which still hurt a bit. “Yer right on the last count, I’ve accepted that. I think maybe I’m not right in the head. I also wasn’t doing it alone…” she trailed off.
“Yer sister, right?” the barmaid asked. “Some kind of fancy illusion to make the dragon not see you?”
“Yeah,” Katrisha said prodding at the food in front of her, “something like that.” She was an odd mixture of desperately hungry, and queasy.
“Sounds clever,” the woman continued, “for a damned fool stunt, anyway.”
Katrisha simply nodded, and started to eat as the woman walked away shaking her head. In another corner of the tavern she saw two knights sitting, and quietly eating. After a moment she realized Eran was also with them, and had fallen asleep at the table. It took her a further strained thought to connect that he, and the second knight had been the ones searching for Kiannae. They had not arrived till either very late, or after dawn. She looked around, but there was no sign of her sister.
Katrisha was about to walk over and ask if there had been any sign of Kiannae, when she noticed that Laurel had moved, and was pulling out the chair across from her. He looked her up and down, and then followed her repeated gaze to the knights.
“Eran arrived not long ago,” he began. “He found her horse out east, but no sign of her. He says it looked like she had run off into the woods. He followed her trail a ways, but it vanished in a rocky area too close to Sylvan territory for comfort.”
Katrisha hung her head, and told herself her sister was fine, that she could take care of herself. She looked back up at Laurel and tried hopelessly to read his expression, till at last he went off on another tangent. “I doubt I told you, given how little we talked yesterday – so forgive me if you know this – but the dragon is dead.”
Laurel seemed to ponder for a moment. “Frankly I think the thing would have died without my help, or one of the knights running the throat through to be sure. Fates forbid I encourage you, but you two did quite a number on the beast. I don’t think you are going to live down the fact you were fighting it naked. Actually, I’m half tempted to make quite sure of that, in the hopes it will embarrass you into never trying anything so stupid again.”
Katrisha looked away, and tried to let it all go, but couldn’t. “It seemed like the right way to do it at the time. I needed to be able to…move…” she trailed off, thinking better of trying to defend herself.
“That, I don’t get,” Laurel said shaking his head. “Even when you are being so impetuous, so foolish, and lacking any semblance of sense in your head, you find a way to do something that even though superficially justified…just makes it all the more insane.”
“I…” Katrisha sighed. “We both had the same dream. You were dead, being brought into the castle…it wasn’t…good. My dream told me…literally, to ‘heed the warning.’ You…you wouldn’t have listened. You were treating us like children. We’ve fought before, we could have helped, but you would have gone off, and gotten yourself killed…rather than let us help, or trust our…” she trailed off. Her anger, and frustration with everything faded. She felt a fool again, sitting there scolding Laurel, but she also felt like she was right.
“Well you damn well acted like children,” Laurel snapped, but seemed to think better of it, or at least decided it wasn’t helpful. “Fates know plenty of silly little kids have trotted off thinking they are going to slay a dragon, but usually a good six years younger, and a few hundred miles shorter of finding one, let alone almost doing it.” He huffed, closed his eyes, and steadied his breath.
“Say that again?” Laurel asked sternly.
“The dream ‘literally’ told you to head the warning?” Laurel asked uneasily.
“Yes,” Katrisha answered.
Laurel’s expression was hard to read. There was a long pause, he shook his head, and looked away. “I also had a dream,” he admitted, though it seemed almost like changing the subject. “That you died. I ignored it though, because there was no way I ever would have considered letting you go. I ignored it…and you went. Yet here you are alive. Thank the merciful fates,” he muttered, and rubbed his face, looking on the verge of tears.
Katrisha nibbled on some bacon, and refused to make eye contact for some time.
Laurel moved on to rubbing his forehead, and looked down as well. “You might be interested to hear,” Laurel started distantly, “that there were eggs. Two were crushed in the fighting, or by flying debris, but three were intact. I’ll have to ask the King what he wants to do about them.”
Katrisha scrunched her brow thoughtfully, and finally gave up and asked, “What is even the question?”
“Surely Mercu has told you at some point,” Laurel said perking a brow, “it’s his favorite bit of dragon lore. Sometimes, very rarely, dragon eggs hatch into humans. Even from a beastly lesser dragon like that one. Though as big as it was, I have my doubts if it wasn’t a feral minor dragon. Still it seemed the invisibility worked…I don’t know.”
Katrisha cocked her head to the side. “Maybe I remember him saying that once, it was a terrible long time ago, and I don’t think I took him seriously. Dragon born,” she half remembered.
“Oh it’s true,” Laurel said pulling at his beard. “Poor things don’t stand much a chance born to a wild mother like that. Invariably they wind up eaten by either the mother, siblings, or simply crushed by careless steps.”
Katrisha went white, and lost what little appetite she had. “That’s horrid,” she said feebly.
“No doubt about it. It is horrid.” Laurel agreed. “No telling yet with those eggs, they were very fresh, makes me worry. Where is the mate? She has been here a while. I don’t know much about dragon reproduction…but that seems a stretch.” He paused obviously lost in thought.
“The possibility of human offspring isn’t the only reason to hesitate in just getting rid of them,” Laurel said rubbing his face a bit tiredly. ”The Storm Queen likes to try and rehabilitate lesser dragons, and a feral mother doesn’t really set the potential intelligence of the offspring in stone. Napir is a bit far, but a good country to earn favor with. I’d respect the Queen more for it on merit, but she actually has the one thing that makes that task doable; the allegiance of minor, and even greater dragons, not to mention Roshana herself. Not that the former Empress would deign to wake from her multi-decade long naps to help.”
Katrisha looked at her plate, and considered trying to eat again. Eventually she looked back to Laurel. “I had no idea it was so involved. I mean, I remember some of Mercu’s stories, but I didn’t realize that there were actually politics to consider regarding dragon eggs.”
Laurel huffed. “Dear, there are politics regarding everything under the Sun, and frankly most things that aren’t. Where it gets tricky, is that it is a long way to transport eggs that can hold a grown man. Particularly through Niven. They really don’t like dragons down there.”
“More so than anywhere else?” Katrisha asked mockingly.
“Oh fates yes,” Laurel laughed. “Most kingdoms are wise enough to give a greater dragon a chance to speak, or show intentions before attacking it. The people of Niven will try to kill any dragon on sight…or at least run. I suppose I can’t blame the ones who run.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 42nd, 647 E.R.
As Kiannae woke she was surprised to be alone. The camp had been pulled up, the meat was gone, and dirt covered the coals of the night’s fire. After a moment of looking around she found Iven perched on a stump some distance away. As she approached him she wondered why they had let her sleep through breaking camp, only to leave one of their own behind to escort her.
Kiannae stood by the stump a while, but Iven seemed to make no move to actually leave. His glances acknowledged her presence, but largely he seemed not to care. Eventually she tried to stir some kind of action and asked, “We go?”
Iven looked at her again, shook his head, leapt from his speech, and grabbed a small sack of meat that had been sitting beside him. He gestured for her to follow as he walked away.
Before they left camp Kianne couldn’t help but notice the tracks left by the others lead another way. That worried her. She checked a spell that could tell where north was. The tracks went north, they were headed east.
“Iven,” she said loudly to get his attention. He stopped, hesitated, and finally relented to turn to face her. She pointed to the tracks, and the direction they lead. He looked at her, and for a moment she thought there was a touch of respect in his expression, but he shook his head, and then gestured the way he had been walking. Offering nothing more, he moved on. Kiannae sighed, and decided whatever it was leading to, resisting wouldn’t make it better.
They walked a very long ways. Kiannae was sure it had been farther than she had in any of the previous days. The many rest stops they made seemed more for her sake than his, and as night set in they made camp again without a word. The most meaningful communication between them was in the form a gesture towards a prepared fire pit, which Kiannae lit.
That night she found it impossible to think of anything but her sister, and though she tried to maintain a brave face, inevitably she broke down into tears. She cried for nearly an hour, before she noticed Iven sit down beside her, and looked to him with tear streaked cheeks. His discomfort was obvious, even past her sorrow she could read in his body language that he was fighting very hard to not move away from her.
“What?” Kiannae finally demanded hoarsely.
Iven slowly moved closer, wrapped his arm around her shoulder, and pulled her head gently to his chest. For a moment she was as reluctant as he obviously was, but finally, uneasily, she let go, clung to him, and continued to cry.
Softly under his breath he began to sing. It was a somber, yet oddly joyous tune. One she recognized only vaguely, one her father had sung to her and Katrisha as children. It at once comforted and deepened her sorrow.
Vonjon vejon, jon os soer ven,
Fer kwo eno ely so, jo vyn so ji,
Jon gon jos, fer unsil hos won,
Je ungon so ky, wosil jos jo…
The first verse then repeated, ever more wistfully, and slowly her tears dried up, but the pain in the center of of her very being did not subside. Though the hole felt ever less empty, filled by a distant warmth that eased the ache of loss.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Estae 2nd, 647 E.R.
Days of walking finally came to an end at the edge of a steep hill looking down on what seemed to be a small village woven amongst the trees. As they worked their way down the hill, a small child leapt from behind a rock, only to be tackled by another leaping from behind the opposite tree.
Iven laughed, which was a pleasant change in his demeanor. He chattered at the two in a playful tone, and both looked at Kiannae, their eyes going wide, and fled down the path into the village, calling out wildly. He glanced at Kiannae, and continued down after the children at a more casual pace than before.
What passed for a village seemed no more than six buildings. Their shape was odd, and something out of place, but Kiannae did not let herself be distracted by curiosity, and rather became concerned that the population had split between a tightly packed group greeting them, and locking themselves away.
Five adults stood at the center of the square, and there was no sign of children any more. Iven yelled out a greeting, and one of the women smiled, though the rest seemed fairly displeased, save an old woman whose shrewd gaze was hard to read.
The woman spoke first, and Iven shook his head with a one word response. “Ye.”
She shook her head, and just stood there, staring at Kiannae. Her presence was striking, like an old tree rooted deep into the bedrock. One felt as though their own presence was pressing feebly against a mountain; that all of nature flowed around her like an island in the stream. It stood in contrast with the other Sylvans, who all felt like something caught on the breeze, barely noticeable. Even if there was an itch of strong gift under there somewhere.
“Then I must sta words of sen Empire,” the old woman said with a harsh rumbling voice, it seemed almost less an accent than the effects of age. Kiannae was at once surprised and relieved to hear words she mostly understood. The old woman smiled, though there seemed some darkness to her humor. “Te. I see you do not expect to hear sen own words.” She pursed her lips, “Your,” she corrected herself, “words. Forgive, it has been many years. I know a few tongues. Only two are of any use…often I question if I count this.”
“I am glad at last to be able to speak, and be understood,” Kiannae said with great relief.
“I see this, though you could come to much worse here unken,” the old woman said a bit coldly. She smiled at Kiannae’s shocked expression. “Not be offend, I speak simple truth. Sure you know ‘Sylvan’ – you call us – do not like osjern? Did you think se ken meant something? It meant only se have come this far, but no more. You are to be taken out, and left to…your osjern ken.”
“Oh,” Kiannae said, her moment of relief turning to disappointment, and a dash of renewed unease.
“I shall take you cross river,” she said bluntly, gesturing with her walking stick as she turned, “and leave you with ‘druids’ of sen ken, that we permit there by old treaty.”
Kiannae looked around at the unfriendly faces. She looked to Iven who had been it seemed far kinder than most would have liked. She bowed, and once more said, “Thank you,” before relenting to follow the old woman, who already stepped away from the square. Kiannae turned back once more as she caught up, and saw a glimpse of Iven hugging the woman who had smiled at his greeting. He offered her the sack of meat he had brought, and she looped her arm with his as they walked away.
“Ivan tahan,” the woman said, seemingly almost more to herself than Kiannae. “He is good – boy – te that was word. Treat my aunna-unna well, wish to be her Akoman. So much trouble that.”
“Why?” Kiannae asked.
“His mother unken,” she answered.
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“En is the blood, the essence, ke the…power,” the woman said with some hesitation. “Un is less, little. Such a judgement for so little. Generations pass, but that hair remains, the Osjrean blood.” She stopped, shook her head, and glared at Kiannae.
The old woman glanced back the way they had come. “Were up to san – me – I might offer a chance.” She pressed on toward a decrepit bridge. It was a rickety crossing over a deep narrow stretch of a wide stream. “I can speak freely away from Tepal. Though only my aunna-unna knows any of the Empire’s words.” There was a hint of kindness in her voice then, which gave Kiannae some relief.
“If it was true your wish to leave the osjern, and live with the Tepal, I would…understand,” she said hesitantly, as though doubting she had got the word right. “I side with Hansjon, not Unjon. After all, I…speak the words, it is my tetan – purpose, good I do – and my Akoman. We speak, sometimes trade with osjern, for many years, just as my ken before. I know the osjern, they not all so unta as some think.”
Kiannae took a moment to absorb what she could of that. “Hansjon?” she asked at last. She knew she had heard that before. It had been something her father had said. Never to her, only to her mother, several times. He had always been so sad.
The old woman snorted. “Yes, we hide from the osje – outside – world because we think us ta, or simply osjern so much…worse. Maybe some, but I have unte – doubt – if this is…true. Not any more. We had peace, for uncounted…years. Then we war with son own ken over to trade or os – not – with the osjern, all around us. In end even to sta to your ‘druids,’” she shook her head, “we are forbidden. Unosta, now. Now Hanste sit in Akitrern. Even if unki – little power.”
Kiannae sighed. She understood most of what the woman was saying. She guessed te was true, and ta was good, and the occasional correction helped fill in some gaps, but it was still a bit hard to follow. She got the sense Sylvan language was filled with little root words, and was thankful for pressing Moriel on the concept in her instruction. Not that they matched roots she was familiar with.
“I had hoped…” Kiannae hesitated. “I had hoped to find my father in these lands, to know why he was taken away from me by his people.”
The old woman gave Kiannae a strange long look. There was something troubled in her eyes. “I un-…” she stopped herself. “I little imagine, what would make Tepal to ‘take’ anyone. Yet alone by force. Those who leave are then as osjern, even atapal unwelcome. Are sure of what you sta?”
“Was my father perhaps a criminal?” Kiannae asked with doubt, and disheartened.
The old woman seemed to ponder the prospect genuinely, and stopped to look Kiannae up and down. “No,” she said flatly. “No, won you born these reign, the Unjon echk – kill – the Hansjon, all Haste, even Aunna! If common untan, or unten, he be left to your pal…if he te – true – fer Unhansjon, you not be born. No. I wonder…” she trailed off. “Un,” she shook her head, and tapped her forehead.
“Tell me?” Kiannae implored as the old woman turned, and walked on.
“Un,” the old woman repeated almost fiercely. “It pains, but even true, this is fer ta.” She considered Kiannae’s expression at her words. “Good,” she corrected. “Is fer good.”
Kiannae considered pressing the issue, but she was weary, and without any heart to put into it. She struggled instead to keep her sister from her mind, and maintain some form of composure as she was marched away from the very goal she had set herself to.
They walked another five minutes in silence before the woman stopped again. “There,” she said, pointing with her walking stick through the trees. “Not much more, there se find ‘druids.’ Go, and not return, you meet much worse fate. I wish you ta unna. Please not unten – not un-…less than understand. This simply is.”
“Will you not introduce me?” Kiannae asked, not keen to march in amongst yet more strangers she knew nothing of.
“I not sta with them in many years.”
Kiannae struggled to hold any composure. To think of any way she could turn the situation around. She wanted to cry, yet the very want, and a rejection of using tears to get her way actually held them back. All the same, the sorrow on her face was plain.
The old woman considered her with an inscrutable expression. “What is name, unna?” she relented to ask, with nothing else it seemed to offer.
“Kiannae,” she managed meekly.
“Ki-Unna?” the woman asked with a stern shift in her expression.
“Annae,” she corrected. “Kiannae.”
The woman pursed her lips, shook her head, and set her hand on Kiannae’s shoulder. As she pulled it back she considered a stray dark hair between her fingers curiously. She turned to walk away, and hesitated. “I will not start to sta again this day, even if I miss arch-druid’s company…” She held a moment more, and turned back just long enough to say, “Should old Ezik live, tell him…Astia thinks of kykuman.”
Kiannae watched Astia walk back towards her village. She tried to make sense of the parting exchange, but gave up, particularly as Astia grew distant. She could ask no more questions, get no more answers. Her one seeming chance to ever find her father had passed. Perhaps that chance had never been there.
Kiannae turned towards where the woman had pointed. She sighed and marched on, tired, and troubled. Then her thoughts turned again to why she was there, and she cried. She cried for her sister who she had failed – or who had failed her – she couldn’t decide. For the first time she considered that it was Katrisha’s clever stupid plan. She had insisted, she had gone down alone into that ravine to fight the dragon with only Kiannae’s spell between her, and the dragon’s teeth and claws. Still she cried, even as she grew angry at her, she mourned her twin.
Kiannae’s arrival in the druid village did not go unnoticed, particularly with her obvious distress. There were many side long glances, and men and women pointing for their fellows who had not yet noticed. She bore them no mind, simply marched to a bench by a fountain in the center of the small square, and sat. Her tears turned to weeping, and she waited for what fate would come to her next. She was through trying to follow her own course, ready to simply be where the winds would take her.
Kiannae could feel as people gathered around her, and heard them start to murmur amongst themselves. She did not bother to look up, not even when at last a young man’s voice spoke, “Are you alright?”
Kiannae sat there for a moment, gathering herself back together – just a bit – before finally a flippant answer fought its way past her lips, “Been better.”
She felt a hand at her chin, relented to its gentle instance, and looked up. A young man of maybe sixteen, with a friendly concerned face considered her tear streaked, and quite dirty one. There was a kindly nature to him, with hazel eyes, and black hair. He was pale, moreso perhaps even than Laurel. Clearly a man of the south east in origin. “Yes,” he said after a moment, “I don’t doubt that. I’ve not seen you around here before, and I might say it’s odd to have anyone come from across the river. You see, the Sylvan’s don’t visit us any more.”
“So they told me,” Kiannae sighed.
“Oh did they now? Who did you speak to, was it old Astia? Does she still live?” the boy asked obviously curious.
“Y…yes, as a matter of fact,” Kiannae said with some surprise. “She said to give a message to a man named Ezik.”
“Did she?” came the voice of an old man who had just arrived through a crowd that parted around him with respect. “And what did she say, dear girl?”
“Glad you could make it grandfather,” the boy before Katrisha said with a loving, but almost mocking tone.
“I may be old, but I can still walk, Zale,” he said tapping his staff firmly to the ground as punctuation.
“Barely, grandfather,” Zale said, but there was a touch of sadness to his jab.
Ezik eyed his grandson unflatteringly. “I’ll have no more of your lip. Bring the girl to my house. I would speak with her in private, and someone find my son, and Landri,” he commanded and turned away. The crowd again shifted from his path.
“Well, you heard him,” Zale said offering Kiannae a hand, “Come along.” Kiannae looked away, and considered the crowd. She had really been quite ready to sit there for a while, and be a spectacle for all she really cared. She glanced back to the hand Zale offered, and reluctantly took it. She got to her feet, and followed him the way Ezik had gone.
As Kiannae approached Ezik’s house she noticed for the first time the way the houses of the village were constructed. It was much the same as the Sylvan dwellings. There was something more than curious about the architecture. Suddenly it struck her as she noticed a green leaf growing from a twig that had sprouted from a timber at the side of the house.
Her eyes traced down to what should have been a foundation. Yet there it flared into roots growing into the ground. All of the timbers ended in roots. Kiannae took a deep startled breath. The houses were living trees. She was awestruck with the beauty of it. She had noticed the roofs were green before, but now she clearly saw the shingles were not coated in moss, but rather they were layers of leaves. Kiannae looked at the arch of the door to the house, and at its windows, mesmerized by the craft of it all. Branches bent fluidly around each door and a window, forming the frame.
The doors themselves did not appear to be living wood she noted, as one was opened before her. It seemed a reasonable limitation, but hardly detracted from the rest. A window stood open nearby, it too seemed to be separate from the house itself. It was hard to tell at a glance if the panes of the window were in fact glass, or something more exotic. Yet it seemed all the rest of the house was a living thing, she could feel the presence, soft, inviting, old, very old, but never aged. She wanted to stop where she stepped, and take root in the floor. It was a strange and alien feeling, yet all at once it felt like coming home for the first time.
As they entered Ezik could be seen seated at an old table beneath a skylight, and beside a large round window. “Come, sit,” he said to Kiannae kindly. Quietly she took a place across from him, and looked out the window to see what he was staring at. Nothing apparent stuck out to her, he seemed to simply be gazing off into the forest. “You have a message for me?” he asked after a few moments of silence.
“Only that she still thinks of,” Kiannae struggled to get the word right, “kykuman,” said worrying to disappoint with the brevity of it. As she watched him frown she feared she was right, the message was not enough.
“I suppose I could not expect more…everything else aside we are old now, with little time left. A shame to waste what remains though,” he said with a disheartened laugh.
“What would grandmother think to hear you say that?” Zale cut in with some discomfort in his voice.
“Hmph,” Ezik replied gruffly. “Do you know what kykuman means?”
“No,” Zale said exasperatedly.
“It would be directly translated as dear one of the activity of life.” He let that sink in. “You didn’t know your grandmother when she was younger. You know she didn’t come from a circle. I met her on the road – she bewitched me, took me to her bed. She never would say why she stuck with me…she was the one who approached Astia, not I…not that I ever regretted the result. Kykuman was more often what Astia would call her, than me. It is a word most often for dear lovers of the same sex, since no children will result, but I guess as an outsider I count the same.”
“Eww,” Ezik said, seeming as though he wanted to spit.
“Oh yes, your grandmother was that way…perversion of nature…garbage…bending the rules I say. All open to interpretation. Took me many years to come completely to terms with it. We bend nature to our will all the time, we shape it, guide it, not leave it to its own course. How are such unions any different? The Sylvans even have a word of endearment for it, and they are closer to nature than us.”
“Feh, fine – I don’t care. Just don’t put such images in my head of grandmother,” Zale said with distinct expression of some one who had bitten into an unripe fruit.
“I suppose I can’t blame you for finding that aspect of it unsavory, no,” Ezik mused with wry humor.
Kiannae just sat silently observing the awkward exchange, distracted from some more uncomfortable aspects by dissecting new meaning from the words. Yet trying to make sense out of the roots she thought she was discovering only seemed to make gibberish. Ky was love or dear. Ke was power. Unna was girl. Her name was not Ke or Ky-unna, Ki-aunna however was close. Perhaps it was a sub group of Sylvans?
“What does aunna mean?” she asked.
Ezik glanced at her curiously. “It means first, or honoured daughter.”
Kiannae dug her nails into her palm. Confirmation, at last, that she was the first born. That Cassandra’s prophecy fit the truth. She was too angry to cry again. Her very name felt like a dirty thing in that moment.
She turned with a start as the door opened behind her to see a man who looked much like an older version of Zale, and a elegant older woman behind him. “Ah, good, they found you Xander, Landri. You may leave, Zale,” he said dismissively. At first Zale did not move, until he got a fiery glance. It had been a command, not permission.
Xander waited till his grandson was out the open door, and closed it behind himself. “I called for you at first because I thought there was news from the Sylvans,” he said to the new arrivals, who moved closer. “Still, if nothing else our new arrival is worthy of discussion. It occurs to me I haven’t yet asked your name yet, girl.”
“Kiannae,” she said with some reluctance.
“Hmm,” Ezik said thoughtfully. “Not quite Sylvan, terribly close, imperialized certainly, yet your asking what aunna means tells me you know little of them.”
“Ashton,” Kiannae interjected her family name wearily.
“Now, that is definitely not Sylvan,” Landri, said as she moved to sit at the table, Xander in turn took a spot opposite her. “It definitely has the sound of a northern name from Avrale, yet I am to understand you have come to us from the Sylvans?”
“Yes,” Kiannae said, not sure what to make of the questioning.
“And how did you come to be amongst them?” Xander pressed.
“Suppose I ran into them,” Kiannae said meekly.
“That’s no small feet,” Ezik said with interest, “and to come out in one piece I might add, on good terms, such as terms ever are these days. Even for one of your linage. Yes, I’ve noticed your eyes girl, if your name was not confirmation,” he added as he saw her expression shift.
Kiannae stared down at the table, not sure what to say, or what the people around her wanted her to. Katrisha she thought was usually the better one at finding something clever to say, she held back a sob at the thought.
“I’m sorry, have I offended?” Ezik asked, his tone softening.
“No,” Kiannae said, trying not to cry, “no, it’s just…my sister…”
“What happened to your sister?” Xander asked kindly.
“Dragon…” Kiannae said for lack of being able to quite formulate it all.
“That’s…horrid,” Landri said, finding she didn’t quite have better words to respond.
“Where was this? If you’ll forgive me pressing,” Ezik said softly. “I’ve heard of no dragons in these parts, and the Sylvans are quite capable of keeping them at bay. Even in the war Osyrae’s dragons struggled with the Sylvans to little gain.”
“Far away,” Kiannae sobbed, “mountains up north of Avrale.”
“I think I may have heard of a dragon up that way,” Landri said.
“What, was she doing up there?” Xander asked obviously a bit perplexed.
“She…” Kiannae trailed off looking out the window, “we…were trying to kill it.”
There was a distinct clap of hand to forehead, which pulled Kiannae’s tear streaked face back towards Ezik, who, once he recovered some composure looked her up and down, as though trying to make sense out of her. The expressions on Xander, and Landri’s face were no less unsettled.
“So, I am to understand,” Ezik started in a measured tone, “that a half Sylvan girl, presumably from Avrale, went into the mountains with her sister, tried, and without much surprise, failed, to kill a dragon,” he paused for breath – there was not quite humor in his voice, but there was something darkly comical about his disbelieving manner, “and then, I can only guess having not yet filled her wish for death, ran into the Sylvan woods, only to catch a well un-deserved break, and be dropped here in our midst.”
Kiannae broke down sobbing, and dropped her head to her arms on the table.
“That was…uncalled for, father,” Xander said glaring at the old man disapprovingly.
“It was unkind,” Ezik said, almost a hint of apology in his voice, “but damn well called for. The whole story is so preposterous that I am forced to assume that if the girl is not outright lying, she is either delusional, or utterly insane. Even if it is all true, I believe at least one of those must still apply.”
“Enough,” Landri cut in with displeasure. “I won’t deny there is truth to your words Ezik, but you are accomplishing nothing antagonizing the girl. Her spirit is broken, be it from figments of her imagination, or from the trauma of it being real. But there is something else, I can feel it even now, she’s ill, there is a poison in her very blood, and soul.”
“Yes,” Ezik said sourly, “I felt it when I first saw her. I’ve met many mages in my travels, it’s that sickness of theirs, wild magic in the blood. Never in all my years have I felt it so vividly, and in one so young… They are blind to it of course, some Clarions and Lycians can sense it with great care, but her unnatural state is like a burning flame to us.”
“Is she going to be all right?” Xander asked with concern in his voice for the poor sobbing girl next to him.
“It can be treated, but not cured…” Ezik said trailing off. “It is a curse they bear for the practice of magic. Some never suffer for it, others grow ill with time, and age…but one so young…”
“If it’s the way they practice, then surely the cure is to practice differently?” Landri asserted firmly.
“Perhaps,” Ezik said dourly, “but I’ve never heard of the mage who gave it up, to spare themselves the sickness. It doesn’t kill them, doesn’t even shorten their lives as paradoxical as it seems, just makes them frail, miserable, and addles their minds. This though, this is different, I’ve never heard of the like.”
“Stop talking about me like I’m not even here,” Kiannae suddenly snapped viciously between sobs, sat up, and slammed her fist on the table.
“What would you have us do then, girl?” Ezik asked bluntly.
“I…I don’t know. I don’t know anything, part of me just wants to die, to find out if there is an afterlife, and find my sister there,” Kiannae whimpered.
Ezik sighed. “I’ll have none of that. Life and death happen, as with all things of nature we may try to guide their course, but it is not ours to choose our end.”
“Nor is it necessarily ours to choose her fate either,” Xander interjected, “surely if she is a mage, there is some one in Avrale who trained her, and that will be missing her.”
“I won’t go back,” Kiannae sobbed.
“What is so horrible about returning to your home?” Landri asked softly.
“I won’t go back,” Kiannae simply repeated more tersely.
“Surely you still have family there who miss you?” Landri pressed again.
“Kat’s dead…” Kiannae cried. “I failed her…I didn’t stop her…I don’t know. Our parents are long gone…Wren…” she muttered his name. There was some hesitation in her voice, but it faded as her expression grew grim, and she looked out the window “…doesn’t need me. I won’t face the others, what’s the point…”
“Enough,” Ezik sighed. “I will permit her to stay, as it is her wish, on the condition she learns our ways. Landri, you will help her cleanse herself of this poison in her veins, and begin her training. Take care to save it, there are those who will pay a greatly for the substance.”
“Are you sure that is wise father?” Xander pried gently.
“I have made my decision, and it stands until I find reason to reconsider, or until you are arch-druid,” Ezik said flatly. “If asked, you will say only that she is an orphan, and that we are taking her in. Not exactly a lie, yes? Broken as she is, I sense great potential, and I fear it will be lost in turning her away.”
“And if some one from Avrale comes looking for her?” Landri asked with reservation.
“That will be reason to reconsider…won’t it?” Ezik grumbled, shook his head, and sighed.