Chapter 10

Had I known the trouble in you,
had I seen what was yet to be,
I’d not wish the past to undo,
what then would become of me,

we take the good with the bad,
mistakes to bitter or better end,
if I could change what we had,
would I yet here stand?

– Edith J. Enyae, circa 380 E.R.

Difficult Company

Coria 40th, 648 E.R.

There was a loud growl, and Zale stopped in his tracks.  When it was repeated Kiannae glanced down from the rock she was perched atop, and considered the dark furred wolf beneath her.  It had grown noticeably in only a few weeks, and seemed likely to soon be nearly as large as a full grown wolf.  “Leave him be Shadow.”

The wolf sat, and adopted a more demure manner, but still eyed the young man dubiously.  The wolfs eyes much like his mothers, two silver moons hung in a dark sky, the white of his muzzle underlying whatever impression his glare gave.  At that moment, distaste.  “You too Lunka,” Kiannae said firmly, staring past Zale, who turned uneasily to find the white wolf pup taking a seat behind him, her blue eyes glimmering with a sense of superiority.  There was always such fierce intelligence behind those eyes, an understanding of the order of things, and where she truly belonged in it.

“How in the abyss do you do that?” Zale demanded.

“Do I know?” Kiannae laughed.  “Ask Landri, she seems to understand it better.”

“Yes, but they only listen to you,” Zale countered.

“What can I say,” Kiannae said with a grin.  “Smart wolves.  Maybe you could learn something from them.”

“I listen to you plenty,” Zale protested.

“You listen, but do you hear?” Kiannae pressed.

“Wouldn’t that be, I hear, but do I listen?”

Kiannae huffed slightly.  “I suppose so.  Well played.”  She sighed.  “What do you want?”

“Company,” Zale said.  “Maybe to feel useful.  You’ve been very standoffish since your two new pets joined us.  Still no word from the third?”

“He’s not my pet,” Kiannae snapped.

“Taloe then,” Zale corrected himself.  “Have you heard from him at all?”

“No,” Kiannae said flatly.

“That doesn’t seem right,” Zale said firmly.  “And you have no idea why?”

Kiannae hesitated.  “I think I know why.”

“Would it hurt to tell me?”

“It could,” Kiannae offered.

“If there is a problem,” Zale pressed, “it wouldn’t be good to keep it secret.”

The two wolves tensed suddenly.

“Everything is fine,” Taloe said, stepping from a fine mist.

“Now you show up,” Zale said glaring at the other boy irritably.

“I have had affairs of my own to deal with,” Taloe said flatly.  “They are no concern of yours little man.”

“Who’s little?” Zale demanded, marching towards the slightly shorter boy.

Taloe became mist, and with a rush appeared behind Zale and gave him only the lightest shove, which still teatered his balance.  “What form I wore in life, is of little consequence.  You are pale, small, and your gift weak.  You stand before greatness.  You pester, and pry into affairs beyond your ken.”

“And you are a ghost,” Zale said spinning to face the other boy again.  “A parasite, a thing which steals from that very greatness. Deny it.”

“Enough,” Kiannae snapped at the two, and both wolves growled.  “Quiet,” Kiannae growled back at the wolves.

Both boys stood silent, glaring at one another a while longer, till at last Taloe shifted backwards, became mist, and reformed sulking against a tree some distance away.

“He started it,” Zale protested after giving up staring at the elemental being that looked away from them into the distant forest.

“That he did,” Kiannae said flatly.  “I will be speaking to him about that.  He isn’t wrong about you prying though.”

“Only because I care,” Zale said defensively.

“Is it?” Kiannae pressed.  “Or am I just here?”  She got up, stepped closer, and looked him in the eye.  He looked hurt, and she felt a bit bad for it, but she had her doubts.  His own admissions left her with such uncertainty.  Did he really care, was he really interested, or was she just available?  Not that it was perhaps the best word for how she had been, she considered.  All things being relative though.

“I’m your friend,” Zale said firmly.  “Maybe I haven’t had many other options, but that doesn’t make it otherwise.”

“Is that all you want from me?  The only girl near your age around, and you follow me, you insist on coming after me on this assigned journey like some lost puppy.”

“You’ve a knack for attracting those,” Zale cut back defensively, and looked as though he might have thought better of it.  He stood his ground nonetheless.

“I do, don’t I?” Kiannae said with equal determination.  “I am the storm after all it seems, walker or otherwise.  I drag all the refuse of the world in my wake.  There’s prophecy regarding me, you know?  The real kind, the kind marked down through the ages, not just glimpses of my own, or some seer.  No?  You don’t?  I didn’t tell you?  That’s because I’m running away from it.  You don’t know me, you have no idea who I am, or what I come from.”

Zale almost marched away at that, he clenched his fists, and gritted his teeth.  Then he softened, and looked sad instead.  Still on the verge of indignity, and anger, but some better grace it seemed had come over him.

“So he’s right then?” Zale said.  “You are greatness, and me something pale, not worthy of your time?”

“I don’t want to be revered,” Kiannae said fiercely, and threw up her hands.  “I don’t want any of what the world has handed me.  Prophecy, power, and responsibility too.  I’ll have none of it.  It cost my sister her life.  We were up on that mountain because we believed if we did otherwise, our mentor…our…father.  That he would die instead.  Maybe he even did, I don’t know.  We changed that future – we listened to one prophetic vision, and ignored another.  The prophecy said the younger of us would die first, and to beware a dragon that lies.”

“Do you want to be alone?” Zale asked uneasily.

Kiannae tried to read the worst in his words, and almost succeeded, but he seemed too sincere, and sad.

“It would be best, wouldn’t it?” Kiannae all but muttered.  “There is nothing happy in the folly that chases me.  I’m sure a great many people will have to die around me before anyone offers me a crown, to try to make me, a queen.  How would that even happen?  I’m no one.  Just, an orphan from northern farms, a Sylvan bastard with no tie to any royal line.  However much time…” she stopped herself, and turned away.  She’d kept that secret long enough, she wasn’t about to start blathering it in a fit of rage.

There was silence for a moment.  Kiannae almost wondered if Zale had slunk away, but she could still feel him standing there.  She closed her eyes.  “They can offer me all the crowns of this world, they can offer me the rebuilt seat of the empire itself.  I won’t have it.”

Kiannae tensed as she felt Zale move, heard fallen leaves crunch beneath his feet.  She didn’t want him to come closer.  She didn’t want to be validated, consoled, or told things would be alright.  She didn’t want to be told what she would believe no more than pretty lies.  She wanted to be angry, filled with rage, to spin around, and tell him off once more.  She wanted to do a great many things, but she stood there.  She let Zale embrace her.

She opened her eyes, and stared into the forest.  It helped, but it made her no less happy to know it was true.  She tried, and tried to frame him in all the worst light, but there was nothing unchased in his manner.  His arms around her helped, and she did not like that they did.  She didn’t want to let someone close.

Neither were in a position to see Taloe observe the scene unfold.  He was less happy about it than Kiannae, but though he could feel her turmoil, all the more he felt her grudging acceptance.  She needed what Zale was offering her.  What Taloe might have offered, had he been able to show himself.  He felt his adversary stir, and his form came apart as he returned to the dreaming, and resumed binding an angry spirit against her flailing will.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 8th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae watched with grim satisfaction as Lunka overtook the stag, causing it to turn, and easily bound away in a new direction.  She had drawn it in the dirt, a simple plan.  Not one she could enact herself alongside her charges, but they seemed to understand.  It was unnerving how much the two wolves seemed to grasp her words, and do as she commanded.  It had taken several tries, but each time she coached them, the next attempt was better.

It fell to Kiannae to train the two pups, to make it possible for them to take care of themselves.  She was uncertain of the whole affair, but Landri had been earnest in her belief.  ‘Dire creatures,’ she had stressed, ‘are born to seek balance in nature.’  She wasn’t sure if she believed Landri’s assertion, but the alternate argument had worked.  It was unkind to leave them to starve, or grow desperate.  Cruel to put them down.  How easily they understood her spoke of great innate intelligence.

The stag did not see Shadow before it turned, and skidded trying to turn another way, but found Lunka blocking it there.  It reared to strike the wolf with its hooves, but too late, as Shadow came in from the side for the kill.  Kiannae averted her eyes at the savagery that followed.  It was her plan, it was what was necessary, it was nature.  She had no more desire to see it, for all these truths.

When Kianne looked up, and the stag was motionless, the wolves sitting patiently at its side.  She expected them to be feeding on their fresh kill, but instead they were looking at her.

“What do they want?” Kiannae asked.

“Unfortunately, they view you as their alpha, mother, some combination of both,” Landri answered.  “They wait for you to take your share first.”

“I don’t want any,” Kiannae grumbled.

“I am unsure of the right course form here,” Landri offered.  “Perhaps to walk away.  They have successfully hunted.  It would be best if we parted company with them now.  Left them to these deeper woods.  We have been moving far too slowly.  Barely halfway to the south road when we should be in Niven by now.”

It had indeed been much slower traveling with the wolves in tow.  They were only a few miles then past the southernmost branch of the east pass into Avrale.  A sight that Kiannae’s eyes turned to often nervously.  Landri had long since sent the other druids off without them, planning to catch up when the wolves could fend for themselves.

“I agree,” Kiannae offered.  Though her heart wasn’t in it.  She had grown fond of the two wolves, in spite of Landri’s instructions that she keep herself reserved in the matter.  She had offered them names though, in spite of Landri’s opinion on the matter.  It had been necessary, she argued, to instruct them properly.  Landri had not liked the argument, but accepted it.

With only a moment’s hesitation, and some stiffness, Kiannae turned, and walked towards the their camp.  She didn’t like it, but tried to believe it was the correct move.  It should have been, both druidic wisdom, and the sensible learning of a mage and member of the court told her wolves were not domesticated dogs.  Dire ones less so.

“Do not let it pain you,” Landri said.  “They are wild things.  Not some tamed pets for you to keep.  They will likely grow to be nearly as large as their mother.”

Kiannae felt them approach well before she heard the padding footsteps behind her.  She stopped, and grimaced.

“Of course it is not so easy.”  Landri sighed.  “One could hope.  We must drive them away.”

Kiannae turned, and looked at the wolf that set meat before her.   It was Shadow.  She closed her eyes sadly, and hesitated.  “How?”

“Do as I do,” Landri said, and turned herself, raising her arms so as to look large.  Her aura took on a menacing quality.  The wolf shrunk for a moment, then bared his teeth, and growled.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Kiannae said.

“Do it,” Landri said.

Kiannae began to assume the posture, but before she could change her aura the wolf moved as though about to strike.  Instead she stepped in front of Landri, and barked, “No!”

Shadow recoiled, and slunk back slightly.  His ears flattened, his tail down, his body lowering.  She tried to throw up the same imposing sense about herself, but her heart wasn’t in it.  The wolf backed up.  Not fleeing, showing every sign of submission, but not turning away from Kiannae.

“No,” Kiannae whispered again, and threw herself to her knees, and her arms around the wolf that almost pulled away, before accepting it tentatively.  It was wildly incautious, even mad, to suddenly hug a wolf that had freshly hunted, and still smelled of blood.  Yet the wolf leaned into Kiannae.

“What are you doing you fool girl?” Landri all but hissed.  “You are only making this worse.  They must stay.  This is where they belong.”

“Do they?” Kiannae said in an angry tone.  “Will they?” She added.  “Do you think that after the tales of the last dire wolves that lived here the king will leave them be?”

“And you think to bring them with us?” Landri snapped.  “Neither Thebes nor Niven will take kindly to us leading two dire beasts onto their land.  Soon they will grow too large to manage, to dangerous to be around, if they are not already.  I won’t permit it, nor will I allow you to remain with them.  This is childish foolishness.”

“They won’t grow,” Kiannae said with an unnerving certainty.

For a moment it seemed almost a childish wish, taken as fact, but Landri had a moment of doubt.  That turned more dubiously into a moment of certainty that she wanted to reject.

“I told them to stop growing,” Kiannae said, “and they did.”  She had, it had been more playful than any plan.  She had told them both to stop growing, joking that getting bigger could only make their lives more trouble.  Bigger needed more food, after all.  Yet she had noticed they had not grown since.  No matter how much the druids still had to feed them, they did not grow.

“I don’t…think,” Landri said uncertainty.  “I believe…”

“No you don’t think,” Kiannae said firmly, let go, stood up, and spun on Landri.  “You believe, you take things on faith.  Open your eyes, and tell me I’m wrong.  You’ve said it.  Dire beasts adapt, they grow scales, and spines, and size, and power with need, and injury.  They need to be small, they need me.”

“It’s not right,” Landri said.  She was stern in her belief, but she did not feel she was truly in control of the situation.

“Who is to say?”

“They belong in nature,” Landri stressed.

“Are we not part of nature?” Kiannae countered.

“Some more than others,” Landri offered with displeasure.  “You are still as much mage as druid, girl.”

Shadow ran off back towards his sister, not keen to be near the arguing humans.

“I was sent on this journey for a reason,” Kiannae said.  “I have avoided that, and this is not it, no, but something is coming.  I have been running from it.  Thaea blesses her servants, and for all this one has lost, she has sent more.  A place, a purpose, a path.  A ghost that watches over me, a boy that follows me with an earnest if foolish heart, two wolves that have claimed me as their mother, and you.  For all your preaching, and narrow views of the world.  To teach me to become something more than a mage.”

Landri closed her eyes.  “I will say again, I am against this course.”

“What will change your mind?”

“I will delay one month.  If after one month in these woods, I have seen with my own eyes – as you claim – that they have grown no more.  Then, I will consider this folly, and it is folly.  Yet if they have grown, even so much as an inch, you must heed my advice, and drive them off into this wood.”

“Done,” Kiannae said firmly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

A month in the wilds is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Forty-two days without convenient shelter, or a change of clothes.  A task made no easier for Landri’s lack of inclination to help Kiannae with shelter, even as she all but made one outright for Zale.  Un-dissuaded by what she considered a petulant slight by the old woman, Kiannae copied the structure, and improved upon it.

She had considered her risks at length, and concluded that whatever the consequences of magic, they paled to being soaked by the rain.  First a spell to keep her dry while she worked, that had left flakes of ice drifting off an arc of spell lines woven over her head.  It had been draining but worth it she decided.

The result was and easy enough copy of the lean-to itself, but with magic she bound branches together more tightly, warping wood to better keep off the rain.  Through the whole process Landri had glared at her disapprovingly.  Which Kiannae had almost managed to ignore, until Landri herself used magic to make a woodless fire.  Kiannae did not hesitate to show her up by digging a perfectly round clean fire pit with a spell, and enchanting a large stone to provide her a constant source of warmth.

Hunting fell to the wolves.  While voracious, they caught more than they needed, and consented to let Kiannae take what meat she pleased, and Zale eventually at her command.  Landri, Kiannae made a point, got her share only directly from her, and was given no difference by the two wolves as a demonstration of her degree of control over them.

Bathing was done in a freezing stretch of mountain stream around a bend from where the three had set up camp.  The wolves kept guard while their mistress washed, and relented begrudgingly to permit her to clean their fur as well.  Particularly when she demonstrated to the wolves that she could make the water warm.  Landri and Zale were left to to their own devices, and had only the naturally frigid water to wash with.

This all became quickly routine.  Even Kiannae’s wandering to commune with the elements, and attempt to get over the fear that had gripped her since the dryad grove.  She found all of the elements in turn.  Wind, water, earth, and even fire.  She found the lightning, and even the cold.  None made the terrifying demand upon her again, all answered, humbly, submitting to her will, and not demanding to consume it.

Kiannae became convinced that the presence she had felt was bound to the place.  That her power had resonated with whatever force permitted the existence of dryads in the first place.  She did not like this answer, and so did not share it.  It raised more questions than anything.  What were dryads?  Were they really just ghosts, attuned to trees, or something more?  A lone dryad was unheard of, and yet she was all the more convinced that the tree that had spoken to her as a child was exactly that.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 23rd, 648 E.R.

Kiannae turned her meat over the fire in front of her lean-to.  Landri had done everything and as much nothing as she could to dissuade Kiannae from her choice, and challenge over the wolves.  Kiannae was not a girl easily dissuaded when she had set her mind to something.  She leaned her head back against the tree and closed her eyes, listening to the wind through the trees.

She felt as much as heard Zale walk up cautiously, and sit across from her.  Shadow gave him a look, and Lunka slunk away, but the two wolves had learned he was not to be bothered.  Landri’s status was not so favorable with the wolves, who would growl at her if she approached uninvited.  If Kiannae told them to let Landri be, they did, on that occasion, but as it went, intent was key.  She was not giving Landri a blanket pass, since she had set herself against her in what Kiannae felt was the most childish of ways.  Refusing to help her.  It wasn’t the first time in her young life she considered that adults could be far more childish than children.

“Thanks for the meat,” Zale offered.

“Thank those two,” Kiannae gesture absently.  “They did all the work.”

“You trained them, and decide who eats, though I’m sure we could hunt something if needed.”

“Yes, I’ll prefer to keep a spear out of your hand,” Kiannae gave him a look.

“It felt like the right thing at the time,” Zale said a bit defensively.

“It might well have been, but still, best these two not see it,” Kiannae said flatly. “They’ve come to terms with reality, but they know, they remember, I’m sure that.  I explained to them, that you were only protecting me.  That seemed to be the thing that finally settled the matter.  Don’t think they will ever like you, but they won’t bother you.  You killed one they love, and maybe saved another.”

“Do you really think of them as people?” Zale asked, glancing back and forth between the wolves cautiously.

“No,” Kiannae said.  “They don’t think like us.  Of that I am almost completely certain.  A person after all, I do not think would be able to be so agreeable about the situation.  You killed their mother, you saved me, maybe, tough call on that.  I still think I had it.”

“I get to live with that, I guess,” Zale said and rubbed his head.  “I wouldn’t have done any differently, if there was still even a chance you didn’t have it.”

“That’s why I’ve forgiven you,” Kiannae said almost irritably.  “You didn’t do the wrong thing, just, I guess right is sometimes subjective.  I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to fail, and wind up dead.  Not the first girl with my face to wind up like that.”  There was no humor behind her jest.

Zale gave her a strange look for a long time.  “I must be some kind of glutton for punishment, but I’ve got to call you on it.  You were trying to kill a dragon.  You do know even feral dragons are smarter than those two wolves, right?”

Kiannae checked her meat, pulled it out of the fire to cool, and leaned her head back against the trunk of her tree, and closed her eyes again.  “I’ll give you points for gaul on that, and for not being wrong.”  A tear ran down her cheek.  “Sometimes, you do what needs doing.  Consequences be damned.  Maybe I should have tried to stop Kat.  Maybe more people would have died.  There was this moment.  Fates I’ve tried to forget it.  There was this moment when I tried to talk her out of it in the stables, before we left for the mountain.  I couldn’t even call it seeing something, I felt the pain.  Just a shadow of it.  I recoiled from the choice to stop her just long enough.  Then the farther along we got, the more the pain faded.  If I lead, if I was out front, getting us there, I felt more certain.  It was almost like the pain was a star to follow, or more one to walk away from.”

She laughed slightly.

“Dare I ask what’s so funny?”

“You navigate by the south star, right?” Kiannae asked.  “Most reliable celestial marker to navigate by.”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“So why do we hold maps north?  The sun on our right, the moon on our left.  Why not reverse it?  You’ve heard the saying, ‘my north star,’ haven’t you?”

“I’ve even seen it,” Zale answered.

Kiannae glared at him a bit incredulously.

“My mother, four years ago she took me to the High City, to the Citadel of the Sun.  We each took our chance on the lot to go to the high balcony.  She won, but she gave me her spot.  I looked north, as almost everyone did, and saw that tiny glimmering light.  If you’ve seen it, you don’t ask any more.  You know why you turn your back on the pale south star.”

“There’s the humor,” Kiannae said.  “I was running away from something.  I’m still running away from something, and yet.  It feels like I’m running towards something.  I’m going south too, now that I think of it.  I was running away from a preminionson that night, even though I cannot see it any more, and yet, I know I was running away from one thing, and towards another.  That doesn’t make sense.”

“It does,” Taloe said, and swirled into being on a third side of the fire.  He seemed almost draped in a robe, but the illusion was not quite right.

“Finally doing something about the naked?” Zale asked, though it seemed a bit snide.

“I assure you, not on your account,” Taloe cut back almost fiercely.

“If you two start, I will tell my wolves to rip you both to shreds,” Kiannae growled, and the two wolves did as well.

“I have said before,” Taloe said assuredly, “something is wrong with that night.  What you only felt, I can now see.  You could not dissuade her.  I see nights where she left you stuck with the guards.  Worlds where you died, where so many died.  Wars…those are harder to see.  Consequences rippling through the years.  I thought once…no, I will not bring my troubles into this.  Visions I now doubt the meaning of, even as I am all the more certain of moments they hinged upon.  We live as we are, it is all we can do.”

“Don’t tell me this is the best of all possible worlds,” Kiannae snapped, glanced at her meat angrily, and bit into it before it could get cold.

Zale gave Taloe a look, like he wanted to say something biting, and rethought it.  “Perhaps,” he started instead.  “It was merely the best to be found.  If he is right, Katrisha was set on her course, she had made a choice, for whatever reason, that ended in something terrible.  I don’t know much about precognition, just to avoid it.  There was this girl when I was younger, out on the road.  I was sweet on her from the moment I met her.  I was still just a kid, heck, maybe I still am.  She was this mage’s kid, bright, smart, snippy.  So, maybe that’s why I get on with you so much.”

Kiannae scrunched her face up at him unflatteringly.

“Any way, she had some ideas in her head from her mother, about not commiting, and she told me as much, she liked me, but not as much as I liked her.  So she thought it was better not to be more than friends.”

“What’s your point?” Kiannae asked irritably, and took another bite.

“Not much.  Just my only real experience with precognition.  Mother said I was probably so fond of her because she would have been my first kiss.  She almost was, that day when she let me down.  Fates, I’m talking like it was some big thing, I was ten, and she was eleven.  Still, no, I won’t bore you with the details, but we were laughing, we were close, this funny look came in her eyes, she got closer, and then shook her head, and told me that.  If I hadn’t been so fond of her, if I hadn’t always been…  Never mind.  Sorry.  I was just trying to say, we don’t always get to choose how others take our choices.  But it’s garbage.”

Kiannae took a third bite, and closed her eyes again.

“What did it really feel like?” Kiannae asked after she swallowed.  “To look on the North Star.  Is it really so special?”

“Special isn’t the word for it,” Zale said.  “It’s not even really profound, just clear.  It’s like something makes sense, and you can’t even say what.  All at once it almost makes less sense, because it’s just a cursed star, right?  Fates, it’s worse, because it almost feels like it has nothing to do with the star.”  Zale looked like he wanted to say something more.  “It’s not sudden, or, strong, or overwhelming, it just is.  I’ve felt that way twice in my life.”

“When was the second time?” Kiannae gave him a less than friendly look.

He glared back.  “What, do you think it was you?  Sitting there a dirty weeping wreck in the square at Lundan Grove.”  He laughed.  “Sorry, but you really were a wreck.  If you think that was the other moment, let me deflate your ego just a little bit.”

“What was it then?” Kiannae pressed.

“The first time I really felt one with the elements, with something larger than myself,” Zale answered with a smile.  “That’s the feeling.”

Neither made much note of Taloe disappearing, or put much thought into why.  Kiannae suspected Zale was lying, that he was dodging the insinuation that he was going to make.  She wasn’t sure how she felt about that, or if she really was just being egotistical.  She wasn’t sure if she liked him at all sometimes, and others she knew she would be sad if she finally managed to drive him away.

She could, she knew she could.  She could be rid of him if she wanted, just like the wolves.  Taloe, was more complicated.  She was stuck with him, but she really wondered if she could bring herself to.  If it was an option to drive him away, would she?  She didn’t want to be alone, but ever since the mountain, since it had felt like her heart was ripped from her chest, she didn’t want anyone close.  That didn’t mean she wanted to be alone.  She wasn’t even sure if this was a new aspect of her temperament at all.  Always with her nose in books, declining others attempts to draw her out.  Katrisha gladly taking the opportunity, which had always left a twinge of jealousy long before their falling out over Wren.

“Thanks,” Kiannae relented.

“For what?” Zale asked, and glanced to the side, noticing Taloe had left.

“For putting up with me,” Kiannae answered dryly.

“Well, as you’ve pointed out, not a lot of options,” Zale cut back.

Kiannae gave him a cross look, but her heart wasn’t in it.  He just smiled back at her till she shook her head.  “Yes, well, one of them was staying with your family.  So don’t think you are fooling me.”

“Oh, really?  You’ve met my grandfather, haven’t you?” Zale teased.

Kiannae laughed, and finished her meal.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 8th, 648 E.R.

“They are…” Landri was clearly less than pleased.

“The same size,” Kiannae said with her arms crossed, her fingers drumming on her elbow.

“Not quite,” Landri said, and stood up from examining Shadow.

“Don’t you dare lie, and claim they have grown,” Kiannae said angrily.

“I won’t lie, but they aren’t the same size.  Well, the white one is, the grey one is actually smaller, I’m almost certain of it.  I do not think I have ever observed something in nature grow backwards, so I am far from ready to believe my own eyes.  Yet, I begin to think that something deeply unnatural in your presence should never surprise me.”

“Oh, do not try and get out of this on a technicality,” Kiannae said narrowing her eyes, and not trusting Landri’s tact.

“I would make one last attempt to dissuade you from this madness, but clearly, you are in charge of your own path, and I cannot stop you from taking these wolves wherever you please.  I can only presume to keep such a missguided endeavor where I can keep an eye on it.”

“So, it’s settled?” Kiannae said.

“It is, since you have given me no other choice.”

“So we can leave then?” Zale asked. “Finally?  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.  I’ve grown up with this, sure, but I would really like a change of clothes, and a very long warm bath in something that is not a freezing mountain river.”

Kiannae gave him an amused look, and he just held a pointed gesture till she laughed.

“I certainly would not deny the appeal,” Landri said, and stretched.  “There is no point arguing with you on the point, is there?” She pressed one last time.

“None,” Kiannae said flatly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 18th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae skipped another stone across an expanse of river that was doing a remarkable impression of an ocean.  It was impossible to tell exactly how broad the flooded forest plane might be thanks to the forest itself, but the old pines did give some guess as to the depth.  It did not appear at all shallow.

She glanced downstream to Landri, who was in her estimation sulking over the remaining near side of a bridge that could not have been very sturdy to begin with.  There was no longer even another side to reach from the hillside they were stopped on.

Landri gave her a look, almost as though it was her fault.  Kiannae refused to even be bothered by this.  Landri had picked the duration, threw in a week, and waited an extra day.  Zale had made himself scarce upon seeing the looks the two were giving each other.  Which to Kiannae seemed silly, and a bit dramatic of a move.  She did wonder however if it had been the only thing to keep them from quarreling at length.

Landri stood up, walked towards Kiannae, and put her hands on her hips.

“I still say we could just swim it, assuming I can’t just walk across,” Kiannae answered making a somewhat comical walking gesture with her fingers.

“Yes, much as I relish the thought of you failing to do that, no.  It could go on for a mile or more.  This plain gives way to the main prairie lands of Thebes.”

“I can see a pass through the foothills upstream, we might be able to go around.”

“No, this area is notoriously unstable, it was probably a slide upstream that released this.”

“I can handle a few rocks,” Kiannae said, and skipped one a dozen times by putting a magical spin on it.

“Can you handle a whole mountain girl?” Landri cut back.

“Probably,” Kiannae said with a smile that said she was mostly joking.

“Why are you so anxious to get to Niven all of a sudden?”

“Symmetry in my life,” Kiannae answered snidely.

“For one who complains so much of riddles, you are overly fond of them.”

“Not really, just sharing my pain.”

“If for no other reason, we won’t be crossing because there is a marker, and I can only presume it was left by those who went ahead.  They wisely went east rather than trying to cross.  We will follow, and see if we can catch up.”

“You’ve been complaining that we are not keeping pace,” Kiannae protested.  “How would we possibly catch them.”

“I expect them to do some investigation along the way, check on how the flooded forest is fairing.  We likely won’t intervene, but it does not hurt to check.”

“What would make the difference?”

“Disease, such as in Niven, threatened populations of rarer species, risk to crops, animals that have been driven into human areas, other far reaching disruptions.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The flood went on for days, though it grew ever flatter and broader as forest gave way to drowned fields.  The amount of water involved was a bit hard to comprehend.  The clear damage to crops meant that more than likely the druids would involve themselves, if the trio could find any sign of the others.  A line of hills brought the flood plain to an end, and held a large village above water, and protected another flat stretch of prairie and farm land as far as the eyes could see.

Landri had left her charges on the edge of town, to keep an eye on the wolves.  First she asked for news of the other druids.  Two had headed east to the capital to seek official sanction from the King, the others had headed south to continue investigating the damage.  Unsatisfied with these answer she sought out the master of a caravan gathered along the south side of town.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 26th, 648 E.R.

“Stay”, Kiannae said to the two wolves that had followed close in tow with her along the village edge.  Zale had protested her insistence to go snooping after they had been expressly told to stay, and had remained where they were left.

Kiannae pulled up her hood, and walked into the quare, checking the wolves were staying where she left them.  The caravan looked like any other she had seen, but was mostly closed up in a way she was not used to seeing.

“Listen, I’m sorry,” she heard a vaguely familiar woman’s apologise exasperatedly.  “We are full, and even if we weren’t, I’m not thrilled by the idea of dire beasts in tow.”

“If you cannot be convinced otherwise, then I will admit I am little more pleased with the situation.  Still, youth, sometimes will do as they please.”

“Tell me about it,” a familiar brunette said, and as she turned Kiannae recognized her, and hid her face better before she could be seen by a woman she recognized as Mercu’s sister Samantha, and master of the caravan she was standing in the middle of.  “I can carry a message for you, no charge.”

“There usually isn’t,” Landri said crossing her arms.

“I was trying to make it sound better,” Samantha said with a shrug.  “Listen, if you aren’t looking to buy anything that I can point you in the direction of, I really have some things I need to take care of.”

“Fine.  Can you simply tell the druid circle nearest the Evergrove that the troop from Lundan has been delayed in Thebes to help with flooded farmland.”

“I’ll make a note of it,” Samantha said.  “Now, excuse me, but good day to you.”

Kiannae turned away, and stood very still as Samantha walked past her.  She stopped just a few steps ahead, and turned back.  “Listen, I might be able to arrange one bed on a waggon, paid spot, for a capable druid, if you want it.”

“No, that won’t do,” Landri answered.

“Well, good fortune then,” Samantha said, and walked on.

Kiannae nearly jumped out of her skin as a hand settled on her shoulder a moment later.  She had been too intent watching Samantha.  She realized a part of her had hoped she would turn around and recognize her, and that moment of distraction had kept her from noticing Landri approach.

“I told you to stay with Zale,” Landri said crossly.  “Now I find you sneaking around, with your hood up.  Did no one ever tell you, that nothing begs questions like someone trying to hide their face.”

“So, what now, if the caravan won’t have us?” Kiannae asked.

“Well, if you are so determined to move on, you could petition for that seat she just offered,” Landri said.

“No, I’m fine,” Kiannae said sternly.

“In that case, we stay the winter.  I’ve had some promising talk with a farmer’s son, from about five miles south.  They only lost half their land, and have a lot of animals we could be of help with.”

“The winter?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“There will be an early snow this year, I’m sure of it.”

“Prophecy?”

“In a roundabout way,” Landri begrudged.  “The seasons know their plans far beyond the intervention of mortal hands.  The key is to look out, not in.  To know what the world does, not trouble yourself with uncertain human endeavors.”

“What difference would  a caravan make?” Kiannae asked.

“A caravan would press on far enough into Niven before buckling down for the winter to be worth it, but on foot…  With no clear idea how far we will have to go around this.  No.  Better to stay here, particularly incase those wolves grow.”

“They won’t,” Kiannae said sternly.

“Be that as it may, I’ll take the lesser chance, and lose a little time.  This flooding is concerning, and Niven already has druids attending to the issue in the Evergrove.  It is of concern, but less so than crops.  These western fields are a quarter of the grain for the nation.  They usually sell about half to Niven.  It has always been unwise that they focused so much of the farming here, they could have spread it through the central prairie with ease, but people like the convenience of clustering together.”

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I think Barrier Lake must have drained,” Kiannae offered after a moment of silence.

“As good an explanation as I can think of,” Landri agreed.  “Fairly hopeful one too.  Perhaps in a month or two with the reservoir drained this will clear up.”

“I’m just remembering there were reports, that locals had said the water level had been going down year on year, for, almost as long as I can remember.”

“Reports?” Landri pressed.

Kiannae reconsidered what she might have revealed, and tried to find an excuse.

Landri sighed.  “If you wish it to be your secret, who am I to tell Zale, but I know you were raised by the court mage of Avrale.”

Kiannae winced.  “How did you know?”

“Ezik enquired into your possible identity,” Landri said.  “How long he really knew, I do not know, but he insisted on obliging your wish to be hidden, and that this…journey was for the best.  I was well within my rights to ignore his foolishness, and contact your adoptive father.  Yet I have grown soft it seems, and once again I could ask this caravan to carry you on home, but you won’t be convinced on your own accord?”

“He’s alive?” Kiannae asked.

“Oh fates,” Landri said, and looked more than a little stricken.  “I had forgotten you had doubt on that.  Too bothered by the rest of this fool mater.  Surely, knowing this, you will at last relent to return?”

“I cannot face them,” Kiannae said.  “I just can’t.”

“Prophecy,” Landri muttered.  “If I had not…”  She growled.  “I do not like this.  I do not like this one bit.  I wish to convince you, to impart on you the wisdom of my years, and tell you that they will welcome you home with open arms, and they will.  Not a doubt in my mind.  You are being a foolish irrational child, and I will not indulge that any further than leaving what you tell Zale to you.  You do what you feel you must, I will not force you, but nor will I swim upstream against the madness that seems to follow you.  Symmetry in your life, indeed.  You may be trying to run from prophecy girl, but I think you are running right towards it.”

“Good job, you’ve solved my riddle,” Kiannae laughed without any real humor.

“No, no I do not think I have by half,” Landri said.  “Though you remind me far to much of myself seventy some years ago.  Stubborn beyond all reason.”

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