I’ve imagined this scene for incredibly long time, but always kind of known it wouldn’t go in. It sets the stage for the begging of Book III, but that book has always begun one way, and just doesn’t leave room for this little encounter between old friends that were never quite more. If you will forgive ‘more’ in relation to friendship and romance. One can have a lover who is not really a friend. One can certainly have a friend who is not a lover. I don’t think though that it is unfair to imply that the combination is more than one or the other, without arguing too much about relativistic feelings on love and friendship. A complex topic to say the least. This occurs fairly soon before the start of Book III, sans some necessary travel time. I won’t give it a precise date to avoid sorting the logistics of that.
Fools May Tread
The Blight. It wasn’t always called this, and in all likelihood the name would pass again into obscurity. Seen from high above the world one might see some resemblance to a depiction of a complex mathematical set, plotted roughly in the dead trees of the once vibrant Evergrove. The spread had stopped. The damage done lingered. Quite in spite of the best efforts of some of the worlds greatest minds, who owed what success they found to the work, and peril of one young woman.
Kiannae Ashton. Raven haired, and a bit tall for a woman, or even a man of her native Avrale. Her sun touched skin could almost hide the freckles around her nose, and emerald eyes just the least bit off the mark from human. She had always had a tendency towards being a loner, and so to noone’s surprise sat on a marker stone, well apart from friend or foe.
Spellwork glowed around her, visible to even ungifted yes. Living grass spread, and sprouted beneath her chosen seat. A flower cropped up amidst it, and turned her eye. The presence approaching had not. Mostly out of indifference. She had thought he felt familiar. She looked up on the face of a young man who stood with trepidation at the edge of her freshly grown lawn.
“You’ve a lot of nerve,” she said. “Sneaking up on me again, after all these years.”
“As if I could ever sneak up on you,” Zale answered.
She stood up, and stepped through her spell work without a care. It dissolved, and swirled around her. The rapid growth ceased.
“You really did all that?” he asked, and noticed that she was maybe even a little taller than he remembered.
“All that?” she said with ill humor, gesturing behind her. “Oh yes, probably. You’d have seen it, if you stuck around.”
“I’m not here to fight,” Zale protested.
“Why are you here?”
“Because someone asked – very nicely – that I please convince the crazy girl to stop antagonizing the Storm Queen. Sitting right on her border. I told Landri, that if she thought I could convince you of anything, she was out of her mind.”
“I’m not antagonizing the Storm Queen,” Kiannae said.
Zale gestured exasperatedly at the sky. “That’s a dragon! Up there! On the borders of Niven, for all the further trouble that makes. Don’t try and tell me it’s some coincidence.”
“Oh, what?” Kiannae looked up as though surprised. “Calista? Eh. She’s an old friend. Gentle as a kitten. She circles overhead on the border, while I sit here on a rock. We chat at least twice a day. Commiserate over all the unnecessary fuss everyone makes over it.”
“So you, just chat, with an ancient dragon?” Zale said incredulously. “Daily occurrence for you now. Is it? Do you think I’ve gone daft since we last met?”
Kiannae smirked. “I wouldn’t say gone, no. Fairly sure you started there.”
“Don’t flirt, or, whatever this is,” Zale said exasperatedly. “Nothing’s changed. Well, except, I’m sure you are sleeping with him now.”
“Not much sleeping,” Kiannae said. “Though, he did figure out how to, eventually. So I guess, now and then.” Her nonchalant facade held for a moment, before her gaze fell, and she brushed back her hair.
“What do you hope to gain?” Zale asked.
Kiannae just pointed towards the horizon.
Zale looked where eyes most often did not want to go. A massive tree that stood like a mountain over the low plain of the blight.
“It’s nearly a thousand feet tall,” Kiannae said. “Reportedly still growing. A little less than a foot a day since it sprouted. Since… Shadow gave his life for my mistakes.”
“You can’t possibly be taking credit, or blame, for that…thing,” Zale said. “I had heard the stories. I knew, you had to be involved, but, that’s not something a person does!”
“Who said I’m a person?” Kiannae challenged irritably.
“Me,” he said tersely, sighed, covered his face and shook his head.
Kiannae stared at him definitely, but when he did not meet her gaze, she turned away. “I think it’s all my fault.”
“All?” he asked, legitimately doubting the scope of her claim.
“Literally, everything,” Kiannae said. “I remember it. A world without Osyrae breathing down our necks. Growing up in the cloister…my…first kiss. Fates, I’m sure you would love to know about that, wouldn’t you? Not at all who you would expect. All these little things that didn’t play out the same, and all these horrors that never were. I don’t know how any of it fits, but I know it’s all my fault. Prophecy is one thing, but now I see pasts that never were. Tell me, is that a gifted practice, or just madness?”
“What happened?” Zale asked, and stepped a bit closer.
“I’m glad you left,” Kiannae said crossing her arms.
“Because, ‘A great many people would have to die around you,’” Zale quoted as best he could, not taking the bait of the obvious meaning. “Before anyone offered you a crown?”
“Maybe you do listen, after all,” Kiannae grumbled.
“And I hear too,” Zale said. “I hear you were offered one, and turned it down.” He took a breath. “I found that seer. When I went back through Thebes, after I left. I paid him back his two silver, for the rest of that reading. Not sure it was worth it, but, he told me what you wouldn’t have listened to. That your sister was alive. That I had walked in the circles of gods. He told me things I knew somehow in my heart, and yet still do not believe. Even now. I knew something far simpler. You had made up your mind.” He set his hand on her shoulder.
“Had I?” Kiannae said, and turned around, to stare him down. “I don’t trust prophecy, but that out there. That isn’t the future. It’s the past. I want to understand what happened. What is still happening, but the Storm Queen will permit no one, certainly not from outside Napir examine it. Least of all me. I offended her it seems, rejecting her son.”
“What happened,” Zale said rhetorically, ignoring her intractable implications, and focusing on her first challenge. “A man knew he could not compete, not with a living part of your own will.”
“Who said you had to compete?” Kiannae asked. “Seems my sister is fond enough of wandering fancy. Maybe, I should have just taken you all up. Let you all decide to stay, or go. Kept you like pets. That’s what you called Taloe, isn’t it?”
“You aren’t her though, are you?” Zale countered. Pushing past the distractions. He remembered how it worked. Focus on the detail in front of you, not the deflections around it.
She turned, and walked back to her rock in a huff. “This doesn’t end well,” Kiannae said.
“Nothing ever ends well,” Zale said. “The ends are all the same. It’s the living, that makes the story. What lies between the beginning, and the end. We begin in nothing, we end, in that which we did with our lives. We end, when we stop making those differences.”
“Fates,” Kiannae muttered, but kept staring south. “When did you get so verbose?”
“I’ve had a lot of time on the road. Working a few hours a day, traveling or waiting the rest. Not much else to do, but play with the wind, and read. I’ve found the writings of Sylvia get a man a long way, with, some women. She made a life out of loving them after all.”
“Some, women,” Kiannae stressed.
“I’m not here to fight,” Zale repeated, “and I can’t imagine being with you, as anything but a fight.”
“Then why – I ask again – are you here?”
“I met some druids coming south from Lundan, on the way into Niven. Quiet lot for the most part, but I heard them gossiping amongst themselves that the Archdruid is talking about doing rounds of the local kingdoms. It’s not…typical to make such visits. I saw my grandfather last year, and am not keen to indulge him on some final tour, but, that would mean he is visiting Avrale. I thought you might like to know.”
“Wouldn’t he have already done it?” Kiannae asked.
“It’s not usual, he wouldn’t rush something like this. You’ve at least till the spring.”
“Not like I’m getting anywhere here,” Kiannae said.
“The growth…” He hesitated. “You did that with a spell? Seems like somewhere to me. I didn’t even think that was possible”
“I knew the quote,” Kiannae said. “My sister gave me a copy of that book. That woman claimed to have done no less. She started on plants, when she burned herself trying the first time.”
“I hadn’t read that version,” Zale offered.
“I didn’t do much. Just followed the patterns already here. Someone did this. Whether it really is a spell as big as the world, or just this, I can’t tell. The Evergrove was built. It was a spell. It…made everything grow, and dire creatures sprang up, and learned what it had to teach.”
“What dire creatures?”
“Dryads. Not like near Lundan, but, I can’t say if they might have been intelligent, in some other way. The spell doesn’t go all that far, but the dryads cast it themselves. Much like the fungus we have almost wiped out. Were both in some sense intelligent? I raised dire wolves. Animals, who were, more like people. Or are we all more like animals than we admit. Just a fire, trying to burn out our fuel? All stories end the same. That’s the phrase, right? Spells and people, stars and worlds. We all end the same. At least in that we all end. Everything ends.”
“If the story does not end, then how does next begin?” Zale countered.
“That, doesn’t sound like Sylvia,” Kiannae said curiously, and half looked back over her shoulder.
“Clarion, Saint Darius of the Ascension,” he answered. “I had a lot of time to read.”
Kiannae flopped back onto the stone, and caught her head in a spell. She stared at him upside down. “I did love you,” she said. “You insufferable boy.” She sighed. “Fine. I’m not accomplishing anything further here. I’ll head to Avrale, see if I can’t get there ahead of your grandfather, and greet him properly. I leave it to you, to inform Landri she’s not out of her mind.”
She smiled a bit to broadly. “Oh, but first, I’m going to introduce you to a dragon.” She put her fingers between her lips, and made a sharp whistle.