Chapter III:3

Oh proud ‘n fertile North,
in times of war ‘n strife,
oh those of plow ‘n soil,
did turn to steel ‘n fire,

there defend a noble land,
unbreakable wills did show,
yet pains of life left behind,
can be hard as war to know.

– Writings of Sir Ashton, circa 160 E.R.

Weathered Stones

Vhalun 39th, 655 E.R.

Katrisha sat in her window seat, peering out over the snow dusted valley below. The spring continued to languish in winter, and the next caravan east would be delayed at least another week. Giving her time to doubt. Avrale had always been her home. Be it castle, cloister, or a farm she could barely recall. She wiped away a tear as a knock at her chamber door startled her from endless regressions.

“Enter,” she called absently.

The woman who stepped in brought a sad smile to Katrisha’s lips. “Maeren, my love,” she said with meek humor. She considered how little the woman closing her door resembled the servant of years before. Her gown was now the elegant dress of a high lady of the court. A string of bright rubies strung across her bosom to mach her ginger hair.  Several rings of varied stones adorned her fingers. Yet her carefully styled hair was still worn longer on a side, an echo of a scar long removed. It gave a delightful shadow of mystery to her.

“When did you think to tell me?” Maeren asked pointedly, striding across the room.

“When I had convinced myself I would go through with it.” Katrisha laughed.  She brushed back her hair and gave the woman a sheepish glance.

“Did you think I would not miss you?” Maeren pressed. She walked up, and rested her hand on the post of a covered bed that made the window seat into a cozy little alcove.  Surrounded by bookshelves laden with nick nacks and tomes of every size and shape.   “Even if things have not been as they were. Even if we are now but the dearest of friends.“

Katrisha closed a long neglected book rested in her lap, and pursed her lips. “When the thought was first raised, I assure you,” she said firmly, “you were within the first three on my mind. I could never attest to an order though. I have not told you, precisely because I will miss you so. Even if a prince, and a king’s command have stolen you away from me.”

“I’m, sorry,” Maeren said. “I didn’t mean it like that, or for things be as they are.”

“What alternative was there?” Katrisha said with false joviality. “To be inline as Princess Consort, or to be sent away? I am grateful it was even an option. For duty would have bound me here, and we would have lost what close friendship we still shared.”

There was a long pause, and Maeren walked slowly to Katrisha’s side. “I still love you,” she said intently.  It was hard to read the complexity in those clearly watering eyes.  Maeren had never been a simple puzzle to Katrisha.  She had never seemed quite the plain servant she once played the role of.  The Lady of the court that stood before her seemed the more honest truth of the woman.

“I never doubted,” Katrisha said wistfully, and lay her hand gently on the slightly rounded belly of her pregnant former lover. “It’s just my fate. Nothing permanent in this life of mine. Yet you have given me more than some jealous idea of love. Which I return, fully, to this day.  You helped me find the gifts of love, in these small pieces permitted to me. Thank you.”

“I…” Maeren began, and found she needed to discreetly wipe away a tear.  She was unsure what more could be said. “You are so much more than welcome.” She leaned down, put a finger beneath Katrisha’s chin, and turned her head to kiss her softly. “Thank you, for all that you have done for me. Whatever I have offered in turn, can never be enough to repay you. Return to me, someday. I will have you know your honor-child.”

“I will,” Katrisha said with a smile.

“How long till you leave?” Maeren asked standing back up, and leaning against the wall near Katrisha’s feet.

“With the first Caravan headed east, unless I lose my nerve,” Katrisha said thoughtfully. She looked up at Maeren standing there, a pose she had seen so many times Laurel take, to stare at Mercu while he strummed idly on a lute. She shook her head at the symmetry of it. “Though I doubt very much Kiannae, or Mercu will allow that to happen.”

“What of your brother?” Maeren asked curiously.

“I have not heard from him yet,” Katrisha said. “I sent word of matters, only a few days ago.”

“What do you think he will do?”

“I am not sure,” Katrisha shrugged. “Dear as he has been to me, his life has always been the Cloister. Still, I am to understand things have grown awkward there for him.”

“This is news to me,” Maeren frowned. “What has transpired with his love Audry?”

“Some muddled affair with Red Sisters.  Her doing I gather,” Katrisha added tentatively. “He was never willing to speak all that directly of the mater, but I surmise jealousy intervened.”

“Poor dear,” Maeren said sadly. “Tell me of this new mage,” she inquired after silence threatened to settle in. “I fear, try as I might, little has trickled down to my ears.  Certainly nothing to approach the judgment of the former Court Mage.”

“He is officious, prim, proper, elegant, and ever so subtly obnoxious. Though, I suspect I have failed to separate my actual judgment, from the affront his arrival has meant for me.” Katrisha huffed with mixed humor.

“He sounds dreadful,” Maeren said thin lipped.

“I sense there is some merit in the man,” Katrisha added more seriously. “I’ve yet to judge however if he is secretly a man of Mercu’s charms, or nothing but a wandering eye.”

“I’ll watch him carefully,” Maeren said with a smile. “Inform you of his secrets when you return.”

“Let us hope he does not prove boring then,” Katrisha offered.

“Let us hope he proves boring enough,” Maerne countered.

“May you live in uninteresting times then.”

Maeren laughed.  “It would prove a change.”  She bit her lip.  “May a sit beside you a bit, listen to what you were reading.

“Of course.”  Katrisha shifted deeper into the window seat, and Maeren set beside her, and found a position where she could lean her head on her shoulder.

Kiannae stopped, and stared at the woman closing her sister’s chamber door.  Maeren returned her searching expression, then reached out, and took Kiannae’s hand.

Kiannae’s head swam, swam and she winced.

<You remember, don’t you?>  It wasn’t clearly in the woman’s voice, and certainly not spoken from her lips.  They were not words Kiannae knew, however familiar, or understood.  The woman’s presence came with a warmth like a hand on the cheek.  A feeling that it was, because she always approached that.  It didn’t fit.

“Remember?” Kiannae muttered.

<The shadow.  The mirror.  A hand that sees.  The watcher who stood.  The promises only an heir can keep.>

Kiannae shook her head.

<This isn’t now.>  It seemed more in Kiannae’s own voice.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Maeren said with some concern, and awkward humor.  “Or, that you like what you see,” she added with a coy smile, and more biting humor.  She bit her lip, and searched the woman’s dazed expression for a reaction.   “Afraid I’m spoken for,” she tried instead.

“What?” Kiannae pulled away slightly, as though startled.  Though did not escape the woman’s deceptively delicate grasp.  “Sorry, I was…” She rubbed her head.  “Lost in thought as I came around the corner.”  It blurred a bit with parts of what Maeren had actually said, and neither made much sense.

“I said I will remember you fondly,” Maeren intoned.  “Wish you well on this journey.  I may not know you so well as your sister, but surely you are a woman of the same cloth.  If I have any say in the mater, every Ashton will always have a place.  Not only in the north, but here at court.  And I do, have some say in that matter.  My good prince listens well to his consort.”  She lay Kiannae’s hand on her belly. “I would ask only the same.  Be an honor-mother  to my child.  If these troubles that follow you prove…too much, or Avrale were to fall.” Her words were strained  “Would you promise to watch over the line?  As an heir, both of the North, and the Hill?”

Kiannae grew thin lipped, but was not entirely surprised the woman knew.  “I shall promise you, that I shall do all in my power, to see my sister here again, beside the throne.”

“Yet, if it is you?” Maeren said with grim determination.  A fire that could make her doubt everything in their relative positions.  For the first time Kiannae saw not a former servant, but a future queen.  It could have made her smile, if it didn’t make her so sad.

Kiannae closed her eyes.  Drew a deep breath, and let it out.  “I swear sometimes, that I know you.”

“I would swear the same,” Maeren offered, tilting her head to the side.  “I had always thought it was because I had seen you as a child.  Because I knew her, so well.  Yet, I do not imagine you ever really noticed me.  Just another servant in these halls.  Your pretty young face, always buried in books.”  She brushed Kiannae’s chin with overly forward fingertips.

“An Ashton always returns,” Kiannae said, pulling her hand away, and resting familiarity, and seeking formality instead.   “I will do all that is in my power to see my sister does.  That I do, as well.  I will make you the promise, as she has already given hers.  Yes.  I shall always be loyal to Avrale, to her throne, and to her heirs.”

Maeren hugged her suddenly, and whispered, “Thank you.  I know the King will approve.”

<You do remember.>  It could have been the voice of the dryad grove, and Kiannae could almost see it.  Another life, another path.  Left behind.  Yet she remembered.  A great deal more than she was comfortable with.  Still only shadows on the wall.  Pages missing from a book already whole.

Vernum 1st, 655 E.R.

Wren sat alone in his room, in the dark of night.  Such was a slightly strange state of affairs for a young man of his talents, and resident of the Highvale Cloister.  Those not blessed with a lover, were most often assigned a roommate instead.  Wren for his part was caught in the unenviable position between these two states.  A romance in tatters, and his position within the cloister in flux.  It wasn’t as though he didn’t have offers.

He ran his finger along the folded page in his hand, and a conjured light fizzled beside him.  There was another solution to his troubles.  Not simply leaving things follow their course, but leaving entirely.  He could seek comfort in the companionship of his sisters, and distraction on the road.  He could be useful.  It was an option, but a frightening one.  The world outside he had learned well was not a safe place.  He worried a far greater danger lurked within.

Wren turned from a knock at his door.  He wondered who would be calling so late in the evening, when most would be in bed.  In one fashion or another at least.  He set his sister’s letter atop a small desk, and walked to the door.  He surprised by the face that greeted him outside his door, caught in pale blue hues by the light hovering near her shoulder.

“May I come in?” the woman asked kindly.

“Yes of course, Celia,” Wren said stepping back, and ran his hand through his hair.  “What brings you by so late?” he asked curiously as Celia hesitantly stepped through.

“I thought you could use a friend,” Celia started.  “As could I,” she said with more reserved honesty.

“What troubles you?” Wren asked kindly, and offered Celia his chair, as he sat on the bed.

“The same sort of complication as you have struggle with,” Celia sighed.  “I love Lena, I do,” she added awkwardly, “and I’ve brought this all on myself in the end.”

“She’s with Andrew again, isn’t she?” Wren guessed, his voice betraying both his sympathy, and mixed opinion of the matter.

“She loves me,” Celia said with only a touch of certainty.  “I know she does.  She shows me, in so many little ways, but…”

“Jealousy is a cruel thing for all involved,” Wren intoned with a sad knowing smile.

“She knew of course of my arrangement with Kat.  Of everything we shared,” Celia said, and chewed on her lip frustratedly.  “So how could I say no?  But it hurts, that part of why I returned, was because she was jealous.  She only had eyes for me then… That changed.”  She huffed.

“Do you regret the choice?” Wren asked, his gaze falling.

“No,” Celia said doubtfully, “not much.  I do miss Kat,” she said, turning a simple gold band about her index finger.  “Do still love her, and am always happy to receive her letters…though the last one…”

“So you have more than one of the same problems on your mind.” Wren nodded.  “You aren’t thinking of leaving, are you?”

“No,” Celia said. “Well…not seriously.  It’s just one more pain amongst so many.  She begged me, back then – more than once – to run away with her.  Join the caravans, see the world.  I’ve always been too afraid, and now… What I am doing here is important.  So many talented students.” She pursed her lips with irritation.  “She also didn’t ask me to. Rather, she enquired after Lauren and Kathy’s studies.”

“I see,” Wren said kindly, but obviously at a loss for advice.

“Oh Wren,” Celia said, and let her conjured light drift away.  She looked to her friend obviously torn.  “I didn’t come here just to dump my troubles on you.  I…”  She obviously couldn’t quite find the words.  “I knew you would be considering leaving,” she finally said. “How troubled you have been.  I won’t be haunted anymore by the memory of the day I turned you away, and lost you to one more ready.”

“I…” Wren started, and furrowed his brow indecisively, “what is it you wish?”

“To forget the troubles we share,” Celia said hopefully. “To say goodbye, properly, if you are to leave.  I don’t want to change anything, just… I need more than a friend tonight.  I need someone to hang onto.”

“What of…your other love,” Wren asked awkwardly.  “I know she is far from here, not an easy bed to find your way to…but, am I just a second choice?”

“No,” Celia said sadly. “I will not lie, to say there is no temptation there, but you were never the second choice.”  She sniffed, and brushed away a tear tersely, trying to regain some composure.  “It would bare too many complications, even if it were so simple.  Nor I imagine do such admission do much to recommend me to you.”

“I wasn’t?” Wren asked with thin-lipped hesitation, and pressing what had always gone unspoken.

“I…” Celia took a deep breath.  “I was afraid.  I knew already even then, when I looked to the older women, where my attractions lay.  The older boys, the men, they…”  She shook her head, and couldn’t seem to finish the sentiment.  It seemed to contrary under the circumstances.

Wren looked away.  There it was.  The exact reason the two of them had never been.  Why it had been Audry and him instead.  What Sasha had seemingly known, according to at least two sources.  “I am a man, you know.”  He said letting his eyes follow the drifting light.

“Not, so much of one though,” Celia said, but seemed to think better of it even as she finished saying the words.

Wren winced. It was not as though it wasn’t an image he had cultivated. Having permanently stripped away hairs from his face, and chest. Yet he worried if it was just the shadows on his soul, left from the day of his birth. Was it truly his nature, or his mothers? “Still a little bit of a man,” he laughed uneasily, the only response he could find.

“Not so little, I’ve heard,” Celia countered playfully.  She shifted forward, and leaned closer, trying with little experience to undo the unintended slight.  “I’ve heard some bemoan how unavailable you have become.  Some I long thought more of my calling, in such matters.”

Wren looked to Celia again.  He considered her with doubt, and love, but he knew he could not turn her away.  He could not bear to be alone that night only of his own doing.  “I never could have taken the oath,” Wren said, and doubled back on his own thoughts. “As a Red Sister, that is.  For such obvious reasons, but, I know it by heart.  To love who I will.  To share that love willingly, without reserve, or question.  To give of my desires…and I will not deny, I have long desired you, dear Celia.”

“I know,” Celia said meekly, “but if I were to ask…” She trailed off toying with her hair nervously.

“Then I would be inclined to oblige,” Wern said with a meek smile, and held out his hand. “To share my bed with a friend I love, and who I always will.  Though our paths may part, you will always be in my thoughts, my heart, and I would treasure such a memory.  I just hope…it is not one you would regret.”

“I promise you, I won’t,” Celia said solemnly, took Wren’s hand, drew him close, and kissed him firmly.

Celia had lain contently in Wren’s arms for some time, and Wren had been half asleep when Celia had woken him fully with a remark.

“It was good,” she said warmly. “You, were good…but to lay with any other man. I don’t think I could. Certainly not with…him,” she said firmly.  “Some other man though, a pretty one, like you. Maybe I could share him with Lena.  Surely that would be easier.” It didn’t sound like she belived her own words.. “It helped with…” she reconsidered bringing the topic up, and set it aside. It was a hard, and treasured truth. Much as that night had so far been.

“It wasn’t without its merits,” Wren offered with a thin dark humor, “but it was hard. Not simply to share, but to see sometimes what she might prefer.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that to you,” Celia said firmly, and clung tightly to Wren, running her fingers over his bare chest. The result of so much hard work. It stood in stark contrast to the definition of muscles that had often been put to the heavier labors of the cloister could ask.  Things that needed strength. His gift made him strong, however small he was. He did not shy from being of use. There in his arms, though in truth she was just a tiny bit taller, she felt small, and safe. His gift made him seem much larger than he was.

“It wouldn’t be the same.  Not now. Not with you. If you thought it would help…” Wren muddled through the thought, “but I’d worry more for you. If you saw it in her eyes, saw that she preferred…” he let it go, and held her more tightly.

“It would hurt, wouldn’t it? Hurt so much more,” Celia mused in a pained tone. “I’ve been there, once.” She admitted, leaving out the unnecessary, and fairly easy answer of who. “Once, and saw such love from both, for each of us. That…I could bare.  That I could come to peace, and contentment with, but if I saw she preferred him.”

“It wasn’t just that for me,” Wren admitted. “It was also one night.”  He hesitated, and ran his fingers along her arm.  “There was another young man there, laying with Sasha. Across the room from me, Audry…I’m sorry no, I shouldn’t be telling you this.  Not here, not now.”

“Tell me,” Celia said kindly. “I hear it in your voice, something you need to say.  What better time?  What better place?  I will never judge you.”

“Memories.” Wren sighed. “I can usually bear the guilt of my mother’s memories, but…not like that. My gaze drifted, and…”

“You don’t mean?” Celia asked with an odd curious pitch.

“No. No, not that. Though I would worry all the more who I was. If it was me, or her.  No. I’ll just say…”  He rolled his head back, and stared at the ceiling.  “I remember what my father looks like.”  Wren laughed uncomfortably, his voice at once wistful and uneasy.  “Though I have never met the man in my life.  Yet the way the moonlight caught his face, the a hand held up to his cheek.”

“That is thoroughly, Fates, beyond awkward,” Celia said kindly, and gently stroked Wren’s cheek, and tried not to laugh.

“Beyond,” Wren nodded, and gave her a smile that permitted she find some humor in it. “I actually kind of fled, and left Audry with the other two.  Still riled up, and unsatisfied.  Not that I thinks he ever could be. She came after me, at first.  She asked me what was wrong. I couldn’t tell her, I couldn’t even put it into words. I sent her back – I lied and said I’d be alright.” He tensed. “She listened. I’m so stupid.”

Celia kissed Wren’s shoulder softly, and propped herself up, looking down into his eyes. He was crying.

“I did it to myself,” Wren said. “Bit by bit after that. Little bits of jealousy crept in. Until one day, far from the first time, I found Sasha and Audry alone. I saw it in Audry’s eyes, how much she liked being with her. Sasha wanted me to join in.  She always, wanted me to join in. Sometimes I think she was obsessed with me.” He hesitated, and relaxed. “Audry asked me to join as well. It’s not like she didn’t love me, like me…but…I… I just walked away. I found somewhere and cried. That was it, the end. It all fell apart after that. The thing…the mad thing of it all. The one I’ve never told anyone. I was almost as jealous of her.  Of that mad woman. It doesn’t fit, but I think somehow…no, it doesn’t make sense.”

Celia shifted, positioning herself over Wren to stare down into his eyes.  She felt his body respond, in spite of his emotional state. It felt good.  It felt powerful.  If nothing else about a man appealed to her, there was still something instinctive that  reacted to the sense of a physical response. She leaned down, looked him closely in the eye, and kissed him, as she had so many times through their nights activities. Softly, lovingly, appreciatively.

“I think…” Wren said uneasily. “I think I’ve decided to go…unless, you wished me to stay?”

“No,” Celia said sweetly. “Do not get me wrong. It’s tempting to say yes…but, that would not be fair to anyone. Either you would be sharing me with Lena, or I would be leaving her for you. I won’t even toy with that remaining option. It would not solve half so many problems as it creates. I won’t not take you from your sisters’ journey. I told you, I didn’t want to change things.  Just to have tonight…but if you were to ask, to stay with me, I might find it hard to decline.”

“No,” Wren said, and squeezed Celia close. “You are right. I am glad though. Glad you came to me.  Glad for tonight. Thank you.”

“I’m not done with you yet,” Celia said with a devious grin. She would not let the opportunity, the unexpected joy of that moment pass so idly by.  There might never be another chance.  She might never find comfort in such a moment again.  So she clung to that joy, and all the reasons she wanted that night.  All it meant to her, that she could not put readily into words, she instead put into action.

Vernum 7th, 655 E.R.

Wren knocked hesitantly at a door off a northern courtyard of the Cloister. It was a door he had not been to in over a month, and one which he had briefly resided behind himself. He had few expectations the occupant would be alone, but he could not bear to part without saying goodbye.

There were shuffling sounds within. A young man in soldier’s attire attempted to exit. He was blocked by Wren’s position at the door, then pulled back in, and kissed just out of sight. He nodded to Wren sheepishly as he escaped.  His presence a reminder that even if Audrey might prefer women, she did still have a taste for men as well. Wren restrained a sigh as the door was fully opened, and a beautiful young woman stood before him, her red robe mostly on.

“Hello,” Audry said in an almost reproving tone. “It’s been a while.”

“And that is my fault,” Wren said. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t follow you…”

“You tried,” Audry said sadly, and gestured into her room.

“I wish…I could have,” Wren offered uneasily, and walked in as Audry closed the door behind him.  He wrinkled his nose, and thought better of the choice.  Memories tied to scent, most, for once his own.

“I presume you have not come to rehash this, again,” Audry said tersely. “I would have… I might have…but you didn’t ask. You never asked. Never came back. Just drifted away.”

“I’ve come to say goodbye,” Wren said with some difficulty. “However things have been, however…I have stayed away. I, will miss you.”

“I’ve heard some whispers. Rumors about a change at court,” Audry said laying a hand on Wren’s shoulder. “Mixed reports though.  Some days your sister I’m told still stands, and the new mage’s presence is felt more than seen.”

“To ease the transition no doubt,” Wren said clearly torn over the affectionate touch.  He turned to face her, and the hand trailed around, and found his heart chest instead.  He let himself relax. “My sisters intend to head east, and I will be joining them.”

“The Caravan life may suit you,” Audry said looking him up and down, as though appraising him. “It is certainly far removed from the Cloister. I barely remember it, but sometimes.”  She closed her eyes.  “I miss it. Vague memories of great cities.  Castles and spires.  Grand squares and long winding roads that stretch so far as the eye might see.  Peoples of every description.” She said wistfully. “Someday, I’ll see it all again, though I would prefer to wait for a safer age to travel.”

“I’ve heard Mercu speak of it fondly as well,” Wren said with a half smile. dodging the thin warning in her words.  “Renae has never said much of her time, but I think that may change.”

Audry moved close, and kissed Wren softly on the cheek. “I will miss you. I have, missed you. I’m sorry. Nothing has ever changed in my heart towards you. I should have turned back after that night…”

“I saw how you were…how you enjoyed this life,” Wren said obviously frustrated.  “You asked to share this last part of yourself with me.  How could I ask you to change?”  His hand moved as though to rest on her cheek, or shoulder, but floundered and fell back to his side.

“Of men, it was always you…” Audry said flatly, but clearly thought better under the circumstances. “Though, I apologize for the timing. There is, still an itch…to be scratched.”

Wren looked away embarrassed, but relented to turn back as Audry gently urged him with a hand on his cheek. “Whatever comes,” she said with a soft kiss on his lips. “I will always be your friend. Do come back, and see me after your journey, or write to me, and tell me of life on the road.”

“I…I will,” Wren promised. “On both counts.”

Coria 3rd, 655 E.R.

Wren stepped from his carriage, and helped his adopted mother down. Behind him Katrisha hurried down the final steps from the upper courtyard. “Wren!” she exclaimed as she marched up to her brother. She lifted him clean off his feet the moment he turned to face her. No small trick as Wren was by then just a bit taller than her. Still, it was an affectation of their relationship that Katrisha had never let go of.

“You seem in good spirits,” Renae said curiously.

“I’m not thrilled by the course events have taken,” Katrisha said frankly, “but my dear brother has chosen to join me on this new miss-adventure. I never wanted to be Court Mage, let Roland have it I say.  What use dwelling on things that won’t change.”

“A good stance to take,” Renae said with a laugh, and moved in to hug Katrisha herself, once she let Wren down. “So where are the others?” she asked.

“Making preparations, except for the King of course,” Katrisha said. “He waits in his antechamber. I am sure he will be pleased to see you.”

“Yes, I decided rather at the last minute to accompany Wren, rather than come later.  I would not miss the chance to say goodbye to any of you. If I am to join the King on his tour, it is hard to say when we will see each other again.  Even if you were to return this next year.”

“How is Andria taking to your choice?” Katrisha asked.

“Well enough,” Renae said, obviously a bit embarrassed. “She will be Matron now, and I think that’s some small consolation. Not that it held her back from reminding me I will well outlive him.”

“Yes…that does sound like it was an, awkward conversation,” Katrisha said uncomfortably.  “I’m sorry I pried.”

“No, it’s fine.  I do not mind being frank.  I believe she has taken up with Theron mostly to spite me,” Renae said with a shrug. “Though, there was an old romance of her own to draw upon there. So, I wish her the best in that.”

“How…” Katrisha started, “no I won’t pry any more.”

“I really don’t mind dear,” Renae said with a casual gesture. “Theron and I have always been…complicated. He was the former Matron’s son, and I was chosen over him.  As no man has ever held the position in any Lycian Cloister. We have been friends, rivals, and lovers, at many different points in our lives. He was always jealous of my position, and I’m sure is quite happy to be as close as he ever will be to it.”

“There really are politics for everything under the sun, aren’t there. Even a good deal that aren’t,” Katrisha mused with odd humor.

“I suppose there are,” Renae said curiously, “but what makes you say so?”

“Just something Laurel told me once,” Katrisha shrugged. “Come, the others will wish to see the both of you.”

Katrisha waved Wren, her sister, and Renae on towards the tower.  She considered the hand on her shoulder, and the old woman it belonged to. “What do you want, Catherine?” Katrisha asked with stiff reserve.

“Thank you, for stopping,” Lady Catherine said with a sad smile. “I…know we have not always seen eye to eye, to say the least, but…” she gently traced the crack of the broach Katrisha wore on the lapel of her robe. “I thought, I would like to make amends in some small way before you leave.  For I can not be sure we will meet again.”

Katrisha considered Catherine dubiously. “I have no intention to dwell upon what has passed, if that is any consolation,” Katrisha offered.

“I would prefer there was something you could think of me fondly for,” Catherine said a bit sadly. “As there is little I can say to make that so. The least it seemed I could do was have something made by the jeweler in Brokhal. You’ve always worn that broach, and though you had more pressing concerns after…everything, I doubt you were pleased it was cracked in the fight.” She held out her other hand, and in it was a broach, much like the one Katrisha wore.  Though rather than simple brass, the frame was a brilliant silver, and far more elegantly crafted. More significant was the large green gem, that held mesmerizing, seemingly impossible depths.

“I…” Katrisha started.  “I don’t know what to say. It’s beautiful.”

“That, I suppose is enough,” Catherine said with a strange smile. “Fo try to think kindly of me…I fear I have never been as good to you as I should have. I have only wanted what is best for Avrale…and please take this as a compliment dear girl. I do believe your departure is in any way such a thing.”

“Thank you,” Katrisha said uncertainly. “I am not quite sure how to express what that means to me. Something at least, maybe quite a lot. For whatever that might be worth in turn. I will treasure this, and try to think well of you.” She paused, and picked the broach up from Catherine’s hand. “Is this, calite?”

“You’ve heard of it?” Catherine asked. “I hadn’t until the jeweler went on about it. What was it, eight hundred thousand times she swore it refracts the light? Probably more than a slight exaggeration, I think, but such is the tale. It was hard to convince her to part with it, what with the borders to Osyrae being closed and all. Yet she relented in the end – at a somewhat reasonable price – when I told her of  the recipient.”

“I shall have to thank Amile as well,” Katrisha said with a nod. “If you will excuse me though, I think it best if I catch up with the others.” She turned to leave, took half a step, and hesitated. Without warning, she spun, and hugged Catherine fircely, who though startled returned the embrace warmly.

Wren stopped suddenly, only half-way through the tower door. It wouldn’t be fair to say he had not felt her presence. He always felt her presence in the castle. It had taken him many visits to understand that the very sense of Broken Hill, was to him the presence of its first mistress. She had always been a tall ghost. Tall at least as Kiannae, who glanced up from the brother she had almost tripped over, to a ghost that loomed over him in the doorway.

The White Lady had not been a stranger in Kiannae’s years in the castle, and yet never had she once been in the way. Quite the contrary.  The ghost of castle was more apt to be seen out of the corner of the eye, stepping around a corner.  Almost always at a distance. Kiannae remembered well the only other moment she had been so very close. Again the specter lowered herself to the short man.

“Yes, we are leaving,” Wren answered the unheard question. Wren looked cross for a moment. “I don’t understand what you are asking,” he said tersely.

“You really can hear her, can’t you?” Renae pressed.  Not a sound reached her ear, maybe an itch of the ghosts presence, but nothing more.

Taloe formed beside her, and startled Renae far more than the ghost.  He glared at the spirit that that looked up at him sorrowfully.

“I can as well,” he said, his face screwed up as though straining to hear. “Yet I do not quite understand it.  I almost remember the word, the value speak.” He took a breath. “Juet retur. Ungone, retur unmayar.”

“The…circle,” Wren said uncertainly. “There is but one last chance, to complete the circle.”

The ghost stood with his words, and turned.  She glided so much as strode to a wall of the tower. It was an older section, where ancient stones met those much older. On one side dull gray, the other a granite block laced with quartz. It glittered faintly in her light as ghostly fingers traced a crack in the stone. Grains of sand, and a fragment fell away. She came apart in ribbons of light that showered across the floor, and swirled around the small stone as they sifted through the floorboards.

“What is a tresha?” Wren asked shaking his head. He walked towards where the ghost had been, and looked down at the glimmering fragment of the wall.

“A tree of the west,” Taloe answered. “They grew in countless numbers near the lake of my people, before the Osyraens burned the grove, and harvested what was left.”

“An ash tree?” Kiannae asked, vaguely remembering a history lesson on the subject.

“I think,” Taloe answered. “Yes, we called the spear point the esh, for the leaf of the western tree.” He hesitated, smiled, and laughed. “That’s funny, it’s the other way around in the books isn’t it?”

“I think it is,” Kiannae said amused.

“Have I missed something?” Katrisha asked as she entered the tower, and found the others standing around with such grim looks on their faces.

Wren leaned down, and plucked up the shimmering stone. “I think, we should visit home.”

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