A line which is straight and doth not cross,
masters claim may touch a circle but once,
such minds enlightened by Aclaedian reason,
presume the fallacy of domains flat and even,
oh march unerring ahead, ‘pon a worldly globe,
let not ocean nor mountain force thy to roam,
walk straight and narrow this true noble path,
there come again to thy beginning at last,
oh look out there from whence you did start,
imagine straight lines from the surface to part,
see the paradox is not but faulty perspective,
the tangent, the circle, all together connected.
– The Circadian Path, 113 E.R.
There was still melting snow in the high pass, miles above Brokhal. Not an expected stop, and yet the wagon rolled to a halt. Kiannae sat up, and pulled back the curtains on a side window. Cries echoed down the pass, and as she strained to hear the repetitions grew closer. “Broken axle,” the driver called from the front, and the calls continued down the line.
“Three miles.” Katrisha sighed.
Kiannae looked out the window again. “Four.”
“Much better,” Katrisha said with an eye roll. “Are we even going the make Silvercreek by nightfall? After the last delay and all. You would think we could have waited a few more days, for this to all clear up.”
“Timing is critical,” Kiannae said. “This route has already been delayed well over a week. Too much longer and we could hit a caravan going west on the same road, or arrive on the backside of one traveling up from Thebes. Bad business for the Caravan, and disruptive to Nohlend.”
“Should we see if we can be of help at least?” Katrisha asked.
Kiannae rubbed her neck. “Couldn’t hurt to check on the animals, in this weather.”
She got up, grabbed a cloak, and threw it over her shoulders before opening the side door. A snow drift was piled almost up to the door. She grabbed her staff from a corner it was tucked in, closed her eyes and a stiff wind blew across the wagon hard enough to make it shudder. A gust funneled under, tearing away even the hardened snowdrift down to loose rocks on the roadside.
“Oi!,” the driver yelled, and a hat sailed into the distance.
Kiannae closed her eyes, felt the shape of the wind around the hat, and curled a strong eddie back where it came from. There was a grunt as the driver had to reach slightly to catch his hat. “Thanks?” he could be heard to mutter indecisively. She smirked at the renewed ease with which the power and control had come. She stepped down, and looked around.
“Not sure why you are complaining, Kat. Seems like your kind of place.”
Katrisha leaned out without a cloak, and a robe a bit light and low for the weather. She drew heavily of the cold mountain air, freshly filled with tiny swirling ice crystals. She hopped down, stretched, and looked around. “Pretty enough. Still not the most convenient to travel in.”
“What’s going on?” Wren asked from the wagon above.
“Afternoon, sleepy head,” Katrisha said, glancing up at her brother. “Another axle.”
He gave her a cross look, and climbed down. She threw her arm around his shoulder, and ruffled his hair from behind. “Listen, Kia and I fight. It happens. Don’t worry about it. It was never really about you. Besides, I’m sure you and I will be at each other’s throats by half way through Helm. Couped up in the same wagon like this.”
Mercu glanced out before closing himself in.
Kiannae checked on their horses, and trudged farther up the line. Moving as much in the tracks as she could. She stopped, and struggled to calm a fidgeting horse as the other two stopped beside her.
Three children had already escaped, and though up to their waists in parts of the snow drift were already throwing crunchy, likely a bit painful handfuls back and forth.
“There usually this many kids on a caravan?” Katrisha asked of her sister.
“I’ve seen a couple before, but not three,” Kiannae said looking over her shoulder.
Wren glanced at the trio. Two girls, and a boy clearly the youngest of the lot. The eldest girl hugged the younger, and scolded the other after she smashed a snowball in his short hair. Wren shook his head. “Audrey and her brother spent their first few years on the road with their mother. I can only presume it happens.”
“You two go on,” Kiannae said, focusing back on the horse that tried to yank its head from between her hands.
After four more wagons they came upon one that was decidedly tilted to one corner. Thanks to the slant of the road it had not tipped clean over. Several people were standing back, well clear of any possible final roll. One in mercenary attire sat a bit farther back on a slanted rock that peaked above the snow.
“Why am I checking this by myself, again?” a large man asked as he worked his way between the decoupled horses and under the box of the downed wagon.
“Cause someone had to, and you’re on the shit list, Frank. You know why,” the mercenary called out from his perch.
“Just place the jack, and get out incase something goes wrong,” a more senior looking caravan hand ordered.
The wagon lurched, and Frank scurried away, slipped, and fell face first in the snow. Two stone plates tethered by ropes pushed apart, and lifted the wagon above the slanted hill. Bright spell lines glimmered with enough energy between them for even ungifted eyes to see.
Frank inched back towards the wagon, and kicked at the snow where the corner had dug in, then farther down the track. “There isn’t a hole, or a rock,” he called out scratching his head. “Why in the abyss did the axle break?”
There was a loud crack, and the wagon wobbled, tilting away towards the road edge, and a steep incline. Katrisha threw up spells quickly. First into the largest stones she could feel beneath her feet, and barely in time into the side of the wagon which stopped, slipped, and tried to fall back towards them. She was about to correct for this when one of the stones she had used as an anchor pulled loose right from beneath her feet, forcing her to catch herself, but momentarily stabilizing the wagon.
“Get my staff,” she growled to noone in particular as she tried to find more anchors, and balance the forces at work. It seemed intent to squirrel out of her control.
Wren bolted back down the line after only a moment’s hesitation, leaving Katrisha to try and do the math. She wove tension tests into her spell-work, trying and get a handle on how much force was needed. Which corners were trying to slip. The enchanted jack she realized was not helping. She closed her eyes and tried to juggle it all. Adjusting forces. Trying at a distance to interpret the enchantment on the jack. There was a physical catch that activated it. She couldn’t reliably move it from where she was, so tried to bypass the enchantment itself. Timing was critical, she gave the enchantment a nudge, felt it start to wind down, and switched her focus back to balancing forces on the wagon. It settled harder on the jack than expected, making a loud crunch, and grinding sound.
“Well, I’ll be a bandits uncle,” a voice said behind her, and Katrisha looked up to find the mercenary from the rock standing behind her scratching his head. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen a mage catch a falling wagon before.”
“Years of anchoring a wobbly bookshelf when I was a kid,” she said with a smirk. He offered her a hand which she took, and pulled herself to her feet. She stopped to brush off the snow. “Which one were you again, James or Mallory?”
“Mallory,” the man said, and held out his hand again. Which seemed a bit silly after helping her up. She offered hers palm down just to see what he would do.
He gave her a funny look, took the hand, and kissed it.
“Not bad form, for a mercenary.”
“Dad was a soldier proper, in Mordove,” Mallory said. “Not as common out east, but…”
Crunching snow turned both of their heads as Wren ran up, and held Katrisha’s staff out in a trembling hand. He pinched his brow with the other. “Please take it,” he said huffing. He seemed bothered by more than the brisk run.
Katrisha took the staff, and was worried as Wren looked like the weight of the world came off his shoulders. “Are you alright?”
Wren rubbed his head. “It just…hurt. Like every thought…” he shook and looked up, again, his own expression haunted. “I could…”
“What’s wrong?” Kiannae asked truding up behind him.
Katrisha looked between the two, and then turned to the wagon. “The far axle broke after they tried to lift the wagon to work on it. It almost went off the cliff.”
“Till your lovely sister caught it. Still not sure about you two in a fight, after that show, but hard to argue with raw power,” Mallory offered.
“What is all this?” came a call from up the line as Carter worked his way past onlookers, blocking the clear path through the snow.
Another mercenary following in his footsteps slipped, yelped, and hit the back of his head on a wagon wheel.
Carter turned, his expression shifting from worried to furious, even as Wren pushed past him. He begrudgingly stepped back, and crossed his arms.
“I’m fine,” the mercenary said as Wren tried to check his head. He waved him off, and struggled up using the wheel for support, wobbled a bit, and brought his hand to the back of his head.
“You are a lot of things James, but fine, is not one of them,” Carter growled. “You are also bleeding,” he added glancing at the man’s hand. “Let the healer actually do what what we pay for.”
James looked at the slick of blood on his hand with a dazed expression, then bent over awkwardly to let Wren examine his head. Wren moved first to seal the wound, all the while checking for deeper injury. He was about to comment on a mild concussion when James spoke up again.
“Sorry, just trying to look good in front of the pretty ladies. I’m not clumsy, it’s just the snow. I’m from Palentia, originally, we don’t really get it up there.”
Wren gave the man a funny look that when unseen.
“I could, make it up to you later. Buy you a drink at the next town. You three are all very lovely.”
Wren froze a moment, being sure he had understood exactly what the man meant. He took a breath, trying to claim himself, and shifted to get a better angle to heal the concussion. He almost said something, to clear mater up, but was distracted. It was much more clear than he was used to. The fragments of who he was almost bickering with each other in his head.
A very tiny piece wasn’t bothered. ‘She,’ it seemed didn’t find him unattractive. The outline of her in his mind was almost clear, how she was woven through everything he was. Yet so many parts blurred together. That, was just a piece of her, one opinion readily cast aside. The awareness almost overrode social considerations, coupled with trying to focus on his work.
“I’ve never had a girl complain, not after an hour or two,” James pressed his luck a bit crassly.
That, didn’t help. The part mildly annoyed to be mistaken for a girl, registered on his face as a cringe of distaste. That depend as a laugh could be heard somewhere behind him. Some tiny fragment was quite indecisive. It felt almost like a compliment. If the worst, most backhanded sort. He closed his eyes, and focused on finishing his task.
None of these little fragments of him, or her won. Duty won, until it was finished. The healing done. Then his own restraint easily lost to a bubbling fury. He could almost hear her try to yell something defensive of him, that just came out as a frustrated growl. He pushed the man into the reasonably soft snow.
“What in the abyss is her problem?” James said scrambling back to his feet, and took a step after Wren as he marched away.
“His problem,” Carter said blocking the man, “is the least of your concerns…”
Mallory’s laughter provided a slight interruption.
“He?” James said balking.
Katrisha tried to catch her brother’s shoulder as he stomped past through the snow. He gave her a mixed look, then a more dubious one to her staff. He shook his head, and pushed on. With her starting to follow.
“That’s a bloody boy?” James yelled. “Good fates, no wonder they call it a sisterhood.”
“Cut it James,” Carter commanded as he saw Katrisha stop following her brother, and turn back towards them.
“Yeah.” Mallory laughed again. “Seriously if you can be put on your arse by a twig like that, I think Carter should replace you with a bored miner, or half-housebroken dog.”
“It’s not the blighted boy,” James protested. “I said it’s the snow.”
“Yeah?” Carter said heatedly, “well get used to it already. Cause you travel now. Bloody four years on the road. I’d have dropped you after the first winter in Helm, if you weren’t so good with a sword. Fall one more time in this pass and I’ll…”
“Man,” Katrisha as she pushed past Cater to get up in James’s face. So much as height permitted. “He’s a man, and you clearly don’t know much, if you think promising a man or woman of the Order a few hours, would impress them. Giftless thing you are.”
Mallory laughed again.
“You,” Katrisha said spinning to face the wisecracking mercenary. She leaned forward on her staff, like bending down to scold a child, but having to look farther up for it. It was bizarrely imposing. “I get it, funny. Yer buddy is an idiot, but do consider he’s offended someone quite dear to me. Do you imagine that I might not find it the least amusing? So stow the humor, and find something useful to do.”
His expression grew stiff, then softened. He nodded. Katrisha glanced back to James who looked at least cautious of her. He stiffened, turned and marched off in a huff. Noticeably focusing on maintaining his balance.
“Don’t mind him,” Malroy said cautiously. “He’s mostly a good kid. Just, stupid, sometimes. Particularly when it comes to women, or I guess men.” He added, and struggled not to grin.
“It’s my experience, most men are right stupid when it comes to women.” She leaned back, and took a breath. “The vast majority of the time.”
“Most, perhaps,” Mallory tried. “I like to think I’m a bit better than that.”
“What you like to think, and what you are, not always the same.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Carter said.
Katrisha gave him a challenging look.
“Just agreeing with you.” Carter nodded. “We also aren’t always what we appear.”
“Who am I to argue,” Mallory shrugged.
“Good to meet a man who knows his place,” Katrisha offered, giving Mallory a less reproving look.
“And what place is that?” Mallory prodded with a wry grin.
“Oh, I guess you don’t. Shame that,” Katrisha said, matching the expression.
“I believe, somewhere useful, was suggested,” Carter offered harshly.
Mallory gave his commander a hurt look, which earned no sympathy. He bowed, and turned to walk up the line. She glanced after him, and something occurred to her, though she was not sure where she had heard it. She could have almost sworn it was in the man’s own voice. A rather crass saying for when someone you found attractive walked away. He was rather wide hipped for a man, she thought, though not un-approvingly.
“Any idea how long this mess will take to sort out?” Carter asked.
“We could check with my sister,” Katrisha suggested, and gestured to the downed wagon. “She seemed to be having a rather animated argument with the workers.” She found however, that her sister had moved on to calming horses that seamed skittish even with her efforts.
Carter stepped past her, and trod through the snow to the workers. “Report?”
“One axle down, one wheel in a canyon, and a jack cracked clean through from a wagon falling on it,” the senior worker offered. “We’ll probably have to drag it off the road, and move on. We only had the two jacks in the caravan.”
“I think I can deal with that,” Katrisha offered.
“Where’s the wagon owner?” Carter asked, holding up a hand before she tried anything rash.
One of the men raised his hand.
“Which would you rather? Risk a cock sure mage try and lift your wagon, or come back for it, and wait for the next caravan?”
“Cock sure?” Katrisha asked with some amusement, never having heard it, and wagered some humor. “I won’t deny I know my away around one, but not sure it’s always my taste.”
The workers all laughed, the merchant smirked, and Carter rubbed his brow.
“Well, she did already catch it. After this lot nearly dumped it off a cliff,” the owner offered. “How sure are you lass, uh, Miss Mage.”
“Fairly. Already got a good measure for the problem,” Katrisha said, and walked around to the front. “Just a question of geometry, weight, a little cleverness, and, the right amount of power.” She set her staff in front of the wagon, left it standing there, and walked around the back.
A minute later she appeared, and walked to where the front right wheel should have been. She drew out spell work, more structure than anything fancy, and returned to her staff. She wove a more intricate arrangement full of runes, arcs, and other forms around the crystal.
“You sure this is a good idea?” Kiannae asked behind her.
“Well, I wouldn’t advise against moving clear of the sides,” Katrisha offered.
“Not, reassuring,” the owner said.
“Ninety percent good enough for you to risk?” Katrisha asked.
“Yeah,” the merchant answered with a hesitant slur.
“Good enough for you all to keep standing where you are?”
The group promptly gave the wagon a wide berth.
Katrisha ran her fingers through her hair, put her hands to the spell-work on each side, and gave an upward thrust with both arms. Snow around the wagon shot upward, caught in the corona of her effect. The wagon itself creaked, languished like a stirring beast, and barely budged. It listing a bit toward the onlookers. All backed up further, even as Katrisha raised her left hand higher and the wagon stabilized. She raised both straight up, high above her head bringing the wagon almost to eye level.
Circles, and runes etched brightly beneath the suspension points, as the snow melted away around them. “That’ll hold a while,” she said. “Though too long, and we’ll leave some fresh holes in the road. So don’t dally.”
The workers moved with caution towards the wagon, and started inspecting where the wheels had broken off. “That ain’t right,” Frank said scratching his head.
“What?” Katrisha asked leaning in next to him.
“Fate’s, who’s holding the damn wagon?” Frank jumped back, and stared at her.
“How!?” Carter almost yelled, and marched up to the thing. He inspected it suspiciously, trying to make sense out of it. “The staff is…casting the spell. How in the Abyss…”
“It’s an elemental core, one of a kind,” Katrisha said looking over her shoulder. “Not, a costume prop, I believe you called it. We can discuss it later. Time, is rather of the essence.”
She prodded the rough metal ring inside the axle housing, and put her spectacles on to examine the scouring. “I’m guessing it’s not supposed to be like this. Entropic etching, unless I miss my guess. No sign of an enchantment though.”
Carter moved in beside her. “That’s cause the axel is the enchanted part. Yeah, that’s shoddy work,” he said and glanced up at the spell holding the entire thing above their heads precariously. He second guessed lecturing the woman, but whatever she was capable of, she didn’t seem to know what she was looking at.
“The enchantment didn’t simply fail,” Carter said, “but the enchanter sure did. Lodestone grounding corrupted somewhere in the axle. Entropic decay wore out the wood, and caused cascade failure. More decay, even etched the surrounding bushing. Tore up the softened wood, hit a small rock just the wrong way. Snap. Probably spread to both ends, and then righting the wagon.” He shrugged. “Seen this like five times in over a decade, first time on a cliff.”
“Ok, so how do we fix it?” Katrisha asked.
“New axle,” Carter said. “Well, that would work if the bushing was intact. We’ll need to pull those, replace them as well, and…” he ran his finger along the housing. “Woods cracking around the outside too. This’ll take over a day.”
Kiannae crouched between the two. “What if I could fix it?”
“How?” Carter asked incredulously.
“It’s wood, right?” Kiannae said, pursing her lips.
“What does it look like, pound-cake?”
“You know what wood is made of?” Kiannae asked giving him a snide look.
“Plants? Going to grow a new one?” Carter asked snidely.
“Yes, and no.” She closed her eyes, set her fingers to the wood. A thin dust fell away from the cracked axle housing, and it turned a translucent yellowish hue. A new vine started to coil around her staff as she worked.
“What are you doing?” Carter demanded.
“Carbon,” Katrisha offered. “Wood is made out of carbon. You know what else is?”
“Coal?” Carter asked.
“Diamond,” Kiannae said with a smirk. “Far from pure, or solid, and I wouldn’t trust it for the whole trip to Mordove, but, should hold till Midrook, at very least.”
“Yeah, well what about the bushing?” Carter asked.
“Could smooth it. Might do just as well to repair the old axles the same way,” Kiannae suggested.
“One of the wheels is in a canyon,” Carter threw up his hands.
“So, send someone down after it,” Katrisha suggested. “It’s more a steep valley. I looked.”
Carter glanced to Frank, who’s bewildered expression soured quickly.
South along the line, Wren had stopped to lean on the corner of their wagon. He glanced up at the driver who was giving him a questioning look. Movement caught Wren’s attention, and he turned his head further up. A tiny bird was perched at the corner. It flitted on to the south. His eyes wanted to follow, but they met a golden pair instead, set beneath crimson hair. He blinked, shook his head, and there was nothing there.
“Y’all right, kid?” the driver asked.
“I’m fine,” Wren said, though he hardly felt it. It was almost gone. The awareness of what instincts were his own. He could tell though, the desire to get back in the wagon wasn’t. He marched around, grabbed hold of the ladder, and with only slight hesitation climbed up. There was nothing there. No one hiding midst barrels, and crates. He pursed his lips, sure the woman couldn’t have gone far. He shook his head, and climbed back down.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
The bustle around Silvercreek Lodge was remarkable. Tents had been set up along the narrow road that lead up the creek. Wagons quickly converted to makeshift shops, and residents of the temporary camp had begun haggling to buy or sell. Even as merchants were still propping up awnings, or unhitching, and staking pack animals.
One man seemed to be less haggling with a sheepish young merchant, than berating him in a slurred and drunken manner.
Mercu sighed, and hung back, encouraging the others to stop as well, by holding up his hand. “Always a good sign for this to happen early, or so the superstition goes. I usually feel bad for the sacrificial lamb though.”
“Should we do anything?” Katrisha asked with some concern, “he looks like he could snap the poor guy in half.”
“Do stop him before he does that,” Mercu said with him humor, “or does any lasting harm to the kid. As long as he’s just yelling though, leave it to the mercenaries, this is their…” Mercu froze, and brushed back his hat in surprise, and almost off. The twins followed his gaze, and considered the striking redhead who held a sword deftly beneath the drunkard’s chin. Everyone seemed to stop, and focus on the scene.
Wren had been the only whose eyes were already on her. Caught elegant but unconventionally dressed woman step from behind them. Shroud in a sleeveless tan coat that hung loosely from her shoulders. A pair of osyraen-blue slacks, and a fine looking cream blouse. He blinked, and could remember how it played out. Past them, in purposeful strides, in the seeming blink of an eye. A swift draw of her short sword, and not the much longer rapier hung off her other hip. The fine sword in her left hand was more than imposing enough.
“Now then,” Etore said with a smile that was decidedly confident. “Why were you bothering poor Thomas? He’s such a sweet lad. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Now me, on the other hand…”
The drunk moved his hand cautiously toward the blade.
“No, no. You see that won’t do,” Etore said pressing the point lightly to his throat. “I asked you a question. It’s only polite to answer.”
“He wouldn’t take my silver,” the man said hoarsely, clearly afraid to speak with a weapon to his throat.
“It’s not minted,” Thomas grumbled, and gave her a fiercer look than the drunk. “I can’t know what it’s worth, or if it’s even rightfully his. Nor, do I have the time or interest to have it smelted.”
“Ah, now,” Etore said. “That was quite simple. Talk to Asel. She’s a jeweler, and might have use for raw silver. I do stress, talk, or I’ll make it very hard for you to ever yell again. Further, if I hear a single peep, that you’ve caused even a little more trouble. Well, you’ll be finding some proper silvers. To pay me to keep walking.”
The man moved his hand to the sword, delicately pushed it away, then stumbled from the caravan in haste. There was a slow, mocking clap. Mallory was the source, and strode up to lean on the corner of the wagon.
“I didn’t need help,” Thomas protested under his breath.
“Yes,” Etore said, “and you’ll be taking care of yourself, just fine tonight as well.”
Thomas looked as though he wished to say something snide, but reconsidered when he saw he was surrounded.
“Trouble in paradise?” Mallory asked.
“Just doing all of your jobs for you, as usual.”
“I dunno, you and your little boy seem a bit put out. Not, unexpected. You never do seem to keep them long. Get pissed when they think they wear the pants in matters. You could try a real man instead you know.”
The merchant stormed away, through being talked around.
“Eh,” Etore said, and walked the opposite direction. “Carter’s not my type, but you’ll let me know if you find another, won’t you?”
Katrisha laughed, and watched the woman go. “So that’s the mysterious Etore,” she said with amusement. “I was beginning to doubt she actually existed.”
“She’s very hard to find when she doesn’t want to be,” Mallory said with a shrug. “We sometimes take bets if she’ll show up for payroll, or left two towns back.”
“See for yourself.” Mallory gestured the direction Etore had gone.
Katrisha looked back, and for some time couldn’t quite find Etore in the crowd. She caught a flash of red hair, and lost it in the evening sun. She was struck quite odd by it, Etore should have been easy to pick out, no one there had red hair, let alone such a brilliant hue, or such dark Osyraen skin. It was eerily familiar, how it slipped away.
“That’s strange,” Kiannae remarked before Katrisha could say the same. “I know this effect, but I’m used to seeing right through it.”
Katrisha looked to Wren who had a very puzzled expression. “It’s like I could see her, but kept looking away. Like Lunka.”
“I didn’t see her at all,” Mercu said as he pulled his hat off, and scratched his head. He frowned as he remembered old reports. Yellow eyes, red hair, hard to catch sight of. He’d had suspicions, did further research. He wasn’t sure what to do with any of it.
“Yup,” Mallory said, “you three did better than most, if you saw her at all. Personally I think it’s some kind of magic, but she’s no mage. An enchantment would be my guess, but I’ve never heard of the like. Well, unless you count the Torta legends. She pretends like it’s all in our heads too, or that she’s just that good.”
“Torta?” Katrisha asked.
“Dire foxes,” Mercu answered. “Native to Nohlend. Real by enough accounts, but a lot of stories make wild claims. People don’t take them too seriously.”
“What kind of claims?” Kiannae asked.
“Oh, talking, playing tricks, that sort of stuff,” Mallory said with a laugh. “Ask Carter, he says he’s seen one. Several actually. Not overly fanciful, no tricks or bargains, just falling into a den along the roadside. Mother fox got snippy, then they all just vanished. He tells it better, if he’s got enough drinks in him.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 23st, 655 E.R.
Katrisha had largely understood the practical complications of long journeys across the kingdoms. That the animals needed to be paced. That one had to stop to rest themselves as well. The weight of supplies slowed the process. It was not safe to travel alone.
Such long journeys were the providence of the trade caravans, and their masters. They provided the structure, organization, and for common defense. One could travel far more quickly in a small band. Make it halfway across the continent in about a month. Rather than three or four. The risks and logistics made such hasty travel impractical, and expensive. Particularly if one could be paid for their time.
Katrisha had spent a great deal of the trip pondering such realities. When they pulled into Midrook she had three days to spare. It would have been a week, if not for delays. It would still be easy to slip up from the city, through the narrow climbs to Highvale. See old acquaintances for a day. Yet she hesitated to do so, and instead continued to write. Wove such thoughts through her words to an old lover, and dear friend. It bothered her greatly to be so close, but to not bring herself to visit. Now that she was finally free. Now that duty carried her in search of answers, not standing guard over a throne. Yet the pain in the way, was too much, and there were others she fretted over seeing there with equal indecision.
Katrisha looked up from her work, as a shadow cast across the page. She took a moment to recognize the woman standing over her, and leapt to her feet in surprise, threw her arms around her, and kissed her.
“It’s good to see you too,” Celia said with some reservation, when she could breathe again.
“I didn’t know you would come,” Katrisha said. “I feel bad I didn’t.” She fussed with the letter she held.
“Hello, Miss Kat,” a small voice called out behind Celia. Katrisha looked with further surprise to a young man with dark red hair, standing side by side with a girl, and woman each of similar but longer locks.
“Lauren, Kathy?” she said trying to be sure. “Good fates you’ve both grown.”
“So Mother says, Miss,” the boy offered.
Katrisha let go of Celia, strode up and tried to hug the boy, and his sister. Katherine however escaped the embrace, backed up to her mother’s side, and gave a rather scornful look to her former tutor.
“Katherine Anders,” a the woman said behind them. “That is no way to treat your honor-mother.”
“It’s alright, Alice” Katrisha said, glancing up to the woman, standing behind her children. Her assurance was a bit thin. “I wouldn’t blame any of you, for not forgiving me. I failed, in the worst way I could.”
“You won,” Alice said with a somber reserve. “My husband was a soldier, a knight. He did his duty. He fought this nation’s enemies to his last, and you, finished what he could not.”
Katrisha rubbed away a tear. “Sorry, thank you,” she said, stood, and embraced the woman as well. “How have you all been?” she asked, holding her out at arm’s length.
“These two,” Alice started. “As you say, grow like weeds. In more ways than one. For myself, I’ve found, comfort. Among the sisters. They’ve helped me. Given me something to cling to. A place I can feel safe. I wasn’t raised to have faith. They do not ask me to. Yet offer all they can.” She brushed back an unruly lock of hair, and looked down briefly.
“More ways than one, indeed,” Celia said. “Kathy, show us your shield.”
The girl stepped away, crossed her arms, and as they parted, a spell swirled into being. It burned with aetherial energy. Yet unlike the unstable form the girl had conjured on that dark day, it scintillated not with instability, but absolute purpose.
“Calls herself a Sister now, arcanist. Healer too. One of the best in her class,” Celia added. “Smart as a whip, though not as, easy to manage as Lauren. That one says he wishes to be a paladin. I keep telling him they are Clarion. He keeps saying that’s not what Moriel taught him.”
“Well, the order is older,” Karisha said. She adjusted the spectacles on her nose, and examined the dazzling and singular spell the girl had mastered. “That was the lesson. Modernly they have been subsumed. Far be it from me to discourage the boy from reclaiming lost tradition.”
“Tell her what you want to be, Kathy,” Celia pressed.
Katherine dispelled her shield, and looked a bit defiant to speak.
“Go on, honey,” Alice encouraged.
Katherine pursed her lips. “A guardian, a defender. A healer, who stops death itself,” the girl proclaimed.
Katrisha smile slightly, and got down on a knee before her. “Always, a defender,” she said. “Even when we fail. We stand up, we go on.” She reached out a hand. “Because we can only do, what we try. Even if what we try, is not enough.”
Katherine stepped closer, and Katrisha embraced the girl, who hugged her back with hesitation.
“We can talk later,” Alice offered. “The children insisted on following Celia to see you, or, Lauren insisted. Katherine would not let him go without her.”
“I take care of my brother,” Katherine said.
“As any good sister should,” Katrisha encouraged.
Katrisha stood, and looked between three she owed so much for having failed, and to a woman who she could not help but feel she had done poorly by as well.
“We could also, talk later,” Celia said. “Children can be very demanding, about delays.”
“They can learn,” Alice said. “You came here for one reason. I have clothing to buy. Robes may be fine for you lot, but I will have a proper young lord, and lady out of my children, who are intent to outgrow everything.”
Katrisha laughed. “Scholars where robes you know. Very respectable sorts.”
“Yes, but neither of these two are scholars, I assure you.”
“She’s not wrong,” Celia said giving the children a chiding glance. “Both, slacking on their academics, to focus on experimental magic, or to teach unsanctioned classes in swordsmanship. Don’t let the proper demeanor fool you, that boy is far more the rebel than his sister.”
Katrisha patted the boy’s cheek and smiled. “Don’t let them tell you who to be.”
“Come along children” Alice said with stern resolve. Both followed her towards the merchant wagons.
Katrisha looked back to Celia, and bit her lip.
“I wasn’t sure I would come,” Celia admitted obviously embarrassed. “I felt too awkward, to go to Broken Hill, just to say fare well. Like I was abandoning my duties.” She noticeably held something back. “Here…I could not resist, to spend a single day, to see you again, before you travel.”
“I’m glad you did,” Katrisha said, took her hand, and kissed it, though seemed to think better of it, and her prior more dramatic familiarity. “Your dear Lena isn’t here, is she? I’m not causing problems, am I?”
“No, Lena is still up at the Cloister.” Her demeanor was hard to read. “She has nothing to say in the mater at the moment. Certainly not about an old friend being, affectionate.”
“Is something wrong?” Katrisha asked. She watched Celia’s expression shrewdly, as the woman mulled over her answer.
“I haven’t told you everything that’s happened,” Celia admitted. Katrisha waited patiently, and gave her time to chose her words. “Things have gotten complicated with Lena… I wasn’t sure if maybe Wren, had told you…”
“Wren didn’t mention anything,” Katrisha said kindly. “Please, speak your mind,” she said squeezing the woman’s hand. “We did promise, after all.”
There was further embarrassment written across Celia’s face, but finally she seemed to find the nerve. “She’s seeing Andrew. We are still together, but…it’s my fault. I’ve also made things worse. Though I don’t regret it.”
“Hypocrite,” Katrisha grumbled. “She was jealous of you and I, and has the nerve…”
“Please,” Celia said putting a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t judge her too harshly. I love her. So let’s not dwell. I’m here to see you.”
“I will think no more of it then,” Katrisha said with reservation. She held up her unfinished letter. “Seems a shame to not give you this, but also it’s not finished. Suppose you may have it, in the current form.”
“Thank you,” Celia said with a half smile, and took the letter.
“Come,” Katrisha offered. “Walk with me, and tell me why you won’t join me on my grand adventure. At least that is what I expect you will do, The offer is there, and you are quite welcome,” she said playfully, leaning closer, and bit her lip.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 24th, 655 E.R.
“I’ve a full complement, Sasha,” Samantha said tersely. “I don’t need a second dedicated healer.”
“I’m not looking for salary, just transport. Old times sake. Full service, no fees.”
“You can keep your service to yourself.”
“As you like,” Sasha said far more reserved than Samantha was used to seeing her.
“If you sell your seat, it’s your problem to find another. It won’t be in my wagon,” Samantha warned, and stopped to tighten a rope not to her standards.
“Fine,” Sasha said, not completely without disappointment, but with a nod that seemed earnest.
“Why so desperate to leave all of a sudden?” Samantha demanded. She turned to give her a doubtful look. “I don’t trust it.”
“I’ve spent most of my life trying to convince myself Highvale is my home,” Sasha answered, and leaned against the wagon beside them. “Yet the past few weeks have made me sure, my home isn’t a place. It’s…something harder than that.” She glanced across the busy makeshift market. “Something that doesn’t exist. So it’s time I tried to find, something else. Something real.”
There was a hesitance, which gave Samantha doubt in the honesty of the sentiment. She turned to see what Sasha had been staring at, but missed it. “You let me know if you find it,” Samantha offered. “The only real thing I’ve ever found is the road. It all changes. If you step back, and see the world in these blinks. Years flitting by. Familiar faces in worn down places. The same things playing out a hundred ways. A few hundred times. Snowflakes that all look the same.”
“So poetic,” Sasha said with a smirk.
“Just like the snow. A little dusting can be pretty, but a blizzard sure is inconvenient. Some, don’t even like the snow, really. Most of the time. Not that there is anything cold about you.” Samantha huffed, flustered. “Well, except your indifference to the comfort of others.”
“Comfort, without contentment,” Sasha mused.
“Ah, but isn’t your own belief, that desire, is life. What is contentment, but complacency. The loss of desire. I’m through being toyed with for your amusement.”
“You read the book,” Sasha said with humor.
“Eh, gift’s a gift,” Samantha shrugged. “Doesn’t change who I am.”
“No, as you say, that changes all on its own,” Sasha offered. “So, if you don’t come to me. I’ll mind my own business.”
“Then we have an accord,” Samantha reached out a hand, as much a challenge as an agreement.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 26th, 655 E.R.
The village of Mintercreek hadn’t changed much. A little more life, more residents. Even Katrisha’s past visit had seen some return to those old bones. By then it was a vibrant, fully occupied little town. Charming really.
Katrisha huffed. “Let’s get this foolishness out of the way.” She marched toward the stables, and her siblings followed in her wake. Mercu hesitated, and did as well.
Katrisha stopped just through the stable door.
Kiannae leaned around, and looked a bit bewildered by the occupant. “Zale?”
The young man set down a bale of hay, and glanced over his shoulder. “Eh. Caravan’s here already?”
“I thought you were going home to Lundan, with your father. To pay your respects,” Katrisha said stepping in, as Kiannae just stood there.
Zale marched over, knelt before Kiannae, glanced up at her confused expression, then touched her staff. “Done, trouble saved. Days less spent in the Archdruid’s insufferable presence. He was bad enough as a father, but with his, title, I have no patience left for him.”
He stood and brushed off his knees. “Besides, not much hurry. Grandfather is either gone, or he’ll be with us far longer than I’ll be alive.”
“What are you doing here?” Kiannae asked.
“Working,” Zale said with a dismissive wave, and walked over to grab another bale of hay. “Nice thing about these little farming towns. Lots of work for a druid.” He lifted it, and moved it to another horse stall. “What are you doing here? In the stable that is.”
“Renting horses to head to the old farm,” Katrisha offered.
“Missing home?” Zale asked, and grabbed another bale.
“More on a mission from a ghost,” Katrisha countered.
“Heh,” Zale set down the bale, and wiped his brow. “Sounds about right for you lot.” He glanced to Mercu, and Wren. “I presume the kid is your brother?” Zale asked.
“Nice to meet you,” Zale said, and walked back over to the bales.
“Yer welcome to join us,” Katrisha offered, and Kiannae gave her a disapproving look.
“Family farm?” Zale asked, and looked back over his shoulder. “The one with the tree. The one Kia thinks might be a dryad?” He shook his head. “No thanks,” he said and sat on a bale. He plucked up a canteen and drank. “I’ve no intention to go anywhere near a dryad, presumed or otherwise, with her around,” he gestured to Kiannae.
She scowled at him.
“What, I like you all fine, but really? Missions from ghosts? Lost dryads? A stormwalker, and the stormchild on a fateful last stop home? Figure I’d either get struck by lighting, or crowned a king. No thanks to either. No. I’ll stay right here. Be sure I get my day-wage. Maybe haggle with the caravan master for a spot. Though, I’m guessing that won’t be easy, not with you lot along. Eh, worst case I stay another season. Have a little more money when I get to Mordove. Tide me over as I qualify for citizenship, and find a place to be useful.”
“Practical,” Kiannae said crossing her arms.
“Had to get there some day,” Zale challenged.
“How many horses are for rent?” Katrisha asked, before the two could get caught up in further snide exchange.
“One or two,” Zale said. “A lot on reserve the day a caravan comes in. Prices will be higher. If you want my advice, wait till tomorrow. Might save you half a sov, and maybe for three horses, not just one or two.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Kiannae glanced to a where Zale stood chatting up a woman in red. She only vaguely recognized from the caravan, and years before. In retrospect a lot of things added up to her, and she looked back to her cider.
Katrisha caught the expression, and looked where her sister had. “You really need to sort that out.”
“There’s nothing to sort out. And you are one to lecture me on choosing.”
“It’s not about choosing,” Katrisha said thin lipped.
“Oh, so just, sleep with everyone, that’s your choice, right? Contentment through not caring?”
Katrisha gripped her tankard, sipped rather than snap, and set it back down rather hard. “It’s not about indifference,” Katrisha said with a measured breath. “It’s about coming to terms. With yourself, with your life. It’s not about sleeping with him, or even who you sleep with, or don’t. It’s about being in agreement with yourself. Don’t tell me you are, because that, is not you settled. It’s you regretting, and questioning.”
“Mind your own business, Kat.”
“Afraid you are my business, Ki. Just like I’m yours. One of us needs to convince the other we are happy. That we are good, with our choices. Cause right now, I’m not buying it. Not from your side. You think I don’t love people, because I can let them go. Yet your problem seems the reverse.”
A waitress fresh on duty stopped at their table, looked at Kiannae as though she recognized her, and then smiled at Katrisha. “Well if it isn’t my little naked dragon slayer, and her errant sister too. At first, I thought she was you, but I’ve heard about your rise to Court Mage, among other things. Welcome back.” She turned to the room with a bright smile. “Hey everyone, we’ve got ourselves a real treat, a live bare chested dragon slayer!” She stepped aside, presenting Katrisha.
There was a cheer, laughter, a few catcalls, the raising of drinks, and Katrisha turned crimson.
“Sorry dear,” the waitress said. “I always keep my promises, and a Court Mage made me swear on a sov, that if I ever saw you again, I’d do that. You won’t hold it against me, will you?”
“It’s fine,” Katrisha said in thin humor. “I’ve come to embrace the legend.”
“So I’ve heard,” the waitress said knowingly. “If you can’t change it, own it. That’s what I say, any way.” She moved on.
Katrisha sighed, and Kiannae laughed quite a bit at her expense. Earning a cross look, and offering only a shrug in response.
Mercu walked over, and sat down, his sister close behind. “I do believe I was a bad influence on that man,” he remarked with seeming pride.
Samantha took a chair from an adjacent table, and squeezed in next to Kiannae. “I’d heard the rumors of course.” She laughed. “But Mercu never confirmed them. Now I just have to ask, is it true?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time,” Katrisha with some humor.
“No, no it did not,” Kiannae cut back. “I tried to talk you out of it, but that never works.”
“Since when have you ever tried to talk me ‘out’ of anything?” Katrisha challenged.
“Since that night,” Kiannae said, but thought better of it as her sister’s expression soured.
“Now, now,” Samantha said holding up her hand. “No fighting. But I think I want to hear the whole story this time, from the top.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
It was late in the evening, and Katrisha was a bit tipsy as she got up from the table. She considered returning to the wagon, or getting a room, and having a proper bed for the night. She sighed as Mallory strode up to her.
“Considering a cozier spot for the evening?” he asked pointedly. “I’ve one myself, like to splurge now and then. If you wanted to save a bit.” He smile. “We could share.”
“I’ll pass,” Katrisha said tiredly.
“I saw you kissing that lovely woman the other day,” Mallory pressed, not giving up. “Heard some rumors about a backhanded boast. So tell me, at the very least, am I wasting both of our time? Do you even have a taste for men?”
“Ones who know their place.” Katrisha gave an absent smile, and a bit of an eye roll.
“You will tell me what that is one of these days?” Mallory asked with a raised brow.
“Only if you are very, very lucky,” Katrisha offered, yawned, and walked to the innkeeper to arrange a room. As much for spite as comfort.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 27th, 655 E.R.
“Lady Ashton, Lady Ashton,” a lanky man said, plucking a cap from his head. “Mr, Peregrine, and, I presume young master Wren? I did not expect to see you, but it is sensible you would check in. Particularly before a long journey east.”
Wren shook the man’s hand, when offered it in turn.
“We trust you implicitly, Farlow,” Katrisha said reassuringly, and hugged the man when he bowed to her. “We just felt the need to see home again, before we left.”
“Of course, of course,” Farlow said with a nod, and put on his hat as Katrisha stepped back. “I can show you around. Give a proper report of things.”
“That’s fine Farlow, really. Go about your day, we can tend to ourselves,” Katrisha assured him.
“As you will,” Farlow said. “Find me if you need anything.”
The group walked off the path to the old tree as Farlow returned up the hill towards the farm house.
“Not much different from my last visit,” Kiannae said, and stepped up to the tree. “Still not a word from old Mr. Tree. Presuming he was not some figment of my imagination.”
Taloe appeared beside her, and ran his finger along the bark. “I maintain, it is older than it looks.”
“One to talk dear,” Kiannae teased.
“Older than me,” Taloe said far more seriously.
“Fates,” Mercu said at the claim.
“You didn’t say that last time,” Kiannae pressed.
“I was not sure,” Taloe said. “Yet I feel it now. It is no ordinary tree. The roots have split the bedrock beneath us. They drink of a wellspring, literal, and figurative. It is old quite beyond reason. Older, than is even possible. It’s not a tree at all, for it has become the river.” He stepped back as though startled.
Nothing new happened.
“Yet, remains silent.” Kiannae shrugged.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Katrisha rubbed her neck, and glanced up from the rock she was sitting on. Kiannae and Taloe still circled the old Ash. Mercu had wandered off to converse with Farlow, or whoever was free. Wren had given up, and was walking towards her.
He sat down with a huff on the grass in front of her.
“I do believe you,” Katrisha said consolingly. “Yet just because a ghost told you to bring a rock here, does not mean there is rhyme nor reason to the wishes of the dead.”
“I remember,” Wren said. “I remember when Kia heard Mr. Tree. When she insisted so earnestly…” He grimaced, and dug his nails into his palm. “Mother, remembers. Father told her that some trees could talk, but that she must not expect him to speak. Not often. Said he is a very old tree, a sleepy one.”
Wren closed his eyes. “A very sleepy creature,” he repeated, stood up, and marched straight towards the trunk of the old ash. He placed the stone between its roots, and dropped to his knees. “We honor you,” he spoke somberly. “Ji os-asho. Wr wân. So a fitan. Wr akitren. Sos ewr se.” Wren was trembling as the memory washed over him. He struggled with his father’s words. The night after his daughter – his sister – claimed to speak to with the tree. She had noticed when he snuck off in the night. She had watched, and then knelt next to their father. Asked him to teach her. Tears streamed down his cheeks, as the memory fought not to surface. She tried to keep it from him. It was hers. Not his to pry into.
Kiannae knelt beside him, and put her hand on his shoulder. “Is that Sylvan?”
He looked up at her, then back to the tree. “Be not asleep,” he whispered. “Wake ancient-one. We honor, noble-good-one. Wake tree-essence. We-come, to wake you.”
He closed his eyes, and searched for something deep in the back of his mind. Something he had touched before. His mother’s eyes snapped opened, that night. Her senses dominated everything as he looked inward. The world where he was, fell away. His father’s prayer grew fervent. The sound of his voice changed. His words carried meaning, above merely what had been thought. Her eyes went wider than she thought they could that night, as a single command brought the land to absolute silence.
<WAKE!> His voice boomed. A ‘wr’ that should have been soft, impossible to speak with such force. It rattled the very stones beneath them. The soil itself strained to answer his call. Birds fluttered in from distant trees, and set upon worms that squirmed from the soil. Farm animals looked up, alert, but did not startle away.
Wren fell over, and leaned on an arm. He clutch at the dirt, and rand his other hand through his hair, as though in agony. He tried to find some semblance of separation again. A line between memories that were his, and not. He looked up, and someone tall was offering him a hand. He took it. Delicate, and strong. Both of them. He fell into a chest, and was held. One soft, one firm. He turned his head, and saw a man standing before the house. One a stranger, one a father. Mercu stood beside the other.
It started to separate, to come back apart. Till a whisper on the wind sent a chill down his spine. “…return…” It said in memory, and the moment.
Wren pushed himself free, and rubbed away the tears. He stared at the ancient gnarled tree. <WAKE!> he said again. A soft whisper that carried, made eyes open, and hearts flutter. A word that was understood by all who heard it, even though spoken in a foreign tongue.
Farm hands gathered around Farlow, whose hat was held at his chest. Mercu glanced to him, and did the same. More were gathering, either with haste or caution. All looked on as lines traced out the form of the ghostly woman, between a sister, and brother. She looked around as if lost. Then her eyes went wide, she turned and threw her arms around the ancient ash.
“…my love…returns…” trembled the voice on the wind again. “…our circle complete…”
The ghost turned her back to the tree, and looked to Wren, then to Kiannae. She held her gaze with intent, then dissolved in rivulets of light that flowed down courses in the bark, out along the roots, and into the soil. The stone from the castle, there between the roots turned to dust, that glimmered in the dirt.
“You…were never me…” The tone of the voice had changed. However wistful, and distant it remained, it had become that of a woman.
The wind threatened to die, but with a last gust trailed off. “I…was always you…”
There was only stillness.
“So, maybe rhyme?” Katrisha said, and stepped up behind Wren. The silence had grown deathly. “Still not sure I see reason.”
He turned, and looked at each of his sisters. “A lone seed. It was all that was left of a great grove, that the first king consort had called home. Osyrae took first his land, then his life. Yet where he perished, on the hill where he had once looked out over the bows. Beside a sacred marker stone, where he was laid to rest. There the First Queen planted, that last seed.”
Kiannae leaned on her staff as she heard the words, as a single memory that had been a blur surfaced. The whole life cycle of the tree. A flicker of white that stood beside that stone, a face that turned to her, and mocked her with the same claim as a poem, stolen from a book.
Wren stepped closer, and set his hand on her shoulder. “It is what grandfather told her, when he said she was old enough to know. It is why, it is written, ‘That an Ashton always returns.’ For we were commanded to remember. When we took the land, to watch it for our Queen. Then for a baron. For the Duke of Nohrook. At last for the people.”
“I know this story,” Taloe said. “My…mother told me, when I was…little.” He closed his eyes. “‘When my task is done. When my time has come. The circle will be complete.’ These were her words. Her vow. Mother said it was proof that southerner’s do not keep their word. For the Queen did not return.”
“She did,” Wren said, and wiped away a tear. “We kept the promise. We kept grandfather’s vow. Mother’s oath. It’s done.”
For a moment Katrisha looked touched, but then her expression soured. The words came unbidden, ‘The one whom a crown will one day adorn.’ The ghost had turned to Kiannae, the firstborn. They had shared what meaning each had gleaned of her name. That aunna was honored-girl. They had each found this fact separately, and it felt settled.
Katrisha put together meaning in her own name. Trsha, was an ash tree. The castle library was sparse on the subject of Sylvans, but one tome, had attempted to explain the concepts of Ki, Ka, and Ke. She was the enduring light of the ash-tree. For all it mattered her name was truly just Ka. A word used for moonlight, because though it waned, it returned. Trsha for an Ashton always returns. How utterly quaint, and redundant. She felt weary from it.
Return. Charles had claimed it. Other lives. Lives she could not recall, or deny. Yet the words, ‘the second is born, and first to die,’ mocked her. Not so enduring, perhaps. It was one thing to choose, another for it to be chosen for you, and thrust in your face.
Seers, and prophets. Books, and illnesses. One could hold on to some shred of coincidence. Even the mocking specter of a friendly ghost, was something others had seen. Yet there. Such an event before her eyes, before other witnesses. It felt settled. Yet was it? She looked to Wren, as Kia hugged him again. There were missing pieces. Powers in play that defied her understanding. Possibilities, just occuring to her. Wren. Something that looked like Wren had tried to tempt Celia. Against her.
She glanced at the crowd, at the looks on their faces. Looks caught up in a moment of prophecy fulfilled, to some kind of joy. Yet all she found were new worries. New fears, and doubts. She marched back to her horse without another word.