Chapter III:10

Past is predictive, if we do not learn from our failures.
Human nature, invariable, in its endless complexity.
Ambition in every calm day, a wolf circling at the door.
I swear myself, not as your king, but Grand Imperator,
to a Queen, who proved the wolf may yet be tamed.

– Coronation Speech of Emperor Corinth, 1 E.R.

The Road Behind

Estae 1st, 655 E.R.

Katrisha wove through the crowd, and threw her arms around her brother, lifting Wren clean off his feet. He hugged her back, but there was a laugh behind him, and she set him down to stare over his shoulder at a redhead in a crimson robe. He gave Katrisha an uneasy look, and her questioning glance was cut short by the woman.

“Quite a sight, sister tossing her brother about like that,” the woman remarked. “I quite approve though. Darling man that he is.”

“Sasha, wasn’t it?” Katrisha asked. It had been over a decade since their passing introduction.

Zale came upon the group, locked eyes with Kiannae, and made himself scarce.

“Goodness.” Sasha laughed. “Seen that look now and then. History between those two? Such a sweet lad, though I’m sure he’s entirely to blame.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Katrisha offered.

Kiannae crossed her arms. “Nothing worth mentioning. He, had untenable ideas.”

“Ah, the number of men I’ve had that very problem with,” Sasha mused. “You know, I did recognize you, when joining the caravan,” she said to Kiannae. There was something forced about it. “Almost didn’t recognize you though.” She glanced o Katrisha. “You two were so, adorably identical. What happened?”

“Life,” Katrisha offered in a tone that invited no further question.

Sasha glanced between the two, the settled on Kiannae. “Well, if it bothers you, I can always find other company. He’s a sweet one, but not worth putting anyone out over. Regardless, forgive me. I think I’ll find myself a warm bed, and, maybe sleep. Unless you’d like to join me darling,” she said and rested her hand on Wren’s shoulder.

His eyes turned to the hand, and up to Sasha. “No, thank you,” he said. “I think, I’m in much the same place. Tired.” He was hard to read. A mixture of emotions that did not go well together on his face. His opinion of the woman, and her familiarity less than clear.

“My door is always open,” Sasha said, leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Yes, though, sleep. These have been hard days.” She walked away, and yawned, covering her mouth.

“Her?” Katrisha asked.

“Among others,” Wren said. “It’s not as though…” He shook his head. “Sometimes things just don’t work.”

Katrisha nodded, and Kiannae stepped up, and hugged her brother suddenly. “There wasn’t any more trouble with the caravan, was there?” she asked.

“No,” Wren said, and gave Kiannae a cross look when she ruffled his hair as Katrisha so often did.

Kiannae shrugged slightly. “We were worried, leaving you back there with so little protection. Not, that in the end you weren’t the one to settle things. Are you ok with that, breaking your vows?”

Wren drew a breath. “Do no harm, lest through inaction a graver is certain. Not, usually applied to the end of putting a sword through someone’s shoulder, but bones on occasion need to be re-broken, before mending. The vows were not written without consideration for the truth of the world. Without an understanding that sometimes lesser evils are all we are left with.”

“That’s not the same as being ok with it,” Katrisha said, and set her hand on his shoulder.

Wren tensed. “I saw, a great many greater harms, taking up your staff. It began as impulse, to throw it back to you, and I saw… Everything. Every outcome.”

Katrisha frowned. There it was. Her suspicions, answered without even having been questioned, and yet made little more sense. “The spell was designed for my senses, you…shouldn’t… It, just, shouldn’t even be possible. Let alone have worked. I mean, I’m glad it did…” She hesitated. She wasn’t really sure of that, and gave Kiannae a worried look, only to find her sister’s face stony.

“You did the right thing,” Kiannae offered. “The hard thing, but the right one.”

“I would have killed him,” Wren said. “I was going to kill him,” he tensed, admitting the truth. “After all he did. He had the power to throw me off. He did, so many times. Would have killed a bunch more people before you killed him, but if he lived… He let me do that… Because so many other ways, he died. I’m not, so sure, that was a good thing.” He shrugged off Katrisha’s hand. “I’m, going to go find a room.” He stepped past them.

“Life, is always the choice,” Katrisha answered after him. It felt thin even to her, but she wanted so much to mean it. To believe, that the Council would be convinced, that Cadith was wrong. Wanting to believe, and doing so, were indeed, not the same.

He hesitated, but did not turn back. He glanced suddenly to his left, grimaced, and then marched on.

“He’ll be alright,” Kiannae said, and caught Etore out of the corner of her eye. She slipped away when Kiannae tried to focus on her.

“Will he?” Katrisha demanded. Distracting her sister. “He’s not a mage. He barely even knows two spells. How, could he have modified spells that complex, used them? Twice. He ‘asked’ my shield to shrink. You remember that, right? These powers of his. I’m worried. I’m very worried.”

Kiannae shook her head. “I’m worried about that woman, Etore. She keeps watching us. I’ve only caught her a few times, but she rarely seems to be far. Have you noticed?”

Katrisha frowned, it didn’t seem nearly as important. “I don’t know, maybe.”

“I’m going to go check on Lunka,” Kiannae said, and walked away.

“Really?” Katrisha called after her. When there was no answer, she turned towards the inn in annoyance, and nearly bumped into someone. She thought nothing of it. Then did, and turned, but whoever it was, was gone. She looked around, shook her head, and walked back inside.

Kiannae leaned against a tree at the edge of town, and a hand rested on her shoulder, though the presence as always was hard to feel. “I’m alright,” Kiannae said. After a moment of silence she turned to stare into the strange murky depths of her lovers colorless eyes. She frowned. “Are you?”

He looked down, and away, but the hand stayed put. “I live, so long as you live,” he answered, almost in song. As affected as she had heard his voice since they had first spoken.

She set her hand on his cheek, and search those eyes, at once strange, and ever so human. It occurred to her they had not spoken since the road. It had become a pattern, when they were alone. So close, so in tune with one another. A touch, a look most often sufficed. She had told Katrisha he was fine, without ever asking. He sister had made some snide remark about hearing how fine he surely was. He had comforted her, yes. They had loved each other, and stared into one another’s eyes, but not since battle, till that day, had they spoken.

“Are you ok?” Kiannae asked more forcefully.

“My life, is yours,” Taloe said earnestly, and then shook his head thinking better of it. “We are one flesh, one spirit,” he tried instead. “As the saying of my people was. Yet of us, it is true. It hurts, when those cursed blades strike me. It cuts away pieces, until all that is left, is your will, but so long as you live, those pieces return.”

She leaned her forehead to his, and pulled his form to hers. There was always a softness to the feeling of him. No bones. A structure held up by ideas, and forces. Almost solid, but there was a give, like soft clay.

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae said. “I’m so sorry. I never asked.”

He brought a hand up to her cheek, and looked up into her eyes. “My life, is yours,” he said again. “All that I am, or ever will be. You risked everything to keep me in this world, and I will give everything, endure, anything, for you.”

Kiannae riddled over words, something to say. “You know they are not cursed, don’t you?” she finally asked, retreating into being difficult, blinking away tears she didn’t want to shed.

“Yes, mage-iron,” he answered. “This is the word, but it is like her. Anathema, yes? It is not a word you have used often. It is, hate itself. I have seen in my mind how it is made, it has seared its secrets into me. Each blade, made by a different hand, has a different truth.”

“What do you mean?” Kiannae pressed.

“No poetics,” Taloe said. “It is hate. Pure deep hate. To make it, one must picture something abhorrent to their very being. Something they hate enough to kill. Without mercy, remorse, or hesitation. Even in cold blood. Cadith’s hand, he forged the bane of hesitation, weakness, and foolishness. His face though, it marks other blades. Swords forged by those who dreamed they would be plunged through his heart. His own weapon, the one Wren struck him with, was made for him. Made by a man who hated him. Who’s last revenge, was to imagine the sword he would wield, struck through his hated master’s chest.”

“You, are sure?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” Taloe answered. “Though not all is the same. The blades, the weapons are hate, but the armor is love, honor, cleverness. The chains, justice, or some idea of it. Emotions, wills, bound into the very substance, before it is even forged into a form. There is more, of course, but…”

Kiannae put her hand over his lips, as she saw someone cross between buildings in the town. “Thank you,” she said. “Never speak of this again. There are rumors…”

He pulled her hand away. “They are true,” he said harshly.

She grimaced. “How do you know?”

He closed his eyes. “His blade, sung a song. Sorrowful, and defiant.” He drew a breath. “They will kill you, because you know. They will kill me, because I told you.” Taloe shook his head. “Final words, of the sword’s maker, before his own creation was used to take his life. It weakened the blade to any other purpose, than Cadith’s own end. He did not understand that. It may have spared all our lives.” He opened his eyes again, and stared into hers. “Is there a better word than curse?” he asked again.

“No,” she answered. She put her head beside his, and held him tightly.

Estae 11th, 655 E.R.

Kiannae walked along lines of books in a castle library.  It was familiar, oddly comfortable.  Yet, it was a strange collection, in a foreign land.  Not the first time.  She had taken refuge in the royal library in Niven.  When at last she had escaped the obnoxious party thrown in her honor.  She shook her head, and returned her focus to the quest at hand.

Waiting for the other half of the scattered caravan to arrive, was proving more tedious than traveling with it.  At least their wagon had arrived with the head of the company, bringing their possessions.  Reading through Navi’s journal was one of many dubious choices she had made to distract herself.  She had come upon a peculiar drawing of a massive tree, perched above what might have been the globe.  Tangled roots growing out along some semblance of ley lines.  ‘Orld Thaeash,’ it had been labeled all but illegibly.  It was bothersome, and painfully familiar from the most obvious of sources.  A crown of branches over a horizon that had looked more mountain than tree.  Like so many other things about the book it hung in her head, stirred memory, and refused to be let go.

The Sun Civilization was a topic she had skirted many times, but there was little on it.  Scarce mentions, descriptions of scattered creation legends from across the world.  The Sun, the Moon, Vhale, The Morning Star, and so often The Fall.  So little though.  There were so few books easily found on the old myths, and most of those spoke mostly of Napir, Lynx, and Lycos. Poetics about a sunless age, and the fall of the Sylvan peoples in a great war.  So few clung to the ideas. The Council largely ignored them.  It and the World Spell conjecture most often mentioned only in critique of their incomplete, unproven status.

‘Songs of the Sun,’ read the spine of a battered looking old tome.  She pulled it out, and opened the book to find something more like a children’s story.  Simple, mostly rhyming stanzas, and fanciful pictures.  Some dozen pages in she came upon what she was looking for.  Not a perfect match, more stylized, and rigid.  Palentian-knot patterns crisscrossing to form a round root ball.  She pursed her lips, and looked to the text beside it.

Oh her tangled roots were grand,
there beneath the sun did stand,
oh queen of all was mighty she,
the first of all living things to be,

Vhale’s mother was the tallest tree,
man grown from her noble seed,
man who ate from wooden bow,
man who stayed ‘n learned to plow,

oh lost children came to see,
the one who toiled endlessly,
unaging ate fruit of the sun,
wise by good mother’s love,

oh Thaea was and will ever be,
to four corners spread her seed,
no fire claim every limb and bow,
no drought render all lands fallow,

King he was beneath the sun,
a wife he took of Laune’s love,
a child born, god became man,
through her eyes, he lived again,

Rhaea, Rhaea, golden light,
sooth old fathers ageless plight,
daughter, daughter sing for me,
soon no more, can I bare to be,

oh King he was ‘fore days of men,
a girl bore his burden in the end,
oh granddaughter of the moon,
so young, you fell all too soon,

Rhaea, Rhaea, hold up the sun,
a Queen does cry for your love,
oh child burn across the skies,
none can do, what you have tried.

Kiannae found herself tracing the lines, trying not to cry.  She had heard, bits and pieces before, but standing there, reading the old nursery rhyme she could almost see pieces of it.  See a tiny woman hold what she could not know from the sun itself.  The strain too great, until she fell to her knees.

A humm startled her from her reading, and she spun to find a fox sitting at eye level atop a short shelf. “Sun, casts shado’s,” the fox said, and licked her lips.

“Do you really remember the existence of The Sun Civilization?” Kiannae asked.

“A head crouned in gold and horns,” Tick said. “Stood at the rising sun.”

“Not quite an answer to my question,” Kiannae said tersely.

“Is not only a story,” the fox said, and flopped down draping her head over crossed paws, looking up either playfully, or bashfully.  It was hard to tell.  “The girl taught Torta. Rhaea, lothly Rhaea. Gold her hair, dark her skin, eyes like setting suns.  Horny girl.”

Kiannae narrowed her eyes.

The fox laughed.  “Yes, this too.  No, on head,” Tick pawed at her ear. “Two horns, not so tall as Thaele.  Three, only three, sah the sunless age.”

“Three?” Kiannae pressed.

“Torta,” the fox said sadly. “So little, is three. So long, to talk again.”

Kiannae closed her eyes.  “I’m sorry,” she offered, though not sure she believed it.  Even if the sadness could be felt even in the strange speech of the little fox.

“Is, as is,” Tick said, and sat back up. “Did nothing, Kiannae, girl.”

“What happened?”

The fox shook her head. “Do not know.  Story true. Torta sah girl hold sun.  All recall.  Then, no sun.  Dark age. Hide. See. Deal. Teach. Neu girl. Nice girl. Yun. Great Queen call her to other land.  Lynx and Lycos turn on her kin. Torta trick. Torta die. Torta hide.”  She got back down again, and put her paws over her face, and made a little whine with the final word.

“It is a memory, isn’t it?” Kiannae asked.  “Not just, a story you’ve been told.”

“Yes,” the fox hissed.  “Lost, so lost. So hurt. Learned to hide, to go unseen.”

Kianne closed the book and set her hand on the foxe’s head.  Tick’s golden eyes rose up, and considered her.  “Are Yun’s child,” Tick said earnestly. “Kind, like girl, yes.  Good heart.”

“I try,” Kiannae said.

“Is all can do,” Tick offered, shook off the hand, and sat up more prim, and proper again. “The Storn is in girl. All kin, all shado’ the sun cast, in you.”

“What does that mean?” Kiannae said pulling back, and eyeing the fox, cautious of her prophetic tone.

“Are daughter oth Athrale, yes? King’s child. Oth Corinth. Oth Storn Queen. Oth Lynx, and oth sun.  Oth least, oth these, greatest yet are to see.”

Kiannae swallowed, as the pieces fell into place.  The Midrook Dynasty, were descendants of Queen Regent Gwendoline.  Daughter of Emperor Marcus. Himself a stormborn child of the Storm Queen.  They were the King’s great-grandchildren.  They were half Sylvan, the only thing that didn’t fit, was the sun.

“What do you mean sun?” Kiannae asked, unsure of the wisdom or pressing the issue.

“Osyraen,” Tick answered, “Last oth sun children.”

“We…aren’t,” she cringed at the implication. “There are Sylvans, with Osyraen blood, aren’t there.  Yes, of course there are, I met one.”

The fox nodded.

“Is this, prophecy?” Kiannae asked.

The fox wobbled her head. “Is like scent. Is, on skin, in aura.  You are too tangled to see things not yet here. Only as it, huas.”  The fox clearly did not like trying to say the word, but with hesitation had seemingly found no better way to say it.

Kiannae hesitated.  She looked at the book she was holding, and back to the fox.  “Thank you,” she said, though she was not sure how much she meant it.

“You has,” Tick said. “I ask King. He let you has old story, get nu one.  You good to Torta, one day, yes?”

Kiannae nodded, and walked away clutching the book a bit flustered. Unsure if she wanted the gift. Then realized it hadn’t been a gift. She had agreed to some manner of open-ended favor, or bargain. She glanced back, but the fox was gone. She shook her head. It was probably just a story. Even if the Torta’s propensity for tricks and schemes was true, even if she might already owe them something, what did it matter? She saw no way the foxes could hold her to some onerous interpretation of their words. She took the book, and walked out of the library.

She did not see a woman watching from the shadows, who herself, missed a fox watching her.

Estae 20th, 655 E.R.

A shadow cast across the sun.  A slight reprieve to a woman sitting by herself, rubbing her temples.  Her eyes were closed, and the presence only passingly familiar. That the shadow belonged to someone with a gift, gave Katrisha no further comfort. She looked up from troubled thoughts, to consider what fresh problems had come to stand before her.

Maron was an unremarkable man in most regards, though his pale southeastern complexion stood out, even in Helm.  He seemed almost plain by grooming, more than birth.  A presence smoothed, like a polished stone. Though there were tracks, where the roughness had worn away into smooth, distracting valleys.  One wondered what kind of life made a presence like his.

“Dame Ashton,” the man said when the staring contest had gone on long enough.

“Yes?” Katrisha pressed.

“I’ve been given a message,” Maron said.  He held out a folded sheet of paper.

Katrisha glared at it dubiously.

“It’s nothing of great impact,” he assured her. “If, your plans have not changed since you last spoke with Corien.”

Katrisha snatched the paper away from him, and unfolded it.

To whom it may concern,

The honored women Katrisha and Kiannae Ashton are called by Council decree to testify in closed session, upon the matter of the Eastroad Incursion of Coria 655 E.R. By order of the Council, and the authorized command of the Court Mage of Helm they are granted passage with any caravan or boat bound toward Mordove. No undue haste is required or sanctioned.

By Official Decree,
Alex Durn, Court Mage of Helm

“As an official attache to Avrale, it was deemed best I deliver the news,” Maron added when she looked up again at him challengingly.

“So, I am now ordered to abandon Avrale, when the Osyraen threat is worse than it ever has been,” Katrisha said snidely.  The second half of the fragmented caravan had only just arrived that day from Ashford, and the choice was weighing heavily on her. To stay, and wait for another back west.  Which as things were, might not come.  Then the question to ride back without, or to press on as they had once planned.  One less to their number, on such a fool’s errand. No palatable options.

“Surely you have already seen the wisdom,” Maron said. “A few youth, no matter how gifted, will not turn the tide of a war.”

“So, you do at least believe?” Katrisha pressed.

“The King is convinced, whatever doubts he has expressed, publicly.  Alex. was always a stickler for the most rigorous of evidence.  My own interpretation has tempered the doubts he offered in the official report.  Spectacular claims, may require comparable evidence, but the simple acceptance of the least implausible answer is sometimes prudent. That… creature, is something else. Regal Osyraen affectations, blended with pure spite, vitriol, and terrifying intelligence. More gift than most dragonborn. I, see no sound reason to doubt that everything is precisely as he, and you claim.  His report of your battles, even more troublesome. Then there is the woman Etore. So many rumors of that one, would be fascinating to meet her.”

“Good luck with that,” Katrisha muttered, and rubbed her temple again. She dropped her hand to her side, and fussed with the edge of the page between her fingers. “I suppose it settles the matter.  No, I do not disagree. Much as, loyalty calls on my heart home. If only to check on Mercu, a man as good as a father to me.”

“I could carry a letter,” Maron offered. “Highvale is not far off my path to Broken Hill.  An excuse, not unappealing.”

“A few letters, would be of no further fuss I presume?” Katrisha asked, and bit her lip.

“So long as you have them to me this evening. I wish to leave before first light.”

“Of course.” Katrisha pinched her brow.  “I have a question though, before you go.”

“Yes?” Maron asked.

“I do not know what all that monster has said under official questioning, but I wish to ask your opinion something he said earlier.”

Maron was stoney, but nodded.

“Is there any real hope in all this? Will even convincing the Council to act, accomplish anything more than to end the treaty of Mordove?”

The man grew more thin lipped. “Candidly, and never to be claimed as from my lips,” Maron stressed.

Katrisha nodded.

“The Council, as a body, exists for a singular commonly understood purpose.  To prevent war.  In over three centuries the Council has never, once, gone to war.  That such laws exists on the books, means little, with no precedent of action.  Only twice, has the direct intercession of a neighboring kingdom been sanctioned, permitted, in open disputes.  No decree of required aid against an open aggressor, has ever even reached the floor.  When at least six times, it almost certainly was warranted.  That said, these are unprecedented days.  You are aware of the so called ‘Surge,’ I presume?”

“Is that what they are finally calling it?” Katrisha asked.

He nodded.

“I’ve never received an official confirmation of what has long become common wisdom,” Katrisha answered. “Growing powers in the world.  A dramatic rise in gifted births, emergent dire creatures.  Elemental activity in waste lands.  Enchantments lasting longer than expected.  Two pupils I trained who almost kept up with the progress of my sister, and I.  Outshone us perhaps, in some ways.”

Maron nodded.  “The Council has refused official recording of the claims, and so, on the other side, there is no decree of secrecy around the work.  I’ve seen the measurements. Evidence from six unrelated sources. Personally.” He hesitated. “My position in the Council was menial, but one sees a great many things as a mere rune in the spell.  The last measurable year strand density was this high, based on enchantment decay studies, was the Imperial Golden Age. Under the Empress. Before the war.”

“Concerning,” Katrisha obliged, trying to read the man’s intentions.

“That’s the plain version,” Maron said. “The more commonly known, account.  Far less widespread is the knowledge most of those reports are five to six years old.  Preliminary measurements as of my departure from Mordove showed a doubling from such already conservative claims.  A war, under these conditions…” He took a long breath, and let it out again. “Between you and me, it could be more devastating blow the world has ever seen.  Beyond the Dragon War, and that is even ignoring the presence of dragons.”

“And of course, there will be dragons,” Katrisha half joked.

“Let us not delude ourselves,” Maron said with no humor. “If the Osyraen army marches, they will bring dragons at their back.  In this age, one potentially more than twice so potent as the last great conflict.  A war that even then razed great cities, and killed countless thousands, if not millions of people. That thinned the blood of mages to an almost untenable degree. The very possibility of such a war, will make some, consider a summary surrender. To avoid the inevitable deviation.”

Katrisha looked down, and pinched her brow again.

“I’ve seen your face,” Maron offered uncomfortably. “In dreams.”

Katrisha looked back up fiercely.  “That, gives me no comfort.”

“It gives me only a little,” Maron intoned.  “I have always believed myself a good judge of character, and the eyes I have seen, are not the eyes of an enemy.  If someone wields such power, as to have been seen across the span of time.  Seen before even the dawn of the Empire.  Then, I shall take some small comfort, that her eyes, are not those of one cruel, or spiteful.”

“I will take only comfort, that you are not another dead set against me, merely because of the ramblings of ancient prophets.  That whatever meaning there is here, I am not your concern.”

“You, are not my enemy,” Maron stressed, “in my current estimation.  That does not mean you do not concern me.  The deviation of the forest around that caravan.  That creature, in, shall we call them chains?” He restrained some humor at that. “That you are without malice in this, does not mean you will remain without fault.  I thought, I had seen everything.  That after fighting the Red Mage last year, I had seen the devastation that a war mage could unleash.  Yet I must remind myself, the Red Mage, and his so called Rebellion… They don’t go out of their way to kill.  Only exact their so called ‘taxes.’  If they can get what they demand peaceably, that, is their preference.”

“I’ve heard the rumors,” Katrisha said.  “Do we need to worry, taking the road east toward Mordove?”

“I think the world needs to worry,” Maron said. “Were it not, illegal for me to do so, I would encourage any caravan transporting you, to pay such tax.  Rather than risk a confrontation with the Red Mage, and his forces.  He has at least four competent mages in his employ, and is himself superior to Corien, and myself combined. We were commanded to stand down by the caravan master before the fighting destroyed the wagons. Corien relented, only because by law, in wild-lands near Corinthia, a caravan master is as good as a king.  The tax, was paid – whatever story you have heard.  I, cannot as an active Council Mage encourage the same choice be made again.  You, are less bound, between positions, as you find yourself.”

“Doesn’t that count as encouragement?” Katrisha asked.

“It counts, as factual information,” Maron said rubbing his fingers together absently. “Shared between colleagues.  Even if, from all I’ve heard, and seen, perhaps, you could put an end to the trouble.  You’ll have to forgive me, I’ll be glad to be far from either outcome.”

Estae 13th, 655 E.R.

The last evening of the caravan in Helm’s Hollow found three siblings at a table, plates set aside, and drinks still in hand.  Sasha walked up, and took the seat next to Kiannae, and across from Wren.  He kept glancing at the bar.

“That woman bothering you?” Sasha asked.  She snatched an wedge of roasted potato from an abandoned plate, and popped it in her mouth.

Kiannae followed Wren’s gaze, and found Etore standing there.  “You can see her?” she asked.  “Just like that.”

Sasha closed her eyes, delighting in the moment of flavor. She swallowed. “Never miss a pretty woman,” she said with a smile. “Nor a pretty boy for that matter.” She lay her hand on Wren’s across the table.

He glanced at her, and looked down, more embarrassed it seemed than anything else.

“I find beauty in this world,” Sasha said proudly.  “Every ounce, and nuance. I forsake nothing, and no one. No matter, how fond I may be of some, or how determined some may be, to go unnoticed.”

“She’s been watching us,” Wren said flusteredly.

“I could find out what she wants,” Sasha offered with a smirk.  “Maybe, we, could find out together?” She raised an eyebrow to Wren.

Katrisha gave Sasha a reproving glare, after she saw how uncomfortable her brother was.  “Or I could,” she challenged.

“Toss a coin,” Sasha offered.  “Winner, tries first.  Unless the winner accepts an offer to be, hmm, joined in the endeavor.”

Katrisha gave Sasha a dubious look, but met only by smug defiance plucked up a coin. She rolled it between her fingers, and Kiannae gave her a reproving glare that went unnoticed. The two other women locked in a fierce staring contest. Kiannae reached out to grab her sister’s hand, brushed her drink with her arm, but was late. A flicker of magic went almost unnoticed along the edge.

“Tails,” Sasha called, guessing Katrisha’s little cheat.

<Side,> Wren snapped with a growl, and the coin struck, bounced, turned, rolled, and wedged in a crack. Kiannae barely caught her drink before it could tip over.  Long hair all around the table whipped up in a sudden breeze. He looked almost with surprise at the result, and exchanged a glare with Sasha.  Kiannae shook her head, and looked to the ceiling.  He rolled his shoulders, got up, and strode to the bar.

“So, you can see me?” Etore asked, although it felt more a dismissal than a question.

“Several of us, though it seems I see you best.  What way your eyes turn, whatever reason you have to watch us in the first place.”

“Maybe it’s just curiosity,” Etore offered, and sipped her drink.  “Strange lot you are.  Bunch of women traveling together.” She laughed. “A Red Sister, a mage, a druid, and a little white robed, something, who looks far too much like a girl to be an accident.”

“I’ve seen where your eyes linger.”

“And I say again, only because you, are strange.”

“That merchant at Silvercreek.  No, as you say, there’s a kind of pretty one doesn’t get by accident.”  He brushed his hand against hers on the bar, and she pulled back with a shiver. She stared at him, her eyes unfocused a moment.  She shook her head, turned, and strode away.

Wren walked back to the table, and sat next to his sister.  He gave Sasha shrug.  “Guess not.”

Her jovial smile fell a bit, and became shrewd. “Oh, you are good.  Sweet boy.” She grinned wickedly. “I miss you.”

Estae 14th, 655 E.R.

“What did you do?” Etore growled, staring down at a young man just inside his door.  When he didn’t answer promptly, she stepped more imposingly over him, and just past the threshold.

“Nothing,” Wren said.  “Even if I had done as those two might have, it would have worn off, hours ago.  Nothing, any of us could have done, would be affecting you now, unless you made it. Clung to it.”

“Make it stop.”

“I’m not doing anything, nor is there anything to undo.  There are two answers to desire.  Resist it, or embrace it.  Fail to do either, and it will embrace you.”

“Make, it, stop.”

“You have, felt it before.  Haven’t you?  Not just unasked, which is one thing, but in some small part against your will.  I don’t know why I know that, but I do.  I know that’s why I sabotaged their little plan.  Why I did just enough to make you walk away before those I care for, could do something either of them would regret.”

She stood there in silence.

“I really did nothing but brush your hand, and put the right ideas in your head,” he offered.  “There’s an old saying; We will believe most readily what we want, or fear.  Both, now, that has a power, doesn’t it?  Because I am afraid of you, and I am drawn to you.  If I am doing anything, it is just my presence.  It pulls some closer, it drives others away.  If you want my thoughts on the mater, I think it is, a sense of who I will be to you.  If you want my assistance, you can have it.  Gladly, but not without answers.” He smiled a bit meekly, but remained defiant of her attempts to impose upon him.

She plucked a pin from her hair.  A menacing pronged end glinting in the dim light, three sharp points of enchanted steel.  Mage-iron, like her swords. Blacked and polished, except sharp silver tips, ground to points, and braided gold inlaid in the cap to give ornamental flare. She jammed it into the door frame beside them, as though to make a point.  To show where the power in that moment lay, where she had almost every reason to believe it was.  She had fought one of the most deadly war mages alive to near standstill.  The tiny whelp of a man had poked an angry hornet’s nest, and yet just stood there.  For in the end, he had brought that horrible man – brought everyone, on every side – to their knees with a mere word.  If, such a thing could even be called a word.

“Any way, I can be of assistance,” he said more firmly, undeterred.  “If, you will tell me why you are watching us.”  He should have been afraid of her.  He felt it in his bones.  He had seen, all that she was capable of. Yet he saw other things.  Golden eyes glinting in the dark.  A wicked grin. She was as terrifying as beautiful, and he wanted her.  It was like gravity, and both were caught in the pull of the other.

She pulled the other pin, and her hair fell across her back in long crimson coils.  She took several harsh breaths through gritted teeth, and without warning threw it past him, where it stuck with a twang a bed post.  She grabbed hold of him, and kissed him fiercely.  If he insisted on playing such games, then she would show him who was in charge.

The room, looked a bit like it had been through a battle. Things strewn about, tossed, and turned. Two figures lay across an off kilter bed, tangled in sheets. One supposes it had been a battle of sorts. Though no violence was perpetrated beyond cosmetic damage to a door frame, and bed post. There had been a few movements too vigorous, an odd tumble. A pinned flailing form. Quite a few growls, of frustration, agitation, or intimidation. Maybe a yelp or two, among less pained sounds. There was a winner, though it was debatable the definition. One at the other’s mercy, the other lost in that thin pretense to mercy.

“Oh, no more,” Etore groaned, and curled protectively into a ball.

“So, have I paid enough for your secrets?” Wren asked in her ear. He curled up behind her, and drew circles on her belly.

“Ugh,” Etore groaned. “You are horrible.”

Wren shifted, and drew his lips down the side of her neck, and out along her shoulder. “Am I?” He sighed. “I’ve never felt so free. I’ve been where you are. I’ve brought others here, but I’ve never been so utterly without reserve. Because you terrify me. Like making an animal that could snap me in half purr. Is this what women feel, with a big, strong, burly man?” He felt a blushing instinct in himself that answered the question in a strange, and uncomfortable way. Perhaps.

“Couldn’t tell you,” Etore muttered, but sighed, as his gift flowed more soothingly into her, easing tired muscles. He felt like the sun, or something, more tenable. Like a hearth, on a cold winter night. She uncurled a bit against him, pressing back against the warmth of skin and aura. His touch wandered almost aimlessly, and yet purpose emerged from the pattern, drawing her out of her curl of retreat. This realization drew another whimper from her lips.

“Taming the beast,” Wren mused. “Goodness, I can’t even remember where I read that. I don’t think it was the Red Book. A little bird, tames a mighty lion with all that it could ever want. I just can’t remember where it’s from. You Osyraen’s, lions mean something to you, don’t they?”

“You’re the Sylvan,” Etore grumbled, and rolled onto her back. She stared up into his eyes, and was caught somewhere between regret, and delight as this exposed more of her to his still wandering, soothing hands.

“So you know?” he asked, drawing a lone finger up the center of her body, a trail of warmth that made her feel like her whole body could fall open to him. Tracing all the way up to the tip of her chin. Her head rolled back, her body arched. It made her want to growl in frustration again. It wasn’t her, to be so lost in someone else’s touch, so utterly, and willfully vulnerable.

She twisted, reached up, and ran her fingertips along his ear, just a bit more pointed than his two sisters. She grabbed hold of it gently and he groaned. They locked eyes fiercely, and he slid his fingers lower again, where she had failed to guard. “Oh you’ll have to fight on my terms,” he mused. “The ear is nice, but I can do so much more lovely things, where I am.”

She screwed up her face in defiance as his power seeped into her once more. She pulled him into a kiss, and the two tumbled again, as the truce of exhaustion found new energy for battle. He wound up on top, staring into her eyes. At once right where she wanted him, and seemingly with no intention to take anything for himself. Just stared down. He had taken nothing for his trouble, but her will, and given everything but relief. Desire, burning away sense. Exhaustion making her passive. She hated it, and loved it at once. He felt wonderful. Everything felt wonderful, but she hated letting anyone have power over her. She closed her eyes.

“Sija rire sen hyn,” Etore murmured, and Wren froze.

“What?” he demanded. He almost understood the words. Something about self, future, and play. The shock of it had him stunned. He’d joked with himself. He had written in a journal not a year before, that he would not know what to do with himself, if he ever heard a woman speak that language to him.

“Sylvan saying,” she yawned, stretched, rising so that more of her body pressed against his. She suddenly reversed their positions. “My future self, will win your game,” she ran her fingers down his chest. Smooth, soft, and strong. She bit her lip. “Roughly speaking,” she said, and tried not to lose her edge to amusement that there was nothing rough about him.

“Where…did you learn Sylvan?” Wren demanded, flustered. He’d heard the line before. It ached to hear it again. Golden eyes, stared into his, smiling down at him. Two pairs that did not quite match.

“Oh, no,” she laughed, letting the humor win when it felt more like power. She leaned in, pressing her body to his, almost losing to the sheer warmth. She whispered in his ear, before biting it. “I have far more secrets than you have imagined, and they are not, easily won.”

He trembled, and could have been forgiven for missing her do the same.

“I’ll tell you,” Etore huffed, and panted.

“I’ll reward you if you tell me,” he whispered in her ear. Control had become a thin pretense, for either of them, but by sheer power of living energy he was stronger. A hair pin that doubled as a throwing weapon had long been shaken from the frame, stuck in a floor board, and then knocked over by a flimsy bed shifting about the room. Mostly from her trying to regain control, but he kept taking it back. Her forceful moves ending in his gentle reversals. Never using strength against her, and always wearing down hers.

“A man hired me,” Etore hummed. She closed her eyes, and sighed as lips found her throat for the dozenth time. “Wanted me to watch the lot of you, for quite a lot of money.”

Wren hummed himself, and nuzzled into her neck, just staying as he was.

“He was, pale, probably eastern. Wore his hood up. Terrible way to hide yourself.” She whimpered, as much for the fact she had lost, as his continued power over her in their struggle. “Just calls attention, unless you are very recognizable.”

“He have a name?” Wren asked, holding his position, and making her arch.

She groaned, and growled. “Not that he gave me.” She opened her eyes, grabbed his head, and stared into his gaze. A moment more of defiance, before giving up the ghost, and flopping back in bed. Just breathing, trying to form the words he wanted her to say, to relent. “Wore a Clarion sun around his neck though. I, I saw that much. Maybe he was bald. I don’t know. Hard to see in low light and shadow. There were, strange things about his aura. Patterns. Never seen anything like it, and I’ve seen a lot.”

Wren stopped, and withdrew, his hand leaving her body. Etore made a sound of protest that went unanswered.

“Could his name have been Idolus?” Wren asked.

“It could have been Asparagus, for all I know,” Etore snapped, and pursed her lips irritably. She had wanted him to relent, and the moment he had, she regretted it. “He was flighty,” she said, “nervous, and then confident in the most… Oh, fates,” she muttered, and curled up with a shiver. She pulled the sheet around herself.

She felt cold even on such a warm summer night, to have him even slightly farther away. It was terrifying the draw he had. The pull, that if she had any strength left would have made her try to take control again, have him. She squeezed her eyes tightly closed. It was different, she tried to convince herself. Different, from a power she had loathed to be under the spiteful influence of.

Wren looked at her a bit uneasily from where he sat, and bit his lip. For the first time in their evening, he finally felt concerned. Yet she was so beautiful. Tall, dark, so invitingly warm. Strong and yet so softly curved. He might have been the Sylvan, as she said, but she was the one with something almost feline about her. So unlike the gentle women of the cloister. He wanted to feel her again, to trace every muscle, and shape of her body. To memorize her like a text on the perfect, transcendent feminine form. Power, grace, strength, and there so vulnerable. Almost as vulnerable as him. A little wounded it seemed, now that he had peeled back her defenses.

He had let go. For the first time in his life, not just with a lover, but that he could ever recall. Unfettered, unafraid, but no less gentle, in some senses. His touch, was always light, it was the softness of the physical world he longed for, even when he let go. His great power, unfurled across the room. He could feel her, even not touching her. The shape of who she was, if not the details.

He worried, if he had done something wrong. He knew what it was to be where she was, and yet he could not fathom. His pains were so small, so trite, and foolish. Conflicts of propriety, and the most melodramatic of emotions that had cost him so much in petty jealousy. There were scars in her essence. He had healed old wounds before. Marks on soldiers, and workers bodies. Her skin was unblemished. It’s perfect warm Osyraen ocher almost blue in the moonlight from the window. Yet she felt like she was cut with so many old scars. He wanted to heal them, but how did one heal things that weren’t there?

“What would you like for your reward?” he asked, and an inscrutable smile crept past his concerned expression. Warring instincts losing to traitors from their respective sides. To a common cause. A whole emerging from discord, in a hope for her answer. If he could not heal her, he could at least be at her service. She had, after all, given him enough to answer the pressing question. That had been the deal, the bargain.

She was silent, and turned her gaze back towards his. They stared into each other’s troubled, but wanting eyes. For the first time, she really wondered which one of them was truly dangerous. “Surprise me,” she said in a challenging tone.

Tone, was about all she could manage for some time after.

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