Afterword

< Book 1 || Book 2 >

With the final chapter of Book 1 now published, I thought I’d share my thoughts.  A small peak behind the curtain follows, so read if you like that kind of thing, or don’t if you prefer to maintain a deeper level of mystique.  Certainly finish Book 1:21 first!

This is far more about the author, and why the tale is as written, and not necessary to understand what is to come.  There may also be a very tiny spoiler in the middle for the highly observant, but it really is quite insignificant, and only a chapter away at that.

Continue reading “Afterword”

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Chapter 21

The fire burns north,
‘n the ice lays south,
between these stand,
not but fear ‘n doubt,

always there’ve been,
the men of bold Osyrae,
‘n always there were,
Queens to hold storm at bay,

there was contention enough,
without dragons at each hand,
the kingdoms err between,
cling more tightly to their land.

– untitled bard song, circa 450 E.R.

Where the Dragon Lies

Coria 38th, 647 E.R.

The stables were always empty at night, save the horses.  The night attendant slept deeply, and rarely needed to be woken by a soldier running in to get him in the event of unexpected arrivals.  The twins none the less moved with the caution of mice sneaking through a cat bed.  They had already dodged all the patrols they knew by heart, not that there were a great many.

The twins had only cursory instruction on riding, most of which they had gotten at Horence’s insistence, as he argued if he was to train them to fight, he would train them to get to a fight.  Laurel had not protested the argument further.  They considered the bridles, and saddles, but their instruction on them had been too cursory, and their sense of urgency too great – to get out before they were discovered.  Particularly as the horses were already stirring uncomfortably over the unexpected night visitors.

“Simple harness, and bareback?” Kiannae suggested quietly.

Katrisha nodded, and each picked a horse they knew from their few times riding.  Katrisha picked a black mare with white spots, whose name she had forgotten.  Kiannae picked an older brown stallion named Golden, that had seemed to have a liking for her once.

The two put on the harnesses carefully, and then lead the horses out of their stalls.  “Let me go first,” Katrisha whispered.  She pushed open the stable doors enough for them to exit single file.  “Just before I reach the gate, when the guards have noticed me, make me vanish.  That should confuse them enough for you to slip through behind.

Kiannae pursed her lips doubtfully at the plan, but finally nodded agreement.

Katrisha considered the task of mounting without stirrups, carefully judged how much extra force she would need, and lept onto the horse’s back.  She gently snapped the reins, once, twice, three times, and the horse was off at a gallop.  She glanced back to be sure her sister was close behind.

Katrisha threw up a dim light orb.  Hoping that perhaps the use of spell craft, but not providing enough light to see, could make her be mistaken even for a moment for Laurel in the dark.  The guards shifted uncertainly, and then Katrisha released the orb, and vanished as she felt her sister’s spell weave around her.

The guards stepped back, both from what had been a fast approaching horse, and uncertainty as it vanished.  A second horse in the first’s wake only made them more doubtful what to do.  Stopping people leaving was rarely if ever their instructions, but there had been no expectation of a departure, and strange magical elements of the whole affair left them bewildered as the twins road off into the night.  They argued a good half hour as to who was going to report, or at least that was the report of the nightwatch on the tower, who finally took it upon himself when the others did not.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 39th, 647 E.R.

Kiannae considered a carefully copied map for some time, as her horse milled a bit at the crossroads they had stopped at.  She brightened her light several times trying to make out their sloppy penmanship.  Katrisha worked to soothe overworked muscles on her mare as Kiannae frowned, and glanced up the road she was fairly sure was the right one.

“We’ve been riding them hard for several hours,” Katrisha said.  “You should do something for Golden, even just a little.”

Kiannae tucked the map under her arm, and ran her hands down Golden’s shoulders.  She hadn’t really been trained as a healer, but she knew well what she did for her own sore shoulders after practice.  Golden calmed his insesent mulling, and snorted contently.  “I’m fairly sure this is the fork we want,” she said nodding her head up the left path towards the mountains.

“We should stop a good ways from the nest,” Katrisha sugested.

Kiannae checked the map.  “The nest is in a broad dry ravine behind a steep ridge, we can stop, and tie up the horses at the base.”  She tucked the map into her robe, and snapped the reigns twice, getting her up to a decent trot, but holding back a bit given how long they had been riding, and the territory they were headed into.

Katrisha moved to catch up, and glanced up at the hills nervously.  ‘Where the dragon lays,’ crossed her mind.  The words hung there quite a while on the ride.  She summoned a spell to check the time, a pyramid bobbed and spun towards the sun somewhere opposite the world.  It was half past one in the morning.  Miles up into the foothills, three or four hours at their current rate.  They would have time to work with in the dark for at least the first part of the fight.

The words wouldn’t go away as she tried to think about all the pertinent details, but what could be more important than the fact that a ‘dragon lies’ ahead.  She almost stopped her horse there, her heart certainly froze.  She remembered Cassandra’s eyes.  She heard the words, ‘the second is born and first to die.’  Another voice all but screamed ‘head the warning,’ in her head.  Which warning.  Laurel dead, one of them.  Katrisha started to cry.  She was the one going down, Kiannae was better at the spell that the whole plan hinged upon.  She would be at risk, her sister would be safe.

Beware did not mean it was the dragon that would kill one of them.  Beware meant to know the risks.  The risk of inaction was all but certain.  The warnings had been headed, they would be headed, she would do everything she could to prevent the alternative.  There was only forward, and Katrisha thought through every single book she had read.  She considered every advantage she could have in that fight.  Everything.

Her robe was enchanted, but really only against something sharp, fire, or spells.  A crushing blow, being stepped on.  If she was hit with a swipe of claw, or the crushing force of a bite it would do nothing.  If she did not avoid the attacks, it did not matter if the robe kept her from being stabbed or sliced, the force would still crush her.

If there was fire?  Katrisha considered worriedly.  The robe would not protect her head any way.  If there was fire, it was a greater dragon, and the whole plan was shot.  They had already thought through the contingencies to test.  Fire was not an issue.  By the moment the robe felt like a liability.  That had been what one book had asserted.  She laughed mutedly at that, no more than two quick almost soundless huffs through her nose.  Was it mad?  She shook her head, and road on, catching up with her sister who was trotting just a bit faster.

It would be fine.  They had a plan, and the alternative was foolish.  The alternative was to be blind, and stumble forward.  Her magic had sliced solid stone, she could do it.  She felt battle hardened, confident.  It wasn’t hers, it didn’t belong to that moment, but all at once, it was hers.  She was a battle mage, because her fate was to fight.  She wasn’t sure she liked that, but it came with confidence.  Those kind of instinct would not come from one encounter.  Kiannae had them as well.  It wouldn’t be just the one fight in their future.  This, was the right path.

Katrisha was certain of her course.  She was afraid, the animal facing danger filled with adrenaline, but the spirit, and mind were clear.  She had a destiny.  Prophecy was one thing, but destiny was another in her head.  They were words from stories, tales of adventure that Mercu liked to tell.  ‘Prophecy is what is handed to us, destiny is what we take, in spite of it.’

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The twins moved cautiously up the ridge in the dead of night.  Weaving around thorn bushes, and avoiding scattered twigs for fear of making any sound.   They had left the horses tied a few hundred yards below to keep them out of earshot, but still winced when they could make out a distant snort or clop of shuffling hooves.

So far Eran’s map had proved accurate – old trails and animal tracks winding off a little used road that lead into the mountains had brought the girls to that hesitant, breathless final stretch.  Getting to their knees they moved cautiously the last few feet to peer into the moonlit ravine below.  It was hard to make out clearly in the pale moonlight, but dark shimmering scales could be seen amidst the black rock.  The scales moved rhythmically with each of the dragons quiet shallow breaths.  Kiannae was relieved to see the creature was asleep for the moment, this would give them time to get a better vantage point.

They worked their way carefully down the crag, between sharp rocks, and through deep fissures in the stone.  Their hearts stopped every time loose stones shifted, and tumbled clattering down, sometimes dislodging others along the way.  At last they came to a small outcrop of rock on a ledge just above the beast.  Its breaths though soft could now be heard, and the outline of its form discerned clearly by the sheen of it’s scales in the moonlight.

It was larger than any living thing the girls had ever seen, one of the horses they had road on could fit easily inside it, and leave plenty of room for the both of them.  A chilling and all too likely outcome Katrisha realized, if their plans did not work out.  She continued to convince herself it would.  She leaned close to her sister and whispered in her ear, “See that boulder up there on the opposite cliff, I’ll nudge it loose, you turn it invisible, we’ll see what the dragon does when something it can’t see hits it.”

Kiannae nodded and closed her eyes for a moment, focusing.  Katrisha watched as the bolder shimmered and disappeared, leaving only a faint magical aura revealing it was still there.  She reached out and carefully formed a spell for directed force.  It unleashed in a burst which briefly revealed the bolder.  There was a sound of stone grinding on stone, and a loud crack as the heavy stone caught on a lip of the cliff wall, and vanished again.

The dragon’s head shot upright at the sound.  It could not see the bolder coming, but heard it as it scraped down the cliff face, and struck the floor of the ravine with great force.  It was not prepared as the boulder tumbled into the wing folded at its side, and let out a deafening roar with the impact as it staggered to its feet.

The great beast shuffled about cautiously, the weight of its steps producing loud thuds.  It spread its vast wings almost cliff to cliff, one twitching slightly where it had been struck.  It did not understand, did not see what had hit it.  Katrisha watched closely as one of the dragon’s legs stumbled over the invisible stone, causing it to turn violently and look for what it had tripped over.  Nothing was there, not to the dragon’s eyes at least.

The dragon sniffed the air and growled loudly.  It looked about suspiciously, but saw nothing, heard nothing of merit but the wind blowing down the canyon.  Slowly, cautiously it began to return to its resting spot, only to find a vexing invisible lump in its way.  The creature poked with a front claw at what it could not see, and the great stone rolled slightly under the force.

Displeased and perplexed the dragon backed away, and settled farther down the ravine, closer to the edge where the land plummeted into the valley below.  It lay, and stared intently at where the unseen bolder lay.

“Well that worked,” Katrisha whispered softly, “how are you holding up?”

“I’m fine,” Kiannae said softly, her eyes still clenched shut, focusing on maintaining the illusion.  “I could probably keep this up a good ten, fifteen minutes easily, but I would much rather reserve such efforts for when it counts.”

The sound of stray pebbles tumbling down the far cliff caused the dragon to turn its head away from the bolder, and Katrisha softly commanded, “Let it go.”  The bolder shimmered back into view at the periphery of the dragon’s vision, causing it to snap its head back and stare intently.  It could see the bolder then, could see what had hit it, but still did not understand.  The bolder just sat there.

Katrisha began stripping off her robe, drawing a perplexed look from her sister.  “What are you doing?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.

“This robe is too heavy,” Katrisha whispered softly, “Like the book said, if I’m going to move fast enough…it would just get in my way.”

“But the enchantments…” Kiannae protested with concern.

“Won’t do a bloody thing,” Katrisha said with a grimace.

“I…” Kiannae started hesitantly, for the first time doubt in her voice, “I’m not sure about this plan any more.”

Katrisha folded her robe on the rock and considered her sister for a moment.  She tried moving, but found the billowing of her undergarment worse than the robe, it was too loose, if not nearly as restrictive.  She pursed her lips doubtfully, took it off, and lay it atop the robe. Kiannae gave her an even more disbelieving look as she crouched naked in the moonlight.   “Can you maintain the spell?” she asked bluntly.

“Yes….yes,” Kiannae shot back defensively. “I… I’m just scared.  It’s bigger, much bigger than we thought.  I…don’t want to lose you…”

Katrisha leaned closer to her sister, and put her forehead to hers, “You won’t, the plan will work.  The dragon couldn’t see the bolder, it won’t be able to see me – at least, not long enough to catch me.”  She sighed, then half smiled.  “We have to do this.”  She kept all her reasoning to herself.  Kiannae didn’t need more to worry about, if she hadn’t yet realized.  Katrisha was fairly sure her twin hadn’t put together what she had.

“Ok,” Kiannae said reluctantly, looking her sister square in the eye.  She kept feeling like she had forgotten something, something very important, but it kept just out of reach.

Katrisha nodded, and Kiannae began the spell, wrapping light around her sister, turning her invisible to mundane eyes.  Katrisha was relieved that in the dark of night, the fuzzy outline of the world was almost easier to see.  Carefully she began to work her way down the broken cliff face, and moved to where the bolder now stood.  She could faintly see the thin slits of the dragons massive eyes reflecting light, and appearing to glow with their own brilliance.  They were almost closed, the dragon almost back to sleep.  It was less prepared for what was coming than it had been even for the bolder.

Gathering all of her focus Katrisha prepared the spell, and put a great deal of her power into the first shot, intending to make it count.  She could feel the spell around her falter, as she knew it would, her own magic interfering with it for a moment.  The dragon’s head shifted at the sight, just enough, as a spear of ice nicked its jaw, tearing scales away, and buried itself in its shoulder.

The beast’s roar of agony was deafening as it staggered to its feet, favoring its now slightly wounded front hip.  It glared at the tiny pale thing that had appeared from nowhere, and with barely a moment’s hesitation barreled towards the attacker, but she was gone.  Katrisha had already bolted from her position, and now stood with her bare back to the cold stone of the cliff face.  She forced her breath to be steady, slow, controlled, not to let it give her away.  She took comfort in the eerie world of shadowed outlines that let her know she was invisible, protected.

The spear of frozen air and water vapor boiled away slowly from the dragon’s shoulder, drawing ever more angered pained growls from the beast.  Katrisha gathered her strength again, pulling power from the air, from the stone, and from the aether.  Her heart was beating so fast, some part of her was afraid, but that part could gain no audience as exhilaration ruled uncontested in her mind.  

Katrisha struck again, and another shimmering spear shot forth, pulling the air into a solid razor sharp lance of ice, turning heat into velocity.  Even the stone hard scales of the dragon could not stop all of the force, but once again the wound was shallow, not even a foot of penetration into the immense bulk of the beast.  The dragon shrieked in pain with deafening volume, and turned toward the direction the attack had come from, barely catching a glimmer of the tiny thing that had been there.

Katrisha was forced to roll out of the way as the dragon charged again for the wall she had stood against.  She felt sharp stone and pebbles scratch and cut her skin, and winced.  She could smell the blood of the dragon, as large drops fell to the ground from the steaming wound in its side.  She crouched hesitantly, and considered moving – the dragon was far too close for comfort.

Katrisha analyzed the situation, her strikes were wounding the beast, but as much volume of blood now oozed from its wounds, these were nothing more than deep scratches to a beast its size.  Sure maybe they would fester, and the creature would die of infection, but she did not have weeks to work with.

Above this contest of wills, Kiannae risked her concentration to look up when she heard loose pebbles tumble down beside her.  She cursed softly and closed her eyes again when she saw four knights, Laurel, Eran, and Idolus all perched above her on the cliff.

Katrisha considered her new vantage point, the scales were layered, overlapping like shingles from head towards tail.  Her previous strikes had barely cut through the scales, but from this angle she wondered if she could wedge her attack under the scales, allowing it to penetrate deeper.

Gathering her strength Katrisha struck again, the brilliant glass like shard sliding almost effortlessly between the scales.  Several tore completely free under the force of the attack, and the spear disappeared entirely into the creature, only to boil forth slowly as steam from the deep wound.  The dragon thrashed wildly in agony, its wings crashing carelessly against the cliff walls as Katrisha once again sought a safer vantage, and tried to dodge falling rocks that were easily as deadly as the dragon.

Laurel and Idolus had made their way down to Kiannae by this point, and Laurel’s first harshly whispered demands for answers had been completely ignored by the deeply focused girl who sat before him.  The priest turned from the one sided staring contest and peered into the gorge below, perplexed at what he saw.   All too quickly he realized as another spear of ice shot into the dragon’s side, and Katrisha was again revealed, that the girl fighting the dragon below was quite naked.

He moved along the narrow ridge, trying to get closer to where he could vaguely make out the moving aura.  He watched in amazement as the graceful young girl struck again, her sweat soaked skin shining in the moonlight, and just as quickly vanished.  He looked then to the dragon which shuffled aimlessly, growling, snorting, and groaning constantly, seeking a target, any target in its pent up rage.

Katrisha moved quickly, quietly, constantly seeking a better, less visible angle of attack.  She could smell her own sweat, and dreaded for just a moment that her scent would give her away.  The dragon had moved to where she had last struck, it was learning, she was sure it hadn’t even seen her that time.  It sniffed at the air, turning its head back and forth.

Katrisha thought little of it as the creatures wings carelessly scraped along the top of the ridge.  Little of it that is, until she heard a man’s yell, and turned to see some one slide helplessly down the steep stone cliff face and crumple to the ground amidst shattered stone.

It was instinct, something automatic, she knew without even thinking that whoever had stumbled into this was dead if she didn’t act.  Katrisha struck again, wildly, recklessly this time, she put too much into the spell and was left staggered by it.  The shard of ice had been nearly as large as her, and even the gust from its departure nearly pulled her over.  It penetrated deeply into the dragon’s flank, drawing it back away from the trembling Idolus who lay desperately trying to heal his wounds.  The power of the spell had fed back through Kiannae’s illusion and broken her concentration, leaving Katrisha exposed as the dragon barreled towards her.

The Dragon was almost upon Katrisha before Kiannae could leap up to get eyes on her sister, and reform the illusion.  Katrisha was left little choice but to dive between the immense legs.  Heavy crashing feet barely missed her with force that would have left her little more than a smear on the cold stone.  The sound alone of each thunderous step was bone rattling, and her ears were left ringing.

Katrisha was scratched and bruised from her desperate maneuvers, but otherwise intact.  The beasts vast belly was suspended mere inches above her.  Part of her thought – for just a moment – of the perfect opportunity the angle presented her to strike what might be a mortal blow.  Her last reckless move however had left her too weak to try, and she realized she was too close to get any good acceleration on the attack.  Lastly in that moment of forced hesitation, a glimmer of sense came to her for how precarious her current position really was.

Katrisha turned her head in confusion as a bright flash of light caught her attention.  She rolled and scrambled to avoid the dragon’s shuffling claws as it was also drawn to the new distraction.  She had barely gotten to her feet as the dragon’s tail swept around, too low to the ground to avoid, the blow knocked the wind from her, and she heard a rib crack from the impact.  She felt the acceleration, the whole world tumble.

Katrisha didn’t see that the light had been Laurel on the cliff, trying to distract the dragon.  She only knew that past the pain, numbed by shock, she felt weightless.  It took her a moment, perhaps an eternity, perhaps only half a second of looking up at the moonlit sky, and twinkling stars to realize she was falling.  The dragon’s tail had swept her clean off the cliff at the end of the ravine.  Katrisha  rolled painfully in the air, and looked down in dazed terror at the oncoming rocks below.

Far above, Kiannae had lost her focus, and she watched as a wounded dragon landed precariously on a ledge not far away, sending pieces of stone tumbling into the ravine.  Laurel shattered the stone beneath the dragon’s feet, causing it to lose its grip, and tumble with terrible force to the ground below.  Kiannae panicked, she didn’t know where Katrisha was any more, and as she looked to the ravine floor below, and then the direction she had last been able to track her sister, she saw the cliff.  Then she felt something inside her snap, like ice piercing the very center of her.

Kiannae’s face went white, her thoughts spiraled unintelligibly out of control, and she ran, scrambling up the cliff where she had previously come down.  She stumbled half blind as tears formed, and blurred her vision.  She ran past Knights who could not quite get hold of her, and down the path she had climbed before.  It was all she could do to get onto the horse she had come on, even as someone was running after her.  She burned the reins away, that held the horse to the tree it was tied to.  The horse bolted from everything going on, and carried Kiannae away.

All she wanted then and there was to be anywhere else.  Dark thoughts plagued her mind, half formed, as she became certain, as the only plausible reality seared into her mind.  She had failed, she had not been good enough, and now, her heart broke, she couldn’t even bare to think the words she could finally remember, that she then knew to be true.  The words of an old woman from years before echoed in her head.

Kiannae wondered how she had forgotten, how Katrisha had forgotten.  Laurel had told them to, that was why.  They had come to save him, they had done it to save him, and…she trembled as she clung to the horse, all of her wild fear and fury driving it on.  They had never been completely sure which of them was born first, but now Kiannae was sure.  Katrisha was born second.

Kiannae began to cry without reservation, as the words rang so loud in her head someone could have been screaming them in her pounding ears, ‘first to die.’

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae lay against her horse’s back, bathed in moonlight as trees flew by at the roadside.  She had ridden for hours without direction, or clear thought, as overwhelming sorrow, weariness, and guilt plagued her delirious mind.  She didn’t know where she was, she didn’t care.  If the horse slowed she simply clenched her fingers into his fur tighter, and let all her sorrow and rage flow into the innocent creature as unformed wild energies spurred it on.

When exhaustion finally won the contest of wills with madness, Kiannae passed out.  No longer clinging tightly she slipped from horse’s back, and was shocked awake by the cold hard ground, as tumbled several times. For a moment pain pulled her from her fevered delusions.  She looked up to see the horse a dozen yards away, cautiously examining its former rider – torn between training, and the relief to have the wild creature off its back.  Kiannae winced as she moved, everything hurt, and her head seemed to be ringing like a bell.

Waveringly she managed to push herself up.  As she sat dazed on the road she became aware of the blood trickling over her lips, and down her chin.  She brought her hand to her nose, and touched it gingerly.   It was covered in blood that was almost black in the moonlight.  She laughed, she didn’t know why, it was a single short laugh with no humor in it.  She looked around absently, not caring for the horse that scratched at the ground and snorted a short distance away, nor the blood that still flowed from her face.

After a minute of vacantly surveying her surroundings Kiannae came enough to her senses to try to stop the bleeding from her nose.  She brought both hands to her face, and focused past every other screaming muscle and joint to stop the blood.  The delirious spiral of emotions that had consumed her abated for a moment, as a cold analytical state took over her shock addled mind.  The horror was still there, somewhere, at the edge of her consciousness, like swirling storm clouds on the horizon.  As she finished her nose she began to take stock of each cut, scrape, and strained joint.  This seemed to keep larger troubles at bay for the moment.

Finding her legs mostly intact Kiannae tried to get up, but fell with a shriek on the first attempt having found that her right shoulder could bear no weight.  She tried again using her left arm to help herself up, and managed to stumble to her feet.  She watched apathetically as the horse backed away farther, obviously uninterested in the possibility of her remounting it.

Kiannae looked up and down the unmarked forest road.  She could only guess at that point which way she had even come from.  For all she knew she had tumbled fully over in the fall, and the horse had circled around.  For a moment she considered returning, going back to the castle and facing the wrath of the the King, Laurel…everyone.

There was no point to it.  Returning would not bring Katrisha back, there was nothing there for her any more.  Not even Laurel, or Mercu – they had told her to ignore, to forget…she had, and then she hadn’t…but she wouldn’t…she was so angry, looking for anyone to blame but herself.  On a level she knew that, and yet there was a righteous indignation right behind that knowledge.  Why would she face their wrath…or Wren, who had lost his favored sister.  She had warmed to her brother, but not fully.  She wanted no part of it, not any of it.

She looked away from where she had come, or so she presumed.  She considered the road ahead – another kingdom, perhaps?  She was unsure where she was.  She could join a merchant caravan, if perhaps she could convince them she was older.  It would be a hard sell, however good she was at magic. What did it matter, what did she care for that life?  She stumbled to the side of the road, leaned against a tree, and found herself staring into the forest.

What forest was it, Kiannae wondered.  Had she been riding east?  She must have been given the mountains she had ridden from.  Was she on the edge of the great forest in which the Sylvans dwelled?  Could her half forgotten father be out there somewhere?  There was something to that, even as madness tried to take her again.  The cold inside of her, the place that felt like a hole where her sister had always been, ached.  She formed a spell that told her which way was north.  It had to be where she was, it was that forest, she was convinced.

As a child Kiannae had stood at the forest’s western border. She had tried to find the courage to cross the stream that ran behind her grandparent’s crypt…long since her mother’s too.  Her sister had taken her hand, and she had turned back.  She had let go of her father, and the mad idea of finding him.  Her sister wasn’t there to take her hand then.  Never would be again, Kiannae considered darkly as tears streamed down her cheeks.  She set herself to that unreasonable goal.  She left the road, the horse, and her ruined life behind – cast adrift like a loose filament of a failed spell, caught in the wind.

Fate had no more power over her, it had taken all it could.  From far above the vantage of mortal eyes, one could see it was so.  She was indeed a loose thread, still spiraling around greater events, her purpose long lost to another.  She was a wild card in a game she could not imagine the players of – a pawn just one square from the far side of the board.  No threat at all, to those still learning the rules of the game.

The Beginning…

< Previous || Afterword || Book 2 >

Chapter 20

The kingdom of valleys ends,
where the endless plains begin,
and there beyond lies Osyrae,
home to black dragonkin,

once their sire ruled men,
now that line lays abhorred,
fear that long come day,
a dragon king,
again adored.

– untitled bard verse, circa 610 E.R.

Stirrings in the North

Wren was still small.  It wasn’t simply that he was years younger than his classmates, he was shorter than most girls his age, and any early bursts of growth had long since fallen behind.  He stood a full head shorter than Celia, the younger of his two companions.  It was also not simply a question of height, he was slight in form, and his head bowed easily to those around him.

He was possessed of an unmistakably demure nature – even if the word conventionally belonged to women, there was an aptness to the description – he was easily, and often mistaken for a young girl.  A mistake that quite foolishly many would make for his hair alone, not even his stature, or poise.  The ignorant would blame this on his upbringing, to be raised in a niche where women reigned as men did in most other corners of the world.  To look around him though, at the other men and boys that shared that way of life, they were little like Wren.

Men of the order were not so different than outsiders.  A few less rough edges, slightly less assuming, but on the whole nothing incongruous to the upper classes, and scholarly circles.  They were far more mindful of women, but no less angling for their attentions, and affections.  Vastly more successful, but this was only marginally owing to any particular quality of their own.

It was a strange dance to watch.  Different than what played out between outsiders, who couched their advances and acceptances far more deeply in properties.  There was an overtness to the exchange amongst members of the order, yet still polite, cordial, playfully coy, and rarely crass.  The differences though, lay as much in the women.  Self assured, privileged over the men, unashamed of their own wants.  They were as likely to approach, as be approached, and many quite content to take their affections in one another.

None of this was lost on the young, and no one attempted to shield them from the truth of it, for no one was ashamed.  Frankly the young were warned of it firmly, of their own coming desires, for most of them would bloom at a young age.  A curse and a blessing of their gift and practice.  To channel living energy was to be alive, and desires of the flesh are inseparably part of life.  There were roughly two options.  The path that Clarions took, to repress, to be more chased, and reserved.  The latter to embrace it, and find some balance that gave one peace.

Wren was still quite young, but boys of the wider world had turned a longing eye in younger years.  His had looked to each of his friends more than once, but it was always Celia that held his gaze.  Audry was more developed, but she was more than another year his elder, imposing, worldly in a vague sort of way – for in truth she had seen it and traveled, even if as a small child.  She had been well aware of her mother’s dalliances, and affinity for strong but accommodating men.  Wren felt as though he would wilt before her.  Celia was more like him, reserved, introspective.  It was not night and day where his attentions lay, but the gravity of it was clear.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 10th, 647 E.R.

Audrey had hugged each of her dear friends in turn, and run off.  She had duties to attend to, but Wren and Celia’s free days had aligned.  Neither was much for coming up with plans on what to do, all but invariably left to their own they were apt to wander, or sit somewhere on the grounds.  They looked to each other and laughed.  It had become a joke that didn’t even need to be spoken any more.  ‘What do you want to do?’ invariably lead to a lack of answer.  Except at that moment, Wren did know, if only abstractly.

There were hardly details in his mind.  Lycians may be open and unashamed, but that did not mean they spelled out the specifics for the young, who were left mostly to their own devices to figure it out.  He knew he wanted to kiss her.  Watching her laugh, watching her give him the amused look they so often shared only made the feeling stronger.  He was not so bold though, and instead he bit his lip and earned a funny look from his friend.

Wren took Celia’s hand, but looked away, avoiding her gaze as she considered him quizzically.  “Let’s go to the orchard,” he said.  It was mid spring, the flowers would be blooming, and it might be private.  All of this had been keenly in mind with the suggestion, which was far more direction than either of them would typically offer

“Ok,” Celia said without much concern, squeezed his hand, and they walked on.

The orchard was indeed in bloom, fragrant, and lush.  Invariably Wren wanted to look not at the trees, but to Celia, yet he didn’t.  One need not have shame heaped upon them, to be embarrassed by desire.  It is vulnerable, volatile, frightening, and needful all at once – this is at its worst for the very young.

“Mother says a dragon has been seen in the north,” Wren commented, trying to make conversation.  Wren waffled on that a moment.  Renae was not his mother, she was the matron of the cloister.  She encouraged him though to call her mother, and it always felt odd, even if it had become habit.

“She told you?” Celia asked curiously, interrupting the stray train of thought.

“No – but I heard her talking with Andria about it.”

“There hasn’t been a dragon in the north in a very long time,” Celia said with some concern.  “That’s all mother would tell me when I asked her about it.”

“Renae does not like to talk about it either,” Wren said.  “My grandmother died fighting a dragon.”

“She did?” Celia asked, and stopped abruptly.  “Your grandmother fought a dragon?”

Wren simply nodded, even when such a question seemed to demand a better answer.  He did not like to talk about his family, save his sisters.  The others were dead, and it was all tragedy, and pain.  Renae had always been very supportive on the matter, and of his reluctance to speak of it.  She never mentioned his mother, or grandmother, but Mercu had told him the tale.  Silence set in again, and the two walked on without much direction.

“Wren,” Celia began after a few more minutes had passed.

He hesitated.  “Yes?”

“What’s wrong?” Celia pressed.

“Nothing,” Wren said, and pursed his lips uneasily.

“Lying isn’t like you,” Celia chided, and squeezed his hand tighter.

Wren started to turn his head, but found he couldn’t, not at first.  His eyes fell, and he turned very slowly, before managing at last to look up.  He still couldn’t speak, could barely look Celia in the eye whose gaze was filled with concern.  He swallowed.  “I…” was all he managed.

Celia said nothing, she just held Wren’s hand as his eyes fell again to the ground.  When he didn’t look up she stepped closer, and hugged him to her chest.  He buried his face in her robe, and tried not to cry, he was so embarrassed.  He tried to look up, but couldn’t quite, even for physical reasons.  If he tried he just wound up staring at her neck.  This gave way to temptation, and he nuzzled there instead.  It was brazen, frightening, innocent enough in fact, and pure instinct, excusable…he tried to convince himself, but was hardly sure.  It felt familiar, and out of place all at once.

There was a hesitance then, a stiffness in Celia’s embrace.  Wren stopped, his nose rested against the side of her neck, his breath on her skin.  She shivered.  There was a moment of silence, of utter indecision, and a lack of any real communication between the two.  He knew as he searched his own feelings, that the instinct hadn’t been his own, even as surely as the want of it had been.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said.

It was Celia’s turn to swallow.

Wren started to pull away, and for a moment it felt as though he might slip her grasp, but Celia suddenly pulled him in tighter, and didn’t let him go – crushing him to her – to no complaint from the boy.

“No,” Celia answered.  “No, I’m sorry, Little Bird.”

Wren struggled a bit with the nickname just then.  It was mostly Renae who ever called him that, but others had picked up on it.  Not all with much love, but Celia had always been at least playful about it.  No part of this helped it feel quite right to him in that moment.

“I like you,” Wren said.  It was utterly lackluster, and he knew it, but what else could he say.  He could jump straight to love, it probably wouldn’t be wrong to say, he did after all.  There were four people in his life he felt he could not live without; Renae, Katrisha, and his two dearest friends – yet to say love seemed too far.

“I like you too,” Celia offered, yet the unspoken ‘but’ was louder in Wren’s head than the words themselves.

“I’m sorry,” Wren said again.

“Stop saying that,” Celia demanded somewhere between pleading, and anger.

“I’ll go,” Wren offered, and pulled away, but Celia didn’t let him fully escape her grasp, and held him by both shoulders.  He looked down, for much too long.  He stared at the ground, before reluctantly looking up again.  Celia was biting her lip, her intent unreadable.  Wren felt very small.

Celia stepped closer, her eyes hopelessly uncertain, she leaned down, and stopped.  She didn’t quite seem to know the mechanics of it, but Wren’s heart leapt to think she might be about to kiss him.  There were no other thoughts but that in his head – of their lips meeting – and then he pushed up into it.  Their lips came together, awkwardly, tentatively, but then pressed more firmly – both of them.

To call the kiss unskilled really wouldn’t have done it justice.  It was a wreck, both of them knew it instinctively, but they also didn’t care.  Celia’s hesitance was impossible to miss, but she did return the kiss, her eyes open at first, filled with insecurity, but Wren saw none of this, his were closed so tight it almost hurt.  He wrapped his arms around Celia, and for a moment her hesitance melted, her eyes narrowed, closed, and the two eased into one another.

Wren felt so small in Celia’s arms – to both of them – yet he was like a tiny ball of fire to Celia’s comforting, consoling part.  She was not unmoved, she felt strings she didn’t have words for, and her kiss did warm into a needful thing, however overshadowed by Wren’s insistence.

The kiss broke, and Wren’s lips wandered aimlessly over Celia’s cheek, her chin, and found again her neck.  She shivered, and grew tense again.  Wren stopped.  He knew he was too far ahead, he buried his face in her neck seeking comfort instead, but it was all the same to her.  She couldn’t know what haunted him.

“What do you want?” Celia asked, her voice halting, and nervous.

Wren was silent for more than a moment, this didn’t help.  “I don’t know,” he finally offered.  “Just to be with you, completely.  To feel you, all of you…to touch you.”  There was a breath of pause, “I’m sorry.”

Celia tensed further at those words, and Wren cringed.  She had asked him not to say that, and again he had.  He resisted apologizing for that in turn.  They stood like that for far too long.  Wren started to pull away again, when he felt Celia rest her hand his arm.  She brought his hand up, and rested it over her heart, where her robe was slightly parted, and then let go.

Wren let his hand rest there for some time.  He didn’t know what was next, and he also could tell Celia was at best unsure, but that barely registered over his own curiosity.  That awareness was like fine threads binding something wild, not enough.  His hand slipped a bit under the edge of the fabric, and he moved to kiss her again.  She responded to the kiss.  She wasn’t unwilling, but her trepidation was like ice to Wren’s intensity, she seemed to be melting, but he was constantly aware, kept from completely losing himself in the moment.

The kiss broke, and their eyes met again.  Celia brushed back his hair, a look of love and something horribly torn in her gaze.  Her fingers came down along Wren’s arm.  Her hand rested there, and squeezed gently, enough to stop him from moving any further.  She trembled, the uncertainty turning to fear, sadness, confusion.  She winced as though in pain.  “No,” she whispered softly.  “No.  I’m sorry, no,” she began to weep.  Then she slipped away, ran, and did not look back.

Wren leaned against a nearby tree, clutched his robe to his chest, and watched her go.  He was guilty, troubled, and a little desperate.  There was a flash of memory, more sensation than anything, but there were hints of a scent he did not know, and shadows by the moonlight – long hair, and twined fingers.  There was a glimmer of blue eyes in the dark, and the sensation of lips trailing along a throat – his throat – but he knew it wasn’t his.

No one had ever kissed him like that, touched him that way.  He knew what the memory was, and as much as he tried to push it away, it took him, and he fell to his knees, trembling.  He was at once elated and furious, trapped in the beauty of a moment that wasn’t his, and suddenly wildly, felt like it could never be.  He was in two places at once, both felt slightly numb, and all the more real.  The memories were always more vivid than his own, but none had ever been so intense, or so filled with things he could not place.

It took Wren some time to struggle back to his feet.  It faded to a vague shadow, all but inseparable from his own memory, save the knowledge that it wasn’t.  He made his way ploddingly back to the cloister.  His demeanor drew more than a few glances, but no one asked.  Eventually he found himself on a balcony, overlooking one of the many courtyards.  He sat, his feet dangling over the edge, as he was prone to do – particularly when mulling things over.

Time was a bit of a blur, as was oft the case when his mother’s memories intruded.  As unnerving as the experience was, it had done nothing to shake the state he had been left in from his brief encounter with Celia, truthfully it had made things very much worse.  That sensation gnawed at him, he wanted to feel it, not just a memory that wasn’t his.  To feel fingers, and lips on his skin, to lose himself completely in someone else.  To give those feelings in turn.  He wanted it to be with Celia, but in that moment he didn’t entirely care, almost anyone would do.  The realization of that made him a bit angry at himself.

He heard footsteps behind him, he didn’t even turn to look.  He realized he had been sitting there for well over an hour.  “I thought that was you,” Audry said with a quizzical tone.

“So it is,” Wren said disinterestedly.

“You alright?” Audry asked sitting down next to him, and hanging her own feet.

“Been better,” Wren muttered.

“I’m here to listen,” Audry offered sweetly.  “You aren’t moping over my brother again are you?”

“No, and…” Wren sighed, even that fraught thought seemed to wither before what he was feeling.  “I don’t know what I’d do without you, and…” he trailed off.

Audry put her hand on Wren’s and squeezed.  “Is something wrong with Celia?” she asked astutely, seeing only one possible person that could have finished that sentence for either of them.

“I…” Wren started to turn to Audry, and looked much more plainly away.

“You what?” Audry said squeezing Wren’s hand again.

“I kissed her,” Wren said reluctantly, and bit his lip.

Audry hesitated for a moment, and then with a touch of disappointment in her voice finally said simply, “Oh.”

“I really Kissed her,” Wren said with a bit of frustration in his voice, failing to read Audry’s tone.

“And?” Audry said her voice tight, but trying to remain supportive.

“It was very nice…” Wren started, “and then it wasn’t.”

“What was wrong?” Audry asked not sure what to make of Wren’s statement.

“It started to be more than a kiss,” Wren choked.  “I…I don’t even know what came over me, it felt good…till she wanted to stop.  I did, but…oh fates, she ran off pretty quick after that.”

“That’s rough,” Audry said softly, “they warned us that we might start to have these feelings soon.”

“For you, and the older kids sure,” Wren muttered.  “I’m three years younger, and Celia is a year younger herself.”

“You were always ahead of the class,” Audry laughed sweetly squeezing his hand all the more tightly.

“Now I’ve one less friend for it too,” Wren whimpered.  “It was so much stronger than they warned…so,” he paused to swallow.  “…it was like starving, gasping for air, and she was the only relief.  I still don’t think I was in my right mind even after she left.  I just…”

Audry looked away, but held on.  “I want to say I can relate…I kind of can, I am older like you say…” she said trailing off.  “I can understand liking someone, and not feeling like…  Never mind, that’s my trouble, not yours.  I’m sure Celia will forgive you, it’s always been the three of us, hasn’t it?  Yeah, she’ll forgive you.”

Wren looked at Audry perplexed by her rambling.  “Who?” he asked curiously, somewhere between wanting to help, and simply being glad for someone else’s problems to distract him from his own.  “I’ve never really seen you talking with the other boys, or girls…not at length any way.”

Audry looked at Wren for a moment, then shook her head trying to clear it.  “Sorry, no…its…they…just, someone younger…so I never said anything.”

“Oh,” Wren said a bit flummoxed, “oh I’m sorry.  I…didn’t realize you were interested in Celia too…and here I’m going on about kissing her, and…I’m so sorry.”

There was a look of absolute disbelief on Audry’s face, it looked almost as though she wanted to be mad.  Then finally, laughingly, almost crying she conked her head on the railing post between them.  “If I ever called you brilliant, I take it back right this instant.”

“You…wait, what?” Wren said, suddenly not quite sure if he should be offended.

“You, you darling…silly…” She hesitated for a breath, and more emphatically finished.  “You.” Audry said, slowly embracing what she was admitting as she said it.  Wren was younger, but he never seemed it.  He was timid and sweet, but it had always felt more like kind and considerate.

Wren closed his eyes, and knocked his head against the same post in embarrassment.  It took him a moment to realize Audry was still squeezing his hand, and as he opened his eyes he could see Audry watching him from the other side of the rail.  “So, what you are saying,” Wren started awkwardly.

“Is I love you, you silly boy.  I’ve loved you for a while now…” Audry said flatly, “but I’m  older…and I always knew it would be Celia for you.  I didn’t want it to be, and if she’s hesitated…”  She stopped for a moment.  “Sasha’s right,” she said under her breath so softly Wren barely heard it.  “I won’t.”

Wren’s presence had always put her at ease, and on edge at once.  He was so small, but his presence wasn’t.  He felt big and strong, and safe even if he wasn’t, and she was far too ready to say anything on her mind around him, until a few thoughts had made her hold her tongue.

“I…I don’t know what to say,” Wren said looking into the hopeful determined eyes across from him.

“Say yes,” Audry said hopefully, “kiss me, and see if it stirs the same feelings?”

Wren hesitated, it wasn’t even close to an unappealing idea.  “But what about Celia?” he asked, biting his lip.

“Nothing changes,” Audry assured him.  “She’s still our friend.  She was the one who was uncomfortable.  This should make it easier, take the weight of it off her.”

Audry leaned around the rail closer to Wren, and waited, hoped that he would accept her offer.  She doubted if she was right, that Celia wouldn’t mind, but a part of her – if she was honest with herself – didn’t care.  If Celia had turned Wren away she wouldn’t.  She had been told such an opportunity might come.   He was sweet, kind, and made her happy.  So what if he was younger, he was now a class ahead of her, as was Celia.  She felt left behind, worried she was losing them.  Others didn’t know how special Wren was, but Sasha had warned her – that wouldn’t last forever.

“I…ok,” Wren said letting go of his hesitation, and leaning closer for a testing kiss, and then again longer.  As Audry pulled him close Wren remembered kissing Celia, the half hearted return, the hesitation.  Audry didn’t hesitate, she didn’t pull away, she was in control, and a part of Wren liked that.

Neither had noticed Celia, they were too distracted to have looked down into the courtyard below.  She looked away, uncomfortable, and sad.  She tried to convince herself it was for the best, that it was easier that way.  Part of her knew what she had wanted, but part of her doubted.  Most of all, she hadn’t been ready.  Wren was the only boy who interested her, and if he was taken, it did simplify things, make who she felt she was more clear, but it also didn’t make her happy.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 31st, 647 E.R.

Wren glanced up from looking at the floor.  Andrew still stood before him.  Over a year they had mostly avoided each other successfully.  No small feat when living within the same cloister.  It had helped that Wren had moved ahead to a higher class, but that day had brought them face to face in the middle of a long hallway, and for once, each had not simply walked past.

Wren had heard from Audry that Andrew was doing better with his studies, that his constant practicing with writing was making the head cleric consider him for early apprenticeship.  He winced that Audry had never blamed him for any of it.  Not that she had ever entirely seemed to believe all of it.

Wren steeled himself, and took a step towards Andrew, who backed away from him hesitantly.  Wren frowned with frustration, and walked right up to him.  He could see the fear in Andrew’s eyes, that he wanted to run, but some shred of pride wouldn’t let him that time.  Wren was still smaller which gave Andrew no comfort as Wren reached up a hand slowly to Andrew’s temple.

He winced at Wren’s touch, but held his ground.  Wren moved his fingers searchingly, and Andrew moved his hands as though ready to push Wren away, when Wren softly said, “Speak.”  However soft the word was, it still rung strangely in the ears.

“I hate you,” Andrew said in a tiny horse voice, but was shocked at the words that actually came out of his mouth.

“I know,” Wren said stepping back, and starting to walk past, “and I’m sorry.”

“Why now?” Andrew called after Wren, his voice still hoarse.  “Why after a year?”

“Because I was afraid,” Wren said stopping, but not turning.  “Because I didn’t know if I could fix what I did…and maybe…a part of me didn’t want to try, because I was still angry.”

“Did…Audry ask you?” Andrew questioned, his tone changing.

“She’s part of the reason I tried,” Wren sighed, and turned back to face Andrew, “but she didn’t ask.  That bridge is yours to mend.“

“I had heard…that you two…” Andrew said squinting angrily, and clenching his fist, but obviously still too afraid to act on his anger after what his last outburst had cost him.  “Why did it have to be you?”

“Ask her that…” Wren trailed off.  “I love her, maybe I always did, but I was blind to it till she made me see.”

“Don’t lie…you did it to spite me,” Andrew said defensively, “and this is just so you can gloat.”

Wren clenched his own fist in frustration more than anger.  “I never told Renae what happened, but I told my sisters…they made me understand it, what I never did before.  I didn’t do it to you, I played my part, a part that I will always feel guilt for, but you…you followed your visions to their own end.”

“What nonsense are you babbling?” Andrew growled.

“What reason did I have to hate you, to hurt you?” Wren asked shaking.  “None, save the ones you gave me, because of what you saw in your dreams.”  He watched Andrew for a moment – watched him stand there quietly.  Wren had never had a high opinion of Andrew’s intelligence, but for just a moment he was sure he saw understanding on Andrew’s face, fighting with willful ignorance.  

“Believe me, or don’t.”  Wren sighed, turned, and marched away.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 37th (May 1st), 647 E.R.

Wren sat with his head on Audry’s shoulder, and watched the light from the stained glass windows dancing on the far wall of the cloister’s main entry hall.  Audry squeezed Wren’s hand suddenly, causing him to turn his head, and look up at her.  “I spoke to Andrew today,” Audry said softly with a wry grin.  “I think the bigger surprise was he spoke back.”

Wren looked away again nervously, but clung tightly to Audry.  “What did he have to say?”

“Quite a lot actually.” Audry laughed.  “Seems not talking for so long can make one rather chatty.”

“I…I’m sorry,” Wren said trying not to cry.

“Oh don’t start that again.”  Audry sighed.  “I don’t care if part of him is still mad.  He deserved it, and we are all better for it…except you, poor dear.  I know how it hurt you.”

“I’ll be…” Wren stopped mid sentence as there was a sudden commotion outside, and both turned as the main doors were flung open.  Two men carried in a third as two sisters held the door, and a several more looked on, prepared to step in as soon as the two men were out of the way.

Audry gasped when she saw the blood on the men’s clothing.  “What happened?” she asked aghast, and covered her mouth.  She had seen a few bad wounds over the years come in, but nothing like that.

“Afraid he caught the business end of a dragon,” one of the men said wiping the sweat from his forehead, but leaving bloody marks in it’s place.

“What end of a dragon isn’t the business end?”  The wounded man said with a cough, as sisters descended on him in an effort to deal with his wounds.

“I know you,” Wren said staring at one of the men standing, but he was not sure from where.

“I believe we have seen each other a few times,” the man said scratching his head.  “You are Renae’s boy, and the brother to the twins at the castle aren’t you?  Wren wasn’t it?  I’m Eran, formerly…”

“You said you had come from up north,” one of the Sisters said standing up, and interrupting Eran.  “How is he still alive with wounds this grave?  It seems almost as though they have been partly healed…however badly.”

“Sorry if my skills are not up to par,” Eran grumbled.  “I did leave the cloister for a few reasons after all.”

The Sister narrowed her eyes for a moment, and then suddenly recognition struck her.  “I remember you, Lanie’s boy.  It’s been what, eight years since you left?  But why are you in royal army attire?”

“That’s it,” Wren said drawing both of their looks.  “I remember you arguing here with Renoa.”

Eran grumbled, “Yes…yes…multiple reasons for leaving as I said.  Can we get back to Rory now, please?”

“No,” the wounded man on the floor coughed, “please don’t mind me.”

“You’ve already got the attention of two sisters dear brother,” the other blood drenched man laughed.  “I’m sure that should be sufficient even for you.”

“Shut it Henry,” Rory coughed.

“What’s happening?” came the sound of Renae’s voice from the stairs above.

“A wounded man good Matron,” Eran called up.  “We would have taken him to a Clarion healer, they were just slightly closer, but the three of us aren’t on the best of terms with the local Clarions.  Besides, you can’t swing a wounded man around here without hitting a better healer than those useless preaching bastards.”

“What caused his wounds?” Renae asked with concern for the bloodied men below.

“A dragon we have been tracking for some time in the mountains up north,” Eran responded.

“I had heard some reports,” Renae said sadly, “no human casualties yet, but cattle, and a few sightings, and reports of it flying into the mountains.”

“Speaking of reports,” Eran said turning to Henry.  “I’ll ride for the castle, stay with your brother.”

“Who died and put you in charge?” Henry said mockingly.

“Not funny,” Rory groaned on the floor.  “He’s your senior though.  I’m obviously down, go with him if you wish.  I’ll be fine here with the lovely ladies.”

“No, I’ll stay,” Henry said deflated.

“Oh, you finally realized the perfect excuse you have for a lovely holiday,” Rory coughed.

“You two argue,” Eran said shaking his head, and made for the still open door.  “I have the nest of a dragon to report.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 38th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha matched each of Kiannae’s blows, blocking them with her staff.  The two had been going back and forth for several minutes as Horence watched chiming in alternating critiques, encouragements, and the occasional heckle.  The staves so far were intact, but the strength of the blows was beginning to concern Horence.

Horence was about to intercede when Katrisha suddenly avoided a blow instead of blocking it, and swung low nearly connecting with Kiannae’s leg, who managed to raise it out of the way, and bring her staff down again, only to have it blocked.

The dodge seemed to diffuse the intensity of the spar, and they held a moment.  “Nice try Kat,” Horence laughed, “but she’s still too quick for you.”

Katrisha’s eyes turned to the gate for just a split second as she caught sight of an approaching horse.  Kiannae tried for the opening, but missed as Katrisha responded just in time.  Kiannae was suddenly distracted by the sound of the horse’s hooves, and found herself on the ground as Katrisha swept her leg.

“Might call that one a foul,” Horence laughed again, “but fair is fair, she tried first when you were distracted, and you caught it.”

Katrisha offered her sister her hand, and helped her up.  Kiannae dusted herself off, and rubbed her sore rear from the fall she had taken.  “Suppose it’s fair you win once,” she said.

“Three times,” Katrisha corrected.

“For the last time, those didn’t count,” Kiannae muttered.

“You’ve said ‘for the last time’ at least the last six times I’ve mentioned it,” Katrisha chided.  On both occasions there had been mitigating circumstances.  A splintered stave, and icy patches providing poor footing.  Both in theory of equal disadvantage to both.  Really the stave had been to Katrisha’s disadvantage, it had been her stave that splintered.

“Is it my fault you haven’t listened?” Kiannae laughed.

“Dear fates,” Katrisha suddenly proclaimed seeing the rider who had dismounted, and was now walking towards them.  “Are you alright, Eran?” she asked him.

“I’m fine,” Eran said not slowing.

“What are you…oh,” Kiannae said noticing the blood.

“What news Eran?” Horence asked in a concerned tone.

“We found the nest Sir,” Eran said with a salute.

“And the blood?” Horence asked pointedly.

“Rory’s Sir,” Eran answered with a bit of melancholy.  “He’ll live though.  I have faith in the Order.  I left his brother there to keep him company as well, or at least out of trouble.”

“You left Henry to keep Rory out of trouble?” Horence asked incredulously. “Isn’t that a bit like leaving a loose lantern to keep the powder room lit?”

“Don’t start, if you please. Sir,” Eran laughed.  “Would you inform the King I have a report.  I think I should make myself more presentable first, don’t you?”

“Yes, go, you are dismissed,” Horence said with a salute.

“So they found the dragon?” Katrisha asked excitedly.

“So it seems,” Horence said eying her sternly, “and for the last time you two won’t be having anything to do with it.”

“You said that the last three times we asked,” Kiannae protested, and winced as she expected the response.

“Is it my fault you didn’t listen?” Horence said with a grin.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae stood on the balcony beside her sister with her eyes closed.  She was completely fixed on the the dining hall below as a servant eyed the place a table should be, and poked at it cautiously.  “You are so much better at that one than I am,” Katrisha said in a tone somewhere between genuine appreciation, and frustration.

“That’s just because I am better,” Kiannae laughed.

“Sad you can’t use that trick on yourself,” Katrisha countered.

“I can use it on you,” Kiannae said turning towards Katrisha and focusing.  There was a yelp from the dining room below as the table reappeared, and Katrisha gasped as the world went black, and only strange aura like outlines could be seen around everything.

“Ok…this is an experience,” Katrisha said reaching out to touch the outline of her sister’s hand.  The spell suddenly fragmented as it crossed its own boundary.

“Yup, and any magic crossing the shell disrupts it,” Kiannae said with a shrug.  “Let me try again, and this time don’t touch me.”

Katrisha frowned as she faded from view again. Laurel stepped onto the balcony a moment later in something of a hurry, Mar trotting along behind him.  He was startled, and Mar took off in terror when Katrisha greeted Laurel with a, “Boo.”  She had snapped into view with a ball of light in her hand, which she let drift away, and vanished again as Kiannae recovered the spell.

“Nicely done,” Laurel said obviously trying to catch his breath from the start he had been given.  “I can barely see the aura even,” he said admiring the vague outline of Katrisha before him.

“Do you think this would be useful against the dragon?” Katrisha said excitedly, still invisible.

“There’s no telling,” Laurel said narrowing his eyes, “dragons are magical in origin, if the one up north is more than a beast it might see right through your illusion, just as I can.”

Kiannae frowned, and let the spell fade.  “We can help, I know we can,” she protested.

“I have no doubt of your ability,” Laurel said putting a hand on each of the girl’s shoulders.  “You have both been getting frightfully good, but I will not risk your safety.  I’m not all that keen to risk my own.  So no more of this, please.  Now I must go, the King and Knights are waiting.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha paced frustratedly around the tower chamber she shared with her twin.  She seemed far more bothered than Kiannae, who watched her sister uncertainly.  “I’m not happy about it either,” Kiannae offered.

Katrisha stopped, and seemed to almost tremble as she stared at Kiannae.  “It’s not…”  She closed her eyes, and tapped her foot frustratedly.  “I had a dream,” she said.

Kiannae did not look particularly happy at those words.  “I did to,” she said, and swallowed.  They stared defiantly into eachother’s eyes.  “Laurel was dead,” they said in unison.

Katrisha stormed towards the window then, and pounded her fist on the padded sill hard enough to still hurt.

“We are supposed to ignore prophecy,” Kiannae offered, but her heart was not in it.

“Unless it is very specific,” Katrisha said.  “Unless we know what it means.”

“How can we?” Kiannae demanded.  “What if…trying to be involved is what causes it?”

“I remember in the dream,” Katrisha said, “he was being brought into the castle.  We were already here.  He was out there.”

“I…” Kiannae frowned.  “I remember that too.”

“There was a voice in the dream,” Katrisha said then.

“There wasn’t in mine…” Kiannae said uncertainly.

“It…said,” she was flustered, and turned back to her sister, “‘Head the warning.’”

“We have to protect others,” Kiannae said.

“Always,” Katrisha said firmly.  They had made that pact before, and for Laurel, for family it went double, or more.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha and Kiannae peered down from the balcony above the ballroom, now serving as an impromptu war room.  Eran placed markers on various maps for the King, and addressing various Knights questions.  Idolus stood by, and seemed more interested in eyeing Eran with displeasure, than on anything Eran was actually saying.

“That you are alive at all tells me it’s little more than a beast, and that your expedition stumbled into its lair.  Were it an agent, an intelligent dragon on a mission, you would have been hunted down,” Laurel offered.

“Even a feral dragon is not to be trifled with.  They are more intelligent than any common beast, and far more ferocious, even than dire breads.  As if size alone, thick scales, and razor sharp claws and fangs were not enough.”  Armon shook his head.

Laurel sighed.  “Worse this is no mere drake, like the last one you fought Armon, but a full grown dragon, almost in proportion with the greater dragons from all reports.  This is a perilous endeavor, even with a mage, a healer, and all the enchanted gear at our disposal, we may have losses.”

“I will go if you will have me,” Armon offered.

“To advise,” Arlen said, “but I’ll not put you in harm’s way old fellow.  You are getting a bit slow in our spars.”

Laurel looked to Eran.  “We need every advantage we can get, will you risk joining another expedition?”

“Yes, of course,” Eran answered with a nod.  To say he wasn’t terrified would be disingenuous, but he had not left his old life behind to sit idle in perilous times.  Quite the opposite.  He had dreamed of adventure.

Kiannae looked to her sister lying to her left, both trying not to be noticed by the adults below.  She was still uncertain, but Katrisha’s gaze on the map was fiercely determined.  She took a long breath, and nodded more for her own benefit than Katrisha’s, as her sister did not see it.  Yet all at once she felt as though she was forgetting something frightfully important.

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Chapter 19

Not only the rose has thorns,
so to blooms fruit of the storm,
herald of ever greater doom,
our champion of life in truth,
one player for the good of all,
many more to bring her fall,
yet there is further shadow,
an avatar midst mortal battle,
what blood binds storm ‘n man,
and brings to play a final hand.

– The Book of Entropy, circa 30 B.E.

Pieces In Motion

Vhalun 13th, 646 E.R.

It had long became apparent to the twins that training under Laurel was, and would remain more grueling than Horence had already been on them.  All of it came in addition to their existing sparring practice, save that Laurel was often an opponent in addition to Horence, and each other.

It was an unfair match that morning.  A thirteen year old against a grey haired old mage who had seen a fair share of battles, and had kept up his sparing practices going on two decades of relative peace as Court Mage.  In normal instruction, as Horence had provided, it was a simple matter of holding back, for Laurel it was a deeper riddle; that wouldn’t work.

Kiannae was – by a measurable margin – the better of the twins.  She came closest to challenging Laurel, and had only twice lost a proper match against her sister.  If Laurel held much back from his blows they were easily deflected.  Yet this was all reaction, and physical skill.  On the other side there was no blow Kiannae could hope to land against Laurel, he blocked attacks before she even made them.  This had gone on over two months, and fifteen minutes into yet another bout Horence called it.

Laurel seemed unphased, but Kiannae was clearly winded as she leaned on her staff, her breath forming swirling clouds in the cold morning air.  She had been putting everything, perhaps too violently into landing blows out of frustration.  Horence had partly called the match for seeing some splintering of the staves.  They had trained all through the winter, much to Kiannae’s displeasure.  Katrisha had been at her best when the other three had struggled with the cold, completely unphased, and seemingly better for it.  It had still only won her a single new match against Kiannae, in part because she had nearly lost her footing.

“You still aren’t reacting ahead,” Laurel noted.

“I don’t see how I can,” Kiannae protested.

“Horence,” Laurel called.  “Grab a staff, would you?”

“Sure,” Horence said, and picked up the one laying next to him.

Laurel held his staff in front of him, and closed his eyes.  “Alright,” he said, “watch very closely.”  He bowed to Horence, and assumed a ready stance.  The two began exchanging testing blows, which quickly escalated into real tries.  On rare occasion the twins had caught the two sparring before they began their training, but not often as before they had begun training they were rarely awake early enough.

Both combatants were fast, and seemingly evenly matched.  The show got very interesting quickly, and yet what the twins were watching for they were not sure.  It was all the techniques they had already been shown, and while the two reacted almost fast enough to seem like they were reacting before, it was clear that it was just from reading each others bodies.

This quickly devolved into feints, and counter feints, and moves that were above the twins skill level, and almost before anyone could see it coming Horence was flat on his rear, and Laurel was leaned on his staff, and offering him a hand.  Horence took the offer, and got back to his feet.

“That was impressive,” Kiannae said, “but I didn’t see anything specific.”

“Me either,” Katrisha added.

“That’s because there wasn’t anything to see,” Laurel chided.  “I forced myself not to use my gift in that fight.”

“Oi,” Horence said.  “No need to add insult to injury.”

“I’m not,” Laurel said dismissively.  “Again – this time I won’t hold back.”  Horence did not look at all encouraged.  “Trust me,” Laurel said with a knowing nod.

Horence rolled his shoulders, nodded, and assumed a fighting stance.  At first it didn’t look all that different.   The moves were in a different order, the staves seemed to connect with much more force.  Slowly though it became apparent that while Laurel was moving quicker, and hitting harder, Horence was blocking his blows with greater ease.  In fact he was quickly a step ahead, found an opening, and caught Laurel in the shoulder.

“Alright,” Horence said, “I don’t get it.  That was easier.”

“Did it look easier?” Laurel asked, tending to his shoulder.

“No,” Katrisha said.

“You were both moving much faster,” Kiannae said.

“We were?” Horence looked legitimately confused.

“Well, Laurel was,” Katrisha said.  “It was more like Horence was moving first.”

“Good,” Laurel said.  “He was.”

Horence only looked more confounded.

“Sorry friend,” Laurel laughed.  “I never let on because I wasn’t sure what the result would be.  You’ve got a gift – a weak one, but somehow you figured out who to read what people will do with theirs.  At first I was curious if it was intentional, but eventually I determined it was all instinct.”

“You are kidding?” Horence looked absolutely dumbfounded.

“I always thought you were gifted hun,” Alice said having walked up on the group.  She held a small boy cradled in her arms, and the curve of her belly hinted at another child on the way.

“Thanks love,” Horence laughed.  “Still not sure I buy what Laurel is selling.”

“It’s what I’m trying to teach these two,” Laurel said with an emphatic gesture.  “They already did it once, and nearly killed each other because of it.  Pure instinct.  Have you ever noticed I can beat most of those you can’t?  Yet you and I are usually a close fight?”

“Suppose I have,” Horence nodded.  “Guess it is strange.  Thought maybe you were going easy on me.”

“Think about the ones I can’t beat,” Laurel said.

Horence looked funny for a moment.  “I usually beat them.”

“Consider the lineages,” Laurel pressed.

“Knights mostly, duke’s sons,” Horence thought.

“All have minor gifts.  None seem to have your particular talent, but they still use it to fight, on instinct.”

“But then why can’t you beat them just as well?” Horence said.

“Because you are better at it,” Laurel shrugged.

“Hey hun, the mage says I’m better at magic than him,” Horence laughed.

“Oh, you are magic, dear,” Alice called back.

“Only at reading gifted actions,” Laurel glowered.

“Still sounds like magic to me,” Horence taunted, and assumed a fighting stance again.

The sparing resumed, and Katrisha, and Kianne were a bit perplexed by what they saw.  It was a blend of the first and second bout, and just when it looked like Horence might get ahead again Laurel’s blow caught him completely unaware, and staggered him, while his attempt to slip under what he expected to be an open guard was completely blocked.

“Alright,” Horence winced, “so not better than you?”

“Chess,” Laurel laughed.  “I’ve been feigning you for years, it’s how I win when I do.  Now that you know, I expect things to get more interesting in future bouts.  Or maybe knowing will foul the whole instinct you’ve had going.  Interesting experiment.”

“I sure hope not,” Horence growled.  “Not keen to have my fighting skill be the sacrifice to get these two sorted.”

“I hope not as well,” Laurel said.  “I’d offer you another round to be fair, but the girls are the point.”

“Aye,” Horence agreed.

Alice walked up, and kissed her husband on the cheek.  “I still love you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Ultimately the trouble proved that replicating the instincts that had caused problems in the first place, required Laurel to go against his own more cautious judgements.  He had to stop pulling his blows, which lead to more than a few delays for heeling over the first few weeks as the twins struggled to tap into the sense Laurel insisted they had.

Katrisha was actually the first to break through, it didn’t win her the match, but it did push Laurel very hard.  Before she could win with her new found talent, Kiannae made her own breakthrough, and as the already more skilled combatant won a match against Laurel within the day.  Laurel showed less often for training after that, and the twins were left to focus on each other, and Horence.  Learning to feign with their gifts was ultimately more difficult still.

Katrisha had more success overall achieving the faints themselves, Kiannae proved more successful in profiting from them.  The result was that the two remained a tight match, but Kiannae almost always won.  Something she was inclined to remind her sister of frequently.  Though any damage to Katrisha’s ego paled to the number of broken staves from their sparing.

If they had not expected sparing to remain so large a part of training to be battle mages, less did they account for all the additional reading.  Where Laurel dredged up some of the hefty tomes begged questions, which often had exhausting answers.  One such book was an antique.  An imperial age print that Mercu was almost aghast to permit actual educational use of.

The book was not only thick, but very stringent in its language.  It was a treatise written by one of the highest generals of Emperor Corinth, who had formed, and ruled the imperial war college with a literal iron fist.  There was even a chapter written on enchanted prosthetics, written in part from personal experience as the man had lost both a hand, and a leg in his long military career.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 25th, 646 E.R.

Katrisha sat reading a lengthy chapter on practical armor, and enchantments.  Mar was curled up at her side dozing comfortably.  The book had put her half to sleep, and she rubbed her face, before turning another page:

Robes – practical, comfortable attire for domestic, city, and regal life.  A symbol of intellectual affinity, harkening to kings on their thrones, and scholars in their libraries.  Let me tell you they are rubbish, a travesty, and a fad that I will not endure to permit on the battlefield.  The mage that wears a robe into battle has sacrificed mobility, for identifiability – the most misguided exchange imaginable.

To fight in a robe is no more than an act of bravado, less sensible than the legend of so-called berserkers, who would wade naked into combat.  This was meant to intimidate, to defy, to signify that they were so far above mortal men, as to think armor a hindrance, and I will say that truly, no matter how well enchanted, that is what a robe represents – a hinderance.  Were I forced to choose between fighting naked, or in a robe, I would chose to stand as nature made me, and free to move.

More realistically…

Katrisha started laughing, and then groaned from the effort.  She flopped back on the bed, and laughed some more anyway.  Mar lifted his head groggily from the disturbance, and moved away from her hip, displeased with the impertinent back warmer that had disturbed him.  He stretched, and looked around a moment.

“Surely there is nothing so funny in that book,” Kiannae glared at her sister.

“Oh not so much the book,” Katrisha said.  “Just…this was written by a man, and I started imagining a woman making the same claim.  Striding across the battlefield nude, rather than in a robe.  I’m sure that would confound a few people.”

“Oh, that bit,” Kiannae laughed slightly as she started to imagine it as well.  “Yes, I’d pay to see the looks on their faces.”

Mercu entered then.  “The looks on who’s faces?”

“Just imagine a bunch of Paladins,” Katrisha snickered.

Katrisha and Kiannae gave each other another look, and laughed even harder.  Mercu walked over, and lifted up the cover of what Katrisha was reading, and frowned.  “What possibly could be so funny in that dusty – valuable,” he said irritably, “old thing.”  Mar saw Mercu’s arm nearby as an offer to be petted, and started rubbing against it.

“Oh just imagine, Mercu.  Some great mage – a woman mind you – striding out into the battlefield nude, throwing down the spells and arrows of her enemies…”

“And their jaws,” Mercu laughed, and gave into the demands of the persistent ball of fluff that had moved to rub against his side when he hadn’t taken the initial hint.  “Yes that would be a sight.”

“I could never,” Kiannae laughed.  “I’d die of embarrassment before anything else could do me the favor.”

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said. “I think I could…maybe.  I’d need the right motivation though.  I’d need to want to mock the whole blighted world.”

“Has anyone ever done that?” Kiannae asked.  “In a real battle?”

“Well, there are legends of berserks of course,” Mercu frowned, “but I’m guessing the book mentioned them.”  He picked up the cat that seemed less than content to merely have his head scratched, and curled up in his arms satisfied to finally be getting an acceptable amount of attention.

“Yeah.”  Katrisha sat back up, and stretched.

“Historically I don’t know that I can think of an instance,” Mercu thought.  “I mean plenty of people have gone into battle wearing little to no meaningful armor, but utterly nude…outside of those legends…no I’ve never heard of it, and I doubt I’d have missed that story if it was out there to be had.”

“That’s a shame,” Katrisha sighed.

“No,” Mercu chuckled, “I do believe it would require a lack of shame.”

Katrisha fell over giggling again.  Kiannae merely shook her head, but was plainly trying to hide her amusement.

“Do you disagree?” Mercu pressed, and assumed something of a pompous pose.  Mar disliking this decided that he wanted a higher perch, and lept onto Mercu’s shoulder, then threw his tail across the man’s face doing everything for the absurdity of his antic.

“Oh no…I agree,” Kiannae laughed.  “You’d do it in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?”

“Damned right,” Mercu said, blowing on the tail with the hopes it would move away from his nose.  It curled up instead, momentarily giving him a laughable mustache until he sneezed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 28th, 646 E.R.

“So,” Laurel said.  “Back where this all started.”

They were standing on the archery range, though on the northern edge near the cliff.  There hadn’t been much explaining, rather their morning practice had been cut off with Laurel’s arrival, and the two girls had been ordered to follow Laurel.

“You won’t be hitting target dummies today though,” Laurel said.  He threw up his hands, and a complex spell wove behind him.  Most obviously it formed two sets of target rings, but there were far more intricate parts to the spell.  Certainly it was a barrier, a very involved one, filled with triggers, not unlike the ones the girls had tried to catch Navi with.

“In the unlikely event either of you can overpower this, your spells will sail harmlessly into the northern hills.  Now impress me, overpower it,” he said moving well out of the way.

Katrisha, and Kiannae glanced at eachother, and then back at Laurel who stood to the side expectantly.  “Go on,” he said.  “Everything you’ve got.”

Katrisha bit her lip, and then thrust out her hand, sending a spear of ice hurtling at the target where it hung for a moment in a middle ring before suddenly evaporating.

“Oh, I know that is not your best,” Laurel chided.  “I’ve seen the holes you made, unless all of that was Kiannae.”

Katrisha threw several more spears, some faster, some larger, some both.  She gathered herself, and put a lot of effort into one both large and very fast.  The gust of it ripping away from from her blew her hair about wildly.  It stopped harmlessly as the others had.

“Much better,” Laurel said.  “Don’t be shy Kiannae.”

Kiannae bit her lip, and struggled a moment.  “It’s not solid,” she said.  “I can’t…use lightning on it.”

“Try,” Laurel said, “Focus on the filaments, they are meant to dissipate energy.  It should actually make accuracy a little easier.”

Kiannae held up her hand, and lightning crackled over her fingers for a moment before finally several bolts arced to the target, striking wildly at first, and then finally focusing repeatedly on the bullseye.”

“Don’t hold back now,” Laurel said.

Kiannae grimaced in irritation, and threw everything she had into the target, changing hands, back, and forth, and then finally she tensed, and her hair stood a bit on end before a blinding flash made Katrisha, and Laurel cover their faces.

Laurel’s spell fizzled, and parts of the target dissolved before the whole thing came apart.

“That was not a spell,” Laurel said a bit perplexed, “or well, most of it wasn’t.  What was that?”

“I’m not sure,” Kiannae said, a bit winded. “I just…rather than forming the spell, I just did…what the spell would.”

Laurel stroked his beard.  “I’d say you conjured that, but…I’ve seen a conjurer do lightning before.  A druid I fought alongside once, it didn’t look like that.  Can you do it again?  Doesn’t have to be as strong.”  He waved a hand, and the target spell reformed.

Kiannae tried, but it slipped away from her repeatedly.  She did the spells again, trying to build up to it, but it eluded her.  “No, I don’t think I can,” she seemed a little weary.

Laurel frowned.  “Surely you can do something else?”

Kiannae stooped down, and picked up a handful of rocks, and pebbles.  She proceeded to send them flying in rapid succession, stopped, and then made a spell holding the remainder in the air in front of her.  She put her hand behind them, and they proceeded to zip away at progressively more blinding speed till they stopped appearing to move at all, and simply disappeared from before her hand, and stopped at the barrier.

When that was through Kiannae summoned the biggest ball of fire she could control, and sent it hurtling into the target where it destabilized, and exploded in a plume of fire which was mostly sucked up into Laurel’s spell that barely seemed to register it.

“Katrisha?” Laurel said.  “I remember hearing that you did some of the burning of the targets.  Anything else up your sleeve?”

Katrisha bit her lip, she had an idea, but she had only partly tried it before.  She began by throwing spears of ice at the target, all blindingly fast, but some of the energy absorbed in turning the air to ice was being stored rather than accelerating her projectiles.  On the end of this she unleashed quite suddenly a ball of broiling plasma that struck the target, and seemed to momentarily give Laurel’s spell some trouble to absorb it.

“Good technique,” Laurel nodded.  “An effective switch like that could catch a lesser mage off guard.”  He refreshed his spell.  “Now then, throw whatever you want at it.  Go until you are absolutely spent, if either of you have strength enough to stand when you are done, I will be disappointed.”  The two hesitated.  “Get to it,” he said firmly.

The twins began throwing everything they could at the target.  Kiannae again attempted to recreate her brilliant blast of lightning, but never quite found the spark of insight that had allowed the first.  Katrisha tried everything, but kept coming back to her most basic spell.  It felt natural, she could wield the sharp lances of ice fairly easily.  Which did little to fulfil her command to drain herself.

Kiannae began seeing if arcing her lighting around within the spell could overwhelm it’s design, she did see flickers, and straining, but nothing to approach the effect the one bolt had caused.  Katrisha began using the swinging technique she had tried before, building excess energy, and then releasing it in balls of fire.  She tried larger, faster, and more powerful lances, which were more taxing, and took longer to form, and control.

Eventually Kiannae tired of lighting.  She tried other spells, fire, ice as her sister was using primarily, and all were successful, but none felt natural.  She experimented with a spell on the ground before her.  This ripped up stones a few at a time, which she then sent flying at the target.  Getting bored of this Kiannae started examining Laurel’s spell, she looked where it was grounding out the energy, and tapped into it, stealing the power Katrisha continued to pour into her target.  Just containing the bundle of energy she was siphoning off quickly became taxing.

Laurel did not miss Kiannae’s move, and watched cautiously what she was trying.  The spell she was forming was a conversion to pure kinetic force.  He almost stopped her before he saw that she was correctly accounting for the forward thrust this would have on her, but prepared for emergency correction if she got it wrong.

When Kiannae thrust her arms out a column of air blasted away from her, even as she was thrown slightly back.  Her hair whipped forward in the tremendous gust of wind.   She had misjudged the necessary counterforce, but not enough to quiet knock her from her feet.  Katrisha on the other hand was knocked forward, and lost her balance from the outermost halo of the blast.

Laurels spell struggled with the force, and nature of the spell.  Designed to handle raw energy, and solid objects the fluid nature of a column of air that would have sent an armored man sailing a hundred feet mostly bypassed the spell’s design.  Even then what little energy could be absorbed strained the delicate latticework nearly to its limit.

“What in the abyss…” Katrisha growled up from where she lay on the ground.

Kiannae looked down.  “Uh…sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“Impressive,” Laurel said. “I didn’t account for the side splash that would create either.  You ok Kat?”

“I’m fine,” Katrisha muttered, and got back to her feet.  “What did she do?”

“Used everything you were throwing at your target to fuel her own spell,” Laurel laughed.

“Cheating,” Katrisha said.

“Oh, I quite agree,” Laurel seemed amused.  “And the first rule of combat magic, always cheat.”  He refreshed his spell.  “Resume.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 31st, 646 E.R.

Two more days of sparing, and then back to the archery range.  Yet it seemed Laurel had another lesson in mind, and stopped them in front of the target dummies.  “Today,” he began, “the two of you will be trying to destroy these target dummies.”

Both twins looked incredulously at their mentor.  Doing exactly that had been part of what sparked trouble they had been in for nearly a year.  He smiled.  “You will be taking turns.  It will be the job of one to destroy the target, and the job of the other to do everything in her power to protect it.  The winner, since you two like to compete, will be gauged on who has the most still standing targets by the end.  Five minutes each, then switch.  Kiannae, you will be on defense first.”

Kiannae did not seem overly happy with the starting position on their tasks, but took up a spot well to the side of one of the targets, as Katrisha took a place at a mark away from one.  She started with a bolt of ice, which Kiannae deflected such that it struck the dirt some distance away.  This repeated, several times, until Katrisha slipped a second in on the tail of a first which struck the target splintering it significantly.

The next attempt at the same trick failed, as did a third.  A ball of fire did little better, but being deflected sent it into another target which burst into flames.  Kiannae quickly snuffed the fire, but the target was quite blackened.

“You need not only protect yourself,” Laurel chided, “but bystanders, and allies.  A blow deflected carelessly can still undermine the battle.”

As the round resumed Katrisha became much quicker with her lances of ice, and Kiannae tired of trying to control where they wound up, she tried to stop them instead.  This however proved more difficult.  She changed her approach and blasted them from the air with lighting, vaporizing them, though a few slipped through as small slivers that did little or no damage.  At one point she managed to arc between two Katrisha unleashed almost simultaneously using a single bolt.

Katrisha followed that attack however with a direct burst of flame that surrounded the target.  Kiannae quickly put out the flames, but a very large shard of ice slipped through while she was distracted shattering the target completely, and it fell away.

“One down,” Laurel declared over the blackened bail of hay, and broken target board.  “To make things interesting,” Laurel said, “Katrisha will be defending the one she already scorched earlier.”

“Not fair,” Katrisha protested.

“Switch,” Laurel said ignoring the complaint.

As soon as they were in position Kiannae struck with a bolt of lighting that set the target aflame.  Katrisha stopped the flames without difficulty, but another bolt followed reigniting the already blackened target.  Katrisha formed a field of intense cold around the target.  This did nothing to stop the lighting strikes which did little more damage, but kept the remainder of the target from burning.  Kiannae picked up some stones, and sent them flying at the already fragile target, but the field quite effectively stopped them.  She tried ice, which also was stopped.

Frustrated Kiannae went back to lighting, intent to destroy the board by attrition if nothing else.  After only a few more strikes Katrisha managed to form some rudimentary grounding spells into her barrier which pulled the lighting off, and into the ground making small smoldering patches of glass.  Kiannae first tried to circumvent these, and then began tearing them down as quickly as Katrisha could put them back up.  She tried to dismantle the field itself several times as well, and at one point managed to overload it, directing the released energy into the target which went flying, and smashed against the castle wall in a shower of charred wood splinters, and blackened straw.

“Zero, and Nil,” Laurel said.

This went on for three more targets.  The techniques grew more complex, but the results less dramatic as both girls grew weary.  Each target was however completely destroyed before time.  On the final target however Kiannae failed to get completely past Katrisha’s defenses.  The target, though slightly scorched still stood, and Katrisha got to take her shot at it.

Kiannae had managed by then to copy much of Katrisha’s defensive techniques, but proved slower at them.  Katrisha remained lacking when it came to lighting, and this was the most effective at getting through.  It finally came down to a battle over spellcraft, and Katrisha got clever.  She added to the spears of ice, and though it took several tries to get one wedged harmlessly in the target board she had the setup she needed.  From there she worked on the shield Kiannae was maintaining.

Time was almost up, and Kiannae focused fervently on keeping up her barrier.  Katrisha however was no longer trying to tear down the barrier, but tap into all the energy it had stored.  Laurel had raised his hand to call time just as the target suddenly exploded, shredding itself within the barrier that protected it.  The fragments stopped, and hung for only a moment before dropping to the ground.

“How did…” Kiannae protested.

“That one shard I got through, the spell was the important part, not the ice itself,” Katrisha said winded.  “I designed the spell to detonate outward, but I needed energy to trip it.  The shield provided that, you were so busy keeping it up you missed me tapping into it.”

Kiannae huffed, and flopped onto the ground tiredly.  Katrisha did the same a moment later.

“Winner, Katrisha,” Laurel shrugged.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 16th, 646 E.R.

Wren had seemed distant since his arrival.  He had listened with some interest to his sisters recount their ever escalating sparring, and training, though made no mention of their near fatal falling out.  None of it had seemed to hold his attention, and all through the story he had seemed distracted.  When Mercu left the three alone Wren had retired to one of the window seats, and began staring out over the valley.

Katrisha’s first instinct was to hug her brother, and demand to know what was wrong, but she tried her hand instead at pressing Kiannae to do so.  Though reluctant, Kiannae begrudgingly wandered over to sit by her brother in the window, and after giving several pleading glances to Katrisha to be the one to press the issue finally did so herself.

“Are you alright?”

Wren was silent for a moment, and other than a slight freeze almost appeared not to have heard the question.  He finally relented to look at Kiannae, who had been sitting beside him for some time.  He wasn’t comfortable with the topic to begin with, and he had always had a feeling that Kiannae did not like him much.  Still, the topic he did not even dare discuss with the two in his life that knew the truth nagged at him.

“I did something,” Wren said.  “I didn’t mean to, I don’t know how…but…”

Kiannae set her hand on her brother’s in an attempt to be reassuring, and it seemed to have some effect.

“In South Rook, it was me,” he said.

“It was…you…” Kiannae seemed to say more than ask, her expression puzzled.  It was as though she had understood instantly, and rejected it could have been what he meant.

“The voice?” Katrisha offered stepping up to the window, and adding her own hand to the pile.

“Yes,” Wren said looking down, “people were going to die, it was going to get worse, I knew it, and I…I made it stop.  I made everything stop,” he let out a long breath, and took another, “just for a moment.”

“Everything didn’t…” Kiannae protested.

“No I think he’s right,” Katrisha said.  “It was just a moment, but we weren’t just dazed, we all stopped.  I saw it, I think…”

“I didn’t, I saw no such thing,” Kiannae said defiantly.

“Think,” Katrisha said, “if you really stopped, you might not have known.”

“But you did?” Kiannae shook her head.

“I didn’t understand it till just now,” Katrisha said, “what I felt like I saw, or maybe just felt.  It felt borrowed, and I easily took it back.”

“Well, I still don’t remember it,” Kiannae refuted.

Wren pulled his hand away, and retreated against the wall.  “I did it.  Whatever I did, I did it,” he said on the edge of sobbing.

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae offered.  “I didn’t mean to doubt you.  Whatever you did…it was a good thing.  It stopped the fighting.”

“That wasn’t the only time,” Wren said pleadingly.

Katrisha put her hand on Wren’s shoulder.  “What was the other time?”

“Andrew…he…” Wren shook angrily, “he was scaring me, he pushed Celia, he was shaking me…and I told him…I made him…he can’t talk any more.”  He looked at each of his sisters in turn, begging them to understand, forgive, even to believe.

“You are sure?” Katrisha asked.

“He doesn’t talk, not at all,” Wren protested.  “He has to write now, he can’t say a word.  No one can find anything physically wrong.”

“And he hasn’t told anyone, blamed you?” Kiannae asked.

“No…I don’t know why, maybe he’s afraid, maybe…maybe he doesn’t even remember?”

“And no one else knows?” Katrisha asked.

“Celia and Audry do.  Celia was there, she believes me, Audry…mostly believes me.”

“You haven’t even told Renae?” Katrisha asked.

“I can’t…and…she doesn’t even want to believe about the ghosts.”

“Ghosts?” Kiannae pressed.

“Four of them, four of them in the cemetery.  They talked to me, just like Navi…so many voices in the cemetery.  Renae doesn’t want to believe it, but I think she does a little…just like Audry believes…a little.”

Katrisha forced her arm behind her brother, and hugged him tightly to her.  “I believe you,” Katrisha said.  “At Wesrook, you remember Varmun?”

“Yes,” Wren said softly.

“You remember about that girl he knew.  The one like you?”

“Yes,” Wren answered sadly.

“He told me more that night on the balcony, while you were asleep.  Everything he said, she was like you.  He loved her, he thought the world of her, there is nothing wrong with what you are, even if it scares you.”

“But I hurt him,” Wren protested.

“Did you really?” Katrisha pressed.

“He can’t talk,” Wren said somewhat angrily.

“Was he doing anything particularly useful with his talking?” Kiannae tried in ill humor.

Wren looked almost like he wanted to smile, he was still too bothered with what he had done, but his sisters jab at Andrew broke through a bit.  “No,” he said with mixed reservations.  “It still wasn’t right.”

“Doesn’t sound like what he was doing was very right either,” Kiannae countered.  She closed her eyes.  “Some time ago…Kat…she and I had a squabble,” she pursed her lips, and looked at her twin.  “Never mind what it was about, it came to blows, and I almost…”

“We,” Katrisha cut her sister off, “almost did each other a great deal of harm.”

Wren looked disbelievingly between the two, then something else crossed his face, hard to read.  “Why?” he finally asked.

“Laurel says it was precognitive, that we were caught in a loop, escalating beyond our control,” Kiannae offered.  “It makes me feel no less guilty about what I did.”

“Andrew has always,” Wren hesitated.  “I was going to say hated me, but it’s far less simple than that.  I’ve always felt like he was afraid of me.”

“You think…” Kiannae began thoughtfully.

“I don’t know, but I’ve heard rumors that he had nightmares about me,” Wren answered.

“Do you think you can help him?” Katrisha asked.

“I don’t know…”

“When you think you are ready,” Kiannae offered, “try then, but not until you are really ready.”

“Thank you,” Wren said, and grabbed Kiannae’s hand again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 16th, 646 E.R.

Jeoffrey wore a beleaguered look as he entered the King’s Antechamber, and considered the others around him.  He had returned to Avrale on orders late that afternoon, and been allowed to clean up a bit from days of travel while court finished out its day.

“Sit,” the King offered kindly.

Jeoffrey took a seat opposite the King, and steeled himself very obviously.

“Are you well?” the King asked.

Joeffrey hesitated, and looked down.  “I have been better,” he admitted.

“Your communications, while valuable, have also been perplexing for some years,” Laurel offered.  “It took us some time to conclude what your more cryptic statements have regarded, but dare I wager that you believe your niece to be alive?”

“I do,” Joeffrey began, “or did.  I do not know.  I think perhaps I have gone mad.  When the dragon first came to the capital I had a runnin with a cut purse.  I caught her in the act, but only briefly saw her eyes before she escaped.  I dare say I nearly cried at the sight of those eyes, for my heart told me they were my dear sister’s.”

“Yet you have had no fortune in finding the would be thief?” the King pressed.

“Only rumors of a ‘shadow,’ a thief that is never caught, or seen.”  Joeffrey threw his face into his hands, and braced his elbows on his knees.

“If this thief is never seen, what makes you connect her with the cutpurse?” Arlen asked incredulously.

“The stories say that one’s eyes slip right off her,” Jeoffrey said looking up.  “That you might catch a flash of fingers, or long red hair, but never the face of the girl.”

“Yet you say you saw her eyes?” Laurel asked, all the more dubious of the internal logic of the claim.

“Only with great difficulty,” Jeoffrey said.  “Even having caught both of her hands…it was as though everything else was more important than her.  People stomping about, bumping into us.  It was the strangest thing, and save the eyes, the eyes burned into my heart, the memory of the event tries desperately to vanish.  Almost like it did not happen, like an image from a dream.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Laurel shook his head.

“I have from a dozen sources,” Jeoffrey protested.  “It isn’t just me.  Whatever that mystery girl is, she…exists, I am sure of that.  If she is my niece I do not know.  Everyone believes her dead, and I have seen no obvious interest by Vharen, or his officials in the ‘Shadow Rose,’ as some have started calling her.  She’s a matter for law enforcement, and they mostly consider her a tall tale, a myth for drunks with overactive imaginations.”

“You have returned before your last report would have been sent,” the King changed the subject.  “Is there any more news worth sharing?”

“Yes,” Jeoffrey answered.  “I meant it to be the first thing I said, before I was questioned about…never mind.  There was another dragon outside the city.  I was penning the news even as I received word I had been recalled.”

“Another?” Laurel asked with displeasure.

“Or the same,” Jeoffrey shook his head.  “I’m no expert in identifying dragons.  It well could have been the same – it was big enough.  It came to the city on its own late one evening, and though it caused quite a stir, it did nothing but below – there is no other word for it – mournfully towards the city until Vharen himself came forth surrounded by his men late in the night.”  Jeoffrey shook his head.  “Vharen had his men stand back, and approached the dragon alone.  No one could see precisely what transpired, but the dragon flew off towards the south.”

“You are certain?” the King pressed.

“Yes,” Jeoffrey said.  “I saw the way the dragon flew with my own eyes.  Yet I could not tell you to where it has gone.  Has there been word of any sightings in the north?”

“No,” Laurel said.  “Nothing as yet, but this will bear careful watching.”

“I do not doubt,” Arlen said, “that a dragon, particularly of such size will have some difficulty going unnoticed for long.”

“Perhaps,” Laure countered, “but there are high mountains between Nohrook, and the northern plains.  Were it a greater dragon, clever, or perhaps just very lucky, and flew in by night, it might evade detection for a while.”

“To what end though?” the King shook his head.  “Unless this is to be an attack, a test of our resolve, the councils, even Roshana herself?”

“The others will not act,” Laurel said, “not unless there is proof it is a greater dragon in play.  A clever one could easily play the part of a fallen beast.  Fire, and speech are all that could prove such a thing.  And considered no more than a stray beast?  No, we will be all but told to deal with it ourselves, I am certain.  The council did nothing about that young drake, after all.”

The group exchanged glances silently for a moment, none quite sure what to say.  The council had done nothing to help before, that was true.  Not that there had been a great deal of time involved.  A few months of the initial attacks, then Adel’s part, and the wounded dragon was hunted down easily enough after that.

Laurel growled, breaking the silence.  “They posture, and move like a nation ready for war,” he said distastefully.  “Bandits, dragons, armies shifting along borders, and yet year after year they do not move, save these games of cloak and shadow.  Should I be grateful?  I do not want war, and yet the constant threat makes me wish for the inevitable to come.”

“Do you really?” Jeoffrey asked.

“So long as Vheren sits on that throne…It will come.  Be it years, or days.  It must.  Everything points to a man that hungers for war, for the chance to conquer.  He did not depose his brother to sit idly.  Surely you of all people cannot think he did that just to reign?  That he would kill his own brother, and your sister for nothing more than political gain?  Not that we have proof.  Fire, indeed…”

Jeoffrey glanced away.  He had been far too concerned with the past, with the loss of his sister, to be looking forward to intention.  It hadn’t quite gotten him the wrong answer, but he had none the less been distracted.  Could he blame himself?

“This can not carry on forever,” Laurel added in the man’s silence, and with every passing year the Council grows more complacent, not less.  It pains me to say it, but the sooner a war comes, the better our chances.  Though they are already slim to none as it stands.”

“Death is inevitable as well, it comes in days, or years.  Yet We do not wish it to come sooner,” the King countered.

“I tire of this sword hanging over our heads,” Arlen offered, having listened quietly from the corner for some time.

It gave Laurel little comfort to have Arlen arguing on his side.  He frowned.  “Perhaps the smallest part of me wants the satisfaction of going out in a blaze of glory, while I am still young enough to be a presence on that battlefield.”

“You are a good man, and a great mage – but We doubt you would even slow them down,” the King shook his head.  “We know them to have an army of mages, all trained to be warriors, not guards, and politicians.”

“You are right of course,” Laurel shook his head, “but need you speak the truth?”  It was a thin gest, with an ill laugh.

“If it helps, I doubt a one of them could manage a day in that court without frying at least one petty baron,” Jeoffrey offered.

“Or survive those two girls of yours,” the King added.

“So my great, and unmatched power is patience?” Laurel laughed.  “Have we not established that runs thin?”

“Or a lack of murderous rage,” the King suggested.

“So helpful, yes, thank you,” Laurel shook his head.  He looked thoughtful though, and then furrowed his brow.  “Jeoffrey, Vharen’s uncle, I forget his name, but he had long absences from court, enough that you made note of them.  Also there were the prisoners being sent to work camps.”

“It would match, yes,” Jeoffrey agreed dubiously.  “Yet…it makes as little sense as anything else.  Cadith is a proud, and powerful mage – he makes Vharen look like a puppy.  Which I guess fits with them calling him The Wolf.  I do not see him submitting to such menial shadow play.”

“He is also trouble though, even for Vharen?” Laurel pressed.

“He was locked up for a number of years after the terrible business with the mad king,” Jeoffrey answered.  “He’d been on the wrong side after all, no surprise there.”

“And since?” Laurel pressed.

“Vharen had him released soon after his ascension.  Other than that, I’m not sure.  Little things,” Jeoffrey shook his head, “all rumors, and speculation.  Hints of a battle…or two in the throne room.  Publicly they present a united face, but yes, there are many whispers of descent.  There are hardliners who chomp at the bit even as Vharen pushes against any border the Council will not defend…and those, they do love Cadith.”

“What does it give us to speculate who leads the attacks?” Arlen asked.

“It would explain the signs of battle at the first camp,” Laurel considered.  “That was no hedge mage.  A battle mage of that lineage,” he shook his head.  “I’m almost more terrified that the Sylvans could even press him into retreating.  I have always understood their practices can be devastating, but they are more closely related to the shamans of old, or so I was taught.”

The King considered.  “Perhaps something can be twisted between Vharen, and Cadith.  If it is true he is being thrown around like a lowly underling to do the dirty work.  The dragon is the pressing concern however, we need eyes in the north.  Yet that need not concern you, Jeoffrey.  We will ask, are you fit to return to your duty, can you focus and not chase shadows?”

“Yes,” Jeoffrey answered.  “Yes, but I will not turn a blind eye either.  I will keep my ears open, not merely because she is my niece, but because if somehow she does live…”

“Then she could prove very useful,” the King agreed.

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Chapter 18

Not all nature hath given is worthy of trust,
the instincts of body are animalistic urges,
these care not for light, mind, or spirit will,
and err toward a primitive world that was,
yes endure we must to walk worthy paths,
yet a tainted soul is for the voids sure gain,
commit not the nature fickle flesh to spirit.

– The Path of Ascension, Saint Taurien, circa 10 B.E.

Fighting Instincts

Jovan 1st, 645 E.R.

“The Empire Reconciliation began in the year thirty-four of the reign of first Emperor Corinth,”  Kiannae read, and then frowned.  “Though Corinth is said to have resisted putting such emphasis on the year of his ascension, it was ultimately…”

“We’ve covered this,” Katrisha protested.

Moriel turned a bit tersely, but then hesitated.  He marched up to the desk the twins were sitting at, flipped through a few pages, checked the cover, and shook his head.

“My apologies, I seem to have crossed up lesson plans with the young prince,” he said, and walked the book back across the room.

“But we covered that a year ago,” Kiannae said a bit incredulously.

“He’s older,” Katrisha added, and rubbed a sore shoulder from morning training with Horence.  She had fallen rather hard on it when Kiannae had swept her leg.

Moriel tapped his finger along the spines of several books, pulled one out, and set it before the girls.  “Yes, he is.”  There was no particular tone with it, nor an expression that hinted at humor.  Kiannae nonetheless started to laugh, but stopped at a stern glance.

“Katrisha, please begin,” Moriel said when he was satisfied they had both calmed themselves.

She opened the book, turned a few pages, and pursed her lips.

“Perceiving Magic,” she began.

The underlying organism appears to have e-volved in abstract of the gift, and acquired it later.  Further this is reinforced in the individual by the gradual growth of aura, leading into adolescence and adulthood.

“Evolved?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“Hmm,” Moriel considered the two.  “Perhaps we should have begun instead with Cadius’ Comparative Species.”  He shook his head.  “We’ll get to that later.  Laurel thought this one would be good for you when I showed it to him.  In short, evolution is the manner in which the creatures of the world – people included – have changed over time by inheritance, mutation, intentions of the world, dire instincts, and mortal intervention.  Though the distribution of these effects, and mechanisms are sometimes in debate.”

“How the Sylvans are part cat?” Katrisha asked, and brushed the tip of her ear thoughtfully.

“Or the eastern ones part wolf,” Kiannae corrected.

“That would fit into mortal intervention in all likelihood,” Moriel nodded.  “Though it causes all manner of problems.  Shaper magic to our knowledge was not refined enough for such a task till at least the middle empire, but the Sylvans were as they are long before the Magi. Perhaps something more akin to the instinctual changes of dire creatures.”  He seemed thoughtful a moment.

“I’m not dire,” Kiannae said crossing her arms, and staring up at their tutor.

Moriel perked a brow, and leaned over the table, peering over his glasses in an almost comical manner, even if his expression remained its usual neutral.  “Aren’t you?  I think I’ve heard some tales that imply a few youth of the court might disagree.”

“I think that was me,” Katrisha said jumping to her sister’s defense, and with very little sheepishness about it.

“As if they can tell you two apart,” Moriel waved dismissively, and stood up straight again.  “A dire creature is at the heart little more than gifted are.  Yet instincts in an animal seem liable to shape them in ways mortals are – at least typically – not.  Still, there are exceptions.  Mostly shaper magic such as changed Roshana, and the other dragons.  But some with profound gifts not trained as mages do become larger, more muscular.  The legends refer to Osier, first king of the nation that still bears his name, to have been more giant than man.  A warrior who should have been counted among the shaman, but was refused.”

“That’s how Osyrae got its name?” Kiannae asked curiously, it had never come up before.

“Yes,” Moriel nodded.  “Much the same way that the nation – later Empire – of Corinthia came to be named such.  Formerly it was Anderhale, named for another line of kings.  In Osyrae, and perhaps the whole world, Osier was the first king.  That land though had no other name as a united people.  I’m sure the vale people referred to them all as Nords at some point, though I am aware of no clear written record of it.  Nord of course derived from the old vale speak nor, or North.  Much as Nohlend…”

“So was Avrale conquered by someone named Ave then?” Katrisha interrupted dubiously, not having realized Moriel was going to continue after a momentary pause.

“No.”  Moriel sighed.  “We are off topic,” he said as the interruption allowed him to consider he was rambling.  He glanced at the twins, and saw they seemed determined.  He marched up to the blackboard, and tapped the chalk thoughtfully.

“Words, Names, Titles, Language itself is much like the organisms of the world.  Changing, adapting, mutating over time,” he began.  He scrawled four letters quickly on the board, ‘Cwen.’  He underlined this, and turned back towards the girls.  “Writing was in a primitive form when the Magi left ancient Osyrae, but after the things they experienced the preservation of knowledge was critical to them.”  He turned back, and wrote ‘Maji’ and drew an arrow to ‘Magi.’

“So the spelling changed?” Katrisha asked.

“And the pronunciation,” Moriel said with a nod.  “The original form is believed to have sounded more like maz-i.  It meant, ‘teacher,’ or perhaps ‘teacher of peace.’  In all the great irony that gives us.  It changed further you might know, to refer to those they taught, and became mage.”

“What is, C-wen,” Kiannae sounded out, and then the look on her face almost implied she got it.

“Seems you have a guess,” Moriel said shrewdly.

“Queen?” Kiannae offered.

“In one,” Moriel said encouragingly.  “In the original form it meant woman, or possibly more like the honorific Lady.  We owe the original connotation to Navi, who declared herself Cwen of Every Vale, though it is most often translated as She of Every Vale, or Lady of Every Vale.  We owe then the modern queen to Napir, and the influence of the Storm Queen, who took up the word, liking the implication of female rule.  There is some semantic debate if Navi or Ashai the Storm Queen of the day would be the first true queen.  The line of the Storm is older, but their role is more Empress than queen, but the word in its modern form comes from the land.”

Moriel shook his head.  As in instructor he hated questions he had not predicted, not because he did not know the answer, but because he sometimes struggled not to ramble on with too much more.  A natural affliction perhaps from having spent too many years buried in books.  With his eyes as they were, his face a bit more buried than most.

“So is king just man in the end?” Katrisha asked dubiously.

“A reasonable guess,” Moriel offered, “but no.  It is related to kin, or kon in the original Osyrean.  The g was added to the end implying a sort of ownership, or possession, being above kin.”  He turned, and wrote two more words on the board.  “Notably it sounded more like Kon-ing, than Kong, as one might expect to pronounce it.  In some irony kin’s original meaning was ‘to birth,’ or ‘to spring forth.’”

Kiannae laughed.  “So both King and Queen come from feminine meanings?”

“In a matter of speaking,” Moriel offered in an indecisive tone.  He could sometimes be a hard man to read, with his somewhat pudgy face that always looked oddly jovial, even if his thin lipped expression rarely varied to either humor or displeasure.  He did have moments he cracked to an impish smile, but they were rare, even when it did seem he was joking.

“So,” Katrisha started with a pause, “Cwen was the title taken by Navi, Cwen of Every Vale, and like the song Every Vale became Avrale with time?” she guessed with less than certainty.

“Precisely,” Moriel nodded.  “Sorry, this happens when one doesn’t set out to follow a lesson plan.”  He turned back to the board, and again scrawled out some letters.  “Avr Vrael is the best record we have of the ancient words used in the title.  Though as Avr meant all, in a context of the land, and all of the land was vales it was somewhat redundant.  How exactly it shortened to Avrale over time is less well understood, but it is surmised that the two ‘vr’s merged.”

He considered his two pupils a moment.  “I will be glad to prepare lessons on comparative linguistics, and evolution if they are of interest, but let us return to the prepared topic for the day.”  He pointed to Kiannae.

She shifted the book, and tried to pick up where her sister left off.

As such the mind and nerves do not develop a direct method of understanding these energies they can later perceive.  The result is a form of syn-es-the-sia.  Eliciting texture, smell, taste, warm and cold, and perhaps most notably visual or rarely auditory phenomena that are not gathered by the eyes or ears.

“Synesthesia?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“It is much as the text implies, a conflation of one sense with another.  If you have ever noticed what seems like light when rubbing your eyes, this is at least related.  Injury, disease, and other causes do sometimes impart more widespread crossing of senses.  You each could speak to the fact better, but this text implies that your perceptions of gift, aura, and magic are thus.”

Kiannae pursed her lips, and resumed reading aloud.

To this end tuning out the direct stimuli and focusing on those intruding on a sense helps to better observe auras.  For example, unfocused vision, or even closing your eyes can be of use.  Unfocused vision is the preference as closing one’s eyes can confuse, and remove visual cues that help anchor perceptions in our grasp of depth.  

On the whole physical sensations are more reliable because – ironically – the confusion of stimuli is deeper to the point of making it hard to tell what comes from the gift, or from touch.  At the root all such perceptions are the influence of auras on our own, and by consequence our peripheral nerves which is their primary source.

“We already know this,” Kiannae protested.

“Do you?” Moriel pressed.

Katrisha frowned.  “I think perhaps more we know some of it.  I’ve heard of nerves, they let us feel things, but I didn’t know they were the source of our auras.”  She held up her hand, trying to look deeper, but she wasn’t sure if she could make out anything new.  She grabbed her sister’s to a small sound of protest, and tried again.  She just shook her head.

“Why don’t you continue reading, Miss Katrisha,” Moriel suggested.

She shifted the book, and found her place.

This connection is one aspect of the strength of gestures in performing gifted practices.  Gesture itself carries kinetic energy, and intention, forming symbolic linkages with the power of the primordial mind.  Though with this said, keep in mind that gesture is easily more crutch than boon, and can be deeply limiting if relied upon too heavily.

Magic is ultimately an abstract process, unlike the more primitive applications of conjuration and channeling.  With practice one can form spells around themselves without any motion at all.  With further practice more primitive offensive spells can be directed with gesture, while the conscious mind focuses on the more arcane areas of defense.

“That does seem more useful,” Kiannae admitted.

“I would surmise,” Moriel said with a thin sort of humor.  Having no experience in the matter himself, it had proven an interesting read when trying to better understand the girls he was expected to help teach.  Getting the twins to accept he had something worthwhile to teach them, was often enough of a challenge to give him a touch of pride when he got through.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 32nd, 645 E.R.

Katrisha kissed Wren on the forehead, and then helped him up to Renae’s waiting arms on the horse.  “I hope you two will visit again soon, it had been too long since the last time,” Katrisha said, as Renae settled Wren behind her.

“Yes, of course,” Renae said with a smile, “Perhaps you could come visit the Cloister as well, it’s very pretty there this time of year.”

“I fear Laurel is still far to cross with us to let us off castle grounds,” Kiannae said dismissively.  In truth she was quite sure the tensions with Arlen would also play some role in insuring that was not an option.

“Rightly so, it sounds as though you two were being very reckless,” Renae said disapprovingly.

“Yes,” Katrisha said sheepishly, “anyway, take care of yourselves.”

“You too,” Wren said as Renae urged the horse to turn.

“I will try and arrange to be here in the spring, but I can never be sure,” Renae said as she started the horse out the castle gate.

“I’ll miss you Wren,” Katrisha yelled as she waved, and turned to her sister who seemed cross.  “What’s wrong?” she asked after a moment of silence.

“Nothing,” Kiannae grumbled, and turned to climb the stairs to the upper court.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha was startled when Kiannae slammed their chamber door in her face before she could enter.  She opened the door slowly, and watched as Kiannae finished marching across the room to the window, where she leaned on the seat, and stared out at the valley below.

“Ok,” Katrisha said taking a breath, now a bit cross herself, “what is bothering you already?”

“Nothing,” Kiannae muttered.

“That’s obviously not true, you’ve been stewing on something all day.  This isn’t because I finally beat you in a spar this morning, is it?”  Katrisha walked over and put her hand on her sister’s shoulder, but the gesture was shrugged off.

Katrisha was not really sure how to take Kiannae’s behavior, they had each seen the other angry countless times, but Katrisha couldn’t think of an instance where her sister had ever been unwilling to talk to her.  Katrisha frowned, and started to walk towards the bed, intending to flop down in frustration.  If it was really about the spar, she was going to be very cross, after all the times Kiannae had beaten her, and teased her for it.

“Why do you like him so much?” Kiannae demanded just as Katrisha reached the foot of the bed.

“What?” Katrisha said honestly confused, and turned back.  It was so far afield of her expectations it took her a moment to even begin to put a who to the implication.

“Wren,” Kiannae said angrily, “why do you love Wren so much?”

“He’s our brother!” Katrisha snapped tersely, and marched back towards Kiannae.

“He’s weird,” Kiannae said uneasily.

“One to talk Ki,” Katrisha said scrunching up her face angrily.

“It’s true,” Kiannae said shrugging off Katrisha’s attempt at levity, and turned to her angrily.  “And whenever he’s here, you pay more attention to him than me.”

“Because he’s here so rarely, and you are always here,” Katrisha countered defensively.  “He’s your brother too,” she added.

“I’m not like him,” Kiannae said narrowing her eyes, and clenching her fist,  “I didn’t kill mother.”

“Don’t say that,” Katrisha snapped back angrily, balling up both fists.

“If it wasn’t for him mother would be alive,” Kiannae insisted flatly.

“That wasn’t Wren’s fault,” Katrisha protested, and started her sister square in the eye, half remembering something, the oddest horrible little thing.  She had asked for a little brother, she remembered that suddenly.  She had forgotten.  She wasn’t sure why she had asked – she hadn’t been sure why at the time.  It nagged at her like something important, like a voice in a dream that had planted the idea.  Did that make it her fault she half wondered?  Had she asked for Wren…why had she?

“It’s still true,” Kiannae said stubbornly.

“I said not to say that,” Katrisha demanded fiercely, stepping up on her sister, “you know how he feels about it.”

“Is he here,” Kiannae gestured around, and sneered.  “What does it matter, I can speak the truth when the little killer isn’t here.”

“You don’t even remember mother,” Katrisha growled, “you don’t even listen when Wren talks.”

“What do I care what he has to say?”  Kiannae said turning away furious, but Katrisha grabbed her shoulder, and made her turn back to face her.

“I remember mother sometimes when I talk with Wren, when he tries to sing,” Katrisha said in a pained tone, almost crying.  Her mother’s smile intruded on her memory, her wrapping her arms around their father, and asking what he thought of the idea.  He hadn’t objected.  Katrisha’s nails were digging into her own palm.  She was so angry, but she wasn’t even entirely sure who with.  It was a jumble of sorrow and rage out of proportion with sense.

“That’s because he stole her soul,” Kiannae growled, and wrested fiercely free of Katrisha’s grasp.

“Don’t say that,” Katrisha said tearfully – not sure if she was defending Wren, herself, or both of them.  She pushed her sister hard enough to stagger her.  There was a clap like thunder, and Katrisha found herself thrown across the room, and dazed.  She wasn’t even thinking at that point, her sister had attacked her, had thrown her clear across the room.  She didn’t even quite realize she had stopped herself from hitting the wall, or just how hard she had been thrown.  Something snapped in her, some foreign instinct took hold, and she struck, struck before she had even stopped herself from hitting the wall…struck almost before she had even been thrown.

There was a moment of frozen horror on both sister’s faces as they realized what had happened, as they both realized what they had done.  A shard of razor sharp ice the size of Katrisha’s arm hung inches from Kiannae’s left shoulder, and was thrown forcefully to the floor where it shattered, and sizzled.  Both looked unsteadily to the door where Laurel stood, a hand out stretched, an expression stricken with complete horror, shock, disbelief, and rage on his face.  His own hand slowly curled into a fist.

“Why!?” was all Laurel seemed to be able to yell, panting from the adrenaline of the moment as it caught up to him.  Even the instinct that he had spun on, even the sound that had nearly rattled their chamber door from its hinges.  He had reacted before it had happened, and his ears were ringing.

Kiannae nudged a frozen shard with her sandal.  Katrisha tried to look at her sister, but couldn’t meet her gaze.  She couldn’t fathom what had just occurred, what she had just done.  She didn’t even remember doing it completely.  It had been a gesture at most, one half caused by the blow itself as the air was forced from her lungs.  That was what the book had said, one could learn to do simple offensive spells with a gesture, but she had not learned to do any such thing.  Yet as much as she could not understand how she had done it, as much as no thought or intent had time to enter into it, it was hard to feel it was an accident.

Kiannae hesitantly started to walk towards Katrisha, and gave a hurt glance to Laurel as he stepped towards them, prepared to intercede.  Kiannae held her hand out to her sister where she was leaned against the wall.  At first Katrisha didn’t notice, and continued looking anywhere but at Kiannae.

After a moment Katrisha managed to bring herself to glance at her sister, and at the hand that was offered to her.  Hesitantly Katrisha took hold of her sister’s hand, and was helped to her feet.  Kiannae slowly stepped closer, and wrapped her arms around her twin, who stood there impassively.

“I can’t believe…” Katrisha said hauntedly.

“I…” Kiannae started meekly, “I felt it too, I could have…”

“You…” Katrisha stepped back, and looked her in the eye incredulously.  “I…I nearly…”

“I threw you hard, really…I…I…” Kiannae stammered starting to cry.

“No,” Laurel commanded agitatedly.  “No, no!  You two do not get to break down into tears before you tell me what in the abyss just happened!  Both of you, too my study,” he growled.  “Now!” he snapped when the two simply stared at him with injured expressions.  He still seemed short of breath.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood, rubbing his head tiredly, and looked again at the two identical girls, who stood silently before him, holding the other’s hands tightly.  Not the image of two children who had just nearly killed one another in a violent outburst.  He looked at them more closely, they weren’t quite identical he noticed, Katrisha was slightly paler than her sister, and it was beginning to make her freckles stand out more.  It was subtle, hard to notice, probably no more than Kiannae favoring getting more sun, but there it was, nonetheless.  It was the first time he had ever noticed such a distinct physical difference between them.

Laurel sighed after the uncomfortable silence had dragged on for too long.  The two girls accounts of their conflict had been equally sheepish, and strikingly similar – each had accepted blame without question for striking out at the other.  Kiannae had struck first, neither had challenged this, though Katrisha had vehemently insisted that the force she had been thrown with was not significant.  Laurel knew Katrisha was wrong, he had felt the magic, and the shockwave.  It had shaken their chamber door nearly free of it’s hinges beside him.  Had he not been there at that exact moment…

He closed his eyes, and steadied is rage, at that moment directed as much at himself, as the girls.  He had been concerned when he had heard of a splintered staff that morning in the girl’s spar.  Horence had insisted it had just been cracked before hand.  Laurel had an instinct it wasn’t.  Horence had previously reported that Kiannae seemed to be the naturally better fighter, always keeping Katrisha on her guard, but that he found it curious, that the harder Kiannae pushed, the better Katrisha seemed.  The staff had splintered at the moment Horence had been about to step in because it was getting out of hand.

Katrisha had taken the force of the blow, and brought the other end of her staff around so fast that even parried the blow followed through, and struck Kiannae hard enough on the shoulder to leave a bruise that she had spent an hour healing.  It was possible Katrisha herself had swung too hard, almost likely, but if Laurel did the math, with Horence’s description, the short to high leverage, force enough to have splintered a staff one one end, and break the attacker’s own block on the other…

“I am doubling your time with Horence,” Laurel said almost dispassionately, still in shock.  He had stopped Katrisha’s attack milliseconds short of catastrophic consequences.  He had managed that only because of the same instincts he knew in his gut had caused it.  The terror of the incident had left a mark on him he had not yet allowed himself time to fully process, distracted with far more intellectual ramifications.  “What you have told me…” he held a moment, calmed, changed his tone, and rethought his words.  “What Horence has told me of your training leaves me with almost no doubt.  You have the instincts of battle mages – and as much as it displeases me, I know what must be done.”

“What?” Kiannae asked uneasily.

“What happened between you two today…was not wholly your own faults,” Laurel said in a reserved tone.  “Though you will bear the responsibility of learning to control these instincts, as well as it seems, your tempers.  And as much it rattles every parental instinct I have come to harbor, as a mage I know that the only way to train you to control this, is to fully train you in combat magic.”

Laurel watched the small, confused, and almost excited glance between the girls.  “And to be clear,” he said with agitation, “I will work you so hard, as to leave no question this is a punishment.”

“Yes,” Katrisha said in a small voice.  Kiannae simply looked down again.

“As I said,” Laurel sighed, changing his tone again.  “This is not entirely your fault.  I fear I may have stirred these…’gifts’…through your training with Horence.  They would have emerged eventually, but…”  he shook his head.  “You will also need to resolve your conflict over your brother,” he said focusing squarely on Kiannae.  “I believe the escalation you experienced fed on itself presciently, and only the shock of the outcome startled you two out of the cycle.  I can only hope by learning to control it, that this kind of emotional feedback will not occur again.  Failing that, some form of meditation may be necessary.”

Laurel ran his fingers through his hair.  “As to the subject of your conflict, I can not tell you what to feel,” he said still focusing on Kiannae. “Only that I do not hold Wren responsible for your mother’s fate.  There is a great deal of blame to go around for what occurred, but no singular person can bear responsibility for the end result.  Do not throw away a sibling, who from all my dealings with him is a wonderful, promising boy, over something he had no choice in.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 1st, 645 E.R.

Wren slowed his quick gate, and his sobbing trailed off as he took stock of where he stood.  The wood beyond the north wall of the cloister contained a large clearing.   Wren had known it was there on some level, the cemetery was not a secret, just rarely spoken of.  Death was inevitable, even if great gifts could stave it off for a time.  The many gravestones arrayed in ordered rows before Wren stood as a reminder that even that was not forever.

The number was striking, given the history lessons ingrained upon children of the order from a young age.  The cloister was only a few hundred years old, and had not stood at the time of the great war.  The dead that lay in that hallowed ground had passed in the simple course of time.  The eldest of the founding sisters and brothers came first, and then the younger members of the first generation in due course.

The weathering of the stones lessened towards the back, and Wren plopped down near a gravestone, and with a puzzled look reached out his hand to touch it.  He traced the name Somavera as hasty footsteps cracked twigs entering the clearing behind him.

“Are you alright?” Celia asked in a consoling tone.

“No,” Wren said plainly.  “I’m not right at all.  He’s right about that, I’m a monster.”

Celia ran up behind Wren, dropped to her knees, and hugged him tightly.  “Stop saying that,” she demanded.

“If I didn’t say it, it would still be true,” Wren choked out.

“It’s not true at all,” Celia said as a chill wind blew across the clearing, and made her shiver.

It was growing darker, the sun long out of view behind the trees, and the mountain range to the west beginning to shadow Highvale from what was left of the evening sun.  A few flickers of light began to dot the edge of the woods.  Celia scrunched her face with some concern, she’d never seen such a peculiar occurrence.  The lights danced ever so slightly, slowly swirling about each other in graceful arcs.

Another set of footsteps could be heard crunching leaves, and slowly entering the clearing behind the pair.  Celia turned to see Audry transfixed by the sight.

“They are like fireflies,” Audry said in a curious tone, “but they aren’t, are they?”  They were too large, and many much too blue in color.

“What are they then?” Celia asked confused.

“Wisps,” Wren said looking up almost irritably at the display before him.

“That sounds about right,” Audry said with an air of false authority.  “I remember now, a kind of elemental, right?”

A group of the wisps grew closer together, swirling about above one of the graves near Audry, and then quite suddenly scattered as a shimmering form appeared, and looked around as though confused.  Audry fell over backwards in shock, and Celia clung tightly to Wren who seemed expressionless as he stared at the new arrival.

This unnerving process repeated three more times, lastly right next to Wren and Celia.  She grabbed Wren’s hand, and pulled him off balance as she scurried away, but lost her grip.  Wren struggled to sit back upright, and simply looked up at the glowing white figure above him.  The ghost knelt down, and looked at him curiously.

“I’m Wren,” he said, as though answering some unheard question.  “No,” Wren said in a correcting tone, “Renae is not my mother, but I call her such.”

The ghost cocked its head to the side curiously, and looked up as an angry voice called out from the thin strip of wood between the clearing, and cloister.  “Audry?” Andrew called out irritably.  “Why won’t you listen?” he demanded.  “He’s evil I tell you,” he implored as he stepped into the clearing, and found his sister on the ground before him, and ghosts milling aimlessly.

Andrew had never seen a ghost before, and without much hesitation he grabbed Audry’s arm, and pulled her to her feet.  He tried to drag her with him from the clearing, but she shook his grip free, and stared at him defiantly.  There was a touch of fear in her eyes nonetheless.

“This isn’t right,” Andrew said sternly.  “This shouldn’t be happening!”

“What do you know?” Audry growled.

“I read it,” Andrew insisted, “ghosts are rare, very rare.”

“Since when do you read?” Audry cut back, all eyes, living and dead upon the brother and sister arguing.

“I read,” Andrew cut back.

“You certainly don’t read your assignments for class,” Audry sneered.

“Cause that’s boring,” Andrew muttered, “but this…this isn’t right.  Let’s get out of here, and away from the little soul eater.”

“Wren is not a soul eater,” Audry snapped, and pushed her brother who almost fell over.

“He’s not just a soul eater, he’s a necromancer,” Andrew yelled, grabbed his sister’s arm forcefully, and tried to pull her from the clearing.

“Wren didn’t do this,” Celia said, uncertainty in her voice, as she turned to Wren who still sat passively, his eyes closed, and tears running down his cheeks again.

Audry struggled again to get free of her brother’s grasp, and did so, falling over, and through an approaching ghost, which swept right up to Andrew, and stared down at him with a disapproving glare.

“To the Abyss with all of you,” Andrew said as he turned, and ran.

“He’s right,” Wren said.  “This shouldn’t be happening, I shouldn’t hear them.”

“Hear, what?” Celia asked.  “I don’t hear anything.”

“I do,” Wren said, and looked at Celia, his lips pursed definitely.  “They ask, they whisper, I don’t understand all of it, but I hear it.  I shouldn’t, no one else does, but I do.”

“How do you know?” Audry asked walking cautiously past one of the ghosts, and sitting down next to Celia and Wren.

“Because I read the same book he did,” Wren said with a shrug, and looked away.

“Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true,” Celia offered.

“Do you hear them?” Wren asked rhetorically.

“No,” Celia admitted again.

“It just means you are special,” Audry offered uncertainly, her eyes darting nervously about at the ghosts that were slowly circling the trio.

“That’s a word for it,” Wren said, and closed his eyes again.  Celia reached out, and took Wren’s hand comfortingly, and Audry did the same.  There was a moment of painfully uncomfortable silence, and then without warning Wren whispered just loud enough to be heard. “Rest,” and the ghosts seemed to wash away in swirling strands of light caught in the gentlest breeze.

The wisps remained for a little while, some slowly swirled off into the wood, others seemed to flicker and fade.  “No,” Wren said sorrowfully, stood, and helped his friends to their feet.  “He’s right.  I did this, though I couldn’t tell you how.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Renae considered her adopted son thoughtfully.  Wren was all too aware of the coming question, but did not press to be asked.

“Can you explain to me the things I’ve been hearing?” she finally questioned, seeing the impatient irritation in Wren’s eyes.

“Depends what you have heard,” Wren said grumpily, and crossed his arms.

“Andrew raised a holy ruckus to his mother, in public no less, about you conjuring ghosts in the graveyard.” Renae sighed.  “As preposterous as it sounds…I’d not even ask, but, something tells me I should.”

“It’s true,” Wren said, “not that conjuring is the right word.”

“Then what is?” Renae said in a metered, perplexed tone.

“Causing?” Wren said uncertainly, looking out the window.  “I didn’t go out there to do anything,” he protested, “just to get away from Andrew.”

“He’s still not leaving you alone?” Renae asked unhappily.

“He’s never left me alone,” Wren said venomously.

“And you are saying what he said is true, that multiple ghosts manifested in the graveyard?” Renae asked uncomfortably.

“Four,” Wren answered.

Renae took a long slow breath.  “A ghost has been reported, now and then,” Renae said thoughtfully, “but four…”

“I caused it,” Wren said flatly.

“How could you have caused a ghost to appear?” Renae demanded doubtfully.  “Let alone four.  Real necromancers, if you can argue there even is such a thing – and not simply charlatans – have only the scarcest of success rates when mustering all their will.”

“I just did,” Wren said angrily, wishing he could deny the truth as easily as Renae seemed to be trying to.  “Do you want me to prove it?”

“I just…” Renae started, winced, and walked over to Wren, knelt down and hugged him.  “You don’t have to prove anything.”  Renae said, somberly.  “I’m just trying to understand.”

“I don’t know what’s worse,” Wren said, not returning the embrace.  “Andrew hating me for the truth, or you not believing it.”

“I believe you,” Renae said reassuringly, but there was still a touch of rational doubt in her voice.

“Iraen was your mother, wasn’t she?” Wren asked pointedly.

“Yes,” Renae said, “she’s buried out there.  She was older when she had me, much older than most, and she died young…there was a flaw in her heart that would not heal.”

“She said to tell,” Wren seemed to struggle for a moment, “‘Button,’ that she loves her.  That her heart is still with her.”

Renae pulled back and looked stricken for a moment, staring at Wren.  It was possible – only possible – Wren had heard her mother’s old pet name for her at some point, but she knew in her heart she had never told him, and it wasn’t the first time.  The winter morning with the wisps in the courtyard, when for just a moment she thought she had heard the hum of her mother’s voice, singing her to sleep.  He had said it, she had pushed it aside, he couldn’t have known, he shouldn’t have known even then.

“She called me Button,” Renae said weakly, “that I was the Button on her heart, that kept it together.  She…she died while I was far away.”  Renae began to cry, for so many reasons, not the least of which was the kind gifted boy in her arms, that she so rarely knew what to do with.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 3rd, 646 E.R.

Wren tapped his foot impatiently as he leaned against the wall next to Celia.  He glanced over as Celia’s incessant swirling of her finger in the air began to produced a thin trail of light, which momentarily distracted him from his boredom.  “You did it,” he said with a slight laugh.

“Took me long enough,” Celia sighed, and shook her hand attempting to get feeling back from how long she had been trying.  Her progress dissolved, and she glanced at Wren.  She smiled somewhat in spite of herself.

Wren’s presence was like a hearth on a cold autumn night.  He somehow made the world away from him seem a little colder.  Yet all at once there was a sense of that nature of fire behind it, an intensity that smoldered – perhaps impatiently – for the world’s plodding way.  This was enough to give the wary pause, and he could seem a flame that easily called all the moths of the world toward him.  That thought lingered, and bothered Celia, she wasn’t even sure why she had thought it.

“You’ve only been at it a couple days,” Wren said encouragingly, “on your own, Aaron has been training with Sister Calis for weeks.  I’ll ask Renae if you can come with us the next time I visit my sisters.  They can do so much more, maybe they could teach you.”

“I’d like that,” Celia laughed, “but I don’t know if my mother would let me leave the cloister.”  She started again, and almost instantly a trail of light formed.  She bit her lip excitedly that it had come quickly that time.

Wren glanced down the corridor again.  “Where is Audry?” he asked with a faint hint of concern, “it’s not like her to be so late.”

“Maybe we should go look for her?’ Celia said with a shrug, and let her glowing figure-eight drift away.

“I guess,” Wren said and started walking down the hall.

As they rounded a corner they came upon Andrew.  In the past year had undergone a growth spurt to the point of towering over the two.  He had long had an intemperate presence, one that shifted from a harsh breeze, to stone.  That moment he felt like a rolling boulder coming towards the two.  Neither had in their lives seen someone so obviously, and violently angry, but some instinct kicked in, and told them both to back off.

It wasn’t enough.  Andrew marched menacingly straight up to Wren, even as he tried to get out of the way.  “Stay away from my sister!” he barked as Wren found himself frightened and backed up against a wall.

“Leave him alone!” Celia yelled, but fell short of laying hands on Andrew to pull him back.

“Stay out of this,” Andrew spat, turning towards Celia, who stood her ground, but couldn’t quite bring herself to move towards Wren.  “Do you hear me?” he demanded turning back to Wren who was hunkered down on the floor against the wall.  “Stay away from my sister.”

“Shut up,” Wren squeaked in a small frightened voice.

“No,” Andrew said, “not till you promise to stay away from my sister you little mongrel.”

“Leave him alone,” Celia repeated demandingly, and moved to put herself between the two.  Andrew pushed her back, and she fell.

“Answer me you little shit,” Andrew demanded, “what are you going to do?”  Wren shrunk further, as Andrew leaned down over him, “hello, do you hear me you little freak?  Stay away!”

“Shut up,” Wren whimpered in a tiny voice.

“No,” Andrew said, “not until you promise.”

“Shut up,” Wren squeaked again, just a hair louder.

Andrew grabbed ahold of his robe, and shook him.  “No,” he said viciously, “promise me you will stay away!”

“SHUT UP!” Wren suddenly boomed in a horrifying voice not at all like his own.  The sound of it seemed to reverberate in the rafters, and rattle the bones.  It frightened Celia to her core who had grabbed ahold of Andrew to try and pull him off Wren, and her fingers slipped weekly off his arm.  Andrew fell backwards barely catching himself.  He scrambled in a strange helpless fashion for a moment.  His eyes were wide, and his face as white as a sheet.  He frantically clutched at his throat, he opened his mouth as though trying to speak, trying to yell, and suddenly without a further word pushed himself up against the far wall, and ran away.

Celia watched as Andrew stumbled, and flailed down the hallway in his haste, and then turned back to Wren who was curled up in a tiny ball, sobbing.  “Are,” Celia coughed slightly as though her throat was dry.  “Are you alright?” she asked cautiously moving towards her friend.  Wren simply continued to cry, and didn’t answer.  “Wren?” Celia said questioningly, her concern quickly starting to override her uneasiness.  She coughed again, and rubbed her throat.

“I…I…” Wren sputtered between sobs, and then gave up.

Celia wrapped her arms around him consolingly, and gently stroked his hair.  “It’ll be alright,” she said softly.  “It’s ok, he’s gone.”

“I…” Wren tried again, “he…he was right about me,” Wren whimpered.

“What do you mean?” Celia asked in confusion, but Wren seemed to just descend further back into sobbing, and began to noticeably tremble.

Several minutes passed, and Wren slowly began to calm.  When he finally met Celia’s gaze his expression was one of horror, sadness, and utter heartbreak.

“What happened?” Celia asked in as gentle a tone as she could manage.

“I don’t know,” Wren said with a haunted voice.  “I did something…I don’t know what I did, but I felt myself do it.  I think I might have hurt him.”  He looked away helplessly, unable to look his friend in the eye after admitting his fear.

“He was attacking you,” Celia said softly, “it’s ok.  He was well enough to run away.  It’s ok.”

“I don’t know what I did,” Wren said again with and unnerving tremor in his voice.  “It’s not…I…” he couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought as the memory of South Rook gripped him.  How everyone had stopped for a moment, and even afterword seemed dazed, how he had ran to his room, and hid not knowing what he had done, or how.

“It’s ok, whatever it was he deserved it,” Celia said trying to calm Wren down.

“Maybe I deserve it,” Wren said in a small voice.

“No,” Celia said firmly, “you are sweet, and wonderful, and he is an ass.  He’s always hated you, for no reason.”

Celia turned as quick footsteps echoed down the hall.  Audry was running towards them, holding her arm tightly.  “Is he alright?” she asked obviously scared.

“He isn’t hurt,” Celia said, “but he’s been crying for a while now.”

“What did my bastard brother do to him?” Audry said in a tone almost as angry as Andrew’s.

“He was yelling, and shaking him,” Celia said, “and then…” she hesitated not sure how to describe Wren’s part.  “He ran like he was terrified.  Is your arm alright?” she asked trying to change the subject as her own suspicions sunk in.  It wasn’t possible, and yet it fit.

“He was keeping me in my room,” Audry growled, “wouldn’t let me leave.  Kept yelling at me, trying to make me promise to stay away from Wren.  I tried to push past him, and he pushed me down, and I hurt my arm.”  Audry rubbed her arm a bit.  “I’ve been working to heal it.”

Audry leaned down and looked Wren in the eye.  “Are you alright?” she asked anger and concern mixed in her expression.

“I think I hurt him,” Wren whimpered.

Audry’s expression suddenly shifted to dumbstruck.  “You…are crying ‘cause you think you hurt, him?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” Wren said in a small voice, “partly.   I’m scared,” he added.

“He ran off,” Audry said reassuringly, “and if he comes back we’ll make him leave.”

“I’m scared of me,” Wren corrected her.

“You…” Audry started bewildered, not sure what to say.

“He had him cornered,” Celia offered, “his voice changed…it was so loud it hurt, and I kind of felt it when he lashed out.  I…”  She rubbed her throat, which felt a bit like she needed to clear it, but the coughs had done nothing.  She remembered Andrew grabbing his.  “He earned whatever he got.”  She added, keeping her suspicion to herself.  It was passing, whatever it was.

Audry shook her head.  “You darling, impossibly wonderful little thing,” she said touching Wren’s tear streaked cheek. “You get cornered, frightened half out of your wits, and now you are more worried about what you did to the monster who was bullying you, than what he did to you?”

“He’s not a monster,” Wren said defiantly, “he was scared, angry…I…”

Audry pulled Wren to her, and hugged him.  “Quiet,” she said firmly, “it’s no excuse, you never did anything to him, nothing.  He’s my blood and I won’t defend him, not for a moment, don’t you.  Don’t you dare waste another thought on him.  You are wonderful, and that’s all you need to know.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 22nd, 646 E.R.

Rennae rubbed her face tiredly as Andria walked into their room.  “Are you alright?” Andria asked with some concern.

“Shandra has been harassing me repeatedly about her son,” Rennae said looking at Andria with a cross expression.  “He won’t talk, won’t leave his room, and has been crying a lot it seems.”

“I’ve heard,” Andria sighed, “no one knows what’s wrong with him.”

“She’s started saying odd things about Wren, but nothing outright,” Rennae said looking out the window. “Nightmares, and obsessions.  Of course she mentioned none of this when I had talked to her repeatedly about the boy harassing Wren.”

“You don’t actually think he has something to do with it do you?” Andria asked doubtfully.

“I…” Rennae sighed. “I don’t know, I don’t think so, but I’ve heard he’s been bordering on bullying with some kids.  Getting worse not better, particularly towards Wren, and Wren has been…different lately.”

“And so…what?” Andria asked not sure where the connection was.

“You know as well as I do the potential power of that boy,” Rennae said laying her forehead on her hand.  “I mean…maybe if he cornered him somewhere, pushed him to the edge, maybe he could have done something…I don’t know.  I don’t think I could bring myself to ask him either.  He’s seemed so distant lately, and I…  I don’t know what to think.  There were also reports of a terrible yell heard in part of the cloister the other day.  Something, unnatural according to those who heard it.”

“You aren’t thinking of the madness in South Rook, are you?” Andria pressed.

“Wren was there,” Renae answered.

“That doesn’t mean Wren had anything to do with it.”

“No it doesn’t, but no one has an explanation.  No one has heard of anything like it.”

“It bears watching I guess,” Andria said with a frown. “Even if it’s true, as you say, if he was pushed to the edge I don’t think we need to worry about a repeat…but if some one else comes to that conclusion.  How can we control this if people start talking?”

“I don’t know,” Rennae said darkly, “and that’s why I’m worried.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 17

As the child grows,
any parent knows,
so too the troubles go,

yet a common child,
shall never be so wild,
as those gifted born.

and so mages well beware,
the children you might sire,
or to be mother of the storm.

– Lament of Araena Grey, circa 100 E.R.

Young Troubles

Estae 25th, 645 E.R.

Katrish and Kiannae stood side by side on north balcony above the throne room, watching the proceedings below impatiently.  It was far from the first time, but invariably they grew bored with all the formalities, and repetition.  Grain reports and petty grievances, petitions for justice for minor crimes, and worries both that too much, or too little is spent on the Osyrean border in the north.  Mercu’s tales of Clarion political maneuvering had however piqued their interest to try again, waiting to see if anything would happen.  Nothing really had, not at least on the four occasions they had taken an hour or less to watch since.

That day though Idolus was in court, standing at Arlen’s side as Mercu had implied was often the case.  Arlen’s place in the order for the day had yet to come up, to Arlen’s clear frustration, as much as the girls.  They were growing painfully bored with the minutia of running a kingdom, but something of the airs the two men possessed spoke of trouble they were not ready to miss.

“The court recognizes Sir Arlen, of Wesrook,” the court herald declared, bringing the twins back from their own musings.

“Your Majesty,” Arlen said with a bow, “a matter of some concern has arisen.  It has come to my attention that the Court Mage’s twin apprentices are likely being poisoned against the merits of Clarion teaching.”

Both girls glanced at each other, uncertain what to make of the accusation.  They certainly had not expected to be the subject that Arlen opened on.  Kiannae looked to the king for a response, but Katrisha caught a brief sneer of Idolus up at them.  Even after South Rook she was not sure she had seen such a look of hate.

“Will this be the point at which you claim Lycian influence behind this attitude?” the King asked with an obvious lack of amusement.

“One can not be sure,” Arlen said shrewdly, “yet they do most vehemently besmirch our beliefs.”

“That is an interesting, but not uncommon viewpoint,” the King said drolly. “I have never known the Sisterhood to walk the streets proclaiming much of anything for their order, or against any other.  They will of course lend their own version of wisdom, to those who ask, without much hesitation.”

“They do walk the streets,” Arlen offered sharply, and overly proud of his own jab from the look on his face.  There were a few chuckles through the court.

“As do we all, at times,” the King cut back with much less pleasure, “or do you mean to imply that the Sisterhood sell their…attentions.  Then We would need ask who besmirches who, since this is both less than true, and breaks no law of the land.  Even if it were.  Moreover it is the attentions of a Clarion healer that must most often be paid for.  We should know, for how much of Idolus’ time this court has paid.”  There was more uncomfortable laughter at this.

Katrisha tugged at Kiannae’s sleeve, feeling that leaving might be best, but Kiannae stood firm, and gave her a look that said she had no interest in shrinking from the argument below.

“If We might, my King,” the Queen interjected, “perhaps the girls in question could speak for themselves?  They were more than capable of felling a mighty dire beast bigger than a horse, We doubt a few questions will give them all that much trouble.  Certainly they can speak more authoritatively to the matter of their educational sources and leanings.”  She looked up to where the two stood on the balcony above.  Katrisha reluctantly stepped back beside her sister.  “Please, do speak plainly girls, what have you been taught of the Clarion beliefs?”

The two exchanged an uncomfortable glance, and stood there a bit longer than was perhaps dignified under direct question.

“We have been taught that the Clarions believe in the Path of Ascension,” Katrisha offered, when Kiannae in spite of her stubborn insistence to stay did not jump to speak. “That through casting off the unnecessary distractions of the flesh, all which is not needed to continue life, and propagate the species.  To the end that we might better focus on moving towards becoming one with the light.  They believe this is the one true path, and the only valid use of one’s life.”

“What have you been taught of the beliefs of the Lycian Order, or perhaps you know them better as the Sisterhood?” the Queen asked.

“That the Lycians believe, as is the official position of the Council,” Kiannae began, finding her nerve again, “that there is no proof that Ascension is even possible, let alone desirable.  They chose instead to focus upon the merits of this life, rather than the promises of another.  They do not begrudge the Clarions the core tenants of their faith, only their doctrine to force this upon others, purportedly for their own good.”

“Anything more?” the Queen asked, “what do you believe, and from what source do you draw your conclusions?”

The girls again exchanged looks, and after a moment Kiannae spoke first.  “I believe that the Council’s assessment is accurate in that there is no proof of the functional possibility of Ascension.  The Clarion argument that the flesh itself is the sacrifice that allows the soul to ascend is plausible, but does not answer any questions of the nature of existence beyond the Veil, not a testable conclusion that it works.”

“And you?” the Queen prodded.

“I believe that there is no practical answer to either Ascension being true, or false,” Katrisha said hesitantly.  “We concern ourselves with that which is known, that which can be determined to be human nature.  If the Light made us with a true path, whatever that might be, then it must be in our natures to follow it, not against that nature.”

“What of the pull of the Abyss?” Arlen interjected after a quick whisper in his ear from Idolus.

“Is this a material pull, or an intelligent manipulation?” Katrisha demanded irritably.

“The Abyss is the void, without thought, or intent, it is nothing but endless hunger,” Arlen said without further prompting.

“Then does it change our intelligent nature, or does it anchor us down by force?”  Katrisha cut back.  “If you argue it is unintelligent, then the latter must be true.  Our nature should then be unaffected.”

“We must be prepared to sacrifice the physical to attain Ascension,” Arlen said again prompted by Idolus, “as the Council itself is prone to pointing out, if Ascension is possible, then something must descend to give the soul the power to rise.”

“Enough,” the King declared coldly. “I will not allow further ideological debate in my throne room.  Nor have you continue to pester these fine young women who have so recently done a great service for the crown, and this nation, at grave risk to their own health.  We will have answers to the charge of the willful teaching of these two against the Clarion faith.  Answer now girls, from where have you drawn your conclusions regarding Clarion teaching?”

“From Laurel, who has instructed us according to Council practice,” Kiannae answered.

“What proof do we have that Laurel himself then is not adherent to the beliefs of the Sisterhood?” Arlen demanded.

“We know it to be the case that Laurel was raised by parents who were staunch Clarion adherents,” the King said dismissively.

“Yet he is known to consort with, and bring the Matron of Highvale here to court!” Arlen proclaimed, seemingly off Idolu’s leash, and enraged to his own ends.

“For the purpose of allowing his adopted daughters, and aprentices to know their younger brother.  A poor child afflicted with unfortunate circumstances of birth, who was left to their care,” the King stated firmly.  “Would you begrudge these children to know their own blood?”

“If he is a corruption, if he brings in the false teachings to the court,” Arlen said without as much fire as before, “then unfortunately yes, such it must be.”

“Tell me girls,” the King said glancing up to the twins, “what has the Matron Renae, or Wren told you of their order?”

“Little of note,” Katrisha said finding it curious herself that such topics had rarely come up.  “Day to day life, chores, that some days are free, and others set aside for meditation.  Of his trials with a belligerent young man of the order.”

“Do you attest to this also Kiannae?” the King pressed.

“Yes,” Kiannae said curiously, “Renae has been nothing but kind to us, asked us of our lives, but told us little of hers.  I know she traveled with caravans once, and saw much of the world.  I have not known her to preach as I have seen Idolus do as he walked the street the other day.”

“So it would seem,” the King said flatly, “that the girls have attained their opinion of Clarions from the teachings of the Council.  Whether or not We agree with these opinions, or how they are stated, the Council’s authority is officially recognized in this kingdom, by treaty.  If you wish to take issue with their teachings, We recommend taking your grievances to Mordove, you will find it well east of this court.  If you are in a hurry, might We suggest the east pass.”  There was more uncomfortable humor at this, and Arlen stepped away from the dias with a less than graceful bow, clearly still fuming.

Idolus for his part eyed the girls spitefully, and then slipped back into the crowd, and out of the throne room.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 17th, 645 E.R.

Mercu stepped aside as an irate Katrisha tore past him in a fit.  He glanced down the hall where she had come from only to catch a snide look from Lady Catherine, who turned, and marched away in her own more dignified huff.  Mercu sighed, shook his head, and turned around to follow Katrisha.  It had been a good morning he thought, and that it seemed would not continue.

By the time Mercu caught up with Katrisha she had climbed the stairs halfway to the her tower chamber, and sat beneath one of the many windows off the spiral stair.  “Might I enquire as to the meaning of that scene?” he asked in a kind yet chiding tone, that drew a remarkable look of disapproval from the tear streaked face of the girl sitting before him.

“Who died, and made her Queen?” Katrisha demanded.

Mercu was a bit taken aback by Katrisha’s question, but finally settled on a response.  “Her father, actually,” he said stroking his chin, and watching Katrisha’s expression change to one of confusion.

“What?” she asked still half sobbing, and shaking her head for the lack of sense the statement made to her.

“Didn’t you know?” Mercu asked with a laugh. “Haven’t you ever wondered why Catherine holds so much sway in the court?  Catherine was the elder sister of the King.”  He watched with some amusement as confusion melted to an unmistakable expression of doubt, and disbelief.  “It’s true,” Mercu insisted.

“Then why…isn’t she Queen?” Katrisha asked, clearly caught somewhere between her current distaste for the woman, and a sense of injustice at this knowledge, that she seemed not entierly prepared to believe either.

“In part because her father was not,” Mercu said searching for the best way to explain.

“Then why is the King…” Katrisha started, but was not quite sure how to finish her question.

“The proper heir to the throne of the Elder King was his first born son,” Mercu said trying to recall what he had learned over the years.  “He died at a young age, leaving the heir apparent his brother, but the King had lost control of the influences some of the knights held over his younger child.”

“But they are his knights,” Katrisha protested, “why would he approve of them, but not their influence?”

“Just as the throne is inherited, so are knighthoods,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “At least in Avrale, I’ve always found the titles of this land quaint.  No Earls, or Counts, every duke’s younger brother automatically a knight commander.  Some other knighthoods inherited, others not.  At any rate,” he said with a dismissive gesture for his own train of thought, “the children of your father’s friends, are not always your friends.  Yet in noble circles you are oft obliged to pay difference nonetheless.  So it is with the court, not everyone who bows to the King does so with love in their heart, some do it out of grudging duty.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Katrisha said momentarily distracted from her prior upset.  “Though perhaps it explains Arlen,” she said thoughtfully.

“Yes, quite,” Mercu laughed.  “Regardless, so it was with the chosen mentors of Theodore, the Elder King’s second born.  He did not trust his son would be the heir he wanted.  As King he had the power to choose his successor, to a point, but there is always a chance of discord, or even civil war when breaking from traditional inheritance.  So choosing between his grandchildren to groom, he picked the younger, who as a male child might lessen the potential strife.”

“That’s hardly fair,” Katrisha grumbled irritably.

“In private, with a few glasses of wine in her,” Mercu offered with a knowing smile, “Catherine might agree with that sentiment.  The ways of things however are not always fair, and for Catherine the slight of being passed over for the throne was not the end of her indignity.  Her father, having his son’s instruction taken out of his control, took it out on her, pushing her twice as hard to be a proper Clarion child.”

“So that’s why she is such a nasty old woman?” Katrisha demanded disapprovingly.

“I’ve seen her softer side,” Mercu chided gently, “…on occasion.  But yes, things were not always easy for her – and she was forced to choose a side in the scramble for the succession.  I’ve never been quite clear which she took, I suspect she sided with her father, and so later styled herself down.  It was fortunate – if still tragic – that Theodore died soon after his father, before things could progress too far.”

“That seems an awful thing to say,” Katrisha said a bit stricken.

“Awful things are sometimes nonetheless true,” Mercu noted.  “I’ve only heard the rumors, but things might have gotten very ugly.  Theodore’s timely death likely saved lives, since a war over successions is not a pretty affair.  Not that any war is, but cousins and brothers wind up on opposite sides in such wars.  Or sisters, and brothers, as it were.  Then there is no telling what would have happened, when, if, or even after the Council finally stepped in.  To date the Council’s resolve in these matters has been suspect.”

“How horrible,” Katrisha said, and looked down.

“As I said, it didn’t happen – fortunately,” Mercu said stooping down before the girl, and lifting her chin.  “Now that I’ve answered your questions, might you do the same for me?”

“I suppose…” Katrisha said uncertain what Mercu was asking any more.

“What did you fight with Catherine about?” Mercu asked.

“She was being very mean to one of the servants,” Katrisha said with a stern frown, “made her cry.  I told her she shouldn’t be mean, and she yelled at me for spying…but…I wasn’t, not really…not much.”

Mercu laughed.  “Spying isn’t nice.  This is why you should never get caught.  Not that it’s stopped you so far.”  He looked thoughtful for a moment.  “How did she make the servant cry?”

“I couldn’t quite hear.”  Katrisha frowned.  “Something about getting something.”

“Well, that is what servants generally do,” Mercu said distantly, obviously working something over in his head.

“She still didn’t have to be so mean,” Katrisha said stubbornly.  “She was threatening the girl, something about a secret.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mercu said with a convincing false smile.  “Go play with your sister.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“I’ve one account as to what that was about, but I find I am curious of yours,” Mercu asked kindly of Catherine, who had been staring out the window in the middle of the grand stair behind the royal antechambers.

“I will see the girl dismissed, and assure she never finds a position again,” Catherine said in a measured, but vehemently furious tone.

“And then how will she eat?” Mercu pressed.

“The little thief can rot for all I care,” Catherine growled.

“Did you find something missing?”

Catherine glared at Mercu.

“Someone put her up to finding something, didn’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Then blame whoever coerced the poor girl, not her.  She is hardly the first in these halls to find herself a victim of you all scheming against one another.”

“She claimed not to know who had demanded it of her, nor could I wrest what secret was being held over her head from her lips, before that little spy interfered.”

“I’ll note her spying has been of some use,” Mercu countered.

“Yes…use,” Catherine said with displeasure.

“Do you object that justice was done?” Mercu asked rhetorically.  He knew her better than that, or at least he liked to think he did.

“You know that is not my concern,” Catherine said, and turned to glare out the window again.  “It was justice at a cost, one that we cannot yet judge, but is already very high.  Arlen is up to something new after that falling out in court, I do not know what, but I know that he is, desperation is making him bold.”

“It was justice, plain and simple,” Mercu said flatly.  “We cannot play the game of placation forever.  Something will give, and Arlen is holding a losing hand.”

Catherine looked at him, her expression hard to read, anger touched with sorrow.  “I do not know what to do with you,” she finally said.  “Sometimes I think you a better man than most in these halls…and others…”

“I do aim to be trouble,” Mercu bowed slightly.  “Yet always in the best sorts of ways.”

“Yes…trouble.”  Catherine sighed exasperatedly, and looked back out the window with less ire, softening to something that seemed more sadness than her former rage, though her nails still dug at her thumb in a bad habit, one Mercu had caught before playing cards against the woman.

“Do you know at least what she was looking for?”

“No,” Catherine said firmly, but Mercu suspected otherwise.  The fidgeting with her fingers was like when she was bluffing.

“Well that is peculiar,” Mercu acknowledged, hiding that he knew she was lying.

“Very.”

“Did she find it?” he said doubling back, trying to catch her off guard.

“I am through being questioned,” Catherine snapped, her fists clenched at her sides.

“I shall simply wait for a servant girl to be dismissed, and question her.”

“Then I will bide my time, and see her dismissed when you can no longer be certain,” Catherine cut back.

“I am sure Katrisha can identify the girl for me.”

Catherine glared at him again, and then looked back out the window.  “If you wish me to permit the girl to stay, then leave me be, but I will not have her enter my chambers again.”

“As you wish, fair lady,” Mercu bowed.

Catherine huffed in protest.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 23rd, 645 E.R.

A bolt of lightning shattered a glimmering shard of ice high above the cliffs below the west tower at Broken Hill.

“Hey!” Katrisha snapped at her sister.

“Sorry,” Kiannae sighed.  “I just wanted to see if I could do it.  You are better at that spell than I am, and I’m bored.”

“Well try the fire again, leave my spells alone.”

Kiannae conjured a sputtering ball of fire, and sent it zipping into the distance, though it whiffed out only a few hundred feet away.

“Better,” Katrisha said encouragingly.

Kiannae shrugged, and leaned back against the wall of their window seat.

Katrisha reached out again.  The weaving of an icicle was an oddly natural thing for her.  It was almost the form of her magic to begin with.  A small crystalline arc, a thing that slipped from her finger from a jagged web that had woven up her hand, a shape just as the form would be, roughed and faceted and sharper than any razor.  Air frozen denser than diamond, the atmosphere before it collapsed, the pressure behind it pushed forward.  It slipped frictionless, a perfect mirrored surface cutting through the vacuum left as it formed.

As it zipped away it was again shattered by lightning.  Katrisha gave her sister a dirty look, and Kiannae just shrugged and smriked.

“Well, you are better at that than I am,” Katrisha said crossing her arms.  “And with raw force.”

“Not much fun without a target,” Kiannae countered.  “Are you sure those ice shards are safe to be shooting off like that, won’t they come down somewhere?”

Katrisha shook her head.  “My math says they will reach escape velocity well before the spell wears off.”  Katrisha sent another one flying, this time much faster, Kiannae’s bolt missed and formed a ball that wove about a bit in the air before it dissipated.

“That was interesting,” Kiannae remarked, and tired to repeat it to little results.  The charge she had formed did not want to leap to the empty space.  She carefully grounded it into the stone of the castle slowly, lest it leave a mark.

“What are you two doing?” Laurel demanded having entered the room unnoticed.

“Just practicing,” Katrisha said defensively.

“We want to be prepared if we have to fight again,” Kiannae added.

“After South Rook, and the cougar,” Katrisha added.

Laurel sighed, and rubbed his forehead.  “Please don’t throw spells out the windows.  I’ll see if I can get you some time to practice with proper targets, where you can’t do any harm.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 24th, 645 E.R.

Katrisha peered down over the parapet she sat upon, and into the courtyard below.  “Are you sure about this?” she asked uncertainly.

“I haven’t had any trouble so far,” Kiannae said perched on her toes at the very edge.

“I have,” Katrisha said nervously.

“You stopped yourself just fine, you just didn’t account for forward momentum,” Kiannae chided.

“And almost slid off the roof,” Katrisha grumbled.

“Well, that’s not a problem here, is it,” she said pointedly.  “Besides, I’ll catch you if you get it wrong.”  With that she jumped, and and rolled into a tight ball as she fell a good thirty-five feet before spreading her arms in a sweeping gesture, and stopping about three feet off the ground.  Katrisha could see the grass and surrounding bushes blow about wildly for just a moment as Kiannae gracefully stuck the landing from the last few feet.

The guards at the keep door turned to stare at the young mage who seemed to have simply appeared out of nowhere only a few dozen feet away.  They looked at each other, and then up where Katrisha was now standing, just in time to catch a glimpse of her perched on the edge before she jumped.  Katrisha did just as her sister had before her, but stopped a good seven feet up, instead of three.

Realizing her mistake, Katrisha quickly tried again as she started to fall the rest of the way.  She stopped just an inch above the ground, but failed to keep her balance as she landed, and fell flat on her back.  “Ow,” she muttered, and and reached to rub her head.

“Good work,” Kiannae laughed, “except for the landing part.”

“I’d say you do better…but I guess you already did,” Katrisha growled.

“Come on then, on to the archery range,” Kiannae laughed and headed on.

“Can we skip the rest of the shortcuts please?” Katrisha asked hopefully, getting to her feet.

“You can if you want,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “I intend to practice.”

“Oh, so it’s going to be like that,” Katrisha said as she dusted herself off, and then sprinted past her sister.  Kiannae blinked with surprise, and ran after her.  A hand full of people around the courtyard watched the ensuing race curiously, and all with equal disbelief gasped as Katrisha vaulted over the rail at the edge of the upper courtyard, with her sister following close behind.

Katrisha timed her deceleration better, stopping only two feet off the ground, but failed to get all of her forward momentum, and was forced to roll out of her landing.  She scrambled to her feet with what was left of her grace, as Kiannae landed just behind her.  “Sloppy landing again sister,” Kiannae yelled.

“Still ahead,” Katrisha called back as she ran on.

As the pair bolted past the castle gate they were given strange looks by guards who opted not to interfere.  Katrisha leapt from the steep hill beside the road leading out of the castle gate, and this time rather than trying to stop herself turned her fall into more forward movement, clearing the bottom of the slope of the hill, and then a bit awkwardly stopped herself at the bottom, sending a wild shock wave out through the air.  The air snapped back with enough force that she stumbled on her landing.

Kiannae watched the maneuver, impressed with the ingenuity, if not the execution.  Refusing to be outdone she did the same, and leapt from the hill, propelled herself forward, and rolled gracefully out of her landing when she slowed herself at the bottom.  Katrisha had already managed to get back to her feet, and the two were now tied as they ran into the archery range.

“Not bad Kat, not bad,” Kiannae laughed between gasps for breath.

“That was an interesting show over there,” a man with a bow slung over his shoulder said as he approached the pair.  “Can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone  jump off that hill before.”

“You should have seen us off the keep wall,” Kiannae laughed.

“Indeed,” the man said with a raised eyebrow.  “I do not believe we have met, I am Bern, and I assume you are the infamous twins.  I was told you had been granted use of the archery range, to practice things other than archery.”

“Yes,” Katrisha said rubbing her neck that was a bit sore from her tumbles, “Laurel has given us permission to experiment with offensive spells.  Though he stressed ‘no giant balls of fire’ rather strongly.”

“That would be appreciated,” Bern said with a dark laugh, “as the targets are mostly straw.  As you will ladies, I’ll be watching if you don’t mind.”

“I never mind an audience,” Kiannae said with a smug grin.

“Shall we start with ice?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“You would chose ice,” Kiannae muttered.

Katrisha eyed the distant target, and carefully started to form the spell, which flew from her hands and accelerated to the target.  The narrow shard of ice nicked the edge of the target, and flew past shattering on the base of the castle wall.

“Well, you gave it enough force, but the aim needs work,” Kiannae remarked, building up her own spell.

“That is what we are here for,” Katrisha shrugged, as Kiannae released her spell which stuck in the second outer ring but bounced off, and slowly steamed away on the ground.  “Not bad, not as much force, but better accuracy I must admit.”  Katrisha began to wind up her spell, and released it with as much force as the first one, but this time landed a hit on the second inner ring that passed right through the target board, and buried itself in the ground behind.

“Very good,” Kiannae acknowledged grudgingly, as she prepared her next shot.

Katrisha considered the way it formed, there was a coiling nature to the magic, rather than crystalline.  It worked all the same, it was just the shape was wrong.  The curls sent the thing spinning which only made it fly straighter, but the initial direction was uncontrollably in question.  By chance more than anything Katrisha was sure, it struck with enough force to push its blunted end through the board in the second inner ring.

“Likewise,” Katrisha said unleashing her spell with more force than the first two.  The spear of ice was also much larger this time, and shattered the target board outright through the bullseye, and stuck the castle wall shattering in a glimmering cloud, and leaving a small mark.

“Hmph,” Kiannae said admitting momentary defeat on that one.

“Sorry about the target,” Katrisha said turning to Bern with a slight bow.

“It happens…I guess,” Bern said a bit bewildered.  He had watched Laurel practice once or twice, but he was always more reserved than it seemed the two twins before him were inclined to be.

“Fire next?” Kiannae asked.

“Alright, but keep it small, and we’ll take turns putting it out on impact,” Katrisha said flatly.

“Very well,” Kiannae said carefully weaving a spell that ripped the air up into combustible materials, which burned in a continuous chain reaction.  Slowly a small spark grew into a fist sized ball of fire, which she directed forcefully towards a new target, but it sputtered out just short of impact, making it’s accuracy impossible to judge.

“Not a bad first try,” Katrisha said weaving her own spell, which she sent flying into the target.  A distinct burn mark was made across several of the inner rings, and smoke began to waft from inside.  Kiannae quickly snuffed out the fire transferring all its heat to a spot on the ground next to her which turned black, and briefly smoldered.

Kiannae frowned, and tried again, building the ball of fire, and releasing it.  It veered off course just before the target, and clipped the edge which immediately burst into flame as the spell dissipated.

Katrisha reached out her hand, and the flames extinguished, and a shimmer of frost formed on the target as a scorched spot formed on the ground before it.  “Better than the first try,” Katrisha said consolingly.

“Bah, lightning then,” Kiannae said irritably, and almost before the words were out of her mouth there was a tingle in the air.  Lightning was not at all the shape of her magic, which seemed more like the forces of swirling air, friction knocking loose energy, a charge built along the a coiled line, and then snapped to the path of least resistance as it was discharged into the target.  To gifted senses it was there barely a moment before the flash, a spiraling tree of spell lines that spelled powerful doom for whatever was on the other end.

The bullseye sizzled for several seconds, blackened with little embers, but it did not quite catch fire.

“Um, good shot,” Katrisha said, and tried to replicate the feat, but her spell took longer to form, and struck the outer ring rather than the center.  “I guess we each have our strengths,” she laughed.  “Still I’m two for three dear sister.”

“Oh really,” Kiannae said picking up a small rock from nearby, and sending it flying through the inner ring of the target, which splintered slightly on impact.  The rock carried through, and hit the castle wall with enough force to shatter.  “I count two and two now, your turn,” Kiannae challenged.

Katrisha picked up a stone as well, and tried, her shot hit the outer ring, with enough force to pass through, but not enough to quite reach the castle wall.  “Yes, it seems you are right, two and two.” Katrisha turned to the archery master behind her.  “Bern, would you be so kind as to fire some arrows for us.”

“Um, I suppose,” Bern said a bit confused by the request, and grabbed a bow and quiver from a rack near where he sat.  He plucked an arrow from his quiver, and drew his bow string with practiced grace.

“What are you playing at?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“Defensive magic,” Katrisha said as Bern released the first arrow.  Katrisha’s hand shot out at the same moment, and the arrow fell, encased in steaming ice just short of the target.

“Not bad,” Kiannae admitted, “but what did you do with the energy?”

“Nothing yet,” Katrisha said and threw a ball of fire at the ground before the target.

“If you would fire another one,” Kiannae said turning to Bern, who had a bit of an annoyed expression.  He obviously did not like being shown that his well honed skills with a bow were effectively useless against even these two young mages.

“Very well,” he said nocking another arrow, and let it fly.  This one though was struck by an arc of lightning from Kiannae’s hand, which continued down into the ground as the arrow disintegrated in flight, the head flipping off, and landing in the dirt.

“How quickly can you fire those off?” Katrisha asked.

“Fairly,” Bern said with a touch of irritation.

“Would you be so kind as to fire as quickly as you can?” Katrisha asked, “don’t worry about accuracy, just speed.”

“If you insist,” Bern said with a sigh, and quickly began knocking and releasing arrows at about a rate of one every second and a half.

Katrisha closed her eyes, and the arrows began dropping one after another, all covered in a thin shimmering layer of frost.  Slowly a glimmering haze formed around the target, and Kiannae realized that Katrisha was simply pulling all of the energy out of that region, rather than focusing on any one arrow.

Not ready to be beaten Kiannae began flicking the arrows off course, causing them to miss the target, and the protective shield Katrisha had formed around it.  Katrisha took all the energy she had stored up, and quickly started incinerating the deflected arrows, until finally Bern stopped, and walked away.  “I’m through feeling useless, do as you will,” he said cutting off any question.

Katrisha released the remaining energy she had stored up in small plume of flame that burst from the ground a short distance away, and left a small patch of black glass in its wake.  “So, I’m better with ice, and fire, you seem to have lightning, and good old kinetics down, but who’s stronger?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Seems like comparing apples, and oranges to me,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“Well, it’s not about which one tastes better, it’s about how big a hole it can make,” Katrisha laughed.  She gathered all of her strength, and threw a spear of ice as big as her head, and as long as her arm at the castle wall.  It cut into the stone like clay, and sat there steaming.

Kiannae picked up a small stone, and looked at it with an underwhelmed expression, refusing to give up without trying she sent it flying with all the power she could muster.  The stone struck the castle wall and simply disappeared in a large cloud of dust.  As the dust settled, the crater the impact left could be plainly seen, as well as cracks radiating out along the stone.

Not quite satisfied that her feat merited a tie Kiannae threw a huge arc of lightning at one of the targets, which burst into roaring flames.  Katrisha took just a moment to focus, and the target next to Kiannae’s burst into a pillar of fire, just as Kiannae’s was snuffed out, and a thin shimmering layer of frost formed on the ground around Katrisha’s target, and out in a great circle that encompassed the other.

Kiannae glared at Katrisha and made lightning jump between all of the targets, which all billowed smoke, and then fire.  Katrisha quickly responded by snuffing all the flames at once, leaving a thick layer of frost on the ground, then completely incinerated one the the targets in a flash that left nothing but smoldering ash.

“What in the abyss,” Bern yelled waving his hands, “get off my archery range, both of you!  Laurel will hear of this.  Go!”  Both girls seemed suddenly to come to their senses, realized what they had done, and bolted.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Unacceptable,” Laurel growled, and resumed drumming his fingers as he had been since the girls entered the tower library.  He ignored the old kitten Mar trying to nuzzle his head under his hand, which did nothing to help his attempt to look stern and disapproving.  “But not unexpected, I suppose.  Still, for getting carried away you went a bit farther that I had feared.  Destroyed target dummies, I expected, though not all of them, still it is what they are for, but holes, however small in the castle wall…dear fates do you have no sense between you?”

“I…am sorry,” Kiannae started.

“I did more of the damage,” Katrisha said with just a touch of disingenuous pride creeping in.  “It just didn’t seem…like a big deal.  We didn’t put holes through the walls, just…some small dents in a couple of stones.”

“No, and had you actually put holes through the wall…this would be another conversation entirely,” Laurel sighed, as he also relented to absently pet the insistent cat.  “I sent you out there in part because I needed to know just how carried away you would get.  However, I did not hope for this result.  Even if to a degree I expected it, this still does not excuse the behavior.”

“I’m sorry,” Katrisha finally added in turn to her sister’s prior apology.

“Even if I accept these apologies as fully genuine, there is also the issue of jumping off walls, and hills…no, something must still be done,” Laurel grumbled.  “You need discipline, and I have been considering for some time sending you to Horence for training.  Starting tomorrow, every morning, and every evening you will be learning stave fighting techniques.  You will need to be up at dawn.”

“Why?” Kiannae protested.

“Because I said to, it’s part of the whole discipline thing,” Laurel snapped, and then sighed.  He picked up the cat that was rooting at his hand protesting the crime of not being petted for even a second, “now go to your room, and stay there.”  He watched as Katrisha moved as though about to speak again, and cut her off, “Now.  And no more ‘short cuts’ either.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 25th, 645 E.R.

Horence eyed his two new recruits with clear frustration.  “I will make no pretenses that I am not fond of the pair of you,” he growled, “but I’ve heard of your antics, and I will have none of it.  I will train you as any new recruits, though the specifics of the request for your training are…not something we normally specialize in.  Still the general principles of close spear, and polearm combat should carry over well enough to staves, and I’ve spared with Laurel enough to know what he wants you to learn.”

“I still don’t understand what we are to gain from this,” Kiannae protested.

Horence picked up one of the staves that was leaned against the wall near him, and without warning swung at Kiannae, but stopped just short of landing the blow, she flinched far too late to have done herself any good.  “For now, you will ask permission to speak like any recruit.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Kiannae said meekly, and gently pushed the stave away from her shoulder.

“It’s not that the question isn’t fair, mind you,” Horence said beginning to pace before the pair.  “Ignorant, but as Laurel has told me in the past, ‘ignorance can be cured.’  I’ve heard you can stop an arrow in flight, and perhaps your magic in time could bring down an army.  Perhaps this is all true, but stopping ninety-nine out of a hundred men will still leave you dead, by the one who got through.  At close quarters, blind sided by a strong man with a sword your magic may not save you.”

Horence paused to see if either girl would speak up again, “Rely on your magic if you will, make it the heart of your defense, but it won’t protect you from the blow you didn’t see coming.  You will learn to see it coming, you will learn how to fight, so that you can know how your enemy may attack you.  Am I understood?”

“Are we expected to fight?” Katrisha asked with a touch of confusion, and quickly added at Horence’s reproving glare, “if I might ask.”

“You are expected to know how,” Horence lectured.  “Avrale has an army not because we are at war, or even have been in centuries, but because we must be prepared to defend ourselves.  There will always be those with ill intent, or who will act violently to take what they want, if you haven’t been paying attention Osyrae is no longer our friend, and bandits have plagued the north.  The army protects us not just from threats beyond, but from within.  These skills shall be to you as the army is to Avrale.  They shall keep the peace, and protect you, if the worst is to come, even if the ‘diplomacy’ of your magic keeps such dangers at bay.  Now, am I understood?”

“Yes,” the girls said in unison.

“Good, then we begin,” Horence said and tossed a stave to Kiannae, who caught it, and another to Katrisha who fumbled the catch.

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 16

Of Moon’s children it is known,
wolves in numbers thin the heard,
a proud lynx stalks alone,

Yaun’s seed walk either path,
to play each game at once is apt,
‘tis best, friend to watch your back.

– unattributed, circa 100 B.E.

Cats Among Wolves

Coria 5th, 645 E.R.

Katrisha and Kiannae sat to the right of Princess Maraline at dinner as was often enough the case.  She had returned just that afternoon from a full month stay in South Rook, her second visit since escorting Lukus home in the fall.  She had a look of absolute exuberance on her face, to the point of being almost concerning to look upon. Servants were setting out the second course when Katrisha finally asked the question on the mind of many around the almost giddy young woman.  “What has you so excited, Maraline?”

Maraline bit her lip in a less than dignified way.  “The wedding at South Rook was so romantic,” she said, but clearly this was not the entirety of what was on her mind.

“It does not seem right that the Duchess has remarried,” Charles protested.

“Why?” Kiannae demanded firmly.  “Her marriage to the traitor was annulled by the king.  I was there.”

“Parin is a remarkable man,” Maraline said quite defensively.  “A commoner by birth, yes, but that only makes what he has done in such a short time all the more impressive.  Even the most stubborn of the barron’s no longer question him.  I dare say he will be a better Duke than Fenlin ever was.”

“Surely the Duchess deserves some credit,” Katrisha chided.

“Oh and he gives her every bit, and she in turn insists it is him, it is almost painfully charming,” Maraline said covering her mouth to retrain her humor.

“It is unfortunate,” Adrien added diplomatically, “that events have transpired as they did.  Yet I do concur that for all the misfortunes involved, that things are going well in South Rook.  I am very happy for the Duchess, and new Duke Regent.”

Charles simply stared down at his plate.

“Lukus is much happier,” Maraline offered.  “Parin adores him.  The poor boy was dubious of course at first, but after the King consented to allow him to return, they have more than made peace with the arrangement.  Lukus taught his new father how to fence, and now, to watch how fervently they can go at it, then hug afterward, it is heartening.”  She only seemed more excited.

“Clearly you are happy for Lukus,” Katrisha said.  “Yet I suspect you are still holding something back.”

Maraline nodded.  “We danced quite a lot at the wedding reception…and…” she blushed slightly, “When we were alone, on a balcony overlooking the city.  He kissed me.”

“This is what has you so excited?” Kiannae laughed almost exasperatedly.

“I felt as though my heart would positively burst from my chest,” Maraline contested the downplay of her news.

“I feel like that by the time I’ve beaten Katrisha in a sparring match,” Kiannae countered.

“You two,” Maraline shook her head.  “You are like boys.”

“Now you insult us?” Katrisha chided with a touch of feigned offense, and a slight laugh.  “We are much better than boys.”  She shot a look at Charles who she saw from the corner of her eye staring at her curiously.  He quickly averted his gaze back to his plate.  She did not know what to make of the look.  “Besides, I am quite happy for you.  Clearly he is interested, and you approve of his interest, it would seem?”

“I know mother has wanted this all along,” Maraline said, “but yes, yes a thousand times yes.  He has been so much more charming since he left, and on my visit.  I think, I believe he may propose on my next.”

Philip prodded at the venison roast that had been placed before the children at the table, and then took a cut.  “Seems a bit lacking,” he commented.

“Hunters have been struggling finding many deer in the north woods,” Adrien said as he looked for a suitable cut for his own tastes.

“Is the herd thin this year?” Charles asked.

“It looks as though something has been hunting,” Adrien answered, “no one is sure what.  More than a few corpses picked clean, but the trackers have had little luck identifying what is to blame.”

“Wolves perhaps?” Philip offered.

“Doesn’t seem that way,” Adrien said.  “Been over a century since there were wolves in the forests around Broken Hill anyway.”

“Maybe a mountain lion has come down from the higher hills?’ Charles suggested.

“Perhaps,” Adrien said.  “Or several.  The occasional mountain lion hasn’t thinned the heard this much though.”

“There are wolves east of the mountains aren’t there?”  Kiannae offered.

“There are quite a few things east of the mountains,” Adrien offered.  “I suppose with all our attempts to clear the pass something could have come over.  Seems quite the trek though.  It would explain why the trackers haven’t been able to identify the culprit, if it is something they are not familiar with.”

“Hopefully it is nothing dire,” Katrisha offered.

“I would hope not,” Adrien said uncomfortably.  “I don’t know if dire animals are known for keeping to themselves though.  Very teritorial.  The hunters have not been bothered, just coming up short of game.”

“I’m not sure,” Kiannae said.  “I don’t think all dire creatures are the same.  Perhaps this one has decided not to meddle with humans.” 

“I still prefer to think it is mountain lions,” Adrien said taking another bite.  “Far less unsettling.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 15th, 645 E.R.

Laurel stood on the western wall of the Castle at Broken Hill, looking out over the sunset.  He drew a deep breath from the cool spring air, and ignored the sound of footsteps behind him, presuming it was merely a guard on his rounds.

“Good evening,” came Arlen’s voice in greeting.

Laurel turned from his position, and considered the Knight Commander with a somewhat perplexed expression.  The two had never been particularly friendly, more likely to ignore one another unless official necessity required otherwise.

“To you as well, Arlen,” he offered.

“What brings you to the wall this evening?” Arlen asked.

Laurel turned back to the sunset.  “Merely a desire for some fresh air,” Laurel answered, puzzling over the possible reasons the man had to make small talk with him.  None immediately came to mind.

“I felt the same.  Took a patrol from one of the guards.  He didn’t much complain.”  He paused a moment, and leaned into another notch in the wall.  “Quite concerning, the reports from the north wood,” Arlen offered.

“It is,” Laurel agreed.  “I’m growing convinced we should issue orders not to travel alone, or on foot, and see that coaches are manned by a soldier.”

“Yes, that does seem prudent,” Arlen consented without argument.  There was another long pause.   “Have you considered the possible futures of your two girls?” Arlen asked pointedly, and rather out of the blue.

“I spend a great deal of time considering many aspects of such,” Laurel offered measuredly.

“Theirs is an odd lot; inheritance and illegitimacy, education and limited position.  There will be complexity in finding them good matches.”

“That will be their affair when they are old enough to consider it.”

“Which could be sooner than you imagine.  How disappointing – will you really leave the disposition of their future to their fickle hearts?”

“Theirs is a precarious position – in truth a good match is still a bad one.  As mages, the possible influence they can inherit chafes with the limits of such authority permitted.  I will certainly not go without some comment on their selections, but truly the awkward nature of their position in my estimation allows no merit in forcing them against their own affinity, save if I believe either to have made a very bad choice.”

“So you would not object then, to either being courted by a knight’s son?”

“If it is his wish, and with their tolerance, surely.  Though few such young men have not found a way to run afoul of their tempers, which I have – with some difficulty – retrained.  I would expect any position conscious family to consider them a poor match.”

“Position, and propriety are not in agreement surely.  They are, as we agree, a very mixed affair, but their wealth – held in trust – and the sketchy right to land now freshly returning to worth as rain falls again in the north, could surely turn the eye of some.”

“Of you?” Laurel said without too clear an air of disapproval, but more certainly one of disbelief.  “I would hardly think anything about them to your liking – or you in want for capital, political, or otherwise.  You have after all styled yourself down, not up.”

“My standing is an act of choice – of conscious decision to be where I feel myself most needed.  This does not mean I – or I will admit much more fervently my wife – are above or below considering all possibilities.  I will admit the merit of extending my family’s influence beyond Wesrook.  The north has floundered for generations at the permission of the crown – but it is only that – permission.  Better use could be put to that land, and perhaps the right suitor could guide the elder of the two?  Which is that, by way of curiosity?”

“I say that there is no evidence on their part to gauge.  It is best to assume any inheritance equally divided when they are of proper age.”

“Then I will admit – without preference myself – of late my son has not looked unfavorably upon the one that loves the snow.”

“This would be as much a surprise to me as to her.  You know well the clashes the two have had.”

“Young men, are, as young women, temperamental in their own way.  I am sure that each has maintained some animosity upon some varied chain of wrongs, each committed in turn for the last.  Still – it is my understanding that Katrisha has made some moves to mend that affair.”

“Some, long ago, at my urging.  I do not think it has change as much as you hope, but the cycle of anger between the two needed to be addressed.  I do love my dear girl, but she is more than capable of doing harm to a grown knight had she sufficient incentive – or folly.”

“While I do preference a woman that knows a humble disposition, I will not deny some admiration for her power.  Strength has its merits, even if it expresses itself belligerently.  I think this something adjustable yet in her disposition – children are in my opinion more likely to be similar, than different.  The importance of directing a young woman towards feminine activities is to prepare her for those natural proclivities, as womanhood comes upon her.”

“I have not found this at all to be the case,” Laurel countered.  “Though I do agree on the first part, I have not found a young woman to change in any particular way that a young man does not.”

“And you have much experience on this matter?”  Arlen seemed incredulous to Laurel’s credentials of judging children.

“More than one might expect.  I had first of all a sister – and was placed such to observe her coming of age.  I have also seen the glimpses of young notables across this world, as I might see them some years separated between meetings, during my travels.  The seeds of youth most often grow into the adult in my estimation.”

“Yet you do so little to correct your charges to the proper path?”

“I do all that I can in this regard,” Laurel stated tersely.  “They are not to be humble wives relegated to some back room.  The girls you enquire of have gifts to make mine seem pale.  They need a managed temper, restraint, clarity of purpose, intention and thought, as well as a desire to be meaningful.  There is little place in them for idle reliance on a man.  I assure you it is better that a man marry up to them, than the reverse.”

“We shall keep then our own council on the matter.  You however do not object?”

“That I leave to them.  Consider that if they do, I will not hear of undue persistence.”

“Nor should you expect it.  I am, I admit, more asking at my wife’s insistence.  She has been enamored with the idea ever since having met them again in Wesrook.”

“Then guardedly,” Laurel laughed in spite of himself, “I say, let the boy try to get in their better graces.  I’ll have no qualms with him at least making peace.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 12th, 645 E.R.

Mercu considered his opponent shrewdly.  She showed no signs of seeing the trap set for her, and he was quite sure that if she had not been warned, she would not see it coming.  He might have felt guilty for being so ruthless against a girl a quarter his age, if she hadn’t already proven herself more than an adequate challenge.  He reminded himself that while what sat before him was a thirteen year old, she was in many ways at least his equal, and in some his superior, particularly, and vastly regarding magic.  The small twinge of jealousy for her gift was more than enough to alleviate any shred of guilt.

Kiannae eyed the chess board before her, Mercu’s queen was so tempting where it sat in reach of one of her pawns.  She couldn’t fathom why he had made the move, it had cost her a knight, but hardly a fair trade for a queen.  Convinced it couldn’t hurt her, and that it would put Mercu dangerously close to checkmate she took his queen, and set it proudly beside her small collection of his pieces.

“Why are they called Rooks?” Kiannae asked.  “I mean we have Wesrook, and South Rook, and all those, but we call the towers here…towers.”

“Also isn’t it Tower of Wesrook?” Katrisha cut in from across the room.

“Actually, the mystery goes both ways,” Mercu said, hesitating from his move to answer.  “It’s an old Osyrean word meaning rock.  The earliest version of chess came with the Magi down from Osyrae.  The legends say that Queen Navi not only was a master of the game the first time she played it, but reinvented it, and that the modern version is hers.  Those are the legends any way.  Some propose that the Rooks are named such, because they are built ‘on the rock,’ or are the rock upon which things are built.  Which then is truly named for which?”

Mercu shrugged, and then returned to his move.  He nudged a pawn into the last row on Kiannae’s side of the board, reached for his freshly captured queen, and switched the two pieces out.  “Check mate,” he declared.

“You…you can’t do that,” Kiannae protested indignantly.

“He can,” Katrisha laughed, which made her wince.  She rubbed her shoulder, which was still sore from their morning practice.  The little black cat in her lap looked up in objection over her petting herself, instead of him, and hopped down.  “He pulled that one on me the other day while you got bored watching.  I made him show me the rule in a book.  Any pawn which makes it to the last row may be promoted to any captured piece.  I was a bit annoyed, but I beat him anyway, barely.”

“Still, you tricked me,” Kiannae sighed.

“Such is the way of pawns,” Mercu laughed, “some times, when they are very lucky, they may become queens.”  He reached down to pet Mar who had begun rubbing up against his leg insistently.

“Aren’t pawns foot soldiers?” Kiannae said still defiantly trying to escape her loss.

“Pikemen shield bearer’s, technically,” Mercu corrected.  “At least that’s what they became at some point.  The naming gets more interesting than rooks really.  Particularly if you go back to the original Osyrean version…”

“Aren’t all soldiers, particularly pikemen, men?” Kiannae prodded, ignoring the distraction.

“I suppose I’ve never heard of a female pikeman,” Mercu admitted.  “I once met a woman who was a Knight of the Empire thought, there was also definitely a paladin Queen of Palentine…”

“Then how can a man become a queen,” Kiannae declared victoriously, and crossed her arms, hanging on the point of the pikeman.

“It’s not stopped some kings,” Mercu said thoughtfully, and Mar gave up, unsatisfied with the amount of attention he was receiving for his effort, and wandered off to fall asleep in the sun.

“Wait…what?” Kiannae demanded shaking her head in confusion.

Mercu laughed, but there was something awkward there.  “The queen is often the king’s closest advisor and confidant,” Mercu said dodging his own joke, “some Kings have reigned without a queen consort, and instead surrounded themselves with men who fill most of her duties.”

“Sounds lonely,” Katrisha interjected.

Mercu laughed.  “I think every one I am aware of eventually relented to have a queen, if only to bear him an heir.”

“I wouldn’t be queen to any man who accepted me only to bear him children,” Katrisha declared indignantly.

“Good on you then,” Mercu laughed.

Kiannae sighed, and knocked over her king where it stood.  “You win again,” she said shaking her head.

“Don’t feel so bad,” Katrisha said comfortingly, leaned over, and hugged Kiannae.  “I’ve only beat him three times, and you’ve gotten him twice.  You also beat Laurel, which I think even Mercu hasn’t done.”

“I suppose,” Kiannae permitted, still obviously unsatisfied.

“I beat him once,” Mercu said defensively, “years ago though, in a moving wagon.  We still argue if that one counts.  He swears one of the pieces shifted when the wheel hit a pothole.”

Kiannae laughed at that.  “Ok, I think I’d be more annoyed by that than not knowing about the pawn trick.”

“Sure take his side,” Mercu laughed.  “I still swear that piece stayed put.”

The twins giggled when he held an indigent pose for some time.  He glanced back at them and smirked.  “I was thinking of going down to the village today,” he said as he leaned back and stretched.  “If you two would like to join me.  I need some new paints, and I believe you both could use some new notebooks.”

“Alright,” Kiannae said excitedly at the rare chance to leave the castle.

“Sure,” Katrisha said hesitantly, “could we visit the jeweler as well?”

“Perhaps,” Mercu said shaking his head. “I suppose I owe you two some small commission from Baron Carlen’s portrait for pointing out that his favorite overcoat has seven silver buttons, and not six.  Nothing over two silver pieces though.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Procuring a coach proved easy for Mercu for once.  Though what lurked in the north woods remained open for debate, an abundance of caution had insured that all travel to, and from the castle was by coach, driven by at least one soldier.

Katrisha was deep in thought, fiddling with a complex spell of no obvious purpose when Kiannae shot bolt upright from a lazy daydream.  The ride suddenly became bumpy as the coach lurched forward.

“What’s going on?” Mercu demanded startled from his own abstract thoughts.

“Horses are spooked,” Eran called back from the head of the coach.

Kiannae grabbed hold of the window, and stared out into the forest.  “Oh fates,” she cried, and pulled back into the coach wide eyed, her arms clutched around herself.  Katrisha barely moved into a position to see a flash of something large rush from the forest, before it vanished from view towards the head of the coach.  There was a loud neigh of a horse, that sounded more like a scream, and another more frightened sounding one.

There were some decidedly loud, and vulgar curses from Eran, and the coach shuddered and swerved, tossing its passengers about, and out of their seats.  It tipped slightly, jerked around straight, and came to a trembling stop.

Mercu got wobbly up from the floor of the coach, and looked out the window only to see a dead horse beside them, and a large white cat with black patches tearing into its prey.  It glanced up from its kill, and fixed upon him.  Mercu immediately threw himself back into the sheltered shadows of the carriage, and was white as a sheet.  He tried to gage what he had seen, the head of the cat had been as large as horse’s, its body more than half the size.

As if to confirm his perceptions there was a soft thud at the door, and the vast head presented itself in the window.  Closer examination showed scales along the cat’s nose, and brow.  “Oi,” came a call from outside, and a stone struck the side of the cat’s head, and landed in the cairage.  The cat instantly snapped away from the coach after its assailant.

“What in the abyss is that?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.

“Dire cat,” Mercu said steadying himself, “cougar I think.”  He moved cautiously to the window, and looked out.

Eran was clearly already wounded from the fall, and the cat’s first pass.  Though his armor had taken some of the blow – his tunic was ripped away revealing scarred leather underneath, and some blood seeping over it.  He was holding his sword, pointed somewhat feebly at the beast that was easily larger than him.  The cat seemed to be favoring one leg, and not ready to underestimate Eran again.

Katrisha forced her way next to Mercu who tried to push her back, but she had none of it.  The cat leapt at Eran, and Katrisha thrust out a hand, the cat flailed awkwardly in the air, and fell just short of Eran who swung, but the lynx managed to lurch back, bristling, and avoided the swing.  It pulled itself sluggishly free of of the spell Katrisha had formed, and paced slightly at the edge.

Katrisha opened the door, and Mercu tried to grab hold of her, but found that she easily pulled free of his grasp.  Rather than keeping Katrisha in the coach Mercu fell out.  Kiannae was right behind her sister, leaping over the prone man.  The cougar glanced rapidly between Eran, and the twins, snarled, and rushed with blinding speed at the two girls, and the dazed lump of a man sprawled behind them.

Katrisha tried her spell again, but the cat barely slowed, and with a loud crack Kiannae narrowly threw up another spell.  The force sent wild ripples through the fur, and skin of the cat, but pushed it back only a few feet.  Eran rushed to strike the cat from behind skewering its right flank with his sword, earning a terrible hiss.  The cat spun, catching Eran hard in the chest with a swipe, and threw him back in a tumbling ball.  His sword clatteried across the ground away from him.

Katrisha shot a bolt of frost through the cat’s front right shoulder, earning ear splitting howl.  It flipped around, and threw itself at the twins again, but sailed to the side as Kiannae threw all the force she could muster into it.  The hasty spell however threw as much force into the surrounding air, and quite a bit into Kiannae herself who flew back into Mercu.  He had only begun to get up, and was knocked against the coach painfully, but cushioned her impact.

The sudden hurricane gust of wind toppled Katrisha, and though dazed and cautious the cougar was quickly upright from its tumble.  It lept for the prone girl who threw up another barrier without caution.  She could feel her skin sting as her barrier powerfully pulled all energy out of the air around her – heat, and movement alike.  It was like being stuck in freezing pitch, but it stopped the cat for a moment above her, and gave her just a burning cold breath to think.

She had a tremendous amount of energy at her disposal at that moment, as the spell was all but stopping the cat from even falling.  Katrisha tried for fire, sending a profound burst of burning energy gathered from her barrier up into the cat, and at the same moment threw herself sideways, stealing what little energy was left.  She tumbled harshly across the ground.

The cat roared in agony, and Katrisha saw in several swirling glimpses as it bathed in flame, before she came to rest dazed on her face, her head spinning. She tried to tell up from down for a second, and then looked back at the cat which thrashed, hissed, and screamed, trying to put out the flames in its fur.

A bolt of lightning momentarily blinded Katrisha, and staggered the already struggling cougar which fell back, and limped, but still pulled upright.  Another dazzling strike from Kiannae again blinded all, and stunned the cat.  Yet even a third seemed to phased the cat less.  Katrisha took a breath, and focused everything on precision.  She sent a bolt of razor sharp ice larger than both arms rushing at the cat while it was still shaking off her sister’s attacks.

The spear tore through the chest of the cat, which did not roar, but threw open its mouth as though trying to.  It fell trembling to the ground, shuddered violently, and then stopped with only a few further small twitches.  Mercu glanced at Kiannae who was not too much the worse for wear, but had a look of shock, and horror on her face.  He followed her gaze, and frantically rushed towards Katrisha.

This struck Katrisha oddly for a moment as she slumped on one arm.  She hurt a bit more than after her morning training session, but also felt rather numb.  She noticed something wet, and reached up to her face as she instinctively closed her right eye.  Her fingers came back with blood, and she stared at them a bit uncertainly.  “Huh,” she said even as Mercu was knelt down in front of her, and wiped her face gently with a white cloth pulled from a vest pocket.

“Are you alright?” Mercu demanded.

“I…I think so?” Katrisha muttered, and opened her eye again after the blood was wiped away.  Mercu held the cloth to her head.

Kiannae was only a moment behind Mercu.  She pushed Mercu’s hand away, and was quick to try her hand at healing the gash on her sister’s forehead.  This hurt slightly, and Katrisha recoiled, strained muscles, and bruises suddenly making themselves known as shock wore off.

“Stay still,” Kiannae said firmly.

Eran walked up nursing his own wounds, and sat down near by.  He faced the cat, and not quite trusting it to stay dead.  “You know what you are doing?” he asked.

“Not really,” Kiannae admitted.

“Stop the bleeding,” Eran said, “I’ll give it a look after I’m in better shape.”

Mercu took his eyes off Katrisha, and looked at the cat, the dead horse, and the coach.  He flopped down himself, and moved to wipe his face, only to reconsider it, and hand the blood soaked cloth to Kiannae.  He started breathing very quickly for a moment, and then calmed again.  “So that’s what has been hunting all the deer,” he remarked shakily.

“Was,” Eran agreed.  “Hopefully it was the only one.”

“Should be,” Mercu said hopefully.  “Most dire animals are solitary.”

“Unless they have young,” Eran countered.

“Oh please don’t remind me of that.”

“I don’t think it did, we probably would have found a den of kits.”

“Yes, let’s pretend that for now.”

“Second horse got away, but she’s long gone.”

“So walking then – back, or forward?”

“Forward, two thirds of the way there, the bridge is just around the bend.”

Mercu looked around, recognized where they were, and nodded.

Katrisha started crying, and Kiannae looked flustered for her sister’s movement interfering with her healing.  Then relented just to hug her close, deciding it was good enough for the moment.  “It’s ok,” she said, “we did it.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Four beleaguered, and moderately bloodied travelers stumbled into Brokhal drawing quite a lot of looks, and a few who rushed to their aid.  Katrisha had ultimately been carried most of the trip as even with Eran’s healing her ankle was not up to the long walk.  This however had taken alternation between Eran, and Mercu, as the prior had his own injuries to nurse, and the latter could only do so for short periods.

As the four answered the questions of concerned citizens Eran let Katrisha down, who hobbled slightly over to a nearby porch stair, and sat.  Kiannae was immediately beside her twin, and hugged her close.  Katrisha had been alternating between stony faced, troubled, and elated in the wake of the battle.  She had fallen asleep in Mercu’s arms at one point, only to awake with a start, and almost be dropped as she had grabbed his collar.

“We killed it,” Katrisha muttered, as Kiannae leaned into her.

“It was trying to kill us,” Kiannae said somewhat frustratedly.  It was not the first time Katrisha had alluded to some remorse over the fight, but the most clear.

“I just…” Katrisha sighed.  “I wish we didn’t have to.  It was beautiful.”

“And if we hadn’t, what of the next travelers it attacked?”

Katrisha clung a little more tightly, but said nothing.

“It’s our duty, to protect others.”

Katrisha sniffed somewhat determinedly.  “You are right.”  She ran a finger along the scar on her forehead, it would fade with more healing, but such subtlety had not been practical under the circumstances.  The twins lacked the skill, and Eran had exhausted himself between the fight, and his own injuries.  “We must always do our part,” Katrisha added firmly.

“Always,” Kiannae affirmed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Two hours were consumed talking with the Knight Commander of Brokhal, a man who in spite of his position rarely left the town to visit the castle.  He was a stern, and haggard man, who asked many of his questions repeatedly, but as he got the same story each time out of the four, his expression had slowly softened to one of bewilderment.  He was not used to dealing with mages, and had begun to stare dubiously at the twins by the end.

Once that was finished Eran had left their company to recruit people to look for the second horse, clean up the remains of the dire cougar, and recover the coach.  Mercu had pressed that Eran should have someone more skilled look at his wounds, only to receive a darkly humorous glare that got a knowing chuckle out him.

In spite of his own understanding of Eran’s disinterest in seeking out the town’s healer, Mercu decided it was prudent to get Katrisha better looked at.  This however did not work out, as Idolus was not in.  Katrisha insisted she was fine, though she still favored her injured leg, and the trio began the shopping they had originally come for, with Katrisha taking frequent occasions to rest.

Katrisha sat on a shop step, and idly watched the way filaments danced above her outstretched hand.  She had started to form a spell boredly, but reached indecision as to which, and became fascinated instead by catching her own magic half formed.  It seemed to form little crystals that grew, and crumbled, and tried to stabilize.  This wanted to become ice, to form a familiar spell but she held it off.  She kept it from resolving as long as she could, and then suddenly it snapped to a thin lattice of frozen air that drifted a moment before falling apart.  There had been something there more than random shapes Katrisha was sure, but what eluded her.

Kiannae stood by a railing, and glaneced at her sister.  Shook her head, reassuring herself everything would be fine.  She stared at her upturned index finger and filaments licked off it, almost like fire up a candle wick, broke free and formed a wavering flame, a tangled knot of entropic madness at it’s heart, ripping apart the air, and burning what was left.  There was no smoke, and the heat was mostly directed upward.  Then the air snapped cold, turned to fractured glittering ice with a sizzling center of liquid air in the flames shape.  Then the energy reversed, and the flame came back to life.  She made it look quite easy, but in truth it was practice, because it seemed almost a little harder than it should be.  The flame was a bit easier, but turning air to crystal was finicky.  Something Kat did with such ease.

“Beware the sins of the flesh, the distractions that bind us to this world, and leave us to fall into the abyss when our lives come to their end,” came a call from a man in brown robes trimmed in while walking down the street.  “Beware the sins of the dragons, whose dark magic maintain them in this world, but at what cost?”

“What is your name, and these sins you speak of?” Katrisha asked idly when the passing preacher glanced down at her.

“I am Idolus Syberus,” the man said with some surprise, “and I speak of the decadent sins of desire child, the distractions from the path of ascension, and eternal life.”

“If desire is a sin, then is not the very desire for eternal life a distraction?” Kiannae asked incredulously.  She was displeased to find that the healer they had sought earlier had been absent to waste time on preaching through the streets.  She had never heard a good word spoken of him, and both had heard his name before.

“The desire for the heavens, to ascend into the light is no sin,” Idolus said irritably, “it is what will raise us above this temporal existence, this fleeting life at the edge of the abyss.  It is the very purpose of our elevated species to ascend above the animal world that made us.”

“Nothing can rise, without something equal descending,” Katrisha said absently – suddenly glad to have not had to spend more time with the man to be healed.  “You can not create, or destroy energy itself, only move it, borrow it, or suppress it.”  Katrisha formed a brilliant ball of light in one hand, and a shimmering shard of frozen air in the other.  “For this light, this soul to ascend to the heavens, then what is this that must as surely descend into the abyss to provide the energy of ascension?”

“The flesh,” Idolus said sternly, and suddenly realized who he was speaking to.  He had barely caught glimpses of the two over the years, yet two young, identical mages could be no others.  His airs grew more disdainful.  “The uselessness of the physical body.  The vessel that is shed, that we might walk into the light.”

“There is nothing material in the aether,” Kiannae laughed, “this is why it is ‘aethereal’ after all, so how do you propose to walk into it?”

“Figuratively,” the Idolus growled, “our minds might at first perceive it as walking though, to put it into contexts we are familiar with.  Or flying.  The life eternal is what we make of it.”  He said as Mercu emerged from the shop behind the girls.  His ire deepened, and his frown turned to an abject scowl as he recognized him.

“So then, could we perceive the life eternal, as life is lived here in the mortal world?” Mercu mused on the man’s statement, “do we sacrifice the now, for the dream, and then live the life we had forsaken in such illusion?”

“Those who will live the life eternal care not for the material world,” Idolus said indignantly, “they would have no desire to recreate it.”

“Desire or not, I fear they would not have the imagination,” Mercu laughed, “and what proof do you offer that the aether is a place of bliss, and goodness?  What makes this place of brilliant energy, any less terrifying than the idea of stepping into a roaring fire?”

“That which is not of flesh need not fear the flame,” the priest said dismissively.

Kiannae drew a lattice of shimmering light in the air.  “If this is a soul,” she said.  She formed a flame and passed it through the swirling lattice.  It dissolved and coiled, and twisted.  “Though it is not of flesh, and it may not burn, none the less within the flame it is torn apart.  Is this land of light, this glorious heaven you wish to ascend to, eternal life, or merely a quick road to destruction?”

“Might not the fall into the abyss be the more peaceful end?” Mercu added questioningly, “where all become one within its depths, rather than scattered to the winds by the flames of heaven.  If this is even the fate to come of course, as none has ever peered past the Veil, not even the ghosts may speak to what lays beyond, nor your precious Avatar.”

“The Avatar is proof of the life eternal!” Idolus snapped.

“The Avatar is a sin of presumed eternal life in this so called material world,” Mercu cut back. “What difference is there between him and the dragons?”

“I….I will listen to no more of your sacrilege,” Idolus fumed, and stormed off.  In his irate haste he dropped one of the books he carried.

Katrisha got up a bit feebly to her feet, and scooped up the lost book before Idolus could realize he dropped it.  She dusted it off, and admired the elaborate S imprinted in silver on its cover.  She had seen somewhere before.  “You dropped this,” she called after him tauntingly.  Idolus stopped, turned, and glared at Katrisha, who walked up to him with a slight limp, and handed him the book.  For the first time he noticed the scar on her forehead, and the blood on her collar.

Idolus paused to consider if he had any duty to heal her, but she seemed above the point he was bound to intervene.  He reached down, and took the book from her, but as he did he brushed her hand, and a strange look of shock replaced the anger on his face.  For just a moment he stared at her blankly.  He retracted his arm slowly, backed up a step, turned, and all but ran.

“What in the seven rivers was that about?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said slightly unnerved.  “I think I liked his expression better when he was scowling.”

“Bare him no mind girls,” Meruc sighed.  “You have all that you needed yes?”

“Do you?” Katrisha asked, and sat back down patting a medium sized stack of books, and eyeing a rather small bundle under Mercu’s arm.

“Enough paint to finish my current projects, yes,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I don’t like to buy too much at once, it get’s more fussy to work with as it ages.”

“So about the jeweler…” Katrisha prodded.

“Yes,” Mercu said eyeing the girls shrewdly, “It seems the heroes of the day deserve more than two silver.  Plus you gave me such a nice opportunity to irritate Idolus.”

“Really?” Katrisha said excitedly.

“Yes, but don’t let it go to your head and do it again,” Mercu laughed.

“Which?” Kiannae pressed.

“Either.  Idolus is sneakier than a cat, and don’t let his appearances fool you, he has claws.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Upon returning to the castle all had changed, and washed from the trials of their day, and Laurel had been stuck between commending, and reprimanding his charges for their deeds.  He had listened at length to the account of what had happened as he finished healing Katrisha, and removed the scar from her forehead.  He had ultimately consented to Mercu’s interpretation that Eran would surely have died if it had not been for Katrisha’s quick intervention.  The girls however had been dismissed for whatever remained of the conversation.

That evening the twins sat in one of their window seats, by the light of the setting sun.  Katrisha admired the large green round of glass set in her new silver pin.  Kiannae sat opposite her, and fiddled absently with a delicate silver flower pendant on a matching fine chain.  Mercu for his part was behind a medium sized canvas, working to finish a portrait he had started of the girls weeks before.  

“Earlier,” Kiannae suddenly started, and then seemed to think for a moment, “you seemed to know that Clarion priest quite well, that you were so happy to irritate him.”

“Yes, Idolus comes to court now and then,” Mercu said as he cleaned, and switched his brush, “he never speaks himself, since he has no real authority in the kingdom.  Always has Sir Arlen speak for him, usually some wild accusation about insuring that the Clarion’s are properly represented.  Complete with reminders about how many people of the kingdom adhere to the faith.  It’s nothing but thinly veiled threats of religious uprising if you ask me…but it’s always so carefully worded in diplomatic terms.”

“So he’s a bad man then?” Katrisha asked.

“He’s never done any direct harm to anyone,” Mercu said biting the handle of his brush thoughtfully, “no more harm than any other Clarion preacher of course.  He also frequently volunteers for expeditions – I think to win favor over any sense of duty.  Laurel has had to put up with him more than I.  Still gets people to waste their lives, sacrifice their own happiness, to harass one another over living their lives, all for promises of forever…that, well…you know the rest.  I don’t think much of the offer myself, as I’ve told you, nor does Laurel.  Bad might still be a strong word, but misguided, counterproductive to the best interest of the people, those all work.”

“Why do people believe in what the Clarions teach?” Kiannae asked irritably.

“The common folk, I can only assume don’t know any better, never have time or pressing enough reason to reconsider what they are taught by their parent’s growing up, or listen to cleaver fiery words of a preacher, and are taken in by the idea,” Mercu said sadly.  “As to what compels those with the gift, to be quite fair there is no real proof the Clarions are wrong.  Not in a material sense at least, just as there is no proof they are right.  Years of being taught what to think, of focusing on their spirit and gift, and forsaking ‘the flesh,’ I suppose they might not realize any more that they are more than a spirit trapped in their mortal bonds.  It might not seem a loss to give up a world they have already let go, to live forever as pure thought, or whatever nonsense.”

“Don’t they learn about magic, don’t they learn to see the flaws in their ideas?” Katrisha said sadly.

“Oh, there are countless Clarion Arcanists, and even high mages of the Council that adhere to Clarion teaching,” Mercu laughed darkly.  “A clever mind can build all the more convincing excuses to believe what they have invested themselves in.  They can build up their ideas about as well as we can tear them down.  Since there is no proof, only conjecture, and opinion.”

“Are they ever happy?” Kiannae asked with a frown.

“Happiness is relative,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I’ve seen enough be smug and self satisfied when they think they are winning an argument against a non-believer.  Really, not all adherents live by the letter of the doctrine, they take this guideline, or that rule, and call it good enough.  Some of those seem happy enough, when someone isn’t challenging their world view.  Some, the ones I can almost respect, just shrug other’s opinions off, and leave them be.”

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