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Chapter 1

Book1_NewFor those who were never satisfied
to be the damsel of another’s tale.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

There is an ancient ash,
there upon a rolling hill,
‘bove a winding road,
‘midst a peaceful field,

none know how long it stood,
does seem ‘tis always been,
old thick ‘n tangled branches,
grown nowhere near such kin,

an’ for that forlorn sentinel,
there sprouted far from home,
the lands and those err born,
were ever named Ashton…

– Ballad of Adel Ashton, 620 E.R.

The Autumn Child

Who is to say if the word of a god can be trusted?  Not I.  I’ve met but the one, and am most hopelessly biased on the subject.  Still, to have walked in such circles, to have seen the things I have, it is not unreasonable to confirm the basics, and take a great deal more on well earned faith.

Many things will be written on the matter, some of them even true.  It is less my concern if any such lies and follies might flatter.  Ascension tends to do well enough with that.  One worries more for a mortal legacy, all too easily lost in the long shadow divinity might cast.

It does not begin grandly, nothing ever truly does.  Oh surely I could start with kings and emperors, dragons and old gods.  One could wallow in such hallowed trappings for a time, set the stage for what was to come.  Perhaps some of these – those the world holds in such high regard – were even more than petty pawns.

No.  It must begin with the simple and unadorned truth.  

On the seventh day of autumn, by a calendar that marked over six centuries from the dawn of a great empire – even then, long gone – a child was born.  It was a beginning far removed from the mighty bastions of power in the world, and witnessed by precious few to remember even so much as a name.

If he was truly important, or merely a quirk in far grander schemes is open for debate.  From far above the vantage of mortal eyes, it might be observed that through all the countless permutations of fate, there was but one in which he even lived.  That it was this, of all possible worlds, that might endure.

It is said that the humble butterfly, by no more than flapping its delicate wings, can change the inevitable course of a mighty storm.  Surely such an insect holds no hopes to be remembered, but a small child might.  For while his birth was ostensibly common, much that followed would not be.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Candle2

Jovan 7th, 636 E.R.

The sun was only just threatening to rise, as two dark haired girls stirred at a roosters crow.  They were a pale freckled pair, fairer than the mother they lay to either side of – an olive skinned woman, typical of the land, particularly in such northern reaches.   Even with a sickly pallor she was a shade darker than any of her children.

One can only imagine – and would rather not – the look in those matching green eyes as they woke.  Their cheeks still streaked with tracks of tears.  Marks that stood alongside a flickering candle as testament to a long night’s anxious vigil.

Promises that the worst was passed had lulled the girls into fitful sleep barely an hour before.  Upon waking it was apparent that things were no better, if not far worse.  They could see she wasn’t well, felt it in their bones.  They knew something was terribly wrong.

Shivering against the cold morning air they shook their mother, baring no mind to the silent bundle lain at her bosom.  They were desperate, afraid, death unfortunately was not new to these darling creatures.  They had seen it once before.

The auburn haired woman drew a deep labored breath, and her blue eyes fluttered open.  She seemed barely there as she brushed a tear gently from the face of the girl on her left.  “My Kat,” she said softly, a tear running down her own cheek.  “My Kia,” she said turning her head to the right, and doing the same for the other.

She wrapped her arms weakly around the silent bundle at her chest.  “My Ren…” she said in barely a whisper, and was gone again.  No further shaking or cries could rouse her.  Her arms went limp, the babe rested on her chest remained silent, and only long shallow breaths gave any proof either still lived.

Both girls broke again into sobs, and cried until they could not shed another tear.  Katrisha – as her name was properly – was the first to grow silent.  Then, with all the reluctant determination due a small child setting herself to do something difficult and dubious, she crawled from her mother’s side and down off the bed.

With stumbled steps she trod from the cramped bedroom, and into the narrow front of the house.  She stopped, rubbed her eyes, and glanced up at a plain tan coat that hung just above her reach.

Katrisha leaned against the wall, and got up on the tips of her toes.  Even then she barely managed to get hold of the coat’s trim with the tips of her fingers.  It, much like the simple gown she wore was a raggedy looking thing.  It was made with uneven stitching, and had all the hallmarks of crude homespun apparel.  She tugged at the coat until it pulled free of the peg, and fell over her awkwardly.  She wrestled from beneath the offending garment, and gave a huff of frustration before pulling it on.

She had slipped her right foot into a simple sandal shoe when a hoarse voice behind her stopped her short of the second.  “Wher’ you going?” her sister demanded, her words cut with gentle sobs.  Kiannae stood clinging to the door frame for support.  Doubt, worry, and the same horrifying realizations that had driven Katrisha from bed, were written plainly across her twin’s face.

It hadn’t been the real question – such might have been, ‘Should we go?  Should we stay?  Will it get better?  What do we do?’

“To get help,” Katrisha answered, and pressed her lips together grimly.  “Ma isn’t well.  I…I think she’s dying, like gran’pa.”

“Dun say that,” Kiannae commanded defiantly.  She didn’t want to believe it, but she knew in her heart it was true.

“Going for help, Ki,” Katrisha said shakily, as tears tried vainly to well up again.

“I’m coming,” Kiannae declared after a moment of labored hesitation.

“Shouldn’…one of us stay?” Katrisha asked, doubt now foremost in her own voice.

Kiannae walked over, and struggled to reach her own coat.  “She needs help, we go,” she said tersely.  The two had each played their role, the argument was settled, and their course set.  Katrisha moved to help her sister reach higher, and when at last Kiannae got hold of her coat she pulled hard, and both fell over as it came loose.

Once their coats and shoes were on, the two stepped out into the cold light of dawn.  Their simple attire was insufficient to cut the morning chill, and they huddled together as they walked the long path down towards the main road.  Everything smelled of dust, and dry grass.  The air was quiet and still, cut only by the soft clucking of chickens that had wandered out not long before, and were pecking at the dry packed earth.

The farmhouse was a lonely place set on a high hill.  It stood among rolling fields almost so far as the eye could see.  It seemed the sort of place one might put a manor, or keep to watch over the land, yet only a large weathered barn and a gnarled old ash gave the small house any company.  The tree stood aside, perched on its own little mound above the road, and the path wound down around it.

The two girls strayed from the path, and stopped beneath the branches of that weary old Ash.  The leaves were turning, and a few had fallen.  It seemed much too early for that.  The fall did not normally come till the nights grew longer than the days, and that was still a month away.  It was also colder than it should be for the skies were clear.  The skies were almost always clear.  Everything felt as though it was dead or dying, hanging on to a final breath.

They looked first at each other, and then up and down the winding road below.  “Which way?” Katrisha asked, her expression betraying more second thoughts.

Kiannae frowned deeply, looked both ways again, and closed her eyes.  “Which way Mr. Tree?” she whispered under her breath.  “I don’ remember,” she added fretfully.

Katrisha looked at her sister, and up at the old ash.  She had always taken it on faith the tree had spoken to her twin once.  Father had agreed that some trees might, and so Katrisha merely implored with her own gaze for an answer – lest instead they leave their mother’s fate to chance.

“This way,” Kiannae said stepping down the hill to the left, and southward.  “The way gran’pa use to.”  She looked back at her sister, and then to the tree.  “Thank you,” Kiannae offered under her breath.  The wind had reminded her, and though even she was unsure if the tree had truly answered, it seemed prudent to show gratitude.  He had always been such a good listener, after all.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

By mid morning, even youthful vigor failed short legs on an indefinite march.  They had stopped to rest beneath a sickly apple tree that stood along the roadside.  With scarce sleep, and no food in their bellies the twin girls sat sullen on the dry grass.  They were all but hopeless as each nibbled dubiously on an apple.  They were small, there were few to chose from, and only the most recently fallen had not been gnawed or pecked to pieces.

The girls had passed five empty farms along the way towards town, and could only guess how much farther they would have to go.  Neither had ever been so far from home.  Each house they had found boarded up and abandoned.  They had been too young the previous year to understand, nor close at hand to hear the words of adults arguing, as their grandfather politely refused the King’s men.

The farms were all barren.  Years of gripping drought had taken their toll, and the residents had been moved to work more fertile lands for southern barons, and the crown.  What few crops still grew on the family farm – that kept them and their few animals fed – had often brought tears to their mother’s eyes.  She had said she was grateful.  Yet that year had been more meager than the last.  Before he passed their grandfather had always provided what wouldn’t grow, but he was gone.

Kiannae got up to move on, but fell, and shrieked after only a few steps.  Katrisha hurried to her sister’s side, as Kiannae pulled her foot from a bramble covered burrow.  She clutched at her scratched and twisted ankle gingerly, and winced in pain, but the tears would not come.  She tried to get up, but it hurt too much – it was all too much.  She simply collapsed on her side and whimpered.

Katrisha knelt beside her and pulled her close. “You ok?”

“No,” Kiannae croaked, “It hurts – ca’n get up.”

“I go,” Katrisha said softly, “I get help, for ma, for you. Ca’n be far…”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha was wrong.  She passed four more empty farms as the day wore on.  She had been little more than halfway to the closest village when she left her sister.  It was just after noon when she finally caught sight of buildings ahead.  The cold morning had given way to a hot day, and her feet screamed with every step, but she pressed on, with the promise of an end at last in sight.  Yet as she approached her heart sank to see more boarded up windows.

Rounding an abandoned building and into the town square returned the spark of hope, as the first people she had seen came into view.  The closest of them stood gathered between an open shop and a curious horse drawn coach.  The carriage held her gaze for just a moment, there was something odd about it she could not place.  She had never seen a such a thing before, but it appeared simple enough, no more than a fancy wagon.  Something blue seemed to glimmer and catch her eye, but all at once there seemed nothing there.  Whatever peculiar property might have cause it was quickly forgotten in the bright noon sun, and with the memory of far more pressing concerns.

Katrisha shook her head from the distraction, and with the last of her will trod towards the small crowd.  She found she could not speak, let alone yell.  Her throat was too dry.  She tugged at a woman’s long red skirt only to be shooed off.  With that the last of her resolve gave way.  She dropped to her knees, and leaned weakly on one arm.

She was not fully aware as a tall man in fine brown robes emerged from the murmuring crowd.  His complexion was paler than the mixture of olive, and  some darker shades that gathered around him.  She did not notice when he held up his hand for silence from the gathered citizenry, as they continued to pester him.  The sudden quiet struck her, somewhere far away, but she remained mostly oblivious as he stood over her for a moment, stared down, and stroked his brown beard, flecked with the first hints of gray.

When Katrisha failed to acknowledge the man’s presence, he got down on one knee, and straightened her upright.  He then tilted her head up with a gentle finger beneath her chin, and her gaze relented to meet his kind silver eyes.

“Are you alright, little one?” the man asked in a soothing, measured tone.

“No,” Katrisha managed in a small horse voice, and had little luck thinking clearly, “no – ma, sis…” she continued, interrupted by a tiny cough.  This made her wince, and not at all inclined to speak again.

“What is it, Laurel?” another voice came from the crowd, and a shorter, broad shouldered man shrugged his way through.  He looked more like his countrymen – in most ways – though his stocky heavy build stood out.  His pale hair also seemed an aberration.  It was thinning, cropped too short to do much with, and so lay or stood largely as it wished atop his head.

“Horence, water,” Laurel said in a soft, but commanding tone.  “What about your mother, and sister little one?” he pressed with some concern, as the shorter man hesitated a moment, tried to make sense of what was going on, and then marched past towards the coach as he had been ordered.

“Ma’s sick, won’t wake up, and Ki…” Katrisha trailed off, her eyes cloudy, and her head swimming.

“Where do you live little one?” Laurel asked his brow furled.

Katrisha pointed the way she had entered town.  “Nine farms…” she said hesitantly, wiggling her fingers as though to count.  “I think…”

Horence returned with a canteen of water, it’s cap already dangling.  Laurel took it.  “Here, drink,” he said, and offered it to Katrisha.  She gripped it a bit awkwardly, and sipped from it clumsily, spilling more than she drank down her neck in the first attempt.  Her eyes widened as the unexpectedly near icy water hit her parched throat, and something new appeared in Laurel’s already curious analytical gaze.

He watched the girl all the more intently as she tried to gulp, and relented to sip when she found it above her ability.  “What is your name little one?” Laurel asked transfixed by the girl’s brilliant green eyes.  He had decided they were not quite right, not entirely human.  Her pupils became faintly oblong in the bright midday sun.  He took note for the first time of her pale freckled complexion, which seemed meaningful only in the context of a growing list of peculiarities.

“Kat,” she said softly.  “Katrisha,” she corrected herself, but did not pronounce it well.  There had been talk at times of how to introduce oneself, though not so often as commands to do no such thing.  There had been something about cousins, she remembered, but it didn’t matter, and the whole train of thought slipped away.

Laurel reached out, and brushed the girl’s hair back.  He hoped it passed as a soothing act, but he worried it was far too familiar, even as his curiosity demanded more proof.  Here ear was not altogether unusual, just like the eyes, easily missed, and until then covered beneath her dark locks.  There was a slight point where one should not be – or perhaps should, as the last confirmation.  He withdrew his hand.

Laurel looked up at his companion.  “I think young miss Kat here could use our assistance.  Much as I hate to delay our journey, or deprive these fine folks of our company.”  He inclined his head towards the crowd behind him briefly, but his expression was less than sincere on the point.

“Are you quite sure the villagers cannot deal with the matter?” Horence asked hesitantly.

“I am strongly of the impression this does require my specific attention,” Laurel said firmly, and looked back at Katrisha for a moment.  There was a sudden hesitation, and a frown crept across his face for a fleeting second.  It was like a memory, the kind he didn’t like, the kind that came before something happened.  He pushed it aside, and scooped the girl up in his arms.  “This trip was procedural anyway.  I’ve no doubt that nothing has changed with the border wards, and there is no evidence Osyrae is on the march,” he added.

A woman tentatively attempted to recapture Laurel’s attention, but stopped as a cold gust of wind whipped over the crowd.  She and the other villagers seemed to shift away.

“My name,” the man said softly, returning his attention to the girl in his arms, “is Laurel.  Horence, and myself will be helping you – if that is all right?”

“Yes,” Katrisha replied sleepily, “yes please.”  She rested her head on Laurel’s shoulder as he carried her.  There was something soothing about his presence.  He felt like the old book her grandfather used to read to her from, the feel of well worn pages, and cleverness.  She fell asleep before they even reached the coach, and was unaware of a brief round of questions asked of the villagers, or how unfruitful the inquiry proved.  No one seemed to have any idea who the little girl was.  Least of all to Laurel’s unspoken suspicions.

It was well after the coach had left town that a woman recalled mention almost two years prior, of twin girls, purportedly cousins then visiting the Ashton farm.  She had not remembered off hand, as it had only been a fleeting conversation with a gossip obsessed friend.  That friend had insisted something did not add up.

The following year had been the great exodus to the south, as families were moved away from the drought, and most of the gossips along with them.  The woman put the matter aside, and went back about her day.  She decided if asked again, she would relate what she had remembered – for all it was worth.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha stirred as the coach halted, and Laurel spoke beside her.  “You certainly look familiar, little one.  I think perhaps I found someone who has misplaced you.”  He was looking out the window.

“I’m hurt, ma’s sick” came a small strained voice from beside the coach, “please help.”

Katrisha’s eyes went wide as she stirred from a half sleeping state.  “Ki!” she declared.

Laurel opened the coach door, slid from his seat, and scooped the little girl up from beside the road.  He held her up for a moment at arms length in the sun, and examined her eyes.  “Yes,” Laurel said with confidence.  “Yes, I do believe we have found your sister.”

“Ka!” Kiannae said with great relief in her voice to see her sister in the coach behind the man.  Laurel turned, and set her beside Katrisha in the coach.

Horence peeked in through the window behind his seat.  “Twins,” he remarked with mild interest.

“Indeed,” Laurel said with an inscrutable expression.  “So young miss..Ki was it?  How far to your farm?”

“Four farms,” Kiannae said with some confidence.  “Ma calls me Kia…Kiannae when she’s mad.”  The girl visibly saddened again at mentioning her mother.  Katrisha had clung to her sister firmly, and seemed almost asleep again.

Laurel leaned across, and ruffled Kiannae’s hair gently.  He tried to reassure her, “We are seeing if we can help your mother.”

“Baby too,” Kiannae said after a moment, “very quiet.”

“We’ll check on the baby as well,” Laurel nodded, but grew more concerned as the number of mystery children grew.  He wondered how three small children were still so far up north after the evacuation, but he wagered a guess.  “Is it a new brother, or another sister?” he asked to make conversation, and perhaps distract Kiannae from her morose.

Kiannae looked thoughtful for a moment, and Horence started them moving again, which stirred Katrisha who answered instead, “Brother.”

“I think so,” Kiannae said.  “Saw a little thing last night, like the boy goats have.”  Kiannae rubbed her ankle gingerly, and winced.

“You hurt yourself miss Kia?” Laurel asked softly.

“I fell…could’n walk.  Tried, didn’ get far,” Kiannae replied seemingly embarrassed.

“Let me see,” Laurel said reaching out a hand.  Kiannae lifted her foot up so he could look more closely at her ankle.  His touch was very delicate, strange, but also oddly familiar.  “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, “yes, just a sprain.  I can heal that.”  There was a great deal of warmth, like summer sun on the skin, and just the slightest glow.

Kiannae gasped in surprise, and jostled her sister again, who looked at her crossly.  “You, you’re like daddy!” she declared, and then immediately thought better of it.

“Am I now?” Laurel said with a knowing air as he continued to work.  “Your father can heal sprains?  What else?”

Katrisha gave her sister a stern look, and Kiannae looked back and forth between the two, and pursed her lips with frustration.  “Ma said not to talk ‘bout daddy,” Kiannae said uncomfortably.

“Why doesn’t she want you to talk about your father?” Laurel inquired, pushing just a little bit.

“Made her sad,” Katrisha said uncertainly.

“Gran’pa said it too,” Kiannae countered, and frowned, “he wasn’t sad.”

“Ma said not to talk ‘bout gran’pa either,” Kiannae retorted, “…said they gone, talking din’ change it,” Kiannae said tight lipped.

“So your father, and grandfather are dead…I’m very sad to hear that,” Laurel offered gently.

“Dun remember much,” Kiannae said sadly, and looked away.

“Men yelling, big mess,” Katrisha offered, only able to bare Laurel’s inquisitive gaze for a moment.

“Dad gone, an’ gan’pa died,” Kiannae added.

Laurel’s brow furrowed deeply, and he paused in his work.  “What kind of men?” he asked, a bit of the softness in his voice lost.

“Dun know,” Kiannae said obviously trying to remember, “tall, mad, talked funny.  Talked like daddy does, when he’s angry.”

Laurel closed his eyes, and continued to work on Kiannae’s sprain in silence.  He was very bothered by the strange jumble of circumstances the day had brought him.  A lot of little pieces that painted an incomplete, and quite worrisome picture.  He considered the possibility it could portend very little, or a great deal of trouble.  By the time he finished with Kiannae’s ankle, both girls seemed to be asleep.

Laurel looked up from the girls.  He considered Horence, who sat behind him driving the coach.  The shade was open, and if he was listening he could have heard all of it.  Laurel knew Horence was quite annoyed, and quietly bearing the situation.  He felt some pity for the man, his orders were more than a bit muddled by that point.

Strictly speaking he had been ordered to the border, and to accompany Laurel.  Friendship – such as it was – tempered frustration, but not without straining it.  Further they were more friendly adversaries, sparring partners, not confidants of any sensible description.

Laurel considered telling Horence what he had discerned, it seemed right, but something held him back.  He needed to think, needed to make decisions, and decisions required he knew more.  The girls’ mother would provide the answers he needed – or at least he hoped – he feared otherwise.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Is this it?” Laurel asked, as he gently nudged the girls awake.  They rubbed their eyes, and moved to the window.  A long path lead off the road, and past an old ash tree that grew on its own little hill.

“Yes,” the twins said in unison, and Horence started the coach up the path.  There was no sign of activity as the coach pulled up to the house.  There were distant sounds of unhappy animals, not tended yet that day, but nothing more.  “Take me to your mother,” Laurel said with kind command as he opened the coach door, and helped each girl down.

The house was quiet, it felt wrong to Kiannae, and she noticed the hesitance in Laurel.  As they entered their mother’s room the only sound was a fly buzzing at the window.  It seemed quite intent to get out.  Katrisha and Kiannae both moved to climb onto the bed beside their mother, but Laurel motioned suddenly, and Horence held the girls back.

Laurel leaned cautiously over the bed, and noted a few dead flies scattered about the sheets. He focused on the auras of the infant and mother, his eyes out of focus, for it was easiest to see almost out of the corner of the eye.  He moved a hand over the two feeling it, like velvet, and yet tingled like the hand had gone to sleep.  That wasn’t right.  The woman was dead – he grimaced – more than dead.  She had no more aura than a rock, less perhaps.  That was unnatural, even for the long deceased.  The child though, if he squinted just right, he glowed like the sun, and all at once seemed a dark spot that held a tangible pull on all around him.  Yes the boy was alive, but quite dangerous.

Laurel steeled himself, clung tightly to his own life energies, and lifted the baby.  Even so he felt a bit of his own vital force soak into the child, like water into a sponge.  The baby stirred a bit in his arms, and he felt the pull lessen, as the boy met resistance his mother had not given.  The woman had sacrificed every last drop of her own fading life.  She had done so willingly, to keep her newborn alive, and the child, innocent to the consequences, had taken all that was offered, all that was left, and instinctively sought even more.

Laurel held back tears as he felt a struggle take place in his arms, as an older presence briefly became distinct, like a ripple of blue across his almost yellow aura,  a thing that felt like a warm summer breeze, and almost left a hint of mint in the back of the throat.  The older presence tempered the younger, made him stop.  It was a sense altogether more vivid, and obtuse than any Laurel could recall.

“What,” Laurel asked in a choked voice, “what is the boy’s name?”

The twins looked at each other.  “Wren – I ‘member Mama saying Wren,” Katrisha said uneasily.

“Like the little birds, ma always liked the little birds,” Kiannae offered.

Kiannae could feel something was wrong, something familiar and terribly sickening, but she pushed the feeling back.  “Ma…is ma ok?”

Laurel visibly shrank.  He looked for delicate words, but the infant’s pull was taxing.  “I’m sorry, both of you, I’m sorry.  Your mother has passed from this world.”  He winced as he feared there was something of a lie in this.  He looked to the boy’s face, still paler than a northerner should be, but not quite so much as his sisters.  It was hard to tell in the dim light if his eyes had the same peculiarity, even as they shown up at him with a striking blue, but the ear still had the same shape.

“NO!” Katrisha yelled, and broke free of Horence’s grasp.  Kiannae was right behind her.  They both climbed into the bed.  “No…ma…ma please,” they sobbed in near perfect unison, and shook her.  But they could feel it, a memory of what it had been when their grandfather had died.  There was a coldness where there had always been warmth.  The the familiar feeling of life was gone.  Still they pleaded, each in turn.

“Horence,” Laurel said, his voice strained.  “I’m sorry, but tend to things here.  Deal…with their mother.  I must take this one for help.”

“What’s wrong,” Horence said, and reached to push aside the blanket hiding the little boy’s face, only to find his hand rebuffed firmly by Laurel.

“He is a danger – through no fault of his own,” Laurel said firmly.  “I can only think of one place to go.  Please, care for matters here, I must leave – now.”  Horence stepped back, at a bit of a loss, and watched as Laurel rushed past him out the door.  After a moment of disbelief he turned to the two sobbing girls, still clinging to their dead mother.

Horence had woken that morning prepared for the possibility of encountering death, steeled himself as any good soldier heading out into the world would.  This however was nothing he could have expected, or prepared for.  He frowned, as he further realized the trouble he would inevitably face had grown much worse.  Orders were orders, he could surely make the case that his orders had been superseded, and that was true, but it would not go over well.  Not at all.

“A simple border inspection,” he muttered quietly under his breath.  He walked to the front door, and watched as Laurel deftly unhooked the harness from one of the horses.

The horses seemed spoked.  Horence noticed with some concern that the freed stallion was edging away from Laurel nervously, kicking the dirt ever so slightly.  It was a well trained horse, and should not have been acting that way.  Horence was about to say something, when the horse bolted free of the loose harness, and watched in amazement as Laurel grabbed the reins, a seemingly damned fool thing to do under the circumstances.

Horence rushed forward to help, but stopped in his tracks as he saw Laurel hold steady against everything the horse could muster.  Horence inched forward, not quite certain what, if anything to do.  He didn’t think it wise to approach the horse, and before he took a third step Laurel sprang forward, and in one smooth, seemingly impossible motion, was up, and riding off under the speed of an animal frantic with fear.  Horence almost thought he had seen the slightest flicker of the magic Laurel had used, and assured himself he must have used magic.  There was no other way the feat could have been done.  Not while encumbered with an infant in one’s arms to be certain.

Horence ran his hand through his hair, as he watched Laurel go.  It was settled, and settled without time frame, or a ruddy clue what was going on.  He moved to calm the second horse, and insured it was still secure.  ‘One step at a time,’ he thought, calming himself.  That was always the best way when things fell apart.  Break it down, move forward, do what needs doing right at the moment.

Sure that the second horse was comfortable enough, and not going anywhere, Horence walked back into the house, and stared at the sobbing girls.  He had never been great with small children.  Even if they seemed to like him, he always felt awkward.  He leaned against the doorframe, and looked for a first step.  Pushing himself off the wall he marched to the closest girl, and gently touched her shoulder.  “Kat, was it?” he asked.

The girl stiffened.  “Kia,” she corrected him.  Horence grimaced for losing track, and realized that could make things all the more difficult, but pressed on.

“You said your grandfather died,” he continued setting aside his mistake.  “Where was he buried?”

“What?” Kiannae managed in a seemingly bewildered tone.

“By the trees,” Katrisha answered between sobs.

Horence turned, and walked back out through the still open front door.  He scanned the surrounding terrain to be sure, and it was as he remembered.  A few small trees dotted disused fields across the road, and a forest edge lay miles away at the base of foothills.  Surely too far to be what the girl had referred to.  He took stock of the rest of his surroundings.  A rooster stood at the apex of an old barn, that sat above a field where a few scattered goats chewed on dry sparse grass, and glanced expectantly up at the farm house.

An old donkey could be seen in a further field, and a handful of chickens milled about pecking at the dirt.  Something struck Horence for the first time as he looked back down the path to the main road, and considered the lone ash that stood there, and seemed out of place.  Several half formed thoughts collided unhelpfully, and the least useful sprung to the front – verses from a poem.

He shook his head, and thought instead of geography.  Were they far enough north he wondered?  Where they up where the great forest jutted out near the border.  He started around the house, and as he moved the words from the poem returned.  It had been so long ago, and he barely remembered.  He was surprised he remembered at all, and yet as he rounded the corner, and saw the tree line it all snapped into place, and he recited it under his breath:

such noble folk there reside,
strong of blood and bone,
salt of Avrale preservers,
one fine woman stood alone,

there defended home ‘n child,
with pitch fork raised on high,
to wound the dreaded drake,
that it might no more fly,

A path lead down the hill between the farmhouse and the barn, and there by the forest edge stood a small grey structure.  Though far away, Horence could just make out the white shape set beneath the eave, and above a heavy stone door.  He tried very hard to remember the rest.  It seemed such an easy, and awful thing to forget.

‘n though she did perish,
be it so we do remand,
the valiant Adel Ashton,
‘n return her to the land,

the wounded drake did end,
by kingsmen brave and tall,
yet ne’er a one where nobler,
than she who did there fall,

no knight or dame was she,
High Vale’s true ‘n errant girl,
who wed a man of Ashton,
an’ bore a lonely child,

O’ fickle world conspired,
turned healer to other fates,
O’ mortal lips speak kindly,
of she who was no saint,

O’ let all long remember,
a drake’s skull doth attest,
none are more revered,
than those unexpected,
who gave their last.

Horence leaned against a side of the house in disbelief.  He had been there once before, long ago as a child.  He had stood beside his father, a soldier as he was then, and watched the Elder King honor a common woman, who had died with uncommon valor.

The girls were the granddaughters of Adel Ashton.  Little as they were they couldn’t quite be four, and one had walked at least ten miles to try and save her mother.  It had not been enough, and more tragedy had been visited upon those who it seemed deserved far better.

Horence walked along the back of the house, and peered in on the crying girls through the bedroom window, and once again tried to figure out what to do.  He realized with a grimace that had he been less distracted he might have noticed the trees through that very window.

He rubbed his head wearily, and looked around.  Small patches of sickly wildflowers could be seen blooming in a field down the hill, defying the parched land.  With a glimmer of inspiration he headed back into the house.  The first thing, he had settled on, was to be rid of the grieving children long enough to begin dealing with the body.

For a moment Horence stood silently at the bedroom door, uneasy at the thought of disturbing the twin’s sorrow.  He took a slow deep breath, and spoke firmly, “There are flowers in the east field.  They would look lovely in your mother’s hair.  Please go gather them.”

Two pairs of green eyes turned to harry him with wounded glares, capable of shattering a heart of stone.  It was all he could do to simply endure their gaze, until at last the girls obeyed his command, with all the reluctance they were due.  They crawled from their mother’s bed, walked from the room, out the back door, and slowly down the path towards the field.

Horence gritted his teeth and considered his task.  The dead woman before him was a bit of a mess.  It felt wrong for her to be buried that way, but what could he do about it…without…no that wouldn’t do.  He wasn’t even keen to see what lay beneath the sheets that covered her.  He’d never seen the aftermath of a birth, but knew enough to be sure he did not wish to.  Though the rest he had seen before, a woman dead from childbirth, lain beneath a sheet, and disheveled.

He put the uncomfortable memory from his mind, and tried to remember the name of the girl before him.  It had been so many years before, and it escaped him.  He remembered her that day though, flowers crushed to her chest, and tears streaming down her cheeks.  A lovely, and terrible sight to behold.  He could even remember the dress she wore, not so fine as those from the court that were present, but it seemed better than any of the other commoners.

That thought was odd – it had never meant anything to him before, but it was odd.  If it had been provided by the court, it would have been of better quality.  If it had been provided by her father, it seemed too nice.  He looked around – there were a lot of things just a little nicer than they should have been.  Little details that belied the humble stature, or scope of the house, as well as how the girls were dressed.  He wrote it off, and moved on, he needed to act before the children were again in his way.

Resolving himself that all was the best it would be, Horence wrapped the woman’s body tighter in the sheets, and lifted her into his arms.  He carried her from the house, and somberly down the hill.  He watched the tree line as he walked, and thought.  Something was bothering him, something he knew he would feel foolish for missing, but he could not place it.  It wasn’t the contrary details of the house, or clothing – it was something else.

He had been distracted on the ride up to the farm, worrying about timetables, and orders, and things he couldn’t really control.  He had let Laurel do all the talking, and stewed.  Letting Laurel do the talking was never a bad idea he thought, but failing to listen, no that was right stupid.

Horence set the woman’s body before the heavy stone door of the crypt.  As he lay her down, her arm tumbled from the sheets, and a simple gold band, with a lone garnet caught his eye.  She wore it like a wedding band he noticed.  He mulled it over for a moment.  It felt wrong to remove a ring from a dead woman’s hand, but he decided that one day one of her children might want their mother’s ring.  He worked it off her finger gingerly, and placed it in a pocket.

Horence gazed up at great skull that hung beneath the carved stone eve.  It was a brilliant white against the somber grey.  It struck him quite sad that Adel’s husband had passed without word even reaching the court – or if it had, nothing had trickled down to him.  Now his daughter was dead as well.  He sneered at the thought, there was no doubt she would still be alive had anyone thought to keep tabs on the family.  What was all this for he wondered at the crypt – adorned with such a rare treasure as a drake skull – if they were just to be forgotten?

He put his agitation into moving the heavy stone door.  This proved no small, or quick task.  After several minutes of struggle, and with the door only half open Horence rested, and looked at the slight form of the body that lay behind him.  He was at a loss to explain how she had done this herself – much less presumably alone, and pregnant.  The father had already been gone, that was what the girls had implied he remembered vaguely.

Horence stepped into the crypt, and glanced at the two engraved stones covering the final resting places of Adel – he looked to the other cover to remind himself – and ‘James.’  It was said the King’s men had feared his wrath for keeping him from the hunt, nearly as much as the drake itself.  Such were the legends he thought.  He had died in the end none the less.  If by age, or in battle after all was unclear he thought, as he began to remember some of what he had overheard.

The Elder King had been generous in constructing the crypt Horence considered.  Six more places waited for future generations, and one more stone was already engraved.  He looked at the cover in the dim light, ‘Meliae,’ it read.  Its intended occupant would join her parents that day.  Horence turned as he heard small footsteps crunching dry grass down the hill. Two girls stood staring at him, and at their mother’s prone form.  Bundles of little flowers were clutched in their arms.  They were the very image of their mother all those years before, if much dirtier.

Nodding approvingly Horence knelt down before the girls and took a flower from each, then turned and placed them in Meliae’s hair.  He gestured for the girls to do the same with the rest, and sat back for a moment trying to shake it all.

“She looks pretty,” Katrisha said softly as the last flower was woven with the rest.

“Yes she does, and at peace,” Horence said firmly.  “She passed bringing new life into this world.  In you two, and your brother she will live on.”  He paused a moment, looking at the lovely young woman before him – a waste was all he could think.  She should not have been alone, any half competent healer could have saved her.

He hesitated in his ire.  His mother had died after all, in spite of all efforts, but that was different, her heart was flawed, and the damn priest hadn’t realized.  He was a worthless preacher more than a real healer…he clenched his fist.  Where was the children’s father, the King’s men, the villagers, anyone – it all seemed senseless and wrong.  He struggled with the weakness the circumstances brought out in him.

It also didn’t add up, and then it did, or started to.  ‘Tall men who talk funny,’ he winced, and wanted to curse, but thought better of it.  The forest, Laurel’s dodgy behavior, no one knowing the girls were there.  He looked to their faces, paler even than their dead mother, and caught a glimpse of their eyes.  It was such a little thing.  Not just the shape of the pupils, but the angle at which they were set.  Everything fit, and Horence felt at once clever, and a fool.  He took a deep breath, set it aside, and locked it away under things that might or might not matter, yet were good to know.

Horence looked to his left, and considered the door to the crypt.  It was open enough he decided.  “Come,” he said as he leaned forward, and lifted Meliae again.  “Let us lay her to rest.”

Chapter 2 >

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Chapter 2

The Twins yet rise fair and tall,
‘bove valley deep and river swell,
there stand astride great Avrale,

named for queens each first and last,
we shall not falter – they shall not pass,
so doth endure good Avrale.

– The Twins Stand, 20 B.E.

The Twins Pass

CloisterChapter2

The sun hung low in the west, kissing the peak of Mount Navi, and the day was lost.  Laurel’s horse trod laboriously through the orchard grounds that buffered his destination from the wider world.  The cloister complex he sought was at last in sight, nestled at the end of one of the many branching twisting valleys from which Avrale took her name.

Stained glass set above the main entry shone like a glimmering beacon in the setting sun.  Mount Saeah loomed large above in the south, its glaciers a pale orange, stark against the dusky blue of a darkening sky.  Highvale was a secluded place, and while this isolation served its denizens well, it had done nothing to simplify Laurel’s troubles.

Laurel nodded politely to two women, and a young man that were walking in from the outer grounds.  He expected to pass them by, but his horse chose to slow.  He avoided their further glances, not wishing to give the impression his keeping pace was at all intended.  The ever slowing strides of his horse meant that soon the residents began to outpace him.

The last mile had been frustrating, and he knew the poor animal had little left to give.  Another thirty miles, some of it at frightened gallop for a horse that had already been asked twenty that same day.  Laurel himself was haggard, sore, and drained in more ways that he cared to think upon.  His right arm cradled a dangerous infant protectively, and hurt terribly.  He dared not simply imbue the arm with more life carelessly, less the child simply take that power.

He hoped the Sisters would be able to help the horse that evening, or he would be stranded until other arrangements could be made.  He considered Horence would be far more inconvenienced should this course of events come to pass, and under the circumstances he had limited pity left to spare the man – though a touch nonetheless.

The horse finally gave up, and refused to take another step.  Laurel slid from the beasts bareback, discovering new discomforts he had managed to remain oblivious to, as he tried somewhat haltingly to walk.  Those who had gotten just ahead of him considered their visitor with renewed interest.  The young man in their midst moved to greet Laurel, and he thrust the reins into young man’s hand.  He then switched the arm that cradled Wren, to the effect of noticeable relief.  “See the horse is cared for,” he commanded sternly, “it has seen a very bad day.”

He walked on then without a breath of hesitation, though he plainly struggled to find a comfortable gait.  He ignored the confused murmurs of those he left in his wake, and was quite ready to be done with the whole affair.  He sought the one practical solution he could imagine, to his most immediate problem.  The Sisterhood would not care about the boy’s linage – they were, after all, far more open minded by nature than the world at large.  Furthermore they could handle his care, and condition better than anyone.

Three young women who had been near the main door of the cloister gathered, and watched as Laurel marched purposely forward.  “I will speak to Matron Somavera,” he commanded, approaching in the best approximation of a stately manner he could muster.

Laurel was never much for pomp or posturing, but under the circumstances he did not want to convey an air that invited questions.  Two of the Sisters opened the doors wide for him, and the third rushed off in search of the Matron.

The foyer of the cloister’s front building was lined with benches, and trellises covered in flowering vines.  The last light cresting the mountains behind him streamed through intricate stained glass, casting a thousand points of light across the room.  Two young Brothers crossed the far end of the foyer, and looked to Laurel curiously as they passed.

“Sir,” the eldest of the two Sisters waiting with him spoke hesitantly, “might I inquire as to the reason for your sudden visit?”

Laurel resisted the urge to sigh, and maintained an aloof air as best he could.  “I’ll discuss my business with the Matron, if you’ll pardon me,” he said in a measured, harsh tone.  “I have no desire to be repeating myself after this long day.”

“Very…well,” the Sister stammered momentarily at a loss.  “I’ll go see if Caitlen has found Renae.”  She headed down the same hall the younger Sister had hurried into before.

One Sister remained, holding open the door absently, and considered Laurel shrewdly.  “I’ll wager you’re not the father,” the girl said, boldly striking up conversation that Laurel had just expressed he did not want.  “There’s magic about both of you,” the girl continued, “but it’s quite different in that little one there.  Odd really, I’ve not seen the like of it.  Then again we don’t see that many different kinds around here.”

Laurel considered the impertinent, but astute girl silently – though her choice of words displeased him.  It wasn’t worth fussing over.  All the same it was easy to forget what it was like to be around others who could sense, or even see auras with any great aptitude.

“No,” the girl continued trying to provoke some kind of response, “I’ll wager you are not the father at all.”

Laurel grumbled to himself, and looked the girl up and down.  She seemed about sixteen, with tousled red hair, a typical olive complexion for the region, and an air of absolute trouble about her that reflected plainly in her amber eyes, and in a presence that had some property of fire about it.  Not entirely wild, well tended, like a hearth freshly stirred.  He decided that if she so desired to pester him, he would avail her of the useful – if unwanted – distraction.  “You’d win your wager.  I am no one’s father.”

“Are you sure of that?” the girl prodded playfully.  “Men don’t always know.”

“I know,” Laurel said flatly, but with wry personal amusement.  He watched the girl wrinkle her nose at that thought curiously, and he was less amused.

“And how do you know?” she asked.

“We mages have our ways,” he laughed uncomfortably.

“As do we,” the girl said with a knowing smile, and gave him a curiously predatory once over.  This put him decidedly on edge.  However much younger he might have appeared than he truly was, Laurel looked well more than old enough to be her father.  Surely this stretched even the Sisterhood’s limits.  It was flattering on some small level – perhaps – but none the less disquieting.

“As for this one,” Laurel said changing the subject, “I know almost nothing of his father,” he paused for effect, “less still of the mother, for that matter.”

“That seems a right strange state of affairs,” the girl said inquisitively, shifting her weight.

“A strange state of affairs indeed,” he responded with practiced calm, “to pull me so far from my intended course.”

“And what course might that have been?” she asked crossing her arms.

“To Nohrook, by Minterbrook, where it was that everything turned quite sideways.  Even then I’d not yet expected to find myself half way back to Brokhal, or here amongst Lycian Sisters,” Laurel said with an honest touch of frustration in his voice.  He took a deep breath as the baby in his arms stirred, and the pull nagged at his attention.

Laurel guessed the girl saw something of the nature of what transpired, even if the meaning was hopefully obtuse to her.  He looked down at Wren, and the quiet little boy fussed, but did not cry even as he surely hungered by then more physically than in less mundane ways.  He soothed him with care, it seemed a questionable use of gift under the circumstances, but he had no want for fuss to become a piercing wail.

“It does seem quite the detour, what could bring you back so far?” the girl asked her interest obviously caught even more, and began to approach slowly, with what seemed a meticulously practiced sway in her hips, and a shift in her presence.  It seemed an extension of her attitude, and intended to inspire something.

The intent was uncomfortably clear, and entirely ineffective for any number of reasons.  Oddly the most distracting of which was how much it felt like the weaving of a spell in some ways.  Living magic, some learned in the delicate practice called it.  Perhaps something spell like fell out of it all at times, but it was not magic, not the practice of mages.  Even if most mages learned to work such power well enough in a pinch.  Semantics.  Yet semantics were more comfortable than other things.

Life makes magic, not the other way around.  It was a barb of his father’s on the topic, a man with an almost singular loathing for the very order that claimed the cloister where he stood.  It wasn’t true though, not by scurrilous rumor at any rate.  Their founder, some great aunt many generations removed had reversed the process, or so some books claimed.  She was such an affront to the Grey family name.  That insult perhaps mostly that the world remembered her better than the rest of them combined.  It was almost enough to inspire a young man to run away, and make a useful nuisance of himself in the world.  He’d had other reasons though.

The girl was more than a bit too close.

“Unexpected deaths have a way of changing one’s plans,” Laurel said tersely, pulling himself from his train of thought.  “The death of someone you’ve never met is an altogether more unexpected than most ways for plans to change,” he added with a stony expression.  He noted the look on the girl as she was suddenly at a loss for words.  She stopped where she stood, and was stuck somewhere between shock and embarrassment.  Whatever he thought of the path the conversation had taken, it seemed to have been effective at shutting the nosey girl up.

A long awkward silence hung between them, and before the girl could quite regain her composure to press curiosity further, the sound of footsteps pulled both of their attentions to the hallway.  The eldest of the three Sisters had returned with two older women in tow.  She addressed Laurel as soon as the other two were fully in the foyer, “Matron Renae Somavera, as you requested.”

She was a sharp featured woman with light skin, and white hair.  She was notably taller than her more tan companion, almost as tall as Laurel himself.  One could tell that both women were not young, if only by their hair, yet they did not look as old as Laurel knew them to be.  The gifts of healers in this regard exceeded that of mages, Laurel was reminded poignantly.  She had a presence not unlike a gentle ocean by the moonlight, and were she a mage might have almost felt imposing, rather than oddly comfortable and elegant.

“We’ve met,” Renae said with a raised eyebrow.  “I was not informed who my insistent visitor was, nor that you were coming.”  Her gaze fixed firmly on the infant bundled in Laurel’s arms.

“Even our first acquaintance may have passed under better circumstances,” Laurel said his expression softening from aloof to sad, “and to be fair I had not announced myself properly when I arrived.  I would have sent word, but I had not started this day with any intention to arrive here.  It is only grave matters that have brought me to your doorstep, and I would prefer to discuss them in private.”

Laurel examined the expression that crossed Renae’s well aged features and blue eyes.  She barely looked older than when he’d first met her, save that her once peppered hair was now gossamer.  He had known the woman on but three occasions, never well, but amiably.  The royal mess with which their first association had ended had changed the path of Laurel’s life dramatically.  He wondered if it had been a factor in Renae’s rise in position as well.  Since then they had met only in passing through their official capacities.

“It would seem you have something troubling on your hands,” Renae said nodding her understanding.  “Come, my office is upstairs,” she said gesturing for her companion, and Laurel to go ahead of her.  She eyed the two younger sisters still present.  The elder left promptly, but the younger did not.  “Move along Sasha,” Renae commanded with a sigh, and was obeyed reluctantly.

At the top of the stairs Renae and Laurel entered as the other woman held the door, then closed it behind herself.  The light was growing dim through the windows that looked out toward Mt. Navi, rimlit in her early autumn glory.  With a brush of her finger  up its wick Renae lit a candle at her large oak desk.  It was a clever technique, filaments dragged harshly, a friction approaching absolute, and then they broke off, themselves igniting, and becoming flame.  It was less conjuring fire than striking the candle itself like a match.  With the first candle she lit several others around the room.

“You’ll forgive me if I have Andria stay – there is nothing that happens here we do not share.”  She glanced at Laurel to ensure her point had been made.  Satisfied that it was when he perked a brow, she continued.  “So please, tell me of this infant that has brought you here.  The aura is unsettlingly brilliant, and I can feel the testing pulls even from here.  I recognize the sensation, but I can’t say that I have ever felt it quite like this.”

Laurel nodded somberly.  “I’d expect it’s not an altogether unusual phenomena, infants with the gift are often enough born weak, flawed, or otherwise in need of aid.  I do not doubt that ever so often one might keep trying to draw in more.”

“Yes,” Renae said with a troubled frown, “normally it stops at the slightest resistance.  Though this one isn’t pulling with any great force, it hasn’t completely given up either.  This worries me.”

“So it should,” Laurel sighed, “the mother I fear ended poorly.  She gave too much, perhaps was too weak to begin with, and then the boy took all that was left.”

Renae furrowed her brow.  “I’ve heard of such a thing – incredibly rare, a matter of bad circumstance, and poor training.  Horrible tragedy, and leaving another problem in its wake.”  She walked over to examine the infant’s face.  “What I’ve read,” she continued, “tells me that the child can be cured of this hunger in a few months, perhaps a year.  However he must not be given into, it will take vigilance.  Once the door is closed, it will remain such.  When he is older he will need to be trained to control his gift – he will be exceptionally powerful, particularly with the living magic.”

Renae pause and touched the child’s cheek, “There may also be traces…  Yes I can…I can feel them, bit’s that don’t seem to belong.  Fragments of his mother will haunt this one all his life.  We will take him, there is no doubt in this.  Though from what you say, I gather he has not been fed since birth?”

“No,” Laurel said.

“And yet he is not crying?” Renae said shaking her head, her worry deepening.  “Andria, run to the nursery, find a willing mother to help.  Be discreet on the details, but warn her nonetheless.”

“Of course,” Andria said, and left swiftly.

“I’ve had some hand in his quiet to this point,” Laurel said, but there was no confidence behind it.  “I doubt however that is any explanation.”

“No,” Renae said taking the bundle from Laurel, who gave a deep breath of relief.  His features noticeably softened as the strain was taken away.  He began almost immediately tending to his aching arms.

“This has been simpler to resolve than I could have hoped,” Laurel said as he worked.  “There are other things you should know…” he started, but paused as Renae held up her hand for silence.

“I can already see one.  Those eyes…” she trailed off staring down at the strange blue eyed child in her arms.  Wren looked up at her with an unnerving quiet gaze, he was wide awake, yet barely fussed under such distressed circumstances.

“Yes, not quite right are they, the oval shape of the pupils – the intensity of the color.  It’s far more noticeable in bright light.  I’m fairly certain of the meaning.”  Laurel picked up his former train of thought, “it is a trait he shares with his two sisters.  I had been headed to Nohrook when one of those sisters lead me to a farm very near the forest border.  I have no doubt the father was Sylvan.”

A sickened expression suddenly crossed Renae’s face.  Laurel paused a moment considering Renae’s reaction.  Was he wrong that Sisterhood had no bias against the Sylvans?

Renae seemed to recover her composure through force of will, and asked calmly, “On what farm?”

“The girls did not mention a family name I am afraid,” Laurel said as he searched his memory, “there wasn’t much remarkable about the farm save how far out it was.”  He hesitated, something seemingly unimportant came to mind.  “There was an ash tree along the road that seemed out of place.  They are rare in the north.”

Renae sat down in a nearby chair.  “Sisters, you say?”

“Yes, identical twins,” Laurel continued, “Fascinating and seemingly quite intelligent little girls.  They spoke very well for their obvious age.”  He considered the change in Renae’s poise.  “Is everything alright, does this change anything?”

Renae looked out the window, and stared at the darkening sky.  “No, it is fine.  I will see to his care, I will raise him as my own even.  Does he have a name yet?” Renae asked rocking him softly.

“I understand his mother called him Wren before she passed,” Laurel said distantly, and considered Renae’s words for a moment, before following her gaze into the distance.

“Like the bird,” Renae offered, more than asked.

“Presumably,” Laurel said, and stroked his beard.  “One of the girls said their mother loved the little birds.”  He returned to the point that had bothered him all afternoon.  “Decades without one sighting, one single interaction with any kingdom I know of.  Save of course a few long exiled travelers on the roads…and suddenly we have three little half blood children, and a dead mother to tell no tales.”

“What will you do with the other two?” Renae inquired pointedly.

“I’ve had a long, and tiring ride to think on that.  It seems best I take them in, bring them to court, and train them as mages.   Their auras are unnervingly strong, particularly for such young children.  Not so much as that little one’s poor blended soul, but it’s hard to imagine their potential.  I will have failed them utterly if they do not one day surpass me.”

“I’m glad to hear you will not send them off to that council of yours,” Renae said with distinct relief in her voice.  “I would have had to beg you bring them here as well before that.”

“I’m not the biggest fan of the Council’s ways, even if I aspire to fill my role in their grand design.  I’ll abide their rules, and do their bidding to a point, as is my sworn duty, but there are more rampant politics in their ranks than in all the kingdoms we shepherd combined.  It’s no place to grow up, I should know.  So no, I’ll do all I can to keep these girls from under the prying eyes of the oh so well meaning Council.”

“You are a good man Laurel,” Renae added, and looked down to the infant in her arms.

Laurel turned to consider Renae again.  “And I suppose I can offer you the same in kind.  I may not have been raised to think much of the Sisterhood, but you do good work with your lives, and take in strays such as this little one without hesitation.”

Renae looked up at Laurel curiously for a moment.  “Do you think I might meet the other two?” she asked.

“It certainly could be arranged, after I introduce them at court,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “That introduction shall be awkward given I will also be asking forgiveness for my deviation from plans.”

“I will announce my intention to visit soon,” Renae said distantly.  “You will be staying here the night I assume?” she asked almost as an afterthought.

“It seems I must,” Laurel said with some displeasure.  “I fear I have worked the horse that bore me here near to death, and I do not know what care it has yet received.”

“When Andria returns I will have her find Sister Charis, she has spent more years with caravans than I.  I’m sure she can attend to the poor creature,” Renae offered taking a long deep breath.  “With luck it will be ready for the morning, if not, perhaps we could offer you one of ours.“

“That is gracious of you,” Laurel said kindly.

“I have my guesses as to what business you have been pulled from,” Renae said firmly.  “I’ve only just heard the whispers myself.”

“Yes, of course,” Laurel said with only moderate surprise.  “Prudence over real urgency of course, whatever has transpired we will not feel consequences soon, surely.”

“No, I would not expect.”  Renae sighed.  “Dinner will be served shortly,” she said dropping the topic, “and though I am sure you are capable of attending to your self, do not hesitate to avail us of our services.  I can only imagine the strain this has been on you.”

“I will consider it,” Laurel said hesitantly, but reconsidered his tone.  He knew better, or he thought he did, that she had meant nothing dubious, and yet the look the young redhead had given him still nagged at him.  He was not one to read into such things, but he had found it unmistakable, and distantly familiar.  Finally he remembered where he had seen that look before.  He was made no more comfortable by the memory.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Dinner had been a simple affair, run like clockwork to feed well over a hundred standing residents, and guests in procession, with a dining hall that held only about sixty at a time.  The food was less fine than Laurel had grown accustomed to in recent years, but infinitely better than what he had eaten for over two decades traveling with trade caravans.  He had done as he had seen most do, and taken his dish to the kitchen.  It seemed the least courtesy an unexpected guest could offer.

It was a courtesy he regretted when he found himself beside the nosey girl from before.  He shifted uncomfortably trying to avoid being so close to Sasha, and winced, which she clearly saw, and adopted an exaggerated pout over.  Laurel was unamused by the antic, and turned to leave, heading into the courtyard.  He found a bench, and sat down with some care.  He looked up at the stars, which he always found soothing.

After several minutes a young woman he had not met approached him.  “Are you well sir?” she asked in a kind, and courteous tone.  He considered her coldly, but felt bad for it, she’d done him no wrong.  She seemed in her early twenties, with short dark hair, and shifted uncomfortably in his agitated gaze, which he softened slowly.  Her robe was of red, and this gave him some further hesitance.

“I’ve had better days,” Laurel finally replied, “but I’m fine.”  He looked back to the stars, but could not help but grab his neck as a twinge caught him off guard.

“May I?” the woman asked.

Laurel considered saying no, he could attend to it himself well enough, but the idea of simply relaxing won him over.  “Yes,” he said, and considered that some politeness was appropriate to add.  He settled on, “Thank you.”

Her touch was expert, and her gift gentle as it flowed into stiff, abused, and delicate muscles.  Her presence was soft, liquid, not the flame like presence of Sasha.  It wasn’t an insistent thing, merely there.  It had been a rare thing in his life to feel the power of another kindly, and rarer still with such frivolity.  His neck cared for, she moved out his shoulders, and he did not protest as she worked down his sore tired back.  Water he considered could wear away even stone, the flame was only suitable for lighting dry tinder.  The thought gave him wry amusement.  It would take some time to get past that resistance.

He was more relaxed than he had been in weeks when a now familiar voice undid half the good the woman had managed.  “Who do you have there, Ann?” Sasha asked rhetorically.  Laurel had no doubt she knew exactly who.

“A visitor,” Ann said straightening up in surprise.

“I’m jealous,” Sasha said in a tone that Laurel clearly read as playful, but he was not sure if the other woman did.

“Really?” Ann asked in a perplexed tone.

“Of you, not over you silly.”  Sasha laughed, stepped up to Ann, and kissed the other woman on the tip of her nose playfully.  Laurel could tell what had just transpired, but still turned his head out of an odd curiosity.

“May I join?” Sasha asked pleadingly.

Laurel stood, stretched, and with a laugh offered, “By all means.  I was just leaving.”

“You don’t have to go,” Sasha said leaning up against Ann.

“Sash!” Ann proclaimed reprovingly, but with clear mirth that said there was nothing inaccurate in the younger woman’s assertion.

“That’s quite alright,” Laurel said.  “Thank you miss Ann,” he said with a bow, “you’ve been more help that you know.”  With that he walked off, to enquire where he might sleep – alone.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Horence’s experience with animals effectively began, and ended with horses.  Though he had some memory of his father’s old dog when he was a small boy, he was hardly responsible for its care.  His experience with children was less.  Not even with siblings, as his sister had not survived birth, and taken his poor mother’s heart with her, literally, and figuratively.

The Clarion healers had tried, but she had lost the will to live they said, he had always taken that with a touch of disdain, believing more that they had been incompetent.  In that regard he figured he was a kindred spirit to the twins left to his care.  Yet all he really knew at the end of the day was the work ethic of a soldier, and that the best cure for your sorrows, short of a stiff drink, was the distraction of routine.

Routine – for him at least – was beyond reach, but the sorrow was not his to bury.  He endeavored to give the girls what vestige of routine he could.  They fussed, but in the end walked him through the motions, such as they knew, of caring for the animals, and gathering food from a small garden, that seemed the only tilled soil on the farm – more fertile than it seemed anything in the blighted land had reason to be.

It seemed to him a good life, a respectable one, one that the northerners had been blessed with for generations, and by the whims of nature had lost in those years.  The King had been kind, and good, and given them work in the south.  Yet he worried for the cost, for he had been witness on occasion to the thinly veiled whining of the barons of South Rook.  If the drought did not end, there would be turmoil, or worse.

What Horence did not know of animals or farming, he made up for marginally with cooking.  He would of course have been booted from the royal kitchen on charges of sacrilege, but he had learned to cook well enough after his mother passed.  Even to follow through with recipes, thought the chicken scratch in the ratty old cook book he found in the pantry was beyond him.  The first afternoon, and evening was hard, messy, haphazard, but at it’s end, the girls slept with full bellies, and Horence slept with the satisfaction of hard work, and passable success.

The second day was easier, it already felt like a semblance of routine, though he had no intention for it to become such.   At noon he made a cursory attempt to rig the harness for a single horse – which seemed unwise.  He then attempted to discern if the old donkey could be harnessed to the coach as well, but the mismatch seemed utterly absurd.  Failing that he checked on the decrepit farm cart in the barn, which it seemed had lost a wheel.

The girls had pestered him about the coach, claiming to see faint blue lines, and asked him what they were.  Horence had looked closely where they insisted, and once – just once – he thought he saw something, but passed it off as a trick of the light.  He assured them there was nothing there, and they gave him funny looks.  He went on with that day, and into the night, quite anxious for Laurel’s return.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 8th, 636 E.R.

Horence watched the two little girls asleep by the hearth, bathed in flickering firelight.  He couldn’t help but feel relief on their behalf that they were away from the horrors of the last two days.  He looked at the way the two had curled up together – ‘At least,’ he thought to himself, ‘they have each other.’

He picked at an extra ear of corn he had cooked, and allowed the melancholy of it all to wash over him for a bit.  He wondered how long he would be waiting for Laurel – he hadn’t said where he was going, or when he would return.  Horence did not mind the thought of another day of farm life so much, but he did fear the growing severity of any reprimand.

Horence looked around the room as warm firelight danced on the walls – it felt more like the home it had obviously been for generations, now that the dead had been laid to rest outside its walls, and a proper full day had passed.  He shivered at the eerie feeling that had been present when he first arrived.  There was warmth there again, if only a little.  Three children it seemed were all that was left of the family.  The house would soon sit abandoned, as all the surrounding farms already were.

He again considered the odd mix of rustic, and merely antique.  Though the place was small, there were still well more rooms than Ashtons, and the rafters fitted for sleeping.  The loft of the barn showed signs of this as well.  Perhaps accommodations for migrant farm hands, but some of it showed signs of use to recent to make sense in the drought.

The sound of hooves drew Horence to sit upright, and quickly move to a window.  A tiny glimmer of blue light bobbed up the hill from the main road.  He couldn’t tell if it was Laurel, but he suspect – hoped perhaps more so.  If it wasn’t Laurel, there would likely be much more explaining, and far less leaving.

Horrence opened the door as the horse approached, and watched as Laurel swung down from a saddled horse he did not recognize, a blue orb of light drifting at his side, and reins still grasped in his hand.

“You were gone for more than a day,” Horence said with clear displeasure, “where have you been?”

“I had to take the infant to Highvale – I fear the time involved couldn’t be helped.  They worked miracles on the horse, but even miracles take time,” Laurel grumbled.  “The Matron was kind enough to arrange a temporary exchange instead.  I took my time on the return, as this horse is not of the same caliber, and will need it’s strength to pull the coach tomorrow.”

“The Sisterhood?” Horence asked with some surprise, “that seems a bit extreme.”

“The boy’s condition left no other real option.  His mother’s death left him a danger to those not competent with living energies, and would you have had me subject the poor boy to Clarions?”  Laurel asked as he stopped before the door step.

“I suppose not,” Horence agreed.  He stepped out, and closed the door less their continued conversation wake the girls.  “The mother’s name was Meliae Ashton,” he said pointedly, “their grandmother was something of a hero.”

“So I learned – after a fashion – on my way back up through Minterbrook.” Laurel nodded.  “Are all matters attended to here?  I wish to leave at first light.”

“Everything is fine,” Horence reported, “the girls are fed, and asleep, and the animals have been tended to.”

“Good,” Laurel said reaching up, and grabbing hold of the light that hovered near him, he held it out before him, and spoke a bit distractedly for a moment.  “I’ve no illusions we will make it back before the morning after next, but we’ll see how we fair by Silverbrook.”  He let the light go, and it drifted to hover close to Horence instead.  “Now if you would,” he asked kindly, but with more than a hint of an order, “find a place to tie the horse for the night, and give it some feed.  I see there is a warm fire in there, and I can only assume some where I might lay down.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 9th, 636 E.R.

With the morning light, and scarcely after a rooster’s crow Horence and Laurel ushered two small girls into a coach, still wrapped in blankets.  They fit the harness to the new horse, and began the trek south.  They stopped in Minterbrook for breakfast, supplies, and to see if anything else had been remembered.  The account Laurel had heard the previous day was the extent anyone had to say on the girls.

From Minterbrook it was ten miles up the Senal Valley to the Midrook, and the expansive sight of its ruined wall.  This prompted what felt like hours of questions from the twins.  After this they insisted on sitting at the front of the coach for a better view.  Very little of Midrook was seen closely, for as Laurel explained it was once the largest city of Avrale, and in a terrible war the wall fell, and the central city was razed.

Though centuries had crept the edges of of the divided townships back towards the road, only a few buildings dotted the main course, and were mainly for the benefit of travelers.  Midrook tower had been spared in the war, but was a spec above the western end of the wall.  Horence explained that the slow recovery of the central city was partly superstition – that there was something tainted about the obsidian left by dragon fire.  This spawned even more questions about dragons.

The Twin Sisters, the high peaks that framed the main pass caused a stir, particularly by their title.  Kiannae claimed the eastern peak Saeah, and Katrisha the western peak of Navi.  Laurel found it curious how easily they came to the arrangement with no argument on the point.  Something struck him, like a notion of things yet to be, and he frowned, and set all further thought of it aside.

They made good time to an inn that stood by itself at a crossroads in the high pass, not far down the southern slope.  It was well before night fall, but the second horse showed signs of exhaustion, and with little debate it was decided to stay the night.

Late that evening the twins were restless, and full of questions they continually pressed any moment they were not sulking.  Eventually Laurel retired to his own room in frustration, leaving Horence to finish explaining the name Silvercreek.  It seemed easy enough at first, that the town was named for the creek, and the creek for flecks of silver found in the water.

Where the whole process of explaining began to go sideways was the revelation that the flecks of silver were from the glacier scraping away at silver veins beneath.  A bit of trivia Horence was somewhat surprised he recalled, but he did not particularly understand the mechanics of glaciers, and managed to deflect further questions with the detail that Silvercreek proper was built around the mines, and as such was an entire town beneath a glacier.  Which required explaining how that worked, if glaciers moved, and the wards that melted the oncoming ice, and a number of other things he did not grasp any better than how glaciers operated in the first place.

Horence fell asleep in the end before the twins, who eventually curled up to him, and slept as well.  He had been quietly plotting some form of revenge when he drifted off.  Something to do to Laurel for abandoning him to the fate of designated explainer.  He failed to think of any that he would be able to get away with, but relished the thought of a number of the ones he couldn’t before letting them go.

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Chapter 3

High atop that Broken Hill,
‘bove shining waters calm ‘n still,
strong noble walls there defend,
lines of kings of varied kin,

‘n though lineages were broken,
of all the same shall be spoken,
fair ‘n true rulers be they all,
O’ venerable keepers of Avrale.

– old folk song of Avrale, circa 300 E.R.

The Castle on the Broken Hill

Jovan 10th, 636 E.R.

From daybreak it was a quiet five hours from the High Pass Lodge to the village of Brokhal.  It was a large village, sprawled lazily across a broad deep valley basin.  Brokhal would not at a glance be mistaken for a capital city, though it was. What it lacked in density, or elaborate architecture typical of such places, it made up for in sheer land area, and a serene meandering quality not easily gaged from the main road.  Not that any of the four travelers were looking.  Laurel and Horence were well acquainted with the sight, and the twins for the most part slept.  Permitting those hours to be quiet.

Laurel had worried when the girls again insisted to sit on the front of the coach, and had attempted himself to slip into the back.  He thought better of it after a very cross look from Horence, and sat instead opposite him with the twins nestled between.  To their mutual relief the two had huddled up together, and promptly returned to slumber.  

At some point the pair shifted, and Katrisha’s head wound up against Laurel’s arm, and subsequently she had claimed it with a tight embrace, her sister in turn clinging to her.  Laurel had smiled at the pair, and apologized to Horence for having left him to their pestering the prior evening.  Horence had smirked in a somewhat concerning manner, and said it was “all right” in a weighted tone.  He had finally thought of his revenge.

Thick mists hung above the village in spite of the late hour of the morning, and Laurel was quite aware as Katrisha woke, and began to look about curiously.  Her attention was fleeting, so many things were new to her; the bustling people in the street, moving quickly from the path of an oncoming coach.  The large shops, and town homes of the village.  Even the mist that rolled lazily over the rooftops was a strange, exotic creature for a girl that had spent her scarce few years in the drought gripped north.

The buildings of Brokal were a far cry from the almost vacant village where she had found Laurel, or the small lodge near Silverbrook.  Midrook’s buildings were comparable, perhaps grander, but this was not evident from barren track of the main road.  Katrisha would not have begun to fathom the idea that many found Brokal a tragically humble place – given its role in the larger scheme of things.

There was however good reason for this.  While it lay very near the seat of royal power in the land, and along a marginal trade route, it had little else of great significance to offer.  Most who lived there thought it struck a good balance between rural and city life, and were content enough to bear the scorn that came with being quaint.

The distance Katrisha had walked had seemed forever, endless, and yet with the ease of a coach and horses, in little over a day she had been carried farther from home that she had ever imagined existed.  For even if she had been told a few tales of long ago, and far away, she had perspective on neither, and barely an inkling even then.  Vast distances were pushed from Katrisha’s thoughts again by the faces, and the curious glances of strangers.  Most wore indifferent or inconvenienced expressions, but a few seemed to look up inquisitively, with the same look of what she correctly guessed was recognition.

This struck Katrisha oddly, but was quickly forgotten as the coach rounded a corner, and passed from under a bank of rising fog.  She shot upright in surprise, startling her sister awake.  Kiannae rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked at her sister with mild consternation, only to follow her transfixed gaze into the distance.

Above the still broad waters of a steaming lake rose imposing sheer cliffs.  There top by gray stone walls, framed by lofty towers, one taller than all the rest.  Laurel looked down at the two awestruck girls and smiled.

“It is an impressive sight isn’t? I’ve seen many wonders in all my travels 0 and perhaps this pales to some – but I’ve always had a fondness for the simple majesty of the castle on Broken Hill.  I’ve been proud to live here for many years, and I hope you will find it a pleasant home as well.”

The girls looked up at Laurel in disbelief.  He had quite intentionally failed to mention certain key details of their destination.  He had told Horence as well to hold his tongue, a request the man had thought strange until around the thirtieth inane excited question of the previous day.  Laurel smiled and ruffled the girl’s hair each in turn, and they looked back to the towering sight before them.  He was glad to see them excited, distracted from grief, but of equal importance to him that moment, stunned into further silence.

The coach rolled on down the road towards the lake shore, and over a small bridge across a river feeding the north end.   The road wound along the base of the great hill, till the cliffs, and walls disappeared from view, but the tallest of the towers could always be seen, save briefly in the shadow of tall groves of trees.

Eventually the road rose higher, and snaked slowly upwards till the hill’s slope grew more level.  There trees gave way to manor houses, stables, and small fields.  A man herding sheep on horseback stopped, and noticeably stared at the coach as it passed.  Soon two armored men approached on adorned horses, and moved to each side of the cart.  A moment passed without a word before the tallest, and most well adorned man spoke from the back of his white steed, “Your quick return is unexpected, Laurel…Horence.”

Horence avoided the gaze of his superior, and remained quiet.  He reconsidered his choice the previous morning.  That he didn’t try the poor old donkey at the farm as a means to continue on to the border.  Though there was no reason for him to go without Laurel.

“There was an unfortunate turn of events Arlen,” Laurel said calmly, though Horence thought perhaps he heard something annoyed in the way the Knight Commander’s name was said, “and more pressing matters have brought me back.”  Laurel glanced informatively down at the two little girls.  “I think the King will be most understanding, under the circumstances.”

Arlen looked the two in the middle over.  He had noticed them, made note of them curiously, but mostly ignored them to that point.  He was notably unimpressed by the look of them.  Katrisha and Kiannae each glanced only fleetingly at the middle aged man, and as small children are apt to do, immediately decided they did not like him.  This made the unspoken opinions of those on the coach unanimous.

The procession passed beneath the castle gate together, and into the lower courtyard.  Stables and servant quarters lined the walls, and people moved about on their daily business.  Many stopped briefly on recognizing the two men on the coach, then hurried on at even the slightest glance from the Knight Commander.

Laurel halted the coach as stable hands gathered round.  He stepped down as the two knights that had come out to greet them dismounted in turn.  He offered a hand to Katrisha who crawled from the blanket she and her sister were wrapped in.  The knight’s horses were lead away as Horence got down, and helped Kiannae to the ground as well.  Arlen ordered his companion back to the wall, and then lead the way up the stairs to the upper court.  Horence and Laurel each took a girl in their arms to spare the time and effort of the two climbing the many steps.

At the top of the stairs three well dressed women sat beneath a gazebo overlooking the lower court, and regarded the group with great interest.  Horence nodded to the ladies as he set Kiannae down at the top of the stairs.  The shortest of the ladies smiled at him warmly, and brushed back a strand of her red hair.  The tallest, and eldest woman in the middle spoke, “What poor wild creatures do we have here?”

Laurel turned and regarded the three ladies passingly.  “They will be introduced to the court shortly, if you wish to come and observe, Lady Catherine.”

Catherine gave Laurel an odd look with the slightest hint of indignance, and stood, her two companions moving in step.  “Yes, I think we shall,” she said coldly.

Catherine followed several paces behind the group as they crossed the upper courtyard.  Her companions were closely in tow behind her as she chose to walk right around the fountain, and the others went left.  I was somewhat remarkable that Catherine herself did not seem to have rushed at all, and yet had managed enough haste that the two groups met equally at the opposite end.

Arlen nodded to the ladies a bit tersely, and gestured on.  Catherine nodded in kind, with a certain air that said she had shown them all their place, and moved towards the keep.  Of the ladies only the red haired woman at the rear seemed at all bashful about the exchange, and a bit rushed to keep up.

Guards opened large wooden doors that lead into a wide corridor that lined the front of the main keep.  Another door stood opposite, and upon seeing the procession the guards standing to each side opened it as well.

The ladies and Arlen filed off to opposite sides of the hall a short distance from the dais.  People shuffled to give Arlen and Catherine a good deal of space, though little difference was given to Catherine’s two companions.   Laurel, Horence, and the two girls continued towards the throne.

The King and Queen looked up from the regally dressed man who had been speaking, and considered the new arrivals.  The King gestured for the petitioner to step aside, and make way.  He did with only the slightest hint of displeasure, considering the new arrivals with curiosity that slowly melted his expression to one of interest, as much as dissatisfaction.

As the base of the dais cleared Laurel stepped up to it and bowed.  He waited what might have seemed a bit long for those not familiar with court proceedings, and then the reason became more clear.

“The court recognizes Court Mage Laurel Grey,” the herald announced in a perplexed tone, having come back to his senses.

“A very proper bow for such an improper return,” the King remarked as he leaned forward, and focused on the two girls that now stood at either side of Horence, each clinging to a leg.  “We did not expect to see you again for at least two weeks.  What strange state of affairs has returned you to court so soon?”

“A tragedy I fear your Majesty,” Laurel said looking up as he began to speak.  “You surely recall Adel Ashton, the hero of the north.”  Laurel himself had only quite recently learned the name, though he believed he had heard it before in passing.  It however did something for his at times dubious air of authority, to speak as though he knew everything.  The King of course was expected to know such things, and for Laurel it was a win either way the King’s memory swayed.

“Of course,” the King said in a matter of fact tone, though with a breath of hesitation as he searched his memory.  “We were there when the Elder King honored her posthumously, though We have not heard the Ashton name in…” he paused thoughtfully.  “There was mention that the man and his daughter had remained last year when place was offered for them in the south.”

“I fear the honor bestowed upon the Ashtons at their farm has seen more occupants this year,” Laurel said taking on a dire tone.  “Of those we knew, two more have passed from this world.”  He paused as a murmur passed through the sides of the court.  A rough looking man in none the less fine clothes took off his hat, and lowered his head somberly.  Horence recognized him as the elected representatives for the displaced northern farmers.

The King’s face grew more firm.  “This is troubling news on such a fine morning.  What has happened?”

Laurel turned and nodded at Horence who brought the two girls forward before the King, and Queen who each regarded them with curious scrutiny.  Their clothes were very simple, and though they had been cleaned up from the previous days it was most unusual for such underdressed, or young children to stand before the King at court.  They moved to hide in the folds of Laurel’s robes, trying to escape the intrusive gaze of strangers, which they were most unaccustomed to.  They had always been told to stay out of sight when visitors came to the farm.

Laurel gave a moment and then spoke again, “Not all of the details are clear, but this much we know.  Earlier this year James Ashton passed, but Meliae, his daughter, continued on at the farm in his stead.  Without her father, or it would seem the father of her children at her side.  The young Meliae died after bearing her third.”

The King considered his questions for a moment.  “And what has become of the third?  You said two Ashtons are no longer with us, not three.”

Laurel nodded.  “Astute my King. The woman Meliae it seems had the gift, and though untrained was able to give greatly of herself to sustain her weak newborn.  The result was tragic, though the boy lives, the mother does not.  I have left him in the care of the Lycian Sisters, for fear only they could properly handle his condition.”

Fresh murmurs washed over the court as the King sat back in his throne, and stroked his beard thoughtfully.  After a moment he leaned forward again, and considered the two scared little green eyed girls who peered up at him, half hidden behind Laurel’s robes.  “We assume that these two have been brought before us with a request, that something is to be bestowed upon them?  Surely they do deserve better as the descendants of a hero than to be relegated to an orphanage.”

Laurel gave the King’s words a moment, and then spoke plainly.  “These girls, as their mother, have the gift.  Their potential is not insignificant, and I wish permission to raise them here at court, and train them to be mages.”

The King leaned back and pondered at length.  “An unusual, but not unreasonable request – though I do worry how much of a drain upon your time they might be.”

“A wise concern of course,” Laurel nodded his understanding.  “Though there are personal resources at my disposal, at times there may be need of assistance from the court.”

The King thought for bit.  “Given the circumstances We are inclined to oblige.  Though We know nothing of the trouble young mages might be, to have more full grown at court could be desirable – a privilege so far from Mordove these days – though a tricky one.  What of the Council?”

Laurel bowed deeply in appreciation, and spoke humbly, “At your will my King.  I know the treaties well, adopted as my daughters the council can have no official quarrel.  I thank you for this indulgence, and for the girl’s sakes.”

“So long as it is more your indulgence, than the courts, it is We who will thank you,” the King intoned such that it was hard to tell if it was more a warning, or a matter of respect for Laurel’s generosity in tanking them in.

Laurel nodded.

The Queen then leaned forward, watching to be sure it was apparent to all she intended to speak.  “Before you usher them away to begin some arcane study or another, We think they should be dressed more appropriately for members of the court,” she began sternly.  “The royal handmaidens shall attend to them, surely there are some clothes fit for young girls to be found.  I believe young Princess Maraline has outgrown a few.”  She motioned for her attendants, four of whom emerged from behind the crowds at each side of the dais, and approached the girls who hid more deeply in Laurel’s robes, and then inched backwards towards Horence.

Laurel tried to turn as he felt the girls shift behind him, but found the attempt awkward at best, and clumsy more so with his robe firmly in their grasp.  Horence knelt down and regarded each girl in turn with a steady kind gaze, and then up at the approaching ladies.

Laurel shuffled around in as dignified a manner as one can when two children are clinging to your clothing, but soon realized Horence had the matter well in hand.

“Go with these nice women,” Horence said with a reassuring nod.  “They will give you baths, and some pretty new clothes.  Everything will be fine.”

Katrisha bit her lower lip as she looked at Horence intently, then to her sister.  Kiannae hesitated, and then nodded.  They both let go of Laurel and were lead swiftly away through the parting crowd.

Laurel’s attempts to face the girls had left him standing a bit to the side, and most of this exchange was observed by the Queen, who leaned back thoughtfully.  She decided she would do well to have a word with Arlen, to insure who would bear the brunt of any extra care the girls needed in Laurel’s inevitable absences.  It was not precisely that the Queen did not trust the man she knew to be Laurel’s intended second, more it was that she trusted him in a very particular kind of way.

The Queen was not the only member of court who had keenly observed how Horence had handled the girls.  A lovely young woman who stood at Lady Catherine’s side, had also watched with a different sort of interest.  She brushed aside a perpetually unruly – to the point of seeming intentional – lock of red hair, and smiled just long enough to be sure he had seen her do so.  He bowed to the King, and nodded to the lady before following Laurel’s lead, and made himself scarce so that normal proceedings could resume.

The lead handmaid moved a curtain aside, revealing a door into the Queen’s antechamber, and on into royal complex that dominated the west wall of the castle.  The girls were lead down a well adorned corridor, and up a flight of stairs.  At last they came to a large double door, not so grand as the throne room’s, but larger than any they had passed along the way.

The door opened quite curiously onto a wall, set back a few feet from the entrance.  Both girls boggled at this rather incongruous discovery for a moment, and even as they tried in unison to ask  “Why…” they were pressed on ahead, and around the offending wall which served to obscure the room from any prying eyes that might pass.

Within lay a large U shaped basin that wrapped around the majority of the room, with tall columns laid evenly along its arc, and gentle steps descending into it.  Green leaved vines covered trellises on the walls, around flowing water showers that fell in perfect unbroken curtains feeding the pool.  A small stone bridge crossed the middle of the arc, and at the far end of the room amidst huge flowering potted plants sat a massive porcelain tub, laid before a broad stained glass window.  Clear central panels would give the occupant of that tub an unobstructed view of the distant valley below.

The girls were awestruck, and barely noticed the women moving quietly around them.  Two that had removed their own fine outer garments already knelt, and stripped the girls without effort or ceremony.  They then lead them into the shallow, gently flowing water at the pool’s edge.  The twins were urged to sit, and resisted only very slightly.  Soaps were brought by a third woman who remained fully dressed.

The smell of lavender and vanilla filled the air as soap was lathered, and a pitcher was dipped into the flowing water.  Glimmering runes could be seen beneath the rippling surface, and Katrisha wanted to move closer, fascinated by the pale blue light.  Before she could investigate however her head was pulled back, and water poured over her hair, and a moment later over the rest of her.

The fragrance of the soap grew stronger as hands worked through Katrisha’s hair, and massaged her scalp.  She glanced over at her sister who wrinkled her nose as a trickle ran down her face.  Katrisha smiled, laughed, and then squinted as she felt soapy water creeping down her own forehead.

The women washing them would occasionally lean close and whisper into each other’s ears conspiratorially, not quite loud enough for either girl to make out.  It seemed quite infuriatingly intentional, as curiosity begged to know what they were saying.  Particularly after any well restrained titter.

The head handmaiden, who had left in search of clothes returned, and conversed in similar private fashion with the fourth, who had gathered large towels that were draped over her arms.  The towel bearer stepped forward as insistent scrubbing changed to multiple pitchers of water being poured over the girls to notable protest.

The girls were lead up from the waters, and great warm towels wrapped around them from head to toe.  When at last their faces emerged they were presented with two lacy multi layered dresses, about a size too big for them.  There was another whisper from one of the handmaidens addressed to their leader, who seemed too busy showing the dresses to be cautious, and simply said, “Darion insisted.”

Katrisha was distracted by having finally heard something – which she then decided had been meaningless – and Kiannae picked first, pointing to the green one.  This left the pale blue for Katrisha, who decided she would have prefered it anyway.  Brushes were run through their dark hair, catching on small knots, and drawing yelps of protest.  Once their hair was passably straightened the dresses were put on over the girl’s heads, and the handmaid’s considered their work, as the two who had bathed them finished redressing.

The head handmaid took a pin from her hair, allowing a bit to fall free in a still dignified manner, and grabbed one without asking from her closest companion, who shot her a dirty look.  She bundled each girl’s hair up at the backs of their heads, cocked her head to the side and nodded approvingly at the results.

A tiny rumble from Katrisha’s belly drew a quick exchange of glances between the women – some quite amused – and they promptly lead the girls from the great bath, and back down stairs.  They crossed the corridor at a bit of an angle to another door, which opened onto a great hall dominated by long tables laid end to end, and many chairs.

A high ceiling rose above with chandeliers dangling from broad rafters.  Light streamed down through skylights high above, and an old woman in the gallery overhead paused in her cleaning to watch the procession as they left the grand dining hall, and entered the kitchen.

Staff worked to clean dishes, and a tall slender man in a puffy white hat adorned pastries carefully at a central work space.  He turned to consider the Queen’s handmaids coldly, and looked down at the two small girls they surrounded with some confusion.  Their leader moved quickly to the man’s side and whispered in his ear.  His expression softened.  “Of course Lady Marian,” he said with a hint of a sigh, and gestured for one of his subordinates to come closer.

More whispering transpired as the girls watched the curious exchange.  Suddenly the young kitchen attendant grabbed a large platter, and scurried to a huge wooden door which he opened only a crack, and disappeared behind.

Marian returned and ushered the girls to a small table in the corner of the kitchen, situated beside the mysterious door from which a chill could be felt.  She dismissed the others with a wave, and leaned down to help the girls up onto tall stools.

Through the large door to was still open the girls could see the apron clad servant scurrying in and out of view, the platter he had taken rested on one hand.  At last he emerged, pushing the heavy wooden door open with his shoulder, stepped around and leaned back against it to close it firmly.  With less haste he strode towards the table the girls sat beside, and set the platter before them with a bow.

The girls looked hungrily at the array of meats, cheeses, and small pieces of bread set before them.  The servant smiled, and nodded to Marian who considered him in a not altogether aloof manner.  However before he could properly read the woman’s demeanor he fled at a sideways glance from the kitchen’s master.

Indecision quickly was overcome by hunger, and the girls each grabbed randomly, nibbling at the pieces individually with no mind to try and put them together.  Some drew delighted little sounds, while others resulted in wrinkled noses.  As each was on about their sixth piece the servant breezed by again, setting small metal cups before the girls, each filled with fresh cider.

As though not to be upstaged by a subordinate in the service of the honored young guests – or before the Queen’s chief handmaiden – the head chef set a fresh pastry before each girl causing their eyes to go wide.  The man nodded to the Lady who smiled at him slightly, and he returned to his work.

As the girls ate their pasty with great delight their attention began to wander to their surroundings, to hanging pots and pans, racks, knives, and chopping blocks.  They could recognize most of the parts from home, and watching their mother cook, but at such scale and quantity they were bewildered.  They had seen all the people in the throne room however, surely they all needed to eat, so a kitchen that vast made some sense to them, even if they could not imagine so much food.

Their eyes were drawn particularly to faint glowing runes on the bottom of every pot and pan, and similar forms that glowed dimly on counter surfaces.  There were no obvious stoves, or fires for cooking, which puzzled them.  Their pastries picked apart, and finished the girls nibbled at more of the meat and cheese from the platter, though with less excitement as they began to grow full, and ran out of the ones they liked.

Kiannae was the first to notice as Laurel entered the kitchen, and dropped from her chair, catching Her sister’s attention, who quickly followed behind.  The two wove between counters, and  pounced onto Laurel’s robes, slightly teetering him.  Marian walked gracefully up to Laurel and considered the girls clinging to him.  “You seem to have made an impression,” she remarked breaking her near silence to that point.

“I guess all levels of familiarity are relative,” Laurel said patting each girl on the head in turn.  “Had Horence been at my side I might suspect the girls would accost him instead, as he has spent more time with them to date.”

Marian repressed a laugh.  “The day I see a woman, or girl, of any age pounce upon Horence with such intensity, is the day I check to see the sun still rises.”

“You judge the man far too poorly, Marian,” Laurel chided.  “He is of good heart, and strong sinew.”

“This may be, I do not deny,” Marian said regarding Laurel shrewdly. “Yet I stand by my assertion as to the level of excitement inspired.”

“Perhaps,” Laurel said playing along, “yet to all their own tastes I suppose.  Surely should he have a daughter she might love him so, and so too perhaps a good wife, who knows him for better virtues than the most superficial.”

“Hmph,” Marian dissented.  “Yes, perhaps as well.  I shall leave you to your little lasses, and return to my Queen’s side.”

Laurel looked down at the girls clinging to him, and gingerly took a step forward until they moved in tow, still loosely hanging onto his robes.  He walked to where they had been seated, and took some of the leftovers, drawing a displeased look from the cook.  He shrugged as if to say, ‘it was there.’  The cook said nothing, it was not quite his place to protest, as much as he felt it should be.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood in quiet meditation, leaned against the curved wall of a large tower chamber.  He opened his eyes now and then to make sure the two girls still sat in one of the three window seats.  He was glad that for the moment they seemed transfixed by the spectacle of looking down on the valley below.  He had no illusions this distraction would last even the remainder of the day – or hour – and considered that amidst the myriad responsibilities he had taken on he would also need to insure the girls remained reasonably entertained.

Laurel became keenly aware of how little thought he had ever put into rearing children.  It wasn’t something that had ever seemed to be in his plans, much to his parents dismay.  He hadn’t thought the arrangement through beyond the horizon – at every turn it had simply been a matter of the right and practical thing to do.

He allowed himself some solace in the idea that he could get some help from the royal tutors with raw academics.  Then there was Mercu, surely his flair for drama, art, and all things unconventional would help.  ‘Thank the merciful fates for Mercu,’ he mused.

Almost as if summoned, a familiar voice chimed in at the open door.  “To say that I was surprised to hear you had returned so suddenly, would be an indifferent misstatement of the truth.”  His presence had snuck up on him, a thing like a gentle yet intemperate breeze, easily missed till it was upon you.  Oddly soothing once it was.

Laurel turned to regard the thin well dressed man that stood at the chamber door.  His feathered cap was ever so slightly, and intentionally askew atop a sweep of hazel hair, that might have shown the first strands of gray.  He had the look of a man that took great pains to insure he appeared to have given it no thought at all.

“You of all people,” he started with mild amusement, “should appreciate the unexpected, dramatic turns of life.”

Mercu considered a dusty old chair that had been left sitting by the door.  He tilted it, turned it, patted the seat, and waved away a cloud of dust futilely before sitting down.  “Appreciation for such twists does not necessarily make them any less unexpected.  When I first heard from a fellow patron in a shop down in the village, that he had seen the Court Mage coming back through town today, I brushed it off as a mistake.”

He looked to the window seat where two sets of curious green eyes were focused upon him.  “When however I overheard a mildly inebriated young soldier in a tavern speaking of two little girls introduced – most under dressed – at court by same said mage, then I knew investigation was in order.”

Before Laurel could make a retort, two servants entered, a huge down bed sac carried awkwardly between them.  The leading servant looked to Laurel as if for direction, who simply shrugged, then gestured to beneath one of the windows.

Ignoring the interruption, Mercu continued his little rant. “Now, if all these strange affairs were not enough, upon arriving at the castle, and while passing through the upper court I witnessed something to make me question if I still resided in the same world I woke up to this morning.  For there, amidst no less than five charming young women stood Horence, who seemed to have their full and quite undivided attention.  I do not think even one noticed me bow as I passed.”

Laurel scoffed as the two servants extracted themselves quickly.  “You are as terrible as Marian.”

“Oh, and now you are flattering me,” Mercu shot back.  “To be compared to lovely Marian, however chidingly.  Truly I have indeed stepped foot into some other realm, perhaps not entirely unlike my own, yet so keenly different all the same.”

The girls, disinterested in the exchange of the two adults had jumped into the soft recesses of the great down filled sac, and rolled about giggling.  Drawing the gaze of both their elders, and distracting them from their own fun.

“So tell me please,” Mercu continued, looking back to Laurel, “what in the King’s name is going on around here?”

Laurel sighed and moved to close the chamber door.  He leaned back against it, insuring for the moment at least there would be no more sudden intrusions.  “Some of what I am about to tell you,” he started in a cautioning tone, “I have yet to tell the King.  I did not wish to announce every detail in open court.”

Mercu simply nodded his understanding.

“While I did not really know the story of Adel Ashton until quite recently, I assume you are well versed?” Laurel continued questioningly.

Mercu thought for a moment.  “Yes, yes.  Hero of the north, farmer’s wife.  She tried to fight off an immature black drake with a pitchfork, and did better than most knights probably would have with a sword.  Died for her troubles though, leaving her husband and daughter.  Though the tales say the daughter probably would not have survived otherwise.”

“Well those two over there”, Laurel intoned, his inflection implying disapproval of Mercu’s callous version of events, “are her granddaughters.”

“Oh,” Mercu said, and then frowned.  “Why do I feel there is more tragedy to be added to that family line?”

“I fear so.”  Laurel sighed.  “Their grandfather died sometime earlier in the year, and according to their limited account, I do not believe of natural causes.  In the same incident their father I believe was taken back by force to his people, and the mother’s fate is even more grim.”

“Dare I ask either what you mean by ‘his people,’ or what could be ‘more grim’ than death, or abduction?” Mercu prodded with morbid curiosity.

“I am quite certain the father was Sylvan,” Laurel paused for effect and watched Mercu’s expression shift.  “Based largely on a mixture of circumstantial statements, and the girl’s eyes and ears.  As to the mother, she had the gift, but was never trained, or trained properly.  Her efforts to save her newborn were…catastrophic.”  He glanced to the twins who did not seem to be listening, to his relief.

Mercu was obviously mortified at the thought, but found the presence of mind to ask, “Did the child live?”

“Yes,” Laurel said obviously clinging to one of the few positive details of the story.  “Mercifully we found the boy in time, thanks in large to the bravery of those two little heroes over there.  Katrisha walked a good ten miles, half of it alone when her sister sprained her ankle.  She stumbled upon me in Minterbrook, almost delirious, and quite dehydrated.”

Mercu glanced over at the girls who were now peaking over mounds of down bedding.  He simply shook his head for a moment, and then moved on to something less dire.  “How ever do you tell them apart?”

“If I try quite hard I think I can tell them apart by their auras,” Laurel paused, considering for a moment, “I would not however stake my life, or anything else of notable value upon it.  Further telling them apart, and which is which are not quite the same thing.  Still the different dresses help, but that’s hardly reliable.”

Mercu leaned the old chair he sat in back against the wall, and sighed. “Well, certainly I understand a great deal more.  I will even wager a guess as to why Horence was so accosted by fine young maidens – he has the gossip to share.  Good for him, the boy deserves a break.”

Laurel rolled his eyes.  “You did not ask however why they are here in the tower,” he prodded trying to catch Mercu in having not thought something through.

Mercu perked a brow.  “Oh that part seemed painfully obvious with the rest.  Mother had the gift, you plan to teach them to use it.  I know all too well – you remember – how these things work.  Try as I may, I’ll never be a mage, wasn’t born with it, largely because in turn neither of my parents were.”

Mercu sighed, and leaned the chair forward with a creak, and a thud.  “I also won’t pretend I’m happy about the obvious implication you expect me to help, or you damn well better.  Those girls need more in their heads than academics, and you dear sir are not the one to teach things such as art, poetry, or music.”

“Why no,” Laurel said in a sarcastic tone, “it had not crossed my mind.  However since you offer – accepted.”

Mercu scoffed.  “Fine.  Settled.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 13th, 636 E.R.

There had been some debate if the young twins were ready to sit at a royal table, and Mercu had been on the dubious side.  He tested their etiquette at a few private dinners, and decided that it was reasonable enough, if lacking in any semblance of refinement.  They were tame at the dinner table, and so he made the case to include them at evening meals.

The cost of this consideration displaced Mercu from a more favorable place at the table, and often with company he was less fond of.  That evening he found himself across from Arlen, and his son Charles.  The boy had arrived seeming sweet enough the year before – his mother’s influence Mercu was sure – but was slowly adapting to the disposition of his father.

Mercu helped Kiannae into her seat, and noted that Charles was conversing with Prince Philip to his right, and did not look away until chastised by his father for speaking at all.  Kiannae seemed simply transfixed by everything, and oblivious to any one person.  Neither child seem to have any interest in the other, which Mercu decided was by far for the best.

He helped Katrisha into her seat next, and she waved slightly to the prince across from her.  Mercu gently urged her hand down, but there seemed no harm as Philip smiled cordially.  Mercu then moved to his own seat, and exchanged less than pleasant nods of recognition with Arlen.

“Hello,” said the girl to Katrisha’s left, and she looked up at her.  She was about four years older, and at that age much larger than Katrisha, though her more upright posture exaggerated the perception.  “My name is Princess Maraline,” the girl introduced herself, brushing back an auburn lock of hair.  “You must be either Katrisha, or Kiannae,” she offered with a nod.

“Kat,” Katrisha said.

“A pleasure to finally meet you,” Maraline nodded.  “Though I do believe I’ve seen you about.  Are my old dresses treating you both well?”  She asked, glancing to Kiannae who noticed she was being spoken to, and nodded.

“Yes, thank you,” Katrisha said.

“That’s good.”  Maraline smiled.  “Mother says the moths would surely have gotten them soon, and I do remember being fond of them once.  They look good on you both, if a bit big, I’m sure you will grow into them.”

“I don’t mind,” Kiannae said.

“They have both been grateful,” Mercu offered.  “I think though they are obsessed with getting robes like Laurel’s.”

“Why would you want stuffy things like that?” Maraline asked.  “Dresses are so much prettier.”

Katrisha shrugged.

“I think robes look nice,” Kiannae offered.

“I hear Laurel is off again?” Arlen asked from across the table, if for no other reason than to talk over the chatty children.  “Now that unfortunate delays have been dealt with.”

“Left this morning, yes,” Mercu answered.

“Wards or not, I feel like we should certainly restore Andersted,” he said grimly.  “It simply is not good that we have left the border there so unguarded.”

“Andersted?” Mercu said curiously.  “Is that the name of that old ruin?  I thought it was Ashrook.”

“Both,” Arlen seemed unamused.  “It was renamed for some northerner back during the late Empire.  Not even a proper rook really, just an over glorified barracks on a hill.  At its height there was a small village around it.  I guess there still is, if you can even call it that.  Most locals call it Anders, though that ruin goes by either name.  It is where Armon and his son herald from.”

“And the northerner?” Mercu pressed curiously.

“Gifted of course, cropped up on some farmland.  Received a duchy to legitimize his marriage to a princess that fancied him.  The area was such a backwater, caught between Osyraen aggression, and Avrale proper since…always really.”

“Why was the duchy never restored?” Mercu asked curious of a new take on the matter.  He had heard vague versions of the tale before, but there seemed new details to be had.

“Ashton lost his wife and heirs in the war, but lived on himself.  He returned to the farmland of his birth, and married some common woman.  Which he should have done to begin with.  He had the audacity however to leave it all to common people, and the king of the day permitted it.  Or was it Queen…I’ll admit I’m fuzzy who had authority at the time.  The recovery after the war was so chaotic.  Such a mess, but they managed tolerably I suppose.  Eaking out a living without any proper governance.”

“His name was Ashton you say?” Mercu pressed.

“Yes,” Arlen said with some displeasure.  “It is more than possible that the name passed down, or it was just the name of the people in that area.  He came from there after all.”

“Are you talking about us?” Kiannae asked.

“Your ancestors possibly,” Mercu said.

“An…cestors?” Katrisha asked a bit bemused.

“Your father’s father’s,” Maraline offered helpfully.

“Our father came from the forest,” Kiannae offered.

Arlen gave Mercu a curious look, and Mercu was shrewd.  “It is a suspicion.  We are being quiet about it.”

Arlen nodded, but Mercu did not like the attitude of it at all.

“A Sylvan?” Maraline asked with rapt curiosity.

“Grandfather called him that sometimes,” Katrisha said.  “Only when they fought though.”

“How curious,” Maraline said, as food began to arrive.

Mercu was glad of the distraction, though the damage was mostly done.  Still, he had his own curious avenues to explore from it, and was thoughtful for some time.

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Chapter 4

Twas a daughter of moonlight,
a girl born of winter frosts,
to fleet step ‘n quick bow,
a prince’s heart was lost,

she would not have him,
O’ prince of summer glades,
nor Sylvan Lords permit,
such a union to be made…

– Collected Folklore, Book II, Mercu Peregrine 642 E.R.

Lessons & Stories

Once the girls were settled Laurel left again for Nohrook, and the border.  He found his chosen escort had been replaced – with little explanation – by a young fresh faced soldier named Eran.  He felt bad only briefly, that perhaps Horence was being punished for matters beyond his control.  Yet decided not to concern himself too much, as he was quite sure who was responsible for a circulating rumor – technically true – regarding him having spent a night in the company of Lycian Sisters.  Politically inconvenient as such rumors were, there was a certain benefit to them as well.  It all balanced out in the end.  Still, his next sparring match with Horence would be a good opportunity to even the score.

Laurel’s time in the north was uneventful.  The wards spaced along the border gleamed with all the power they had been forged with centuries before.  There were no signs of unusual activity – no artifacts of magical workings.  All was quiet, for the moment, and prepared to give warning should conditions change.

The closest thing to excitement was a day when three scouts of the northern horse tribes trotted along a distant hill, and watched Laurel and Eran for several hours.  Laurel bore them no ill will, for he knew they would suffer first if the worst ever came.

When Laurel returned to the castle he gave himself another week to sort out where to begin, and become better acquainted with his young charges.  He learned that the girls had in fact spent nearly half of his absence in the care of Horence, when Mercu had other more important matters to attend to – excused entirely on the grounds that members of the court were very demanding of his time, and skills with brush and paint.

Laurel had smiled quite in spite of himself to overhear, “He’s even evaded this responsibility without reproach.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 39th, 636 E.R.

Laurel considered his new pupils as they glanced about his vast tower study absently.  It was more library than anything else.  Two tiers of bookshelves lined first the ring of the lower chamber, and the outer walls of the upper.  A few more stood precariously placed above the lower shelves, but appearances aside were quite well secured.

Laurel himself could not name half the books therein, but Mercu had taken stock several times over the past decade.  Though the only tomes that had ever been missing were due to his own absentminded borrowing.

Understandably the girl’s gaze returned repeatedly to the workings of an immense orrery that hung from the rafters high overhead.  It was a strange conglomeration of mechanical, and magical parts whose function and meaning would be lost on most adults.  Even this complex display did little to keep the girl’s attention for long – the slow arcs of its motion too gradual for childlike fascination, but many orders too quick to represent current celestial positions.

Laurel wondered how hard it would be to focus such young children.  He had given the girls time to settle, and mourn.  Not that it could have largely been any other way.  Still he had only the most cursory of plans, gleaned from the faded memories of a childhood long past.

“I had never sought to be a teacher,” he started, “yet twice now in my life it has come to be my fate,” he reflected.  “My choice I suppose, one I have accepted again.”  He watched to be sure he had the girls attention. “You are young, and I have no doubt too young for fancy words, I shall not however speak down to you, you will learn.”

Laurel could tell he had their attention for a moment, but it quickly waned.  “You are though it seems ready enough to learn magic, unusual as that might be for your age,” he said, and saw that he instantly had them focused – though with no illusion it would last.  He put out his hand, and with a wiggle of his fingers a translucent ball of blue light swirled into being, with a pale rune at it’s center.

“The first lesson, is not how to do this, that is a bit of a trick.”  He smiled.  “The first lesson is to learn to touch magic.  It’s not something that can be explained, simply felt and known.”  He leaned down, and stretched out his hand before the girls, offering them the orb.

Kiannae reached out her hand first, and tried to touch the sphere.  It swirled like a mist around her fingers, but at once rolled like it had been nudged.  Perturbed Kiannae reached out with both hands, and tried to grab hold of it.  She frowned as her hands sank into the immaterial form, but just short of giving up in frustration she lifted her hands upward, and it followed, slowly pushing up from her skin.

She could feel it then, lighter than a feather, rested in her hands, and slowly it seemed more solid, but no more heavy.  It really didn’t have a weight precisely, so much as a sense of cold air falling over her skin, a downward pressure more an effect on its surroundings than a property of substance.

“Now hand the ball to your sister,” Laurel said, surprise written plainly across his face, and uneasiness in his voice.  He stood back and watched.  Kiannae scrunched her nose, obviously not ready to give up her pretty new possession, but at last relented, turning to Katrisha who held out her hands expectantly.

As Kiannae let the ball go it drifted downward.  It slowed as it swirled around Katrisha’s hands, and danced over her fingers as has happened to Kiannae before.  Katrisha tried again to catch the ball, still not quite successfully, though it almost stopped for a moment.  She dropped to her knees, and tried a third time before it could disappear into the floor, and though it nearly sank through, it stopped in her hands, and wavered unsteadily as it pushed back up.  “Very good girls,” Laurel said with stern reservation. “I had to try for weeks before I could do the same, and two years older.  I am most impressed.”  He rubbed his forehead.

Kiannae smiled proudly at the praise, and watched as Katrisha held the ball up close to her face to look at the small rune that glowed within.  At first Katrisha just saw the rune’s simple graceful curves, but as she looked closer she saw threads, a web of faint light hidden within the glow of the luminance the spell was meant to provide.  Slowly she saw how the strings radiated outward, forming a swirling latticework, and then into an almost smooth shell that shifted and changed before her, and radiated much of the visible light.

With care Katrisha balanced the ball on one hand, and reached out to touch one of the gossamer filaments, which seemed to twang like a string of the old lute Mercu kept in their chamber.  As one shivered, all vibrated, and like a soap bubble that had been punctured the whole thing popped with a bright flash, and a spattering of twinkling light.  This started Katrisha into stumbling backwards, and she fell on her rear with a look of complete shock on her face.

Laurel simply stared at the girl, as Kiannae grew visibly cross with her sister for breaking the pretty ball.

“That was,” he said trying to compose himself, “very good.  You saw the web of the spell, and touched it.”  He didn’t mention it had taken him a day of careful instruction his first time to even see, let alone touch a single filament of a spell.  Having managed it he wasn’t that surprised she had disrupted it, a simple light orb was not built for stability.

Katrisha smiled proudly, though was still a bit shaken by the sudden burst of light right in her face.  Laurel looked to Kiannae who was looking very agitated, but still stood quietly.

“Here,” he said, and leaned down, reached out his hand to Kiannae, and formed a new orb with less flair than the first.  “See if you can do the same.”

Kiannae did as her sister had, taking the ball and holding it up close.  It took her a moment to see how the threads wove through, and around the rune.  There were two things there she saw, a larger web, and a smaller.  One set of filaments grew bright at the edges of the orb, the other set glowed at the edges of the rune, forming a faint outline, just like the halo of the ball itself.

Balancing the ball on one hand she reached in, and touched not one of the outer filaments, but the inner ones.  The rune flickered, and seemed to come apart like thread unraveling from cloth before the girls’ eyes.  Laurel watched in mild disbelief as the rune disappeared, but the orb remained, though wavering unsteadily.

Kiannae looked frustrated for a moment, sure she hadn’t gotten it right.  Noticing the look on her face however Laurel was quick to reassure her.  “You did well, very well.  Did you see that there were two parts there?” he asked being sure he had witnessed what he thought.

“Yes,” Kiannae said scrunching up her face and looking at the ball in her hand, which finally unraveled from the center out, and whiffed away.  “I saw the middle bit was the same, but…not.”

“Runes are markers, and memory tools, they aren’t strictly needed,” Laurel said with a laugh covering his uncertainty with how to proceed.  He had planned to have a few weeks, even months to think up a proper lesson plan as he got the girls to simply learn to touch and see magic properly. “They just help us remember and keep our place, and recall something common.  They are like names,” he said drawing out a series of glowing runes in the air.  “If I call you Kia, or Ki, as your sister does, Kiannae to be proper, or even little girl to be diminutive.  You are still the same, but others might take a different meaning at my choice.  Further the one I use most often, I will remember more quickly.”

Laurel looked at the girls, and while it seemed he had their attention he was quite sure he’d gone very much too far the other way.  Still he was flustered, and a bit off put by his gifted pupils, so he continued.  “This one here,” he said pushing forward a rune from the line, “it could mean fire, power, light, or anything I chose, though sticking to conventions makes things easier.”

Laurel touched the rune he had pushed forward with the tip of his finger, and it grew brighter, and slowly was enveloped in a fuzzy warm glow, “now it draws power through the Veil from the Aether.”  He drew a circle around the growing light, and it seemed as though the thin filament bound it.  Quickly he moved around the other runes, and drew circles around them, arcs between them, and then connected them to the ring that had become quite brilliant at the center.

Tiny shimmers of light moved along all of the filaments, and at each of the outer runes something different happened.  From one tiny shimmering speckles fell as vapor froze from the air, dust, and some of these crystals were whipped into a swirl amidst another.  From a third a small flame grew, and wavered.  One remained which seemed to do nothing at all, until Laurel picked up, and placed a quill at its center, which hung there and wobbled.

The girls watched the show of light, and power, entertained, but obviously far out of their depth, till at last Laurel simply waved his hand through the middle, and the whole thing whiffed out in quickly fading swirls of dissolving light.  Only the quill remained, which he caught with his other hand.   “That was far over your heads, I know, but you are clever, and observant, I can tell.  Let us go back to our first, lesson, and move on a few steps.”

Laurel sat cross-legged on the floor before the two girls, and drew out a rune in the air.  “The first thing to learn to do, is to form a filament,” Laurel said in his lecturing tone.  “Even when you do not see it, do not think of it any more, filaments are there.  They are the basis of all magic, abundant in nature, and all around us.  You must learn to pull them from the air, to bind many strands together, and form an extension of your own will.”

Laurel began to draw out many runes, arcs, circles, and connecting lines all around him.  He watched as the girls moved their hands as he did to no avail, and then began to prod at the ones he left behind. Sometimes nothing would happen, others came apart when touched too forcefully.  Katrisha was the first to take hold of a filament Laurel had made without breaking it.  It drifted behind her finger like a strand of spider silk caught on the tiniest of breezes, and she quickly became distracted twirling it about.  It began to grow a bit as she went, grew longer, slightly brighter, but eventually dissolved.

Kiannae managed to do the same soon after, but seemed to get less thoroughly distracted by the novelty, and shook the captured strand loose after only a moment.  After a minute or so of trying Kiannae had formed her own, which grew quickly – however her first attempt to let the filament go failed, and it broke apart instantly.  Katrisha seeing her sister’s success frowned, and stopped playing with the filaments Laurel had left behind, and began to try to make her own.

Laurel had stopped the construction of his own intricate web, and simply watched the girls, their progress easily as astounding as before.  After a quarter of an hour the girls were surrounded with crude aimless patterns of light without any real purpose, and Laurel’s work had long since faded away.  “Very good.”  He sighed.  The girls looked at him a bit surprised, and their work instantly came apart.

Laurel reached out both hands, and formed a ball of light in each, almost identical to the ones he had made earlier, but each this time without the rune at it’s center.  Though this took slightly more effort, it was not obvious to an observer.

“Here,” he said leaving them floating before the girls who noticed these did not fall as the others had.  “Try not to break them, but to copy either what you see before you, or what you see me do.”  A small part of Laurel hoped this would stump the girls completely, but he had maddening doubts.

Laurel formed a third orb in his hand slowly.  He made it with care, so that it was possible to see the filaments weave together.  He waited a moment, and with a flick of his wrist it whiffed away.  He did this again, waited, and waved it away.  He repeated this, over, and over again, eventually closing his eyes, and meditating as he continued the task instinctively.

Ever so often Laurel would open his eyes and watch as one of the girls made a sound of amusement or surprise as they made progress.  Kiannae was the first to make an unstable mesh of filaments, which curled, and peeled apart in little spirals even as she tried to stop it.  Katrisha was the first to get a small marble sized orb to form, but it seemed at once too rigid, and too brittle.  It shattered under the slightest strain, and fell away like dust.

After an hour and a half Laurel had to get up, and stretch his legs.  He encouraged the girls to continue as he paced around the room working out the kinks in his back.  He felt like he was missing something, and from some distance back tried to look past the girls attempts, and at the underpinnings.  The subtle details of their work.  Katrisha’s filaments grew almost like crystals, rigid, little spurs fanning out along the lines, angular kinks and jogs.  Kiannae’s seemed similar at first, but on closer examination the forms were smoother, they wove loosely, and coiled off easily in graceful spirals rather than spurs.  The results were so much the same, much like the girls themselves superficially identical, and yet they weren’t.

Kiannae’s giggle of excitement brought his focus back to the wider picture just in time to see her fully formed orb, still half the size of the one hovering before her, but still larger than her tiny hand.  It quickly dissolve as all the others had, to her obvious frustration.  Yet there was something about the way it failed that reminded Laurel of a blooming flower.

“Very good,” Laurel applauded, having gotten over some of his frustration, relieved at having seen something finally take effort for the two of them.  They were still outpacing him, but on this task not quite so wildly.  It had taken him only a day to learn the orb once he had gotten the rest well in hand – though he had watched his parents make countless lights before.  He ignored that detail.

Katrisha managed to do the same as her sister, but was more careful to keep her orb together.  She held it up on one hand, and smiled proudly.  It then came apart with the carelessness display, crumpling under its own rigidity, and turning to a shower of luminous dust.  She frowned obviously disappointed, but Laurel reassured her, “No, no, very good, you almost had it there.  But come you two, let’s go down to the kitchen, and get some food.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Night had fallen, and Mercu had been playing for almost an hour on an old lute with frayed strings.  He watched the girls from the old chair he sat in, as they continued to be engrossed with making the same spheres of light they had practiced all afternoon.  They were getting quite good at the making part, but keeping them together was proving more challenging.

Kiannae had taken up residence on the bed, and Katrisha sat on the floor below her.  Katrisha protested when Mercu suddenly swooped down, and lifted her into bed next to her sister, causing her to lose her concentration.  He quickly pulled the covers over the pair before they could squirm far.  “You two must sleep,” he sighed.  Laurel had made it quite clear he was responsible for seeing the twins to bed, without exception, and so Mercu had politely, and reluctantly excused himself from other entertainments, and his hopes of returning had vanished some time before.

“We aren’t tired,” Katrisha said managing to quickly re-form her orb.  Kiannae made her own again as well, and tried to balance it above the tip of one finger to show off, only to have it whiff out on her.  She frowned, reformed it, and held it possessively.

Mercu sat back down in the old chair, picked up the lute again, and strummed it absently.  “What must I do to get you two to sleep?” he asked as much to himself as the girls.

“Tell a story,” Kiannae demanded.

“A story!” Katrisha agreed excitedly, “daddy always told stories!”  She seemed to sadden at her own remark, but quickly returned to playing with her own little ball of light.

“And what kind of stories would your father tell you?” Mercu asked hopefully, though he doubted the girls would remember anything significant.

“Ummm,” Kiannae said trying to remember.

“The huntress and the prince,” Katrisha said absently trying to get the ball of light to stay stable without her needing to focus on it.

“I’ve not heard that one, would you tell me?” Mercu asked sweetly, his curiosity piqued.  Everything he heard said that few Sylvans spoke the common tongue, yet the girls did not seem to have learned the Sylvan language either.  It was one of many curiosities – but a story from their father seemed more than likely to be a Sylvan story, and that could be a rare treasure.

“There was a young prince,” Kiannae said, forgetting her orb which whiffed out again, “who adored the daughter of a common hunter…and um…”

“She was the most beautiful girl in all the forests,” Katrisha continued having gotten her ball stable without realizing it, and let it drift away.

“As pretty as the moon,” Kiannae said remembering another detail.

“As calm and cool as winter frost,” Katrisha mused.

“The king didn’t approve,” Kiannae said direly, “she was beautiful, but common.”

“She also didn’t like the prince,” Katrisha laughed, “thought he was clumsy.”

“The prince tried to impress the huntress,” Kiannae continued, “he went to hunt a great boar.”

“The bore was mean,” Katrisha frowned, “and nearly killed the prince.”

“The hunter’s daughter scared the boar away, and saved the prince, but told him he was dumb,” Kiannae said sleepily.

“The prince said he wanted to impress her,” Kiannae said wistfully, “and the huntress said she would teach him to do better.”

“The King heard his son was saved, and made the huntress a great lady,” Katrisha said with a smile.

“She taught the prince, and fell in love,” Kiannae giggled.

“They wed,” Katrisha sighed, “and the common girl became the Queen of the forest.”

“That’s a lovely story,” Mercu said softly, hoping the sleepiness in the girls voices would take hold.

“Your turn!” Kiannae said perking up again.

“Horence told us stories too,” Katrisha prodded.

Mercu sighed, and laughed.  “What kind of story would you have me tell?  Adventure, love, lore from long ago?”  He wasn’t about to be upstaged by Horence, it was bad enough in his opinion that the man had seemingly caught the eye of a charming young ginger haired lass he had been teaching to paint.

The whole matter seemed a loss, her affections lay elsewhere, and he had a great deal of doubt – given her history of losing interest in occupations – that she would follow through with painting.  Still, Alice’s company had been charming, and the mere possibility had stirred the intended whispers.  So there was that at least, not a total waste of time.

“Love,” Katrisha said sleepily, interrupting Mercu’s stray train of thought.

“With magic,” Kiannae interjected.

Mercu hummed thoughtfully.  “Have you ever heard the story of the Dragon Empress?”

“No,” Katrisha said.

“Tell us!” Kiannae demanded.

“Very well,” Mercu said, and leaned back strumming the lute he held thoughtfully.  “Very long ago, and very far away, when a great Empire stretched from sea to shining sea – there lived a beautiful princess in a palace grand.  She was the Emperor Markus’ eldest daughter, and though he had six others, they were all wed away to fine and noble suitors.  She alone refused to marry, for no suitor had ever impressed her – though many had tried.”

“Roshana was her name, and she was said to be the most fair of all women, and a mage of power to rival even her father.  Most importantly,” Mercu paused for effect, “at least to all who had sought her hand, she was the heir to the throne.  It was little wonder no suitor had caught her eye.  She was not amused by men seeking power through her.  Not flattered to be told she was beautiful, for she knew it to be true.  Further she was bored by those who were not her equal as a mage – when few if any were.”

Mercu softly strummed the lute again.  “This state of affairs continued for years.  Until one day, when a handsome young prince from a distant occidental land came to the palace.  At first she thought no more of him than any other, and dismissed him with mockery that had sent others scampering from her presence in disgrace.  This one though, was clever, confident, tempered, full of wit and amused her.  In time she began to fall for the wily prince and his charms.  Almost too late she realized that he was not the sweet man he seemed to be.  The clever prince barely escaped the princess’ wrath, and fled back to his kingdom far away.”

“That’s not much of a love story,” Katrisha protested in a sleepy disappointed voice.

“Nor much magic,” Kiannae grumbled.

“The story isn’t done,” Mercu laughed softly.  “The princess locked herself away in the tallest tower of the palace, and devoted herself to her magic.  She would no longer come to court, and consented to see only her closest handmaidens, her most gifted pupils, and the Emperor himself.  Then one day her father had to go away to war.  For the prince’s father had broken away from the Empire.  His rebellion and aggression had to be stopped.”

“Alas the Emperor failed, and his daughter, in sadness, in rage – and with no more desire to be sought after by men a wove a spell as grand as any the world has ever seen.  Her tall tower shattered as stone was torn asunder, and woven with flesh.  As the sun set that fateful day, the first of all dragons stood perched atop the broken spire, her silver scales shining, roaring her might.”

“Many saw, and would long remember as the great creature long foretold flew into the west.  Many lands for days on were witness as she passed through, till at last she stood before her father’s murderer – his armies scattered like toys before her.  She avenged her beloved father, almost without contest.  Their greatest mage, all his armies, had shed from her a single scale.  She reminded the errant Kingdom of it’s place – though the prince was not to be found.  She returned home, announcing her reign all the way.  She claimed the throne, and ruled with fairness, wisdom, and power…but in many ways was quite alone.”

Mercu eyed the girls, and saw that they were still just barely awake, he strummed the lute once again, very softly.  “In time, the clever prince – who had slipped away as his father perished – copied the spell the princess had woven, stealing her magic from the single scale she had lost.  He became the second dragon of our world, his scales formed of the black granite of Osyrae’s high mountains.  He had done it for power, to reclaim his kingdom, and take the Empire in turn.  The Empress was afraid, she stood then against another of her kind, who had in turn made more like himself.”

Mercu strummed idly for a bit, before continuing.  “There was one though, a pupil she had taught long before, when she herself was still young.  A common man who had loved her always from afar, but who had learned well from her.  Seeing his Empress troubled, alone, and in need of allies, he too wove the spell as she had, and became a great dragon born of the forest, and green as emerald.  He did it not for power, nor greed, but for love and loyalty.  He pledged himself to her service, and the Empire.”

Mercu paused for a bit and looked to the girls, who seemed to be asleep.  He walked over to the bed, made sure they were tucked in tightly, and saw the flickering ball of light Katrisha had made drifting by.  He watched it for a moment as it wavered slightly, but persisted.

He finished on principle.  “So it was,” he whispered as quietly as he could, “that dragons came into the world.  With vengeance, ambition, and rage…yet also, with love, and nobility,” he reached out and focused on the unstable spell before him, and with the tip of his finger popped it.  “So it is, that they are the best, and worst of all that what we are, or can be.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

In the hall outside the girl’s tower chamber Laurel was deep in thought.

“You could have helped me get those two to bed,” Mercu said behind him, having quietly slipped from the girl’s room.

“Perhaps,” Laurel said with the faintest touch of an apologetic tone, “but I had much to think upon, and when I arrived you were well into your story.  I thought it best not to intrude.”

“Forgiven,” Mercu said, and leaned against the door frame.  “I’m jealous of those two, you know.”

“You?” Laurel laughed, and turned to face Mercu.  “I think I am jealous.  I was almost seven before I could form a spell even that simple, and had trained for over a year.  Those two both got it on their first day…”

“Yes, well I never said I wasn’t jealous of you as well,” Mercu chuckled. “I’ve trained with you for over fifteen years now, and the best I can do is to light a candle with a few tries, or break a not particularly stable spell if I focus very hard.”

“You make light,” Laurel protested, “but I am to train two girls who might surpass me well before they are of age.  Their age,” he sighed, “is still a factor of course, it will hold them back in some ways.”

“Will it?” Mercu scoffed.  “I’m guessing you missed the part where they told me a story.”

“Do not misunderstand me, they are gifted in ways more than power,” Laurel said turning to look back out the window. “Fates, even young prince Philip with all his tutoring barely spoke as intelligently at their age.”

“Are we now to use royalty as a measure for intellect?”  Mercu laughed somewhat derisively.  “I suppose there is merit to measuring in the smallest possible increment, for accuracy.”

Laurel laughed slightly in spite of him himself, but shot Mercu a stern look.  “Philip may be a tad foolish,” he begrudged, “but his father has grown up wise and clever enough, Darion more so.  The King, even for all his heirs and pretense is not a man to be easily outsmarted.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Children will be children, except I may not be able to allow these two the luxury.  With their potential, maturity will be a necessity, not a grace, or I fear for the harm they could do in a childish outburst.”

“You don’t plan to be too hard with them, do you?” Mercu said a bit worried.

“Not too,” Laurel said with a shake of his head.  “An angry vengeful child with that kind power would be far worse.  We will just have to teach them well, right from wrong, and the necessity of restraint.  Long before they have the need to restrain themselves.”

“Is that all,” Mercu laughed.  “Good for you, dear sir, that you have a professional storyteller in the wings,” he said with an overly elaborate bow.

“Oh, and you are the very measure of restraint?” Laurel said turning to eye Mercu incredulously.

“Those who can’t,” Mercu cut back, standing upright properly again, “teach.”

“Oh really, and that I now teach?” Laurel growled feigned indignance.

“Well, from all you say, comparatively…it is appropriate,” Mercu offered in a friendly mocking tone.

“If only it were not so true.”  Laurel laughed with ill humor.  “I think bed is in order for more than little girls.”

“What if I am a little girl!” Mercu snapped in a mock snit.

“I have it on very good authority,” Laurel said as he turned to walk up the stairs, and shook his head, “that appearances aside, you are neither little, nor a girl.”

“Would you have me any other way?” Mercu called after him.

“Feh!” Laurel said throwing up a hand dismissively.  “It works for you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 40th, 636 E.R.

“There is a matter of some delicacy that sits before us.”  Catherine was somehow, more than usual, very serious.

Laurel considered her, standing at his study door.  Hers was an unusual presence, it seemed to change on almost every meeting.  Sometimes she was fire, others old weathered stone.  That day she felt almost like fresh leather, and aged partment.  Laurel gestured into the room.

She nodded and passed him.  It was always a dance between the two of them, complex at best, amiable perhaps in the vaguest sort of way, but never fully.  Her deference to him was proper enough, given each their odd and politically textures positions, but there had never been a warmth between the two.

He knew at least that she rarely approved his closest choice of companion.  Certainly there was less complexity to her opinion of him, than Mercu – a subject he had more occasion to hear of, from both sides.  This had at least implied a candor she was willing to offer Laurel, if not in regard to her direct opinion of himself, then of those close to him.

“I fear there are usually many of these to attend to.  I’ll need the list narrowed down.”

“I’ll say I have no objection of the matter – the law certainly does not forbid a Court Mage from holding great stake in a kingdom’s lands, even if it might frown upon it.”

“I take it some has been overlooked in my charge’s estate?”

“More than a little.  As you know, much of the north has been left to the management of the people.  Official records are a bit muddied, and though there was some sense of importance regarding the Ashton line – after the mater of the dragon – no one thought to look closely at the dispensation of holdings.”

“And you found?”

“I thought first it proper to check something that might go unconsidered, as it seems it has.  Wealth that was owed to the grandfather.  He had – as I suspected – made some loans of interest to various individuals, who, upon seeing only three bastards, thought themselves justified in quietly forgetting the proper ownership of it.”

“I do not consider them bastards, the mother was found to wear a ring as a wedding band should be, and though I never met the late Mr. Ashton, the ages of the children, and their certain shared linage speaks of a long relation with the father.  I do not imagine him tolerating a continued inappropriate state – whatever some think of northern ways.  Certainly, even if they were, the maternal law on this is clear.  As children of a legitimate, and only heir, their status cannot be legally questioned.”

“Yes – technically this is true, but the justifications some might seek when they think it possible to miss lay records to their own benefit, are not so stringent.  Not when this much is involved.”

“And you found a substantial sum entitled to the family?”

“Really quite a lot – in matter of fact I am still struggling to ascertain the scope of the estate.  The records are not well kept, and this has been made all the worse by recent, and quite apparent mishandling.”

“How does this affect me, other than some degree of necessity that I look after the interest of my charges?”

“Well – the source of the money is important.  Generations of careful management could hardly explain the extent of the late Mr. Ashton’s reach.  You know that the crown, as a matter of tradition, little interferes in northern affairs.  They have their own system of governance, long deprived of dukes, lords, and barons – by title that is.  While Mr. Ashton, and his father, and grandfathers before him were never given the honorific, it is now more than certain that they have been acting the proper role of barons, if not dukes.  Holding an estate of some six thousand acres or more – possibly all the land from the farm south of their residence, to the old ruins of Ashrook.”

“Good fates,” Laurel said slightly stricken, “they seemed barely more than peasants.”

“As is the northern way.  Really I am impressed with the decorum of it all.  Not many knew.  Taxes were paid, properly, in all the ways they should be, but not in a way that made it at all obvious the consolidation of interest.  I do not believe even the individual debt holders had the slightest notion of the extent of it.”

“Decorum?” Laurel seemed confused.

“It’s nature is not always the pomp, and circumstance of our way of life, surely you of all people can understand?”

“I am more than aware – my life has seen me more abroad than you.  I was more surprised to hear the opinion from yourself.  A woman of certain stately taste, as I have ever known.”

“Then I will forgive you – kindly – your lack of understanding that I am a woman of proper decorum.  Which is to say I suit the company I keep, but am not ignorant of its textured truths through our world.”

“Yet why then has this tragedy been visited upon the family.  Why was the mother alone?”

“Pride, I fear – or perhaps secrecy, or some mixture of the two.  Northerners do not tolerate to keep servants, they despise the relationship of it as much as any proud house in the south would be mortified to be without them.  It would be intolerable to a northerner.  Further the parentage of the children is altogether odd on many levels.”

“Many.  I have thought on it often, and shared my thoughts with the King, but if you have your own, I would gladly hear them.  Since it seems you know more of that local culture than I had yet gleaned.”

“It is less the culture, than the man that gives me pause.  I had met Mr. Ashton more than once after his wife’s passing – though perhaps I should do him the favor of calling him James, he did demand it in our passing acquaintance.  Such formality is almost rude to them.  The preference of heredity to person, and agency.”

“I had somewhat gathered this – but that does cast a clearer light on those now at court.”

“Yes – and to their credit they have adapted well.  As much as their tone has forced change upon us.  Not all things can stay the same with such an endeavor, as the King has rightly undertaken.  Regardless, I do not imagine James to have tolerated – not for a moment – if his daughter had been misused by some Sylvan man, willingly or otherwise.  He had more than the means to send her away.  Had it been at all unwilling – or even uncouth – I dare say we would find ourselves now at war with that people.”

“I have gathered that Mr. Ashton was fiery.  No, I do not imagine any such thing being permitted.  I believe the ring, as worn, though likely the elder Mrs. Ashton’s in origin, implied what it might seem.  Though there is no record, I am certain that to the late Miss Ashton – or whatever Mrs. might be better attributed – considered herself married, and that the others involved agreed.”

“Yes.  We can all rationally attest to this, and the King will surely sanctify the opinion.  There is none the less quite the mess entailed.  Legal status is muddy, the proper scope of holding indeterminate, and as their guardian you are now chiefly responsible for the disposition of it all.  Which while legal…the extent of it will be frowned upon by the Council.”

“Must no good intention go unpunished?” Laurel mused tiredly.

“I bring this to your attention because it is proper.  Just because you have this authority, does not mean you need trouble yourself with every detail.  That is if you can trust others to handle it.”

“Who would you recommend?”

“I can speak for my own trust, surely – but not yours.  I know certainly – and though I will disagree with it – where your trust most adamantly lies.  I do not think him a proper person for the task.  Surely on this we can agree?”

“Certainly.  Though, for what it is worth, he would never forgive me the confidence in his character, nor the strain upon his leisure.”

“Were it that I could recommend him to it then.  I would gladly see him suffer under the weight.”

“Honestly then, those I most trust fall to the King, the Queen, their heirs, and yourself good Lady – perhaps above any of them.”

“I am honored, and shocked.  I did not imagine I had such confidence from you.”

“You do.  You have certainly brought this to my attention, worthily – and your honor, and initiative in undertaking the venture to discover it in the first place speaks even more highly of your character than I was already inclined.”

“Perhaps, I have misjudged our standing with one another?”

“That we do not approve of each other in all things, hardly means that in some we do not hold trust, and respect.  I have surely never believed that you object to me in this position.”

“Certainly not.  I would not question the King’s appointment lightly.”

“Yet we do not see eye to eye in every way?”

“I wonder this at times.  Surely I am not without affection for the one I consider your greatest blemish.”

“Surely indeed,” Laurel said pointedly.  Catherine’s eyes narrowed, and Laurel considered that his response had been more terse than he meant.  “Obviously I am not one to judge on the matter – I have my own feelings, which have perhaps tinted my words.  I meant more to imply mutual familiarity.  As you have in the past.  Let us not dwell upon it, and rather the point that you have my trust, implicitly, on this.  Would you – as you have already shown the inclination – be my representative in the matter?  That I might continue to focus on my duties both to the court, and my new charges.”

“Yes.  You are right – let us focus on that, and yes I accept the role.  I liked the late Mr. Ashton, such as I knew him.  I wish nothing but the best for his grandchildren.”

“Thank you.  I will trust you to give me brief accountings.  Preferably very brief.  I wish as little entanglement in it all as is reasonable.  As you say, I want no part of the Council’s displeasure, which I already earned by adopting them.  The more outside the mater I appear, the better.  In fact, the more that you keep this from public knowledge, such as it is practical under the circumstances…”

“Yes agreed – and I thank you for your complete confidence.  Though I remain uncertain in our dealings how I have so thoroughly earned it.”

“You have never done anything less than what you feel best for the good, and dignity of this kingdom.  I have observed this not only in act, but record, and tact.”

“Not always,” Catherine corrected almost irritably – her admonishment somewhere between pride, shame, and some other unfathomable contradiction.  She also seemed more than displeased with her own candor, a snap out of her character.  There was resounding hurt evident in it, a wound clearly far deeper than anything Laurel could account for in his knowledge of the woman.

“I mean only to honor your steadfastness.  If always is too generous for your pride to bare, then may I instead speak to the ardent ferocity with which you have taken care of not only the court, but the interest of the people?”

“No – I am sorry.  I let your compliment stand as you will.  I am human, and I must often remind myself of this fact, lest I forget my failings.  Sometimes my anger at my own follies gets the better of me.”

“We are all human dear woman.  Surely there are none without flaw, failing, or misstep.”

“I thank you – and I apologize again for my undue ire, better directed at myself.”

“And I assure you it is better not at all.  Whatever mortal follies, or differences we have, you are admirable as any I could name.”


Catherine smiled cordially, in a way that betrayed nothing more.  “I shall gather what I have learned so far, that you might examine it, and will not bother you again on the matter until I have a better resolution.”

“That will do fine – yes.  Is there anything else I can do for you while you have my attention?  Surely I owe you something for this favor on my behalf.”

“I will hold you to your word, that it is a favor,” Catherine said shrewdly, “yet I have nothing else at present.”

“Of course.”

She moved to leave, and then hesitated.  “There is one thing I will say.  As to the matter we have avoided.  Neither of us, clearly, are blameless.  Let us agree that there is a singularness in play, even if no specific quality could ever be established as most estimable, or infuriating.”

“On this, we can agree.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Aunum 1st, 636 E.R.

It was a cool clear autumn evening, just warm enough to be comfortable.  The twins sat beside Mercu in the upper courtyard of the castle, each with their own caramel dipped apple.  The courtyard was a busy place, filled with invited guests, and other members of the court attending the first of many banquet nights, and the lighting of the lanterns.

As twilight began to take hold, red and yellow lights lit in sequence along the walls, starting from the gate, and wrapping around the keep.  Chains of lanterns were strung together in spirals around each of the towers.  Lastly a single brilliant burning streak flew up with a whistle from above the gate, and at the height of it’s arc there was a burst of red and orange sparks, and a thunderous crack.

There was a round of polite clapping, and the guests began to file their way into the keep.

“That was pretty,” Kiannae said between bites of her apple.

“What was it?” Katrisha asked her mouth half full.

“A firework,” Mercu said with a yawn.

The twins had been particularly obstinate the previous evening regarding sleep.  They had been too excited by the coming of the Autumn festival, and Mercu knew he shared some blame in that.  He was in truth unsure exactly when the twins had finally drifted off themselves, as he had woken beside their bed some time before dawn, covered in one of their blankets.

He was quite struck by the sweetness that the two had tucked him in after he had drifted off.  He was none the less cross that they had kept him up so very late in the first place, and at how stiff the floor had left him.  It all balanced out he decided.

“How does it work?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps you should ask Laurel,” Mercu suggested.

“Are you saying you don’t know?” Kiannae goaded.

“They pack a tube full of a powder that burns quickly,” Mercu sighed, “the fire expands into gas that pushes it up, and then the last bit explodes, sending out smaller pieces that burn as well.”

“Why not just use magic?” Katrisha asked.

“Not everyone has magic,” Mercu shrugged.  “I’ve seen enchanted fireworks that do quite spectacular things, but Maron, the village enchanter is a very pragmatic man, quite dull really.  His apprentice shows some promise, but his master keeps him on a tight leash.  So we are left to the skills of the alchemist instead.  Good man Arahm, not afraid to put some flare into life.”

“Why doesn’t the King have his own enchanter?” Kiannae asked, and bit again into her apple.

“The King is a practical man himself,” Mercu said thoughtfully, “not in the same way mind you.  He walks a fine line of maintaining dignity, and regal splendor, without seeming to ask too much of the people.  The cost of keeping a royal enchanter is simply too much in his estimation.  Not when there are rich barons in the west, and richer kingdoms afar to lure them away.”

“How can Avrale be poor?” Katrisha asked with a cross expression.

“Avrale isn’t poor,” Mercu corrected, “but nor is it the richest of nations.  And many of the dukes, and barons do not show the same restraint as the king.  It is a point of some contention in fact.”

“Couldn’t Laurel do it?” Kiannae asked.

“Oh, that he could,” Mercu laughed, “and some years he’s added his own twist to one of the rockets, usually for the mid festival.  He’s been busy this year though, I don’t think he’s had the time.”  He looked about, and almost all the guests had filed into the keep.  “Come my ladies,” he said standing up, “dancing, and food await.”

“We don’t know how to dance,” both girls protested together.

“Then I’ll have to teach you, won’t I?” Mercu smirked.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 1st, 636 E.R.

“What is that?” Katrisha asked pointing up at the orrery that slowly turned over Laurel’s head.  Laurel was actually quite surprised it had taken so long for one of the girls to ask, they had seemed to ask everything else imaginable, often twice as one ignored the other’s answer, and yet somehow the orrery that often caught a glimmer of their attention, had not till that point been directly questioned.

“It is a model of the movement our world, the moon, and others that share our sun,” Laurel said looking up, and admiring his own handy work.  “Took me four years to build it, though I sometimes wonder why I bothered.  Guess it was something to do, and I was inspired by one of my…old instructors.  He was obsessed with the sky.”

“How does it work?” Kiannae asked.

“It’s…complicated,” Laurel said thoughtfully. “The mechanical parts are there to support enhancements that drive the simulation, and aid the timing.  It is kept running off the core of an old elemental that I inherited from my grandmother.  It pulls energy in, and the spells draw off that flow to maintain the whole thing.”

Laurel watched the girl’s expressions, and could tell he had lost them completely.  He never could quite tell where the line was.  They were incredibly clever, but they were also just shy of four he was quite certain, though he could barely believe it.  He tried not to focus on that fact, as it frequently made him nervous.  “Alright, let’s start with the basics,” he said, and sat down in front of the girls.  He held out his hand, and formed the same orb that the girls had largely mastered making.

“This,” Laurel continued, “is just the same old spell.”  He reached his hand inside, and formed a new structure around the core.  “Now it will attract any other orb like it,” he said, and with a wave of his hand a copy pulled out of the first with scintillating brilliance as both sought new equilibrium.  He set the copy in an orbit around the original, and leaned back.

Katrisha and Kiannae watched the arrangement with fascination.  “Well, go on, you try,” Laurel encouraged, almost mockingly, and watched as the girls started to experiment.  Laurel regarded the results with some satisfaction as each tried and failed several times to even start to make a change inside of their spells without tearing them apart.  He had hope for the first time, that their pace would now slow to something he could keep up with.

Yet as the day wore on they began to make progress, to the point where near the very end  of the day Katrisha’s orb managed to stay together long enough with it’s new addition to pull Laurel’s example apart, and cause the whole affair to explode in a shower of swirling twinkling light.  He shook his head, and decided that pressing again for time from the royal tutors was in order.  Conventional academics would quickly become the barrier, but could also prove a useful distraction from continuous progress on magic.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 7th, 636 E.R.

Katrisha and Kiannae watched the curious gray haired old man they had been left with as he walked up to a large black board, and scrawled out his name in large letters.  He was a bit funny looking, rather short for a man, stocky, and a little pudgy, particularly in the cheeks.  At a glance one could mistake him for jovial, but this illusion vanished at the flat, thin lipped shape of his mouth.  What stood out to most however was the singular oddity perched quite precariously on his nose.

“Now then,” he started, “can you read this?”

“What is that?” Katrisha asked, pointing at the man.

He followed the finger toward himself, and his eyes narrowed on the bridge of his nose a moment.  “They help me see better,” he answered.

“Do your eyes need to be healed?” Kiannae asked.

“No,” he said flatly.

“But if your eyes don’t work right, shouldn’t they be healed?  Why wouldn’t you?”

“Whatever the Path might say,” That sighed with reserved frustration, “I am not so pious as that.  The natural condition of my eyes is unfocused, and any amount of healing does not help, because they are perfectly healthy.  There are no shapers I would trust with such a delicate task west of Mordove.”  He took a breath, and exhaled.  “Now then, can you read this?”

“No,” Kiannae said, and Katrisha repeated the sentiment a moment later.

“This is to be expected,” their new teacher continued, “it says Moriel, it is my name, but for now you may address me as Instructor.  I am told the two of you are not quite four, but that you speak very well for your young age.”

“We do,” Kiannae agreed proudly.

“Yes,” Katrisha concurred.

Moriel paused for a moment, and then continued.  “Let us begin by determining exactly how old you are.  Tell me of the month of your last birthday?”

“It was cold,” Kiannae offered.

“There was snow on the ground,” Katrisha added.

“Do you know the name of the month?” Moriel asked.

“No,” each girl said in turn.

“Do you recall if it was before, or after the winter solstice?” Moriel asked.

The twins seemed to think for some time, and finally Katrisha said, “Before.”

“Just before,” Kiannae added.

“Very well,” Moriel said, and turned back to the blackboard.  “It would seem the two of you were born in the last month of the year,” he said as he began to write near the bottom of the board at a bit of an angle.  “This is the month of Styver, the first month of winter, named for the rivers Styx that flow from the Aether to the Nether.”

Moriel turned his head a moment to be sure he still had the girls attention.  “A month is six weeks, that is forty-two days, so I would guess you two were born around the middle. I recall however that last year that the snows fell late in the north, not until the thirty-eighth, so unless a more accurate date can be found, this will suffice for your birthday.”  He began to draw a big circle on the board, starting and ending from the point he had drawn near Styver, which he crossed again to make sure it was still clear.

“After Styver, as you seem to know, is the winter solstice, the week of Hivern,” Moriel said beginning to write in each name as he went, placing Hivern at the bottom.  Then the month of Laeur, named for Laeune the moon.  The spring season follows, comprised of the months Vhalun, named for the Light Bearer Vhael, the morning star.  The week of the spring equinox, Vernum, and the month of Coria, named for the Coronation of Emperor Corinth.”

Moriel divided the circle up into pie wedges before continuing – eight large, four very small.  “Summer of course follows spring, with the months of Estae, named for Estaera the protector of mothers, and the summer solstice Rhast named for the sun Rahn.  Then Rhaeus named for the Light Bearer’s daughter, who perished, and whose embers light the late summer sky.  Lastly we come to the autumn season, comprised of the month of Jovan, named for the mythical father of many children, the week of Aunum for the autumn equinox, and the harvest month of Harfast.”

Moriel considered the twins carefully.  “Now let us move onto a basic alphabet,” he said, and began writing it out, “and come back to sounding out the names of the months later.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 5

The seasons pass without fail,
bring forth winds of change,
in ageless rhythmic cycle,

what comes around again in time,
is as has been before in days gone by,
and for all life’s shifting changing way,
familiar troubles seem to ever stay.

– Writings of King Andrew of Avrale, circa 610 E.R.

Seasons

Winter

Styver 19th, 636 E.R.

The first winter snow lay thick over the Castle on Broken Hill.  Twin girls stood with trepidation on the steps of the keep, with Mercu between them.  In the courtyard below, Darion and his brother played jovially with their young children in the snow.  The wife of the younger prince looked on from the base of the steps, a parasol in hand to keep off the continued fall.  Several other children, the sons of knights were off in their own corner of the courtyard.

Katrisha was the first to step forward, as Kiannae still clung to Mercu’s leg.  The Princess turned as the snow crunched under foot on the first step, and she frowned at what she saw.  “Now then, Mercu, are you really going to let her do that alone?”

“No, Aria…ummm,” Mercu said as he carefully wrested his leg from Kiannae’s grasp, as she still did not wish to move.  “Just my attention divided a bit between the pair,” he said and took Katrisha’s hand, steadying her before she could slip.

Kiannae for her part shrunk back against the keep door as Mercu helped Katrisha down the steps.  Aria still regarded Mercu unfavorably.  “You left the other one, you know?”

Mercu looked back up the steps where Kiannae stood with her back to the door, and Katrisha slipped from his grasp, taking the last bounding step on her own, and ran off into the courtyard.

“To be fair I don’t think she’s in any danger staying up there,” he said a bit flustered, and glanced to see where Katrisha had dashed off to.

Aria gave Mercu another reproving look, and climbed the steps.  At the top she gracefully dropped down closer to Kiannae’s level, who looked up at her with unhappy eyes.  “Are you alright, dear?”

“It’s cold,” Kiannae said pulling her winter cloak more tightly around herself.

“It is, isn’t it,” Aria said with a smile, “but it is pretty yes?”

“Suppose,” Kiannae permitted begrudgingly, still hunkered up against the door.  “I like flowers better.”

Aria turned and looked at Katrisha who ran happily through the snow, and who when pegged by a snowball from the Aria’s nephew, returned a volley with no hesitation.  The boy’s father quickly found it necessary to step between the escalating arms race, and took blows from both sides.  The two combatants soon thought better of plastering the Crown Prince, and parted to different corners of the courtyard.

“Your sister seems to like it well enough,” Aria said with a touch of confusion.  “I thought you two were the same?”

“D’no,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“You should come down, and try to enjoy it,” Aria said offering her hand.  “It’s warmer if you move around.” Mercu decided Aria had things well enough in hand, and wandered off to converse with Darion, who was dusting himself off from the children’s assault.

“Ok,” Kiannae agreed dubiously, took Aria’s hand, and let herself be lead slowly down the stairs.  Aria glanced to her nephew as they too the first step, and noted he seemed deep in conspiratorial proceedings with the other boys.  With Kiannae’s reluctant progress, the two were only half way down the stairs when the keep doors opened a crack, and Laurel emerged, himself wrapped tightly in a fur lined long gray winter cloak.

Aria regarded Laurel curiously.  “What brings you out of your warm tower all of a sudden?”

“A misplaced message has just reached me,” Laurel muttered, chattering against the cold.  “A fine time she picks to finally visit.”

“Do speak clearly?” Aria demanded lightly.

“Matron Renae,” Laurel grumbled, “who has been taking care of the twins’ younger brother.  S expressed a wish to meet them, and has decided that today would be a good day to finally get around to visiting.  This message however went first to the King, who was indisposed, was then misplaced by the Queen, and has come to my attention on the day that she is to arrive…if of course she has decided to travel in the snow.”

“Do you think she would?” Aria asked, a bit surprised at the possibility.

“I don’t really know her well enough to be certain.”  Laurel sighed, and watched his breath swirl before him.  “The King seemed inclined to believe she would arrive on schedule.  And for my part, I think her more than capable of keeping herself and a horse both warm, and well through the pass.  So it is a reasonable possibility.”

Kiannae’s hand slipped from the Aria’s grasp, and she descended the remaining few steps unattended before the Princess could protest.  “Well, at least she’s finally decide to join her sister.”  Aria shook her head.

“Oh, what was holding her up?” Laurel asked half interested.

“Seems she doesn’t like the cold,” Aria shrugged.

“I can relate,” Laurel said pulling his cloak tighter.  He lifted the hood, and pulled it forward over his head in an effort to stay warm.

“Her sister seems to like it well enough,” Aria said looking back to the twins who were now playing together, after a fashion.  Though Kiannae continually stopped, and bundled up for a bit against the cold.  “Curious that they are identical,” she mused.

“They are curious, yes,” Laurel said watching the girls thoughtfully.  “They can be fairly competitive, yet finish each other’s sentences.  One day one will take charge, and the next day the same one will be the timid follower.”

“How ever to you keep track?” Aria asked in a weary tone from the very thought of dealing with two children she couldn’t tell apart.

“At first, I must admit I couldn’t,” Laurel shrugged, “but now I usually just know, and couldn’t tell you how.  I think it is their gifts, still so alike, and yet…”  He mused over how to describe it, their presence was complex for young children.  He mused over how Mercu might describe it if he could feel it so clearly.  One the winter wind, one the sea.  One the sun on a cloudy day, the other the moon on a clear night.  One written in stone, the other…  He frowned.

Laurel shook his head, the musing had gone more than far enough.  A signal flag on the wall above the gate pulled his distracted attention, and prompted him to descend the stairs.  “Your leave, your highness,” he said as he passed her, forgetting quite intentionally his unfinished thought.  ”It appears we will soon have a guest.”  As Laurel marched across the courtyard to see if it was in fact Renae arriving, Mercu moved to follow at his side.

“What brings you out into this lovely weather?” Mercu asked jovially.

“Renae Somavera,” Laurel grumbled, “or nothing at all.  One of the two.”

“Oh the lovely Renae,” Mercu said with a pleased smile.  “You had mentioned some time ago she might wish to meet the twins.  I’d given up hope she would finally come around to do so.”

Laurel stopped, and eyed Mercu incredulously.  “You do know she already keeps a lover?   I met her when I took Wren to the cloister.”

“You say that as though it should dampen my spirits,” Mercu said feigning injury, as Laurel turned and walked on.  “Who says I do not simply relish the idea of lovely conversation with a beautiful woman, who, on our last meeting told such charming stories.”

“I know you more than well enough,” Laurel answered tersely, “to be quite sure you would like to share more than stories with Renae, even if she is well more than a decade your elder.”

Mercu stopped, and eyed Laurel as though the latter point was quite odd given the source.  An antic entirely lost on its intended target.  “And just as you,” he said catching up, “she does not look it, blessed gifted.  You would swear I was a few years hers, so can you blame me?” Mercu laughed.

“Can, oh yes, most certainly.  Will…no, probably not,” Laurel sighed.  “Just because I have long come to terms with the way you are, and it even has its use, doesn’t mean I don’t reserve the right to shake my head disapprovingly.”

“Shake away good sir, shake away,” Mercu prodded.

The pair reached the edge of the upper court just as a lone horse trotted in through the gate, bearing a rider wrapped in white.  The horse slowly circled the large fountain in the lower court as Renae waited for some sign of a stable attendant to emerge.  She was not anxious to dismount into the snow, only to wait.  The horse impatient with standing about in the cold kicked at the snow, its white spotted legs blending with the blanket of white it scratched at uncomfortably.

Renae looked up as Mercu waved from the upper court wall, and nodded in acknowledgment, her face obscured beneath her white hood, and in its thick fluffed trim.  When at last an attendant reluctantly emerged from the shelter of the stables, and hustled towards her, Renae relented to slide from her saddle, and into the freshly fallen snow.

“Gather the girls,” Laurel commanded, and Mercu gave him a look as though to protest, but quickly hurried off to do as he was bid.  “Your sense of timing could use improvement,” he hollered to Renae as she climbed the stairs.

“There is merit to that.”  Renae laughed, once close enough to be heard. “The weather was clear when I sent word, but things change.”

“I’ve just wondered what took you so long,” Laurel pryed of the woman ascending the steps below him. “You had requested to meet the girls months ago.”

“Wren has been…difficult.”  Renae sighed, and stopped a moment directly beneath him.  “It is harder that weaning a child, much harder given there is no tapering off, just constant vigilance.”

“I see,” Laurel said, “and I take it that he is better now?”

Renae finished her climb, turned to Laurel, and nodded with a huff.  “Yes.  I waited a two weeks before I even committed to the trip…I’m sure he is cured.  He also said his first words just before I left.”

Laurel looked shocked.  “But he’s not three months old.”

“It wasn’t exactly a sonnet.”  Renae laughed nervously, and surveyed the courtyard, “but it worries me nonetheless.  I’ve read the books we have, books written mostly by mages.  None of them can really tell me how much of a consciousness can be carried in the soul.”

“I would assume the Lycians or Clarions would know more than us,” Laurel said with his own uneasy laugh.

“We don’t believe in chasing ascension,” Renae said shaking her head, “and the Clarion dogma hasn’t really worked out for them, has it?  No, mages have the more useful texts on the matter, they have studied the elementals, the half-flesh, and ghosts more thoroughly than anyone else.  That one fellow was a mage after all.”

“I suppose you are right on that to some extent,” Laurel offered, and shook his head in turn, “but what of the Avatar?”

“The Clarions would never admit it,” Renae laughed, “but his methods seem more like those of a mage…or so the rumors say any way,” she added quickly.

“I have heard that rumor,” Laurel mused, “but no council mage has ever been granted an audience, that I am aware of at least.”  Laurel perked a brow as Renae seemed to glance away at that statement.

Mercu had become distracted in conversation with Aria, not half way to gathering the girls.  Any thought on this was cut short at a decided yelp, and all turned to see three boys pegging Kiannae and Katrisha with snowballs.  Katrisha for her part took evasive action, scooped up handfuls of snow, and began returning the assault in kind, but Kiannae cringed under the onslaught, and as the easier target was taking far more hits.  Mercu rushed to intervene, but stopped short as several snowballs burst in mid air, and a sudden flurry of blown snow accompanied the closest boy being knocked soundly on his rear.

The other boys all looked quite stunned, and Katrisha took the opening to plaster them thoroughly.  After taking several hits in their startled state the two still standing, including the young prince, ran.

“It’s not knightly to attack defenseless younger ladies, Charles, “ Mercu said, walking up to the slightly stunned boy sitting in the snow.

“She’s not defenseless,” Charles said pointing at Kiannae who was struggling to rid herself of residual snow, and shivering.

“When they aren’t defenseless, it is only more unwise,” Mercu smiled, just as Katrisha walked up, and slapped a handful of snow on top of Charles’ head.  He squeaked, and flailed slightly as he tried to get the cold melting snow out of his hair.

“Was that quite necessary?” Mercu asked in a mildly reproving tone.

Katrisha looked at her shivering sister, and nodded firmly.  Mercu restrained a laugh at her defiance, but a wry smile crept in at the corners of his lips nonetheless.

Mercu turned at the sound of crunching footsteps, and nodded at Renae, before taking a graceful bow.  “Might I introduce the young ladies Katrisha and Kiannae, if not at their most dignified.”

The two girls stepped up, and Renae stooped down before them, and looked each in the eye.  There was an obvious sadness in her expression that prompted an exchange of glances between Mercu and Laurel.  “It’s nice to finally meet you both,” she said sweetly, “you two have such lovely eyes, like your brother.”

The Crown Prince, his brother, Aria and their young children – one of whom still bore signs of winter combat – walked up on the gathering.  Charles for his part made a quiet exit as he noted no one was paying much attention to him.

“Matron Renae,” the Prince said with a twinge of surprise in his voice, “I was just now informed of your visit.”

“You must forgive the lack of a proper welcome,” Aria added with a nod of apology.

“It’s quite all right Darion, Aria,” Renae said glancing up from the twins, “Avery,” she added in acknowledgment to the remaining prince who stepped up close beside his wife.  “My visit is not a formal one by any means.  I came to meet the sisters of a little boy that has been left to my care.”

“So I am told,” Aria replied, “still a proper welcome would not have been too much to ask of us.”

“It’s alright,” Renae said looking back to the girls.  “I know the King has had a lot on his mind, since word came of the latest change of power in Osyrae.”

“You’ve heard?” Darion said with interest, “my father has been reluctant to speak even to me of it.”

“We Sisters hear many things,” Renae said dismissively, and quickly pulled the girls close.

“I suppose you might,” Aria said perking a brow.

“Come, let us go inside,” Renae said with forced cheer as she stood up.  “I would get to know these two darlings somewhere warmer.  Do give my understanding to the King if he does not have time to meet with me on this visit.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Spring

Vhalus 26th, 637 E.R.

Renae cradled the young Wren in her arms and stared absently at the icicles melting outside her window.  She closed her eyes, and let the child’s presence wash over her.  It was a sense of inestimable distant warmth, that somehow defied examination at even the smallest distraction.

“I don’t know why you rock him so much,” Andria said behind her, “not like he cries.  Even from the day he came to us he has been quiet…strange for a boy who has started to form almost full sentences.”

“Maybe I do it more for me than for him?”  Renae sighed.

“You could rock me in your arms,” Andria laughed playfully.

“Yer sweet, dear,” Renae said shooting her a funny look, “but it’s not the same.  As pleasant a distraction as that is, remembering my own daughter of so many years ago is…”  she trailed off.

“She wasn’t a quiet one,” Andria said shaking her head.  “Never in all my years have I seen a daughter of the Sisterhood so intent not to be calmed.”

“I’m almost surprised you remember, you were ten then, weren’t you?” Renae said perking a brow.

“I was right across the hall from you,” Andria laughed, “that wailing is burned into my ears to this day.”

“She wasn’t that bad,” Renae said tersely, looking back out the window.

“No, I’m sorry,” Andria apologized realizing how poor her humor had been.

Rene closed her eyes, and tried to still her frustrations on the matter.  Her daughters wail had indeed been a piercing thing, she admitted to herself, less than inclined however to do so aloud.  Standing there she felt Andria’s ever familiar presence.  It was a shifting thing, soft and feathery like a warm bed, alternated with the feel of the most supple well worn book binding.

For a while there was awkward silence, and then Renae changed the subject.  “Abigail returned today, she was a bit shaken up.”

“I thought I’d seen her,” Andria said with a touch of concern.

“Had a very uncomfortable run in with some locals in the village up north, last of many it seems,” Renae continued in a pained tone.  It was not a thought quite far enough from other unpleasant musing.

“Clarions still stirring people up against us?” Andria muttered rhetorically.

“Of course,” Renae said tersely.

“Do they really hate us that much?” Andria sighed leaning back against the door frame.

“Maybe,” Renae said turning back to her, “or maybe it is all just about power, and influence.  Perhaps a convenient convergence of the two?  Either way, they learned well from the Empire they turned their backs on.  If you can’t win over the King, win over the people.”

“What do they get out of it?” Andria growled, “what do the Clarions offer that we don’t?  We give them more if you ask me, more kindness, more aid.”

“We don’t offer them a purpose larger than themselves, as sad as that may seem.”  Renae furrowed her brow.  It was easy to forget how little Andria had ever ventured beyond Highvale.  How rooted her worldview was in the only way of life she knew.  “We don’t offer them the tantalizing idea of eternity.  We also don’t have a cursed Avatar as a shining beacon of immortality.”

“They have all of one of those,” Andria laughed incredulously, “and he didn’t exactly follow orders, now did he?  Stood with the Empire and all that.”

“They gloss over that bit.”  Renae laughed darkly.  “Say he chose the lesser of two evils, and parted ways when the job was done.”

“Still what good is he?” Andria demanded.  “He proves nothing.  I’ve never seen him as anything different than the dragons the Clarions so abhor.”

“He’s not,” Renae said, looking at Andria sadly, “not in my opinion any way.  But him, and their lies…well, are they lies?  It’s faith, that’s all any of us have, and he makes a convincing spectacle.”

“Not that anyone ever sees him,” Andria countered snidely, and crossed her arms as though she had won the argument.  Not that she really wanted to be having an argument, or knew why it had become one.

Renae’s stance shifted, and she was quiet for some time, and looked back out the window.  “I have,” she offered weighted.

“Wait, when…you never…” Andria sputtered in disbelief, her arms falling back to her sides.  She took a half a step forward, but stopped, and shook her head.  It had to be a joke, or something.

“You should remember,” Renae said glancing back.  “It was after Adel went away…long before you and I.”

“You went on a journey,” Andria said stepping away from the door frame, “but you never told me, not in all these years.”

“I never told anyone, not a single soul,” Renae said tersely. “I questioned a lot of things in those years.  Along my travels I went to the High City, to see it, to feel what it really was at the heart of the Clarion’s power.”

“They let you, a Lycian Sister, see the Avatar?” Andria said stepping closer again, still not quite believing her own ears.

“I hadn’t gone there to…or…at least hadn’t expected…” Renae said staring out the window, the troubles on her face almost showing her age.  “And I wasn’t stupid enough to tell anyone my affiliations.  One day though – as I was walking down a street, minding my own business – three paladins swept me off.  I was terrified…”

Andria rested her hand on Renae’s arm, and Wren stirred slightly.  They both looked to the boy, and Andria wrapped her arm around Renae waiting for her to finish her story.  After a long pause she continued.  “I was held for a day…I wanted to protest, ask why I was taken in, but I held my tongue.  I was too afraid.”

Andria squeezed Renae tighter.

“As suddenly as I was taken, I was whisked into the grandest chamber I have ever seen, or could even imagine,” Renae said distantly.  “There were six men there, all dressed in the heaviest and most formal of robes.  All kept their distance, though they obviously knew I was there.  Finally he swooped in from out of the corner of my eye, and hovered before me…” she trailed off.

Renae swallowed, and turned her head to look at Andria.  “I’ve never decided if he was the most beautiful, or tragic thing I have ever seen.  Beauty certainly struck me first, the light, the halo around him was brilliant, so bright it should have been blinding, and yet it didn’t hurt to look upon him.  Finally I saw through the light, past that brilliant aura, and saw him…the strange thing inside.”

“So he has aged then?” Andria asked, thinking she understood.

“I don’t know if aged is the right word,” Renae responded.  “Changed certainly, shriveled might almost be right, but no, as impossibly slender and skeletal as he has become his skin was tight, smooth, impeccable…and I can say with little doubt ‘he’ is no longer the right word,” she laughed darkly.

“So what, the Clarions precious Avatar became a woman?” Andria laughed.  “That would be rich irony.”

“No, it wasn’t a woman either.  It just was, and for all its strangeness, even the sad bizarre form within was elegant, and beautiful in its own bizarre graceful way…” Renae seemed to search for the right words. “Yes sad is accurate.  I’m sure his grand assembly read it as something else, something more noble and perfect, but I saw sadness, a odd kindness as well, and more still that I couldn’t even put to words…but definite, heart rending, sadness.”

“What then?” Andria asked taken in by the story.

“Nothing,” Renae said in an angry detached tone.  One could have almost mistaken it for dismissive, as though the point had been missed, and she was not inclined to explain.

“What?” Andria demanded confused.

“He drifted off, no explanation, just nothing.”  Renae shrugged as though she wanted Andria think she didn’t care, or as if she was trying to convince herself.

“There’s more, isn’t there,” Andria pressed.

“I’m here, of course there is more.  I lived after all,” Renae countered with thin humor.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Andria offered.  “Did…I don’t even want to ask.”

Renae sighed.  “Nothing,” she repeated.  “After a few minutes of standing there gawking in the direction he had gone, and looking around at the impassive assembly of Clarion Cardinals…I was just lead away with as little explanation as anything else.”

Renae glanced at Andria, whose expression said she knew there was more.  There was she joked in her head darkly again, always more, if you live.  It hurt to think those words.

She took a long breath.  “Three days later – as I prepared to leave the city – a note arrived where I was staying.  It was addressed to me by name, sealed in white wax with a sun seal, but there was no sender, no signature.”  She trembled slightly.  “Just a single word in immaculate, perfect, and yet almost illegibly flowing script.”  Renae started to cry.

Andria squeezed Renae tightly, and let her sob.  She saw a tear fall from Renae’s cheek onto Wren, who seemed to cringe at the intrusion.  He was awake, and still silent, just staring up at Renae.

“What single word can hurt you after so long?” Andria asked stroking Renae’s hair.

“Condolences,” Renae said calming herself, forcing it back down.  “At first I didn’t understand, I didn’t even imagine, as I unknowingly hurried back here.  I didn’t realize, not till months later that I was even was hurrying.  I passed from caravan to caravan without stopping anywhere, without staying with any journey to its end.  But when I arrived…”

“Your daughter, and your mother,” Andria added understanding suddenly.  “I knew you were not here for the funerals, that you returned from your travels to that news.  I never imagined you had received word…and from such a strange source.”

“I’d already heard about mother, she had been dead nearly a year, word had reached me, and it had made me even less inclined to return.”  Renae took a deep breath.  “We’ve all had those dreams, the ones that come true, or almost come true,” she muttered.  “I had seen his light before, and never understood.  It always hurt, and yet…I didn’t think it would happen, I didn’t think the dream really meant…and yet I went to the High City anyway.” She struggled a moment.  “My daughter was still alive when I received that note, I did the math, countless times…she died three days after…” she paused for moment, and let herself breath.  “Her husband never forgave me for not being here, never trusted me with his daughter.”  She looked down at the boy, in her arms.  “I have this now, and I can remember rocking my daughter to sleep just a little better.  So yes, it helps me.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Summer

Rhaeus 37th, 637 E.R.

Mercu sat indifferent in the summer sun on a bench in the upper courtyard of the castle.  “Where are the girls?” Laurel asked behind him.  After a moment he gestured to his right, and to his left where stood Prince Darion on one side, and Lady Catherine on the other, both looking quite cross.

“I don’t understand?” Laurel said a bit confused by the response.

“Look closer,” Mercu sighed, “and leave me to the sun.”

Laurel looked back and forth, and finally opted for the Prince first, but as he approached he saw the cause of his displeasure.  Perched on a branch above his head was Kiannae, her nose in a large book.  Laurel was at a loss to explain how she had gotten up there, let alone with a book she surely could barely carry on flat ground, or for that matter up a tree.

“How did she…” Laurel started.

“I saw it, and I couldn’t explain it,” Darion said shaking his head.

“Why?” Laurel said perplexed.

“You tell me,” the Prince said turning to look at Laurel incredulously, “you are the mage, their mentor, even their father by law.”

Laurel shook his head, and looked up at Kiannae, who he thought he caught peeking down for a moment.  “Ok, so what is Catherine looking so cross about?” he asked turning to face the fountain in the middle of the courtyard.

“That, would be the other one,” Darion sighed, “not nearly as clever a trick, but less dignified to be sure.”

“What?” Laurel asked again.

“Go look for yourself,” Darion muttered walking away,. “I’m getting a gardener, and telling him to bring a ladder.”

Laurel crossed the courtyard, and poked Mercu hard in the shoulder as he passed.  Mercu for his part barely acknowledge the interruption.  As Laurel walked up to Catherine she sat down from her pacing, and fanned herself under her parasol.  “I’m told Katrisha is somewhere here, causing your present frustration?” he said questioningly, and looked about.

Catherine simply pointed with a huff into the fountain.  “Oh,” Laurel said catching sight of Katrisha sitting in it’s shadow, with water running over her.  “What are you doing in there Katrisha?”

“It’s hot,” she muttered after a bit of silence.

“It’s undignified is what it is,” Catherine grumbled.

“I suppose it is a bit,” Laurel laughed, “why not use the ladies bath at least?”

“Warm, water,” Katrisha enunciated firmly.

“Ah…I could teach you a spell to fix that,” Laurel laughed, “it’s uh, actually almost the same spell as the lights.”

“Really?” Katrisha said leaning out of the water for a moment.

“Whatever it takes to get her out of that fountain,” Catherine sighed.

“Come on,” Laurel said putting his foot on the edge of the fountain, and offering his hand to Katrisha.  “Let us stop antagonizing the good Lady with our undignified presences.”

Katrisha took Laurel’s hand after staring at it for a moment, and let him pull her, drenched robe and all from the fountain.  Her short legs, and sloshing footsteps slowed their approach to where Mercu still sat.  “Prince, gardener, or whatever help you need I leave the other one for you to retrieve.”

“So long as I’m not stuck between the two,” Mercu shrugged.

“Katrisha wasn’t hard to get out of the fountain,” Laurel chided.

“I was talking about Catherine, and the Prince,” Mercu sighed.  “I was perfectly happy to sit, and enjoy the sun while the girls were occupied on their own.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Autumn

Harfast 25th, 637 E.R.

Katrisha sat cross-legged on a bench in the upper courtyard, with freshly fallen leaves all around her.  She was staring up at a crescent moon hung high, as sunset faded to dusk.  The courtyard was empty save her, and she did not seem to mind.  She closed her eyes as a cool late autumn breeze washed over her, blissfully content even as most would have been uncomfortably cold.  She lost track of time for a moment until she heard footsteps crunching through the leaves towards her.

“What are you doing here?” asked a blond haired boy not a year her elder.

“What are you, Charles?” she cut back.  Katrisha did not much care for him.  She felt he thought himself far too important, and that he was much too nosey, but most of all there had been bad blood between them since the last winter.  She knew full well he had gone to his father, claiming Kiannae had attacked him with magic, and that Katrisha herself had ground snow into his hair.  Both claims quite true, technically.  Not much had come of it though, and really Katrisha believed he’d gotten the worse of it from his father, for being humiliated by ‘two little girls.’  She would rather have been in trouble.

“I asked first,” Charles said adamantly.

“Just looking at the moon,” Katrisha sighed.

“Why?” Charles demanded with a funny look.

“Because I love the moon,” Katrisha stated crossly.

“That’s silly,” Charles said dismissively, but didn’t leave.

“You’re silly,” Katrisha retorted no less childishly.  “I answered your question, now mine,” she demanded, tough she really didn’t care.  She just wanted him to go away, but it was the principle of the thing at that point.

“My father sent me with a message to the gate,” he said all too proudly.

“Boring,” Katrisha yawned mockingly.

“And the moon isn’t?” Charles cut back quite hurt.

“No, she isn’t,” Katrisha stated emphatically.  “She’s beautiful.”

“Silly girls,” Charles muttered, and walked away.

Katrisha became very cross then, got up, and marched after him.  Just before she caught up to him he turned, and glowered at her.  “What?” he demanded angrily

Katrisha wrinkled her nose and pursed her lips.  She resisted the urge to call him silly again – that was too awkward, even she realized.  That in mind she really didn’t know what to say, and she thoroughly didn’t know why she hadn’t just let him walk away.  She had wanted him to go after all.

“The moon lights the night, and guards us from the dark.  She is the tranquil lady, who rules the ocean tides, and the rhythms of the world.  She is the tranquil mirror of the sun’s daunting fire.”  It was bits and pieces of poetry and stories Mercu had told her, or her father.  It all blended together.  “And…and I am her daughter – the daughter of the moonlight,” she protested.  It was what her father had called her, daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost.  It was almost the only thing she could remember of him any more.  Those words meant the world to her.

Charles honestly did not know what to make of the outburst, though something nagged at the edge of his thoughts to comment that there was nothing tranquil about this girl, yet he didn’t quite bring himself to say it, and he wasn’t sure why.  Perhaps a touch of wisdom, or simple startled silence.  Instead he just stood there confounded, and oddly moved by the intensity with which it had all been said.  Though no less annoyed by its perceived impertinence.

It seemed neither had much more to say at that point.  After a moment more of the awkward standoff, Katrisha turned around, folded her arms, and said, “You can go.”

This further irritated Charles – who was she, this little farm girl – to tell him when he could go?  He marched up to her, grabbed her by the arm, and yanked her around.  “I am the son of a Knight – more by right,” he growled.  “I am an heir of title – and you are nothing.  Just a lucky little brat with a gift, and a half bread no less, a Sylvan bastard.”

Katrisha had been in a huff before, flustered and on edge, but with that she was absolutely furious.  “You take that back,” she said narrowing her eyes.

“No,” Charles said, “because it’s all true.”

Katrisha wrested her arm from his grasp, and just as quickly pushed Charles, and to his surprise he was knocked from his feet.  If Charles was to be thought less of for any reason, it was not for falling from that blow.  The force behind it was not to be underestimated, and by far he had no idea the strength the gift could give those who possess it, even on instinct, and in the heat of the moment.  Even aware of these things a grown man would have more than likely fallen.

Charles for his part landed violently on his rear more than a foot farther back, and flopped over hitting his head against the reasonably soft grass, and leaves.  The impact was still more than hard enough to rattle his teeth, and hurt – the wind already knocked out of him from the blow itself.  It had been only a moment before that the keep doors had opened, and Laurel had witnessed the end of the exchange from a distance – the power behind it, and all, but had not quite had the presence of mind to stop the unexpected event.

“What is the meaning of this?” Laurel yelled as he marched down the steps quickly.  Katrisha’s expression shifted as she looked up.  She went from anger to worry, as she realized she was about to be in trouble.  Charles simply lay before her rubbing his head, and holding his ribs – she had hit him much harder than she realized, intended, or imagined she could.

“He started it,” Katrisha protested thinly in shock.

“It certainly did not look that way,” Laurel said stepping up next to the pair, and looking down at Charles.  He leaned down, and offered him his hand.  Charles took it, and got to his feet.  Laurel swept his hand over him briskly, finding no major damage, though it seemed likely a bruise would form by morning.  “Are you alright?” Laurel asked with some concern, sweeping his hand over the boy’s head more slowly.  Still nothing, it seemed, but he realized how volatile the incident alone could prove.

“I’m fine,” Charles sneered, brushed Laurel’s hand away, turned, and marched off fiercely.

Laurel thought to protest, but turned instead to Katrisha.  “What happened?” he demanded angrily.

“He grabbed my arm, and called me a bastard,” Katrisha declared defiantly, her nose scrunched up once again.

Laurel looked to see how far away Charles had gotten.  “That is still no reason to strike him,” Laurel scolded.  “You could have hurt him badly – and you would have had to live with that, even if it were not for the trouble it could cause us all.”

Katrisha looked away.  “I’m not a bastard,” she said starting to cry.

“Of course not, dear,” Laurel said, dropped down to her level, and pulled her close, not entirely sure what to do.  “But you are better than him, more powerful than he could ever be.  You must not abuse that power, however much in the moment you feel like he deserved it.  He isn’t worth it – his insults aren’t worth what hurting him could do to you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Winter

Styver 25th, 637

Snow lay heavy a cloister courtyard at Highvale, and fresh snow continued to fall in large loose clumps.  Amidst the swirling snow stood Wren – not indifferent to the cold, but in spite it nonetheless.  It was the kind of gray morning that saw most denizens of the Highvale cloister sleeping in, tucked into warm beds, preferably not alone.  But Wren was not entirely alone in the courtyard, for not only snow hung in the air about him.

Faint lights could be seen shifting in a slow dance among the falling flakes.  It was not unheard of for wisps to be seen in the woods around the cloister, or even to wander into the orchards, or dance near an outer window.  It was rare, but not unheard of.  What was strange, what no one in living memory had seen was what had caught Wren’s attention when he woke, and followed from bed that frigid morning.

No other brothers or sisters had yet noticed.  The only other people at that point who should have been out of their beds were those on kitchen duty, content near their warm stoves – unless they were late – preparing the morning meal.  Another had dragged herself from warm comfort, in something of a fright.  Renae rushed into the courtyard, and wrapped a blanket around Wren, not even having noticed the strange sight that had the boy’s eyes fixed upward.

Her hurried arrival seemed to drive the wisps higher, so she might have been forgiven for not noticing their faint glows, her attention entirely on a tiny barely dressed boy hip deep in the snow.  “What are you doing?” Renae demand holding him close.  Wren shivered, and then wrestled an arm free of the blanket to point up.

Renae did not understand, until a faint glow drifted along the top of her field of view, and she looked up.  Renae had seen a wisps before, several times in her long life, but never once closer than a dozen yards.  This one hovered not a foot above her, drifting ever so lightly back and forth, but not without it seemed disturbing the snow, which seemed to swirl about it slightly.

Then Renae was as rapt as the boy she held.  The wisp was not alone, she counted, four, five, and as she focused she thought she saw a sixth, and seventh farther up.  There were no less than three remarkable things that struck her, competing for which was most out of place.   All conventional wisdom on wisps it seemed had gone out the window before her eyes.  Wisps were presumed intangible, and yet these disturbed the snow.  They do not wander where people dwell, yet they were there in the cloister courtyard.  Lastly they do not appear in winter, and yet there they were, amidst the snow.

“They are singing,” Wren said, but Renae could hear nothing other than her breath, her heart pounding, and the gentle sound of wind over the rooftops.

“It’s just the wind,” Renae guessed.

“No,” Wren protested.

Renae finally had the presence of mind to lift the boy out of the snow, and wrap his surely freezing feet in the blanket.  The wisps backed off at the motion, and she watched, hesitantly.  It was painfully cold, and yet such a strange opportunity was hard to pass up so readily.  She closed her eyes, and turned to head back into the cloister, but just as she was about step through the door, she thought she heard something, faint, like a woman’s voice humming upon the breeze.

She turned back, and watched as the wisps slowly drifted up, and away, and with them went any hint of the song – and yet it lingered, strange, distant, and painfully familiar, more memory than sound.  Where had she heard it before, why did she feel that she knew it, and why did she want to cry?  Why did she want to cry, and never stop?

Wren was playing with the button clasp of her robe.  “Button,” he said.  Then Renae wept, she collapsed against the pillar of the arch she stood under, and cried for almost a minute, clinging to the small boy in her arms.  He didn’t know, he was just saying the word.  He couldn’t have known, she chided herself.  Could he?

She had managed to gather herself, and reach the door back into the cloister when Andria found her, and ushered her in.  “Are you alright?” she demanded, her face stricken with worry.  There was no hiding that Renae had been crying.  “Is Wren alright?” she added.

“He’s fine,” Renae managed, “I’m fine.”

“What’s wrong?” Andria asked.

“Nothing,” Renae deflected plainly, it was too much to explain, or put into words.  “We should check his feet, and legs though,” she said changing the subject.  “He was standing bare foot out there.”

“What were you thinking child?” Andria asked staring at Wren in disapproval.  “Wait how did he even get out there?” she asked taken aback.

“I think he walked,” Renae answered uncertainly.

“But down the stairs, and all?” Andria said dubiously.

“They were singing,” Wren protested.

Andria looked to Renae in confusion, who simply shook her head, her eyes pleading ‘not now.’  She hugged Wren close, and whispered under her breath, “What am I to do with you little bird?”

Outside, on the upper level of the cloister walkway, a young redhead woman watched curiously as the last of the wisps moved away.  She was late for her duties, and had come upon the strange scene just as Renae had first rushed out to the boy in the snow.   Sasha, was fascinated.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Spring

Vernum 3rd, 638 E.R.

The spring festival was well underway, and twin girls sat side by side high atop the east wall of the castle.  Katrisha’s head was leaned on her sister’s shoulder, and their feet dangled down from the notch in the wall where they sat.  Each sucked at hard candies on sticks, stolen from the royal kitchen through subterfuge, and misdirection – the ill-gotten gains of the morning.

“There you are,” a slightly winded voice called out from behind them.  Mercu seemed a bit cross when they turned to look.  “I have been looking everywhere for the two of you,” he grumbled, “charged most vehemently with your apprehension, no less.”  The girls each bit their lips, looked at each other, and then Kiannae offered Mercu one of the candy sticks.

Mercu considered the offering suspiciously for a moment, looked about, shrugged, and took it, opting to lean against the battlement behind them to catch his breath.  “This doesn’t seem a very safe spot,” he added, and began enjoying the candy himself.

“It’s a good view,” Kiannae contested.

“And the patrols don’t often come all the way to the north tower,” Katrisha noted.

“No, I suppose they don’t,” Mercu agreed, “not much need really.”

It was a warm spring already, after a very cold winter.  Flowers dotted the fields below, where grazing sheep had not yet eaten them.  Mercu looked from the fields below, to the girls sitting just before him.  He was really only cross with them for the imposition of being put upon to find them for punishment.  They hadn’t done anything he wouldn’t have, or didn’t when he was much younger.  Though he dared say he caused less commotion, and fuss in a candy heist, and did a bit better not to get caught.

“You know you shouldn’t steal candy,” Mercu said in way of reproval.

“There was so much of it,” Katrisha protested.

“No one would miss a couple,” Kiannae added.

“Yes, well, perhaps, but your little light show distraction didn’t leave much guessing who was to blame, did it?” Mercu chided.

“No,” Kiannae admitted.

“I guess not,” Katrisha echoed her sister’s tone.

“First lesson,” Mercu intoned, “don’t steal.”  The girls wrinkled their noses.  “Second lesson,” Mercu said more earnestly, “don’t make it so obvious who stole.”  He held a very serious face for a while, and then slowly his expression broke into a smile, and he laughed.

“Third lesson though,” Mercu nodded approvingly, “if you get caught, bribe the one who catches you.  Good job there at least.  It’s only going to buy you time though – I can be bought off, Laurel, I don’t think will be so easy.”

“Fourth lesson,” Mercu said leaning in, and whispering quietly, “lay low.  I’d say make yourself scarce for a couple more hours.  Let everyone cool down, and stay out of any more trouble.  You hear?”

The girls looked at each other, then back at Mercu, and nodded.  “Very good then,” Mercu said, and walked off.  “Now where did those troublesome whelps get to,” he said somewhat loudly, mostly for the girl’s benefit, as no one else of note was in earshot.

The girls went back to watching the scenery below, and enjoying their candy, and another good fifteen minutes passed before they peeked back at the sound of approaching footsteps.  Charles did not notice the girls look out from their notch in the battlement, as he had already turned to climb into another crevice of the wall himself.

Nothing had ever come of Katrisha’s altercation with Charles, except for the two avoiding each other.  Katrisha figured he had learned better than going to his father for help concerning either of them.  Katrisha pursed her lips, and wrinkled her nose like she was considering something she didn’t much care for.  Then before Kiannae could protest she leapt down from the parapet, the sound of which caught Charles’ attention.

Charles watched Katrisha approach guardedly.

“Hello,” she finally said standing just below where he sat on the wall.

“Yes?” he asked demandingly, and perhaps just a bit afraid that if this lead to her pushing him as hard as the last time they spoke, he would sail clean off the wall.

“Is your father making you run errands again?” Katrisha asked, not trying to sound mean, but it came off that way any how.

“What do you care?” Charles asked incredulously, and eyed Kiannae with equal suspicion as she stepped up beside her sister.

“I wanted to say I was sorry,” Katrisha said changing her tact.  Charles didn’t quite know what to say to that, really overall he seemed a bit taken aback by the concept, and not keen to believe it.  After a long pause Katrisha offered him one of the candies she was holding.  With a timidness that did not quite match his conventional demeanor, Charles took the sweet, but still eyed it with some suspicion.

There was another long pause, and when it seemed no one else had anything further to say, Katrisha curtsied slightly – not quite mock, but not quite respectful either, more an odd acknowledgment, and then she turned to walk away.  Charles tentatively tasted the sweet, and found it was precisely what it appeared.  Just before the twins were out of earshot his heart softened, and he yelled back, “I’m sorry too.”

“What was that about?” Kiannae demanded, as they passed through the north tower.

“Laurel said we are better than him,” Katrisha said with a shrug.  “So I thought…I would be better than him?”  Kiannae scrunched her face thoughtfully, and nodded agreement without too much reluctance.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Summer

Raehune 41st, 638 E.R.

It was a terribly, and unreasonably hot summer afternoon as Mercu walked the upper corridor towards the west tower.  He had already undone several buttons of his shirt, and relished the idea of being rid of his garments, and collapsing by his window for the rest of the miserable day.

There were two entirely valid options when making for his room in the tower.  The lower path along the base of the wall, or the upper corridor that lead past the ladies bath.  He always favored the latter, not that there was anything to be seen, or anything quite so unseemly in his reasons.  He nodded to a young freshly bathed woman who walked past him.  It was more simply the company one might run into along the way.

Just as he passed the bath however he could not help but notice a slight yelp from within.  Nothing dire, nothing concerning, but it had been very distinct, and made him stop.  He hesitated a moment, then walked on as there was nothing he could do to sate his curiosity.  Half way down the hall he heard the door open, and looked back.  Marian stood there, looking a bit flustered, and still rather damp.  She stood there stewing a moment before she noticed Mercu out of the corner of her eye.

She gave him a rather hard to read look, and he simply gazed back bewildered by it.

“I can appreciate it is a hot day,” Marian started loud enough for him to hear as she walked towards him, “I truly can, but there is such a thing as too cold.”

When Mercu seemed no more clear on where she was going about her sudden line of conversation, Marian simply gestured back towards the door.  “There is no one else in there, except those two,” she started, “perhaps you should deal with her.”

Mercu sighed, and wondered what new mischief the twins were causing.  He set that aside, and decided this was as good a chance as any to see the inside of the ladies bath, he had always been curious.  He walked back, opened the door with some timidness, and entered.  Around the wall that blocked immediate view from the hall, he found the twins on opposite sides of the room.

On one side Kiannae sat, her feet dangling in the water, reading a book.  On the far end Katrisha was floating, only her face above the surface near one of the curtains of water for showering.  At a glance nothing seemed entirely out of place, and Mercu let himself get distracted pondering the room itself.  It was about as grand as he had envisioned, certainly more ornate than the common bath for the men, and decidedly more open.  Women he decided must mind seeing each other less than men.

Looking back at the twins he was still unsure what the issue was – until at last he noticed that there seemed to be something white around the spout behind Katrisha.  Mercu walked closer, and upon examination it appeared to be frost – if he tried he could make out a hint of the spell.  He dipped his finger in the curtain of water, and found it very cold indeed.

“By the light girl, how can you bear it?” Mercu asked noticing Katrisha had opened her eyes, and was looking at him.

“I like it,” she said.

“I could almost understand, but really, this cold?” Mercu protested shaking his finger.

“I think she’s crazy,” Kiannae said from her end of the room.

“Why did Marian yelp though?” Mercu asked shaking the water from his finger.

“She stepped into the stream,” Kiannae laughed.

“And you didn’t warn her?” Mercu chided.

“Didn’t think to.  No,” Katrisha mused.

“I was reading,” Kiannae protested.

“Well, next time warn someone.  Ok?” Mercu said sternly, “Oh, and do make it a little less cold,” he said with some concern, testing the water again, “for your own good.”

“Ok,” Katrisha sighed.

He stood up, looked around once more, and walked back out.  Marian was waiting outside.  “Well?” she asked impatiently.

“I told her to warn people in future, and that it can’t be good for her to be that cold either,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I’d assume the far spouts are untampered with, if you were still wanting to bathe.”  He tipped his hat, and turned to walk on.  “Though…” he said stopping, and looking back, “if you are in no hurry, such charming company as yourself, could never go amiss, even on such a dreadfully warm day.”  He smiled, in his most devilish sort of way.  Marian, decidedly did not frown.

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Chapter 6

As it is and always was,
shall now and forever be,
we seek to cleave to another,
in this find our true reprieve,

and by these ties that bind,
the whole is more secure,
and by these better virtues,
tame fickle nature and endure.

– wedding speech, circa 400 E.R.

Titles

Jovan 10th, 638 E.R.

Renae walked through the upper courtyard, a cumbersome child in her arms, and two soldiers escorting her casually.  “Do you think you can walk dear?” she finally asked growing weary of the boy’s weight.

“Ok,” Wren replied, and Renae set him down gently, and took his hand.  If anything the march slowed for the toddling steps of the little boy, but it was easier going.

“How old is he, if I might ask Mam?” one of the men enquired as the group slowly marched on.

“Just few days over two,” Renae said regarding the man kindly.

“A bit big for his age,” the other man remarked with some surprise.

“He’s a lot of things for his age,” Renae laughed, but her expression shifted.  “Do I know you sir?” she asked uncertainly of the first guard.

“Name’s Eran,” the man nodded, “and yes, we’ve crossed paths quite a lot.  I grew up in the cloister.”

“Ah, yes, Lanie’s boy,” Renae nodded.

“Have I heard right that he’s the brother of the two young lasses the Court Mage has taken in?” Eran asked.

“Yes, you’ve heard right,” she said with a slight smile.

“If you’ll beg my pardon mam, why was he left with you, and not brought here with the other two?” the second guard asked, and Eran gave him a questioning look for the tone of his inquiry.

The man shrugged as though to say he meant no offense.

“He was very unwell,” Renae said sadly.

“Yet he’s so big?” the second man repeated.

“Not every kind of sickness stunts your growth,” Renae laughed.

“No, I suppose not, sorry ma’am,” the guard said apologetically, and Eran elbowed him gently.

“Don’t worry, was a fair question, and not common wisdom,” Renae said shaking her head.

“Allow me ma’am,” Eran said as Renae bent down.  Renae stepped back as Wren was lifted into Eran’s arms, and carried up the stairs to the keep door.  The guards stationed at the doors opened them wide, as Eran set Wren back down, and the procession continued into the keep.

Renae took Wren’s hand again as the guards at the throne room door opened it in turn.  Eran nodded to Renae, and she walked into the throne room with Wren, and the doors closed behind them.  There were very few in the throne room that day.  The King and the Queen sat on their thrones, with Darion at their side, and Laurel stood below the dais.  To the side in the shadows under the balcony stood Mercu, with two identical little freckle faced girls by his side.

“My King,” Laurel said as Renae and Wren approached, and the throne room doors closed behind them, causing Wren to turn back and stumble.  Renae helped him back up as Laurel continued his introduction.  “Matron Renae Somavera of the Lycian Sisterhood, and the young Wren Ashton, brother to the girls Katrisha and Kiannae of the court.”

“King John,” Renae said with a curtsy, letting go of Wren’s hand for a moment, “Such a formal greeting for such a private audience.”

“It has been a long time Renae,” the King said leaning forward.  “We did not greet you at all on your last visit, and felt it…appropriate.”

“As you will my Lord,” Renae said.  “I have brought young Wren that he might meet his sisters, while they might still remember him.”  Mercu lead the girls from the shadows, and up to Wren who they hesitantly considered.

The boy’s presence was a curious thing, like heavy satin, something stifling and yet unreasonably smooth.  All at once it retreated from one’s awareness shyly, like a giant afraid to break the little things around him.  It was a striking and yet fleeting impression that did not match the tiny form it belonged to.  Though shy certainly fit.

Renae knelt down beside Wren, and gestured to one of the two.  “Wren, this is…”

She was interrupted from her awkward pause, having realized that she didn’t know which was which, not by Katrisha identifying herself, but by Wren offering, “Kat.”

“That’s right,” Katrisha said eyeing her brother suspiciously.

“Kia,” Wen said biting his robe, and turning to look at his other sister.

“That is remarkable,” the Queen said astounded, “how did he know which was which? I’ve never been able to tell.  Save if it’s the one running through the snow, or huddled under running water on the hot days of summer.”

“I…I really can’t be sure,” Renae said awkwardly, “I believe it is his mother’s influence.”

“That…matter regarding how she died?” the Queen asked uncomfortably.

“Yes,” Renae sighed, and stood up.  “He speaks far far too well for his age, when he isn’t being timid and quiet.  Which I must admit is most of the time.  Ever so often there is the glimmer of something more as well.”

“I see,” the Queen said measuredly, “but he is not his mother then, reborn or any such witchery?”

“No my Queen,” Renae said reassuringly.  “Just gifted, and cursed.  He learns fast, but rarely offers things he was not presented with first – as he did here.”

“Mercu,” the King interjected, “would you take the children elsewhere, I would speak to the Matron at length, regarding other matters.”

“Of course your Majesty,” Mercu said taking Kiannae and Katrisha’s hands, and before he could ask Katrisha had taken Wren’s in turn.

When the four were out of the throne room the King regarded Renae shrewdly.  “We have been told you know of the trouble in the north, yes?” he asked.

“Yes,” Renae said without elaboration.

“How much do you know?” the King asked leaning back.

“The King, Queen, and heir apparent of Osyrae are dead,” Renae recounted from her memory of pieced together accounts.  “There was a fire in the wall that held the royal chambers…but not all believe that is the whole story.  They were mages after all – unlikely to succumb easily to such an event.”

“They were beloved by their people, and the Queen herself was a beloved relative of the crown.” The King grimaced.  “I had hope, for the first time since the great war that a true prosperous relationship with Osyrae could be upon us.”

“The new King is respected, for his power, and is considered a good ruler, at least by the upper class,” Renae continued, “but not beloved.”

“Nor as friendly to our emissaries,” the King added, “they are not turned away outright, but are lucky to get audience with lower officials, or even set foot in the palace itself.”

“Yes,” Renae confirmed, “I have heard similar.”

“Directly no doubt,” the Queen said with only a touch of distaste.

“I have seen the odd emissary, taking time away within our walls,” Renae said measuredly, “but have not spoken with any personally.”

“Please, let us stick to the business at hand,” the King commanded sternly.

“My King,” Renae said solemnly, “what is the business at hand?”

“Osyrae has not gone to war – in our direction at least – since the fall of the Empire,” the King said with false calm.  “Yet We are unsure of this new King, Vharen We find to the north.  If it were to come to war, We fear for the casualties, to the wounds that would be inflicted upon our people.  We ask if our long acceptance of the Sisterhood within our borders, has earned us your services if such dark days come to pass?”

Renae closed her eyes, and bowed her head for a moment, before looking up again sternly.  “We will heal any wound, that is our calling.  There are even those of us who would place themselves where the need is greatest, no matter the risk.  That is where we must draw the line, we can not sanction the following of troops onto foreign soil, however justified the act might become.”

“We cannot ask more,” the King said solemnly, “though We might have hoped.”

“My King,” Renae spoke again, “I must ask something though, not as a prerequisite for what is simply our duty, but that we might be better able to perform it.”

“Speak your request, and it will be considered,” the King said shrewdly.

“The Clarions go too far, they insight the people against the Sisterhood,” Renae said flatly.  “We are driven from our homes, our shops, and other places we might reside beyond Highvale.”

The King’s dour expression only deepened.  “We have heard a few such troubling reports, of incidents stopped by my men, and a few who went so far that they are now indentured servants to the crown as penance for their crimes.  Yet I know not what more We can do, the Clarions do not speak directly against the Sisterhood, and they are popular with many.”

Renae bowed her head, “As I said my King, not a demand, a request.  I know that you do not share your father’s views…that you have never spoken against us, but might it be too much to speak openly in our favor?”

“You ask something dangerous of Us,” the King said firmly, “but it will be considered.”

“There is one more thing I might ask,” Renae began hesitantly.  “A more trivial matter, but one that treads the same ground I fear.”

“Speak it,” the King commanded.

“There is disused land near Aldermor.  We’ve the tentative blessing of local baron to begin construction of a new cloister, but he is uncertain if he has that authority,” Renae began.

The King hummed thoughtfully, and Renae continued, “Sister Marin has resided there for the past two years, with no incident.  Clarion influence in the area is at least lacking venom.  If you could assure the Baron Woren that he has the authority to sanction the use of land.”

“Yes,” the King nodded, “that is within reason.”  He paused a moment, and considered another thought.  “Enough of such wearisome topics.  We will know how long you plan to stay?”

“A few days,” Renae said without much consideration.

“Have you heard that there is to be a wedding in a week?” Laurel interjected.

“I might have heard mention of some affair to be held at court,” Renae said glancing at Laurel curiously.

“The twins have been asked to be flower girls,” the Queen said leaning forward, “a place might be found for the young Wren as well.  Horence credits them, I am told, with allowing him to catch the eye of his bride to be.”

“Interesting,” Renae said.  “I suppose I might extend my stay, at the King’s leave of course.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 19th, 638 E.R.

Renae stood along the rampart of the western wall, leaned out, and watched the birds flock to and fro about the lake far beneath the the castle.  As the third flight she had seen that morning took wing to the north she heard footsteps behind her, and turned to see Mercu strolling casually toward her.

“What brings you to the west wall, so far from the growing excitement?” Renae asked perking a brow.

“I might ask you the same,” Mercu replied coyly, stopping to lean against the parapet a few steps away.

“Such would be fair, but decorum would require questions to be answered in the order asked.”  Renae offered a playful smile.

“Just a stroll to clear my head,” Mercu said with a tip of his hat.  “All the romance in the air, gets quite heady after a while.”

“If you will give me no real reason, then I shall say the same,” Renae offered with a nod, and turned back to the swirling flocks below.  “I simply longed to rest from all the commotion.”

Mercu considered Renae for a moment.  “It’s hard to explain…” he said with a slightly melancholy tone.  “I do love a good wedding, the traditional romantic feel of it all, but at the same time they remind me that I am unlikely to ever have one, not that I’m sure it’s quite fit for me.”

“You speak as though there is someone specific on your mind,” Renae said glancing back to Mercu, who then stood looking into the sky wistfully.  “You, who have spent the past week flirting with me mercilessly…and no, do not apologize, I quite enjoyed it.”

“And what if it is you?” Mercu laughed. “My darling lovely Renae, divine gracious beauty of the Sisterhood.  Why wouldn’t it be you that I dream of wedding?”

Renae sighed, but smiled appreciatively at the thinly veiled dodge in the form of a compliment.  “You do not have to tell me, you owe me no such confidence.  As for me, I could be wed, if I wished.  I have little doubt Andria would accept the offer, though such a union would be recognized only by the Sisterhood.  It’s not what I want though.  While I do adore and care for her, ours is an arrangement of convenience.  A respectable pairing – in our circle at least – but I do not deny a part of my heart lies elsewhere.  Quite foolishly, I should add.”

“Such tantalizing hints, but no clues,” Mercu laughed, “well played dear woman.”

“Oh if it were at all well played,” Renae said shaking her head.  “So many mistakes, so many tragedies that I am hard pressed to forgive myself for.  Even were the world itself not between us, even if he were still…no it could never have worked, and certainly can never be now.”

“Oh a man, how delightful.  Perhaps there is hope for me after all.”  Mercu laughed trying to draw Renae from her obvious dire train of thought.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”  Renae laughed.  “All tales, most particularly your own, tell of how utterly hopeless you are.”

“Oh, yes, there is that,” Mercu mused.  “No, it was more that I had wondered if you even fancied the more rugged sort.”

“You, rugged?” Renae chuckled incredulously.

“Do you besmirch my manhood?” Mercu declared in mock indignation.

“Oh, heavens no,  Just the use of rugged in any sentence pertaining to you,” Renae said trying to restrain her good humor, “and further absent of the word not.”

“I am wounded, dishonored, quickly I must find a dragon to slay with my bare hands – such that my virility be proven to the fair maiden!” Mercu declared raising his clenched fist to the sky.

“Bah, I am no more a maiden than you are rugged,” Renae offered in melancholy humor, but smiled warmly.  “Besides, I am sure you are quite virile.”

“Fine then,” Mercu said, and leaned lazily back against the parapet, “as long as that much is settled.”  There was a long silence, and at last Mercu stood up straight, adjusted his vest, and with hesitation returned to the earlier topic.  “I will grant you in kind, to be fair.  If I were to consider wedding, to give up my gallivanting ways, it would be…well it could never be, not in this day and age.”

Renae considered Mercu shrewdly, and a puzzled expression crossed her face.  “You don’t mean…”

“I do mean…or don’t mean, quite entirely based upon what you might guess,” Mercu chuckled, “but I’ll not be lead into revealing my secret.  Not with no guarantee yours is at least as grand.  So who’s is bigger?  I do wonder…”

“I thought we were through questioning your manhood?” Renae said with a wry playful grin.

“Bah,” Mercu said leaning back against the wall in a huff.  “I like you Renae,” he said after a moment had passed, and turned his head towards her with a crooked smile, “you are such very good sport.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Lady Catharine considered the bride to be examining herself in a full length mirror, and wondered at the troubled expression on her face.  “You look lovely Alice,” she said reassuringly, assuming she was fretting over her appearance on her wedding day.

Alice turned to Catharine a bit surprised at the sudden comment, a strand of her red hair rebelliously coming loose as she turned.  “Thank you Catharine,” she said after a moment, as though confused, but her expression still seemed ill at ease.

“What troubles you dear?” Catherine asked with genuine concern.

“Nothing of importance,” Alice said turning back to the mirror, and fussing with the loose lock of hair. “Idle chatter of idle minds.”

“Do share dear niece,” Catharine pressed kindly.  “it surely could only help to get it off your mind on such an important day.”

Alice looked down for a moment, then turned back to her aunt and considered her shrewdly. “There are those who do not approve, who think Horence is beneath me.  I pay them little mind, but…it wounds me none the less that they speak ill of my beloved.”

Catherine frowned, and for a moment it showed her age, not with frailty, but an imposing sense of knowing clarity. “I will not deny I was amongst those who questioned the courtship, at first – albeit only to myself I will stress.  He’s a good man, and though he has no title, I believe it is only for a lack of opportunity to distinguish himself.”

“Not all with title have truly done anything of distinction,” Alice said with some venom.

“Too true,” Catharine offered.  “I have often debated my wisdom all those years ago to style myself Lady.”

“I had never considered,” Alice said a bit taken aback, “that it had been a choice.”

“It was, and one that caused quite a stir,” Catharine laughed slightly. “Which at the time pleased me greatly, but in retrospect it was a childish gesture.  If anything I believe it meant I was not worthy of the title I discarded.  As such I have since dedicated myself to insuring the grace, and sanctity of the court.  I say again, while your betrothed has not been honored with title, I for my part have deemed him worthy, at least of the hand of my dear niece.”

Alice took a moment to ponder Catherine’s words, “I suppose I can find peace in that, even if your approval here in these chambers will do little to quiet those insistent on the useless wagging of tongues.”

“No, it will take more to quiet such decent.  Remember that when the time comes, and do not take offense at the disruption, it is for the best,” Catharine said with a smile.

Alice considered pressing the matter further, but was distracted by the arrival of two small girls with baskets, and pretty dresses, ushered in by one of the younger ladies of the court.  Both girls clearly fussed a bit in their dresses, more used to robes.

“Oh they look positively darling,” Alice declared ecstatically making as much haste as she could towards the girls without stumbling in her gown.

The twins looked up with equal suspicion at the great white shrouded woman that crouched before them becoming an amorphous lump of fabric with a head, and arms that seemed to exist for no other purpose than to pinch at their cheeks.

“I have before me the two best flower girls that any bride could hope for.  Fates I remember the first time I saw these two arrive at court.”

“As do I,” Catharine said taking Alice by the arm, and gently urging her to stand again.  “They have grown ever so much in those two years, though I do swear it seems far longer.”  Katrisha gave Catherine a funny look, but for once Catharine seemed to be smiling at her, and she relented to do the same.

A knock at the door brought all around to attention.  Alice quickly checked herself, and all others present before hesitantly commanding, “Enter.”  The door opened with caution, and an older man with deep red hair peppered in strands of gray peaked in.  “Daddy!” Alice yelled as she hustled back across the room towards the new arrival.

“I hope I am not intruding.  I only just arrived, and it has been a very long trip,” the man said, obviously a bit uncomfortable to enter the bridal suite on such short notice.  His nervousness visibly lessened when pounced upon by his daughter.

“It’s good to see you could make it, Jeoffrey,” Catherine said with some reservation in her voice. “It is always a shame to have a wedding without the father of the bride, bad enough her mother could not attend.  I am surprised however they could spare you.”

“For my part I will continue to not miss her,” Jeoffrey said a bit coldly, but managed to smile again as he looked to his daughter.  “As for me, I am of no use up there, they could only be less receptive to diplomacy now if they outright expelled us from the country, or declared war,” he added with dark humor.  “Besides it would have taken no less than a royal decree to keep me away on this day, and I dare say a defection, an army, and an unexpected general at its lead might have come before that stopped me.”

“You speak boldly in such company,” Catharine said with just a touch of humor.

“I speak plainly, and in good humor to my dear, and ever pompous cousin,” Jeoffrey said tersely.  “You know my suspicions of their King, even if I have no proof…it would be a warm day in the abyss before…” He shook his head, and stopped himself.  He was clearly rattled.  “Though over throwing his light forsaken reign…that I might consider,” he added in awkward humor, his tone forced, his smile quite thin.

“Oh come here,” Catherine said, and reached out to hug Jeoffrey, forcing Alice to reluctantly make way.  “I miss her too,” Catherine said kindly.  “There are others who can take up the role.  You should return home, and stay.”

“I will not,” Jeoffrey said plainly.  “I can play my role, I can keep my temper.  I will know the truth,” he said softening, but not relenting.

Catharine pulled back from the embrace, and held Jeoffrey at arms length, examined his state of dress, and nodded with approval.  A thin veneer of propriety sweeping back over her face as she let the subject go.  “Not quite full knightly attire, but it will do for such short notice.  It will never cease to amaze me how well you travel dear cousin.”

“It is a necessary prerequisite to diplomatic service,” Jeoffrey laughed putting aside his troubles with practiced skill. “It does not make an appropriate impression to arrive disheveled, or otherwise undignified.”

The sound of music started in the distance, and Catharine turned to the Lady attending the the twins, “Marry, find a Boutonniere for Jeoffrey, quickly.”  She turned back to Jeoffrey. “You really did arrive at the positive last moment, I do hope you aren’t too tired from your journey, to finish what you have started.”

Catharine slipped past Marry, as the woman made haste out the door in search of the requested adornment.  She double checked each of the girls.  “It’s time little ones, just as we discussed, are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” the twins answered in unison.

“Then let us begin,” Catharine said ushering the three past her.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The wedding procession moved into it’s final position before the dais, where the King and Queen sat in their most regal attire on their thrones.  As silence descended the King stood before the the wedding party, and looked across the gathered crowd.

“People of Avrale,” the King spoke in a firm, and practiced tenor.  “We have gathered here today to bless the union of two valued subjects.  In accordance with their wish, and the consent of their elders that they be joined in marriage before the sight of all.  That sacred union, most treasured and adored when taken in love, but most fruitful when taken up in good council, and for the betterment of all.  It is always with great joy that these two purposes of marriage’s sacred vows can find convergence, as they have on this day.”

The King looked over the court for a moment.  “Before we may commence, it is custom that a question be put before those gathered.  That should anyone present on this day see fit reason that these two should not be wed, they speak now, or forever hold their peace,” the King paused, longer than would have been custom.  There was a palpable but silent stir as some wondered if the King expected a response.

“No objections?” the King continued in a demanding tone.  “None dare speak their mind openly to the face of these good servants of King, and Country.  It would be unseemly wouldn’t it?  Yet We have heard such mutterings nonetheless.  That it is questionable that a relative, if distant, to the crown should marry to a common soldier.”  The King looked to Horence and Alice, and seeing the hints of distress in their eyes nodded ever so slightly in each of their directions.

“A dilemma has been placed before your King, We approve of this union, yet We can not ignore the descent of the court on this matter.  Not,” the King stressed firmly, “because We believe there is merit to this idle bickering, but moreover because We think it brings to light a keen oversight that has gone on, for far too long.”  The King paused for several seconds, and then continued, “Commander Armon Anders, of the King’s Royal Guard, step before your Lord, and kneel.”

From the groom’s side of the wedding party a gray haired man with sharp features stepped forth, and knelt beside the bride and groom, and before the King.  The King reached out both hands and waited, as the Queen gracefully brought forth his sword, lain across her palms.  Taking it firmly by the hilt he raised it, and gently lowered the flat of the blade to the left shoulder of Armon.

“For long, and faithful service, and for insuring the keen training, and skill of more than half of the sitting Knights of the realm this day, We name the Sir Armon of Anders,” the King spoke, raised the sword, and lay it on Armon’s right shoulder, “Royal Knight of the Realm, Defender of Avrale, and Keeper of the Sacred Trust.  Stand good Sir, return to your vigilant post, you are honored this day, but other pressing matters remain at hand.”

The King looked back, and forth across the court as Armon returned to his place in the wedding party.  “On this day these two stand before us now as peers, in law,” the King paused, “as much as they already had in merit.  They stand each with titles inherited by birth, not earned by their own deeds.  In their union they shall be expected to work together to uphold this privilege, and earn the blessings given to them by fate.”

“Now we shall continue, on a more traditional note,” the King said, and turned to Alice.  “Lady Alice of Lansly, please take the hand of your betrothed.”  Alice took Horence’s hand, and with great relief and pride in her eyes, looked into his.  “Do you Lady Alice Lansly, daughter of Sir Jeoffrey of Lansly, take this man to be your lawful husband, to love, and to cherish, to follow, and abide, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Alice said on the verge of tears.

The King turned to Horence, “Do you Sir Horence of Anders, son of Sir Armon of Anders, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to love, and to cherish, to respect, and defend, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Horence said happily looking into Alice’s eyes.

“Are the ring’s present,” the King asked as a formal cue, upon which Wren held them up with tiny trembling hands – he had spent much of the service to that point distracted, and staring at them intently for reasons he could not quite place.

“With these rings,” the King continued as the bride and groom took the rings, and slipped them in turn onto each other’s fingers, “which represent the cycle of life, of love, and the unbroken nature of this bond, these two are united.  Let no man put asunder what has been joined together here today.  I pronounce you man, and wife, you may now kiss the bride.”

A cheer rose across the crowd as the bride and groom threw themselves into each other arms.  Everyone present took their own points from ceremony, but three small children each for their part saw something different from one another.  One saw love defy the foolishness of its dissenters.  One saw a King humble his arrogant court in the defense of loyal subjects.  Lastly there was the smallest of the three, who for his part felt things he couldn’t quite understand, but in part, some where far at the back of his young mind he felt cheated, and he did not understand it.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood leaning against the rail of the balcony overlooking the wedding ball, a musical company occupying the one opposite him.  He absently noticed the father of the bride dance start, but was far more concerned with other matters.  He turned to face the sound of slowly approaching footfalls, after having ignored them for several seconds.

“I was fairly certain it was you I saw up here,” Renae said with a good deal of cheer.

“Too much commotion below,” Laurel laughed, “but it’s still nice to enjoy the ambiance, and merriment of a good party without being trapped within.  Rather like a roaring fire, nice to sit by, but I’d prefer to keep my distance.”

“Fair enough,” Renae said moving beside Laurel, and looking down as well.  “Doesn’t seem like Mercu to go missing mid party though.”

“That would be my fault,” Laurel said with a smirk, “and no I suppose he wasn’t too happy about it, but I asked him to take over watching the girls for a bit.”

“Aren’t they to bed already?” Renae asked perking a brow. “I lay Wren down two hours ago,”

“No, they should be…but it would also be a change if they were,” Laurel chuckled. “I swear those two do not sleep save by the combined will of the fates themselves.  Perhaps they will be tired enough after their present to fall asleep quickly, for once.”

“Oh,” Renae remarked with interest, “what present could they be giving that is so exhausting?”

“That,” Laurel laughed, “would be telling.  You’ll see.  They’ve been at it for an hour, I figure one more they should be ready.”

“Very well,” Renae said a bit bored with the secrecy.  After a moment she seemed to consider Laurel carefully.  “I can tell there is more on your mind than avoiding the party.  What troubles the Court Mage of Avrale this fine evening?”

“The same things as trouble the King.”  Laurel sighed.  “Though I, for my part have heard more rumors, that I do not know what to do with.  I have yet to decide when I should bring them to the King’s attention.”

“And yet you mention such sensitive information to me?” Renae asked a bit perplexed.

“It’s less sensitive…than curious, and concerning.  There are whispers that the new King of Osyrae seeks to capture a dragon, or even dragons,” Laurel laughed darkly.

“That almost sounds like good news,” Renae remarked with a nearly ill expression.  “They will kill themselves off long before we need worry about a march on Avrale.”

“Doesn’t it though?” Laurel sighed.  “It’s so crazy, so suicidal, so hard to believe.  The things is, I have understated the facts.  It’s more than just rumors, the sources are quite credible, save the content.”  He shook his head.  “Even raised from hatching wild dragons are hard to tame or control, too powerful, too intelligent, what could those fools think they would do with a full grown one?  If I believed their new king dim, or lacking in sense it would not trouble me so.  I do not believe him to be as idiotic as this appears, and so…I am concerned.”

“No,” Renae grimaced, “nothing I have heard inclines me to believe that Vharen is a fool.  Unstable perhaps, but no fool.”

“I shall trust your discretion for the moment Renae,” Laurel said eyeing her shrewdly.  “I shall tell the King tomorrow when the festive air has cleared.  It’s not information which can be acted upon, but it is my duty to inform him of what I have learned.  Regardless, if it is Mercu you seek, he is in the upper courtyard, outside the keep.”

“I shall seek him out momentarily then,” Renae smiled, “for now I shall enjoy your company as we observe the joyous atmosphere from afar.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Renae made her way from the ballroom, two drinks in hand, one for herself, and one for Mercu.  She found herself face to face with a stately man with pale hair in knightly attire, and a grim expression, going the other way.  “Terribly sorry,” she said having nearly bumped into him.

The man simply eyed her coldly, and pushed past her, nearly causing her spill one of the drinks.  “That was completely uncalled for,” she declared after the impertinent knight.  He walked on for several steps, then stopped, turned, and stared at her with distaste.

“Your presence is uncalled for apostate,” the man said darkly, “not all at court appreciate that we entertain Lycian whores.”

Renae glanced up, and down the main corridor in slight surprise that no one else was present to hear such remarks on such an active night.  “You speak boldly sir,” Renae laughed shrugging off the insult.  It had been some time since she had found herself personally in that vein of confrontation.  “Would you speak so plainly before your King?”

The man was silent for a moment, and Renae continued to consider his posture.  He was a bit drunk she decided.  “I thought not,” she continued.  “Where do the Clarions stand on excessive drinking?” she prodded rhetorically.  “A distraction of the flesh, unfit, unworthy, as I recall.  No less a corruption than ones of passion.  So tell me, that I might know those who set themselves up as my enemies, and hypocrites no less, who are you Sir?”

“Sir Arlen, of Wesrook – for what business it is of yours,” the man said, and turned promptly to continue down the hall.

As Renae turned she saw what might have prompted Arlen to depart suddenly.   Mercu could be seen approaching.  “Well met,” she declared, and offered him the second drink.

“So thoughtful,” Mercu said with a bow, and accepted the glass.  “What was that exchange about?”  He asked politely, taking a sip.

“Nothing worthy of your attention,” she said with restrained irritation.  “What brings you in?” Renae enquired.  “I had heard you were in the upper court watching the twins prepare some secret gift.”

“I was, but I have been commanded by the young ladies to acquire their intended audience.  Would you be so kind as to go keep an eye on them, I doubt they will burn down the castle in my absence, but one is never sure of such things.  I shall be along shortly when I can pull people away from the party, for the show.”

Renae nodded, and made her way to the keep doors, which stood open.  As she emerged she was struck quickly enough by the singular out of place sight.  Every bush seemed to be lit with countless glowing pale blue orbs.  A few people strolled about the courtyard, or sat giving little new interest to the sight, though three stood, and examined the bushes with great interest.

Katrisha and Kiannae could be made out faintly as they darted about the brightly illuminated bushes.  Renae found a bench, and sat to watch the girls work their magic, to some unknown end.  Certainly it was pretty enough in itself, but she suspected there was more to it than met the eye.

Several minutes passed, and finally a slow trickle of people began to emerge from the Keep, and descend the stairs.  Some went to examine the bushes more closely, while others stood back, chatted, and pointed.  When at last the bride, groom, King, Queen, and finally Laurel all stood atop the keep steps, Mercu wove his way down, and through the crowd.  He turned at its head, and launched into an overly dramatic and flourished bow.

“Ladies, Gentlemen, your Royal Highnesses, honored bride and groom,” he declared in his best speaking voice, as the twins hustled up to his side.  “I present to you, the gift of the young ladies Ashton.”

The two girls curtsied, then bowed their heads in concentration.  Renae caught the brief flicker of the filaments that still connected the girls to the spells they had woven in the bushes.  Then slowly the lights began to rise, and scatter, until the courtyard was filled with drifting balls of light.  The crowd murmured appreciatively, and from atop the steps clapping began.

As those gathered realized it was Alice applauding the spectacle the ovation spread, and the girls curtsied again.  Renae just barely caught the glance between the girls, and Katrisha’s quick nod.  There was a tiny flash of light above, and as everyone focused on where it had come from.  Tiny shimmering sparks were raining down and fizzled away.

There was another, that everyone saw this time, as one of the orbs burst and sent tiny ribbons of light outward which dissolved into sparkling dust.  Slowly more began to pop in brilliant showers of swirling light.  As the number of lights dwindled to about a third of what they were at the start, all that remained let lose nearly at once in one final dazzling cascade.

Through it all the crowd had oohed, and awed, and as the last brilliant burst faded away the previous applause returned with far more vigor, and a growing cheer.  There was a tear in Renae’s eye as Laurel walked down the steps, and sat next to her.  

“That was impressive,” she said approvingly – wiping her face discreetly.  “You’ve done a fine job teaching them.”

Laurel seemed to be eyeing the girls curiously, and finally spoke.  “I wish I could take more credit, but I didn’t even know they could do that last bit.”

“Oh,” Renae said with surprise.

“Oh indeed,” Laurel said with a nervous laugh.

The girls for their part curtsied each way to the crowd, and then at last simply started bowing in a less dignified manner, and with the same excessive flourish Mercu had used when introducing them.  Mercu for his part smiled proudly, and clapped along with the crowd.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 21th, 638 E.R.

“This – right here,” Mercu pointed insistently at the page he had turned to in a dusty old tome.  It was a bit of a faded manuscript, written in the hand of some court member long gone, and so not present to answer for near illegibility.

Laurel stared at the text, doing his best to make it out.

The Duke of Ashrook has chosen to wed the woman Alimae, an old farmhand of about his age, and unwed mother from the area he was born to.  There is more than a little talk that her grown son is in fact his.  The boy has no gift to speak of, and this quiets some, but the Duke was an emergent, and the mother ungifted.  My grandson, rightfully, has more pressing matters to consider, but as I prepare to step down as Regent, I do worry what this will mean for succession in the north – now that all the Duke’s legitimate heirs are gone.  I wish I could say few similar circumstances weren’t looming all around.  For all I have already lost, I must now contend with the greater costs.  Not just those to my weary old heart.  Oh Anton, if only you would have let me stand alone at Midrook.  Yet you would not run, my dear boy.

Laurel looked up dubiously.  “This alone doesn’t mean much,” he challenged.

“I’ve looked into it, this really is just the most conclusive statement on the matter,” Mercu said with a huff.  “All together it paints a fairly clear picture.  The Ashtons are not just relatives, or names sakes of the extinct line of Ashrook – they are his heirs.”

“It would explain their finances, but It’s a bit of a leap,” Laurel said shaking his head.  “What good does it do any way?  Being of royal lineage would only draw the eyes of the Council, and being descended from the bastard of a Duke would do them few favors in the eyes of the court,” he gestured emphatically.  “If we can even trust the source of this,” he added dubiously.

Mercu flipped to the front of the book, and tapped at the name written on the first page.  Most names of the heredity of Avrale would have meant little to Laurel, but there, written a bit more cleanly than most of her exaggerated script, was the name of the Emperor’s youngest daughter Gwendoline – first Queen Regent of the Midrook Dynasty.

“I will concede the point then,” Laurel sighed, “but please, I do stand by what I just said.  It does them no good.  Keep it to yourself.”

Mercu seemed satisfied at that, and nodded in acknowledgment.  “Of course,” he said, but with some reluctance.  “All at once, I will see this book preserved, and copies made in a more legible hand.  I’ve heard a bit of the tale before, but this journal…”  He trailed off tapping it.  “It is more than just the aftermath.  It contains a personal account of the fall of Avrale – the defeat of Empress, the start, and even end of the Dragon War.  It is a crime it has been locked away this long, it is a treasure fit for far more than to sit on a dusty old shelf.”

Laurel sighed.  “Very well, but please do not call any undue attention to this passage?”

“That I can do,” Mercu agreed.  “Really, I doubt anyone will take note of it.  Amidst the rest it is a fairly trivial matter.”

Laurel seemed thoughtful.  “Something still is bothering me.  It said the Duke was an emergent, and implied at least he was a commoner before?”

“Yes, there is more clear record on that.  He was a farmer’s son, nothing much to be said of the line before him,” Mercu said, rattling off what he remembered.  “His gift was so strong that he was discovered quite easily, pulled away, and pressed into service.  Somehow he caught the eye of the King’s third born daughter.  She managed to arrange that they be betrothed.  Before it became Ashrook it was something of a backwater, all farmland, far up north.  They were given it as a Duchy – had two sons, both died in the war, as did his wife.”

“His presumed son, according to the Queen,” Laurel began, “was not gifted, it says…”

“Nothing strange about that, flip a coin if a gifted father means a gifted child given a common mother,” Mercu shrugged.  “You know that.”

“Standard assumption yes,” Laurel nodded.  “There are other ideas though – recessive gifts.  Take two parents that each carry the the recessive trait, but did not manifest it, put them together, and you explain some of the stronger emergents that crop up.”

“So you think it’s not because they have Sylvan blood then?” Mercu frowned.

“Oh, no, I think that has everything to do with it still, just…something is bothering me, and I can’t place a finger on it.  Which means I’m probably chasing something prescient, and should stop.”  Laurel sneered.

“I have as much reason as you to be cautious of such things,” Mercu shrugged, “but I’ll never understand why you are so hesitant to even consider them.”

“Would you laugh if I told you I was once warned I would meet ill ends chasing prophecy?” Laurel laughed uncomfortably.

“Somehow I don’t think you are joking” Mercu frowned with some concern.

“No – sadly, I’m not.”  Laurel sighed.

“Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Mercu said picking up the book, and closing it.  “Since if you listen to that, you are still chasing one, or at least being chased by one.”

“I try to take it with the grain of salt that I’d already told her where she could stuff her visions.” Laurel laughed.

“Which of several entertaining places did you choose?” Mercu asked with a grin.

Laurel rolled his eyes.  “I wasn’t so specific,” he offered, “though to be fair I think I’d mistaken some of her remarks as a come on.”

“Oh, now I’m twice as interested,” Mercu chuckled, and leaned a bit on the table.

“She said I’d meet the love of my life, over the visions of a teller,” Laurel said with a half smile.

“Oh,” Mercu said, looking uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

“Indeed,” Laurel laughed.  “Now you see how much trouble prophetic visions cause me?”

“I swear you are almost as much fun as Renae,” Mercu said with a snide grin.

“Am I now,” Laurel said crossing his arms.

“Ok, ok,” Mercu waved dismissively.  “As much fun.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 7

Weathered stones rest round ‘n crumbled,
of that old broken tower tall ‘n noble,

there a weary eye might catch a glimmer,
of long satin robes that wave ‘n shimmer,
a glowing face bares timeless eyes,
‘n gossamer hair brushes ghostly thighs,

a beautiful form fair ‘n striking,
a hollow visage doth easily frighten,
do not tremble for our good white lady,
count again omens give kindly,

for should she smile broad and clear,
know you are ever welcome there,
O’ though should she frown ‘n glance to you,
heed her warning ill fortune comes due.

– Ballad of the White Lady, circa 400 E.R.

The Lady of the Hill

Estae 17th, 639 E.R.

Laurel heard the clatter of little feet coming up the stairs in great haste.  It was hardly warning enough for a six year old to grab hold of one leg, nor her sister in turn to glom onto the other, nearly toppling him in the process.

“Laurel,” Kiannae began in a panic, “there was a lady in our room.”

“But she wasn’t all there,” Katrisha added.

Laurel steadied himself, and considered the frightened children clinging to him.  He smiled in his usual way, and shook his head.  “So you’ve met Navi, have you?  I’ve seen her a few times myself, over the years.”

Katrisha loosened her grasp on Laurel’s leg, and glared up at him, startled by his matter of fact reaction.  “Na…Navi?” she stuttered.

“Yes,” Laurel said almost laughing, “Navi.  Though most call her the White Lady, or some other such thing.”

Kiannae now seemed to relax her grip a bit, and looked up, the worry on her face softening.  “Who is Navi?” she asked choking back her calming hysteria.  “Isn’t that the name of a mountain?”

“Yes – good.  She was the first official ruler of Avrale as a unified nation.  At least so far as the best histories I have found are concerned.” Laurel paused thoughtfully.  “She is one of the more curious ghosts I’ve ever heard of.”  The girls faces both tensed with unease at that word, but Laurel just laughed.

“Don’t worry dear ones,” he said patting them both on their heads, “first off ghosts are harmless.  I’ve only ever heard of one that can even interact with the world around him, and he’s…quite friendly.  As for Navi, I’ve only seen her a few times over the years, she’s exceptional in that she actually turns to look at people, sometimes smiles or frowns, but no one has ever seen her do more.”

He watched both girl’s expressions, their relief was clear but they were obviously still on edge.  “Come,” he said with gentle command in his voice.  “Come up to the main study, I will tell you more about ghosts, spirits, and other such things.”

Laurel gently pulled his legs free, turned, and headed back up the stairs.  The girls followed close behind.  “As to Navi herself I fear there isn’t much to tell,” he began as they passed a storage room door.  “She is very old.  She lived before the Empire by hundreds of years.  She is an imprint ghost, though an exceptional and unusual one given she seems aware of the living world.”

“Why is she,” Kiannae paused making sure she repeated the word correctly, “an ‘imprint?’”

“There are two main kinds of ghosts,” Laurel said pleased with the question. “There are those that manifest near their remains – these tend to be more aware and responsive.  Then there are those that appear near where they lived, or where important things happened.  These tend to just be after images.  Like reflections in a mirror.”

“You said though that she looks at people, even smiles,” Katrisha said with some consternation.  “She smiled at me, I saw it, I was just too scared at the time to realize.”

Laurel laughed. “I’m glad to hear Navi approves of you.  But yes, very astute.  In cases like Navi it is believed that more is imprinted upon the place than just an image, that a very small amount of the person remains.  She had the original north tower built here in her day, much of the work she may have even done herself – according to the legends.  Though that tower fell very long ago, some of the stone was reused, so she remains.”

“So she only appears here in the tower?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“No,” Laurel corrected, “she appears near any of the scattered stones of the old tower.  Including above the waters of the lake below, as many stones fell from the cliffs when the tower was destroyed.”  He turned the unseen latch hidden within the study door, pushed inward, and stepped into the study.

“Why do some people leave ghosts and others not?” Kiannae asked, a touch of grief in her voice.

Laurel sighed deeply. “The day you can answer that with any proof is the day you earn a permanent seat on the Council.  No one knows.  All the obvious reasons seem to fail the test time and time again.  Of all the most powerful mages in history few have manifested as ghosts of any sort.  Some have theorized it is a matter of ‘precise mediocrity’ – that those too powerful burnout in death, and those too weak leave no mark.”

“That isn’t it either is it?” Katrisha asked scrunching up her face thoughtfully.

Laurel smiled, “No, it doesn’t seem to be.  History is full of innumerable mages of highly mediocre ability, and power.  Yet few, very few ghosts.  In spite of all this the one determining factor does seem to be the gift, and more often magic.”

“Wait, what’s the difference?” Katrisha asked a bit confused.

“Take your brother, or Renae,” Laurel answered.  “Both quite gifted, but neither are mages, because they have not trained in our practices.  Though I suspect Renae knows a few things.  Magic though, they very word comes from the Maji, from their specific practices.  Spellcraft is magic.”

“I’ve heard Renae speak of the living magic,” Kiannae countered, as they moved into the central study.

“Yes,” Laurel frowned.  “And you will hear commoners refer to any gifted practice as magic.  Does it really matter?  No, I suppose not, but it is better to use a word with proper meaning, is it not?  The superstitious will speak of witchery, and witchcraft as well, and the legends say they wove spells, but there is little evidence there were ever such practitioners.  Would either of you care to be called a witch?”

“I don’t know…” Katrisha said hesitantly.  “People don’t seem to like witches.”

“But does it really matter, as you said once, a name is just what we call a thing.  This rune, or that?”

“Ah,” Laurel laughed appreciatively.  “Yet as Mercu would assure you the words we use are very important, each synonym has it’s use – and maintaining their meaning is of value.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Can you heal so well as your brother?” he pressed.

“I don’t think so,” Katrisha admitted, though she had little to base the statement on.

“Can he conjure dancing lights, and craft spells?” he tried again.

“No,” Kiannae answered a bit proudly.

“What he has studied, and what you have studied are very different things,” he paused pointedly, “why should we call them by the same name?”

“We shouldn’t,” Katrisha agreed.

Kiannae seemed to mull something over for a moment. “You said some ghosts can touch things?” She said returning to the prior topic.

Laurel nodded at Kiannae. “One can.  Some rare ghosts that manifest near their remains can speak, or even answer questions.  They tend to come and go quite erratically, and forget things between manifestations.  There is however one notable, spectacular exception.  Theseus Moire, an instructor who lived during the mid Empire.  Legend says he was so stubborn, that when he died between classes he went on to teach the next as a ghost!”

Laurel paused thoughtfully. “He is the only ghost I have ever…heard of who can move objects at will, and who can still limitedly perform magic.  Some say he grew smarter in death than in life, and that he never forgets…anything.  He kept teaching part time till Corinthia fell, then he was lost for at least a century.  Some…believe the Council found him, locked him away, and never said why.”

Laurel noticed the girl’s attention drifting, and said pointedly, “Ghosts are not the only such entities in the world however.  Spirits, or those commonly called elemental or half-flesh are individuals who have transcended the death of the body, and anchor their souls to this world through a surrogate form.  Not to be confused of course with true emergent elementals, as old Norbert was,” he added gesturing up to the core of the simulation over his head.

Laurel had never explained why the elemental had been called Norbert, and in fact had expressed his own personal bemusement on the matter.  He had however revealed that it had been used for less dignified things over the years, including keeping perishables cold, and staving off the heat of a northern summer.  Mercu had been able to tell some more interesting stories about the enigmatic crystal’s origin, none of which Laurel had been inclined to confirm or deny.  Though he did admit Mercu had done a fair amount of research into the history over the years, that he had not bothered to.

The short version of Mercu’s tales could be summed up that it was the spoils of a harrowing fight with a vicious elemental, in a very distant northern wild-land, far beyond the equator.  It had been the property of Laurel’s great grandmother, who had defeated it, and was probably worth an unfathomable amount of money, if it was not bound by successive wills to never be sold.

Satisfied he had their attention he continued.  “They are vastly rarer than ghosts, but much as Theseus they retain significant and persistent mental ability, but more so are often very powerful.  They range from stone men, to dryads, or even the fabled Lady of the Sands worshiped by several nomadic tribes of the northern wastes.  There existence is well documented, but none have ever consented to be studied.”

“Do they never die?” Katrisha asked with interest.

“Some argue they did die, in the conventional sense.  They don’t have living bodies as you or I any more.  As such they don’t age, though some do fade with time, while others seem absolutely immortal – even when forcibly scattered they reform eventually.”

“How did they get that way?” Kiannae asked.

“It varies,” Laurel said thoughtfully, “The process has never been observed, or replicated intentionally.  In a few cases the individual was known to have started the process in life, becoming deeply attuned with the nature of some material or another.  When death came to call, or in a time of desperation they abandoned their bodies, and became one with the practice they had long worked.”

“Why doesn’t anyone know?” Katrisha asked irritably.

“For over a millennia there are records of the study of all things gifted, and supernatural,” Laurel said, half sitting on the central table.  “I sometimes think more has been lost than is still known.  Yet one thing has never been done, or well proven to be done, no one can see beyond the Veil.”

“What is the Veil?” Kiannae asked vaguely remembering hearing the term several times, but not knowing what it meant.

“That itself is an open question,” Laurel laughed.  “Some think of the Veil as the boundary between our world and things unseen.”

“And others think?” Katrisha said scrunching her face.

“That the Veil is a bad term, overly weighted with old superstition, and misleading, but that it -is- the universe,” Laurel replied.  “I tend to believe that my self.”

“How does that work?” Kiannae asked looking confused.

“The easiest analogy is to imagine the surface of the ocean…” Laurel reconsidered his choice of words, realizing the girls had never seen the ocean, “or well how about the lake.  The Ether is the sky above, the Nether the water below, and you, me, and everything else are ripples on it’s surface.”

“Is that what’s on your face?” Katrisha asked innocently.

“Um, no,” Laurel said shaking his head, “Though I suppose that’s a fun way to look at it.”

“We don’t have any ripples,” Kiannae said looking back and forth between Laurel and her sister.

“That’s because you are young and simple, like calm little ponds, and I am old and complex as the stormy sea,” he said looming playfully over the girls who giggled at his antic.  He leaned back again and sighed. “Don’t worry if the idea doesn’t make sense to you, I barely fully grasp it at times…and it is just an idea, no real proof…well there is this.”

Laurel picked up a small ink well from the desk.  “There are two arguments about why this works,” he said as a shimmer appeared around the bottle, and then it simply disappeared.  “Can you still see it?” he asked.

The girls looked in wonder at the object Laurel seemed to imply was still in his hand.  There was something there, the tiniest refraction, and the faintest aura, but both were so subtle as to be hard to notice.

“I think so,” Kiannae said.

“There is an aura around it, but it’s hard to see inside of yours,” Katrisha said trying to focus.

“Ah, yes, here,” Laurel said setting the invisible bottle on the table beside him and sliding away.

“Yes I can see it,” Kiannae said, “it glows.”

“Yes, it’s not a very effective trick against those with the gift,” Laurel laughed as the bottle shimmered back into full view, “still, if you weren’t looking for it, you could miss it, yes?”

“I guess,” Katrisha said with a shrug, “it’s still neat.”

“Back to my point,” Laurel said shifting back closer to the center of the two.  “Two views, both…acceptable.  It is not a conventional spell, more akin to a conjuration.  One view holds that filaments are bending the light around the object, you can’t see it because light isn’t reflecting off it, or being blocked by it.  The other view holds almost the same, but contends that we are bending the Veil, that even filaments are part of it, the surface of reality is warped around it, and that light then simply flows around.  To me it feels more like I’m bending the Veil…but that’s a feeling, not a fact.”

“Aren’t feelings facts?” Kiannae asked looking confused.

Laurel rubbed his head.  “I suppose they are facts for the ones feeling them, but everyone feels different things.  Facts can be tested by multiple people, the same results seen again and again.”

“Don’t different people see different things too?” Katrisha asked.

“That’s where we get in a lot of trouble,” Laurel laughed.  “We take a lot of things on faith, as fact, without going to all the lengths of testing what others have before us.  What they observed, we accept, because of trust.  Or what they trusted that someone else observed…and so on.  Trust to a point, but when climbing a mountain, check your own rope I guess is the lesson.”

Laurel rapped his fingers thoughtfully on the table he was leaning on, and walked over to one of the many bookshelves lining the walls.  He tapped several as he scanned for the particular one he sought, and at last pulled it from it’s shelf.  “Here,” he said opening to about a quarter of the way in, flipping a few pages back and forth before settling on a chapter start, “Moriel tells me you are doing well with your reading, practice on this, and I will be back in a bit.”

Laurel wondered what was compelling him as he left the study, surely as long as he had been talking to the girls the apparition was long gone, yet suddenly he felt a need to see her for himself.  He stopped before the girl’s chamber door, and hesitated, mostly afraid to feel a fool, sure he would find nothing within.  Something else was bothering him, the impulse itself, but for once, on such a simple thing, he could not resist.

Laurel opened the door, and there she stood at the window, half there, a transparent vision of flowing white hair, robes, and luminous skin.  The presence of a ghost is a stranger thing than a living being.  It is hollow, thin, but still there.  She felt almost like a feather caught on the wind, and the wind itself.  She turned to face him, she smiled ever so briefly, but as she turned away Laurel saw a frown cross her lips, and before he could pointlessly demand a meaning, she dissolved away in swirls of shimmering light.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Mercu struggled as he often did, trying to get the twins into their bed, and at last exasperatedly declared, “If you two do not stop fidgeting, and lay down this very instant, there will be no story tonight.”  He turned at the sound of the door opening behind him, but the girls, distracted by his threat relented to lay down.

“I thought,” Laurel said looking at Mercu’s perplexed expression, “that since you often complain on the matter I would help you put them to bed this time.”  He looked to the girls who now lay ready to be tucked in, “But it seems I am too late.”

Mercu glanced back to the girls, shook his head, and covered his face with his palm, “I suppose it is the thought that counts, isn’t it?”  He looked back to Laurel.  “Well, I guess you may as well stay for the story.”  He turned to the girls again, and as he tucked them in asked, “What shall it be tonight?”

“Tell us a ghost story,” Kiannae declared.

“Yes,” Katrisha agreed.

“Still with the ghosts?” Mercu laughed.

“Don’t suppose I blame them, I saw her myself today,” Laurel chuckled.  “I’m afraid I’ll be of little help though, I’m quite well out of ghost stories of my own.”

“Still I must do all the work,” Mercu said feigning indignance.  “Very well,” he said tapping his finger to his chin, “Ghosts, ghosts…aha!  Yes, the tale of Thethis.”  He sat down, and picked up the old battered lute he often used when telling the girl’s stories.  “Long ago, and not that far away, where now only forests stand, there was a great lake, broad enough to have islands midst it’s wide expanse.”

“Now on these islands, and on the north eastern shores,” Mercu said with a strum of the lute, “there were a people who loved their lake, who were at one, and at peace with its still waters.  The waters served the villages of Thethis, they could walk, and dance upon that shimmering surface, as easily as its shores.”

Mercu waited a moment, strumming idly, and then continued.  “The people were happy, and good, respected, but not well loved by their neighbors.  Save one, a Princess who came to love a boy she had seen dance across the lake’s calm waters.  One day, she too caught his eye, and he took her out with him to dance upon the lake.  The King, the Princess’ father did not approve of the girl’s affections, and forbid the pair to meet again.”

“The Princess though loved the boy who would dance upon the lake, and ran away with him, to live, and hide among the island refuges,” Mercu strummed for emphasis, “but the King sent his men, who came to blows with the villagers of Tethis while seeking their Princess, and the boy.  It came to the verge of war, and word in due course reached the two lovers.  The Princess could not bear the price of her happiness, and set out across the waters with her love by her side.”

Mercu eyed the girls who still clung to consciousness, and strummed several soft notes before continuing, “But the King’s men, who had already made threats upon the people to not use their gifts, saw the two crossing the waters as a threat.  They had never seen their Princess walk upon the lake, nor did they recognize the clothes she wore that day, and archer’s shot both down.”

“The boy,” Mercu continued, “could not maintain control, and struggled helplessly as his love sank into the depths.  The waters though, bore him to shore within the night, barely still alive.  Fevered he asked why they had killed their own.  Realizing his mistake the commander cast the still living boy back into the depths, and lied to his King.  He said the people of Thethis had killed her, not his men.”

“So it was,” Mercu said darkly, “that the King did give a decree, in his anger, and sorrow, to kill all the people of the villages, every last one.  The people of Tethis fought bravely, to the last man, to the last woman, and even child.  And as the last of them, an old shaman lay dying, she whispered to her killer, ‘The lake will take you, two for every life lost for a lie.’  It is said, that as she let out her last breath, she simply whiffed away into the night, and was gone.”

Mercu strummed softly for a bit before finishing. “They say that most who were ever alone near that lake again would disappear, and that faces were seen in the mists.  People would forget, or grow bold, or foolish after a time, and even more would be lost.  There were also stories of people the lake almost took, who were just as mysteriously saved from their peril, and instead borne safely ashore by a strange boy, before he would disappear…”

“After many generations a King ordered the lake drained, and the river that fed it diverted.  Still,” Mercu said as he stood up, and leaned over the sleeping girls to kiss them each on the forehead, “there were stories of the faces in the mist, until slowly the forests took the land where the lake had once stood, and people would forget, save to remember the forest of mists, where none dare to tread.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 2nd, 639 E.R.

Mercu was hardly awake from the groaning and thwack of a door thrown opened in haste, when a bawling lump hurled into his bed with force unbefitting meager size.  Instinctively he backed away from the unknown assailant, before he could register the proportions, and obvious disposition as a crying little girl.

“What’s wrong dear?” he asked in a groggy, but still startled tone – trying desperately to get his wits about him.  Katrisha continued to sob.

A minute passed as Mercu tried to calm the shaking girl in his arms, before a second girl, seemingly more bewildered than frightened wandered into the moonlight beyond his door.  “What’s wrong?” Kiannae asked sleepily, “I woke to Ka screaming, and then she ran away.”

“I don’t know,” Mercu said in a frustrated tone, he had been having such a nice dream too, which momentarily danced at the edge of his memory.

“There was a lady,” Katrisha finally whimpered, “a ghost…I think,” she paused uncertainly, trying to think straight.  “She was on a throne, in the dark, and something was moving…so big, and the eyes, the huge yellow eyes, and…and it was a dragon!” she finally blurted out her face stricken with fear, as though she had just then realized what she had seen.  “Her voice was so loud I could not understand, it rattled everything, even my bones.”

“That’s quite the nightmare you had, poor dear,” Mercu said slightly relieved by the triviality of the matter.

“It was real,” Katrisha demanded, and then seemed to feel silly for saying it.  Mercu considered her for a moment.  There was a certain dwindling faith in her statement, though it was passing, but not without striking Mercu curiously.  It wasn’t impossible…he dismissed it.  There was no sense encouraging the idea on so many levels.

“It was a dream my dear,” Mercu said reassuringly, “there are no ghosts upon thrones here, nor dragons lurking in the dark.”

“But…” Katrisha protested, and then gave up arguing, and clung closer to Mercu, burying her face in his shoulder.

“Well,” Mercu sighed, “you may as well come in also,” he said looking at Kiannae, “and do please close the door.”

Kiannae slowly walked in, and closed the door behind her, before moving to Mercu’s bed, and crawling up opposite her sister.

“So, I have told you of dragons,” Mercu mused, “and how they came to be.  Let me tell you of the kindest of all.  A daughter of Lycia, who sat ever adoringly at her Empres’ side.”

“She was the woman Alara, a handmaiden to the eldest princess of the Empire.  She was a controversial appointment.  The Lycian Order was young then, not even named, their defiance of growing Clarion influence all the more fresh, and burning of an affront to true believers.  They were however growing in popularity, most particularly in Lycia, with whom the Empire was always closest, and most vehemently entwined.”

“Why do the Clarions hate the Sisterhood?” Kiannae asked tiredly.

“That…” Mercu said thoughtfully, “is a good question, but an ever so long and dull story.  Dull at least without the bits far too unfit for young ears.”  He paused a moment.  “Now, as to Alara, she was the princess’ favorite amongst her attendants.  She was her closest confidant, dearest friend, and…they were close.”  He trailed off trying to reframe his tale.

“By training, Alara was a healer, a shining example of kindness and selflessness.  Everything a Sister of the Order would come to be, but surely not the model of what people think of dragons.  Yet when the time came, when the Empress asked for volunteers to fight the Black Flight, to become as she, there was none she could have trusted more.”

“Why – you might ask,” Mercu continued tiredly after a few moments of silence, “would a healer, seek to become a dragon?  Lycians love life, you see, they do not chase ascension, even if some believe it possible.  Alara loved life as much as any, and she was old, very old when the war came.  She did – they say – wrestle with her choice.  That if what she loved of life, she would forgo in the power that would consume her frail form.  Still in the end, she made her decision.”

“So was reborn Alara’sae,” Mercu said in a soft but dramatic tone, “unique amongst all dragons.  For while it is known that all other such creatures maws are death incarnate – be it by flame, by tooth, or more exotic means – Alara could breath life itself.  While all other dragon’s fought upon the front lines, trying to strike down foes, at the back of Corinthia’s army was a healer beyond all measure.”

“A dragon healer?” Katrisha laughed incredulously, as sleep fought to take hold again.

“So it was, and is,” Mercu said.  “She dwells still in Lycia, where she returned after the war.  A few of her brood, and her mate Mar’etten dwell there with her.  None ever have been able to match her particular gift, though each of her dragon-born daughters and sons are known for their unmatched skill as healers.  Only the most gifted of the Sisterhood are granted audience with her, to partake of the breath of life, and perhaps learn from its powers.”

“What’s a dragon-born?” Katrisha asked half asleep, her sister already slumbering.

“As dragon’s came from mortal man, so to are born mortals of dragon blood,” Mercu answered, and kissed Katrisha softly on the forehead, and smiled as she finally slipped back to sleep.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 17th, 639 E.R.

Katrisha hugged Wren consolingly, as Kiannae watched through the cracked door beyond which Laurel and Renae had descended into uneasy discussion of the events that had delayed their regular visit.  Mercu for the first time Kiannae could remember did not seem pleased by Renae’s presence.

“It was a wonder even Randal survived,” Renae said grimly, “and barely at that.  They tried damn hard to insure no one was left.  Poor boy was always gifted, but to have lived with those injuries after having been left for dead…”

“Has he been able to say anything meaningful regarding the attackers?” Laurel asked with obvious distress.

“No,” Renae said in a dishearten tone, “he’s pretty well in shock.  Had more to say about some mercenary named Hamon, who gave the bandits a run for their money.”

“Hamon?” Mercu said his face going white, “who was the master of the caravan?” he abruptly demanded.

“Uh,” Renae said suddenly on edge from Mercu’s reaction, “a man named Valden I believe, did you know him?”

Mercu visibly shrank back, and looked away seemingly embarrassed.  “I think so…but not well,” he said after a heavy breath, “but Hamon I knew, he traveled with my father’s caravan for years.  I never thought I’d see the day he got taken down by a bunch of common thieves.”

“By all accounts he didn’t go down without a fight,” Renae said consolingly, “as I said, it seems to be about all Randal can remember is Hamon cutting down five of the attackers before buckling under an onslaught of arrows.”

“That’d be Hamon alright,” Laurel said with ill humor, “once saw that man take a dire boar with nothing more than a dagger, after the beast broke his sword.”

“Wren was there when Randall was brought to us,” Renae grimaced, “he didn’t take well to seeing his wounds – such a terrible thing on his birthday.  Even for all the healing Randal had done to himself he was an awful mess.  The patrol hadn’t been able to do much, and the clarions had turned him away as a lost cause.  I’ve seen worse myself, though not many, still turned my stomach a bit.  I’m not sure if he will ever be quite the same.”

Mercu caught sight of Kiannae peaking through the door, and cut between Laurel, and Renae, pushed the door open, and closed it behind him.  “So I’m guessing you’ve heard all that,” he said irritably, “not that I guess we went out of our way to keep out of earshot.”

“Why would people do such a thing?” Kiannae asked angrily.

“Greed, or desperation usually,” Mercu muttered, “and the effectiveness of the attackers, as well as the King’s willingness to relocate northerners  who suffered from the drought leaves me no doubt the answer is greed.”

“But why?” Katrisha insisted.

“We don’t always get what we want in life, and certainly not right at the moment,” Mercu said and walked towards the window.  “Even in the best of times there will be those willing to take what they want by force, and kill to keep their secrets.  I just can’t shake the feeling this is much more than it seems…” he said staring out into the valley below.

“What more could it be?” Kiannae asked with confusion.

“Not every bandit is a free agent, some,” Mercu said looking back at the children, “some are tools of rulers, and unscrupulous orders who wish to weaken, and test their enemies.  These are hardly the first bandits to pester the eastern road.  Laurel once saved Darion in route to Helm, that is how we came to reside here at court.  Those were common thieves…and fled, or surrendered at the slightest sign of magic.”

Wren who had been clench fisted since he had arrived held up his hand, and in his palm lay a single golden button.  “What’s that?” Katrisha asked.

“I’m not sure,” Mercu said walking up, and kneeling before Wren.  “May I have that?” he asked.  Wren nodded, and Mercu took the button and turned it in the light.  “That,” he said furrowing his brow at a thrones rose embossed on the button, “is the emblem of Osyrae’s royal house.”

“Does that mean that Osyrae did this?” Katrisha asked nervously, she had often heard the whispered fears of Osyrae starting a war, when adults had thought she was not paying attention.

“Perhaps,” Mercu said eyeing the button suspiciously.

“It is at once too convenient, and too little,” Mercu stood, and looked towards the door.  “We don’t want war.  If Osyrae does, then we would give them what they wish if we act, particularly on so little.  It is evidence none the less, that we must take precautions,” and with that he marched out the door.

He did not see as a white wispy form stepped from thin air, and seemed to look about as though confused.  The ghostly woman looked down upon the three children before her, but seemed to look more through, than at them.  She slowly knelt down before Wren, and seemed to consider him more directly.  The twins for their part stepped back, but Wren, though obviously nervous at the presence of this new stranger simply stared up into her hollow face.

There was a long uncomfortable silence, and all watched the unreadable expression of the ghost.  She seemed, almost to frown for a moment, but then smiled, and as quickly as she had come, was gone.  “All things pass,” Wren said sadly, and scrunched up his face, almost as though he did not understand his own words, “yet most will come again…”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 37th, 639 E.R.

Eran moved silently between the trees.  The tracks were clear, no more than a week old, and it had not rained enough to disrupt them.  Animals had done their damage, but not enough to render the trail untraceable.  A large company followed a good hundred yards behind their tracker, and were less silent, in spite of some of their best efforts.

Arlan wore armor too heavy for stealth, Horence was simply not so graceful trekking through the underbrush, and the priest in their midst did not seem to care.  Laurel for his part moved quietly enough, but at the center of a blundering lot, he was hardly inconspicuous.  No one seemed at all pleased to be there, or many with each other.  A group of common soldiers circled the leaders of the party, and more scouts kept watch at some distance out, in all directions.

Laurel only opened his eyes periodically to make sure he was not about to stumble over something, he was focused on less mundane matters.  Only the gifted of the group had any notion of the array of magical lines that circled the company, listening for arrows, spells, or other conventional threats.  Ready at a moment to snap into an active defense.  The range of the array was limited, but Laurel was focused on feeling to the extended senses it gave him.

When Eran stopped abruptly, Laurel was immediately aware, and gestured for the others to stop as well.  Soldiers readied themselves, the priest moved to the back, and Horence, and Arlen prepared for the worst.  Two short whistles, followed by a third long one lowered their guard somewhat.  The party moved forward in step, and came upon where Eran was perched on a ridge.  The markings on the forest floor below were anything but subtle.  It looked like a battlefield.

Huge scorch marks dotted the landscape, trees were toppled and blackened, a few corpses could be recognized even at a distance.  Laurel could sense there had been a ward on the hill where they stood, too faded to give any warning to its absent maker.  He wondered if it had been any use at all.  He hoped not.

Scouts slipped around the permitter, and two whistles, followed by a third sounded from each cardinal direction.  The soldiers moved down the hill, and circled the clearing as the leaders stepped in, followed by Eran.

“There’s a trail of blood here,” Eran said prodding some leaves.  “Couple more patches that way it looks like.  They were headed north west by the looks of it.  This is all as old as the tracks in,” Eran shook his head.  “They are long gone.”

“I’d hoped you would tell me this was it, that they hadn’t gotten away,” Laurel grimaced.

“Other than the patrol that never returned this is the most evidence we’ve seen of the bandits outside of the caravan,” Arlen growled.  “At least some of them met justice.”

“All this really tells us is that they fled into Osyrae.  Telling, with everything else, but useless,” Horence offered.

“It’s enough,” Arlen gripped the hilt of his sword tightly.

Laurel stooped down and stared at the dried blood.  “There is no way they were driven off by our lost patrol.  Those bodies also aren’t our men I’ll wager.”  He looked around.  “This is also far too much damage for even one mage fighting common soldiers.”

“We’ll have to look closer at the dead,” Eran said, “but no, there is no way they are ours.  I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Nor have I exactly,” Laurel rubbed his beard.  “I’ve had a few proper fights with skilled brigand mages, but never did either of us leave a mess like this.  This looks like the work of two or more full war mages duking it out.  Maybe Sylvans…”

One quick whistle, followed by a cry of pain turned all to the north east.  One of the scouts ran, and stumbled into the clearing past the circled soldiers.  He lost his balance backwards, and fell, the arrow in his shoulder pushing through from the impact.  Everyone took positions, prepared for an attack.

“I can feel them out there, they are keeping their distance,” Laurel said under his breath.

“A warning shot maybe?” Eran asked.

“A bit bloody for a warning shot,” Horence countered.

“They are savages by their nature,” the priest said dismissively.

“They are no such thing,” Laurel snapped harshly.  “Keep your vitriol to yourself, Idolus.”

The priest sneered back at Laurel with equal displeasure.  He mulled over things he could say to further incite the man’s protective urges.  He had long abandoned further ideas of saving him, and therefor tormenting him was fair game, and could show him, and his dubious charges as the corruptive influence he held them to be.  He decided not to press the matter under perilous circumstances.

Eran moved cautiously to the wounded man’s side, as he struggled to get up.  He helped him to his feet, and brought him to Idolus.  “This will hurt,” Idolus said plainly, and pulled the arrow through.  The man shrieked, and Idolus began healing the wound.

“Still holding position,” Laurel repeated.

“We should hold our ground,” Arlen said firmly.  “We can’t let this evidence be lost.”

“There is nothing worth fighting for here,” Eran snapped.

“We must retreat,” Laurel said sternly.  “As a Council representative, I will not have us intrude if the Sylvan’s claim this part of the forest.”

“This land is still Avrale’s,” Arlen snapped.

“This stretch of forest was abandoned by Avrale hundreds of years ago,” Eran countered.  “Even then we are right on the traditional border.”

“We are going,” Laurel said flatly.  “Everyone form ranks, and back out slowly,” he yelled with commanding volume.  Several quick whistles from Eran gave the message to the remaining scouts.

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