Chapter 3

We are who once we were,
but never again the same,
as the world changes do we,
and cycles pass without name,

rely not on man to alter his way,
nor on the individual to remain,
we ghosts are believed eternal,
yet even ageless,
I have changed.

– Writings of Theseus Moria, circa 410 E.R.

State Decay

Estae 7th, 647 E.R.

The room was lush yet stark, dripping with showy regal splendor, from the tapestries on the walls to elaborate carpets with floral and geometric patterns.  Fine rare vases held flowers along the walls, if their ancient cracked surfaces could bear water.  Others – often in prominent positions – were clearly too old and fragile for actual use.

A blond haired man with a soft olive complexion considered the priest pacing his quarters.  His expression was hard to read, but seemed perhaps concerned for the agitated older man.  The priest, Idolus, wore a grey robe, and had recently shorn his hair down to the skin.  This in itself was arguably an improvement, as he had been balding for years.  Still, it seemed part of a larger, more unnerving pattern.  One that included the way he was pacing frantically, his arms behind his back, his hands wringing fervently.

“Arlen, you must listen to me, she is the void itself I tell you,” Idolus implored more than said to his host.

“A wild half Sylvan thing, surely.  A young woman of erratic nature without question, but the void itself, Idolus?” Arlen almost seemed amused past the look of concern that took over his face.

“What happened on that mountain…that she fought the dragon…naked…that is the least of it,” Idolus stopped, spun on his heel, and stared at his companion.  “The very ground where we found her – the stone where she fell – it had been reduced to something like brittle clay beneath her.  Like the very substance of the rock had been corrupted.”

“Perhaps it was merely an odd property of the area?” Arlen offered.

“No, no, no,” Idolus refused.  “It was the same stone as everything else, but brittle, crumbled at a touch to a fine powder.  Like the loadstone of an enchanted fire lamp.  Laurel, the fool did not see it for what it was…and the way…she burned into my mind.  I cannot think of anything but her.  She is like a scar on the world.  I see her face in dreams amidst a sea of light…but her hair…it has turned something wild, and more unnatural than those cursed eyes of hers.  I feel something in my very bones at the thought of it.”

“We all stray to the thoughts of the flesh,” Arlen said consolingly.  “Even the strongest of us.”

“No,” Idolus snapped, and slammed his fist on a table, his eyes wild.  “I have found it in the Black Book.  I have felt it since the first time she touched my hand in the square.  The storm child walks among us, and she is the abyss, the void.  She will tear this world into oblivion.”

“Idolus,” Alren said firmly.  “She is just a girl.  A mage, a troubled child, yes, but harmless.  I have even consented to my wife’s wishes that Charles seek her favor.  If her sister remains missing, then she stands to inherit a great swath of the north.  My family could control two duchies, we could rival the King to reign in this land, and perhaps one day cast out the heretics.”

“Are you not listening?” Idolus all but screamed.  “She is not what she appears.  She is not.  If you tie yourself to her…I will have no part of it.”

“Please,” Arlen said measuredly, “old friend.  Find your senses.  We will watch her, but consider her sister too bares the same face.  Have you not possibly mistaken one for the other?”  He did not really consider that any more likely, but it seemed an easy way to cast doubt.  Normally he had high respect for Idolus, but his behavior had become slowly unstable for some time.  Arlen no longer trusted his judgement as he once had.  He worried if the ordeal with the dragon had broken the man for good.

Idolus sat down stiffly, and then wept.  “I do not know, but the world is wrong.  Something terrible is shifting.  I must consult my books, I must understand.  Do not let her be your undoing my friend.  Be cautious of this one.”

“I will,” Arlen said, and set his hand on Idolus’ arm.  His pity was honest, and what was more he thought little of Katrisha’s character.  “Do not think I trust her,” he offered.  “My son is erant, and I fear there is no bastion of correction left to send him too within Avrale.  Wesrook is a cesspool that my brother can barely restrain.  South Rook has fallen to that miserable man Perin…that they now call him, Duke…”  He seemed ill.

“So what?” Idolus said trying to recover himself.  “You have given up on your child?”

“I am attempting to make the best of many bad situations,” Arlen said.  “If the boy is to be corrupt, then I shall at least exploit it for the greater good.  If he can wed the wild creature, then there is at least potential to tame her, and use her dubious birthright to accomplish better things.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 13th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha picked at her plate idly, not even looking up at those seated around her at dinner.  To her left sat princess Maraline, as was often the case.  The princess considered the melancholy girl with some concern, and brushed back an auburn lock that had come loose.

“You really should eat,” Maraline offered.  “You’ll do your sister no favors starving yourself.”

Katrisha looked up, and seemed almost startled.  “Sorry,” she said, “merely lost in thought.”

“You have been quite a lot of late,” the young man to Maraline’s left offered.  “Though I dare say there is no blame to be had for such distraction.  Were any of my dear relatives missing for so long, let alone a twin…” he seemed quite affected by the thought.

“Quite so Adrien,” Maraline said, “though it does for me present some trouble.  I have been thinking to ask Katrisha to stand as my maid of honor, but if she is so distracted…”

“I think I could manage to focus,” Katrisha offered with only a touch of excitement, tinged with a hint of bewilderment, and her persistent malaise.  “Though I had no idea I was being considered.”

“We’ve always been quite amiable,” Maraline offered.

“We have,” Katrisha agreed.  “Still, I would think you to have closer friends than I.”

“My brother, of course, dear cousin Philip,” she nodded across the table to another young man, “but they are hardly maids.  I dare say we are closer than any of my other cousins, or than I am to any of my servants.  My mother’s efforts to find me proper handmaidens, ones I could call friend, have been…mixed.  Yet all this aside, truly, to have a dragon slayer at my side, few brides could be so honored.”

“Attempted,” Katrisha corrected awkwardly.

“Yes,” Maraline agreed, “but that is not quite the tale being told in many quarters.  Still, I think we can find more appropriate attire for you in the wedding party.”  She smiled a bit coyly.

“I should hope,” Katrisha agreed, with a mixture of humor and embarrassment.  “I would be honored if it is your wish.”

“Then it is settled,” Maraline smiled.  “Perhaps you might even catch the eye of an eligible young nobleman.”

“I should hope Laurel would dissuade any such interest,” Katrisha countered.  “Truly I agree with his current refrain.  I am far more trouble than I am worth.”

“Nonsense,” Maraline protested, “you are becoming quite lovely, and I dare say I would give my title to be as capable as you.”

“Capable of misadventure,” Philip cut in.

“Cousin!” Maraline snapped, aghast.

“I merely agree with the young lady,” Philip said in lieu of apology for his poorly considered jab.

“Surely not all young men long for delicate flowers?” Maraline questioned.  “Truly, I am such a prize – I will not deny – but if a young woman’s heart can flutter for a dashing man, why not a man’s for a fiery young lass?  Surely you are as delicate as I, Philip,” she said with some restrained amusement.

“Alas,” Philip countered, “my delicacy, prefers delicacy.  Though I do not deny the lady is lovely, and that her roguish nature is not without charm.  What of you Charles?  Want you mouse, or lion?”

Charles had been quiet, and seemed thoughtful when questioned.  “Though we have not been without our differences,” he answered diplomatically, “I do agree Katrisha has some admirable qualities, and among them a budding beauty.  I’m of mixed opinion on the affair with the dragon.  On the one hand foolish, on the other quite brave.”

“Perhaps,” Adrien began, “there is little difference between the two.  I’ve heard that our dear girl thought herself acting in the interest of her mentor.  So brave then, for acting against the better judgement of her own well being, which then some would label foolish.  Perspective.”

“Was that the reason?” Maraline asked.

Katrisha looked unhappy to answer, but felt she must.  “Yes.  A dream told me that Laurel would return dead, and Kiannae had the same vision.  In that dream we were here when he returned.  This told us that if we waited…still it was foolish.”

“And brave,” Adrien concluded.

“Agreed,” Charles laughed.  Katrisha gave him a funny look, but found his expression amiable.  She looked back to her plate.

“Now surely,” Maraline said, “you’ve some interest in a fine young man to wed?”

“I’ve not thought much on it,” Katrisha answered.  “Not in some time anyway.  Such daydreams were more my fancy when I was small, but I’ve had other interests with age.”

“How contrary,” Maraline shook her head, “that with the blooming of womanhood you have lost interest in love.  We must see if we cannot get someone to catch your eye then.  I’m sure if your heart was in it, your lovely charms could win any young man you wished.”

Katrisha gave Maraline a funny look.  It all seemed to her a very misplaced endeavor, but the compliment suiter her a little all the same.  If Marline, who had always seemed to her very pretty, thought she could have her pick, that surely was worth something.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 42nd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha blocked the sun from her eyes as she moved to exit the coach that had carried her, and the Princess for the last leg of their journey.  She had not been pleased that accepting a place as Maraline’s maid of honor had meant traveling to South Rook.  Her last visit had not gone entirely well.

It had been an ever shifting set of plans, but ultimately it was decided that the wedding should occur there, to ease the lingering tensions from the events that had displaced the former duke.  The reasoning – as it was explained – was that it must be perceived that South Rook gained a princess, not lost the heir to the seat.  All very political, and Katrisha could not disagree with the premise, though she prefered the comforts of home.

She surveyed South Rook, and looked up to the tower that loomed high above.  It hardly seemed any less grand than when she had been much younger.  To her surprise, Katrisha found Charles offering her a hand down, which only earned an odd look from her.  She slipped from the seat without accepting the hand, and landed with grace.  She nodded to him more challengingly than cordially, and stepped aside.

The princess for her part took his hand, and got down more carefully.  “I do adore South Rook,” Maraline declared as she looked around the city.

“That is fortunate,” Katirsha laughed, “since you are marrying the man destined to rule it.”

“It is certainly some comfort,” Maraline agreed, ”given I must leave Broken Hill behind, and only visit.  Still, that the city and the man are a pair….  Yes, I dare say my heart is content in this.”

Charles bowed to Maraline, and showed almost as much difference to Katrisha, who found it more than a bit odd, but consented to nod to him politely as he walked off to see to his own affairs.

“Why is Charles here any way?” Katrisha asked quietly of Maraline as they began to walk towards the keep’s outer gate.

“Appearances, mostly,” Maraline answered.  “His whole family was invited.  His father had no interest, but I expect to see the Duchess of Wesrook, and…”  The princess covered her mouth, laughed, and Katrisha followed her gaze in the direction Charles had gone.

“Charlie!” could be heard as a blond haired girl a head shorter than the young man finished her run at her brother, and to even Katrisha’s amazement lifted him off his feet.

“My, she’s getting quite strong,” Maraline said trying to reign in her humor.  “I think she got that one from you.  The only other young woman I can think of who lifts her brother off his feet.”

“At least Wren is smaller than me,” Katrisha laughed, “and younger.”

“Millarae!” an equally fair haired older woman yelled as she walked up on the scene.  “Show some dignity, please!”

“Duchess Meloria,” Maraline nodded as she and Katrisha approached the family reunion.

“Princess Maraline, Lady Ashton,” the Duchess nodded.  “Curtsy dear,” she said nudging Millarae, who did as she was bid.  “It is Katrisha, I presume?  Do forgive me, I never did learn to tell you from your twin…who I believe I have heard is still, absent.  Oh dear… Forgive me, that was poorly done, wasn’t it.”

Katrisha was stony faced.  “Yes, on all counts,” she took a breath, “and you would not be the first to raise the issue in precisely that way.”

“Again, my apologies,” Meloria offered.  “Still, it is very good to see you.  It has been several years since I have found cause to visit Broken Hill.”

“And it is good to see you as well,” Katrisha nodded.  “I barely remember little Millarae from my visit to Wesrook.  Not quite so little any more, she seems to have caught up to me.”

“I remember you,” Millarae laughed, “mostly ‘cause Charles could not be quiet about you.”

“Only because you would not stop asking questions about her,” Charles cut back.

“I asked about both of them,” Millarae scrunched her face up at her brother.  “You were all Katrisha did this, Katrisha did that.  You would swear her sister wasn’t even there.”

“Millarae,” her mother chided with false calm.

“Oh,” Millarae said uncomfortably.  “Sorry…”

Katrisha was already over it, but found the stony look on Charles’ face perplexing.  She was interrupted from her curiosity as Mercu arrived.

“Lady Meloria,” Mercu declared as he walked up on the exchange.

“Oh, good Mercu,” Meloria said.  “A pleasure to see you.”

“More so on my account, I assure you,” Mercu offered his hand, and Meloria obliged for him to kiss hers.  “I’d hoped you might attend the wedding.”

“I would not miss the opportunity,” Meloria said with a wry smile.  “Not every day a princess marries the heir of South Rook, and clears up this whole mess about succession.”

“Indeed,” Mercu obliged.  “I’m sure you have no other designs in your visit.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Meloria said with a laugh.  “Never to early to nudge things along in the right directions.”

“Any particular directions in mind?” Mercu asked conspiratorially.

“That, would be telling,”  Meloria said with a smirk.  “Let us head in, so much to do.  So many details to wrap up.  Most unfortunate that so much of the affair has been left to the last minute over political waffling on locations.  Men,” she muttered.  “So worried about how things look, that they undermine getting everything to look right.”

“I’d know nothing about that,” Mercu offered with a chuckle.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha glanced across the ballroom.  She had begun to lose interest in balls some years before.  She loved the dresses the women wore, the grace of some of the dancers, but the pomp and posturing had worn thin on her.  She was also not terribly fond of dancing any more herself, though perhaps it was the game implied with the coming of age.  She had other interests, the whole thing seemed a frivolous distraction, and she had enough of those.

As much as she admired many of the dresses she had rejected all of the options presented to her, and gone for her finest formal black robe, with silver trim.  She wore her favorite silver pin, gemmed with green glass.  While cheap in fact it held up quite well in practice.

She had accepted, with less reluctance, a loan of emerald cuff earrings, and and a necklace to match.  Her hair was up, held in a bun with pins.  On the whole she looked like a more refined version of her usual self.  She had successfully avoided being asked to dance, and stood along a wall simply watching the affair absently.

Millarae had largely dominated her brother’s time on the dance floor, and Katrisha was oddly heartened by how much the girl adored him.  That he showed her a remarkable amount of deference stood in odd contrast to Katrisha’s usual opinion of the boy.  Certainly it seemed he had some virtues that had escaped her, though she was little more capable of naming them for the observation.

Katrisha sipped her drink, and began idly forming an arrangement of orbiting spheres.  This drew passing attention from the other guests near her.  She quickly became lost in her idle entertainment, and barely noticed as someone approached her.

“I do not believe I have seen you dance at all tonight,” Charles commented.

It took Katrisha a moment to even realize the words had been meant for her, and she gave the hand being held out to her a rather curious glance.  “I would not wish to deprive your sister of a partner,” she opened with, in an attempt to politely reject the extended offer.

“She has already found one,” Charles said gesturing across the ballroom where Millarae danced with a young man of about her age.

Katrisha considered her options, found a place to set her drink, and rather than dispel her array of spheres, scattered them out into a slow moving cloud around them.  She raised an eyebrow, and took the hand, permitting Charles to lead her onto the dance floor.  “I never had the impression,” she began as the song started, and Charles took her other hand, “that you, and I were on such amiable terms.”

“We’ve certainly had our issues,” Charles answered, “but you, I believe made the first efforts long ago to mend that.”

“And you have continued to bungle matters,” Katrisha counterrd frankly.

“Through no intention, I assure you,” Charles replied as they moved through the crowd that gave some space to Katrisha’s orbiting light show.  “I admit though that I have little understood how to speak with you.”

“Presumptions, I think have always been your problem,” Katrisha offered.  “You presume that the world is, as you have been taught.”

“To be fair,” Charles countered, “I have been taught, what I have been taught.  Am I to think otherwise?”

“Are you incapable of considering things for yourself, and reading of your own accord?”

“Fair,” Charles offered, with some displeasure to admit.  Failing to find a good argument he moved on.  “My mother, and sister certainly think highly of you.”

“Curious,” Katrisha said.  “I barely know either.”

“Ah, but they have made it their business to know of you,” Charles countered.

“Whatever for?”

“Mother’s reasons are her own, but I think you, and your sister have become something of an inspiration to Millarae.  She has refused all efforts to dissuade her from practicing with the guard trainees.  At first of course they would go easy on her, when she would jump into a practice against orders, and start swinging.  I hear however, that she has begun to require more serious effort to avoid embarrassing them.  My father is fuming that it has been permitted, my uncle disgusted with her behavior.  He even gave the order to knock her down in any way that wouldn’t leave a mark, which has only lead to her getting better,” he laughed lightly.  “Mother I think has made peace with it at least.”

“Have you spared with her?” Katrisha asked.

“I have.  No challenge, but I have many years on her,” Charles offered.

“You do not think it is merely because she is a girl then?” Katrisha challenged.

“She is younger, yes, but you are both of these as well, and have bested me.”

It seemed only a slight dodge.  Katrisha let it slide.  “No excuses this time?”

“Less an excuse, than a fact,” Charles answered.  “You are still the only opponent I have faced armed with a stave.”

“We could try again,” Katrisha offered.  “Perhaps in the morning?”

“Not enough dancing tonight?” Charles asked with nervous humor.

“More fun in the ring, I’m allowed to knock you on your rear,” Katrisha countered.

“Won’t you be busy though?”

“The wedding is not for another day,” Katrisha protested.  “Are you making excuses?”

“Only making sure.”  Charles laughed uncomfortably.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 1st, 647 E.R.

It was very early, but this had not stopped a collection of curious onlookers from gathering.  Word had spread quickly of a duel proposed between the young mage who had fought a dragon, and the heir of Wesrook.  Many whispers had curiously mentioned that it had been arranged over a dance, and the novelty of that alone had something of a draw.

Katrisha, for once, had been up very early, and been waiting for Charles for some time.  She was meditating as the crowd had gathered.  Meditation had never been her strong suit, so she was surprised to notice that she had missed the gathering, and Charles’ arrival.  She did her best to hide her foggy frame of mind as she glanced about.

Katrisha considered that there was quite a royal audience at the front.  The Duchess of Wesrook, and Millarae were behind Charles.  The King, Crown Prince, and Maraline to her left.  The Princess looked as though she was worried that her maid of honor might be bruised for her wedding day, in spite of Katrisha’s assurances that she could heal anything unsightly.  In of course the implausible event Charles could even land a blow.

The groom to be, and the sitting Duke Parin were to Maraline’s right.  Mercu stood a few steps behind, and had an uncharacteristic expression that was hard to read.  Something less than jovial, shrewd certainly.  She doubted he entirely approved of her little challenge, but had kept his silence.  He had no power to dissuade her, and wouldn’t think to do so now that a crowd had gathered.  Katrisha was less certain of the rest of the gathered onlookers, but she intended to put on a good show.  Mercu might not approve, but he had certainly taught her showmanship.

“So, sticking with sword and shield?” Katrisha asked as charles moved to arm himself.  She lept up, and struck a fighting stance, a little more exaggerated to be showy.  “The stave does still have the advantage of reach.”

“Though you said I was the only one you’ve fought with a stave,” Katrisha observed teasingly.

“Wasn’t really proper matches, just pointers.”

“And have you beaten Horence?” Katrisha asked.

“Once,” Charles said.

“Twice,” Katrisha smiled, and bowed to her opponent.

“Who opens?” Charles asked, and bowed himself.

“The one with the guts,” she taunted, and before Charles could set himself to it, she had already struck.  He was more than able to catch her blow, the shield providing defensive advantage, where the stave had reach.

Charles of course could not remain defensive, and maintain face, so made his own cautious move.  This was easily deflected into a counter strike, taken again loudly by his shield.  Neither move had been serious, not merely testing, but there was an unspoken showmanship that went with dueling before a large crowd.  You open slow, not merely to avoid overcommitting, but also to not finish quickly.

The following series of traded blows were faster than the first.  Charles parried with his practice sword, and tried instead an attack with the shield.  Early for such an opening gambit, but the surprise did earn him more effort, and some dramatic movement by Katrisha to deal with the threat.  Charles attempted to exploit this and get a thrust in, but she evaded it, and brought her staff around hard into another successful block.

“No magic,” Charles taunted.

“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction,” Katrisha laughed, and another series of quick blows were traded, parried, blocked.  Katrisha made ample use of the flexibility of the staff to deflect a blow, and carry through an attack with the other end.  Charles easily dealt with this, the independance of the sword, and shield showing advantage.

Katrisha came down from above with a swing, Charles brought himself under the wild move, blocking above, and thrusting forward, but Katrisha was already out of the way of the thrust, and flicked the sword away with the other end of the staff.

“Sure you aren’t using magic?” Charles laughed.

“Magic,” Katrisha said, “is spells.  The gift is in the blood, the bone, and the flesh.”

They exchanged more blows quickly to no advantage.  “Still seems like cheating to me,” Charles said.

“Would you have me hold back?  Tie a hand behind my back?”  Katrisha chided.  “You even use a bit of gift yourself, the blood of dukes, and all that.  Nothing worth training for magic, but I can read your stronger strikes before you make them, because you are channeling it.  Typically, I expect you would think you have an advantage in strength, being a man.”  She moved quickly, striking several times with great force, and pushing Charles onto defense.  “But I have the greater gift by far, so I can actually hit harder than you.”

“Still sounds like cheating,” Charles countered.

“Whatever helps you save face,” Katrisha laughed, and parried a series of his blows with no thought to counter any of them.  “Here, let me help.  I will tie a hand behind my back, more or less.”  She threw out a series of light orbs with sweeps of her staff that hovered around the edge of the ring.  “I’ll maintain these, while fighting you.  Just a little distraction to keep things interesting.  Of course if you get distracted by them too, that’s your problem.”

Charles dubiously tried several more attacks, but found Katrisha still more than capable.  He hardly trusted that what she had just done did not help her in some way.  She had however been honest, it was a distraction to do so, but the temptation to have some fun crept in.  She absorbed some of the force from every blow she blocked, storing it off into the orbs, making new ones if any showed signs of overloading.

“What are you up to?” Charles asked after their dance had gone on a while longer.

“Just a little fun,” Katrisha smiled.  “Nothing I’ll use on you, promise.  Really quite distracting.  I might have to start trying to fight you soon.”

Charles got more aggressive at the taunting, and true to her word Katrisha did have to start struggling with some of his blows, but not so much as to keep her from counter attacking frequently.  One particular parry let her get her staff behind his shield to strike his shoulder, and knock him off balance.  She parried a counter stroke that he tried anyway, and swept his leg landing him on his rear.

Exhilarated Katrisha came out of the sweep, and struck the ground hard, using all the stored energy she had to launch herself upward spectacularly, shattering the spheres, and cresting a good ten feet in the air.  She lacked the actual grace to control the resulting tumble, and had to use magic to correct it.  She shed the force of her fall into the air around her as she landed some distance behind the already downed Charles.  In truth she nearly toppled from the landing, but quick use of her stave for balance made the whole thing look quite nearly flawless.

She huffed several times wondering what had come over her.  It had felt so natural, riding a wave of adrenaline, but it had been wildly impetuous.  The stunned crowd started clapping for the finish.  Katrisha straightened up, and walked over to offer Charles her hand.  “Sorry, got carried away.”

He took the hand reluctantly.  “Shall we try that again, without showing off?”  He said.

“If you insist,” Katrisha laughed, “but it will only go worse for you.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“What do you all say?” Katrisha hollered, turning to look over the crowd. “Would you like an encore?  Without the flourish?”

“With!”  Someone yelled back.

“I’ll take another challenger after I give Charles his boring round,” Katrisha laughed.  Mercu’s expression underwent a barely perceptible shift.  “Or three!”  She turned back, and bowed to Charles, who returned it.  Already warmed up the two went quickly into real attacks, no longer really needing to test the other.  It was evident to Katrisha that Charles was putting everything he had into the match then, and she kept it simple, making sure that there was no chance it looked as though she did anything but fight him fair, and square.  However in simple truth he was at a disadvantage.

The match ended almost the same – save no dramatic aerial performance – but with a twirl that took her out of the path of a swing, and brought her staff behind Charles, knocking him forward.  She offered him her hand again, and he took it.

“Let’s hear a round for Charles,” Katrisha said, and there was some modest clapping, though more enthusiastic from his sister.  “Alright.  I’ll need three volunteers.  Let’s help the boy save some face by showing what I can really do.  I’m the girl who fought a dragon, who wants a go?”  What had become at times a thing of some embarrassment, right that moment, high from victory, was an almost giddy badge of honor.

The knight commander of South Rook stepped forth, as did two of the guard.  “You sure it’s a fair fight?” he asked.

“Only one way to find out,” Katrisha laughed, and grinned a bit impishly.  “But I will be going all in this time, magic and all.  Nothing too rough of course.”

The commander nodded.  “Alright, swords, and shields boys.”

“Little more room everybody,” Katrisha yelled out.  “Don’t want any bystanders getting in the way.”  She rolled her shoulders, and the three men armed with practices swords, and shields surrounded her.  Her barrier went up, a simple enough spell that would slow anything inert except her own stave, which she quickly enchanted to counter the effect.  She made sure though not to slow the incoming attacks too much, just for the sake of show.  It would give her a strong advantage, but not directly tip off ungifted observers what was going on.

“Gentlemen first.”  Katrisha laughed, and bowed.  Her three opponents returned it, though only two were in view.  Taking Katrisha’s comment as an instruction the commander opened.  His attacks were testing, and no real threat.  “Come on,” Katrisha chided the other two, “join in.  I want to make this interesting.”

The barrier slowed the strikes of her attackers just enough to allow Katrisha to deflect two separate blows with a single swing.  To them it felt as though they were striking molasses, and they could feel a chill in their blades.  The guard behind her, seeing she was distracted tried for obvious advantage, only to find his thrust parried, as Katrisha could sense it entering her field.  Though she largely had to guess where precisely the strike was, her staff made a broad sweep effective.  

She turned into the single opponent, gave him a quick thrust to the chest that he failed to block, and put him on his rear.  Pulling out of her previous attack, she came around again with a wave of force stored up in her barrier.  This knocked the other guard from his feet, and staggered the commander.

She dueled with the commander momentarily for fun, while the other two got back up.  He was good, much better than her, and in a fair fight she wouldn’t have stood a chance, but she wasn’t arranging a fair fight, she was showing off.  He was also gifted, even more so than Charles, which was still to his disadvantage.  She could read his moves before he made them, while he had to read her body language, and tells.  Something that decades of experience made him quite good at.

On the whole Katrisha suspected the man to be Horence’s equal at least, if not slightly his better.  He did not however have the same talent for reading the moves of gifted, and this in turn was in Katrisha’s favor.  On the whole it was only managing two other opponents that was making it a nearly fair fight.

Katrisha felt another strike coming from behind, and dodged, sweeping the leg of the second guard who had only just gotten back up, and returning him to the ground.  She struck the back of the man who had come from behind, and pushed him forward, forcing the commander to back off.  All three were then in front of her.  She brought her staff around for several more swings with reach, each of which were parried.  She made a move that was better to dodge than block, and forced the commander into position for a blow of force that teetered him, and forced the others to the ground.  He almost recovered before her next staff swing brought him down.

Katrisha bowed again, and the crowd clapped.  “Now that,” she laughed.  “Is how you cheat.”  She offered a hand to a guard who was still down, and then to the commander.  “Thank you,” she said, “I’ve never gotten to do that before.”  He did not look particularly more pleased.

Katrisha walked over to Maraline who was particularly enthusiastic with her applause.  She curtsied to the princess.  “So, still worried about me being marked up for tomorrow?”

“No, but I do have some concerns about my other guests,” Maraline laughed.

“Why?” Katrisha grinned, “I’ll protect them.”

“But who ever will protect them from you?”

“Their own good sense not to fight me?” Katrisha suggested.

“After today, I should hope.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 2nd, 647 E.R.

The wedding was a lovely affair.  Far grander than anything Katrisha had witnessed, and even for all the regal airs it did touch something in her.  Still, even a more spectacular ball than the one which had first welcomed the wedding party to South Rook, could not hold her interest for very long.  She had heard that there would be fireworks, and retreated to a higher floor, where from years past she recalled a public balcony.

The view out over South Rook was a lovely thing, and for a moment it brought Katrisha some peace.  Though a moment of calm from the storm growing in her mind, only provided opportunity for her to grapple with what was truly troubling her.  She was happy for Maraline, she was, she assured herself.  There was no question in her mind that Lukus was dear to her, and that she would be content in South Rook.  It was South Rook that bothered her.

Katrisha remembered all too well the conversation that she and her sister had overheard in that very spot years before.  The schemes of a duke and baron to elevate criminals, and blame the innocent.  As distasteful as that aspect was, it was her sister that bothered her.  Kiannae was gone, somewhere far away.  That was if she still lived, and Katrisha had to believe her sister had not come to some terrible end.  Yet believing so at that moment took far more effort that she was comfortable with.  Effort, that if Laurel’s theories were correct, Kiannae had not given to imagining Katrisha could have survived.  She waffled from sorrow, to anger, and then settled on thoughts of Maraline.

She was honored, and touched that Maraline had chosen her to stand as maid of honor, but also troubled by it.  Katrisha was unsure if she really considered Maraline a friend, but if she was not, then Katrisha had to accept she had none.  Wren counted, surely, even if he was blood, but the distinction whittled away at the thin comfort.

Even if Maraline was Katrisha’s friend, she would no longer reside at court on Broken Hill, and Wren lived in the north with Renae.  The wedding meant that Katrisha would be alone, with no confidant at all, save Laurel and Mercu.  However much she loved each they were like fathers to her, not the easy comfort of friendship, or her bond with her sister.

“I thought I saw you head up into the tower,” Charles commented behind her.  She was almost startled, but even distracted by her own thoughts, on some level she had known someone had approached, and stood there for some time.  Maybe even on some level knew who, Charles did have gift enough that his presence gave a unique impression.  Not unlike the feel of soft piled hay, a fleeting memory from a childhood home long gone.

Katrisha turned irritably to the young man, who for his part looked to her with none of the venom she offered.  He wore a kind smile, and regal attire appropriate to the day’s festivities.  His blond hair was swept to the side, and on the whole he was very put together.  For just a moment she could forget how often in her life he had annoyed her.  He had been trying so very hard to be better it seemed, yet she was ill at ease to release the grudges she held.

“I sought solitude,” Katrisha began, but then thought better of it, “and have come to question if I truly desire it.”  She was not inclined to encourage Charles to remain, nor as she thought on it entirely ready to be alone anymore.  She leaned against the rail, and crossed her arms, giving him a look she couldn’t have read herself.

“Tell me what it is you would prefer,” Charles offered.

“That I have any friends left in this world,” she offered in confidence that she immediately reconsidered.

“Surely you are Maraline’s friend,” Charles questioned, “she did name you her maid of honor.”

“She and I,” Katrisha began with some reservation, “are somewhat in the same predicament.  I’m not sure if either of us would readily say friend of the other, save to be polite, and not split hairs unnecessarily.  Yet what real confidence we have, I cannot say.  No, perhaps I am unfair.  She has often offered me confidence more than once regarding her beloved, now husband.  I’ve had nothing similar to offer in kind, nor do I know if I would have.  However much we have been raised in the same court, I feel none the less like we are part of different worlds.”

“I see,” Charles nodded, and stepped further onto the balcony.  He leaned on the rail a respectful distance away.  “Who has my confidence, I am also less than certain,” he offered.  “I’ve sparring partners certainly,” he said thoughtfully, “and a camaraderie of sorts that comes naturally with my fellow heirs.”

“What of Philip?” Katrisha pressed.  “The two of you have always seemed quite amiable.”

“Perhaps,” Charles seemed quite dubious on the suggestion. “Yet what interests do we really share?  Polite conversation over affairs of a nation that one day will actually be our responsibility?  He’s more favorable of the views my father holds than his cousin, or you…or the King.  It seems a losing proposition altogether.”

“Do I hear doubt in your voice for Clarion teaching?” Katrisha asked cautiously.

“Doubt…certainly,” Charles offered.  “Who in this world is without doubt?  Yet who am I to question, and all the more who am I to ignore that my betters question.  I cannot say that I do not find a sense of peace in the teaching, and yet there is so much fire that belies the harmony promised.”

“Life is suffering,” Katrisha mused.

“Not words I would imagine to hear from your lips,” Charles pressed curiously.

“And why wouldn’t I?”  Katrisha countered.  “My sister is lost to me, and I must cling defiantly to the hope that she lives.  I have no true friends, save my own brother who spends much of the year far away.  Further I have not felt entirely right since the mountain.”

“Surely your injuries were an ordeal, and the strain of the circumstances would linger,” Charles suggested kindly.

“I keep feeling it is more.”  Katrisha shook her head.  “That something other than the obvious is wrong.  Not even the shadow of a war that ever looms, but never comes, seems to answer the call of what troubles me.  I find that… I am drifting, losing focus.  That time sometimes slips by, and I fail to even notice.”

“You seemed focused enough in our duel,” Charles countered, “or when you defeated three grown men, expertly trained to fight.”

“When I have something to focus on,” Katrisha said, “particularly something as invigorating as a sparring, it is not so difficult.”

“Does conversation help?”

“It would seem,” Katrisha consented, and looked back out over the city.

“Then perhaps I will remain here with you.”

Katrisha glanced at the young man.  She was still not sure she liked him at all, but there was something pleasant in the way he looked at her.  She nodded, and turned back to the city.  “As you will.”

A series of fireworks began to light the darkening sky, and as lovely as they were, Katrisha found herself closing her eyes, and listening to the sound.  She felt a hand beside hers on the rail, nothing quite so forward as to place it atop hers.  She barely looked down, somewhat willfully ignored that Charles had moved closer, and returned to the display in the sky.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 12th, 647 E.R.

Laurel considered with some curiosity the complex array of orbs that buzzed about Katrisha’s tower chamber.  It filled most of the room, and was to his eye the most detailed recreation of the solar system he had ever seen, rivaling anything he had ever done himself.  Planets, moons, and even asteroids moved along projected arcs, and a great many arcane symbols followed, or labeled the courses.  Though he recognized most of the symbols, the notation meant nothing to him.  It seemed likely something of Katrisha’s own devising.

He dodged planets as he made his way towards where Katrisha sat, seemingly absent mindedly in bed.  His passage slightly disrupted the projected paths, but seemed to do little to the overall function of the spell.  He stopped to consider a number of runes that moved on their own curious paths not seeming to label anything obvious, but quickly became more concerned with Katrisha’s acknowledgement of his presence.

Taking less care to avoid the moving parts of the spell he waked to Katrisha’s bed.  Still she just sat there, staring distantly past the center of the room.

“Katrisha?” Laurel pressed, and received no response.  He grabbed her by the shoulders gently, still nothing.  He gave a light shake.   “Kat, wake up.”

Still Katrisha sat there unblinking, and Laurel could barely have cared less as a large planet and accompanying moons crashed into him, and dissolved in swirls of light that washed over them.

Katrisha blinked, and looked around.  “What?” she asked.

Laurel got down on his knees.  “Are you alright?”

“I think so,” Katrisha seemed confused.  “What’s going on?”

“That’s my question,” Laurel demanded.

“What?” Katrisha looked around even more confused.

“What were you doing?” Laurel asked in a measured tone.

“I wasn’t doing anything…I…”  She looked bewildered.  “I was just laying down for a nap.”

“When was the last time you ate?” Laurel asked befuddled, and worried.

“Breakfast,” Katrisha answered.

“Go get some lunch,” Laurel ordered, and Katrisha nodded somewhat absently.  She got up, and Laurel got out of her way as she walked out of the room.  There were no traces of the spell, and Laurel was less than certain if she had dispelled it, or if it’s decay had been what had finally woken her.

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Chapter 2

What men walk the Sylvan wood,
these ones of blended ancient kin,

tall slim and proud they stand,
with quick feet and steady hand,

of most little more can be discerned,
but of shining eyes and ears adorned,

yet few of those noble born ne’er to rule,
those great lions broad stout and true.

– unknown origin, circa 200 E.R.

Out of the Woods

Coria 40th, 647 E.R.

A raven haired young woman awoke in a great deal of pain.  Everything was scratched and bruised, and she was deathly cold.  She could rarely remember being cold.  Winters had never bothered her much, and spring well underway.  Though it did not help she she had left her robe somewhere.  Where seemed an overly complicated and relative question at that point.  After a single excruciating breath, and a foolish attempt to move, her burning chest and throbbing leg easily drown out every other sense.

There was an instant of amazement as she realized what had stirred her back to consciousness.  She was moving, or rather someone was moving her – which hurt almost more than moving herself.  Her emerald eyes flicked around deliriously, but in the early morning light, and her dazed frame of mind the onlookers seemed little more than meaningless shadows.  Patches of darkness shifting through a sea of murky sapphire, flecked with the last bright stars of morning.  Those stars felt oddly closer than the people around her.

She tried to remember where she was, and how she had gotten there.  She remembered being hit, the sound of cracking bone, a sweep of starry sky, and then the ground rushing up to meet her.  She remembered trying to stop her fall, setting off the spell both too soon, sloppily, tumbling, and then the sound of her leg breaking from the impact at the end.  The sound was a sickening memory, but she hadn’t even felt it.  Just darkness washing over her, more stars, and a cold distant ache.  There were whispers, arguing, bickering, but it all slipped away, replaced with the world pulling her back in.

People were talking, and it took the girl a moment to actually process any of what was being said.  Her name slipped through a few times, stirring the deep quagmire of her mind.  Katrisha.  It was familiar, but it didn’t fully sink in.

The voice of her mentor and adoptive father clicked first.  “I swear, if I felt sure enough of either Eran or myself as a healer, I’d send you away now.  Your carelessness up on the cliffs made this already insane situation worse.”  Laurel was his name, Grey the family, by all accounts earned long ago for the striking silver eyes the line was known for.

Katrisha squinted and tried to focus on the man who was attempting to lay her on her back.  She recognized Idolus after a few moments, a somewhat troublesome priest she thought little of.  His services by her reckoning always came at a price, be it gold or influence. His glance barely acknowledged that he had noticed she was awake.  His left arm hung in a sling, even as he moved his right hand over her body seeking out critical injury.

“And you,” Laurel snapped, realizing Katrisha was conscious. “You stupid, arrogant, insufferable child.  If I wasn’t just glad to see you breathing, I’d tan your damned hide till you couldn’t sit for a month…even with healing.”

Katrisha just turned her gaze up, and stared at the slowly brightening sky.  She had never imagined pain like she was feeling.  It was bad enough that she couldn’t even scream.  Quick intakes of breath that came when the pain spiked caused deep burning agony that turned what would be guttural cries into pitiful squeaks.  Yet at once it all seemed vaguely detached and far away.  She glanced again at Idolus, and as much as she knew she needed his healing, she liked him less than ever.  There was something in the way he looked at her as he worked, that made her very unhappy she had opted to remove her robe before the fight.

What had made her do that?  She focused on it, trying to be anywhere but in that moment.  It had been a book, and a realization on the long ride into the mountains.  Even enchanted the robe would have done almost nothing to save her from a single swipe, or the crushing bite of the dragon.  Yet ironically the only strike that had even touched her – an accidental sweep of the tail – might, just maybe have not broken her ribs if she had kept it on, but just as any blunt force it probably wouldn’t have done much.  Further she was all the less certain if she would have avoided the rampaging dragon that could not see her, if she had kept the robe.

Which was it; a mistake, or the right move after all?  The whole thing was foolish, but the craziest detail made for a great distraction given she could legitimately question her own logic, focus on it, and almost ignore everything else…almost.  Pain is very good at breaking through even the best distractions.  It is not meant to be ignored.  It is meant to make you stop what you are doing, or at least think twice before you do it again.

Laurel railed on for several more seconds before thinking better of the fact he was clearly being ignored, and turned his ire instead to the knights and Eran, who he chastised mercilessly for not turning their backs on the scene.  Katrisha stifled a laugh, successfully, but simply drawing the breath to do so sent her head spinning with blinding agony, and she nearly passed out.

“She’ll live,” Idolus said in a matter of fact tone.  “Her insides are quite bruised, some significant internal bleeding in the broken leg, and multiple fractured, or outright broken ribs.  I can stabilize her enough to move her, but it will take an hour or more.”

Katrisha finally looked at Laurel, and focused long enough for his expression to actually sink in.  His scowl slowly softened to disappointment, concern, and for just a moment she felt embarrassed for what she had done.  Had there been another way?  It didn’t matter, he was alive, she was alive.  It didn’t matter if there had been another way.  Any pain was worth it that he was alive, that everyone was alive.  Even cursed Idolus.

Where was Kiannae she suddenly wondered?  And a touch of fear crept in around the edges.  The prophecy still hung on her.  Yet everyone else was there, and her sister had not been down in the ravine.  She wanted to ask, but could not draw a breath deep enough to do so.  She closed her eyes.  She had to be alright…she had to.  Didn’t she?  They had the talent of battle mages, gifts not plausibly won from only a single future fight, and Kiannae hadn’t even been in the fight.  Had she?  What had happened after Katrisha’s fall, she couldn’t know.

“In that case can you please get her to the point we can put her robe back on,” Laurel said in dismay.

“Y…yes,” Idolus said his voice slightly unnerved.  Katrisha screamed as he set her broken leg, and could feel as he began to mend severed veins, and knit broken bone.  She had felt healing magic before, but there was something cold and uncaring to Idolus’ touch.  It was precise, pinpoint, and did little to hide the pain caused by the injuries as they were mended.  His manner was stiff and dispassionate, even as she could feel his gaze wandering.  She wanted to be mad, embarrassed, she wanted to cover herself, but she could do nothing but lay there motionless, and be healed.

“Someone get a cursed blanket,” Laurel yelled at the knights.  Promptly Eran moved to a horse, removed the saddle, and took the blanket from underneath.  He handed it to Laurel who quickly  brought it over, and covered Katrisha.  He then gave the most reproving look she had ever seen to Idolus, that paled even to how he had been glaring at her.  She felt at once vindicated, and ill that he had seen something in the man’s gaze as well.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It was late evening when the slow march of horses stopped in a vaguely familiar village square.  The procession had been slow, and taken many breaks to rest, and insure that broken bones, and bruised organs remained healed.  It had been a long, miserable, and very somber day of few words.   Laurel had not even spoken to his wounded charge directly in hours.  Not even to answer about Kiannae as he sent Eran off in search of her.

Katrisha looked around tiredly, she was sore everywhere.  Most of her scrapes and bruises had been left.  Idolus had exhausted too much of his reserves dealing with her broken bones, other major injuries, and apparently his own, to manage minor details.  She doubted if he would have any way.  She had tried to deal with some of the more agitating annoyances along the ride, or at rest stops, but her skills were lacking, and her own reserves drained far more than she felt they should be.

Katrisha looked down at a knight who was offering to help her down off her horse, and reluctantly accepted.  Though the bone in her leg was mended, muscles were still strained, and slightly torn.  She found she walked painfully with a limp, even with the knights help.

There were a lot of side long glances from anyone in the street.  Knights and gifted coming from the north in sore shape drew interest, and concern, but not questions.  Only two knights remained, out of the four that had road with Laurel to the mountain.  One had gone on with Eran to search for Kiannae, and one had ridden on early in the day to give word to the King.  Idolus for his part had proceeded without stopping after a single fierce glance from Laurel.

Katrisha looked about at the tavern they entered, but said nothing as she was lead to a corner, and sat at a table almost forcefully.  She glanced at Laurel who was engaged in what – at that point of exhaustion – must have passed as lively debate over arrangements.  After a minute or two he walked over, a drink in each hand, and nearly slammed one down in front of her.

Katrisha looked up at Laurel with obvious confusion on her face.  She had only once been offered some wine before, and only vaguely remembered her distaste at the time.  Laurel just shook his head. “Drink, figure at this point it couldn’t hurt.  In fact it might help with the pain.”  Hesitantly she lifted the tankard, sniffed it, and wrinkled her nose at the odor.  She looked at Laurel again who pulled out a chair from the table and, sat down with great resignation, and then just seemed to watch her curiously.

At last Katrisha convinced herself to take a sip, and it was all she could do to not gag at the bitterness.  “Mercyful fates,” she cursed, “why would anyone ever willingly drink that?”

Laurel shrugged and took a long swig.  After a moment he leaned forward, and rested his head on his left hand, and sighed.  “It’s an acquired taste I guess,” he mused, “or perhaps it’s just a taste for distraction.”  Katrisha hesitantly tried another sip, but wrinkled her nose and shook her head, still disgusted.

“I could lecture you,” Laurel sighed.  “I could lecture you, and tell you how incredibly stupid you are…” he trailed off, his voice having risen more in tenor than he wished.  He took another drink, and sighed again, before continuing in a softer tone, “But it doesn’t seem to help, does it?  So what will…what do I have to do?”

Katrisha looked away, embarrassed, angry – angry at him, angry at herself, angry at things she couldn’t even name.  She wondered if there was something wrong with her.  Was she really just stupid, hopeless, foolish, reckless, and destructive?  Were these the words that would define her, that people would think of to describe her?

She had acted on a prophetic dream, one she was sure of, one that a voice had told her to.  Yet none of that was a sensible excuse.  For all Laurel had ever told her on the matter, she only felt it could make things worse to mention.  He was alive, she was alive, Kiannae – wherever she was – surely was alive.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said defiantly, but still looked away.  She watched the animated gestures of one of the knights.  He was talking to a barmaid, no doubt retelling the tale of the previous evening, with far more importance on himself.

“I wish you did,” Laurel muttered, and leaned back.  “I could really use the help.”

Katrisha tried a third sip of her beer, grimaced, and thought to herself that maybe it was about distraction.  If all you are thinking about is how bad it tastes, you aren’t thinking about anything else, and so she continued to nurse her drink quietly.  There were after all, a great many things she didn’t want to think about.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 647 E.R.

Katrisha rolled her shoulders, and winced even as the cracking in her neck made her feel slightly better.  She felt like she hadn’t slept well, though she had no memory of tossing or turning in the night.  Her head hurt, and she wondered if it had gotten knocked hard at some point she had forgotten, during either the fighting, or more likely the fall.

Laurel sat in a far corner of the tavern, and seemed disinterested that Katrisha had finally been dragged from bed by the staff.  A bar maid appeared from the kitchen, and urged her to a nearby table, setting bacon and eggs before her.  The woman stopped to consider her for a moment, and Katrisha recognized her as one the knight had been chatting up the evening before.

At last it seemed she got up the nerve to speak her mind.  “Is it true what those braggarts told me?”

“Depends what they told you,” Katrisha offered with some reservation.

“Did you really try to fight a dragon…naked?”

Katrisha winced, a part of her wanted to be proud, but really she did feel justifiably stupid for the first time.  “Maybe,” she said blushing, “maybe try isn’t even the right word.  I think I was winning till that damn priest decided he wanted a better view of the fight.”

The woman laughed, a bit uncomfortably, but there was a certain admiration in her obvious condemnation.  It had an oddly pleasing effect Katrisha could not place.  “Well, I dare say, you’ve got more balls than any man I’ve ever met.  Possibly less sense too, but that would be close, I’ve met some damn fools.”

Katrisha considered the smiling woman before her, it was her turn to laugh – which still hurt a bit.  “Yer right on the last count, I’ve accepted that.  I think maybe I’m not right in the head.  I also wasn’t doing it alone…” she trailed off.

“Yer sister, right?” the barmaid asked.  “Some kind of fancy illusion to make the dragon not see you?”

“Yeah,” Katrisha said prodding at the food in front of her, “something like that.”  She was an odd mixture of desperately hungry, and queasy.

“Sounds clever,” the woman continued, “for a damned fool stunt, anyway.”

Katrisha simply nodded, and started to eat as the woman walked away shaking her head.  In another corner of the tavern she saw two knights sitting, and quietly eating.  After a moment she realized Eran was also with them, and had fallen asleep at the table.  It took her a further strained thought to connect that he, and the second knight had been the ones searching for Kiannae.  They had not arrived till either very late, or after dawn.  She looked around, but there was no sign of her sister.

Katrisha was about to walk over and ask if there had been any sign of Kiannae, when she noticed that Laurel had moved, and was pulling out the chair across from her.  He looked her up and down, and then followed her repeated gaze to the knights.

“Eran arrived not long ago,” he began.  “He found her horse out east, but no sign of her.  He says it looked like she had run off into the woods.  He followed her trail a ways, but it vanished in a rocky area too close to Sylvan territory for comfort.”

Katrisha hung her head, and told herself her sister was fine, that she could take care of herself.  She looked back up at Laurel and tried hopelessly to read his expression, till at last he went off on another tangent.  “I doubt I told you, given how little we talked yesterday – so forgive me if you know this – but the dragon is dead.”

Laurel seemed to ponder for a moment.  “Frankly I think the thing would have died without my help, or one of the knights running the throat through to be sure.  Fates forbid I encourage you, but you two did quite a number on the beast.  I don’t think you are going to live down the fact you were fighting it naked.  Actually, I’m half tempted to make quite sure of that, in the hopes it will embarrass you into never trying anything so stupid again.”

Katrisha looked away, and tried to let it all go, but couldn’t.  “It seemed like the right way to do it at the time. I needed to be able to…move…” she trailed off, thinking better of trying to defend herself.

“That, I don’t get,” Laurel said shaking his head. “Even when you are being so impetuous, so foolish, and lacking any semblance of sense in your head, you find a way to do something that even though superficially justified…just makes it all the more insane.”

“I…” Katrisha sighed.  “We both had the same dream.  You were dead, being brought into the castle…it wasn’t…good.  My dream told me…literally, to ‘heed the warning.’  You…you wouldn’t have listened.  You were treating us like children.  We’ve fought before, we could have helped, but you would have gone off, and gotten yourself killed…rather than let us help, or trust our…” she trailed off.  Her anger, and frustration with everything faded.  She felt a fool again, sitting there scolding Laurel, but she also felt like she was right.

“Well you damn well acted like children,” Laurel snapped, but seemed to think better of it, or at least decided it wasn’t helpful.  “Fates know plenty of silly little kids have trotted off thinking they are going to slay a dragon, but usually a good six years younger, and a few hundred miles shorter of finding one, let alone almost doing it.”  He huffed, closed his eyes, and steadied his breath.

“Say that again?” Laurel asked sternly.

“What?”

“The dream ‘literally’ told you to head the warning?” Laurel asked uneasily.

“Yes,” Katrisha answered.

Laurel’s expression was hard to read.  There was a long pause, he shook his head, and looked away.  “I also had a dream,” he admitted, though it seemed almost like changing the subject.  “That you died.  I ignored it though, because there was no way I ever would have considered letting you go.  I ignored it…and you went.  Yet here you are alive.  Thank the merciful fates,” he muttered, and rubbed his face, looking on the verge of tears.

Katrisha nibbled on some bacon, and refused to make eye contact for some time.

Laurel moved on to rubbing his forehead, and looked down as well.  “You might be interested to hear,” Laurel started distantly, “that there were eggs.  Two were crushed in the fighting, or by flying debris, but three were intact.  I’ll have to ask the King what he wants to do about them.”

Katrisha scrunched her brow thoughtfully, and finally gave up and asked, “What is even the question?”

“Surely Mercu has told you at some point,” Laurel said perking a brow, “it’s his favorite bit of dragon lore.  Sometimes, very rarely, dragon eggs hatch into humans.  Even from a beastly lesser dragon like that one.  Though as big as it was, I have my doubts if it wasn’t a feral minor dragon.  Still it seemed the invisibility worked…I don’t know.”

Katrisha cocked her head to the side.  “Maybe I remember him saying that once, it was a terrible long time ago, and I don’t think I took him seriously.  Dragon born,” she half remembered.

“Oh it’s true,” Laurel said pulling at his beard.  “Poor things don’t stand much a chance born to a wild mother like that.  Invariably they wind up eaten by either the mother, siblings, or simply crushed by careless steps.”

Katrisha went white, and lost what little appetite she had.  “That’s horrid,” she said feebly.

“No doubt about it.  It is horrid.”  Laurel agreed.  “No telling yet with those eggs, they were very fresh, makes me worry.   Where is the mate?  She has been here a while.  I don’t know much about dragon reproduction…but that seems a stretch.”  He paused obviously lost in thought.

“The possibility of human offspring isn’t the only reason to hesitate in just getting rid of them,” Laurel said rubbing his face a bit tiredly.  ”The Storm Queen likes to try and rehabilitate lesser dragons, and a feral mother doesn’t really set the potential intelligence of the offspring in stone.  Napir is a bit far, but a good country to earn favor with.  I’d respect the Queen more for it on merit, but she actually has the one thing that makes that task doable; the allegiance of minor, and even greater dragons, not to mention Roshana herself.  Not that the former Empress would deign to wake from her multi-decade long naps to help.”

Katrisha looked at her plate, and considered trying to eat again.  Eventually she looked back to Laurel.  “I had no idea it was so involved.  I mean, I remember some of Mercu’s stories, but I didn’t realize that there were actually politics to consider regarding dragon eggs.”

Laurel huffed.  “Dear, there are politics regarding everything under the Sun, and frankly most things that aren’t.  Where it gets tricky, is that it is a long way to transport eggs that can hold a grown man.  Particularly through Niven.  They really don’t like dragons down there.”

“More so than anywhere else?” Katrisha asked mockingly.

“Oh fates yes,” Laurel laughed.  “Most kingdoms are wise enough to give a greater dragon a chance to speak, or show intentions before attacking it.  The people of Niven will try to kill any dragon on sight…or at least run.  I suppose I can’t blame the ones who run.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 42nd, 647 E.R.

As Kiannae woke she was surprised to be alone.  The camp had been pulled up, the meat was gone, and dirt covered the coals of the night’s fire.  After a moment of looking around she found Iven perched on a stump some distance away.  As she approached him she wondered why they had let her sleep through breaking camp, only to leave one of their own behind to escort her.

Kiannae stood by the stump a while, but Iven seemed to make no move to actually leave.  His glances acknowledged her presence, but largely he seemed not to care.  Eventually she tried to stir some kind of action and asked, “We go?”

Iven looked at her again, shook his head, leapt from his speech, and grabbed a small sack of meat that had been sitting beside him.  He gestured for her to follow as he walked away.

Before they left camp Kianne couldn’t help but notice the tracks left by the others lead another way.  That worried her.  She checked a spell that could tell where north was.  The tracks went north, they were headed east.

“Iven,” she said loudly to get his attention.  He stopped, hesitated, and finally relented to turn to face her.  She pointed to the tracks, and the direction they lead.  He looked at her, and for a moment she thought there was a touch of respect in his expression, but he shook his head, and then gestured the way he had been walking.  Offering nothing more, he moved on.  Kiannae sighed, and decided whatever it was leading to, resisting wouldn’t make it better.

They walked a very long ways.  Kiannae was sure it had been farther than she had in any of the previous days.  The many rest stops they made seemed more for her sake than his, and as night set in they made camp again without a word.  The most meaningful communication between them was in the form a gesture towards a prepared fire pit, which Kiannae lit.

That night she found it impossible to think of anything but her sister, and though she tried to maintain a brave face, inevitably she broke down into tears.  She cried for nearly an hour, before she noticed Iven sit down beside her, and looked to him with tear streaked cheeks.  His discomfort was obvious, even past her sorrow she could read in his body language that he was fighting very hard to not move away from her.

“What?” Kiannae finally demanded hoarsely.

Iven slowly moved closer, wrapped his arm around her shoulder, and pulled her head gently to his chest.  For a moment she was as reluctant as he obviously was, but finally, uneasily, she let go, clung to him, and continued to cry.

Softly under his breath he began to sing.  It was a somber, yet oddly joyous tune.  One she recognized only vaguely, one her father had sung to her and Katrisha as children.  It at once comforted and deepened her sorrow.

Vonjon vejon, jon os soer ven,
Fer kwo eno ely so, jo vyn so ji,
Jon gon jos, fer unsil hos won,
Je ungon so ky, wosil jos jo…

The first verse then repeated, ever more wistfully, and slowly her tears dried up, but the pain in the center of of her very being did not subside.  Though the hole felt ever less empty, filled by a distant warmth that eased the ache of loss.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 2nd, 647 E.R.

Days of walking finally came to an end at the edge of a steep hill looking down on what seemed to be a small village woven amongst the trees.  As they worked their way down the hill, a small child leapt from behind a rock, only to be tackled by another leaping from behind the opposite tree.

Iven laughed, which was a pleasant change in his demeanor.  He chattered at the two in a playful tone, and both looked at Kiannae, their eyes going wide, and fled down the path into the village, calling out wildly.  He glanced at Kiannae, and continued down after the children at a more casual pace than before.

What passed for a village seemed no more than six buildings.  Their shape was odd, and something out of place, but Kiannae did not let herself be distracted by curiosity, and rather became concerned that the population had split between a tightly packed group greeting them, and locking themselves away.

Five adults stood at the center of the square, and there was no sign of children any more.  Iven yelled out a greeting, and one of the women smiled, though the rest seemed fairly displeased, save an old woman whose shrewd gaze was hard to read.

The woman spoke first, and Iven shook his head with a one word response.  “Ye.”

She shook her head, and just stood there, staring at Kiannae.  Her presence was striking, like an old tree rooted deep into the bedrock.  One felt as though their own presence was pressing feebly against a mountain; that all of nature flowed around her like an island in the stream.  It stood in contrast with the other Sylvans, who all felt like something caught on the breeze, barely noticeable.  Even if there was an itch of strong gift under there somewhere.

“Then I must sta words of sen Empire,” the old woman said with a harsh rumbling voice, it seemed almost less an accent than the effects of age.  Kiannae was at once surprised and relieved to hear words she mostly understood.  The old woman smiled, though there seemed some darkness to her humor.  “Te.  I see you do not expect to hear sen own words.”  She pursed her lips, “Your,” she corrected herself, “words.  Forgive, it has been many years.  I know a few tongues.  Only two are of any use…often I question if I count this.”

“I am glad at last to be able to speak, and be understood,” Kiannae said with great relief.

“I see this, though you could come to much worse here unken,” the old woman said a bit coldly.  She smiled at Kiannae’s shocked expression.  “Not be offend, I speak simple truth.  Sure you know ‘Sylvan’ – you call us – do not like osjern?  Did you think se ken meant something?  It meant only se have come this far, but no more.  You are to be taken out, and left to…your osjern ken.”

“Oh,” Kiannae said, her moment of relief turning to disappointment, and a dash of renewed unease.

“I shall take you cross river,” she said bluntly, gesturing with her walking stick as she turned, “and leave you with ‘druids’ of sen ken, that we permit there by old treaty.”

Kiannae looked around at the unfriendly faces.  She looked to Iven who had been it seemed far kinder than most would have liked.  She bowed, and once more said, “Thank you,” before relenting to follow the old woman, who already stepped away from the square.  Kiannae turned back once more as she caught up, and saw a glimpse of Iven hugging the woman who had smiled at his greeting.  He offered her the sack of meat he had brought, and she looped her arm with his as they walked away.

“Ivan tahan,” the woman said, seemingly almost more to herself than Kiannae.  “He is good – boy – te that was word.  Treat my aunna-unna well, wish to be her Akoman.  So much trouble that.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“His mother unken,” she answered.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“En is the blood, the essence, ke the…power,” the woman said with some hesitation.  “Un is less, little.  Such a judgement for so little.  Generations pass, but that hair remains, the Osjrean blood.”  She stopped, shook her head, and glared at Kiannae.

The old woman glanced back the way they had come.  “Were up to san – me – I might offer a chance.” She pressed on toward a decrepit bridge.  It was a rickety crossing over a deep narrow stretch of a wide stream.  “I can speak freely away from Tepal.  Though only my aunna-unna knows any of the Empire’s words.”  There was a hint of kindness in her voice then, which gave Kiannae some relief.

“If it was true your wish to leave the osjern, and live with the Tepal, I would…understand,” she said hesitantly, as though doubting she had got the word right.  “I side with Hansjon, not Unjon.  After all, I…speak the words, it is my tetan – purpose, good I do – and my Akoman.  We speak, sometimes trade with osjern, for many years, just as my ken before.  I know the osjern, they not all so unta as some think.”

Kiannae took a moment to absorb what she could of that.  “Hansjon?” she asked at last.  She knew she had heard that before.  It had been something her father had said.  Never to her, only to her mother, several times.  He had always been so sad.

The old woman snorted.  “Yes, we hide from the osje – outside – world because we think us ta, or simply osjern so much…worse.  Maybe some, but I have unte – doubt – if this is…true.  Not any more.  We had peace, for uncounted…years.  Then we war with son own ken over to trade or os – not – with the osjern, all around us.  In end even to sta to your ‘druids,’” she shook her head, “we are forbidden.  Unosta, now.  Now Hanste sit in Akitrern.  Even if unki – little power.”

Kiannae sighed.  She understood most of what the woman was saying.  She guessed te was true, and ta was good, and the occasional correction helped fill in some gaps, but it was still a bit hard to follow.  She got the sense Sylvan language was filled with little root words, and was thankful for pressing Moriel on the concept in her instruction.  Not that they matched roots she was familiar with.

“I had hoped…”  Kiannae hesitated.  “I had hoped to find my father in these lands, to know why he was taken away from me by his people.”

The old woman gave Kiannae a strange long look.  There was something troubled in her eyes.  “I un-…” she stopped herself. “I little imagine, what would make Tepal to ‘take’ anyone.  Yet alone by force.  Those who leave are then as osjern, even atapal unwelcome.  Are sure of what you sta?”

“Was my father perhaps a criminal?” Kiannae asked with doubt, and disheartened.

The old woman seemed to ponder the prospect genuinely, and stopped to look Kiannae up and down.  “No,” she said flatly. “No, won you born these reign, the Unjon echk – kill – the Hansjon, all Haste, even Aunna!  If common untan, or unten, he be left to your pal…if he te – true – fer Unhansjon, you not be born.  No.  I wonder…” she trailed off.  “Un,” she shook her head, and tapped her forehead.

“Tell me?” Kiannae implored as the old woman turned, and walked on.

“Un,” the old woman repeated almost fiercely.  “It pains, but even true, this is fer ta.”  She considered Kiannae’s expression at her words.  “Good,” she corrected.  “Is fer good.”

Kiannae considered pressing the issue, but she was weary, and without any heart to put into it.  She struggled instead to keep her sister from her mind, and maintain some form of composure as she was marched away from the very goal she had set herself to.

They walked another five minutes in silence before the woman stopped again. “There,” she said, pointing with her walking stick through the trees.  “Not much more, there se find ‘druids.’  Go, and not return, you meet much worse fate.  I wish you ta unna.  Please not unten – not un-…less than understand.  This simply is.”

“Will you not introduce me?” Kiannae asked, not keen to march in amongst yet more strangers she knew nothing of.

“I not sta with them in many years.”

Kiannae struggled to hold any composure.  To think of any way she could turn the situation around.  She wanted to cry, yet the very want, and a rejection of using tears to get her way actually held them back.  All the same, the sorrow on her face was plain.

The old woman considered her with an inscrutable expression.  “What is name, unna?” she relented to ask, with nothing else it seemed to offer.

“Kiannae,” she managed meekly.

“Ki-Unna?” the woman asked with a stern shift in her expression.

“Annae,” she corrected.  “Kiannae.”

The woman pursed her lips, shook her head, and set her hand on Kiannae’s shoulder.  As she pulled it back she considered a stray dark hair between her fingers curiously.  She turned to walk away, and hesitated.  “I will not start to sta again this day, even if I miss arch-druid’s company…” She held a moment more, and turned back just long enough to say, “Should old Ezik live, tell him…Astia thinks of kykuman.”

Kiannae watched Astia walk back towards her village.  She tried to make sense of the parting exchange, but gave up, particularly as Astia grew distant.  She could ask no more questions, get no more answers.  Her one seeming chance to ever find her father had passed.  Perhaps that chance had never been there.

Kiannae turned towards where the woman had pointed.  She sighed and marched on, tired, and troubled.  Then her thoughts turned again to why she was there, and she cried.  She cried for her sister who she had failed – or who had failed her – she couldn’t decide.  For the first time she considered that it was Katrisha’s clever stupid plan.  She had insisted, she had gone down alone into that ravine to fight the dragon with only Kiannae’s spell between her, and the dragon’s teeth and claws.  Still she cried, even as she grew angry at her, she mourned her twin.

Kiannae’s arrival in the druid village did not go unnoticed, particularly with her obvious distress.  There were many side long glances, and men and women pointing for their fellows who had not yet noticed.  She bore them no mind, simply marched to a bench by a fountain in the center of the small square, and sat.  Her tears turned to weeping, and she waited for what fate would come to her next.  She was through trying to follow her own course, ready to simply be where the winds would take her.

Kiannae could feel as people gathered around her, and heard them start to murmur amongst themselves.  She did not bother to look up, not even when at last a young man’s voice spoke, “Are you alright?”

Kiannae sat there for a moment, gathering herself back together – just a bit – before finally a flippant answer fought its way past her lips, “Been better.”

She felt a hand at her chin, relented to its gentle instance, and looked up.  A young man of maybe sixteen, with a friendly concerned face considered her tear streaked, and quite dirty one.  There was a kindly nature to him, with hazel eyes, and black hair.  He was pale, moreso perhaps even than Laurel.  Clearly a man of the south east in origin.  “Yes,” he said after a moment, “I don’t doubt that.  I’ve not seen you around here before, and I might say it’s odd to have anyone come from across the river.  You see, the Sylvan’s don’t visit us any more.”

“So they told me,” Kiannae sighed.

“Oh did they now?  Who did you speak to, was it old Astia?  Does she still live?” the boy asked obviously curious.

“Y…yes, as a matter of fact,” Kiannae said with some surprise.  “She said to give a message to a man named Ezik.”

“Did she?” came the voice of an old man who had just arrived through a crowd that parted around him with respect.  “And what did she say, dear girl?”

“Glad you could make it grandfather,” the boy before Katrisha said with a loving, but almost mocking tone.

“I may be old, but I can still walk, Zale,” he said tapping his staff firmly to the ground as punctuation.

“Barely, grandfather,” Zale said, but there was a touch of sadness to his jab.

Ezik eyed his grandson unflatteringly.  “I’ll have no more of your lip.  Bring the girl to my house.  I would speak with her in private, and someone find my son, and Landri,” he commanded and turned away.  The crowd again shifted from his path.

“Well, you heard him,” Zale said offering Kiannae a hand, “Come along.”  Kiannae looked away, and considered the crowd.  She had really been quite ready to sit there for a while, and be a spectacle for all she really cared.  She glanced back to the hand Zale offered, and reluctantly took it.  She got to her feet, and followed him the way Ezik had gone.

As Kiannae approached Ezik’s house she noticed for the first time the way the houses of the village were constructed.  It was much the same as the Sylvan dwellings.  There was something more than curious about the architecture.  Suddenly it struck her as she noticed a green leaf growing from a twig that had sprouted from a timber at the side of the house.

Her eyes traced down to what should have been a foundation.  Yet there it flared into roots growing into the ground.  All of the timbers ended in roots.  Kiannae took a deep startled breath.  The houses were living trees.  She was awestruck with the beauty of it.  She had noticed the roofs were green before, but now she clearly saw the shingles were not coated in moss, but rather they were layers of leaves.  Kiannae looked at the arch of the door to the house, and at its windows, mesmerized by the craft of it all.  Branches bent fluidly around each door and a window, forming the frame.

The doors themselves did not appear to be living wood she noted, as one was opened before her.  It seemed a reasonable limitation, but hardly detracted from the rest.  A window stood open nearby, it too seemed to be separate from the house itself.  It was hard to tell at a glance if the panes of the window were in fact glass, or something more exotic.  Yet it seemed all the rest of the house was a living thing, she could feel the presence, soft, inviting, old, very old, but never aged.  She wanted to stop where she stepped, and take root in the floor.  It was a strange and alien feeling, yet all at once it felt like coming home for the first time.

As they entered Ezik could be seen seated at an old table beneath a skylight, and beside a large round window.  “Come, sit,” he said to Kiannae kindly.  Quietly she took a place across from him, and looked out the window to see what he was staring at.  Nothing apparent stuck out to her, he seemed to simply be gazing off into the forest.  “You have a message for me?” he asked after a few moments of silence.

“Only that she still thinks of,” Kiannae struggled to get the word right, “kykuman,” said worrying to disappoint with the brevity of it.  As she watched him frown she feared she was right, the message was not enough.

“I suppose I could not expect more…everything else aside we are old now, with little time left.  A shame to waste what remains though,” he said with a disheartened laugh.

“What would grandmother think to hear you say that?” Zale cut in with some discomfort in his voice.

“Hmph,” Ezik replied gruffly. “Do you know what kykuman means?”

“No,” Zale said exasperatedly.

“It would be directly translated as dear one of the activity of life.”  He let that sink in.  “You didn’t know your grandmother when she was younger.  You know she didn’t come from a circle.  I met her on the road – she bewitched me, took me to her bed.  She never would say why she stuck with me…she was the one who approached Astia, not I…not that I ever regretted the result.  Kykuman was more often what Astia would call her, than me.  It is a word most often for dear lovers of the same sex, since no children will result, but I guess as an outsider I count the same.”

“Eww,” Ezik said, seeming as though he wanted to spit.

“Oh yes, your grandmother was that way…perversion of nature…garbage…bending the rules I say.  All open to interpretation.  Took me many years to come completely to terms with it.  We bend nature to our will all the time, we shape it, guide it, not leave it to its own course.  How are such unions any different?  The Sylvans even have a word of endearment for it, and they are closer to nature than us.”

“Feh, fine – I don’t care.  Just don’t put such images in my head of grandmother,” Zale said with distinct expression of some one who had bitten into an unripe fruit.

“I suppose I can’t blame you for finding that aspect of it unsavory, no,” Ezik mused with wry humor.

Kiannae just sat silently observing the awkward exchange, distracted from some more uncomfortable aspects by dissecting new meaning from the words.  Yet trying to make sense out of the roots she thought she was discovering only seemed to make gibberish.  Ky was love or dear.  Ke was power.  Unna was girl.  Her name was not Ke or Ky-unna, Ki-aunna however was close.  Perhaps it was a sub group of Sylvans?

“What does aunna mean?” she asked.

Ezik glanced at her curiously.  “It means first, or honoured daughter.”

Kiannae dug her nails into her palm.  Confirmation, at last, that she was the first born.  That Cassandra’s prophecy fit the truth.  She was too angry to cry again.  Her very name felt like a dirty thing in that moment.

She turned with a start as the door opened behind her to see a man who looked much like an older version of Zale, and a elegant older woman behind him.  “Ah, good, they found you Xander, Landri.  You may leave, Zale,” he said dismissively.  At first Zale did not move, until he got a fiery glance.  It had been a command, not permission.

Xander waited till his grandson was out the open door, and closed it behind himself.  “I called for you at first because I thought there was news from the Sylvans,” he said to the new arrivals, who moved closer.  “Still, if nothing else our new arrival is worthy of discussion.  It occurs to me I haven’t yet asked your name yet, girl.”

“Kiannae,” she said with some reluctance.

“Hmm,” Ezik said thoughtfully.  “Not quite Sylvan, terribly close, imperialized certainly, yet your asking what aunna means tells me you know little of them.”

“Ashton,” Kiannae interjected her family name wearily.

“Now, that is definitely not Sylvan,” Landri, said as she moved to sit at the table, Xander in turn took a spot opposite her.  “It definitely has the sound of a northern name from Avrale, yet I am to understand you have come to us from the Sylvans?”

“Yes,” Kiannae said, not sure what to make of the questioning.

“And how did you come to be amongst them?” Xander pressed.

“Suppose I ran into them,” Kiannae said meekly.

“That’s no small feet,” Ezik said with interest, “and to come out in one piece I might add, on good terms, such as terms ever are these days.  Even for one of your linage.  Yes, I’ve noticed your eyes girl, if your name was not confirmation,” he added as he saw her expression shift.

Kiannae stared down at the table, not sure what to say, or what the people around her wanted her to.  Katrisha she thought was usually the better one at finding something clever to say, she held back a sob at the thought.

“I’m sorry, have I offended?” Ezik asked, his tone softening.

“No,” Kiannae said, trying not to cry, “no, it’s just…my sister…”

“What happened to your sister?” Xander asked kindly.

“Dragon…” Kiannae said for lack of being able to quite formulate it all.

“That’s…horrid,” Landri said, finding she didn’t quite have better words to respond.

“Where was this?  If you’ll forgive me pressing,” Ezik said softly.  “I’ve heard of no dragons in these parts, and the Sylvans are quite capable of keeping them at bay.  Even in the war Osyrae’s dragons struggled with the Sylvans to little gain.”

“Far away,” Kiannae sobbed, “mountains up north of Avrale.”

“I think I may have heard of a dragon up that way,” Landri said.

“What, was she doing up there?” Xander asked obviously a bit perplexed.

“She…” Kiannae trailed off looking out the window, “we…were trying to kill it.”

There was a distinct clap of hand to forehead, which pulled Kiannae’s tear streaked face back towards Ezik, who, once he recovered some composure looked her up and down, as though trying to make sense out of her.  The expressions on Xander, and Landri’s face were no less unsettled.

“So, I am to understand,” Ezik started in a measured tone, “that a half Sylvan girl, presumably from Avrale, went into the mountains with her sister, tried, and without much surprise, failed, to kill a dragon,” he paused for breath – there was not quite humor in his voice, but there was something darkly comical about his disbelieving manner, “and then, I can only guess having not yet filled her wish for death, ran into the Sylvan woods, only to catch a well un-deserved break, and be dropped here in our midst.”

Kiannae broke down sobbing, and dropped her head to her arms on the table.

“That was…uncalled for, father,” Xander said glaring at the old man disapprovingly.

“It was unkind,” Ezik said, almost a hint of apology in his voice, “but damn well called for.  The whole story is so preposterous that I am forced to assume that if the girl is not outright lying, she is either delusional, or utterly insane.  Even if it is all true, I believe at least one of those must still apply.”

“Enough,” Landri cut in with displeasure.  “I won’t deny there is truth to your words Ezik, but you are accomplishing nothing antagonizing the girl.  Her spirit is broken, be it from figments of her imagination, or from the trauma of it being real.  But there is something else, I can feel it even now, she’s ill, there is a poison in her very blood, and soul.”

“Yes,” Ezik said sourly, “I felt it when I first saw her.  I’ve met many mages in my travels, it’s that sickness of theirs, wild magic in the blood.  Never in all my years have I felt it so vividly, and in one so young…  They are blind to it of course, some Clarions and Lycians can sense it with great care, but her unnatural state is like a burning flame to us.”

“Is she going to be all right?” Xander asked with concern in his voice for the poor sobbing girl next to him.

“It can be treated, but not cured…” Ezik said trailing off.  “It is a curse they bear for the practice of magic.  Some never suffer for it, others grow ill with time, and age…but one so young…”

“If it’s the way they practice, then surely the cure is to practice differently?” Landri asserted firmly.

“Perhaps,” Ezik said dourly, “but I’ve never heard of the mage who gave it up, to spare themselves the sickness.  It doesn’t kill them, doesn’t even shorten their lives as paradoxical as it seems, just makes them frail, miserable, and addles their minds.  This though, this is different, I’ve never heard of the like.”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not even here,” Kiannae suddenly snapped viciously between sobs, sat up, and slammed her fist on the table.

“What would you have us do then, girl?” Ezik asked bluntly.

“I…I don’t know.  I don’t know anything, part of me just wants to die, to find out if there is an afterlife, and find my sister there,” Kiannae whimpered.

Ezik sighed.  “I’ll have none of that.  Life and death happen, as with all things of nature we may try to guide their course, but it is not ours to choose our end.”

“Nor is it necessarily ours to choose her fate either,” Xander interjected, “surely if she is a mage, there is some one in Avrale who trained her, and that will be missing her.”

“I won’t go back,” Kiannae sobbed.

“What is so horrible about returning to your home?” Landri asked softly.

“I won’t go back,” Kiannae simply repeated more tersely.

“Surely you still have family there who miss you?” Landri pressed again.

“Kat’s dead…” Kiannae cried. “I failed her…I didn’t stop her…I don’t know.  Our parents are long gone…Wren…” she muttered his name.  There was some hesitation in her voice, but it faded as her expression grew grim, and she looked out the window “…doesn’t need me.  I won’t face the others, what’s the point…”

“Enough,” Ezik sighed. “I will permit her to stay, as it is her wish, on the condition she learns our ways.  Landri, you will help her cleanse herself of this poison in her veins, and begin her training.  Take care to save it, there are those who will pay a greatly for the substance.”

“Are you sure that is wise father?” Xander pried gently.

“I have made my decision, and it stands until I find reason to reconsider, or until you are arch-druid,” Ezik said flatly.  “If asked, you will say only that she is an orphan, and that we are taking her in.  Not exactly a lie, yes?  Broken as she is, I sense great potential, and I fear it will be lost in turning her away.”

“And if some one from Avrale comes looking for her?” Landri asked with reservation.

“That will be reason to reconsider…won’t it?” Ezik grumbled, shook his head, and sighed.

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Chapter 1

Long after this time has passed,
long after fools breathe their last,
long after waters shimmer here,
long after the mists still appear,
long after blood washed away,
long after the curse shall stay,
long after trees grow all around,
long after the last, shall be found.

– Folk Lore of Avrale, Book II circa 510 E.R.

Into the Forest

Coria 40th, 647 E.R.

Sunlight filtered through the trees, and shone upon a young woman with long raven hair.  She sat against a tall ancient pine, her face and brown robes bloodied and smudged with dirt.  She was a mess, and as the comfort of oblivion slowly slipped away, it took a moment for her to notice she was not alone.  Not a dozen paces away a large silver furred wolf was eyeing her suspiciously.

The sight startled her fully awake, and too her feet.  Her emerald eyes glinted as intimidatingly as the wolf’s, and though some instincts in her might have been prepared, consciously she was only frightened.  She strained her injured shoulder scrambling up, and yelped when the pain caught up with her.  This startled the wolf in turn, which backed away, snarled, and when it felt it had enough distance ran off.

Kiannae was her name.  Freckle faced, and on the pale side for a girl of Avrale.  She was a bit more than a girl truly, and such distinctions easily belied her knowledge, power, and the follies she had been both witness and party to.  She watched the wolf go uneasily, and questioned her sanity for having wandered into deep woods in the dead of night, and thereafter fallen asleep.

Her mental state was indeed in question.  Sorrow and madness hovered around the edges, dogged close behind by guilt and prophecy.  Not for the first time she considered that she should return, that she should face the world she had left behind.  Yet what lay behind was intolerable to even consider.  The cold eyes of those she had failed, to see her twin sister’s broken body, as sure a mirror of herself dead as any could ever encounter.  To be blamed, to be held to account for having…what…she wasn’t even sure.  Was it that she listened to prophecy?  Was that her crime?  The pain and absurdity of it was laughable.

She had ignored one prophecy, and listened to another.  She had saved the man who would scold and scorn her, and had lost the other half of her very being, her twin, her blood.  She loved her mentor, he had been like a father to her, in fact as much as law.  That however made her all the less prepared to face him, and she hated him all the more for the words she imagined coming out of his mouth.  So she hated, and scorned herself instead.  He would not get the satisfaction.

It was to save Laurel that the twins had risked their lives.  To always defend others.  They had pledged it to one another, but that answered none of their crimes of foolishness, not really.  Why had she done it, why had her sister…why had she run?  In the cold light of day the whole thing seemed like an implausible dream, ending in a nightmare.

For the first time Kiannae wondered if it had all been for nothing.  She considered that after everything else, she had panicked, and ran.  If panic was even the word for it, she didn’t have better.  It was a madness that had driven her, tried to claw her skull apart from the inside.  It had burned, ached, and clouded out every thought.  It was almost as though something was screaming run, yet every comprehensible part of it had been the prophetic words of a woman long dead.  It didn’t matter, Laurel could have still died on that mountain, and it was all for nothing.  Everything for nothing…

She rejected the possibility, even as it threatened to bring her again to her knees.  Laurel was more capable, and yet the vision had shown him dead before.  She pushed aside the thought, but it settled all the more firmly in the back of her mind.  One more reason she could never turn back, she could never face what lay behind her.  If she could ever even understand why she had done it.

Kiannae nursed her injured shoulder, and still leaned against the tree.  She began once more trying to heal it properly, letting her gift flow into torn muscles.  She looked around, searching for which way she had come, but everything was different in the filtered daylight.  A dislodged clump of matted needles finally gave her some bearings, as she vaguely recalled slipping, and falling before she had crawled up to the tree, and passed out.

Convinced that her shoulder was noticeably improved, her parched throat came to the forefront of competing imperatives.  She had no water, and saw none immediately around.  Though she was not sure she could bring herself to drink water from the forest floor.  ‘Foolish girl,’ a small mocking voice rang out in the back of her head, it wasn’t quite Laurel’s, but it might as well have been.  She pushed off of the tree, and pressed on, moving away from the mark of the previous night’s fall, and farther into the deep wood.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae walked for hours, and save the rise and fall of the terrain it was quickly all the same, and her thirst only grew.  At last she came to the side of a small pool of water resting in rocky outcropping.  There was something odd about the water, out of place.  She sniffed it curiously as she looked closer.  It seemed clear, and clean, and she convinced herself that such incongruent purity amongst the moss, dirt, and bugs of the forest was what was odd.  She imagined to herself that it was a good thing.

Her hands were filthy she realized as she was about to take the clear water up in them.  There were other smaller pools in surrounding divots of the rock.  They also seemed clear.  She rinsed her hands in one of those, and returned to the largest again.  Tentatively she cupped her hands, and brought some of the water up, but hesitated to drink it.

Kiannae considered it once again in her pale scratched palms, and off the dark stone.  It was clear, perfect, refracting only her own dirty state.  Convinced the water was as clean and pure as it appeared, Kiannae took a sip, and as it hit her parched throat she was determined that it was the most glorious thing she had ever tasted.  She lay down on her stomach, and drank until she could hold no more, then rolled over.

She lay staring up at the sky.  Trees had grown sparsely around the clearing.  The stone was too hard, and unforgiving, which her back attested too as well.  She watched the clouds drift by, and tried to forget everything, but eventually the hard uneven stone convinced her to sit up.  She took one last sip of the water, and washed her face.  For want of a container to take more with her she reluctantly got up, and walked on, leaving the pool behind.

It was not long however before even a belly full of water no longer hid Kiannae’s growing hunger.  She pondered several suspicious berry bushes, until she found one she knew to be blackberry, and ate those until she began to feel sick from the sweetness.  She longed for meat, or bread, and idly considered trying to hunt.  The kill certainly would not be difficult for her, but the thought of trying to butcher and prepare whatever she killed quickly ended whatever remained of her appetite.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 647 E.R.

Kiannae woke in the night from a chill, and huddled more tightly in her robes.  Some dark part of her wished she had taken Katrisha’s robe when she ran, but the thought made her physically ill as soon as it had formed in her head.  She spiraled again, she wanted to die, she didn’t want to live without her sister.  A twisted part of her mind imagined setting herself ablaze amidst the forest and letting the trees fall in upon her, and crush her.  That – she thought – at least would be warm, and she laughed grimly.

Survival instincts pulled Kiannae from her dark revelry as a twig snapped not far away.  She glanced around frantically but could see nothing by the dim moonlight filtered through the trees.  At last she caught a vague silhouette moving in the mist, and instinctively she shuffled away from it, even as she tried to make out what it was.  It moved like a person, staying just out of sight in the fog.  This at once was reassuring – it wasn’t wolves – and terrifying, for a person could be even more dangerous.

At last sense came to Kiannae and she struck out her hand, and a ball of blue light shimmered into being.  She made it as bright as she could until at last its glow reached the boy standing only a few quick paces away.  It was a boy, it struck her decidedly, as he was quite naked, and barely older than her by the look of him.  She blinked in disbelief at the sight, and then he was gone, replaced only by shifting mist.  Kiannae shook her head, closed her eyes.  She looked again, trying to convince herself she had even seen the boy.  She got to her feet, and walked to where he had stood, looked around again, but found nothing.

Kiannae moved back to her tree, and stood there troubled, searching the night with her unnerved gaze.  She accepted that a part of her had gone stark raving mad, but she wondered if she had even begun to see things.  Minutes of scanning the surrounding forest revealed nothing, and at last the chill of the night began to overtake dwindling fear.  She gathered twigs, and fallen branches, still ever vigilant for a glimpse of a strange naked boy in the mist.

At last convinced she had enough for a fire Kiannae considered the thick mat of pine needles that covered everything.  Deciding she was no longer fond of the idea of burning, or taking the forest with her, she set to digging a small pit down to the soil to make her fire safely.  Digging with her hands quickly grew intolerable, and instead she started trying to push the needles aside with her shoes.  At last growing frustrated with that as well, she tried to blast it away with magic, which worked, but sprayed her with the filth of the forest floor.

Kiannae cursed, and growled as she tried to brush the fresh dirt from her robe, face and hair.  Vaguely more comfortable with the improvement to her cleanliness, she set about piling sticks and twigs together in the small pit.  The hard part done Kiannae simply set the pile aflame, and sat warming her dirty hands in the fire light with faint satisfaction.

For a while she managed to lose herself in watching the flame, and as the last of her scarce firewood was nearly burned up, she began to drift back off.  Her eyes slowly closed, and she almost did not notice the gradually approaching form in darkness.  Perhaps she simply didn’t care, but as the boy stepped clearly into the fire light, her eyes snapped back open.  He paused, seeming to consider her cautiously.

She struggled to decide what bothered her more, his unexpected presence, the fact he was naked, or at last it struck her that his skin had a strange indistinct color.  He seemed almost iridescent in the fading firelight.  The moment passed, and he simply sat opposite her without a word, and continued to look at her quizzically.

They sat in silence as the embers of the fire started to die down, and before she was left in the dark with the unknown young man, Kiannae finally resolved herself to ask, “Who are you?”

The boy simply cocked his head to the side.  Kiannae squinted at him in frustration.  “It’s not polite to walk up on a lady in the forest…naked…”

Still no response followed, save that after a moment he cocked his head to the other side.

Kiannae scowled.  “It’s even less polite to refuse to speak when spoken to…” More silence followed, and Kiannae began to grow very agitated. “Who, in the King’s name are you?” she yelled as she leaned forward and shook her arms for emphasis.

This the boy reacted to, but only by scooting backwards, and looking frightened, as though he was about to flee.

Kiannae dropped her face to her hands in exasperation.  She considered the complete obtuseness of the situation, and realized that when presented with a naked boy in the depths of the forest primeval, it was worth considering that he did not understand her language.  He wasn’t Sylvan, whatever he was, but if he knew a language it was probably theirs – one that she scarcely remembered the sound of in her father’s voice, let alone any meaning.

Steeling herself to that thought, she looked up to insure the strange naked boy remained.  He seemed on edge still, and she made a point of gesturing firmly to herself.  “Kiannae,” she said clearly as she could.

The boy seemed more curious than understanding, but seemed to relax again.  “Kiannae,” she repeated tapping her chest, then gestured to the boy, “you?” she questioned.  He cocked his head to the side again, and Kiannae did all she could not to snap at him.  At last he put his hands before him, cupped them, and feigned taking a drink.  Kiannae dropped her head to her hands once more, and shook it hopelessly.  When she looked up again the boy craned his head forward, as thought to emphasize the gesture, and again feigned drinking.

She rolled her eyes, looked to the sky and muttered almost more to herself than the boy, “Does it look like I have water?”  She looked at him again, and tried once more, gesturing to herself as before, “Kiannae.”  She paused.  “You?” she said in as questioning a voice as she could manage.  This time the boy gestured to himself, being sure to mimic the action as clearly as he could, then to Kiannae, and then after craning his head forward again mocked drinking from his cupped hands.

Kiannae threw her hands up in frustration, and leaned back against the tree closing her eyes.  “Hopeless,” she muttered.  When she looked again, the boy was gone, and there were only the mists.  She looked around, trying to figure out where he had gone, but the last embers of the fire gave little useful light.  She considered looking for the boy, she worried for a moment for his intent, but decided reluctantly that she no longer cared…even if he did wish her harm.  She leaned back against the tree and let herself fall asleep.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae woke to the chirping of birds, and it was obviously late in the morning.  She looked around.  There was no sign of the strange boy, and she wondered if she had simply hit her head harder falling from her horse than she thought.  She kicked some dirt onto the cold coals of her fire absently and looked around to pick a direction to hike.  Her stomach growled, and she was at once annoyed, and relieved by the absence of wild berries in the area.

She was half way through the idea of hunting again when she was snapped to attention by the distinctive twang of an arrow striking near her foot.  The start set her off balance, and she found herself on her back, cursing in pain as muscles and joints trice abused by falling from a horse, hiking, and sleeping in unfamiliar positions decided to make their vehement hatred felt upon further misuse.  The few seconds of distraction from pain were more than enough for Kiannae to find herself completely surrounded by three tall men.

Kiannae quickly realized one of them was markedly heftier than the others.  As she focused on his face, which seemed obscured in shadow, she realized his features were not really those of a man.  Dark fur covered all of him that was visible, and possibly the rest that was hidden by clothes.  His eyes were amber, and gleamed brightly, his nose more of a snout, though shallow like a cat’s.  All of this made sense to her on some level, it tracked with things she knew, but to see it for the first time was as bewildering, as unnerving.

The cat man was a hard sight to look away from, but in truth he was not the most threatening.  A redheaded archer held a bow taunt and fixed on her, and she had little doubt that the first shot was not a miss, and that his next would find a far more painful mark.  She could see an ear peeking from his long locks, and the tuft of matching red at its long point.

The third leaned down to examine her more closely, his two brown braids hanging close to her arm, and his ears tufted in black.

“Unna, ve er vyn?” he spoke in a clearly demanding tone, but it was gibberish to her ears.  It was familiar though, in form, and rhythm.  The faint memory of a man she had once called ‘pa’ was there, but no meaning she could discern.  The vague recollection of being corrected, ‘ha,’ and further corrected ‘pa,’ and squabbling between father and grandfather tried to intrude.  She could almost remember the words, ‘of no use’ winning the argument on her grandfather’s side.  The irony of it at that moment almost made her laugh, but it seemed ill advised.

“Sylvan?” she asked, in way of some kind of response.

The cat faced man snorted in a way that seemed derisive.  “Veve, osjern, os sta testan.”

“Un, os osjern, unken.”

“Untepal.”  It was hard to read the catlike features, but they seemed even more displeased as he uttered the word.  He was a he, Kiannae was at least mostly sure.  He was tall as Laurel, and all at once more stout than Horence.

The one kneeled over her shot a scolding look at the large one, and looked back at her, and though obviously frowning nodded tersely.  He offered her a hand to be polite, but there was some distaste in his eyes as she accepted his help.  Her stomach growled again, and the archer lowered his bow slightly.  There was an exchange of glances, and terse words between the three Sylvans – though they did not like that name.  She knew her father had said the right name at least once, and tried to find the memory as they seemed to descend into bickering.

“Susn.”

“Ve!”

“Unna unsus.”

“Ve je fer so?  Son os ch, osjern?”

“Sa os echk unna.  Se?”

The last word it seemed would go to the archer, with only another derisive snort from the large cat-man, and scolding glare and a nod from the third.  The cat tossed a small bundle to the brown haired Sylvan, who Kiannae decided must be the leader.  He unwrapped a corner and pulled out a long thin sheet of what seemed to be dried meat.  He offered it to Kiannae, obviously trying, and only partially succeeding to seem gracious.  Kiannae took the jerky, curtsied, and nodded.

“Thank you,” she added for good measure, though she was certain the words were lost on the Sylvans – though they did not seem to like the word.  Then she remembered, one of them had said it, but it wasn’t ‘Untepal’ though, she was certain it was Tepal.  “Thank you, Tepal,” she tried again.

This got a reaction, a not unpleased, but bewildered exchange of glances, and then a nod from the leader.  That was what they called themselves, and Kiannae found herself wondering what the addition of Un made it.  Was it simply not?  She had doubts.  ‘Osjern,’ had been used several times in the initial exchange.  It had been a curse on her father’s lips more than once, and it felt to her – more than sounded – like other, but something told her it was outsider.

Pulling herself from the thought, she turned to the others, and repeated the gesture, and thanks, feeling that it might be important to build good will.  The cat-man seemed to barely acknowledge her, and turned to walk away.  The red headed archer nodded, and plucked his arrow from the ground.  The leader behind her took her arm, and gestured the way the large one was walking.  “Elye.”

Kiannae simply accepted that prisoner or guest, it was best she followed the implied command promptly.  As she walked Kiannae nibbled at the jerky tentatively.  It was salty, meaty, decidedly smoky in fragrance let alone taste, and otherwise unidentifiable.  All that considered, under the circumstances it was heavenly delicious, even if she could tell it was a bit gamey.

She continued her ponderance on the meaning of Untepal as they walked.  It had sounded almost derisive, spiteful.  Yet if it was not outsider, or other, or simply not Tepal.  She thought through other ‘Uns’ in the exchange.  Unna, had been the first word said to her.  ‘Na,’ her father had once tried to teach her to say, and gestured to her mother.  Much as her mother had called her Kia, her father had tended to say ‘Annae,’ but that wasn’t right.  Annae was always what her mother corrected, ‘Aunna,’ had been what her father called her.  Unna he had said of Katrisha.

Thinking of her sister almost upset the whole train of thought, sent a tear running down her cheek, but she refused.  She was so close, she felt it.  It was a willful distraction, but she clung to the distraction.  If Na was mother, or perhaps woman, and un was not an oppositional prefix, then perhaps it was simply lesser.  Unna, perhaps simply meant daughter, or perhaps little woman, girl?  Untepal could then – since she had many times been told how Sylvan’s felt about outsiders – be almost insulting word.  What was worse than an outsider?  Something in between, something less than?  It would explain the distaste it was said with, and reproving glare for its use.  They had seemed to accept Tepal at least.

The logic all seemed sound, and all at once not promising.  The situation she had put herself in easily overwhelmed sorrow, and pushed back further tears.  Yet all at once she had gotten past the first hurdle.  Perhaps there was hope, or perhaps she was walking into an even worse situation.

The four walked through the forest wordlessly for more than a mile, until suddenly the large one stopped, crouched, and sniffed the air.  The others assumed similar postures, and Kiannae thought it best to do the same.  Seconds past in stillness, and then she heard the crack of a twig, which drew her eye to a huge stag emerging from behind a tree a hundred paces ahead.  There was a flicker of movement from the corner of her eye, and even before she could turn her head the arrow flew past with a hiss, and struck the distant stag in its side.

The cry of pain was rattling as the beast staggered, and a second arrow struck as is turned.  Surprisingly it didn’t flee, but charged.  A third shot, this time from a bow pulled by the leader struck, but still the stag bore down on their position.  The cat-man grabbed hold of the beast’s antlers, and nearly stopped it clean in its tracks, his large paw like feet digging into the needles, and dirt.  The stag thrashed his head, and broke free toppling the large Sylvan, and charged for the second closest, the leader.  Kiannae rolled out of the way on some instinct, and saw the leader had leapt clear at the last second, and almost unbelievably far.  If the leap itself was amazing, the draw of a short curved sword in the act, and a slice across the stag’s throat was utterly breathtaking, as a thin arc of blood trailed behind the swift action.

The beast’s cry of pain was garbled, and it obviously was choking, but not yet down.  It turned to Kiannae who was now the closest target.  Even before it could charge she struck hastily with lightning.  This stunned the stag, if not killed it.  It was hard to say if her blast or suffocation brought it down.  The leader looked at Kiannae with a displeased sneer, and convinced she was not about to use her magic on him, finished the beast off with a strong blow that took the head clean off.

The cat-man brushed the dirt off from where he had fallen, and gave Kiannae a look that was now more guarded than distasteful.  Only the archer seemed more cordial, and offered her a hand.  He nodded approvingly with a glance towards the now dead stag, and she took the offer.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It had taken most of the afternoon to bleed and cut the stag into pieces that even the largest of the company could manage, and move them back to the men’s camp.  The skin had been expertly removed, always keeping the meat from touching the ground, which was so expertly done it defied the unsettling aspects and kept Kiannae’s eyes on the process.  The antlers, ribs, even the organs were separated, and stored in clean furs like the meat, but the guts were left for what might take them, far from camp.  Lastly the skull was placed between the roots of a tree, and briefly honored by each of the men.  Kiannae did her best to mimic the act, it seemed a natural form of respect.  Something that had perhaps always been missing.  Meat had always just been, even if she understood intellectually where it came from.

Kiannae had mostly been left to be watched by the archer through the process.  None of the three men had tried to speak to her again, and their words to each other still meant little, even if there was an ever stronger sense of familiarity.  There had perhaps been some sense of approval when she moved to bow as they had to the head of the stag.  Though the cat-man was as always hard to read.  She wasn’t entirely sure it was just his features, or some aspect of his character.  Stoic was not quite the word.  He seemed to show distaste readily enough if it suited him to do so.  He had moments he showed clear joviality as well, though it always seemed biting or derisive to his fellows.  Aloof, Kiannae settled on.  He really did remind her of her cat Mar back home.  This thought was dismissed almost immediately for all that was attached to it.

The leader by that point was struggling to start the fire using his a bow, and a stick.  There were whiffs of smoke, and he seemed to know what he was doing, but the wood was simply too wet.  The archer seemed to be scratching his chin thoughtfully, and then looked very pointedly at Kiannae, and gestured to the unlit fire pit.

Kiannae considered, nodded, and walked over to where the leader still worked.   She knelt down opposite the man who gave her a very cross look.  She gestured to herself, cocked her head to the side, made what she thought was her most ‘helpful’ face, and gestured to the unlit fire as though to ask, ‘May I?’  The leader sneered, then softened his expression slightly.  He set his implements aside, and walked off in frustration.  Kiannae shrugged, and with little effort lit the fire.

Most of the meat was wrapped in stained furs for storage and travel, but each hunter had taken a choice piece to cook over the fire on a sharpened stick.  The archer however cut his piece in half, and offered it on a second stick for Kiannae to cook for herself, which she thanked him for, and smiled.

As the sun slowly set the trio of hunters became more chatty amongst themselves, and Kiannae tried in vain to catch any hint of the conversation.  When the sun had finally sunk below the tree line the leader, and the cat-man pulled blankets over themselves, and unceremoniously went to sleep.  This left Kiannae, and the archer who obviously had first watch.  Though she was surely one of the things to be watched.

Time passed in silence, until at last Kiannae grew frustrated and moved closer to the archer who eyed her cautiously.  “Kiannae,” she said gesturing to herself.

The archer gave her an odd look for some time, as though unsure what she was saying.  She repeated, gestured to herself, and then to the archer.

He looked to his sleeping companions, and after some hesitation gestured to himself, “Iven.”

“Thank you,” she said.  He perked a brow, but seemed to recognize the phrase by then.

Kiannae tried several more times as the night wore on to learn something from Iven, who seemed uninterested in learning either her words, or teaching his own.  Kiannae had almost drifted off when she was startled by the archers sudden movement.  She looked up to see him holding his bow taunt, and staring into the darkness beyond the fire intently.  She looked in the direction of his gaze, but at first saw nothing, then a slight shadow of movement in the darkness.

Kiannae could not quite make out the form, but it seemed the right height to have been the boy from the night before.  She worried that it was, and that the kindest seeming of Sylvans might kill him.  Not that she had reason to trust or like the mysterious naked boy, it just seemed wrong.  She looked back to Iven who obviously was scanning for any sign of what he had seen.  Kiannae actually caught the glimpse of the boy first at the edge of the fire light, even as Iven spun to train his bow on him.

Kiannae turned, and held up both hands raised to Iven in a gesture to stop.  He turned his eyes only slightly to her quizzically, but then his expression changed to something unsettled.  Kiannae turned back to where the boy had been, but saw nothing, just mist in the fire light.  She looked back to Iven who had lowered his bow, but seemed to be regarding her more cautiously than ever.  He moved to the opposite side of the fire from her, and gave every visible indication he did not wish her to come closer.

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Foreword

Book2_NewFor those who believed themselves but consort to the hero,
only to find they might yet author their own fortune.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Into every life there comes at least one moment that defines us.  A crystalline fragment of who we are, refracting a world in which we live.  We do not always chose this moment, but we always make it our own.  In the dead of a spring night, and the fifteenth year of her life, the girl Katrisha Ashton had such a moment.  There was not a thing humble about it.

Though she wore an enchanted robe to that fateful mountain, she knew it was a feeble excuse for protection.  It could not have saved her from a single misstep, and would only have served to slow her down.  She left it behind, and trusted her life to no more than skill, a clever plan, and absolute faith in her twin.  So it was that a young woman came to fight a dragon, naked, in the moonlight.

One could debate if any of Katrisha’s faith was misplaced.  By all reasonable measures the plan was working, until of course everything went completely wrong.  Then a brave, and daft young woman paid more attention to the fool who got in the way, than saving her own hide.

Before she flew from that cliff, Katrisha had two broken ribs, a serious case of whiplash, and had nearly lost consciousness.  What followed would almost destroy her twin.  The mocking voice of prophecy, and a soul rending pain that told Kiannae a very part of herself had died.  Her world crumbled in an instant, and nothing could matter any more.

Fleeing from such a fight was not truly in her nature.  It could not define her, though it would mark her as surely as any outcome.  Countless worlds in which she stood firm would have showed her true colors.  Yet she ran, and could never quite account for why.

Through all the innumerable permutations of fate, only one was found that could spare the life of all dear to her on that mountain.  Fates know, she tried.  There were worlds in which a midnight sun split the heavens, and ones where the dragon won.  There were worlds where only Kiannae stood by the end, and ones where only a single battered soldier was found to tell the bloody tale.  Yet in every version, the cost was too high.  Be it that night, or another.

Even a god can run out of time.  If that is even the word for it.  I have been told it is less like a matter of time, as moves.  That the game had played out, and that what was, would have to suffice.  That where so much nearly ended, was only the beginning.

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