More charitable men dare claim,
preach and plead such old refrain,
look up when nights be darkest,
there to find the break of dawn,
yet what evening sun so heralds,
but inky shadow’s cold return,
cast weary eyes there about,
to those closest err at hand,
pray these might yet wake,
fear, who the night will take.
– Ewald of Rothan, circa 200 B.E.
Estate 10th, 650 E.R.
To the right and left of the King and Queen sat twins who still bore much the same face, even if time had taken most other resemblance. The banquet was laid out before those gathered. It was an impromptu feast, held in honor of the return of Kiannae, and greatly to her embarrassment. Her two fellow druids sat at the far end of the hall, and avoided the curiosity of court members as best they could. Which was not all that well. Much as Landri’s till then unknown skills at courtly dialogue tried to shut the pestering down.
Lady Catherine provided something of a buffer for Landri on one side, by way of alleviating her own curiosity. Her pacing frustrated others nearby, who needed show her difference. Still there was not as much to protect the younger druid from Marian’s inquiries. At length almost everything dignified was pried from the two of druidic life. A few details less dignified, offered in the hopes of quieting Marien’s questions. It didn’t work.
As servants brought out bottles of wine Katrisha caught sight of Maeren, and smiled at her. She had not heard she was been moved to the serving staff. Seemed like something she would have mentioned, if she knew it was happening.
Maeren smiled slightly as well, and the whole exchange was lost on most. Kiannae however, perked a brow at her twin. The Court Mage, shrugged and smiled in a manner somewhere between nervous and smug. It was such an odd mix of feelings. Her sister, the Court Mage. With silver hair. At the left hand of the King, and her at the right of the Queen. It had happened, maybe once, at some breakfast the royal children had been fast or slow to. Her sister being a brat about the fact she was in love with multiple women. It was a very odd mixture of feelings.
Catherine turned with a sharp glare to Maeren as she reached that end of the table. “Since when are you a server?” she demanded, in a dramatic deviation from normal decorum.
“It was a.. an order, from a prince,” she said nervously. “Could not tell you which, for that was all I was…told, Miss.” She looked a bit bothered by that. “I’d been training incase I was needed,” she added with a nervous jump, “on and off. I know what to do. Miss.”
“I see,” Catherine said. It did not seem an answer that should have satisfied, or flummoxed her so. Attacking the appointment did not seem unreasonable to many. Most around her expected she would, having already been so brash. No one expected her to leave it at that. Maeren scurried on when it was clear her attention was no longer required.
When the last of the drinks were poured Mercu stood, raised his goblet high, and proclaimed in his best speaking voice, “To all we thought lost, not to return. May we always hold hope, that as our dear Kiannae, they find their way home.” There was a clinking of metal, and all drank to the toast.
“To these fine druids,” the King declared, looking to the far end of the table. “Who have taken in a stray child, and treated her as their own.” He held out his drink, and another clatter of metal rolled down the length of table “Let us eat!” he declared, and sat down.
Ten minutes into the meal the Queen began to look unwell. Kiannae noticed first, and watched her with great concern as she tried to hide it. Her whole aura was erratic, a strange sight to observe. As the Queen tried to excuse herself from the table Katrisha rushed to her side, and caught her before she could fall. Kiannae was only a step behind, and the King turned at the sudden commotion.
“What is wrong?” the King demanded.
Katrisha, and Kiannae both worked frantically, trying to find the cause of the Queen’s distress, even as she clutched at her chest. Others moved to circle around them. Two druids pushed through the crowd, but found themselves at sword point.
“I have it,” Katrisha said holding her hand over the Queen’s heart. “Her heart is failing,” she said trying to steady it, and found herself responsible for every beat. “Find a proper healer,” she growled as the Queen stopped breathing. She struggled to take over that as well, forcing the muscles to expand and contract. She barely had a clue what she was doing. It was all guesswork, forcing organs to function as best she understood they should. Some other force fighting her every move. She used her own body for a template, which seemed to barely be working. It was so complex, and confusing. No, something else was wrong.
Katrisha was too focused to look at the sound of a thud behind her. She was aware of it, but could bear no interruption if she was to keep the Queen alive. She felt her own heart flutter. She forced it to keep beating, forced her lungs to keep working, closed her eyes and focused with all her might. She could tell how much harm she was doing, and yet how utterly it would all just stop if she relented. It burned. She knew on a level what was happening, but there was not enough left of her attention to dwell on it. The same rhythm was all she could manage, for both of them.
‘Just a little longer, we’ve come this far.’ Echoed in the back of her mind as she worked. Tears streamed down her face. ‘So close.’ She didn’t even have the slightest will left to question the thought, just agony and exhaustion threatening to exceed will.
The distant sound of Kiannae’s voice penetrated the fog that clouded Katrisha’s mind. “Let them help!” she heard her sister yell, and then there was only the beating of two hearts that wished to stop. The in and out of breaths far too shallow. She found her mind spiraling down, losing the wider picture. She looked up form below trying to fight something horribly simple in its ruthless efficiency. It was so easy to break something complex. So hard to fix it. It kept breaking. It broke any pattern that tried to stop it. Little crackles of energy doing damage. Undoing that damage. Making it work again. Katrisha could not have been sure of the passage of time. Only that it ran out. She did not even feel herself hit the floor.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
A shopkeeper half dressed in night clothes fiddled with the latches on his shop door, even as another insistent pounding made him grit his teeth. “I’m working on it,” he protested. It was well past closing, and he was beyond unamused to have been dragged from his wife’s warm embrace.
He released the last latch, and only a heavy chain still served as meager protection, should his uninvited guests mean him harm. Three men stood in the moonlight beyond his door, and as one held a lamp up he recognized two royal guards, and Mercu.
“It’s a bit late to be getting paints,” he joked between nerves and anger.
“There has been an incident, Arahm,” Mercu said, and held up the goblet clenched in his hand.
Arahm looked confused for a moment, and then read the implication. He fumbled as he undid the chain, and beckoned the men to enter. Mercu held up his hand, and the two guards fell in beside the door as he entered the apothecary.
“Who?” Arahm said closing the door, and reached out his hand for the goblet, trembling. “The symptoms?”
Mercu relinquished it, and followed as Arahm moved to his work bench. “The King, Queen, and…Court Mage,” he said struggling. “Their hearts and lungs, according to Kiannae, and the druids helping them.”
“Do they still live?” Arahm asked his eyes narrow.
“For the moment,” Mercu swallowed. “Where it not for Kiannae’s return, or her new companions…”
Arahm sniffed the goblet cautiously, but smelled nothing amiss. “Who would do such a thing,” he muttered to himself more than asked, looking over the shelves of bottles. “Those poor girls,” he said, his finger perched on a bottle, and moved on, pulling down several others. “Heart and lungs,” he muttered to himself.
He poured just a drop of the liquid from the goblet into each of several shallow bowls. Took a dropper from each of the bottles laid before him, and placed a single drop with the wine in each cup. He frowned more deeply with every drop. He flipped through a thick book, pulled down two more bottles, and tried them each as well. Still he seemed wholly dissatisfied, and began scratching his head feverishly.
A horrified look overtook Arahm’s face, and he bolted past Mercu across his shop to a locked cabinet. He fussed with his keys, and opened the lock. Various strange and exotic things could be seen amidst more bottles like those of the main workbench. Arahm rushed back, a tiny vial with silver liquid clutched in his hand. He removed the cork, plucked a pin from his table, and retrieve only the tiniest drop. Mercu watched as Arahm did some subtle magic, a thing he had rarely seen the mildly gifted man do. He placed the pin to one of the bowls with caution. The bowl shook slightly. Then a sudden burst of flame and crackling energy erupted, sending it clattering across the table.
“No, no, no, no,” he said shaking his hand as though stung. “This cannot be. Who would…who even could…”
“What?” Mercu yelled, his worry getting the better of what demeanor he had managed to that point.
“It’s no poison,” Arahm said recoiling at Mercu’s outburst. “Not in a conventional sense at least. This was done with mage blood, and with the strength of that reaction, I suspect the very blood of one you say has been targeted.”
“Who would know how to do such a thing?” Mercu demanded.
“I don’t know,” Arahm said, an ill almost hopeless expression overtaking his face. “Not many. Mage blood is normally far too rare to use so…horribly. There are so many poisons that will do the job. The only advantage I could imagine would be near undetectability, to write it if off easily as natural causes. If I didn’t have so much in stock…
“Yet under the circumstances…” Mercu pressed, white at the prospects that unfurled before him.
“This was not meant to be subtle,” Arahm said dierly. “No simple assassination attempt. This is a play against her specifically. Using her own… This is someone trying to sow doubt, and discord. I can’t even say where it has all gone to. I resold most of what she traded with me to passing caravans. Ones leaving in every direction. This would only take a few drops. There are hundreds of times that on the local market.”
“Is there a cure at least?” Mercu demanded, trying to snap the man back to his own speciality, and away from the farther reaching consequences. Those were his to deal with.
“No, no cure,” Arahm said with a grim expression. “I didn’t even think of this directly. It’s barely a footnote in an old book on poison cures. A warning on a rare cureall made with mage blood. One that would bypass any chemical interaction, when a poison is indeterminate. The closest thing to a cure is what I just put in that bowl. That…energetic reaction would not be good to have happen inside a heart, to say the least.”
“Oh,” Mercu said.
Arahm shook his head. “The effects should wain with time. Days, maybe more. If they survive. If they are tended sufficiently, they should recover. I think. Fates, I don’t know. It’s magic. To actually cure it would mean unweaving the spell laced through their blood. Any attempt to counter it will create chaotic effects, like you just saw, on a smaller more diffused scale. Direct healing, force of will is the only choice, and is surely still doing half the harm as good, but better than certain death.” He threw up his hands. “Once this spell dissipates there will be a lot of scar tissue to heal. Slow, hard work in the best of cases.”
“What you have told me, must remain a secret,” Mercu said almost threateningly. “Make something…beneficial. Harmless, a placebo if it must be, and your sworn oath you will speak not a word of it. Say it will only do what it can, no more.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Arahm said, and began working. “My word.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Estate 11th, 650 E.R.
Katrisha woke with a start, and her heart fluttered at the sudden shock. “Where am I?” she demanded feverishly, even as a cold cloth met her forehead. It was dark, and with her blurred vision she couldn’t quite tell who was tending to her.
“Hush,” Maeren whispered.
“Is she awake?” Kiannae’s murmured, sitting up, her hand still on Katrisha’s chest, her gift still wrapped around her heart. A warmth that followed its beat, no longer sustaining it, but watching for any falter.
“Yes,” Maeren said, “but you need to rest as well, you won’t do her any more good if you don’t rest.”
“The Queen,” Katrisha managed to interrupt.
“She’s alive thanks to you,” Maeren said, squeezed her hand, and kissed the top of her head.
“Neither she nor the King were awake last we heard,” Kiannae said, and checked the time with a spell. “The others are tending to them while we wait for more practiced healers. It’s been at least five hours. Your heart has only been stable for maybe two.”
“What happened?” Katrisha asked, already fairly certain of the answer.
“Quite obviously poison of some sort,” Kiannae said and pulled her hand away. “Something that seemed to burn as I healed you, and the King. The goblets have been sent to the apothecary for testing, if he can even tell us more we will see. It must have been placed in the goblets themselves, because only the three of you were affected.”
“No one else?” Katrisha asked, at once relieved and furious.
“Whoever did this wanted to undermine the throne in one fell swoop,” Kiannae said in a murderous tone.
There was a loud creek, and the clatter of a door being flung open. Everyone turned to see who had barged in, but Katrisha still could not make anything out, her vision so much worse than she was used to.
“Is she?” she heard a familiar voice. “Is she alright?” she heard Celia demand in a trembling voice.
“Yes,” Maeren answered, guessing who the girl might be. “As alright as I imagine possible at very least.”
Celia ran to Katrisha’s side, and pushed past Kiannae who moved to stop then unknown girl, but found herself restrained by Maeren.
“Oh my love. I was so afraid,” Celia said sobbing. “I only heard because I was out watching the stars. They tried to stop me from coming, but the abyss itself couldn’t have kept me away.”
“I wish this were under better circumstances,” Katrisha said.
“What did they do to you?” Celia asked through her tears.
“They made me Court Mage,” Katrisha laughed, but felt dizzy for it. “Apparently that comes with a large target on my back.”
Celia pushed herself up, and looked Katrisha in the eye. “At a time like this, you can make jokes?”
“If I couldn’t,” Katrisha said with a half smile, “then they would have won.”
Celia leaned down, and kissed her softly, holding herself back for fear Katrisha’s state was as fragile as it seemed.
“We do have an audience you know?” Katrisha said as she lifted a trembling hand, and brushed Celia’s hair from her face.
“I don’t care,” Celia said her eyes puffy from crying. “I love you, and after waiting so long, to have thought…”
“Still,” Katrisha interrupted. “I think introductions are in order. Kiannae, Maeren,” she found herself just a bit short of breath, “my dear Celia.”
Celia’s looked between the two, her eyes finally resting on Kiannae, whose face was so familiar, and yet unexpectedly different. It gave her a moment of disbelief. “You’ve returned?” she asked incredulously, and turned back to Katrisha. “You sister has returned, and you haven’t written?”
“It happened just this afternoon,” Kiannae offered, glad to finally get a word in edgewise. “Then of course there was the…interruption.”
“I’m sorry, of course,” Celia apologized for her reaction. “What impossible timing, to return, and…”
“Still here,” Katrisha protested.
“I know, my love,” Celia said, and kissed her again. She lay at her side and clung to her tightly, her hand at her heart. Katrisha could feel the magic flowing into her, as Celia sought for whatever she could possibly do to help her.
“Don’t think I haven’t answered to questions of the timing,” Kiannae sneered. “I believe most were convinced that neither I, nor my companions had anything to do with this. Not after we worked so tirelessly to save the three of you. Though I could not even get the guards to let them help, till you collapse.”
“Most?” Katrisha pressed suspiciously.
“Arlen was quite happy to mutter something under his breath,” Kiannae recounted. “Wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t alone in his ridiculous suspicions. I wouldn’t have even known what to do, but for copying you.” She scrunched up her face, refusing to cry.
“You don’t have to prove it to me,” Katrisha laughed. “The problem is, I do not think there is any coincidence here. This move was made now, I think, precisely because you have returned. The question is who?”
“Last I saw Mercu had jumped on a table, and begun barking orders over the directionless lot of useless knights, guards, and lords. That didn’t go over well, not until Darion started to echo his commands. That shut Arlan up quick,” Kiannae said with a touch of dark humor. “I expect by now guards should be searching every room for anything suspicious. Probably starting with the kitchen staff and servers of course.”
“If a servant did this, it was at the behest of another,” Katrisha muttered. “Nothing to gain. No motive.”
“Who though?” Kiannae echoed the earlier sentiment irritably. “Was it a member of the court, or a spy for Osyrae?”
“Easy as it is to blame Osyrae, I won’t put this past Arlen, and his ilk,” Katrisha grumbled, “or Oradin. There were those not happy with my appointment, or the lengths gone to, to insure it.”
“This certainly wasn’t subtle,” Kiannae said shrewdly. “If they had gone for the King alone, this might have passed off as simple heart failure. This screams of someone wanting it to be clear an attempt was made.”
“Then Oradin,” Katrisha laughed darkly. “To make me look incompetent, or if successful, to outright hold sway over Darion when he ascended the throne.”
“If it’s that obvious, then he could be the intended scapegoat,” Kiannae said. “Who would benefit from that?”
“Almost anyone,” Katrisha sighed, and groaned, grabbing her head. “Osyrae would succeed in sowing discord between us and the Clarions, the Council, and through our court. On the other side of it, those of us in the court who do not care for the Clarions, could be said to gain by framing him, to push out Clarion influence. That could even be his game, to make it look like he was framed, to pin it instead on me, or the Sisterhood.”
“No Sister would do such a thing,” Celia protested.
“I know that,” Katrisha said hugging Celia with what strength she could. “Clarions are far from above purporting lies as facts regarding the Sisterhood. Even so, just as Clarions may act unscrupulously, we have no proof that a single errant Sister might not scheme. Even if we know it to be a fallacy.”
“Still it’s a pretty huge leap to assume you would poison yourself in some grand plan to frame the Clarions,” Kiannae said shaking her head.
“I don’t think that would have been a first option,” Katrisha grumbled. “I’m trying to think outside expectations here, about what contingencies our enemies might be planning.”
“She should sleep,” Celia interjected. “This poison has done her a lot of harm. It’s a wonder she’s even conscious.”
“If you think you can get her to sleep, when she has her mind on something, you are kidding yourself,” Kiannae laughed. “Laurel and Mercu had over ten years to try and find a way to do that.”
“You were no…” Katrisha started tersely, and without finishing was asleep.
“Is she alright?” Kiannae and Maeren both demanded in unison.
“She’s fine,” Celia said with a frown, “or as fine as she was. Your Laurel and Mercu may be smart men, but they are not trained properly in the living magic. It can do so much more than heal. It can also bend the will to do what it already is willing to. In this case, sleep. You should also, and you as well,” she said looking between Kiannae then Maeren.
“Yes of course,” Maeren said getting up to leave, but hesitated.
“Stay,” Celia said as the woman faltered in her attempt to turn away. “She has written of you with such love. You should be by her side.” There was something forced to her words. Yet to look at her face it seemed almost as much she might fear to be alone in her task after all.
“I…” Maeren started.
“You are a proper healer?” Kiannae pressed.
“Yes,” Celia answered with some hesitance.
“Then if you will forgive me speaking plainly,” Kiannae said. “Much as I have no wish to leave her side, I have no intention of sharing a bed with my sister’s two lovers. If there were even room,” she gestured exasperatedly.
She turned and strode out of the room, closed the door, and leaned on the windowsill outside. She started to cry. Unable to even think clearly. She had her sister back, and had almost lost her in an instant. Her sister was someone she barely knew. Tangled up in strange affairs that made her uncomfortable. Everything was balanced on a knife’s edge. A prophetic line mocked her again. She plucked through her mind being sure there were no dragons in play. They could look like people. She shook her head, convincing herself that none had such bright auras. It was past, or future. She suppressed a maddening laugh at how readily she had jumped again to the curse on her life.
Fear gripped her as she remembered her own mocking words. That many would have to die around her, before she became a queen. She turned to march back into the room, uncertain she should, or could bear to be away from her sister. She struggled to stay upright. Emotions, and exhaustion of every sort threatened to crumble her there to the floor. Her heart fluttered. She felt a shift, and arms wrap around her.
“Lean on me,” Taloe said. “You were not poisoned, but…fighting it, it echoed in your gift. In the traces of mage blood in you. Only my presence kept it from doing as it did to your sister.”
“What?” Kiannae asked drearily.
“I did not know, not until you started to heal the King. I felt it try to echo through you. It was magic. Yet it found no place with my presence. Katrisha was not poisoned, her own gift betrayed her. I could do, or say nothing. I was paralyzed by the power trying, and failing to take my place. It came close when you moved to her. It…” he hesitated searching for a word he had not used. “Resonated between you. The consequences are catching up.”
Kiannae rubbed her forehead. “Why can nothing ever be simple?” She was torn between directions. Back into the room. To carry warning to Landri and Aron of what they might risk.
“You should rest,” he said, and helped her towards the stairs. A third option that had not been on her mind, however much her body protested the need. She didn’t resist. He tapped power from the elements around them, that she was too weary to seek. He got her down a flight before he lost his form, and left her leaning against a wall. There was only so much it seemed he could do for her. Not at least that she could not do for herself. Another will, but a shared power. One that had become so much more finite, and drained from the ordeal of the evening.
Footsteps drew her eyes up, and Eran was there before her, considering her hesitantly. “I do not wish to trouble you,” he started, “but I feel I must. There are wolves in the courtyard, or at least…I am fairly certain there are.”
Kiannae rubbed her head.
“I presume it was for the best I gave an order for everyone to keep their distance? Not that we can find them.”
“Yes,” Kiannae answered. “Yes, but I suppose I must. It’s only the one, very big wolf. Shouldn’t be too hard.” She laughed with little humor, and pushed off the wall. Eran took her arm when she teetered slightly. She gave him a look of mixed opinion, and nodded. She straightened herself. “Help me to the courtyard.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Katrisha woke to the feeling of Celia and Maeren curled up to either side of her. Their hands both laid on her chest, protecting her in their own way. She would have been utterly content. If not for the pounding in her head, the uneasy tremble of her heart, or an ill feeling in her belly. She added that ruined moment to the list of grievances to take out of the hide of whoever was responsible. She wondered what had woken her just as another knock at the door made her winced.
“Enter,” she said, giving up all pretenses regarding the two women curled up at her side. She decided if whoever had come to disturb her was going to have a problem, it was going to be theirs.
Two guards entered, and both adopted dubious expressions at the three young women that lay before them. “We have been sent to inform you of the search for a servant,” the first guard spoke, “but I see that we have found her.”
“Why has she been searched for?” Katrisha demanded as the two at her side began to stir. Mar looked up irritably from where was curled at her feet.
“A vial of what is believed to be poison was found in her chamber,” the guard answered.
“So,” Katrisha said with a cold determination. “Tou are telling me you suspect this woman of poisoning me, and then staying up most of the night fretting over my health?”
“It is not our place to judge,” the guard answered, “only to bring her into custody.”
“Then consider her in custody, and leave my sight,” Katrisha all but spat.
“Are you sure that is…wise?” the second guard questioned.
“Are you questioning me?” Katrisha snapped with enough anger to make her heart flutter, and she reconsidered the wisdom of further strain. “I am Court Mage, and until this crisis is resolved, and the King restored to health, I am the one you answer to.”
“No,” the guard said, “we will inform the others that she is in your…hands.” The first guard said. He mulled over his word choice, and ushered his companion out the door.
“So it begins,” Katrisha said, and started to get up, fully displacing Mar who indignantly moved farther over on the bed, and curled back up.
“I’m not sure you should be moving yet,” Celia said firmly.
“What I should do, what I want to do, and what must be done, are all quite at odds right now,” Katrisha said torn between sorrow and fury. “I would love nothing more, than to simply lie between the two women I love, and forget this miserable world. I would be tempted to do more than…lie…” She seemed to question her own insinuation. Glanced between her two loves, who seemed quite sheepish, and shrugged the distraction off. “Neither of these is on the table. This game is on to the next move, and that move is mine. I will not forfeit with the fate of both the kingdom, and Maeren in the balance.”
“You could have let them take me,” Maeren said meekly.
“No,” was Katrisha’s terse reply. “Once your enemies are trying to kill you, the rules have changed. They want to make you a pawn. Just as they have made me all these years. The thing is, this pawn has reached the other side, and it’s time to show them what happens.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Katrisha emerged into the throne room with Celia at her side, and Maeren a short distance behind. Prince Darion stood before the throne in his father’s absence, answering the various challenges laid before him.
“There the girl is, seize her,” Oradin commanded.
Maeren shrank back, but thought better of any instinct to run, moved towards Katrisha.
“You shall not,” Katrisha countered his command, even as a guard gripped his sword, and another did the same in response to the first. “As the Court Mage of this land, this woman stands under my protection.”
“You have no more authority here girl,” Oradin declared coldly. “By right as a High Council Mage, in such dire times, I rescind your ridiculous validation, and the waiver by which you have stood at this court.”
“Are we to trust you with such power, and authority? You are the one in this kingdom with the most to gain from this heinous act,” Katrisha insinuated venomously.
“Do you accuse me child, even as you defend the one found to posses the very poison that nearly killed you?” Oradin laughed humorlessly.
“Yes, it was found with her things,” Katrisha said in a measured tone. “Curious that, given she would have had to use the poison, then return it. As any number of people can attest, she has been at my side since the moment I collapsed, and never left the banquet hall before that.”
“This proves nothing,” Oradin argued. “She could have had extra, and failed to dispose of it. Do not let whatever ‘attachment’ you have to her cloud your judgement,” he added with a disdainful sneer.
“Yes,” Katrisha said not caring anymore who knew what. “I will not deny that I know this darling woman very well. She has stood vigil by my side through the night, as I fought off the effects of this poison. Not the act of a killer, to care for the one whose life you propose she tried to take.”
“Mercy, regret, a ruse to hide her actions, what does it matter?” Oradin cut back.
“A ruse you say,” Katrisha responded. “This implies she is clever. Clever enough to have realized the poison would be far more incriminating.”
“This is not proof,” Oradin said, “and if she is found innocent, then so it is, but she will be taken as suspect.”
“Tell me,” Katrisha said turning to the frightened Maeren, “where were you when the poison would have been placed?”
“I…” Maeren said, “I am not free to speak of that.”
“You see,” Oradin said, “she avoids the truth, the guilt pulls at her. End this folly and remove these traitorous harlots from the court.”
“She was with me,” Prince Adrien declared, stepping from beside the dais. “Thanking me, for a promotion.”
“So you admit being in league with the foul girl?” Oradin laughed. “Did the two of you plot to see the King dead, and your father ascended to the throne?”
“You will not accuse my son of treason without consequence, mage,” Darion snapped.
“I can speak for myself, Father,” Adrien said forcefully. “I was not obliged at the time to correct a most grateful, and beautiful woman that I had not given her this gift. I wrote no such order, and if it can be found, I suspect we will find only a forgery.”
“Oh, a convenient claim,” Oradin said snidely.
“Your desperation to place blame on anyone seems transparent to me,” Darion said stepping towards the mage. “You hang upon opportunity, and motive, but your reasoning is flawed. The King has been preparing for several years to step down, that I might begin my reign. It is only the threat of Osyrae that has given him pause in this course. My son knows it, and has no motive, and so this girl has no motive. Further their indiscretions, admitted to openly in court leave them with scarce opportunity.”
“You are either blind Darion, or involved,” Oradin said furiously. “The Council will not allow a king to rise to his throne by murdering his father.”
“Do I sit upon my father’s throne?” Darion said with a fierce gesture to the throne. “Do I wear the crown? No. My father lives. I stand here, to defend that throne from the vultures that circle his kingdom even as he yet breaths.”
“It is not his kingdom,” Oradin laughed, “it never was. You know as well as I the pretense of kings. They are placed here by the Council. They rule at our pleasure. They manage the world, while we keep it in check.”
“So you propose to take the throne then?” Katrisha said shrewdly. “You propose to be a mage King?”
“Clever words child,” Oradin said with a chilling laugh. “I propose only to protect this land from an illegitimate pretender to the throne.”
“I propose to protect it from the brother of a madman,” Katrisha said taking a half step forward, and a guard moved back. “Who for all we know may well be mad himself. Who may have tried to poison its rightful king, or may merely be a deranged pawn of another. I propose to do my duty, as Court Mage. Whoever you purport to serve, it is my right to stand before all threats to the monarchy. It is in law, that even the Council, may be counted in such number, if I deem them errant. For Roshana knew men so very well. She knew the Council would become corrupt, complacent, and misguided. She knew men, even, who would claim such authority, would be the enemies of the people.”
“If you will not remove this girl,” Oradin said, “I will remove her myself.” With no more warning he struck at Katrisha with lightning, which she caught in a spell, and threw back at him. He in turn deflected the bolt into two guards that had moved towards him threateningly.”
“Clear the room,” Katrisha yelled, even as many had already begun to flee the ensuing fight. “Go, your majesty,” she commanded Darion.
He hesitated to stand down, but relented after Katrisha’s spared him a fierce glance. He grabbed his son’s hand to unexpected struggle.
“You two as well,” she said to Maeren and Celia. Maeren backed away, but left only when Adrien broke away from his father, grabbed her hand, and dragged her into the Queen’s antechamber.
Celia for her part stood unwavering at Katrisha’s side. “I told you, if the time came,” she refused with nervous determination.
“Faithful of Avrale,” Oradin said in a commanding, magically amplified voice. “Do not flee from this girl, who stands with harlots, and brings filthy druids to your court. Stand with me, and cast out this corruption.”
Several guards, and four knights moved to his side. Katrisha noticed Arlen was not among them, or even present. She added cowardice to his long list of crimes. Others hung back, either unwilling to join Oradin, or not daring enough to stand against him, and instead two moved to pull the first fallen out of the way.
“Do not lay down your lives for folly,” Katrisha boomed, her own voice amplified. “I act only to protect the throne. I can not promise you mercy, if you force my hand, and I can not speak for the King, if you should live.” Two guards peeled off then, and ran past Mercu who had just entered.
“Stop this madness!” Mercu yelled, but saw the determination on the two mages faces, as neither wavered in their staring contest. Mercu slammed his fist against the door, turned, and ran from the keep.
“Charge them. I will protect you from their magic,” Oradin commanded those gathered near him. The soldiers moved cautiously at first, but as Katrisha’s first wave of spells shattered they rushed forward. The formation of her shield knocked them back as Oradin failed to tear it apart.
His face crinkled into a sneer, and his own defenses went up, as intricate as ever. Katrisha glanced nervously to her own work. Deceptively simple by comparison. Not her usual style. It was the same spell she had cast the day Oradin had returned to court. One derived from Katherine’s. Slowly over weeks, in the back of her mind she had folded into her own designs. She knew she had been doing it, but had not intended to try under such circumstances, then instinct had taken over.
Soldiers who had only just gotten back to their feet were blown down again by sudden powerful gusts of wind that swept across the court.
“What witchcraft is this!” Oradin demanded, unable to tear apart the buffeting winds.
“A mage of the Council declaring witchcraft at the first sign of something he does not understand?” Kiannae yelled a challenge from the entrance to the throne room.
Oradin turned his head to follow the threads of power, as much as the voice mocking him. His vision was suddenly filled with white as a massive wolf landed on his shield, and tore it with a snap of her mighty jaw. An instinctive sweep of his arm threw the wolf back with force, but it seemed almost to vanish. He shook his head dazed by the effect of his eyes slipping off a massive thing he knew must still be there. His shield quickly repaired itself even as Katrisha tried to take advantage of the opening.
“Deal with these abominations,” Oradin growled, and refocused himself on magic he could defend against. New structures wove into his shield, cutting the wind, on top of his already quick recovery under continued assault. It was unnerving work to watch.
Several guards still scrambling to their feet turned towards Kiannae with little more certainty. They dove aside, scattering as her hand came up with crackling energy around her fingers. A bolt of lighting leapt across the room, but Oridan causally deflect the blinding bolt. Even as an unfortunate pillar shattered from the heat.
Lunka pinned a man before he could get up again, and eyed the real target with her head low, ears back, and a snarl on her lips. It was not clear how much the creature understood, but she knew her mistress’s enemy. That he was not to be trifled with.
Oradin redoubled his shielding, even as wind roared against him. All further lightning strikes were grounded into the floor. Liquid stone spattered over those with less secure defences. Knights and guards scramble out of the way, and rolled to put out ignited garments, or wailed at the searing of their skin.
A twist against Katrisha’s spell opened a hole in her shield to a physical assault, and what visibility it had to ungifted showed the gap. Keeping the flaw from running away, and disrupting more esoteric protections distracted her as a guard closed on them, and took a swing.
Katrisha and Celia dove apart. The guard focused on Celia who was closest, though unsure what threat she posed. He hesitated though, as something made him question his resolve. Question his will to hurt a woman who lay seemingly defenseless before him. He was unaware of forces pulling at his will, making him doubt, and equally unaware of Katrisha who clobbered him in the head, knocking him from his feet. She grabbed his clattering sword from the ground, rolled and came to Celia’s defense, her heart pounding.
Katrisha brandished her freshly procured weapon at the men who were learning to resist the wild winds tearing at them. It was all she could do to keep her magical defenses up, as physical protections continued to fall. She regretted she had never taken Horence up on his offer of training with weapons other than staves. She deflected the first blow with her awkwardly held blade, and the second with a spell that Oradin failed to disrupt.
She found an old instinct. A primitive spell, but she had used it so many times. She found a way to wedge it into the intricate chaos her once perfect shield was becoming. He was much better than he had seemed before. Like he had gone easy on her in her test, but she did not trust it. He was cheating somehow. Yet how did one cheat the fundamentals of magic?
A knight assaulting Katrisha was suddenly thrown to the ground as Taloe entered the fray. “Good of you to join us,” Kiannae yelled, and tried to keep Oradin on the defensive with her lighting.
The Knight to his right swung at the unexpected attacker, but his blade struck one of the guards. Only vapors remained where the boy had stood. The wounded guard turned on him in pain, betrayal on his face. He struck out at his fellow, having never seen Taloe, but crumpled when his swing failed to connect.
Kiannae brought the guilt stricken and confused knight to his knees with a bolt of lightning to his leg. The crack of which drowned out the clamor of four new arrivals. Horence, Armon, Eran, and Alindra found themselves in befuddled horror behind Kiannae. She worked with her sister to tear apart Oradin’s defenses. Yet not only could the two combined not quite manage the task, they kept having to throw off attacks. His capacity to weave offense and defense in constant contest, against two gifted opponents, seemed far beyond any common mage. Kiannae was the second to conclude he was cheating. She had felt it before.
“What madness is this?” Armon demanded, and drew his sword. He turned to counter a guard rushing towards Kiannae, even as he seemed to fall for no reason. The large white wolf on the man’s back gave the oddest impression that surely she had nothing to do with it. She spared them a menacing glance, and shifted some of her weight to a paw on the man’s head when he tried to struggle.
“I act to stop traitors to the throne,” Oradin growled, and threw a spear of ice at Katrisha. She deflected it into a wall, even as she parried another swing from a guard. She point blank threw a burst of force into a knight that tried for an opening. His flailing form landed at Oradin’s feet, stopped by protective wards, leaving the man rubbing his head.
“The only traitors I see,” Horence snapped, and drew his sword, “are those who stand against the Court Mage!”
A wave of fire and ice crashed into Kiannae’s quickly expanded defenses, causing those behind her to step back. Lunka had leapt clear ahead of the attack, and the dazed man she had pinned took the brunt of stray magic aimed at the other side. The man gave out a terrible cry, and one hit by the edge of the attack rolled desperately trying to put out the flames.
“Deal with these,” Oradin demanded of the groggy knight who still struggled to get upright at his feet. He glanced at the mage with suspicion, more so as four new combatants charged them at once.
With a dismissive wave of Oradin’s hand a broad swath of force was tossed at the four, as the mage turned again to Katrisha. Horence was thrown back hard into a pillar, even after leaning into the attack. Alindra and Eran managed to break the spell around them, protecting Armon from the brunt of it, but still sending him tumbling across the floor.
The knight looked between Oradin and two standing fighters he knew to be of comparable skill. He was no longer sure he trusted the mage, but fear of the man, and a disdain for his enemies were good motivators. He stepped out of relative safety, rolling his shoulders.
Oradin focused fully on Katrisha. Forced her more deeply on the defense as she fended off the remaining guard and knight. She was growing less graceful with her already haphazard swordsmanship, and slowly less upright.
Celia abandoned her attempts to sow further doubt as she noticed Katrisha stumble. With a brilliant flash of light she blinded the two instead, and dropped to her knees.
“This wasn’t the best time to start a fight,” Katrisha coughed as she tried to steady her own heart. Celia took over as Katrisha threw up a new shield, letting the her old defenses collapse in on her last line of defense. The tighter it grew, the stronger, but the assault was relentless. She fought with Oradin’s attempts to unravel her magic, even as blindly thrust swords were deflected just shy of their mark. She let Oradin’s assault on her shield win to explosive results, throwing back the attackers. Then brought another up another before his attacks could land.
Lunka circled back to Kiannae. A guard lunged, and swung at her mistress, only to have his throat ripped out by the unnoticed wolf. Kiannae hesitated a sickened moment, and with renewed fury struck violently with lighting at Oradin. She wanted the madness to end, and channeled all the power she could to that end. She was dazed to feel it ripped out of her control. Wrested away by Oradin who with a gloved hand cast the wild energy up into the ceiling. A shower of stone, burning wood, glass, and molten rock exploded across the court.
Kiannae still off balance from losing control spread her defenses over others. She realized too late she had pushed to hard, as the cost caught up, and her focus slipped. The spell was unstable. Half the flying wreckage slowed, or even stopped. Among the other half, a stray brick sailed through her fragmented control, and struck her head. She crumpled under the blow.
Combatants on each side cried out as they were struck, or clipped by debris. The knight engaged with Eran and Alindra went almost untouched. Even as his two opponents, struck in the face and arm, were forced back onto the defense.
Taloe wavered, and wafted away mid swing at a guard who lost his balance, and fell on his face in an attempt to counter a blow that never landed. An already bloody mouthed wolf lept over her mistress, and snarled at any who dared move toward her. With sudden intensity all eyes were drawn to the snarling wolf, save two combatants blinded by their contest of wills.
Katrisha struggled back to her feet, even as Celia worked to keep her heart steady, and adrenaline fought her every effort. Her shield expanded again, even under renewed assault. Her physical and magical defenses untangled, and grew. She had made a breakthrough, learned from his defenses. Addaping the self repairing mechanism had proved time consuming amidst everything else, but it worked.
Her vision was blurred beyond use, so she closed her eyes, and focused on the magic. She could see the mark on the back of his hand in her mind. It wasn’t his. It was something stolen. ‘It isn’t his,’ screamed in the back of her mind distracting her. It focused her on how the magic was flowing through that hand. It was giving him incredible raw power, but it was too focused. One point of failure, ever so well guarded.
Armon had gotten back to his feet, as Eran was knocked down by a knight. Alindra had broken off in the chaos to charge Oradin. “Here boy,” Armon growled, challenging the man looming over Eran, “you’ve never bested me, why not try again?”
“I could never bring myself to strike an old man,” the Knight cut back. “I’ll not let that stop me today.” He shifted his stance away from Eran, not trusting his position between the two.
“Proud words,” Armon said, “prove them.” He swung at the Knight.
Eran scrambled to his feet in the opening, and looked between opponents. He made for Oradin, who had turned from Katrisha to throw Alindra away, but found his spells ineffective. He deflected Alindra’s first first strike with his staff, as she tore a hole in his shield. Fragments of his frayed defenses ate Eran’s blow, buying him time to send lighting through the sword, and down man’s side, bringing him to his knees.
Katrisha knocked the already dazed men around her back down before they could recover. Then returned to the complex shield spell damaged by Alindra’s skill with spell breaking. A tiny part of her tried to learn more from it, even as she worked to tear it apart. Yet her assaults were a feint, to get him to focus where she did.
Horence, who had hit his head hard from Oradin’s earlier attack had taken some time to get back to his sense, and join the others again in their assault. He was able to avoid a wild spell, even as Alindra shattered the part directed at her. Oradin’s outer defenses crumbled.
Horence could easily get around Oradin’s skill with a stave, but an inner shield slowed direct blows. His enchanted robe kept grazing blows with common weapons from piercing him.
The precarious stalemate was broken as Oradin slammed his staff against the ground, shattering the floor. All nearby were tossed from their feet feet, and some back quite a distance. Alindra rolled out of the tumble in shock from the force of it. It hadn’t been a spell. There had been nothing to break. Horence had partly adjusted to the force, but been thrown up instead of back, and was left dazed on the ground.
Mercu reentered the throne room breathless from his run. He had found no more aid, and long lost his hat. He barely kept upright at the outermost edge of the blast. He saw Kiannae down to the side, and tried to approach, only to yank back and land on his rear at the snap of the wolf guarding her.
He looked around, considering his options, and that Amron did not seem to be faring well after being staggered. Forgoing one intractable problem he leapt to his feet, grabbed a singed tapestry hung from the balcony above. He threw it over the Knight fighting Armon, who used the opening to strike a devastating blow. The man struggled to the ground, his blood soaking the cloth that covered him.
A guard blindsided Armon in the distraction, striking a piercing blow to his lower back. Armon came around with his sword to deadly effect, but crumpled himself, even as his assailant died at his blade. Lady Catherine rushed from the shadows, and fell to her knees at Armon’s side as Mercu joined her. A hasty shield came up around them. It was clumsy, primitive, but adequate to fend off two guards whose faith was failing in the side they had chosen.
A guard more bold rushed the two, but found his blow deflected by the shield. This gave Mercu an opening to grab the man’s arm, elbow him in the face, and take the sword as he lost his grip. Mercu spared a glance to Catherine who was doing something else he had no idea was within her ability. There was a faint glow where she held Armon’s wound, and worked with great strain to heal it.
A knight who had once chosen the other side, and staggered back to his feet took one look at the destruction around him. Then the man who had attacked Catherine. His faith shaken he held the guard at sword point, and glanced towards the escalating contest at the far end of the room.
A new flash of magic barely registered at the edge of Katrisha’s senses, but she did not have time to decide if it was a threat. Her effort to unravel Oradin’s protections were cut short again as he brought a new onslaught against her. A strike of lighting to compare with the one Kiannae had thrown at him. In fact it seemed somehow to actually be the same. As though he had turned a channeled manifestation into a spell, a perfect mimicry. ‘A perfect lie,’ she thought, and saw the flaw in it. It didn’t belong to him.
The dazed, and battered combatants scattered away from a flailing arc of energy thrown with little care for their safety. Something hotter than lighting arced around the room. Pillars and more of the ceiling crumbled. Parts of the wall above the throne fell, crushing it. A few knights and guards who made themselves unfortunate prominences did not even cry as they were hit. She tried to take control of it, to stop the wild destruction but it was all she could do to deflect the attack away from herself, or most other people. She could feel Celia losing the battle to keep her heart in check.
Katrisha opened her eyes, but they were still useless. Her knees gave way again even as she caught hold of the thread of it. ‘It isn’t his.’ It was a path straight through his defenses. Channeled through that right hand. ‘It wasn’t his.’ He had learned to command it, but it wasn’t his. She fed a simple fire spell back through the connection, into his stolen power. His shield tore apart. A blast of force its final revenge on any nearby. Assailants were throw away, even as he fell to his knees. He roared in agony, and clutched his hand. A had rune burned through his enchanted glove, a smoldering mark that still glowed to gifted eyes.
Half the ceiling collapsed, striking downed combatants. Some to devastating effect. Katrisha tried to deflect it all. She could no longer tell who was who, and tried desperately to protect them all. It was the last thing she saw, as the world went black.
She did not see what followed, nor hear Oradin’s final gurgled words, as an enchanted blade plunged through his chest. “I have seen the Storm…and the one…”
< Previous || Next >