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

New or forgetful readers consider: The Story So Far: Book I

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



“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.

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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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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.


“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.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 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.

< Previous || Next >

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 4

A silver drop of living light,
that shimmers and shines,
but of true nature lies,

what is this thing that devours,
yet such great worth harbors,
this price for powers gained,

liquid essence of aether,
or be it cold dew of nether,
strange tangible immaterial,

a slow poison to its maker,
and boon to the skilled shaper,
the blood of we mages born.

– Writings of Queen Regent Adria, circa 40 E.R.

Mage Blood

Estae 10th, 647 E.R.

Kiannae pondered the small sprout before her.  It had been a seed not two minutes before, and yet it stood a full two inches tall.  Landri watched expectantly as Kiannae simply stared at the plant.  Slowly she reached out her hand, and brushed a leaf with a fingertip.  She felt for the will of the plant, like she had long learned to seek the workings of a spell.  There was a way it wanted to grow, a pattern to it, it was deep, gentle, and hard to read, so much more complex than the weaving of magic she understood.

With her eyes closed Kiannae pushed, she let her gift flow through the will of the sprout, let it feed the living pattern, and after a moment opened her eyes again.  It had grown, and a new leaf had started to split from the stem.  “Very good,” Landri said, “not many can accomplish that so soon.”

“It…it’s like the plant itself is a spell,” Kiannae mused, “almost infinitely more complex than any magic I have ever imagined, but I could feel it.”

“The will of life, the force of order within every cell,” Landri replied.  “The purpose, and structure of living things resonates so strongly that it creates a parallel pattern.  The Sylvans call it Ki.”

Kiannae pursed her lips.  She had considered several times to press her curiosity on what her name might mean, but had avoided it time, and again because it reminded her of the prophecy.  Now she had the missing piece, or at least part of it.  She wasn’t quite sure what to make of the idea.  Honored daughter, and, what, soul? Seemed trite.

“The practices of mages are but a pale imitation of the splendor of Thaea.  Look again, with the trained eyes of a mage, follow the threads you find, and tell me what you see.”

Kiannae frowned, and tried.  She followed the threads of life that flowed along the fibers of the sprouts stalk, along the roots, out the leaves, along the edges.  Slowly, faintly she saw a glimmer, out past the roots, a web through the earth in every direction.

It was not merely like a spider’s web, but one awash in morning dew.  A delicate thing that wove around everything, but there were buds of light blooming.  Each seemed to represent something, the aura of a bug, a new born sprout, a colony of microorganisms.  The ants were things moving along a thread, a chemical certainty to their future, their decisions made, but that of the world around them still shifting.  As quickly as she saw it, and all this occurred to her, it was gone.

“Yes, I can see it in your eyes, you saw,” Landri said with amusement.  “The web of life is subtle, but however fragile it might seem, it is more enduring than anything woven by mages.  There is a will to the world, a will to all of life.  It is stronger than the will of the stones, for they are simple things, stubborn, but ready to be pushed aside.  Stronger than the will of man, for man is but a part, a single bud on the branch of the tree.”

“If life itself is magic, then why do only some have the gift?” Kiannae asked with obvious frustration.  She had asked similar of Laurel in the past, and never been satisfied with his answers.  The assertion that life was magic just made it more dubious.

“That, is an old question,” Landri said with a sigh.  “Some think that the fibers of the web of life bind around certain family lines, that these lines are the branches of the tree, and those without the gift, mere twigs, and leaves.”

“Is all of mankind a bud on the branch, or are mere families branches?” Kiannae grumbled.

“It’s an analogy dear girl,” Landri laughed, “but you know that, and are only being difficult because it is your way.”

“So that is what I am,” Kiannae said irritably, “difficult?”

“We cannot all be the gentle brook, or the spring rain,” Landri offered with a smile.  “The mighty river and the tempest are needed too.  Yet every storm must pass, and all rivers will follow their course in time.”

Kiannae flinched, and looked away.  Causing Landri a moment of confusion.

“Surely it is not now that I have offended you so?” she asked after studying Kiannae’s troubled expression.

“It’s nothing,” Kiannae sighed.

“There is no such thing as nothing,” Landri laughed kindly, “there is that which we do not want to share, and that which is not of great importance at the moment, but there is never nothing.”

“It’s just an old story,” Kiannae muttered.

“Do tell,” Landri pressed with a disarmingly earnest smile.

“I don’t remember it well, it was something my father told to me…and my sister when we were very little.”  Kiannae sighed, and rubbed her face.  “I only…what you said only troubled me because it reminded me of my her.  He would call us both at times by the titles in the story.”

Landri perked a brow curiously.  “And what titles were those?”

Kiannae frowned, “Must I dwell on this?”

“I suppose not, if it pains you so to think of your sister still,” Landri offered.

There was a long pause, and finally with a deep sigh Kiannae repeated the words as she had many times before.  “He called Katrisha daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost…and me daughter of summer glades, and the passing storm.”

“I’ve heard those before,” Landri said with a laugh, “the story isn’t all that old.  Unna fer Lun-ka, juer unsiler ybon,” she mused.  “Ah, but what…”

“It isn’t that old?” Kiannae interrupted both in surprise, and unease to hear the words again, to be reminded of all they meant.  She had always imagined the story one of long ago, and far away.  A wistful tale fit for small children.  She let this illusion shattering distract her from another surge of sorrow.

“No, I met the woman…” Landri trailed off and looked uneasy.

“What’s the matter?” Kiannae asked curious at the sudden silence, and expression from her instructor.  She was further distracted from her own discomfort for a moment by the fact that Landri was the one who looked like she had seen a ghost.

“Oh, sorry,” Landri said clearing her throat.  “Some think that her meeting with us druids sparked the Sylvan civil war.  Please, sit here, and meditate for a while.  See if you can glimpse the web of life again,” she said as she got up to leave.  “There is something I must attend to.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“What aren’t you telling me?” Landri snapped as she barged into Ezik’s house, and found him staring out a window.

Ezik gave her a curious look.  “A great many things,” he answered almost dismissively.  “Please, narrow it down.”

“Son of summer glades, and passing storms,” Landri said.  “Daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost.  Or that her name practically means…”

“Interesting,” Ezik interrupted.  “Ah, what father does not so adore his daughters, as to elevate them so.  Not that I ever had any.”  He shrugged.  “Just the one son.  I did plead with my dear wife for another.  I always wanted a daughter.”

“You are evading,” Landri said tersely, and shook her finger at him.

“No,” Ezik said in a tone more disappointed than angry, but none the less with some force.  “You are chasing the least interesting detail, and possibly nothing.  Does she look like she has Osyrean blood?  No.  What of her aura?”

“It would barley be a trace, it wouldn’t show.  And her aura…so it is bright,” Landri seemed disinterested.  “I’ve never met a Sylvan whose aura was not brilliant.”

“Dear woman,” Ezik shook his head, “you have never been one to miss the forest for the trees.  It is so unnatural it should be burned into your mind.  Look again, close your eyes, and really look at the memory of her.”

“It’s…almost like…there is a tear in her,” Landri said.

“A tear?” Ezik laughed darkly, “it is as though the very center of her, half of her very being was ripped out, and the rest fell in to fill the hole it left.  She is like a scar on nature itself.  A mage, even a healer I could forgive for missing it, but a druid of your caliber…”

“Has anyone else?” Landri all but growled.

“No,” Ezik answered uncomfortably.  “Perhaps I am getting clear sighted in my old age, and expect too much of others.  I apologize.  Yet I maintain, I could care less for her linage – if her true aura is twice what we see…even dragonborn would pale to her.  Yet the tear…”

“Her twin?” Landri offered.

“I’ve met twins before, gifted ones, dragonborn even then…and yes one died in my short time knowing them.  That was a terrible thing to watch.  I saw a soul turn to fire, and protect his still living brother.  Yet there was nothing like that hole left behind…”

“Then what of it?” Landri pressed.

“Something to watch,” Ezik answered.  He was thoughtful for a moment.  “Have you ever dreamed of the storm?”

“Once,” Landri offered uneasily.

“Do you remember the face?” Ezik pressed.

“Silver hair,” she said, “the roar of an ocean, or a thousand oceans.  Something terrible, and shadows lurking all about, like paler patches of blinding light.  I did not look at her face.”

“I did,” Ezik said.  “I did.”

“Do you really propose that she is…” Landri began to ask incredulously.

“Perhaps,” Ezik was thoughtful.  “Or another.  Mothers often look like their daughters, and there is something of the creature in that dream that seems such to me.”

“We’ve only her word that her twin died,” Landri considered leadingly.

“Do not even breath such a possibility to her,” Ezik snapped…and then calmed himself.  “You’ve heard the story as clearly as I.  A girl thrown from a cliff in a fight with a dragon, the pain she felt, so well timed to have been her death.  She has had enough trauma.  To gain hope, and learn otherwise…it could destroy her.”

“You will look into it though?” Landri asked.

“Discreetly,” Ezik agreed.  “There are too many mysteries here to ignore.  Too many portents of something powerful moving in the world.  I will ask you however; leave it to me.  Please.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 21st, 647 E.R.

Kiannae had been sitting for some time beneath the branches of a large old birch.  She had heard the leaves rustle several minutes before, and ignored the young man moving stealthily amidst its branches.  There was a yelp at the snap of a limb, and Kiannae thrust out her hand casting a spell to stop Zale, and the branch he was still clinging to just a foot off the ground.  “Not what I would call a graceful leap,” she laughed, as he flopped awkwardly onto the forest floor, and she let the branch go.

“You knew I was there, didn’t you?” Zale said trying to recover some composure.

“You were trying so hard to be sneaky too,” Kiannae laughed.  “Not doing very well at it, but trying.  It’s not polite to sneak up on people you know – least of all a young woman alone in the forest,” she scolded.

“Just a joke,” Zale sighed.

“Why don’t I believe you?” Kiannae mused.

“What’s not to believe?” Zale asked defensively.

“Just something in your voice,” Kiannae said disinterestedly.

There was a moment of hesitation, and Zale sighed.  “Alright, so I thought I’d watch you, and see if anything strange would happen.”

“And what kind of strange event did you expect to see?” Kiannae demanded crossly, as though accused of something.

“I don’t know,” Zale said irritably.  “It’s just…ever since you have arrived there have been reports of a shadowy figure prowling around at night.”

“And what does that have to do with me?” Kiannae asked her expression growing shrewd.

“I don’t know, but no one really seems to think it’s a coincidence,” Zale said with a shrug.  “It’s always near the house where you are sleeping.  At first some people thought it was you, but when you were found to still be in your bed…well the rumors have been growing.”

“And what do they say?” Kiannae sighed.

“That maybe something followed you back from the forest,” Zale said with a shrug.

“Such as?” Kiannae demanded, knowing full well what it might be.

“No one knows, it seems human-ish, or Sylvan from the description, but no one has gotten a clear look,” Zale said in a flustered fashion.

“And no one has bothered to ask if I know?” Kiannae sighed.

“Well, do you?” Zale asked curiously.

“No,” Kiannae half lied.

“Now why don’t I believe you?” Zale asked, his own expression shrewd.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 32nd, 647 E.R.

Kiannae woke in the night, not so much with a start, as to sudden full consciousness.  She could even remember the dream she had been having in crystal clarity, though that quickly faded.  The strange array of illogical plants that had populated that world quickly became unintelligible when examined.  The dream had not woken her, she concluded, and shook the imagery away.

She sat up slowly, looked to the doorway of the small room she had been given, and shivered at the dark silhouette that stood there.  What was most unnerving about the clearly human form – what struck her for the first time – was he had no presence.  A concept she winced to even try to understand.  Even the ungifted had a presence, even Navi’s ghost had a presence.  He hand an aura, it was visible, clear as day, and bright as any strong gifted, but it did not feel like a person was standing there.  There was no discrete otherness about him.

“Who are you?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.  Fighting off her fear, a fear she realized was centered more on the fact that as unnerving as the shadow was, she did not really fear it.

The boy stepped into the moonlight streaming through her window, and she examined his features carefully.  His skin seemed simply impossible.  It was smooth, almost translucent, its color was hard to make out, blue grey, but vaguely prismatic, and it simply didn’t look at all like skin.  His hair seemed unreal in its own unfathomable way.  It was long, and its strands seemed to flow together in the most literal of senses, becoming one thing, and yet it still shifted about almost like hair should.

“Who are you?” Kiannae demanded again, just a bit louder than before.

“Kiannae,” he said awkwardly, pointing to her.  His voice was strange, melodious, and clumsy all at once.  He then pointed to himself, raised his cupped hands to his lips, and watched Kiannae’s expression turn sour.

“I just don’t understand,” Kiannae sighed.  The boy stepped closer, and reached out a hand cautiously towards her.  Baser instincts made her want to pull back, but she held still as he gently brushed her cheek.  It was a marvelous, and all together unimagined sensation.  His touch was as smooth as ice, almost damp, but warm, and soft.  She reached out her own hand, up to the persistent mystery boy’s cheek, and touched it.  It was the same implausible sensation as her fingers trailed across his skin.  She pulled her fingers back slightly, rubbed them together, and though there had been a sense of dampness to him, her fingers felt dry, as did her cheek.

Kiannae blinked, and as her eyes closed she felt him disappear.  He was gone, and what remained was only mist, fading quickly, but all around.  For just a moment she half remembered a story from her youth.  She remembered a line about faces in the fog, and a forest that grew where a lake had been drained.  It was a ghost story, she remembered that, but ghosts were not tangible, could not be touched.  That was what she had been told, but now she was not sure if it was true.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 36th, 647 E.R.

“Mages,” Landri said in a lecturing tone, “seek the power of the gods.  The Clarions, for their part, seek the immortality of the gods.  Lycians, respectably, seek only the peace of the gods.  We druids however seek instead to join with them.”

“How does that make you any different than the others?” Kiannae demanded again irritably.

“Mages, Clarions, and conjurers all care nothing for the wills of the world,” Landri added insistently. “Druids are channelers, we seek to become one with it.”

“So then, merely tools without purpose of your own?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“The strokes gods paint in are broad.  So broad as to be almost meaningless to one mortals concerns,” Landri corrected.  “They understand our world, our little lives as poorly as we understand them in their vastness.  By aligning ourselves with their greater wills, we gain dominion to shape the smaller things in life, but always in accordance with a larger plan.  It is a partnership.  The gods do not sweat the small stuff, that is our job.”

“So you say that the druids serve the gods, plural, but largely you have spoken only of Thaea,” Kiannae said moving on.  “What of the others?”

“Thaea is of greatest importance,” Landri said shrewdly.  “She is the mother, the living world.  The others, the older gods are more like grandparents, and ancestors.  Worthy of reverence, respect, and of use, but not our closest kin.  The shamans of old favored the elder gods for their power.”

“Teach me of these elder gods,” Kiannae asked in a polite, but insistent tone.

“What do you seek?” Landri was stern.  “Understanding, or power?”

“Yes,” Kiannae answered.

“Prove to me you can align yourself with the living world,” Landri said, “and then we will consider other possibilities.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 30th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha sat in a tower window, indifferent to Laurel and Mercu’s conversation by her chamber door.  She also ignored the cat who sat in her lap, rooting at her idle hand that was no longer petting him.  Her black hair rustled slightly in the breeze, white roots, plainly visible in the early afternoon sun.  Her skin was almost translucently pale.  She held a hand up in the sunlight absently, and turned it back and forth with vague interest.

“The King isn’t happy about my request,” Laurel sighed. “His persistent reaction to anything involving the Sisterhood makes me think you are right about why, but I still don’t fully understand it.  Unlike his father he’s always been cordial with them, that much is clear.  Maybe it’s just saving face, maybe its more.”

“They are sending Wren I assume?” Mercu asked casually, giving little sign he was paying attention to Laurel’s musings.

“I expect so yes,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “She’s as ill of heart as whatever else is eating her body.  I expect they would send her brother to comfort her, as little time as they have had together, there has always seemed to be a strong bond there.  Enough even to make Kiannae jealous.”

“I hate seeing her like this.”  Mercu looked again to the oblivious girl sitting in the window.

“I hate talking about her like she isn’t here,” Laurel grimaced, “but it is almost like she isn’t.  A week now, and barely acknowledges me any more if I speak directly to her.”

“I know.  It will be alright,” Mercu said resting his hand on Laurel’s shoulder.  He let go of being told things he already knew, certain it was Laurel just trying to comfort himself by saying it aloud, as though it would not be true.  “The Sisters can fix this, they aren’t allowed to stay in kingdoms on their good looks…though I’m sure they don’t hurt.”

Laurel huffed softly.  “You would know better than I.”  Laurel sighed, and walked towards the window.  He gently set a hand on Katrisha’s shoulder, and after a moment she turned her head, and looked up at him.  There was something only half there in her green eyes, and it broke Laurel’s heart to see emptiness in her expression.  “Is there anything you need?” he asked intently.

Katrisha simply stared up at him for a moment, before finally shaking her head and looking back out the window.  Laurel sighed deeply.  “A servant should be up with food in a couple hours, eat something, please.  I’ll be in the tower study should you need anything.”

Mercu stepped beside Laurel, and whispered softly.  “I’ll stay with her, I doubt I will do her much good, but I don’t think she should be alone.”

“Thank you,” Laurel said softly and rubbed his eyes before he left the chamber, and Mar slipped out behind him.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It was late in the evening, and the first few stars could be seen in the dimming sky when a knock came at Katrisha’s chamber door.  Mercu set aside the lute he had been strumming at idly, and opened the door for two white robed women, and young man to enter.  He recognized Renae and Wren, but Audry he was quite sure he had not met.

Wren’s posture shifted when he saw Katrisha, who still sat in the window staring into the evening sky.  Wren looked up to Renae, and barely waited for a nod before running across the room.

“Kat!” he said excitedly, but Katrisha turned her head slowly, and for a moment it almost seemed as though she did not recognize her brother.  Wren frowned deeply, until at last a slight strained smile crept into the corner of her lips.

“Oh Kat…” Wren said as he leaned into window seat, and threw his arms around his sister.  “They said you weren’t well.  I guess they weren’t exaggerating.”

Katrisha leaned her head against her brother’s, and simply closed her eyes.

“How long has she been like that?” Renae asked Mercu with deep concern as they approached the embracing pair.

“Three days now, but on and off for a while, since…” Mercu hesitated, “since not long after that damn fool business with the dragon.  At first I thought it was just the trauma, and worry.  She seemed mostly there even for the wedding in South Rook, but I knew something was wrong.”

“Dearest, do you mind,” Renae said softly touching Wren on the shoulder.

Wren turned his head to look up at Renae.  He reluctantly released Katrisha from his embrace, and stepped aside.  “Of course Mother,” he said meekly with a nod, and Audry took his hand comfortingly.

Renae leaned over Katrisha, and brushed some of the girl’s hair back, examining the white roots.  She looked deep into the girl’s eyes, and frowned at the only faint recognition she saw there.  “What have you done to yourself girl?” Renae muttered as she knelt beside the window.  She took Katrisha’s hand in both of hers, and closed her eyes, focusing deeply on something unseen.

Several minutes of silence were interrupted when Laurel entered the chamber, a large book cradled in his arms.  He considered the scene at the window, and thought to announce his presence, but decided to wait.  After a moment Renae stood, turned back into the room, and acknowledged Laurel with a nod.  She raised her hand, palm up with only her index finger extended.  “I take it you will recognize this.”

Laurel stepped closer, and squinted in the dim light at the tiny silver drop balanced on Renae’s finger.  “So it’s as I suspected then,” Laurel said with a grimace.

“I wasn’t told, what you expected,” Renae said a bit coldly.

“No, and I apologize,” Laurel started a bit stiffly.  “I wanted a fresh perspective, not distorted by any preconceived notions.”

Renae nodded understandingly, and placed the tiny droplet in the palm of her hand for safer keeping.  “It’s mage blood poisoning, without question.  You however should know as well as I, it should have taken more than just a few minutes to extract that much.  It’s almost a wonder the poor girl is still conscious, her blood is…beyond saturated.”

“Yes,” Laurel said with a frown, “that’s what I thought, but to say the least I’ve never heard of a case like this.  I’ve been through every relevant book in my library,” he said tapping his fingers on the one he held. “The youngest case on record was late into his twenties, and had undergone a much slower, less severe decline.”

Renae looked back to Katrisha for a moment.  “I certainly have not heard of the like myself.  It might be her linage, there is no telling.  As I understand it the Sylvans do not practice as mages, and only mages have been observed to suffer from this.  It makes me worry more for Kiannae though.  I take it there is still no sign of her?”

“None,” Laurel said closing his eyes.  “She is lost to the Sylvan territories still, so far as we can determine.  I have no idea what they would do with her if that’s the case.  Nor do I know why she has run away, save the assumption she believed Kat dead.”

“I still cannot believe that was allowed to happen,” Renae said, anger slipping into her voice.

“No one allowed anything,” Mercu interjected cutting off pointless recrimination.  “The girls were set on that foolish course, and short of slapping them in enchanted irons I doubt we could have stopped them.”

“No,” Renae said considering Mercu thoroughly, “perhaps you are right.”  She took a long breath.  “Forgive me, I am distressed by it still, and these circumstances…”

“We all are,” Laurel said consolingly.  “I know you love Wren as your own, and have looked upon the twins with almost as much regard.”

“I…” Renae started, “yes…as my own.”

Laurel considered Renae’s response for a moment, “I’ve never pressed my suspicions…but I have looked into it in the past.  Was Adel…”

“Yes,” Renae said tersely, “and I will ask you not to finish that sentence just now.”  She turned to glance at Wren who had returned to his sister’s side.

“You have reasons?” Laurel pressed gently.

She nodded.

Laurel shook his head.  “Back to the business at hand then, I assume you can help Katrisha’s condition.”

“Yes,” Renae said hesitantly, “but more so than normal, this will only be a temporary fix.  It’s obvious with the rate of production, and concentration that this will require more than just a periodic cleansing.  It would be best if she lived with us for a while.  She will need to be trained to care for her own state, and will need time to recover.”

“I…” Laurel started, inclined to argue against the removal of his charge.  “I can accept your recommendation, reluctantly.  Beyond my own feelings on the matter, I do not relish convincing the King.  He is fond of the girl, but perhaps his current ire over…certain incidents may sway him.”

Renae seemed to ponder something deeply for a moment.  “I would offer to make the argument for you…but there are things I would rather not discuss with the King, which could make matters worse.”

Laurel considered pressing his curiosity, but thought better of it.  Renae turned to Wren and Audry.  “Please gather things for Katrisha, she will come with us tomorrow.  For now, I will resume her treatment.”

“A bit presumptuous,” Laurel remarked in surprise. “I have not yet even attempted to get the King’s approval.”

“It may be presumptuous, but it is also practical,” Renae all but snapped.  “If you can’t convince him, I will be forced to make a case I do not wish to, but I am quite certain I will win, even if I am not sure of the cost.  Besides, his authority in this matter is limited, so long as I have your approval.  You are her guardian, and her father by law, do you have any intention to change your mind?”

“Very well,” Laurel said taken aback by the severity of Renae’s tone.

Renae paused, obviously calming herself.  “Forgive me, please,” she stated in an even tone, “My frustrations are of my own making, not yours.”

Laurel considered the well aged woman before him thoroughly, he could not say that he knew her well, but in all past encounters he could not recall ever before seeing her so terse, and ill tempered.  “I will do what I can,” Laurel said, and left the healers to their work, leading Mercu out with him.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 31st, 647 E.R.

Midnight was upon Renae as she poured a few last drops of mage blood from her palm into a small vial.  Each of the three healers had worked in turn on Katrisha, Renae teaching Wren, and Audry in the process.  Wren had excelled – to no one’s surprise – above even Renae’s results, producing fully half of the ounce of precious and troublesome material that Renae now examined in the moonlight.

Renae wondered at the strange mercury like substance, and its brilliant shimmering aura visible only to those with the gift.  A strange accident of nature, a fluke of some mages gift, and practices, and worth a hundred times its weight in gold for its rarity, and odd properties, even if it acted almost as a poison to the body that made it.

Renae looked down at the sleeping girl in her bed and sighed.  She considered Wren who had curled up next to her, and drifted off.  She gently shifted the blankets around Katrisha to tuck her in more comfortably, and pulled the other side over Wren.

She slowly stood from the chair she had brought to the bedside, and stretched stiffly.  Automatically she sought out the more offended joints that complained from long hours hunched over.  She soothed the inflammation with practiced, near indifference, yet somewhere at the back of her mind remembered to curse the rigors of age.

Renae looked again to Katrisha, and Wren, and let a half troubled smile cross her face.  She took comfort that they could, and already had helped her greatly, but the effects on her mind, and her soul she could not be sure of.  The business with Kiannae did not help matters, and hurt Renae deeply.  She worried for how the girl could possibly be fairing.  Was she even still alive?  To be lost in the wilds, and stricken with such an illness, it was hard to imagine.

Renae pushed such troubling thoughts aside, and turned to leave.  She had been informed that the quarters she usually took up on her visits would be prepared, but she was less than sure where Audry had been taken after drifting off an hour before.  She tightly corked the vial in her hands and walked to the chamber door tiredly.  As she opened the door she found someone beyond, standing in the moonlight.  She expected Laurel, or Mercu, but who she found standing before her startled her from growing weariness.

“Your Majesty,” she said almost on instinct.

“It…” the King started uncharacteristically uncomfortably.  “It has been a long time, Renae.”

“Surely four months since my last visit does not make a very long time,” Renae said, confusion tinging her voice.

“I…” he said seeming to try on the pronoun awkwardly. “I have spoken to you many times as your King…” he said hesitantly, and at last turned to look Renae in the eye.  “But it has been a very long while since I have spoken to you as a man.”

“I do not know that you have ever spoken to me as a man, John,” Renae said bluntly, but quickly thought better of it, as the King grimaced.  “No, no please do not take offense at that.  I mean only…” she took a deep breath, and let it go.  “We were both barely more than children then.  I was no more a woman, than you a man.”

The King’s expression softened slightly.  “Perhaps there is truth in your words, but please, do not to belittle that time.”

“I do not belittle it, merely accept that I was once but a foolish girl, and you a dashing defiant young prince.  I will not pretend I do not hold fond, and dear memories from that time, but a lifetime stands between then and now.  I am an old woman, too knowledgeable of the world for her own good, just as then I was too naive.”

The King’s expression softened further.  “Would it amuse you to hear me say, I think you were the dashing one?  Climbing trees, and mocking the King’s guard with seeming impunity.”

“How the Matron ever put up with me…” Renae trailed off for a moment, but her amusement was clear.  “Still, little I haven’t had to deal with in my own time in the position.”

“Surely none of them have quite had your wit,” the King laughed.

“Oh a few, very few.  Though I dare say I’ve yet to need deal with any trying to run off with a young prince,” she said, her voice darkening a bit near the end.

“I should hope not.”  The King laughed, but darkened again.  “I feel at a disadvantage,” he started again uncomfortably, “that you, as any citizen of the kingdom know of…well the Queen, of course.  I married, quite obvious really that I moved on.”  He rubbed his forehead.  “I do love her dearly.  She is a fine, proper, and strong woman.  Possessed of sufficient wit and charm to have made my life as King content.  Yet…it’s never been my place to enquire of you.  Please do not think me an arrogant fool who imagines for even a moment you did not move on, it is just…friendly curiosity, and perhaps imprudent – I apologize.”

Renae sank into thought.  “I have had my share of love affairs, but only one has lasted.  Though we have drifted apart many times, and strong passion has long since given way to practical companionship, and warm affection.  In the end she stuck with me when I needed her most, and though we have had our times apart…she has always remained my friend.”

“Oh..” the King said, seemingly uncomfortable.

“You should not be surprised,” Renae said gently chiding the King.  “I will not pretend the Sisterhood has not earned our reputation.  We are – well, those of us who are – what we are.”

“No, it…” the King’s expression grew thoughtful.  “I have heard rumors, that I have never pressed.  Heard that you had a daughter.  In fact some say she was Adel of the North.”

Renae looked away then, she could not hold the King’s gaze.  “At last we come to it,” she said weakly, her voice strained.  “You have not heard wrong, my King.  It has been a long life, and I have been with a few other men…but none of them were the father.”

The King took a deep breath to steady himself.  “And I was never told…  You,” he began, his voice growing dire, “never told me?”

“Your father, and grandfather knew,” Renae growled.  “I don’t know how they knew, but but they knew.  I fear our daughter…” she said her voice growing softer, wounded. “She became a pawn in the conflict between your father and the Sisterhood.  We kept the secret of her lineage, and the King would continue to keep his son in check – would continue to protect us.”

“That hardly explains her end,” the King demanded, stuck somewhere between shock, rage, and disbelief.

“I tried to be a good mother, I did.  Maybe I was…fates if I know why, but she was never happy, never content at Highvale.  There was something different about her gift, she wasn’t weak, but she was never more than an adequate healer.  She left only days after she turned eighteen…I only know pieces from there.  Pieces I learned when I returned from my travels…”

The King turned and leaned on the window frame, trying to calm himself to little avail.  “The same pieces everyone knows I expect.  She traipsed about, being both healer and…” he clearly struggled with the thought, and set it aside, “till the man Ashton stood by her when Clarion zealots attacked her.  She fell in love with, and married that simple farmer,” he laughed darkly.  “Oh and how he wasn’t a simple farmer after all…and then she died defending her daughter from a wild drake.  I just…” the King choked, “I never knew it was the story of my daughter.  My own flesh and blood.”  He wept, and looked as though he could barely stand.

“I’m sorry,” Renae said sincerely.  “I’m sorry that this is the way you learn.  All these decades later, but we are both growing old, and at last it seemed it could no longer be avoided.  I wanted you to know, that…I don’t just love Wren – love the twins – as my own, they are my own…our own,” she corrected herself.

The King pounded on the frame of the window furiously.  “And why was our grand daughter left on that farm then?  Left to wind up dead of nothing more than childbirth?” he demanded frothingly.  He drew back his now throbbing hand, and rubbed it.

Renae leaned against the cold stone wall by the chamber door.  “The Ashton man…James…he was so bitter, so angry after his wife’s death.  He wanted no part of me, of the Sisterhood.  Maybe he was just afraid I would take away his daughter, the only thing he had left of his wife.  I tried eight times those first few years to visit, and he turned me away on each occasion.  The last time I made him promise me something, and in turn I would not return until her eighteenth birthday had passed.  I left a letter with him, and made him swear on Adel’s grave to give it to her on that day.”

“And he broke his word?” the King all but growled, barely restraining his volume.

“I…I am not sure,” Renae said doubtfully.  “I think perhaps that he died while she was still seventeen, and then…then you know the rest.  I was giving it time…I was about to make my excuses to travel…and Wren arrived.”  She watched the King still nursing the hand he had slammed against the stone, and started to move closer.

“So it is…” the King mused darkly.  “So it is that in mere moments I gain and lose a daughter, a granddaughter, and you wish to take away my great-granddaughter as well, while the other remains missing…”

“Let me see that hand,” Renae commanded kindly.  The King eyed her indecisively for a moment, and then relented, offering his aching hand, but looked away.  “She is ill,” Renae said after a moment of working on the abused joins, “and I will not tell you that she need come with us to live, but…I am certain it is for the best.”

Renae paused wearily, as she began to knit a slight fracture.  “You are quite strong still, you know,” she started in a kind tone.  “Even if age has made your bones brittle.  You fractured this one with the force of that blow.”  She ran her finger along the edge of his palm as she finished her work, but thought better of the familiarity, and stepped back.

The king pulled his hand close to his chest, and rubbed it still, though perhaps it was more a nervous wringing then.

“I leave it to you.  She will need to learn to cure this sickness herself.  It is a part of her, it will not go away.  She will need the care, and tutelage from multiple healers.  Do you wish for up to a year to house Sisters here at court, to seek a similar complement of Clarion priests, or to send her with us?”

“I will not involve the Clarions,” the King growled. “I struggle every day to tolerate their madness, but I will not have them trying to influence my court any more than they already do.”

“Then what is it to be?” Renae pressed gently.

“Take her,” the King grumbled, his fist clenched, but he quickly stopped short striking the stone again.  “I will have your word she will return in no more than a year.  I will know my great granddaughter, as my blood, while there is still life in these old bones.”

“You have my word, my King,” Renae said cordially and turned to leave.

“I did love you once,” the King said distantly, stopping her from leaving.  ”It was love all those years ago, not simply childish fancy.”

“And now?” Renae questioned, unsure how to respond, and not even turning back.

“Now I remember that love,” the King said distantly.

“As do I,” Renae said sadly, and descended the tower stairs.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 33rd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha looked absently around the simple sparse room she had been lead to by her brother.  The space was like a closet compared to her full floor of the tower, but was typical of the cloister’s bed chambers, including the empty bunk bed, as such rooms were normally shared.

“Come, sit,” Wren said gesturing to the lower bunk.

Katrisha walked to the bed, sat, and slowly turned to lay down.  It wasn’t completely unpadded, but was quite firm compared to the deep piled down she was use to.  All this however went without comment, or visible complaint.

Audry set the bundle of Katrisha’s things on a chest beneath the window, and put a consoling hand on Wren’s shoulder.  Wren looked at Audry, and smiled weakly.  “Come on,” he said as he knelt down beside the bed, took Katrisha’s hand, and closed his eyes.  “Let’s see if we can get some more of this poison out of you.”

Audry sat behind Wren, and lay her head to the back of his shoulder as he worked.  She watched with her mind’s eye, every detail of the process even though she had already been taught.  Seeing if she could glean anything useful from Wren’s more successful attempts.  Eventually she gave it up as pure talent, and gift, and instead let herself focus on Wren’s presence.

He was warm, always so warm like fire light.  Like a hearth on a cold winter’s night, even in the heat of summer the thought of stepping away from him seemed cold.

Everyone turned together as a knock at the open door caught their attention.  “I’m sorry if I’m intruding,” Celia said examining the scene.  “I had heard you two were back…with a guest?”

“Come in,” Wren said coming out of his trance like state.  “This is my sister, Katrisha.  She’s fallen ill, and has come to stay with us for a while.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Celia said as she stepped into the room, and looked down at Katrisha’s somewhat distant gaze.

“This is Celia, one of my dearest friends,” Wren said checking the pool of mage blood in the palm of his hand.  He showed it to Audry who fished for an empty vial amidst the collection of things she had set on the chest under the window.

“What’s that?” Celia asked curiously.

“My blood,” Katrisha laughed darkly.  Celia shook her head in surprise at the response, and almost took a step back.  “Sorry, it’s not…quite that morbid,” Katrisha said with a weak smile, “but I suppose it’s accurate enough, from what Renae says.”

“You are doing better to be making light of things,” Wren said as he poured the silvery substance into the vial Audry had handed him.

“Maybe,” Katrisha sighed tiredly, “and I am sorry, it’s nice to meet you as well.  Wren has mentioned you on his visits.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Celia said with a smile.

“Did he ever mention me?” Audry said with the tiniest hint of jealousy in her voice that was lost on Katrisha.

“Hmm?” Katrisha said slowly drifting off to sleep, “it’s been a year or so, he mentioned you both though.  His two best friends, that he didn’t know what he would do without.  I’m glad he’s had you…” she added, as sleep took her.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 40th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha sat in the sunlight with her eyes closed.  It was not her favorite place in the world, but where she had been told to sit.  “My name is Theron,” a stern but kind male voice stated somewhere behind her.  “I have been told you are Katrisha, and that I should insure you are completely with me before I begin.”

“I am here,” Katrisha said opening an eye hesitantly in the bright sunlight, as Theron stepped in front of her.  “…for the most part.”

“Good,” Theron said.  “I am the head of spiritual study here at the cloister, and yes, before you ask,” he said firmly, “men do occasionally hold such positions within the Order, when we are deemed the best suited at the time of choosing.”

“I was aware, I suppose, that there were men with the ‘Sisterhood,’” Katrisha said trying not to laugh at the miss match of terms.  “My brother has lived here most of his life.”

“So it is,” Theron said calmly, “though as I can tell from the tone of your voice, you realize that the term ‘Sisterhood’ is as such questionable.  Properly we are the Lycian Order of the Light, or a number of other long winded mouthfuls, depending on who you ask.  Many organizations refer to themselves as ‘Orders,’ and ‘Sisterhood’ stuck long ago for any number of reasons.”

“I see…” Katrisha said uncertain what she should say.

“I offer this only for perspective,” Theron said with a shrug.  “I do not often interact with outsiders, and when I do, the questions seem inevitable.”

“What…exactly is the head of spiritual study?” Katrisha asked curiously, and glad for the chance to move off of what seemed to be a sore subject for the man before her.

“Spiritual studies deal with the union of the mind, the spirit, and the body,” Theron said in a practiced lecturing tone. “We are students of philosophy, and the practical science of the material mind, nervous system, and how it interacts with the soul.  We also council on issues of the heart, maladies of the mind, and emotional distress.”

“Ok…” Katrisha said a bit distantly.

“Your condition is physical, but it’s causes, and consequences are less mundane,” Theron said in a kinder tone. “There was debate as to who would be best to teach you first.  I won the argument it seems, to my own increased workload.  The core of what you must learn is to tell the poison that your magic creates, from your own self.”

“Wouldn’t it just be easier to give up magic?” Katrisha laughed darkly.

“A jest that I have no doubt you would find impossible to follow through on,” Theron said sternly.  “For one who has known the magic their whole life, such would be like giving up part of yourself, like pretending you’ve lost your right hand.  Even if you could do it, it would be another grave wound atop so many you have already suffered, and there is no guarantee even then it would work.  That your spirit would not keep collecting wild magic within you.”

“What do you know of my ‘wounds’?” Katrisha said looking away angrily.

“A great deal,” Theron said sadly.  “I lost a sister once, and far more certainly.  She was crushed by a toppled cart in a caravan before my very eyes.  I loved her so much that I almost gave my very life in vain to save her…my mother had to pull me from her, that she did not lose a second child that day.”

“I…” Katrisha said embarrassed.  “I’m sorry…my sister, Kiannae.  She isn’t dead, if I’m here alive, then so is she.  No forest is going to stop her, she’s strong…but…”  Katrisha trailed off, and began to cry.

“I know only what I have been told, and what I am told, has been suggested to you already,” Theron said gently resting a hand on Katrisha’s shoulder.  “All that you can do, is try to find peace – find a path back to health, that you are well when she does return to you.”

Katrisha glared at Theron the last of her obstinate manner wavering.  “Where do we begin?” she asked exhaustedly.

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 5

Had I not known you,
I would be a lesser man,
even should I now reign,
in this unimagined land,
I would not be even half,
of who this day I stand.

– Alexander Durandal, circa 380 E.R.

Friends in Need

Rhaeus 26th 647 E.R.

Kiannae looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps, and found Zale walking somewhat cautiously towards her.

“Strange breeze today,” he remarked glancing around.  Kiannae let out a long slow breath, and the direction of the wind dramatically shifted.  “Oh,” he said an almost startled look creeping over his face as he fully appreciated what had happened.  He could feel it then, but far more subtle in action and profound in result than he was used to.

“Nice of you to walk up like a normal person,” Kiannae said rolling her shoulders, and rubbing her neck as the breeze came to a stop.

“I did say I was sorry about last time,” Zale sighed.  “Then I figured I’d give you some space.”

“Well, as Landri likes to point out, difficult is my way.”

“She can be a bit judgmental,” Zale offered as he sat down across from Kiannae.

“Oh, no,” Kiannae laughed, “she’s quite right.”

“They usually save teaching the elemental stuff for advanced students,” Zale mused, attempting to shift away from Kiannae’s self deprecating jabs.

“What can I say, I’m advanced.”  she said with a grin.  “I pressed Landri about it, she said they had been focusing on all the life stuff because it was farther from what I had already been taught,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“And then you insisted she expand her lesson plan?” Zale asked curiously.

“She was hesitant at first, concerned I would fall back on mage methods, and cause myself more trouble.”  Kiannae sighed.  “When she relented to teach me however she found that my methods were not as magely as she had expected.  I always found the direct solution to an end easier, unlike Kat…” she trailed off sadly.

“You miss her don’t you?” Zale said with a frown.

“What kind of miserable question is that?” Kiannae demanded with a touch of anger.  “She was my twin, like a part of my very soul.  Miss her…yes you might say that.”  She was fiery eyed, her breath quicker, and the wind a bit more erratic to match.

“I’m sorry,” Zale said with a flustered expression and nervous tone.  His eyes darted around a bit, trying to judge how much control she had over the wind, or her effect on it.  “I didn’t mean it that way.  I was just offering…an ear to listen…”

“I…” Kiannae sighed, and the wind calmed again.  “No, I’m sorry, I can tell you were trying to be friendly, and failing miserably.  Though I don’t know why you are going out of your way for me.”

“If you haven’t noticed there aren’t a lot our age around here,” Zale said pointedly.

“We aren’t exactly the same age,” Kiannae shot back.

“Closer than anyone else,” Zale sighed.  “There is Riley and Fenric, but they are twenty five, and joined at the hip…more than figuratively.  Then there are the little kids…”

“You poor dear,” Kiannae said in a mocking tone, “with only me for company.”

“Again,” Zale sighed, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“And if you are going to be hanging around me alot,” Kiannae said tersely, “you’ll need to learn to deal with the sarcasm.”

“Fair,” Zale laughed uncomfortably.

There was a stretch of awkward silence before Zale tried to break the ice again.  “So you are just out here playing with the wind?”

“It’s…relaxing,” Kiannae said with a shrug.  “What do you do with your free time, other than climbing around in trees, and sneaking up on younger women?”

“Not much,” Zale sighed, “about as much to do around here as there are people my age to talk to.  I miss being on the road with my mother…but father insisted I stay here for a while.”

Kiannae stood up, stretched, and with a wave of her hand called forth a gentle breeze.  “So play with the wind,” she said with a laugh and graceful twirl.  The air moved flawlessly with her, a strange zephyr that swirled in perfect sync as she spun.

Zale watched curiously as Kiannae began to dance to some unheard music.  Trails of light formed behind her hands, and smaller wild gusts whorled the light in all but unfathomable ways around her.  Leaves were lifted on the wind, and carried around her in a gentle spiral.

The light felt right to Kiannae, it was the wind, tracing forms that eyes could not see. The light came from the wind, her hands merely instruments.  Her motion itself was a whim, a whimsy, it was her forms shape on the breeze, and following its course seemed to take no energy, and even give, stollen not from the aether, but in spiraling tracks though the world.  A wind moved faster, a wind moved slower.  Everything conserved, nothing challenged.  An order emerged from chaos, and she was that order.  There was a breath to the world.  The winter would draw it in, the spring would exhale.

After several minutes of the unexpected spectacle Kiannae simply stopped, and the wind almost snapped to still, dropping the leaves it had carried like autumn colored snowflakes all around.  “So, were you going to join me?” she asked cocking her head to the side.

“I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” Zale said scratching his head.  “I know the basics of everything I just saw…but I can’t even fathom how you put it all together, or what inspired you to do so.”  He left out his doubts about the sheer power that seemed behind it, or if it was power precisely and not something harder to name.  Though he did carefully consider if flattery could be in his favor.

Kiannae huffed, strolled back to the tree, and sat against it again.  “You are going to need to work on being more interesting, you know?”

“I fear I’ll never be as ‘interesting’ as what I just saw,” Zale said with an awkward grin, gambling that playful might get him farther.

“Then I’ll have to teach you,” Kiannae said with a disappointed grumble.

“To make swirling wind and light?” Zale laughed dubiously.

“No, to be interesting,” Kiannae corrected. “Because if what you say is true, you are my best hope for company…and that, is to say the least worrisome.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 40th, 647 E.R.

Kiannae stood by the riverside as the other women of the circle undressed, and descended into the gently flowing waters.  At the castle she had bathed almost daily, but the druids only trekked up to a deep stretch of river a few times a week.  She noticed that only a very few would go with every group, and she was among them.  Even though the river was generally far colder than she would like.

They had left the men some distance downstream, and around a bend.  She was used to bathing around other women, and though the calm stretch of the river did not provide the same secure privacy as the walls of the castle bath, she had never caught sight one of the men spying.  That didn’t mean, she realized, it didn’t happen, or that they were not so deft as to go unnoticed.  Still, she certainly had not seen it.

She absently started to wander farther up stream, which seemed to go unnoticed as the other women were distracted chatting, or simply relaxing in the water.  As she walked Kiannae became absent minded.  On straight clear stretches she would close her eyes, and listen to the birds.  She passed a short two foot fall as she came to a third bend.  She began to wonder if she should head back, but decided peaking around the turn could not hurt.

There she found a beautiful pool, fed by an eight foot fall with large smooth stones at its base, and in places cascading off smaller outcroppings.  She wondered for a moment why the other women did not bathe there instead.  She decided it was simply too far, when the lower pool they generally used was entirely sufficient, if less idyllic.  Deciding she should bathe she stripped down, and slipped into the deep clear waters.  The pool was even slower flowing than the lower section of the river, and seemed much warmer than she had become accustomed to.  Which delighted her.

For a moment Kiannae was back at the castle, and five years old, when she was still small enough to properly swim in the shallow waters of the women’s bath.  She became completely lost in the sensation, and moved through the water with an absent minded glee.  She closed her eyes, and twirled slowly, feeling the flow of it around her.  Her training kicked in without even thinking, and she felt like a part of the stream.

Slowly her motions became more a dance than swimming.  She entirely lost track of time as minutes passed, and on into two hours.  She was at one with the river, timeless, and yet ever flowing.  For the first time in months there was no sorrow that could intrude, only a simple joy.  The way the water moved around her was delicate, perfect, and she was unaware as someone approached her private pool unannounced.

Kiannae opened her eyes at the end of a particularly successful twirl, and it took her a moment to come back to reality, and recognize that someone was standing a short distance in front of her on the bank.  Before even that had fully sunk in she realized first that it was Zale, and second that he was at eye level.  The twinge of embarrassment stood no chance against the realization that she was suspended in a spiral of water that was nearly five feet above the rest of the pool.

This condition changed almost instantly, and Kiannae found herself briefly floundering as the water collapsed out from under her.   She coughed as she struggled to regain her bearings, and get the water out of her nose, and off her face.  When she could see again she snapped into anger, glaring at Zale who stood awestruck, jaw quite literally dropped, and clearly unapologetic before her.

“You have some nerve,” Kiannae growled, the effectiveness of which was cut somewhat by another cough.

“I would have said something…as I approached,” Zale said starting to show some sign of embarrassment, “but…but what in the abyss was that?”

“Don’t change the subject,” Kiannae snapped defensively, still trying to process herself what had happened.

“Yes…yes, because me coming looking for you when the other women showed up without you, and happening upon…you…” Zale said, seemingly searching for words, “suspended five feet up in swirling water.  Yes, no…I suppose that’s not the subject,” he said defensively.

Kiannae seemed to shrink, and quickly covered her chest with her arms, finally making the mental connection between her embarrassment, and needing to do something about it.  Zale turned his back then, to his credit.  “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just…I couldn’t look away from…whatever that was.  It was breathtaking.”

“And the fact that I was naked didn’t enter into it at all?” Kiannae growled treading water again once she didn’t feel the need to cover up.

“Well perhaps you were breathtaking as well?” Zale offered in a legitimately uncomfortable tone, “but I have seen a naked woman before…that however was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

“And when have you seen a naked woman?” Kiannae demanded accusingly.

“I grew up on the road…one sees a great many things,” Zale said evasively, and laughed uncomfortably.

“Do you now?” Kiannae chided, “such as young women bathing in private?”

“There was little private about that show,” Zale laughed even more nervously, “but I dare say that dancer had less than half your grace, and not a third your beauty.”  The attempt at flattery fell flat for its exaggeration, even if it was clear there was some honesty buried under it somewhere.

“Not helping yourself,” Kiannae grumbled.  “Would you please leave, so I can dress?” she demanded angrily.

“Yes,” Zale said, and started to move back downstream, “I’ll wait for you around the bend.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Zale heard Kiannae approach, but she simply marched past him without saying a word.  He stood for a moment uncomfortably, and then hurried after her, as her brisk pace was carrying her quite quickly down stream.  “I’m sorry,” he offered again.

Kiannae stopped, and fumed.  “You should be,” was all she found to say in turn.

“I came around the bend, and there you were,” Zale protested.  “I…should have said something, but…alright, if I’m honest you being naked probably did have something to do with it, but that was at least the third thing I noticed.”

“Name the others?” Kiannae demanded tersely, turned on her heel and crossed her arms.

“The column of water,” Zale started, “how it moved…how you moved…then naked.  I really couldn’t even see much, but yeah, I noticed…alright?  I’m sorry.”  Kiannae didn’t look terribly appease.  “I should have said something, turned my back…but…how did you even do that?”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said.  “The same way as the wind?  I wasn’t trying, wasn’t thinking…I didn’t even know it was happening till I came out of it, and saw you.”

“Weren’t trying!?” Zale snapped suddenly, a bewildered expression crossing his face.

Kiannae took more than a moment staring at him, trying to believe the look on his face.  “I wasn’t,” she insisted.

“I don’t think there is a single druid here who could do what you just did if they tried with all their might,” Zale protested.  “And…you did it without even trying?”

Kiannae finally adopted another expression than irritation, or doubt.  She looked a bit confused.  “Are you sure?” she asked, trying to make sense out of that.

“I don’t know,” Zale said, “maybe?  I mean, maybe some of them could, if they tried, really hard.  Maybe,” he stressed.

Kiannae looked to the river, and was quite a minute.  “Why were you the one looking for me?” she finally asked.

“You are farther north than we are strictly supposed to go,” Zale said.  “I really shouldn’t have even come up here looking for you, but no one else seemed to be.”

“Is it a problem I came up here?”

“Probably not,” Zale said uncertainty.  “The river is the border most of the time, but this far north it gets fuzzy.”

“I’m sorry I snapped,” Kiannae said, on a level she wasn’t sure if she should be sorry at all, but some diplomatic urge intruded.  She doubted very much if things were reversed if she would have done any different.  Though she wasn’t sure at all she would have gone looking for Zale in the first place.  She didn’t find much comfort in that distinction either.

“No,” Zale said.  “I’m sorry.  I really…ah fates, there’s no point hashing over it.  I’m just sorry.”

Kiannae considered the young man before her.  She was still mad at him, but there was something cute about the flustered way he was acting, that cut away at the threatening feeling of being spied on, and she tried to tell herself that he hadn’t really been spying.  Not intentionally, and in that there was many some hypocrisy for all the people she had ever spied on with full intent.  Though never in the nude.  Except, well, she had considered the shape of other women bathing, wondered how she would look one day.  That wasn’t the same.  She ground her teeth riddling it all over.  It was different.

“So,” Kiannae started, changing the subject in her own head as much as between them, “am I really three times as beautiful as that dancer?”  It was playful, but mostly she just wanted to see the look of panic cross his face as he tried to figure out the right answer.  She was not disappointed, and she felt a little more even for the whole affair.

“In a few years,” he laughed, “I suspect it will be an understatement.”

Kiannae considered his response.  She pursed her lips, gave him a very shrewd look, smirked and started down stream again without another word.  She thought he’d done pretty well with that, in fact she suspected Mercu would have given it an applause.  She was less sure how she felt about that.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 3rd, 647 E.R.

Kiannae slipped from the back window of the house she was supposed to be asleep in, and into the moonlight.  It might have been easier to use the front door, but all of the houses of the glade had been grown with their only door facing the center of town, where two druids stood watch in shifts.

She peered around the corner of the house at the guards, and saw they were lost in some trivial conversation or another.  However in the bright moonlight she would easily be seen walking down any of the radiating paths that lead away from the central square.  Pulling her hood over her head she crept up to the front of the house behind hers, and moved slowly along the wall in hopes she would blend in with the bark enough to go unseen.

Kiannae stole an occasional glance to the central square, and saw that she had avoided notice.  She did not however see that someone stood in the open window behind her has she slipped past, and that he caught a glimpse of her face as she checked again on the night watch.

Clear of the house Kiannae moved into its shadow, and walked briskly into the woods.  She wondered how daft she was to be trying what she was, but decided she had to know.  She watched the bright patch of moonlight in the large clearing ahead with anxious anticipation.  She paused at the edge of the glade, gathered herself, and marched to its center where she sat, and closed her eyes.

Kiannae reached out in every direction, feeling for any large living thing.  She felt the ring of trees around her, some animals here and there, and pulled her senses back.  She could detect nothing within the field but the grass, bugs, and various critters of the earth.  “Where are you,” she whispered to herself.  “Show yourself,” she commanded under her breath.

She could feel the shift as it happened, feel the form before her, but her senses could not tell her what it was any more than ever.  It felt almost like it was a part of her, a part of her own aura.  She reached deep within herself, and tried to take stock of her being, her own essence, and then she finally saw it.  All around her, there was an otherness, a presence she had never noticed because it shared the same space as her, it didn’t just intersect, it was everywhere she was.

She opened her eyes to confirm what she knew, and stared at him, still focused on other senses.  If his skin had felt like water, his presence felt like wind.  He seemed more a change in pressure on one side, than the warmth of a living thing.  Yet it wasn’t true, the warmth was there, it just wasn’t his, it wasn’t centered on him.  He seemed just a dimple in her own presence, like a spell she had cast.  The conscious sense was not outside her in his head, but inside her own.  He wasn’t her, but he was woven through her tighter than the threads of her robe.

How had it happened, how had she become inseparable from him without even feeling it, without noticing.  It was as though he had fallen into a hole in her, as if something had stopped hurting just a little, or rather a great deal.  He had…there had been something torn out of her when Kat died, and he had soaked through that empty place, and become one.  It just was…she could see with her own senses they were inseparable, barely identifiable.  It was no wonder it had taken her so long.

“You are in me, aren’t you?” Kiannae asked of the strange boy standing before her in the moonlight.  He cocked his head to the side curiously.  Kiannae frowned, but for once did not become flustered by the lack of communication.  She pointed to the boy, then to herself, and feigned drinking as he had so many times.  There was a pause, a hesitation, and then he simply nodded.

“Water,” Kiannae said feigning drinking.  “Water,” she repeated pointing at the boy.  He sat down before her, and nodded again.  “Drink,” she said again feigning the act again.  “Drink,” she said pointing at the boy, then at herself, and repeating the act.

“Drink,” he spoke in his strange, awkward, oddly melodic way, and pointed at Kiannae.

Kiannae nodded, covered her face in frustration that it had taken her so long to understand.  “Yes, I drink,” she said wearily.  “I am so very sorry.”  It was all rushing back, it was all making sense.  The ache in her belly, the thirst, they hadn’t been the only thing that had eased when she had drank of the pool.  Another ache in the center of her had eased as well.

That wasn’t it though.  That wasn’t all of it.  She half remembered a story, a tale she had been told as a little girl after seeing her first ghost.  Only half remembered though, it was just out of reach.  Just slightly there.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 4th, 647 E.R.

The sky had turned orange, and Kiannae turned at the sound of chirping birds.  “Thank you,” she said to the boy, as she got up.  “Night, we talk again,” she said.

“Thank you,” the boy said in kind.  “Ok” he added, and faded away into the morning mist.  It had been a long, exhausting night.  The boy was learning almost too quickly Kiannae realized, but it was still slow and frustrating.  Wren had learned quickly she thought, far too quickly she had always heard.  Was it the reverse, was the ghost in her learning from her own memories.  It was a troubling thought.  It felt far more exposed than being seen by Zale…and the possibility…  She grimaced and refused to fully consider the thought that followed.

Confirmation had also only made Kiannae’s predicament harder.  She did not trust her new benefactors, nor their potential beliefs well enough to tell them the truth she had learned.  They had not noticed yet, just as she hadn’t.  The boy appeared to be a part of her to them, his aura was indistinguishable from hers, they had never met her before the merging had occurred, so there was no way for them to tell.

Kiannae doubted her analysis, the druids had detected the mage blood within her, had worked to separate it from her.  She worried that they might have harmed the boy in the process, but decided that was done, and over with.  There was no taking back what might have happened, and no pressing plans to repeat the process that had been used.

As she walked towards town she caught a glimpse of something beneath a tree.  Zale was asleep just past the edge of the glade, and in a flash she realized that he must have been watching her in the night.  Irritably she marched up to him, and nudged him with her foot till he stirred.

“So,” Kiannae grumbled, “what do you intend to do?”

“About?” Zale asked, rubbing his eyes.

“Don’t play dumb, even if you are,” Kiannae growled.

“About the boy?” Zale said awkwardly. “The boy who forms out of mist…” he added as he looked around, “and I can only presume returns to it just as easily.”

“Yes,” Kiannae sighed exasperatedly, “about that.”

“I suppose tell the elders,” Zale said with a shrug.

“Could you be convinced keep this between us?” Kiannae asked hesitantly.

“Why?” Zale asked getting up and scratching his head.

“Because I asked nicely?” Kiannae laughed doubtfully.

“You called me dumb,” Zale said perking an eyebrow, “you call that nice?”

“Perhaps you don’t want to see mean?” Kiannae suggested switching to a less friendly expression.  “He’s harmless,” she added, “and can’t even really speak for himself yet.”

“What ever.” Zale sighed. “Might keep me from having to answer for being out all night, even if I did follow you.  No promises though, if we can’t sneak back into the village unnoticed.”  He paused.  “Bring me with properly next time.  I want to meet this boy if I’m to be keeping his secrets,” he demanded.

“Deal…” Kiannae agreed hesitantly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 5th, 647 E.R.

As the day wore on, Kiannae grew weary of catching sidelong glances from Zale.  She didn’t know what to make of his sudden fascination.  Perhaps nothing had really changed, and she was only more aware of his attention.  She wondered what he really wanted – was he excited by the prospect of meeting something not quite human, was she herself – by some broad definition – fascinating to him for the same reason?

Kiannae found herself opposite Zale over dinner in the central hall, and grew more flustered in her attempts to read his intent.  She considered jealousy for the first time.  He had made quite a point that she was the closest person to his age in the circle, and by virtue of that his best options for friendship.  It occurred to her his only romantic prospect as well.  Her boy in the mist could seem a threat, if Zale had such designs.  She smirked to herself at the thought of what his reaction would be when he realized the boy was always naked, and all but broke down laughing at the curious glance her expression brought.

As the evening meal broke, Zale pulled her aside.  “So, what’s the plan?” he asked quietly.

“Same as last time I guess,” Kiannae said with a shrug.  “I sneak off, you follow…just this time, you join me in the clearing.”

“Bit simple,” Zale said, “thought you said I needed to be more interesting.”

“Sneaking off in the dead of night, to meet an ancient being that dwells in the mist isn’t interesting?” Kiannae gave him an amused glance.

“When you put it like that…” Zale said trailing off.

“Consider that lesson one of being interesting.”  Kiannae said pointedly.  “Remember to put things the right way.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae paused at the back of Zale’s house, and wondered how long she would have to wait for him to sort out his own exit.  After several minutes, and on the verge of heading off on her own again she saw the back window open, and Zale slip out just as she had, if slightly less graceful on the landing.  She snickered as he fell on his rear.

“Remind me to add how land properly to the list of things I need to teach you,” Kiannae said quietly as he walked up to her, and dusted himself off.

“Ok, just cause a branch broke, and I am more accustomed to exiting through doors than windows, does not make me clumsy,” Zale grumbled a bit loudly for Kiannae’s taste, and she held a finger up to her lips.

“I didn’t say you were clumsy,” Kiannae said softly but with a decided smirk.  “I said you didn’t know how to land.  Clumsy might be a good word for it though – so I’ll take it under advisement.”  

Zale looked quite unamused, which only amused Kiannae further.

“Anyway, come on,” she said waving for him to follow as she turned, and walked into the woods.

Zale moved several times to speak as they walked towards the clearing, and each time decided he was short of a good opening, and thought better of it.  As they entered into the glade Kiannae simply moved to the center, and sat down as Zale stood back a few feet, and watched.  

When nothing happened for several minutes Zale began to become impatient.  “How long does this take?”

“Not a clue,” Kiannae said without opening her eyes.  “I’ve not exactly mastered conjuring him up.  I’m not even sure if that’s actually under my control.  He has come so far entirely of his own accord.  Save perhaps last night when I called for him to show himself.”

“What exactly is he?” Zale asked still impatient, and finally a little nervous about what he had not only agreed to, but asked for.

“If I had to wager a guess,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “half flesh.  A step above a ghost, quite a few steps below the Avatar.  There is an old story one of my mentors told me.  About a race of people who lived on the shores of a great lake, and who were at one with its waters.  They were all wiped out, ages ago, and one…or more lay a curse on the waters.   Or so the fable goes…but curses aren’t real.  Spirits though…spirits are.”

“Are you sure it’s wise to consort with a spirit that’s been blamed for a curse?” Zale pressed suddenly very uneasy.

“Even the story isn’t so simple,” Kiannae chided irritably.  “There are two sides to the tale that follows.  Tales of people pulled into the water and drowned, of course, but there are also stories of some being saved.”

“So then…” Zale started, “you think he’s the benevolent old spirit of a lake?”

“That could be part of it,” Kiannae mused.  “You druids do believe in a higher intelligence to the elements of the world.  That elementals are not simply the rare anomalies we find in the wastes, and far reaches, but all around us, simply passive, and usually content.  What I have learned to feel and do gives me pause to consider there is some truth to it.”

“That is what Landri teaches,” Zale said hesitantly, and sat down across from Kiannae.  “Mother was never as…preachy.  She taught me practical druidic techniques, that which was useful to our time on the road.”

“I don’t pity you the lack of preachy,” Kiannae laughed, “but it has been enlightening at times.  Still I think he’s a lot more than a simple elemental.  I believe the form he takes is an echo of his old life.”

“Does he have a name?” Zale asked, intent to keep his mind of all that could go wrong away from the village at night.

“I’m sure he does,” Kiannae considered, “but I don’t think he remembers it.”

“How do you forget your own name?” Zale asked doubtfully.

“Knowledge does not pass perfectly from the mind to the soul I suspect,” Kiannae suggested, “and you try sleeping a thousand years.  See how much you remember.”

“A thousand years…” Zale said doubtfully.

“The story is I think about that old, give or take.  At least from what I know,” Kiannae said with a shrug, and suddenly opened her eyes.

Zale looked at her funny a moment, but her gaze was not on him he realized, focused just above and behind him.  He looked up, and quickly scrambled to Kiannae’s side when he caught the sight of the boy standing over him.  “I didn’t even…” Zale trailed off, “what in the bloody abyss,” he cursed, “he’s naked.”

“I don’t think clothes carry over as well as the body,” Kiannae said repressing a laugh. “It uh, took me by surprise the first few times.  I’ve kind of gotten…used to it….kind of.”

“You could have warned me,” Zale muttered, not quite able to keep his eyes from glancing where he would rather not.

“What fun would that have been,” Kiannae laughed.  “You know at dinner, when you gave me that funny look for smirking to myself.  The expression on your face right now, was what I was imagining.”

“Oh,” Zale sighed, “everything you hoped?”

“I’ve seen better,” Kiannae said dismissively, “but still priceless.”

“Wait – don’t ghosts have clothes?” Zale protested.

“They do actually,” Kiannae frowned.  “At least the one I’ve seen before.”

“You’ve seen other ghosts before?”

“Quite a few times in my room back home actually,” Kiannae laughed.  “Though she stopped coming around after my sister and I kept trying to catch her.”

“Wait, what?” Zale demanded, but Kiannae seemed to ignore the inquiry, and rethink what she might be revealing.

“Water,” Kiannae said addressing the boy.  “Zale,” she said pointing to Zale.

“Zale,” Water said in his melodic way, and nodded.

“What else can he say?” Zale asked curiously, setting aside other questions for another time.

“A few things,” Kiannae said eyeing Zale suspiciously.  “Water, Tell Zale name,” Kiannae said.

“I Water,” the boy said, “Kiannae drink Water.  Water with Kiannae, always.”

“Did you teach him all of that in one night?” Zale asked perking a brow.

“Pretty much,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “all our prior encounters ended with an impasse.”

“Water listen, Water learn.  I learn from dreams,” Water added.

“Ok…” Kiannae said uncertainty, “that bit was new.”

“I listen to Landri in dream,” Water said, “she teach of self to Kiannae.”

“That…is creepy,” Zale said more than a bit on edge.

Water cocked his head to the side.  “Not fear I.  Water good.”

“He’s perceptive at least,” Zale said trying to relax.

“You could talk to him, and not act like he isn’t here,” Kiannae chided.

“Um, sorry…Water,” Zale said properly looking at the boy.

“I think I saw this coming,” Kiannae shook her head.  “My brother…my mother gave her entire life to him when he was born.  He learned everything so much faster than he should have.  I think this is the reverse.  Which I won’t pretend I’m comfortable with.”

“We should give you a better name than Water though,” Zale said addressing the strange being before them.

“Seems wrong to just give him a name,” Kiannae said pursing her lips thoughtfully.  “I’m sure he had one once.”

“Now who’s talking about him like he isn’t here,” Zale chided.

Kiannae sighed.  “I suppose it is unfortunate to Keep calling you Water.  Are you sure you do not remember a name?”

“I remember Aeliae,” Water said hesitantly, sadly, and held his shoulder almost as though he was in pain.  “The water took her,” he said starting to shake, “took her away.  Not called Water,” he said firmly, began to cry, and slowly came apart and wiffed away.

“That was…odd,” Zale said uncomfortably.  “Will he be back?”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said thoughtfully, “even though he lives in me I am…not very aware of his presence.”

“What was all that about though?” Zale asked crossly.

“The tale of…” Kiannae thought back very hard to the story Mercu had told her years before, “The story of Tethis is kind of bloody.  A whole people were wiped out.  Not surprising if some of his enduring memories might be unpleasant.”

“Why do you suppose he remembered some girl’s name, but not his own?” Zale asked curiously.

Kiannae looked at Zale doubtfully, shook her head, and sighed.  “Love,” she said plainly.  Then after a moment of contemplation added with a haunted expression, “he was remembering how the girl he loved died, and how he did as well…”  She looked even more unnerved by the moment.  She was almost completely sure who he was, but she still didn’t know his name.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae glanced at Zale.  They had waited for some time for the elemental to return, before finally giving up.  As they walked towards the edge of town, Kiannae decided to press the matter.  “So, what do you think then?” she asked pointedly.

“Why not just ask me back there?” Zale sighed.  “Given it seems he can still hear us.”

“Nothing good to say, eh?” Kiannae grimaced as though joking, or hoping she was joking.

“No, he’s fine, if…rather naked,” Zale said shaking his head.  “He’s still not the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen though.”

“Oh?” Kiannae prodded half annoyed, part curious.

“The dryad wood is far more unnerving, not one ghost, but hundreds,” Zale said shaking his head, “and you don’t see them, just hear the whispers on the wind from every direction.”

“I’ve heard of dryads before…” Kiannae trailed off.

“From one of those mentor’s of yours?” Zale asked.  “Well whatever they told you, it’s nothing like being there.”

“So show me,” Kiannae said challengingly.  She set aside a suspicion she might have met one once.  She had almost forgotten the tree she had spoken to as a girl.  The whisper on the wind she thought she had heard once or twice.  Maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“It’s not up to me,” Zale said, stopped, and looked Kiannae up and down.  “The Dryad wood is sacred, and its location guarded.”

“I would assume it’s close though,” Kiannae said probingly.

“Somewhat,” Zale said and walked on.  “It’s actually part of the Sylvan land by treaty, or some such.  They don’t go there any more than we do however, and it’s largely considered neutral.”

“So who do I have to talk to, if I want to see the spooky woods?” Kiannae pressed.

“Start with Landri I guess,” Zale said with a shrug, “she’s your best bet.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 31st, 1148 E.R.

Kiannae looked at Landri, as she had many times that day through her lessons.  She kept thinking to ask the questions plaguing her mind, but never quite came to it.  Finally Landri got tired of the stares.  “What is it you wish to ask, but hesitate to?”

“I’ve…been reminded of an old story,” Kiannae said cautiously.

“What story is it?” Landri asked.

“The tale of Tethis,” Kiannae said with a wince.

“That’s a fairly bloody, and dark tale to be dwelling on,” Landri said curiously.

“So you know it?” Kiannae asked hopefully.

“Yes,” Landri said shrewdly, “what is it you are wondering?”

“It was told to me long ago,” Kiannae said still dancing around her point, “the thing is I’m not sure if the version I was told ever mentioned the name of the boy that the King’s daughter fell in love with.”

Landri stopped to think a moment.  “Talun, perhaps Talom by some tellings.  Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” Kiannae lied, “it just bothered me I didn’t know his name.”

Landri gave her more than a funny look, but shook her head, and moved on.

“I have heard there is a dryad wood near here,” Kiannae added then.

“Zale told you?” Landri asked displeased.

Kiannae nodded.

“I suppose it’s existence is not well guarded, though the location has been kept secret enough.”

“Could I go there?”

“Perhaps one day,” Landri said thoughtfully, “but I must be convinced that you are ready.”

“I think I met a dryad once before,” Kiannae pressed.  “I think I would like to again.”

“Where would you have met a dryad?” Landri asked doubtfully.

“Where I was born there was a lone tree,” Kiannae said.  “I asked my grandfather once how long it had stood.  He did not know.  Said it had always been there.  I remember a whisper on the wind, though not what the tree said to me, not any more.  I talked with him often, and sometimes it seemed the wind answered.  At least when I was little.  I have not been back since I was a child.”

“You are sure this was not some childish fancy?” Landri asked.  “I’ve not heard of a lone dryad before.  Only sacred groves.”

“Sure…” Kiannae laughed.  “No, but I’d like to see if it is at all what I remember.  If it is…then one day I must go back and thank that tree.  For the last answer I think he ever gave me, was to guide me to town, and save me, my sister, and my brother the day our mother died.”

Landri closed her eyes, and sat there a moment.  “I will consider it,” she finally offered.  “Let us return to your studies however.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 23rd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha put a at single tiny droplet of silver liquid up to her eye, and examined it carefully  She had managed to pull from her blood.  Two weeks of training, of watching carefully as others worked, of listening to their analysis.  Eight ounces all together sat in vials somewhere, pulled from her by others, and yet they said her blood was still saturated.

The others had stopped drawing as much out at a time, once her mental condition had markedly improved.  Ostensibly this was to allow her the opportunity to more easily discern the mage blood by volume.  Whether she really believed that reasoning she wasn’t sure, and didn’t care.  A part of her had decided that as much harm as the substance was to her, it was part of what made her special, and while she needed it out, she also wasn’t thrilled that it was being taken away from her.  To be sold presumably.  It bothered her.

Katrisha was weary, but her frustration had all but completely evaporated.  The tiny droplet she held was easily one of greatest senses of victory she had yet felt in her young life, because while it was the end result of weeks of work, the droplet itself had been produced in seconds.  She tried again, looked into her self, sought the errant power that was neither of her body, nor her soul, and pulled it to the surface.  The droplet doubled in size, it worked, in an instant she had gone from hopelessness, to complete success.

Katrisha looked in the mirror she had borrowed from Rennae, and frowned at the grey roots of her hair.  She had asked Renae about it, and been told that while possible, restoring the natural color of her hair was impractical.  Katrisha was told that if she learned how, she could do it herself, but that it was a tedious vanity that no Sister on record had ever followed through with.

A stray shed hair tickled Katrisha’s nose, and prompted her to brush it aside.  The hair fell into her hand, and touched the tiny droplet, causing the bead to wrap around, and stick to it.  She plucked up the hair, and watched the droplet slide down the shaft, slowly shrinking, as the hair itself turned silver.  She ran her finger along the strand, but it had absorbed every bit.  She felt could pull them back apart the same way she had in the first place, and did.

Katrisha looked again to the mirror, and a small smile crept across her lips.  If her hair was to be grey, she thought, then let it be silver instead.  She closed her eyes, and continued what she had begun to master only moments before.  Now though she kept her hands at her head, and ran her fingers through her hair, again, and again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 1st, 647 E.R.

Numerous tiny orbs orbited around Katrisha, and she watched their courses carefully, summoning more.  Her once raven hair had turned a pale silver, with just a hint of blue reflected from the sky, and shimmered brilliantly in the midday sun.  She turned to consider a gathering she had sensed forming, and finally noticed out of the corner of her eye.  Brothers and Sisters of varied ages watched her work, just as they had the previous couple days.  One or two had asked before if she would teach them, and she had declined as politely as she could think how, without inviting further requests.

Katrisha reached out a hand, and with one finger touched the central orb that hovered before her, adding a new detail to the spell that was replicated all around.  She smiled when a couple people gasped appreciatively at the appearance of ribbons of willowy light tracking the course of the whirling and spinning orbs.   She began throwing out more of the smallest type which had little influence on the others, but quickly added more texture and complexity to the whole arrangement.

At the far end of the courtyard she saw Wren and Audry talking casually, and holding hands.  For the first time she really considered Wren was very much with Audry.  Wren hadn’t mentioned it directly, but he had danced around the subject a few times.  She was happy for him, though she worried that the girl was nearly her own age.

Katrisha was pulled from her considerations as she noticed the several of the Brother’s and Sisters begin to sit on the grass around her.  She recognized most of the faces, but only Celia she could identify by name.  She nodded to Celia, and reached out, brushing her finger across the occasional orb that came into reach.  Their ribbons of light were replaced by a trail of twinkling embers, or several smaller ribbons, and would begin to spin creating spirals in their wake.

After a while she got bored with the elaborateness of it all, and with just a touch to the central sphere the whole vast simulation cascaded in a series of small showers of light.  There was some oohing, aweing, and a little clapping.  She considered her gathered audience, many of whom looked at her expectantly for what she might do next.

“So what do they teach you of astronomy?” Katrisha asked of no one in particular.

After a moment of glancing back and forth between the audience members, Celia was the one to speak up.  “Nothing really,” she said uncertainty. “I know the word, what it means I think, but they teach us mostly history, reading, writing, math, and healing.”

“Fair enough,” Katrisha said thoughtfully. “It’s more of a curiosity than practical subject, so I’m not surprised.”  Katrisha reached out her hand, and formed a green colored orb with a distinct rune at its center.  “For the sake of argument, let’s call this our world, Thaea,” as she moved her hand a copy came along, slowly shrank, turned a pale blue, and formed a different rune as she set it to its orbit.  “This is our moon, I have certain fondness for it, but that’s me.  Her proper name is Laeune, the same as the old goddess of myth.”

Katrisha pulled another copy of Thaea off to the side, which turned a bright luminous yellow as it began to circle.  “This is the sun,” she said, “or Rahn.  There was a time when some thought that Rahn, just as the moon, circled us down here on Thaea.  That we were the center of the universe.  In time however observations were made that did not make this seem sensible, and some clever mages determined that it is we, that circle the sun.”

The bright yellow orb, slowly came towards Katrisha, as Thaea and the moon shifted in unison, away, and began orbiting it instead.  Katrisha pulled a tiny white orb from Rahn, and set it in a tight orbit about the star.  “This is Vhael, the light bearer.  Also known as the morning, and evening star.  It circles closely to the sun, and may be seen often just before dawn, and just after sunset.”

With a sweep of her hand Katrisha made a field of little sparkling dots between Thaea and Vhale.  “These are the embers of Rhaea, fragments of a world that once shone brightly in the morning, and evening sky.  There are carvings on old monuments that show it clearly in conjunction with the sun and Vhale.  What became of Rhaea is a mystery.”  With a wave of her hand several of the tiny specs drifted from the half arc they formed around the sun, and spiraled into Thaea.  “If you have watched the sky on later summer nights, you may have seen a great number of shooting stars, which are stray embers of Rhaea that burn up in our atmosphere.”

“What makes them burn?” Celia asked.

“Some would tell you that it is simply their nature,” Katrisha laughed.  “I will tell you what I was taught, that high above the sky there is nothing, a great void, but as the pieces come close, they enter our sky and their incredible speed sets them ablaze.  The same way that if you run your fingers back and forth across fabric quickly they will grow warm.”

Katrisha pulled a large orange orb, and sent it out over the heads of her audience, which split off many smaller spheres from itself.  “This is Jove, the father of many children if you speak of the old god.  In reality Jove is a great collection of swirling storm clouds, with many moons, some of which are nearly as large as all of Thaea.”

Katrisha touched the bright yellow sphere of Rhan, and the trails began to form behind her growing solar system.  “This is Lauris,” she said pulling a tiny sphere off of Thaea and leaving it orbiting some distance behind it, but on a very similar course.  “By some great grace of good fortune this companion to our world, which visits once every thousand years or so, always passes by, though none have determined exactly why.  Some believe ‘the dark companion’ explains our continued safety, that there is a poorly mapped invisible world that has kept us safe all these eons by pulling Lauris from a disastrous intersection in course.  Some believe there is more than one such unseen mystery world at work in our skies.”

With the wave of her hand the Jove system copied, and even more moons sprang from the clone which orbited out past the heads of the onlookers.  “This is Elisia, the distant one, and her many daughters.  She is a blue world, believed to be one immense ocean a dozen times the size of our world.  Some have tracked worlds even farther out, tiny cold things, so far from the sun as to be frozen in near darkness.”

Katrisha let the system carry on as she got up, and began to walk away.  “Class dismissed,” she laughed as she went, and with the snap of her fingers, it all dissolved away, just as her previous display had done.  She stopped by a hall entrance off the court yard, and leaned against a column wearily.  Katrisha enjoyed the attention she got for her displays, but also found the inclination to do something new and engaging for her audience draining.  It never had been before, not since she she was very little.  Some after effect that would pas she hoped.

Soft footsteps pulled Katrisha’s gaze up, and she smiled slightly as Celia approached.  “Hello,” she said kindly.  “I’m sorry if I cut that off abruptly, I was just getting tired.”

“It’s quite alright,” Celia said with a bit of forced reservation, “that was incredible,”

“I’m glad you think so.” Katrisha said with a nervous smile.  “I was afraid I got too lecturey and esoteric with all the names of old gods, and distant worlds you would be hard pressed to even glimpse in the night sky.”

“I…” Clelia said and then hesitated. “I heard you decline  the other day…when some of the other Brother’s and Sisters asked you to teach them magic.  I cringe to ask, but…might you reconsider?  I’ve been wanting to learn real magic, but the archaist won’t take me for another year, or two at the earliest.”

Katrisha sighed, and half winced, but thought better of it seeing the deflated look on Celia’s face.  “I’ll do it,” she said, “for a friend of my brother.”

“You don’t have to if you really don’t want to,” Celia said meekly.

“Of course I don’t have to,” Katrisha said with a crooked smile, “but I’ll try.  I’ve never taught anyone before though, so I make no promises.”

“No, of course,” Celia said with obvious excitement.  “Thank you,” she added bashfully.  “When…when would you like to begin?”

“It’s my free day,” Katrisha thoughtfully, “and I have nothing better to do.  Come to my room, we’ll start now, and if we do it there, hopefully the other’s won’t get the idea to ask again.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 8th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha watched as Celia tried to form her fifth concurrent light sphere, and applauded the crescent arrangement she had created, which shrank towards each end.  “Very nice,” she said approvingly, “not bad for a week, and only a few hours each day.  A good ways from the pretty swirls you could make when we started.”  Katrisha tried to maintain an even tone as she remembered the sadness she had sunken into when Celia showed her her best trick, which reminded her far too much of her missing sister.

“Thank you,” Celia said appreciatively, and popped each of her spheres in order from left to right, only to remake them as quickly as she could.

“Ok, I do believe you have that one down,” Katrisha laughed as she saw the ease with which Celia recreated her arrangement.  Katrisha created her own simple sphere. “How about adding to the spell.  I have imprinted on this one the inclination to attract all copies of itself.  Try to see the difference, and do the same.”

Celia leaned in very close to the sphere floating in front of Katrisha, and formed her’s side by side, and carefully examined the pattern, until she was reasonably sure she could make out the extra structure that had been added.  “I think I see,” she said, and tried to changed her’s to match.  This failed, and her spell collapsed.

She remade hers, and tried again.  There was a little motion, but hers came apart once more.  She bit her lip, and tried a third time, very carefully.  When she finished the two spheres suddenly flew together, and tore apart right in her face, making her jump back in surprise.

“Very good.”  Katrisha laughed.  “I’m impressed, might have taken me longer the first time, and Laurel always seemed a bit bothered by how quickly we picked things up.”

Celia smiled, and blushed from the start she had given herself.  “Thank you,” she laughed.  “You are a good teacher,” she said with a smile, and brushed back her hair.

“I’ve mostly just shown you simple versions of what I do.  You are really teaching yourself for the most part,” Katrisha said with a smirk, “but I’ll take the compliment.  See if you can make yourself a little orbital system.”  Katrisha said, and closed her eyes for a moment sleepily.

Several minutes passed, and Katrisha almost had drifted off where she sat, when Celia’s excited laugh brought her back from the brink with a large yawn.

“Are you tired?” Celia said concerned she was boring Katrisha with teaching her.

“A bit,” Katrisha said shaking her head, and focusing on the four blue spheres that danced between them in a tight little knot of eccentric orbits.  “Very good by the way,” she said reassuringly, and stretched.  “I’ve just been up very late the last couple nights star gazing.  It’s been so clear out that I couldn’t resist.”

“Maybe I could join you next time?” Celia asked hopefully.

“If you like,” Katrisha said absently, “there have been clouds rolling in all afternoon though.  I don’t think it will be a good night for it, and I probably should sleep more if I’m getting so drowsy during the day.”

“Well, maybe some time?” Celia pressed.

“Sure,” Katrisha said, and yawned again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 20th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha leaned back against the wall beside her chamber window, and listened to the sound of the rain outside.  “I love the rain,” she sighed.

“It is a lovely sound,” Celia laughed, “and no garden duties when it’s raining.”

“I suppose there is something to that as well,” Katrisha yawned.  She opened her eyes, and watched as Celia painted the air with ribbons of light.  It had become a comfortable, familiar sight in its own right, and the ache of remembering Kiannae doing the same kept its distance for once.  “I love the snow more,” she mused, “but I guess you can’t have that all year.”

Celia gave Katrisha a funny look.  “I like the snow well enough,” she laughed, “it’s pretty, but it’s so cold.”

“I’ve never minded the cold,” Katrisha said leaning forward. “It’s refreshing, and it’s nice to bundle up tight in warm winter clothing.”

“I suppose there is that,” Celia said waving her drawing away, and forming a small orb of light which she tossed towards Katrisha who caught it, but perked a brow at the act.  Celia made another, and tossed it to Katrisha, who threw the first one back to Celia, who stopped it between them, and threw another out on a slow arc around the floating one.

“I see your game,” Katrisha said throwing the orb she was still holding around the other side at the same time, and catching Celia’s.  Celia caught Katrisha’s throw as it came around in a graceful arc, and sent it back split it into two, which twisted about the central orb in a spiral until one flew off in Katrisha’s direction.  The two kept adding spheres to the game, catching ones that came near, and sending them back on new trajectories.  Ever so often one would fly off in some random direction, and pass harmlessly through a wall.  Eventually the pair started keeping a rough score, and argued laughingly over who had last touched any stray.

They continued their game for some time, until a startled cry came from the corridor, and the girls both hunched down in mischievous giggles.  After a moment there came a knock at the door, and Celia’s mother peaked in.  “I believe you two lost something,” Renoa said holding out one of numerous lost orbs.

“Thank you,” Katrisha said with a laugh, and a wave of her hand, forming a new one, “but we can always make more.”

“Very well,” Renoa said shaking her head, and waving her hand dispersing the orb she was holding.  “Just do try to be more careful you don’t startle people.”

“Sorry,” Celia said clearly restraining a laugh.

“Have you two eaten?” Renoa said with reserved disapproval of the humor the girls seemed to have over giving her a start.

“No,” Katrisha said, “not since breakfast.”

“Why don’t you two go do that then,” Renoa said pointedly.

“Ok mother,” Celia sighed, hopped up and grabbed hold of Katrisha’s hand.  “Come on,” she said pulling Katrisha to her feet, “let’s go.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 6

In spring the living world breaths in,
bright summers turn leaves to fire,
cold fresh autumn winds exhale,
in winter all such vigors expire.

– The Breath of Seasons, 91 E.R.

The Winter Frost

Styver 37th, 647 E.R.

Snow settled on silver hair, and Katrisha stood arms outstretched in the in a courtyard of the cloister.  She was alone, as few ventured out in the evening on winter days.  Though loneliness was an ache far colder to her than the snow melting on her skin, for the moment she was unmoved.  She let the cold in, and while it was enough to make even her shiver, it made her feel alive.

She took a deep breath of frigid mountain air, and felt better.  The cold never frightened her, and though she would soon long for warm blankets, or even a fire, she relished the energy of a coming winter’s night.  She could almost lose herself in the stillness, almost find the place that her illness had let her become lost in.  She didn’t know what that place was.  Something far away.  There was a pain in that place as sure as the one in her heart that night, but the distance of it gave her perspective.

The sound of footsteps crunching behind her pulled Katrisha from the dark tranquility she had found.  For a moment she ignored the familiar presence, and that made her feel quite terrible.  It wasn’t that she wanted to be alone, it was that she wanted to forget.  Her arms went from outstretched, to clinging tightly around herself.

“Are you alright?” Celia asked gently, and set a hand on Katrisha’s shoulder.

“All things being relative?” Katrisha muttered.

“Even so,” Celia consented.

“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” Katrisha offered.  “The first I’ve ever spent without my sister.  Not that I’m sure it’s our birthday, really.  Just a day, picked because of when snow fell in the north the year before we went to Broken Hill.  It could be of course, or the next, or today – for what little it matters.”

“Happy birthday?” Celia tried, but it seemed hollow.

“Thank you,” Katrisha said with a genuine, but begrudging air.  “A nice wish, but I don’t know if I can manage to feel it.”

“I know it…I know it must be hard,” Celia said, “but you aren’t alone.  I’m…here…”  She huffed on the last word, and clutched her robe tightly to herself, and shivered.

Katrisha turned, and looked to Celia questioningly.  It was clear she didn’t want to be standing there in the snow, and yet it was all the more clear she wasn’t going anywhere.  She was there for Katrisha, her only real friend, and Katrisha almost cried to realize it, as real a friend as she had ever had.

Celia glanced up at the sound of Katrisha’s arms falling to her sides.  The two exchanged an odd series of inscrutable looks, and Celia threw her arms around Katrisha, and lay her head against her chest.  “I’m here for you,” Celia said firmly, and Katrisha wrapped her arms around her.

“Thank you.”

“Now, can we please go inside?” Celia asked between chattering teeth.

Katrisha laughed.  “Yeah.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae sat before a wavering flame.  It danced in a stone recess set between the trunks of trees that formed a central wall of the house.  She wasn’t surprised that druids would not burn wood, relying instead upon a spell to keep their homes warm in the winter.  It was a cheat of course, though the fire borrowed energy from the aether it was paid back by the stone beneath it, which slowly turned to dust.  Entropic decay, she recalled from her lessons.  Living things were generally highly resistant, but stone, or anything without a life of its own fared poorly when the gifted tried to get around the rules.

She glanced out the window at the snow, and fought back tears for an uncounted time.  She wondered if that was the twisted thing behind prophecy.  Was it cheating?  Was that why trying to avoid fate so often went poorly?

Landri entered the room, and watched Kiannae for a moment before speaking.  “You are up very late,” she said softly.  “Not that you do not make a habit of such things – sneaking off in the dead of night.”

“So, I’m not as clever as I thought,” Kiannae laughed darkly.  “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Yet you sit here where it is warm,” Landri offered.  “Seems clever enough.”

“I never liked the snow,” Kiannae answered, “and now I sit alone by the fire, and cry from even a glimpse of it.”  She huffed in a vain effort to steady herself.  “She loved the snow,” Kiannae muttered, even as tears started to break free again.  “I always hated it, too cold, but she loved it so much.”

“Your sister?” Landri asked understandingly.  She walked to Kiannae’s side, and sat down.

“Yes,” Kiannae sighed.  “It’s almost midnight.  Then it will be my birthday…her birthday.  I will be fifteen, and she forever fourteen.  Just one more way that she is gone.”

“It is always hardest on such days, to not be near ones we have loved,” Landri offered kindly, and wrapped an arm around the girl.

Kiannae was silent for a tentative moment.  “She’s not the only…ghost that haunts me,” Kiannae admitted.

“Do you finally wish to return to your old life?”  Landri asked.

“I…”  Kiannae sighed.  “No.  I can’t face those I left behind.  I won’t.  Only one is even of my blood, and I was never…I was not the best sister to him.”

“So you do have one family member left then?’ Landri pressed.

“One, and a half,” Kiannae laughed darkly.

Landri considered the girl next to her.  “You’ve sometimes asked I speak more plainly, might I request the same of you?”

“My brother…his birth killed our mother,” Kiannae said, “or she gave him her life.  Small difference I often feel, but I have been encouraged to think it significant.  He was never…right.  Katrisha loved him, said he reminded her of mother because he had part of her in him.  We once nearly killed eachother fighting over him.  I tried to mend my bridges, but…it wasn’t worth much I don’t think.  And now…now, I’m like him.”

“And you still avoid your point,” Landri pressed.

“I asked you about Tethis for a reason,” Kiannae said, “about the boy from the story.”

“And that is?” Landri questioned, growing impatient with the girl’s evasion.

“Can I ask you to keep a secret?” Kiannae said, changing tact.

“If it does no harm to do so,” Landri said shrewdly.

“I fear it does harm not to keep it,” Kiannae countred.  “Yet Zale already knows.  He’s promised to keep it, but I’m sure he will make a mess of things eventually.”

“Whatever it is,” Landri offered, “if I do not feel it must be told, I will keep it.  I will promise you no more.”

“I entered the Sylvan wood through what was once the lake in that story,” Kiannae began.  “I drank of a clear pool I found in a rocky stretch.  The water was so pure, seemed so clean…I think.  I think I knew something was wrong, but ignored it.  Ever since I have been visited by…an elemental…a ghost…something in between.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Landri said incredulously.  “Half flesh of course, ghosts, the dryad wood…but…”

“Zale told me of the figure that has been seen moving about at night,” Kiannae retorted.  “Yes, something followed me, but more than that, it…he is a part of me.”

“And you are sure?”

“I have summoned him intentionally in the east glade many times,” Kiannae answered.  “He has learned to speak, learned in part from my own thoughts.  My brother learned to talk far too quickly, Taloe – he’s answered that finally, his name – has done even more so.  Try not to panic.”

“What?” Landri asked incredulously.

“The snow is pretty,” Taloe said, and startled Landri, who snapped around and backed away from the naked boy that stood in her home, “but it’s not as challenging to dance upon water that is solid.”  He watched Landri’s expression for a moment.  “I’m sorry, if I have scared you.”

“How?” Landri demanded between gasps, her eyes wide.

“I called,” Kiannae said.  “Of course you did not believe me.”

“Why is he naked?” Landri growled.

“I just am,” Taloe answered.  “I am not yet certain how I take this form, it is like a memory, an instinct.”

“What do you want spirit?” Landri demanded.

“To be here for Kiannae,” Taloe said.  “I have been considering for some time to come, and be a friend to her in her sorrow.  Yet I knew her not to be alone, so I did not.”

“What are your intentions toward her?”  Landri narrowed her eyes, and considered the young man suspiciously.  Seeing him for the first time more as male than apparition.

“Kiannae is…my shaman…the queen of my domain,” Taloe said obviously struggling to find the right words.  “I wish to serve her, to be a good and welcome presence.”

“Me, a queen,” Kiannae laughed darkly, “funny that I’ve heard that one before.”

Landri shot Kiannae a questioning glance, but didn’t press her curiosity.  “Why do you appear naked?  This is not as ghosts are often seen.”

“I am no ghost,” Taloe said, and knelt before Landri.  He offered his hand that she might touch it.  “This form…is an echo of the flesh, not of the mind.  Perhaps I could learn to come into being otherwise.  It does seem to cause distress.”

Landri reached out hesitantly, and touched the hand that was stretched out to her.  She pulled back in surprise at the sensation.  “So are you made entirely of water then?” she asked rubbing her fingers together, and finding them counterintuitively dry.

“You are mostly,” Taloe laughed, “this is why my people thought it apt to be one with the waters.  We are of the same stuff.”

“I suppose there is truth in that,” Landri said curiously, examining the structure that held the boy together.  She tried to figure out where his aura began, and Kiannae’s ended to very little success.  He appeared to be a living thing, in almost every respect she was used to seeing, just more fragile, ready to come apart on a whim.

“It would help to announce yourself,” Landri said softening her tone, “or at least to not appear behind people.”

“I do apologize, but the space before you was filled, and I suspect any other sound would have startled you as much,” Taloe said defensively.  “I also mistook that Kiannae had announced me.”

“Barely, and not half a second before,” Landri said.

“Ah.  Time is…fluid in the dream.” Taloe shrugged.

“I shall have to take your word on this,” Landri said, “but you are here now.  So I ask again to be more clear, what are your intentions towards Kiannae?”

“You ask because I am a boy, and she a girl.”  Taloe nodded his understanding.  “She mourns a sister, and I a lover.  Though mine died long ago, time…for me is not so simple.  My wounds are still quite fresh.  Though I will not deny she is lovely, I seek nothing more than to comfort a friend to whom I am literally bound.”

Landri considered him, and struggled to read his face.  That his eyes lacked whites, and were the same strange tone as his skin did not help her.

“The moon is at its hight,” Taloe said glancing up, “the night begins to pass, and the day begins to come.”

“How do you know?” Landri asked curiously.

“Because I can feel it, as sure as the tide,” Taloe laughed knowingly.

“Happy birthday to me,” Kiannae mused darkly, and glanced at Taloe, who moved, and sat beside her were Landri had been, and hugged her, as he had seen her do.

Landri watched the interaction suspiciously, shook her head, and got up.  “I will have to think if I will keep this secret.”

“I hope that you will,” Kiannae said, and glanced up at the older woman that stood beside the fire.

“Do you truly trust the others so little?” Landri pressed.

“It is not just a matter of trust,” Kiannae said firmly.  “I am already an outsider, an oddity.  I wish to protect Taloe, but also to not give the others another reason to distrust me.”

“I will leave you two,” Landri nodded, “and I will consider what you have said.”  She started to walk way, glanced back, and again considered the propriety of the situation.  “Please sleep before dawn, Kiannae.  And yes, happy birthday, dear girl.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Hivern 2nd, 647 E.R.

The snow was deep, and soft.  While Katrisha bounded effortlessly through it, Celia found herself trudging rather tediously, even along the path where it was more shallow.  Katrisha leapt, spun, and landed in a snowdrift half as tall as her, which easily cushioned her fall.

“You are crazy,” Celia chided.

“And you are silly,” Katrisha called back.

“One to talk,” Celia countered. “Isn’t that cold?”

“Not really,” Katrisha laughed as Celia trudge up beside her, and stared down into the divot she had made sweeping her arms, and legs.  “Even if it gets a little cold, I just make myself warm.  Can’t you?”

Celia frowned, and tried.  She willed her gift to the surface, and her skin did feel slightly less chilled.  “Yeah, I guess I can.”

“See?” Katrisha laughed.  “Now, have fun with me.”

Celia rolled her eyes, and flopped back into the snowbank beside Katrisha, but did not sink in nearly as much.  “You have a weird idea of fun,” she chided.

Katrisha got up, and stared down at her.  “It’s prettier when you wave your arms, and legs, like I did.  Make snow birds.”

Celia stuck out her tongue, but did as she was bid, then got up to admire her handywork.  “Wherever did you get the idea?”

“Something Princess Maraline did once, and got yelled at by her mother for,” Katrisha said.  “So, I’ve done it ever since.”

Celia laughed.  “You are terrible.”

Katrisha scrunched her nose playfully.  “Laurel doesn’t care, Mercu rolls his eyes, and it made Marline laugh every time.” She bit her lip thoughtfully, and rubbed her chin.  “I have an idea,” she said, and offered her hand to Celia.

“Alright,” Celia said uncertainty, took the hand, and stepped over the lip of snow between them.

Katrisha turned to the path, gathered herself, considered how strong the spell needed to be, and then blasted a patch almost clear of snow sending most of it away in a near perfect arc.  Little compressed beads along force lines left random spokes, little roils of force rippled the edges, and a thick dusting swirled all around them in the backlash.

“Ok, stand here,” she said to Celia, grabbed her by the shoulders, and turned her around.

“What are you doing?” Celia pressed curiously, her eyes still darting to the after effects of the biggest spell she had ever seen.  Cast seemingly on a whim like it was nothing, just something you do.  She was at once impressed, and miffed at the sheer audacity of it, jealous really, and she knew it was that.

“Just stay still,” Katrisha said.

Celia scrunched up her face as Katrisha had done a moment before.

“Keep doing that, and it will stick,” she chided.

“Will not.” Celia stuck out her tongue.

“Keep making silly faces,” Katrisha laughed, “and I will not be held accountable for the consequences.”

Celia could make out parts the spell Katrisha was weaving.  It was complex, unfamiliar, and seemed to be something new Katrisha was devising for how long it was taking.  Katrisha was soon chewing on her lip in thought, trying to work out details.  She then suddenly ran behind Celia, who turned to face her.

“No peeking,” Katrisha snapped playfully.

Celia turned back around in a huff, and crossed her arms.  “Alright, but this better be good.”

“It will be,” Katrisha said, and then audibly took a deep breath.  “I hope.”  There was a pause.  “Are you ready?”

“I guess?”

There was a rush of wind, and more blown snow, and Celia tried not to turn around.

“Ok,” Katrisha said, and Celia spun to see something that was at first perplexing.  It was almost like a mirror in white, a detailed image of herself made of snow.  Some of the finer edges fell away lightly, but the resemblance was uncanny.

Celia laughed, and clapped.  “That’s incredible, do you next.”

Katrisha nodded, and set the spell up on the ground first.  She then wove the other end more confidently than the first time.  Took a breath, and with another whirl of snow falling all around them she turned, and considered the result.  For a moment she seemed rather satisfied, and then a little sad.

Celia was distracted with having seen the spell in action, and took a moment to glance at Katrisha.  “What’s wrong?” she asked, and then instantly realized.  “Oh fates, I’m sorry, I didn’t think.”

“It’s ok,” Katrisha said.  “I’m ok.  I didn’t think either.”

“I have an idea,” Celia said.  “I’m gonna knock these over, and you do it one more time, with both of us.”  Katrisha looked confused, but didn’t protest.  Celia gave both sculptures a shove, and they collapsed almost like they were nothing.  “Ok, now set the spell up again.”

Katrisha set up the part on the ground again, and the third time was by far the easiest as things went with magic.  She then started to form the spell in front of them.

“Just a little closer,” Celia said, and Katrisha stepped sideways, and finished her spell.  Celia grabbed her hand as she saw the spell was almost done, and Katrisha turned to glance at her just as she finished, and absently set it off.  They turned around to find the shape of the moment captured.  The image of the two of them holding hands, and Katrisha’s befuddled expression.  She laughed, and Celia hugged her tightly, and buried her face in Katrisha’s shoulder.  “See, much better.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 1st, 648 E.R.

Kiannae trod through the deep snow towards the east glade.  The snow was still lightly falling, but a part of her defiantly wanted to be out in the cold, for once.  She didn’t want the sorrow to own her, she wanted to love something that her sister had treasured.  The snow was pretty after all, she thought as she looked out over the unbroken expanse of white, and trees heavily laden under the weight of a thick winter blanket.  She huffed, and watched her breath swirl out before her.

She heard the footsteps following her.  Not for the first time, but she had ignored it.

Zale it seemed had finally decided to make himself known.  “I thought you hated the snow?”

Kiannae turned to glance at him, somewhat cross with his following her as he so often did.  “I don’t like the cold, but I can fight that,” she said.  “Besides Katrisha loved the snow, and I felt I should honor her memory.”

“So what are you planning on?”

“Not really planning anything,” Kiannae said.  “How are you doing at being interesting?”

“Shoddy, it would seem,” Zale offered.

Kiannae laughed, and shook her head.  She closed her eyes, and let her gift wash over her.  She felt for the wind and the snow, she sought a will in the winter air and laden ground.  She became that will.  With a deep breath a gust whipped up over the pair, and without even thinking she lept backwards almost as if the wind had carried her.  She twisted as she came down, and the wind whorled with her.

To Zale it was hard to tell whether the wind drove her, or she the wind.  He watched, and tried to understand.  As she moved the wind picked up, and as it escalated it swirled more, and she spun more.  It was a dance between the woman, and the elements, and hard to look away from.  Yet Zale decided that the sight of it was distracting, and closed his eyes.  His own elemental studies were spotty, but he knew the principle.  He felt for the will of the things around him, and caught a thin thread of something.

Everything seemed to be humming to a single tune, a rhythm that as he opened his eyes he saw matched Kiannae’s movements.  He took a deep breath, more nerves than intention, but he found that the air responded.  He let it out, and almost felt as though he could follow her into the field.  With the next breath he did, and was in her footsteps for several strides, and then he lost himself in the power, and tumbled just slightly off balance into a snowbank.

He sat up slightly, and brushed the snow from his face, and hair.  He shivered, but as his eyes refocused a whirlwind of snow broke before him, and a smiling face of a pretty young girl amidst the falling flakes could ease even the fact that she was clearly amused at his expense.  She held out a hand, and he took it.

“Do you feel it?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” he said, though there were several things he felt, the pull of the elements, the cold, a sudden breathlessness that had been building in him for some time.  All of it centered around her.  She was a force of nature in more ways than he could be sure.

As the last of the snow had almost settled she let go, and sprung back into her wild dance.  “Try again!”  She hollered over the whipping wind, and with a deep breath in, and out again he did.

Half the snow from the glade seemed to return to the sky as they danced, and for some time Zale kept his balance, even losing himself to the storm.  He was but an eddy, a single swirling zephyr amidst her power, and though he felt a part of it for a moment, he knew that almost none of it was his own.  When at last the heady euphoria won, he tumbled again into another snowbank, and just lay looking up at what he had been some small part of.

It was unnerving, and beautiful.  It was more than any druid should be capable of, and that worried him.  The things he had seen Kiannae do, the ease with which she did them.  He struggled between an urge to speak with Landri and the others about it, or to keep the confidence of the lovely and powerful young woman in his life.  A part of him wanted to believe it was just magic.  That it was because she was a mage.  Yet he had seen mages, so many in his days on the road.  It wasn’t magic, but it wasn’t druidic.  It was perhaps shamanistic, old shamanic practice at its very height, reborn before his eyes.  He struggled between believing the idea, and refusing it.

Kiannae herself finally let go, and was carried at the very edge of a graceful twirl just off balance, and fell with her eyes closed into what she expected to be soft snow.  Instead she found herself caught in strong arms.  She did not think for a moment as to who had caught her, in part she had expected it somehow to have been Zale, but as her eyes fluttered open she saw instead Taloe gazing down at her.

“Is this you?” she asked dreamily, still half lost in the elements around them.  Feeling the form of them in the breeze as he held her up.

“I do not believe so,” he said doubtfully.  “I had great power over the waters once, but the air was never my domain.”

“I don’t understand.” Kiannae signed. “If it is this easy, then why do mages not practice this?”

“I do not believe it is…easy,” Taloe said, “except for you.  It is very cold,” he said with a shiver.

“Then let me fall into the snow,” Kiannae said, and as soon as the words left her lips he was gone, and a soft pile of snow caught her instead.  For a moment the cold did not bother her, for a moment she felt almost as her sister always had, but that moment did not last.

A blizzard still fell all around, and Kiannae started to struggle to her feet as it was quickly piling up over her.  A hand appeared before her, and she looked up at Zale whose whimsical half smile reminded her just a bit of Mercu.  She closed her eyes for a moment, warmth and melancholy washing over her, and took the hand which lifted her to her feet.

“Am I doing better at interesting?”

“Better,” she laughed, and opened her eyes.  For the first time she found herself truly liking Zale’s presence.  He did remind her of Meruc, his essence felt like a thing of the wind, and at that moment the wind was very close to her own nature.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“There you two are,” Landri growled at the two teenagers walking into the village.  “What were you thinking, being out there in a blizzard like this?”

“I don’t think it’s a blizzard,” Zale offered.

“What are you talking about?” Landri balked, and gestured at the falling snow.

“We were dancing in the east field,” Kiannae offered.  “I think most of this was whipped up from the wind we called.”

“That’s absurd,” Landri shook her head.

“It is, but it’s also true,” Zale said, almost giddy.  “I’ve kept quiet about some of what I have seen before, but I didn’t just see it, I felt it…I joined with the elements she commanded.”

“Magic,” Landri grumbled.

“It wasn’t,” Zale protested even before Kiannae could.  Which left her both annoyed, but not inclined to call him on speaking for her.

Landri glared at the two incredulously.  “We need to talk,” she finally said, “about the boy, about this gift of yours, about a lot of things.”  She took a breath.  “In the house, both of you.  I want out of this snow fall.”

Kiannae huffed, and stormed off over the tone Landri was taking.  She hadn’t done anything wrong.  She threw the door open, and the other two followed, one irritable, the other sheepish.

“Just what have you seen?” Landri demanded of Zale after she closed the door.

Zale glanced at Kiannae who stood, staring out the window.  He shook his head, and sighed.  “After you started teaching her elemental channeling, she showed me how she danced with the wind.  It was…impressive, but not unbelievable.”

“She has shown me this as well,” Landri agreed.  “She stopped pestering me to teach her, and I thought the matter closed.  I agree it was impressive, but nothing that could cause…this.”  She gestured out the window.

“Later in summer, I found Kiannae when she went missing from a bathing excursion,” he continued.  “She had wandered farther upstream than we normally consider safe.”

“I recall,” Landri said shrewdly, crossing her arms, and waiting for a point to emerge.

“What I never told anyone,” Zale countered, “is when I found her she was five feet above the river in a column of swirling water.”

“Spirit!  I will have words with you!” Landri snapped loudly.

“I don’t know if anyone can just call him like that,” Zale said tentitively.

“Then you call him girl,” Landri growled in Kiannae’s direction.  She barely gave an annoyed sidelong glance.  “Or do you want me to stop keeping this secret?”

Kiannae looked back out the window, and said nothing.  After a long silence Taloe formed from swirling mist, and Zale looked away.  “Gah, it’s worse when there is actually light to see.  Seriously, can’t you manage clothing, please?”

“I will endeavor to do so,” Taloe said, “in future.”

“Did she call you, or did you come on your own?” Landri pressed.

“I try to abide her wishes,” Taloe answered, “but I appear at my own will, and I hear what she does…eventually.”

“Are these powers your doing?” Landri demanded.

“If the gift comes from me, it is beyond my control,” Taloe answered.  “I feel the song of it, the elements at her command, but I suspect not all of it is conscious on her part.”

“The river wasn’t,” Zale agreed.  “From what she said.”

“Alright, fine,” Kiannae snapped.  “I’m tired of being talked about.”

“Then tell me how you do this, if you claim to have really lifted half the snow from the east glade back into the sky,” Landri growled.

“I just do,” Kiannae shrugged, “and I did, or the wind did.  It’s not just me, like you say.  There is a will in the wind, in the snow, in everything all around me.  Once I found it, once I felt it, it was all as you say.  Gods, or whatever they are, the forces of nature, the picture they paint is in strokes so broad that…I think if I lifted the field whole, and dropped it five miles to the north it would make no difference to them.”

“That is absurd,” Landri rubbed her head.  “Power like that, it is the stuff of legends.  No one has seen a druid, nor shaman that powerful since before the founding of the Empire.”

“Now who is making claims?” Kiannae cut back.  “Mages have done more, so much more, why does it need to be something so grandiose?”

Landri shook her head.  “Perhaps you are right,” she huffed, “and perhaps it is time I consented to another of your wishes.”

Kiannae looked confused.  “So we are finally on the same page that I have done nothing wrong?”

“Wrong, no,” Landri consented, “but reckless…almost certainly.  Try not to create any more blizzards?  Show some restraint, and when the spring comes, I will see about granting you audience with the dryads.”

“No more blizzards,” Kiannae agreed with a hesitant nod.  Something in her suddenly longed for what was being offered.  The memory of Mr. Tree almost clear enough to hear, but it slipped away.

Landri turned to Zale.

“What?” he demanded.  “What ever part I played in that, was like a leaf on the wind.”

“Well don’t be,” Landri snapped tersely.  “Not until we have more answers.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 38th, 648 E.R.

Celia knocked gently at Katrisha’s door for a second time.  She was relatively sure she could sense Katrisha within, and announced herself for good measure, “Kat, it’s me.”  She was a bit perplexed that Katrisha had not showed up all day in the courtyard.  In the months she had known Katrisha, Celia had known her to be spontaneous in the moment, often late, but still a creature of overarching habit.

Shuffling footsteps finally could be heard, and the door creaked open slightly.  Celia frowned at the miserable disheveled state of her friend when she appeared through a crack in the door.  

“Are you alright?” Celia asked with genuine concern.

Katrisha turned a shade of burgundy, and looked to the floor.

“What’s wrong?” Celia pressed gently.

“I…” Katrisha started, and grimaced a moment.  “I’m bleeding,” she said with a false indifference, becoming a bit more stony in expression.

Celia looked plainly confused for a moment, and then seemed to partly understand.  “Oh,” she said, and seemed to mull it over as though something had not yet made any sense.  “Haven’t you before, didn’t anyone teach you?”

“I knew it would happen,” Katrisha said defensively.  “Just…I don’t know, maybe I convinced myself it wasn’t going to.”

“But didn’t anyone teach you?” Celia pressed again rather intently, but shy of actually explaining what she was asking, and forgetting that Katrisha seemed a bit old for it to be starting then.

“Teach me what?” Katrisha demanded, completely flustered, and bordering on angry.

“They’ve been having Theron teach you,” Celia said suddenly covering her face with her palm, “and he’s a man, and you are so much older…you’ve been ill, and a new user of living magic…and that mentor of yours, the court mage…also a man.  All of them men.  Oh you poor dear…”

“What?” Katrisha asked again, she had started out of patience, and Celia talking around her point was not helping.

“I…” Celia said, gathered herself adopted a calm demeanor.  “Do you trust me?” she  asked.

“Trust you…to what?” Katrisha asked falling back from annoyed into confused.

“To help you,” Celia said with a kind, awkward smile.

“I…guess,” Katrisha said hesitantly, and stepped back, opening the door.

“I’ve never done this before,” Celia said quickly, “not for anyone but myself.  But I can teach you the way I was taught.”  Katrisha looked as though she was about to protest again, but simply let it go.  She did trust Celia, even if she was being infuriatingly obtuse, and not to the point.  Celia caught the expression, winced, and finally explained.  “I’m sorry, I say ‘you poor dear,’ because you have the gift, and if anyone had the foresight to teach you…you don’t need to be in this condition.”

“I don’t?” Katrisha asked cautiously optimistic.  It made sense, but she wasn’t feeling that moment like pleasant sensible things had much of a place in her world.  She had been operating almost entirely on one conversation with Maraline years prior.  She had been working from a premise that when it came around, she was stuck with it.  A princess had been stuck with it, why wouldn’t she.

“Come here,” Celia said softly, opened her arms, and hugged Katrisha close.  After a moment she stepped back, held her at arm’s length, and looked her in the eyes.  “Trust me,” she commanded ernestly, and urged Katrisha to turn around.  Celia stepped up close behind her, took hold of her hand, and placed their hands together on Katrisha’s lower abdomen.  “Pay close attention to what I do,” she said in a metered tone, “just like when they were teaching you before.  Feel what I do, and then when I tell you to, continue.”

Katrisha felt the warmth reach into her, felt the cramps she had been struggling to ignore subside.  “Can you feel your womb,” Celia asked softly.

“I…think so,” Katrisha said hesitantly, and uncomfortably.  It was such a frank word, seemed almost to border on impolite, yet Celia said it almost absently, she was trained to heal, to know anatomy.  It was just a factual word to her.

Celia focused the magic in the area precisely.  “Do you feel that?” she asked again.

“Yes,” Katrisha said with obvious embarrassment.  She was really frustrated that she was bothered.  At any inkling that something was improper in the situation, or her fault, or what she didn’t even know.  She was actually rather angry about how she was feeling, but she couldn’t even think who had taught her that the natural course of events was something untoward, or for that matter a healer, and a friend doing her duty.  Maybe it was just that it was never talked about.  She was quite irate that she didn’t already know what she needed to.  If it had not been for one day that Maraline was utterly miserable, and forward about her condition, Katrisha would have likely panicked, and run to a healer, and been terribly embarrassed…and perhaps on some level she was happier that it would be Celia teaching her.  That was odd solace.

“That is what should be there, should always be there.  That is living tissue,” Celia said taking a deep breath.  “Can you feel the dyeing part, the part your body wants to be rid of?”

“Yes,” Katrisha said uncertainty, and shivered slightly at the sudden sense of foreignness that the dying tissue gave her, she wanted it gone.

“Feel it be reabsorbed,” Celia said as her hand moved slightly, and she worked her gift deep within Katrisha’s body, “feel it break down, and return to you.”  Slowly Katrisha could feel the foreignness, the strange cold dark sensation fade, it became part of her again, the tiniest bit at a time.

Celia worked for a good ten minutes, and then suddenly stopped.  “Do you think you can take over?” she asked giving Katrisha a gentle squeeze.

“Yes,” Katrisha said with false calm.

“I’ll make sure you don’t get it wrong,” Celia said comfortingly, and with confidence.  “I’ve been doing this for over a year.  Twice a month.”

“Ok,” Katrisha said as she started again where Celia had left off.  She could feel Celia’s gift guide hers, until finally it was simple second nature to continue.

“It’s strange,” Celia mused after a moment.  “Something my mother told me.  A piece of trivia, but it’s strange now that I think about it.  This is one of very few natural conditions that can be remedied with simple healing.  I wonder why.”

“You can’t heal things that are…” Katrisha began as she thought back.  “Wait yes, I think I did know that.  Moriel, he wears these funny little things on his nose because his eyes are just that way, or something.”

“Yes, simple healing is restorative, it can only do what the body was naturally inclined to do.  It takes magic, usually shaper magic, to fully correct congenital flaws.”

“Now you are the one using words I don’t know,” Katrisha protested.

“Seems fair for once,” Celia laughed, and it eased Katrisha’s worries greatly.

“Maybe it’s just like skipping over the winter,” Katrisha offered.  “Just moving along around the seasons.”

“You like the winter though,” Celia chided.

“Fall then,” Katrisha cut back playfully.  It hung a moment in silence between them, until they both broke down laughing.

“Enough of that,”  Celia said sternly when they had both recovered.  “Let’s finish this.”

For another ten minutes they stood like that, until at last Katrisha felt nothing within her that her body wanted to reject.

“Thank you,” Katrisha said and, let herself melt into the continued embrace.  She turned and looked Celia in the eye, and then hugged her tightly, leaning her head against her friends.  “Thank you so very much,” she said with palpable relief.

Celia leaned back, and smiled with a bit of a strained expression, and seemed to search Katrisha’s gaze for something.  “You are welcome,” she laughed reservedly, “after all the teaching you’ve done for me, it was the least I could do.”  She hesitated a moment more, bit her lip, and let go of Katrisha.  “I should go,” she said measuredly, “mother was expecting me this evening..and…yeah I should go.”

“Are you sure?” Katrisha asked a bit confused by the sudden shift.

“Yeah,” Celia said awkwardly.  “I’ll see you…” she added, and then left rather promptly.

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