Chapter 13

What it asks so rarely spoken,
upon every failing hearts are broken,
aspire to grace to match such form,
then be for least human want forlorn,
no other nature could I ardently so adore,
and upon demands of this world so abhor,
I begin and end it seems always on this,
the glory and curse of all that is, feminine.

– Sylvia Grey, circa 135 E.R.

The Lady of the Tower

Styver 1st, 648 E.R.

Katrisha sat in an obscure corner of the castle ramparts, tucked into the crenulation, and largely out of view of prying eyes.  It was a cold evening, and though normally such things did not bother her, it made her all the more aware of a warmth that was missing.  The pang of that had a certain appropriateness that she clung to.

She thumbed slowly through a red leather bound book she had found on the highest shelf in Mercu’s private collection.  She had suspected what it was for some time.  The red leather, the way it had been pushed to the back of the shelf.  She had never sought it out in her time at Highvale.  Wren had been right in her estimation, you figure things out, and that could be part of the joy.  Yet past those hurdles, and facing ones far less clear cut or pleasant, temptation had finally won.

She brightened the light that hovered above the pages, but found she needed to look more closely to read the occasional small annotation, and lingered on the intricacy of other details.  She shifted her knees to prop the book up more comfortably.  The illustrations and diagrams of anatomy were fascinatingly detailed, and strangely elegant and appealing in spite of their clinical precision, and ocasional cross section.  She suddenly had words for things that Celia surely knew, but she had never pressed to have enumerated.  It bothered her how little she knew about a parts of her own body, and most of that had been taught to her by her first lover.

Lengthier bodies of text were a near flowing stream of consciousness regarding everything from the politics of patriarchies and matriarchies, to very detailed instructions on countless ways to please one’s lovers.  The whole thing was structured more like a journal than any other kind of text she had encountered.  Though it was clear it had been reworked into its current form at some point, edited, and clarified.  Even annotated.  How much of that had been done by the original author, and how much by later scribes was a curious consideration.   There were occasional reference marks to other works, some in unintelligible shorthand, others more plain.

Katrisha laughed at a passage regarding the natural failings of men, and how best to ‘fix their flawed, and malfunctioning anatomy,’ for both their own sake, and that of ‘any woman who might permit him into her bed.’  She flipped on, and tried to understand the obscure notation of several very complex spells.  She wondered if through all the times the book had been copied, if the spells had been corrupted by scribes who did not remotely understand what they were looking at.  Such as corruption of such details could matter.

Writing down spells was an awkward impractical process to begin with.  It was rarely employed as a serious exercise, as it was difficult to make another mage understand a spell without being able to observe in directly.  The descriptions, and structures described all seemed to make some sense, but numerous components were ambiguous, or outright unidentifiable.  As Katrisha flipped on however she found descriptions of many of the components in depth, and was amused and heartily inspired.  Sylvia had created mage spells that produced the living magic, not just the fun bits that were plainly called out, some of the methods described were obviously intended to create persistent healing effects, or other less frivolous results.

She baffled that she had never heard of any of it.  That she had not been proudly taught the useful underlying techniques by a man who bore the same last name.  That in all likelihood such nearly lost knowledge was there at her fingertips, recorded in plain sight, but forgotten.  She felt sure, for no better reason than the politics of the woman who had invented them.  She fumed.

Katrisha closed the book as she heard footsteps approaching, and leaned out of her refuge to see who was coming.  She grimaced at the sight of Charles.  She had found an obscure location in hopes of avoiding him, more than for fear of anyone at all noticing her choice of reading material.  Truthfully that might have been better concealed in her chamber, but she wanted the peace of being away from reminders of many things, or intrusion by even well meaning parties.

“Lovely night,” Charles said as he walked up to Katrisha’s hiding spot.

“Are you out in it only to harass me?” Katrisha sighed.

“It wounds me that you think so little of my presence,” Charles said with a courteous bow.  “Yet I must admit, these chance encounters of ours are indeed added incentive to walk the ramparts at night.  Not that the soothing sight of the moon and stars, are not reason enough.  Yet they pale in comparison to your fine countenance bathed in their gentle glow.”

“Ever the charmer.” Katrisha said snidely, and slipped from the crenulation onto the walkway of the rampart.  “You called the moon stupid once.”

“A child may be ignorant,” Charles offered.

“As if you are any less a child now,” Katrisha countered.

“Older than you, dear lady,” he rebutted.

Katrisha stewed a moment.  He had her on that point, though she felt a mere matter of time was far from the point.  Though she was not entirely sure mature was the right word either, and with that delay and uncertainty stilled her tongue.  He was a year her elder, and it had started to show in height.  For one brief moment in their lives she had been by perhaps a half inch taller, but that had passed.

“What deep troubles lay behind those lovely green eyes,” Charles mused.  “I have often wondered, yet till now I have been too polite to ask.  It seemed improper, rude, yet I must admit at long last curiosity has gotten the better of me.  Do forgive my impertinence.”

“Hardly the worst of your transgressions.” Katrisha laughed irritably.

“Do tell me what other ways I have offended, that I might have a chance to rectify my mistakes,” Charles pressed kindly.

“I fear your worst crimes are but an accident of  birth,” Katrisha grumbled, “and no I do not mean that you were born at all.”

“Then what unfortunate mark has been bestowed upon me, that so offends you good Lady?”

“I am no great fan of your father, I must admit,” Katrisha said firmly.  “I do not begrudge him his beliefs, even if I do not agree with them, but his need to force them upon others, I find intolerable.”

“He is a dour sort,” Charles permitted, his own frustration with his father bleeding through, even as Katrisha was certain there was still an act in play.  “Yet am I to be punished simply to have been sired by him?”

“You are to be rewarded far more so,” Katrisha cut back.  “The consequences of your birth come with privilege, and a title that you shall one day inherit.  Though which, as I understand it is up to you.  So many choices, and yet you persist.”

“Yet they earn me the ire of such a lovely charming creature, of great coming importance,” Charles said feigning far more sadness than Katrisha could tell he really felt.  There was something real there though.  Something he was drawing upon to put on his clever persona.   He was charming, and undeniably handsome.  The very model of everything the son of a proud and prominent knight or duke should be.

“Small prices,” Katrisha said with a shrug.  She was more than a little bothered to realize the question of her attractions was more open than she had imagined.  She was quite annoyed that it did not seem she even really needed to like the young man to notice that.

“All things are relative, dear Lady,” Charles said with a half smile.  “A thing worth little to one, might be priceless to another.  My father, he has this old urn, it is a little worn in spots, and there is a side he keeps faced to the wall that shows terrible sun fading.  Yet he paid more for it that I think at all seemly, has been offered several times what he paid by a few, and quietly laughed at by others.”

“Are you really comparing me to an old piece of pottery?”  Katrisha laughed with ill humor, too bewildered by the tact to take offense.  “I fear your charm has finally failed you completely.”

“I simply use an analogy,” Charles said firmly.  “Some may see you as damaged goods.  A wild child who ran off to slay a dragon, and nearly died.  Who fell ill, and resided for a time with…‘undesirables.’  Whose hair has become strange, and peculiar.”

“Do you think you are actually helping your case?” Katrisha snapped.

“I have said what some might see, what my infuriating father, surely sees,” Charles said feigning a wounded expression.  “What I see is a woman of great beauty, astounding intellect, and power I can not imagine.  With the sheer gall to fight a dragon, naked by all disbelieving accounts.  A woman who makes no apologies for stepping on the carefully placed toes of those who seek offense at every turn.  Even, if I fear, she seeks offense at my every word.”

“Better,” Katrisha huffed, only partly satisfied.

“I see a woman who I can not help but be enthralled by,” Charles said as he stepped closer.  “I see a woman who should not be alone, with only a few old men as allies in this cruel world.”

“I am not alone,” Katrisha stated stiff lipped, and held up her hand.  “This is a ring of betrothal to the one I love.”

“I was unaware,” Charles said with some surprise.  “I had not even noticed a ring on our prior meetings.”

“It has been there nearly a month,” Katrisha protested, though it felt an exaggeration.

“Who is so fortunate as to have won your heart?” Charles asked, putting up a fascinating act that seemed intended to portray thinly veiled dejection.  At least Katrisha convinced herself it was just an act, she was relatively certain, even if doubt crept in.

“It is not your concern,” Katrisha said turning and looking out into the night.

“Forgive my prying then,” Charles said kindly.  “I thought it no offense to ask the name of the one you love.  Most are not secretive of their betrothed.  It seems, strange to me, to be ashamed of one you have taken up such a pledge with.”

“I’m not ashamed of her,” Katrisha snapped, turning back angrily, and then cringing as she realized what she had said.

“I see,” Charles said shrewdly.  “Cautious then, you will permit instead, as such a union is viewed poorly by many.”

“And they may rot in the abyss for all I care,” Katrisha cursed exasperatedly.  “You with them if I hear a word of this has been breathed within these walls.”

“I would not betray you, dear Lady,” Charles said again putting on a grand show of being wounded.  “I understand now your need for secrecy, and I can guess at more…complicated details.  Your love was that girl of the Sisterhood, who returned with you, and then left quite suddenly some time back.  What was her name…” he said trying to recall.

Katrisha eyed him coldly.  “Her name is Celia,” she said cutting him off, “if it’s any business of yours.”

“Then I am correct,” Charles said with a sad, oddly comforting expression.  “It must hurt to be so far from the one you love.”

“Very much,” Katrisha found herself admitting aloud, against her better judgement.  Yet there was something relieving about saying it to Charles, that he, of all people seemed accepting.  Yet she did not trust it.

“And to have lost your sister to the wilds just last year,” Charles said kindly, stepping closer again.  “You should not be alone,” he repeated his old argument, with a soft conciliatory tone, “even if I can only be a friend to you, you should have that.”

Katrisha laughed half heartedly.  “I can see in your eyes, you still want more than that,” she chided him without much fire.

“Am I to be blamed for finding you alluring,” he said somberly.  “Does this truly so besmirch the genuine nature of my offer?”

“You are to be blamed for what I suspect is in your head,” Katrisha pushed back, stepping towards him more aggressively than his so far cautious moves.  “You, who have been raised with an idea of what the Sisterhood is.  You think of them all as wanton women who lay with whoever they please.  Some, are…” Katrisha choked slightly on her words, “and there is nothing wrong in it.  Some though marry, and live as faithfully as husband and wife.”

“Or wife and wife,” Charles added in a tone that did not sound mocking, but Katrisha had her doubts.  “Yet I sense something of hesitation in your words.  Please tell me you do not doubt the faithfulness of your Celia?”

“Never,” Katrisha said through gritted teeth, but not without having hesitated.

“Yet, still there is something else?” Charles prodded, his tone kind, his persistence agitating.  “I am here to listen, if you wish.”

“She loves me too much, I think.”  Katrisha laughed nervously, and looked away.  Ready to leave it at that.

“How so?” Charles said goading her on, seeing that he had his foot in the door.

She gave him a fierce look.  “You are not the only one to say I should not be alone,” Katrisha said with some hesitation, folding her arms across her chest.  She wasn’t at all happy with herself.  She had already confided such to far better people, yet she hadn’t been satisfied with their answers.  “It’s…foolishness.  I love her.  What need have I for another?”

“Your love is a wise woman.  Wiser than my father, than his doctrines of ascension,” Charles added, and for a moment she believed there was no act in his words, even if she still believed he was using the truth to his own ends.  “As you say, some, those who have not found a love they can take into their heart, and be content, seek the affections of many.  They still have the need to feel loved, desired, the flesh has wants, the heart is treacherous in many ways, and must be reassured of its own worth.”

Katrisha was certain that he was quoting, or at least paraphrasing from something he had read, but she could not place the words.  Still they were working, his cleverness had all but torn down the last of her defenses, as he stood far too close for her comfort, in part by her own doing.

“What we sacrifice for love, makes that loves stronger,” she argued defensively.

“That which wounds us, no matter the long run, leaves us weakened for tomorrow,” Charles said with a kind determination that still seemed practiced.  “I have heard of the plans for you.  This Kingdom needs strength, not a coming court mage mired in a broken heart.  Let me ease your pain, that you might shine with all of your glory.  You have her permission it seems, and my heartfelt offer surely.”

Katrisha hesitated, and did not pull away as Charles reached for her cheek, and brushed it tenderly.  It wasn’t the same as Celia’s touch, his hand was rougher, yet it was still soothing.  She did not stop him as he took the last step towards her, and looked into her eyes, seeking permission.  A tiny voice at the back of her mind screamed, but she did not heed it, as he leaned into her, and kissed her softly.

It was a pale imitation.  Which was not to besmirch the boy’s obvious talent – that perhaps should have told her he had practice – but it was enough to waver her resolve.  Briefly she returned his kiss, for just a single moment she didn’t care what schemes worked at the back of his mind.  She believed he desired her, being desired felt good, and she let herself return that in kind.  Until finally the screaming of her wiser self overwhelmed her, and with trembling hands she pushed him away.

“No,” she said firmly, unable to bring forth anything more clever.  “No,” she repeated more angrily.  For a moment her rage bubbled, at him, at herself, at the world, she couldn’t even tell.  A part of her wanted to throw him from the rampart for making her betray her love.  She ran away in tears.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 7th, 648 E.R.

Dearest Celia,

I have been through confusion, frustration, anger, and now guilt over your words.  Such that I have avoided writing of them till now.  I couldn’t imagine how you could suggest such a thing, and then matters took a strange turn.  I was on the rampart where we last kissed, when to my annoyance Charles appeared.  He was complimentary as always of late, cordial, kind.  I for my part finally simply told him flatly that my heart belonged to another.  His words were clever then, and he wrested from my grasp your identity that I had not meant to give.  I would swear that the boy’s tongue is made of pure silver that he even managed to get me to admit to my confusion over your words in our correspondence.

He then had the nerve, the gall to offer me himself as a companion in such capacity.  I laughed at him then, told him that of course he would make such an offer, as a man, or might I better say a boy.  Yet then again his silver tongue worked its magic, reminding me that he was a man set to inherit position, a place of importance in the court.  He spun a convincing tale of how he would risk all of this to be near me, even if he could not truly have me as his own.

Convincing I say, but I was not fooled.  I saw his clever words for what they were, but I was flattered, charmed nonetheless.  There was an appeal to him close to me, I will not deny, and in that moment of hesitation he stole a kiss.  Though I let him linger for a moment, let myself, in my shock, and the pleasantness of it, return it. I fear I nearly pushed him from the rampart when I came to my senses.

What ever permissions you have given me…they were not ones I had given myself.  Though I cut his advances short, it troubles me, that moment of hesitation.  It felt like a betrayal, if not of you, of my own heart.  Oh dearest Celia please, give me peace in my troubled thoughts, tell me that you truly could love me so, even if my desires should wander.

I hold the hand bearing your ring to my heart as I write these words, and struggle not to cry.  I must offer you the same, as you have offered me, if there is a chance for joy, take it.  Take it, and do not imagine it could ever lower you in my boundless esteem.

Your confused,
guilt stricken love,
Katrisha

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 30th, 648  E.R.

Dearest Katrisha,

Do not feel guilt that you responded in kind to a genuine impulse of passion.  It is a credit to your charm that you inspire such desire in others, even as you rebuff them, time and again.  I was myself – after all – hopelessly smitten with you through no intent of your own.

I will not tell you to accept this boy.  You do write of him as troublesome, so I leave it to you if his charms outweigh his agitations.  I will implore you only to take what you can from this life.  Even with the gift, we are not immortal, and have but a glimmer of time to enjoy what we are granted.  Do not squander it on sorrowful sacrifices, that only serve to wound us both.

Know that I shall hold you forever dearly in my heart.  Offer me the same, and it is enough, it is our agreement, the promise of our union.  Whatever else is, is.  Believe this, know it in your heart, for it is true.  That I am yours, and you are mine, in absolute honesty, with no secrets, without jealousy between us, and the last of who we are always laid bare.  For all at once, it heartens and hurts me, that I feel the same.  That even with every assurance from you, what little would it matter without the permission of my own heart, to seek such comfort.

Your truest friend always,
your lover fates willing,
Celia.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 1st, 648 E.R.

Katrisha flicked her wrist, and a blue light illuminated the dusty storage room she had ducked into.  She felt incredibly stupid.  She tried to convince herself the situation was not really happening.  That she was not actually hiding – incredibly ineffectively at that – from a mere boy.  The absurdity was enough to make her knock her head with the book she was carrying.  She had faced down a dragon, in the dead of night, wearing little more than the day she was born, and she was hiding, in a storage room, from Charles.  Harmless, if painfully aggravating Charles.  It was absurd.

What was even the point?  He’d seen her.  She hadn’t even done a particularly convincing job of pretending that room was where she was headed to begin with.  He surely knew as well as her that it was largely unused, overflow storage for the hoarded miscellania of generations that had lived in those halls.  All she had done in trying so desperately to avoid him, was give him the satisfaction of power over her.

She was furious, blindingly angry with herself, and at him.  He had kissed her, she had let him…she had kissed him back…however briefly.  She wanted to kill him for it, for making her betray what she felt for Celia.  What ever reassurance, even encouragement she had been offered.

Her blood boiled over a gentle knock at the door behind her, but she refused to let him win, to let him have such power, to pretend to any extent that she was not there.  

“Yes?” she said, turned, and yanked open the door.

“Are you lost?” Charles asked in a kind tone Katrisha did not accept as genuine.  

Lost, how absurd, even insulting.  She knew that castle like the back of her hand.  She had lived there nearly as long as him, and left far more rarely.  She rejected saying any of this.  “No, just looking for something I thought was stored in here,” Katrisha lied.  “I seem to have been mistaken.”

“Perhaps I could be of assistance,” Charles said with a convincing smile.  “What is it you seek?”

“Nothing you would know about,” Katrisha shrugged, and tried to figure out how to get past him.  Charles had positioned himself in such a perfect way as to block the door without being overtly imposing.  Not that he had any hope of seeming imposing to her, even if he tried.  That much was settled.

“Humor me,” Charles pressed, and leaned against the doorframe nonchalantly.  “I would love to find some way to make up to you for the prior evening.  I was, out of line.  I misread the situation…though I do wonder how poorly?”

Katrisha tried very hard to hold her temper, and to formulate an effective exit.  “Just a chest of unsorted books.  It was being moved here some time ago, until the contents were discovered.  It was supposed to be delivered to the library, but does not seem to have been.”  The story was half true.  A found, and then lost again chest of old books had been misplaced not that long before, in spite of explicit directions on its intended destination.

“Ah, alas, I must admit you are correct, dear lady,” Charles offered in a marvelous performance of upbeat disappointment.  “I do in fact have no knowledge of these events.  I wish I knew more of your mysterious chest, but it seems I will be of no help after all.”

“Are you ever?” Katrisha asked coldly.

“Sadly – to you – it seems I am not,” Charles offered with a melancholy tone.

“Wait…did you just…” Katrisha said as she ran over his words, still looking for some way to get him out of her way, without either pushing past him, or giving him the satisfaction of asking him to move.  “Did you just express an interest in my, ‘mysterious chest?’”  She was torn whether to slap him, roll her eyes, or even be oddly amused.

Most options hinged on whether he had done it intentionally.  She had almost missed it, almost let him get away with it.  Then again she was less than certain if he had meant it in such a way.  Those, like so many things had seemed delayed by her health, and anxious to catch up in the wake of her illness.  It had been something of an annoyance at times, others quite the opposite.  Particularly under the gentle touch of Celia.  That added its own layer of conflict as Charles measured moment of silence stretched out.

“I suppose I did,” Charles said in a matter of fact tone.  He hid his grin well, but it was there.  “It does seem like a lot of trouble to get to.”

Katrisha thought many unkind things of Charles, but completely oblivious, or utterly ineffective at word play were not on that list.  His delicate dodge, without clearly denying, or admitting his intent, with the undertone of humor, settled it.

“You are insufferable,” Katrisha said with far less anger than she intended.

“For you I suffer greatly,” Charles offered coyly.

“Because of you, I suffer greatly,” Katrisha stressed.

“How tragically contrary to my intentions,” Charles replied playfully.

“Oh yes, and those intentions are?” Katrisha sneered.  “You are as crafty, and half as clever tongued as Mercu, but without any of his whimsy, or even a shred of genuine honesty in you.”

“You besmirch me,” Charles said flatly, “and yet compliment me.  To be compared to Mercu’s artful dialogue, however unfavorably, and yet to be defamed as dishonest.”

“Then prove me wrong,” Katrisha said.  “No clever words, no games.  Tell me what it is you want.  I will know if you are trying to mislead me.  I was raised on Mercu’s stories, they are as good an education in deception as years watching the court.  I have both.”

“Boldly?” Charles asked, “Plainly?” he added, but Katrisha gave him nothing more.  “Very well.”  He pursed his lips hesitantly a moment.  “I want you,” he said.  “To know the nature of the strange wild woman that walks the castle.  You fascinate me, tempt me, you are barely more than a girl, as I a boy, and yet you move like a woman and a soldier.  You speak with all the eloquence of a bard, and clearly possess the intellect of a scholar.  You are forbidden, defiant, obstinate to my every approach, dangerous in ways I do and do not comprehend, and it all, infuriatingly, is only more alluring.  I was asked once, and you heard my answer, but I will say it again, all the more surely.  I find I might just favor a lion, to a mouse.”

Katrisha had watched Charles’ face with every word.  He had held something back, something crucial, but every word seemed honest enough.  She was sure of it.  This didn’t make her any more comfortable, any more happy with her circumstances.  She rolled her options over in her head, she let herself consider the unthinkable.  She had Celia’s permission – her request even – that she seek the comfort of others.  The thought made her slightly ill, but it also had other effects that were at least a bit stronger.

Charles was everything a young heir to a knight, or duke proper should be.  Impeccably groomed, fit, tall, and fine featured.  Though he was ill equipped to beat her in a fight, he was even skilled in combat such as that could impress her.  It made her want to scream that he had such power, keeping her ever on the defensive in her efforts to be rid of him.  When to that moment, even the night on the wall, when she had left herself too open, he had done little so very wrong.  Nothing to get himself chastised for, in any official fashion.

He was arrogant, possessed of attitudes and opinions that she had no patience for – or at least, he had been.  It had been years since he had said anything to truly offended her, and she struggled to remember what even the last thing had been.  As little as she had obliged the idea of him courting her, it seemed he had genuinely been doing so.

She suddenly found herself insulted that no other nobles son had tried.  Charles had said it, had clearly laid out that for any number of reasons she was forbidden.  She considered his cleverness with that.  He made himself look just a little the rebel, just defiant enough to the status quo that chafed at her every day.  She believed it intentional, subtle, well placed, and yet it worked.  It raised him in her esteem.  Not because it had necessarily given the desired impression, but because she had caught it, and found the art of it intriguing.

Katrisha became all too aware of the passage of time as she stood there, riddling over Charles response.  She grew angry again, feeling as though she was letting him win.  She shook her head ever so slightly in frustration, and sighed irritably with the antic.  Almost without further thought she came to a decision.  She set the book she was holding aside, took a breath, then forcefully grabbed the troublesome young man by the collar in a fashion that startled him in a most pleasing fashion for her tastes.

Katrisha yanked him from the hallway without ceremony, and threw closed the door behind them.  “You want to know me?” she asked rhetorically, and released Charles into an open pathway in the packed room.  Katrisha waved a new orb of light into being, which she let drift off her fingertips for punctuation.  “You want to know what it is to be in my confidence, my esteem?” she said stepping towards him pointedly.  She enjoyed the uncertain look on his face, and his sudden lack of clever words.  It made him even more attractive to her, to some amusement, and annoyance.  Seeing that she could render the clever boy speechless stoked her ego far more than his attentions to her in the first place.

“That night, when you cornered me on the ramparts…” Katrisha mused.  “I was reading a very particular book.  I find myself curious if it is one you know of, let alone have read.  I think there are many thing about it that might have lead you to it, if you knew.  All the more I have little doubt many would have offended your proud petty male mind.”

“What book would this be?” Charles said trying to sound simply curious, and hide the slight fear in his voice.  He worried that perhaps he might have finally pushed a notoriously temperamental young mage too far.  He’d done it before, and while he was older, and larger than the boy he had once been, she was all the more powerful herself.  She had fought a dragon, and lived – however narrowly – to tell the tale.  He had proven rather to his frustration that he could not beat her in a fight, and while he was unarmed, in no meaningful way was she.

“Let us see if you can guess,” Katrisha said laying her fingertips on his chest, and toying with a ruffle there, her gaze turning up slowly to meet his again.  “Your day might get very much better if you can guess. ‘Men,’” she began pointedly, “‘are fickle creatures, prone to wandering fancy, and faulty methods in pursuing their lusts.’”  She paused stepping very close to Charles.  “‘They are not without merit, not fully a loss, but truly it seems the lesser gender.  Many, trained properly, given the right motivation, are adequate playthings, and some, perhaps, even worthy of the same respect granted a women.  Oddly though, most are overly content with the role of plaything, given the choice.’”

“I do not know the quote,” Charles swallowed, “but were I to wager a guess, I would say that is the work of Sylvia Grey, and likely from the Red Book.”

“Very good,” Katrisha said, and leaned against Charles.  She brought her lips close to his ear.   “Now what, I must ask,” she added with a pause, considering how she felt about the position, about having him close, “would lead a proper Clarion’s son to so readily identify that work.  Even if you have revealed yourself to be other than proper.  I still have not identified the source of your own words that night.”

“It is also from the Red Book,” Charles answered.  “Perhaps not the same version you have read.  Her writings were prolific, they have been compiled into many tomes of similar description.  Some more revered, or reviled than others.  I dare say the copy I found was quite tame.”

“To your disappointment, I suspect,” Katrisha pulled back slightly.

“If I sought the work, as you imply.  I had expectations.  A railing rhetoric against the chafing ways of prudish men.  A critique of the systems of power dominant in every age we have record of.  Even harsh things to say of the Empress herself.  Did you know, Sylvia did not approve of her ascension as a dragon?”

“I did not,” Katrisha said shrewdly.

“She viewed it as an escalation, that what it would cause was worse.  It would seem she was right in the end, on that count at very least.”

“What has lead you to learn so much about a woman as hated as any, in the eyes of your father and his faith?”

“I’ve an admiration for women of power,” Charles offered, as he transitioned to a new kind of nervous, “short of the Empress, she is perhaps the most influential woman in all of history.”

“Hmm,” Katrisha said pressing up against Charles, somewhat menacingly.  He took a half step back into a stack of boxes.  “More influential than Aria of the early Magi?”

“In a modern sense,” Charles partly corrected himself in an almost shaky voice, “how much of the Maji, or their practices were Aria’s doing, and how much her husband was responsible for are matters open for debatable.  With scattered unclear records, and after nearly a thousand years, it is not even certain if Aria was one, or two women.  The providence of Sylvia’s work is beyond any dispute.”

“Well, aren’t you well informed,” Katrisha laughed, and relented in her imposing manner for just a moment to look him in the eye.  “We’ve discussed before the matter of what you have been taught, it seems you have made progress.  Did you draw such conclusions on your own?”

“In a sense,” Charles laughed slightly, trying to calm himself, “it is the end result of research on the topic, that you did inspire.”

“Honest,” Katrisha smiled, “yet unexpected.  Perhaps you might be more than a plaything yet.  But don’t get your hopes up,” she said plainly, and kissed him before he could hope to protest.  The kiss was pleasant, as before, but this time Katrisha did not end it, did not push away even as a tiny part of her mind still decried the act.  She quieted the dissenting fragment of herself by analyzing, even as the rest of her quickly was giving way to enjoyment.

Everything was a direct comparison to her experiences with Celia.  His lips were not as soft, nor as smooth.  He apparently had facial hair enough to shave, as she could feel the hint of stubble.  His body was firm and toned pressed against hers, where Celia’s had been soft and inviting.  Every little thing she felt seemed just a bit less to her liking, and yet, still plainly to her liking.  There was a clear response, something animal in her found him pleasant, even if her higher sensibilities were unimpressed.  More than anything though, a part of her liked the power.  Liked that how little she cared for him let her impose upon him, and he, if his claims were true, might just like that.

“You know that I have had a lover with the gift,” Katrisha said as she broke the kiss, and ran her fingers across the ruffles of his shirt.  She let him feel just a taste of what that meant, and smiled as any illusion of equity in their positions he might still have clung to melted away.  There was a deliciousness to witnessing that, an utter vindication of seeing him vulnerable.  “I could not guess what you could offer to compare,” she said in mock sadness, “but I am ever so curious to watch you try.”

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Chapter 12

O’ the twinkle in her eyes,
want of any gem belies,
O’ but to see them alight,
on a gift ever so bright,
promise all the stars above,
give a token of your love.

– Old Merchant Rhyme, 210 E.R.

Seasons in Thebes

Rhaeus 27th, 648 E.R.

A tall somewhat gaunt man approached a trio of druids, and looked rather dubiously to the two wolves following them.  “I swear if I’d not been looking for them, I would have missed the wolves.”

“I’ll thank you for considering our residence here for a while, most likely the winter, particularly under that condition,” Landri said, and offered her hand.

The farmer considered the gesture, and shook the offered hand.  “Frankly I can use all the help I can get.  Though forgive me for asking, my dad was an enchanter and sometimes I feel things; are they dire?”

“Yes,” Landri said guardedly.

“If anything it gives me some comfort.  I know another druid with a dire beast, a bird though.  Maybe less threatening, but biggest damn thing, never seen anything else quite like it.  Never makes a move his master didn’t permit, though it could catch and swallow a racoon whole.  Called it Cadwell of all things, no idea why, never did answer any question on the point.  Goodness, I keep forgetting they are here.”

“Yes, they tend to…blend in to the background,” Landri agreed.  “If it wasn’t for Shadow always being under the girl’s foot, I think we’d all forget they were here.”

“What’s the other one’s name?  Such a pretty white.”

“Lunka,” Kianne answered.  “It means moonlight in Sylvan.”

He gave her a curious look.  “Fitting.  Well, as long as they are well in hand, and won’t trouble the animals you are here to tend, I won’t mind.  In fact if they can keep an eye out for an egg thief that’s been bothering my chickens, all the better.”

“I’ve met Cadwell, and Emet by the way,” Landri offered out of hand.  “Only reason I’ve even consented to the madness of the girl keeping these wolves.  Not that she has given me the least choice in the matter.  Did Emet ever tell you his theory, that he’s really the pet?”

“Yeah, that’s the guy alright, loopy.  Did wonders for egg production when ever he was with us though.”

“I won’t promise wonders,” Landri offered.

“Just so long as you are worth my time.”

“I think that can be managed well enough.  That bird, did you know is only twice so big as it should be?”

“Really?”

“Oh yes, they are quite common up in the Clarion Ascension, whole wild herds of the things roaming the savanna, even sometimes migrate into eastern Palentine.”

“Yeah, I suppose herd would be the right word.  Much too big to flock.  Can those fly?”

“No.”

“Funny that, Cadwell could.  Not much, or far, but enough to get up on the roof and lounge about in the summer sun.”

“Must have learned that after I knew him,” Ladri said curiously. “How long did Emet stay with you?”

“Oh, never all too long at any given time.  Maybe a year though, if you added it all together.  He stayed half the summer once.”

“Who’s he sweet on?” Landri asked shrewdly.

The farmer didn’t look pleased.  “One of the farm hands.  I look the other way.  Not my business.”

“I was afraid it might be your daughter, he’s had trouble before.”  Landri nodded.

“Oh, she’d like that, she would, I’m sure of it.  Fortunately Emet has always had a good sense of what I will, and will not tolerate.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 29th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae urged a lost lamb back into its makeshift pen, which it entered far more readily after one glance from the white wolf that had helped shepherd it. The farmer had relented that the wolves seemed well in hand, and adept at the task, at least under the watchful eye of Kiannae.  He had however concluded that on multiple counts the whole affair of wolves that he could not seem to keep his own eyes on, herding his sheep, was far too unnerving to be around to half witness.

Kiannae wandered to the edge of the temporary lake covering the near field.  She sat down, and stared out over the drowned expanse.  It was a strange melancholy sense it gave her.  She wanted to ascribe desires to the elements, that they were no more pleased with their condition than her.  She heard footsteps beside her, and glanced up at the farmers daughter, who Lunka and Shadow eyed suspiciously, but did not growl at.  The young woman crouched and reached out, and though Kiannae thought to say something Lunka showed no signs of rejection, and let her stroke her muzzle.

“Such a pretty wolf,” the young woman said.

“She is striking, I’m surprised you can even keep your eyes on her though,” Kiannae offered.

She laughed.  “Yes, father complains of it so, but it doesn’t work on me.  Maybe it’s that I’m as wild as them,” she chuckled.  “I think they are the only things that have caused father more distress than me.”

“Are you trouble?” Kiannae asked with some amusement.

The girl shrugged, and sat down next to her.  “I don’t think so, personally.  He has different opinions though.”

Shadow sniffed her curiously, and curled up next to Kiannae, and dropped his head in her lap.

“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced,” Kiannae offered.

“Kiannae right?  Name’s Lacie,” the girl offered the hand not petting the wolf, and Kiannae shook it.  “Father wants me to marry, I want to see the world.  I’ve been trying with every caravan to come through town to convince some trader or mercenary to solve both our problems.  Had some fun, but not any luck getting out of here.”

“Heh,” Kiannae said uncomfortably at the candor.

“Too frank?” Lacie asked.

“No, it’s fine.  I’m not one to judge, just…  No, never mind.”

“That boy Zale follows you around almost like these two,” Lacie pressed.  “You and him?” she asked.

Kiannae gave her a funny look.  “No, not that it is any of your business.  I’m not…I’ve never.”  She sighed.  “I’m more trouble than I’m worth, and I swear so is everyone else in my life.”

“You don’t seem so bad to me,” Lacie chided.  “Though I guess I like trouble.”

“I can understand wanting to get out of here,” Kiannae said.  “Though I was always happy at home, till it all went wrong.  Now.  Now I just feel like I want to be on the move, not stuck in one place.  Being in one place makes me feel like the troubles that chase me will catch up.”  She glanced out over the water curiously, and an odd smile crept across her lips.

“What’s that look?” Lacie asked curiously.

“Do you want to see me try something dumb?”

“Do I?”  Lacie questioned with an odd mix of interest and uncertainty.

“Well, I doubt it will do any harm, but if I mess it up, it could be embarrassing.”

“In that case, sounds like fun.”

Kiannae stood up, displacing Shadow, and kicked off her shoes, stepping into the cold wet mud at the edge of the water.  She took a long slow breath, and stepped forward.  At first it did not look like much, until it was clear the water though it rippled around her, was nearly a foot deep beneath her, and she was standing on the surface.

“How are you doing that?” Lacie asked with a laugh.

“Carefully,” Kiannae said, with metered breaths, and then suddenly spun on her toes, and the water around her swirled tentatively.  “Almost,” she muttered.  She took a deep breath, let it out, and with another twirl the wind and the water moved in perfect sync, rising in a crest that came up like a strange round wave, and then split around her before becoming a column of water that rose into a tall spiral, drawing the water out of the field like a cyclone in slow motion. It reached a height a good ten feet across and fifty tall, then suddenly stopped, a glimmering frozen pillar glinting in the sun as all the borrowed energy caught up with it

New water slowly flowed in to fill the field around Kiannae’s feet.  There was a slow clap behind her, and she turned to see Lacie with a laughing smile.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Kiannae moved out of the way of the rising water, and took a seat back beside Lacie watching her work amount to very little in the face of the vast flood.  She shook some mud off her feet.  “I’m not sure how much good I can really do with it.  This goes on for miles and miles in every direction.  I could clear the field, but then what?  It just floods again.”

“What if you froze a wall around the field first?” Lacie asked.

Kiannae gave her a funny look.  “That’s not a bad idea, actually.”

She got up, and grabbed her shoes.  She stepped up to the water’s edge, rinsed her foot, and shook it off before putting back on one, and repeated the process with the other.  She rolled her shoulders, and started forming a spell line in front of her.  Freezing the water as she walked forward out onto the wall of ice she was making.  Several brilliant orbs of orange light formed around her to store as much energy as she felt she could hang onto.  Each orb grew more taxing however to maintain.  Halfway around the perimeter of the field she looked back, and questioned the plan.

She offered the energy to the wind and the water, and again formed a column of water, but this one dissipated in steam as it swirled out into the flood plain.  Restored to neutral she began again, continuing her wall around the field.  Nearly exhausted she tried again, forming another column of water nearly twice as high and thick as the first, and nearly clearing out the field.  It however refused to freeze or evaporate with ease until she kept it suspended there a good five minutes.  After which it was all she could do not to drop to her knees in the mud.

She trudged back to the former shore line, not looking up most of the way only to find a farmer hat in hand, and his daughter looking smug.

“Told you she wasn’t just another druid, father.”

“I truly don’t know how I can repay you,” he said a bit bewildered.

“So, can I marry a druid father?” Lacie pressed.

“This isn’t Lycia girl,” the man growled.

“I mean the boy,” she cut back.

“Oh, yes, if you could take him off my hands that would be repayment in full,” Kiannae teased, but found she didn’t like her own jest as much as she thought she would.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The following weeks the rescued field was planted with a late crop, and Landri hurried the initial growth.  It was not a lot all together, but as long as it grew before the snows got heavy it would save the farmer buying grain for himself for the winter, and leave some small pittance to sell cheaply to his neighbors.  He had clarified that he was indeed not sure how he could repay Kiannae for her part.  He had promised what little he could afford to Landri for their services, and that itself was not much.

Landri held the purse strings of their small band, and they were not worth much even then.  A pence here and there was Kiannae’s allotment, and she spent it readily to have some small pleasures she missed.  A pastry or two, some fragranced soap, and a brush for her hair.  A robe however became a necessity as her old one became too short, and tight.  It was the second robe she had outgrown since joining the druids in Lundan Grove, and it became apparent to her she was overtaking Zale in height.

The new robe began gray, but the farmer did find some brown dye that almost matched her old one.  Her golden belt still served her well, and with some work she managed to re-apply the various enchantments she was accustomed to in her garments, to keep the robe relatively clean, and resistant to tearing, burning, or being cut.  The village enchanter was curious enough of the girl who had cleared a field of the flood that he offered to check her work for free.

Kiannae dodged most of the man’s prying questions, and his offer to take her on as an apprentice as politely as she could.  She informed him that she tended to use magic sparingly because of her condition, which had only lead to more questions.  There were also several other farmers who asked if she could do the same for them, and though she was inclined to oblige Landri made a habit of chasing them off, and chiding her for even thinking of doing more magic on that scale.  Particularly with her needing to re-freeze her ice walls daily to prevent them from melting under the late summer sun.

Lacie did indeed make a few bids for Zale’s attentions, but Zale did not seem at all pleased.  Which Kiannae found amusing to watch, until the young woman gave up, and decided that Kiannae was her new best friend, and clung to her side enough that Shadow grew jealous, melancholy, and aloof.  Lunka however was more personable around her, and often would stay close even as Shadow wandered, or sulked.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 2nd, 648 E.R.

Kiannae calmed the chicken in front of her almost absently before putting her hand under, and grabbing one, two and three eggs, which she placed into a basket Lacie was holding.

“So much easier for you,” Lacie said.  “I understand you can’t teach me to do the rest, but maybe just that?” she pressed hopefully.

“Landri could surely teach you better, best I can offer is really just to feel what I do,” Kiannae said irritably.  Lacie was a nice enough girl, but her pestering for Kiannae to teach her magic, or druidic practices grew old.  The girl had some gift, and aptitude for sensing things, but not apparently to know when she was pushing too hard.

“Is it really that simple?” she asked.

“For me at least,” Kiannae shrugged, and did what was by far the hardest part, nuding the process ahead on laying the next egg about six hours.  She moved to the next chicken.  “I make no promises it will be as easy for anyone else.”  Another two eggs from that chicken.  One from the next.  Three from the fourth.

“Can I try?” Lacie asked.

“As you like,” Kiannae stepped back, took the basket, and the opportunity to stretch from all the hunching over.

Lacie stepped up, and her presence shifted.  It wasn’t quite right, but the chicken already a docile farm animal did not stir much as she reached under for the first, and second egg, but flapped a bit on the third.

“Not too bad,” Kiannae said.  “For a first try.”

The second went better, but the third chicken was having none of it, and even Kiannae could not seem to calm the bird.  A growl outside made both girls stop, and move quickly to check what was going on.  Lunka had her muzzle buried in a corner behind the hen house, but couldn’t quite seem to get to what she was after.

Kiannae conjured a light, and sent it drifting into the hollow where a racoon could be seen to be scrunched up in the crevice.

“Peggy?” Lacie said worriedly.  “Please tell her to leave her alone,” she implored turning to Kiannae and grabbed her arm nervously.

“Leave her be Lunka,” Kiannae said hesitantly.  The wolf gave her a displeased look, but slunk away, keeping her eye on the crevice.

Lacie snatched an egg from the basket, and set it in front of the opening where the racoon was hiding.  Kiannae felt the girl’s aura shift again, more naturally.  Far more naturally in fact, such that it seemed something well practice.  The racoon slowly crawled out to the edge of the hen house, and plucked up the egg, and stepped back in.

“She has kits,” Lacie said.  “Or at least she did.  I hadn’t seen her since the flood, but I know its her.  Can we please let her go, and not tell father.”

“So this is the egg thief?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” Lacie sighed.  “I wasn’t sure of course.  I was giving her eggs before the flood, but she’s been stealing them since I guess.  Come on Peggy, you can come out.”

The racoon inched out, and then bolted away with the egg.  Lunka moved as though to follow, but Kiannae gently said “No,” and the wolf sat, and watched the racoon go.  Licking her chops.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 34th, 648 E.R.

“Girl,” said an aged man sitting alone in a bare looking shop front.  “Girl!” he tried again more loudly.  “Unna!” he finally exclaimed, and Kiannae turned hesitantly at a word she had riddled over many times.

“Do I know you?” she asked uneasily of the man, and considered his empty shop front, and the table he sat at.  It seemed terribly nondescript, with little hint why he was sitting there.  She rested her hand on Shadow’s head, to insure he was calm.

“I thought that unna might get your attention,” he said smiling mischievously.  “I’ve met but two of the unken in all my years.  Half-bloods,” he laughed, and shook his head.  “To think, that is the polite Sylvan word for it.  Difficult lot.”

“I’ll take that as a no, I do not know you,” she said incredulously.  Then she noticed a stack of cards by his wrinkled old hand.  She immediately stepped back.  “I do not meddle with seers,” she said plainly.

The man plucked a small silver coin from his pocket, and set it on the table.  “A shilling for your time,” he said with wry grin, then glanced for the first time to the dark furred wolf at her side.  “My, you keep interesting company.”

Kiannae grimaced, and stepped closer.  “For one minute,” she said tersely, “and if you trouble me too much, you will get to know my company, far better than you might like.”

“As you will,” he said uneasily, and pushed the coin forward.  “Though when you want the second minute, I will have that back, and another like it.”

Kiannae took the coin, and crossed her arms, ready to ignore every word out of the man’s mouth.  She didn’t have another silver to give him, and that spoke poorly of his implied abilities.  That, was actually comforting in her estimation.

He shuffled tersely, and plucked a card from the top of the stack, and set it face up before him.  “Your key is the storm,” he muttered.  “Upside down.  A card of trouble, and change, but you strive to set it right.”  He shook his head, and plucked the next, which he set below it.  “The child,” he looked up at her, almost as though assuring himself of something.  He seemed dubious of whatever he found.  He pulled another card, and set it to the left.  “The tower, upside down.  A life cast aside, a past pushed behind, an order rejected, and another half embraced.”  He set the next right.  “The Starred Crown,” his face almost twitched, and he looked up again.  His expression little more pleased than Kiannae’s.

“Minute’s up,” she said flatly, and turned to march away.

“Another silver!” he called after her ernestly, “Stay.”

Shadow growled.  Kiannae glanced back at the man, her fists clenched.  He had indeed set another silver coin before him, and was glaring at her with an intensity that gave her no further confidence.  She eyed the silver, and considered that nothing had been said that she did not feel she had heard before.  She did not really have to listen.  Another silver, just for standing there.  She stepped back towards him, and plucked the coin from his table.

“You’ll not be getting this back,” she said plainly.

“No, I won’t,” he agreed.  He shook his head, and pulled the next card.  “The road in twain,” he murmured, and set it beneath the child.  “Upside down,” he added, and grabbed the next, and set it to the left.  “The Thief.  Upside down.”  Another card to the right.  “The Fool, upside down.”  He scratched his head frustratedly, and plucked one last card, to put beneath the rest.  “The flame,” he said, though the card depicted a dragon made of fire.

He looked at her with doubt in his eyes.  It did little to instill confidence in whatever might come out of his mouth next.  “What you think stolen, will return,”  he intoned.  “Beware the road before you, for what follows still lies ahead.  All paths converge, and your road narrows.  There is fire, war, and the hand of dragons.  The storm has called, and you would not answer.  The storm will call, and you will not answer.  Half your world is upside down.  Everything fate has tried to hand you is reversed.  Every step you have taken for a purpose, by some design, but who’s…I cannot say.  If there are gods, if there ever were, one has taken to following you like a puppy.”  He glanced down at the wolf eyeing him suspiciously.  “Give or take.”

“Is that all?” Kiannae growled.

The man sighed, and shook his head.  “This,” he tapped the fool.  “What seems madness is intent.  The Fool reversed, knows what he does.  The fool sees clearly, in a world that is mad, but the world sees only acts it cannot comprehend.  Do you know why they say, that the fox is crazy?  No, let me be more clear.  Why it is said, to be crazy like a fox, is clever.  A fox will sometimes runs towards a pursuer, doubling back on the chase, to escape.  It does something seemingly mad, for an entirely clever reason, and it even works…now and then.”

Kiannae glared at the man a long while.

“I’ve only once read a fate nearly half so strange,” he said picking up the cards, almost disappointedly, and looking up at her with an odd wonder.  “A girl of Carth, who stole a man from his precious seat on the council.  She was no more common than you.”  He nodded.  “Thank you.  Come again, if you want to hear more.  There is a great deal I could tell you, a great deal that could help you, even make you happy, but I know you won’t listen.  Not even if I were to pay you, and I’ve done more than enough of that tonight.”

Kiannae turned, and walked away, adding two silver to her near empty coin purse.  It wasn’t so bad, she tried to convince herself.  To have listened to nothing more than she had heard before, and come away two silver better for her trouble.  That, was what she told herself, but she didn’t believe it for a moment.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“You look glum,” Zale said as Kiannae opened and closed the door to the small workers cabin they were sharing with Landri, who seemed to be out.  Lunka raised her head slightly, and gave Zale a pointed glance.  He resumed scratching behind her ears.  The normally standoffish of the two wolves had, if not taken a liking to Zale in close confinement, at least discovered she could intimidate him into scratching her ears, which she would sometimes growl over if he stopped.

“Don’t I always?” Kiannae cut back.

“You seemed in a good enough mood earlier, to be going for a walk in the snow.”

“Or I was in a bad enough mood to need my space,” she suggested.

Zale sighed.  “I’m not trying to attack you, if you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll keep my peace, and continue to appease the real mistress of this house.”  He nodded to the wolf whose head was rested on his lap, her eyes glancing to Kiannae, her body curled up behind him.

“What, you wanted a girl who was interested in your attention, there you go.”

“She only likes me cause she can get what she wants out of me,” he joked playfully.  “Much like that girl Lacie you sicked on me, who wants a husband to get out from under her father’s roof.”

“Yes, wonder what that feels like, being offended that you are desirable, only because you are there.”

“Just ‘cause one doesn’t have a lot of choices, doesn’t mean they are always in want of options,” Zale cut back.

Kiannae couldn’t tell if he had really stopped caring on that jab, or if he was just playing at backwards compliments the way he had learned worked even slightly on her.  Flattery was easy, she had long concluded.  Flattery always sounded like the honied words of those at court who clearly did not like the people they were speaking to.  A backhanded compliment, without actually being an insult, was clever.  Kiannae liked clever.  She liked to think she was clever.  She fumbled with her coin purse with mixed opinion on the matter.

“I got accosted by a seer in town,” Kiannae said.

“Accosted?” Zale asked dubiously.  Shadow walked up, sniffed his sister, and gave Zale a dubious look.  “Like grabbed by the arm or something?  I’ve seen it, never happened to me though.”

“Not this time,” Kiannae shook her head.

“This time?” Zale seemed slightly more bemused than concerned.

“Just something from when I was a kid.  I told you there is prophecy chasing me.  I really wish I hadn’t let him talk me into listening.”

“They have to be good at that, if they want to get paid,” Zale offered.

“Well, he was terrible then, cause I didn’t pay him,” Kiannae chuckled knowingly.

“Oh, bad luck that,” Zale laughed.

“The world has grown so superstitious,” Taloe said appearing in a corner, his attempt at clothing slightly more awkward than before.  Still enough to be less embarrassing, and for the first time Zale considered that might have been his meaning on their past meeting.  Not for his benefit, not even necessarily for Kiannae’s, but his own.

“I won’t deny that,” Zale countered, “but I was just relaying the superstition for fun.  It’s considered bad luck not to pay sears, but its not like they lay a curse on you.”  He glanced to Talo, and let that sink in as a jab.  “No, my mother had a theory, and I rather like it.  If a seer is wanting your attention enough to not demand payment, then you are the prize.  They want to read someone whose fortune is worth telling, to see more clearly.  Honestly, I think even that is superstitious myself, but more sensible than bad luck.”

“What if they pay you?” Kiannae asked with ill humor.

“As if that would ever happen,” Zale said dismissively.  “Seers are the most miserly, sneaky lot.  I mean, I did see one once, lured people in with the promise they were important enough he would pay for their time.”

“He ever pay them again when they tried to walk away?” Kiannae asked with a frown.

“No, of course not.  Got three more pence out of them by the end, plus the original half back.”

“Pence?  He gave me a silver, and another to not walk away when he irritated me.”

Zale threw his hand through his own hair, leaving an untended wolf who gave him a funny look that he ignored.  “You are messing with me,” he said narrowing his eyes, and glanced to Taloe to check his expression.

“Do you doubt her?” Taloe seemed unamused.

“I sure do, and I don’t put it past the both of you to be conspiring to mock me.”

Kiannae fished the two silver out of her purse.

“I’ll also believe you stole those, or borrowed them off Landri, who is then also in on this, before I belive a seer gave you two shillings for your time.”

“Well he did, spouted off a bunch of garbage I’ve heard before.  Though a god following me around like a puppy, that was new,” she gave Taloe a look.

“I’m no god,” Taloe objected.

“No, just the last scrap of a curse, on a lake.  Your word that, curse.  A force of nature that has taken up the face of a boy.  Are you him?  Are you the boy from the story, or are you just borrowing his memory?”

Taloe looked hurt, and swirled away into nothing.

“That…” Zale took a breath.  “That wasn’t nice,” he managed to get out.

“Since when do you defend Taloe?” Kiannae cut back at Zale.

“Since now,” Zale said, “I guess.”  He took a breath again, and stood up, displacing the wolf that had grown annoyed by the lack of attention.  “I don’t know what that seer said that has you all bent out of shape, but just don’t.  Something about a god?  He’s not a god, and I’m sure of it.  Do you want to know why?”

“Why?” Kiannae demaned.

“He’s embarrassed!”

Kiannae scrunched up her nose like the first time she’d been fortunate enough to taste a grapefruit, which were hard to come by in Avrale.  It had however been bitter, and she knew she was expected to like it.  “Embarrassed?” she finally asked.

“He’s started forming clothes.  He said he would try, of course, way back when, but last time I saw him, when he said it wasn’t for my benefit.  I don’t think it was for yours either.  He’s made of water, he’s pale, and blue…if, if he even forms blood, it would still just be water.  He can’t blush.  Have you considered he’s been embarrassed all this time?”

“Is that true?” Kiannae asked of thin air.

There was no answer for a long uncomfortable stretch, and Taloe reformed where he had last stood.  “Of course it’s true,” he said irritably.  “How would you feel?  To wake up.  Not remember who you are, but be sure you should not be naked.  To have to appear unclothed before some strange…” he grimaced, “boy who was quite attractive to you, but you know you are with someone, or were, or have just lost them.”  He put his face in his hands.

“And have you looked?” Kiannae asked, the potential of justified anger offering her some defense to cling to.  “Did you think it would be fair?”

“That I have not looked, does not mean I have not seen,” Taloe answered thin lipped.  “I can prevent myself seeing what you have, as well as you can prevent yourself glimpsing futures that mock you.  I’ve seen your own reflection, nothing more.”  He looked away.

Kiannae’s cheeks turned deep red.  “How dare you?” she snapped.

“He just said he doesn’t get to control it,” Zale offered in his defense.

“Oh, no, you do not get to defend him for peeping,” Kiannae said, and marched up on Taloe.  “In the river, the water.  I have wondered, and I have not wanted to know, was that you?”

“No,” Taloe said, but there was hesitance behind it.

“Was, that, you?” Kiannae repeated.

“It was you,” Taloe said almost angrily.  “You, but you were lost, not there.  You were at one with the water, and all but absent from your body.  I felt it, twirling through the water, feeling it on your skin.  I cannot normally feel what you feel, but when you commune with the elements deeply enough, I feel all of it, every bit, I feel what it is to be in your skin, unless I take my own form, and that only diminishes it.”

“Were you the presence?” Kiannae demanded.  “Were you what I felt in the dryad grove?”

“No,” Taloe said almost fiercely, and trembled.  “It terrified me, as much as you.  I have not spoken of it, because it terrifies me.  It would have destroyed me, almost as certainly you.  That power was something that does not belong in this world.”

“Was it her?” Kiannae asked more nervous than angry for a moment.

“No,” Taloe said, but he had less conviction.  “No, it was not her, but she did not fear it.  That was where she gained the power to manifest.”

“She?” Zale interrupted uncertain what he was hearing, but not liking it.

“Not your concern,” Kiannae snapped, shaking her finger once at Zale, and turned back.  “Do I need to worry about her again?” Kiannae pressed.

“No.  She does not have the power to manifest any more.  Not without stealing it, and she is weakening.”

“If one of you doesn’t tell me what ‘she’ is, I am asking Landri for answers,” Zale interrupted.

“Another spirit,” Kiannae said with a grimace.  And her shoulders slumped.  “An angry one.”

“She is dying,” Taloe said.  “Her struggles are tearing her apart.  I only wish I could give her a kinder end.”

“You are sure?” Kiannae demanded.

“I can feel it, it is not pleasant,” Taloe said sadly.  “If you do not offer her a power like the one from the grove again, there is no danger.”

Kiannae turned to Zale, and gave him a pointed look.

“Fine.  Fine.  If she’s really not an issue, I’ll keep quiet.  Please don’t let me regret it.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 22nd, 648 E.R.

“Did you know they call it the season of gems here?” Zale asked as he and Kiannae strolled down a snow covered lane together.  Her constant Shadow for once had relented to keep to the woods, another then pestering her with trivia in some hope to entertain her.  Lacie had also declined to join them, having muttered something about wheels that had amused Zale thoroughly.  Kiannae had guessed a meaning to the half heard expression, but had little interest to confirm it.

“Because of the snow?” she asked drolly.

“Or the clear glimmering night sky?” he said twirling ahead of her, gestured up, and turned his head to the stars.

She laughed.

“Or perhaps,” he spun around once again, and gestured to not one, but two little shop fronts for jewelers side by side.  “It was just the clever ploy of hardworking traders to get you to buy more jewelry.  For it is customary, to buy the girl you fancy jewels to warm her winter nights.  To offer her the all the stars from the sky.”

“And you wish to buy my affections?”  She chided, though it was more playful than offended.  She was somewhere between relieved and frustrated that Zale had seemingly resisted the other girl’s best efforts to steal him away.

“Oh goodness no.  I knew you would have no respect for me, if I tried that.”

“Hardly a change there.”

Zale ignored the dig.  “Still, it is tradition to browse, and who is to say a lady cannot buy for herself, particularly on her birthday.  Certainly not this one,” he nodded to the woman in the shop.  “Oh no, the merchants wouldn’t pass that up.”

The attendant at the shop did not seem terribly pleased by Zale’s spiel, but nor was she ready to presume there was no chance of a sale.  She’d seen plenty of difficult flirts like the pair lead into purchases.  Being difficult, after all, is only charming when it is worth it in the end.

Kiannae gave him a dubious look, which he returned with a smile that said he remembered full well when her birthday was.  She stepped up, and shrugged to the shopkeeper before looking through the array of rings, amulets, earrings, cuffs, and bracelets.  They were far from poorly made, the stones all glimmered, but few were of the clearest quality.  She glanced up at the impatient glare she felt from the shopkeeper, and flashed her an uncomfortable smile.  The shopkeeper’s expression changed suddenly, and she leaned forward.

“Come, come closer, please,” she said with a gesture, and Kiannae backed up cautiously.

“Please, let me see your eyes dear,” she repeated.

Kiannae considered just walking away, but curiosity struck her suddenly.  She stepped closer, and the attendant leaned farther forward, adjusting a jewelers eyepiece.  “Goodness, I’ve paid fortunes for gems half so pure,” she tsked.  “Too dark to tell from the shape, but no color that vivid could be anything other than Sylvan.”

Kiannae stepped back again.

“I don’t mean to make some trouble about it, quite the contrary.  Just wanted to see them closer.  Eyes like that…” she tsked again. “I’ve got some fine bright little emeralds.”  She turned, and rummaged a bit.  “Not much more than chips really, but they sparkle so.  She held out two cuff earrings with two green little emeralds in each, one in the thin wire cuff, one dangling below it.  They were gold to match a belt that had seen better days.

“They are lovely, but I couldn’t possibly afford them.”

“It is in fashion to wear just the one,” she offered.  “Right or left.”

“Right I suppose,” Kiannae started, and reconsidered,  “No, I still couldn’t afford it.”

“It’s not the best gold,” the woman insisted, “and the gems are more pretty than expensive, just try one on.”

Kiannae sighed, and took the right cuff, and clipped it on her ear.

“Turn, show, let the young man see.”

Kiannae checked her reflection in a mirror.  “What do I care of his opinion?” she teased.

“Oh you like compliments,” Zale countered.

Kiannae turned, and glared at him.

“Lovely, needs more brilliance to match the eyes though.”

Kiannae groaned, and rolled her head back to the shopkeeper.

“He’s not wrong,” she insisted.

“I can’t even afford these, I am sure,” she insisted.

“How much can you?” the shopkeeper questioned.

“A silver maybe,” Kiannae said, glancing into the mirror again.  She did like it, but she didn’t permit herself to think it would be enough.

“The gold is worth that much, the gems half more, my work…”

Zale set a silver coin on the counter.

“No, Zale,” Kiannae protested.

“I’m putting down the half,” he said.  “So I’m not buying it for you, am I?”

The shopkeeper looked between the two, like she was being put on, but finally convinced herself the squabble was what it appeared.  She shook her head, and sighed.  “I’ll give you back three copper sal.  She said.”

“Done, as long as the lady is putting her money down.”

Kiannae sighed.  “Fine.  She plucked her last shilling from her coin purse.”

The old woman produced three small copper coins which Zale took, and Kiannae stared a moment more in the mirror.  Convinced she nodded to the woman, and turned to leave, giving Zale a glance.

“You are terrible,” she finally said a few steps away, but it was more playful than chiding.

“I don’t know, I’d think some young women might disagree,” he offered.

“Ah, but this is the one you are dealing with,” she countered and poked him in the shoulder.

“Are you saying we have some kind of deal?” he cut back.

She mulled that over a moment, before offering up, “This would not be enough.”

Zale balked, and she smirked as she turned back around.

“What, do you think I’d be so offended by the idea?  That a woman in a position of power would sell her affections?  Certainly not so cheaply.”  She laughed and spun as she walked down the path.  “I mean truly.  Imagine a man who accomplished that feat, selling his attentions to the pretty ladies of the world.  He would be a hero, a god among men, to you men at least.  A woman though, no she is just a whore, or if you are being polite, courtesan.  Well, I’d rather her a hero, thank you.”

“Heh,” was all Zale could manage, far less than certain what to do with her words.

“But no, for the pleasure of my company, you will need to do much better.”

“I’ve already the pleasure of your company,” Zale countered.

“Oh, no, no.  I think you’ve just got the deposit down on the pestering of my company.”  She turned and shoved him gently before running off.

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Chapter 11

Words spoken in deep passion,
the touch of wanton abandon,

to write such private words,
set to enduring record,
to some it might seem absurd,
yet I will have us remembered.

– writings of Prince Arhem, circa 320 E.R.

Ink on the Page

Rhaeus 42nd, 648 E.R

Dearest Celia,

I write to you now only by the mercy of good Mercu.  Ever the romantic he has relented to see that my letters are delivered, though the King has forbid me further contact with you, or the Cloister.  A curse upon him, his airs of propriety, and a curse on the Clarions whose worthless influence now divides us.  If only that bitter old prude had not found us on the ramparts that night.

How I miss your kiss, your smile, on those sweet lips, the glimmer in your eye, and the warmth of you close to me.  I miss our time beneath the moonlight, and it kills me a little more every night, and every day that we are apart.  I want to beg you again to simply run away.  To go together somewhere and live out our lives in peace, ply our gifted trades to make ends meet, perhaps travel the world with a merchant caravan.

Surely we would be a desirable pair, a capable healer and a mage, two things ever in demand in such endeavors.  Mercu has told me many tales of his days with his father’s troop, of seeing the kingdoms of the world.  To be with you, see the world with my own eyes, not just in books.  Am I a fool?  What difference would it really make if we simply left?

Yours always,
Katrisha.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 12th, 648 E.R.

Dearest Katrisha,

I had been unconsolable until your letter arrived this eve.  I pity Lena for having to put up with me, and for having her lover displaced from her bed by my return.  How I miss you my love.  I have cried so much that it seems the tears will not even come any more, but it gives me hope to see your words put to paper.  It eases my weary heart to no end to know that you are still out there, thinking of me with the same longing.  Though it hurts all the more at once.

I cannot deny your wild dreams tempt me.  I have moments of regret for not accepting your offer to just run away that night.  Yet I have fear, not just for those we would leave behind.  That month I spent with you at the castle was the farthest I have ever been from the cloister.  Could I truly cast it all aside, just to be with you again?  I don’t know.

I am a coward, I know this.  I stand before the cloisters main doors, and stare toward Mt. Navi, and a fear grips me, a dark shadow cast over me.  I want to turn, and run the other way, and yet at once I know it is not away from something, but towards you I would run.  Perhaps it is nothing, just the fevered imaginings of a girl too scared to defy the world.  Perhaps these shadows have substance, and we need you there more than ever.  The Fates do not smile upon us, this is certain, and curse them.  I know you’ve no love of such thoughts, and yet I will hide no part of myself from you.

All at once I reconsider, and reconsider.  You have shown me so many wonders in these months of friendship, and love…but to share discovering the world together.  To not simply be your devoted pupil and lover, but your equal partner in such a grand adventure.  It is a beautiful and terrifying dream to imagine.

With devotion,
and hope,
Celia.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 16th, 648 E.R.

Laurel paced around a large bush taller than him, and strewn with little yellow flowers.  “Helmsbroom,” he said and brushed the flowers with his fingertips.  “Possibly not the ugliest plant the world has ever known, but certainly the toughest.  It can grow almost anywhere.  It can choke out almost anything, even forests struggle to overtake it.”  He gestured down the southern stretch of Broken Hill, and into the valley below, filled with more of the shrub, and little else.  He shook his head.  “Grows, and spreads like wildfire.  I’ve seen Thebes and Nohlend burn hundreds of acres at a time of the cursed stuff to try and control it.  Still, it has its uses, like breaking up hard clay.”  He kicked the lumpy dirt under his heel which only sporadically showed signs of crabgrass, or other weeds.

He glanced up at Katrisha, who was looking to the north.  “Life isn’t fair,” Laurel said.  “The sooner you learn that, the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can work to fight it.  You can’t though, fight it all at once.  Every battle must be won, not just this one, or the next.  Not just the ones in front of you, but every cursed one.  Pine all you want.  You go right on, and you love with your whole heart, if it’s what you feel have to do, but listen, and listen to me good.  You are her defender, you are the defender of this nation.  You want to love her?  You want to protect her?  Then you fight the war, not the battle.”

Katrisha gave him a cold stare.

“Yes, and you hate me too, if that helps.”  He sighed, and shook his head.  “Today you have an enemy,” Laurel intoned, changing tact.  “Fates knows I’ve never wanted to see what you could do, if you really set your mind to it.  Now, I’ve set myself down a course where I must find out exactly that.  This field, this massive waste of space, I want it cleared.  I want it reduced to ash and mulch, so that maybe we can grow something worthwhile.  I don’t even care how you do it.  Be inventive, but be fast, be efficient, and preferably burn off this rage you are harboring.”

He walked away from the bush, and stood with his arms crossed.  “Go on.  We are not leaving until the entire six acres is clear to the ground.  Fates, rip up the ground too if it makes you feel any better.  I want to see what you can really do.  No limits, nothing held back.”

Katrisha stepped down the hill towards the vast swath of flowering shrubs.  She looked at Laurel incredulously, and then back at her task.  Fire was the obvious answer.  She could just set it ablaze, and let it burn.  She didn’t usually favor fire, but decided to start there.  She closed her eyes, and pictured the shape of the spell.  Lines traced out away from her, circling the large bush standing by itself.  Paths cut across the arc of the circle she was forming, lines of force following natural faults, gathering filaments.  It was not careful, it was not the control Katrisha usually liked to exert, and yet it was all made of perfect interlocked curves, an utterly round perimeter, and then she let it tear.  She went straight to the aether, and let it rush through searing lines of fire into the ground, and set the bush ablaze in a pyre that reached twenty feet into the air, and left only dust, and ash in its wake.

“One,” Laurel chided.  “Several hundred more to go.”

Katrisha clenched her fist, and with a scream of anger swung her arm in a wide arc sending out a wave that refracted strangely as it passed, and swept fifty feet out over the densely packed bushes, which fell over almost anticlimactically.  She was left huffing, as Laurel strode up, and checked the level ledge of stalks cut cleanly three feet off the ground.  He checked the tops, and found them brittle, and touched with frost.  He gave his apprentice a long uncertain look.  “Interesting technique, but I want them leveled to the ground,” he managed in what almost passed for indifferent.  His expression belied something else.

Katrisha considered her options, and the partly cut patch of brush.  It was a large area, larger than it was easy to weave a single spell over, certainly one that needed to draw power from the aether to ignite.  Fire was never her strength, its nature to squirly and chaotic.  Ice had worked well, a sheet of frozen air slicing the stalks where they stood, but doing so low enough to the uneven ground for Laurels seemingly particular tastes would not work.

She paced back and forth along the line, stepped back, and it came to her in a flash.  The shape of it, the pattern.  On scale it would need to follow natural force lines, and it would need to happen fast.  She gathered the will behind it first, and then unleashed it freezing a patch of brush and grass in a cone a good hundred feet long, and wide, driving the heat straight into the nether, freezing the air solid around stalks.

She grabbed the backlash of energy trying to return, let the natural gradients create sheer, and shattered stalks, and even dirt with a wave of erratic force.

“Better,” Laurel said with thin reserve.

Katrisha glanced at him, perked a brow, smiled defiantly, and let the rest of the energy through, and cary more from the aether with it, driving a burst of fire that turned the core to swirling ash, and left the edges in spreading flames.

Laurel snuffed the perimeter with some difficulty, rolled his shoulders, and crossed his arms again.  “You’ll be doing the damage yourself, not just letting it burn,” he chided a bit thinly.  “Continue.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 20th, 648 E.R.

Dearest Celia,

I write to you now from my tower prison.  A guard – yes a guard – has been set at my chamber door.  Laurel found me in the main castle library perusing books and records of trade caravans.  He took little time to make assumptions that, I must admit were correct.  I had almost convinced myself to make a break for it, to run to you, and beg you to leave with me. He has never forgiven himself for Kiannae’s disappearance, or for me almost dying that night.  Now he and the King make me their prisoner, for my “protection.”

Even my own brother is forbidden to visit me, as part of these petty games.  A show of false separation from the sisterhood.  False…as if bowing to their whims and prejudices is any less than what they want.  All in service of what?  Just appeasement, and placation to buy me a place I do not want.  All to prevent a temporary appointment of this man Oradin, of whom I am told nothing.

I am allowed beyond these walls only to practice spells of such terrible power as to leave me in awe, and unnerved at the prospect of what such methods are clearly meant for.  Or how easily I devise them on my own.  To kill or destroy on such a scale, it makes me ill to even consider the idea.  Yet I am made more uneasy at the exhilaration of power.  I see the same conflict in Laurel’s eyes, of pride, and worry….and sadness.  Oh I want to hate him for his part in separating us, yet I know, though I can not bear to speak to him of it, I know this was not his will.  He tells me to hate him if I must, and so I find in all contrariness I can’t.

At least being up here has kept that cursed boy away from me, that bastard Arlen’s son.  I don’t know what I did to attract his attention, but he is relentless in his efforts to win some kind of favor with me.  Perhaps it is simply to prod at his father’s Clarion principles.  That would be charming in it’s own way, if I was interested, but he seems to fail to grasp that I am not.

Oh Celia, what am I to do, I feel as though I can not go on this way.  If ever your heart doubts my love, look to the ring I gave you, and remember what it means.

Ever yours,
Katrisha.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 30th, 648 E.R.

Dearest Katrisha,

It has been a strange, and unsettling week.  To watch another close to me, be as heartbroken as I have been, has been at once sad and grounding.  Lena broke up with Andrew.  She found out he had been sleeping with two other girls.  The rumors say she slapped him so hard he turned to an older Sister for help healing it, and was refused.  He has managed well enough on his own, but there was a mark for several days.

Just this afternoon wounded arrived from the north.  Survivors of a royal convoy ambushed by bandits.  It has been years since the last attack, and Rennae suspects these are common brigands, if only because there are survivors.  I have doubts though.  According to survivors they were saved only by the chance intervention of a Knight of the Empire.  It troubles me deeply, but I am loathed to waste more words on matters you surely will hear of from better sources before my letter reaches you.

My mother has seen how I hold your ring to my heart, and after many long talks has offered me a ring that I might entrust to you in turn.  It belonged to my grandmother I am told, and though my mother has – in her words – ‘never felt the need for such singular attachment,’ she will support me in this, if it is my will.  All at once she councils me…that even such promises, need not always abide the same rules.

I write these words with a trembling hand, for what I have come to consider.  What my mother, and my faith council me in equal parts.  Monogamy is not a tenant of Lycian belief, it is a personal agreement, an understanding between those lovers who wish that unique bond.  To break that agreement is a betrayal of the highest order, and Andrew is not to be easily forgiven for what he did.

Yet I must think to myself, that if I can not be there for you, that if a chance presents itself, take it.  Do not be alone for my sake my dearest love.  No, for my very sake do not be alone.  I for my part can not imagine being with another, but I would not be hurt, would never judge you for the simple choice to be happy in this muddled life of ours.  Take every happiness this petty world permits, wear this ring as a promise of my love, not a mark of my ownership.  Let it offer you the comfort your ring gives me, but not to forsake what other comfort you might find.

Your loyal,
unwavering love,
Celia.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 12th, 648 E.R.

Katrisha sighed in the cool night air, glad to be allowed to walk freely again.  She had managed to convince Laurel that she no longer harbored thoughts of fleeing into the night.  How she convinced him of such lies she was unsure, but perhaps it was in truth that she grew ever less certain she could follow through.

Katrisha glanced down the rampart at the sound of approaching footsteps.  “What brings you up here Eran?” she asked curiously.  “Surely they aren’t assigning rangers to wall patrols in the dead of night, suddenly?”

“They are, if one offends a Knight,” Eran laughed.

“Arlen?” Katrisha asked irritably, and without a breath of hesitation.

“Could it be another?” Eran said with a grin.  “I managed to insult, and offend him to the point of nearly losing his temper, and striking me, without breaking a single rule of official decorum.  Though maybe the bits pertaining to his old friends sanity did brush some lines of good taste, in general.”

“That must have been a sight,” Katrisha laughed, “and make no apologies to me, for any affront to Idolus.”

“I have it on good authority that it was entertaining,” Eran nodded.  “The only vengeance he could take on me was this assignment.  So, here I am.”

“You came from the cloister didn’t you?” Katrisha asked after a moment. “If you don’t mind me prying of course.”

“From anyone else…” Eran began thoughtfully.  “Not that I really know you well, but I know you have lived there, and I have heard a couple things that make me think you could use someone to talk to about that life.”

“What have you heard?” Katrisha asked hesitantly, unsure of what rumors might be circulating, or what consequences they might have.  She wondered, just for a moment if word of her, and Celia had really gotten out.  If she might suddenly find herself undesirable, and free to leave.

“I know that I have been helping with mail delivery lately,” Eran said with a smile.  “I have not been told who from, or to precisely, but it hasn’t been hard to guess.”

“I don’t…” Katrisha started to lie hesitantly, and thought better of it.  “I didn’t know you were involved.”

“I have family there,” Eran rubbed the back of his head almost nervously, “and an old debt to repay to Mercu.  He may be a good man, but he knows how to get his money’s worth.”

“I see…” Katrisha said uncomfortably.

Eran looked at her kindly, shook his head, and sighed.  “I have other reasons for helping, as it were.  You see, I’ve decided I approve of you, for what if any say I have in the matter.”

“What?” Katrisha asked suddenly confused.

“Have you ever met Celia’s father?” Eran asked perking a brow.

“…no…” Katrisha answered, having not really thought of it.

“You are quite wrong,” Eran said with a half hearted laugh, “even if you don’t know it.  Nor does she for that matter, last I checked, and to my perpetual frustration.”

Katrisha glared at Eran.  “You aren’t saying…”

“I am,” Eran said a bit tersely.  “Renoa and I were lovers, if that is quite the word.  It was…casual.  She a Red Sister, and I a young man of the cloister with wild ideas in my head.  The whole chain of events was tragic really.  You see, Red Sisters are, rather by definition, not monogamous.  Which at first suited me fine.  Then I fell in love, and she didn’t.  Don’t get me wrong.  She loved me, in her own way, in the way of her Order, but it wasn’t enough.  What possessed her to have my child I will never know, because she did not ask my thoughts on the matter, and I passed up I think the one opportunity I may have ever had to ask hers.  When she told me, after I had already moved on, I was to say the least confused, and a little angry.”

“That is a horrible sounding mess,” Katrisha said at a loss for better words.

“I did nothing to make things better,” Eran agreed.  “I had already often dreamed of joining the King’s army.  Something that is distinctly against the oaths of the order, but something in me always gravitated to the tales of brave Knights, and the old mage kings.  So I left the cloister, and sought my fortune here.  Several years later I reconsidered on one point.  I decided I wished to know the daughter that was conceived without my knowledge, or consent.  By then, Renoa refused.”

“How exactly does that work?” Katrisha asked.  “Knowledge, consent.  Isn’t it just what happens when men and women…” she hesitated to finish her questions.

“The sisters of the order…most gifted women so far as I know, cleanse themselves twice or so a month,” Eran said with a shrug.  “The technique is primarily meant to avoid womanly inconvenience, but it also has the side effect of preventing pregnancy quite well.  She simply chose to let it happen.  I’m surprised they didn’t teach you of it during your stay, but you did arrive a bit later in life.  An oversight I guess.”

“I was taught”  Katrisha laughed.  “By your daughter it seems, of all things.”  Katrisha shook her head, her cheeks warm with embarrassment hidden by the pale light.  “I was not informed it had any other…effects.”

“I suppose it wasn’t really relevant, to two young women.” Eran said pointedly, and then laughed uncomfortably himself, and glanced off into the night.

“No…” Katrisha said laughing, and dropping her gaze.  “No I suppose it wasn’t.”  Katrisha glanced to Eran, frowned, and considered both the merits and troubles of mentioning her worries over Celia’s last letter.  There were so many ways in which he seemed both the best, and worst person to ask.  The confidence he had offered her already, and his expressed approval, such as it was worth, won her over.

“I love Celia,” Katrisha finally blurted out.

“I’ve been around long enough,” Eran said with a bit of an edge, and a shrewd look crossing his face, “to hear the but behind that.”

“She has recently encouraged me to seek – shall I say the comforts of others, in words nearly so obtuse – while were are trapped in this indefinite separation,” Katrisha said at once nervously, and angrily.

“I see,” Eran said obviously uncomfortable, but not mortified.  “Such is the way of some Sisters,” he said distantly.  “As I have said.  There was a time, that it didn’t bother me, and a time that it did.  I was a fool perhaps, but my heart could not handle the jealousy.”

“Are you saying that I should?” Katrisha demanded nearly indignant.

“What do I know of the hearts of women?”  Eran shrugged dismissively.  “Even my upbringing would lead me to expect a woman to be the jealous one, and men the ones of wandering lusts. Prejudice has a strange tendancy to detach from more careful observations.  Yet here I stand, a man who could not handle a woman with a roving way.  She was never less than honest about who she was.  You know your heart better than I, and hers, for that matter I would guess.”

“You truly do not know your own daughter?” Katrisha asked hesitantly.

“I have met her,” Eran said.  “Only briefly, a few times, including her.  I could not bring myself to tell her, and I do not have any reason to suspect her mother has.”

“Should I?” Katrisha asked hesitantly.

“I would not ask it…nor will I tell you to keep it a secret,” Eran looked away into the night.  “It has gone so long unsaid…perhaps it is best it remain that way.  I must go lest there be questions.  I hope I have helped…in some small way.”

                                                                       ⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 31st, 648 E.R.

Katrisha considered one of several bookcases in Mercu’s chamber at length.  She knew he had the book she was looking for somewhere.  She finally caught sight of it near the top of the most unreasonable shelf, and wondered how long he had misplaced it there.  Truly the top shelf was even out of Mercu’s easy reach, and he on occasion needed step up onto a lower shelf precariously to acquire a tome.  Never bothered to do the more sensible thing like bring a chair, or keep one next to the problem shelf.

She sighed, kicked off her shoes, and climbed the first, then second shelf.  The thing tilted, and slammed back against the wall as two well practiced spells formed at the corners, and forced the bookcase into place without a care.  Katrisha had been climbing, and saving Mercu from the cursed shelf for half her life.  Automatic could not even describe the action, it might has well have been a property of the shelf itself for the effort it took.

This thought crossed Katrisha’s mind, and she considered that there were more practical means than enchantment to affix the shelves in place.  Not that anyone one had ever undertaken such reasonable precaution.  She bound her spells lazily into the wood, held her intent on it.  Enchantment had been a passing fascination, and she had done only a little more than her instruction strictly required.  She knew her principles well, almost had her equations memorized.  Time was exponential to power, and consistency of application.  A few seconds could last a few hours in constant use, a few minutes many orders longer.  She set a catch into the spell if it moved away from the wall, that if not triggered by her own weight would have released the effect to a neutral standby, increasing the longevity of the enchantment several fold depending on use.

After a minute of focus she released the effect.  It would be good for several years at least she calculated, varying with how often it needed to do its job.  She considered entropic effects, but even dead wood was fairly resistant.  The natural pattern of the spell seemed likely to channel the loss back into the stone wall, which would perhaps lose upwards of a few millimeters to dust over the plausible duration of her work.  Less than driving metal into the stone would do.  It was good enough for a whim she decided and moved on.

Katrisha considered a book bound in rich red leather with no mark on its right in front of her.  She wagered a guess what it might be, ran her finger along it’s spine thoughtfully, tapped it three times, and made note to check on it in future.  She snatched the book she was looking for from the left, hopped down, and put on her shoes.

She set back down toward the main keep, thinking over her options.  She aimed to be a nuisance, not an actual problem.  To rub being kept prisoner, in her captors faces.  To irritate them, but not give them just cause to punish her.  She figured that if the book was what she thought, reading it publically would cross several of those lines.  Tempting, but no.  She would suffice to read somewhere slightly in the way, sulkily, until they ordered her to be somewhere else, and then she would, technically.

It wasn’t that any part of it was an act.  The sulking, the brooding, the pain and anger were constant, and in her estimation very justified.  She was suffering, on their account, and so putting her misery where it could be seen seemed the proper way to go about it, rather than hide somewhere.  She alternated between the two erratically, caught between whether it hurt her more to be seen, or for her misery to not be constantly known.

Katrisha sat down on the second to lowest step of the royal stair, opened her book, and flipped through the first few pages absently.  She found with some frustration she needed to lift the book a bit to read it comfortably, rather than just rest it on her lap.  She sat there a good ten minutes, drew an annoyed look from a passing guard, and then stopped, and looked up at the sound of a familiar voice.

“…he picked up his shield, still gripped with fear, but refused it…”

“Oh, Katrisha!” Marline said excitedly, her hand on Mercu’s shoulder, interrupting his story.

“Ah, yes, there is our little ray of sunshine,” Mercu acknowledged.  He had been a mixture of understanding, and insufferable in Katrisha’s estimation.  His manner always comforting, compassionate, his words often much less so.  Little jabs like that were frequent.  He had explained at one point, when she confronted him about it, and he held her chin between two fingers, and fixed her square in the eye, ‘She’s not dead.’  She hadn’t even been able to protest the words for how obtusely obvious they were.  ‘You remember that,’ he had continued.  ‘So as long as you keep acting like she is, I’m going to keep teasing you.  Probably regardless, but take your chances.’

“Seems more a ray of moonshine,” Maraline considered. “My dear, your hair, it is spectacular!”

Katrisha closed her book, and shifted somewhat languishingly from her moping to some semblance of joy to see Maraline.  It at once hurt and consoled her to see the undisguised concern written on Maraline’s face.  She stood, reached out her hand, palm up, and Marline accepted curiously to let her kiss the back of hers.

“So formal,” Maraline said, “truly I must wonder if I am even before the great and mighty Katrisha.”  She leaned forward, and embraced her firmly.  “Do forgive the interruption, Mercu, you will finish the tale later, I implore.  After all it has been so long since I’ve seen my dearest friend.”

“Of course,” Mercu said with a bow, and headed on down the corridor.

“What brings you to Broken Hill?” Katrisha asked, and returned the embrace for a moment before stepping back.

“I’ve heard so much of your troubles, and could not remain away any longer,” Maraline said with a nod of sympathy.  “Though I fear that some most recent difficulty that has befallen you, was deemed too confidential to clarify.  Mercu has assured me it is only for you to speak of, and since you will not write me back.”

“Thank you for your letters,” Katrisha said a bit meekly.  “I am sorry I did not respond of their receipt, or what they have meant to me.  At first I did not know what to say, and then…as you know I was ill.  When finally something so wonderful came into my life, all at once I did not feel I could write of it.  Now something terrible in equal measure, and all the less I did not feel right to pen an account of it that might be intercepted, or for that matter to speak of it publically.  Please, walk with me, and I will be less afraid to tell you.”

Marline took Katrisha’s hand with both curiosity and concern, and they climbed the stairs.

“Fear,” Maraline mused.  “Why are the stories always about the boy’s conquering their fears?  The moment I saw Mercu I knew I would quite childishly beg him to tell me a story, and he did not disappoint, but…”

Kat stopped, smirked, and gave Marline a pointed glance.  “Personally, I always attributed the prevalence of the theme to boys having so many more fears to conquer.”

“Oh, is that why you’ve fought a dragon naked then, a complete lack of sensible fear?”

“No, that was you.”

“Excuse me?” Maraline protested incredulously, her hand coming suddenly to her heart.

“I told you about that passage, in that old book, where a proud male mage spoke of it as more sensible to go into battle naked than in a robe.  Shared the joke about how it would be shameless to do such a thing.  You said it would be fearless, for shame, is just another form of fear.”

“So you are fearless then, and inasmuch, shameless?” Maraline teased.

“Probably,” Katrisha shrugged, and spun to give a childish cheeky glance to her old friend, and then reconsidered that she had been foolish.  Maraline really was her friend.  She had always offered her such confidence, and Katrisha had never felt she had the same to give in kind.  That wasn’t true, and never had been true, she began to realize, though it was only half formed.

“Yet you fear to tell me what new ill, or for that matter good fortune has befallen you,” Marline cut back.

Two realizations collided.  A rush of a battle mage at the height of her power, working on pure instinct, and far less skill than should have been required for the task.  A moment standing on a cliff, considering all the ways things could go wrong – and the thought was little more than an itch – all the ways it already had.  It all crumbled, and came back to Maraline, and the words that had tipped the balance to try something utterly mad.  She was fearless in that moment, and there before Maraline, she was anything but shameless as present emotions overtook the shadows of things that never were.

It rushed in, all the years they had spent together, every moment added up into far more time that it should have existed.  It dwindled the already overwhelming memory of that night, and pushed it aside into the shadows where it belonged.  She could not even place all the memories that struck her.  She struggled with an understanding that the two experiences were the same.  Struggling through every moment of her life to navigate senses more easily ignored.  Feeling not just the moment, but the one ahead.  Had all her memories happened.  Would Maraline remember every one of them as well.  Would any found missing be as likely to have never happened, as any failing of Maraline’s memory.

Katrisha only slightly teetered under the weight of it all, and Marline moved to catch her, which actually put Katrisha off balance, and made her more uncomfortable.  The part that seemed more important wanted to recede, and the realization of things that should have been painfully obvious from the start gladly took their place.  The idea of her memory being wrong somehow was slippery.  Dragons, battles, the things of legend felt small in the shadow of life itself.  That was as much as she could fully retain.

Katrisha turned her head from her friend as she grew embarrassed by what it might look like, her nearly fainting for seemingly no reason, or the wrong reason.  Or was it?  So many silly things she had thought were nothing, added up to something.  Something that had been the real cause.  The most mundane of human attachments having caught a ride on a battle for her life.  All fighting with something nipping at the edge of awareness.  Things that hadn’t happened.  Pasts that hadn’t been.  In both cases.  She could almost identify the new memories, like the feeling that something had happened before in reverse, the feeling that something you knew had happened hadn’t.

It had never been the fall.  Those wounds however grave, were nothing.  If she had fought a lifetime on that mountain, she felt like she had known Maraline far longer, even as the memories fell away, this impression stuck.  She pushed it all back into the shadows where it belonged, and embraced a far more comfortable human embarrassment.  Nearly convinced even herself that had been it.

“I suppose I must explain that?” Katrisha asked uneasily.

“Only if you do not want me to drag you to Laurel this instant, and even then I will make no promises,” Marline said sternly.  “You, were never the fainting sort.”

“I worry to think what you will think of me if I tell you.  For I will have some trouble liking you nearly so much if you think ill of me for it.  Further, I must demand of you absolute confidence on the mater.  For it has already cost me enough.”

Marline looked shrewd a moment.  “You have my word,” she nodded.

Katrisha checked each way, and used the excuse to lean closer – well before she realized it was an excuse.  “I’ve come to realize, having fallen in love, what some things that I did, or did not feel, might have meant.”  She paused leadingly with a smile.


“You are in love, dear Katrisha!?” Marline said excitedly, grabbing her hand.  All she had been told in Mercu’s letter had been that Katrisha had faced more troubles than illness, or her missing twin, and could above all else use a friend.

Katrisha went crimson.  “Yes, and it has cost me a great deal this love, for she, is kept far away from me, for the sake of the image of the court.”  Shameless and fearless, were both cute words, Katrisha realized, but they were rubbish.  One needed simply accept the fear, and ignore shame, and live their life any way.

Maraline’s expression shifted in a most inscrutable way, as though sliding sideways through implications, and arriving at one that made her release Katrisha’s hand, though not quite pull away.  “I’ve not…been without understanding that such things are,” she said measuredly.

“And so am I now less in your eyes?” Katrisha asked with some tension that could have been sadness or annoyance, she wasn’t quite sure without Maraline’s answer.

“I think not.  Just a matter of point that I’ve not fancied the notion myself, and would not give any allusions to the contrary, if…let me not be too impertinent in my presumptions.”

“Wait, what?” Katrisha asked a bit bewildered.

“Dear creature, that was if I did not miss my guess, a wilt of want.  You are a fainting sort after all, just not over rugged sorts.”  Maraline rested her fingers over her heart, and smiled.

Katrisha gave her a funny look.  She did not like the interpretation.  She had been overwhelmed by things she was ill disposed to explain, and even if what was implied played a part, it was…  She shook off her uncertainty, and played along, because if nothing else, the tact of it did appeal to her on some levels.  “Well, now you are just flirting with me.”

“I am, matter of fact,” Maraline agreed, and seemed pleased with the reaction it got.  “I find it is the natural condition of such conversation when both sides are close, and at least one fancies the other.  I, never was drawn to the notion, but it was good sport to be playful with those who did, whom I shared such confidence as to know.”

“I think for once it is my turn to call you terrible.”

“I had the best teacher,” Marline said, took Katrisha’s hands again, and then hugged her tightly.

“Funny how they keep calling me that,” Katrisha laughed.

“Terrible?” Marline asked, pushed back, and held her friend at arm’s length, as though prepared to rain great trouble on anyone else who dared to call her friend terrible.

“A good teacher,” Karisha correct.  “I thought Celia magic, she taught me…a few other things.”

Marline covered her mouth, and giggled.  “Oh did she now?  Anything of use to ungifted hands?”

“Perhaps,” Katrisha mused.  “I wonder though if it is anything your husband and you have not worked out yet.  You’ve had a little longer.”

“I suppose only a thorough comparing of notes could resolve the issue.”

“How studious,” Katrisha said biting her lip to hold back her humor.

“We learned to value analytical knowledge from the same man after all.  Good old Moriel.  I do not suspect he would approve the subject, but let us at least keep the rigor up to his standards!”

“Oh, by all means, but please,” Katrisha chuckled.  “Can we take this somewhere else, I think I’m about to wind up on my knees after all, from laughter.”

Maraline nodded, and looped her arm with Katrisha’s.  “You know I always felt more like you were a little brother,” she considered conspiratorially.  “Guess there’s no surprise then where your fancies might lie.”

“How dare you,” Katrisha snapped more amused than angry really, but it did sting a bit.  “I am in no way a boy.  I am feminine, girlish,” she reached over and batted one of Marline’s long meticulously shaped curls pointedly, “just not patient for such preening.  Oh it’s pretty, and I appreciate it, surely, but at once more and less for how much fuss it all is.  Further, I am not quite half so boorish as a boy.”

“Forgive me, you are right.  I’d hardly call any of those girls anything but the most proper ladies, in styling, as it were,” she sighed.  “Though I often had my doubts as to their character.  Engaging handmaids, and servants in such affairs.  Such an imbalance of power.  It was really through my friends…experience with such girls I learned how much more commonly the boys sought their…attentions.”

Katrisha looked very cross.  “They…misused them?”

“No, not by my understanding.  Sorry it is my own prejudice that might have intruded on my tone.  I have been told there are simple rules.  Who crafted these rules none can say, but they are rules, and the group will enforce them in perhaps dire ways.  First no names.  Second no titles.  Third always in kind.”



“Oh,” Katrisha said a bit perplexed.  “What do they mean exactly, though I think I may partly understand.”



“You do not tell who your lovers are.  Your title and station mean nothing, you are equals.  I do not always trust that I believed that.  In practice though, I am told at least meant that which is done for your tastes, must be paid in kind.”

“Tastes?” Katrisha pressed not sure of the meaning, and trying to make sense of it.

“I’ve been told it’s most often a matter of the lips, tongue, and…” she let that hang a moment, and watched Katrisha’s reaction.

Katrisha went pale.  “I never!”

“Oh, yes, words I’ve heard attested before, and just as then I will take your account as fact, but someone did, and so the notion persists.  Seriously, deprives the mater of the proper airs some tried to give it.  Manners that would seem more proper than the affair of a man and woman, for certain, goodness such a messy affair.  Oh worth it, of course, but I find I must bathe to feel sensible again.”

“I can only imagine, and it seems I would rather not.”

“So now I will press curiosity on my end.  Have you no affection for men?”

“I cannot say that I have.  Not many my age that have not offended my sensibilities thoroughly. Not many older for what that is worth.  So perhaps the matter is an open question, in want of a palatable answer.”

“I ask because one young lady did confide in me that having partaken of both, she had concluded she greatly preferred the attentions of a more feminine sort.”

“I can’t say I’ve tried both, and I’ve no particular intention to.  Quite content with my Celia.”

“Lycian,” Marline said sagely.

“Excuse me?” Katrisha asked feeling almost as though she should be annoyed, but confused why.

“It is a word for a woman who partakes primarily of the affections of other women,” Marline answered.

“It’s also a rather large nation out east, a people, do not tell me it is just because they have a Queen?  It’s also the name of…an order…”

“Yes, well,” Marline chuckled watching Katrisha freeze up as a thought rattled through her head unsatisfactorily.  “I think it’s a little more that they’ve had a few pairs of Queens, and I think perhaps you’ve remembered the reputation of that order.”

“They don’t all,” Katrisha protested.

“Oh, from my reading the original sense was far less polite than just something flowery like lover of women.  Something that I estimate is quite capable of being far more tidy than the games of husband and wife.  And all the same was a slur on the women of a whole people, and the men.  A mocking of their looseness, and the men’s lack of mastery.  That all was till some woman had enough, and turned that slur into a point of pride.”

“Sylvia Grey?” Katrisha asked.

“Yes, so you do know some of this?”

“No, I think I’ve only begun to put it together, honestly.”

“I’ve not read the full Red Book,” Marline said absently.  “I’ve been trying to get a copy, but they are terribly hard to come by in South Rook.  There also seems some confusion on the matter.  I have come to conclude there to be several different tomes of the same description, and author.”

“Are there?” Katrisha asked curiously.  It seemed a new revelation on a topic she had not pressed her curiosity upon yet.  Yet was all the more sure exactly where she would start.

“They try so hard to hide things from us Ladies.  Yet in my experience it is the Ladies who know how things really are.  Men, my dear man among them, are the ones possessed of a great many illusions in matters of courtship.  That what they feel is so uniquely impassioned, chief among such folly.”

Katrisha blushed again.

“Were I so bold, I might assure him that a woman feels all the urges he does, but we measure them against a cost in fuss he needn’t be so troubled by.  Pregnancy, and mess.  No.  How would he understand that even the one of these that is wanted, is still a detriment even to a well wed woman expected to produce heirs.  He is a sweet man, but he’s no concept of such work.  That we may long for the act, but it is with us that the consequences stay, both the moment, and the children in our bellies.  No, it was this, that was argued to me, most vehemently, as to why it is so much more respectable to pass one’s time with another lady, than a young man.  For nature has placed us on entirely equal terms in the matter.”

“I suppose it would be quite the effort to lower myself to a man,” Katrisha cut back on the point.

“Assuredly,” Marline rejoined.  “Think how much farther it is for me.”

“Very far,” Katrisha flirted back, and caught herself.

Marline smirked pleasantly, and Katrisha found it all together unfair the effect she could have on her as she realized so many things, that previously had just been an inch out of sight.

“You are a lovely young woman,” Marline said and gently touched her friends cheek.  “While I’ve no particular affinity to take leave of what might be behind that look in your eyes, does not mean I do not take some pride in having such effect on you.  If this offers any recompense for our uneven positions.”

“I suppose some,” Katrisha offered.  “Very clear eyed of you to notice the affront.”

“You’ve never been one to wear them gladly, least of all the ones you can’t call another party wrong on.”

“No, nor do I permit that I am.”

“I think not,” Marline offered agreeably.

“Then things are settled.”

“Oh, no, hardly, details, every one.”

“And you will pay in kind?”

“Those are the rules.”

Katrisha laughed.

They stepped into the tower stairs together, and Katrisha hesitated.  She listened for footsteps above, or bellow,  She had already been careless, but she was not sure she cared.  She was not sure she didn’t either.    “Then, let me start with the most frustrating of them.  That she has bid me not keep myself in loneliness for her.  That for her very sake, I should avail myself of the opportunity of affection where I might find it.”

“How markedly unjealous,” Marline said dubiously.  “I do not think I could make my Lucas such an offer, though there should never be such need.  I suppose if I were to imagine that…it could be years.  I suppose I should imagine it happening any way, and offer my forgiveness in advance.  All at once I do not like the idea in the least.  To encourage it, and you would again characterize it so, as encouragement?”

“Frustratingly, yes.  It appears more request than acceptance.”

“I’m at a cross of sensibilities then.  It seems a most…fair, affordance, in an all together unfair situation, and amongst those already outside convention.”

“I do not believe any lack of convention gives me the least peace.  Well, I needn’t worry.  For a lack of opportunity it all amounts to no more than an intellectual quandary,” Katrisha countered.

“I doubt very much you’ve any lack of opportunity, only imagination.”

“Since when did you have the greater imagination?”

“Oh but I’ve so much more knowledge on the matter to work with,” Maraline intoned sagely, and started up the stairs.

“Oh do you?” Katrisha chided.  “I’ve it on some authority that a gifted woman, who knows the practices I do, needn’t have worry about…shall we say such imbalance that favors the man in such affairs.”

“Nothing unintended?  I’ve heard rumors it is so, and that you needn’t deal with certain recurring annoyances.”

“Yes, well, I did once, before someone thought to teach me otherwise.”

“Poor dear, once!  However have you endured,” Maraline said with the most exaggerated mock pitty, and turned to make sure the act was appreciated.  “I dare say it is the best thing about my condition, that I no longer have to suffer it.”

“You…are pregnant?” Katrisha asked, startled by the casually dropped insinuation.

“A month late for that unwelcome visitor, yes.  A healer has confirmed.  Otherwise I would pester you for aid in that recurring nuisance, but as it is, I am not in need of such services.”

“I hadn’t heard,” Katrisha said excitedly.

“I’ve told no one else yet, save my husband.  I was advised with a first young pregnancy like this to speak sparingly of it, but the frankness of our conversation got the better of me.  So now you know.”

“Congratulations,” Katrisha added with a nod.

“Don’t think that gets you out of this,” Marline grinned wickedly.

“Don’t think you haven’t added to the list of questions you will be answering in kind.  Oh, but let me call attention to what you have not noticed,” Katrisha held up her left hand, and made apparent a ring there.

Maraline grasped the hand in disbelief, and looked to her friend to confirm her assertion.

“Accuse me of being unconventional,” she said teasingly.

“I would never accuse, of what I know to be fact,” she said laughing at the confirmation.

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 10

Had I known the trouble in you,
had I seen what was yet to be,
I’d not wish the past to undo,
what then would become of me,

we take the good with the bad,
mistakes to bitter or better end,
if I could change what we had,
would I yet here stand?

– Edith J. Enyae, circa 380 E.R.

Difficult Company

Coria 40th, 648 E.R.

There was a loud growl, and Zale stopped in his tracks.  When it was repeated Kiannae glanced down from the rock she was perched atop, and considered the dark furred wolf beneath her.  It had grown noticeably in only a few weeks, and seemed likely to soon be nearly as large as a full grown wolf.  “Leave him be Shadow.”

The wolf sat, and adopted a more demure manner, but still eyed the young man dubiously.  The wolfs eyes much like his mothers, two silver moons hung in a dark sky, the white of his muzzle underlying whatever impression his glare gave.  At that moment, distaste.  “You too Lunka,” Kiannae said firmly, staring past Zale, who turned uneasily to find the white wolf pup taking a seat behind him, her blue eyes glimmering with a sense of superiority.  There was always such fierce intelligence behind those eyes, an understanding of the order of things, and where she truly belonged in it.

“How in the abyss do you do that?” Zale demanded.

“Do I know?” Kiannae laughed.  “Ask Landri, she seems to understand it better.”

“Yes, but they only listen to you,” Zale countered.

“What can I say,” Kiannae said with a grin.  “Smart wolves.  Maybe you could learn something from them.”

“I listen to you plenty,” Zale protested.

“You listen, but do you hear?” Kiannae pressed.

“Wouldn’t that be, I hear, but do I listen?”

Kiannae huffed slightly.  “I suppose so.  Well played.”  She sighed.  “What do you want?”

“Company,” Zale said.  “Maybe to feel useful.  You’ve been very standoffish since your two new pets joined us.  Still no word from the third?”

“He’s not my pet,” Kiannae snapped.

“Taloe then,” Zale corrected himself.  “Have you heard from him at all?”

“No,” Kiannae said flatly.

“That doesn’t seem right,” Zale said firmly.  “And you have no idea why?”

Kiannae hesitated.  “I think I know why.”

“Would it hurt to tell me?”

“It could,” Kiannae offered.

“If there is a problem,” Zale pressed, “it wouldn’t be good to keep it secret.”

The two wolves tensed suddenly.

“Everything is fine,” Taloe said, stepping from a fine mist.

“Now you show up,” Zale said glaring at the other boy irritably.

“I have had affairs of my own to deal with,” Taloe said flatly.  “They are no concern of yours little man.”

“Who’s little?” Zale demanded, marching towards the slightly shorter boy.

Taloe became mist, and with a rush appeared behind Zale and gave him only the lightest shove, which still teatered his balance.  “What form I wore in life, is of little consequence.  You are pale, small, and your gift weak.  You stand before greatness.  You pester, and pry into affairs beyond your ken.”

“And you are a ghost,” Zale said spinning to face the other boy again.  “A parasite, a thing which steals from that very greatness. Deny it.”

“Enough,” Kiannae snapped at the two, and both wolves growled.  “Quiet,” Kiannae growled back at the wolves.

Both boys stood silent, glaring at one another a while longer, till at last Taloe shifted backwards, became mist, and reformed sulking against a tree some distance away.

“He started it,” Zale protested after giving up staring at the elemental being that looked away from them into the distant forest.

“That he did,” Kiannae said flatly.  “I will be speaking to him about that.  He isn’t wrong about you prying though.”

“Only because I care,” Zale said defensively.

“Is it?” Kiannae pressed.  “Or am I just here?”  She got up, stepped closer, and looked him in the eye.  He looked hurt, and she felt a bit bad for it, but she had her doubts.  His own admissions left her with such uncertainty.  Did he really care, was he really interested, or was she just available?  Not that it was perhaps the best word for how she had been, she considered.  All things being relative though.

“I’m your friend,” Zale said firmly.  “Maybe I haven’t had many other options, but that doesn’t make it otherwise.”

“Is that all you want from me?  The only girl near your age around, and you follow me, you insist on coming after me on this assigned journey like some lost puppy.”

“You’ve a knack for attracting those,” Zale cut back defensively, and looked as though he might have thought better of it.  He stood his ground nonetheless.

“I do, don’t I?” Kiannae said with equal determination.  “I am the storm after all it seems, walker or otherwise.  I drag all the refuse of the world in my wake.  There’s prophecy regarding me, you know?  The real kind, the kind marked down through the ages, not just glimpses of my own, or some seer.  No?  You don’t?  I didn’t tell you?  That’s because I’m running away from it.  You don’t know me, you have no idea who I am, or what I come from.”

Zale almost marched away at that, he clenched his fists, and gritted his teeth.  Then he softened, and looked sad instead.  Still on the verge of indignity, and anger, but some better grace it seemed had come over him.

“So he’s right then?” Zale said.  “You are greatness, and me something pale, not worthy of your time?”

“I don’t want to be revered,” Kiannae said fiercely, and threw up her hands.  “I don’t want any of what the world has handed me.  Prophecy, power, and responsibility too.  I’ll have none of it.  It cost my sister her life.  We were up on that mountain because we believed if we did otherwise, our mentor…our…father.  That he would die instead.  Maybe he even did, I don’t know.  We changed that future – we listened to one prophetic vision, and ignored another.  The prophecy said the younger of us would die first, and to beware a dragon that lies.”

“Do you want to be alone?” Zale asked uneasily.

Kiannae tried to read the worst in his words, and almost succeeded, but he seemed too sincere, and sad.

“It would be best, wouldn’t it?” Kiannae all but muttered.  “There is nothing happy in the folly that chases me.  I’m sure a great many people will have to die around me before anyone offers me a crown, to try to make me, a queen.  How would that even happen?  I’m no one.  Just, an orphan from northern farms, a Sylvan bastard with no tie to any royal line.  However much time…” she stopped herself, and turned away.  She’d kept that secret long enough, she wasn’t about to start blathering it in a fit of rage.

There was silence for a moment.  Kiannae almost wondered if Zale had slunk away, but she could still feel him standing there.  She closed her eyes.  “They can offer me all the crowns of this world, they can offer me the rebuilt seat of the empire itself.  I won’t have it.”

Kiannae tensed as she felt Zale move, heard fallen leaves crunch beneath his feet.  She didn’t want him to come closer.  She didn’t want to be validated, consoled, or told things would be alright.  She didn’t want to be told what she would believe no more than pretty lies.  She wanted to be angry, filled with rage, to spin around, and tell him off once more.  She wanted to do a great many things, but she stood there.  She let Zale embrace her.

She opened her eyes, and stared into the forest.  It helped, but it made her no less happy to know it was true.  She tried, and tried to frame him in all the worst light, but there was nothing unchased in his manner.  His arms around her helped, and she did not like that they did.  She didn’t want to let someone close.

Neither were in a position to see Taloe observe the scene unfold.  He was less happy about it than Kiannae, but though he could feel her turmoil, all the more he felt her grudging acceptance.  She needed what Zale was offering her.  What Taloe might have offered, had he been able to show himself.  He felt his adversary stir, and his form came apart as he returned to the dreaming, and resumed binding an angry spirit against her flailing will.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 8th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae watched with grim satisfaction as Lunka overtook the stag, causing it to turn, and easily bound away in a new direction.  She had drawn it in the dirt, a simple plan.  Not one she could enact herself alongside her charges, but they seemed to understand.  It was unnerving how much the two wolves seemed to grasp her words, and do as she commanded.  It had taken several tries, but each time she coached them, the next attempt was better.

It fell to Kiannae to train the two pups, to make it possible for them to take care of themselves.  She was uncertain of the whole affair, but Landri had been earnest in her belief.  ‘Dire creatures,’ she had stressed, ‘are born to seek balance in nature.’  She wasn’t sure if she believed Landri’s assertion, but the alternate argument had worked.  It was unkind to leave them to starve, or grow desperate.  Cruel to put them down.  How easily they understood her spoke of great innate intelligence.

The stag did not see Shadow before it turned, and skidded trying to turn another way, but found Lunka blocking it there.  It reared to strike the wolf with its hooves, but too late, as Shadow came in from the side for the kill.  Kiannae averted her eyes at the savagery that followed.  It was her plan, it was what was necessary, it was nature.  She had no more desire to see it, for all these truths.

When Kianne looked up, and the stag was motionless, the wolves sitting patiently at its side.  She expected them to be feeding on their fresh kill, but instead they were looking at her.

“What do they want?” Kiannae asked.

“Unfortunately, they view you as their alpha, mother, some combination of both,” Landri answered.  “They wait for you to take your share first.”

“I don’t want any,” Kiannae grumbled.

“I am unsure of the right course form here,” Landri offered.  “Perhaps to walk away.  They have successfully hunted.  It would be best if we parted company with them now.  Left them to these deeper woods.  We have been moving far too slowly.  Barely halfway to the south road when we should be in Niven by now.”

It had indeed been much slower traveling with the wolves in tow.  They were only a few miles then past the southernmost branch of the east pass into Avrale.  A sight that Kiannae’s eyes turned to often nervously.  Landri had long since sent the other druids off without them, planning to catch up when the wolves could fend for themselves.

“I agree,” Kiannae offered.  Though her heart wasn’t in it.  She had grown fond of the two wolves, in spite of Landri’s instructions that she keep herself reserved in the matter.  She had offered them names though, in spite of Landri’s opinion on the matter.  It had been necessary, she argued, to instruct them properly.  Landri had not liked the argument, but accepted it.

With only a moment’s hesitation, and some stiffness, Kiannae turned, and walked towards the their camp.  She didn’t like it, but tried to believe it was the correct move.  It should have been, both druidic wisdom, and the sensible learning of a mage and member of the court told her wolves were not domesticated dogs.  Dire ones less so.

“Do not let it pain you,” Landri said.  “They are wild things.  Not some tamed pets for you to keep.  They will likely grow to be nearly as large as their mother.”

Kiannae felt them approach well before she heard the padding footsteps behind her.  She stopped, and grimaced.

“Of course it is not so easy.”  Landri sighed.  “One could hope.  We must drive them away.”

Kiannae turned, and looked at the wolf that set meat before her.   It was Shadow.  She closed her eyes sadly, and hesitated.  “How?”

“Do as I do,” Landri said, and turned herself, raising her arms so as to look large.  Her aura took on a menacing quality.  The wolf shrunk for a moment, then bared his teeth, and growled.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Kiannae said.

“Do it,” Landri said.

Kiannae began to assume the posture, but before she could change her aura the wolf moved as though about to strike.  Instead she stepped in front of Landri, and barked, “No!”

Shadow recoiled, and slunk back slightly.  His ears flattened, his tail down, his body lowering.  She tried to throw up the same imposing sense about herself, but her heart wasn’t in it.  The wolf backed up.  Not fleeing, showing every sign of submission, but not turning away from Kiannae.

“No,” Kiannae whispered again, and threw herself to her knees, and her arms around the wolf that almost pulled away, before accepting it tentatively.  It was wildly incautious, even mad, to suddenly hug a wolf that had freshly hunted, and still smelled of blood.  Yet the wolf leaned into Kiannae.

“What are you doing you fool girl?” Landri all but hissed.  “You are only making this worse.  They must stay.  This is where they belong.”

“Do they?” Kiannae said in an angry tone.  “Will they?” She added.  “Do you think that after the tales of the last dire wolves that lived here the king will leave them be?”

“And you think to bring them with us?” Landri snapped.  “Neither Thebes nor Niven will take kindly to us leading two dire beasts onto their land.  Soon they will grow too large to manage, to dangerous to be around, if they are not already.  I won’t permit it, nor will I allow you to remain with them.  This is childish foolishness.”

“They won’t grow,” Kiannae said with an unnerving certainty.

For a moment it seemed almost a childish wish, taken as fact, but Landri had a moment of doubt.  That turned more dubiously into a moment of certainty that she wanted to reject.

“I told them to stop growing,” Kiannae said, “and they did.”  She had, it had been more playful than any plan.  She had told them both to stop growing, joking that getting bigger could only make their lives more trouble.  Bigger needed more food, after all.  Yet she had noticed they had not grown since.  No matter how much the druids still had to feed them, they did not grow.

“I don’t…think,” Landri said uncertainty.  “I believe…”

“No you don’t think,” Kiannae said firmly, let go, stood up, and spun on Landri.  “You believe, you take things on faith.  Open your eyes, and tell me I’m wrong.  You’ve said it.  Dire beasts adapt, they grow scales, and spines, and size, and power with need, and injury.  They need to be small, they need me.”

“It’s not right,” Landri said.  She was stern in her belief, but she did not feel she was truly in control of the situation.

“Who is to say?”

“They belong in nature,” Landri stressed.

“Are we not part of nature?” Kiannae countered.

“Some more than others,” Landri offered with displeasure.  “You are still as much mage as druid, girl.”

Shadow ran off back towards his sister, not keen to be near the arguing humans.

“I was sent on this journey for a reason,” Kiannae said.  “I have avoided that, and this is not it, no, but something is coming.  I have been running from it.  Thaea blesses her servants, and for all this one has lost, she has sent more.  A place, a purpose, a path.  A ghost that watches over me, a boy that follows me with an earnest if foolish heart, two wolves that have claimed me as their mother, and you.  For all your preaching, and narrow views of the world.  To teach me to become something more than a mage.”

Landri closed her eyes.  “I will say again, I am against this course.”

“What will change your mind?”

“I will delay one month.  If after one month in these woods, I have seen with my own eyes – as you claim – that they have grown no more.  Then, I will consider this folly, and it is folly.  Yet if they have grown, even so much as an inch, you must heed my advice, and drive them off into this wood.”

“Done,” Kiannae said firmly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

A month in the wilds is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Forty-two days without convenient shelter, or a change of clothes.  A task made no easier for Landri’s lack of inclination to help Kiannae with shelter, even as she all but made one outright for Zale.  Un-dissuaded by what she considered a petulant slight by the old woman, Kiannae copied the structure, and improved upon it.

She had considered her risks at length, and concluded that whatever the consequences of magic, they paled to being soaked by the rain.  First a spell to keep her dry while she worked, that had left flakes of ice drifting off an arc of spell lines woven over her head.  It had been draining but worth it she decided.

The result was and easy enough copy of the lean-to itself, but with magic she bound branches together more tightly, warping wood to better keep off the rain.  Through the whole process Landri had glared at her disapprovingly.  Which Kiannae had almost managed to ignore, until Landri herself used magic to make a woodless fire.  Kiannae did not hesitate to show her up by digging a perfectly round clean fire pit with a spell, and enchanting a large stone to provide her a constant source of warmth.

Hunting fell to the wolves.  While voracious, they caught more than they needed, and consented to let Kiannae take what meat she pleased, and Zale eventually at her command.  Landri, Kiannae made a point, got her share only directly from her, and was given no difference by the two wolves as a demonstration of her degree of control over them.

Bathing was done in a freezing stretch of mountain stream around a bend from where the three had set up camp.  The wolves kept guard while their mistress washed, and relented begrudgingly to permit her to clean their fur as well.  Particularly when she demonstrated to the wolves that she could make the water warm.  Landri and Zale were left to to their own devices, and had only the naturally frigid water to wash with.

This all became quickly routine.  Even Kiannae’s wandering to commune with the elements, and attempt to get over the fear that had gripped her since the dryad grove.  She found all of the elements in turn.  Wind, water, earth, and even fire.  She found the lightning, and even the cold.  None made the terrifying demand upon her again, all answered, humbly, submitting to her will, and not demanding to consume it.

Kiannae became convinced that the presence she had felt was bound to the place.  That her power had resonated with whatever force permitted the existence of dryads in the first place.  She did not like this answer, and so did not share it.  It raised more questions than anything.  What were dryads?  Were they really just ghosts, attuned to trees, or something more?  A lone dryad was unheard of, and yet she was all the more convinced that the tree that had spoken to her as a child was exactly that.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 23rd, 648 E.R.

Kiannae turned her meat over the fire in front of her lean-to.  Landri had done everything and as much nothing as she could to dissuade Kiannae from her choice, and challenge over the wolves.  Kiannae was not a girl easily dissuaded when she had set her mind to something.  She leaned her head back against the tree and closed her eyes, listening to the wind through the trees.

She felt as much as heard Zale walk up cautiously, and sit across from her.  Shadow gave him a look, and Lunka slunk away, but the two wolves had learned he was not to be bothered.  Landri’s status was not so favorable with the wolves, who would growl at her if she approached uninvited.  If Kiannae told them to let Landri be, they did, on that occasion, but as it went, intent was key.  She was not giving Landri a blanket pass, since she had set herself against her in what Kiannae felt was the most childish of ways.  Refusing to help her.  It wasn’t the first time in her young life she considered that adults could be far more childish than children.

“Thanks for the meat,” Zale offered.

“Thank those two,” Kiannae gesture absently.  “They did all the work.”

“You trained them, and decide who eats, though I’m sure we could hunt something if needed.”

“Yes, I’ll prefer to keep a spear out of your hand,” Kiannae gave him a look.

“It felt like the right thing at the time,” Zale said a bit defensively.

“It might well have been, but still, best these two not see it,” Kiannae said flatly. “They’ve come to terms with reality, but they know, they remember, I’m sure that.  I explained to them, that you were only protecting me.  That seemed to be the thing that finally settled the matter.  Don’t think they will ever like you, but they won’t bother you.  You killed one they love, and maybe saved another.”

“Do you really think of them as people?” Zale asked, glancing back and forth between the wolves cautiously.

“No,” Kiannae said.  “They don’t think like us.  Of that I am almost completely certain.  A person after all, I do not think would be able to be so agreeable about the situation.  You killed their mother, you saved me, maybe, tough call on that.  I still think I had it.”

“I get to live with that, I guess,” Zale said and rubbed his head.  “I wouldn’t have done any differently, if there was still even a chance you didn’t have it.”

“That’s why I’ve forgiven you,” Kiannae said almost irritably.  “You didn’t do the wrong thing, just, I guess right is sometimes subjective.  I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to fail, and wind up dead.  Not the first girl with my face to wind up like that.”  There was no humor behind her jest.

Zale gave her a strange look for a long time.  “I must be some kind of glutton for punishment, but I’ve got to call you on it.  You were trying to kill a dragon.  You do know even feral dragons are smarter than those two wolves, right?”

Kiannae checked her meat, pulled it out of the fire to cool, and leaned her head back against the trunk of her tree, and closed her eyes again.  “I’ll give you points for gaul on that, and for not being wrong.”  A tear ran down her cheek.  “Sometimes, you do what needs doing.  Consequences be damned.  Maybe I should have tried to stop Kat.  Maybe more people would have died.  There was this moment.  Fates I’ve tried to forget it.  There was this moment when I tried to talk her out of it in the stables, before we left for the mountain.  I couldn’t even call it seeing something, I felt the pain.  Just a shadow of it.  I recoiled from the choice to stop her just long enough.  Then the farther along we got, the more the pain faded.  If I lead, if I was out front, getting us there, I felt more certain.  It was almost like the pain was a star to follow, or more one to walk away from.”

She laughed slightly.

“Dare I ask what’s so funny?”

“You navigate by the south star, right?” Kiannae asked.  “Most reliable celestial marker to navigate by.”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“So why do we hold maps north?  The sun on our right, the moon on our left.  Why not reverse it?  You’ve heard the saying, ‘my north star,’ haven’t you?”

“I’ve even seen it,” Zale answered.

Kiannae glared at him a bit incredulously.

“My mother, four years ago she took me to the High City, to the Citadel of the Sun.  We each took our chance on the lot to go to the high balcony.  She won, but she gave me her spot.  I looked north, as almost everyone did, and saw that tiny glimmering light.  If you’ve seen it, you don’t ask any more.  You know why you turn your back on the pale south star.”

“There’s the humor,” Kiannae said.  “I was running away from something.  I’m still running away from something, and yet.  It feels like I’m running towards something.  I’m going south too, now that I think of it.  I was running away from a preminionson that night, even though I cannot see it any more, and yet, I know I was running away from one thing, and towards another.  That doesn’t make sense.”

“It does,” Taloe said, and swirled into being on a third side of the fire.  He seemed almost draped in a robe, but the illusion was not quite right.

“Finally doing something about the naked?” Zale asked, though it seemed a bit snide.

“I assure you, not on your account,” Taloe cut back almost fiercely.

“If you two start, I will tell my wolves to rip you both to shreds,” Kiannae growled, and the two wolves did as well.

“I have said before,” Taloe said assuredly, “something is wrong with that night.  What you only felt, I can now see.  You could not dissuade her.  I see nights where she left you stuck with the guards.  Worlds where you died, where so many died.  Wars…those are harder to see.  Consequences rippling through the years.  I thought once…no, I will not bring my troubles into this.  Visions I now doubt the meaning of, even as I am all the more certain of moments they hinged upon.  We live as we are, it is all we can do.”

“Don’t tell me this is the best of all possible worlds,” Kiannae snapped, glanced at her meat angrily, and bit into it before it could get cold.

Zale gave Taloe a look, like he wanted to say something biting, and rethought it.  “Perhaps,” he started instead.  “It was merely the best to be found.  If he is right, Katrisha was set on her course, she had made a choice, for whatever reason, that ended in something terrible.  I don’t know much about precognition, just to avoid it.  There was this girl when I was younger, out on the road.  I was sweet on her from the moment I met her.  I was still just a kid, heck, maybe I still am.  She was this mage’s kid, bright, smart, snippy.  So, maybe that’s why I get on with you so much.”

Kiannae scrunched her face up at him unflatteringly.

“Any way, she had some ideas in her head from her mother, about not commiting, and she told me as much, she liked me, but not as much as I liked her.  So she thought it was better not to be more than friends.”

“What’s your point?” Kiannae asked irritably, and took another bite.

“Not much.  Just my only real experience with precognition.  Mother said I was probably so fond of her because she would have been my first kiss.  She almost was, that day when she let me down.  Fates, I’m talking like it was some big thing, I was ten, and she was eleven.  Still, no, I won’t bore you with the details, but we were laughing, we were close, this funny look came in her eyes, she got closer, and then shook her head, and told me that.  If I hadn’t been so fond of her, if I hadn’t always been…  Never mind.  Sorry.  I was just trying to say, we don’t always get to choose how others take our choices.  But it’s garbage.”

Kiannae took a third bite, and closed her eyes again.

“What did it really feel like?” Kiannae asked after she swallowed.  “To look on the North Star.  Is it really so special?”

“Special isn’t the word for it,” Zale said.  “It’s not even really profound, just clear.  It’s like something makes sense, and you can’t even say what.  All at once it almost makes less sense, because it’s just a cursed star, right?  Fates, it’s worse, because it almost feels like it has nothing to do with the star.”  Zale looked like he wanted to say something more.  “It’s not sudden, or, strong, or overwhelming, it just is.  I’ve felt that way twice in my life.”

“When was the second time?” Kiannae gave him a less than friendly look.

He glared back.  “What, do you think it was you?  Sitting there a dirty weeping wreck in the square at Lundan Grove.”  He laughed.  “Sorry, but you really were a wreck.  If you think that was the other moment, let me deflate your ego just a little bit.”

“What was it then?” Kiannae pressed.

“The first time I really felt one with the elements, with something larger than myself,” Zale answered with a smile.  “That’s the feeling.”

Neither made much note of Taloe disappearing, or put much thought into why.  Kiannae suspected Zale was lying, that he was dodging the insinuation that he was going to make.  She wasn’t sure how she felt about that, or if she really was just being egotistical.  She wasn’t sure if she liked him at all sometimes, and others she knew she would be sad if she finally managed to drive him away.

She could, she knew she could.  She could be rid of him if she wanted, just like the wolves.  Taloe, was more complicated.  She was stuck with him, but she really wondered if she could bring herself to.  If it was an option to drive him away, would she?  She didn’t want to be alone, but ever since the mountain, since it had felt like her heart was ripped from her chest, she didn’t want anyone close.  That didn’t mean she wanted to be alone.  She wasn’t even sure if this was a new aspect of her temperament at all.  Always with her nose in books, declining others attempts to draw her out.  Katrisha gladly taking the opportunity, which had always left a twinge of jealousy long before their falling out over Wren.

“Thanks,” Kiannae relented.

“For what?” Zale asked, and glanced to the side, noticing Taloe had left.

“For putting up with me,” Kiannae answered dryly.

“Well, as you’ve pointed out, not a lot of options,” Zale cut back.

Kiannae gave him a cross look, but her heart wasn’t in it.  He just smiled back at her till she shook her head.  “Yes, well, one of them was staying with your family.  So don’t think you are fooling me.”

“Oh, really?  You’ve met my grandfather, haven’t you?” Zale teased.

Kiannae laughed, and finished her meal.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 8th, 648 E.R.

“They are…” Landri was clearly less than pleased.

“The same size,” Kiannae said with her arms crossed, her fingers drumming on her elbow.

“Not quite,” Landri said, and stood up from examining Shadow.

“Don’t you dare lie, and claim they have grown,” Kiannae said angrily.

“I won’t lie, but they aren’t the same size.  Well, the white one is, the grey one is actually smaller, I’m almost certain of it.  I do not think I have ever observed something in nature grow backwards, so I am far from ready to believe my own eyes.  Yet, I begin to think that something deeply unnatural in your presence should never surprise me.”

“Oh, do not try and get out of this on a technicality,” Kiannae said narrowing her eyes, and not trusting Landri’s tact.

“I would make one last attempt to dissuade you from this madness, but clearly, you are in charge of your own path, and I cannot stop you from taking these wolves wherever you please.  I can only presume to keep such a missguided endeavor where I can keep an eye on it.”

“So, it’s settled?” Kiannae said.

“It is, since you have given me no other choice.”

“So we can leave then?” Zale asked. “Finally?  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.  I’ve grown up with this, sure, but I would really like a change of clothes, and a very long warm bath in something that is not a freezing mountain river.”

Kiannae gave him an amused look, and he just held a pointed gesture till she laughed.

“I certainly would not deny the appeal,” Landri said, and stretched.  “There is no point arguing with you on the point, is there?” She pressed one last time.

“None,” Kiannae said flatly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 18th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae skipped another stone across an expanse of river that was doing a remarkable impression of an ocean.  It was impossible to tell exactly how broad the flooded forest plane might be thanks to the forest itself, but the old pines did give some guess as to the depth.  It did not appear at all shallow.

She glanced downstream to Landri, who was in her estimation sulking over the remaining near side of a bridge that could not have been very sturdy to begin with.  There was no longer even another side to reach from the hillside they were stopped on.

Landri gave her a look, almost as though it was her fault.  Kiannae refused to even be bothered by this.  Landri had picked the duration, threw in a week, and waited an extra day.  Zale had made himself scarce upon seeing the looks the two were giving each other.  Which to Kiannae seemed silly, and a bit dramatic of a move.  She did wonder however if it had been the only thing to keep them from quarreling at length.

Landri stood up, walked towards Kiannae, and put her hands on her hips.

“I still say we could just swim it, assuming I can’t just walk across,” Kiannae answered making a somewhat comical walking gesture with her fingers.

“Yes, much as I relish the thought of you failing to do that, no.  It could go on for a mile or more.  This plain gives way to the main prairie lands of Thebes.”

“I can see a pass through the foothills upstream, we might be able to go around.”

“No, this area is notoriously unstable, it was probably a slide upstream that released this.”

“I can handle a few rocks,” Kiannae said, and skipped one a dozen times by putting a magical spin on it.

“Can you handle a whole mountain girl?” Landri cut back.

“Probably,” Kiannae said with a smile that said she was mostly joking.

“Why are you so anxious to get to Niven all of a sudden?”

“Symmetry in my life,” Kiannae answered snidely.

“For one who complains so much of riddles, you are overly fond of them.”

“Not really, just sharing my pain.”

“If for no other reason, we won’t be crossing because there is a marker, and I can only presume it was left by those who went ahead.  They wisely went east rather than trying to cross.  We will follow, and see if we can catch up.”

“You’ve been complaining that we are not keeping pace,” Kiannae protested.  “How would we possibly catch them.”

“I expect them to do some investigation along the way, check on how the flooded forest is fairing.  We likely won’t intervene, but it does not hurt to check.”

“What would make the difference?”

“Disease, such as in Niven, threatened populations of rarer species, risk to crops, animals that have been driven into human areas, other far reaching disruptions.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The flood went on for days, though it grew ever flatter and broader as forest gave way to drowned fields.  The amount of water involved was a bit hard to comprehend.  The clear damage to crops meant that more than likely the druids would involve themselves, if the trio could find any sign of the others.  A line of hills brought the flood plain to an end, and held a large village above water, and protected another flat stretch of prairie and farm land as far as the eyes could see.

Landri had left her charges on the edge of town, to keep an eye on the wolves.  First she asked for news of the other druids.  Two had headed east to the capital to seek official sanction from the King, the others had headed south to continue investigating the damage.  Unsatisfied with these answer she sought out the master of a caravan gathered along the south side of town.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 26th, 648 E.R.

“Stay”, Kiannae said to the two wolves that had followed close in tow with her along the village edge.  Zale had protested her insistence to go snooping after they had been expressly told to stay, and had remained where they were left.

Kiannae pulled up her hood, and walked into the quare, checking the wolves were staying where she left them.  The caravan looked like any other she had seen, but was mostly closed up in a way she was not used to seeing.

“Listen, I’m sorry,” she heard a vaguely familiar woman’s apologise exasperatedly.  “We are full, and even if we weren’t, I’m not thrilled by the idea of dire beasts in tow.”

“If you cannot be convinced otherwise, then I will admit I am little more pleased with the situation.  Still, youth, sometimes will do as they please.”

“Tell me about it,” a familiar brunette said, and as she turned Kiannae recognized her, and hid her face better before she could be seen by a woman she recognized as Mercu’s sister Samantha, and master of the caravan she was standing in the middle of.  “I can carry a message for you, no charge.”

“There usually isn’t,” Landri said crossing her arms.

“I was trying to make it sound better,” Samantha said with a shrug.  “Listen, if you aren’t looking to buy anything that I can point you in the direction of, I really have some things I need to take care of.”

“Fine.  Can you simply tell the druid circle nearest the Ever Grove that the troop from Lundan has been delayed in Thebes to help with flooded farmland.”

“I’ll make a note of it,” Samantha said.  “Now, excuse me, but good day to you.”

Kiannae turned away, and stood very still as Samantha walked past her.  She stopped just a few steps ahead, and turned back.  “Listen, I might be able to arrange one bed on a waggon, paid spot, for a capable druid, if you want it.”

“No, that won’t do,” Landri answered.

“Well, good fortune then,” Samantha said, and walked on.

Kiannae nearly jumped out of her skin as a hand settled on her shoulder a moment later.  She had been too intent watching Samantha.  She realized a part of her had hoped she would turn around and recognize her, and that moment of distraction had kept her from noticing Landri approach.

“I told you to stay with Zale,” Landri said crossly.  “Now I find you sneaking around, with your hood up.  Did no one ever tell you, that nothing begs questions like someone trying to hide their face.”

“So, what now, if the caravan won’t have us?” Kiannae asked.

“Well, if you are so determined to move on, you could petition for that seat she just offered,” Landri said.

“No, I’m fine,” Kiannae said sternly.

“In that case, we stay the winter.  I’ve had some promising talk with a farmer’s son, from about five miles south.  They only lost half their land, and have a lot of animals we could be of help with.”

“The winter?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“There will be an early snow this year, I’m sure of it.”

“Prophecy?”

“In a roundabout way,” Landri begrudged.  “The seasons know their plans far beyond the intervention of mortal hands.  The key is to look out, not in.  To know what the world does, not trouble yourself with uncertain human endeavors.”

“What difference would  a caravan make?” Kiannae asked.

“A caravan would press on far enough into Niven before buckling down for the winter to be worth it, but on foot…  With no clear idea how far we will have to go around this.  No.  Better to stay here, particularly incase those wolves grow.”

“They won’t,” Kiannae said sternly.

“Be that as it may, I’ll take the lesser chance, and lose a little time.  This flooding is concerning, and Niven already has druids attending to the issue in the Ever Grove.  It is of concern, but less so than crops.  These western fields are a quarter of the grain for the nation.  They usually sell about half to Niven.  It has always been unwise that they focused so much of the farming here, they could have spread it through the central prairie with ease, but people like the convenience of clustering together.”

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I think Barrier Lake must have drained,” Kiannae offered after a moment of silence.

“As good an explanation as I can think of,” Landri agreed.  “Fairly hopeful one too.  Perhaps in a month or two with the reservoir drained this will clear up.”

“I’m just remembering there were reports, that locals had said the water level had been going down year on year, for, almost as long as I can remember.”

“Reports?” Landri pressed.

Kiannae reconsidered what she might have revealed, and tried to find an excuse.

Landri sighed.  “If you wish it to be your secret, who am I to tell Zale, but I know you were raised by the court mage of Avrale.”

Kiannae winced.  “How did you know?”

“Ezik enquired into your possible identity,” Landri said.  “How long he really knew, I do not know, but he insisted on obliging your wish to be hidden, and that this…journey was for the best.  I was well within my rights to ignore his foolishness, and contact your adoptive father.  Yet I have grown soft it seems, and once again I could ask this caravan to carry you on home, but you won’t be convinced on your own accord?”

“He’s alive?” Kiannae asked.

“Oh fates,” Landri said, and looked more than a little stricken.  “I had forgotten you had doubt on that.  Too bothered by the rest of this fool mater.  Surely, knowing this, you will at last relent to return?”

“I cannot face them,” Kiannae said.  “I just can’t.”

“Prophecy,” Landri muttered.  “If I had not…”  She growled.  “I do not like this.  I do not like this one bit.  I wish to convince you, to impart on you the wisdom of my years, and tell you that they will welcome you home with open arms, and they will.  Not a doubt in my mind.  You are being a foolish irrational child, and I will not indulge that any further than leaving what you tell Zale to you.  You do what you feel you must, I will not force you, but nor will I swim upstream against the madness that seems to follow you.  Symmetry in your life, indeed.  You may be trying to run from prophecy girl, but I think you are running right towards it.”

“Good job, you’ve solved my riddle,” Kiannae laughed without any real humor.

“No, no I do not think I have by half,” Landri said.  “Though you remind me far to much of myself seventy some years ago.  Stubborn beyond all reason.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 9

It is oft spoken of fruits forbidden,
that they be sweetest of them all,
yet love that’s worth lay forsaken,
be a bitter thing bound for our fall,

what pain to adore upon virtuous merit,
yet be condemned of novel frivolous vice,
what can stand before such blind hearts,
who reprove by err more cyclical device.

– Allara Vera, Circa 140, E.R.

Summer Glades

Coria 30th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae sat in a dark clearing, and waited.  The moon was no more than a pale sliver in the sky, providing little more light than the stars.  In the morning she would leave, and though Taloe often seemed to know most of what she did, there had been no discussion of the mater.  Taloe had not visited her in the night for over a week.  She had been too distracted with preparations to seek him out.  At first there was a awkward relief, but slowly this shifted to worry for the spirit that shared her physical bond to the mortal world.

A harsh unintelligible whisper cut through the air, like the sounds of the dryad forest, yet harsher, and more unnerving, for they were not at all familiar.  They did not even sound quite Sylvan.  Kiannae opened her eyes, and what stood before her was not Taloe, but something else.  An old woman glared at her in the moonlight.  She was as naked as the boy always was, but somewhat less substantial, like a hollow shell of thin threads.  The harsh whispers repeated, threatening, demanding, but beyond comprehension save the emotion behind them that could be felt in the bones.

She pointed at Kiannae, and continued what seemed to be a broken rant in some long forgotten tongue, and started to march towards her only to have a hand thrust through her, and scatter her to the wind.  Taloe stood where the woman had, but looked beaten and winded.  He dropped to his knees after a moment.  “I am sorry,” he barely managed.

“What, was that?” Kiannae demanded hesitantly, and then finally moved to him when he continued to look broken, and unable to quite recover.

“Anger,” he said, and winced as Kiannae looked him in the eye. “She is nothing more but hatred, and rage.”

“Who, or what was she?” Kiannae asked anxiously, worried that she carried more than just Taloe within her.

“The high shaman…of my tribe,” Taloe said obviously trying to remember or find the words.  “She cursed the line of Avrale on her death, cursed the waters of our home.”

“Curses…aren’t real,” Kiannae said uncertainty.

“Words,” Taloe muttered, “no better words.”

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae said hesitantly, “but…does she dwell within me as well?”

“Within you, within me,” Taloe said unsteadily, “she dreamt longer, faded farther.”

“Why did she wake now?” Kiannae asked with a great deal of concern for what this could mean.

“Love,” Taloe said awkwardly, “and power, woke the old hatred.  I have bound her, but when you called, I was unprepared, she seized your power to become…”

“Is she the only one?” Kiannae demanded, willfully ignoring part of what he had said.

“She is the strongest, save me, the others…” he trailed off, “are whispers.  They were cries once, of anguish, of hatred, of fear.  Only we two remain whole, and she much less so.  I am sorry.”

“Did you know she would come?” Kiannae asked pointedly.

“No,” Taloe said, “not…until the last time I dreamt.  I was too busy fighting her to tell you.”

“Then don’t be sorry,” Kiannae said hesitantly.  “Thank you for stopping her.”  She moved closer, hugged him tightly, and he lay his head against her’s tiredly.  After several moments of mulling over all he had said, she was forced to finally ask.  “You said…’love,’ woke her?”

“I…” Taloe sighed, pulled back, and looked Kiannae in the eye, “my love brought the blood of my people.”

“The prejudice, and the folly of the people of Avrale did that,” Kiannae said firmly.

“The spark, and the tinder, make the fire, not one without the other,” Taloe said slowly, trying to remember and translate an old aphorism.  “A thought, a moment in my mind woke her.”

“What moment?” Kiannae pressed gently.

“That…” Taloe started, and smiled meekly, “that it could be…things could be far worse, than to be bound to you.”

“I see,” Kiannae said hesitantly, sitting back for a little distance, and reading his joking attempt as it was, an attempt to diffuse what he was admitting, but quite unsure what to think of it.

“You need not,” Taloe said hesitantly, “feel the same.  The dream has given me much time to think, time to see who you are, and to consider.  This life is what it is, so I say this as I have.  I can be content with this fate, whatever comes.”

“I suppose,” Kiannae said uneasily, but smiled, “I may be able to agree to that.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 31st, 648 E.R.

There had been little ceremony with the departure, though perhaps it might be better said there had been only ceremony.  Quiet nods, brief words, and the new members of that traveling group pressed on with them to the south.

The first part of the trek followed a rough, and overgrown trail which eventually joined the main road cut east and west through the western forest of Helm.  A small village stood to the east, and some of its residents considered the party of druids curiously as they crossed the road.  Kianne pulled her hood over her head, which earned a strange look from Zale.  He had insisted to join the company, despite his father’s protest.  A nod from his grandfather it seemed overruled this, and there had been no further contest on the matter.

“Why are you hiding?” Zale asked.

“I’ve put my past behind me,” Kiannae said.  “I would like it to stay there.”

“You think anyone here would recognize you?” Zale pressed almost incredulously.  He’d seen caravan merchants children more elaborately dressed when they first met.  Though he considered the robe had lasted a good long time, and been abandoned for being outgrown, though the golden sash she wore as a belt endured.  He considered for the first time how much she had grown, she was almost taller than him.  He doubted anyone would recognize her anyway, unless it was for the eyes that glared at him a bit irritably that moment.  He wasn’t even sure why.

“Leave her be,” Landri commanded.

The druids passed on between outlying houses.  The owner of one gave them a displeased glare, but otherwise ignored the procession.  The man’s property gave way again to forest, and the druids walked on.  A woman ran out of the house, and up to the druids.

“Sirs, madams,” the woman called out.  The party stopped.

“What is it?” Landri asked.

“Something has been lurking in the south wood.”

“More than the usual?” Landri pressed.

“No one is sure,” the woman said.  “The game has been scarce, and bones plentiful.  There have been howls either closer, or louder than normal from the south.  My husband, he’s no love for druids, but I take my faith to mean – whatever a traveler might believe – it is unfit not to warn them of danger.”

“Thank you,” Landri said.  “Light be with you, good madam.”

The woman bowed, and walked back past her sneering husband into the house.

“Light be with you?” Kiannae pressed a bit tersely.

“Some Clarions favor such a blessing, it seemed no harm to wish her well on her own terms.”

“We are walking into the territory of another dire beast, aren’t we?” Kiannae asked.

“Perhaps,” Landri answered.

“There used to be a pack of dire wolves far south,” Zale said.  “It was one of many things that kept the southern forest intact, and untouched.  They were wiped out nearly a century ago at the order of Helm’s king.  Bloody affair by all accounts, the king lost favor on all sides for it, and the forest still stands largely undisturbed.”

“As Zale says,” Landri continued, “they have been gone a long time.  Still, we should be cautious.  Even if it is just regular wolves, they could get testy over our passing through their land.  Unlikely to bother a party of this size however.”

“If it is dire,” Zale said.  “Then the size of the part will be as much the problem I think.”

“I fear he’s not wrong,” Landri agreed with displeasure.  “Two or three, we might be able to talk the beasts back, but nine of us.  We could be viewed as a threat.”

“Lovely,” Kiannae muttered, and the group moved on in relative silence.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 33rd, 648 E.R.

The druids had made camp for the fourth time, that evening beside a small stream that to the best of Kiannae’s guess came down from one of the foothills of Mt. Navi.  The East pass was vaguely recognizable in the south, if only for that most prominent landmark.  Rationally Kiannae had little worry that Laurel would come charging over the pass to scold and claim her.  Reasonably she considered speaking the truth, and making the perilous trek to return home.  Yet after a year, it felt a bridge too far.  Laurel had been a good man, so had Mercu.  They had each treated her like a daughter.  They had each taught her in their way, yet what were they really to her?  To face the consequences of her actions, all of them.

She felt that Katrisha had always been the one they really loved.  It wasn’t rational, and she knew it, but she believed in her heart, much as she tried to doubt it, that they had at least loved her more.  On some level she knew she was making excuses, and yet accepted them anyway.  She loved them, in a strange sort of way, but that made it all the more impossible to imagine facing them again.

Kiannae found herself a spot beside a short fall, and listened to the water.  Most of the other druids had gone off to hunt for dinner, yet she knew too well which had remained.  She wanted to be left alone with her thoughts, and perhaps sensing this, Landri had not stopped her from wandering a short distance from the camp.

“Shilling for your thoughts,” Zale said as he walked up, and sat on a rock opposite her.

“I fear they might be worth less than that,” Kiannae said glancing at him.

“Then give me a half-pence, and I’ll listen.”  Zale laughed, and sat on a nearby stone.

Kiannae looked back the other way into the forest.

“Sorry,” Zale offered.

“No,” Kiannae said.  “It was a fair jest.”  She sighed.  “I am just in a less than personable mood it seems.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Not really,” Kiannae said.  “I could tell you my troubles, but I do not think that would help.”

“I’ll listen,” Zale offered.

Kiannae looked indecisive a moment.  “No,” she said flatly.  “You kept my secret well enough before, but not this time.”

There was movement suddenly behind Zale, and Kiannae turned quickly to see Landri, and another druid standing very still there.  Zale’s eyes went wide a moment later, and Kiannae heard a twig snap before the growl.  She turned slowly to where the others were faced.

The wolf was large.  Not so large as the bear, or even so large as the lynx she had once fought, but it was clearly much larger than a wolf should be.  Were she standing, it would have been just barely shorter than her, prone on a rock by the stream she felt very small indeed.  It was midnight black, its eyes silver, like two moons hung above brilliant peaks of sharp fangs, shown off in a menacing snarl.

“Fates,” she muttered, and barely threw up a spell before the wolf was upon her, and tumbled back.

Kiannae jumped across the stream without missing a beat, and grabbed Zale’s hand, pulling him to his feet.

“How did it get so close?” Zale asked much too loudly as they fell in beside the other druids.  “I didn’t even see or feel it till it was almost on us.”

“I felt it before I saw it,” Landri said hauntedly, “and I was looking right at it.”

The wolf leapt to the side, and seemed to disappear, or at least like their eyes slipped off it.

“What in the abyss?” Kiannae growled, and tried to find the missing behemoth.

“Did it just vanish?” Zale demanded nervously.  “Did the bloody wolf the size of a horse just vanish?”

“No,” Landri snapped.  “I can still feel it,” she was grimacing fiercely.  “It’s like trying to feel a fish in a river, but it’s there.”

“Two can play at that game,” Kiannae said, reached her arms to each side in front of the others, who disappeared.

“What the,” Zale yelled.

“What are you doing,” Landri could be heard in a harsh whisper.

“This is taking a lot of focus,” Kiannae said measuredly, “but do any of you see it?”

“Maybe,” Landri said.  “No, lost it.  What are you doing?”

“I used this spell on my sister to fight the dragon,” Kiannae said.  “She could see under it.  The beast may still be able to see you, or it may not.  Hard to say.”

“To the left!” Zale yelled, and Kiannae spun, throwing up another spell that barely caught the wolf.  It flew back far less this time, catching itself by digging its hind legs into the dirt.  It was a slippery thing, black against the darkening forest, but that wasn’t it.  It wasn’t vanishing, or just hard to see, it was something else, like the eyes wanted to look anywhere but it.

“I’ve never felt anything quite like it,” Landri said nervously.  “It’s almost like a spell, but…primal, wild.”

“This isn’t magic,” Kiannae said certainly.  “Nothing like it, even looking right at it, it’s almost like the sense of someone watching you out of sight.  I almost want to forget it’s there.  No spell lines, not obvious filament rays.  I think if it was any smaller…”

The wolf lunged again, and the spell barely stopped it in place that time.

“We mean you no harm,” Landri said.

The wolf glanced at her, it tried to lunge, but could not move, snapping at the air.

“Does that ever work?” Kiannae growled trying to figure out why the spell wasn’t pushing it back.  It seemed almost like the wolf was cutting straight through it, filaments collapsing as quickly as she could weave them.  She shifted her focus, and just as her spell broke wind whipped over them, blew the wolf back, and Zale offblance.

“Where’s your damn pet?” Zale yelled from the ground behind her.  “I think we could use some help.”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said trying to grab hold of the elements as she had in the past, but they were fleeting, almost as slippery as the wolf itself.  She hadn’t tried since the dryad grove, it still unnerved her, and that was keeping her off balance.  “Busy I guess,” she said angrily.  “Come on,” she whispered under her breath.  Half to Taloe, half to her own tenuous grasp over what powers seemed might work on the wolf.

It was no use, the elements were not responding.  She threw up another spell as the wolf charged again, and caught it in the air.  It was all she could do to hold it there.  It flailed slightly, and there was a rustling to her left.  “Any ideas?” Kiannae yelled, just as she started to get a grasp on how her spell was unraveling, and secure the wolf better.

“Just one,” Zale yelled, and Kiannae balked as she saw him out of the corner of her eye charging the wolf.

“Wait!” Landri yelled.

“No, I think I…” Kiannae said too late.

The spear pierced the wolf’s suspended chest, and it yelped terribly, which turned to a gurgle, and twitching.  Zale was thrown back as the spear was ripped from his hands.

“You stupid…” Landri started.

“What, I’m fine,” Zale snapped, struggling to his feet.

“No,” Landri said.  “Kiannae had it, I saw her spell strengthening.”

“So what?” Zale said.  “Were we going to just hold it forever,” he said turning towards Landri angrily.  “Respect nature and all, great, I get it, I grew up with this stuff, but it was trying to kill us.”

Landri grabbed the boy by the shoulders, and forcefully spun him around, and pointed.  Two smaller wolves, barely larger than a domestic dog were slinking towards the fallen one, cautious of the humans that had just killed her.  One was pure white with frightfully blue eyes, the other a dark grey with white on its nose, chest, and paws, as well as the mothers silver eyes.

“Oh fates,” Kiannae said.

“I did what I had to,” Zale said defensively.  “She seemed like she was losing it.”

The two wolf pups nudged at their mother.

“Maybe they can take care of themselves?” Zale offered.

Landri walked forward cautiously, slowing as the two young wolves backed away from her.  Kiannae could see her gift at work, calming the pups.  Landri knelt beside the wolf, it twitched slightly, making her draw back a moment, and then she touched its belly.

“Still nursing,” she muttered loud enough to be heard

All looked at the little wolves, who crept behind their mother’s body, and hid.

“Did you really want me to do nothing?” Zale tried.  “To…”  He turned and marched away furiously.

“He’s not wrong,” Kinnae offered.  “I almost did lose control there.”

“We still have a problem,” Landri said.  “These pups, I think they have started on meat, but not fully.”

“So what can we do?” Kiannae said.

“Come here,” Landri said calmly, but firmly.

Kiannae did so reluctantly.

“Kneel next to me, and feel what I do,” she said with measured breaths.

Kiannae could feel the woman reaching out with her gift, it was a calming sensation, almost magnetic.  She almost forgot to try replicating it for the distraction of the pull.  Kiannae shook her head, and closed her eyes, trying to feel the shape of it, the rhythm.  It was a heartbeat, and the warmth of a gentle summer sun all at once.  She tried to replicate it.

When she opened her eyes the young wolves were tentatively moving around their mother.  Their expressions uncertain, their ears, and posture low, their tails between their legs.  She closed her eyes, and redoubled her efforts.

“Well…” Landri said in a surprise tone.  When Kiannae opened her eyes again, the two wolves sat in front of her, looking up expectantly.

“I guess I did it right?” she said uncertainty.

“I think they think you are her now,” Landri said with a bewildered expression.

“You are kidding, right?”

“I was replicating what was left of her aura,” Landri said, “mixed with a calming effect…you…almost pulled me off my feet with that last part.  You felt more like her than her body does.”

Kiannae looked again to the wolf pups.  “Now what am I supposed to do?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 1s (May 7th), 648 E.R.

Katrisha woke with a gasp.  She had become accustomed to doing so, over two last two months.  She pulled Celia closer, and tried to recover from the work of clever fingers that quite suddenly wandered more innocently.  Celia all but invariably woke before Katrisha, and was apt to take advantage of that situation.  A state of affairs Katrisha largely had no qualms with, save that waking to a state of bliss, and contentment did little to help her get out of bed in the morning.  Celia had long since moved into Katrisha’s room – unofficially – and it was her general understanding that a boy named Andrew now resided with Celia’s former roommate in a similar arrangement.  The detail of his name had put together for her why Celia was not a fond of the boy.

“I love you,” Katrisha whispered after recovering, and then with little warning vanished under the covers intent on paying back mischief in kind.  Celia’s helpless squeal at an incidental tickle all but covered the sound of a knock at the door.  The two were left looking at one another uncertainty, Katrisha for her part peering up from beneath the blanket draped over her head.  To date they had possessed the good fortune to not be interrupted, and were uncertain what to do.

“Just a minute,” Katrisha yelled as she lept from bed, fished her robe from the floor, and slipped into it as quickly as she could.  Celia for her part simply hid beneath the covers.

Katrisha opened her door a crack, and instinctively grimaced, which she quickly thought better of.  Laurel and Rennae stood side by side, and neither seemed pleased by the expression she greeted them with.  It was Laurel’s third visit in almost a year Katrisha had resided at the cloister, and his first in since before the winter snows.  She knew that Laurel and the King had been pressuring for her return to court, though good reason had never been brought directly to her.

“I hope we are not…interrupting too much,” Laurel said obviously uncomfortable with what he had heard upon knocking.

“Not…too much,” Katrisha lied, and glanced back with one eye at Celia who peaked from beneath the covers, and stuck her tongue out at her.

“If you are sufficiently decent, would you walk with us,” Laurel said with a sigh.  “There are things I wish to discuss.  That should give your…friend ample time to scurry off to wherever she may need to be.”

Katrisha turned to Celia, frowned, and blew her a kiss, before stepping into the corridor.  She followed as Laurel and Rennae began to walk down the passage.

“I had heard of your…hair,” Laurel said uneasily.  “I must say, it is quite striking.”

“It took several days,” Katrisha said absently, “but I started on a whim.”

“I see,” Laurel said shaking his head.  “So, no grand inspiration then.  At least there is that.”

“What?” Katrisha asked slightly confused.

“Nothing of importance,” Laurel muttered, stopped, and looked around to insure that no one was in earshot.  “Most of what I am about to tell you is quickly becoming public knowledge,” he said sternly, “but you will forgive me if I keep my voice down.  Listen closely.”

“Ok,” Katrisha said shrewdly.

“You may have noticed that I have not been to visit you in some time,” Laurel said rhetorically, but still paused for a response.

“Yes,” Katrisha said, and nodded.  She had noticed, but had been far too contented to have worried much at the passage of time.

“I have been busy with an ever mounting pile of concerns, and troubles,” Laurel continued.  “Though I still lack proof, there is little doubt in my mind that the dragon you, and your sister fought was the same one captured by Osyrae, and seen again to meet with their King some time later.  The council will not listen to reason, and has begun to make ridiculous demands.”

“I had not heard…all of that,” Katrisha admitted.

Laurel rubbed his face.  “With no proof of their intent, or any direct act we have little to take to the council for support.  This, however, has not stopped the council from repeatedly requesting my personal return, to make a direct report in closed session regarding the situation with Osyrae.”

“Are you leaving?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“To date I have been able to dissuade them, by insisting that I am needed here to train you,” Laurel said leaning against a nearby column.  “Further that I have no more useful information to report in person.  They have sent a new mage, who has taken up residence at the border, but who has checked in several times at court, where he found you absent.  As it stands if I am forced to leave the kingdom, he will be my replacement…the King does not approve, and nor do I.  We do not trust this new placement.”

“Then what will you do?”  Katrisha asked.  “Remain against the wishes of the council, or ask for another mage to be sent to replace you?”

“Were it only so simple,” Laurel grumbled.  “The King is allowed his preference of available Council Mages – I stress – available.  Currently that is me, and Oradin.  The council will not send another option for what is to be a temporary assignment.  This leaves one more option, that is only slightly conventional.  The King has requested that I finish your training, and you be tested, and sworn as a Council Mage, to take my place during my absence.”

Katrisha simply stared at Laurel in shock for several seconds.  “I’m only fifteen,” she protested, but was at once exhilarated by the prospect.

“Women have sat as queen beside their king as young, though rarely.  One or two even reigned.  Two more years, and you will be seventeen,” Laurel added.  “Still unreasonably young for a proper court mage, but I believe the council may be persuaded at that time to concede to the King’s wishes, on grounds of a temporary appointment.  Two years is all the remaining time I believe I can stave off the increasing demands of the council.”

“I have been, happy here.” Katrisha protested noncommittally.

“As I have been made aware,” Laurel said looking to Renae with some frustration.  “The King’s wishes in this are very clear.  This is not a request, it is a royal decree, and one Renae and I are in agreement on.”

“Your, situation has not been unconsidered,” Renae added consolingly, “but dark times loom on the horizon.  I have spoken with Renoa on the matter, and with Laurel at length.”

“I am hardly placed to condemn your choice,” Laure added with strong reserve.  “What I must do, however, is warn you that if this affair is to continue, you must do so with absolute discretion, and the utmost of secrecy.  We can not afford any aspersions on your character at court, not under these conditions.”

“Does that mean…” Katrisha trailed off nervously, but hopeful.

“Renoa has given permission for Celia to accompany you to Broken Hill, and remain,” Rennae said in a reserved tone.  “Officially, and by all outward appearances she is to be there to insure your continued health, and further to benefit from Laurel’s instruction, since she has expressed such strong interest in the methods of mages.  She is placed to graduate from all of her primary studies, and was to be considered for apprenticeship to the head arcanist, otherwise this would not be acceptable.”

“If rumors arise,” Laurel added sternly.  “I warn you that this could become unfortunate for all parties involved, most particularly, the pair of you.”

“Is that everything?” Katrisha asked biting her lip.

“For the moment,” Laurel said eyeing her sternly.  “I presume you wish to inform…Celia – was it – personally.”

Katrisha nodded.

“Go then.” Laurel shook his head.  “Do please speak of it in private.”  Katrisha ran back to her room with all haste, and caught Celia just as she was about to leave.  She kissed her, and pushed her back into the room, closing the door behind them.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 7th , 1149 E.R.

Katrisha watched the proceedings of the court with moderate interest from the balcony above the throne room.  The day to day grind of official royal business had grown no more interesting in the time she had been away, but there was palpable tension in the air.  She had not been reintroduced at court officially, which she mulled over between relief and disappointment.  She settled on relief as she recognized a man in Clarion robes who stood not far from the dais.

There was also a strangeness for Katrisha.  The girl that stood beside her then as she watched was Celia, and not her sister, as it had so often been.  Katrisha turned to her for a while, who for her part was clearly fascinated.  What was routine and uneventful to Katrisha, having spent over a decade at court, was still filled with novelty for Celia.

“I love you,” she whispered after looking around to check that no one was in earshot.

“What?” Celia laughed nervously under her breath.  “What brought that on?”

“I’ve just gotten so used to all this,” Katrisha said shaking her head.  “Seeing you now, brings me back to when I was a small child, new to the court.”

“I…” Celia shook her head more vigorously.  “Thank you.”  She froze, and winced realizing how she had responded.  “I love you too,” she added in a whisper.

Katrisha caught a curious exchange of glances between Sir Arlen, and Idolus, and found herself suddenly drawn into the proceedings just as the court herald declared the next audience.

“The court recognizes James Lancaster, of Barrier Lake.”

“What is your report this year,” the King asked of a somewhat nervous looking man that stepped up to the dias.

“Three feet your Majesty, two just last month,” he said with with a soft almost lyric old vale accent, and took off his hat, holding it in his hands tightly.  “It might be more by now, takes me over a week to get here from our vale.  Well get by, I’m sure, but it will be tight this year.”

“That is most concerning,” the King nodded.  “We will discuss later what can be done.”

The man bowed, and backed away to the side of the throne room.

“The court recognizes Sir Arlen of Wesrook,” the herald added.

Arlen stepped before the throne, and bowed before the King.  “It has come to my attention your Majesty, that a Lycian Sister has been given a placed at court.  Though I do not see her present, I must express my concern that this could be viewed as an official favoring over the Clarion faith, if it were true.”

“We fear that you have been misinformed,” the King said firmly.  “The truth of matters has obviously been distorted through whatever rumor mill you have overvalued.”  There was a slight laugh from some corners of the court, while others remained staunchly quiet.

“If you would please then inform me better, that I might no more humble myself in ignorance,” Arlen said with thinly disguised ill humor in his voice.

“A young woman has been offered training by the court mage, in exchange for her continued service in ensuring the health of his pupil,” the King answered simply.

“I do understand better now my King,” Arlen said with a bow.  “Though I am concerned that not all will view this distinction as clearly, and might still see favoritism towards an order that is questionable in the minds of many.”

“We shall offer, good Sir,” the King said, his own ill humor far more poorly disguised, “that if an equally young, and gifted man of the Clarion Order has wishes to learn from the court mage, We might speak on his behalf to Laurel.  We believe that this would be a useful experiment in, shall We say diplomacy.”  There was slightly more universal humor at this statement.  “Did you have any further business for the court, Sir Arlen?”

“No, your majesty,” Arlen said stepping back.  “I believe my business for the day has been addressed sufficiently.”

Katrisha glanced at Celia who was obviously troubled, and discreetly slid her hand down the rail onto hers supportively.  Celia looked at Katrisha, and smiled.

“They will have to do better than that,” Katrisha said with authority, “the King is far too clever for them.”

“Does he know?” Celia asked hesitantly.

“He…” Katrisha started hesitantly.  “Laurel didn’t say specifically that he had told the King.”

“Then are we so clever?” Celia asked pointedly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 28th, 648 E.R.

Katrisha watched closely as Celia tried to recreate the tiny lens spell held between her fingers.  It was a good excuse to stand extremely close beneath the moonlight, without being locked away behind closed doors.  Not that anyone was nearby on the rampart at that moment.  The occasional guard would walk by every half hour, but their boots announced their approach well ahead of them.

“I think I have it,” Celia said hesitantly.  “Ok, yes, it’s working.”

“Try adjusting the magnification like this,” Katrisha said slowly tweaking the spell back and forth while Celia watched.

There was a tiny fizzle between Celia’s fingers.  “Oh.  No, but this time,” she said confidently.  “I think I saw where it gave way.”  Celia concentrated very hard, no longer even paying attention to Katrisha’s spell, and worked instead from memory.  “I think…” she started, “yes, it worked!” she exclaimed.

“Very good,” Katrisha said proudly, and leaned in to kiss Celia on the cheek, only to find lips, and a firm embrace holding her a very willing prisoner.  A single moment of indiscretion beneath the moonlight was enough to distract the two.  They were well practiced in listening for the sounds of guards boots on the rampart.  If a guard had been approaching they might have noticed, and stopped their kiss in time, but the soft soles of a lady did not make much noise.

“What are you…” Lady Catherine declared, and realized all too clearly what she had stumbled upon.

“Nothing,” Katrisha declared with a start, and jumped back.

“That was not nothing,” Catherine said squinting at the pair.  “I had my suspicions, but now…”  She glowered.  “This is unacceptable, and the King will hear.  Do you know how much trouble this causes?”

“You could…” Katrisha started hesitantly, “you could pretend you saw nothing.”

“Even if I were to do so,” Catherine said firmly.  “I have no guarantee that someone else will not catch the two of you again.  This ends, the court can not afford it.  We need you acceptable dear girl, we will not be forced into accepting that mage’s appointment at court.”  Catherine turned and marched away.

“Please,” Celia begged, and ran after her, “this will not happen again, we will not get caught.”

“No.” Catherine stopped.  “I’m sorry, but this cannot be.  You have my sympathies.  Return to the tower.  This night is all I can allow you.  I will not wake the King for this matter, but he will know soon after first light.”

“I hate you,” Katrisha yelled, “you’ve always hated me.”

“Then that, can’t be helped,” Catherine said sadly.  “I’ve borne far worse for the good of this land.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha lay in Celia’s arms crying as she had been for over an hour.

“I’m sorry,” Celia finally said, her own tears having dried up.

“Why?” Katrisha sobbed helplessly.

“It’s my fault,” Celia said.  “I kissed you, I distracted us.”

“No,” Katrisha said softly.  “No we are both to blame.”

“The King will send me away, won’t he?” Celia asked, already sure of the answer.

“Then he can send me too,” Katrisha declared.

“What if they won’t?” Celia demanded, and made Katrisha look her in the eye.

“I’ll make them, I’ll be such a nuisance they won’t want me,” Katrisha declared defiantly.

“I don’t believe this has all been a whim,” Celia said hesitantly.  “Not with how hard they are trying to keep you in Laurel’s place.”

“Why, what is so important about me being a useless court mage?” Katrisha asked desperately.

“I don’t know,” Celia said distantly, “but…”

“I won’t let them take you away from me,” Katrisha said firmly.  “I won’t lose you, they don’t get to do this.  They don’t get to take you away from me.  I’ve given up enough.  I’ve done enough.  I’ve saved lives, I’ve risked mine.”

“How will you stop them?” Celia asked sternly.

“I’ll fight them if I have to,” Katrisha growled.

“No,” Celia said flatly, as a haunted look came over her eyes, “and do not speak so again.”

“What?” Katrisha demanded confused.

“These people, whatever you think of them right this moment,” Celia began sadly.  “They are your family, would you really hurt them…just to be with me?”

“I…” Katrisha started, but suddenly shrank into Celia’s embrace.  “No…I wouldn’t.  I didn’t mean…please, let’s just run away, far away.”

“A dark time may be coming for us all,” Celia said distantly.  “If Osyrae really acts against Avrale…”  She let out a long breath.  “The Sisterhood will serve the King, we will heal the wounded, even though that might cost us our lives.  We all swear an oath, to do no harm, you were there when I took mine.  Yet I might break that Oath to stand beside you at the end…if it came to that.  But I can’t abandon the Sisterhood, my mother, Wren, and Audry – not now.”

“Then what?” Katrisha said hopelessly.

“I love you,” Celia said looking Katrisha firmly in the eye.  “No distance they put between us, can change what I feel.  Perhaps when you are court mage, things can change.  Perhaps when they have accepted you, we can fix this, the real problem.  Surely there is some official capacity, some power with such position.”

“Some yes,” Katrisha started thoughtfully.  “It’s all so terribly messy though.  I…” Katrisha hesitated, then sat up suddenly.  She started to move, but then to be sure there was no confusion quickly kissed Celia fleetingly, and ran across the room.  She grabbed a small box from a bookshelf, and ran back to the bed with it.  “This box,” Katrisha said hesitantly on her knees beside the bed, “it was given to us years ago by Horence.  He helped to clear out the farmstead where we were born, and kept it safe for us till we were older.”

Katrisha opened the box, and amidst miscellaneous jewelry was a simple gold band, with a garnet set in it.  “This was my mother’s, and…by all accounts my grandmother’s as well.  I want you to have it,” she said firmly.

“I…don’t know what to say,” Celia said gently reached into the box and touched the ring.

“Say yes,” Katrisha pleaded simply.

“Are you sure?” Celia asked nervously.

“If this is to be, if we are to be separated, then I will give you this promise that we will be together again.  No matter what,” Katrisha said softly, and picked up the ring with a trembling hand.

“Yes,” Celia said meekly, and Katrisha slipped the ring on her finger.

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Chapter 8

Laeune the moon,
daughter of night,
glorious barer,
of tranquil light,

she soothes us all,
that we might dream,
and takes harsh color,
from all we’ve seen,

Laeune the lover,
rhythm of womankind,
who’s gentle grace,
now guides my hand,

she brings us wisdom,
that we might yet see,
what lies before us,
there yet waiting to be.

– unattributed, circa 200 E.R.

The Moonlight

Vernum 1st, 647 E.R.

It was very late, and the corridors of the cloister were lit only by what moonlight could find a way through skylights, or the occasional window on the upper tier.  Katrisha knocked for the second time at Celia’s door, and waited uncomfortably.  She knew another Sister shared the room with Celia, and did not know quite what to say if the other girl answered instead.

A minute passed and Katrisha grew all the more awkward about the whole affair.  She hesitantly turned to leave, stopped herself, debated, sighed quietly, and turned back.  She was worried.  She had not seen Celia for three days, and their last meeting had been both brief, and odd.  Katrisha had wanted to thank Celia again for her help, but was still too embarrassed to do so publicly, and Celia for her part had seemed almost intent to extract herself from the conversation.

Katrisha raised her hand to the door, and paused, she wondered if it was worth pressing the matter so late in the evening, let alone with a stranger in the mix.  She resigned herself to leave, turned, and told herself it was nothing any way.  She stopped as she felt Celia’s familiar presence through the door.  She turned around again, but still there was a lingering moment before the door finally creaked open.

Katrisha formed a small ball of cool light in her hand that caught a glimmer of a tear on her friend’s cheek, before Celia could wipe it away.

“Are you alright?” Katrisha asked, her entire demeanor shifting towards concern.

“I’m alright,” Celia assured unconvincingly.  “It’s nothing.”

“I’ve not known you to be one to cry for no reason,” Katrisha said with a frown.  “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry at all.”

“Maybe…” Celia started, and floundered.  “Maybe you don’t know me well enough.”  She seemed to think better of her words, but also to be at a lack of an alternative, and so just held her tongue on that frustratedly.

“I’m sorry if I’ve intruded,” Katrisha said distinctly taken aback.

“No…” Celia said obviously pained.  “I didn’t mean…oh fates no I didn’t mean.”

Katrisha frowned.  “It’s a beautiful night out.  I was going to go watch the stars, but I was worried about you, and as I recall I said I’d bring you some time.  I don’t suppose you would like to?”

“I…” Celia seemed quite off balance.  “I would like that.”

“This way then,” Katrisha said motioning with the hand holding the light which wifed out as she turned.  “I hope I didn’t disturb your roommate too much,” Katrisha said apologetically.

“Huh?  Oh…uh, no, she’s out tonight,” Celia stammered slightly.

“Oh, why?” Katrisha said with mild curiosity, and wondered if perhaps it was related to Celia’s malaise.

“Just…out,” Celia said bashfully.  Katrisha could almost hear the blush in her voice, and turned to consider her friend in the inky shadow between skylights.  It was a tone Maraline had adopted on occasion when talking about Lukus, often with rosy cheeks.  Celia smiled meekly.  If her cheeks were at all a different hue it was impossible to tell in the pale light.

There was a charming helplessness about Celia at times, that Katrisha could never quite place.  She was smart, quick, and bold enough to ask Katrisha to teach her magic, even when she had heard her repeatedly turn down others.  Katrisha thought the bouts of self doubt did not do her justice, and yet it was part of her charm.  It suited her in spite of itself, and left a warm endearing quality.  Truly warm was what she felt like, simple enduring warmth, like a stone warmed in the sun, but softer.

“She’s staying with…a friend,” Celia said at last, looking away mid sentence.

“Ok,” Katrisha said scrunching her brow thoughtfully, and turning to head up the nearby stairs.  “Is that why you are sad?” she asked hesitantly after a few steps.

“W…What?” Celia asked, a bit off put.  It seemed almost as though halfway through her reaction she had changed from not understanding, to defensive.  “No, not at all.  I’m quite happy for her…though I’m not fond of the boy in question.  He has gotten…better.”

“Oh,” Katrisha said uncertain that had really answered anything.  She turned back at the top of the stairs.  “I hope I didn’t offend.”

“No,” Celia said, looking up at Katrisha, some confusion on her face.  “Why…no, I can guess why you would worry that.”  She seemed to be at a loss to put her jumbled thoughts together into words.  It was amusing, if worrisome.

Katrisha cocked her head curiously to the side at her friend for a moment, and waved for her to continue following as she turned down a short hall that lead outside.  They walked up to the railing overlooking the courtyard, and Katrisha watched as Celia gazed out, and then up into the starry sky above.

After a moment Katrisha kicked off her shoes, climbed onto a rail, and sought familiar footings, and handholds on the column.

“What are you doing?” Celia demanded in a harsh whisper.

“It’s better from the roof,” Katrisha said flatly, and with a hint of challenge in her voice.

“But,” Celia protested flusteredly as Katrisha deftly ascended the column, and pulled herself out of view.  Celia stepped to the side of the column Katrisha had climbed, and looked for the footholds she had used. They were obvious enough, if terrifyingly slim and precarious.

A moment passed before Katrisha hung her upper body back down, her silver hair dangling from the top of her head, shimmering mesmerizingly in the moonlight.  “Coming?” she asked simply, her head cocked again to the side.  She waited a moment, and then disappeared once more.

Celia bit her lip, and climbed up onto the rail, gingerly testing her traction on the ridges Katrisha had used to climb.  She placed her hand nervously on a swirl near the roof, and paused to take a deep breath.  She almost had the nerve, and then again had almost talked herself out the whole endeavor when she felt a hand on hers.

Celia looked up into the silver halo framing Katrisha’s face, and into the emerald eyes that seemed to glimmer down at her in the dark.  She steeled herself, took a step up, and let Katrisha pull her the rest of the way onto the roof.  She sat with her legs dangling down, and took several quick breaths, calming herself.

“See, nothing to worry about,” Katrisha said in a kind, but chiding tone.  Celia looked at her incredulously, but couldn’t help but return Katrisha’s crooked smile.

Katrisha moved deftly up the roof, found a spot, wiggled till the tiles were situated comfortably against her back, and crossed one leg over a propped up knee absently.

Celia moved more cautiously and lay a short distance to her side.  She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to relax, trying to enjoy just being in the moment without thinking or worrying.  She looked up at the sky, and it was beautiful.  She smiled to herself at the thought that Katrisha was right, there was something about lying down and looking up at it that was different somehow, better.

Celia looked over at Katrisha appreciatively, but was distracted by a strange glint between her fingers.  “What’s that?” she asked curiously.

“That,” Katrisha said measuredly past her concentration, “is a little trick I read about, and figured out how to do.  Takes a fussy lot of precision to get what I want out of it though.  The spell itself is fairly simple – though reach and clarity are a challenge.  I have to wonder if Kiannae would be better at it, she has something of a gift with manipulating light.  It isn’t quite like anything else though, it is a controlled amplification of light, making new light based on received light.  Not quite like common methods of invisibility, which are a redistribution of existing energy.  Still, reception is the key.”

“So, it’s not just a lense?” Celia asked.

“I tried that spell once.  Easy enough, but you can only see so much that way.  Surface area is the problem.  It’s very subtle but look out ahead of me.”

“Oh,” Celia remarked glimpsing the faint glimmer of magic a dozen feet above Katrisha, and a few feet across.  The filaments connecting it down to to the glimmer between her fingers, that did still looked a bit like a lense, stray rays of light amplified from various parts of the sky.

“Even knowing all the principles, I had to recreate the underlying behavior described in the technique.  Magic is so easily lost.  All the written principles in the world amount to very little, if one cannot master the basic conversion, and there is no writing that down.  It can only be experienced first hand.  Though, I suppose one could store conversions as enchantments, but those decay, and there are diminishing returns.  Copying copies.”

“But you did it?”

“What can I say, I’m exceptional, or perhaps just stubborn.  Laurel said he did not know the underlying conversion, and had never had the patience to try and find it.  Here, let me show you.” Katrisha rolled over, and placed two fingers in front of Celia’s right eye.  Startling her slightly. “Now close the other,” she commanded.  “Be warned, it can be disorienting at first.”  

Celia did as she was bid, and gasped as what she saw changed. It was almost as though she flew forward into the sky.  “Take my hand,” Katrisha said encouragingly after Celia’s initial shock had passed, “and move it very gently.  Tell me if you want to look closer.”

“O…ok,” Celia said shakily opened her left eye for a moment to confirm she hadn’t moved, and thought better of it as the split image hurt her head.  She brought her fingers hesitantly to Katrisha’s hand, and took a deep breath.

It was frustrating at first, how the tiniest movements made the sky fly by in an instant.  In one pass she saw something, strange, and it took well over a minute for her to catch a glimpse again.  “There, closer!” she said excitedly as she managed to get Katrisha’s hand at just the right angle.  “It’s beautiful, what is it?” she asked as she examined the intricate multi colored tendrils.

“Tell me what you see,” Katrisha said carefully, with metered breaths, doing all she could to hold her hand steady, and the spell perfectly stable.

“It’s like a flower made of light,” Celia said excitedly.

“I think you’ve found a nebulae,” Katrisha said with a smile.

“But…” Celia said a bit flustered, “what does that mean?”

“It’s the remnants of a dead star,” Katrisha said struggling to hold her focus.

“Dead,” Celia said doubtfully. “Why is it so pretty then?  That doesn’t seem right.”

Katrisha lost her focus, and the intricate filaments of the nebulae vanished as magical ones dissipated in faint swirls.

“Dead is…probably not the right word,” Katrisha said as Celia turned to look at her wide eyed.  “It’s like the smoke and embers of a fire, that stretches as far as it takes light to travel in years.”

Celia baffled for a moment over all the unknown parts of that idea, finally sticking to the idea that light takes time to travel, but was quickly distracted from that train of thought by Katrisha’s face in the moonlight.  She was fiddling again with her spell, this time looking off towards the horizon.  Celia sighed, which distracted Katrisha, who glanced down at her friend’s wide grin, and smiled back absently before returning to scanning the sky.

“Thank you,” Celia said after a moment. “For showing me that…for…for everything.”

“You, are welcome,” Katrisha said again glancing at Celia’s fixed expression.  She laughed from the seemingly comical intensity of it.  It was certainly an improvement from having found her crying, but she was just as much at a loss to explain the change.  Celia could be flighty Katrisha thought, but she chided herself that she could as well.  It seemed different somehow, like a powerful unseen force was tugging at her friends emotions, whipping her back and forth like a banner in the wind.

“You never told me what was bothering you,” Katrisha said laying her hand on the roof between them, “and I think I owe you at least an ear to listen, after the other day…”

Katrisha could almost see the wheels turning behind Celia’s eyes as she seemed to work backwards and forwards over what she wanted to say.  “I…I wasn’t offended,” she came to at last.

“I’m sorry?” Katrisha pressed not having followed the train of thought.

“When you implied I might be sad that Lena was out…with a friend,” Celia said awkwardly.

“Oh,” Katrisha said, understanding the reference at least, but not the meaning.  “I haven’t thought a lot on such things, but…I know they are,” Katrisha said not sure where she was going with the line of reasoning.  “I’m also not blind,” she settled on, “I’ve seen some of the other girls and women who…are obviously more than friends.”

“They tell us it’s not…as common outside of the cloisters, and that some people out there are offended by the very idea,” she frowned, obviously concerned with her own line of conversation.

“I…” Katrisha trailed off.  “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, in fact I can’t say it is true with any certainty…but…heh,” she shook her head.  “You don’t really know either of them.  There are too men, very close to me in my life.  I know in my heart there is something there between them.”

“Oh,” Celia said, a bit surprised.  “I suppose there is that as well.  It’s…rarer, but there are fewer men amongst us after all.”

“It would seem statistically less prevalent by consequence, yes,” Katrisha mused, and looked horribly embarrassed.  “Still I don’t know it to be true.  Just glances I’ve caught, an odd familiarity they share, a touch of a hand noticed out of…” she hesitated as a hand rested on hers.  “Oh…” she said, swallowed, and the hand was quickly withdrawn.

Celia looked away mortified.

“Oh…” Katrisha repeated flummoxed.

“I’m sorry,” Celia said sitting up, wrapping her arms around herself, and turning away, as she choked back a sob.

“No…” Katrisha started, “no…oh goodness I’ve been daft, haven’t I?  I…I said I haven’t thought much about such things, and that goes…farther than just philosophically.  I’ve barely considered boys in quite some time, let alone…oh fates I’m just making this worse.” her voice had raised more nervously with every syllable.

“No,” Celia said her voice strained, “no it’s my fault, you aren’t one of us…and you came to us so troubled.  I couldn’t have expected you to notice…to…I’m so sorry.”

Celia started to move, but Katrisha caught her shoulder, then cheek gently and turned her back to face her.  “Please, I didn’t ask you to go, did I?” she said her face stricken with a flurry of emotions, but chief among them concern.  “I didn’t…I didn’t say I wasn’t willing to entertain the thought, only that…I hadn’t…yet…”  She was trying very hard to smile reassuringly, but she was far too much in need of reassurance herself to pull it off.

“I’m sor…I need to stop saying that…I really do,” she said almost angrily.  Guilt and other conflicts plain on her face.  “Fates…I…didn’t…” Celia stiffened, but seemed to regain some composure.  “Fates, I feel horrid.  I’ve…I’ve been on the other side of this.  I should have known better, maybe.  Maybe it’s just ‘cause you are older…but what am I saying, I was older than him, and I wasn’t ready…and he…found someone else.  He was also the only one…the only…oh never mind.  I’m s…no I’m not saying that anymore.  Oh Light I shouldn’t be laying all this on you.”

“It’s ok,” Katrisha said her own thoughts spinning a bit at the situation.  “As I said…I owe you at least an ear for all that troubles you.  Not just for how you helped me the other night, but because you have made me feel welcome here, like…I belong.  More so than anyone.  Well except maybe Renae, but that’s not the same.  She’s been like a loving aunt, you have been a true friend.”

“I haven’t spoiled that friendship have I?” Celia asked hesitantly, a tear rolling down her cheek.

“No,” Katrisha said brushing the tear away with her thumb, and letting her hand rest there.  “No you haven’t.  You have been nothing but kind…and considerate, perhaps too much so for your own good.  And I have repaid you to date with blindness it seems.  I think I’m the one in the wrong here, not you.  I’m willing to figure out what…might be, but I promise you, I can’t bear the thought of not being your friend.”

“Only willing?” Celia asked hesitantly, trying to reassure herself that she wasn’t pushing something unwanted on her friend, but worried as soon as it was said it might seem all the more pressing.

“Curious, confused…fates I don’t know,” she ran her fingers through her hair, “seems like a novel new way I could cause Laurel headaches, if nothing else.”  Katrisha laughed awkwardly, but thought better of her levity.  “I’ve clearly been oblivious to the very possibility, so willing, perhapsm hopeful.  I don’t know what more I can possibly offer.”

Celia leaned closer to Katrisha, hesitantly, testingly, and watched her eyes for discomfort at her forwardness, but all she could see was kindness, a quizzical curiosity, and concern.  There was no fear in those haunting green eyes, no sign of an inclination to pull away, and then there was a glimmer of determination as Katrisha pulled Celia closer, and kissed her fleetingly.

Katrisha struggled between emotion and observation.  Analysis of feelings that stirred, her heart’s unquestionable response.  Years of an untended illness had held her back in many ways, and it seemed in that sliver of a moment something in her nature yearned to make up for lost time.  Yet all of this paled in comparison to the certainty with which Celia launched into another, more lingering, wanting kiss.

Moments faded to minutes, or hours for all the difference Katrisha would have known.  Only the familiar moon that hung in the sky lied about a finite passage of time.  Gentle fingertips wandered aimlessly, trying to find their place in a dance meant for soft lips, and humorously inconvenient noses.

If lips spoke of certainty, hands spoke falteringly of all that was unknown, and unsure.  They wove a caring step of caution, overwhelmed by powerful instincts new, and undefined.  It was not unlike learning to touch magic, the moment you felt it the first time it was remarkable, but you could hardly figure out what to do.  Formless, clumsy, there was a response in kind, and then it collapsed, but you had discovered something gloriously new.

Breathless, Celia gave way, and lay her head on Katrisha’s shoulder.  It is rare to truly sense the emotion of another, even in the most intimate moments.  Yet in that instant Katirsha knew Celia’s whole world lay wrapped up in that embrace. That all Celia had dreamed of for weeks felt possible, and right at her aimless fingertips.  It could hardly have felt a greater honor, or imposition.  A responsibility placed upon her that she was unsure if she could own.  That in a moment of impulse she had accepted.

Celia laughed suddenly, and and broke the fragile impression.  “From the moment I met you,” she murmured wistfully.  “I have been trying to figure out what your presence felt like.”  She sighed and curled all the more insistently against Katrisha.  “I always wanted to liken it to sunlight, but it’s not the warm prickles of a summer sun.  I’ve finally realized what it is.  You are moonlight, a cool wash of moonlight on my skin.  Yet right now, so close to you, I think even that is wrong.  You are the ocean, warm, dark, and deep.  I feel like I’m in over my head.  I should be terrified, but I’m not.  Which is just funny, really.  I’ve never seen the ocean, never swam in water deeper than my waist.  Never even left the cloister.  Yet I am as certain of these things, as I am that this is where I want to be.  If I drowned in you, I would die happy.”

Katrisha slowly came back to the living world.  Dragged unwillingly by the intensity of Celia’s musings.  She, was afraid, but she was not sure it was a bad kind of fear.  She kissed the top of Celia’s head.  She considered the assertion, and found that a passing embrace had never let her appreciate how much different a presence could feel that close.  Not warm like a stone in the sun, but like a raindrop refracting the sunlight.  It was beautiful, serene, complex, and seemingly fragile.  Fear, lay it breaking something so beautiful with a clumsy misstep.

She wondered what the difference between love and friendship was, and tried to remember what Mercu had to say on the matter.  ‘It is the difference between the river and the stream, the sky and the breeze.  Where one begins the other does not end, and more over the line does not exist any more than we foolishly protest that it must.’

“A half pence for your thoughts?” Celia asked after comfortable silence had faded to a sliver of doubt.

“Really, just thinking about things I don’t know.  Which seems to be a lot more than I usually like to admit,” Katrisha said softly.

“Oh fates, we are in trouble if you don’t know, aren’t we?” Celia laughed.

“Troubles an old friend.  I’ll introduce you, it’ll be fun,” Katrisha mused lightly.

Celia buried her face in Katrisha’s neck to stifle her laughter.  Katrisha held her friend close and sighed contentedly, she felt very good there in her arms.  Relief had finally caught up in the emotional jumble she felt.  All the fears that had lead her to Celia’s door that night were washed away.  A part of her had worried that Celia was mad at her for something she wasn’t aware of.  Perhaps she had, been a bit, Katrisha considered.  For not seeing how she felt.  She could own that guilt, as reasonable as her ignorance seemed.  More though it felt like she had been discouraged.

Doubt nagged still at the edge of her thoughts, was this what she wanted?  It certainly felt good, it certainly made Celia happy, and she admitted to herself she would be disappointed if it – whatever it was – stopped so suddenly.  There was potential, for what she still didn’t fully grasp, but potential was always exciting.

Potential was energy in waiting, ready, and anxious to become action.  You could feel it an object about to fall.  In an electric buildup reaching to discharge.  In a fresh flame sputtering to life.  Katrisha could feel that in herself, and it was a little unnerving.

Musings of uncertainty were cut short with a gasp as lips met a vulnerable neck, and the tingle down Katrisha’s spine quickly made doubts dull, familiar things, as all that was new and unknown proved vastly more interesting.  She hummed softly as Celia explored.  Her head rolled back, and eyes closed instinctively, which lead the trail of kisses downward across her throat.

“That feels lovely,” Katrisha murmured.

“I’m glad,” Celia responded nervously.  Katrisha felt Celia’s trembling hand rest on her heart, and gave a contented sigh.  It was sweet, simple, reassuring, and filled her with an absolute sense of peace.

Tentative fingers drifted from Katrisha’s heart, as lips still worked at her neck with seeking kisses, trying to find any sensitive spot.  She felt the a gentle flow of energy into her as Celia’s hand lovingly meandered.  Gentle living energy which made skin, muscles, every cell beneath the touch hum with life.  She felt more aware, more sensitive in all the right ways to the feathery touch, and somewhere past the growing pleasantness, and distraction, it clicked in her mind, a simple logical possibility already being put into practice.

Katrisha suddenly understood something she had never even considered, that the gift could be used affectionately.  That the same principles that allowed for such practices to temporarily enhance strength, allow the body to push farther, faster, and harder in battle could also be used to make it more sensitive, more aware.

In a way Katrisha was terrified.  The simple act of kisses on her neck had already started to addle most higher thoughts and concerns.  That wasn’t making love, it was barely undignified in public.  She knew precious little about what lay beyond that point, but if it was beyond, then it had to be more…and if fueled by the power of living gift. She bit her lip trying to imagine.  It was a heady overwhelming prospect, but any fear or doubt the idea raised in the back of her mind was quickly dwindling under what Celia was drawing out of her.

Willingness, and piqued curiosity were lost concepts.  Want, was then in search of a roost, a place in her to call its own.  It had always been there, like a shadow.  Though placing the moments the specter belonged to proved difficult, and the present seemed of more import.

Katrisha could feel herself sinking to the roof, melting under Celia’s attentions.  A part of her wanted to simply let go, to be Celia’s to do with as she pleased.  It was a powerful part, but surprisingly, unexpectedly it lost a contest of will Katrisha hadn’t even imagined was under way.  Almost before she knew what she was doing she was the one looming over Celia, kissing and caressing her, enjoying Celia’s gasps of pleasure and surprise more than she could have anticipated.

They were satisfying sounds, and the sensations, and the smell of Celia’s skin was delightful.  She realized it was almost as intoxicating from the other side, and there was a touch of frustration in that.  She had wanted back some semblance of control, and though it seemed her mind was clearer, she felt no more in control.  It was her own desire determining what happened, not Celia’s.  It was her desire.  She had barely imagined such a thing existed.  A slumbering creature truly woken for the first time, and wrapped around her heart possessively.

There was so much to learn, to understand.  Katrisha was lost in the act of exploring, feeling caressing.  She was delighted with each new discovery, and tried with great success to replicate the technique Celia had used on her.  As the minutes rolled on, and as lost as she was in her task she became more unsure of what came next.  

She could guess.  Obvious places unventured, but that seemed rushed, and clearly crossed a line to yet more undiscovered country.  It was a leap she wasn’t ready to make, and she settled back beside Celia, and nestled her head against her shoulder.  Taking time to let her heart come back down to reality, all the while daydreaming fretfully of new realities.

Katrisha watched Celia’s chest rise and fall beneath her robe, and let her fingers wander over her form in the moonlight.  She loved the moonlight, but she wondered if she loved Celia.  Treasured her friendship, without question.  Adored her company, and was ecstatic from new and unfamiliar feelings, and sensations, certainly.  She was closer to Celia than she had been to anyone in her life – save her own twin – and surely that meant something.  Yes, she convinced herself, yes she could love Celia, but was she in love?  What even she wondered was the difference?  Was it passion?  That seemed far too easily available, and far too simple.  Nothing was ever so simple.

She had placed her life between a dragon, and her mentor.  Between a dire cat, and a soldier who was only a passing acquaintance.  She felt like for Celia, she would stand against the whole world.  Even her own uncertainty, doubt, and sometimes bumbling social graces.  All at once, the feeling did not seem new, or changed, just understood.

“Yes,” Katrisha said softly.  “Yes, I want to know where this goes.  But…I need to know what you expect, what you need from me, because this is all much too new.  I’m afraid…I don’t want to lose…” she couldn’t even make up her mind what she meant to say there.  Anything, she finally decided, she didn’t want to lose anything.  She already felt like she had lost too much.  She couldn’t lose Celia.

“I need,” Celia started tentatively.  “I want,” she corrected, “to share with you all that I am.  That last little bit we all keep hidden away.  I expect nothing, but I hope that you will allow me to continue to hold you, and touch you, and…kiss you,”  she laughed nervously.

“I think I would like that,” Katrisha murmured softly.  “I think I would like that very much.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vernum 2nd, 648 E.R.

Katrisha woke to a feeling at once familiar, and strange.  She had curled up next to her sister countless times in the years they had shared their tower chamber.  The feeling of Celia’s sleeping form in her arms was different in so many ways, and yet the memory haunted her, and brought her a pang of grief, and confusion.  She clung more tightly to Celia, who stirred, and nuzzled against her chest, a relatively new sensation that washed away Katrisha’s troubles for at least a moment.

After several wandering sleepy kisses Celia looked up drowsily into Katrisha’s eyes.  “Hello,” Celia said softly, a touch of uncertainty creeping into her voice.

“Hi,” Katrisha said with the same nervous air.  She clung to the night they had spent kissing beneath the stars, and falling asleep in each other’s arms after wandering back to her bed at some forsaken hour before dawn.  

There was no regret in her for that, she was certain.  What ever was yet to be, the simple innocent awkwardness of the moment was exhilarating.  She was happy, she told herself, even as fear nagged at the edges of her mind.  Happy had been in painfully short supply for far too long.

Celia’s eyes suddenly went wide.  “What time is it?” she snapped, staring out the window at the bright daylight.

“I’m not sure,” Katrisha said, held up her hand, and a small triangular shape formed, wobbled, and pointed at in the direction of the sun.  “About mid morning,” Katrisha said absently.

“Crap,” Celia said wincing, “I’m late for garden duty.”

“Oh,” Katrisha said still half awake.

“Could you let me out,” Celia implored awkwardly, not really wanting to leave, but needing to, and lay trapped against the wall by Katrisha.

“Oh, yes,” Katrisha said and got up out of bed.  She scratched her head.  “Sorry.”

“No, please don’t apologize,” Celia said lifted up, hugged Katrisha, and kissed her firmly.  “It was wonderful, you are wonderful, and I hate to go…but I must.”

“It’s ok,” Katrisha said stealing a second kiss.  “Go, I have my own lateness to answer for, I’m sure.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Theron watched as a wrinkle on his hand slowly faded.  “Very good,” he said encouragingly.  “Age is not an easy adversary to push back,” he added.  “It’s natural, it’s one inclination of the body, but for the most part our forms want to be young, they just forget how.”

“How old are you?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“I’ll be eighty five next spring,” Theron said in a matter of fact tone.

“You don’t look it,” Katrisha said in mild disbelief, the man before her looked no older than Mercu, but was over thirty years his elder.  “You are even older than the King,” she added, though pondered that Laurel had never mentioned his age, even been evasive on the matter.  She knew that gifted people lived longer lives, had understood they aged slower, but had easily mistaken the common condition of age in the members of the court to be indicative of what she should expect.  That had been silly, but mostly just unexamined.

“I remember the King as a boy,” Theron laughed.  “Is it really so surprising how old I am?  You know Rennae is over seventy, don’t you?”

“I…didn’t actually,” Katrisha said with some embarrassment.

“Oh, yes,” Theron said thoughtfully.  “I suppose you might not have had reason to know that.”  He eyed her shrewdly for a moment.  “Something is different about you today,” he said seeming almost as though he was changing the subject.

“I…don’t know what you are talking about,” Katrisha winced.

“You lie badly when you are flustered,” Theron said with a laugh.  “You seem much happier, and yet…” Theron scratched his head, “troubled.  Yes, I see it now, you are in love…or at least right on the cusp of it.”

“I…I…how did you know?” Katrisha sputtered.

“How long did I just say I’ve been alive for?” Theron chuckled.  “And what are the core matters of spiritual studies?  You should remember that affairs of the heart are on that list.”

“Oh…” Katrisha sighed, and looked down.

“I won’t press the topic,” Theron said sympathetically, “but I am here if you need advice.”

“Thank you,” Katrisha said uncertainly.  “It’s just…I don’t want to talk about it, and yet…the whole thing is scary.”

“Such is the way of young love,” Theron said pointedly.  “It is full of excitement, and fear is after all very exciting.”

“Not terribly helpful,” Katrisha muttered.

“No,” Theron laughed kindly, “but honest.  I have known it from every angle in my many years.”

“The one thing…the thing that really bothers me,” Katrisha said as she fished for the right words.  “I never even considered loving…” she hesitated again, considering the wisdom of the admission.  It did seem a accepted state of affairs in that place, but still, she bit her lip.  “…another girl,” she finally steamed herself to say.  “And I do, I think.  At very least enough that I’m afraid I might change my mind, and hurt her, and that terrifies me.”

“I must admit, ‘never having considered’ it, is a new one by me.”  Theron mused.  “It is so easy to forget the world out there, and how it works.  Even then not so very new I suppose.  Everyone matures at their own rate, our gifts skew that problem more, not less.  The number of youth I have counseled who have found themselves hopelessly in love, or hopelessly loved…”

Theron shook his head, distracted by his own train of thought.  “When we really love someone, we concern ourselves for their wellbeing.  We are flawed creatures, prone to fickle whims, all of us, and so it is not unreasonable to fear our own impact on one dear to us.  The thing to cling to, is that you care, or you would not have this fear.  Always put that concern first, and you will do the best you can by her.”

“That…actually helps, I guess,” Katrisha said looking away.

“I have other duties that must be tended,” Theron said standing up to leave.  “Unless you are in need of more council presently?”

“No,” Katrisha said.  “No, and thank you.”

Katrisha sat in the sun for a while, and for once it didn’t bother her.  She let herself imagine the warmth was Celia’s touch.  She did love her, she tried to convince herself.  The idea was still new, and odd, and tangled up with all it meant.  She already had, she told herself.  What she felt had not changed over night, even if it had gained so many new dimensions.

The sound of footsteps in the grass caught Katrisha’s attention just as she felt the approach of a familiar aura.    He always felt warmer than the sun, and yet it never bothered her.  She opened her eyes, and smiled at Wren who was walking towards her in a seemingly casual manner.

“Hello,” Katrisha said with a half smile, “what brings you to the courtyard?”

“Oh, not much,” Wren lied.  “You seem…well, different somehow, though.”

“Oh, not you too with that,” Katrisha laughed awkwardly.

“I overheard, from the balcony,” Wren admitted with mixed humor.  “I…couldn’t resist.  To be fair I was listening in to start with, because I had already heard.”

“Already?” Katrisha winced.

“Sort of,” Wren said kindly.  “Celia was late today, there were questions.  She dodged a lot of them, and I put the pieces together from what she didn’t say.  I might not have been the only one to figure it out though.”

Katrisha sighed deeply.  “I….I don’t know what to say,” she said looking up to Wren for approval.  “I also…don’t know what to do.”

“I…wouldn’t feel right offering you advice,” Wren said looking away.

“But…” Katrisha started, “you, must know something of how this all works.”

“I know how things are for Audry, and me.  I suspect there are…differences…”  He laughed, but it seemed an odd sort of humor.  “Some things,” he started gain, “are better figured out on your own.  There is a certain…joy in muddling around at first I think.  Besides, I haven’t really figured out which one of you to scold not to hurt the other – yet.”

“She really means alot to you, doesn’t she?” Katrisha asked pointedly.

“She’s…a very close friend,” Wren said evasively.  “You, her, Audry, and Renae.  You four are the world to me.”

“I will try to do right by her,” Katrisha pledged nervously.  “I just…haven’t figured this whole thing out yet.”

“Give it time,” Wren said patting his sister on the shoulder, “and…though I don’t recommend looking it up right away, there is a book.  I know you like books for your answers.  You probably can get a copy of it from the library if you ask…  Audry was able to.  We’ve been reading it together.  It’s…enlightening.”

“What book?” Katrisha said scratching her head.

“It’s known best as the Red Book,” Wren said shrewdly.  “Written by a mage of all things…though she was really so much more.  Her name was Sylvia, Sylvia Grey for all her family tried to forget her.  I’ve sometimes wondered if she’s a distant relation to Laurel. I wouldn’t ask him though, he might be embarrassed if you did.”

“Is it that…bad?” Katrisha asked uneasily.

“I wouldn’t say there is a single bad thing about it,” Wren said sternly.  “Others, out there…” her gestured absently, “might disagree.  She was disowned by her whole family, then rose to more prominence than any of them ever had, or would.  Funny that, they disowned her, but she is the one the world remembers, while they passed into obscurity.”

“But Laurel is a court mage,” Katrisha protested.

“Of a minor kingdom,” Wren corrected, “and surely you remember Mercu’s tale of how Laurel found himself in that position?  I do.  I was there for one telling.”

“Right, Prince Darion,” Katrisha laughed, “saved him from bandits.”

“Before that he was just a mage traveling with caravans,” Wren added.

“His family was wealthy enough to have cut him off as a threat, at one point,” Katrisha said trying to remember various stories Mercu had told.

“Rich families do not necessarily have that much importance,” Wren sighed.  “Certainly not compared to a woman who openly defined the Clarions on their very border, whispered in the ears of princes, princesses, queens, and kings, and has an entire sect of Sisters devoted to her writings.  The entire order in some senses founded in her image.”

“And you are sure I shouldn’t read up on her sooner, rather than wait?” Katrisha laughed.

“She is in most post imperial history books, that haven’t purposefully written her out,” Wren said with a shrug.  “You’ll likely find more that have than haven’t though.”

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Chapter 7

As winds whip past,
lightning cracks around,
the meek shall tremble,
before a deafening sound,

midst the maelstrom stands,
blood of south wind’s own,
the terrible bound wrath,
a child of the storm.

– Druidic Proverb, circa 75 E.R.

The Passing Storm

Vhalun 3rd, 648 E.R.

Kiannae tugged at the blindfold she had been told to wear.  It wasn’t terribly effective, as she still knew roughly where she was.  She could count the feeling of passing trees, and turns.  If she memorized them, getting back would be easy.  It was annoying, nonetheless.  She was nudged, she assumed by Zale for tugging at her blindfold, sighed, and put her hands back behind her.

Landri had insisted that the blindfold was not really to keep her from knowing where she was, but to help her focused on other senses.  To come to the dryad grove communed with nature.  She was communed with nature well enough, at least to make sure she did not trip, or bump into anything.  It felt to her more distracting than helpful at the moment.  She was not focused on feeling the world, but rather on not colliding with it, or those around her.  More focused on position than meaning.

She really wasn’t sure what to expect.  The memories of her suspected past acquaintance with a dryad were fleeting at best.  Long written off as a childish fancy.  There existence had been of more note in her her past instruction than their nature or behavior.  Never so interesting as ghosts, since one lingered in her tower.  Then the whispers started.  Faint, distant, and unintelligible, but growing stronger with every step.

“…child…comes…” Kiannae plucked from the growing murmur, and tried to determine if she could feel anything different.  “…beware children…”  She could hear the words, but the trees all just felt like trees to her.  The same trees she had passed for all it mattered.  Less interesting really than the houses that druids of old had shaped from living wood.  If it were not for the words on the wind it would seem almost anticlimactic, but the words, the words were troubling.

“A new one has come to us, old ones,” Landri called out.  “She wished to meet the wood of elders, to know the dryads, to seek council from you, and for us to seek council regarding her.”

“…unwelcome…” came a cold whisper.

“Do you wish us to leave?” Landri asked, her voice tinged with concern.

The group had stopped, and standing still Kiannae reached out, desperate to make sense out of the seeming lack of otherness in the place, to explain the voices.  Trees for the gifted were slightly strange hollow things.  The outside of a tree was where the aura lived, and in the middle was…  Kiannae’s cheek twitched as she felt it.  The heartwood of the tree nearest her was alive, if ever so faintly.  A fine web of life woven through the bulk, a structure so delicate that if it was not suspended in solid wood it would be impossible to imagine it enduring.

“…storm coming…” another more distinct voice wavered after an uncomfortably long pause.

“…stormwalker…”

Each fragment seemed to be in an entirely new voice, yet all were whistfull and strained.  Kiannae felt for the wind, felt the rhythm on it.  The trees existed in a state of constant communion with the wind, it answered her politely, but but like a passing stranger, and not the friend she had thought he knew.  The elements of that place were reserved to answer their visitor, as she had grown accustomed to them doing so.  They were not hers to call, and yet, she felt welcome.

“…beast comes…” emerged with a terrible hiss.

A slight thudding could be heard in the distance, and Kiannae yanked off her blindfold.  She had felt it, like a cold fire some distance away, but only trees stood in that direction.

“…unwelcome…duty….stormwalker…”

“Do you wish us to leave?” Landri repeated.  “By your will old ones.”

“…stay…” came a terse command as heavy footfalls drew everyone to look in the direction Kiannae was already staring intently.  She couldn’t however pick out what lay beyond the dense stand of living trees.

“…protect…duty…unwelcome…”

There was a loud animal growl. Followed by the deep groan of staining wood before a deafening crack that had half the druids reaching for their ears.

“…beast kill…” the whispers turned to a defining shriek.

The falling tree filled the air with the sound of snapping branches, and though the gathered druids cringed they stood firm as they saw it was falling away from the party.  When it hit the forest floor the thud seemed to wash away everything else into a moment of stillness.  

“What is it?” Kiannae demanded looking to Landri, Zale, and the two other druids with them.  She felt a weight upon her, as she had not before.  It was like the wind had suddenly answered her call, but demanded she accept its power, her communion, not fleetingly accept her as it normally might.  It made her recoil.

“I…don’t know…” Landri said nervously, as a loud snort cut through the deathly calm.  The snort repeated several times, as though something massive was sniffing, and testing the wind for scents.

“…it comes…” the whispers picked up again, and the demanding presence of the elements receded from Kiannae, but not completely.  “…stormwalker…defend…”  It was then a request, it felt as though the world around her offered her, what she had always before needed to ask.  Still, the strangeness made her heistate.

Footsteps grew louder, and the snorting more concise as the vast head of a bear several sizes too large emerged from behind the thick growth of trees.  As its one good eye came into view it visibly squinted at the small group of druids.  It turned its head to face them, and the other eye was no more than a glowing ember of red in a hollow socket.  The beast snarled, white foam dripped from its lips, and scales shimmered along its snout.

“A dire bear…” Kiannae said in some disbelief.  She had barely even seen depictions of a normal bear before, let alone one almost as large as a dragon.  The beast stepped thunderously from behind the trees.  Boney spikes protruded from it’s shoulders and spine, moving in a peculiar undulating rhythm with its stride.

“I’ve never seen him so close,” one of the druids muttered behind Kiannae.

“I’d thought you all were exaggerating,” another cut back.

“Do we run?” Kiannae demanded.

“No,” Landri said hesitantly, “it will chase us if we run.”

“Do we fight then?” Kiannae demanded as the beast eyed the party, and licked its froth covered lips.

“With what?” Zale laughed darkly.

“Back,” Landri commanded loudly, challenging the bear, which paused, sniffed, and continued towards the druids.  “Back,” Landri repeated.

“I don’t think it’s listening,” Kiannae said pulling her aura tightly around her, an old habit from magic training, quite contrary to what she had been taught of channeling.  It gave her separation from the still imposing elements.

“Dire beats are intelligent,” Lanrdi said firmly, “not as smart as a person, but they understand intent.  Back,” she repeated forcefully, as Zale and the other two druids began to back away slowly.

“I don’t think this one cares,” Kiannae said watching the beast’s foaming maw.  “It wouldn’t be the first dire creature I’ve had to fight…the last one just wasn’t a bear.”

“Dire beasts are resistant to disease, but I fear this one is rabid, somehow,” Landri said her conviction starting to falter.

“Rabid would also be new,” Kiannae added tersely.  “What do we do now?”

“We run…” Landri said firmly.  “Run, now!” she yelled, and the druids all bolted at once in different directions, as the bear charged, and looked back and forth at its options of prey to chase.

Kiannae could feel, let alone hear the bear chase her, and ducked behind a tree as it thundered past, slid, and crashed into a great pine which cracked under the force, and fell with a groaning  and another great shriek on the wind.

“…protect…stormwalker…” the voice wailed demandingly.

Kiannae began to form a charge to strike at the bear as it shook itself.  She unleashed the bolt of lightning, and the bear visibly winced in pain, but seemed largely unfazed.  Kiannae struck again to even less effect.  As the bear moved towards her, and snarled angrily, a form emerged from nowhere as a streak, and clobbered the bear across the jaw.  The bear swatted at the new offender, whose form whiffed away into mist.

“Taloe,” Kiannae yelled in shock as the mist reformed into the boy’s shape between her, and the bear.  The bear leapt at Taloe, and Kiannae rolled out of the way as the bear crashed into the tree she had been against.  The tree cracked, but did not fall, as another agonized cry echoed on the wind.

Kiannae scrambled to her feet as the bear shook itself, and glared at her.  It lunged again, and Kiannae threw herself wildly out of the way, tumbling as she landed, and struck again from where she lay.  This attack was driven by some new instinct, a blinding bolt that set the bear off balance for only a moment.

She had for a few moments reverted to mage training, but she felt the will of something new, and yet familiar.  An element that had always answered her quietly, by magic, but for the first time offered openly to be one with her.  To give itself to her, if she would do the same in turn.  She did not ask, it offered.  It was terrifying even to touch that power, to feel it echo through her.  The air crackled around her, building to something, waiting for her answer.  The bear pushed itself upright, and turned unsteadily towards her.  She blasted it again, and the beast flinched.  She still held back, she still held onto the idea of self.  Not sure what lay past the precipice she felt before her.

Zale, and Landri turned back to check on Kiannae, and watched as great gusts began to weave through the trees.  As Kiannae called on the more familiar, safer element of wind.  It was enough to stagger the beast, and even at some distance knock a grown man from his feet.  The bear strained against the power of it, digging its claws into the dirt, and striding forward.  Lightning came then up from the ground up into the bear.  Another step closer, another heartbeat from accepting, but again refused.  She clung to the wind, pulling back from crackling energy that begged her to accept.

The beast roared in agony, and lost a few inches of ground to the wind.  It recovered though, and marched forwards again, withstanding the gale, and several more dazzling strikes.  Kiannae stood firm in its path, untouched by the elements that began to topple more distant observers.

There was a great rush of air, as Kiannae swung her hand, and a howling wind whipped through the branches of the trees.  The bear staggered sideways, struck by incredible force.  Again lightning leapt from her hands, and the bear faltered, and fell to the ground.  It lay there huffing for a moment, and then struggled back up trembling where it stood.

“…mercy…stormwalker…” the voices echoed on the wind, “…end…suffering…”  Pulling just a little bit of it from her control.  That place had a will all its own, the dryads were the true masters, and yet they were a lever without a fulcrum.

Kiannae didn’t know what to do.  Magic had not been enough.  Not even channeling wind or lighting.  Not the nature she knew, or her own power seemed capable of ending the fight.  Yet the powers offered, the powers of that place.  She feared them, but feared death more.  She opened the door, and quickly started losing sight of herself.

She glimpsing another perspective.  Somewhere far below was a human girl, that she had fancied herself.  That tiny speck felt so far away.  Then she felt it, and her eyes closed.  The illusion of self fell to nothing.  The illusion of life, of earth, of solid things.  There was only energy, and one of its truest forms answered her, as it always had, but consumed her as she had never been prepared.

In a moment she was lost, and in a moment the world for miles around in all directions was her, demanded to be her.  It was not even her will, but something new rushing in.  Kiannae saw figures she would not quite remember, standing around her, nodding approval.  They were not mages, but they had woven a spell.  That place served many purposes, though she could not name them.  The spell created purpose, manifested it, prepared it, preserved, something.

Small hairs stood on end for all onlookers, even the bears fur seemed to ripple and rise.  The smell of ozone almost burned their nostrils.  The four druids watched in disbelief, and felt almost as though ants were crawling on their skin.

Then it stopped.

Everything was still, and a bear reared up, ready to bring its full weight down upon the young woman that stood defiant before it.

Perspective.  It was like it had always been there, one just needed to know exactly how to look.  She did not need to form it, to channel it, just find it, find a path.  A path that was almost available.  Blocked only by a fickle expanse of air above.  Just a little nudge, a twist in the air.  She let go of the power that demanded to consume her as surely as her adversary, and instead shifted the air.  It split, and tore up through the heavens, and it all came down.  A terrible charge between layers of the stratosphere.  It was more than a mere strike of lighting, but an entire storm in a single bolt.  It was just enough.

The flash was blinding, thunder rattled the joints of the skull, and teeth in their sockets.  The four druids who had seen it were left dazed, off balance, or on the ground rubbing their eyes, trying desperately to see again.  A great thud, and a much smaller one went unheard over the ringing in everyone’s ears.

When at last the bystanders could see through vision speckled with dazzling dots, the bear lay smoldering, and blackened.  Kiannae was crumpled on the ground before it.  A naked boy knelt beside her, and drifted away on the wind as Landri hurried to her side, cautious of any motion from the bear.

“…thank you…stormwalker…” the wind whispered, and fell silent.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“There is more than a little explaining to be done,” Ezik’s muffled voice declared as Kiannae stirred in her bed.

Her head was ringing like a bell, trying to piece together where she was.  Who she was made a fleeting stab as a question, and was gone.  Something itchy at the back of her mind, it refused to be examined.  Something she had forsaken the offer of, a power she had used without paying the price.  The thought that such a move came with its own cost, more abstract still.

There was a flash of a woman’s face, smiling, but Kiannae wasn’t sure she recognized her.  A feeling terrible, and wonderful at once.  There was another name on her lips, not her own, and yet so familiar.  She shook her head from the dreamy fog intruding, and focused on the argument in the other room.

“I knew of the elemental,” Landri offered, “the rest…I have no explanation.  I had taken her there in hopes of answers.”

“Why was I not told of your reasons?” Ezik demanded.

“We all have our secrets,” Landri snapped coldly.  “The girl offered me her confidence.  Which is more I think than you sometimes give me.”

“And you?” Ezik turned to Zale, “you have spent nearly as much time with her, what do you know?”

“As much,” Zale said cringing, “though Landri has had her doubts about the power I have witnessed her wield.”

“So tell us then?” Ezik demanded, and turned as Kiannae stumbled into the room, and leaned weakly against the door frame.  “Oh, look who is awake,” he said with a fierce glare.  “I’d commend you, from what I’ve heard, but I feel some chastising for keeping dangerous secrets might be in order first.”

“Taloe is harmless,” Kiannae declared flatly.

“So the boy has a name then?” Ezik sighed, and rubbed his face.

Landri looked at Kiannae shrewdly.  “That is a name I gave her, give or take.  A name from a story.  If it is truly his, I remain uncertain.”

“I think it is his name,” Kiannae said wearily, and looked as though she was about to slide down the door frame.

“Do help her, would you, Zale?” Ezik said scoldingly.

“I…yes, of course grandfather,” Zale said, rushed to Kiannae’s side, and helped her to a chair.

“You first Landri,” Ezik said eying Landri firmly.  “Why do you doubt this is the boy’s name?”

“It’s a name from an old story, the tale of Tethis,” Landri said.  “Or at least a close approximation.  Kiannae asked about the story some time ago, in particular the boy’s name.  Then called him that when we were first introduced.”

“I see,” Ezik said, and turned back to Kiannae.  “And why do you think the boy’s name is the same as from this story?”

“I’ll answer with a question,” Kiannae said testily. “If I am wrong, then Landri is perhaps right.  What was the name of the princess in the story?”

“It was…” Landri seemed lost in thought, “Aelee, I believe.”

“Then I say with very little doubt, though once again it is not exact,” Kiannae qualified a bit irritably, “he is in fact not just named Taloe, he is very much the one from that tale.”

“That’s…preposterous,” Landri said shaking her head.

“He said it, back when he was first learning to talk.  We had no name for him, and were calling him Water,” Zale offered understanding Kiannae’s line of reasoning. “He suddenly didn’t like it, and said, ‘The water took Aeliae.’”

“That doesn’t exactly prove,” Landri said with reservation.

“A boy who forms from, and returns to the mist,” Kiannae growled, “who I found by drinking from a pool in a wood that lies where the story implies Tethis was, and who remembers his love named Aeliae…who drowned…who when remembering her name clutched his shoulder as though pierced through it with an arrow, as the story says he met his end.”

“Point taken,” Landri muttered.

“So, that much is settled,” Ezik stated.  “As to what to do about the matter…that can wait.  The other issue at hand is more concerning.  I have multiple accounts, that all largely agree on one point.  You made relatively short work of a massive, and rabid dire bear.  Where they differ is how.”

Kiannae looked at Ezik, not sure what he expected of her.  “First I have a question of my own,” she said defiantly, “who, or what is a stormwalker?”

Ezik laughed.  “That, is in part what we are here to find out.”

“What?”  Kiannae demanded irritably, “don’t you know?”

“I know the title Stormwalker,” Ezik said sternly.  “I also know that no one has held it in centuries, quite a few even.”  He tapped his staff lightly. “This is where the difference in accounts comes in.  No one can agree for certain if you were just using magic against that bear, or something else.”

Kiannae frowned, and looked down at the table.  “At first I was…it was what I knew, what came to me immediately in desperation.”

“There is no shame in that,” Ezik said comfortingly.  “Magic is not a crime, just a risk to your health.  But you say ‘at first,’ please, explain.”

“It just came to me, suddenly I felt everything around me…” Kiannae trailed off, “the earth, the trees, the wind…the wind particularly…something else…the whispers…I barely remember the fight, mostly the end.  I remember the wind asking mercy, and I knew they meant for the poor beast.  Its fevered, pained mind needed to be put to rest, but it was too strong, so I…it’s all a blur really, till the very last moment, when I found a path up, and back down from the heavens themselves…and then nothing.  I woke up here.”

“It took over an hour to carry you back,” Zale offered.

“I felt some of what you did out there,” Landri said.  “I’m surprised you are awake even now.”

“Oh,” Kiannae said simply.  She didn’t like the answer, she wasn’t even sure she had done all that much.  It was almost more like she had not done something she was supposed to.  Like she had cheated, but to her surprise it wasn’t actually against the rules.  A move that could only be made by leaving the pieces right where they were.  “That still doesn’t explain what a Stormwalker is.”  She pressed, getting annoyed with her own thoughts.

“Possibly you,” Ezik mused.  “Though please girl, don’t let it go to your head.  Even dryad’s are not infallible.  They might have simply not known a better name for you.”

“But what is it?” Kiannae protested.

“Stormwalker is an old title,” Landri said closing her eyes, and then opening them again to stare shrewdly at Kiannae.  “Very old.  Dating back to the days of the shamans, many of whose traditions we still maintain.  They were mighty warriors who commanded not simply the power of conjurers, or mages, but who could channel the very essence of nature’s forces with almost no effort.  What you did might have been pure instinct, but it hardly seemed effortless, given your condition.”

“And I am…one of these?” Kiannae said dubiously.  She felt beaten, and drained.  Like she had been torn apart, but parts, did indeed feel like they had been almost effortless.  There was a cost though, sitting on the edge of her awareness.  Something bigger than her, far bigger, had wanted her to pay a price.  She had refused, and tricked it into doing what needed done.  Hadn’t she?  It didn’t feel like that memory belonged to that day, it felt like she had it all wrong.  She considered asking, but couldn’t even think what to say without sounding mad.

“Despite my own eyes, and senses, I have my doubts,” Landri said.  “There is only one known living line of something like Stormwalkers, the line of the Storm Queen…but they have become almost something else entirely, bound to their sacred mountain.”

The word bound hung on Kiannae.  Something was bound there in the dryad wood, she was certain of it, and willfully wanted to deny the notion at once.  Something that had wanted her, that had seen her as a doorway.  She shook her head slightly, but only Zale seemed to notice, and give her a funny look.

“Perhaps,” Ezik said distantly, “perhaps you are just a very powerful mage.  Perhaps you are even something else new entirely.  What ever you are, there will be whispers now, more than before.   Many still viewed you as a questionable outsider, this will sway a few, others will be all the more weary…depending what we tell them.”

“And what will you tell them?” Landri asked before Kiannae could.

“That she is one of us,” Ezik said.  “Nothing more, nothing less.  I do not believe the world is in need of a Stormwalker, yet that is not mine to say.  Let things fall as they will.  Though the body of that beast must be burned, if it carries disease that could overcome even a dire breed.”

“What of the boy, this Taloe if he is what she says?” Landri demanded.

“A nature spirit helped with the bear,” Ezik said, and smiled.  “Not quite a lie.  Say nothing more, and that only if asked.”  Ezik turned to Kiannae.  “He can remain out of sight I assume, he’s done well enough with that so far.”

“I…will tell him,” Kiannae said hesitantly.

“That’s it then, we just keep him a secret?” Zale said incredulously.

“Seems to have been his idea,” Ezik chided, “and it seems a wise one.  I believe we should simply encourage him to continue as he has.”

“Why the secrecy though?” Zale demanded.

“Because Kiannae will have enough eyes on her after today’s events,” Ezik said slowly standing.  “We need not add to the whispers with questions about her consorting with a ghost, spirit, elemental, whatever you wish to call it.  He’s part of her, I see that now, something I did not understand when I first met her.  There is no separating them, not without killing one or even both.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 4th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae woke in the night.  She had been sent back to bed, even as conversation continued about what was to be done with her.  She was on many levels offended that she was left out of the extended debate, but also too tired to really fight a command to rest.  She looked to the door, but knew quickly the shadow that stood there was not Taloe.

“What do you want?” she asked fairly certain it was Zale watching her sleep.  He had a presence something like a leaf on the wind.  It had always been easily missed, and what the feeling reminded her of always had an odd reframing effect, that gave her moments of doubt each way.  He really wasn’t anything like Mercu, she didn’t think.  Presences were, what they were, ‘rhyme without reason’ Laurel had told her once.  It seemed a terrible answer.

“Nothing,” Zale sighed.  “I volunteered to take a watch over you.  Landri is concerned you may have done yourself some harm with whatever you used to take down that bear.”

“Thanks,” Kiannae said disingenuously, suspect of Zale’s motives, “but I think I’m fine.”

“You did knock yourself out for over an hour with that stunt,” Zale cut back, “and have not stirred in hours, even after going to bed in the middle of the afternoon.  You may yet live, but I am hardly convinced you are fine.”

“What ever,” Kiannae grumbled, as Zale walked into the room.  He looked down at her, his face lit clearly in the moonlight from her window.  His expression was one of genuine kindness, if not outright concern, and she suddenly felt bad for her attitude.  “I…”  She sighed.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s been a day.” Zale laughed nervously.  “If you really want, I’ll head off to my own house and sleep.  Just so long as you back me up that you asked me to go.”

“I…think that would be best,” Kiannae said longing for a sense of privacy.

“Very well,” Zale said, set his hand on hers, leaned over, and kissed her forehead.  She wanted to protest his forwardness, but as much as it left her feeling he had ideas she was not sure she appreciated, there was a genuineness to the act that made her keep her peace.

After several minutes alone in the dark she sighed, and turned to a shadow that stood in the corner.  “Hello,” she said resisting the urge to snap at him to leave.  What was the point?  He couldn’t, not really.  Ezik’s words hung on her, there was no separating them.  She had known it deep down, but he had confirmed it.

“Do I…” Taloe started.  “Am I unwanted?”

“It’s not that,” Kiannae grumbled as she shifted slightly.  “I just…I don’t know what to do with it all.  I ran away to not face the mess that was left when…that was my fault, maybe all of this is too.  Maybe a Stormwalker is what I am, and maybe that means where I go, trouble follows.”

“No,” Taloe said simply, stepping from the shadows. “Trouble is with us all.  I have dreamed…long have I dreamed.  Long have I remembered as she slipped into the water, killed by those sworn to defend her…from me.”  He hung his head.

“You did nothing wrong,” Kiannae said firmly.

“I let her come with me,” Taloe said firmly.  “I let her choose a path that ended in death, in war, in the slaughter of my people.”

“And I let my sister chose a path that ended her,” Kiannae said defiantly, even realizing she had lost the contest of bitter ends by more than some small margin.

Taloe stepped closer, and set his hand on Kiannae’s cheek.  “I have dreamed of the rivers, and the paths they flow.  I saw worlds that never were, and a great and terrible queen, embittered by love denied.  I saw her rise to heights of great power, and then in madness snuff out as many lights as stars shine in the sky.  Though I do wonder if it was so simple as those visions could be understood…”

“I don’t understand.”

“Aeliae was kind, and good,” Taloe said smiling weakly, “she made a choice to live in happiness, and love, and a choice also to sacrifice that to prevent a war.  Our end was bitter…”  He shook his head.  “Kindness can bring tragedy, and folly can spare a world.  We chose not the ends, but the means.  We lived as we were.”

Kiannae shrunk under the weight of how much smaller her troubles suddenly felt.  Yet the cost hurt her no less.  She couldn’t find anything to say.

“Did you believe you could succeed, where others might fail, and perish?” Taloe pressed.

Kiannae wondered how much the creature could read her mind.  The vision of Laurel’s death mocked her, as did the fact she did not even known what had come of the fight.  If he had even been saved in the end, if it had all been for nothing.  “Our mentor.  We…she had a plan,” Kiannae offered, “to avoid the dragon.”

“Then she risked herself that others might not have to,” Taloe insisted.

“If only I were so noble,” Kiannae protested.

“You ran,” Taloe said somberly.  “Your dreams have told me this, and the pain, and madness that drove you from that mountain.  I have felt what struck you, and it pales to the memory of an arrow through the chest.”

“It is no excuse,” Kiannae defied him.  “She gave her life, to save him, and I ran.”

“I see something you do not,” Taloe said shrewdly.  “I see your death, your mentors, even both.  Countless worse ends on that mountain.  There is a shadow there, like a stain on the world.  Something I cannot see that knew these futures, urged you to run.  I can hear a whisper like a cry in that moment, that you do not remember.  I cannot see if he lived…but I can say that all but certainly one of you would have died, most likely more.”

“A prophecy made me run,” Kiannae growled.  “Guilt, for having forgotten it until it was too late.  All of it is prophecy, everything that happened.  Don’t tell me of prophecy.”

“Do you wish you had remembered?  Followed the other path, and not the one you did?”

“I…”  Kiannae rolled over forcefully, and cried.

“Do not close your eyes,” Taloe intoned as though it was wisdom once imparted to him.  Almost another voice.  “Seeings stones in the path before us is not what makes one stumble.”

“That is not what Laurel believed, is he…was he a fool?”

“I see before me a noble woman,” Taloe said firmly. “Whom you have loved, I must assume noble.  We have many reasons for the things we do, the ones we admit, even to ourselves, and the ones that drive us.  To trust prophecy, to show arrogance in the knowledge of something so uncertain is foolish, but to be blind is more so, because we do not choose what we know.  What drives us.”

“I want to believe that,” Kiannae sighed, “but I would rather she lived.  Rather we never went to that mountain.”

“I would rather that my Aeliae lived as well,” Taloe said.  “Your sister lived her life as she was, a small grace, but we have what comforts we do.”

“You can really read my thoughts, can’t you?” Kiannae asked, turning back over.

“I hear the whispers in dreams,” Taloe said looking away.

“That’s not an answer.”

“The whispers of you,” Taloe said obviously uncomfortable.  “They are like a song, that wakes, and lulls me to sleep.  I do not read, it is nothing like that, I feel.  Had I still bones I would say that I feel it there.  The rest is whispers and shadows.  Pasts that never were, futures that might yet be.  I cannot see those well, U was never good at futures, only the past, it…so rarely changes.”  Something clearly troubled him, something more than he was saying.

“Oh,” Kiannae said obviously uncomfortable.

Taloe rested his hand on her cheek again.  “Do…you love Zale?” Taloe asked hesitantly.

“Shouldn’t you know that?” Kiannae asked with more anger than she felt good about, and the hand was pulled from her cheek.

“I go,” he said, and as the words were spoken, he vanished in a swirl of mist.

“I barely know him,” Kiannae muttered into the darkness, not sure how much Taloe could hear when he was not incarnate.  She pulled her blanket tighter around her, rolled over, and stared absently at a moonlit wall, until sleep begrudgingly took her once more.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 12th, 648 E.R.

Ezik looked very frail that day, as Landri considered him.  She had begun to wonder why he spent so much time staring out windows.  All at once she knew how old he was, even though frailty aside, the years had been far more than kind to his features.

“What have you learned?” Landri finally asked.

“I have made enquiries through channels available to me.  Little attention as was called to her, a half Sylvan girl from Avrale was easy to hear reference to, one with a twin, no less so.  Specifics add up easily.”

“So you have learned more of our Kiannae then?” Landri pressed.

“Yes.”

“And?”  She all but growled as Ezik reminder how aggravatingly obtuse he could be.

Ezik turned, and considered Landri at length.  “She is not some simple mage’s apprentice.  She is the adopted daughter of the court mage of Avrale.”

“Should we not return her then?”

“Perhaps that is what propriety would ask of us.  There is no evidence that a Court Mage has died in battle, so it should be possible, but I have seen many things that trouble me.”

“The stormwalker, and stormchild business?”

“Yes.”

“And you are certain it is her?”

“In my bones I feel it is another.”

“The mentor lives, have you confirmed the sister’s death?”

“One lost, one missing from court,” Ezik nodded.  “It would seem so.”

“She is owed better than what things seem,” Landri said tersely.

“She is owed the chance to grow into the woman she is becoming…though I worry if she is not owed far better than that.”

“You have always been a sly one, but this is unlike even you,” Landri said with some concern.

“You do not know what I have seen,” Ezik said, and looked out the window again.  “Not simply the vision of the eye of the storm – I have seen the storm itself.  I have seen a great war ravage the land – the world shake, and crack asunder.  I have seen armies, and dragons.  I have seen a great light go out in the east, and a shadow cast across the world at the setting sun.  I have seen my own death, quietly, amongst the grove of elders.  I will not live to the dark days that come, and yet I can still feel them, like a cold wind on the breeze.”

“Do you wish to be alone?” Landri asked uneasily.

“No – but you can not provide me what I wish.”

“Shall I leave?”

“That is up to you.  I will not mind the company.”

“You may have seen visions – but you still have not seen everything,” Landri offered, her words uncharacteristically timid.

“What have I missed?”  Ezik asked.

“The past,” Landri said somberly.

“Enlighten me,” he said with a curiosity that crept into the corners of his eyes.

“When I was but a girl, I remember my first crush.  An older man, strong, and firm, and ever mysterious.  I was a child, and he was taken, but this does not always turn away a youthful eye.  Not when he entertained more than one woman already,” Landri said pointedly.

Ezik looked away, embarrassed.  He was ancient, and felt more so.

Landri stepped closer.  “I can not say with the passage of time, such youthful attractions have endured,” she said touching his cheek.  “Yet for all the rigors of age, you are still a striking figure, and even the memory holds something compelling.  Are you sure I can not offer you what you wish?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 17th, 648 E.R.

There was light, and power.  Nothing new.  She was power, and had always been.  Eyes had glimpsed her across time, ears told only of a storm surely at the end of all things.  The mighty ocean was a pale kitten’s mewl to the roar of that moment.  Senses blinded by awe remembered only her eyes, her hair, her grace.

Those were the tales, and Ezik’s own experience.  That was till a girl bumbled into his life that bore a likeness of her face.  Yet the sadness that laden those eyes was not the same.  One the fresh pang of loss, the other filled with a joy that only the doomed can know, in the face of all the world’s sorrow, she smiled.  It was still a sad smile.

“We’ve never met,” he heard a voice with a gentle air that belied a power to rattle old bones.  It was a voice that came from nowhere, and could be heard above the din of a hurricane, and as soft as a whisper.  “Or we’ve met a thousand times before.  Who can say.”

That, was new.

“Who…” Ezik could not even quite finish.  He felt like he was sinking in thick mud, the light of that palace tried to vanish into darkness.  Shadows stood around her, such dark shadows reaching for her.  Things that wanted her power.

“You are dying,” the voice said plainly, though not without a touch of compassion.

“I am?” Ezik asked nervously.  He didn’t feel entirely right, but not as though he was dying, at least, he didn’t think so.

“From the day you were born,” the voice answered almost apologetically.  “From here I cannot even say how many heartbeats that might be away.  You are trying not to, amidst your ancient grove.”  There was a frustrated sound.  “Why is it I can only save the ones I don’t know?  Why are the ones I love always shielded from my benevolence?”

“I cannot say,” Ezik answered nervously.

“Say, no, of course you can’t.  Doing however, that is in your power.  Because you found me here, seeking your own salvation.  I fear that has already killed you.  Finding this place is not good for flesh and blood.  Much like pouring an ocean down your gullet is a poor end for your innards.”

“Oh,” Ezik said, but still didn’t feel dead.  Though he wasn’t quite sure what death might feel like exactly.

“Help me, and I will try to help you,” said the voice shrewdly.

“You would hold my life ransom?” Ezik asked of the darkness that enveloped him.

“I cannot even say it will work,” the voice offered guardedly.  “I cannot ask you, if I have already destroyed your very soul trying.  The methods at my disposal are far from fit for gentle tasks.”

“Oh,” Ezik said again.  “If it is so, then ask.  If I can do it, I will try.”

“She must not return home,” the voice said.  “Nor can she remain sheltered with you.  Find a reason, an excuse.  Send her anywhere but Avrale, and see to it she is safe.”

“Are you her sister?” Ezik pressed as it felt the moment would slip by.

“Sister?  Were anything ever half so simple, young one.”

Ezik balked at being called young.  Yet, in spite of himself he knew it was true.  “I have been asked to send a troop down to Niven,” Ezik offered.

“That will do.”

Ezik woke with a start, his eyes open, but there was only darkness.  The wind washed through his hair, and the sunlight warmed his skin.  He took a breath that lasted a season, and blinked only to find himself sitting up in bed.  He could feel his toes rooted still in the soil, the passing of centuries as he struggled to understand a single moment he had woken in the night.

He knew his beginning, his end, but all that lay between still seemed uncertain.  He stole one last kiss the morning his wife died, and one more also the morning after she had led a Sylvan woman to their bed.  He cried as he held and kissed his newborn grandson’s head, and hid those tears the last time they said goodbye.  When he could not convince him to stay.

He could see his whole life laid out before him.  He could change its direction little more than a river in the banks that held it, but he could cut his course deeper, shape the stones to never forget, and defy the rains to change a single thing he had wrought.

Then…it was gone, not more than a shadow on the wall.  It receded into the nothing from whence it had come, and hung on him like a terrible weight.  An oath he could not remember, but would abide.  A hand rested gently on his gave him both comfort and sorrow.  He glanced at her in the moonlight, still fair, so very lovely for her age.  A gift as strong as hers, she would live another forty years, Fates willing.  He doubted very much he had a tenth so many, and what solace there might have been in that moment wavered, for something told him such comfort must pass.

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Coria 20th, 648 E.R.

“You are not a king, Ezik, merely an honored elder.  Remember this,” Landri said sternly.

“Then honor me, and do as I have asked.”

“You are certain?”

“Who is certain of anything.  The very shadows stir, and though you have breathed a moment of joy into these old bones, they are no less old.”

“And you have confirmed there is no sister for her to return to?”

“Yes,” Ezik said firmly.

Landri narrowed her eyes.  She knew the man well, but she was never certain of his honesty.  “You are certain that it is right not to return her to her family?”

Landri could hear Ezik’s bones creek from how tight his grip became on his staff.

“What is right?” Ezik said darkly.  “We are past the point of right, or wrong.  All that is left is what must be.”

“What have you seen?”

“The truth of things, and the danger of that truth.”

“Always riddles.”

“I’ve nothing else left.  I tried three times to set pen to parchment, to send word to her rightful mentor.  Three times I saw visions of horrors I will not speak.  The very earth calls out for this course.”

“What of us?” Landri asked more than a bit hurt.  “Will we meet again?”

“I believe not.  Though I have a great many regrets, I assure you, this is high in their number.”

“You will not change your mind?” Landri asked tersely.

“A temptation, certainly.  Yet not one worth the cost.  This journey…it may not seem it, but it needs to be you with her, and she must go.”

“Should I be prepared for battle?”

“I am unsure, be cautious though, yes.”

There was a knock, and the two druids turned to the door.

“Enter,” Ezik called.

Kiannae opened the door cautiously.  Most of her conversations with the archdruid had been less than pleasant.

“Come in,” Ezik pressed, and Kiannae did, closing the door behind her.  She glanced to Landri, who slightly averted her gaze.

“I have asked you here to tell you of a decision that has been made,” Ezik said, his tone matter of fact.  “You are to join a group that is to arrive soon, and head on with them south to Niven”

“Why am I being sent?”

“Because you are exceptional,” Landri offered.  “And a change of scenery I think could only help your disposition.”

“Let us be honest,” Ezik said.  “It is because you are too exceptional for your own good, and there are far too many whispers about you being a Stormwalker, and what that means for us.”

“Very well,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “it matters little to me I guess.”

“From any another druid, I would take that as an unnecessary statement of the obvious, if a bit flippant,” Ezik said calmly.  “We go where we are needed, and most where the winds take us, less we see that this course needs to change.  For you, I think I must say you need learn to care again.  You have a life to live, do not let yourself die with the sister you still mourn.”

“Is that all?” Kiannae asked furiously.

Landri gave Ezik a cold glare.

“That is all, child,” Ezik said with a shake of his head.  “Landri will tell you more.  I wish you well in this journey.  I hope that it will help you find direction again.  You may both leave.”

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