Chapter 18

Not all nature hath given is worthy of trust,
the instincts of body are animalistic urges,
these care not for light, mind, or spirit will,
and err toward a primitive world that was,
yes endure we must to walk worthy paths,
yet a tainted soul is for the voids sure gain,
commit not the nature fickle flesh to spirit.

– The Path of Ascension, Saint Taurien, circa 10 B.E.

Fighting Instincts

Jovan 1st, 645 E.R.

“The Empire Reconciliation began in the year thirty-four of the reign of first Emperor Corinth,”  Kiannae read, and then frowned.  “Though Corinth is said to have resisted putting such emphasis on the year of his ascension, it was ultimately…”

“We’ve covered this,” Katrisha protested.

Moriel turned a bit tersely, but then hesitated.  He marched up to the desk the twins were sitting at, flipped through a few pages, checked the cover, and shook his head.

“My apologies, I seem to have crossed up lesson plans with the young prince,” he said, and walked the book back across the room.

“But we covered that a year ago,” Kiannae said a bit incredulously.

“He’s older,” Katrisha added, and rubbed a sore shoulder from morning training with Horence.  She had fallen rather hard on it when Kiannae had swept her leg.

Moriel tapped his finger along the spines of several books, pulled one out, and set it before the girls.  “Yes, he is.”  There was no particular tone with it, nor an expression that hinted at humor.  Kiannae nonetheless started to laugh, but stopped at a stern glance.

“Katrisha, please begin,” Moriel said when he was satisfied they had both calmed themselves.

She opened the book, turned a few pages, and pursed her lips.

“Perceiving Magic,” she began.

The underlying organism appears to have e-volved in abstract of the gift, and acquired it later.  Further this is reinforced in the individual by the gradual growth of aura, leading into adolescence and adulthood.

“Evolved?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“Hmm,” Moriel considered the two.  “Perhaps we should have begun instead with Cadius’ Comparative Species.”  He shook his head.  “We’ll get to that later.  Laurel thought this one would be good for you when I showed it to him.  In short, evolution is the manner in which the creatures of the world – people included – have changed over time by inheritance, mutation, intentions of the world, dire instincts, and mortal intervention.  Though the distribution of these effects, and mechanisms are sometimes in debate.”

“How the Sylvans are part cat?” Katrisha asked, and brushed the tip of her ear thoughtfully.

“Or the eastern ones part wolf,” Kiannae corrected.

“That would fit into mortal intervention in all likelihood,” Moriel nodded.  “Though it causes all manner of problems.  Shaper magic to our knowledge was not refined enough for such a task till at least the middle empire, but the Sylvans were as they are long before the Magi. Perhaps something more akin to the instinctual changes of dire creatures.”  He seemed thoughtful a moment.

“I’m not dire,” Kiannae said crossing her arms, and staring up at their tutor.

Moriel perked a brow, and leaned over the table, peering over his glasses in an almost comical manner, even if his expression remained its usual neutral.  “Aren’t you?  I think I’ve heard some tales that imply a few youth of the court might disagree.”

“I think that was me,” Katrisha said jumping to her sister’s defense, and with very little sheepishness about it.

“As if they can tell you two apart,” Moriel waved dismissively, and stood up straight again.  “A dire creature is at the heart little more than gifted are.  Yet instincts in an animal seem liable to shape them in ways mortals are – at least typically – not.  Still, there are exceptions.  Mostly shaper magic such as changed Roshana, and the other dragons.  But some with profound gifts not trained as mages do become larger, more muscular.  The legends refer to Osier, first king of the nation that still bears his name, to have been more giant than man.  A warrior who should have been counted among the shaman, but was refused.”

“That’s how Osyrae got its name?” Kiannae asked curiously, it had never come up before.

“Yes,” Moriel nodded.  “Much the same way that the nation – later Empire – of Corinthia came to be named such.  Formerly it was Anderhale, named for another line of kings.  In Osyrae, and perhaps the whole world, Osier was the first king.  That land though had no other name as a united people.  I’m sure the vale people referred to them all as Nords at some point, though I am aware of no clear written record of it.  Nord of course derived from the old vale speak nor, or North.  Much as Nohlend…”

“So was Avrale conquered by someone named Ave then?” Katrisha interrupted dubiously, not having realized Moriel was going to continue after a momentary pause.

“No.”  Moriel sighed.  “We are off topic,” he said as the interruption allowed him to consider he was rambling.  He glanced at the twins, and saw they seemed determined.  He marched up to the blackboard, and tapped the chalk thoughtfully.

“Words, Names, Titles, Language itself is much like the organisms of the world.  Changing, adapting, mutating over time,” he began.  He scrawled four letters quickly on the board, ‘Cwen.’  He underlined this, and turned back towards the girls.  “Writing was in a primitive form when the Magi left ancient Osyrae, but after the things they experienced the preservation of knowledge was critical to them.”  He turned back, and wrote ‘Maji’ and drew an arrow to ‘Magi.’

“So the spelling changed?” Katrisha asked.

“And the pronunciation,” Moriel said with a nod.  “The original form is believed to have sounded more like maz-i.  It meant, ‘teacher,’ or perhaps ‘teacher of peace.’  In all the great irony that gives us.  It changed further you might know, to refer to those they taught, and became mage.”

“What is, C-wen,” Kiannae sounded out, and then the look on her face almost implied she got it.

“Seems you have a guess,” Moriel said shrewdly.

“Queen?” Kiannae offered.

“In one,” Moriel said encouragingly.  “In the original form it meant woman, or possibly more like the honorific Lady.  We owe the original connotation to Navi, who declared herself Cwen of Every Vale, though it is most often translated as She of Every Vale, or Lady of Every Vale.  We owe then the modern queen to Napir, and the influence of the Storm Queen, who took up the word, liking the implication of female rule.  There is some semantic debate if Navi or Ashai the Storm Queen of the day would be the first true queen.  The line of the Storm is older, but their role is more Empress than queen, but the word in its modern form comes from the land.”

Moriel shook his head.  As in instructor he hated questions he had not predicted, not because he did not know the answer, but because he sometimes struggled not to ramble on with too much more.  A natural affliction perhaps from having spent too many years buried in books.  With his eyes as they were, his face a bit more buried than most.

“So is king just man in the end?” Katrisha asked dubiously.

“A reasonable guess,” Moriel offered, “but no.  It is related to kin, or kon in the original Osyrean.  The g was added to the end implying a sort of ownership, or possession, being above kin.”  He turned, and wrote two more words on the board.  “Notably it sounded more like Kon-ing, than Kong, as one might expect to pronounce it.  In some irony kin’s original meaning was ‘to birth,’ or ‘to spring forth.’”

Kiannae laughed.  “So both King and Queen come from feminine meanings?”

“In a matter of speaking,” Moriel offered in an indecisive tone.  He could sometimes be a hard man to read, with his somewhat pudgy face that always looked oddly jovial, even if his thin lipped expression rarely varied to either humor or displeasure.  He did have moments he cracked to an impish smile, but they were rare, even when it did seem he was joking.

“So,” Katrisha started with a pause, “Cwen was the title taken by Navi, Cwen of Every Vale, and like the song Every Vale became Avrale with time?” she guessed with less than certainty.

“Precisely,” Moriel nodded.  “Sorry, this happens when one doesn’t set out to follow a lesson plan.”  He turned back to the board, and again scrawled out some letters.  “Avr Vrael is the best record we have of the ancient words used in the title.  Though as Avr meant all, in a context of the land, and all of the land was vales it was somewhat redundant.  How exactly it shortened to Avrale over time is less well understood, but it is surmised that the two ‘vr’s merged.”

He considered his two pupils a moment.  “I will be glad to prepare lessons on comparative linguistics, and evolution if they are of interest, but let us return to the prepared topic for the day.”  He pointed to Kiannae.

She shifted the book, and tried to pick up where her sister left off.

As such the mind and nerves do not develop a direct method of understanding these energies they can later perceive.  The result is a form of syn-es-the-sia.  Eliciting texture, smell, taste, warm and cold, and perhaps most notably visual or rarely auditory phenomena that are not gathered by the eyes or ears.

“Synesthesia?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“It is much as the text implies, a conflation of one sense with another.  If you have ever noticed what seems like light when rubbing your eyes, this is at least related.  Injury, disease, and other causes do sometimes impart more widespread crossing of senses.  You each could speak to the fact better, but this text implies that your perceptions of gift, aura, and magic are thus.”

Kiannae pursed her lips, and resumed reading aloud.

To this end tuning out the direct stimuli and focusing on those intruding on a sense helps to better observe auras.  For example, unfocused vision, or even closing your eyes can be of use.  Unfocused vision is the preference as closing one’s eyes can confuse, and remove visual cues that help anchor perceptions in our grasp of depth.  

On the whole physical sensations are more reliable because – ironically – the confusion of stimuli is deeper to the point of making it hard to tell what comes from the gift, or from touch.  At the root all such perceptions are the influence of auras on our own, and by consequence our peripheral nerves which is their primary source.

“We already know this,” Kiannae protested.

“Do you?” Moriel pressed.

Katrisha frowned.  “I think perhaps more we know some of it.  I’ve heard of nerves, they let us feel things, but I didn’t know they were the source of our auras.”  She held up her hand, trying to look deeper, but she wasn’t sure if she could make out anything new.  She grabbed her sister’s to a small sound of protest, and tried again.  She just shook her head.

“Why don’t you continue reading, Miss Katrisha,” Moriel suggested.

She shifted the book, and found her place.

This connection is one aspect of the strength of gestures in performing gifted practices.  Gesture itself carries kinetic energy, and intention, forming symbolic linkages with the power of the primordial mind.  Though with this said, keep in mind that gesture is easily more crutch than boon, and can be deeply limiting if relied upon too heavily.

Magic is ultimately an abstract process, unlike the more primitive applications of conjuration and channeling.  With practice one can form spells around themselves without any motion at all.  With further practice more primitive offensive spells can be directed with gesture, while the conscious mind focuses on the more arcane areas of defense.

“That does seem more useful,” Kiannae admitted.

“I would surmise,” Moriel said with a thin sort of humor.  Having no experience in the matter himself, it had proven an interesting read when trying to better understand the girls he was expected to help teach.  Getting the twins to accept he had something worthwhile to teach them, was often enough of a challenge to give him a touch of pride when he got through.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 32nd, 645 E.R.

Katrisha kissed Wren on the forehead, and then helped him up to Renae’s waiting arms on the horse.  “I hope you two will visit again soon, it had been too long since the last time,” Katrisha said, as Renae settled Wren behind her.

“Yes, of course,” Renae said with a smile, “Perhaps you could come visit the Cloister as well, it’s very pretty there this time of year.”

“I fear Laurel is still far to cross with us to let us off castle grounds,” Kiannae said dismissively.  In truth she was quite sure the tensions with Arlen would also play some role in insuring that was not an option.

“Rightly so, it sounds as though you two were being very reckless,” Renae said disapprovingly.

“Yes,” Katrisha said sheepishly, “anyway, take care of yourselves.”

“You too,” Wren said as Renae urged the horse to turn.

“I will try and arrange to be here in the spring, but I can never be sure,” Renae said as she started the horse out the castle gate.

“I’ll miss you Wren,” Katrisha yelled as she waved, and turned to her sister who seemed cross.  “What’s wrong?” she asked after a moment of silence.

“Nothing,” Kiannae grumbled, and turned to climb the stairs to the upper court.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha was startled when Kiannae slammed their chamber door in her face before she could enter.  She opened the door slowly, and watched as Kiannae finished marching across the room to the window, where she leaned on the seat, and stared out at the valley below.

“Ok,” Katrisha said taking a breath, now a bit cross herself, “what is bothering you already?”

“Nothing,” Kiannae muttered.

“That’s obviously not true, you’ve been stewing on something all day.  This isn’t because I finally beat you in a spar this morning, is it?”  Katrisha walked over and put her hand on her sister’s shoulder, but the gesture was shrugged off.

Katrisha was not really sure how to take Kiannae’s behavior, they had each seen the other angry countless times, but Katrisha couldn’t think of an instance where her sister had ever been unwilling to talk to her.  Katrisha frowned, and started to walk towards the bed, intending to flop down in frustration.  If it was really about the spar, she was going to be very cross, after all the times Kiannae had beaten her, and teased her for it.

“Why do you like him so much?” Kiannae demanded just as Katrisha reached the foot of the bed.

“What?” Katrisha said honestly confused, and turned back.  It was so far afield of her expectations it took her a moment to even begin to put a who to the implication.

“Wren,” Kiannae said angrily, “why do you love Wren so much?”

“He’s our brother!” Katrisha snapped tersely, and marched back towards Kiannae.

“He’s weird,” Kiannae said uneasily.

“One to talk Ki,” Katrisha said scrunching up her face angrily.

“It’s true,” Kiannae said shrugging off Katrisha’s attempt at levity, and turned to her angrily.  “And whenever he’s here, you pay more attention to him than me.”

“Because he’s here so rarely, and you are always here,” Katrisha countered defensively.  “He’s your brother too,” she added.

“I’m not like him,” Kiannae said narrowing her eyes, and clenching her fist,  “I didn’t kill mother.”

“Don’t say that,” Katrisha snapped back angrily, balling up both fists.

“If it wasn’t for him mother would be alive,” Kiannae insisted flatly.

“That wasn’t Wren’s fault,” Katrisha protested, and started her sister square in the eye, half remembering something, the oddest horrible little thing.  She had asked for a little brother, she remembered that suddenly.  She had forgotten.  She wasn’t sure why she had asked – she hadn’t been sure why at the time.  It nagged at her like something important, like a voice in a dream that had planted the idea.  Did that make it her fault she half wondered?  Had she asked for Wren…why had she?

“It’s still true,” Kiannae said stubbornly.

“I said not to say that,” Katrisha demanded fiercely, stepping up on her sister, “you know how he feels about it.”

“Is he here,” Kiannae gestured around, and sneered.  “What does it matter, I can speak the truth when the little killer isn’t here.”

“You don’t even remember mother,” Katrisha growled, “you don’t even listen when Wren talks.”

“What do I care what he has to say?”  Kiannae said turning away furious, but Katrisha grabbed her shoulder, and made her turn back to face her.

“I remember mother sometimes when I talk with Wren, when he tries to sing,” Katrisha said in a pained tone, almost crying.  Her mother’s smile intruded on her memory, her wrapping her arms around their father, and asking what he thought of the idea.  He hadn’t objected.  Katrisha’s nails were digging into her own palm.  She was so angry, but she wasn’t even entirely sure who with.  It was a jumble of sorrow and rage out of proportion with sense.

“That’s because he stole her soul,” Kiannae growled, and wrested fiercely free of Katrisha’s grasp.

“Don’t say that,” Katrisha said tearfully – not sure if she was defending Wren, herself, or both of them.  She pushed her sister hard enough to stagger her.  There was a clap like thunder, and Katrisha found herself thrown across the room, and dazed.  She wasn’t even thinking at that point, her sister had attacked her, had thrown her clear across the room.  She didn’t even quite realize she had stopped herself from hitting the wall, or just how hard she had been thrown.  Something snapped in her, some foreign instinct took hold, and she struck, struck before she had even stopped herself from hitting the wall…struck almost before she had even been thrown.

There was a moment of frozen horror on both sister’s faces as they realized what had happened, as they both realized what they had done.  A shard of razor sharp ice the size of Katrisha’s arm hung inches from Kiannae’s left shoulder, and was thrown forcefully to the floor where it shattered, and sizzled.  Both looked unsteadily to the door where Laurel stood, a hand out stretched, an expression stricken with complete horror, shock, disbelief, and rage on his face.  His own hand slowly curled into a fist.

“Why!?” was all Laurel seemed to be able to yell, panting from the adrenaline of the moment as it caught up to him.  Even the instinct that he had spun on, even the sound that had nearly rattled their chamber door from its hinges.  He had reacted before it had happened, and his ears were ringing.

Kiannae nudged a frozen shard with her sandal.  Katrisha tried to look at her sister, but couldn’t meet her gaze.  She couldn’t fathom what had just occurred, what she had just done.  She didn’t even remember doing it completely.  It had been a gesture at most, one half caused by the blow itself as the air was forced from her lungs.  That was what the book had said, one could learn to do simple offensive spells with a gesture, but she had not learned to do any such thing.  Yet as much as she could not understand how she had done it, as much as no thought or intent had time to enter into it, it was hard to feel it was an accident.

Kiannae hesitantly started to walk towards Katrisha, and gave a hurt glance to Laurel as he stepped towards them, prepared to intercede.  Kiannae held her hand out to her sister where she was leaned against the wall.  At first Katrisha didn’t notice, and continued looking anywhere but at Kiannae.

After a moment Katrisha managed to bring herself to glance at her sister, and at the hand that was offered to her.  Hesitantly Katrisha took hold of her sister’s hand, and was helped to her feet.  Kiannae slowly stepped closer, and wrapped her arms around her twin, who stood there impassively.

“I can’t believe…” Katrisha said hauntedly.

“I…” Kiannae started meekly, “I felt it too, I could have…”

“You…” Katrisha stepped back, and looked her in the eye incredulously.  “I…I nearly…”

“I threw you hard, really…I…I…” Kiannae stammered starting to cry.

“No,” Laurel commanded agitatedly.  “No, no!  You two do not get to break down into tears before you tell me what in the abyss just happened!  Both of you, too my study,” he growled.  “Now!” he snapped when the two simply stared at him with injured expressions.  He still seemed short of breath.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood, rubbing his head tiredly, and looked again at the two identical girls, who stood silently before him, holding the other’s hands tightly.  Not the image of two children who had just nearly killed one another in a violent outburst.  He looked at them more closely, they weren’t quite identical he noticed, Katrisha was slightly paler than her sister, and it was beginning to make her freckles stand out more.  It was subtle, hard to notice, probably no more than Kiannae favoring getting more sun, but there it was, nonetheless.  It was the first time he had ever noticed such a distinct physical difference between them.

Laurel sighed after the uncomfortable silence had dragged on for too long.  The two girls accounts of their conflict had been equally sheepish, and strikingly similar – each had accepted blame without question for striking out at the other.  Kiannae had struck first, neither had challenged this, though Katrisha had vehemently insisted that the force she had been thrown with was not significant.  Laurel knew Katrisha was wrong, he had felt the magic, and the shockwave.  It had shaken their chamber door nearly free of it’s hinges beside him.  Had he not been there at that exact moment…

He closed his eyes, and steadied is rage, at that moment directed as much at himself, as the girls.  He had been concerned when he had heard of a splintered staff that morning in the girl’s spar.  Horence had insisted it had just been cracked before hand.  Laurel had an instinct it wasn’t.  Horence had previously reported that Kiannae seemed to be the naturally better fighter, always keeping Katrisha on her guard, but that he found it curious, that the harder Kiannae pushed, the better Katrisha seemed.  The staff had splintered at the moment Horence had been about to step in because it was getting out of hand.

Katrisha had taken the force of the blow, and brought the other end of her staff around so fast that even parried the blow followed through, and struck Kiannae hard enough on the shoulder to leave a bruise that she had spent an hour healing.  It was possible Katrisha herself had swung too hard, almost likely, but if Laurel did the math, with Horence’s description, the short to high leverage, force enough to have splintered a staff one one end, and break the attacker’s own block on the other…

“I am doubling your time with Horence,” Laurel said almost dispassionately, still in shock.  He had stopped Katrisha’s attack milliseconds short of catastrophic consequences.  He had managed that only because of the same instincts he knew in his gut had caused it.  The terror of the incident had left a mark on him he had not yet allowed himself time to fully process, distracted with far more intellectual ramifications.  “What you have told me…” he held a moment, calmed, changed his tone, and rethought his words.  “What Horence has told me of your training leaves me with almost no doubt.  You have the instincts of battle mages – and as much as it displeases me, I know what must be done.”

“What?” Kiannae asked uneasily.

“What happened between you two today…was not wholly your own faults,” Laurel said in a reserved tone.  “Though you will bear the responsibility of learning to control these instincts, as well as it seems, your tempers.  And as much it rattles every parental instinct I have come to harbor, as a mage I know that the only way to train you to control this, is to fully train you in combat magic.”

Laurel watched the small, confused, and almost excited glance between the girls.  “And to be clear,” he said with agitation, “I will work you so hard, as to leave no question this is a punishment.”

“Yes,” Katrisha said in a small voice.  Kiannae simply looked down again.

“As I said,” Laurel sighed, changing his tone again.  “This is not entirely your fault.  I fear I may have stirred these…’gifts’…through your training with Horence.  They would have emerged eventually, but…”  he shook his head.  “You will also need to resolve your conflict over your brother,” he said focusing squarely on Kiannae.  “I believe the escalation you experienced fed on itself presciently, and only the shock of the outcome startled you two out of the cycle.  I can only hope by learning to control it, that this kind of emotional feedback will not occur again.  Failing that, some form of meditation may be necessary.”

Laurel ran his fingers through his hair.  “As to the subject of your conflict, I can not tell you what to feel,” he said still focusing on Kiannae. “Only that I do not hold Wren responsible for your mother’s fate.  There is a great deal of blame to go around for what occurred, but no singular person can bear responsibility for the end result.  Do not throw away a sibling, who from all my dealings with him is a wonderful, promising boy, over something he had no choice in.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 1st, 645 E.R.

Wren slowed his quick gate, and his sobbing trailed off as he took stock of where he stood.  The wood beyond the north wall of the cloister contained a large clearing.   Wren had known it was there on some level, the cemetery was not a secret, just rarely spoken of.  Death was inevitable, even if great gifts could stave it off for a time.  The many gravestones arrayed in ordered rows before Wren stood as a reminder that even that was not forever.

The number was striking, given the history lessons ingrained upon children of the order from a young age.  The cloister was only a few hundred years old, and had not stood at the time of the great war.  The dead that lay in that hallowed ground had passed in the simple course of time.  The eldest of the founding sisters and brothers came first, and then the younger members of the first generation in due course.

The weathering of the stones lessened towards the back, and Wren plopped down near a gravestone, and with a puzzled look reached out his hand to touch it.  He traced the name Somavera as hasty footsteps cracked twigs entering the clearing behind him.

“Are you alright?” Celia asked in a consoling tone.

“No,” Wren said plainly.  “I’m not right at all.  He’s right about that, I’m a monster.”

Celia ran up behind Wren, dropped to her knees, and hugged him tightly.  “Stop saying that,” she demanded.

“If I didn’t say it, it would still be true,” Wren choked out.

“It’s not true at all,” Celia said as a chill wind blew across the clearing, and made her shiver.

It was growing darker, the sun long out of view behind the trees, and the mountain range to the west beginning to shadow Highvale from what was left of the evening sun.  A few flickers of light began to dot the edge of the woods.  Celia scrunched her face with some concern, she’d never seen such a peculiar occurrence.  The lights danced ever so slightly, slowly swirling about each other in graceful arcs.

Another set of footsteps could be heard crunching leaves, and slowly entering the clearing behind the pair.  Celia turned to see Audry transfixed by the sight.

“They are like fireflies,” Audry said in a curious tone, “but they aren’t, are they?”  They were too large, and many much too blue in color.

“What are they then?” Celia asked confused.

“Wisps,” Wren said looking up almost irritably at the display before him.

“That sounds about right,” Audry said with an air of false authority.  “I remember now, a kind of elemental, right?”

A group of the wisps grew closer together, swirling about above one of the graves near Audry, and then quite suddenly scattered as a shimmering form appeared, and looked around as though confused.  Audry fell over backwards in shock, and Celia clung tightly to Wren who seemed expressionless as he stared at the new arrival.

This unnerving process repeated three more times, lastly right next to Wren and Celia.  She grabbed Wren’s hand, and pulled him off balance as she scurried away, but lost her grip.  Wren struggled to sit back upright, and simply looked up at the glowing white figure above him.  The ghost knelt down, and looked at him curiously.

“I’m Wren,” he said, as though answering some unheard question.  “No,” Wren said in a correcting tone, “Renae is not my mother, but I call her such.”

The ghost cocked its head to the side curiously, and looked up as an angry voice called out from the thin strip of wood between the clearing, and cloister.  “Audry?” Andrew called out irritably.  “Why won’t you listen?” he demanded.  “He’s evil I tell you,” he implored as he stepped into the clearing, and found his sister on the ground before him, and ghosts milling aimlessly.

Andrew had never seen a ghost before, and without much hesitation he grabbed Audry’s arm, and pulled her to her feet.  He tried to drag her with him from the clearing, but she shook his grip free, and stared at him defiantly.  There was a touch of fear in her eyes nonetheless.

“This isn’t right,” Andrew said sternly.  “This shouldn’t be happening!”

“What do you know?” Audry growled.

“I read it,” Andrew insisted, “ghosts are rare, very rare.”

“Since when do you read?” Audry cut back, all eyes, living and dead upon the brother and sister arguing.

“I read,” Andrew cut back.

“You certainly don’t read your assignments for class,” Audry sneered.

“Cause that’s boring,” Andrew muttered, “but this…this isn’t right.  Let’s get out of here, and away from the little soul eater.”

“Wren is not a soul eater,” Audry snapped, and pushed her brother who almost fell over.

“He’s not just a soul eater, he’s a necromancer,” Andrew yelled, grabbed his sister’s arm forcefully, and tried to pull her from the clearing.

“Wren didn’t do this,” Celia said, uncertainty in her voice, as she turned to Wren who still sat passively, his eyes closed, and tears running down his cheeks again.

Audry struggled again to get free of her brother’s grasp, and did so, falling over, and through an approaching ghost, which swept right up to Andrew, and stared down at him with a disapproving glare.

“To the Abyss with all of you,” Andrew said as he turned, and ran.

“He’s right,” Wren said.  “This shouldn’t be happening, I shouldn’t hear them.”

“Hear, what?” Celia asked.  “I don’t hear anything.”

“I do,” Wren said, and looked at Celia, his lips pursed definitely.  “They ask, they whisper, I don’t understand all of it, but I hear it.  I shouldn’t, no one else does, but I do.”

“How do you know?” Audry asked walking cautiously past one of the ghosts, and sitting down next to Celia and Wren.

“Because I read the same book he did,” Wren said with a shrug, and looked away.

“Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true,” Celia offered.

“Do you hear them?” Wren asked rhetorically.

“No,” Celia admitted again.

“It just means you are special,” Audry offered uncertainly, her eyes darting nervously about at the ghosts that were slowly circling the trio.

“That’s a word for it,” Wren said, and closed his eyes again.  Celia reached out, and took Wren’s hand comfortingly, and Audry did the same.  There was a moment of painfully uncomfortable silence, and then without warning Wren whispered just loud enough to be heard. “Rest,” and the ghosts seemed to wash away in swirling strands of light caught in the gentlest breeze.

The wisps remained for a little while, some slowly swirled off into the wood, others seemed to flicker and fade.  “No,” Wren said sorrowfully, stood, and helped his friends to their feet.  “He’s right.  I did this, though I couldn’t tell you how.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Renae considered her adopted son thoughtfully.  Wren was all too aware of the coming question, but did not press to be asked.

“Can you explain to me the things I’ve been hearing?” she finally questioned, seeing the impatient irritation in Wren’s eyes.

“Depends what you have heard,” Wren said grumpily, and crossed his arms.

“Andrew raised a holy ruckus to his mother, in public no less, about you conjuring ghosts in the graveyard.” Renae sighed.  “As preposterous as it sounds…I’d not even ask, but, something tells me I should.”

“It’s true,” Wren said, “not that conjuring is the right word.”

“Then what is?” Renae said in a metered, perplexed tone.

“Causing?” Wren said uncertainly, looking out the window.  “I didn’t go out there to do anything,” he protested, “just to get away from Andrew.”

“He’s still not leaving you alone?” Renae asked unhappily.

“He’s never left me alone,” Wren said venomously.

“And you are saying what he said is true, that multiple ghosts manifested in the graveyard?” Renae asked uncomfortably.

“Four,” Wren answered.

Renae took a long slow breath.  “A ghost has been reported, now and then,” Renae said thoughtfully, “but four…”

“I caused it,” Wren said flatly.

“How could you have caused a ghost to appear?” Renae demanded doubtfully.  “Let alone four.  Real necromancers, if you can argue there even is such a thing – and not simply charlatans – have only the scarcest of success rates when mustering all their will.”

“I just did,” Wren said angrily, wishing he could deny the truth as easily as Renae seemed to be trying to.  “Do you want me to prove it?”

“I just…” Renae started, winced, and walked over to Wren, knelt down and hugged him.  “You don’t have to prove anything.”  Renae said, somberly.  “I’m just trying to understand.”

“I don’t know what’s worse,” Wren said, not returning the embrace.  “Andrew hating me for the truth, or you not believing it.”

“I believe you,” Renae said reassuringly, but there was still a touch of rational doubt in her voice.

“Iraen was your mother, wasn’t she?” Wren asked pointedly.

“Yes,” Renae said, “she’s buried out there.  She was older when she had me, much older than most, and she died young…there was a flaw in her heart that would not heal.”

“She said to tell,” Wren seemed to struggle for a moment, “‘Button,’ that she loves her.  That her heart is still with her.”

Renae pulled back and looked stricken for a moment, staring at Wren.  It was possible – only possible – Wren had heard her mother’s old pet name for her at some point, but she knew in her heart she had never told him, and it wasn’t the first time.  The winter morning with the wisps in the courtyard, when for just a moment she thought she had heard the hum of her mother’s voice, singing her to sleep.  He had said it, she had pushed it aside, he couldn’t have known, he shouldn’t have known even then.

“She called me Button,” Renae said weakly, “that I was the Button on her heart, that kept it together.  She…she died while I was far away.”  Renae began to cry, for so many reasons, not the least of which was the kind gifted boy in her arms, that she so rarely knew what to do with.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 3rd, 646 E.R.

Wren tapped his foot impatiently as he leaned against the wall next to Celia.  He glanced over as Celia’s incessant swirling of her finger in the air began to produced a thin trail of light, which momentarily distracted him from his boredom.  “You did it,” he said with a slight laugh.

“Took me long enough,” Celia sighed, and shook her hand attempting to get feeling back from how long she had been trying.  Her progress dissolved, and she glanced at Wren.  She smiled somewhat in spite of herself.

Wren’s presence was like a hearth on a cold autumn night.  He somehow made the world away from him seem a little colder.  Yet all at once there was a sense of that nature of fire behind it, an intensity that smoldered – perhaps impatiently – for the world’s plodding way.  This was enough to give the wary pause, and he could seem a flame that easily called all the moths of the world toward him.  That thought lingered, and bothered Celia, she wasn’t even sure why she had thought it.

“You’ve only been at it a couple days,” Wren said encouragingly, “on your own, Aaron has been training with Sister Calis for weeks.  I’ll ask Renae if you can come with us the next time I visit my sisters.  They can do so much more, maybe they could teach you.”

“I’d like that,” Celia laughed, “but I don’t know if my mother would let me leave the cloister.”  She started again, and almost instantly a trail of light formed.  She bit her lip excitedly that it had come quickly that time.

Wren glanced down the corridor again.  “Where is Audry?” he asked with a faint hint of concern, “it’s not like her to be so late.”

“Maybe we should go look for her?’ Celia said with a shrug, and let her glowing figure-eight drift away.

“I guess,” Wren said and started walking down the hall.

As they rounded a corner they came upon Andrew.  In the past year had undergone a growth spurt to the point of towering over the two.  He had long had an intemperate presence, one that shifted from a harsh breeze, to stone.  That moment he felt like a rolling boulder coming towards the two.  Neither had in their lives seen someone so obviously, and violently angry, but some instinct kicked in, and told them both to back off.

It wasn’t enough.  Andrew marched menacingly straight up to Wren, even as he tried to get out of the way.  “Stay away from my sister!” he barked as Wren found himself frightened and backed up against a wall.

“Leave him alone!” Celia yelled, but fell short of laying hands on Andrew to pull him back.

“Stay out of this,” Andrew spat, turning towards Celia, who stood her ground, but couldn’t quite bring herself to move towards Wren.  “Do you hear me?” he demanded turning back to Wren who was hunkered down on the floor against the wall.  “Stay away from my sister.”

“Shut up,” Wren squeaked in a small frightened voice.

“No,” Andrew said, “not till you promise to stay away from my sister you little mongrel.”

“Leave him alone,” Celia repeated demandingly, and moved to put herself between the two.  Andrew pushed her back, and she fell.

“Answer me you little shit,” Andrew demanded, “what are you going to do?”  Wren shrunk further, as Andrew leaned down over him, “hello, do you hear me you little freak?  Stay away!”

“Shut up,” Wren whimpered in a tiny voice.

“No,” Andrew said, “not until you promise.”

“Shut up,” Wren squeaked again, just a hair louder.

Andrew grabbed ahold of his robe, and shook him.  “No,” he said viciously, “promise me you will stay away!”

“SHUT UP!” Wren suddenly boomed in a horrifying voice not at all like his own.  The sound of it seemed to reverberate in the rafters, and rattle the bones.  It frightened Celia to her core who had grabbed ahold of Andrew to try and pull him off Wren, and her fingers slipped weekly off his arm.  Andrew fell backwards barely catching himself.  He scrambled in a strange helpless fashion for a moment.  His eyes were wide, and his face as white as a sheet.  He frantically clutched at his throat, he opened his mouth as though trying to speak, trying to yell, and suddenly without a further word pushed himself up against the far wall, and ran away.

Celia watched as Andrew stumbled, and flailed down the hallway in his haste, and then turned back to Wren who was curled up in a tiny ball, sobbing.  “Are,” Celia coughed slightly as though her throat was dry.  “Are you alright?” she asked cautiously moving towards her friend.  Wren simply continued to cry, and didn’t answer.  “Wren?” Celia said questioningly, her concern quickly starting to override her uneasiness.  She coughed again, and rubbed her throat.

“I…I…” Wren sputtered between sobs, and then gave up.

Celia wrapped her arms around him consolingly, and gently stroked his hair.  “It’ll be alright,” she said softly.  “It’s ok, he’s gone.”

“I…” Wren tried again, “he…he was right about me,” Wren whimpered.

“What do you mean?” Celia asked in confusion, but Wren seemed to just descend further back into sobbing, and began to noticeably tremble.

Several minutes passed, and Wren slowly began to calm.  When he finally met Celia’s gaze his expression was one of horror, sadness, and utter heartbreak.

“What happened?” Celia asked in as gentle a tone as she could manage.

“I don’t know,” Wren said with a haunted voice.  “I did something…I don’t know what I did, but I felt myself do it.  I think I might have hurt him.”  He looked away helplessly, unable to look his friend in the eye after admitting his fear.

“He was attacking you,” Celia said softly, “it’s ok.  He was well enough to run away.  It’s ok.”

“I don’t know what I did,” Wren said again with and unnerving tremor in his voice.  “It’s not…I…” he couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought as the memory of South Rook gripped him.  How everyone had stopped for a moment, and even afterword seemed dazed, how he had ran to his room, and hid not knowing what he had done, or how.

“It’s ok, whatever it was he deserved it,” Celia said trying to calm Wren down.

“Maybe I deserve it,” Wren said in a small voice.

“No,” Celia said firmly, “you are sweet, and wonderful, and he is an ass.  He’s always hated you, for no reason.”

Celia turned as quick footsteps echoed down the hall.  Audry was running towards them, holding her arm tightly.  “Is he alright?” she asked obviously scared.

“He isn’t hurt,” Celia said, “but he’s been crying for a while now.”

“What did my bastard brother do to him?” Audry said in a tone almost as angry as Andrew’s.

“He was yelling, and shaking him,” Celia said, “and then…” she hesitated not sure how to describe Wren’s part.  “He ran like he was terrified.  Is your arm alright?” she asked trying to change the subject as her own suspicions sunk in.  It wasn’t possible, and yet it fit.

“He was keeping me in my room,” Audry growled, “wouldn’t let me leave.  Kept yelling at me, trying to make me promise to stay away from Wren.  I tried to push past him, and he pushed me down, and I hurt my arm.”  Audry rubbed her arm a bit.  “I’ve been working to heal it.”

Audry leaned down and looked Wren in the eye.  “Are you alright?” she asked anger and concern mixed in her expression.

“I think I hurt him,” Wren whimpered.

Audry’s expression suddenly shifted to dumbstruck.  “You…are crying ‘cause you think you hurt, him?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” Wren said in a small voice, “partly.   I’m scared,” he added.

“He ran off,” Audry said reassuringly, “and if he comes back we’ll make him leave.”

“I’m scared of me,” Wren corrected her.

“You…” Audry started bewildered, not sure what to say.

“He had him cornered,” Celia offered, “his voice changed…it was so loud it hurt, and I kind of felt it when he lashed out.  I…”  She rubbed her throat, which felt a bit like she needed to clear it, but the coughs had done nothing.  She remembered Andrew grabbing his.  “He earned whatever he got.”  She added, keeping her suspicion to herself.  It was passing, whatever it was.

Audry shook her head.  “You darling, impossibly wonderful little thing,” she said touching Wren’s tear streaked cheek. “You get cornered, frightened half out of your wits, and now you are more worried about what you did to the monster who was bullying you, than what he did to you?”

“He’s not a monster,” Wren said defiantly, “he was scared, angry…I…”

Audry pulled Wren to her, and hugged him.  “Quiet,” she said firmly, “it’s no excuse, you never did anything to him, nothing.  He’s my blood and I won’t defend him, not for a moment, don’t you.  Don’t you dare waste another thought on him.  You are wonderful, and that’s all you need to know.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 22nd, 646 E.R.

Rennae rubbed her face tiredly as Andria walked into their room.  “Are you alright?” Andria asked with some concern.

“Shandra has been harassing me repeatedly about her son,” Rennae said looking at Andria with a cross expression.  “He won’t talk, won’t leave his room, and has been crying a lot it seems.”

“I’ve heard,” Andria sighed, “no one knows what’s wrong with him.”

“She’s started saying odd things about Wren, but nothing outright,” Rennae said looking out the window. “Nightmares, and obsessions.  Of course she mentioned none of this when I had talked to her repeatedly about the boy harassing Wren.”

“You don’t actually think he has something to do with it do you?” Andria asked doubtfully.

“I…” Rennae sighed. “I don’t know, I don’t think so, but I’ve heard he’s been bordering on bullying with some kids.  Getting worse not better, particularly towards Wren, and Wren has been…different lately.”

“And so…what?” Andria asked not sure where the connection was.

“You know as well as I do the potential power of that boy,” Rennae said laying her forehead on her hand.  “I mean…maybe if he cornered him somewhere, pushed him to the edge, maybe he could have done something…I don’t know.  I don’t think I could bring myself to ask him either.  He’s seemed so distant lately, and I…  I don’t know what to think.  There were also reports of a terrible yell heard in part of the cloister the other day.  Something, unnatural according to those who heard it.”

“You aren’t thinking of the madness in South Rook, are you?” Andria pressed.

“Wren was there,” Renae answered.

“That doesn’t mean Wren had anything to do with it.”

“No it doesn’t, but no one has an explanation.  No one has heard of anything like it.”

“It bears watching I guess,” Andria said with a frown. “Even if it’s true, as you say, if he was pushed to the edge I don’t think we need to worry about a repeat…but if some one else comes to that conclusion.  How can we control this if people start talking?”

“I don’t know,” Rennae said darkly, “and that’s why I’m worried.”

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Chapter 9

Good traveler hear,
words for the wise,
and journey in numbers,
if you value your lives,

for along all the roads,
more and less traveled,
stand hills ‘n groves,
that harbor deep shadow,

and from these places,
convenient ‘n obscure,
may spring bandits, dragons,
or beasts yet unheard.

– old caravan rhyme, circa 350 E.R.

Sisters of the Road

Vhalun 37th, 641 E.R.

Mercu watched Katrisha and Kiannae entertain themselves, and one another alternately.  The two girls rarely did the same thing at once any more, opting instead to show off for their mutual amusement, and often Mercu’s.  He pondered how much the two had grown in four years.

Katrisha for her part had become very fond of a trick to make small orbs of light attract each other, and further take less effort to touch and grab hold of.  Before her danced a half dozen or so such orbs of varied size and color.  The largest hovered stationary, as the others zipped around it, and each other in intricate arcs, and spirals.  Ever so often she would nudge, slow, or grab one to radically alter its trajectory.

Mercu had seen Laurel do similar things over the years, but his more prosaic displays were generally meant to match the exact behavior of real astronomical bodies.  Katrisha’s displays were often more intriguing for their playful artistry, and unusual eccentric orbits.  Even if this chaos and experimentation frequently lead to strays flying off through walls, and needing to be remade by their disgruntled mistress.

Though Kiannae had at times done the same, she was more fond of making swirling twisting patterns of light in the air.  Mercu had tried without much success to convince her to express her intricate forms with paint, or charcoal.  The results however, even barring the obvious disadvantage of not being luminescent, three dimensional forms, further lacked the same precision and grace.  She seemed over all uninterested in spending the time to learn the coordination it would take to match what she could do by intent alone.

A stray orb careened out of its previous tight orbit, and through a flowery display of intricately twined light, causing a momentary explosion of brilliant swirls.  Mercu braced himself for Kiannae to be very cross with her sister, but saw both girls transition from surprise to amusement as the fireworks of the collision evolved, and settled.

“How would you two like to come into the village with me today?” he asked before the two could get too deeply enthralled in their entertainments again.  Both looked to him with expressions of distinct disbelief.

“Really?” Kiannae asked uncertainly.

“You always say we can’t come,” Katrisha added hesitantly.

“This time I asked Laurel very nicely,” Mercu laughed, “and with the utmost of begrudging muttering, he relented to allow you two off the castle grounds.”

With that reassurance the girls bounded from their respective places, and were at Mercu’s side in a heartbeat.  “I will take that as a yes then?” he chuckled.

Both nodded, no longer risking questioning their good fortune.

“I’ve asked for you two to come along so that you can meet my sister, if you don’t mind.”

“You have a sister?” Kiannae asked obviously a bit confused.

“You never mentioned her,” Katrisha added.

“Didn’t I?” Mercu laughed a bit nervously, “lovely woman too, can’t think why.  I’m sure with you two along the odds of her killing me will go down by at least two thirds.”  The girls both looked a bit concerned at Mercu’s jest.  “No really, she wouldn’t hurt me…well ok she definitely wouldn’t kill me, but I fear it’s nothing I haven’t earned in one way or another.”

“Did you make her mad?” Katrisha asked in an almost scolding tone.

“I made her rich,” Mercu said with a knowing smile, “that’s almost worse.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Why are we walking?” Katrisha grumbled, and kicked a small rock down the road ahead of her.

“Because it’s good for you,” Mercu answered.

“How much farther?” Kiannae asked.

“Two more miles,” Mercu shrugged.  In truth he had tried to arrange a coach, but too much was going on.  However good he was at getting what he wanted, he was still very low on the ladder compared to official business.  The three mile walk was hardly his first choice, but he would never hear the end of it if he didn’t make the trek.  He began humming to himself absently as they walked on.

“What’s that?” Kiannae asked after a few minutes.

“Hmmm?” Mercu questioned looking to see if she was pointing at something.

“The song,” Katrisha clarified for her sister.

“Oh – just an old Palentine tune,” Mercu said dismissively.  “Gets stuck in my head sometimes.”

“I don’t recognize it,” Kiannae pressed.  “What is it?”

“Let me see if I remember all the words,” Mercu said thoughtfully – then began to sing:

“A minstrel girl to war hath gone,
still plying her bow ‘n strings,
she’s pierced near the hearts,
with arrows as songs,
the minstrel girl of Dawn,

Lost a father for bread,
her mother for scorn,
armed with fiddle ‘fore bow,
long after adored everyone,
that little dear in Dawn,

O’ With sorrow she strung,
ne’re a tear she shed,
each eve her cup was full,
great ‘n small hung their head,
for the songbird proud of Dawn,

Of age she was comely,
and keen of the eye,
come one way or another,
none could pass there by,
great lady come from Dawn,

They crooned of her voice,
the song of her bow,
the curve of her chest,
the grace of her draw,
fair hero born of Dawn.

She’s up on that hill,
where she tarried her days,
‘nother grave there beside,
prince or pauper none say,
who married a girl from Dawn.

So stand all good folk,
as a fierce lass once did,
utter take not another,
cry yet take me instead,
for home, for country, for Dawn.”

“Why doesn’t anyone know who married her?” Katrisha asked, as Mercu trailed off on Dawn.

“No one is really sure if she even existed,” Mercu answered.  “If she did, it was very, very long ago.  Centuries before the Empire at least.  Still there are two graves on the eastern hill above Dawn.  I’ve seen them myself.”

“Don’t they have names?” Kiannae prodded.

“I said very long ago,” Mercu laughed.  “You know the expression, ‘written in stone?’”

“Yes,” Katrisha said incredulously.

“Of course,” Kiannae protested.

“Well what does it mean?” Mercu countered.

“Permanent?” Katrisha offered.

“Even what is written in stone is not forever.”  Mercu shrugged.  “That the locals have kept the hill clear, and the graves from being completely overgrown is a wonder itself.  There’re marks on the gravestones, if you wipe away the moss.  Written in script so old no one knows it, and so eroded by the rain that even if one could read ancient Palentian you couldn’t make a thing of it.  They might as well be a few more scores cut by the rain.”

“If she married a prince wouldn’t there be a record?”  Kiannae countered.

“Oh yes – there probably would have been.  Yet there were so many, and they lived, and died, and castles burned, and lineages were forgotten, and true enough a couple wouldn’t you know it have claimed that it was one of their ancestors the song is about.  Course not a one can prove it.”

“What was the bit about losing her father for bread, and her mother for scorn?” Katrisha asked.

“It’s all sketchy.  The stories say she was the daughter of a common minstrel, very poor save his precious instrument.  He taught her to play, but could not keep food on the table.  He stole some bread to feed her – and wound up dead.”

“Over bread!?” Katrisha said furiously.

“The world is not always fair, or kind,” Mercu answered, and neither girl seemed satisfied.

“What about her mother?”  Kiannae asked.

“Stories vary – not all versions are quite polite.  Some say she blamed her daughter, or herself, went mad, or…well never mind,” Mercu was thoughtful.  “In the end the girl was left alone.  They say her sorrowful playing in the square filled her cup every day.”

“And then she became an archer?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes.  Dawn was always caught in the struggles between ancient Nohlend and Old Palentine.  The stories say – as the closing verse implies – that she volunteered, and became a great archer.  That not only did she offer to serve, but demanded to when first, second, and even trice refused.”

“Why would they refuse her?” Katrisha frowned.

“Because she was a young girl.  They gave her a bow ostensibly to keep her out of trouble.”

“Hmph,” Kiannae protested.

“Oh I quite agree – but that very arrogance helped earn her her fame.  When men were shrinking from the fight, men who thought so little of women, let alone a small girl, she stood up.  She pledged her life to the very people that had cost her her parents.  So there are noble families that squabble to own her legacy a thousand years later.”

“But she was just an archer, not a mage?” Katrisha asked.

“She might have had some gift – who can say.  Great warriors of old often did.  There are more practices than we always remember today.  Back then, in the early Age of Kings a little border town like Dawn would easily have let a gift slip through untrained.  And though great Mage Kings were terrors on the battlefield, they needed armies to counter each other’s.”

“Why is it called Dawn?” Kiannae asked.

“Nothing special – just an eastward port on the North Sea – could have been a hundred places with the name.  That one stuck.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha had only the vaguest memory of the village from a morning passage years before.  Yet as vague as her memory was she was quite sure it had not been nearly so busy.  As they passed out of the north side of the village proper she realized there had not been so many large enclosed wagons either.  She had heard that the caravan was in town, but while she knew what that meant functionally, she had never put much thought into what it might look like.

Kiannae, who had slept through the village all those years ago was even more overwhelmed by the diversity of sights, sounds, and people.  It was even more daunting than any of the weddings or balls that had been held at court in her time there.

The trio walked up to an enclosed wagon larger than either girl had ever imagined existed, and Mercu waved enthusiastically.  “Harris, my old friend!” he yelled his arms spread wide as he approached a man sifting through various bundled goods.

The man stood up and turned only to be embraced before he could fully recognize his assailant.  “Mer…Mercu?” Harris said questioningly as he pushed Mercu back, and looked him up and down.  “By the fates it is you, it’s been at least ten years since I saw you last.”

“Oh, more than that I think,” Mercu said with a chuckle.

“Who are those two,” Harris said gesturing to Katrisha, and Kiannae as they walked up behind him.  “You haven’t gone and had children have you?”

“No…though I suppose after a fashion,” Mercu laughed.  “They aren’t my blood, but are about as close as I’m likely to get, I think.”

“Fair enough, I won’t pry,” Harris said considering Mercu shrewdly, “I shouldn’t have been so surprised to see you though, I thought I heard Sam muttering something about her worthless brother other day.”

“Speaking of that, I seek the caravan master!” Mercu laughed.

“Yes, yes of course,” Harris said grabbing a rod that lay nearby, and rapped on the side of the wagon.

“Oi, what in the abyss is it?” a woman’s voice called out after a moment irritably, and a window on the side of the wagon swung open.  A lady with short chestnut hair looked down at Harris, and Mercu, and shook her head.  “Oh, it’s you,” she said dismissively, and yet with an air of surprise.  “I’ve passed through this kingdom no less than five times in the past ten years, and have to come almost to your door to get more than a letter handed to me.”

“It wasn’t the distance, dear Samantha, it was the company,” Mercu shot back.  “When your letter said father had finally retired somewhere out east, I figured it was time I did better by my dear sister.”

“Yes, yes, and I’ll believe your personal convenience had nothing to do with it,” Samantha responded leaning her head on her arm, a wry smile creeping across her lips.

Katrisha and Kiannae slowly inched up beside Mercu, and drew glances from Harris, and Mercu’s sister.  “Believe what you will,” Mercu laughed, “but the convenience of your visit did allow me to bring guests.”

“Are these the two then?” Samantha said smiling down at the twins.

“Indeed they are,” Mercu answered.  “Introduce yourselves girls – you do it so well.”

“I am Katrisha, daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost,” the first said with a curtsy.

“And I am Kiannae, daughter of summer vales, and the passing storm,” the other proclaimed in turn.

“Well those are curious titles,” Samantha said cocking her head to the side.

“Something their father called them when they were little,” Mercu said, “or so I am told.  At some point I started encouraging the use, seemed fittingly mystical for young mages in training.”

Samantha gracefully hopped onto the windowsill, and slid out, landing in a crouch before the twins.  “You two,” she said grinning wildly, “are darling, and should not allow my wicked treacherous brother to corrupt you any further than he surely already has.”

“I will have you know,” Mercu said in a very officious tone, “that I am tasked with seeing that these two are wholly incorruptible.”

“Then we are all doomed, and the very chief future servants of the abyss stand before us,” Samantha said, throwing up her arms as she straightened up, and stared at her brother incredulously.  Mercu scrunched his face up in a slightly childish manner, obviously displeased to be so quickly besmirched before his young charges.

Samantha cocked her head to the side, frowned slightly at the lack of a witty comeback, and suddenly pounced upon her brother with an abrupt hug, kissing him on the cheek.  “I missed you, you insufferable lout,” she said squeezing him tightly.

She had the most remarkably calming, yet energetic presence.  Like an open field of flowers in summer, wavering in a gentle breeze.  You couldn’t feel it more than a foot away, but it then suddenly washed over you.

“You too dear sister,” Mercu said in a more relaxed tone, and returned the embrace. “I did write, but…I simply couldn’t face father any more.”

“Well you did kind of put him in a bit of a bind, didn’t you?” Samantha said pulling back, and looking her brother square in the eye.

“I only made him do, what deep down in his heart he wanted to, and knew was right,” Mercu offered coyly.

“Oh yes, and thank you for that.  It’s been such a chore convincing traveling merchant’s to follow a woman,” Samantha nearly hissed.  “Do you have any idea how much I miss having long hair?  But no, for some reason these insufferable men – who surround me – give me more respect if I look more like one of them.”

“I always respected you fine,” Harris said as he walked away, having felt his presence was an intrusion for some time.

“Sorry Harris,” Samantha called after him, “I just forget sometimes you are a man.”  Harris noticeably grumbled, and made a strange gesture as he disappeared behind the wagon.

Mercu laughed.  “I was wondering what was up with the hair, but how ever did you come to such a strange conclusion?”

“Well it started with a woman merchant, enchanter by trade,” Samantha said, moved to her brother’s side, and ushered him to walk into town.  She looked down at the two bewildered little girls beside them, and simply said “follow along you two.  I intend to find a drink for my brother and myself – he’s buying.”

Mercu looked as though he wished to object in some way, but simply remained silent as Samantha launched back into her story.  “Now where was I?  Oh yes, the merchant girl.  Sweet lass, simply failed to grasp that I preferred the company of men, however much they may aggravate me.  She kept saying I was repressing something.”

“You, repress something?” Mercu laughed.

“One to talk, dear brother,” Samantha cut back, and tapped him on the nose.  “At some point or another, when we were a bit drunk, she said the short hair makes them think of you less as a woman, makes them listen.  I really just wrote the whole statement off at the time, she was so drunk.  Then there was an incident with some tar…have you ever, in your life, tried to get tar out of hair?”

“No,” Mercu said with a bit of a cringe, “but…how did that happen exactly?”

“One story at a time,” Samantha laughed, “so anyway, not much choice, had to chop it all off you see, god it looked terrible for a while, but it happened at a waypoint where a lot of people were changing out.  Wouldn’t you know it, I had a lot less trouble getting the men to follow directions ever since.  Not night and day mind you, but noticeable – hit on me less too…which eh, blessing and a curse some days.”

“Sounds positively dreadful,” Mercu said in a mock somber tone.

“Eh, not the end of the world.  Slap ’em in the face with the knockers,” Samantha laughed, wiggling her shoulders, “if I really want the attention.  That’ll work nine times out of ten.”

“And the tenth time?” Mercu laughed.

“The tenth time I guess they have no interest in a good pair of knockers,” Samantha chuckled.  “I’d ask if you know what that’s about dear brother…but I forget you have a very broad appreciation in such matters.”

“You are terrible, sister,” Mercu said with a wide grin, “and have the nerve to imply that I will corrupt these darling little girls,” he said glancing back to be sure the uncharacteristically quiet pair were still following.  They were, and to his amused discomfort clearly rapt with their conversation.

“One need not be a Palentian saint to warn travelers that the bridge is out,” Samantha shot back.

“Still, for you to call my appreciation broad, is not unlike the sunrise calling the sunset orange,” Mercu laughed dryly.

“I dare say I am at least more particular than you, just not in the same petty ways,” Samantha said thwapping her brother lightly on the back of the head with the hand that had been rested on his shoulder.

“Is it petty to have a weakness for a keen mind?” Mercu said incredulously, re-adjusting his hat, “Really I would have thought it the other way round.”

“I know for a fact at least a couple of your lovers have not been the brightest…dear brother,” Samantha shot back with an accusatory glance.

“Each clever, and wise in their own ways, I assure you,” Mercu said defiantly, “though I won’t deny sometimes a pretty face…and other virtues cover a great many follies.”

“So that one you ran off with then, which was it, pretty face, or…other virtues?” Samantha needled.

“All of the above, and a way out from under father’s nose,” Mercu said flatly.

“If you say so, I never saw it,” Samantha said shrugging off the obvious dodge.  “Ah here we go,” she said stopping at the step of a large building at the edge of a town, above which hung a sign that declared in bold red lettering, ‘The Grey Lamb.’  Samantha let go of her brother and marched up the steps without a further word.

Mercu looked to Katrisha and Kiannae, and doubted the wisdom of bringing them along after all.  He realized he should have known his sister better.  It was not completely unacceptable to bring young children into a tavern, but he had always thought less of the rare parents he had seen do so.  “So what do you think of my sister?” he asked the twins, hesitant to follow just yet.

“She’s…” Kiannae seemed to be looking for the word.

“Loud, crazy, uncouth?” Mercu provided questioningly.

“Interesting,” Katrisha offered.  Her sister glanced at her and nodded.

Mercu laughed heartily.  “Perhaps in the ancient proverb sense of the word.”  He sighed.  “Ok, so we are going into this building here.  Talk to noone but me, my sister, and the bartender if need be.  Stay very close, and stay out of anyone’s way.  Ok?”

The girls looked at each other, nodded, and in unison said, “Ok.”

Upon entering the tavern the barkeep gave Mercu one look, and laughed.  “Oh and what ancient god of myth have I angered this day, to find both the Merchant Queen, and the Court Jester in my tavern at once?”

“Court Artist, thank you very much,” Mercu offered in standard retort.

“Indeed,” Samantha laughed, “only the Merchant Queen may so malign her own brother!”

“Oh, how had I not guessed as much,” the barkeep declared dryly.

“Because you are a dim little fellow Olie, though I guess you were bright enough to move down here from up north,” Samantha chuckled.

“Doesn’t take much brains to know a village with no people doesn’t much need a tavern,” Olie chuckled.

“Which explains why you were able to put it together,” Samantha added.

Mercu helped Katrisha and Kiannae up onto two bar stools between Samantha, and himself, and shrugged off the questioning glance from Olie.  “A round of your second best,  for my sister and I,” Mercu declared, “and something…lighter for the little lasses.”

“Only second best dear brother, am I not worth better?” Samantha asked in a hurt tone.

“Only if you enjoy the distinct flavor of cat…piss,” Mercu said, hesitating to say the last word but just embracing the inevitable exposure to excess swearing the girls would get that day.

“And you would know for a fact, that is the exact flavor?” Samantha chuckled.

“It is less of a flavor than a smell.  The tongue refuses to register flavor at all, and simply goes numb on contact,” Mercu laughed defensively.

“So something to drink when forgetting the world is the goal, not for reminiscing about how it used to be?” Samantha asked shaking her head.

“More like something to drink when leaving the world is the goal,” Mercu offered.

“I suppose second best will do then, to early in the day to leave the world!” Samantha declared.

Olie set two large mugs before Mercu and Samantha, and eyed the twins wondering what to give them.  “You two, you are the mage girls from up at the castle aren’t you?” he asked finally realizing he had the subject of many little rumors before him.

“I guess we are,” Katrisha said curiously examining the barkeep with an analytical gaze that made him uncomfortable.

“Don’t believe there are any others,” Kiannae added looking around the bar at the few customers, all seated far apart.

“And what do little mage girls drink?” Olie asked curiously.

“Cider mostly,” Kiannae responded.

“Humph, not the kind I have I’ll wager,” Olie laughed.  “Bah, I’ll figure something out,” he said and wandered off into the back.

“So, tell me of life at the castle girls,” Samantha prodded, and sipped from her mug.

“Why not ask me?” Mercu said feigning injury, “I’ve certainly been there longer.”

“I wanted the truth” Samantha chided, “and barring that, I’ll take the exaggerations of eight year olds, over yours.  They should be at least half as distorted.”

“Very well,” Mercu said and took a drink.

“So, please, do tell me of life at the castle,” Samantha prodded.

“It’s all right,” Kiannae said, “better sometimes than others.”

“Like when there is a ball,” Katrisha added.

“I guess those can be fun, but all the old people can be so dull,” Kiannae said absently looking about.

“We get to stay up later at least,” Katrisha countered.

“As if any force in the cosmos could change how late or early you two go to sleep.”  Mercu laughed.  “A ball just means you might get yelled at less for it.”

“And that’s nice,” Kiannae said, biting her lip playfully.

“I agree, staying up late for a good ball when the old people aren’t being boring is always grand,” Samantha laughed and took another sip, “not getting yelled at for it is even better.”

“Since when do you know much of balls dear sister?” Mercu asked incredulously.  “Getting yelled at on the other hand, I suppose you could speak volumes on that.”

“Oh, more than you would think,” Samantha laughed.  “Even if father never asked me to come along, like he did with you, I usually managed to steal something from the wares, sneak my way in, and have a grand time.  As for the yelling, did you ever wonder what it was about some of those nights?”

“It did seem every party, about half way through I’d see this very cross look on his face,” Mercu said thoughtfully.

“Do you remember in Western Palentine, the summer festival in the grand courtyard?” Samantha asked with an egging tone.

“It was a masquerade ball wasn’t it?” Mercu said eying his sister shrewdly.

“Yup, and you remember when a girl dancing with the young crown prince suddenly bent him,” Samantha stressed, “over, and kissed him.”  She laughed.

“Oh, fates…that was you wasn’t it?” Mercu laughed.  “I knew you were impossible, impetuous, I maybe even suspected you snuck into a few of those balls…but that.  Dear sister I do believe my respect for you just went up tenfold.”

“Would it go up any farther if I told you the prince proposed?” Samantha laughed.

“He what?” Mercu gasped almost spitting his most recent sip.

“Had to let him down of course, his father would never have let him go through with it,” Samantha said wistfully.  “I let him down very gently of course…very very gently,” she chuckled.

“I never thought it possible, but perhaps you are worse than me,” Mercu said shaking his head, “and you know what, I think I remember father muttering something about paying the King to take you off his hands.”

“To father,” Samantha laughed raising her mug towards her brother over the girls heads.

“May he rest comfortably in whatever pleasant home he’s found,” Mercu added, and tapped his mug to Samantha’s, “very, very far from here.”   They both drank.

“So the prince really liked you?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“He inclined me to believe so,” Samantha said taking a small sip.  “When it gets right down to it, royals are real people, even if they often have very big heads.  They are trained to be outsiders, to not be treated like real people, but guess what, deep down, it’s what a lot of them actually want.”

“So you treated him like a real person?” Katrisha asked a bit confused.

“Sort of.  To be fair I think I treated him like a piece of meat, but men don’t often know the difference,” Samantha laughed.

“You treated him like meat?” Kiannae asked her face scrunched up in confusion.

“That doesn’t sound nice,” Katrisha said flatly.  “Why did that make him like you?”

“You know, I suppose I don’t really get it either, but he wasn’t the last to have that reaction,” Samantha said leaning her head on her hand, and taking another sip.

“Boys are funny,” Katrisha said looking at Mercu, and then thinking better of it as he raised an eyebrow.

“Some of us aim for funny,” Mercu said with a laugh.  “It attracts a better kind of attention…well and the worse kind too still, really.”

Olie returned with two mugs similar to the ones Mercu and Samantha were slowly nursing, but containing a distinctly redder liquid.  “There,” he said with a touch of pride in his voice “not a drop of alcohol, and surprisingly not horrid for it either.”

Katrisha pulled the one before her closer, and sniffed at it.  Hesitantly she leaned the heavy mug towards her and took a testing sip.  “Strawberry?” she remarked questioningly.

“Among other things, had to cut the syrup down a bit, added twist of this and that for flavor,” Olie said vaguely. “Not quite as good as some of the things I make for my little one at home, but not bad for what was on hand.”

“You have a little one?” Samantha asked with genuine surprise, and mild interest.

“She’ll be six this fall,” Olie said absently, “darling little thing, ‘bout the same size as these two.”

“We’re eight,” Kiannae corrected.

But before Olie could offer his apology he caught a cold stare from Samantha.

“Funny,” she said in venomous voice, “think the last time I saw you was five years ago.”

“Oh,” Olie said, and cleared his throat, “it’s really not like that.  Girl’s not mine, might as well be though, since I’ve been helping her ma out ever since she was born.  She and I were just friends back then, but I married her two years ago.”

“I see,” Samantha said her eyebrow raised, “well congratulations on both counts then, I guess.”

“Yes, thank you,” Olie said, and quickly extracted himself.

“Story matches what I’ve heard,” Mercu said sipping at his drink, and restraining a laugh.

“Good,” Samantha said tapping her fingers.

“You really do have father’s temper you know,” Mercu laughed.

“And you have mother’s big mouth,” Samantha shot back.

“What’s Samantha mad about?” Kiannae asked Mercu quietly.

“Oh nothing,” Mercu said patting her gently.  “She just thought she’d gotten caught up in a bad situation.  Was a misunderstanding, nothing more.”

“Ok,” Kiannae said not quite understanding.

Two large men had been slowly making their way down from the far end of the bar.  As they arrived the closer of the two bowed, in a slightly wobbly way to Samantha.  “What brings a fine lass such as yourself here today?  I’ve not seen old Mercu bring in a lady before.”

“Well, then today you’ve seen the reverse, a lady brought him in,” Samantha said not even turning to look at the man.

“Now why would such a lovely sight as yourself lessen your own ample contribution to the atmosphere, by bringing along the silly old bard?” the second man asked in a meandering drunken tone.

“You hear that brother, they called you a bard,” Samantha said with a laugh, and took another drink.

“Oh, my condolences,” the second man said with a laugh.  “Explains what you are doing with him.  And makes good sense you are so lovely, given he’s such a pretty boy, you’ve got to compete.”

“You hang out around here much brother?” Samantha said ignoring the two men.  “Locals seem to know you pretty well.”

“I stop by now and then, when I want to hear the more slurred and drunken version of recent events,” Mercu said with a shrug.

“Hey now,” the closer man snapped.  “My friend and I don’t take kindly to being ignored.”

“That’s unfortunate, because I was being kind by tolerating your presence,” Samantha said taking a large swig of her drink.  “I could instead ask you to leave.”

“And if we don’t want to leave?” the closer man laughed.

“Well, that’s the still being nice option, the one that’s left is making you,” Samantha said in a tone that sounded more bored than threatening.

“Now now sister, lets not get hasty,” Mercu said eying her expression shrewdly.  “The village doesn’t take kindly to brawling, and neither does Olie.”

“It isn’t brawling to smack some respect into a weak little woman,” the second man all but yelled, “even less to grind her sissy little brother into the ground.”

“First off,” Samantha said and took the last of her drink in one long gulp.  “I am the little sister.”  Then without warning she swung at the man, and landed her punch square on his nose.  The man staggered backwards, almost knocking over his friend.  “Second, you want a woman asking for it, right here, let’s see if you are as much of a man as you think you are.”

“Oh fates,” Mercu said looking at the twins next to him.  He quickly lifted Kiannae over the bar,  as Olie made haste towards them.

“You stupid bitch,” the first man said with slurred speech as he held his bleeding nose.

“Stop this right now Matly,” Olie yelled picking up a half empty bottle, and brandishing it at the man whose nose was bleeding.

Mercu quickly put Katrisha beside her sister behind the bar, and glared at them firmly.  “Stay down.”

“Me!” the man spat through blood soaked lips.  “She hit me!”

“And I know you both well enough to know who started this trouble,” Olie shot back, “and who’s more likely to back down from a fight.”

“I never backed down from a fight,” Matly spat again.

“That isn’t true, now is it?” Olie said looking at Matly’s startled friend.

“Well, there was that one time,” the man said.

“Cut it Anton,” Matly growled, “I’m not stoppin’ anything till this little shit learns to respect her betters.”

“To the abyss with you then,” Olie said putting down the bottle, “the damages go on your tab.”

“What damages?” Matly asked incredulously as Samantha lunged towards him.  He swung at her approach, but missed as she dropped, and kicked the side of his leg, causing him to stumble sideways, and crash into a table.  The sparse other patrons who had been watching the escalation didn’t quite know what to make of the scene.

One large man stood, and walked towards the dazed Matly, who was rubbing his head where he had hit it on the now broken table.  “What’s the problem brother?” the man almost laughed, “this little girl giving you trouble?”

“Bitch broke my nose,” Matly growled.

“If you let her, you probably deserved it,” the man laughed, “but I suppose I can’t let that stand.”

“You aren’t drunker than your brother,” Samantha said as she watch the way the man approached her, “so I can only assume you are stupider.  So what’s your name pretty boy?”

“Hanson,” the man said sizing up Samantha’s stance carefully.

“You make a habit of getting in your brother’s fights?” Samantha asked looking for an opening.

“Not usually, only when his honor is sullied enough I need to save face for the family,” Hanson said taking a guarded testing swing at Samantha that she easily avoided, then tried for his leg, to no avail.

“Shouldn’t you maybe be trying to beat some sense into him yourself then?” Samantha said throwing her own testing strike, finding it deflected, and barely avoiding the returned blow.

“Don’t think I haven’t tried, boy doesn’t learn,” Hanson said with a shrug.  “Always goes off again and pisses off some worthless woman, then has to deal with her brother, husband, cousin…usually manages it himself though.  First time he’s been drunk enough to let a woman land a blow on him.”

“So you think the only reason I could land a blow on him, was because he was drunk eh?” Samantha asked with a laugh.  Hanson simply shrugged again, but didn’t see the kick to his groin coming.  “Stupid people don’t need to breed,” she said as the man crumpled to the ground.

Anton started to approach Samantha, but found Mercu in his way.  “If you and your friends really think so little of women, wouldn’t it be giving them too much credit to make the fight three on one?”

Anton glared incredulously at Mercu, and gave him a hard shove.  “Out of my way, no one lands a cheap shot on Hanson like that, and gets away with it.”

“Ok, not listening to reason,” Mercu said, and swung, catching Anton in the gut, then another to the face.

Anton rubbed his jaw a bit where the punch had landed.  “You hit like a girl,” he said, just as Matly got to his feet, and charged at Samantha.  She ducked, and rolled the man over her, and into another table.

“Thank you,” Mercu said with a laugh, and dodged as Anton threw a punch at him.

Hanson stumbled to his feet, grabbed a chair, and started to swing it at Samantha, but found himself blinded by a sudden flash of light.  He missed, and lost his grip on the chair which flew into Matly, who crumpled under the blow.  Samantha kicked the staggered Hanson in the stomach, tipping him over, and causing him to hit his head on the floor knocking him out.

Anton, who was distracted by the sight of Hanson and Matly’s defeat missed Mercu sweeping his leg out from under him, and knocked his head hard on the bar.

“I saw that you two,” Mercu said glancing at the girls peeking up from behind the bar.

“Sorry,” Katrisha said hesitantly.

“No, no, very good,” Mercu said as his sister walked over, dusting off her hands.  He turned to her, and with only a hint of humor asked, “As for you, dear sister.  That incident with the tar…it didn’t also involve feathers, did it?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Mercu lifted Katrisha and Kiannae into Samantha’s wagon behind her, and pulled himself up as well.  He watched as the girls looked around the cramped interior of the wagon, and Samantha rummaged through various stacks of small wares at the far end.

“So this is where you grew up?” Kiannae asked.

Mercu looked around thoughtfully.  “One of them I think,” Mercu said uncertainly, “it’s hard to be sure if it’s the same wagon after all these years.”

“It is,” Samantha said emerging from her private stockpile with a bottle of wine in one hand, and a bundle of small sticks with various colored crystals at the end in the other.  “Axle broke on the way into the town father retired in.  I considered just replacing the wagon, but I couldn’t get a good price for it, nor a replacement fast enough.”

“It’s very small,” Katrisha said bluntly.

“It is a cramped way to grow up,” Mercu agreed, and then his face saddened, “particularly when mother died, and Samantha started traveling with us.”

“You never told us your mother was dead too,” Katrisha said sadly.

“I don’t think of her much,” Mercu admitted with a bit of shame.  “I only saw her every year or two when we would stop in the town where she, and Samantha lived.  I barely remember her any more.”

“I barely remember mother either,” Kiannae said sadly, “just the way she used to sing.”

“Here you two,” Samantha said offering the twins each one of the sticks she held.  “Palentian honey candy, very sweet, and they swear actually good for you…but never trust anything a merchant tells you about the merits of her wares.”

“Thank you,” each girl said in turn.

“Here, you too brother,” Samantha said offering Mercu one.  “I do know how you love to suck on things.”

“Must you?” Mercu said taking it, and rolling his eyes.

“What?” Samantha said feigning innocence. “I remember whenever you would get your hands on one of these when you were younger, you would sit around all day chewing on the stick while you drew in that book of yours.”  She popped the last of the candies into her mouth, plucked two glasses from a cupboard overhead, and poured wine into each.

Mercu accepted his glass of wine, and took a seat on a bench at the head of the wagon.  “It’s been so many years since I’ve been inside of one of these,” he said wistfully.

“If you miss it, you could have come to visit sooner,” Samantha chided.

“I really don’t,” Mercu laughed as the twins squeezed onto the bench next to him, “oh don’t get me wrong, the road itself, the company, even including you dear sister, but not these cramped overloaded wagons.  That I could do without.”

“Still good to get back to your roots, even the less pleasant parts, at least now and then?” Samantha said in a questioning tone.

“I suppose,” Mercu agreed with some humor.

“Do you have anything for us to drink?” Katrisha asked taking her honey candy out long enough to speak.

“Not much on hand,” Samantha said thoughtfully.  “You can try some of my wine if you like.  Mother let me have a little sip when I was about your age.”

Mercu perked a brow.  “I’m not sure if Laurel would approve, but I guess what’s the harm in a sip.”

Samantha leaned over towards the girls, and offered her glass to Katrisha.  “Be very careful with the glass she said.”  Katrisha took it, sniffed, and scrunched up her nose before trying a sip.  She shook her head in obvious distaste.  In spite of her sister’s reaction Kiannae took the glass from her, and tried it as well.  She put on a brave face for a moment, but inevitably gave way to perfect copy of her sister’s expression.

Samantha took the glass back, and laughed.  “Yeah that was about my reaction at your age as well.”  She looked to her brother, and sighed.  “So I don’t suppose you know of any good healers looking to travel?  Our current one is preparing to return home to the local cloister, she’s tired of traveling with two children in tow I guess.”

“I’m afraid that will probably be your best bet to find one as well,” Mercu said dourly, “unless you want to try and hire away the local Clarion priest, the King might even offer you a small boon for getting him off our hands.”

“The King does not favor the Clarions?” Samantha asked with some surprise.

“The King has tried to remain neutral,” Mercu said flatly.  “I think in spite of better judgement.  He seems to have earned most of the ire he could have from the Clarions, while gaining none of the benefits of keeping Sisters at court.  It’s been years since we have had a resident healer.”

“That does seem an awkward place to be in,” Samantha said and sipped her wine.

“Endlessly.  It’s only gotten worse with the Matron visiting regularly now,” Mercu laughed.  All we have left are preachers, and Idolus.  Miserable man, barely competent.”

“The Matron?” Samantha asked curiously.

“To keep the girls here in touch with their brother.”

“You had mentioned a brother in one of those letters,” Samantha said absently.

“You might meet him if you go looking for a healer at Highvale,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “Where are you headed next any way?”

“North through the pass of course…then north again,” Samantha said feigning indifference, but clearly she wasn’t.

“Much as we need someone to risk the east road,” Mercu said hesitantly, “I’m glad it won’t be you.  Even though there has been no sign of the bandits for well over a year, they were never caught, and they even killed old Hamon.”

“Hamon you say.  Everyone has heard about what happened, but I’d missed that he was involved.  That is troubling, and a damn shame too.  I’ve had an offer to reconsider, since Osyrae is itself not a charming picture,” Samantha said with a frown. “Still you know what father always said, the riskier the road…”

“The more we get our monies worth for the mercenaries we have to hire any way,” Mercu finished with a dark laugh.  “Still, an offer?”

“It was from a baron in South Rook,” Samantha said.  “Strictly it was an offer of payment to make a delivery.  It was clear it was a bribe.  I took a vote any way, and several people I expected to be against it, weren’t.  I don’t think I was the only one offered a lucrative opportunity, but not enough to sway the vote.”

“The road is heavily patrolled now.  There have been no signs, and where the bandits had camped in the northern woods showed signs they were driven off by Sylvans.”  Mercu hesitated. “Not that for the life of me I can think why I am making a case for you to try it.”

“Because someone needs to, and you are vested with the wellbeing of this nation.  Still, that they took down Hamon,” Samantha said coming back to the thought uneasily, and took another sip. “I wish I had another mage, I might consider it, but decent mages are hard to come by this far from Mordove, at least until you get into Osyrae, or one of the free cities.”

“I am a decent mage,” Katrisha offered in an offended tone.

“As am I,” Kiannae chimed in as well.

Samantha laughed, “After today I’d trust the pair of you to do the job.  I’m not sure I’ve seen our current mage do more than a common light orb.  Alas I don’t think Mercu here would spare you.”  The twins each looked a bit deflated, but seemed to accept Samantha’s answer.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 5th, 641 E.R.

Wren sat between the bars of the railing above the main entry to the cloister, kicking his feet idly.  He looked up as three new arrivals entered.  A tall woman with long blond hair was greeted by Andria, and introduced her son and daughter each several years Wren’s elder.

The girl waved to Wren absently as she glanced up in his direction.  Wren waved back, and the girl walked to stand just below him.  “What are you doing up there?” she asked curiously.

“Nothin’,” Wren said absently, “just watchin’.”

“You should come down, and be introduced proper,” the girl said sternly.

“What’re you giving him grief for,” the girl’s brother said walking up beside her, “he’s just a little kid, leave him be.”

“I just wanted to say hello,” the girl said defensively.

“Well you have, let’s get back to mother,” the boy said firmly.

“I’m Audry,” the girl said ignoring her brother’s insistence.

“I’m Wren,” he replied in kind.

“Nice to meet you,” Audry said with a curtsy.

“Come on,” Audry’s brother insisted.

“Alright, Andrew,” she said dismissively.

“Have you been placed yet?” Audry asked, “Mother says now that we aren’t on the road we will be placed for teaching.”

“No,” Wren said absently, “my mother has been teaching me.”

“Oh,” Audry said, “guess that makes sense.  We are older.  Mother has been teaching us till now.”

“Others have been placed,” Wren said with a shrug.

“Audry,” the tall woman called waving her daughter over.

“Gotta go,” Audry said as she turned to leave, “guess I’ll see you around.”

“Watching the new arrivals?” Renae asked as she stepped behind Wren.

“Where are they from?” Wren asked, as he watched a woman with short brown hair walk in and look around searchingly.

Renae considered the group, and recognized the woman talking with Andria.  “Shandra, their mother, grew up here many years ago, but wanted to see the world,” Renae said rubbing Wren’s head.  “So like I once did, she signed up with merchant caravans.  The good ones never travel without a healer.  Most prefer us to the Clarions, more service, less preaching.”

“Who’s that one?” Wren asked curiously.

“A merchant prince’s assistant I expect,” Renae offered with only moderate interest.  “No doubt looking for some young Brother or Sister with the wander lust.  Usually they come themselves, but sometimes send a proxy to save time.”

“Hello there, who’s your caravan master?” Renae yelled down at the woman, who looked up at her a bit coldly.

“Yer talkin’ to her,” Samantha shot back. “I’d expect better of the Sisterhood than to make such assumptions.”

“Your pardon then,” Renae said with good humor.  “I expect less of the world to be fair.  Only once before met a woman in command of a caravan.”

“Apology accepted,” Samantha laughed, “it’s just fun to catch people in their reasonable preconceptions.”

“Your name then, if you would, oh grand caravan master,” Renae enquired leaning on the rail above Wren.

“Samantha Peregrine,” she said simply.

“Peregrine, surely it can’t be,” Renae said perking a brow, “are you any relation to a Mercu Peregrine who lives at court on Broken Hill?”

“My dear brother, who I had not seen in many years till just a few days ago.” Samantha laughed. “Why am I not surprised to find he is recognized by name in a Lycian Cloister?”

“I am not sure if I should take that comment kindly,” Renae said a bit tersely.

“I surely am not one to be making any judgements,” Samantha said more seriously, “just curious observations, and likely connections.”

“Yes there is no doubt you are his kin,” Renae said with a laugh, “but you’ve been caught in your own preconceptions.   I am quite familiar with good Mercu, but for reasons of a shared interest.  Have you met the twins?”

“Yes,” Samantha said with a smile, “darling clever little things they are.”

“And you are aware there is a brother then?” Renae continued.

“Ah, so then, the Matron Renae,” Samantha said assuming a shrewd expression, “and I shall risk being wrong again, and guess that the little one below you is the young Wren?”

“You would be right,” Wren said curiously.

“He speaks well,” Samantha remarked with some surprise, “a credit to his line, or perhaps to you?”

“I wish I could take more credit,” Renae said guardedly, “though I suppose I have a hand in it.”

“So tell me, good Matron,” Samantha began again, changing her posture slightly, “do you know of any you can spare, who might wish to see the world?”

Renae pursed her lips.  “There is one I can think of, who I’d like to think could be convinced.”  She was at least hopeful that it was the case.

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