Chapter 16

Of Moon’s children it is known,
wolves in numbers thin the heard,
a proud lynx stalks alone,

Yaun’s seed walk either path,
to play each game at once is apt,
‘tis best, friend to watch your back.

– unattributed, circa 100 B.E.

Cats Among Wolves

Coria 5th, 645 E.R.

Katrisha and Kiannae sat to the right of Princess Maraline at dinner as was often enough the case.  She had returned just that afternoon from a full month stay in South Rook, her second visit since escorting Lukus home in the fall.  She had a look of absolute exuberance on her face, to the point of being almost concerning to look upon. Servants were setting out the second course when Katrisha finally asked the question on the mind of many around the almost giddy young woman.  “What has you so excited, Maraline?”

Maraline bit her lip in a less than dignified way.  “The wedding at South Rook was so romantic,” she said, but clearly this was not the entirety of what was on her mind.

“It does not seem right that the Duchess has remarried,” Charles protested.

“Why?” Kiannae demanded firmly.  “Her marriage to the traitor was annulled by the king.  I was there.”

“Parin is a remarkable man,” Maraline said quite defensively.  “A commoner by birth, yes, but that only makes what he has done in such a short time all the more impressive.  Even the most stubborn of the barron’s no longer question him.  I dare say he will be a better Duke than Fenlin ever was.”

“Surely the Duchess deserves some credit,” Katrisha chided.

“Oh and he gives her every bit, and she in turn insists it is him, it is almost painfully charming,” Maraline said covering her mouth to retrain her humor.

“It is unfortunate,” Adrien added diplomatically, “that events have transpired as they did.  Yet I do concur that for all the misfortunes involved, that things are going well in South Rook.  I am very happy for the Duchess, and new Duke Regent.”

Charles simply stared down at his plate.

“Lukus is much happier,” Maraline offered.  “Parin adores him.  The poor boy was dubious of course at first, but after the King consented to allow him to return, they have more than made peace with the arrangement.  Lukus taught his new father how to fence, and now, to watch how fervently they can go at it, then hug afterward, it is heartening.”  She only seemed more excited.

“Clearly you are happy for Lukus,” Katrisha said.  “Yet I suspect you are still holding something back.”

Maraline nodded.  “We danced quite a lot at the wedding reception…and…” she blushed slightly, “When we were alone, on a balcony overlooking the city.  He kissed me.”

“This is what has you so excited?” Kiannae laughed almost exasperatedly.

“I felt as though my heart would positively burst from my chest,” Maraline contested the downplay of her news.

“I feel like that by the time I’ve beaten Katrisha in a sparring match,” Kiannae countered.

“You two,” Maraline shook her head.  “You are like boys.”

“Now you insult us?” Katrisha chided with a touch of feigned offense, and a slight laugh.  “We are much better than boys.”  She shot a look at Charles who she saw from the corner of her eye staring at her curiously.  He quickly averted his gaze back to his plate.  She did not know what to make of the look.  “Besides, I am quite happy for you.  Clearly he is interested, and you approve of his interest, it would seem?”

“I know mother has wanted this all along,” Maraline said, “but yes, yes a thousand times yes.  He has been so much more charming since he left, and on my visit.  I think, I believe he may propose on my next.”

Philip prodded at the venison roast that had been placed before the children at the table, and then took a cut.  “Seems a bit lacking,” he commented.

“Hunters have been struggling finding many deer in the north woods,” Adrien said as he looked for a suitable cut for his own tastes.

“Is the herd thin this year?” Charles asked.

“It looks as though something has been hunting,” Adrien answered, “no one is sure what.  More than a few corpses picked clean, but the trackers have had little luck identifying what is to blame.”

“Wolves perhaps?” Philip offered.

“Doesn’t seem that way,” Adrien said.  “Been over a century since there were wolves in the forests around Broken Hill anyway.”

“Maybe a mountain lion has come down from the higher hills?’ Charles suggested.

“Perhaps,” Adrien said.  “Or several.  The occasional mountain lion hasn’t thinned the heard this much though.”

“There are wolves east of the mountains aren’t there?”  Kiannae offered.

“There are quite a few things east of the mountains,” Adrien offered.  “I suppose with all our attempts to clear the pass something could have come over.  Seems quite the trek though.  It would explain why the trackers haven’t been able to identify the culprit, if it is something they are not familiar with.”

“Hopefully it is nothing dire,” Katrisha offered.

“I would hope not,” Adrien said uncomfortably.  “I don’t know if dire animals are known for keeping to themselves though.  Very teritorial.  The hunters have not been bothered, just coming up short of game.”

“I’m not sure,” Kiannae said.  “I don’t think all dire creatures are the same.  Perhaps this one has decided not to meddle with humans.” 

“I still prefer to think it is mountain lions,” Adrien said taking another bite.  “Far less unsettling.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 15th, 645 E.R.

Laurel stood on the western wall of the Castle at Broken Hill, looking out over the sunset.  He drew a deep breath from the cool spring air, and ignored the sound of footsteps behind him, presuming it was merely a guard on his rounds.

“Good evening,” came Arlen’s voice in greeting.

Laurel turned from his position, and considered the Knight Commander with a somewhat perplexed expression.  The two had never been particularly friendly, more likely to ignore one another unless official necessity required otherwise.

“To you as well, Arlen,” he offered.

“What brings you to the wall this evening?” Arlen asked.

Laurel turned back to the sunset.  “Merely a desire for some fresh air,” Laurel answered, puzzling over the possible reasons the man had to make small talk with him.  None immediately came to mind.

“I felt the same.  Took a patrol from one of the guards.  He didn’t much complain.”  He paused a moment, and leaned into another notch in the wall.  “Quite concerning, the reports from the north wood,” Arlen offered.

“It is,” Laurel agreed.  “I’m growing convinced we should issue orders not to travel alone, or on foot, and see that coaches are manned by a soldier.”

“Yes, that does seem prudent,” Arlen consented without argument.  There was another long pause.   “Have you considered the possible futures of your two girls?” Arlen asked pointedly, and rather out of the blue.

“I spend a great deal of time considering many aspects of such,” Laurel offered measuredly.

“Theirs is an odd lot; inheritance and illegitimacy, education and limited position.  There will be complexity in finding them good matches.”

“That will be their affair when they are old enough to consider it.”

“Which could be sooner than you imagine.  How disappointing – will you really leave the disposition of their future to their fickle hearts?”

“Theirs is a precarious position – in truth a good match is still a bad one.  As mages, the possible influence they can inherit chafes with the limits of such authority permitted.  I will certainly not go without some comment on their selections, but truly the awkward nature of their position in my estimation allows no merit in forcing them against their own affinity, save if I believe either to have made a very bad choice.”

“So you would not object then, to either being courted by a knight’s son?”

“If it is his wish, and with their tolerance, surely.  Though few such young men have not found a way to run afoul of their tempers, which I have – with some difficulty – retrained.  I would expect any position conscious family to consider them a poor match.”

“Position, and propriety are not in agreement surely.  They are, as we agree, a very mixed affair, but their wealth – held in trust – and the sketchy right to land now freshly returning to worth as rain falls again in the north, could surely turn the eye of some.”

“Of you?” Laurel said without too clear an air of disapproval, but more certainly one of disbelief.  “I would hardly think anything about them to your liking – or you in want for capital, political, or otherwise.  You have after all styled yourself down, not up.”

“My standing is an act of choice – of conscious decision to be where I feel myself most needed.  This does not mean I – or I will admit much more fervently my wife – are above or below considering all possibilities.  I will admit the merit of extending my family’s influence beyond Wesrook.  The north has floundered for generations at the permission of the crown – but it is only that – permission.  Better use could be put to that land, and perhaps the right suitor could guide the elder of the two?  Which is that, by way of curiosity?”

“I say that there is no evidence on their part to gauge.  It is best to assume any inheritance equally divided when they are of proper age.”

“Then I will admit – without preference myself – of late my son has not looked unfavorably upon the one that loves the snow.”

“This would be as much a surprise to me as to her.  You know well the clashes the two have had.”

“Young men, are, as young women, temperamental in their own way.  I am sure that each has maintained some animosity upon some varied chain of wrongs, each committed in turn for the last.  Still – it is my understanding that Katrisha has made some moves to mend that affair.”

“Some, long ago, at my urging.  I do not think it has change as much as you hope, but the cycle of anger between the two needed to be addressed.  I do love my dear girl, but she is more than capable of doing harm to a grown knight had she sufficient incentive – or folly.”

“While I do preference a woman that knows a humble disposition, I will not deny some admiration for her power.  Strength has its merits, even if it expresses itself belligerently.  I think this something adjustable yet in her disposition – children are in my opinion more likely to be similar, than different.  The importance of directing a young woman towards feminine activities is to prepare her for those natural proclivities, as womanhood comes upon her.”

“I have not found this at all to be the case,” Laurel countered.  “Though I do agree on the first part, I have not found a young woman to change in any particular way that a young man does not.”

“And you have much experience on this matter?”  Arlen seemed incredulous to Laurel’s credentials of judging children.

“More than one might expect.  I had first of all a sister – and was placed such to observe her coming of age.  I have also seen the glimpses of young notables across this world, as I might see them some years separated between meetings, during my travels.  The seeds of youth most often grow into the adult in my estimation.”

“Yet you do so little to correct your charges to the proper path?”

“I do all that I can in this regard,” Laurel stated tersely.  “They are not to be humble wives relegated to some back room.  The girls you enquire of have gifts to make mine seem pale.  They need a managed temper, restraint, clarity of purpose, intention and thought, as well as a desire to be meaningful.  There is little place in them for idle reliance on a man.  I assure you it is better that a man marry up to them, than the reverse.”

“We shall keep then our own council on the matter.  You however do not object?”

“That I leave to them.  Consider that if they do, I will not hear of undue persistence.”

“Nor should you expect it.  I am, I admit, more asking at my wife’s insistence.  She has been enamored with the idea ever since having met them again in Wesrook.”

“Then guardedly,” Laurel laughed in spite of himself, “I say, let the boy try to get in their better graces.  I’ll have no qualms with him at least making peace.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 12th, 645 E.R.

Mercu considered his opponent shrewdly.  She showed no signs of seeing the trap set for her, and he was quite sure that if she had not been warned, she would not see it coming.  He might have felt guilty for being so ruthless against a girl a quarter his age, if she hadn’t already proven herself more than an adequate challenge.  He reminded himself that while what sat before him was a thirteen year old, she was in many ways at least his equal, and in some his superior, particularly, and vastly regarding magic.  The small twinge of jealousy for her gift was more than enough to alleviate any shred of guilt.

Kiannae eyed the chess board before her, Mercu’s queen was so tempting where it sat in reach of one of her pawns.  She couldn’t fathom why he had made the move, it had cost her a knight, but hardly a fair trade for a queen.  Convinced it couldn’t hurt her, and that it would put Mercu dangerously close to checkmate she took his queen, and set it proudly beside her small collection of his pieces.

“Why are they called Rooks?” Kiannae asked.  “I mean we have Wesrook, and South Rook, and all those, but we call the towers here…towers.”

“Also isn’t it Tower of Wesrook?” Katrisha cut in from across the room.

“Actually, the mystery goes both ways,” Mercu said, hesitating from his move to answer.  “It’s an old Osyrean word meaning rock.  The earliest version of chess came with the Magi down from Osyrae.  The legends say that Queen Navi not only was a master of the game the first time she played it, but reinvented it, and that the modern version is hers.  Those are the legends any way.  Some propose that the Rooks are named such, because they are built ‘on the rock,’ or are the rock upon which things are built.  Which then is truly named for which?”

Mercu shrugged, and then returned to his move.  He nudged a pawn into the last row on Kiannae’s side of the board, reached for his freshly captured queen, and switched the two pieces out.  “Check mate,” he declared.

“You…you can’t do that,” Kiannae protested indignantly.

“He can,” Katrisha laughed, which made her wince.  She rubbed her shoulder, which was still sore from their morning practice.  The little black cat in her lap looked up in objection over her petting herself, instead of him, and hopped down.  “He pulled that one on me the other day while you got bored watching.  I made him show me the rule in a book.  Any pawn which makes it to the last row may be promoted to any captured piece.  I was a bit annoyed, but I beat him anyway, barely.”

“Still, you tricked me,” Kiannae sighed.

“Such is the way of pawns,” Mercu laughed, “some times, when they are very lucky, they may become queens.”  He reached down to pet Mar who had begun rubbing up against his leg insistently.

“Aren’t pawns foot soldiers?” Kiannae said still defiantly trying to escape her loss.

“Pikemen shield bearer’s, technically,” Mercu corrected.  “At least that’s what they became at some point.  The naming gets more interesting than rooks really.  Particularly if you go back to the original Osyrean version…”

“Aren’t all soldiers, particularly pikemen, men?” Kiannae prodded, ignoring the distraction.

“I suppose I’ve never heard of a female pikeman,” Mercu admitted.  “I once met a woman who was a Knight of the Empire thought, there was also definitely a paladin Queen of Palentine…”

“Then how can a man become a queen,” Kiannae declared victoriously, and crossed her arms, hanging on the point of the pikeman.

“It’s not stopped some kings,” Mercu said thoughtfully, and Mar gave up, unsatisfied with the amount of attention he was receiving for his effort, and wandered off to fall asleep in the sun.

“Wait…what?” Kiannae demanded shaking her head in confusion.

Mercu laughed, but there was something awkward there.  “The queen is often the king’s closest advisor and confidant,” Mercu said dodging his own joke, “some Kings have reigned without a queen consort, and instead surrounded themselves with men who fill most of her duties.”

“Sounds lonely,” Katrisha interjected.

Mercu laughed.  “I think every one I am aware of eventually relented to have a queen, if only to bear him an heir.”

“I wouldn’t be queen to any man who accepted me only to bear him children,” Katrisha declared indignantly.

“Good on you then,” Mercu laughed.

Kiannae sighed, and knocked over her king where it stood.  “You win again,” she said shaking her head.

“Don’t feel so bad,” Katrisha said comfortingly, leaned over, and hugged Kiannae.  “I’ve only beat him three times, and you’ve gotten him twice.  You also beat Laurel, which I think even Mercu hasn’t done.”

“I suppose,” Kiannae permitted, still obviously unsatisfied.

“I beat him once,” Mercu said defensively, “years ago though, in a moving wagon.  We still argue if that one counts.  He swears one of the pieces shifted when the wheel hit a pothole.”

Kiannae laughed at that.  “Ok, I think I’d be more annoyed by that than not knowing about the pawn trick.”

“Sure take his side,” Mercu laughed.  “I still swear that piece stayed put.”

The twins giggled when he held an indigent pose for some time.  He glanced back at them and smirked.  “I was thinking of going down to the village today,” he said as he leaned back and stretched.  “If you two would like to join me.  I need some new paints, and I believe you both could use some new notebooks.”

“Alright,” Kiannae said excitedly at the rare chance to leave the castle.

“Sure,” Katrisha said hesitantly, “could we visit the jeweler as well?”

“Perhaps,” Mercu said shaking his head. “I suppose I owe you two some small commission from Baron Carlen’s portrait for pointing out that his favorite overcoat has seven silver buttons, and not six.  Nothing over two silver pieces though.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Procuring a coach proved easy for Mercu for once.  Though what lurked in the north woods remained open for debate, an abundance of caution had insured that all travel to, and from the castle was by coach, driven by at least one soldier.

Katrisha was deep in thought, fiddling with a complex spell of no obvious purpose when Kiannae shot bolt upright from a lazy daydream.  The ride suddenly became bumpy as the coach lurched forward.

“What’s going on?” Mercu demanded startled from his own abstract thoughts.

“Horses are spooked,” Eran called back from the head of the coach.

Kiannae grabbed hold of the window, and stared out into the forest.  “Oh fates,” she cried, and pulled back into the coach wide eyed, her arms clutched around herself.  Katrisha barely moved into a position to see a flash of something large rush from the forest, before it vanished from view towards the head of the coach.  There was a loud neigh of a horse, that sounded more like a scream, and another more frightened sounding one.

There were some decidedly loud, and vulgar curses from Eran, and the coach shuddered and swerved, tossing its passengers about, and out of their seats.  It tipped slightly, jerked around straight, and came to a trembling stop.

Mercu got wobbly up from the floor of the coach, and looked out the window only to see a dead horse beside them, and a large white cat with black patches tearing into its prey.  It glanced up from its kill, and fixed upon him.  Mercu immediately threw himself back into the sheltered shadows of the carriage, and was white as a sheet.  He tried to gage what he had seen, the head of the cat had been as large as horse’s, its body more than half the size.

As if to confirm his perceptions there was a soft thud at the door, and the vast head presented itself in the window.  Closer examination showed scales along the cat’s nose, and brow.  “Oi,” came a call from outside, and a stone struck the side of the cat’s head, and landed in the cairage.  The cat instantly snapped away from the coach after its assailant.

“What in the abyss is that?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.

“Dire cat,” Mercu said steadying himself, “cougar I think.”  He moved cautiously to the window, and looked out.

Eran was clearly already wounded from the fall, and the cat’s first pass.  Though his armor had taken some of the blow – his tunic was ripped away revealing scarred leather underneath, and some blood seeping over it.  He was holding his sword, pointed somewhat feebly at the beast that was easily larger than him.  The cat seemed to be favoring one leg, and not ready to underestimate Eran again.

Katrisha forced her way next to Mercu who tried to push her back, but she had none of it.  The cat leapt at Eran, and Katrisha thrust out a hand, the cat flailed awkwardly in the air, and fell just short of Eran who swung, but the lynx managed to lurch back, bristling, and avoided the swing.  It pulled itself sluggishly free of of the spell Katrisha had formed, and paced slightly at the edge.

Katrisha opened the door, and Mercu tried to grab hold of her, but found that she easily pulled free of his grasp.  Rather than keeping Katrisha in the coach Mercu fell out.  Kiannae was right behind her sister, leaping over the prone man.  The cougar glanced rapidly between Eran, and the twins, snarled, and rushed with blinding speed at the two girls, and the dazed lump of a man sprawled behind them.

Katrisha tried her spell again, but the cat barely slowed, and with a loud crack Kiannae narrowly threw up another spell.  The force sent wild ripples through the fur, and skin of the cat, but pushed it back only a few feet.  Eran rushed to strike the cat from behind skewering its right flank with his sword, earning a terrible hiss.  The cat spun, catching Eran hard in the chest with a swipe, and threw him back in a tumbling ball.  His sword clatteried across the ground away from him.

Katrisha shot a bolt of frost through the cat’s front right shoulder, earning ear splitting howl.  It flipped around, and threw itself at the twins again, but sailed to the side as Kiannae threw all the force she could muster into it.  The hasty spell however threw as much force into the surrounding air, and quite a bit into Kiannae herself who flew back into Mercu.  He had only begun to get up, and was knocked against the coach painfully, but cushioned her impact.

The sudden hurricane gust of wind toppled Katrisha, and though dazed and cautious the cougar was quickly upright from its tumble.  It lept for the prone girl who threw up another barrier without caution.  She could feel her skin sting as her barrier powerfully pulled all energy out of the air around her – heat, and movement alike.  It was like being stuck in freezing pitch, but it stopped the cat for a moment above her, and gave her just a burning cold breath to think.

She had a tremendous amount of energy at her disposal at that moment, as the spell was all but stopping the cat from even falling.  Katrisha tried for fire, sending a profound burst of burning energy gathered from her barrier up into the cat, and at the same moment threw herself sideways, stealing what little energy was left.  She tumbled harshly across the ground.

The cat roared in agony, and Katrisha saw in several swirling glimpses as it bathed in flame, before she came to rest dazed on her face, her head spinning. She tried to tell up from down for a second, and then looked back at the cat which thrashed, hissed, and screamed, trying to put out the flames in its fur.

A bolt of lightning momentarily blinded Katrisha, and staggered the already struggling cougar which fell back, and limped, but still pulled upright.  Another dazzling strike from Kiannae again blinded all, and stunned the cat.  Yet even a third seemed to phased the cat less.  Katrisha took a breath, and focused everything on precision.  She sent a bolt of razor sharp ice larger than both arms rushing at the cat while it was still shaking off her sister’s attacks.

The spear tore through the chest of the cat, which did not roar, but threw open its mouth as though trying to.  It fell trembling to the ground, shuddered violently, and then stopped with only a few further small twitches.  Mercu glanced at Kiannae who was not too much the worse for wear, but had a look of shock, and horror on her face.  He followed her gaze, and frantically rushed towards Katrisha.

This struck Katrisha oddly for a moment as she slumped on one arm.  She hurt a bit more than after her morning training session, but also felt rather numb.  She noticed something wet, and reached up to her face as she instinctively closed her right eye.  Her fingers came back with blood, and she stared at them a bit uncertainly.  “Huh,” she said even as Mercu was knelt down in front of her, and wiped her face gently with a white cloth pulled from a vest pocket.

“Are you alright?” Mercu demanded.

“I…I think so?” Katrisha muttered, and opened her eye again after the blood was wiped away.  Mercu held the cloth to her head.

Kiannae was only a moment behind Mercu.  She pushed Mercu’s hand away, and was quick to try her hand at healing the gash on her sister’s forehead.  This hurt slightly, and Katrisha recoiled, strained muscles, and bruises suddenly making themselves known as shock wore off.

“Stay still,” Kiannae said firmly.

Eran walked up nursing his own wounds, and sat down near by.  He faced the cat, and not quite trusting it to stay dead.  “You know what you are doing?” he asked.

“Not really,” Kiannae admitted.

“Stop the bleeding,” Eran said, “I’ll give it a look after I’m in better shape.”

Mercu took his eyes off Katrisha, and looked at the cat, the dead horse, and the coach.  He flopped down himself, and moved to wipe his face, only to reconsider it, and hand the blood soaked cloth to Kiannae.  He started breathing very quickly for a moment, and then calmed again.  “So that’s what has been hunting all the deer,” he remarked shakily.

“Was,” Eran agreed.  “Hopefully it was the only one.”

“Should be,” Mercu said hopefully.  “Most dire animals are solitary.”

“Unless they have young,” Eran countered.

“Oh please don’t remind me of that.”

“I don’t think it did, we probably would have found a den of kits.”

“Yes, let’s pretend that for now.”

“Second horse got away, but she’s long gone.”

“So walking then – back, or forward?”

“Forward, two thirds of the way there, the bridge is just around the bend.”

Mercu looked around, recognized where they were, and nodded.

Katrisha started crying, and Kiannae looked flustered for her sister’s movement interfering with her healing.  Then relented just to hug her close, deciding it was good enough for the moment.  “It’s ok,” she said, “we did it.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Four beleaguered, and moderately bloodied travelers stumbled into Brokhal drawing quite a lot of looks, and a few who rushed to their aid.  Katrisha had ultimately been carried most of the trip as even with Eran’s healing her ankle was not up to the long walk.  This however had taken alternation between Eran, and Mercu, as the prior had his own injuries to nurse, and the latter could only do so for short periods.

As the four answered the questions of concerned citizens Eran let Katrisha down, who hobbled slightly over to a nearby porch stair, and sat.  Kiannae was immediately beside her twin, and hugged her close.  Katrisha had been alternating between stony faced, troubled, and elated in the wake of the battle.  She had fallen asleep in Mercu’s arms at one point, only to awake with a start, and almost be dropped as she had grabbed his collar.

“We killed it,” Katrisha muttered, as Kiannae leaned into her.

“It was trying to kill us,” Kiannae said somewhat frustratedly.  It was not the first time Katrisha had alluded to some remorse over the fight, but the most clear.

“I just…” Katrisha sighed.  “I wish we didn’t have to.  It was beautiful.”

“And if we hadn’t, what of the next travelers it attacked?”

Katrisha clung a little more tightly, but said nothing.

“It’s our duty, to protect others.”

Katrisha sniffed somewhat determinedly.  “You are right.”  She ran a finger along the scar on her forehead, it would fade with more healing, but such subtlety had not been practical under the circumstances.  The twins lacked the skill, and Eran had exhausted himself between the fight, and his own injuries.  “We must always do our part,” Katrisha added firmly.

“Always,” Kiannae affirmed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Two hours were consumed talking with the Knight Commander of Brokhal, a man who in spite of his position rarely left the town to visit the castle.  He was a stern, and haggard man, who asked many of his questions repeatedly, but as he got the same story each time out of the four, his expression had slowly softened to one of bewilderment.  He was not used to dealing with mages, and had begun to stare dubiously at the twins by the end.

Once that was finished Eran had left their company to recruit people to look for the second horse, clean up the remains of the dire cougar, and recover the coach.  Mercu had pressed that Eran should have someone more skilled look at his wounds, only to receive a darkly humorous glare that got a knowing chuckle out him.

In spite of his own understanding of Eran’s disinterest in seeking out the town’s healer, Mercu decided it was prudent to get Katrisha better looked at.  This however did not work out, as Idolus was not in.  Katrisha insisted she was fine, though she still favored her injured leg, and the trio began the shopping they had originally come for, with Katrisha taking frequent occasions to rest.

Katrisha sat on a shop step, and idly watched the way filaments danced above her outstretched hand.  She had started to form a spell boredly, but reached indecision as to which, and became fascinated instead by catching her own magic half formed.  It seemed to form little crystals that grew, and crumbled, and tried to stabilize.  This wanted to become ice, to form a familiar spell but she held it off.  She kept it from resolving as long as she could, and then suddenly it snapped to a thin lattice of frozen air that drifted a moment before falling apart.  There had been something there more than random shapes Katrisha was sure, but what eluded her.

Kiannae stood by a railing, and glaneced at her sister.  Shook her head, reassuring herself everything would be fine.  She stared at her upturned index finger and filaments licked off it, almost like fire up a candle wick, broke free and formed a wavering flame, a tangled knot of entropic madness at it’s heart, ripping apart the air, and burning what was left.  There was no smoke, and the heat was mostly directed upward.  Then the air snapped cold, turned to fractured glittering ice with a sizzling center of liquid air in the flames shape.  Then the energy reversed, and the flame came back to life.  She made it look quite easy, but in truth it was practice, because it seemed almost a little harder than it should be.  The flame was a bit easier, but turning air to crystal was finicky.  Something Kat did with such ease.

“Beware the sins of the flesh, the distractions that bind us to this world, and leave us to fall into the abyss when our lives come to their end,” came a call from a man in brown robes trimmed in while walking down the street.  “Beware the sins of the dragons, whose dark magic maintain them in this world, but at what cost?”

“What is your name, and these sins you speak of?” Katrisha asked idly when the passing preacher glanced down at her.

“I am Idolus Syberus,” the man said with some surprise, “and I speak of the decadent sins of desire child, the distractions from the path of ascension, and eternal life.”

“If desire is a sin, then is not the very desire for eternal life a distraction?” Kiannae asked incredulously.  She was displeased to find that the healer they had sought earlier had been absent to waste time on preaching through the streets.  She had never heard a good word spoken of him, and both had heard his name before.

“The desire for the heavens, to ascend into the light is no sin,” Idolus said irritably, “it is what will raise us above this temporal existence, this fleeting life at the edge of the abyss.  It is the very purpose of our elevated species to ascend above the animal world that made us.”

“Nothing can rise, without something equal descending,” Katrisha said absently – suddenly glad to have not had to spend more time with the man to be healed.  “You can not create, or destroy energy itself, only move it, borrow it, or suppress it.”  Katrisha formed a brilliant ball of light in one hand, and a shimmering shard of frozen air in the other.  “For this light, this soul to ascend to the heavens, then what is this that must as surely descend into the abyss to provide the energy of ascension?”

“The flesh,” Idolus said sternly, and suddenly realized who he was speaking to.  He had barely caught glimpses of the two over the years, yet two young, identical mages could be no others.  His airs grew more disdainful.  “The uselessness of the physical body.  The vessel that is shed, that we might walk into the light.”

“There is nothing material in the aether,” Kiannae laughed, “this is why it is ‘aethereal’ after all, so how do you propose to walk into it?”

“Figuratively,” the Idolus growled, “our minds might at first perceive it as walking though, to put it into contexts we are familiar with.  Or flying.  The life eternal is what we make of it.”  He said as Mercu emerged from the shop behind the girls.  His ire deepened, and his frown turned to an abject scowl as he recognized him.

“So then, could we perceive the life eternal, as life is lived here in the mortal world?” Mercu mused on the man’s statement, “do we sacrifice the now, for the dream, and then live the life we had forsaken in such illusion?”

“Those who will live the life eternal care not for the material world,” Idolus said indignantly, “they would have no desire to recreate it.”

“Desire or not, I fear they would not have the imagination,” Mercu laughed, “and what proof do you offer that the aether is a place of bliss, and goodness?  What makes this place of brilliant energy, any less terrifying than the idea of stepping into a roaring fire?”

“That which is not of flesh need not fear the flame,” the priest said dismissively.

Kiannae drew a lattice of shimmering light in the air.  “If this is a soul,” she said.  She formed a flame and passed it through the swirling lattice.  It dissolved and coiled, and twisted.  “Though it is not of flesh, and it may not burn, none the less within the flame it is torn apart.  Is this land of light, this glorious heaven you wish to ascend to, eternal life, or merely a quick road to destruction?”

“Might not the fall into the abyss be the more peaceful end?” Mercu added questioningly, “where all become one within its depths, rather than scattered to the winds by the flames of heaven.  If this is even the fate to come of course, as none has ever peered past the Veil, not even the ghosts may speak to what lays beyond, nor your precious Avatar.”

“The Avatar is proof of the life eternal!” Idolus snapped.

“The Avatar is a sin of presumed eternal life in this so called material world,” Mercu cut back. “What difference is there between him and the dragons?”

“I….I will listen to no more of your sacrilege,” Idolus fumed, and stormed off.  In his irate haste he dropped one of the books he carried.

Katrisha got up a bit feebly to her feet, and scooped up the lost book before Idolus could realize he dropped it.  She dusted it off, and admired the elaborate S imprinted in silver on its cover.  She had seen somewhere before.  “You dropped this,” she called after him tauntingly.  Idolus stopped, turned, and glared at Katrisha, who walked up to him with a slight limp, and handed him the book.  For the first time he noticed the scar on her forehead, and the blood on her collar.

Idolus paused to consider if he had any duty to heal her, but she seemed above the point he was bound to intervene.  He reached down, and took the book from her, but as he did he brushed her hand, and a strange look of shock replaced the anger on his face.  For just a moment he stared at her blankly.  He retracted his arm slowly, backed up a step, turned, and all but ran.

“What in the seven rivers was that about?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said slightly unnerved.  “I think I liked his expression better when he was scowling.”

“Bare him no mind girls,” Meruc sighed.  “You have all that you needed yes?”

“Do you?” Katrisha asked, and sat back down patting a medium sized stack of books, and eyeing a rather small bundle under Mercu’s arm.

“Enough paint to finish my current projects, yes,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I don’t like to buy too much at once, it get’s more fussy to work with as it ages.”

“So about the jeweler…” Katrisha prodded.

“Yes,” Mercu said eyeing the girls shrewdly, “It seems the heroes of the day deserve more than two silver.  Plus you gave me such a nice opportunity to irritate Idolus.”

“Really?” Katrisha said excitedly.

“Yes, but don’t let it go to your head and do it again,” Mercu laughed.

“Which?” Kiannae pressed.

“Either.  Idolus is sneakier than a cat, and don’t let his appearances fool you, he has claws.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Upon returning to the castle all had changed, and washed from the trials of their day, and Laurel had been stuck between commending, and reprimanding his charges for their deeds.  He had listened at length to the account of what had happened as he finished healing Katrisha, and removed the scar from her forehead.  He had ultimately consented to Mercu’s interpretation that Eran would surely have died if it had not been for Katrisha’s quick intervention.  The girls however had been dismissed for whatever remained of the conversation.

That evening the twins sat in one of their window seats, by the light of the setting sun.  Katrisha admired the large green round of glass set in her new silver pin.  Kiannae sat opposite her, and fiddled absently with a delicate silver flower pendant on a matching fine chain.  Mercu for his part was behind a medium sized canvas, working to finish a portrait he had started of the girls weeks before.  

“Earlier,” Kiannae suddenly started, and then seemed to think for a moment, “you seemed to know that Clarion priest quite well, that you were so happy to irritate him.”

“Yes, Idolus comes to court now and then,” Mercu said as he cleaned, and switched his brush, “he never speaks himself, since he has no real authority in the kingdom.  Always has Sir Arlen speak for him, usually some wild accusation about insuring that the Clarion’s are properly represented.  Complete with reminders about how many people of the kingdom adhere to the faith.  It’s nothing but thinly veiled threats of religious uprising if you ask me…but it’s always so carefully worded in diplomatic terms.”

“So he’s a bad man then?” Katrisha asked.

“He’s never done any direct harm to anyone,” Mercu said biting the handle of his brush thoughtfully, “no more harm than any other Clarion preacher of course.  He also frequently volunteers for expeditions – I think to win favor over any sense of duty.  Laurel has had to put up with him more than I.  Still gets people to waste their lives, sacrifice their own happiness, to harass one another over living their lives, all for promises of forever…that, well…you know the rest.  I don’t think much of the offer myself, as I’ve told you, nor does Laurel.  Bad might still be a strong word, but misguided, counterproductive to the best interest of the people, those all work.”

“Why do people believe in what the Clarions teach?” Kiannae asked irritably.

“The common folk, I can only assume don’t know any better, never have time or pressing enough reason to reconsider what they are taught by their parent’s growing up, or listen to cleaver fiery words of a preacher, and are taken in by the idea,” Mercu said sadly.  “As to what compels those with the gift, to be quite fair there is no real proof the Clarions are wrong.  Not in a material sense at least, just as there is no proof they are right.  Years of being taught what to think, of focusing on their spirit and gift, and forsaking ‘the flesh,’ I suppose they might not realize any more that they are more than a spirit trapped in their mortal bonds.  It might not seem a loss to give up a world they have already let go, to live forever as pure thought, or whatever nonsense.”

“Don’t they learn about magic, don’t they learn to see the flaws in their ideas?” Katrisha said sadly.

“Oh, there are countless Clarion Arcanists, and even high mages of the Council that adhere to Clarion teaching,” Mercu laughed darkly.  “A clever mind can build all the more convincing excuses to believe what they have invested themselves in.  They can build up their ideas about as well as we can tear them down.  Since there is no proof, only conjecture, and opinion.”

“Are they ever happy?” Kiannae asked with a frown.

“Happiness is relative,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I’ve seen enough be smug and self satisfied when they think they are winning an argument against a non-believer.  Really, not all adherents live by the letter of the doctrine, they take this guideline, or that rule, and call it good enough.  Some of those seem happy enough, when someone isn’t challenging their world view.  Some, the ones I can almost respect, just shrug other’s opinions off, and leave them be.”

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Chapter 8

I longed once that an Empress take the throne,
all such hopes passed that a dragon had come,
that one born woman is greatest err yet to rise,
is but small consolation that woman in her died,
we needed not another to raise these stakes,
to change the game be it now forever too late?

– writings of Sylvia Grey, circa 140 E.R.

Weary Shadows

Estae 2nd, 640 E.R.

Laurel paced the King’s antechamber behind the throne room.  “I do not like this,” he admitted.

“We are loathed to admit We agree,” the King said heavily.  “That no further violence has plagued the east road seems ill comfort, as only our men travel there now to be so plagued.  If as we suspect Osyrae was behind that caravan’s complete destruction, then they achieved what they wished with a single attack.  We’ve received confirmation that no caravans will pass that way any time soon.  Choosing instead to pass on through our kingdom into Osyrae, and few will bother to move the other way.  Nohlend has a better market for Osyrean goods.”

“A huge disruption to the trade routes,” Laurel agreed.  “Who knows how many years it will persist.  If no one uses the road, then no one will gain confidence it is safe.  All the while we are forced to patrol a useless thoroughfare.”

“Further we will have little access to goods from the east, as Niven will consume most long before caravans reach us from the south.”  The King grimaced.

“We could consider finishing the east pass,” the Queen suggested.

“The expense of that though,” the King shook his head.  “Even the Empire abandoned the notion, and it is a ruin hundreds of years old.”

“I do not believe it undoable,” Arlen offered.

“Would Helm agree to cutting a new road to meet it though?” Laurel mused.  “The pass alone would be a challenge, but fruitless if it is a road to nowhere.”

“I’ve no opinion of the disposition of Helm,” Arlen consented.

“It is possible that they would be willing for greater access to the grains of South Rook,” the Queen suggested.

“I am less sure,” Laurel said.  “There are many barons in Helm that have long sought greater independence from Avrale’s bounty.  It’s been so since I lived on those roads.”

“We could at least investigate the pass, and gauge the cost,” the King considered.

“You have a good report with Fenlin and Castor, don’t you?” the Queen began, turning to Arlen.  “Could you make a recommendation to them on the idea.  Perhaps they can lend not only funds to such an endeavor, in their benefit, but also have some sway with the barons of Helm.”

“I shall, if the opportunity presents itself, make conversation on the matter,” Arlen nodded.  “Castor I believe will be in Brokhal this autumn.  I think a private royal audience would have more impact.”

“Such can be easily arranged,” the King laughed.

“Who best to survey the pass though?” Laurel asked.

“Miners from Silvercreek would be easiest,” the Queen suggested.

“The gold miners Seaperch are more skilled,” Arlen countered with some pride.

“A long trip,” Laurel countered.

“Let us send word to both,” the King suggested.  “Two opinions surely cannot hurt.”

“Agreed,” the Queen concurred, making any further argument ill advised.

Laurel nodded.  “Very well, your leave your highnesses,” he said, and at their nod turned to exit through the rear chamber door.  He stopped just outside, and turned to look at a suit of armor, behind which could be seen two little girls, doing a passable, but ineffective job of hiding.  “You two are making quite a habit of snooping.”

Katrisha, and Kiannae slipped out from behind the armor a bit sheepishly.  He gestured for them to follow as he headed towards the west tower.

“There is an east pass?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” Laurel answered, “you can see it easily if you look out from any of the eastern towers.”

“Why isn’t it used?” Katrisha asked.

“It was never finished as a road.  The wildlands east of the mountains between Avrale and Helm are untamed.  Many reports of various dire beasts there.  A lot of expense to cut a road through, beyond just the pass.  That is why we would want support from South Rook.  They would benefit highly from such an endeavor.”

“Wouldn’t that also be close to the border of…” Katrisha hesitated forgetting the name of the kingdom south of Helm.

“Of Thebes, yes,” Laurel offered the name.  “They have much less to gain than Helm though.  They get more of their grain from eastern Niven, and we would compete with them for gold and silver exports.  In fact, I expect them to pressure Helm against such an endeavor.”

“What do we get from Helm?” Kiannae asked.

“Fruit mostly,” Laurel answered.  “Though we have vineyards to the west, and many orchards, citrus are prevalent in Helm.  Mostly we get trade from farther east on that road, textiles, and enchanted wares from New Corinthia, and Mordove.  As well as rare delicacies from Palentine.”

“How did the caravans come about?” Katrisha asked.

“The Empire laid the roads, but by some accounts the trade caravans are older.” Laurel answered.  “At any rate, the goal was to unite the once warring peoples of the world more firmly under the Empire.  Mercu would say the Emperor cut his roads along the well worn tracks of the more ancient traders.  That these in turn became the trade princes under the first Emperor.  They trace their lineages as proudly as any Kings.  Some claim to have been of the Maji originally, but I doubt such assertions.  There are few or no mages among them.”

“You traveled with Mercu,” Kiannae began, “with the caravans, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Laurel laughed.  “That’s how I know the trade princes are no mages.  They have to hire people like me, just incase bandits have a rogue mages backing them.  Of course some risk it, but most mages have better avenues of profit than thievery.  Still, even a clumsy hedge mage with enough practice can be a serious threat to common mercenaries.”

“There was a mage among the bandits in the north, wasn’t there?” Katrisha asked.

Laurel stopped, and considered her.  “More snooping I’ve missed,” he said narrowing his eyes.  “Yes, there were wards where their camp was.  The damage to the caravan could leave one suspect, but the wards were unmistakable.  Not the work of an unskilled mage either.”  He made no mention of the battle field they had found, or the unnerving aspect that one or more powerful mages were in play.  No sense starting into that if they did not already know.

“So why would he work with thieves?” Kiannae pressed.

“I think you know the reason,” Laurel countered, glad it seemed they had not learned the scope of the matter for the moment.

“Because Osyrae was behind it?” Katrisha offered.

“Our standing assumption,” Laurel nodded.  “Though why they went to such efforts I am unsure.  They gain a little advantage in the trade routes, but that hardly seems their end goal.  The Council refuses to consider my assessment of Osyrean involvement.  It would warrant action on their part, and they do not want to act.”

“Why?” Kiannae said scrunching up her face.

Laurel waved for them to continue following, and checked that no one was in earshot.  “Because even seriously investigating the matter could escalate the whole thing.  We do not want war, the Council want’s it less.  Osyrae has nearly as many mages as the rest of the kingdoms combined.  Though to be fair their internal politics and dragon presence keeps many occupied securing them against the two black flights.”

“Why are there two flights?” Katrisha asked.

“Because after the death of the Vhale, his Queen and highest General split over who had the right to rule Osyrae.  The Empress, or more over her generals cut an agreement – with her consent – between the human heir to Osyrae, and the two rival leaders of the black flight.  That has secured relative peace between Osyrae and the rest of the world for centuries.  Baring largely internal struggles.”

“And that is why it is bad for Osyrae that their king is meddling with dragons?” Kiannae asked.

“Very bad for them,” Laurel said grimly.  “Though the flights look down on lesser dragons, the risk is still high of them taking offense.  Even if Osyrae descends into its own Dragon War, the outcome could be very bad for everyone else.  If a single victor arose between the two flights, that could spell an end to the stalemate, and a return to a reigning dragon in Osyrae.”

“Who might be willing to start a war?” Katrisha questioned uneasily.

“Isn’t Vharen trying to start a war by attacking caravans though?” Kiannae interjected before Laurel could answer.

“Yes, and seemingly.”  Laurel sighed as they entered the base of the tower.  “I feel as though Vharen is trying to goad us into action.  The King will not take such bait though.  Wounded, and insulted as our nation is to do nothing, to act would defy our treaties, and the Council would turn on us…almost everyone would turn on us.  Avrale as a whole could be handed to Osyrae to keep the peace.”

“That’s insane,” Katrisha snapped.

Laurel stopped, and leaned against the curved outer wall of the tower near a window.  “Such is the nature of politics.”  He shook his head.  “All we can do is patrol our borders, and our roads, or perhaps forge a new road to avoid the old eastern one.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 39th, 640 E.R.

Laurel stopped just inside the twins bedroom chamber.  The circle of runes before him was strange, complex, seemingly meant to go unnoticed, and extended to the ceiling.  It pushed the limits of what he had taught the girls, and its purpose was all but completely obtuse to him.  “What in the fates are you two doing?” he demanded aloud.

“Navi was here again,” Kiannae said.

“We decided to see if we could catch her,” Katrisha answered.

Laurel shook his head.  “No one has ever been able to catch a ghost,” he reproved them.

“They are closely associated with magic,” Kiannae said.  “It seems reasonable that a spell could interact with them.”

“Well, assuming you manage something, be sure it won’t hurt her,” Laurel laughed, mostly humoring them.  He doubted very much they would accomplish anything, but he put little past the two with absolute certainty.

Katrisha flicked a light sphere across the room which passed into the circle, there was a flash as the spell triggered, and the sphere bounced around for a moment seemingly undisrupted.  “It’s just designed to be resistant to passing filaments after a spell passes through.”

“Clever,” Laurel acknowledged.  It made sense enough, but nothing like it had ever worked from his reading.  “You’ve lessons to be doing though, rather than fooling with unproven spells.”

“Alright,” they both said, and reset their spell before returning to their assignments from Moriel.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Dinner that night was as it often was, with the whole gathered royal family, and many knights, and other minor members of the court.  Katrisha, and Kiannae found themselves opposite Charles to no one’s obvious pleasure.  They were however much more amiable towards Princess Maraline who sat next to them.  They had over the years inherited several dresses she had outgrown, though they prefered to wear robes, like Laurel.

Her cousin Philip on the other hand prefered the company of Charles, and as such the two sides of the table largely ignored one another, save that Darion’s son, the younger Crown Prince, Adrien had no qualms conversing with either group, and could be ignored by none lightly, given his rank.

“I’m to visit South Rook soon,” Maraline offered, glancing towards Katrisha.  “Mother wishes me to spend more time there, she hopes the Duke’s son will take a greater liking to me.”

“Do you like him though?” Katrisha asked.

“Lukus seems nice,” Maraline said noncommittally.  “Nicer than the Duke himself certainly.”

“I’m surprised you have not been tasked with whispering things in his ear to nudge his father to help with the east pass,” Adrien commented.

“Who says I have not?” Maraline laughed lightly.  “For what good it would do.  Poor boy almost cried the last time we met over how little his father respects him.”

“He’s young yet,” Adrien offered.  “I’m sure he will manage to impress the Duke eventually.”

“I do not think anything impresses Duke Fenlin,” Maraline said with a mischievous smile.  “I’m sure if the Avatar himself deigned to parade through the streets of South Rook, he would find it quaint.”

“I do not doubt this at all,” Adrien agreed.  “Perhaps poor Lukus is doomed entirely.”  He glanced across the table.  “What do you think Charles.  Will your father convince Baron Castor to buy into the venture?”

Charles looked up from his conversation with Philip, and seemed dubious.  “He might, but I’ve a feeling the whole thing is a loss.  He was very displeased with one of the hires from Seaperch the other day.  Sounded as though exploratory attempts to clear some slides in the pass have collapsed sections of the rockbed into underlying caverns.  More bridges will be needed at least.”

“Oh my,” Adrien frowned.  “No, that would be a problem.”

“I’ve heard there was an unpleasant run in with a dire bear,” Kiannae offered.

“That I believe was just a regular bear,” Adrien shook his head.  “Still not a friendly though – possibly rabid.”

“I’d rather a rabid dire bear than to hear another speech from Duke Fenlin,” Maraline groaned.  “He was preaching so fervently at dinner last I was in South Rook, that I could see spittle from his lips shower the roast.”

“Eww,” Katrisha scrunched up her face.

“Oh yes, and then I was offered more of the roast,” Maraline laughed.  “I very politely declined.”

“Don’t we need the east pass?” Kiannae pressed.

“I think so,” Adrien said.  “Yet needing, and getting are not always the same.  If the costs are too high, or the challenges too great…  We can survive I think being cut off from Helm for a few years.”

“The real problem,” Charles offered, “I think is more that few caravans will be going into Niven, the flow naturally goes north currently.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Adrien acknowledged.  “I’d not thought of that.”

“We’ve all we really need though, don’t we?” Katrisha offered.

“Yes,” Adrien nodded.  “Good trade is advantageous though.  The North will be poorer for this, not that there are so many living there now.  Still the drought must end eventually.  Perhaps by then the caravans will be willing to risk the east road once more.”

“Or we could install a proper duke in the north,” Charles said, and got a dirty look from both twins.

“The North has done fine without,” Adrien said.

“Not so fine,” Charles countered.

“Save the drought,” Adrien shook his head, “nothing a duke could do to help.  They did well managing things in the beginning.  Honestly the drain on resources from royalty could only have made things worse.  I hope we never have such trouble in the south.”

“Unlikely,” Kiannae said.  “The climate in the north has been impacted by a shift in the high winds, this has driven most of the rain into the highlands near Mt Saeah.  South Rook is perched in such mountain ranges, however the winds shift the rain still comes.  Though the forests to the east, or Thebes could suffer.”

“Interesting,” Adrien nodded.  “I think I heard Laurel explain that once, but I couldn’t follow how he said it.  Your version was much clearer.”

Kiannae smiled, and returned to her food, but Katrisha caught Adrien considering her sister a moment longer.  She found this curious till she caught Charles staring at her, and gave him an unfriendly look which spurred him to return to his plate.

“Do you two think you will ever travel?” Maraline asked.

“I think I want to,” Kiannae said.  “See the world.”

“Oh adventurous,” Maraline said excitedly.  “I just meant the kingdom.”

“Is there so much to see?” Katrisha asked.

“Oh South Rook is very impressive,” Marlaine said with eager earnestness.  “Everything is so tall.”

“I prefer Wesrook,” Charles said.

“But you were born there, of course,” Maraline countered.  “The ocean is nice though, I’ll admit.  I’ve only been once.”

“I got to visit Nohrook once,” Philip interjected.  “You can see forever from the top of the tower.  Cities across the plains of Osyrae.  That is why no army has ever marched unseen on Avrale.”

“From the north at least,” Adrien said.

“Or from the south,” Maraline added.  “Though you cannot see down the pass from South Rook, the villages down the southern slopes can see anything coming up from Niven.”

“The fleets of Wesrook hold the sea,” Charles offered.

“And of course nothing comes from the East,” Philip said.  “Which is why we are trying to fix that.  Though I’d think a new Rook would be in order if we finished the pass.”

“I believe the King has considered that,” Adrien agreed.  “Though where is the question.  None would be overly pleased to hold a lonely tower, and there is so little to support a proper town through that pass.  Unless mineral veins are found, even tin could prove valuable enough.  Failing that perhaps in the lower reaches of the far side – hunting the wildlands…though Helm claims most of them.  Still I think the upper hills are strictly ours.  The treaty is very vague since no one really lives there.”

“I’m sure if the pass is completed we will come to some agreement,” Philip suggested.

“And without one,” Charles said, “we’ve the high ground in our favor.”

“Perish the thought,” Adrien said with a stricken expression.  “We’ve no wish of a squabble with Helm.”

“They would seem the aggressors,” Charles countered.  “The Council might expand our borders in recompense.”

“And you would wish such a thing?” Maraline glared at him.  “What of those that might die in such a contest?”

Charles looked as though he wished to protest her opinion, but merely lowered his head.

“Further we need Helm’s help for the eastern pass to succeed,” Katrisha said.  “The point is trade.  How much do you think there would be if the Council took lands from Helm, and gave them to us?”

“I merely wished to consider the possibility that we would not lose in such an event,” Charles said firmly.  “Of course I would not want a war, just showing that we have the advantage.”

“I do agree with that assessment,” Adrien said diplomatically.  “Better to have no battles fought, but if we could not avoid them, knowing we would win is comforting.”

“If only we had such comfort about Osyrae,” Maraline said sadly.

“I find the mater perplexing,” Philip said.  “Not that they tell us much.  Yet if King Heron was really killed by his brother, a man who seems by all accounts obsessed with the old ways, what is his game?”

“He wants the support of dragons,” Kiannae offered.

“And thankfully there is little chance of him getting it,” Adrien said.  “As if their great General or Queen would bow to an unproven mortal.”

“And that, for better or worse,” Katrisha said thoughtfully, “is why he is trying to prove himself.”

“And let us hope that he only proves himself flammable,” Maraline proposed grabbing her cup, and holding it up.  The others all raised theirs to this, including adults near nearby who had overheard the children’s conversation.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 3rd, 640 E.R.

Days of setting a trap for Navi had failed to accomplish anything.  The twins had all but agreed to give it up, before returning to their room one day, and finding the trap triggered but empty.  Several of the runes had however been nudged around, the arrangement forming an arrow that simply pointed down.

“What does it mean?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Not a clue,” Kiannae offered.  “Other than the obvious.”

“Do you think Laurel did this?” Katrisha considered thoughtfully.

“Mercu maybe?” Kiannae countered.

“Do you even think he could?” Katrisha pressed.

“Maybe if he tried very hard?” Kiannae said uncertainly.

“What’s down though?” Katrisha said rhetorically.

“Storage rooms…lots of things.”

“Even assuming it were a prank, it would be meant to be a message from Navi,” Katrisha said.  “The tower she built was destroyed.  So, maybe all the way down?”

“There is a door at the very bottom,” Kiannae said thoughtfully.

“I never went below the lower hall,” Katrisha mused.

“I asked Laurel about it once,” Kiannae said thoughtfully.  “He said it was just an old stone down there.  Historical significance or something.  Nothing that sounded interesting.”

“We could go check,” Katrisha suggested.

“The door is locked.”  Kiannae shook her head.

“So?” Katrisha laughed.  “We know how to operate the latch on Laurel’s study, I’m sure a lock wouldn’t be too hard.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It was not a particularly complicated lock.  Really only a simple catch, and turning it proved little more complicated than opening the study.  Inside however was complete darkness.  Katrisha, and Kiannae summoned lights that drifted about them as they walked into the room beneath the tower.  There was loose stone here and there, and even old planks piled against a wall.  It was at once an eerie place, and seemingly quite uninteresting.  Save a large stone that occupied the center of the main chamber.

The two walked up to it curiously.  It was covered in dust, that mostly filled the faint hint of lines carved into its surface.  They looked like the lines, and runes of a spell, but there was no discernible magic.  Kiannae brushed away some of the dust, and looked more closely at the markings.

“How strange,” Katrisha said, doing the same.  “What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said.  “I almost feel something, but I can’t see any magic.”

“How long do you think it has been here?”

“Longer than the tower maybe?” Kiannae suggested uncertainly.

“Than the old one you mean?” Katrisha asked.

“Yeah, why not?”  Kiannae said.  “I mean it looks like the stone is really part of the hillside, and that the tower was built around it.”

Katrisha brushed away more of the dust.  “Did Laurel really say nothing else about it?”

“I think he said it was a marker, something about…lines, shamans, I don’t know.”

“But I thought shamans didn’t do magic?”

“Yeah, by definition,” Kiannae said curiously.  “Sure looks like a spell, but with no obvious magic any more, there is no telling what it was for.”  She held her hand against the stone, and closed her eyes, trying very hard to feel a strange sensation nipping at the edge of her awareness.

Katrisha did the same, and for a moment neither really felt anything.

“Ow,” Katrisha yelped with surprise, yanking her hand back.

“What?” Kiannae asked.

“I don’t know, it started to feel hot,” Katrisha said shaking her hand.  “I didn’t notice, and then suddenly it hurt.  My whole arm feels warm.”  She stared at her hand.  “Does my arm look brighter to you, the arua I mean?”

Kiannae walked over, and considered her sister’s arm.  “Maybe just a little?”

“I thought I heard something down here,” Laurel said stepping into the room behind her, his own light following him.  “What are you two doing?”

“Our ghost trap,” Katrisha started, and hesitated.

“Someone rearranged the runes into an arrow, it pointed down,” Kiannae finished.

“And so you decided to poke around in a locked room?” Laurel pressed.

“Well,” Katrisha said, “I mean if the message really was from Navi…”

“Or supposed to be,” Kiannae said weightedly.

“Yeah, either Navi, or you, or Mercu wanted us to look down here.”

“Wasn’t me,” Laurel said curiously.  “Mercu maybe, but if it was, I don’t get the joke.”

“What is it?” Katrisha asked.

“Just an old marker stone,” Laurel said walking over, and crouching down to look at the markings himself.  “No one really knows who made them, but they are found along ley lines, and at nexuses.”

“What are ley lines again?” Kiannae asked.

“Or nexuses?” Katrisha added.

“Well,” Laurel laughed, “nothing all that important.  There are variations in the energy fields of the world.  They form lines, and those lines have to cross somewhere.  There are slight advantages when performing grand acts with the gift to being on a line, or at a nexus.  This here is where at least five lines converge.  One runs almost perfectly parallel with the cliff.  Some theorize that isn’t a coincidence.  Yet how or why Broken Hill was broken is…well no one really has a good idea.  Still the name itself implies some truth to it.”

“Why can’t we feel anything then?” Kiannae asked.

“Like I said, it’s mostly a slight difference,” Laurel answered, standing back up.  “But you’ve lived here almost your whole lives.  I can barely feel it any more myself, even down here.  We are just used to it.”

“It burned when I held my hand on the stone for a while,” Katrisha said.

Laurel gave her a funny look.  “That would be a new one.  Are you sure?”

Katrisha held out her left and right arms.  “It feels like it’s fading, but do the auras of my arms look different to you?”

“A bit,” Laurel said curiously.  “Your right seems brighter…a little…bluer.”

“That’s the one I had on the stone,” Katrisha said.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Laurel shook his head.  “Are you sure this isn’t some kind of weird joke?”

Katrisha got a funny look on her face, and stared past Kiannae, and Laurel.  The two finally glanced behind themselves, but there was nothing there.  “What?” Laurel pressed.

“I…nothing,” Katrisha said a bit distantly.  She had seen Navi standing there for a moment.  She had looked at her, smiled, and held a finger to her lips before dispersing.  “If it’s a joke, we aren’t in on it.”

“Come on, let’s get out of this stuffy old place,” Laurel said pointing towards the door.  “And no more picking locks.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

That night as Katrisha slept she dreamt of the stars.  It was a familiar dream, at once comfortable, and unsettling.  She felt very alone, and sad about something, but she could not remember what.  It was a sky she did not know, and yet in the dream she did.  She could name all the stars in those heavens far better than those above Avrale, though the names never stuck.

She glanced some distance away.  A boy, and a girl she did not recognize sat there.  She could not decide if they were arguing, or merely discussing.  Each pointed to one star or another.  She did not trust them, and yet felt that they were just children, small, insignificant, and somehow her responsibility.  There was a sense of annoyance at this. They faded away, and there was only the sky.  She felt very alone.

She closed her eyes, and saw not stars, but lines, a pattern that stretched out before her eyes.  She no longer felt alone, it was as though there were shadows around her, tugging at the lines like puppet strings, but at once no one seemed there.  She opened her eyes again, and nothing changed.  No stars, no one there, just the lines.  She could see how something flowed along those lines.

“How?” it was like a whisper.  “Who else is meddling now?”  Katrisha looked around, and saw nothing still, just lines that spread in every direction.  She could feel a presence, but could not see it.  “You shouldn’t be here, not yet,” the voice said.  “Please go.”  It was oddly pleading.

“Who are you?” Katrisha demanded.

“Just a dream,” the voice said.

“I don’t believe you,” Katrisha said.

“Always too clever,” the voice seemed half amused.  “Just think of the stars.  It’s better.  This is prophecy, and you want nothing to do with that.”

“Prophecy?” Katrisha asked uncertainly.  She thought she had heard the word, but only in passing.

“Threads in motion,” the voice said, “you never know whether you are seeing them spiral together, or drift apart.  I really don’t want you thinking about this.  I prefered not knowing this.”

“I don’t understand,” Katrisha almost growled.

“Good.  Stars, just think about them, or the moon – you love her right?”

The command had some effect, and almost as soon as she closed her eyes, she was staring at a starry sky again.  Still one she did not know, and still somehow familiar.  For a moment she wondered what she had just been thinking, or saying.  It bothered her, but not so much as the loneliness.  She felt like she was missing someone.  Where was Kiannae?

Katrisha woke with a start, her head foggy.  She glanced around in the dark room.  Her sister was asleep next to her.  She rubbed her eyes, and looked at the trap they had set.  Faintly her eyes focused on Navi standing before it.  She cocked her head to one side, then the other, drifted around until she was behind it, and faced towards Katrisha.

The ghost’s expression was placid, like someone lost in thought, until it seemed her eyes fell on Katrisha.  She smiled, and though she didn’t frown, it seemed a sad smile.  She stepped into the trap, which went off, growing bright around her.  She nodded, and then disappeared in a swirl of light, and the trap dissolved with her.

Katrisha pursed her lips, all the less sure what to make of any of it.  Her arm felt warm again, and the only thing she could remember from her dream was feeling alone.  She curled up to her sister, who stirred slightly, and grabbed the arm draped over her.  Katrisha felt a bit better, but still struggled to fall back asleep.

Some stars flicked before her eyes as they closed, she felt as though they all had names, but none she could remember.  There was one, bright like lamp in the dark, warm like the sun.  It had a name – she was sure – yet the name eluded her, only it’s meaning, ‘My Light.’  It was a very pretty star she decided, and finally found sleep again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 4th, 640 E.R.

“Where’s the trap?” Kiannae asked her sleeping sister, who barely stirred.

“What?” Katrisha murmured.

“The trap is gone,” Kiannae said.

Katrisha blinked several times, and glanced across the room where the trap had been.  She only vaguely remembered seeing the ghost dissolve along with it.  “Navi…dispelled it I think,” Katrisha answered.

“Really?” Kiannae said incredulously.

“I think so,” Katrisha said.

“But Laurel said…”

“I think we should stop trying,” Katrisha said, shaking her head.

“Do you think we are bothering her?” Kiannae asked.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said.  “Something…I just feel like we are going to cause trouble.”

Kiannae clearly didn’t like the answer.  Katrisha took her hand.  “Can we just not?  Leave her be, I feel like we should.”

“Ok,” Kiannae sighed.

“Thanks,” Katrisha said, and rubbed her face.

“I’m hungry,” Kiannae said, and Katrisha’s belly grumbled before she could answer for herself.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Breakfast was a more subdued affair than dinners typically were.  People came, and went at varied times.  Only King John, and Aria were eating when the twins arrived.  Both considered the two curiously.

“It does not seem like the two of you to be up so early,” the King said, as the two sat across from the princess.

“We were hungry,” Kiannae said.

“Well, that does sound more like them,” Aria offered.

“Indeed,” the King said with some amusement.

A servant brought plates with pancakes, topped in butter, and set them before the girls.  The princess nudged the syrup pitcher closer to where they could reach it.  Katrisha poured a sizable amount over her’s, and Kiannae followed.

“I still wish it had worked,” Kiannae said, even as her sister began eating.

“What had worked?” Aria asked curiously.

“We’ve been trying to catch a ghost,” Kiannae answered, and took a bite herself.

“You’ve been troubling the White Lady?” the King said a bit startled.

“To be fair I don’t think she was much troubled,” Katrisha answered.  “She seemed more inclined to meddle with our trap than get caught.”

“Seriously you jest,” Aria said a bit shocked.  “Ghosts can’t do such things.”

“Also, I’ll have no trapping of royalty in my castle,” the King said sternly.  “Alive or otherwise.”

“We’ve given up,” Kiannae said a bit sadly.

“Good,” the King said.  “I’ll not have some foolish mages trying to capture my ghost when I am gone.  I would be very…” he stopped as a servant hurried in, and seemed to be headed towards him.

“There’s been another collapse up in the east pass,” the servant said.  “Reports of injuries this time.”

“Fates,” the King said standing up, and wiping his mouth.  “Send riders for healers, immediately.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 5th, 640 E.R.

Renae ran her hand over one of the many wounded quartered in rooms of the castle.  She glanced at Idolus who was working on another man, and looked back to her own patient.  “Incompetent,” she muttered under her breath, and tried to figure out what to do about the bone in the man’s leg.  The alignment had been off when it had been healed.  And re-breaking it would be cruel, but if it was not fixed he would easily break it again, and probably walk with a limp even if not.   What remained would be to carefully reshape it, which would take an hour at least.

“We’ll need to work on this later,” Renae said to the man, “but you will be fine,” she reassured him.  He nodded, and she moved onto the next patient, who looked a bit uncomfortable to have a four year old examining his arm.

“What do you feel?” Renae asked.

“I’m not sure,” Wren said.  “Something…not right.”

She ran her hand over the arm, examining the interior carefully.  The bone was fine, she could feel where the break had been, but it had set properly before being healed.  She probed around it, trying to understand what Wren might have felt wrong.  She considered he might just be too new, but checked again, finally finding the clot amidst the swelling.  It was inside the vein, and threatened to easily break lose.

“Oh,” she said, swallowed, and carefully dissolved the dangerous thing.  “Good catch honey.  You tell me if you ever feel anything like that again.”  The man looked concerned.  “You’ll be fine sir.  Just a little clot, all better now.”

Renae caught Idolus moving at the corner of her vision, and saw the hateful look on his face, directed at her.  Her blood nearly boiled, and she made herself look to the next patient.  His face was a bit swollen on one side, and he was clearly having trouble opening that eye.

“Hello,” he said in an overly friendly tone.

Renae nodded, and checked his head.  Nothing significant was wrong, but the residual swelling would take some effort to lower.  “Wren, feel what I do,” she said, and began working to mend the inflamed tissue.  Wren put his hand over Renae’s, and tried to pay attention.

“That feels very nice,” the man said.  “Don’t often get such attention from a pretty lady.”

“As if you can see me,” Renae chided, and the man’s eye opened a bit more.

“Well, I do now,” he laughed.  “Little girl yours?”

“My son,” Renae said pointedly, “is learning to be a healer.”

“Ah,” the man laughed, “sorry boy.”  Wren gave both a funny look.  “And sorry to you too, ma’am.”

“It’s fine,” Renae reassured him as the swelling continued to go down.  “I keep telling him we should cut his hair, but he doesn’t like it.”

“I like my hair,” Wren said firmly.

“Don’t blame you kid,” the man said patting the top of his head which had a receding hairline.  “Maybe I’d have kept more if I cut it less.”

“Doesn’t work that way,” Renae said.

“Oh good,” the man laughed, “not my fault.  More than I can say for the slide.  I told that damn fool from Silvercreek I didn’t like the way he’d set the charges.  He didn’t listen…I should have made him.”

“Doesn’t sound like your fault really,” Renae offered reassuringly.

“Just wish I had stuck to my instincts,” he said distantly.  “Others got it worse than me though.”

“There you go,” Renae said.  “How’s your head feel?”

“Much better,” the man said, and sat up.  He rubbed where his face had been swollen.  “Bit tingly, and…huh sensitive, but not in a bad way.”

“That’ll go away in a day or so,” Renae said.

“Shame,” the man said with a wry smile.  “Anything I can do for you?”

“The order always welcomes donations,” Renae said, and started to move on.  “Nothing you can’t easily afford of course,” she added.

A man groaned some distance away, and Renae stopped and stared at Idolus irritably.  “Do you do nothing for the pain?” she demanded, and at first it seemed almost like he did not hear her.

Idolus looked up after a moment however.  “Life is pain, it is good to be reminded, lest we forget, and cling when the time comes.”

“Leave that man right this instant,” Renae snapped, and marched toward Idolus.

“I will do no such thing,” Idolus said furiously.

“You are unfit to call yourself a healer,” Renae growled.

“I…” Idolus seethed, and the man he was healing yelped as he lost focus.  “You are little more than a whore.  You do worse than corrupt by merely being what you are, you actively seek corruption, and worm it under the skin of everyone around you.”

“Corruption?” Renae all but roared.  “How much are you charging the King to care for these men?  By the day, by the hour, by the injury?  You are the whore, you disgusting vulture, leave before I break my vows and strangle you.”

A guard entered uncertainty, and eyed the two healers that stood above a wounded man, seemingly ready to come to blows.  “What is the matter?” the guard asked, far from unaware, but at a lack of any other options to mediate a situation he did not wish to to deal with by force.  There did not seem a good way for that to go.

“Guard,” Renae commanded.  “Escort this defective, spiteful thing from this room.  Preferably from this castle.  He has no business tending to wounded.  I will attend everyone myself if I must, it will do no more harm than allowing him to lay his hands on them any further.”

“Ma’am,” the guard said, “I don’t answer to you.  He’s here at the invitation of the King.”

Eran entered then.  “I’d do as the lady says.”

“Sir?” the guard asked uncertainly.

“Abyss take you all,” Idlous snapped, and marched from the room furiously.

“Thank you,” Renae said, and turned to the patient Idolus had been working on.

“Figure they’ll heal better without his help,” Eran offered.

“Are you competent at all?” Renae asked.

“I…not much,” Eran said.  “I did what I could for the worst, and the first arrivals, but while I may have a better bedside manner than Idolus, I’m not even half the healer.  Figured I’d best stay out of it once he showed.”

“Can you at least triage, look for anything he’s botched too badly?” Renae asked.

“Yes Ma’am,” Eran nodded.  “You can go soldier,” he said to the guard, who gave him a funny look, and left.

“Start at the far end, and if you would show Wren what you find, and how to find it.  I need to focus on getting things done.”

“I’ll do my best,” Eran said, and considered the little boy who looked up at him expectantly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 25th, 640 E.R.

“The only fatalities died instantly, four total,” Arlen reported, “no thanks to interference in the infirmary.” He sneered slightly.  “We’ve only just now recovered the last of the bodies.”

“The pass itself?” the King asked, ignoring the aside.

“Worse for wear I’m afraid,” Arlen answered.  “We lost a huge section of the hillside in a secondary slide.  Another bridge, and not one that will be easy to build.  I’ve been given recommendations for an alternate route, but it isn’t that much more promising.”

“At this point do you honestly still have a case that this project is worth it?”  Laurel pressed.

“If we had confirmation from Helm that they will build a road to us,” Arlen answered.  “Right now it seems they are unwilling to commit to anything, until they see us succeed with the pass.  We’ve full commitment from South Rook to fund half the project, but that was with old estimates.  I will admit I am losing faith in the idea.”

“Then it is a question of how We abandon this gracefully,” the King said unhappily.

“If we can convince caravans to return to the eastern road, the cost of the construction would clearly not be worth it,” Laurel suggested.

“And can We do that?” the King pressed.  “You know the trade princes better than Us.”

“We can try,” Laurel said.  “If we stop trying to make progress, and pull back to simply investigate the pass more passively, that might buy us some time to try.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 6

As it is and always was,
shall now and forever be,
we seek to cleave to another,
in this find our true reprieve,

and by these ties that bind,
the whole is more secure,
and by these better virtues,
tame fickle nature and endure.

– wedding speech, circa 400 E.R.

Titles

Jovan 10th, 638 E.R.

Renae walked through the upper courtyard, a cumbersome child in her arms, and two soldiers escorting her casually.  “Do you think you can walk dear?” she finally asked growing weary of the boy’s weight.

“Ok,” Wren replied, and Renae set him down gently, and took his hand.  If anything the march slowed for the toddling steps of the little boy, but it was easier going.

“How old is he, if I might ask Mam?” one of the men enquired as the group slowly marched on.

“Just few days over two,” Renae said regarding the man kindly.

“A bit big for his age,” the other man remarked with some surprise.

“He’s a lot of things for his age,” Renae laughed, but her expression shifted.  “Do I know you sir?” she asked uncertainly of the first guard.

“Name’s Eran,” the man nodded, “and yes, we’ve crossed paths quite a lot.  I grew up in the cloister.”

“Ah, yes, Lanie’s boy,” Renae nodded.

“Have I heard right that he’s the brother of the two young lasses the Court Mage has taken in?” Eran asked.

“Yes, you’ve heard right,” she said with a slight smile.

“If you’ll beg my pardon mam, why was he left with you, and not brought here with the other two?” the second guard asked, and Eran gave him a questioning look for the tone of his inquiry.

The man shrugged as though to say he meant no offense.

“He was very unwell,” Renae said sadly.

“Yet he’s so big?” the second man repeated.

“Not every kind of sickness stunts your growth,” Renae laughed.

“No, I suppose not, sorry ma’am,” the guard said apologetically, and Eran elbowed him gently.

“Don’t worry, was a fair question, and not common wisdom,” Renae said shaking her head.

“Allow me ma’am,” Eran said as Renae bent down.  Renae stepped back as Wren was lifted into Eran’s arms, and carried up the stairs to the keep door.  The guards stationed at the doors opened them wide, as Eran set Wren back down, and the procession continued into the keep.

Renae took Wren’s hand again as the guards at the throne room door opened it in turn.  Eran nodded to Renae, and she walked into the throne room with Wren, and the doors closed behind them.  There were very few in the throne room that day.  The King and the Queen sat on their thrones, with Darion at their side, and Laurel stood below the dais.  To the side in the shadows under the balcony stood Mercu, with two identical little freckle faced girls by his side.

“My King,” Laurel said as Renae and Wren approached, and the throne room doors closed behind them, causing Wren to turn back and stumble.  Renae helped him back up as Laurel continued his introduction.  “Matron Renae Somavera of the Lycian Sisterhood, and the young Wren Ashton, brother to the girls Katrisha and Kiannae of the court.”

“King John,” Renae said with a curtsy, letting go of Wren’s hand for a moment, “Such a formal greeting for such a private audience.”

“It has been a long time Renae,” the King said leaning forward.  “We did not greet you at all on your last visit, and felt it…appropriate.”

“As you will my Lord,” Renae said.  “I have brought young Wren that he might meet his sisters, while they might still remember him.”  Mercu lead the girls from the shadows, and up to Wren who they hesitantly considered.

The boy’s presence was a curious thing, like heavy satin, something stifling and yet unreasonably smooth.  All at once it retreated from one’s awareness shyly, like a giant afraid to break the little things around him.  It was a striking and yet fleeting impression that did not match the tiny form it belonged to.  Though shy certainly fit.

Renae knelt down beside Wren, and gestured to one of the two.  “Wren, this is…”

She was interrupted from her awkward pause, having realized that she didn’t know which was which, not by Katrisha identifying herself, but by Wren offering, “Kat.”

“That’s right,” Katrisha said eyeing her brother suspiciously.

“Kia,” Wen said biting his robe, and turning to look at his other sister.

“That is remarkable,” the Queen said astounded, “how did he know which was which? I’ve never been able to tell.  Save if it’s the one running through the snow, or huddled under running water on the hot days of summer.”

“I…I really can’t be sure,” Renae said awkwardly, “I believe it is his mother’s influence.”

“That…matter regarding how she died?” the Queen asked uncomfortably.

“Yes,” Renae sighed, and stood up.  “He speaks far far too well for his age, when he isn’t being timid and quiet.  Which I must admit is most of the time.  Ever so often there is the glimmer of something more as well.”

“I see,” the Queen said measuredly, “but he is not his mother then, reborn or any such witchery?”

“No my Queen,” Renae said reassuringly.  “Just gifted, and cursed.  He learns fast, but rarely offers things he was not presented with first – as he did here.”

“Mercu,” the King interjected, “would you take the children elsewhere, I would speak to the Matron at length, regarding other matters.”

“Of course your Majesty,” Mercu said taking Kiannae and Katrisha’s hands, and before he could ask Katrisha had taken Wren’s in turn.

When the four were out of the throne room the King regarded Renae shrewdly.  “We have been told you know of the trouble in the north, yes?” he asked.

“Yes,” Renae said without elaboration.

“How much do you know?” the King asked leaning back.

“The King, Queen, and heir apparent of Osyrae are dead,” Renae recounted from her memory of pieced together accounts.  “There was a fire in the wall that held the royal chambers…but not all believe that is the whole story.  They were mages after all – unlikely to succumb easily to such an event.”

“They were beloved by their people, and the Queen herself was a beloved relative of the crown.” The King grimaced.  “I had hope, for the first time since the great war that a true prosperous relationship with Osyrae could be upon us.”

“The new King is respected, for his power, and is considered a good ruler, at least by the upper class,” Renae continued, “but not beloved.”

“Nor as friendly to our emissaries,” the King added, “they are not turned away outright, but are lucky to get audience with lower officials, or even set foot in the palace itself.”

“Yes,” Renae confirmed, “I have heard similar.”

“Directly no doubt,” the Queen said with only a touch of distaste.

“I have seen the odd emissary, taking time away within our walls,” Renae said measuredly, “but have not spoken with any personally.”

“Please, let us stick to the business at hand,” the King commanded sternly.

“My King,” Renae said solemnly, “what is the business at hand?”

“Osyrae has not gone to war – in our direction at least – since the fall of the Empire,” the King said with false calm.  “Yet We are unsure of this new King, Vharen We find to the north.  If it were to come to war, We fear for the casualties, to the wounds that would be inflicted upon our people.  We ask if our long acceptance of the Sisterhood within our borders, has earned us your services if such dark days come to pass?”

Renae closed her eyes, and bowed her head for a moment, before looking up again sternly.  “We will heal any wound, that is our calling.  There are even those of us who would place themselves where the need is greatest, no matter the risk.  That is where we must draw the line, we can not sanction the following of troops onto foreign soil, however justified the act might become.”

“We cannot ask more,” the King said solemnly, “though We might have hoped.”

“My King,” Renae spoke again, “I must ask something though, not as a prerequisite for what is simply our duty, but that we might be better able to perform it.”

“Speak your request, and it will be considered,” the King said shrewdly.

“The Clarions go too far, they insight the people against the Sisterhood,” Renae said flatly.  “We are driven from our homes, our shops, and other places we might reside beyond Highvale.”

The King’s dour expression only deepened.  “We have heard a few such troubling reports, of incidents stopped by my men, and a few who went so far that they are now indentured servants to the crown as penance for their crimes.  Yet I know not what more We can do, the Clarions do not speak directly against the Sisterhood, and they are popular with many.”

Renae bowed her head, “As I said my King, not a demand, a request.  I know that you do not share your father’s views…that you have never spoken against us, but might it be too much to speak openly in our favor?”

“You ask something dangerous of Us,” the King said firmly, “but it will be considered.”

“There is one more thing I might ask,” Renae began hesitantly.  “A more trivial matter, but one that treads the same ground I fear.”

“Speak it,” the King commanded.

“There is disused land near Aldermor.  We’ve the tentative blessing of local baron to begin construction of a new cloister, but he is uncertain if he has that authority,” Renae began.

The King hummed thoughtfully, and Renae continued, “Sister Marin has resided there for the past two years, with no incident.  Clarion influence in the area is at least lacking venom.  If you could assure the Baron Woren that he has the authority to sanction the use of land.”

“Yes,” the King nodded, “that is within reason.”  He paused a moment, and considered another thought.  “Enough of such wearisome topics.  We will know how long you plan to stay?”

“A few days,” Renae said without much consideration.

“Have you heard that there is to be a wedding in a week?” Laurel interjected.

“I might have heard mention of some affair to be held at court,” Renae said glancing at Laurel curiously.

“The twins have been asked to be flower girls,” the Queen said leaning forward, “a place might be found for the young Wren as well.  Horence credits them, I am told, with allowing him to catch the eye of his bride to be.”

“Interesting,” Renae said.  “I suppose I might extend my stay, at the King’s leave of course.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 19th, 638 E.R.

Renae stood along the rampart of the western wall, leaned out, and watched the birds flock to and fro about the lake far beneath the the castle.  As the third flight she had seen that morning took wing to the north she heard footsteps behind her, and turned to see Mercu strolling casually toward her.

“What brings you to the west wall, so far from the growing excitement?” Renae asked perking a brow.

“I might ask you the same,” Mercu replied coyly, stopping to lean against the parapet a few steps away.

“Such would be fair, but decorum would require questions to be answered in the order asked.”  Renae offered a playful smile.

“Just a stroll to clear my head,” Mercu said with a tip of his hat.  “All the romance in the air, gets quite heady after a while.”

“If you will give me no real reason, then I shall say the same,” Renae offered with a nod, and turned back to the swirling flocks below.  “I simply longed to rest from all the commotion.”

Mercu considered Renae for a moment.  “It’s hard to explain…” he said with a slightly melancholy tone.  “I do love a good wedding, the traditional romantic feel of it all, but at the same time they remind me that I am unlikely to ever have one, not that I’m sure it’s quite fit for me.”

“You speak as though there is someone specific on your mind,” Renae said glancing back to Mercu, who then stood looking into the sky wistfully.  “You, who have spent the past week flirting with me mercilessly…and no, do not apologize, I quite enjoyed it.”

“And what if it is you?” Mercu laughed. “My darling lovely Renae, divine gracious beauty of the Sisterhood.  Why wouldn’t it be you that I dream of wedding?”

Renae sighed, but smiled appreciatively at the thinly veiled dodge in the form of a compliment.  “You do not have to tell me, you owe me no such confidence.  As for me, I could be wed, if I wished.  I have little doubt Andria would accept the offer, though such a union would be recognized only by the Sisterhood.  It’s not what I want though.  While I do adore and care for her, ours is an arrangement of convenience.  A respectable pairing – in our circle at least – but I do not deny a part of my heart lies elsewhere.  Quite foolishly, I should add.”

“Such tantalizing hints, but no clues,” Mercu laughed, “well played dear woman.”

“Oh if it were at all well played,” Renae said shaking her head.  “So many mistakes, so many tragedies that I am hard pressed to forgive myself for.  Even were the world itself not between us, even if he were still…no it could never have worked, and certainly can never be now.”

“Oh a man, how delightful.  Perhaps there is hope for me after all.”  Mercu laughed trying to draw Renae from her obvious dire train of thought.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”  Renae laughed.  “All tales, most particularly your own, tell of how utterly hopeless you are.”

“Oh, yes, there is that,” Mercu mused.  “No, it was more that I had wondered if you even fancied the more rugged sort.”

“You, rugged?” Renae chuckled incredulously.

“Do you besmirch my manhood?” Mercu declared in mock indignation.

“Oh, heavens no,  Just the use of rugged in any sentence pertaining to you,” Renae said trying to restrain her good humor, “and further absent of the word not.”

“I am wounded, dishonored, quickly I must find a dragon to slay with my bare hands – such that my virility be proven to the fair maiden!” Mercu declared raising his clenched fist to the sky.

“Bah, I am no more a maiden than you are rugged,” Renae offered in melancholy humor, but smiled warmly.  “Besides, I am sure you are quite virile.”

“Fine then,” Mercu said, and leaned lazily back against the parapet, “as long as that much is settled.”  There was a long silence, and at last Mercu stood up straight, adjusted his vest, and with hesitation returned to the earlier topic.  “I will grant you in kind, to be fair.  If I were to consider wedding, to give up my gallivanting ways, it would be…well it could never be, not in this day and age.”

Renae considered Mercu shrewdly, and a puzzled expression crossed her face.  “You don’t mean…”

“I do mean…or don’t mean, quite entirely based upon what you might guess,” Mercu chuckled, “but I’ll not be lead into revealing my secret.  Not with no guarantee yours is at least as grand.  So who’s is bigger?  I do wonder…”

“I thought we were through questioning your manhood?” Renae said with a wry playful grin.

“Bah,” Mercu said leaning back against the wall in a huff.  “I like you Renae,” he said after a moment had passed, and turned his head towards her with a crooked smile, “you are such very good sport.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Lady Catharine considered the bride to be examining herself in a full length mirror, and wondered at the troubled expression on her face.  “You look lovely Alice,” she said reassuringly, assuming she was fretting over her appearance on her wedding day.

Alice turned to Catharine a bit surprised at the sudden comment, a strand of her red hair rebelliously coming loose as she turned.  “Thank you Catharine,” she said after a moment, as though confused, but her expression still seemed ill at ease.

“What troubles you dear?” Catherine asked with genuine concern.

“Nothing of importance,” Alice said turning back to the mirror, and fussing with the loose lock of hair. “Idle chatter of idle minds.”

“Do share dear niece,” Catharine pressed kindly.  “it surely could only help to get it off your mind on such an important day.”

Alice looked down for a moment, then turned back to her aunt and considered her shrewdly. “There are those who do not approve, who think Horence is beneath me.  I pay them little mind, but…it wounds me none the less that they speak ill of my beloved.”

Catherine frowned, and for a moment it showed her age, not with frailty, but an imposing sense of knowing clarity. “I will not deny I was amongst those who questioned the courtship, at first – albeit only to myself I will stress.  He’s a good man, and though he has no title, I believe it is only for a lack of opportunity to distinguish himself.”

“Not all with title have truly done anything of distinction,” Alice said with some venom.

“Too true,” Catharine offered.  “I have often debated my wisdom all those years ago to style myself Lady.”

“I had never considered,” Alice said a bit taken aback, “that it had been a choice.”

“It was, and one that caused quite a stir,” Catharine laughed slightly. “Which at the time pleased me greatly, but in retrospect it was a childish gesture.  If anything I believe it meant I was not worthy of the title I discarded.  As such I have since dedicated myself to insuring the grace, and sanctity of the court.  I say again, while your betrothed has not been honored with title, I for my part have deemed him worthy, at least of the hand of my dear niece.”

Alice took a moment to ponder Catherine’s words, “I suppose I can find peace in that, even if your approval here in these chambers will do little to quiet those insistent on the useless wagging of tongues.”

“No, it will take more to quiet such decent.  Remember that when the time comes, and do not take offense at the disruption, it is for the best,” Catharine said with a smile.

Alice considered pressing the matter further, but was distracted by the arrival of two small girls with baskets, and pretty dresses, ushered in by one of the younger ladies of the court.  Both girls clearly fussed a bit in their dresses, more used to robes.

“Oh they look positively darling,” Alice declared ecstatically making as much haste as she could towards the girls without stumbling in her gown.

The twins looked up with equal suspicion at the great white shrouded woman that crouched before them becoming an amorphous lump of fabric with a head, and arms that seemed to exist for no other purpose than to pinch at their cheeks.

“I have before me the two best flower girls that any bride could hope for.  Fates I remember the first time I saw these two arrive at court.”

“As do I,” Catharine said taking Alice by the arm, and gently urging her to stand again.  “They have grown ever so much in those two years, though I do swear it seems far longer.”  Katrisha gave Catherine a funny look, but for once Catharine seemed to be smiling at her, and she relented to do the same.

A knock at the door brought all around to attention.  Alice quickly checked herself, and all others present before hesitantly commanding, “Enter.”  The door opened with caution, and an older man with deep red hair peppered in strands of gray peaked in.  “Daddy!” Alice yelled as she hustled back across the room towards the new arrival.

“I hope I am not intruding.  I only just arrived, and it has been a very long trip,” the man said, obviously a bit uncomfortable to enter the bridal suite on such short notice.  His nervousness visibly lessened when pounced upon by his daughter.

“It’s good to see you could make it, Jeoffrey,” Catherine said with some reservation in her voice. “It is always a shame to have a wedding without the father of the bride, bad enough her mother could not attend.  I am surprised however they could spare you.”

“For my part I will continue to not miss her,” Jeoffrey said a bit coldly, but managed to smile again as he looked to his daughter.  “As for me, I am of no use up there, they could only be less receptive to diplomacy now if they outright expelled us from the country, or declared war,” he added with dark humor.  “Besides it would have taken no less than a royal decree to keep me away on this day, and I dare say a defection, an army, and an unexpected general at its lead might have come before that stopped me.”

“You speak boldly in such company,” Catharine said with just a touch of humor.

“I speak plainly, and in good humor to my dear, and ever pompous cousin,” Jeoffrey said tersely.  “You know my suspicions of their King, even if I have no proof…it would be a warm day in the abyss before…” He shook his head, and stopped himself.  He was clearly rattled.  “Though over throwing his light forsaken reign…that I might consider,” he added in awkward humor, his tone forced, his smile quite thin.

“Oh come here,” Catherine said, and reached out to hug Jeoffrey, forcing Alice to reluctantly make way.  “I miss her too,” Catherine said kindly.  “There are others who can take up the role.  You should return home, and stay.”

“I will not,” Jeoffrey said plainly.  “I can play my role, I can keep my temper.  I will know the truth,” he said softening, but not relenting.

Catharine pulled back from the embrace, and held Jeoffrey at arms length, examined his state of dress, and nodded with approval.  A thin veneer of propriety sweeping back over her face as she let the subject go.  “Not quite full knightly attire, but it will do for such short notice.  It will never cease to amaze me how well you travel dear cousin.”

“It is a necessary prerequisite to diplomatic service,” Jeoffrey laughed putting aside his troubles with practiced skill. “It does not make an appropriate impression to arrive disheveled, or otherwise undignified.”

The sound of music started in the distance, and Catharine turned to the Lady attending the the twins, “Marry, find a Boutonniere for Jeoffrey, quickly.”  She turned back to Jeoffrey. “You really did arrive at the positive last moment, I do hope you aren’t too tired from your journey, to finish what you have started.”

Catharine slipped past Marry, as the woman made haste out the door in search of the requested adornment.  She double checked each of the girls.  “It’s time little ones, just as we discussed, are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” the twins answered in unison.

“Then let us begin,” Catharine said ushering the three past her.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The wedding procession moved into it’s final position before the dais, where the King and Queen sat in their most regal attire on their thrones.  As silence descended the King stood before the the wedding party, and looked across the gathered crowd.

“People of Avrale,” the King spoke in a firm, and practiced tenor.  “We have gathered here today to bless the union of two valued subjects.  In accordance with their wish, and the consent of their elders that they be joined in marriage before the sight of all.  That sacred union, most treasured and adored when taken in love, but most fruitful when taken up in good council, and for the betterment of all.  It is always with great joy that these two purposes of marriage’s sacred vows can find convergence, as they have on this day.”

The King looked over the court for a moment.  “Before we may commence, it is custom that a question be put before those gathered.  That should anyone present on this day see fit reason that these two should not be wed, they speak now, or forever hold their peace,” the King paused, longer than would have been custom.  There was a palpable but silent stir as some wondered if the King expected a response.

“No objections?” the King continued in a demanding tone.  “None dare speak their mind openly to the face of these good servants of King, and Country.  It would be unseemly wouldn’t it?  Yet We have heard such mutterings nonetheless.  That it is questionable that a relative, if distant, to the crown should marry to a common soldier.”  The King looked to Horence and Alice, and seeing the hints of distress in their eyes nodded ever so slightly in each of their directions.

“A dilemma has been placed before your King, We approve of this union, yet We can not ignore the descent of the court on this matter.  Not,” the King stressed firmly, “because We believe there is merit to this idle bickering, but moreover because We think it brings to light a keen oversight that has gone on, for far too long.”  The King paused for several seconds, and then continued, “Commander Armon Anders, of the King’s Royal Guard, step before your Lord, and kneel.”

From the groom’s side of the wedding party a gray haired man with sharp features stepped forth, and knelt beside the bride and groom, and before the King.  The King reached out both hands and waited, as the Queen gracefully brought forth his sword, lain across her palms.  Taking it firmly by the hilt he raised it, and gently lowered the flat of the blade to the left shoulder of Armon.

“For long, and faithful service, and for insuring the keen training, and skill of more than half of the sitting Knights of the realm this day, We name the Sir Armon of Anders,” the King spoke, raised the sword, and lay it on Armon’s right shoulder, “Royal Knight of the Realm, Defender of Avrale, and Keeper of the Sacred Trust.  Stand good Sir, return to your vigilant post, you are honored this day, but other pressing matters remain at hand.”

The King looked back, and forth across the court as Armon returned to his place in the wedding party.  “On this day these two stand before us now as peers, in law,” the King paused, “as much as they already had in merit.  They stand each with titles inherited by birth, not earned by their own deeds.  In their union they shall be expected to work together to uphold this privilege, and earn the blessings given to them by fate.”

“Now we shall continue, on a more traditional note,” the King said, and turned to Alice.  “Lady Alice of Lansly, please take the hand of your betrothed.”  Alice took Horence’s hand, and with great relief and pride in her eyes, looked into his.  “Do you Lady Alice Lansly, daughter of Sir Jeoffrey of Lansly, take this man to be your lawful husband, to love, and to cherish, to follow, and abide, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Alice said on the verge of tears.

The King turned to Horence, “Do you Sir Horence of Anders, son of Sir Armon of Anders, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to love, and to cherish, to respect, and defend, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Horence said happily looking into Alice’s eyes.

“Are the ring’s present,” the King asked as a formal cue, upon which Wren held them up with tiny trembling hands – he had spent much of the service to that point distracted, and staring at them intently for reasons he could not quite place.

“With these rings,” the King continued as the bride and groom took the rings, and slipped them in turn onto each other’s fingers, “which represent the cycle of life, of love, and the unbroken nature of this bond, these two are united.  Let no man put asunder what has been joined together here today.  I pronounce you man, and wife, you may now kiss the bride.”

A cheer rose across the crowd as the bride and groom threw themselves into each other arms.  Everyone present took their own points from ceremony, but three small children each for their part saw something different from one another.  One saw love defy the foolishness of its dissenters.  One saw a King humble his arrogant court in the defense of loyal subjects.  Lastly there was the smallest of the three, who for his part felt things he couldn’t quite understand, but in part, some where far at the back of his young mind he felt cheated, and he did not understand it.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood leaning against the rail of the balcony overlooking the wedding ball, a musical company occupying the one opposite him.  He absently noticed the father of the bride dance start, but was far more concerned with other matters.  He turned to face the sound of slowly approaching footfalls, after having ignored them for several seconds.

“I was fairly certain it was you I saw up here,” Renae said with a good deal of cheer.

“Too much commotion below,” Laurel laughed, “but it’s still nice to enjoy the ambiance, and merriment of a good party without being trapped within.  Rather like a roaring fire, nice to sit by, but I’d prefer to keep my distance.”

“Fair enough,” Renae said moving beside Laurel, and looking down as well.  “Doesn’t seem like Mercu to go missing mid party though.”

“That would be my fault,” Laurel said with a smirk, “and no I suppose he wasn’t too happy about it, but I asked him to take over watching the girls for a bit.”

“Aren’t they to bed already?” Renae asked perking a brow. “I lay Wren down two hours ago,”

“No, they should be…but it would also be a change if they were,” Laurel chuckled. “I swear those two do not sleep save by the combined will of the fates themselves.  Perhaps they will be tired enough after their present to fall asleep quickly, for once.”

“Oh,” Renae remarked with interest, “what present could they be giving that is so exhausting?”

“That,” Laurel laughed, “would be telling.  You’ll see.  They’ve been at it for an hour, I figure one more they should be ready.”

“Very well,” Renae said a bit bored with the secrecy.  After a moment she seemed to consider Laurel carefully.  “I can tell there is more on your mind than avoiding the party.  What troubles the Court Mage of Avrale this fine evening?”

“The same things as trouble the King.”  Laurel sighed.  “Though I, for my part have heard more rumors, that I do not know what to do with.  I have yet to decide when I should bring them to the King’s attention.”

“And yet you mention such sensitive information to me?” Renae asked a bit perplexed.

“It’s less sensitive…than curious, and concerning.  There are whispers that the new King of Osyrae seeks to capture a dragon, or even dragons,” Laurel laughed darkly.

“That almost sounds like good news,” Renae remarked with a nearly ill expression.  “They will kill themselves off long before we need worry about a march on Avrale.”

“Doesn’t it though?” Laurel sighed.  “It’s so crazy, so suicidal, so hard to believe.  The things is, I have understated the facts.  It’s more than just rumors, the sources are quite credible, save the content.”  He shook his head.  “Even raised from hatching wild dragons are hard to tame or control, too powerful, too intelligent, what could those fools think they would do with a full grown one?  If I believed their new king dim, or lacking in sense it would not trouble me so.  I do not believe him to be as idiotic as this appears, and so…I am concerned.”

“No,” Renae grimaced, “nothing I have heard inclines me to believe that Vharen is a fool.  Unstable perhaps, but no fool.”

“I shall trust your discretion for the moment Renae,” Laurel said eyeing her shrewdly.  “I shall tell the King tomorrow when the festive air has cleared.  It’s not information which can be acted upon, but it is my duty to inform him of what I have learned.  Regardless, if it is Mercu you seek, he is in the upper courtyard, outside the keep.”

“I shall seek him out momentarily then,” Renae smiled, “for now I shall enjoy your company as we observe the joyous atmosphere from afar.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Renae made her way from the ballroom, two drinks in hand, one for herself, and one for Mercu.  She found herself face to face with a stately man with pale hair in knightly attire, and a grim expression, going the other way.  “Terribly sorry,” she said having nearly bumped into him.

The man simply eyed her coldly, and pushed past her, nearly causing her spill one of the drinks.  “That was completely uncalled for,” she declared after the impertinent knight.  He walked on for several steps, then stopped, turned, and stared at her with distaste.

“Your presence is uncalled for apostate,” the man said darkly, “not all at court appreciate that we entertain Lycian whores.”

Renae glanced up, and down the main corridor in slight surprise that no one else was present to hear such remarks on such an active night.  “You speak boldly sir,” Renae laughed shrugging off the insult.  It had been some time since she had found herself personally in that vein of confrontation.  “Would you speak so plainly before your King?”

The man was silent for a moment, and Renae continued to consider his posture.  He was a bit drunk she decided.  “I thought not,” she continued.  “Where do the Clarions stand on excessive drinking?” she prodded rhetorically.  “A distraction of the flesh, unfit, unworthy, as I recall.  No less a corruption than ones of passion.  So tell me, that I might know those who set themselves up as my enemies, and hypocrites no less, who are you Sir?”

“Sir Arlen, of Wesrook – for what business it is of yours,” the man said, and turned promptly to continue down the hall.

As Renae turned she saw what might have prompted Arlen to depart suddenly.   Mercu could be seen approaching.  “Well met,” she declared, and offered him the second drink.

“So thoughtful,” Mercu said with a bow, and accepted the glass.  “What was that exchange about?”  He asked politely, taking a sip.

“Nothing worthy of your attention,” she said with restrained irritation.  “What brings you in?” Renae enquired.  “I had heard you were in the upper court watching the twins prepare some secret gift.”

“I was, but I have been commanded by the young ladies to acquire their intended audience.  Would you be so kind as to go keep an eye on them, I doubt they will burn down the castle in my absence, but one is never sure of such things.  I shall be along shortly when I can pull people away from the party, for the show.”

Renae nodded, and made her way to the keep doors, which stood open.  As she emerged she was struck quickly enough by the singular out of place sight.  Every bush seemed to be lit with countless glowing pale blue orbs.  A few people strolled about the courtyard, or sat giving little new interest to the sight, though three stood, and examined the bushes with great interest.

Katrisha and Kiannae could be made out faintly as they darted about the brightly illuminated bushes.  Renae found a bench, and sat to watch the girls work their magic, to some unknown end.  Certainly it was pretty enough in itself, but she suspected there was more to it than met the eye.

Several minutes passed, and finally a slow trickle of people began to emerge from the Keep, and descend the stairs.  Some went to examine the bushes more closely, while others stood back, chatted, and pointed.  When at last the bride, groom, King, Queen, and finally Laurel all stood atop the keep steps, Mercu wove his way down, and through the crowd.  He turned at its head, and launched into an overly dramatic and flourished bow.

“Ladies, Gentlemen, your Royal Highnesses, honored bride and groom,” he declared in his best speaking voice, as the twins hustled up to his side.  “I present to you, the gift of the young ladies Ashton.”

The two girls curtsied, then bowed their heads in concentration.  Renae caught the brief flicker of the filaments that still connected the girls to the spells they had woven in the bushes.  Then slowly the lights began to rise, and scatter, until the courtyard was filled with drifting balls of light.  The crowd murmured appreciatively, and from atop the steps clapping began.

As those gathered realized it was Alice applauding the spectacle the ovation spread, and the girls curtsied again.  Renae just barely caught the glance between the girls, and Katrisha’s quick nod.  There was a tiny flash of light above, and as everyone focused on where it had come from.  Tiny shimmering sparks were raining down and fizzled away.

There was another, that everyone saw this time, as one of the orbs burst and sent tiny ribbons of light outward which dissolved into sparkling dust.  Slowly more began to pop in brilliant showers of swirling light.  As the number of lights dwindled to about a third of what they were at the start, all that remained let lose nearly at once in one final dazzling cascade.

Through it all the crowd had oohed, and awed, and as the last brilliant burst faded away the previous applause returned with far more vigor, and a growing cheer.  There was a tear in Renae’s eye as Laurel walked down the steps, and sat next to her.  

“That was impressive,” she said approvingly – wiping her face discreetly.  “You’ve done a fine job teaching them.”

Laurel seemed to be eyeing the girls curiously, and finally spoke.  “I wish I could take more credit, but I didn’t even know they could do that last bit.”

“Oh,” Renae said with surprise.

“Oh indeed,” Laurel said with a nervous laugh.

The girls for their part curtsied each way to the crowd, and then at last simply started bowing in a less dignified manner, and with the same excessive flourish Mercu had used when introducing them.  Mercu for his part smiled proudly, and clapped along with the crowd.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 21th, 638 E.R.

“This – right here,” Mercu pointed insistently at the page he had turned to in a dusty old tome.  It was a bit of a faded manuscript, written in the hand of some court member long gone, and so not present to answer for near illegibility.

Laurel stared at the text, doing his best to make it out.

The Duke of Ashrook has chosen to wed the woman Alimae, an old farmhand of about his age, and unwed mother from the area he was born to.  There is more than a little talk that her grown son is in fact his.  The boy has no gift to speak of, and this quiets some, but the Duke was an emergent, and the mother ungifted.  My grandson, rightfully, has more pressing matters to consider, but as I prepare to step down as Regent, I do worry what this will mean for succession in the north – now that all the Duke’s legitimate heirs are gone.  I wish I could say few similar circumstances weren’t looming all around.  For all I have already lost, I must now contend with the greater costs.  Not just those to my weary old heart.  Oh Anton, if only you would have let me stand alone at Midrook.  Yet you would not run, my dear boy.

Laurel looked up dubiously.  “This alone doesn’t mean much,” he challenged.

“I’ve looked into it, this really is just the most conclusive statement on the matter,” Mercu said with a huff.  “All together it paints a fairly clear picture.  The Ashtons are not just relatives, or names sakes of the extinct line of Ashrook – they are his heirs.”

“It would explain their finances, but It’s a bit of a leap,” Laurel said shaking his head.  “What good does it do any way?  Being of royal lineage would only draw the eyes of the Council, and being descended from the bastard of a Duke would do them few favors in the eyes of the court,” he gestured emphatically.  “If we can even trust the source of this,” he added dubiously.

Mercu flipped to the front of the book, and tapped at the name written on the first page.  Most names of the heredity of Avrale would have meant little to Laurel, but there, written a bit more cleanly than most of her exaggerated script, was the name of the Emperor’s youngest daughter Gwendoline – first Queen Regent of the Midrook Dynasty.

“I will concede the point then,” Laurel sighed, “but please, I do stand by what I just said.  It does them no good.  Keep it to yourself.”

Mercu seemed satisfied at that, and nodded in acknowledgment.  “Of course,” he said, but with some reluctance.  “All at once, I will see this book preserved, and copies made in a more legible hand.  I’ve heard a bit of the tale before, but this journal…”  He trailed off tapping it.  “It is more than just the aftermath.  It contains a personal account of the fall of Avrale – the defeat of Empress, the start, and even end of the Dragon War.  It is a crime it has been locked away this long, it is a treasure fit for far more than to sit on a dusty old shelf.”

Laurel sighed.  “Very well, but please do not call any undue attention to this passage?”

“That I can do,” Mercu agreed.  “Really, I doubt anyone will take note of it.  Amidst the rest it is a fairly trivial matter.”

Laurel seemed thoughtful.  “Something still is bothering me.  It said the Duke was an emergent, and implied at least he was a commoner before?”

“Yes, there is more clear record on that.  He was a farmer’s son, nothing much to be said of the line before him,” Mercu said, rattling off what he remembered.  “His gift was so strong that he was discovered quite easily, pulled away, and pressed into service.  Somehow he caught the eye of the King’s third born daughter.  She managed to arrange that they be betrothed.  Before it became Ashrook it was something of a backwater, all farmland, far up north.  They were given it as a Duchy – had two sons, both died in the war, as did his wife.”

“His presumed son, according to the Queen,” Laurel began, “was not gifted, it says…”

“Nothing strange about that, flip a coin if a gifted father means a gifted child given a common mother,” Mercu shrugged.  “You know that.”

“Standard assumption yes,” Laurel nodded.  “There are other ideas though – recessive gifts.  Take two parents that each carry the the recessive trait, but did not manifest it, put them together, and you explain some of the stronger emergents that crop up.”

“So you think it’s not because they have Sylvan blood then?” Mercu frowned.

“Oh, no, I think that has everything to do with it still, just…something is bothering me, and I can’t place a finger on it.  Which means I’m probably chasing something prescient, and should stop.”  Laurel sneered.

“I have as much reason as you to be cautious of such things,” Mercu shrugged, “but I’ll never understand why you are so hesitant to even consider them.”

“Would you laugh if I told you I was once warned I would meet ill ends chasing prophecy?” Laurel laughed uncomfortably.

“Somehow I don’t think you are joking” Mercu frowned with some concern.

“No – sadly, I’m not.”  Laurel sighed.

“Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Mercu said picking up the book, and closing it.  “Since if you listen to that, you are still chasing one, or at least being chased by one.”

“I try to take it with the grain of salt that I’d already told her where she could stuff her visions.” Laurel laughed.

“Which of several entertaining places did you choose?” Mercu asked with a grin.

Laurel rolled his eyes.  “I wasn’t so specific,” he offered, “though to be fair I think I’d mistaken some of her remarks as a come on.”

“Oh, now I’m twice as interested,” Mercu chuckled, and leaned a bit on the table.

“She said I’d meet the love of my life, over the visions of a teller,” Laurel said with a half smile.

“Oh,” Mercu said, looking uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

“Indeed,” Laurel laughed.  “Now you see how much trouble prophetic visions cause me?”

“I swear you are almost as much fun as Renae,” Mercu said with a snide grin.

“Am I now,” Laurel said crossing his arms.

“Ok, ok,” Mercu waved dismissively.  “As much fun.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 3

High atop that Broken Hill,
‘bove shining waters calm ‘n still,
strong noble walls there defend,
lines of kings of varied kin,

‘n though lineages were broken,
of all the same shall be spoken,
fair ‘n true rulers be they all,
O’ venerable keepers of Avrale.

– old folk song of Avrale, circa 300 E.R.

The Castle on the Broken Hill

Jovan 10th, 636 E.R.

From daybreak it was a quiet five hours from the High Pass Lodge to the village of Brokhal.  It was a large village, sprawled lazily across a broad deep valley basin.  Brokhal would not at a glance be mistaken for a capital city, though it was. What it lacked in density, or elaborate architecture typical of such places, it made up for in sheer land area, and a serene meandering quality not easily gaged from the main road.  Not that any of the four travelers were looking.  Laurel and Horence were well acquainted with the sight, and the twins for the most part slept.  Permitting those hours to be quiet.

Laurel had worried when the girls again insisted to sit on the front of the coach, and had attempted himself to slip into the back.  He thought better of it after a very cross look from Horence, and sat instead opposite him with the twins nestled between.  To their mutual relief the two had huddled up together, and promptly returned to slumber.  

At some point the pair shifted, and Katrisha’s head wound up against Laurel’s arm, and subsequently she had claimed it with a tight embrace, her sister in turn clinging to her.  Laurel had smiled at the pair, and apologized to Horence for having left him to their pestering the prior evening.  Horence had smirked in a somewhat concerning manner, and said it was “all right” in a weighted tone.  He had finally thought of his revenge.

Thick mists hung above the village in spite of the late hour of the morning, and Laurel was quite aware as Katrisha woke, and began to look about curiously.  Her attention was fleeting, so many things were new to her; the bustling people in the street, moving quickly from the path of an oncoming coach.  The large shops, and town homes of the village.  Even the mist that rolled lazily over the rooftops was a strange, exotic creature for a girl that had spent her scarce few years in the drought gripped north.

The buildings of Brokal were a far cry from the almost vacant village where she had found Laurel, or the small lodge near Silverbrook.  Midrook’s buildings were comparable, perhaps grander, but this was not evident from barren track of the main road.  Katrisha would not have begun to fathom the idea that many found Brokal a tragically humble place – given its role in the larger scheme of things.

There was however good reason for this.  While it lay very near the seat of royal power in the land, and along a marginal trade route, it had little else of great significance to offer.  Most who lived there thought it struck a good balance between rural and city life, and were content enough to bear the scorn that came with being quaint.

The distance Katrisha had walked had seemed forever, endless, and yet with the ease of a coach and horses, in little over a day she had been carried farther from home that she had ever imagined existed.  For even if she had been told a few tales of long ago, and far away, she had perspective on neither, and barely an inkling even then.  Vast distances were pushed from Katrisha’s thoughts again by the faces, and the curious glances of strangers.  Most wore indifferent or inconvenienced expressions, but a few seemed to look up inquisitively, with the same look of what she correctly guessed was recognition.

This struck Katrisha oddly, but was quickly forgotten as the coach rounded a corner, and passed from under a bank of rising fog.  She shot upright in surprise, startling her sister awake.  Kiannae rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked at her sister with mild consternation, only to follow her transfixed gaze into the distance.

Above the still broad waters of a steaming lake rose imposing sheer cliffs.  There top by gray stone walls, framed by lofty towers, one taller than all the rest.  Laurel looked down at the two awestruck girls and smiled.

“It is an impressive sight isn’t? I’ve seen many wonders in all my travels 0 and perhaps this pales to some – but I’ve always had a fondness for the simple majesty of the castle on Broken Hill.  I’ve been proud to live here for many years, and I hope you will find it a pleasant home as well.”

The girls looked up at Laurel in disbelief.  He had quite intentionally failed to mention certain key details of their destination.  He had told Horence as well to hold his tongue, a request the man had thought strange until around the thirtieth inane excited question of the previous day.  Laurel smiled and ruffled the girl’s hair each in turn, and they looked back to the towering sight before them.  He was glad to see them excited, distracted from grief, but of equal importance to him that moment, stunned into further silence.

The coach rolled on down the road towards the lake shore, and over a small bridge across a river feeding the north end.   The road wound along the base of the great hill, till the cliffs, and walls disappeared from view, but the tallest of the towers could always be seen, save briefly in the shadow of tall groves of trees.

Eventually the road rose higher, and snaked slowly upwards till the hill’s slope grew more level.  There trees gave way to manor houses, stables, and small fields.  A man herding sheep on horseback stopped, and noticeably stared at the coach as it passed.  Soon two armored men approached on adorned horses, and moved to each side of the cart.  A moment passed without a word before the tallest, and most well adorned man spoke from the back of his white steed, “Your quick return is unexpected, Laurel…Horence.”

Horence avoided the gaze of his superior, and remained quiet.  He reconsidered his choice the previous morning.  That he didn’t try the poor old donkey at the farm as a means to continue on to the border.  Though there was no reason for him to go without Laurel.

“There was an unfortunate turn of events Arlen,” Laurel said calmly, though Horence thought perhaps he heard something annoyed in the way the Knight Commander’s name was said, “and more pressing matters have brought me back.”  Laurel glanced informatively down at the two little girls.  “I think the King will be most understanding, under the circumstances.”

Arlen looked the two in the middle over.  He had noticed them, made note of them curiously, but mostly ignored them to that point.  He was notably unimpressed by the look of them.  Katrisha and Kiannae each glanced only fleetingly at the middle aged man, and as small children are apt to do, immediately decided they did not like him.  This made the unspoken opinions of those on the coach unanimous.

The procession passed beneath the castle gate together, and into the lower courtyard.  Stables and servant quarters lined the walls, and people moved about on their daily business.  Many stopped briefly on recognizing the two men on the coach, then hurried on at even the slightest glance from the Knight Commander.

Laurel halted the coach as stable hands gathered round.  He stepped down as the two knights that had come out to greet them dismounted in turn.  He offered a hand to Katrisha who crawled from the blanket she and her sister were wrapped in.  The knight’s horses were lead away as Horence got down, and helped Kiannae to the ground as well.  Arlen ordered his companion back to the wall, and then lead the way up the stairs to the upper court.  Horence and Laurel each took a girl in their arms to spare the time and effort of the two climbing the many steps.

At the top of the stairs three well dressed women sat beneath a gazebo overlooking the lower court, and regarded the group with great interest.  Horence nodded to the ladies as he set Kiannae down at the top of the stairs.  The shortest of the ladies smiled at him warmly, and brushed back a strand of her red hair.  The tallest, and eldest woman in the middle spoke, “What poor wild creatures do we have here?”

Laurel turned and regarded the three ladies passingly.  “They will be introduced to the court shortly, if you wish to come and observe, Lady Catherine.”

Catherine gave Laurel an odd look with the slightest hint of indignance, and stood, her two companions moving in step.  “Yes, I think we shall,” she said coldly.

Catherine followed several paces behind the group as they crossed the upper courtyard.  Her companions were closely in tow behind her as she chose to walk right around the fountain, and the others went left.  I was somewhat remarkable that Catherine herself did not seem to have rushed at all, and yet had managed enough haste that the two groups met equally at the opposite end.

Arlen nodded to the ladies a bit tersely, and gestured on.  Catherine nodded in kind, with a certain air that said she had shown them all their place, and moved towards the keep.  Of the ladies only the red haired woman at the rear seemed at all bashful about the exchange, and a bit rushed to keep up.

Guards opened large wooden doors that lead into a wide corridor that lined the front of the main keep.  Another door stood opposite, and upon seeing the procession the guards standing to each side opened it as well.

The ladies and Arlen filed off to opposite sides of the hall a short distance from the dais.  People shuffled to give Arlen and Catherine a good deal of space, though little difference was given to Catherine’s two companions.   Laurel, Horence, and the two girls continued towards the throne.

The King and Queen looked up from the regally dressed man who had been speaking, and considered the new arrivals.  The King gestured for the petitioner to step aside, and make way.  He did with only the slightest hint of displeasure, considering the new arrivals with curiosity that slowly melted his expression to one of interest, as much as dissatisfaction.

As the base of the dais cleared Laurel stepped up to it and bowed.  He waited what might have seemed a bit long for those not familiar with court proceedings, and then the reason became more clear.

“The court recognizes Court Mage Laurel Grey,” the herald announced in a perplexed tone, having come back to his senses.

“A very proper bow for such an improper return,” the King remarked as he leaned forward, and focused on the two girls that now stood at either side of Horence, each clinging to a leg.  “We did not expect to see you again for at least two weeks.  What strange state of affairs has returned you to court so soon?”

“A tragedy I fear your Majesty,” Laurel said looking up as he began to speak.  “You surely recall Adel Ashton, the hero of the north.”  Laurel himself had only quite recently learned the name, though he believed he had heard it before in passing.  It however did something for his at times dubious air of authority, to speak as though he knew everything.  The King of course was expected to know such things, and for Laurel it was a win either way the King’s memory swayed.

“Of course,” the King said in a matter of fact tone, though with a breath of hesitation as he searched his memory.  “We were there when the Elder King honored her posthumously, though We have not heard the Ashton name in…” he paused thoughtfully.  “There was mention that the man and his daughter had remained last year when place was offered for them in the south.”

“I fear the honor bestowed upon the Ashtons at their farm has seen more occupants this year,” Laurel said taking on a dire tone.  “Of those we knew, two more have passed from this world.”  He paused as a murmur passed through the sides of the court.  A rough looking man in none the less fine clothes took off his hat, and lowered his head somberly.  Horence recognized him as the elected representatives for the displaced northern farmers.

The King’s face grew more firm.  “This is troubling news on such a fine morning.  What has happened?”

Laurel turned and nodded at Horence who brought the two girls forward before the King, and Queen who each regarded them with curious scrutiny.  Their clothes were very simple, and though they had been cleaned up from the previous days it was most unusual for such underdressed, or young children to stand before the King at court.  They moved to hide in the folds of Laurel’s robes, trying to escape the intrusive gaze of strangers, which they were most unaccustomed to.  They had always been told to stay out of sight when visitors came to the farm.

Laurel gave a moment and then spoke again, “Not all of the details are clear, but this much we know.  Earlier this year James Ashton passed, but Meliae, his daughter, continued on at the farm in his stead.  Without her father, or it would seem the father of her children at her side.  The young Meliae died after bearing her third.”

The King considered his questions for a moment.  “And what has become of the third?  You said two Ashtons are no longer with us, not three.”

Laurel nodded.  “Astute my King. The woman Meliae it seems had the gift, and though untrained was able to give greatly of herself to sustain her weak newborn.  The result was tragic, though the boy lives, the mother does not.  I have left him in the care of the Lycian Sisters, for fear only they could properly handle his condition.”

Fresh murmurs washed over the court as the King sat back in his throne, and stroked his beard thoughtfully.  After a moment he leaned forward again, and considered the two scared little green eyed girls who peered up at him, half hidden behind Laurel’s robes.  “We assume that these two have been brought before us with a request, that something is to be bestowed upon them?  Surely they do deserve better as the descendants of a hero than to be relegated to an orphanage.”

Laurel gave the King’s words a moment, and then spoke plainly.  “These girls, as their mother, have the gift.  Their potential is not insignificant, and I wish permission to raise them here at court, and train them to be mages.”

The King leaned back and pondered at length.  “An unusual, but not unreasonable request – though I do worry how much of a drain upon your time they might be.”

“A wise concern of course,” Laurel nodded his understanding.  “Though there are personal resources at my disposal, at times there may be need of assistance from the court.”

The King thought for bit.  “Given the circumstances We are inclined to oblige.  Though We know nothing of the trouble young mages might be, to have more full grown at court could be desirable – a privilege so far from Mordove these days – though a tricky one.  What of the Council?”

Laurel bowed deeply in appreciation, and spoke humbly, “At your will my King.  I know the treaties well, adopted as my daughters the council can have no official quarrel.  I thank you for this indulgence, and for the girl’s sakes.”

“So long as it is more your indulgence, than the courts, it is We who will thank you,” the King intoned such that it was hard to tell if it was more a warning, or a matter of respect for Laurel’s generosity in tanking them in.

Laurel nodded.

The Queen then leaned forward, watching to be sure it was apparent to all she intended to speak.  “Before you usher them away to begin some arcane study or another, We think they should be dressed more appropriately for members of the court,” she began sternly.  “The royal handmaidens shall attend to them, surely there are some clothes fit for young girls to be found.  I believe young Princess Maraline has outgrown a few.”  She motioned for her attendants, four of whom emerged from behind the crowds at each side of the dais, and approached the girls who hid more deeply in Laurel’s robes, and then inched backwards towards Horence.

Laurel tried to turn as he felt the girls shift behind him, but found the attempt awkward at best, and clumsy more so with his robe firmly in their grasp.  Horence knelt down and regarded each girl in turn with a steady kind gaze, and then up at the approaching ladies.

Laurel shuffled around in as dignified a manner as one can when two children are clinging to your clothing, but soon realized Horence had the matter well in hand.

“Go with these nice women,” Horence said with a reassuring nod.  “They will give you baths, and some pretty new clothes.  Everything will be fine.”

Katrisha bit her lower lip as she looked at Horence intently, then to her sister.  Kiannae hesitated, and then nodded.  They both let go of Laurel and were lead swiftly away through the parting crowd.

Laurel’s attempts to face the girls had left him standing a bit to the side, and most of this exchange was observed by the Queen, who leaned back thoughtfully.  She decided she would do well to have a word with Arlen, to insure who would bear the brunt of any extra care the girls needed in Laurel’s inevitable absences.  It was not precisely that the Queen did not trust the man she knew to be Laurel’s intended second, more it was that she trusted him in a very particular kind of way.

The Queen was not the only member of court who had keenly observed how Horence had handled the girls.  A lovely young woman who stood at Lady Catherine’s side, had also watched with a different sort of interest.  She brushed aside a perpetually unruly – to the point of seeming intentional – lock of red hair, and smiled just long enough to be sure he had seen her do so.  He bowed to the King, and nodded to the lady before following Laurel’s lead, and made himself scarce so that normal proceedings could resume.

The lead handmaid moved a curtain aside, revealing a door into the Queen’s antechamber, and on into royal complex that dominated the west wall of the castle.  The girls were lead down a well adorned corridor, and up a flight of stairs.  At last they came to a large double door, not so grand as the throne room’s, but larger than any they had passed along the way.

The door opened quite curiously onto a wall, set back a few feet from the entrance.  Both girls boggled at this rather incongruous discovery for a moment, and even as they tried in unison to ask  “Why…” they were pressed on ahead, and around the offending wall which served to obscure the room from any prying eyes that might pass.

Within lay a large U shaped basin that wrapped around the majority of the room, with tall columns laid evenly along its arc, and gentle steps descending into it.  Green leaved vines covered trellises on the walls, around flowing water showers that fell in perfect unbroken curtains feeding the pool.  A small stone bridge crossed the middle of the arc, and at the far end of the room amidst huge flowering potted plants sat a massive porcelain tub, laid before a broad stained glass window.  Clear central panels would give the occupant of that tub an unobstructed view of the distant valley below.

The girls were awestruck, and barely noticed the women moving quietly around them.  Two that had removed their own fine outer garments already knelt, and stripped the girls without effort or ceremony.  They then lead them into the shallow, gently flowing water at the pool’s edge.  The twins were urged to sit, and resisted only very slightly.  Soaps were brought by a third woman who remained fully dressed.

The smell of lavender and vanilla filled the air as soap was lathered, and a pitcher was dipped into the flowing water.  Glimmering runes could be seen beneath the rippling surface, and Katrisha wanted to move closer, fascinated by the pale blue light.  Before she could investigate however her head was pulled back, and water poured over her hair, and a moment later over the rest of her.

The fragrance of the soap grew stronger as hands worked through Katrisha’s hair, and massaged her scalp.  She glanced over at her sister who wrinkled her nose as a trickle ran down her face.  Katrisha smiled, laughed, and then squinted as she felt soapy water creeping down her own forehead.

The women washing them would occasionally lean close and whisper into each other’s ears conspiratorially, not quite loud enough for either girl to make out.  It seemed quite infuriatingly intentional, as curiosity begged to know what they were saying.  Particularly after any well restrained titter.

The head handmaiden, who had left in search of clothes returned, and conversed in similar private fashion with the fourth, who had gathered large towels that were draped over her arms.  The towel bearer stepped forward as insistent scrubbing changed to multiple pitchers of water being poured over the girls to notable protest.

The girls were lead up from the waters, and great warm towels wrapped around them from head to toe.  When at last their faces emerged they were presented with two lacy multi layered dresses, about a size too big for them.  There was another whisper from one of the handmaidens addressed to their leader, who seemed too busy showing the dresses to be cautious, and simply said, “Darion insisted.”

Katrisha was distracted by having finally heard something – which she then decided had been meaningless – and Kiannae picked first, pointing to the green one.  This left the pale blue for Katrisha, who decided she would have prefered it anyway.  Brushes were run through their dark hair, catching on small knots, and drawing yelps of protest.  Once their hair was passably straightened the dresses were put on over the girl’s heads, and the handmaid’s considered their work, as the two who had bathed them finished redressing.

The head handmaid took a pin from her hair, allowing a bit to fall free in a still dignified manner, and grabbed one without asking from her closest companion, who shot her a dirty look.  She bundled each girl’s hair up at the backs of their heads, cocked her head to the side and nodded approvingly at the results.

A tiny rumble from Katrisha’s belly drew a quick exchange of glances between the women – some quite amused – and they promptly lead the girls from the great bath, and back down stairs.  They crossed the corridor at a bit of an angle to another door, which opened onto a great hall dominated by long tables laid end to end, and many chairs.

A high ceiling rose above with chandeliers dangling from broad rafters.  Light streamed down through skylights high above, and an old woman in the gallery overhead paused in her cleaning to watch the procession as they left the grand dining hall, and entered the kitchen.

Staff worked to clean dishes, and a tall slender man in a puffy white hat adorned pastries carefully at a central work space.  He turned to consider the Queen’s handmaids coldly, and looked down at the two small girls they surrounded with some confusion.  Their leader moved quickly to the man’s side and whispered in his ear.  His expression softened.  “Of course Lady Marian,” he said with a hint of a sigh, and gestured for one of his subordinates to come closer.

More whispering transpired as the girls watched the curious exchange.  Suddenly the young kitchen attendant grabbed a large platter, and scurried to a huge wooden door which he opened only a crack, and disappeared behind.

Marian returned and ushered the girls to a small table in the corner of the kitchen, situated beside the mysterious door from which a chill could be felt.  She dismissed the others with a wave, and leaned down to help the girls up onto tall stools.

Through the large door to was still open the girls could see the apron clad servant scurrying in and out of view, the platter he had taken rested on one hand.  At last he emerged, pushing the heavy wooden door open with his shoulder, stepped around and leaned back against it to close it firmly.  With less haste he strode towards the table the girls sat beside, and set the platter before them with a bow.

The girls looked hungrily at the array of meats, cheeses, and small pieces of bread set before them.  The servant smiled, and nodded to Marian who considered him in a not altogether aloof manner.  However before he could properly read the woman’s demeanor he fled at a sideways glance from the kitchen’s master.

Indecision quickly was overcome by hunger, and the girls each grabbed randomly, nibbling at the pieces individually with no mind to try and put them together.  Some drew delighted little sounds, while others resulted in wrinkled noses.  As each was on about their sixth piece the servant breezed by again, setting small metal cups before the girls, each filled with fresh cider.

As though not to be upstaged by a subordinate in the service of the honored young guests – or before the Queen’s chief handmaiden – the head chef set a fresh pastry before each girl causing their eyes to go wide.  The man nodded to the Lady who smiled at him slightly, and he returned to his work.

As the girls ate their pasty with great delight their attention began to wander to their surroundings, to hanging pots and pans, racks, knives, and chopping blocks.  They could recognize most of the parts from home, and watching their mother cook, but at such scale and quantity they were bewildered.  They had seen all the people in the throne room however, surely they all needed to eat, so a kitchen that vast made some sense to them, even if they could not imagine so much food.

Their eyes were drawn particularly to faint glowing runes on the bottom of every pot and pan, and similar forms that glowed dimly on counter surfaces.  There were no obvious stoves, or fires for cooking, which puzzled them.  Their pastries picked apart, and finished the girls nibbled at more of the meat and cheese from the platter, though with less excitement as they began to grow full, and ran out of the ones they liked.

Kiannae was the first to notice as Laurel entered the kitchen, and dropped from her chair, catching Her sister’s attention, who quickly followed behind.  The two wove between counters, and  pounced onto Laurel’s robes, slightly teetering him.  Marian walked gracefully up to Laurel and considered the girls clinging to him.  “You seem to have made an impression,” she remarked breaking her near silence to that point.

“I guess all levels of familiarity are relative,” Laurel said patting each girl on the head in turn.  “Had Horence been at my side I might suspect the girls would accost him instead, as he has spent more time with them to date.”

Marian repressed a laugh.  “The day I see a woman, or girl, of any age pounce upon Horence with such intensity, is the day I check to see the sun still rises.”

“You judge the man far too poorly, Marian,” Laurel chided.  “He is of good heart, and strong sinew.”

“This may be, I do not deny,” Marian said regarding Laurel shrewdly. “Yet I stand by my assertion as to the level of excitement inspired.”

“Perhaps,” Laurel said playing along, “yet to all their own tastes I suppose.  Surely should he have a daughter she might love him so, and so too perhaps a good wife, who knows him for better virtues than the most superficial.”

“Hmph,” Marian dissented.  “Yes, perhaps as well.  I shall leave you to your little lasses, and return to my Queen’s side.”

Laurel looked down at the girls clinging to him, and gingerly took a step forward until they moved in tow, still loosely hanging onto his robes.  He walked to where they had been seated, and took some of the leftovers, drawing a displeased look from the cook.  He shrugged as if to say, ‘it was there.’  The cook said nothing, it was not quite his place to protest, as much as he felt it should be.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood in quiet meditation, leaned against the curved wall of a large tower chamber.  He opened his eyes now and then to make sure the two girls still sat in one of the three window seats.  He was glad that for the moment they seemed transfixed by the spectacle of looking down on the valley below.  He had no illusions this distraction would last even the remainder of the day – or hour – and considered that amidst the myriad responsibilities he had taken on he would also need to insure the girls remained reasonably entertained.

Laurel became keenly aware of how little thought he had ever put into rearing children.  It wasn’t something that had ever seemed to be in his plans, much to his parents dismay.  He hadn’t thought the arrangement through beyond the horizon – at every turn it had simply been a matter of the right and practical thing to do.

He allowed himself some solace in the idea that he could get some help from the royal tutors with raw academics.  Then there was Mercu, surely his flair for drama, art, and all things unconventional would help.  ‘Thank the merciful fates for Mercu,’ he mused.

Almost as if summoned, a familiar voice chimed in at the open door.  “To say that I was surprised to hear you had returned so suddenly, would be an indifferent misstatement of the truth.”  His presence had snuck up on him, a thing like a gentle yet intemperate breeze, easily missed till it was upon you.  Oddly soothing once it was.

Laurel turned to regard the thin well dressed man that stood at the chamber door.  His feathered cap was ever so slightly, and intentionally askew atop a sweep of hazel hair, that might have shown the first strands of gray.  He had the look of a man that took great pains to insure he appeared to have given it no thought at all.

“You of all people,” he started with mild amusement, “should appreciate the unexpected, dramatic turns of life.”

Mercu considered a dusty old chair that had been left sitting by the door.  He tilted it, turned it, patted the seat, and waved away a cloud of dust futilely before sitting down.  “Appreciation for such twists does not necessarily make them any less unexpected.  When I first heard from a fellow patron in a shop down in the village, that he had seen the Court Mage coming back through town today, I brushed it off as a mistake.”

He looked to the window seat where two sets of curious green eyes were focused upon him.  “When however I overheard a mildly inebriated young soldier in a tavern speaking of two little girls introduced – most under dressed – at court by same said mage, then I knew investigation was in order.”

Before Laurel could make a retort, two servants entered, a huge down bed sac carried awkwardly between them.  The leading servant looked to Laurel as if for direction, who simply shrugged, then gestured to beneath one of the windows.

Ignoring the interruption, Mercu continued his little rant. “Now, if all these strange affairs were not enough, upon arriving at the castle, and while passing through the upper court I witnessed something to make me question if I still resided in the same world I woke up to this morning.  For there, amidst no less than five charming young women stood Horence, who seemed to have their full and quite undivided attention.  I do not think even one noticed me bow as I passed.”

Laurel scoffed as the two servants extracted themselves quickly.  “You are as terrible as Marian.”

“Oh, and now you are flattering me,” Mercu shot back.  “To be compared to lovely Marian, however chidingly.  Truly I have indeed stepped foot into some other realm, perhaps not entirely unlike my own, yet so keenly different all the same.”

The girls, disinterested in the exchange of the two adults had jumped into the soft recesses of the great down filled sac, and rolled about giggling.  Drawing the gaze of both their elders, and distracting them from their own fun.

“So tell me please,” Mercu continued, looking back to Laurel, “what in the King’s name is going on around here?”

Laurel sighed and moved to close the chamber door.  He leaned back against it, insuring for the moment at least there would be no more sudden intrusions.  “Some of what I am about to tell you,” he started in a cautioning tone, “I have yet to tell the King.  I did not wish to announce every detail in open court.”

Mercu simply nodded his understanding.

“While I did not really know the story of Adel Ashton until quite recently, I assume you are well versed?” Laurel continued questioningly.

Mercu thought for a moment.  “Yes, yes.  Hero of the north, farmer’s wife.  She tried to fight off an immature black drake with a pitchfork, and did better than most knights probably would have with a sword.  Died for her troubles though, leaving her husband and daughter.  Though the tales say the daughter probably would not have survived otherwise.”

“Well those two over there”, Laurel intoned, his inflection implying disapproval of Mercu’s callous version of events, “are her granddaughters.”

“Oh,” Mercu said, and then frowned.  “Why do I feel there is more tragedy to be added to that family line?”

“I fear so.”  Laurel sighed.  “Their grandfather died sometime earlier in the year, and according to their limited account, I do not believe of natural causes.  In the same incident their father I believe was taken back by force to his people, and the mother’s fate is even more grim.”

“Dare I ask either what you mean by ‘his people,’ or what could be ‘more grim’ than death, or abduction?” Mercu prodded with morbid curiosity.

“I am quite certain the father was Sylvan,” Laurel paused for effect and watched Mercu’s expression shift.  “Based largely on a mixture of circumstantial statements, and the girl’s eyes and ears.  As to the mother, she had the gift, but was never trained, or trained properly.  Her efforts to save her newborn were…catastrophic.”  He glanced to the twins who did not seem to be listening, to his relief.

Mercu was obviously mortified at the thought, but found the presence of mind to ask, “Did the child live?”

“Yes,” Laurel said obviously clinging to one of the few positive details of the story.  “Mercifully we found the boy in time, thanks in large to the bravery of those two little heroes over there.  Katrisha walked a good ten miles, half of it alone when her sister sprained her ankle.  She stumbled upon me in Minterbrook, almost delirious, and quite dehydrated.”

Mercu glanced over at the girls who were now peaking over mounds of down bedding.  He simply shook his head for a moment, and then moved on to something less dire.  “How ever do you tell them apart?”

“If I try quite hard I think I can tell them apart by their auras,” Laurel paused, considering for a moment, “I would not however stake my life, or anything else of notable value upon it.  Further telling them apart, and which is which are not quite the same thing.  Still the different dresses help, but that’s hardly reliable.”

Mercu leaned the old chair he sat in back against the wall, and sighed. “Well, certainly I understand a great deal more.  I will even wager a guess as to why Horence was so accosted by fine young maidens – he has the gossip to share.  Good for him, the boy deserves a break.”

Laurel rolled his eyes.  “You did not ask however why they are here in the tower,” he prodded trying to catch Mercu in having not thought something through.

Mercu perked a brow.  “Oh that part seemed painfully obvious with the rest.  Mother had the gift, you plan to teach them to use it.  I know all too well – you remember – how these things work.  Try as I may, I’ll never be a mage, wasn’t born with it, largely because in turn neither of my parents were.”

Mercu sighed, and leaned the chair forward with a creak, and a thud.  “I also won’t pretend I’m happy about the obvious implication you expect me to help, or you damn well better.  Those girls need more in their heads than academics, and you dear sir are not the one to teach things such as art, poetry, or music.”

“Why no,” Laurel said in a sarcastic tone, “it had not crossed my mind.  However since you offer – accepted.”

Mercu scoffed.  “Fine.  Settled.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 13th, 636 E.R.

There had been some debate if the young twins were ready to sit at a royal table, and Mercu had been on the dubious side.  He tested their etiquette at a few private dinners, and decided that it was reasonable enough, if lacking in any semblance of refinement.  They were tame at the dinner table, and so he made the case to include them at evening meals.

The cost of this consideration displaced Mercu from a more favorable place at the table, and often with company he was less fond of.  That evening he found himself across from Arlen, and his son Charles.  The boy had arrived seeming sweet enough the year before – his mother’s influence Mercu was sure – but was slowly adapting to the disposition of his father.

Mercu helped Kiannae into her seat, and noted that Charles was conversing with Prince Philip to his right, and did not look away until chastised by his father for speaking at all.  Kiannae seemed simply transfixed by everything, and oblivious to any one person.  Neither child seem to have any interest in the other, which Mercu decided was by far for the best.

He helped Katrisha into her seat next, and she waved slightly to the prince across from her.  Mercu gently urged her hand down, but there seemed no harm as Philip smiled cordially.  Mercu then moved to his own seat, and exchanged less than pleasant nods of recognition with Arlen.

“Hello,” said the girl to Katrisha’s left, and she looked up at her.  She was about four years older, and at that age much larger than Katrisha, though her more upright posture exaggerated the perception.  “My name is Princess Maraline,” the girl introduced herself, brushing back an auburn lock of hair.  “You must be either Katrisha, or Kiannae,” she offered with a nod.

“Kat,” Katrisha said.

“A pleasure to finally meet you,” Maraline nodded.  “Though I do believe I’ve seen you about.  Are my old dresses treating you both well?”  She asked, glancing to Kiannae who noticed she was being spoken to, and nodded.

“Yes, thank you,” Katrisha said.

“That’s good.”  Maraline smiled.  “Mother says the moths would surely have gotten them soon, and I do remember being fond of them once.  They look good on you both, if a bit big, I’m sure you will grow into them.”

“I don’t mind,” Kiannae said.

“They have both been grateful,” Mercu offered.  “I think though they are obsessed with getting robes like Laurel’s.”

“Why would you want stuffy things like that?” Maraline asked.  “Dresses are so much prettier.”

Katrisha shrugged.

“I think robes look nice,” Kiannae offered.

“I hear Laurel is off again?” Arlen asked from across the table, if for no other reason than to talk over the chatty children.  “Now that unfortunate delays have been dealt with.”

“Left this morning, yes,” Mercu answered.

“Wards or not, I feel like we should certainly restore Andersted,” he said grimly.  “It simply is not good that we have left the border there so unguarded.”

“Andersted?” Mercu said curiously.  “Is that the name of that old ruin?  I thought it was Ashrook.”

“Both,” Arlen seemed unamused.  “It was renamed for some northerner back during the late Empire.  Not even a proper rook really, just an over glorified barracks on a hill.  At its height there was a small village around it.  I guess there still is, if you can even call it that.  Most locals call it Anders, though that ruin goes by either name.  It is where Armon and his son herald from.”

“And the northerner?” Mercu pressed curiously.

“Gifted of course, cropped up on some farmland.  Received a duchy to legitimize his marriage to a princess that fancied him.  The area was such a backwater, caught between Osyraen aggression, and Avrale proper since…always really.”

“Why was the duchy never restored?” Mercu asked curious of a new take on the matter.  He had heard vague versions of the tale before, but there seemed new details to be had.

“Ashton lost his wife and heirs in the war, but lived on himself.  He returned to the farmland of his birth, and married some common woman.  Which he should have done to begin with.  He had the audacity however to leave it all to common people, and the king of the day permitted it.  Or was it Queen…I’ll admit I’m fuzzy who had authority at the time.  The recovery after the war was so chaotic.  Such a mess, but they managed tolerably I suppose.  Eaking out a living without any proper governance.”

“His name was Ashton you say?” Mercu pressed.

“Yes,” Arlen said with some displeasure.  “It is more than possible that the name passed down, or it was just the name of the people in that area.  He came from there after all.”

“Are you talking about us?” Kiannae asked.

“Your ancestors possibly,” Mercu said.

“An…cestors?” Katrisha asked a bit bemused.

“Your father’s father’s,” Maraline offered helpfully.

“Our father came from the forest,” Kiannae offered.

Arlen gave Mercu a curious look, and Mercu was shrewd.  “It is a suspicion.  We are being quiet about it.”

Arlen nodded, but Mercu did not like the attitude of it at all.

“A Sylvan?” Maraline asked with rapt curiosity.

“Grandfather called him that sometimes,” Katrisha said.  “Only when they fought though.”

“How curious,” Maraline said, as food began to arrive.

Mercu was glad of the distraction, though the damage was mostly done.  Still, he had his own curious avenues to explore from it, and was thoughtful for some time.

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