Chapter 2

The Twins yet rise fair and tall,
‘bove valley deep and river swell,
there stand astride great Avrale,

named for queens each first and last,
we shall not falter – they shall not pass,
so doth endure good Avrale.

– The Twins Stand, 20 B.E.

The Twins Pass

CloisterChapter2

The sun hung low in the west, kissing the peak of Mount Navi, and the day was lost.  Laurel’s horse trod laboriously through the orchard grounds that buffered his destination from the wider world.  The cloister complex he sought was at last in sight, nestled at the end of one of the many branching twisting valleys from which Avrale took her name.

Stained glass set above the main entry shone like a glimmering beacon in the setting sun.  Mount Saeah loomed large above in the south, its glaciers a pale orange, stark against the dusky blue of a darkening sky.  Highvale was a secluded place, and while this isolation served its denizens well, it had done nothing to simplify Laurel’s troubles.

Laurel nodded politely to two women, and a young man that were walking in from the outer grounds.  He expected to pass them by, but his horse chose to slow.  He avoided their further glances, not wishing to give the impression his keeping pace was at all intended.  The ever slowing strides of his horse meant that soon the residents began to outpace him.

The last mile had been frustrating, and he knew the poor animal had little left to give.  Another thirty miles, some of it at frightened gallop for a horse that had already been asked twenty that same day.  Laurel himself was haggard, sore, and drained in more ways that he cared to think upon.  His right arm cradled a dangerous infant protectively, and hurt terribly.  He dared not simply imbue the arm with more life carelessly, less the child simply take that power.

He hoped the Sisters would be able to help the horse that evening, or he would be stranded until other arrangements could be made.  He considered Horence would be far more inconvenienced should this course of events come to pass, and under the circumstances he had limited pity left to spare the man – though a touch nonetheless.

The horse finally gave up, and refused to take another step.  Laurel slid from the beasts bareback, discovering new discomforts he had managed to remain oblivious to, as he tried somewhat haltingly to walk.  Those who had gotten just ahead of him considered their visitor with renewed interest.  The young man in their midst moved to greet Laurel, and he thrust the reins into young man’s hand.  He then switched the arm that cradled Wren, to the effect of noticeable relief.  “See the horse is cared for,” he commanded sternly, “it has seen a very bad day.”

He walked on then without a breath of hesitation, though he plainly struggled to find a comfortable gait.  He ignored the confused murmurs of those he left in his wake, and was quite ready to be done with the whole affair.  He sought the one practical solution he could imagine, to his most immediate problem.  The Sisterhood would not care about the boy’s linage – they were, after all, far more open minded by nature than the world at large.  Furthermore they could handle his care, and condition better than anyone.

Three young women who had been near the main door of the cloister gathered, and watched as Laurel marched purposely forward.  “I will speak to Matron Somavera,” he commanded, approaching in the best approximation of a stately manner he could muster.

Laurel was never much for pomp or posturing, but under the circumstances he did not want to convey an air that invited questions.  Two of the Sisters opened the doors wide for him, and the third rushed off in search of the Matron.

The foyer of the cloister’s front building was lined with benches, and trellises covered in flowering vines.  The last light cresting the mountains behind him streamed through intricate stained glass, casting a thousand points of light across the room.  Two young Brothers crossed the far end of the foyer, and looked to Laurel curiously as they passed.

“Sir,” the eldest of the two Sisters waiting with him spoke hesitantly, “might I inquire as to the reason for your sudden visit?”

Laurel resisted the urge to sigh, and maintained an aloof air as best he could.  “I’ll discuss my business with the Matron, if you’ll pardon me,” he said in a measured, harsh tone.  “I have no desire to be repeating myself after this long day.”

“Very…well,” the Sister stammered momentarily at a loss.  “I’ll go see if Caitlen has found Renae.”  She headed down the same hall the younger Sister had hurried into before.

One Sister remained, holding open the door absently, and considered Laurel shrewdly.  “I’ll wager you’re not the father,” the girl said, boldly striking up conversation that Laurel had just expressed he did not want.  “There’s magic about both of you,” the girl continued, “but it’s quite different in that little one there.  Odd really, I’ve not seen the like of it.  Then again we don’t see that many different kinds around here.”

Laurel considered the impertinent, but astute girl silently – though her choice of words displeased him.  It wasn’t worth fussing over.  All the same it was easy to forget what it was like to be around others who could sense, or even see auras with any great aptitude.

“No,” the girl continued trying to provoke some kind of response, “I’ll wager you are not the father at all.”

Laurel grumbled to himself, and looked the girl up and down.  She seemed about sixteen, with tousled red hair, a typical olive complexion for the region, and an air of absolute trouble about her that reflected plainly in her amber eyes, and in a presence that had some property of fire about it.  Not entirely wild, well tended, like a hearth freshly stirred.  He decided that if she so desired to pester him, he would avail her of the useful – if unwanted – distraction.  “You’d win your wager.  I am no one’s father.”

“Are you sure of that?” the girl prodded playfully.  “Men don’t always know.”

“I know,” Laurel said flatly, but with wry personal amusement.  He watched the girl wrinkle her nose at that thought curiously, and he was less amused.

“And how do you know?” she asked.

“We mages have our ways,” he laughed uncomfortably.

“As do we,” the girl said with a knowing smile, and gave him a curiously predatory once over.  This put him decidedly on edge.  However much younger he might have appeared than he truly was, Laurel looked well more than old enough to be her father.  Surely this stretched even the Sisterhood’s limits.  It was flattering on some small level – perhaps – but none the less disquieting.

“As for this one,” Laurel said changing the subject, “I know almost nothing of his father,” he paused for effect, “less still of the mother, for that matter.”

“That seems a right strange state of affairs,” the girl said inquisitively, shifting her weight.

“A strange state of affairs indeed,” he responded with practiced calm, “to pull me so far from my intended course.”

“And what course might that have been?” she asked crossing her arms.

“To Nohrook, by Minterbrook, where it was that everything turned quite sideways.  Even then I’d not yet expected to find myself half way back to Brokhal, or here amongst Lycian Sisters,” Laurel said with an honest touch of frustration in his voice.  He took a deep breath as the baby in his arms stirred, and the pull nagged at his attention.

Laurel guessed the girl saw something of the nature of what transpired, even if the meaning was hopefully obtuse to her.  He looked down at Wren, and the quiet little boy fussed, but did not cry even as he surely hungered by then more physically than in less mundane ways.  He soothed him with care, it seemed a questionable use of gift under the circumstances, but he had no want for fuss to become a piercing wail.

“It does seem quite the detour, what could bring you back so far?” the girl asked her interest obviously caught even more, and began to approach slowly, with what seemed a meticulously practiced sway in her hips, and a shift in her presence.  It seemed an extension of her attitude, and intended to inspire something.

The intent was uncomfortably clear, and entirely ineffective for any number of reasons.  Oddly the most distracting of which was how much it felt like the weaving of a spell in some ways.  Living magic, some learned in the delicate practice called it.  Perhaps something spell like fell out of it all at times, but it was not magic, not the practice of mages.  Even if most mages learned to work such power well enough in a pinch.  Semantics.  Yet semantics were more comfortable than other things.

Life makes magic, not the other way around.  It was a barb of his father’s on the topic, a man with an almost singular loathing for the very order that claimed the cloister where he stood.  It wasn’t true though, not by scurrilous rumor at any rate.  Their founder, some great aunt many generations removed had reversed the process, or so some books claimed.  She was such an affront to the Grey family name.  That insult perhaps mostly that the world remembered her better than the rest of them combined.  It was almost enough to inspire a young man to run away, and make a useful nuisance of himself in the world.  He’d had other reasons though.

The girl was more than a bit too close.

“Unexpected deaths have a way of changing one’s plans,” Laurel said tersely, pulling himself from his train of thought.  “The death of someone you’ve never met is an altogether more unexpected than most ways for plans to change,” he added with a stony expression.  He noted the look on the girl as she was suddenly at a loss for words.  She stopped where she stood, and was stuck somewhere between shock and embarrassment.  Whatever he thought of the path the conversation had taken, it seemed to have been effective at shutting the nosey girl up.

A long awkward silence hung between them, and before the girl could quite regain her composure to press curiosity further, the sound of footsteps pulled both of their attentions to the hallway.  The eldest of the three Sisters had returned with two older women in tow.  She addressed Laurel as soon as the other two were fully in the foyer, “Matron Renae Somavera, as you requested.”

She was a sharp featured woman with light skin, and white hair.  She was notably taller than her more tan companion, almost as tall as Laurel himself.  One could tell that both women were not young, if only by their hair, yet they did not look as old as Laurel knew them to be.  The gifts of healers in this regard exceeded that of mages, Laurel was reminded poignantly.  She had a presence not unlike a gentle ocean by the moonlight, and were she a mage might have almost felt imposing, rather than oddly comfortable and elegant.

“We’ve met,” Renae said with a raised eyebrow.  “I was not informed who my insistent visitor was, nor that you were coming.”  Her gaze fixed firmly on the infant bundled in Laurel’s arms.

“Even our first acquaintance may have passed under better circumstances,” Laurel said his expression softening from aloof to sad, “and to be fair I had not announced myself properly when I arrived.  I would have sent word, but I had not started this day with any intention to arrive here.  It is only grave matters that have brought me to your doorstep, and I would prefer to discuss them in private.”

Laurel examined the expression that crossed Renae’s well aged features and blue eyes.  She barely looked older than when he’d first met her, save that her once peppered hair was now gossamer.  He had known the woman on but three occasions, never well, but amiably.  The royal mess with which their first association had ended had changed the path of Laurel’s life dramatically.  He wondered if it had been a factor in Renae’s rise in position as well.  Since then they had met only in passing through their official capacities.

“It would seem you have something troubling on your hands,” Renae said nodding her understanding.  “Come, my office is upstairs,” she said gesturing for her companion, and Laurel to go ahead of her.  She eyed the two younger sisters still present.  The elder left promptly, but the younger did not.  “Move along Sasha,” Renae commanded with a sigh, and was obeyed reluctantly.

At the top of the stairs Renae and Laurel entered as the other woman held the door, then closed it behind herself.  The light was growing dim through the windows that looked out toward Mt. Navi, rimlit in her early autumn glory.  With a brush of her finger  up its wick Renae lit a candle at her large oak desk.  It was a clever technique, filaments dragged harshly, a friction approaching absolute, and then they broke off, themselves igniting, and becoming flame.  It was less conjuring fire than striking the candle itself like a match.  With the first candle she lit several others around the room.

“You’ll forgive me if I have Andria stay – there is nothing that happens here we do not share.”  She glanced at Laurel to ensure her point had been made.  Satisfied that it was when he perked a brow, she continued.  “So please, tell me of this infant that has brought you here.  The aura is unsettlingly brilliant, and I can feel the testing pulls even from here.  I recognize the sensation, but I can’t say that I have ever felt it quite like this.”

Laurel nodded somberly.  “I’d expect it’s not an altogether unusual phenomena, infants with the gift are often enough born weak, flawed, or otherwise in need of aid.  I do not doubt that ever so often one might keep trying to draw in more.”

“Yes,” Renae said with a troubled frown, “normally it stops at the slightest resistance.  Though this one isn’t pulling with any great force, it hasn’t completely given up either.  This worries me.”

“So it should,” Laurel sighed, “the mother I fear ended poorly.  She gave too much, perhaps was too weak to begin with, and then the boy took all that was left.”

Renae furrowed her brow.  “I’ve heard of such a thing – incredibly rare, a matter of bad circumstance, and poor training.  Horrible tragedy, and leaving another problem in its wake.”  She walked over to examine the infant’s face.  “What I’ve read,” she continued, “tells me that the child can be cured of this hunger in a few months, perhaps a year.  However he must not be given into, it will take vigilance.  Once the door is closed, it will remain such.  When he is older he will need to be trained to control his gift – he will be exceptionally powerful, particularly with the living magic.”

Renae pause and touched the child’s cheek, “There may also be traces…  Yes I can…I can feel them, bit’s that don’t seem to belong.  Fragments of his mother will haunt this one all his life.  We will take him, there is no doubt in this.  Though from what you say, I gather he has not been fed since birth?”

“No,” Laurel said.

“And yet he is not crying?” Renae said shaking her head, her worry deepening.  “Andria, run to the nursery, find a willing mother to help.  Be discreet on the details, but warn her nonetheless.”

“Of course,” Andria said, and left swiftly.

“I’ve had some hand in his quiet to this point,” Laurel said, but there was no confidence behind it.  “I doubt however that is any explanation.”

“No,” Renae said taking the bundle from Laurel, who gave a deep breath of relief.  His features noticeably softened as the strain was taken away.  He began almost immediately tending to his aching arms.

“This has been simpler to resolve than I could have hoped,” Laurel said as he worked.  “There are other things you should know…” he started, but paused as Renae held up her hand for silence.

“I can already see one.  Those eyes…” she trailed off staring down at the strange blue eyed child in her arms.  Wren looked up at her with an unnerving quiet gaze, he was wide awake, yet barely fussed under such distressed circumstances.

“Yes, not quite right are they, the oval shape of the pupils – the intensity of the color.  It’s far more noticeable in bright light.  I’m fairly certain of the meaning.”  Laurel picked up his former train of thought, “it is a trait he shares with his two sisters.  I had been headed to Nohrook when one of those sisters lead me to a farm very near the forest border.  I have no doubt the father was Sylvan.”

A sickened expression suddenly crossed Renae’s face.  Laurel paused a moment considering Renae’s reaction.  Was he wrong that Sisterhood had no bias against the Sylvans?

Renae seemed to recover her composure through force of will, and asked calmly, “On what farm?”

“The girls did not mention a family name I am afraid,” Laurel said as he searched his memory, “there wasn’t much remarkable about the farm save how far out it was.”  He hesitated, something seemingly unimportant came to mind.  “There was an ash tree along the road that seemed out of place.  They are rare in the north.”

Renae sat down in a nearby chair.  “Sisters, you say?”

“Yes, identical twins,” Laurel continued, “Fascinating and seemingly quite intelligent little girls.  They spoke very well for their obvious age.”  He considered the change in Renae’s poise.  “Is everything alright, does this change anything?”

Renae looked out the window, and stared at the darkening sky.  “No, it is fine.  I will see to his care, I will raise him as my own even.  Does he have a name yet?” Renae asked rocking him softly.

“I understand his mother called him Wren before she passed,” Laurel said distantly, and considered Renae’s words for a moment, before following her gaze into the distance.

“Like the bird,” Renae offered, more than asked.

“Presumably,” Laurel said, and stroked his beard.  “One of the girls said their mother loved the little birds.”  He returned to the point that had bothered him all afternoon.  “Decades without one sighting, one single interaction with any kingdom I know of.  Save of course a few long exiled travelers on the roads…and suddenly we have three little half blood children, and a dead mother to tell no tales.”

“What will you do with the other two?” Renae inquired pointedly.

“I’ve had a long, and tiring ride to think on that.  It seems best I take them in, bring them to court, and train them as mages.   Their auras are unnervingly strong, particularly for such young children.  Not so much as that little one’s poor blended soul, but it’s hard to imagine their potential.  I will have failed them utterly if they do not one day surpass me.”

“I’m glad to hear you will not send them off to that council of yours,” Renae said with distinct relief in her voice.  “I would have had to beg you bring them here as well before that.”

“I’m not the biggest fan of the Council’s ways, even if I aspire to fill my role in their grand design.  I’ll abide their rules, and do their bidding to a point, as is my sworn duty, but there are more rampant politics in their ranks than in all the kingdoms we shepherd combined.  It’s no place to grow up, I should know.  So no, I’ll do all I can to keep these girls from under the prying eyes of the oh so well meaning Council.”

“You are a good man Laurel,” Renae added, and looked down to the infant in her arms.

Laurel turned to consider Renae again.  “And I suppose I can offer you the same in kind.  I may not have been raised to think much of the Sisterhood, but you do good work with your lives, and take in strays such as this little one without hesitation.”

Renae looked up at Laurel curiously for a moment.  “Do you think I might meet the other two?” she asked.

“It certainly could be arranged, after I introduce them at court,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “That introduction shall be awkward given I will also be asking forgiveness for my deviation from plans.”

“I will announce my intention to visit soon,” Renae said distantly.  “You will be staying here the night I assume?” she asked almost as an afterthought.

“It seems I must,” Laurel said with some displeasure.  “I fear I have worked the horse that bore me here near to death, and I do not know what care it has yet received.”

“When Andria returns I will have her find Sister Charis, she has spent more years with caravans than I.  I’m sure she can attend to the poor creature,” Renae offered taking a long deep breath.  “With luck it will be ready for the morning, if not, perhaps we could offer you one of ours.“

“That is gracious of you,” Laurel said kindly.

“I have my guesses as to what business you have been pulled from,” Renae said firmly.  “I’ve only just heard the whispers myself.”

“Yes, of course,” Laurel said with only moderate surprise.  “Prudence over real urgency of course, whatever has transpired we will not feel consequences soon, surely.”

“No, I would not expect.”  Renae sighed.  “Dinner will be served shortly,” she said dropping the topic, “and though I am sure you are capable of attending to your self, do not hesitate to avail us of our services.  I can only imagine the strain this has been on you.”

“I will consider it,” Laurel said hesitantly, but reconsidered his tone.  He knew better, or he thought he did, that she had meant nothing dubious, and yet the look the young redhead had given him still nagged at him.  He was not one to read into such things, but he had found it unmistakable, and distantly familiar.  Finally he remembered where he had seen that look before.  He was made no more comfortable by the memory.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Dinner had been a simple affair, run like clockwork to feed well over a hundred standing residents, and guests in procession, with a dining hall that held only about sixty at a time.  The food was less fine than Laurel had grown accustomed to in recent years, but infinitely better than what he had eaten for over two decades traveling with trade caravans.  He had done as he had seen most do, and taken his dish to the kitchen.  It seemed the least courtesy an unexpected guest could offer.

It was a courtesy he regretted when he found himself beside the nosey girl from before.  He shifted uncomfortably trying to avoid being so close to Sasha, and winced, which she clearly saw, and adopted an exaggerated pout over.  Laurel was unamused by the antic, and turned to leave, heading into the courtyard.  He found a bench, and sat down with some care.  He looked up at the stars, which he always found soothing.

After several minutes a young woman he had not met approached him.  “Are you well sir?” she asked in a kind, and courteous tone.  He considered her coldly, but felt bad for it, she’d done him no wrong.  She seemed in her early twenties, with short dark hair, and shifted uncomfortably in his agitated gaze, which he softened slowly.  Her robe was of red, and this gave him some further hesitance.

“I’ve had better days,” Laurel finally replied, “but I’m fine.”  He looked back to the stars, but could not help but grab his neck as a twinge caught him off guard.

“May I?” the woman asked.

Laurel considered saying no, he could attend to it himself well enough, but the idea of simply relaxing won him over.  “Yes,” he said, and considered that some politeness was appropriate to add.  He settled on, “Thank you.”

Her touch was expert, and her gift gentle as it flowed into stiff, abused, and delicate muscles.  Her presence was soft, liquid, not the flame like presence of Sasha.  It wasn’t an insistent thing, merely there.  It had been a rare thing in his life to feel the power of another kindly, and rarer still with such frivolity.  His neck cared for, she moved out his shoulders, and he did not protest as she worked down his sore tired back.  Water he considered could wear away even stone, the flame was only suitable for lighting dry tinder.  The thought gave him wry amusement.  It would take some time to get past that resistance.

He was more relaxed than he had been in weeks when a now familiar voice undid half the good the woman had managed.  “Who do you have there, Ann?” Sasha asked rhetorically.  Laurel had no doubt she knew exactly who.

“A visitor,” Ann said straightening up in surprise.

“I’m jealous,” Sasha said in a tone that Laurel clearly read as playful, but he was not sure if the other woman did.

“Really?” Ann asked in a perplexed tone.

“Of you, not over you silly.”  Sasha laughed, stepped up to Ann, and kissed the other woman on the tip of her nose playfully.  Laurel could tell what had just transpired, but still turned his head out of an odd curiosity.

“May I join?” Sasha asked pleadingly.

Laurel stood, stretched, and with a laugh offered, “By all means.  I was just leaving.”

“You don’t have to go,” Sasha said leaning up against Ann.

“Sash!” Ann proclaimed reprovingly, but with clear mirth that said there was nothing inaccurate in the younger woman’s assertion.

“That’s quite alright,” Laurel said.  “Thank you miss Ann,” he said with a bow, “you’ve been more help that you know.”  With that he walked off, to enquire where he might sleep – alone.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Horence’s experience with animals effectively began, and ended with horses.  Though he had some memory of his father’s old dog when he was a small boy, he was hardly responsible for its care.  His experience with children was less.  Not even with siblings, as his sister had not survived birth, and taken his poor mother’s heart with her, literally, and figuratively.

The Clarion healers had tried, but she had lost the will to live they said, he had always taken that with a touch of disdain, believing more that they had been incompetent.  In that regard he figured he was a kindred spirit to the twins left to his care.  Yet all he really knew at the end of the day was the work ethic of a soldier, and that the best cure for your sorrows, short of a stiff drink, was the distraction of routine.

Routine – for him at least – was beyond reach, but the sorrow was not his to bury.  He endeavored to give the girls what vestige of routine he could.  They fussed, but in the end walked him through the motions, such as they knew, of caring for the animals, and gathering food from a small garden, that seemed the only tilled soil on the farm – more fertile than it seemed anything in the blighted land had reason to be.

It seemed to him a good life, a respectable one, one that the northerners had been blessed with for generations, and by the whims of nature had lost in those years.  The King had been kind, and good, and given them work in the south.  Yet he worried for the cost, for he had been witness on occasion to the thinly veiled whining of the barons of South Rook.  If the drought did not end, there would be turmoil, or worse.

What Horence did not know of animals or farming, he made up for marginally with cooking.  He would of course have been booted from the royal kitchen on charges of sacrilege, but he had learned to cook well enough after his mother passed.  Even to follow through with recipes, thought the chicken scratch in the ratty old cook book he found in the pantry was beyond him.  The first afternoon, and evening was hard, messy, haphazard, but at it’s end, the girls slept with full bellies, and Horence slept with the satisfaction of hard work, and passable success.

The second day was easier, it already felt like a semblance of routine, though he had no intention for it to become such.   At noon he made a cursory attempt to rig the harness for a single horse – which seemed unwise.  He then attempted to discern if the old donkey could be harnessed to the coach as well, but the mismatch seemed utterly absurd.  Failing that he checked on the decrepit farm cart in the barn, which it seemed had lost a wheel.

The girls had pestered him about the coach, claiming to see faint blue lines, and asked him what they were.  Horence had looked closely where they insisted, and once – just once – he thought he saw something, but passed it off as a trick of the light.  He assured them there was nothing there, and they gave him funny looks.  He went on with that day, and into the night, quite anxious for Laurel’s return.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 8th, 636 E.R.

Horence watched the two little girls asleep by the hearth, bathed in flickering firelight.  He couldn’t help but feel relief on their behalf that they were away from the horrors of the last two days.  He looked at the way the two had curled up together – ‘At least,’ he thought to himself, ‘they have each other.’

He picked at an extra ear of corn he had cooked, and allowed the melancholy of it all to wash over him for a bit.  He wondered how long he would be waiting for Laurel – he hadn’t said where he was going, or when he would return.  Horence did not mind the thought of another day of farm life so much, but he did fear the growing severity of any reprimand.

Horence looked around the room as warm firelight danced on the walls – it felt more like the home it had obviously been for generations, now that the dead had been laid to rest outside its walls, and a proper full day had passed.  He shivered at the eerie feeling that had been present when he first arrived.  There was warmth there again, if only a little.  Three children it seemed were all that was left of the family.  The house would soon sit abandoned, as all the surrounding farms already were.

He again considered the odd mix of rustic, and merely antique.  Though the place was small, there were still well more rooms than Ashtons, and the rafters fitted for sleeping.  The loft of the barn showed signs of this as well.  Perhaps accommodations for migrant farm hands, but some of it showed signs of use to recent to make sense in the drought.

The sound of hooves drew Horence to sit upright, and quickly move to a window.  A tiny glimmer of blue light bobbed up the hill from the main road.  He couldn’t tell if it was Laurel, but he suspect – hoped perhaps more so.  If it wasn’t Laurel, there would likely be much more explaining, and far less leaving.

Horrence opened the door as the horse approached, and watched as Laurel swung down from a saddled horse he did not recognize, a blue orb of light drifting at his side, and reins still grasped in his hand.

“You were gone for more than a day,” Horence said with clear displeasure, “where have you been?”

“I had to take the infant to Highvale – I fear the time involved couldn’t be helped.  They worked miracles on the horse, but even miracles take time,” Laurel grumbled.  “The Matron was kind enough to arrange a temporary exchange instead.  I took my time on the return, as this horse is not of the same caliber, and will need it’s strength to pull the coach tomorrow.”

“The Sisterhood?” Horence asked with some surprise, “that seems a bit extreme.”

“The boy’s condition left no other real option.  His mother’s death left him a danger to those not competent with living energies, and would you have had me subject the poor boy to Clarions?”  Laurel asked as he stopped before the door step.

“I suppose not,” Horence agreed.  He stepped out, and closed the door less their continued conversation wake the girls.  “The mother’s name was Meliae Ashton,” he said pointedly, “their grandmother was something of a hero.”

“So I learned – after a fashion – on my way back up through Minterbrook.” Laurel nodded.  “Are all matters attended to here?  I wish to leave at first light.”

“Everything is fine,” Horence reported, “the girls are fed, and asleep, and the animals have been tended to.”

“Good,” Laurel said reaching up, and grabbing hold of the light that hovered near him, he held it out before him, and spoke a bit distractedly for a moment.  “I’ve no illusions we will make it back before the morning after next, but we’ll see how we fair by Silverbrook.”  He let the light go, and it drifted to hover close to Horence instead.  “Now if you would,” he asked kindly, but with more than a hint of an order, “find a place to tie the horse for the night, and give it some feed.  I see there is a warm fire in there, and I can only assume some where I might lay down.”

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Jovan 9th, 636 E.R.

With the morning light, and scarcely after a rooster’s crow Horence and Laurel ushered two small girls into a coach, still wrapped in blankets.  They fit the harness to the new horse, and began the trek south.  They stopped in Minterbrook for breakfast, supplies, and to see if anything else had been remembered.  The account Laurel had heard the previous day was the extent anyone had to say on the girls.

From Minterbrook it was ten miles up the Senal Valley to the Midrook, and the expansive sight of its ruined wall.  This prompted what felt like hours of questions from the twins.  After this they insisted on sitting at the front of the coach for a better view.  Very little of Midrook was seen closely, for as Laurel explained it was once the largest city of Avrale, and in a terrible war the wall fell, and the central city was razed.

Though centuries had crept the edges of of the divided townships back towards the road, only a few buildings dotted the main course, and were mainly for the benefit of travelers.  Midrook tower had been spared in the war, but was a spec above the western end of the wall.  Horence explained that the slow recovery of the central city was partly superstition – that there was something tainted about the obsidian left by dragon fire.  This spawned even more questions about dragons.

The Twin Sisters, the high peaks that framed the main pass caused a stir, particularly by their title.  Kiannae claimed the eastern peak Saeah, and Katrisha the western peak of Navi.  Laurel found it curious how easily they came to the arrangement with no argument on the point.  Something struck him, like a notion of things yet to be, and he frowned, and set all further thought of it aside.

They made good time to an inn that stood by itself at a crossroads in the high pass, not far down the southern slope.  It was well before night fall, but the second horse showed signs of exhaustion, and with little debate it was decided to stay the night.

Late that evening the twins were restless, and full of questions they continually pressed any moment they were not sulking.  Eventually Laurel retired to his own room in frustration, leaving Horence to finish explaining the name Silvercreek.  It seemed easy enough at first, that the town was named for the creek, and the creek for flecks of silver found in the water.

Where the whole process of explaining began to go sideways was the revelation that the flecks of silver were from the glacier scraping away at silver veins beneath.  A bit of trivia Horence was somewhat surprised he recalled, but he did not particularly understand the mechanics of glaciers, and managed to deflect further questions with the detail that Silvercreek proper was built around the mines, and as such was an entire town beneath a glacier.  Which required explaining how that worked, if glaciers moved, and the wards that melted the oncoming ice, and a number of other things he did not grasp any better than how glaciers operated in the first place.

Horence fell asleep in the end before the twins, who eventually curled up to him, and slept as well.  He had been quietly plotting some form of revenge when he drifted off.  Something to do to Laurel for abandoning him to the fate of designated explainer.  He failed to think of any that he would be able to get away with, but relished the thought of a number of the ones he couldn’t before letting them go.

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Chapter 1

Book1_NewFor those who were never satisfied
to be the damsel of another’s tale.

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There is an ancient ash,
there upon a rolling hill,
‘bove a winding road,
‘midst a peaceful field,

none know how long it stood,
does seem ‘tis always been,
old thick ‘n tangled branches,
grown nowhere near such kin,

an’ for that forlorn sentinel,
there sprouted far from home,
the lands and those err born,
were ever named Ashton…

– Ballad of Adel Ashton, 620 E.R.

The Autumn Child

Who is to say if the word of a god can be trusted?  Not I.  I’ve met but the one, and am most hopelessly biased on the subject.  Still, to have walked in such circles, to have seen the things I have, it is not unreasonable to confirm the basics, and take a great deal more on well earned faith.

Many things will be written on the matter, some of them even true.  It is less my concern if any such lies and follies might flatter.  Ascension tends to do well enough with that.  One worries more for a mortal legacy, all too easily lost in the long shadow divinity might cast.

It does not begin grandly, nothing ever truly does.  Oh surely I could start with kings and emperors, dragons and old gods.  One could wallow in such hallowed trappings for a time, set the stage for what was to come.  Perhaps some of these – those the world holds in such high regard – were even more than petty pawns.

No.  It must begin with the simple and unadorned truth.  

On the seventh day of autumn, by a calendar that marked over six centuries from the dawn of a great empire – even then, long gone – a child was born.  It was a beginning far removed from the mighty bastions of power in the world, and witnessed by precious few to remember even so much as a name.

If he was truly important, or merely a quirk in far grander schemes is open for debate.  From far above the vantage of mortal eyes, it might be observed that through all the countless permutations of fate, there was but one in which he even lived.  That it was this, of all possible worlds, that might endure.

It is said that the humble butterfly, by no more than flapping its delicate wings, can change the inevitable course of a mighty storm.  Surely such an insect holds no hopes to be remembered, but a small child might.  For while his birth was ostensibly common, much that followed would not be.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Candle2

Jovan 7th, 636 E.R.

The sun was only just threatening to rise, as two dark haired girls stirred at a roosters crow.  They were a pale freckled pair, fairer than the mother they lay to either side of – an olive skinned woman, typical of the land, particularly in such northern reaches.   Even with a sickly pallor she was a shade darker than any of her children.

One can only imagine – and would rather not – the look in those matching green eyes as they woke.  Their cheeks still streaked with tracks of tears.  Marks that stood alongside a flickering candle as testament to a long night’s anxious vigil.

Promises that the worst was passed had lulled the girls into fitful sleep barely an hour before.  Upon waking it was apparent that things were no better, if not far worse.  They could see she wasn’t well, felt it in their bones.  They knew something was terribly wrong.

Shivering against the cold morning air they shook their mother, baring no mind to the silent bundle lain at her bosom.  They were desperate, afraid, death unfortunately was not new to these darling creatures.  They had seen it once before.

The auburn haired woman drew a deep labored breath, and her blue eyes fluttered open.  She seemed barely there as she brushed a tear gently from the face of the girl on her left.  “My Kat,” she said softly, a tear running down her own cheek.  “My Kia,” she said turning her head to the right, and doing the same for the other.

She wrapped her arms weakly around the silent bundle at her chest.  “My Ren…” she said in barely a whisper, and was gone again.  No further shaking or cries could rouse her.  Her arms went limp, the babe rested on her chest remained silent, and only long shallow breaths gave any proof either still lived.

Both girls broke again into sobs, and cried until they could not shed another tear.  Katrisha – as her name was properly – was the first to grow silent.  Then, with all the reluctant determination due a small child setting herself to do something difficult and dubious, she crawled from her mother’s side and down off the bed.

With stumbled steps she trod from the cramped bedroom, and into the narrow front of the house.  She stopped, rubbed her eyes, and glanced up at a plain tan coat that hung just above her reach.

Katrisha leaned against the wall, and got up on the tips of her toes.  Even then she barely managed to get hold of the coat’s trim with the tips of her fingers.  It, much like the simple gown she wore was a raggedy looking thing.  It was made with uneven stitching, and had all the hallmarks of crude homespun apparel.  She tugged at the coat until it pulled free of the peg, and fell over her awkwardly.  She wrestled from beneath the offending garment, and gave a huff of frustration before pulling it on.

She had slipped her right foot into a simple sandal shoe when a hoarse voice behind her stopped her short of the second.  “Wher’ you going?” her sister demanded, her words cut with gentle sobs.  Kiannae stood clinging to the door frame for support.  Doubt, worry, and the same horrifying realizations that had driven Katrisha from bed, were written plainly across her twin’s face.

It hadn’t been the real question – such might have been, ‘Should we go?  Should we stay?  Will it get better?  What do we do?’

“To get help,” Katrisha answered, and pressed her lips together grimly.  “Ma isn’t well.  I…I think she’s dying, like gran’pa.”

“Dun say that,” Kiannae commanded defiantly.  She didn’t want to believe it, but she knew in her heart it was true.

“Going for help, Ki,” Katrisha said shakily, as tears tried vainly to well up again.

“I’m coming,” Kiannae declared after a moment of labored hesitation.

“Shouldn’…one of us stay?” Katrisha asked, doubt now foremost in her own voice.

Kiannae walked over, and struggled to reach her own coat.  “She needs help, we go,” she said tersely.  The two had each played their role, the argument was settled, and their course set.  Katrisha moved to help her sister reach higher, and when at last Kiannae got hold of her coat she pulled hard, and both fell over as it came loose.

Once their coats and shoes were on, the two stepped out into the cold light of dawn.  Their simple attire was insufficient to cut the morning chill, and they huddled together as they walked the long path down towards the main road.  Everything smelled of dust, and dry grass.  The air was quiet and still, cut only by the soft clucking of chickens that had wandered out not long before, and were pecking at the dry packed earth.

The farmhouse was a lonely place set on a high hill.  It stood among rolling fields almost so far as the eye could see.  It seemed the sort of place one might put a manor, or keep to watch over the land, yet only a large weathered barn and a gnarled old ash gave the small house any company.  The tree stood aside, perched on its own little mound above the road, and the path wound down around it.

The two girls strayed from the path, and stopped beneath the branches of that weary old Ash.  The leaves were turning, and a few had fallen.  It seemed much too early for that.  The fall did not normally come till the nights grew longer than the days, and that was still a month away.  It was also colder than it should be for the skies were clear.  The skies were almost always clear.  Everything felt as though it was dead or dying, hanging on to a final breath.

They looked first at each other, and then up and down the winding road below.  “Which way?” Katrisha asked, her expression betraying more second thoughts.

Kiannae frowned deeply, looked both ways again, and closed her eyes.  “Which way Mr. Tree?” she whispered under her breath.  “I don’ remember,” she added fretfully.

Katrisha looked at her sister, and up at the old ash.  She had always taken it on faith the tree had spoken to her twin once.  Father had agreed that some trees might, and so Katrisha merely implored with her own gaze for an answer – lest instead they leave their mother’s fate to chance.

“This way,” Kiannae said stepping down the hill to the left, and southward.  “The way gran’pa use to.”  She looked back at her sister, and then to the tree.  “Thank you,” Kiannae offered under her breath.  The wind had reminded her, and though even she was unsure if the tree had truly answered, it seemed prudent to show gratitude.  He had always been such a good listener, after all.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

By mid morning, even youthful vigor failed short legs on an indefinite march.  They had stopped to rest beneath a sickly apple tree that stood along the roadside.  With scarce sleep, and no food in their bellies the twin girls sat sullen on the dry grass.  They were all but hopeless as each nibbled dubiously on an apple.  They were small, there were few to chose from, and only the most recently fallen had not been gnawed or pecked to pieces.

The girls had passed five empty farms along the way towards town, and could only guess how much farther they would have to go.  Neither had ever been so far from home.  Each house they had found boarded up and abandoned.  They had been too young the previous year to understand, nor close at hand to hear the words of adults arguing, as their grandfather politely refused the King’s men.

The farms were all barren.  Years of gripping drought had taken their toll, and the residents had been moved to work more fertile lands for southern barons, and the crown.  What few crops still grew on the family farm – that kept them and their few animals fed – had often brought tears to their mother’s eyes.  She had said she was grateful.  Yet that year had been more meager than the last.  Before he passed their grandfather had always provided what wouldn’t grow, but he was gone.

Kiannae got up to move on, but fell, and shrieked after only a few steps.  Katrisha hurried to her sister’s side, as Kiannae pulled her foot from a bramble covered burrow.  She clutched at her scratched and twisted ankle gingerly, and winced in pain, but the tears would not come.  She tried to get up, but it hurt too much – it was all too much.  She simply collapsed on her side and whimpered.

Katrisha knelt beside her and pulled her close. “You ok?”

“No,” Kiannae croaked, “It hurts – ca’n get up.”

“I go,” Katrisha said softly, “I get help, for ma, for you. Ca’n be far…”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha was wrong.  She passed four more empty farms as the day wore on.  She had been little more than halfway to the closest village when she left her sister.  It was just after noon when she finally caught sight of buildings ahead.  The cold morning had given way to a hot day, and her feet screamed with every step, but she pressed on, with the promise of an end at last in sight.  Yet as she approached her heart sank to see more boarded up windows.

Rounding an abandoned building and into the town square returned the spark of hope, as the first people she had seen came into view.  The closest of them stood gathered between an open shop and a curious horse drawn coach.  The carriage held her gaze for just a moment, there was something odd about it she could not place.  She had never seen a such a thing before, but it appeared simple enough, no more than a fancy wagon.  Something blue seemed to glimmer and catch her eye, but all at once there seemed nothing there.  Whatever peculiar property might have cause it was quickly forgotten in the bright noon sun, and with the memory of far more pressing concerns.

Katrisha shook her head from the distraction, and with the last of her will trod towards the small crowd.  She found she could not speak, let alone yell.  Her throat was too dry.  She tugged at a woman’s long red skirt only to be shooed off.  With that the last of her resolve gave way.  She dropped to her knees, and leaned weakly on one arm.

She was not fully aware as a tall man in fine brown robes emerged from the murmuring crowd.  His complexion was paler than the mixture of olive, and  some darker shades that gathered around him.  She did not notice when he held up his hand for silence from the gathered citizenry, as they continued to pester him.  The sudden quiet struck her, somewhere far away, but she remained mostly oblivious as he stood over her for a moment, stared down, and stroked his brown beard, flecked with the first hints of gray.

When Katrisha failed to acknowledge the man’s presence, he got down on one knee, and straightened her upright.  He then tilted her head up with a gentle finger beneath her chin, and her gaze relented to meet his kind silver eyes.

“Are you alright, little one?” the man asked in a soothing, measured tone.

“No,” Katrisha managed in a small horse voice, and had little luck thinking clearly, “no – ma, sis…” she continued, interrupted by a tiny cough.  This made her wince, and not at all inclined to speak again.

“What is it, Laurel?” another voice came from the crowd, and a shorter, broad shouldered man shrugged his way through.  He looked more like his countrymen – in most ways – though his stocky heavy build stood out.  His pale hair also seemed an aberration.  It was thinning, cropped too short to do much with, and so lay or stood largely as it wished atop his head.

“Horence, water,” Laurel said in a soft, but commanding tone.  “What about your mother, and sister little one?” he pressed with some concern, as the shorter man hesitated a moment, tried to make sense of what was going on, and then marched past towards the coach as he had been ordered.

“Ma’s sick, won’t wake up, and Ki…” Katrisha trailed off, her eyes cloudy, and her head swimming.

“Where do you live little one?” Laurel asked his brow furled.

Katrisha pointed the way she had entered town.  “Nine farms…” she said hesitantly, wiggling her fingers as though to count.  “I think…”

Horence returned with a canteen of water, it’s cap already dangling.  Laurel took it.  “Here, drink,” he said, and offered it to Katrisha.  She gripped it a bit awkwardly, and sipped from it clumsily, spilling more than she drank down her neck in the first attempt.  Her eyes widened as the unexpectedly near icy water hit her parched throat, and something new appeared in Laurel’s already curious analytical gaze.

He watched the girl all the more intently as she tried to gulp, and relented to sip when she found it above her ability.  “What is your name little one?” Laurel asked transfixed by the girl’s brilliant green eyes.  He had decided they were not quite right, not entirely human.  Her pupils became faintly oblong in the bright midday sun.  He took note for the first time of her pale freckled complexion, which seemed meaningful only in the context of a growing list of peculiarities.

“Kat,” she said softly.  “Katrisha,” she corrected herself, but did not pronounce it well.  There had been talk at times of how to introduce oneself, though not so often as commands to do no such thing.  There had been something about cousins, she remembered, but it didn’t matter, and the whole train of thought slipped away.

Laurel reached out, and brushed the girl’s hair back.  He hoped it passed as a soothing act, but he worried it was far too familiar, even as his curiosity demanded more proof.  Here ear was not altogether unusual, just like the eyes, easily missed, and until then covered beneath her dark locks.  There was a slight point where one should not be – or perhaps should, as the last confirmation.  He withdrew his hand.

Laurel looked up at his companion.  “I think young miss Kat here could use our assistance.  Much as I hate to delay our journey, or deprive these fine folks of our company.”  He inclined his head towards the crowd behind him briefly, but his expression was less than sincere on the point.

“Are you quite sure the villagers cannot deal with the matter?” Horence asked hesitantly.

“I am strongly of the impression this does require my specific attention,” Laurel said firmly, and looked back at Katrisha for a moment.  There was a sudden hesitation, and a frown crept across his face for a fleeting second.  It was like a memory, the kind he didn’t like, the kind that came before something happened.  He pushed it aside, and scooped the girl up in his arms.  “This trip was procedural anyway.  I’ve no doubt that nothing has changed with the border wards, and there is no evidence Osyrae is on the march,” he added.

A woman tentatively attempted to recapture Laurel’s attention, but stopped as a cold gust of wind whipped over the crowd.  She and the other villagers seemed to shift away.

“My name,” the man said softly, returning his attention to the girl in his arms, “is Laurel.  Horence, and myself will be helping you – if that is all right?”

“Yes,” Katrisha replied sleepily, “yes please.”  She rested her head on Laurel’s shoulder as he carried her.  There was something soothing about his presence.  He felt like the old book her grandfather used to read to her from, the feel of well worn pages, and cleverness.  She fell asleep before they even reached the coach, and was unaware of a brief round of questions asked of the villagers, or how unfruitful the inquiry proved.  No one seemed to have any idea who the little girl was.  Least of all to Laurel’s unspoken suspicions.

It was well after the coach had left town that a woman recalled mention almost two years prior, of twin girls, purportedly cousins then visiting the Ashton farm.  She had not remembered off hand, as it had only been a fleeting conversation with a gossip obsessed friend.  That friend had insisted something did not add up.

The following year had been the great exodus to the south, as families were moved away from the drought, and most of the gossips along with them.  The woman put the matter aside, and went back about her day.  She decided if asked again, she would relate what she had remembered – for all it was worth.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha stirred as the coach halted, and Laurel spoke beside her.  “You certainly look familiar, little one.  I think perhaps I found someone who has misplaced you.”  He was looking out the window.

“I’m hurt, ma’s sick” came a small strained voice from beside the coach, “please help.”

Katrisha’s eyes went wide as she stirred from a half sleeping state.  “Ki!” she declared.

Laurel opened the coach door, slid from his seat, and scooped the little girl up from beside the road.  He held her up for a moment at arms length in the sun, and examined her eyes.  “Yes,” Laurel said with confidence.  “Yes, I do believe we have found your sister.”

“Ka!” Kiannae said with great relief in her voice to see her sister in the coach behind the man.  Laurel turned, and set her beside Katrisha in the coach.

Horence peeked in through the window behind his seat.  “Twins,” he remarked with mild interest.

“Indeed,” Laurel said with an inscrutable expression.  “So young miss..Ki was it?  How far to your farm?”

“Four farms,” Kiannae said with some confidence.  “Ma calls me Kia…Kiannae when she’s mad.”  The girl visibly saddened again at mentioning her mother.  Katrisha had clung to her sister firmly, and seemed almost asleep again.

Laurel leaned across, and ruffled Kiannae’s hair gently.  He tried to reassure her, “We are seeing if we can help your mother.”

“Baby too,” Kiannae said after a moment, “very quiet.”

“We’ll check on the baby as well,” Laurel nodded, but grew more concerned as the number of mystery children grew.  He wondered how three small children were still so far up north after the evacuation, but he wagered a guess.  “Is it a new brother, or another sister?” he asked to make conversation, and perhaps distract Kiannae from her morose.

Kiannae looked thoughtful for a moment, and Horence started them moving again, which stirred Katrisha who answered instead, “Brother.”

“I think so,” Kiannae said.  “Saw a little thing last night, like the boy goats have.”  Kiannae rubbed her ankle gingerly, and winced.

“You hurt yourself miss Kia?” Laurel asked softly.

“I fell…could’n walk.  Tried, didn’ get far,” Kiannae replied seemingly embarrassed.

“Let me see,” Laurel said reaching out a hand.  Kiannae lifted her foot up so he could look more closely at her ankle.  His touch was very delicate, strange, but also oddly familiar.  “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, “yes, just a sprain.  I can heal that.”  There was a great deal of warmth, like summer sun on the skin, and just the slightest glow.

Kiannae gasped in surprise, and jostled her sister again, who looked at her crossly.  “You, you’re like daddy!” she declared, and then immediately thought better of it.

“Am I now?” Laurel said with a knowing air as he continued to work.  “Your father can heal sprains?  What else?”

Katrisha gave her sister a stern look, and Kiannae looked back and forth between the two, and pursed her lips with frustration.  “Ma said not to talk ‘bout daddy,” Kiannae said uncomfortably.

“Why doesn’t she want you to talk about your father?” Laurel inquired, pushing just a little bit.

“Made her sad,” Katrisha said uncertainly.

“Gran’pa said it too,” Kiannae countered, and frowned, “he wasn’t sad.”

“Ma said not to talk ‘bout gran’pa either,” Kiannae retorted, “…said they gone, talking din’ change it,” Kiannae said tight lipped.

“So your father, and grandfather are dead…I’m very sad to hear that,” Laurel offered gently.

“Dun remember much,” Kiannae said sadly, and looked away.

“Men yelling, big mess,” Katrisha offered, only able to bare Laurel’s inquisitive gaze for a moment.

“Dad gone, an’ gan’pa died,” Kiannae added.

Laurel’s brow furrowed deeply, and he paused in his work.  “What kind of men?” he asked, a bit of the softness in his voice lost.

“Dun know,” Kiannae said obviously trying to remember, “tall, mad, talked funny.  Talked like daddy does, when he’s angry.”

Laurel closed his eyes, and continued to work on Kiannae’s sprain in silence.  He was very bothered by the strange jumble of circumstances the day had brought him.  A lot of little pieces that painted an incomplete, and quite worrisome picture.  He considered the possibility it could portend very little, or a great deal of trouble.  By the time he finished with Kiannae’s ankle, both girls seemed to be asleep.

Laurel looked up from the girls.  He considered Horence, who sat behind him driving the coach.  The shade was open, and if he was listening he could have heard all of it.  Laurel knew Horence was quite annoyed, and quietly bearing the situation.  He felt some pity for the man, his orders were more than a bit muddled by that point.

Strictly speaking he had been ordered to the border, and to accompany Laurel.  Friendship – such as it was – tempered frustration, but not without straining it.  Further they were more friendly adversaries, sparring partners, not confidants of any sensible description.

Laurel considered telling Horence what he had discerned, it seemed right, but something held him back.  He needed to think, needed to make decisions, and decisions required he knew more.  The girls’ mother would provide the answers he needed – or at least he hoped – he feared otherwise.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Is this it?” Laurel asked, as he gently nudged the girls awake.  They rubbed their eyes, and moved to the window.  A long path lead off the road, and past an old ash tree that grew on its own little hill.

“Yes,” the twins said in unison, and Horence started the coach up the path.  There was no sign of activity as the coach pulled up to the house.  There were distant sounds of unhappy animals, not tended yet that day, but nothing more.  “Take me to your mother,” Laurel said with kind command as he opened the coach door, and helped each girl down.

The house was quiet, it felt wrong to Kiannae, and she noticed the hesitance in Laurel.  As they entered their mother’s room the only sound was a fly buzzing at the window.  It seemed quite intent to get out.  Katrisha and Kiannae both moved to climb onto the bed beside their mother, but Laurel motioned suddenly, and Horence held the girls back.

Laurel leaned cautiously over the bed, and noted a few dead flies scattered about the sheets. He focused on the auras of the infant and mother, his eyes out of focus, for it was easiest to see almost out of the corner of the eye.  He moved a hand over the two feeling it, like velvet, and yet tingled like the hand had gone to sleep.  That wasn’t right.  The woman was dead – he grimaced – more than dead.  She had no more aura than a rock, less perhaps.  That was unnatural, even for the long deceased.  The child though, if he squinted just right, he glowed like the sun, and all at once seemed a dark spot that held a tangible pull on all around him.  Yes the boy was alive, but quite dangerous.

Laurel steeled himself, clung tightly to his own life energies, and lifted the baby.  Even so he felt a bit of his own vital force soak into the child, like water into a sponge.  The baby stirred a bit in his arms, and he felt the pull lessen, as the boy met resistance his mother had not given.  The woman had sacrificed every last drop of her own fading life.  She had done so willingly, to keep her newborn alive, and the child, innocent to the consequences, had taken all that was offered, all that was left, and instinctively sought even more.

Laurel held back tears as he felt a struggle take place in his arms, as an older presence briefly became distinct, like a ripple of blue across his almost yellow aura,  a thing that felt like a warm summer breeze, and almost left a hint of mint in the back of the throat.  The older presence tempered the younger, made him stop.  It was a sense altogether more vivid, and obtuse than any Laurel could recall.

“What,” Laurel asked in a choked voice, “what is the boy’s name?”

The twins looked at each other.  “Wren – I ‘member Mama saying Wren,” Katrisha said uneasily.

“Like the little birds, ma always liked the little birds,” Kiannae offered.

Kiannae could feel something was wrong, something familiar and terribly sickening, but she pushed the feeling back.  “Ma…is ma ok?”

Laurel visibly shrank.  He looked for delicate words, but the infant’s pull was taxing.  “I’m sorry, both of you, I’m sorry.  Your mother has passed from this world.”  He winced as he feared there was something of a lie in this.  He looked to the boy’s face, still paler than a northerner should be, but not quite so much as his sisters.  It was hard to tell in the dim light if his eyes had the same peculiarity, even as they shown up at him with a striking blue, but the ear still had the same shape.

“NO!” Katrisha yelled, and broke free of Horence’s grasp.  Kiannae was right behind her.  They both climbed into the bed.  “No…ma…ma please,” they sobbed in near perfect unison, and shook her.  But they could feel it, a memory of what it had been when their grandfather had died.  There was a coldness where there had always been warmth.  The the familiar feeling of life was gone.  Still they pleaded, each in turn.

“Horence,” Laurel said, his voice strained.  “I’m sorry, but tend to things here.  Deal…with their mother.  I must take this one for help.”

“What’s wrong,” Horence said, and reached to push aside the blanket hiding the little boy’s face, only to find his hand rebuffed firmly by Laurel.

“He is a danger – through no fault of his own,” Laurel said firmly.  “I can only think of one place to go.  Please, care for matters here, I must leave – now.”  Horence stepped back, at a bit of a loss, and watched as Laurel rushed past him out the door.  After a moment of disbelief he turned to the two sobbing girls, still clinging to their dead mother.

Horence had woken that morning prepared for the possibility of encountering death, steeled himself as any good soldier heading out into the world would.  This however was nothing he could have expected, or prepared for.  He frowned, as he further realized the trouble he would inevitably face had grown much worse.  Orders were orders, he could surely make the case that his orders had been superseded, and that was true, but it would not go over well.  Not at all.

“A simple border inspection,” he muttered quietly under his breath.  He walked to the front door, and watched as Laurel deftly unhooked the harness from one of the horses.

The horses seemed spoked.  Horence noticed with some concern that the freed stallion was edging away from Laurel nervously, kicking the dirt ever so slightly.  It was a well trained horse, and should not have been acting that way.  Horence was about to say something, when the horse bolted free of the loose harness, and watched in amazement as Laurel grabbed the reins, a seemingly damned fool thing to do under the circumstances.

Horence rushed forward to help, but stopped in his tracks as he saw Laurel hold steady against everything the horse could muster.  Horence inched forward, not quite certain what, if anything to do.  He didn’t think it wise to approach the horse, and before he took a third step Laurel sprang forward, and in one smooth, seemingly impossible motion, was up, and riding off under the speed of an animal frantic with fear.  Horence almost thought he had seen the slightest flicker of the magic Laurel had used, and assured himself he must have used magic.  There was no other way the feat could have been done.  Not while encumbered with an infant in one’s arms to be certain.

Horence ran his hand through his hair, as he watched Laurel go.  It was settled, and settled without time frame, or a ruddy clue what was going on.  He moved to calm the second horse, and insured it was still secure.  ‘One step at a time,’ he thought, calming himself.  That was always the best way when things fell apart.  Break it down, move forward, do what needs doing right at the moment.

Sure that the second horse was comfortable enough, and not going anywhere, Horence walked back into the house, and stared at the sobbing girls.  He had never been great with small children.  Even if they seemed to like him, he always felt awkward.  He leaned against the doorframe, and looked for a first step.  Pushing himself off the wall he marched to the closest girl, and gently touched her shoulder.  “Kat, was it?” he asked.

The girl stiffened.  “Kia,” she corrected him.  Horence grimaced for losing track, and realized that could make things all the more difficult, but pressed on.

“You said your grandfather died,” he continued setting aside his mistake.  “Where was he buried?”

“What?” Kiannae managed in a seemingly bewildered tone.

“By the trees,” Katrisha answered between sobs.

Horence turned, and walked back out through the still open front door.  He scanned the surrounding terrain to be sure, and it was as he remembered.  A few small trees dotted disused fields across the road, and a forest edge lay miles away at the base of foothills.  Surely too far to be what the girl had referred to.  He took stock of the rest of his surroundings.  A rooster stood at the apex of an old barn, that sat above a field where a few scattered goats chewed on dry sparse grass, and glanced expectantly up at the farm house.

An old donkey could be seen in a further field, and a handful of chickens milled about pecking at the dirt.  Something struck Horence for the first time as he looked back down the path to the main road, and considered the lone ash that stood there, and seemed out of place.  Several half formed thoughts collided unhelpfully, and the least useful sprung to the front – verses from a poem.

He shook his head, and thought instead of geography.  Were they far enough north he wondered?  Where they up where the great forest jutted out near the border.  He started around the house, and as he moved the words from the poem returned.  It had been so long ago, and he barely remembered.  He was surprised he remembered at all, and yet as he rounded the corner, and saw the tree line it all snapped into place, and he recited it under his breath:

such noble folk there reside,
strong of blood and bone,
salt of Avrale preservers,
one fine woman stood alone,

there defended home ‘n child,
with pitch fork raised on high,
to wound the dreaded drake,
that it might no more fly,

A path lead down the hill between the farmhouse and the barn, and there by the forest edge stood a small grey structure.  Though far away, Horence could just make out the white shape set beneath the eave, and above a heavy stone door.  He tried very hard to remember the rest.  It seemed such an easy, and awful thing to forget.

‘n though she did perish,
be it so we do remand,
the valiant Adel Ashton,
‘n return her to the land,

the wounded drake did end,
by kingsmen brave and tall,
yet ne’er a one where nobler,
than she who did there fall,

no knight or dame was she,
High Vale’s true ‘n errant girl,
who wed a man of Ashton,
an’ bore a lonely child,

O’ fickle world conspired,
turned healer to other fates,
O’ mortal lips speak kindly,
of she who was no saint,

O’ let all long remember,
a drake’s skull doth attest,
none are more revered,
than those unexpected,
who gave their last.

Horence leaned against a side of the house in disbelief.  He had been there once before, long ago as a child.  He had stood beside his father, a soldier as he was then, and watched the Elder King honor a common woman, who had died with uncommon valor.

The girls were the granddaughters of Adel Ashton.  Little as they were they couldn’t quite be four, and one had walked at least ten miles to try and save her mother.  It had not been enough, and more tragedy had been visited upon those who it seemed deserved far better.

Horence walked along the back of the house, and peered in on the crying girls through the bedroom window, and once again tried to figure out what to do.  He realized with a grimace that had he been less distracted he might have noticed the trees through that very window.

He rubbed his head wearily, and looked around.  Small patches of sickly wildflowers could be seen blooming in a field down the hill, defying the parched land.  With a glimmer of inspiration he headed back into the house.  The first thing, he had settled on, was to be rid of the grieving children long enough to begin dealing with the body.

For a moment Horence stood silently at the bedroom door, uneasy at the thought of disturbing the twin’s sorrow.  He took a slow deep breath, and spoke firmly, “There are flowers in the east field.  They would look lovely in your mother’s hair.  Please go gather them.”

Two pairs of green eyes turned to harry him with wounded glares, capable of shattering a heart of stone.  It was all he could do to simply endure their gaze, until at last the girls obeyed his command, with all the reluctance they were due.  They crawled from their mother’s bed, walked from the room, out the back door, and slowly down the path towards the field.

Horence gritted his teeth and considered his task.  The dead woman before him was a bit of a mess.  It felt wrong for her to be buried that way, but what could he do about it…without…no that wouldn’t do.  He wasn’t even keen to see what lay beneath the sheets that covered her.  He’d never seen the aftermath of a birth, but knew enough to be sure he did not wish to.  Though the rest he had seen before, a woman dead from childbirth, lain beneath a sheet, and disheveled.

He put the uncomfortable memory from his mind, and tried to remember the name of the girl before him.  It had been so many years before, and it escaped him.  He remembered her that day though, flowers crushed to her chest, and tears streaming down her cheeks.  A lovely, and terrible sight to behold.  He could even remember the dress she wore, not so fine as those from the court that were present, but it seemed better than any of the other commoners.

That thought was odd – it had never meant anything to him before, but it was odd.  If it had been provided by the court, it would have been of better quality.  If it had been provided by her father, it seemed too nice.  He looked around – there were a lot of things just a little nicer than they should have been.  Little details that belied the humble stature, or scope of the house, as well as how the girls were dressed.  He wrote it off, and moved on, he needed to act before the children were again in his way.

Resolving himself that all was the best it would be, Horence wrapped the woman’s body tighter in the sheets, and lifted her into his arms.  He carried her from the house, and somberly down the hill.  He watched the tree line as he walked, and thought.  Something was bothering him, something he knew he would feel foolish for missing, but he could not place it.  It wasn’t the contrary details of the house, or clothing – it was something else.

He had been distracted on the ride up to the farm, worrying about timetables, and orders, and things he couldn’t really control.  He had let Laurel do all the talking, and stewed.  Letting Laurel do the talking was never a bad idea he thought, but failing to listen, no that was right stupid.

Horence set the woman’s body before the heavy stone door of the crypt.  As he lay her down, her arm tumbled from the sheets, and a simple gold band, with a lone garnet caught his eye.  She wore it like a wedding band he noticed.  He mulled it over for a moment.  It felt wrong to remove a ring from a dead woman’s hand, but he decided that one day one of her children might want their mother’s ring.  He worked it off her finger gingerly, and placed it in a pocket.

Horence gazed up at great skull that hung beneath the carved stone eve.  It was a brilliant white against the somber grey.  It struck him quite sad that Adel’s husband had passed without word even reaching the court – or if it had, nothing had trickled down to him.  Now his daughter was dead as well.  He sneered at the thought, there was no doubt she would still be alive had anyone thought to keep tabs on the family.  What was all this for he wondered at the crypt – adorned with such a rare treasure as a drake skull – if they were just to be forgotten?

He put his agitation into moving the heavy stone door.  This proved no small, or quick task.  After several minutes of struggle, and with the door only half open Horence rested, and looked at the slight form of the body that lay behind him.  He was at a loss to explain how she had done this herself – much less presumably alone, and pregnant.  The father had already been gone, that was what the girls had implied he remembered vaguely.

Horence stepped into the crypt, and glanced at the two engraved stones covering the final resting places of Adel – he looked to the other cover to remind himself – and ‘James.’  It was said the King’s men had feared his wrath for keeping him from the hunt, nearly as much as the drake itself.  Such were the legends he thought.  He had died in the end none the less.  If by age, or in battle after all was unclear he thought, as he began to remember some of what he had overheard.

The Elder King had been generous in constructing the crypt Horence considered.  Six more places waited for future generations, and one more stone was already engraved.  He looked at the cover in the dim light, ‘Meliae,’ it read.  Its intended occupant would join her parents that day.  Horence turned as he heard small footsteps crunching dry grass down the hill. Two girls stood staring at him, and at their mother’s prone form.  Bundles of little flowers were clutched in their arms.  They were the very image of their mother all those years before, if much dirtier.

Nodding approvingly Horence knelt down before the girls and took a flower from each, then turned and placed them in Meliae’s hair.  He gestured for the girls to do the same with the rest, and sat back for a moment trying to shake it all.

“She looks pretty,” Katrisha said softly as the last flower was woven with the rest.

“Yes she does, and at peace,” Horence said firmly.  “She passed bringing new life into this world.  In you two, and your brother she will live on.”  He paused a moment, looking at the lovely young woman before him – a waste was all he could think.  She should not have been alone, any half competent healer could have saved her.

He hesitated in his ire.  His mother had died after all, in spite of all efforts, but that was different, her heart was flawed, and the damn priest hadn’t realized.  He was a worthless preacher more than a real healer…he clenched his fist.  Where was the children’s father, the King’s men, the villagers, anyone – it all seemed senseless and wrong.  He struggled with the weakness the circumstances brought out in him.

It also didn’t add up, and then it did, or started to.  ‘Tall men who talk funny,’ he winced, and wanted to curse, but thought better of it.  The forest, Laurel’s dodgy behavior, no one knowing the girls were there.  He looked to their faces, paler even than their dead mother, and caught a glimpse of their eyes.  It was such a little thing.  Not just the shape of the pupils, but the angle at which they were set.  Everything fit, and Horence felt at once clever, and a fool.  He took a deep breath, set it aside, and locked it away under things that might or might not matter, yet were good to know.

Horence looked to his left, and considered the door to the crypt.  It was open enough he decided.  “Come,” he said as he leaned forward, and lifted Meliae again.  “Let us lay her to rest.”

Chapter 2 >