Chapter 20

The kingdom of valleys ends,
where the endless plains begin,
and there beyond lies Osyrae,
home to black dragonkin,

once their sire ruled men,
now that line lays abhorred,
fear that long come day,
a dragon king,
again adored.

– untitled bard verse, circa 610 E.R.

Stirrings in the North

Wren was still small.  It wasn’t simply that he was years younger than his classmates, he was shorter than most girls his age, and any early bursts of growth had long since fallen behind.  He stood a full head shorter than Celia, the younger of his two companions.  It was also not simply a question of height, he was slight in form, and his head bowed easily to those around him.

He was possessed of an unmistakably demure nature – even if the word conventionally belonged to women, there was an aptness to the description – he was easily, and often mistaken for a young girl.  A mistake that quite foolishly many would make for his hair alone, not even his stature, or poise.  The ignorant would blame this on his upbringing, to be raised in a niche where women reigned as men did in most other corners of the world.  To look around him though, at the other men and boys that shared that way of life, they were little like Wren.

Men of the order were not so different than outsiders.  A few less rough edges, slightly less assuming, but on the whole nothing incongruous to the upper classes, and scholarly circles.  They were far more mindful of women, but no less angling for their attentions, and affections.  Vastly more successful, but this was only marginally owing to any particular quality of their own.

It was a strange dance to watch.  Different than what played out between outsiders, who couched their advances and acceptances far more deeply in properties.  There was an overtness to the exchange amongst members of the order, yet still polite, cordial, playfully coy, and rarely crass.  The differences though, lay as much in the women.  Self assured, privileged over the men, unashamed of their own wants.  They were as likely to approach, as be approached, and many quite content to take their affections in one another.

None of this was lost on the young, and no one attempted to shield them from the truth of it, for no one was ashamed.  Frankly the young were warned of it firmly, of their own coming desires, for most of them would bloom at a young age.  A curse and a blessing of their gift and practice.  To channel living energy was to be alive, and desires of the flesh are inseparably part of life.  There were roughly two options.  The path that Clarions took, to repress, to be more chased, and reserved.  The latter to embrace it, and find some balance that gave one peace.

Wren was still quite young, but boys of the wider world had turned a longing eye in younger years.  His had looked to each of his friends more than once, but it was always Celia that held his gaze.  Audry was more developed, but she was more than another year his elder, imposing, worldly in a vague sort of way – for in truth she had seen it and traveled, even if as a small child.  She had been well aware of her mother’s dalliances, and affinity for strong but accommodating men.  Wren felt as though he would wilt before her.  Celia was more like him, reserved, introspective.  It was not night and day where his attentions lay, but the gravity of it was clear.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 10th, 647 E.R.

Audrey had hugged each of her dear friends in turn, and run off.  She had duties to attend to, but Wren and Celia’s free days had aligned.  Neither was much for coming up with plans on what to do, all but invariably left to their own they were apt to wander, or sit somewhere on the grounds.  They looked to each other and laughed.  It had become a joke that didn’t even need to be spoken any more.  ‘What do you want to do?’ invariably lead to a lack of answer.  Except at that moment, Wren did know, if only abstractly.

There were hardly details in his mind.  Lycians may be open and unashamed, but that did not mean they spelled out the specifics for the young, who were left mostly to their own devices to figure it out.  He knew he wanted to kiss her.  Watching her laugh, watching her give him the amused look they so often shared only made the feeling stronger.  He was not so bold though, and instead he bit his lip and earned a funny look from his friend.

Wren took Celia’s hand, but looked away, avoiding her gaze as she considered him quizzically.  “Let’s go to the orchard,” he said.  It was mid spring, the flowers would be blooming, and it might be private.  All of this had been keenly in mind with the suggestion, which was far more direction than either of them would typically offer

“Ok,” Celia said without much concern, squeezed his hand, and they walked on.

The orchard was indeed in bloom, fragrant, and lush.  Invariably Wren wanted to look not at the trees, but to Celia, yet he didn’t.  One need not have shame heaped upon them, to be embarrassed by desire.  It is vulnerable, volatile, frightening, and needful all at once – this is at its worst for the very young.

“Mother says a dragon has been seen in the north,” Wren commented, trying to make conversation.  Wren waffled on that a moment.  Renae was not his mother, she was the matron of the cloister.  She encouraged him though to call her mother, and it always felt odd, even if it had become habit.

“She told you?” Celia asked curiously, interrupting the stray train of thought.

“No – but I heard her talking with Andria about it.”

“There hasn’t been a dragon in the north in a very long time,” Celia said with some concern.  “That’s all mother would tell me when I asked her about it.”

“Renae does not like to talk about it either,” Wren said.  “My grandmother died fighting a dragon.”

“She did?” Celia asked, and stopped abruptly.  “Your grandmother fought a dragon?”

Wren simply nodded, even when such a question seemed to demand a better answer.  He did not like to talk about his family, save his sisters.  The others were dead, and it was all tragedy, and pain.  Renae had always been very supportive on the matter, and of his reluctance to speak of it.  She never mentioned his mother, or grandmother, but Mercu had told him the tale.  Silence set in again, and the two walked on without much direction.

“Wren,” Celia began after a few more minutes had passed.

He hesitated.  “Yes?”

“What’s wrong?” Celia pressed.

“Nothing,” Wren said, and pursed his lips uneasily.

“Lying isn’t like you,” Celia chided, and squeezed his hand tighter.

Wren started to turn his head, but found he couldn’t, not at first.  His eyes fell, and he turned very slowly, before managing at last to look up.  He still couldn’t speak, could barely look Celia in the eye whose gaze was filled with concern.  He swallowed.  “I…” was all he managed.

Celia said nothing, she just held Wren’s hand as his eyes fell again to the ground.  When he didn’t look up she stepped closer, and hugged him to her chest.  He buried his face in her robe, and tried not to cry, he was so embarrassed.  He tried to look up, but couldn’t quite, even for physical reasons.  If he tried he just wound up staring at her neck.  This gave way to temptation, and he nuzzled there instead.  It was brazen, frightening, innocent enough in fact, and pure instinct, excusable…he tried to convince himself, but was hardly sure.  It felt familiar, and out of place all at once.

There was a hesitance then, a stiffness in Celia’s embrace.  Wren stopped, his nose rested against the side of her neck, his breath on her skin.  She shivered.  There was a moment of silence, of utter indecision, and a lack of any real communication between the two.  He knew as he searched his own feelings, that the instinct hadn’t been his own, even as surely as the want of it had been.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said.

It was Celia’s turn to swallow.

Wren started to pull away, and for a moment it felt as though he might slip her grasp, but Celia suddenly pulled him in tighter, and didn’t let him go – crushing him to her – to no complaint from the boy.

“No,” Celia answered.  “No, I’m sorry, Little Bird.”

Wren struggled a bit with the nickname just then.  It was mostly Renae who ever called him that, but others had picked up on it.  Not all with much love, but Celia had always been at least playful about it.  No part of this helped it feel quite right to him in that moment.

“I like you,” Wren said.  It was utterly lackluster, and he knew it, but what else could he say.  He could jump straight to love, it probably wouldn’t be wrong to say, he did after all.  There were four people in his life he felt he could not live without; Renae, Katrisha, and his two dearest friends – yet to say love seemed too far.

“I like you too,” Celia offered, yet the unspoken ‘but’ was louder in Wren’s head than the words themselves.

“I’m sorry,” Wren said again.

“Stop saying that,” Celia demanded somewhere between pleading, and anger.

“I’ll go,” Wren offered, and pulled away, but Celia didn’t let him fully escape her grasp, and held him by both shoulders.  He looked down, for much too long.  He stared at the ground, before reluctantly looking up again.  Celia was biting her lip, her intent unreadable.  Wren felt very small.

Celia stepped closer, her eyes hopelessly uncertain, she leaned down, and stopped.  She didn’t quite seem to know the mechanics of it, but Wren’s heart leapt to think she might be about to kiss him.  There were no other thoughts but that in his head – of their lips meeting – and then he pushed up into it.  Their lips came together, awkwardly, tentatively, but then pressed more firmly – both of them.

To call the kiss unskilled really wouldn’t have done it justice.  It was a wreck, both of them knew it instinctively, but they also didn’t care.  Celia’s hesitance was impossible to miss, but she did return the kiss, her eyes open at first, filled with insecurity, but Wren saw none of this, his were closed so tight it almost hurt.  He wrapped his arms around Celia, and for a moment her hesitance melted, her eyes narrowed, closed, and the two eased into one another.

Wren felt so small in Celia’s arms – to both of them – yet he was like a tiny ball of fire to Celia’s comforting, consoling part.  She was not unmoved, she felt strings she didn’t have words for, and her kiss did warm into a needful thing, however overshadowed by Wren’s insistence.

The kiss broke, and Wren’s lips wandered aimlessly over Celia’s cheek, her chin, and found again her neck.  She shivered, and grew tense again.  Wren stopped.  He knew he was too far ahead, he buried his face in her neck seeking comfort instead, but it was all the same to her.  She couldn’t know what haunted him.

“What do you want?” Celia asked, her voice halting, and nervous.

Wren was silent for more than a moment, this didn’t help.  “I don’t know,” he finally offered.  “Just to be with you, completely.  To feel you, all of you…to touch you.”  There was a breath of pause, “I’m sorry.”

Celia tensed further at those words, and Wren cringed.  She had asked him not to say that, and again he had.  He resisted apologizing for that in turn.  They stood like that for far too long.  Wren started to pull away again, when he felt Celia rest her hand his arm.  She brought his hand up, and rested it over her heart, where her robe was slightly parted, and then let go.

Wren let his hand rest there for some time.  He didn’t know what was next, and he also could tell Celia was at best unsure, but that barely registered over his own curiosity.  That awareness was like fine threads binding something wild, not enough.  His hand slipped a bit under the edge of the fabric, and he moved to kiss her again.  She responded to the kiss.  She wasn’t unwilling, but her trepidation was like ice to Wren’s intensity, she seemed to be melting, but he was constantly aware, kept from completely losing himself in the moment.

The kiss broke, and their eyes met again.  Celia brushed back his hair, a look of love and something horribly torn in her gaze.  Her fingers came down along Wren’s arm.  Her hand rested there, and squeezed gently, enough to stop him from moving any further.  She trembled, the uncertainty turning to fear, sadness, confusion.  She winced as though in pain.  “No,” she whispered softly.  “No.  I’m sorry, no,” she began to weep.  Then she slipped away, ran, and did not look back.

Wren leaned against a nearby tree, clutched his robe to his chest, and watched her go.  He was guilty, troubled, and a little desperate.  There was a flash of memory, more sensation than anything, but there were hints of a scent he did not know, and shadows by the moonlight – long hair, and twined fingers.  There was a glimmer of blue eyes in the dark, and the sensation of lips trailing along a throat – his throat – but he knew it wasn’t his.

No one had ever kissed him like that, touched him that way.  He knew what the memory was, and as much as he tried to push it away, it took him, and he fell to his knees, trembling.  He was at once elated and furious, trapped in the beauty of a moment that wasn’t his, and suddenly wildly, felt like it could never be.  He was in two places at once, both felt slightly numb, and all the more real.  The memories were always more vivid than his own, but none had ever been so intense, or so filled with things he could not place.

It took Wren some time to struggle back to his feet.  It faded to a vague shadow, all but inseparable from his own memory, save the knowledge that it wasn’t.  He made his way ploddingly back to the cloister.  His demeanor drew more than a few glances, but no one asked.  Eventually he found himself on a balcony, overlooking one of the many courtyards.  He sat, his feet dangling over the edge, as he was prone to do – particularly when mulling things over.

Time was a bit of a blur, as was oft the case when his mother’s memories intruded.  As unnerving as the experience was, it had done nothing to shake the state he had been left in from his brief encounter with Celia, truthfully it had made things very much worse.  That sensation gnawed at him, he wanted to feel it, not just a memory that wasn’t his.  To feel fingers, and lips on his skin, to lose himself completely in someone else.  To give those feelings in turn.  He wanted it to be with Celia, but in that moment he didn’t entirely care, almost anyone would do.  The realization of that made him a bit angry at himself.

He heard footsteps behind him, he didn’t even turn to look.  He realized he had been sitting there for well over an hour.  “I thought that was you,” Audry said with a quizzical tone.

“So it is,” Wren said disinterestedly.

“You alright?” Audry asked sitting down next to him, and hanging her own feet.

“Been better,” Wren muttered.

“I’m here to listen,” Audry offered sweetly.  “You aren’t moping over my brother again are you?”

“No, and…” Wren sighed, even that fraught thought seemed to wither before what he was feeling.  “I don’t know what I’d do without you, and…” he trailed off.

Audry put her hand on Wren’s and squeezed.  “Is something wrong with Celia?” she asked astutely, seeing only one possible person that could have finished that sentence for either of them.

“I…” Wren started to turn to Audry, and looked much more plainly away.

“You what?” Audry said squeezing Wren’s hand again.

“I kissed her,” Wren said reluctantly, and bit his lip.

Audry hesitated for a moment, and then with a touch of disappointment in her voice finally said simply, “Oh.”

“I really Kissed her,” Wren said with a bit of frustration in his voice, failing to read Audry’s tone.

“And?” Audry said her voice tight, but trying to remain supportive.

“It was very nice…” Wren started, “and then it wasn’t.”

“What was wrong?” Audry asked not sure what to make of Wren’s statement.

“It started to be more than a kiss,” Wren choked.  “I…I don’t even know what came over me, it felt good…till she wanted to stop.  I did, but…oh fates, she ran off pretty quick after that.”

“That’s rough,” Audry said softly, “they warned us that we might start to have these feelings soon.”

“For you, and the older kids sure,” Wren muttered.  “I’m three years younger, and Celia is a year younger herself.”

“You were always ahead of the class,” Audry laughed sweetly squeezing his hand all the more tightly.

“Now I’ve one less friend for it too,” Wren whimpered.  “It was so much stronger than they warned…so,” he paused to swallow.  “…it was like starving, gasping for air, and she was the only relief.  I still don’t think I was in my right mind even after she left.  I just…”

Audry looked away, but held on.  “I want to say I can relate…I kind of can, I am older like you say…” she said trailing off.  “I can understand liking someone, and not feeling like…  Never mind, that’s my trouble, not yours.  I’m sure Celia will forgive you, it’s always been the three of us, hasn’t it?  Yeah, she’ll forgive you.”

Wren looked at Audry perplexed by her rambling.  “Who?” he asked curiously, somewhere between wanting to help, and simply being glad for someone else’s problems to distract him from his own.  “I’ve never really seen you talking with the other boys, or girls…not at length any way.”

Audry looked at Wren for a moment, then shook her head trying to clear it.  “Sorry, no…its…they…just, someone younger…so I never said anything.”

“Oh,” Wren said a bit flummoxed, “oh I’m sorry.  I…didn’t realize you were interested in Celia too…and here I’m going on about kissing her, and…I’m so sorry.”

There was a look of absolute disbelief on Audry’s face, it looked almost as though she wanted to be mad.  Then finally, laughingly, almost crying she conked her head on the railing post between them.  “If I ever called you brilliant, I take it back right this instant.”

“You…wait, what?” Wren said, suddenly not quite sure if he should be offended.

“You, you darling…silly…” She hesitated for a breath, and more emphatically finished.  “You.” Audry said, slowly embracing what she was admitting as she said it.  Wren was younger, but he never seemed it.  He was timid and sweet, but it had always felt more like kind and considerate.

Wren closed his eyes, and knocked his head against the same post in embarrassment.  It took him a moment to realize Audry was still squeezing his hand, and as he opened his eyes he could see Audry watching him from the other side of the rail.  “So, what you are saying,” Wren started awkwardly.

“Is I love you, you silly boy.  I’ve loved you for a while now…” Audry said flatly, “but I’m  older…and I always knew it would be Celia for you.  I didn’t want it to be, and if she’s hesitated…”  She stopped for a moment.  “Sasha’s right,” she said under her breath so softly Wren barely heard it.  “I won’t.”

Wren’s presence had always put her at ease, and on edge at once.  He was so small, but his presence wasn’t.  He felt big and strong, and safe even if he wasn’t, and she was far too ready to say anything on her mind around him, until a few thoughts had made her hold her tongue.

“I…I don’t know what to say,” Wren said looking into the hopeful determined eyes across from him.

“Say yes,” Audry said hopefully, “kiss me, and see if it stirs the same feelings?”

Wren hesitated, it wasn’t even close to an unappealing idea.  “But what about Celia?” he asked, biting his lip.

“Nothing changes,” Audry assured him.  “She’s still our friend.  She was the one who was uncomfortable.  This should make it easier, take the weight of it off her.”

Audry leaned around the rail closer to Wren, and waited, hoped that he would accept her offer.  She doubted if she was right, that Celia wouldn’t mind, but a part of her – if she was honest with herself – didn’t care.  If Celia had turned Wren away she wouldn’t.  She had been told such an opportunity might come.   He was sweet, kind, and made her happy.  So what if he was younger, he was now a class ahead of her, as was Celia.  She felt left behind, worried she was losing them.  Others didn’t know how special Wren was, but Sasha had warned her – that wouldn’t last forever.

“I…ok,” Wren said letting go of his hesitation, and leaning closer for a testing kiss, and then again longer.  As Audry pulled him close Wren remembered kissing Celia, the half hearted return, the hesitation.  Audry didn’t hesitate, she didn’t pull away, she was in control, and a part of Wren liked that.

Neither had noticed Celia, they were too distracted to have looked down into the courtyard below.  She looked away, uncomfortable, and sad.  She tried to convince herself it was for the best, that it was easier that way.  Part of her knew what she had wanted, but part of her doubted.  Most of all, she hadn’t been ready.  Wren was the only boy who interested her, and if he was taken, it did simplify things, make who she felt she was more clear, but it also didn’t make her happy.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 31st, 647 E.R.

Wren glanced up from looking at the floor.  Andrew still stood before him.  Over a year they had mostly avoided each other successfully.  No small feat when living within the same cloister.  It had helped that Wren had moved ahead to a higher class, but that day had brought them face to face in the middle of a long hallway, and for once, each had not simply walked past.

Wren had heard from Audry that Andrew was doing better with his studies, that his constant practicing with writing was making the head cleric consider him for early apprenticeship.  He winced that Audry had never blamed him for any of it.  Not that she had ever entirely seemed to believe all of it.

Wren steeled himself, and took a step towards Andrew, who backed away from him hesitantly.  Wren frowned with frustration, and walked right up to him.  He could see the fear in Andrew’s eyes, that he wanted to run, but some shred of pride wouldn’t let him that time.  Wren was still smaller which gave Andrew no comfort as Wren reached up a hand slowly to Andrew’s temple.

He winced at Wren’s touch, but held his ground.  Wren moved his fingers searchingly, and Andrew moved his hands as though ready to push Wren away, when Wren softly said, “Speak.”  However soft the word was, it still rung strangely in the ears.

“I hate you,” Andrew said in a tiny horse voice, but was shocked at the words that actually came out of his mouth.

“I know,” Wren said stepping back, and starting to walk past, “and I’m sorry.”

“Why now?” Andrew called after Wren, his voice still hoarse.  “Why after a year?”

“Because I was afraid,” Wren said stopping, but not turning.  “Because I didn’t know if I could fix what I did…and maybe…a part of me didn’t want to try, because I was still angry.”

“Did…Audry ask you?” Andrew questioned, his tone changing.

“She’s part of the reason I tried,” Wren sighed, and turned back to face Andrew, “but she didn’t ask.  That bridge is yours to mend.“

“I had heard…that you two…” Andrew said squinting angrily, and clenching his fist, but obviously still too afraid to act on his anger after what his last outburst had cost him.  “Why did it have to be you?”

“Ask her that…” Wren trailed off.  “I love her, maybe I always did, but I was blind to it till she made me see.”

“Don’t lie…you did it to spite me,” Andrew said defensively, “and this is just so you can gloat.”

Wren clenched his own fist in frustration more than anger.  “I never told Renae what happened, but I told my sisters…they made me understand it, what I never did before.  I didn’t do it to you, I played my part, a part that I will always feel guilt for, but you…you followed your visions to their own end.”

“What nonsense are you babbling?” Andrew growled.

“What reason did I have to hate you, to hurt you?” Wren asked shaking.  “None, save the ones you gave me, because of what you saw in your dreams.”  He watched Andrew for a moment – watched him stand there quietly.  Wren had never had a high opinion of Andrew’s intelligence, but for just a moment he was sure he saw understanding on Andrew’s face, fighting with willful ignorance.  

“Believe me, or don’t.”  Wren sighed, turned, and marched away.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 37th (May 1st), 647 E.R.

Wren sat with his head on Audry’s shoulder, and watched the light from the stained glass windows dancing on the far wall of the cloister’s main entry hall.  Audry squeezed Wren’s hand suddenly, causing him to turn his head, and look up at her.  “I spoke to Andrew today,” Audry said softly with a wry grin.  “I think the bigger surprise was he spoke back.”

Wren looked away again nervously, but clung tightly to Audry.  “What did he have to say?”

“Quite a lot actually.” Audry laughed.  “Seems not talking for so long can make one rather chatty.”

“I…I’m sorry,” Wren said trying not to cry.

“Oh don’t start that again.”  Audry sighed.  “I don’t care if part of him is still mad.  He deserved it, and we are all better for it…except you, poor dear.  I know how it hurt you.”

“I’ll be…” Wren stopped mid sentence as there was a sudden commotion outside, and both turned as the main doors were flung open.  Two men carried in a third as two sisters held the door, and a several more looked on, prepared to step in as soon as the two men were out of the way.

Audry gasped when she saw the blood on the men’s clothing.  “What happened?” she asked aghast, and covered her mouth.  She had seen a few bad wounds over the years come in, but nothing like that.

“Afraid he caught the business end of a dragon,” one of the men said wiping the sweat from his forehead, but leaving bloody marks in it’s place.

“What end of a dragon isn’t the business end?”  The wounded man said with a cough, as sisters descended on him in an effort to deal with his wounds.

“I know you,” Wren said staring at one of the men standing, but he was not sure from where.

“I believe we have seen each other a few times,” the man said scratching his head.  “You are Renae’s boy, and the brother to the twins at the castle aren’t you?  Wren wasn’t it?  I’m Eran, formerly…”

“You said you had come from up north,” one of the Sisters said standing up, and interrupting Eran.  “How is he still alive with wounds this grave?  It seems almost as though they have been partly healed…however badly.”

“Sorry if my skills are not up to par,” Eran grumbled.  “I did leave the cloister for a few reasons after all.”

The Sister narrowed her eyes for a moment, and then suddenly recognition struck her.  “I remember you, Lanie’s boy.  It’s been what, eight years since you left?  But why are you in royal army attire?”

“That’s it,” Wren said drawing both of their looks.  “I remember you arguing here with Renoa.”

Eran grumbled, “Yes…yes…multiple reasons for leaving as I said.  Can we get back to Rory now, please?”

“No,” the wounded man on the floor coughed, “please don’t mind me.”

“You’ve already got the attention of two sisters dear brother,” the other blood drenched man laughed.  “I’m sure that should be sufficient even for you.”

“Shut it Henry,” Rory coughed.

“What’s happening?” came the sound of Renae’s voice from the stairs above.

“A wounded man good Matron,” Eran called up.  “We would have taken him to a Clarion healer, they were just slightly closer, but the three of us aren’t on the best of terms with the local Clarions.  Besides, you can’t swing a wounded man around here without hitting a better healer than those useless preaching bastards.”

“What caused his wounds?” Renae asked with concern for the bloodied men below.

“A dragon we have been tracking for some time in the mountains up north,” Eran responded.

“I had heard some reports,” Renae said sadly, “no human casualties yet, but cattle, and a few sightings, and reports of it flying into the mountains.”

“Speaking of reports,” Eran said turning to Henry.  “I’ll ride for the castle, stay with your brother.”

“Who died and put you in charge?” Henry said mockingly.

“Not funny,” Rory groaned on the floor.  “He’s your senior though.  I’m obviously down, go with him if you wish.  I’ll be fine here with the lovely ladies.”

“No, I’ll stay,” Henry said deflated.

“Oh, you finally realized the perfect excuse you have for a lovely holiday,” Rory coughed.

“You two argue,” Eran said shaking his head, and made for the still open door.  “I have the nest of a dragon to report.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 38th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha matched each of Kiannae’s blows, blocking them with her staff.  The two had been going back and forth for several minutes as Horence watched chiming in alternating critiques, encouragements, and the occasional heckle.  The staves so far were intact, but the strength of the blows was beginning to concern Horence.

Horence was about to intercede when Katrisha suddenly avoided a blow instead of blocking it, and swung low nearly connecting with Kiannae’s leg, who managed to raise it out of the way, and bring her staff down again, only to have it blocked.

The dodge seemed to diffuse the intensity of the spar, and they held a moment.  “Nice try Kat,” Horence laughed, “but she’s still too quick for you.”

Katrisha’s eyes turned to the gate for just a split second as she caught sight of an approaching horse.  Kiannae tried for the opening, but missed as Katrisha responded just in time.  Kiannae was suddenly distracted by the sound of the horse’s hooves, and found herself on the ground as Katrisha swept her leg.

“Might call that one a foul,” Horence laughed again, “but fair is fair, she tried first when you were distracted, and you caught it.”

Katrisha offered her sister her hand, and helped her up.  Kiannae dusted herself off, and rubbed her sore rear from the fall she had taken.  “Suppose it’s fair you win once,” she said.

“Three times,” Katrisha corrected.

“For the last time, those didn’t count,” Kiannae muttered.

“You’ve said ‘for the last time’ at least the last six times I’ve mentioned it,” Katrisha chided.  On both occasions there had been mitigating circumstances.  A splintered stave, and icy patches providing poor footing.  Both in theory of equal disadvantage to both.  Really the stave had been to Katrisha’s disadvantage, it had been her stave that splintered.

“Is it my fault you haven’t listened?” Kiannae laughed.

“Dear fates,” Katrisha suddenly proclaimed seeing the rider who had dismounted, and was now walking towards them.  “Are you alright, Eran?” she asked him.

“I’m fine,” Eran said not slowing.

“What are you…oh,” Kiannae said noticing the blood.

“What news Eran?” Horence asked in a concerned tone.

“We found the nest Sir,” Eran said with a salute.

“And the blood?” Horence asked pointedly.

“Rory’s Sir,” Eran answered with a bit of melancholy.  “He’ll live though.  I have faith in the Order.  I left his brother there to keep him company as well, or at least out of trouble.”

“You left Henry to keep Rory out of trouble?” Horence asked incredulously. “Isn’t that a bit like leaving a loose lantern to keep the powder room lit?”

“Don’t start, if you please. Sir,” Eran laughed.  “Would you inform the King I have a report.  I think I should make myself more presentable first, don’t you?”

“Yes, go, you are dismissed,” Horence said with a salute.

“So they found the dragon?” Katrisha asked excitedly.

“So it seems,” Horence said eying her sternly, “and for the last time you two won’t be having anything to do with it.”

“You said that the last three times we asked,” Kiannae protested, and winced as she expected the response.

“Is it my fault you didn’t listen?” Horence said with a grin.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae stood on the balcony beside her sister with her eyes closed.  She was completely fixed on the the dining hall below as a servant eyed the place a table should be, and poked at it cautiously.  “You are so much better at that one than I am,” Katrisha said in a tone somewhere between genuine appreciation, and frustration.

“That’s just because I am better,” Kiannae laughed.

“Sad you can’t use that trick on yourself,” Katrisha countered.

“I can use it on you,” Kiannae said turning towards Katrisha and focusing.  There was a yelp from the dining room below as the table reappeared, and Katrisha gasped as the world went black, and only strange aura like outlines could be seen around everything.

“Ok…this is an experience,” Katrisha said reaching out to touch the outline of her sister’s hand.  The spell suddenly fragmented as it crossed its own boundary.

“Yup, and any magic crossing the shell disrupts it,” Kiannae said with a shrug.  “Let me try again, and this time don’t touch me.”

Katrisha frowned as she faded from view again. Laurel stepped onto the balcony a moment later in something of a hurry, Mar trotting along behind him.  He was startled, and Mar took off in terror when Katrisha greeted Laurel with a, “Boo.”  She had snapped into view with a ball of light in her hand, which she let drift away, and vanished again as Kiannae recovered the spell.

“Nicely done,” Laurel said obviously trying to catch his breath from the start he had been given.  “I can barely see the aura even,” he said admiring the vague outline of Katrisha before him.

“Do you think this would be useful against the dragon?” Katrisha said excitedly, still invisible.

“There’s no telling,” Laurel said narrowing his eyes, “dragons are magical in origin, if the one up north is more than a beast it might see right through your illusion, just as I can.”

Kiannae frowned, and let the spell fade.  “We can help, I know we can,” she protested.

“I have no doubt of your ability,” Laurel said putting a hand on each of the girl’s shoulders.  “You have both been getting frightfully good, but I will not risk your safety.  I’m not all that keen to risk my own.  So no more of this, please.  Now I must go, the King and Knights are waiting.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha paced frustratedly around the tower chamber she shared with her twin.  She seemed far more bothered than Kiannae, who watched her sister uncertainly.  “I’m not happy about it either,” Kiannae offered.

Katrisha stopped, and seemed to almost tremble as she stared at Kiannae.  “It’s not…”  She closed her eyes, and tapped her foot frustratedly.  “I had a dream,” she said.

Kiannae did not look particularly happy at those words.  “I did to,” she said, and swallowed.  They stared defiantly into eachother’s eyes.  “Laurel was dead,” they said in unison.

Katrisha stormed towards the window then, and pounded her fist on the padded sill hard enough to still hurt.

“We are supposed to ignore prophecy,” Kiannae offered, but her heart was not in it.

“Unless it is very specific,” Katrisha said.  “Unless we know what it means.”

“How can we?” Kiannae demanded.  “What if…trying to be involved is what causes it?”

“I remember in the dream,” Katrisha said, “he was being brought into the castle.  We were already here.  He was out there.”

“I…” Kiannae frowned.  “I remember that too.”

“There was a voice in the dream,” Katrisha said then.

“There wasn’t in mine…” Kiannae said uncertainly.

“It…said,” she was flustered, and turned back to her sister, “‘Head the warning.’”

“We have to protect others,” Kiannae said.

“Always,” Katrisha said firmly.  They had made that pact before, and for Laurel, for family it went double, or more.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha and Kiannae peered down from the balcony above the ballroom, now serving as an impromptu war room.  Eran placed markers on various maps for the King, and addressing various Knights questions.  Idolus stood by, and seemed more interested in eyeing Eran with displeasure, than on anything Eran was actually saying.

“That you are alive at all tells me it’s little more than a beast, and that your expedition stumbled into its lair.  Were it an agent, an intelligent dragon on a mission, you would have been hunted down,” Laurel offered.

“Even a feral dragon is not to be trifled with.  They are more intelligent than any common beast, and far more ferocious, even than dire breads.  As if size alone, thick scales, and razor sharp claws and fangs were not enough.”  Armon shook his head.

Laurel sighed.  “Worse this is no mere drake, like the last one you fought Armon, but a full grown dragon, almost in proportion with the greater dragons from all reports.  This is a perilous endeavor, even with a mage, a healer, and all the enchanted gear at our disposal, we may have losses.”

“I will go if you will have me,” Armon offered.

“To advise,” Arlen said, “but I’ll not put you in harm’s way old fellow.  You are getting a bit slow in our spars.”

Laurel looked to Eran.  “We need every advantage we can get, will you risk joining another expedition?”

“Yes, of course,” Eran answered with a nod.  To say he wasn’t terrified would be disingenuous, but he had not left his old life behind to sit idle in perilous times.  Quite the opposite.  He had dreamed of adventure.

Kiannae looked to her sister lying to her left, both trying not to be noticed by the adults below.  She was still uncertain, but Katrisha’s gaze on the map was fiercely determined.  She took a long breath, and nodded more for her own benefit than Katrisha’s, as her sister did not see it.  Yet all at once she felt as though she was forgetting something frightfully important.

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Chapter 10

The twine once unwound,
shall again be re-bound,
and from the least of these,
shall come the greatest to be,
all things move both ways,
just as in those ancient days,
that which once has passed,
shall come again at last,
and order’s brightest day,
shall in deepest night decay.

– Book of Entropy, circa 30 B.E.

Shifting Threads

Rhaeus 40th, 641 E.R.

Wren glanced nervously around a large room as he entered.  He had never been inside one of the classrooms, and didn’t really know the nine older children that surrounded him.  There was a glimmer of mutual recognition with a girl sitting by the door.  After a moment the girl waved Wren over, and seemed to be searching for his name.  “Wren, isn’t it?” she finally asked.

“Yes,” Wren said awkwardly.

“Come sit by me,” the girl offered, sliding over on her bench to make room.

“Leave him be sister,” Andrew said, glancing back from the next row, “can’t you tell he’s in the wrong class.  No one that young is here.”

Wren hesitantly climbed up onto the bench, and continued to look around the class.

“I’m Audry,” the girl said after a moment, “I don’t know if you remember me.”

“I do,” Wren said quietly.  “You arrived last year with your mother, and brother.  You had been traveling with a caravan.”

A girl about a year older than Wren, but still clearly younger than the rest of the class entered, and looked around with an even more meek demeanor than Wren had entered with.

“What’s with all the lost kids today,”  Andrew grumbled.  “Where is Sister Charis to send them to the right room?”

“I’m supposed to be here,” the girl said defensively.  “I was just moved up a class yesterday.”

“Scoot over Wren,” Audry said quietly, sliding further down the bench herself.  “Come sit with us,” she said waving the girl over.

The girl climbed onto the bench next to Wren, and looked over at him.  “Hi, I’m Celia.  Have you been moved up a class too, I don’t remember seeing you…”

“No,” Wren said hesitantly, “I was just placed this morning.”

“Have you been traveling with your mother?” Celia asked.

“No,” Wren said uncomfortably, “…mother has just been teaching me.”

“Oh,” Celia said, “is your mother one of the instructors?”

“No,” Wren frowned, “my mother…” he paused, “is Rennae.”

“I had heard the Matron had an adopted son,” Audry said sizing up her new classmate again.

“So your real mother is…” Celia started to ask but thought better of it.

“Dead,” Wren said tersely, and looked away just as the instructor entered the class.

“Two younger students are joining us today,” the woman said.  “For their benefit I am Sister Charis,” the woman said looking about the class, and settling her gaze on Wren and Celia.  “Would you two stand and introduce yourselves?”

Celia looked to Wren, and then slowly stood first.  “I am Celia Adesia, daughter of Renoa,” she said nervously, looked around at the other students in the class, and then quickly sat back down.

Wren got up onto the bench he was sitting on, and looked around at all the faces already turned his way.  “I am Wren Ashton, son of Meliae,” he said with some determination, “it’s nice to meet you all.”  He looked around again, sat down quickly, and slowly sunk out of view.

Charis pulled a book out from under her arm, and set it between Wren and Celia.  “You two will be sharing, I assume you know your basics since you have been placed in this class.   Everyone, please turn to page three ten.”

There was a shuffling of pages, and as it slowly came to a stop Charis looked back and forth between her new students for a moment.  “Sister Celia, would you read the first line please?” she said in a very proper tone.

“Emp…eror Corin…th was not born to any of the royal lines, of the late age of Kings,” Celia started shakily, “but to a com…an woman often recor…ded as a…har…lot.”

“Very good,” Charis said, and turned to Wren.  “Brother Wren, please continue,” she said softly, mindful of the fact that the small boy had sunk all but completely out of view behind the table.

Wren slowly pushed himself up, and got into a position where he could see the book, and search for the next line.  “Though…” he started nervously, “though…” he repeated, “his lin…e…lineage is not known for cer…certain, his mo…ther even…tually married a prom…promi…promi..nent…” Wren gave up and sank back into his seat.

Charis sighed, and moved on, her gaze fixing on Andrew whose expression did not suit her.  “Brother Andrew,” she said firmly, “please continue for us, would you?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 19th, 641 E.R.

“Some mistakenly think it proper to attach ‘Protectorate of the Storm Queen’ to the name of the land Napir.  This however both ignorant, and incorrect.  Napir itself means Protected.  Properly Napir Ami, Protected [by] Storm would be the correct form,” Wren read aloud, and set the book aside with a sigh.

“I don’t see why you stutter so in class,” Audrey offered, her head leaned back against the window, listening to the rain.

“Is easier when it’s just you two,” Wren protested.

Celia reached over from her spot on the floor, and grabbed the book.  She flipped through the pages curiously till she found where Wren had left off.  She only read to herself though.

“Huh,” she said after a moment.  “Napir is one of very few lands that maintains its own language, though its use has begun to wain in larger cities.  It says here the suffixes that dragons take are words in Namin, the proper name for the language.  Except black dragons, who took the tradition as well, but use allusions to ancient Osyraen instead.  Hmm, what’s iron…y mean?”

“How is it used?” Wren asked.

“Etten, for instance, with some ’irony’ is derived from a word meaning ‘loyal.’”

“I think it means…contrary,” Wren offered.

“Oh I remember now,” Celia said with a spark of realization.  “The Green Matron’s mate, Mar’etten.  Yes, that would be contrary I suppose, and here it is in the footnote.  Yes.”

“You could have just read the whole bit aloud to practice you know,” Audrey chided.

“I think there will be plenty of time for that, it’s been raining for days,” Celia cut back.  “I will gladly have garden duty for a week just to be outside the cloister for five minutes without getting soaked.”

“The Court Mage says the high winds are shifting again,” Wren offered.  “He doesn’t think this position is sustainable, and perhaps it will finally snap back to its normal northern flow, ending the drought.”

“You always come back with the strangest things to say after you visit your sisters,” Audrey said, and gave Wren a funny look.

“I don’t think it’s strange at all,” Celia protested. “I’d rather be learning about,” she struggled for a moment trying to remember the right words, “atmospheric phenomena, than all this old, dry history.”

“If the north was half as dry as these text books, no amount of rain would ever end the drought,” Audrey offered with a smirk, and closed her eyes again.

Celia reached over, grabbed a pillow and threw it at Audrey who caught it without even opening her eyes, wedged it behind her neck, and settled in more comfortably against the window.  “You may continue reading, Sister Celia,” she said in officious tone that sounded nothing like Charis, but clearly was meant to.

“You are terrible,” Celia chided, but was noticeably trying not to laugh.

“Terribly bored,” Audrey corrected.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 13th, 642 E.R.

“Assessment?” an older woman asked leaning over Wren.  His hands were just above the forearm of an older man.  He was so deeply wrinkled with age that if he had any appreciable gift he would have to be close to the end of his second century.  Giftless as he obviously was on examination, he was only likely about ninety.  He was also in a deep peaceful sleep.

It felt mostly like fire, tingly, uncomfortable, almost itchy.  The result of various inflammation, and irritation through the man’s arms.  “Arthritis, in most joints,” Wren said.  “Inflammation of the tendons in the right arm.  The nerves of the arm are sickly for some reason as well, Sister Seline.”

Selene did her own cursory pass.  “Very good,” she said.

“Wait,” Wren said.  He shifted down the man’s body, and hovered searchingly over his thigh.  “I’ve felt this before, at Broken Hill, when there was an accident.  My mother said to mention if I ever felt it again.”

Selene followed the boy, and focused a long moment.  “Oh dear,” she said.  “A a deep vein thrombosis, nasty little thing.  You felt that all the way up at his arms?”

“Yes,” Wren answered awkwardly.  “Or well, I felt something was wrong, anyway.”

“Everyone else gather around.”

The ten other students, including Audry, and Celia all gathered around Wren’s patient.  The mismatch of a six year old caring for the ancient man was all the more strange as the range of students gathered.  Wren and Celia were by far the smallest, and youngest.  Audry even was clearly a bit younger than most, nine, ten, even a twelve year old.

“Everyone, one at a time, very carefully, extend your senses in here, just behind the bone of the upper thigh,” Selene said, indicating the location.

The students did one at a time.

“This is a deep vein thrombosis, a clot in a major arterial vein.  They are very dangerous, because they can break loose, and wedge elsewhere in the circulatory system.  They are also hard to detect,” Selene lectured, as the last student finished their cursory examination.  “Now, pay close attention,” she said, and moved back into position herself.  “The clot must be carefully dissolved from the free edge, towards its attachment point.”

Everyone tried, at least at first to follow what she was doing.  Roughly half could not.  It was reduced to nothing more than a fine grain of platelets, until the vein surface itself could be soothed, and healed.  “This here,” she indicated, “while not the root cause, is part of the underlying problem.  This is where the clot began to form.  By smoothing, and making the vein more youthful we will reduce the chance of recurrence for many years.  You did very good finding this Wren,” Selene added encouragingly.

“What about the nerves in his arm,” Wren asked.

“Yes,” Selene nodded.  “Another reason I called everyone over.”  She moved back up the man’s body.  “The symptom if you would all care to examine, is largely here, here, and here.”  She indicated areas of the forearm, and elbow.  Everyone did a cursory pass, more than a few cringed slightly at what they felt.

“What’s wrong with him?” Audry asked uncomfortably.

“I’m sure he has mistaken it for more of his arthritis, but it’s not,” Selene nodded, and moved up to his shoulder.  “Here, under his clavicle, I want you to all examine it, and then someone tell me what they think they feel.”

Everyone took a turn, all with a mixture of expression on their face.  Wren saw it almost immediately, but when he saw Audry tilt her head, and seem thoughtful, he decided he would stay quiet when the instructor asked.

“Well, anyone?” Selene asked.

Audry glanced at Wren, and Wren justs nodded back at her.  She pursed her lips, uncomfortable being the first one to offer an observation.  She sighed.  “I think the nerve is pinched,” she said.

“Elaborate,” Selene pressed.

“Between the rib, and collarbone,” Audry said.

“Proper term,” Selene chided lightly.

“Clavicle,” Audry corrected herself.

“Very good,” Selene nodded.  “Very good indeed.  The problems here are two fold.  One is through repetitive use.  This man is a weaver by trade, poor posture from age, and bad habits hunched over his loom have contributed to the problem, also repeated motions.  This alone however was not the full cause.  Some of the problem is congenital, the bone is thicker here than it should be.  This was not a problem till the muscles that should be holding it up atrophied from posture.  Dealing with the bone will be a slow, detailed process, but we can begin restoring the atrophied muscle.”

“Observe,” she said, and began feeding energy into the muscle, encouraging it to pull the shoulder back, and the collarbone up.  “There, now to heal the underlying injury.”  She restored the long impinged nerve, and moved down the arm restoring life to the rest of it.  She then returned to the shoulder.  “Normally we try to avoid pain in those we heal,” she said, again lecturing.  “Pain however does serve a purpose, it encourages us not to do things that hurt us.  I will now grow a sensory nerve here,” she indicated the point of impingement.  “It will not hurt him much, but if he assumes a posture that exaggerates his condition it will give him a twinge of warning.  Since normally this part of the nerve has no sensation.”

A small cluster of nerve growth formed off the main nerve branch.  “This will also encourage him to return, and give us the time to properly adjust the bone, at which point this will no longer bother him.”  She rolled her soldiers, and her neck.  “Ah hypocrisy, I’ve been slouching myself.  Everyone, back to your own patients.  Wren, you may begin treating the arthritis.  Wait, Audry, may I speak with you.”

Audry returned to the instructor, worried she had done something wrong.

“Where is your broth?” Selene asked.

“I don’t know,” Audry said uncomfortably.  “He was being very cranky this morning.”

“Could you have your mother come talk to me, he’s making habit of this.”

“Of course,” Audry said, and with a nod from Selene returned to her own patient.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 27th, 642 E.R.

Sister Charis walked slowly down the aisle, looking back and forth at the students following along in their shared textbooks.  “Lady Adria, was crowned Queen of Lycia in the year two B.E,” she said stopping at the second to last row.  She leaned over the table, and knocked hard right next to Andrew who shot upright from having drifted off.  “If you please Brother Andrew, read the next line.”

Andrew looked at the page before him hesitantly, and started to sound it out “Lady Ad…ria, was, cr…owned…”

“That was the previous line,” Charis sighed, “If you ever wish to be assigned to something other than maintenance duties, I recommend you pay more attention.”

“What do we need this for, our gifts are what matter,” he said obstinately.

“And I have not heard particularly astounding things about your healing studies either,” Charis chided him.  “Very well, how about you Brother Wren?”

“Ye…yes,” Wren stammered, and found the line in the book he was sharing with Celia and Audry. “Corinth was granted the title of Imperator, supreme commander of Lycia’s armies, and struck back against his homeland.  The two year campaign ended with the legendary siege of Tar…sis, and saw Imperator Corinth installed as regent, after King Dar…mon’s defeat before the gates.”

“Very good,” Charis said with a smile, “six months ago when you joined our class I had my concerns that you had been misplaced, but your progress is exceptional.  I can only hope others,” she stressed with a sidelong glance, “take after you.”

Andrew shot Wren a dirty look as Charis slowly walked back towards the head of the class.  “Now seems as good a time as any to break for lunch, those who wish may read on.  Extra marks will be given for those who can read aloud an entire paragraph this afternoon without stuttering.”

Audry placed the ribbon on the page where the class had stopped, and closed the book as Wren and Celia got up to leave.  Audry moved to follow, but her brother stopped next to her.  “Have lunch with me, and Lena today,” he said in a demanding tone.

“I was going to eat with Wren and Celia in the courtyard,” Audry protested.

“You do that every day,” Andrew countered.

“It’s ok,” Celia said, “there’s always tomorrow.”

“Ok,” Audry said with a frown.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 31st, 642 E.R.

Wren considered the intricate web of string wrapped around Celia’s fingers.  “I don’t know which ones to take next,” he said with obvious frustration.

“Let’s start over,” Celia said untangling the string, “you go first this time, and then at this step I’ll show you.”

Wren turned as he saw Audry out of the corner of his eye.  She was at the far end of the court yard, arguing with her brother rather animatedly.  She suddenly pushed him, and stomped off towards where Wren and Celia sat.

“What was that about?” Wren asked curiously.

“Just my brother being stupid,” Audry growled.

“What about?” Celia asked.

“He…” Audry trailed off.  “No, nothing.  He’s just stupid.”

Andrew walked up on the three and sneered at Wren pointedly.  “Fine, stay close to the smart little soul eater,” he growled turning to his sister.  “Maybe he’ll eat your soul instead of mine.”

Wren cringed, and shrunk away from Andrew, and Celia rested a hand on his shoulder comfortingly..

“Shut up,” Audry yelled at her brother.  “Just because you have nightmares about being hurt by little boys doesn’t mean anything.  Wren is sweet, kind, and innocent.  You are just stupid.”

“Cassandra said to trust dreams, they are a warning,” Andrew muttered as he walked away.

“And mother said not to listen to Cassandra,” Audry yelled after her brother as he left.

“What did he mean soul eater?” Celia asked incredulously.

“Ever since Wren showed him up in class the other day, he’s been angry,” Audry sighed.  “Then he had a couple nightmares.  Heard some rumor from one of the other boys, and now he’s convinced Wren is evil.”  Wren looked away embarrassed, and obviously uncomfortable.  “He’s just stupid,” Audry said and hugged Wren, “you would never hurt a fly.”

“What rumors have they been spreading about Wren?” Celia asked angrily.

“It’s stupid, and not worth repeating,” Audry sighed.

“Tell me,” Celia said, “we all should know, so we can set them right.”

“Like anyone listens to any of us,” Audry frowned.  She gave Celia’s insistent expression a dubious look, but finally relented.  “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but they say he ate his mother’s soul.”

“That’s horrible,” Celia all but yelled, “who would believe such a thing?”

Wren pulled away from Audry, got up, took a step away from his friends, and dropped to his knees crying.

“I’m sorry,” Audry said moving behind him, and hugged him again.  “I shouldn’t have told you.  It’s so horrible, and stupid, and I hate him.”

Wren sobbed, and tried to pull away again, but Audry wouldn’t let him.

“It’s true,” he finally squeaked between sobs.  “I’ve always known, Renae never told me directly, but I’ve always known.”

“What?” Celia said in disbelief, “you can’t mean that…”

“She gave me everything, to let me live,” Wren whimpered.  “I remember it sometimes, like a bad dream…I can’t wake up from.”

“That’s horrible,” Audry said consolingly, “but that doesn’t make it your fault.”

“It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for me,” Wren cried.

“You don’t know that,” Celia said kneeling down in front of Wren and looking down at him sweetly.

“I…” Wren started, but looked away.  “I don’t know.”

“She loved you,” Audry said confidently.  “She loved you, and she wanted you to live, that doesn’t make you bad, it makes her good.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 5th, 642 E.R.

Kiannae looked curiously down a side street at the sign for The Grey Lamb as they passed.  Mercu had assured the girls that they would not be back.  It had been over a year since Laurel would allow the girls out of the castle following the events of their last visit.  And even were there any reason to go – which there was not – Mercu had no desire to be scolded at length.

It was a more peaceful day than their last visit.  No caravan in town causing commotion with fresh wares, and weary, wealthy travelers.  Still a fair number of citizens filled the streets of the village, and it was no surprise that a lone old woman along the road side did not catch anyone’s attention.

Katrisha gasped as a wrinkled hand clasped onto her arm.  She turned to face the old woman who held her firmly, and stared at her with vacant glassy eyes.  After a moment of silence the woman spoke in barely more than a hoarse whisper, “The second is born but the first to die, yet over the life and death of stars presides.”

Kiannae turned, noticing her sister was no longer beside her, and took a step back towards the woman who held Katrisha’s arm.  Before she could even demand an explanation the woman turned to her with fire in her eyes, and spoke wildly, “what then of the heir, the Sylvan first born, the one whom a crown shall one day adorn.”

Katrisha pulled her arm away, and backed up not sure what to make of the woman or her strange words.  Her presence was unnerving, it felt almost like a broken mirror reflecting back unidentifiable parts of one’s own impression.

Mercu had noticed the twins were no longer following him, and turned to the scene as the woman all but yelled, “Fear the schemes of the dragon who lies, and a coming age when men wail and cry, dread more the child at the eye of the storm, and for those from which all mortal is torn.”

“That’s enough Cassandra,” Mercu growled as he marched up to them.  “We have no need of your fortune telling, and you won’t be paid for spouting your nonsense in little girl’s ears.  Come girls, move away from the mad old woman.”

“I’ve no need of coin old bard, my days are short, head my words children, you will do great deeds, and meet uncommon ends,” Cassandra spat.

“What was that about?” Kiannae asked as the trio walked on through the square.  She glanced back at the woman still staring after them.

“Just the new resident fortune teller plying her nonsense.” Mercu sighed.  “Pay her no mind.”

“What did she say to you before I came up,” Kiannae asked Katrisha.

“Something about second born and first to die, and stars,” Katrisha said with a touch of nerves.

“Like I said,” Mercu grumbled, “ignore it, odds are it means nothing.   Simply having heard it will changed it, or at the very worst paying it any head will just lead to its fulfillment.“

“How does that work?” Kiannae said obstinately, “you seem to imply it is real, but that it’s also not to be listened to?”

Mercu sighed, and stopped to lean against a shop porch.  “There are a lot of layers to it.  The first of which is that people lie, and if they aren’t lying they are getting things wrong.  Precognition, and prophecy comes from so deep in the subconscious,” he said tapping his head, “that by the time it reaches the surface it’s a garbled mess tied up in preconceptions, fears, and obscured by past memories.”

“So it’s misleading then?” Katrisha asked irritably.

“Even assuming something useful can be wretched from the mess that is the very process, the result is unpredictable, and can either be self defeating, or self fulfilling,” Mercu said running his fingers through his hair.  “Happened to me once.  I was told of the woman I would marry, and that I would be my own undoing.  The first part might have come true, if I hadn’t known, hadn’t behaved too rashly, and so the second part came true…”

“That’s very sad,” Kiannae said soberly.

“It is what it is,” Mercu laughed, “I’m happy now.  I can’t say if I’d be any more happy with her, but I doubt it.  I probably would never have met the two of you, Laurel, or lived here at court.  I think the long and short of it is don’t trust prophecy, and unless it’s very dire, and very specific, ignore it, and certainly don’t dwell upon it.”

“Dyeing is pretty dire,” Katrisha muttered.

“Yes, but we all die, someday,” Mercu laughed uncomfortably, “did she say how?  Did she give you clues, things to watch for, and when to be careful?”

“No,” Katrisha sighed, “except maybe dragons…”

Mercu cracked a crooked smile, “Yes, well, dragons are always something to be careful of.  If you spend every day of your life – and it could be well over a century and a half – worrying about the words of a mad old woman who might be nothing more than that…mad.  What will you have gained?  And what will you have lost?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel sighed and looked at the two girls before him.  “Mercu has told me of your run in with the fortune teller that’s come to live in the village.  Does what she said still trouble you?”

“No,” Kiannae lied.

“Maybe a little,” Katrisha admitted.

“Maybe a little,” Kiannae recanted.

Laurel shook his head.  “Mercu told me what he told you of prophecy, precognition, and visions of the future in general.  He’s right, every bit of it, prophecy is real.  It is also remarkably useless.  At best it’s like a memory of a dream, a memory of the future, but no less distorted than any other memory in a dream.”

Laurel rubbed his eyes tiredly.  “That all said maybe it will give you all some comfort that I’ve heard that prophecy before, or well, a close enough variation.  It was ‘the child at the eye of the storm’ that caught my attention.”

“How is that supposed to make us feel better?” Katrisha laughed darkly, “doesn’t that make it more meaningful?”

“Well,” Laurel started, and picked up a black book with an elaborate S embossed on the cover.  “The line reads, ‘A woman with hair of purest silver, shall stand at the eye of the coming storm, and from all that is mortal be ever torn.’  I don’t think either of you are in any immediate danger of having silver hair.”  Laurel closed the book for emphasis.

“It only speaks of one at the eye of the storm, the other could be dead,” Katrisha said crossly.

“There are a lot more verses,” Laurel said drumming his fingers on the book, “and by most interpretations the woman at the eye of the storm is interpreted to also be the second born, who is said to be the first to die.  It also contradicts itself at times, some think that the first to die remark should not even be taken literally.  The prophecy most held to refer to the Avatar, referred to his ascension as death.  So as Mercu advised you, and as I have always done – save for the necessity of my early schooling – ignore prophecy, it’s rubbish.”

“Ok,” Katrisha said hesitantly, as Kiannae simply nodded.

Mercu entered behind them, and Laurel shot him a look.  “Please leave girls, I have things to take care of.  You have the rest of the afternoon to yourselves.”

As Katrisha and Kiannae closed the door behind them, Mercu gave Laurel a very shrewd look.  “What’s troubling you?”

“I feel guilty,” Laurel sighed.

“What for?” Mercu asked with some confusion.

“They needed to stop troubling themselves, so I left out a line from a prophecy,” Laurel admitted, “and if they ever chose to look into it, they will catch me in that lie.”

“What did you leave out?” Mercu asked with a worried expression.

“‘A woman with hair of purest silver,’” Laurel started, “that was what I told them, to reassure them, since their hair is black.  It’s probably nothing really, but the next line, the one I didn’t tell them, reads ‘and eyes of truest emerald green.’”

“You don’t think then?” Mercu asked with agitation.

“No, I don’t.  I’ve no interest in prophecy…it’s just,” Laurel trailed off for a moment.  “I’ve had the dream myself, the most prevalent of all supposed prophetic visions.  The woman at the eye of the storm.  I’ve seen her face, it could be either of them, older to be sure, but her hair isn’t grey from age, it’s something else, it shines like polished metal, but flows like satin.”

“Take your own advice dear Laurel,” Mercu laughed darkly, “forget it, ignore it, and move on.”

“If only,” Laurel sighed.  “There is one more thing, troubling enough in itself…” he trailed off.  “I have heard a report just today that a dragon was successfully captured in Osyrae, and is being force marched to the capital.”

“The fools did it?” Mercu said in disbelief.

“I still worry to what end,” Laurel muttered.  “Twice in one day I hear ill tidings pertaining to dragons…”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 8th, 642 E.R.

Jeoffrey pulled his hood tighter.  It was far too warm for his tastes to be wearing such apparel, but crowds had made him nervous since the festivities had begun.  There was a fire in the hearts of the people of the city since word had come.  It had been shouted from the rooftops, criers ran through the streets declaring the great victory.  A dragon, bound by mages, being marched fifty miles on foot from the northern steppes.  The reports he had received from scouts confirmed it, and the sudden lack of pressure on his people to leave the capital told him that the King wanted them to be there, and see.

It had been nearly two weeks since first word of the capture.  Enough time for a message to have reached Avrale discretely, not enough for word to have returned with the same caution.  Jeoffrey was anxious, even though he knew King John would have nothing helpful to offer him.  Still, just contact would have brought him some peace in such unsettling days.

A great silver cage stood a thousand feet beyond the city gates, past the outer slums that lay in the shadow of the capitals ancient walls.  The runes that bound the cage shone with fury that even ungifted eyes could see.  It was all a great show, with one obvious purpose; to inspire the people. It was working.  Shops and merchant stalls were everywhere, and word was that the dragon would arrive soon.

Jeoffrey moved aside as a squabble broke out between two drunks, and noticed a way out of the dense part of the crowd.  The gathered throngs thinned, and his eyes turned down the road.  It was lined with people all the way to the crest of a far rolling hill.  Two days the estimates had claimed the dragon would arrive.  It was then three, and there were whispers the delay had been due to a moment of carelessness, ending in one of the binding mages being bitten in half.

He felt the brush of something, and years on the streets of Osyrae had given him quick hands at that feeling.  He caught a wrist barely.  Small and quick, it almost slipped through his grasp before he could spin to face the wouldbe cutpurse.  His glance was already down, and even then his eyes almost slipped off her as she tried to pull away.  She was a bit smaller than he had even expected, and there was something hard about even getting a look at her.  The crowd bumping into him did not help.

He caught her other hand before she could stab him with the knife she had meant to slit his purse with.  She was very quick, but with both her wrists in his hands he was able to get a good look at her.  Her hair was blood red, purer than his had ever been.  Her eyes no longer evaded his but stared at him with fire, golden as the sunset.  She was about seven, dirty as any urchin, and a beautiful bronze like her countrymen, if just a shade paler.  The eyes froze Jeoffrey, they were eyes he felt like he knew.  Eyes that made him want to cry.

They were not the eyes of a sad waif ready to worm out of being caught.  They were the eyes of one proud, and determined, angry at having failed.  They were eyes that should not have been there, and then a bumbling fool stumbled into Jeoffery.  He lost his grip, and she was gone.  No amount of scanning the forest of legs before him could find her.  He tried to convince himself she had even been there at all, that she had been real.  He had to force himself to believe, even for a moment, what he wished to think he had seen.

There was movement in the crowd, and Jeoffery quickly got to his feet, and turned around towards the distant rolling hill.  He forced himself to look at what was urgent, rather than think of the girl.  She couldn’t have been, and the longer he tried to focus on the matter at hand, the more easily it seemed like she hadn’t – that it had all been a trick of the heart, and his foolish old head.

People at the crest of the far hill suddenly moved back down towards the throngs below, and a flash of black could barely be seen as a wing rose fleetingly, and then descended.  Jeoffrey watched transfixed as a head slowly came into view, then wings, and a body, all bound with bright blue runes that shimmered, and flashed.  The men about the dragon that held it were mere specks in the distance, but the great lumbering beast was clearly defined.

It was closer than Jeoffrey had ever been to a dragon.  He had seen a few in the past, in the distance, on a high hill, or up in the sky.  It was still closer than he really wished to be.  Those other dragons he had been told were greater dragons, intelligent, many times more deadly, but less likely to strike on a whim.  This beast being force marched to the capital was a wild animal, a furious monster bound only by the skill of a few dozen powerful mages.

The entire process was hard to fathom – the dragon was like a great marionette, that defied its puppeteers with every step.  The throngs along the road spread like a great wave, wisely moving from the dragon’s path, with only a few brave stragglers who let themselves get close.  It took over an hour for the dragon to be marched up the hill, and as it approached the cage it flailed, and roared more furiously before finally being forced in.

Jeoffrey struggled through the procession to maintain a vantage point from which he could see, but did not mind at all if that point was very far from the action.  As soon as the cage was closed upon the dragon, it was released from the bindings, and threw itself wildly against the enclosure, roaring, and shrieking in pain from the impacts.  Ten minutes of this persisted before the silent crowd, which backed ever farther from the enclosure.  Slowly as the dragon grew weary, the crowd’s murmur began to transcend the creatures groans and great labored breaths, until at last the massive beast collapsed in exhaustion, and the crowd burst into a thunderous roar.

A strange sympathy rose up in Jeoffrey for the deadliest of all creatures.  This wild beast, this monster that dwarfed any man had been subdued by the mages of Osyrae, and the message was as clear to him as to the people.  The dragon was the world, and the world would fall just the same, kicking, screaming, and groaning to the bitter end, but in the end defeated.  He almost forgot the girl, almost, but not quite.  Her eyes had made that impossible.

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Chapter 9

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

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

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

– old caravan rhyme, circa 350 E.R.

Sisters of the Road

Vhalun 37th, 641 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” Kiannae asked uncertainly.

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

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

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

Both nodded, no longer risking questioning their good fortune.

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

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

“You never mentioned her,” Katrisha added.

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

“How much farther?” Kiannae asked.

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

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

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

“The song,” Katrisha clarified for her sister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Katrisha said incredulously.

“Of course,” Kiannae protested.

“Well what does it mean?” Mercu countered.

“Permanent?” Katrisha offered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Over bread!?” Katrisha said furiously.

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

“What about her mother?”  Kiannae asked.

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

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

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

“Why would they refuse her?” Katrisha frowned.

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

“Hmph,” Kiannae protested.

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

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

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

“Why is it called Dawn?” Kiannae asked.

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You, repress something?” Mercu laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

“And the tenth time?” Mercu laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cider mostly,” Kiannae responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re eight,” Kiannae corrected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good,” Samantha said tapping her fingers.

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

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

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

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

“Ok,” Kiannae said not quite understanding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bitch broke my nose,” Matly growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” Katrisha said hesitantly.

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” each girl said in turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose,” Mercu agreed with some humor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Matron?” Samantha asked curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As am I,” Kiannae chimed in as well.

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 5th, 641 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Wren,” he replied in kind.

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

“Come on,” Audry’s brother insisted.

“Alright, Andrew,” she said dismissively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Samantha Peregrine,” she said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You would be right,” Wren said curiously.

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

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

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

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

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