Chapter 13

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

– Sylvia Grey, circa 135 E.R.

The Lady of the Tower

Styver 1st, 648 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A child may be ignorant,” Charles offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better,” Katrisha huffed, only partly satisfied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 7th, 648 E.R.

Dearest Celia,

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

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

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

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

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

Your confused,
guilt stricken love,
Katrisha

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 30th, 648  E.R.

Dearest Katrisha,

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 1st, 648 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ever?” Katrisha asked coldly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did not,” Katrisha said shrewdly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 11

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

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

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

Ink on the Page

Rhaeus 42nd, 648 E.R

Dearest Celia,

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

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

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

Yours always,
Katrisha.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 12th, 648 E.R.

Dearest Katrisha,

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

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

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

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

With devotion,
and hope,
Celia.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 16th, 648 E.R.

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

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

Katrisha gave him a cold stare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better,” Laurel said with thin reserve.

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 20th, 648 E.R.

Dearest Celia,

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

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

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

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

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

Ever yours,
Katrisha.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 30th, 648 E.R.

Dearest Katrisha,

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

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

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

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

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

Your loyal,
unwavering love,
Celia.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 12th, 648 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see…” Katrisha said uncomfortably.

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

“What?” Katrisha asked suddenly confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love Celia,” Katrisha finally blurted out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should I?” Katrisha asked hesitantly.

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

                                                                       ⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 31st, 648 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, that was you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

Katrisha went pale.  “I never!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lycian,” Marline said sagely.

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

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

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

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

“They don’t all,” Katrisha protested.

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

“Sylvia Grey?” Katrisha asked.

“Yes, so you do know some of this?”

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

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

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

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

Katrisha blushed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, nor do I permit that I am.”

“I think not,” Marline offered agreeably.

“Then things are settled.”

“Oh, no, hardly, details, every one.”

“And you will pay in kind?”

“Those are the rules.”

Katrisha laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since when did you have the greater imagination?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Congratulations,” Katrisha added with a nod.

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

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

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

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

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

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 9

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

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

– Allara Vera, Circa 140, E.R.

Summer Glades

Coria 30th, 648 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What moment?” Kiannae pressed gently.

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 31st, 648 E.R.

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

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

“Why are you hiding?” Zale asked.

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

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

“Leave her be,” Landri commanded.

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

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

“What is it?” Landri asked.

“Something has been lurking in the south wood.”

“More than the usual?” Landri pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps,” Landri answered.

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 33rd, 648 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiannae looked back the other way into the forest.

“Sorry,” Zale offered.

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

“Anything I can do?”

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

“I’ll listen,” Zale offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the,” Zale yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We mean you no harm,” Landri said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait!” Landri yelled.

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

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

“You stupid…” Landri started.

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

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

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

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

“Oh fates,” Kiannae said.

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

The two wolf pups nudged at their mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what can we do?” Kiannae said.

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

Kiannae did so reluctantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are kidding, right?”

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Katrisha asked slightly confused.

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

“Ok,” Katrisha said shrewdly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you leaving?” Katrisha asked curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katrisha nodded.

“Go then.” Laurel shook his head.  “Do please speak of it in private.”  Katrisha ran back to her room with all haste, and caught Celia just as she was about to leave.  She kissed her, and pushed her back into the room, closing the door behind them.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 7th , 1149 E.R.

Katrisha watched the proceedings of the court with moderate interest from the balcony above the throne room.  The day to day grind of official royal business had grown no more interesting in the time she had been away, but there was palpable tension in the air.  She had not been reintroduced at court officially, which she mulled over between relief and disappointment.  She settled on relief as she recognized a man in Clarion robes who stood not far from the dais.

There was also a strangeness for Katrisha.  The girl that stood beside her then as she watched was Celia, and not her sister, as it had so often been.  Katrisha turned to her for a while, who for her part was clearly fascinated.  What was routine and uneventful to Katrisha, having spent over a decade at court, was still filled with novelty for Celia.

“I love you,” she whispered after looking around to check that no one was in earshot.

“What?” Celia laughed nervously under her breath.  “What brought that on?”

“I’ve just gotten so used to all this,” Katrisha said shaking her head.  “Seeing you now, brings me back to when I was a small child, new to the court.”

“I…” Celia shook her head more vigorously.  “Thank you.”  She froze, and winced realizing how she had responded.  “I love you too,” she added in a whisper.

Katrisha caught a curious exchange of glances between Sir Arlen, and Idolus, and found herself suddenly drawn into the proceedings just as the court herald declared the next audience.

“The court recognizes James Lancaster, of Barrier Lake.”

“What is your report this year,” the King asked of a somewhat nervous looking man that stepped up to the dias.

“Three feet your Majesty, two just last month,” he said with with a soft almost lyric old vale accent, and took off his hat, holding it in his hands tightly.  “It might be more by now, takes me over a week to get here from our vale.  Well get by, I’m sure, but it will be tight this year.”

“That is most concerning,” the King nodded.  “We will discuss later what can be done.”

The man bowed, and backed away to the side of the throne room.

“The court recognizes Sir Arlen of Wesrook,” the herald added.

Arlen stepped before the throne, and bowed before the King.  “It has come to my attention your Majesty, that a Lycian Sister has been given a placed at court.  Though I do not see her present, I must express my concern that this could be viewed as an official favoring over the Clarion faith, if it were true.”

“We fear that you have been misinformed,” the King said firmly.  “The truth of matters has obviously been distorted through whatever rumor mill you have overvalued.”  There was a slight laugh from some corners of the court, while others remained staunchly quiet.

“If you would please then inform me better, that I might no more humble myself in ignorance,” Arlen said with thinly disguised ill humor in his voice.

“A young woman has been offered training by the court mage, in exchange for her continued service in ensuring the health of his pupil,” the King answered simply.

“I do understand better now my King,” Arlen said with a bow.  “Though I am concerned that not all will view this distinction as clearly, and might still see favoritism towards an order that is questionable in the minds of many.”

“We shall offer, good Sir,” the King said, his own ill humor far more poorly disguised, “that if an equally young, and gifted man of the Clarion Order has wishes to learn from the court mage, We might speak on his behalf to Laurel.  We believe that this would be a useful experiment in, shall We say diplomacy.”  There was slightly more universal humor at this statement.  “Did you have any further business for the court, Sir Arlen?”

“No, your majesty,” Arlen said stepping back.  “I believe my business for the day has been addressed sufficiently.”

Katrisha glanced at Celia who was obviously troubled, and discreetly slid her hand down the rail onto hers supportively.  Celia looked at Katrisha, and smiled.

“They will have to do better than that,” Katrisha said with authority, “the King is far too clever for them.”

“Does he know?” Celia asked hesitantly.

“He…” Katrisha started hesitantly.  “Laurel didn’t say specifically that he had told the King.”

“Then are we so clever?” Celia asked pointedly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 28th, 648 E.R.

Katrisha watched closely as Celia tried to recreate the tiny lens spell held between her fingers.  It was a good excuse to stand extremely close beneath the moonlight, without being locked away behind closed doors.  Not that anyone was nearby on the rampart at that moment.  The occasional guard would walk by every half hour, but their boots announced their approach well ahead of them.

“I think I have it,” Celia said hesitantly.  “Ok, yes, it’s working.”

“Try adjusting the magnification like this,” Katrisha said slowly tweaking the spell back and forth while Celia watched.

There was a tiny fizzle between Celia’s fingers.  “Oh.  No, but this time,” she said confidently.  “I think I saw where it gave way.”  Celia concentrated very hard, no longer even paying attention to Katrisha’s spell, and worked instead from memory.  “I think…” she started, “yes, it worked!” she exclaimed.

“Very good,” Katrisha said proudly, and leaned in to kiss Celia on the cheek, only to find lips, and a firm embrace holding her a very willing prisoner.  A single moment of indiscretion beneath the moonlight was enough to distract the two.  They were well practiced in listening for the sounds of guards boots on the rampart.  If a guard had been approaching they might have noticed, and stopped their kiss in time, but the soft soles of a lady did not make much noise.

“What are you…” Lady Catherine declared, and realized all too clearly what she had stumbled upon.

“Nothing,” Katrisha declared with a start, and jumped back.

“That was not nothing,” Catherine said squinting at the pair.  “I had my suspicions, but now…”  She glowered.  “This is unacceptable, and the King will hear.  Do you know how much trouble this causes?”

“You could…” Katrisha started hesitantly, “you could pretend you saw nothing.”

“Even if I were to do so,” Catherine said firmly.  “I have no guarantee that someone else will not catch the two of you again.  This ends, the court can not afford it.  We need you acceptable dear girl, we will not be forced into accepting that mage’s appointment at court.”  Catherine turned and marched away.

“Please,” Celia begged, and ran after her, “this will not happen again, we will not get caught.”

“No.” Catherine stopped.  “I’m sorry, but this cannot be.  You have my sympathies.  Return to the tower.  This night is all I can allow you.  I will not wake the King for this matter, but he will know soon after first light.”

“I hate you,” Katrisha yelled, “you’ve always hated me.”

“Then that, can’t be helped,” Catherine said sadly.  “I’ve borne far worse for the good of this land.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha lay in Celia’s arms crying as she had been for over an hour.

“I’m sorry,” Celia finally said, her own tears having dried up.

“Why?” Katrisha sobbed helplessly.

“It’s my fault,” Celia said.  “I kissed you, I distracted us.”

“No,” Katrisha said softly.  “No we are both to blame.”

“The King will send me away, won’t he?” Celia asked, already sure of the answer.

“Then he can send me too,” Katrisha declared.

“What if they won’t?” Celia demanded, and made Katrisha look her in the eye.

“I’ll make them, I’ll be such a nuisance they won’t want me,” Katrisha declared defiantly.

“I don’t believe this has all been a whim,” Celia said hesitantly.  “Not with how hard they are trying to keep you in Laurel’s place.”

“Why, what is so important about me being a useless court mage?” Katrisha asked desperately.

“I don’t know,” Celia said distantly, “but…”

“I won’t let them take you away from me,” Katrisha said firmly.  “I won’t lose you, they don’t get to do this.  They don’t get to take you away from me.  I’ve given up enough.  I’ve done enough.  I’ve saved lives, I’ve risked mine.”

“How will you stop them?” Celia asked sternly.

“I’ll fight them if I have to,” Katrisha growled.

“No,” Celia said flatly, as a haunted look came over her eyes, “and do not speak so again.”

“What?” Katrisha demanded confused.

“These people, whatever you think of them right this moment,” Celia began sadly.  “They are your family, would you really hurt them…just to be with me?”

“I…” Katrisha started, but suddenly shrank into Celia’s embrace.  “No…I wouldn’t.  I didn’t mean…please, let’s just run away, far away.”

“A dark time may be coming for us all,” Celia said distantly.  “If Osyrae really acts against Avrale…”  She let out a long breath.  “The Sisterhood will serve the King, we will heal the wounded, even though that might cost us our lives.  We all swear an oath, to do no harm, you were there when I took mine.  Yet I might break that Oath to stand beside you at the end…if it came to that.  But I can’t abandon the Sisterhood, my mother, Wren, and Audry – not now.”

“Then what?” Katrisha said hopelessly.

“I love you,” Celia said looking Katrisha firmly in the eye.  “No distance they put between us, can change what I feel.  Perhaps when you are court mage, things can change.  Perhaps when they have accepted you, we can fix this, the real problem.  Surely there is some official capacity, some power with such position.”

“Some yes,” Katrisha started thoughtfully.  “It’s all so terribly messy though.  I…” Katrisha hesitated, then sat up suddenly.  She started to move, but then to be sure there was no confusion quickly kissed Celia fleetingly, and ran across the room.  She grabbed a small box from a bookshelf, and ran back to the bed with it.  “This box,” Katrisha said hesitantly on her knees beside the bed, “it was given to us years ago by Horence.  He helped to clear out the farmstead where we were born, and kept it safe for us till we were older.”

Katrisha opened the box, and amidst miscellaneous jewelry was a simple gold band, with a garnet set in it.  “This was my mother’s, and…by all accounts my grandmother’s as well.  I want you to have it,” she said firmly.

“I…don’t know what to say,” Celia said gently reached into the box and touched the ring.

“Say yes,” Katrisha pleaded simply.

“Are you sure?” Celia asked nervously.

“If this is to be, if we are to be separated, then I will give you this promise that we will be together again.  No matter what,” Katrisha said softly, and picked up the ring with a trembling hand.

“Yes,” Celia said meekly, and Katrisha slipped the ring on her finger.

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Chapter 8

Laeune the moon,
daughter of night,
glorious barer,
of tranquil light,

she soothes us all,
that we might dream,
and takes harsh color,
from all we’ve seen,

Laeune the lover,
rhythm of womankind,
who’s gentle grace,
now guides my hand,

she brings us wisdom,
that we might yet see,
what lies before us,
there yet waiting to be.

– unattributed, circa 200 E.R.

The Moonlight

Vernum 1st, 647 E.R.

It was very late, and the corridors of the cloister were lit only by what moonlight could find a way through skylights, or the occasional window on the upper tier.  Katrisha knocked for the second time at Celia’s door, and waited uncomfortably.  She knew another Sister shared the room with Celia, and did not know quite what to say if the other girl answered instead.

A minute passed and Katrisha grew all the more awkward about the whole affair.  She hesitantly turned to leave, stopped herself, debated, sighed quietly, and turned back.  She was worried.  She had not seen Celia for three days, and their last meeting had been both brief, and odd.  Katrisha had wanted to thank Celia again for her help, but was still too embarrassed to do so publicly, and Celia for her part had seemed almost intent to extract herself from the conversation.

Katrisha raised her hand to the door, and paused, she wondered if it was worth pressing the matter so late in the evening, let alone with a stranger in the mix.  She resigned herself to leave, turned, and told herself it was nothing any way.  She stopped as she felt Celia’s familiar presence through the door.  She turned around again, but still there was a lingering moment before the door finally creaked open.

Katrisha formed a small ball of cool light in her hand that caught a glimmer of a tear on her friend’s cheek, before Celia could wipe it away.

“Are you alright?” Katrisha asked, her entire demeanor shifting towards concern.

“I’m alright,” Celia assured unconvincingly.  “It’s nothing.”

“I’ve not known you to be one to cry for no reason,” Katrisha said with a frown.  “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry at all.”

“Maybe…” Celia started, and floundered.  “Maybe you don’t know me well enough.”  She seemed to think better of her words, but also to be at a lack of an alternative, and so just held her tongue on that frustratedly.

“I’m sorry if I’ve intruded,” Katrisha said distinctly taken aback.

“No…” Celia said obviously pained.  “I didn’t mean…oh fates no I didn’t mean.”

Katrisha frowned.  “It’s a beautiful night out.  I was going to go watch the stars, but I was worried about you, and as I recall I said I’d bring you some time.  I don’t suppose you would like to?”

“I…” Celia seemed quite off balance.  “I would like that.”

“This way then,” Katrisha said motioning with the hand holding the light which wifed out as she turned.  “I hope I didn’t disturb your roommate too much,” Katrisha said apologetically.

“Huh?  Oh…uh, no, she’s out tonight,” Celia stammered slightly.

“Oh, why?” Katrisha said with mild curiosity, and wondered if perhaps it was related to Celia’s malaise.

“Just…out,” Celia said bashfully.  Katrisha could almost hear the blush in her voice, and turned to consider her friend in the inky shadow between skylights.  It was a tone Maraline had adopted on occasion when talking about Lukus, often with rosy cheeks.  Celia smiled meekly.  If her cheeks were at all a different hue it was impossible to tell in the pale light.

There was a charming helplessness about Celia at times, that Katrisha could never quite place.  She was smart, quick, and bold enough to ask Katrisha to teach her magic, even when she had heard her repeatedly turn down others.  Katrisha thought the bouts of self doubt did not do her justice, and yet it was part of her charm.  It suited her in spite of itself, and left a warm endearing quality.  Truly warm was what she felt like, simple enduring warmth, like a stone warmed in the sun, but softer.

“She’s staying with…a friend,” Celia said at last, looking away mid sentence.

“Ok,” Katrisha said scrunching her brow thoughtfully, and turning to head up the nearby stairs.  “Is that why you are sad?” she asked hesitantly after a few steps.

“W…What?” Celia asked, a bit off put.  It seemed almost as though halfway through her reaction she had changed from not understanding, to defensive.  “No, not at all.  I’m quite happy for her…though I’m not fond of the boy in question.  He has gotten…better.”

“Oh,” Katrisha said uncertain that had really answered anything.  She turned back at the top of the stairs.  “I hope I didn’t offend.”

“No,” Celia said, looking up at Katrisha, some confusion on her face.  “Why…no, I can guess why you would worry that.”  She seemed to be at a loss to put her jumbled thoughts together into words.  It was amusing, if worrisome.

Katrisha cocked her head curiously to the side at her friend for a moment, and waved for her to continue following as she turned down a short hall that lead outside.  They walked up to the railing overlooking the courtyard, and Katrisha watched as Celia gazed out, and then up into the starry sky above.

After a moment Katrisha kicked off her shoes, climbed onto a rail, and sought familiar footings, and handholds on the column.

“What are you doing?” Celia demanded in a harsh whisper.

“It’s better from the roof,” Katrisha said flatly, and with a hint of challenge in her voice.

“But,” Celia protested flusteredly as Katrisha deftly ascended the column, and pulled herself out of view.  Celia stepped to the side of the column Katrisha had climbed, and looked for the footholds she had used. They were obvious enough, if terrifyingly slim and precarious.

A moment passed before Katrisha hung her upper body back down, her silver hair dangling from the top of her head, shimmering mesmerizingly in the moonlight.  “Coming?” she asked simply, her head cocked again to the side.  She waited a moment, and then disappeared once more.

Celia bit her lip, and climbed up onto the rail, gingerly testing her traction on the ridges Katrisha had used to climb.  She placed her hand nervously on a swirl near the roof, and paused to take a deep breath.  She almost had the nerve, and then again had almost talked herself out the whole endeavor when she felt a hand on hers.

Celia looked up into the silver halo framing Katrisha’s face, and into the emerald eyes that seemed to glimmer down at her in the dark.  She steeled herself, took a step up, and let Katrisha pull her the rest of the way onto the roof.  She sat with her legs dangling down, and took several quick breaths, calming herself.

“See, nothing to worry about,” Katrisha said in a kind, but chiding tone.  Celia looked at her incredulously, but couldn’t help but return Katrisha’s crooked smile.

Katrisha moved deftly up the roof, found a spot, wiggled till the tiles were situated comfortably against her back, and crossed one leg over a propped up knee absently.

Celia moved more cautiously and lay a short distance to her side.  She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to relax, trying to enjoy just being in the moment without thinking or worrying.  She looked up at the sky, and it was beautiful.  She smiled to herself at the thought that Katrisha was right, there was something about lying down and looking up at it that was different somehow, better.

Celia looked over at Katrisha appreciatively, but was distracted by a strange glint between her fingers.  “What’s that?” she asked curiously.

“That,” Katrisha said measuredly past her concentration, “is a little trick I read about, and figured out how to do.  Takes a fussy lot of precision to get what I want out of it though.  The spell itself is fairly simple – though reach and clarity are a challenge.  I have to wonder if Kiannae would be better at it, she has something of a gift with manipulating light.  It isn’t quite like anything else though, it is a controlled amplification of light, making new light based on received light.  Not quite like common methods of invisibility, which are a redistribution of existing energy.  Still, reception is the key.”

“So, it’s not just a lense?” Celia asked.

“I tried that spell once.  Easy enough, but you can only see so much that way.  Surface area is the problem.  It’s very subtle but look out ahead of me.”

“Oh,” Celia remarked glimpsing the faint glimmer of magic a dozen feet above Katrisha, and a few feet across.  The filaments connecting it down to to the glimmer between her fingers, that did still looked a bit like a lense, stray rays of light amplified from various parts of the sky.

“Even knowing all the principles, I had to recreate the underlying behavior described in the technique.  Magic is so easily lost.  All the written principles in the world amount to very little, if one cannot master the basic conversion, and there is no writing that down.  It can only be experienced first hand.  Though, I suppose one could store conversions as enchantments, but those decay, and there are diminishing returns.  Copying copies.”

“But you did it?”

“What can I say, I’m exceptional, or perhaps just stubborn.  Laurel said he did not know the underlying conversion, and had never had the patience to try and find it.  Here, let me show you.” Katrisha rolled over, and placed two fingers in front of Celia’s right eye.  Startling her slightly. “Now close the other,” she commanded.  “Be warned, it can be disorienting at first.”  

Celia did as she was bid, and gasped as what she saw changed. It was almost as though she flew forward into the sky.  “Take my hand,” Katrisha said encouragingly after Celia’s initial shock had passed, “and move it very gently.  Tell me if you want to look closer.”

“O…ok,” Celia said shakily opened her left eye for a moment to confirm she hadn’t moved, and thought better of it as the split image hurt her head.  She brought her fingers hesitantly to Katrisha’s hand, and took a deep breath.

It was frustrating at first, how the tiniest movements made the sky fly by in an instant.  In one pass she saw something, strange, and it took well over a minute for her to catch a glimpse again.  “There, closer!” she said excitedly as she managed to get Katrisha’s hand at just the right angle.  “It’s beautiful, what is it?” she asked as she examined the intricate multi colored tendrils.

“Tell me what you see,” Katrisha said carefully, with metered breaths, doing all she could to hold her hand steady, and the spell perfectly stable.

“It’s like a flower made of light,” Celia said excitedly.

“I think you’ve found a nebulae,” Katrisha said with a smile.

“But…” Celia said a bit flustered, “what does that mean?”

“It’s the remnants of a dead star,” Katrisha said struggling to hold her focus.

“Dead,” Celia said doubtfully. “Why is it so pretty then?  That doesn’t seem right.”

Katrisha lost her focus, and the intricate filaments of the nebulae vanished as magical ones dissipated in faint swirls.

“Dead is…probably not the right word,” Katrisha said as Celia turned to look at her wide eyed.  “It’s like the smoke and embers of a fire, that stretches as far as it takes light to travel in years.”

Celia baffled for a moment over all the unknown parts of that idea, finally sticking to the idea that light takes time to travel, but was quickly distracted from that train of thought by Katrisha’s face in the moonlight.  She was fiddling again with her spell, this time looking off towards the horizon.  Celia sighed, which distracted Katrisha, who glanced down at her friend’s wide grin, and smiled back absently before returning to scanning the sky.

“Thank you,” Celia said after a moment. “For showing me that…for…for everything.”

“You, are welcome,” Katrisha said again glancing at Celia’s fixed expression.  She laughed from the seemingly comical intensity of it.  It was certainly an improvement from having found her crying, but she was just as much at a loss to explain the change.  Celia could be flighty Katrisha thought, but she chided herself that she could as well.  It seemed different somehow, like a powerful unseen force was tugging at her friends emotions, whipping her back and forth like a banner in the wind.

“You never told me what was bothering you,” Katrisha said laying her hand on the roof between them, “and I think I owe you at least an ear to listen, after the other day…”

Katrisha could almost see the wheels turning behind Celia’s eyes as she seemed to work backwards and forwards over what she wanted to say.  “I…I wasn’t offended,” she came to at last.

“I’m sorry?” Katrisha pressed not having followed the train of thought.

“When you implied I might be sad that Lena was out…with a friend,” Celia said awkwardly.

“Oh,” Katrisha said, understanding the reference at least, but not the meaning.  “I haven’t thought a lot on such things, but…I know they are,” Katrisha said not sure where she was going with the line of reasoning.  “I’m also not blind,” she settled on, “I’ve seen some of the other girls and women who…are obviously more than friends.”

“They tell us it’s not…as common outside of the cloisters, and that some people out there are offended by the very idea,” she frowned, obviously concerned with her own line of conversation.

“I…” Katrisha trailed off.  “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, in fact I can’t say it is true with any certainty…but…heh,” she shook her head.  “You don’t really know either of them.  There are too men, very close to me in my life.  I know in my heart there is something there between them.”

“Oh,” Celia said, a bit surprised.  “I suppose there is that as well.  It’s…rarer, but there are fewer men amongst us after all.”

“It would seem statistically less prevalent by consequence, yes,” Katrisha mused, and looked horribly embarrassed.  “Still I don’t know it to be true.  Just glances I’ve caught, an odd familiarity they share, a touch of a hand noticed out of…” she hesitated as a hand rested on hers.  “Oh…” she said, swallowed, and the hand was quickly withdrawn.

Celia looked away mortified.

“Oh…” Katrisha repeated flummoxed.

“I’m sorry,” Celia said sitting up, wrapping her arms around herself, and turning away, as she choked back a sob.

“No…” Katrisha started, “no…oh goodness I’ve been daft, haven’t I?  I…I said I haven’t thought much about such things, and that goes…farther than just philosophically.  I’ve barely considered boys in quite some time, let alone…oh fates I’m just making this worse.” her voice had raised more nervously with every syllable.

“No,” Celia said her voice strained, “no it’s my fault, you aren’t one of us…and you came to us so troubled.  I couldn’t have expected you to notice…to…I’m so sorry.”

Celia started to move, but Katrisha caught her shoulder, then cheek gently and turned her back to face her.  “Please, I didn’t ask you to go, did I?” she said her face stricken with a flurry of emotions, but chief among them concern.  “I didn’t…I didn’t say I wasn’t willing to entertain the thought, only that…I hadn’t…yet…”  She was trying very hard to smile reassuringly, but she was far too much in need of reassurance herself to pull it off.

“I’m sor…I need to stop saying that…I really do,” she said almost angrily.  Guilt and other conflicts plain on her face.  “Fates…I…didn’t…” Celia stiffened, but seemed to regain some composure.  “Fates, I feel horrid.  I’ve…I’ve been on the other side of this.  I should have known better, maybe.  Maybe it’s just ‘cause you are older…but what am I saying, I was older than him, and I wasn’t ready…and he…found someone else.  He was also the only one…the only…oh never mind.  I’m s…no I’m not saying that anymore.  Oh Light I shouldn’t be laying all this on you.”

“It’s ok,” Katrisha said her own thoughts spinning a bit at the situation.  “As I said…I owe you at least an ear for all that troubles you.  Not just for how you helped me the other night, but because you have made me feel welcome here, like…I belong.  More so than anyone.  Well except maybe Renae, but that’s not the same.  She’s been like a loving aunt, you have been a true friend.”

“I haven’t spoiled that friendship have I?” Celia asked hesitantly, a tear rolling down her cheek.

“No,” Katrisha said brushing the tear away with her thumb, and letting her hand rest there.  “No you haven’t.  You have been nothing but kind…and considerate, perhaps too much so for your own good.  And I have repaid you to date with blindness it seems.  I think I’m the one in the wrong here, not you.  I’m willing to figure out what…might be, but I promise you, I can’t bear the thought of not being your friend.”

“Only willing?” Celia asked hesitantly, trying to reassure herself that she wasn’t pushing something unwanted on her friend, but worried as soon as it was said it might seem all the more pressing.

“Curious, confused…fates I don’t know,” she ran her fingers through her hair, “seems like a novel new way I could cause Laurel headaches, if nothing else.”  Katrisha laughed awkwardly, but thought better of her levity.  “I’ve clearly been oblivious to the very possibility, so willing, perhapsm hopeful.  I don’t know what more I can possibly offer.”

Celia leaned closer to Katrisha, hesitantly, testingly, and watched her eyes for discomfort at her forwardness, but all she could see was kindness, a quizzical curiosity, and concern.  There was no fear in those haunting green eyes, no sign of an inclination to pull away, and then there was a glimmer of determination as Katrisha pulled Celia closer, and kissed her fleetingly.

Katrisha struggled between emotion and observation.  Analysis of feelings that stirred, her heart’s unquestionable response.  Years of an untended illness had held her back in many ways, and it seemed in that sliver of a moment something in her nature yearned to make up for lost time.  Yet all of this paled in comparison to the certainty with which Celia launched into another, more lingering, wanting kiss.

Moments faded to minutes, or hours for all the difference Katrisha would have known.  Only the familiar moon that hung in the sky lied about a finite passage of time.  Gentle fingertips wandered aimlessly, trying to find their place in a dance meant for soft lips, and humorously inconvenient noses.

If lips spoke of certainty, hands spoke falteringly of all that was unknown, and unsure.  They wove a caring step of caution, overwhelmed by powerful instincts new, and undefined.  It was not unlike learning to touch magic, the moment you felt it the first time it was remarkable, but you could hardly figure out what to do.  Formless, clumsy, there was a response in kind, and then it collapsed, but you had discovered something gloriously new.

Breathless, Celia gave way, and lay her head on Katrisha’s shoulder.  It is rare to truly sense the emotion of another, even in the most intimate moments.  Yet in that instant Katirsha knew Celia’s whole world lay wrapped up in that embrace. That all Celia had dreamed of for weeks felt possible, and right at her aimless fingertips.  It could hardly have felt a greater honor, or imposition.  A responsibility placed upon her that she was unsure if she could own.  That in a moment of impulse she had accepted.

Celia laughed suddenly, and and broke the fragile impression.  “From the moment I met you,” she murmured wistfully.  “I have been trying to figure out what your presence felt like.”  She sighed and curled all the more insistently against Katrisha.  “I always wanted to liken it to sunlight, but it’s not the warm prickles of a summer sun.  I’ve finally realized what it is.  You are moonlight, a cool wash of moonlight on my skin.  Yet right now, so close to you, I think even that is wrong.  You are the ocean, warm, dark, and deep.  I feel like I’m in over my head.  I should be terrified, but I’m not.  Which is just funny, really.  I’ve never seen the ocean, never swam in water deeper than my waist.  Never even left the cloister.  Yet I am as certain of these things, as I am that this is where I want to be.  If I drowned in you, I would die happy.”

Katrisha slowly came back to the living world.  Dragged unwillingly by the intensity of Celia’s musings.  She, was afraid, but she was not sure it was a bad kind of fear.  She kissed the top of Celia’s head.  She considered the assertion, and found that a passing embrace had never let her appreciate how much different a presence could feel that close.  Not warm like a stone in the sun, but like a raindrop refracting the sunlight.  It was beautiful, serene, complex, and seemingly fragile.  Fear, lay it breaking something so beautiful with a clumsy misstep.

She wondered what the difference between love and friendship was, and tried to remember what Mercu had to say on the matter.  ‘It is the difference between the river and the stream, the sky and the breeze.  Where one begins the other does not end, and more over the line does not exist any more than we foolishly protest that it must.’

“A half pence for your thoughts?” Celia asked after comfortable silence had faded to a sliver of doubt.

“Really, just thinking about things I don’t know.  Which seems to be a lot more than I usually like to admit,” Katrisha said softly.

“Oh fates, we are in trouble if you don’t know, aren’t we?” Celia laughed.

“Troubles an old friend.  I’ll introduce you, it’ll be fun,” Katrisha mused lightly.

Celia buried her face in Katrisha’s neck to stifle her laughter.  Katrisha held her friend close and sighed contentedly, she felt very good there in her arms.  Relief had finally caught up in the emotional jumble she felt.  All the fears that had lead her to Celia’s door that night were washed away.  A part of her had worried that Celia was mad at her for something she wasn’t aware of.  Perhaps she had, been a bit, Katrisha considered.  For not seeing how she felt.  She could own that guilt, as reasonable as her ignorance seemed.  More though it felt like she had been discouraged.

Doubt nagged still at the edge of her thoughts, was this what she wanted?  It certainly felt good, it certainly made Celia happy, and she admitted to herself she would be disappointed if it – whatever it was – stopped so suddenly.  There was potential, for what she still didn’t fully grasp, but potential was always exciting.

Potential was energy in waiting, ready, and anxious to become action.  You could feel it an object about to fall.  In an electric buildup reaching to discharge.  In a fresh flame sputtering to life.  Katrisha could feel that in herself, and it was a little unnerving.

Musings of uncertainty were cut short with a gasp as lips met a vulnerable neck, and the tingle down Katrisha’s spine quickly made doubts dull, familiar things, as all that was new and unknown proved vastly more interesting.  She hummed softly as Celia explored.  Her head rolled back, and eyes closed instinctively, which lead the trail of kisses downward across her throat.

“That feels lovely,” Katrisha murmured.

“I’m glad,” Celia responded nervously.  Katrisha felt Celia’s trembling hand rest on her heart, and gave a contented sigh.  It was sweet, simple, reassuring, and filled her with an absolute sense of peace.

Tentative fingers drifted from Katrisha’s heart, as lips still worked at her neck with seeking kisses, trying to find any sensitive spot.  She felt the a gentle flow of energy into her as Celia’s hand lovingly meandered.  Gentle living energy which made skin, muscles, every cell beneath the touch hum with life.  She felt more aware, more sensitive in all the right ways to the feathery touch, and somewhere past the growing pleasantness, and distraction, it clicked in her mind, a simple logical possibility already being put into practice.

Katrisha suddenly understood something she had never even considered, that the gift could be used affectionately.  That the same principles that allowed for such practices to temporarily enhance strength, allow the body to push farther, faster, and harder in battle could also be used to make it more sensitive, more aware.

In a way Katrisha was terrified.  The simple act of kisses on her neck had already started to addle most higher thoughts and concerns.  That wasn’t making love, it was barely undignified in public.  She knew precious little about what lay beyond that point, but if it was beyond, then it had to be more…and if fueled by the power of living gift. She bit her lip trying to imagine.  It was a heady overwhelming prospect, but any fear or doubt the idea raised in the back of her mind was quickly dwindling under what Celia was drawing out of her.

Willingness, and piqued curiosity were lost concepts.  Want, was then in search of a roost, a place in her to call its own.  It had always been there, like a shadow.  Though placing the moments the specter belonged to proved difficult, and the present seemed of more import.

Katrisha could feel herself sinking to the roof, melting under Celia’s attentions.  A part of her wanted to simply let go, to be Celia’s to do with as she pleased.  It was a powerful part, but surprisingly, unexpectedly it lost a contest of will Katrisha hadn’t even imagined was under way.  Almost before she knew what she was doing she was the one looming over Celia, kissing and caressing her, enjoying Celia’s gasps of pleasure and surprise more than she could have anticipated.

They were satisfying sounds, and the sensations, and the smell of Celia’s skin was delightful.  She realized it was almost as intoxicating from the other side, and there was a touch of frustration in that.  She had wanted back some semblance of control, and though it seemed her mind was clearer, she felt no more in control.  It was her own desire determining what happened, not Celia’s.  It was her desire.  She had barely imagined such a thing existed.  A slumbering creature truly woken for the first time, and wrapped around her heart possessively.

There was so much to learn, to understand.  Katrisha was lost in the act of exploring, feeling caressing.  She was delighted with each new discovery, and tried with great success to replicate the technique Celia had used on her.  As the minutes rolled on, and as lost as she was in her task she became more unsure of what came next.  

She could guess.  Obvious places unventured, but that seemed rushed, and clearly crossed a line to yet more undiscovered country.  It was a leap she wasn’t ready to make, and she settled back beside Celia, and nestled her head against her shoulder.  Taking time to let her heart come back down to reality, all the while daydreaming fretfully of new realities.

Katrisha watched Celia’s chest rise and fall beneath her robe, and let her fingers wander over her form in the moonlight.  She loved the moonlight, but she wondered if she loved Celia.  Treasured her friendship, without question.  Adored her company, and was ecstatic from new and unfamiliar feelings, and sensations, certainly.  She was closer to Celia than she had been to anyone in her life – save her own twin – and surely that meant something.  Yes, she convinced herself, yes she could love Celia, but was she in love?  What even she wondered was the difference?  Was it passion?  That seemed far too easily available, and far too simple.  Nothing was ever so simple.

She had placed her life between a dragon, and her mentor.  Between a dire cat, and a soldier who was only a passing acquaintance.  She felt like for Celia, she would stand against the whole world.  Even her own uncertainty, doubt, and sometimes bumbling social graces.  All at once, the feeling did not seem new, or changed, just understood.

“Yes,” Katrisha said softly.  “Yes, I want to know where this goes.  But…I need to know what you expect, what you need from me, because this is all much too new.  I’m afraid…I don’t want to lose…” she couldn’t even make up her mind what she meant to say there.  Anything, she finally decided, she didn’t want to lose anything.  She already felt like she had lost too much.  She couldn’t lose Celia.

“I need,” Celia started tentatively.  “I want,” she corrected, “to share with you all that I am.  That last little bit we all keep hidden away.  I expect nothing, but I hope that you will allow me to continue to hold you, and touch you, and…kiss you,”  she laughed nervously.

“I think I would like that,” Katrisha murmured softly.  “I think I would like that very much.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vernum 2nd, 648 E.R.

Katrisha woke to a feeling at once familiar, and strange.  She had curled up next to her sister countless times in the years they had shared their tower chamber.  The feeling of Celia’s sleeping form in her arms was different in so many ways, and yet the memory haunted her, and brought her a pang of grief, and confusion.  She clung more tightly to Celia, who stirred, and nuzzled against her chest, a relatively new sensation that washed away Katrisha’s troubles for at least a moment.

After several wandering sleepy kisses Celia looked up drowsily into Katrisha’s eyes.  “Hello,” Celia said softly, a touch of uncertainty creeping into her voice.

“Hi,” Katrisha said with the same nervous air.  She clung to the night they had spent kissing beneath the stars, and falling asleep in each other’s arms after wandering back to her bed at some forsaken hour before dawn.  

There was no regret in her for that, she was certain.  What ever was yet to be, the simple innocent awkwardness of the moment was exhilarating.  She was happy, she told herself, even as fear nagged at the edges of her mind.  Happy had been in painfully short supply for far too long.

Celia’s eyes suddenly went wide.  “What time is it?” she snapped, staring out the window at the bright daylight.

“I’m not sure,” Katrisha said, held up her hand, and a small triangular shape formed, wobbled, and pointed at in the direction of the sun.  “About mid morning,” Katrisha said absently.

“Crap,” Celia said wincing, “I’m late for garden duty.”

“Oh,” Katrisha said still half awake.

“Could you let me out,” Celia implored awkwardly, not really wanting to leave, but needing to, and lay trapped against the wall by Katrisha.

“Oh, yes,” Katrisha said and got up out of bed.  She scratched her head.  “Sorry.”

“No, please don’t apologize,” Celia said lifted up, hugged Katrisha, and kissed her firmly.  “It was wonderful, you are wonderful, and I hate to go…but I must.”

“It’s ok,” Katrisha said stealing a second kiss.  “Go, I have my own lateness to answer for, I’m sure.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Theron watched as a wrinkle on his hand slowly faded.  “Very good,” he said encouragingly.  “Age is not an easy adversary to push back,” he added.  “It’s natural, it’s one inclination of the body, but for the most part our forms want to be young, they just forget how.”

“How old are you?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“I’ll be eighty five next spring,” Theron said in a matter of fact tone.

“You don’t look it,” Katrisha said in mild disbelief, the man before her looked no older than Mercu, but was over thirty years his elder.  “You are even older than the King,” she added, though pondered that Laurel had never mentioned his age, even been evasive on the matter.  She knew that gifted people lived longer lives, had understood they aged slower, but had easily mistaken the common condition of age in the members of the court to be indicative of what she should expect.  That had been silly, but mostly just unexamined.

“I remember the King as a boy,” Theron laughed.  “Is it really so surprising how old I am?  You know Rennae is over seventy, don’t you?”

“I…didn’t actually,” Katrisha said with some embarrassment.

“Oh, yes,” Theron said thoughtfully.  “I suppose you might not have had reason to know that.”  He eyed her shrewdly for a moment.  “Something is different about you today,” he said seeming almost as though he was changing the subject.

“I…don’t know what you are talking about,” Katrisha winced.

“You lie badly when you are flustered,” Theron said with a laugh.  “You seem much happier, and yet…” Theron scratched his head, “troubled.  Yes, I see it now, you are in love…or at least right on the cusp of it.”

“I…I…how did you know?” Katrisha sputtered.

“How long did I just say I’ve been alive for?” Theron chuckled.  “And what are the core matters of spiritual studies?  You should remember that affairs of the heart are on that list.”

“Oh…” Katrisha sighed, and looked down.

“I won’t press the topic,” Theron said sympathetically, “but I am here if you need advice.”

“Thank you,” Katrisha said uncertainly.  “It’s just…I don’t want to talk about it, and yet…the whole thing is scary.”

“Such is the way of young love,” Theron said pointedly.  “It is full of excitement, and fear is after all very exciting.”

“Not terribly helpful,” Katrisha muttered.

“No,” Theron laughed kindly, “but honest.  I have known it from every angle in my many years.”

“The one thing…the thing that really bothers me,” Katrisha said as she fished for the right words.  “I never even considered loving…” she hesitated again, considering the wisdom of the admission.  It did seem a accepted state of affairs in that place, but still, she bit her lip.  “…another girl,” she finally steamed herself to say.  “And I do, I think.  At very least enough that I’m afraid I might change my mind, and hurt her, and that terrifies me.”

“I must admit, ‘never having considered’ it, is a new one by me.”  Theron mused.  “It is so easy to forget the world out there, and how it works.  Even then not so very new I suppose.  Everyone matures at their own rate, our gifts skew that problem more, not less.  The number of youth I have counseled who have found themselves hopelessly in love, or hopelessly loved…”

Theron shook his head, distracted by his own train of thought.  “When we really love someone, we concern ourselves for their wellbeing.  We are flawed creatures, prone to fickle whims, all of us, and so it is not unreasonable to fear our own impact on one dear to us.  The thing to cling to, is that you care, or you would not have this fear.  Always put that concern first, and you will do the best you can by her.”

“That…actually helps, I guess,” Katrisha said looking away.

“I have other duties that must be tended,” Theron said standing up to leave.  “Unless you are in need of more council presently?”

“No,” Katrisha said.  “No, and thank you.”

Katrisha sat in the sun for a while, and for once it didn’t bother her.  She let herself imagine the warmth was Celia’s touch.  She did love her, she tried to convince herself.  The idea was still new, and odd, and tangled up with all it meant.  She already had, she told herself.  What she felt had not changed over night, even if it had gained so many new dimensions.

The sound of footsteps in the grass caught Katrisha’s attention just as she felt the approach of a familiar aura.    He always felt warmer than the sun, and yet it never bothered her.  She opened her eyes, and smiled at Wren who was walking towards her in a seemingly casual manner.

“Hello,” Katrisha said with a half smile, “what brings you to the courtyard?”

“Oh, not much,” Wren lied.  “You seem…well, different somehow, though.”

“Oh, not you too with that,” Katrisha laughed awkwardly.

“I overheard, from the balcony,” Wren admitted with mixed humor.  “I…couldn’t resist.  To be fair I was listening in to start with, because I had already heard.”

“Already?” Katrisha winced.

“Sort of,” Wren said kindly.  “Celia was late today, there were questions.  She dodged a lot of them, and I put the pieces together from what she didn’t say.  I might not have been the only one to figure it out though.”

Katrisha sighed deeply.  “I….I don’t know what to say,” she said looking up to Wren for approval.  “I also…don’t know what to do.”

“I…wouldn’t feel right offering you advice,” Wren said looking away.

“But…” Katrisha started, “you, must know something of how this all works.”

“I know how things are for Audry, and me.  I suspect there are…differences…”  He laughed, but it seemed an odd sort of humor.  “Some things,” he started gain, “are better figured out on your own.  There is a certain…joy in muddling around at first I think.  Besides, I haven’t really figured out which one of you to scold not to hurt the other – yet.”

“She really means alot to you, doesn’t she?” Katrisha asked pointedly.

“She’s…a very close friend,” Wren said evasively.  “You, her, Audry, and Renae.  You four are the world to me.”

“I will try to do right by her,” Katrisha pledged nervously.  “I just…haven’t figured this whole thing out yet.”

“Give it time,” Wren said patting his sister on the shoulder, “and…though I don’t recommend looking it up right away, there is a book.  I know you like books for your answers.  You probably can get a copy of it from the library if you ask…  Audry was able to.  We’ve been reading it together.  It’s…enlightening.”

“What book?” Katrisha said scratching her head.

“It’s known best as the Red Book,” Wren said shrewdly.  “Written by a mage of all things…though she was really so much more.  Her name was Sylvia, Sylvia Grey for all her family tried to forget her.  I’ve sometimes wondered if she’s a distant relation to Laurel. I wouldn’t ask him though, he might be embarrassed if you did.”

“Is it that…bad?” Katrisha asked uneasily.

“I wouldn’t say there is a single bad thing about it,” Wren said sternly.  “Others, out there…” her gestured absently, “might disagree.  She was disowned by her whole family, then rose to more prominence than any of them ever had, or would.  Funny that, they disowned her, but she is the one the world remembers, while they passed into obscurity.”

“But Laurel is a court mage,” Katrisha protested.

“Of a minor kingdom,” Wren corrected, “and surely you remember Mercu’s tale of how Laurel found himself in that position?  I do.  I was there for one telling.”

“Right, Prince Darion,” Katrisha laughed, “saved him from bandits.”

“Before that he was just a mage traveling with caravans,” Wren added.

“His family was wealthy enough to have cut him off as a threat, at one point,” Katrisha said trying to remember various stories Mercu had told.

“Rich families do not necessarily have that much importance,” Wren sighed.  “Certainly not compared to a woman who openly defined the Clarions on their very border, whispered in the ears of princes, princesses, queens, and kings, and has an entire sect of Sisters devoted to her writings.  The entire order in some senses founded in her image.”

“And you are sure I shouldn’t read up on her sooner, rather than wait?” Katrisha laughed.

“She is in most post imperial history books, that haven’t purposefully written her out,” Wren said with a shrug.  “You’ll likely find more that have than haven’t though.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 6

In spring the living world breaths in,
bright summers turn leaves to fire,
cold fresh autumn winds exhale,
in winter all such vigors expire.

– The Breath of Seasons, 91 E.R.

The Winter Frost

Styver 37th, 647 E.R.

Snow settled on silver hair, and Katrisha stood arms outstretched in the in a courtyard of the cloister.  She was alone, as few ventured out in the evening on winter days.  Though loneliness was an ache far colder to her than the snow melting on her skin, for the moment she was unmoved.  She let the cold in, and while it was enough to make even her shiver, it made her feel alive.

She took a deep breath of frigid mountain air, and felt better.  The cold never frightened her, and though she would soon long for warm blankets, or even a fire, she relished the energy of a coming winter’s night.  She could almost lose herself in the stillness, almost find the place that her illness had let her become lost in.  She didn’t know what that place was.  Something far away.  There was a pain in that place as sure as the one in her heart that night, but the distance of it gave her perspective.

The sound of footsteps crunching behind her pulled Katrisha from the dark tranquility she had found.  For a moment she ignored the familiar presence, and that made her feel quite terrible.  It wasn’t that she wanted to be alone, it was that she wanted to forget.  Her arms went from outstretched, to clinging tightly around herself.

“Are you alright?” Celia asked gently, and set a hand on Katrisha’s shoulder.

“All things being relative?” Katrisha muttered.

“Even so,” Celia consented.

“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” Katrisha offered.  “The first I’ve ever spent without my sister.  Not that I’m sure it’s our birthday, really.  Just a day, picked because of when snow fell in the north the year before we went to Broken Hill.  It could be of course, or the next, or today – for what little it matters.”

“Happy birthday?” Celia tried, but it seemed hollow.

“Thank you,” Katrisha said with a genuine, but begrudging air.  “A nice wish, but I don’t know if I can manage to feel it.”

“I know it…I know it must be hard,” Celia said, “but you aren’t alone.  I’m…here…”  She huffed on the last word, and clutched her robe tightly to herself, and shivered.

Katrisha turned, and looked to Celia questioningly.  It was clear she didn’t want to be standing there in the snow, and yet it was all the more clear she wasn’t going anywhere.  She was there for Katrisha, her only real friend, and Katrisha almost cried to realize it, as real a friend as she had ever had.

Celia glanced up at the sound of Katrisha’s arms falling to her sides.  The two exchanged an odd series of inscrutable looks, and Celia threw her arms around Katrisha, and lay her head against her chest.  “I’m here for you,” Celia said firmly, and Katrisha wrapped her arms around her.

“Thank you.”

“Now, can we please go inside?” Celia asked between chattering teeth.

Katrisha laughed.  “Yeah.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae sat before a wavering flame.  It danced in a stone recess set between the trunks of trees that formed a central wall of the house.  She wasn’t surprised that druids would not burn wood, relying instead upon a spell to keep their homes warm in the winter.  It was a cheat of course, though the fire borrowed energy from the aether it was paid back by the stone beneath it, which slowly turned to dust.  Entropic decay, she recalled from her lessons.  Living things were generally highly resistant, but stone, or anything without a life of its own fared poorly when the gifted tried to get around the rules.

She glanced out the window at the snow, and fought back tears for an uncounted time.  She wondered if that was the twisted thing behind prophecy.  Was it cheating?  Was that why trying to avoid fate so often went poorly?

Landri entered the room, and watched Kiannae for a moment before speaking.  “You are up very late,” she said softly.  “Not that you do not make a habit of such things – sneaking off in the dead of night.”

“So, I’m not as clever as I thought,” Kiannae laughed darkly.  “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Yet you sit here where it is warm,” Landri offered.  “Seems clever enough.”

“I never liked the snow,” Kiannae answered, “and now I sit alone by the fire, and cry from even a glimpse of it.”  She huffed in a vain effort to steady herself.  “She loved the snow,” Kiannae muttered, even as tears started to break free again.  “I always hated it, too cold, but she loved it so much.”

“Your sister?” Landri asked understandingly.  She walked to Kiannae’s side, and sat down.

“Yes,” Kiannae sighed.  “It’s almost midnight.  Then it will be my birthday…her birthday.  I will be fifteen, and she forever fourteen.  Just one more way that she is gone.”

“It is always hardest on such days, to not be near ones we have loved,” Landri offered kindly, and wrapped an arm around the girl.

Kiannae was silent for a tentative moment.  “She’s not the only…ghost that haunts me,” Kiannae admitted.

“Do you finally wish to return to your old life?”  Landri asked.

“I…”  Kiannae sighed.  “No.  I can’t face those I left behind.  I won’t.  Only one is even of my blood, and I was never…I was not the best sister to him.”

“So you do have one family member left then?’ Landri pressed.

“One, and a half,” Kiannae laughed darkly.

Landri considered the girl next to her.  “You’ve sometimes asked I speak more plainly, might I request the same of you?”

“My brother…his birth killed our mother,” Kiannae said, “or she gave him her life.  Small difference I often feel, but I have been encouraged to think it significant.  He was never…right.  Katrisha loved him, said he reminded her of mother because he had part of her in him.  We once nearly killed eachother fighting over him.  I tried to mend my bridges, but…it wasn’t worth much I don’t think.  And now…now, I’m like him.”

“And you still avoid your point,” Landri pressed.

“I asked you about Tethis for a reason,” Kiannae said, “about the boy from the story.”

“And that is?” Landri questioned, growing impatient with the girl’s evasion.

“Can I ask you to keep a secret?” Kiannae said, changing tact.

“If it does no harm to do so,” Landri said shrewdly.

“I fear it does harm not to keep it,” Kiannae countred.  “Yet Zale already knows.  He’s promised to keep it, but I’m sure he will make a mess of things eventually.”

“Whatever it is,” Landri offered, “if I do not feel it must be told, I will keep it.  I will promise you no more.”

“I entered the Sylvan wood through what was once the lake in that story,” Kiannae began.  “I drank of a clear pool I found in a rocky stretch.  The water was so pure, seemed so clean…I think.  I think I knew something was wrong, but ignored it.  Ever since I have been visited by…an elemental…a ghost…something in between.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Landri said incredulously.  “Half flesh of course, ghosts, the dryad wood…but…”

“Zale told me of the figure that has been seen moving about at night,” Kiannae retorted.  “Yes, something followed me, but more than that, it…he is a part of me.”

“And you are sure?”

“I have summoned him intentionally in the east glade many times,” Kiannae answered.  “He has learned to speak, learned in part from my own thoughts.  My brother learned to talk far too quickly, Taloe – he’s answered that finally, his name – has done even more so.  Try not to panic.”

“What?” Landri asked incredulously.

“The snow is pretty,” Taloe said, and startled Landri, who snapped around and backed away from the naked boy that stood in her home, “but it’s not as challenging to dance upon water that is solid.”  He watched Landri’s expression for a moment.  “I’m sorry, if I have scared you.”

“How?” Landri demanded between gasps, her eyes wide.

“I called,” Kiannae said.  “Of course you did not believe me.”

“Why is he naked?” Landri growled.

“I just am,” Taloe answered.  “I am not yet certain how I take this form, it is like a memory, an instinct.”

“What do you want spirit?” Landri demanded.

“To be here for Kiannae,” Taloe said.  “I have been considering for some time to come, and be a friend to her in her sorrow.  Yet I knew her not to be alone, so I did not.”

“What are your intentions toward her?”  Landri narrowed her eyes, and considered the young man suspiciously.  Seeing him for the first time more as male than apparition.

“Kiannae is…my shaman…the queen of my domain,” Taloe said obviously struggling to find the right words.  “I wish to serve her, to be a good and welcome presence.”

“Me, a queen,” Kiannae laughed darkly, “funny that I’ve heard that one before.”

Landri shot Kiannae a questioning glance, but didn’t press her curiosity.  “Why do you appear naked?  This is not as ghosts are often seen.”

“I am no ghost,” Taloe said, and knelt before Landri.  He offered his hand that she might touch it.  “This form…is an echo of the flesh, not of the mind.  Perhaps I could learn to come into being otherwise.  It does seem to cause distress.”

Landri reached out hesitantly, and touched the hand that was stretched out to her.  She pulled back in surprise at the sensation.  “So are you made entirely of water then?” she asked rubbing her fingers together, and finding them counterintuitively dry.

“You are mostly,” Taloe laughed, “this is why my people thought it apt to be one with the waters.  We are of the same stuff.”

“I suppose there is truth in that,” Landri said curiously, examining the structure that held the boy together.  She tried to figure out where his aura began, and Kiannae’s ended to very little success.  He appeared to be a living thing, in almost every respect she was used to seeing, just more fragile, ready to come apart on a whim.

“It would help to announce yourself,” Landri said softening her tone, “or at least to not appear behind people.”

“I do apologize, but the space before you was filled, and I suspect any other sound would have startled you as much,” Taloe said defensively.  “I also mistook that Kiannae had announced me.”

“Barely, and not half a second before,” Landri said.

“Ah.  Time is…fluid in the dream.” Taloe shrugged.

“I shall have to take your word on this,” Landri said, “but you are here now.  So I ask again to be more clear, what are your intentions towards Kiannae?”

“You ask because I am a boy, and she a girl.”  Taloe nodded his understanding.  “She mourns a sister, and I a lover.  Though mine died long ago, time…for me is not so simple.  My wounds are still quite fresh.  Though I will not deny she is lovely, I seek nothing more than to comfort a friend to whom I am literally bound.”

Landri considered him, and struggled to read his face.  That his eyes lacked whites, and were the same strange tone as his skin did not help her.

“The moon is at its hight,” Taloe said glancing up, “the night begins to pass, and the day begins to come.”

“How do you know?” Landri asked curiously.

“Because I can feel it, as sure as the tide,” Taloe laughed knowingly.

“Happy birthday to me,” Kiannae mused darkly, and glanced at Taloe, who moved, and sat beside her were Landri had been, and hugged her, as he had seen her do.

Landri watched the interaction suspiciously, shook her head, and got up.  “I will have to think if I will keep this secret.”

“I hope that you will,” Kiannae said, and glanced up at the older woman that stood beside the fire.

“Do you truly trust the others so little?” Landri pressed.

“It is not just a matter of trust,” Kiannae said firmly.  “I am already an outsider, an oddity.  I wish to protect Taloe, but also to not give the others another reason to distrust me.”

“I will leave you two,” Landri nodded, “and I will consider what you have said.”  She started to walk way, glanced back, and again considered the propriety of the situation.  “Please sleep before dawn, Kiannae.  And yes, happy birthday, dear girl.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Hivern 2nd, 647 E.R.

The snow was deep, and soft.  While Katrisha bounded effortlessly through it, Celia found herself trudging rather tediously, even along the path where it was more shallow.  Katrisha leapt, spun, and landed in a snowdrift half as tall as her, which easily cushioned her fall.

“You are crazy,” Celia chided.

“And you are silly,” Katrisha called back.

“One to talk,” Celia countered. “Isn’t that cold?”

“Not really,” Katrisha laughed as Celia trudge up beside her, and stared down into the divot she had made sweeping her arms, and legs.  “Even if it gets a little cold, I just make myself warm.  Can’t you?”

Celia frowned, and tried.  She willed her gift to the surface, and her skin did feel slightly less chilled.  “Yeah, I guess I can.”

“See?” Katrisha laughed.  “Now, have fun with me.”

Celia rolled her eyes, and flopped back into the snowbank beside Katrisha, but did not sink in nearly as much.  “You have a weird idea of fun,” she chided.

Katrisha got up, and stared down at her.  “It’s prettier when you wave your arms, and legs, like I did.  Make snow birds.”

Celia stuck out her tongue, but did as she was bid, then got up to admire her handywork.  “Wherever did you get the idea?”

“Something Princess Maraline did once, and got yelled at by her mother for,” Katrisha said.  “So, I’ve done it ever since.”

Celia laughed.  “You are terrible.”

Katrisha scrunched her nose playfully.  “Laurel doesn’t care, Mercu rolls his eyes, and it made Marline laugh every time.” She bit her lip thoughtfully, and rubbed her chin.  “I have an idea,” she said, and offered her hand to Celia.

“Alright,” Celia said uncertainty, took the hand, and stepped over the lip of snow between them.

Katrisha turned to the path, gathered herself, considered how strong the spell needed to be, and then blasted a patch almost clear of snow sending most of it away in a near perfect arc.  Little compressed beads along force lines left random spokes, little roils of force rippled the edges, and a thick dusting swirled all around them in the backlash.

“Ok, stand here,” she said to Celia, grabbed her by the shoulders, and turned her around.

“What are you doing?” Celia pressed curiously, her eyes still darting to the after effects of the biggest spell she had ever seen.  Cast seemingly on a whim like it was nothing, just something you do.  She was at once impressed, and miffed at the sheer audacity of it, jealous really, and she knew it was that.

“Just stay still,” Katrisha said.

Celia scrunched up her face as Katrisha had done a moment before.

“Keep doing that, and it will stick,” she chided.

“Will not.” Celia stuck out her tongue.

“Keep making silly faces,” Katrisha laughed, “and I will not be held accountable for the consequences.”

Celia could make out parts the spell Katrisha was weaving.  It was complex, unfamiliar, and seemed to be something new Katrisha was devising for how long it was taking.  Katrisha was soon chewing on her lip in thought, trying to work out details.  She then suddenly ran behind Celia, who turned to face her.

“No peeking,” Katrisha snapped playfully.

Celia turned back around in a huff, and crossed her arms.  “Alright, but this better be good.”

“It will be,” Katrisha said, and then audibly took a deep breath.  “I hope.”  There was a pause.  “Are you ready?”

“I guess?”

There was a rush of wind, and more blown snow, and Celia tried not to turn around.

“Ok,” Katrisha said, and Celia spun to see something that was at first perplexing.  It was almost like a mirror in white, a detailed image of herself made of snow.  Some of the finer edges fell away lightly, but the resemblance was uncanny.

Celia laughed, and clapped.  “That’s incredible, do you next.”

Katrisha nodded, and set the spell up on the ground first.  She then wove the other end more confidently than the first time.  Took a breath, and with another whirl of snow falling all around them she turned, and considered the result.  For a moment she seemed rather satisfied, and then a little sad.

Celia was distracted with having seen the spell in action, and took a moment to glance at Katrisha.  “What’s wrong?” she asked, and then instantly realized.  “Oh fates, I’m sorry, I didn’t think.”

“It’s ok,” Katrisha said.  “I’m ok.  I didn’t think either.”

“I have an idea,” Celia said.  “I’m gonna knock these over, and you do it one more time, with both of us.”  Katrisha looked confused, but didn’t protest.  Celia gave both sculptures a shove, and they collapsed almost like they were nothing.  “Ok, now set the spell up again.”

Katrisha set up the part on the ground again, and the third time was by far the easiest as things went with magic.  She then started to form the spell in front of them.

“Just a little closer,” Celia said, and Katrisha stepped sideways, and finished her spell.  Celia grabbed her hand as she saw the spell was almost done, and Katrisha turned to glance at her just as she finished, and absently set it off.  They turned around to find the shape of the moment captured.  The image of the two of them holding hands, and Katrisha’s befuddled expression.  She laughed, and Celia hugged her tightly, and buried her face in Katrisha’s shoulder.  “See, much better.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 1st, 648 E.R.

Kiannae trod through the deep snow towards the east glade.  The snow was still lightly falling, but a part of her defiantly wanted to be out in the cold, for once.  She didn’t want the sorrow to own her, she wanted to love something that her sister had treasured.  The snow was pretty after all, she thought as she looked out over the unbroken expanse of white, and trees heavily laden under the weight of a thick winter blanket.  She huffed, and watched her breath swirl out before her.

She heard the footsteps following her.  Not for the first time, but she had ignored it.

Zale it seemed had finally decided to make himself known.  “I thought you hated the snow?”

Kiannae turned to glance at him, somewhat cross with his following her as he so often did.  “I don’t like the cold, but I can fight that,” she said.  “Besides Katrisha loved the snow, and I felt I should honor her memory.”

“So what are you planning on?”

“Not really planning anything,” Kiannae said.  “How are you doing at being interesting?”

“Shoddy, it would seem,” Zale offered.

Kiannae laughed, and shook her head.  She closed her eyes, and let her gift wash over her.  She felt for the wind and the snow, she sought a will in the winter air and laden ground.  She became that will.  With a deep breath a gust whipped up over the pair, and without even thinking she lept backwards almost as if the wind had carried her.  She twisted as she came down, and the wind whorled with her.

To Zale it was hard to tell whether the wind drove her, or she the wind.  He watched, and tried to understand.  As she moved the wind picked up, and as it escalated it swirled more, and she spun more.  It was a dance between the woman, and the elements, and hard to look away from.  Yet Zale decided that the sight of it was distracting, and closed his eyes.  His own elemental studies were spotty, but he knew the principle.  He felt for the will of the things around him, and caught a thin thread of something.

Everything seemed to be humming to a single tune, a rhythm that as he opened his eyes he saw matched Kiannae’s movements.  He took a deep breath, more nerves than intention, but he found that the air responded.  He let it out, and almost felt as though he could follow her into the field.  With the next breath he did, and was in her footsteps for several strides, and then he lost himself in the power, and tumbled just slightly off balance into a snowbank.

He sat up slightly, and brushed the snow from his face, and hair.  He shivered, but as his eyes refocused a whirlwind of snow broke before him, and a smiling face of a pretty young girl amidst the falling flakes could ease even the fact that she was clearly amused at his expense.  She held out a hand, and he took it.

“Do you feel it?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” he said, though there were several things he felt, the pull of the elements, the cold, a sudden breathlessness that had been building in him for some time.  All of it centered around her.  She was a force of nature in more ways than he could be sure.

As the last of the snow had almost settled she let go, and sprung back into her wild dance.  “Try again!”  She hollered over the whipping wind, and with a deep breath in, and out again he did.

Half the snow from the glade seemed to return to the sky as they danced, and for some time Zale kept his balance, even losing himself to the storm.  He was but an eddy, a single swirling zephyr amidst her power, and though he felt a part of it for a moment, he knew that almost none of it was his own.  When at last the heady euphoria won, he tumbled again into another snowbank, and just lay looking up at what he had been some small part of.

It was unnerving, and beautiful.  It was more than any druid should be capable of, and that worried him.  The things he had seen Kiannae do, the ease with which she did them.  He struggled between an urge to speak with Landri and the others about it, or to keep the confidence of the lovely and powerful young woman in his life.  A part of him wanted to believe it was just magic.  That it was because she was a mage.  Yet he had seen mages, so many in his days on the road.  It wasn’t magic, but it wasn’t druidic.  It was perhaps shamanistic, old shamanic practice at its very height, reborn before his eyes.  He struggled between believing the idea, and refusing it.

Kiannae herself finally let go, and was carried at the very edge of a graceful twirl just off balance, and fell with her eyes closed into what she expected to be soft snow.  Instead she found herself caught in strong arms.  She did not think for a moment as to who had caught her, in part she had expected it somehow to have been Zale, but as her eyes fluttered open she saw instead Taloe gazing down at her.

“Is this you?” she asked dreamily, still half lost in the elements around them.  Feeling the form of them in the breeze as he held her up.

“I do not believe so,” he said doubtfully.  “I had great power over the waters once, but the air was never my domain.”

“I don’t understand.” Kiannae signed. “If it is this easy, then why do mages not practice this?”

“I do not believe it is…easy,” Taloe said, “except for you.  It is very cold,” he said with a shiver.

“Then let me fall into the snow,” Kiannae said, and as soon as the words left her lips he was gone, and a soft pile of snow caught her instead.  For a moment the cold did not bother her, for a moment she felt almost as her sister always had, but that moment did not last.

A blizzard still fell all around, and Kiannae started to struggle to her feet as it was quickly piling up over her.  A hand appeared before her, and she looked up at Zale whose whimsical half smile reminded her just a bit of Mercu.  She closed her eyes for a moment, warmth and melancholy washing over her, and took the hand which lifted her to her feet.

“Am I doing better at interesting?”

“Better,” she laughed, and opened her eyes.  For the first time she found herself truly liking Zale’s presence.  He did remind her of Meruc, his essence felt like a thing of the wind, and at that moment the wind was very close to her own nature.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“There you two are,” Landri growled at the two teenagers walking into the village.  “What were you thinking, being out there in a blizzard like this?”

“I don’t think it’s a blizzard,” Zale offered.

“What are you talking about?” Landri balked, and gestured at the falling snow.

“We were dancing in the east field,” Kiannae offered.  “I think most of this was whipped up from the wind we called.”

“That’s absurd,” Landri shook her head.

“It is, but it’s also true,” Zale said, almost giddy.  “I’ve kept quiet about some of what I have seen before, but I didn’t just see it, I felt it…I joined with the elements she commanded.”

“Magic,” Landri grumbled.

“It wasn’t,” Zale protested even before Kiannae could.  Which left her both annoyed, but not inclined to call him on speaking for her.

Landri glared at the two incredulously.  “We need to talk,” she finally said, “about the boy, about this gift of yours, about a lot of things.”  She took a breath.  “In the house, both of you.  I want out of this snow fall.”

Kiannae huffed, and stormed off over the tone Landri was taking.  She hadn’t done anything wrong.  She threw the door open, and the other two followed, one irritable, the other sheepish.

“Just what have you seen?” Landri demanded of Zale after she closed the door.

Zale glanced at Kiannae who stood, staring out the window.  He shook his head, and sighed.  “After you started teaching her elemental channeling, she showed me how she danced with the wind.  It was…impressive, but not unbelievable.”

“She has shown me this as well,” Landri agreed.  “She stopped pestering me to teach her, and I thought the matter closed.  I agree it was impressive, but nothing that could cause…this.”  She gestured out the window.

“Later in summer, I found Kiannae when she went missing from a bathing excursion,” he continued.  “She had wandered farther upstream than we normally consider safe.”

“I recall,” Landri said shrewdly, crossing her arms, and waiting for a point to emerge.

“What I never told anyone,” Zale countered, “is when I found her she was five feet above the river in a column of swirling water.”

“Spirit!  I will have words with you!” Landri snapped loudly.

“I don’t know if anyone can just call him like that,” Zale said tentitively.

“Then you call him girl,” Landri growled in Kiannae’s direction.  She barely gave an annoyed sidelong glance.  “Or do you want me to stop keeping this secret?”

Kiannae looked back out the window, and said nothing.  After a long silence Taloe formed from swirling mist, and Zale looked away.  “Gah, it’s worse when there is actually light to see.  Seriously, can’t you manage clothing, please?”

“I will endeavor to do so,” Taloe said, “in future.”

“Did she call you, or did you come on your own?” Landri pressed.

“I try to abide her wishes,” Taloe answered, “but I appear at my own will, and I hear what she does…eventually.”

“Are these powers your doing?” Landri demanded.

“If the gift comes from me, it is beyond my control,” Taloe answered.  “I feel the song of it, the elements at her command, but I suspect not all of it is conscious on her part.”

“The river wasn’t,” Zale agreed.  “From what she said.”

“Alright, fine,” Kiannae snapped.  “I’m tired of being talked about.”

“Then tell me how you do this, if you claim to have really lifted half the snow from the east glade back into the sky,” Landri growled.

“I just do,” Kiannae shrugged, “and I did, or the wind did.  It’s not just me, like you say.  There is a will in the wind, in the snow, in everything all around me.  Once I found it, once I felt it, it was all as you say.  Gods, or whatever they are, the forces of nature, the picture they paint is in strokes so broad that…I think if I lifted the field whole, and dropped it five miles to the north it would make no difference to them.”

“That is absurd,” Landri rubbed her head.  “Power like that, it is the stuff of legends.  No one has seen a druid, nor shaman that powerful since before the founding of the Empire.”

“Now who is making claims?” Kiannae cut back.  “Mages have done more, so much more, why does it need to be something so grandiose?”

Landri shook her head.  “Perhaps you are right,” she huffed, “and perhaps it is time I consented to another of your wishes.”

Kiannae looked confused.  “So we are finally on the same page that I have done nothing wrong?”

“Wrong, no,” Landri consented, “but reckless…almost certainly.  Try not to create any more blizzards?  Show some restraint, and when the spring comes, I will see about granting you audience with the dryads.”

“No more blizzards,” Kiannae agreed with a hesitant nod.  Something in her suddenly longed for what was being offered.  The memory of Mr. Tree almost clear enough to hear, but it slipped away.

Landri turned to Zale.

“What?” he demanded.  “What ever part I played in that, was like a leaf on the wind.”

“Well don’t be,” Landri snapped tersely.  “Not until we have more answers.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 38th, 648 E.R.

Celia knocked gently at Katrisha’s door for a second time.  She was relatively sure she could sense Katrisha within, and announced herself for good measure, “Kat, it’s me.”  She was a bit perplexed that Katrisha had not showed up all day in the courtyard.  In the months she had known Katrisha, Celia had known her to be spontaneous in the moment, often late, but still a creature of overarching habit.

Shuffling footsteps finally could be heard, and the door creaked open slightly.  Celia frowned at the miserable disheveled state of her friend when she appeared through a crack in the door.  

“Are you alright?” Celia asked with genuine concern.

Katrisha appeared to turn a shade of burgundy, and looked to the floor.

“What’s wrong?” Celia pressed gently.

“I…” Katrisha started, and grimaced a moment.  “I’m bleeding,” she said with a false indifference, becoming a bit more stony in expression.

Celia looked plainly confused for a moment, and then seemed to partly understand.  “Oh,” she said, and seemed to mull it over as though something had not yet made any sense.  “Haven’t you before, didn’t anyone teach you?”

“I knew it would happen,” Katrisha said defensively.  “Just…I don’t know, maybe I convinced myself it wasn’t going to.”

“But didn’t anyone teach you?” Celia pressed again rather intently, but shy of actually explaining what she was asking, and forgetting that Katrisha seemed a bit old for it to be starting then.

“Teach me what?” Katrisha demanded, completely flustered, and bordering on angry.

“They’ve been having Theron teach you,” Celia said suddenly covering her face with her palm, “and he’s a man, and you are so much older…you’ve been ill, and a new user of living magic…and that mentor of yours, the court mage…also a man.  All of them men.  Oh you poor dear…”

“What?” Katrisha asked again, she had started out of patience, and Celia talking around her point was not helping.

“I…” Celia said, gathered herself adopted a calm demeanor.  “Do you trust me?” she  asked.

“Trust you…to what?” Katrisha asked falling back from annoyed into confused.

“To help you,” Celia said with a kind, awkward smile.

“I…guess,” Katrisha said hesitantly, and stepped back, opening the door.

“I’ve never done this before,” Celia said quickly, “not for anyone but myself.  But I can teach you the way I was taught.”  Katrisha looked as though she was about to protest again, but simply let it go.  She did trust Celia, even if she was being infuriatingly obtuse, and not to the point.  Celia caught the expression, winced, and finally explained.  “I’m sorry, I say ‘you poor dear,’ because you have the gift, and if anyone had the foresight to teach you…you don’t need to be in this condition.”

“I don’t?” Katrisha asked cautiously optimistic.  It made sense, but she wasn’t feeling that moment like pleasant sensible things had much of a place in her world.  She had been operating almost entirely on one conversation with Maraline years prior.  She had been working from a premise that when it came around, she was stuck with it.  A princess had been stuck with it, why wouldn’t she.

“Come here,” Celia said softly, opened her arms, and hugged Katrisha close.  After a moment she stepped back, held her at arm’s length, and looked her in the eyes.  “Trust me,” she commanded ernestly, and urged Katrisha to turn around.  Celia stepped up close behind her, took hold of her hand, and placed their hands together on Katrisha’s lower abdomen.  “Pay close attention to what I do,” she said in a metered tone, “just like when they were teaching you before.  Feel what I do, and then when I tell you to, continue.”

Katrisha felt the warmth reach into her, felt the cramps she had been struggling to ignore subside.  “Can you feel your womb,” Celia asked softly.

“I…think so,” Katrisha said hesitantly, and uncomfortably.  It was such a frank word, seemed almost to border on impolite, yet Celia said it almost absently, she was trained to heal, to know anatomy.  It was just a factual word to her.

Celia focused the magic in the area precisely.  “Do you feel that?” she asked again.

“Yes,” Katrisha said with obvious embarrassment.  She was really frustrated that she was bothered.  At any inkling that something was improper in the situation, or her fault, or what she didn’t even know.  She was actually rather angry about how she was feeling, but she couldn’t even think who had taught her that the natural course of events was something untoward, or for that matter a healer, and a friend doing her duty.  Maybe it was just that it was never talked about.  She was quite irate that she didn’t already know what she needed to.  If it had not been for one day that Maraline was utterly miserable, and forward about her condition, Katrisha would have likely panicked, and run to a healer, and been terribly embarrassed…and perhaps on some level she was happier that it would be Celia teaching her.  That was odd solace.

“That is what should be there, should always be there.  That is living tissue,” Celia said taking a deep breath.  “Can you feel the dyeing part, the part your body wants to be rid of?”

“Yes,” Katrisha said uncertainty, and shivered slightly at the sudden sense of foreignness that the dying tissue gave her, she wanted it gone.

“Feel it be reabsorbed,” Celia said as her hand moved slightly, and she worked her gift deep within Katrisha’s body, “feel your it break down, and return to you.”  Slowly Katrisha could feel the foreignness, the strange cold dark sensation fade, it became part of her again, the tiniest bit at a time.

Celia worked for a good ten minutes, and then suddenly stopped.  “Do you think you can take over?” she asked giving Katrisha a gentle squeeze.

“Yes,” Katrisha said with false calm.

“I’ll make sure you don’t get it wrong,” Celia said comfortingly, and with confidence.  “I’ve been doing this for over a year.  Twice a month.”

“Ok,” Katrisha said as she started again where Celia had left off.  She could feel Celia’s gift guide hers, until finally it was simple second nature to continue.

“It’s strange,” Celia mused after a moment.  “Something my mother told me.  A piece of trivia, but it’s strange now that I think about it.  This is one of very few natural conditions that can be remedied with simple healing.  I wonder why.”

“You can’t heal things that are…” Katrisha began as she thought back.  “Wait yes, I think I did know that.  Moriel, he wears these funny little things on his nose because his eyes are just that way, or something.”

“Yes, simple healing is restorative, it can only do what the body was naturally inclined to do.  It takes magic, usually shaper magic, to fully correct congenital flaws.”

“Now you are the one using words I don’t know,” Katrisha protested.

“Seems fair for once,” Celia laughed, and it eased Katrisha’s worries greatly.

“Maybe it’s just like skipping over the winter,” Katrisha offered.  “Just moving along around the seasons.”

“You like the winter though,” Celia chided.

“Fall then,” Katrisha cut back playfully.  It hung a moment in silence between them, until they both broke down laughing.

“Enough of that,”  Celia said sternly when they had both recovered.  “Let’s finish this.”

For another ten minutes they stood like that, until at last Katrisha felt nothing within her that her body wanted to reject.

“Thank you,” Katrisha said and, let herself melt into the continued embrace.  She turned and looked Celia in the eye, and then hugged her tightly, leaning her head against her friends.  “Thank you so very much,” she said with palpable relief.

Celia leaned back, and smiled with a bit of a strained expression, and seemed to search Katrisha’s gaze for something.  “You are welcome,” she laughed reservedly, “after all the teaching you’ve done for me, it was the least I could do.”  She hesitated a moment more, bit her lip, and let go of Katrisha.  “I should go,” she said measuredly, “mother was expecting me this evening..and…yeah I should go.”

“Are you sure?” Katrisha asked a bit confused by the sudden shift.

“Yeah,” Celia said awkwardly.  “I’ll see you…” she added, and then left rather promptly.

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 5

Had I not known you,
I would be a lesser man,
even should I now reign,
in this unimagined land,
I would not be even half,
of who this day I stand.

– Alexander Durandal, circa 380 E.R.

Friends in Need

Rhaeus 26th 647 E.R.

Kiannae looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps, and found Zale walking somewhat cautiously towards her.

“Strange breeze today,” he remarked glancing around.  Kiannae let out a long slow breath, and the direction of the wind dramatically shifted.  “Oh,” he said an almost startled look creeping over his face as he fully appreciated what had happened.  He could feel it then, but far more subtle in action and profound in result than he was used to.

“Nice of you to walk up like a normal person,” Kiannae said rolling her shoulders, and rubbing her neck as the breeze came to a stop.

“I did say I was sorry about last time,” Zale sighed.  “Then I figured I’d give you some space.”

“Well, as Landri likes to point out, difficult is my way.”

“She can be a bit judgmental,” Zale offered as he sat down across from Kiannae.

“Oh, no,” Kiannae laughed, “she’s quite right.”

“They usually save teaching the elemental stuff for advanced students,” Zale mused, attempting to shift away from Kiannae’s self deprecating jabs.

“What can I say, I’m advanced.”  she said with a grin.  “I pressed Landri about it, she said they had been focusing on all the life stuff because it was farther from what I had already been taught,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“And then you insisted she expand her lesson plan?” Zale asked curiously.

“She was hesitant at first, concerned I would fall back on mage methods, and cause myself more trouble.”  Kiannae sighed.  “When she relented to teach me however she found that my methods were not as magely as she had expected.  I always found the direct solution to an end easier, unlike Kat…” she trailed off sadly.

“You miss her don’t you?” Zale said with a frown.

“What kind of miserable question is that?” Kiannae demanded with a touch of anger.  “She was my twin, like a part of my very soul.  Miss her…yes you might say that.”  She was fiery eyed, her breath quicker, and the wind a bit more erratic to match.

“I’m sorry,” Zale said with a flustered expression and nervous tone.  His eyes darted around a bit, trying to judge how much control she had over the wind, or her effect on it.  “I didn’t mean it that way.  I was just offering…an ear to listen…”

“I…” Kiannae sighed, and the wind calmed again.  “No, I’m sorry, I can tell you were trying to be friendly, and failing miserably.  Though I don’t know why you are going out of your way for me.”

“If you haven’t noticed there aren’t a lot our age around here,” Zale said pointedly.

“We aren’t exactly the same age,” Kiannae shot back.

“Closer than anyone else,” Zale sighed.  “There is Riley and Fenric, but they are twenty five, and joined at the hip…more than figuratively.  Then there are the little kids…”

“You poor dear,” Kiannae said in a mocking tone, “with only me for company.”

“Again,” Zale sighed, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“And if you are going to be hanging around me alot,” Kiannae said tersely, “you’ll need to learn to deal with the sarcasm.”

“Fair,” Zale laughed uncomfortably.

There was a stretch of awkward silence before Zale tried to break the ice again.  “So you are just out here playing with the wind?”

“It’s…relaxing,” Kiannae said with a shrug.  “What do you do with your free time, other than climbing around in trees, and sneaking up on younger women?”

“Not much,” Zale sighed, “about as much to do around here as there are people my age to talk to.  I miss being on the road with my mother…but father insisted I stay here for a while.”

Kiannae stood up, stretched, and with a wave of her hand called forth a gentle breeze.  “So play with the wind,” she said with a laugh and graceful twirl.  The air moved flawlessly with her, a strange zephyr that swirled in perfect sync as she spun.

Zale watched curiously as Kiannae began to dance to some unheard music.  Trails of light formed behind her hands, and smaller wild gusts whorled the light in all but unfathomable ways around her.  Leaves were lifted on the wind, and carried around her in a gentle spiral.

The light felt right to Kiannae, it was the wind, tracing forms that eyes could not see. The light came from the wind, her hands merely instruments.  Her motion itself was a whim, a whimsy, it was her forms shape on the breeze, and following its course seemed to take no energy, and even give, stollen not from the aether, but in spiraling tracks though the world.  A wind moved faster, a wind moved slower.  Everything conserved, nothing challenged.  An order emerged from chaos, and she was that order.  There was a breath to the world.  The winter would draw it in, the spring would exhale.

After several minutes of the unexpected spectacle Kiannae simply stopped, and the wind almost snapped to still, dropping the leaves it had carried like autumn colored snowflakes all around.  “So, were you going to join me?” she asked cocking her head to the side.

“I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” Zale said scratching his head.  “I know the basics of everything I just saw…but I can’t even fathom how you put it all together, or what inspired you to do so.”  He left out his doubts about the sheer power that seemed behind it, or if it was power precisely and not something harder to name.  Though he did carefully consider if flattery could be in his favor.

Kiannae huffed, strolled back to the tree, and sat against it again.  “You are going to need to work on being more interesting, you know?”

“I fear I’ll never be as ‘interesting’ as what I just saw,” Zale said with an awkward grin, gambling that playful might get him farther.

“Then I’ll have to teach you,” Kiannae said with a disappointed grumble.

“To make swirling wind and light?” Zale laughed dubiously.

“No, to be interesting,” Kiannae corrected. “Because if what you say is true, you are my best hope for company…and that, is to say the least worrisome.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 40th, 647 E.R.

Kiannae stood by the riverside as the other women of the circle undressed, and descended into the gently flowing waters.  At the castle she had bathed almost daily, but the druids only trekked up to a deep stretch of river a few times a week.  She noticed that only a very few would go with every group, and she was among them.  Even though the river was generally far colder than she would like.

They had left the men some distance downstream, and around a bend.  She was used to bathing around other women, and though the calm stretch of the river did not provide the same secure privacy as the walls of the castle bath, she had never caught sight one of the men spying.  That didn’t mean, she realized, it didn’t happen, or that they were not so deft as to go unnoticed.  Still, she certainly had not seen it.

She absently started to wander farther up stream, which seemed to go unnoticed as the other women were distracted chatting, or simply relaxing in the water.  As she walked Kiannae became absent minded.  On straight clear stretches she would close her eyes, and listen to the birds.  She passed a short two foot fall as she came to a third bend.  She began to wonder if she should head back, but decided peaking around the turn could not hurt.

There she found a beautiful pool, fed by an eight foot fall with large smooth stones at its base, and in places cascading off smaller outcroppings.  She wondered for a moment why the other women did not bathe there instead.  She decided it was simply too far, when the lower pool they generally used was entirely sufficient, if less idyllic.  Deciding she should bathe she stripped down, and slipped into the deep clear waters.  The pool was even slower flowing than the lower section of the river, and seemed much warmer than she had become accustomed to.  Which delighted her.

For a moment Kiannae was back at the castle, and five years old, when she was still small enough to properly swim in the shallow waters of the women’s bath.  She became completely lost in the sensation, and moved through the water with an absent minded glee.  She closed her eyes, and twirled slowly, feeling the flow of it around her.  Her training kicked in without even thinking, and she felt like a part of the stream.

Slowly her motions became more a dance than swimming.  She entirely lost track of time as minutes passed, and on into two hours.  She was at one with the river, timeless, and yet ever flowing.  For the first time in months there was no sorrow that could intrude, only a simple joy.  The way the water moved around her was delicate, perfect, and she was unaware as someone approached her private pool unannounced.

Kiannae opened her eyes at the end of a particularly successful twirl, and it took her a moment to come back to reality, and recognize that someone was standing a short distance in front of her on the bank.  Before even that had fully sunk in she realized first that it was Zale, and second that he was at eye level.  The twinge of embarrassment stood no chance against the realization that she was suspended in a spiral of water that was nearly five feet above the rest of the pool.

This condition changed almost instantly, and Kiannae found herself briefly floundering as the water collapsed out from under her.   She coughed as she struggled to regain her bearings, and get the water out of her nose, and off her face.  When she could see again she snapped into anger, glaring at Zale who stood awestruck, jaw quite literally dropped, and clearly unapologetic before her.

“You have some nerve,” Kiannae growled, the effectiveness of which was cut somewhat by another cough.

“I would have said something…as I approached,” Zale said starting to show some sign of embarrassment, “but…but what in the abyss was that?”

“Don’t change the subject,” Kiannae snapped defensively, still trying to process herself what had happened.

“Yes…yes, because me coming looking for you when the other women showed up without you, and happening upon…you…” Zale said, seemingly searching for words, “suspended five feet up in swirling water.  Yes, no…I suppose that’s not the subject,” he said defensively.

Kiannae seemed to shrink, and quickly covered her chest with her arms, finally making the mental connection between her embarrassment, and needing to do something about it.  Zale turned his back then, to his credit.  “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just…I couldn’t look away from…whatever that was.  It was breathtaking.”

“And the fact that I was naked didn’t enter into it at all?” Kiannae growled treading water again once she didn’t feel the need to cover up.

“Well perhaps you were breathtaking as well?” Zale offered in a legitimately uncomfortable tone, “but I have seen a naked woman before…that however was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

“And when have you seen a naked woman?” Kiannae demanded accusingly.

“I grew up on the road…one sees a great many things,” Zale said evasively, and laughed uncomfortably.

“Do you now?” Kiannae chided, “such as young women bathing in private?”

“There was little private about that show,” Zale laughed even more nervously, “but I dare say that dancer had less than half your grace, and not a third your beauty.”  The attempt at flattery fell flat for its exaggeration, even if it was clear there was some honesty buried under it somewhere.

“Not helping yourself,” Kiannae grumbled.  “Would you please leave, so I can dress?” she demanded angrily.

“Yes,” Zale said, and started to move back downstream, “I’ll wait for you around the bend.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Zale heard Kiannae approach, but she simply marched past him without saying a word.  He stood for a moment uncomfortably, and then hurried after her, as her brisk pace was carrying her quite quickly down stream.  “I’m sorry,” he offered again.

Kiannae stopped, and fumed.  “You should be,” was all she found to say in turn.

“I came around the bend, and there you were,” Zale protested.  “I…should have said something, but…alright, if I’m honest you being naked probably did have something to do with it, but that was at least the third thing I noticed.”

“Name the others?” Kiannae demanded tersely, turned on her heel and crossed her arms.

“The column of water,” Zale started, “how it moved…how you moved…then naked.  I really couldn’t even see much, but yeah, I noticed…alright?  I’m sorry.”  Kiannae didn’t look terribly appease.  “I should have said something, turned my back…but…how did you even do that?”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said.  “The same way as the wind?  I wasn’t trying, wasn’t thinking…I didn’t even know it was happening till I came out of it, and saw you.”

“Weren’t trying!?” Zale snapped suddenly, a bewildered expression crossing his face.

Kiannae took more than a moment staring at him, trying to believe the look on his face.  “I wasn’t,” she insisted.

“I don’t think there is a single druid here who could do what you just did if they tried with all their might,” Zale protested.  “And…you did it without even trying?”

Kiannae finally adopted another expression than irritation, or doubt.  She looked a bit confused.  “Are you sure?” she asked, trying to make sense out of that.

“I don’t know,” Zale said, “maybe?  I mean, maybe some of them could, if they tried, really hard.  Maybe,” he stressed.

Kiannae looked to the river, and was quite a minute.  “Why were you the one looking for me?” she finally asked.

“You are farther north than we are strictly supposed to go,” Zale said.  “I really shouldn’t have even come up here looking for you, but no one else seemed to be.”

“Is it a problem I came up here?”

“Probably not,” Zale said uncertainty.  “The river is the border most of the time, but this far north it gets fuzzy.”

“I’m sorry I snapped,” Kiannae said, on a level she wasn’t sure if she should be sorry at all, but some diplomatic urge intruded.  She doubted very much if things were reversed if she would have done any different.  Though she wasn’t sure at all she would have gone looking for Zale in the first place.  She didn’t find much comfort in that distinction either.

“No,” Zale said.  “I’m sorry.  I really…ah fates, there’s no point hashing over it.  I’m just sorry.”

Kiannae considered the young man before her.  She was still mad at him, but there was something cute about the flustered way he was acting, that cut away at the threatening feeling of being spied on, and she tried to tell herself that he hadn’t really been spying.  Not intentionally, and in that there was many some hypocrisy for all the people she had ever spied on with full intent.  Though never in the nude.  Except, well, she had considered the shape of other women bathing, wondered how she would look one day.  That wasn’t the same.  She ground her teeth riddling it all over.  It was different.

“So,” Kiannae started, changing the subject in her own head as much as between them, “am I really three times as beautiful as that dancer?”  It was playful, but mostly she just wanted to see the look of panic cross his face as he tried to figure out the right answer.  She was not disappointed, and she felt a little more even for the whole affair.

“In a few years,” he laughed, “I suspect it will be an understatement.”

Kiannae considered his response.  She pursed her lips, gave him a very shrewd look, smirked and started down stream again without another word.  She thought he’d done pretty well with that, in fact she suspected Mercu would have given it an applause.  She was less sure how she felt about that.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 3rd, 647 E.R.

Kiannae slipped from the back window of the house she was supposed to be asleep in, and into the moonlight.  It might have been easier to use the front door, but all of the houses of the glade had been grown with their only door facing the center of town, where two druids stood watch in shifts.

She peered around the corner of the house at the guards, and saw they were lost in some trivial conversation or another.  However in the bright moonlight she would easily be seen walking down any of the radiating paths that lead away from the central square.  Pulling her hood over her head she crept up to the front of the house behind hers, and moved slowly along the wall in hopes she would blend in with the bark enough to go unseen.

Kiannae stole an occasional glance to the central square, and saw that she had avoided notice.  She did not however see that someone stood in the open window behind her has she slipped past, and that he caught a glimpse of her face as she checked again on the night watch.

Clear of the house Kiannae moved into its shadow, and walked briskly into the woods.  She wondered how daft she was to be trying what she was, but decided she had to know.  She watched the bright patch of moonlight in the large clearing ahead with anxious anticipation.  She paused at the edge of the glade, gathered herself, and marched to its center where she sat, and closed her eyes.

Kiannae reached out in every direction, feeling for any large living thing.  She felt the ring of trees around her, some animals here and there, and pulled her senses back.  She could detect nothing within the field but the grass, bugs, and various critters of the earth.  “Where are you,” she whispered to herself.  “Show yourself,” she commanded under her breath.

She could feel the shift as it happened, feel the form before her, but her senses could not tell her what it was any more than ever.  It felt almost like it was a part of her, a part of her own aura.  She reached deep within herself, and tried to take stock of her being, her own essence, and then she finally saw it.  All around her, there was an otherness, a presence she had never noticed because it shared the same space as her, it didn’t just intersect, it was everywhere she was.

She opened her eyes to confirm what she knew, and stared at him, still focused on other senses.  If his skin had felt like water, his presence felt like wind.  He seemed more a change in pressure on one side, than the warmth of a living thing.  Yet it wasn’t true, the warmth was there, it just wasn’t his, it wasn’t centered on him.  He seemed just a dimple in her own presence, like a spell she had cast.  The conscious sense was not outside her in his head, but inside her own.  He wasn’t her, but he was woven through her tighter than the threads of her robe.

How had it happened, how had she become inseparable from him without even feeling it, without noticing.  It was as though he had fallen into a hole in her, as if something had stopped hurting just a little, or rather a great deal.  He had…there had been something torn out of her when Kat died, and he had soaked through that empty place, and become one.  It just was…she could see with her own senses they were inseparable, barely identifiable.  It was no wonder it had taken her so long.

“You are in me, aren’t you?” Kiannae asked of the strange boy standing before her in the moonlight.  He cocked his head to the side curiously.  Kiannae frowned, but for once did not become flustered by the lack of communication.  She pointed to the boy, then to herself, and feigned drinking as he had so many times.  There was a pause, a hesitation, and then he simply nodded.

“Water,” Kiannae said feigning drinking.  “Water,” she repeated pointing at the boy.  He sat down before her, and nodded again.  “Drink,” she said again feigning the act again.  “Drink,” she said pointing at the boy, then at herself, and repeating the act.

“Drink,” he spoke in his strange, awkward, oddly melodic way, and pointed at Kiannae.

Kiannae nodded, covered her face in frustration that it had taken her so long to understand.  “Yes, I drink,” she said wearily.  “I am so very sorry.”  It was all rushing back, it was all making sense.  The ache in her belly, the thirst, they hadn’t been the only thing that had eased when she had drank of the pool.  Another ache in the center of her had eased as well.

That wasn’t it though.  That wasn’t all of it.  She half remembered a story, a tale she had been told as a little girl after seeing her first ghost.  Only half remembered though, it was just out of reach.  Just slightly there.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 4th, 647 E.R.

The sky had turned orange, and Kiannae turned at the sound of chirping birds.  “Thank you,” she said to the boy, as she got up.  “Night, we talk again,” she said.

“Thank you,” the boy said in kind.  “Ok” he added, and faded away into the morning mist.  It had been a long, exhausting night.  The boy was learning almost too quickly Kiannae realized, but it was still slow and frustrating.  Wren had learned quickly she thought, far too quickly she had always heard.  Was it the reverse, was the ghost in her learning from her own memories.  It was a troubling thought.  It felt far more exposed than being seen by Zale…and the possibility…  She grimaced and refused to fully consider the thought that followed.

Confirmation had also only made Kiannae’s predicament harder.  She did not trust her new benefactors, nor their potential beliefs well enough to tell them the truth she had learned.  They had not noticed yet, just as she hadn’t.  The boy appeared to be a part of her to them, his aura was indistinguishable from hers, they had never met her before the merging had occurred, so there was no way for them to tell.

Kiannae doubted her analysis, the druids had detected the mage blood within her, had worked to separate it from her.  She worried that they might have harmed the boy in the process, but decided that was done, and over with.  There was no taking back what might have happened, and no pressing plans to repeat the process that had been used.

As she walked towards town she caught a glimpse of something beneath a tree.  Zale was asleep just past the edge of the glade, and in a flash she realized that he must have been watching her in the night.  Irritably she marched up to him, and nudged him with her foot till he stirred.

“So,” Kiannae grumbled, “what do you intend to do?”

“About?” Zale asked, rubbing his eyes.

“Don’t play dumb, even if you are,” Kiannae growled.

“About the boy?” Zale said awkwardly. “The boy who forms out of mist…” he added as he looked around, “and I can only presume returns to it just as easily.”

“Yes,” Kiannae sighed exasperatedly, “about that.”

“I suppose tell the elders,” Zale said with a shrug.

“Could you be convinced keep this between us?” Kiannae asked hesitantly.

“Why?” Zale asked getting up and scratching his head.

“Because I asked nicely?” Kiannae laughed doubtfully.

“You called me dumb,” Zale said perking an eyebrow, “you call that nice?”

“Perhaps you don’t want to see mean?” Kiannae suggested switching to a less friendly expression.  “He’s harmless,” she added, “and can’t even really speak for himself yet.”

“What ever.” Zale sighed. “Might keep me from having to answer for being out all night, even if I did follow you.  No promises though, if we can’t sneak back into the village unnoticed.”  He paused.  “Bring me with properly next time.  I want to meet this boy if I’m to be keeping his secrets,” he demanded.

“Deal…” Kiannae agreed hesitantly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 5th, 647 E.R.

As the day wore on, Kiannae grew weary of catching sidelong glances from Zale.  She didn’t know what to make of his sudden fascination.  Perhaps nothing had really changed, and she was only more aware of his attention.  She wondered what he really wanted – was he excited by the prospect of meeting something not quite human, was she herself – by some broad definition – fascinating to him for the same reason?

Kiannae found herself opposite Zale over dinner in the central hall, and grew more flustered in her attempts to read his intent.  She considered jealousy for the first time.  He had made quite a point that she was the closest person to his age in the circle, and by virtue of that his best options for friendship.  It occurred to her his only romantic prospect as well.  Her boy in the mist could seem a threat, if Zale had such designs.  She smirked to herself at the thought of what his reaction would be when he realized the boy was always naked, and all but broke down laughing at the curious glance her expression brought.

As the evening meal broke, Zale pulled her aside.  “So, what’s the plan?” he asked quietly.

“Same as last time I guess,” Kiannae said with a shrug.  “I sneak off, you follow…just this time, you join me in the clearing.”

“Bit simple,” Zale said, “thought you said I needed to be more interesting.”

“Sneaking off in the dead of night, to meet an ancient being that dwells in the mist isn’t interesting?” Kiannae gave him an amused glance.

“When you put it like that…” Zale said trailing off.

“Consider that lesson one of being interesting.”  Kiannae said pointedly.  “Remember to put things the right way.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae paused at the back of Zale’s house, and wondered how long she would have to wait for him to sort out his own exit.  After several minutes, and on the verge of heading off on her own again she saw the back window open, and Zale slip out just as she had, if slightly less graceful on the landing.  She snickered as he fell on his rear.

“Remind me to add how land properly to the list of things I need to teach you,” Kiannae said quietly as he walked up to her, and dusted himself off.

“Ok, just cause a branch broke, and I am more accustomed to exiting through doors than windows, does not make me clumsy,” Zale grumbled a bit loudly for Kiannae’s taste, and she held a finger up to her lips.

“I didn’t say you were clumsy,” Kiannae said softly but with a decided smirk.  “I said you didn’t know how to land.  Clumsy might be a good word for it though – so I’ll take it under advisement.”  

Zale looked quite unamused, which only amused Kiannae further.

“Anyway, come on,” she said waving for him to follow as she turned, and walked into the woods.

Zale moved several times to speak as they walked towards the clearing, and each time decided he was short of a good opening, and thought better of it.  As they entered into the glade Kiannae simply moved to the center, and sat down as Zale stood back a few feet, and watched.  

When nothing happened for several minutes Zale began to become impatient.  “How long does this take?”

“Not a clue,” Kiannae said without opening her eyes.  “I’ve not exactly mastered conjuring him up.  I’m not even sure if that’s actually under my control.  He has come so far entirely of his own accord.  Save perhaps last night when I called for him to show himself.”

“What exactly is he?” Zale asked still impatient, and finally a little nervous about what he had not only agreed to, but asked for.

“If I had to wager a guess,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “half flesh.  A step above a ghost, quite a few steps below the Avatar.  There is an old story one of my mentors told me.  About a race of people who lived on the shores of a great lake, and who were at one with its waters.  They were all wiped out, ages ago, and one…or more lay a curse on the waters.   Or so the fable goes…but curses aren’t real.  Spirits though…spirits are.”

“Are you sure it’s wise to consort with a spirit that’s been blamed for a curse?” Zale pressed suddenly very uneasy.

“Even the story isn’t so simple,” Kiannae chided irritably.  “There are two sides to the tale that follows.  Tales of people pulled into the water and drowned, of course, but there are also stories of some being saved.”

“So then…” Zale started, “you think he’s the benevolent old spirit of a lake?”

“That could be part of it,” Kiannae mused.  “You druids do believe in a higher intelligence to the elements of the world.  That elementals are not simply the rare anomalies we find in the wastes, and far reaches, but all around us, simply passive, and usually content.  What I have learned to feel and do gives me pause to consider there is some truth to it.”

“That is what Landri teaches,” Zale said hesitantly, and sat down across from Kiannae.  “Mother was never as…preachy.  She taught me practical druidic techniques, that which was useful to our time on the road.”

“I don’t pity you the lack of preachy,” Kiannae laughed, “but it has been enlightening at times.  Still I think he’s a lot more than a simple elemental.  I believe the form he takes is an echo of his old life.”

“Does he have a name?” Zale asked, intent to keep his mind of all that could go wrong away from the village at night.

“I’m sure he does,” Kiannae considered, “but I don’t think he remembers it.”

“How do you forget your own name?” Zale asked doubtfully.

“Knowledge does not pass perfectly from the mind to the soul I suspect,” Kiannae suggested, “and you try sleeping a thousand years.  See how much you remember.”

“A thousand years…” Zale said doubtfully.

“The story is I think about that old, give or take.  At least from what I know,” Kiannae said with a shrug, and suddenly opened her eyes.

Zale looked at her funny a moment, but her gaze was not on him he realized, focused just above and behind him.  He looked up, and quickly scrambled to Kiannae’s side when he caught the sight of the boy standing over him.  “I didn’t even…” Zale trailed off, “what in the bloody abyss,” he cursed, “he’s naked.”

“I don’t think clothes carry over as well as the body,” Kiannae said repressing a laugh. “It uh, took me by surprise the first few times.  I’ve kind of gotten…used to it….kind of.”

“You could have warned me,” Zale muttered, not quite able to keep his eyes from glancing where he would rather not.

“What fun would that have been,” Kiannae laughed.  “You know at dinner, when you gave me that funny look for smirking to myself.  The expression on your face right now, was what I was imagining.”

“Oh,” Zale sighed, “everything you hoped?”

“I’ve seen better,” Kiannae said dismissively, “but still priceless.”

“Wait – don’t ghosts have clothes?” Zale protested.

“They do actually,” Kiannae frowned.  “At least the one I’ve seen before.”

“You’ve seen other ghosts before?”

“Quite a few times in my room back home actually,” Kiannae laughed.  “Though she stopped coming around after my sister and I kept trying to catch her.”

“Wait, what?” Zale demanded, but Kiannae seemed to ignore the inquiry, and rethink what she might be revealing.

“Water,” Kiannae said addressing the boy.  “Zale,” she said pointing to Zale.

“Zale,” Water said in his melodic way, and nodded.

“What else can he say?” Zale asked curiously, setting aside other questions for another time.

“A few things,” Kiannae said eyeing Zale suspiciously.  “Water, Tell Zale name,” Kiannae said.

“I Water,” the boy said, “Kiannae drink Water.  Water with Kiannae, always.”

“Did you teach him all of that in one night?” Zale asked perking a brow.

“Pretty much,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “all our prior encounters ended with an impasse.”

“Water listen, Water learn.  I learn from dreams,” Water added.

“Ok…” Kiannae said uncertainty, “that bit was new.”

“I listen to Landri in dream,” Water said, “she teach of self to Kiannae.”

“That…is creepy,” Zale said more than a bit on edge.

Water cocked his head to the side.  “Not fear I.  Water good.”

“He’s perceptive at least,” Zale said trying to relax.

“You could talk to him, and not act like he isn’t here,” Kiannae chided.

“Um, sorry…Water,” Zale said properly looking at the boy.

“I think I saw this coming,” Kiannae shook her head.  “My brother…my mother gave her entire life to him when he was born.  He learned everything so much faster than he should have.  I think this is the reverse.  Which I won’t pretend I’m comfortable with.”

“We should give you a better name than Water though,” Zale said addressing the strange being before them.

“Seems wrong to just give him a name,” Kiannae said pursing her lips thoughtfully.  “I’m sure he had one once.”

“Now who’s talking about him like he isn’t here,” Zale chided.

Kiannae sighed.  “I suppose it is unfortunate to Keep calling you Water.  Are you sure you do not remember a name?”

“I remember Aeliae,” Water said hesitantly, sadly, and held his shoulder almost as though he was in pain.  “The water took her,” he said starting to shake, “took her away.  Not called Water,” he said firmly, began to cry, and slowly came apart and wiffed away.

“That was…odd,” Zale said uncomfortably.  “Will he be back?”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said thoughtfully, “even though he lives in me I am…not very aware of his presence.”

“What was all that about though?” Zale asked crossly.

“The tale of…” Kiannae thought back very hard to the story Mercu had told her years before, “The story of Tethis is kind of bloody.  A whole people were wiped out.  Not surprising if some of his enduring memories might be unpleasant.”

“Why do you suppose he remembered some girl’s name, but not his own?” Zale asked curiously.

Kiannae looked at Zale doubtfully, shook her head, and sighed.  “Love,” she said plainly.  Then after a moment of contemplation added with a haunted expression, “he was remembering how the girl he loved died, and how he did as well…”  She looked even more unnerved by the moment.  She was almost completely sure who he was, but she still didn’t know his name.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae glanced at Zale.  They had waited for some time for the elemental to return, before finally giving up.  As they walked towards the edge of town, Kiannae decided to press the matter.  “So, what do you think then?” she asked pointedly.

“Why not just ask me back there?” Zale sighed.  “Given it seems he can still hear us.”

“Nothing good to say, eh?” Kiannae grimaced as though joking, or hoping she was joking.

“No, he’s fine, if…rather naked,” Zale said shaking his head.  “He’s still not the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen though.”

“Oh?” Kiannae prodded half annoyed, part curious.

“The dryad wood is far more unnerving, not one ghost, but hundreds,” Zale said shaking his head, “and you don’t see them, just hear the whispers on the wind from every direction.”

“I’ve heard of dryads before…” Kiannae trailed off.

“From one of those mentor’s of yours?” Zale asked.  “Well whatever they told you, it’s nothing like being there.”

“So show me,” Kiannae said challengingly.  She set aside a suspicion she might have met one once.  She had almost forgotten the tree she had spoken to as a girl.  The whisper on the wind she thought she had heard once or twice.  Maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“It’s not up to me,” Zale said, stopped, and looked Kiannae up and down.  “The Dryad wood is sacred, and its location guarded.”

“I would assume it’s close though,” Kiannae said probingly.

“Somewhat,” Zale said and walked on.  “It’s actually part of the Sylvan land by treaty, or some such.  They don’t go there any more than we do however, and it’s largely considered neutral.”

“So who do I have to talk to, if I want to see the spooky woods?” Kiannae pressed.

“Start with Landri I guess,” Zale said with a shrug, “she’s your best bet.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 31st, 1148 E.R.

Kiannae looked at Landri, as she had many times that day through her lessons.  She kept thinking to ask the questions plaguing her mind, but never quite came to it.  Finally Landri got tired of the stares.  “What is it you wish to ask, but hesitate to?”

“I’ve…been reminded of an old story,” Kiannae said cautiously.

“What story is it?” Landri asked.

“The tale of Tethis,” Kiannae said with a wince.

“That’s a fairly bloody, and dark tale to be dwelling on,” Landri said curiously.

“So you know it?” Kiannae asked hopefully.

“Yes,” Landri said shrewdly, “what is it you are wondering?”

“It was told to me long ago,” Kiannae said still dancing around her point, “the thing is I’m not sure if the version I was told ever mentioned the name of the boy that the King’s daughter fell in love with.”

Landri stopped to think a moment.  “Talun, perhaps Talom by some tellings.  Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” Kiannae lied, “it just bothered me I didn’t know his name.”

Landri gave her more than a funny look, but shook her head, and moved on.

“I have heard there is a dryad wood near here,” Kiannae added then.

“Zale told you?” Landri asked displeased.

Kiannae nodded.

“I suppose it’s existence is not well guarded, though the location has been kept secret enough.”

“Could I go there?”

“Perhaps one day,” Landri said thoughtfully, “but I must be convinced that you are ready.”

“I think I met a dryad once before,” Kiannae pressed.  “I think I would like to again.”

“Where would you have met a dryad?” Landri asked doubtfully.

“Where I was born there was a lone tree,” Kiannae said.  “I asked my grandfather once how long it had stood.  He did not know.  Said it had always been there.  I remember a whisper on the wind, though not what the tree said to me, not any more.  I talked with him often, and sometimes it seemed the wind answered.  At least when I was little.  I have not been back since I was a child.”

“You are sure this was not some childish fancy?” Landri asked.  “I’ve not heard of a lone dryad before.  Only sacred groves.”

“Sure…” Kiannae laughed.  “No, but I’d like to see if it is at all what I remember.  If it is…then one day I must go back and thank that tree.  For the last answer I think he ever gave me, was to guide me to town, and save me, my sister, and my brother the day our mother died.”

Landri closed her eyes, and sat there a moment.  “I will consider it,” she finally offered.  “Let us return to your studies however.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 23rd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha put a at single tiny droplet of silver liquid up to her eye, and examined it carefully  She had managed to pull from her blood.  Two weeks of training, of watching carefully as others worked, of listening to their analysis.  Eight ounces all together sat in vials somewhere, pulled from her by others, and yet they said her blood was still saturated.

The others had stopped drawing as much out at a time, once her mental condition had markedly improved.  Ostensibly this was to allow her the opportunity to more easily discern the mage blood by volume.  Whether she really believed that reasoning she wasn’t sure, and didn’t care.  A part of her had decided that as much harm as the substance was to her, it was part of what made her special, and while she needed it out, she also wasn’t thrilled that it was being taken away from her.  To be sold presumably.  It bothered her.

Katrisha was weary, but her frustration had all but completely evaporated.  The tiny droplet she held was easily one of greatest senses of victory she had yet felt in her young life, because while it was the end result of weeks of work, the droplet itself had been produced in seconds.  She tried again, looked into her self, sought the errant power that was neither of her body, nor her soul, and pulled it to the surface.  The droplet doubled in size, it worked, in an instant she had gone from hopelessness, to complete success.

Katrisha looked in the mirror she had borrowed from Rennae, and frowned at the grey roots of her hair.  She had asked Renae about it, and been told that while possible, restoring the natural color of her hair was impractical.  Katrisha was told that if she learned how, she could do it herself, but that it was a tedious vanity that no Sister on record had ever followed through with.

A stray shed hair tickled Katrisha’s nose, and prompted her to brush it aside.  The hair fell into her hand, and touched the tiny droplet, causing the bead to wrap around, and stick to it.  She plucked up the hair, and watched the droplet slide down the shaft, slowly shrinking, as the hair itself turned silver.  She ran her finger along the strand, but it had absorbed every bit.  She felt could pull them back apart the same way she had in the first place, and did.

Katrisha looked again to the mirror, and a small smile crept across her lips.  If her hair was to be grey, she thought, then let it be silver instead.  She closed her eyes, and continued what she had begun to master only moments before.  Now though she kept her hands at her head, and ran her fingers through her hair, again, and again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 1st, 647 E.R.

Numerous tiny orbs orbited around Katrisha, and she watched their courses carefully, summoning more.  Her once raven hair had turned a pale silver, with just a hint of blue reflected from the sky, and shimmered brilliantly in the midday sun.  She turned to consider a gathering she had sensed forming, and finally noticed out of the corner of her eye.  Brothers and Sisters of varied ages watched her work, just as they had the previous couple days.  One or two had asked before if she would teach them, and she had declined as politely as she could think how, without inviting further requests.

Katrisha reached out a hand, and with one finger touched the central orb that hovered before her, adding a new detail to the spell that was replicated all around.  She smiled when a couple people gasped appreciatively at the appearance of ribbons of willowy light tracking the course of the whirling and spinning orbs.   She began throwing out more of the smallest type which had little influence on the others, but quickly added more texture and complexity to the whole arrangement.

At the far end of the courtyard she saw Wren and Audry talking casually, and holding hands.  For the first time she really considered Wren was very much with Audry.  Wren hadn’t mentioned it directly, but he had danced around the subject a few times.  She was happy for him, though she worried that the girl was nearly her own age.

Katrisha was pulled from her considerations as she noticed the several of the Brother’s and Sisters begin to sit on the grass around her.  She recognized most of the faces, but only Celia she could identify by name.  She nodded to Celia, and reached out, brushing her finger across the occasional orb that came into reach.  Their ribbons of light were replaced by a trail of twinkling embers, or several smaller ribbons, and would begin to spin creating spirals in their wake.

After a while she got bored with the elaborateness of it all, and with just a touch to the central sphere the whole vast simulation cascaded in a series of small showers of light.  There was some oohing, aweing, and a little clapping.  She considered her gathered audience, many of whom looked at her expectantly for what she might do next.

“So what do they teach you of astronomy?” Katrisha asked of no one in particular.

After a moment of glancing back and forth between the audience members, Celia was the one to speak up.  “Nothing really,” she said uncertainty. “I know the word, what it means I think, but they teach us mostly history, reading, writing, math, and healing.”

“Fair enough,” Katrisha said thoughtfully. “It’s more of a curiosity than practical subject, so I’m not surprised.”  Katrisha reached out her hand, and formed a green colored orb with a distinct rune at its center.  “For the sake of argument, let’s call this our world, Thaea,” as she moved her hand a copy came along, slowly shrank, turned a pale blue, and formed a different rune as she set it to its orbit.  “This is our moon, I have certain fondness for it, but that’s me.  Her proper name is Laeune, the same as the old goddess of myth.”

Katrisha pulled another copy of Thaea off to the side, which turned a bright luminous yellow as it began to circle.  “This is the sun,” she said, “or Rahn.  There was a time when some thought that Rahn, just as the moon, circled us down here on Thaea.  That we were the center of the universe.  In time however observations were made that did not make this seem sensible, and some clever mages determined that it is we, that circle the sun.”

The bright yellow orb, slowly came towards Katrisha, as Thaea and the moon shifted in unison, away, and began orbiting it instead.  Katrisha pulled a tiny white orb from Rahn, and set it in a tight orbit about the star.  “This is Vhael, the light bearer.  Also known as the morning, and evening star.  It circles closely to the sun, and may be seen often just before dawn, and just after sunset.”

With a sweep of her hand Katrisha made a field of little sparkling dots between Thaea and Vhale.  “These are the embers of Rhaea, fragments of a world that once shone brightly in the morning, and evening sky.  There are carvings on old monuments that show it clearly in conjunction with the sun and Vhale.  What became of Rhaea is a mystery.”  With a wave of her hand several of the tiny specs drifted from the half arc they formed around the sun, and spiraled into Thaea.  “If you have watched the sky on later summer nights, you may have seen a great number of shooting stars, which are stray embers of Rhaea that burn up in our atmosphere.”

“What makes them burn?” Celia asked.

“Some would tell you that it is simply their nature,” Katrisha laughed.  “I will tell you what I was taught, that high above the sky there is nothing, a great void, but as the pieces come close, they enter our sky and their incredible speed sets them ablaze.  The same way that if you run your fingers back and forth across fabric quickly they will grow warm.”

Katrisha pulled a large orange orb, and sent it out over the heads of her audience, which split off many smaller spheres from itself.  “This is Jove, the father of many children if you speak of the old god.  In reality Jove is a great collection of swirling storm clouds, with many moons, some of which are nearly as large as all of Thaea.”

Katrisha touched the bright yellow sphere of Rhan, and the trails began to form behind her growing solar system.  “This is Lauris,” she said pulling a tiny sphere off of Thaea and leaving it orbiting some distance behind it, but on a very similar course.  “By some great grace of good fortune this companion to our world, which visits once every thousand years or so, always passes by, though none have determined exactly why.  Some believe ‘the dark companion’ explains our continued safety, that there is a poorly mapped invisible world that has kept us safe all these eons by pulling Lauris from a disastrous intersection in course.  Some believe there is more than one such unseen mystery world at work in our skies.”

With the wave of her hand the Jove system copied, and even more moons sprang from the clone which orbited out past the heads of the onlookers.  “This is Elisia, the distant one, and her many daughters.  She is a blue world, believed to be one immense ocean a dozen times the size of our world.  Some have tracked worlds even farther out, tiny cold things, so far from the sun as to be frozen in near darkness.”

Katrisha let the system carry on as she got up, and began to walk away.  “Class dismissed,” she laughed as she went, and with the snap of her fingers, it all dissolved away, just as her previous display had done.  She stopped by a hall entrance off the court yard, and leaned against a column wearily.  Katrisha enjoyed the attention she got for her displays, but also found the inclination to do something new and engaging for her audience draining.  It never had been before, not since she she was very little.  Some after effect that would pas she hoped.

Soft footsteps pulled Katrisha’s gaze up, and she smiled slightly as Celia approached.  “Hello,” she said kindly.  “I’m sorry if I cut that off abruptly, I was just getting tired.”

“It’s quite alright,” Celia said with a bit of forced reservation, “that was incredible,”

“I’m glad you think so.” Katrisha said with a nervous smile.  “I was afraid I got too lecturey and esoteric with all the names of old gods, and distant worlds you would be hard pressed to even glimpse in the night sky.”

“I…” Clelia said and then hesitated. “I heard you decline  the other day…when some of the other Brother’s and Sisters asked you to teach them magic.  I cringe to ask, but…might you reconsider?  I’ve been wanting to learn real magic, but the archaist won’t take me for another year, or two at the earliest.”

Katrisha sighed, and half winced, but thought better of it seeing the deflated look on Celia’s face.  “I’ll do it,” she said, “for a friend of my brother.”

“You don’t have to if you really don’t want to,” Celia said meekly.

“Of course I don’t have to,” Katrisha said with a crooked smile, “but I’ll try.  I’ve never taught anyone before though, so I make no promises.”

“No, of course,” Celia said with obvious excitement.  “Thank you,” she added bashfully.  “When…when would you like to begin?”

“It’s my free day,” Katrisha thoughtfully, “and I have nothing better to do.  Come to my room, we’ll start now, and if we do it there, hopefully the other’s won’t get the idea to ask again.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 8th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha watched as Celia tried to form her fifth concurrent light sphere, and applauded the crescent arrangement she had created, which shrank towards each end.  “Very nice,” she said approvingly, “not bad for a week, and only a few hours each day.  A good ways from the pretty swirls you could make when we started.”  Katrisha tried to maintain an even tone as she remembered the sadness she had sunken into when Celia showed her her best trick, which reminded her far too much of her missing sister.

“Thank you,” Celia said appreciatively, and popped each of her spheres in order from left to right, only to remake them as quickly as she could.

“Ok, I do believe you have that one down,” Katrisha laughed as she saw the ease with which Celia recreated her arrangement.  Katrisha created her own simple sphere. “How about adding to the spell.  I have imprinted on this one the inclination to attract all copies of itself.  Try to see the difference, and do the same.”

Celia leaned in very close to the sphere floating in front of Katrisha, and formed her’s side by side, and carefully examined the pattern, until she was reasonably sure she could make out the extra structure that had been added.  “I think I see,” she said, and tried to changed her’s to match.  This failed, and her spell collapsed.

She remade hers, and tried again.  There was a little motion, but hers came apart once more.  She bit her lip, and tried a third time, very carefully.  When she finished the two spheres suddenly flew together, and tore apart right in her face, making her jump back in surprise.

“Very good.”  Katrisha laughed.  “I’m impressed, might have taken me longer the first time, and Laurel always seemed a bit bothered by how quickly we picked things up.”

Celia smiled, and blushed from the start she had given herself.  “Thank you,” she laughed.  “You are a good teacher,” she said with a smile, and brushed back her hair.

“I’ve mostly just shown you simple versions of what I do.  You are really teaching yourself for the most part,” Katrisha said with a smirk, “but I’ll take the compliment.  See if you can make yourself a little orbital system.”  Katrisha said, and closed her eyes for a moment sleepily.

Several minutes passed, and Katrisha almost had drifted off where she sat, when Celia’s excited laugh brought her back from the brink with a large yawn.

“Are you tired?” Celia said concerned she was boring Katrisha with teaching her.

“A bit,” Katrisha said shaking her head, and focusing on the four blue spheres that danced between them in a tight little knot of eccentric orbits.  “Very good by the way,” she said reassuringly, and stretched.  “I’ve just been up very late the last couple nights star gazing.  It’s been so clear out that I couldn’t resist.”

“Maybe I could join you next time?” Celia asked hopefully.

“If you like,” Katrisha said absently, “there have been clouds rolling in all afternoon though.  I don’t think it will be a good night for it, and I probably should sleep more if I’m getting so drowsy during the day.”

“Well, maybe some time?” Celia pressed.

“Sure,” Katrisha said, and yawned again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 20th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha leaned back against the wall beside her chamber window, and listened to the sound of the rain outside.  “I love the rain,” she sighed.

“It is a lovely sound,” Celia laughed, “and no garden duties when it’s raining.”

“I suppose there is something to that as well,” Katrisha yawned.  She opened her eyes, and watched as Celia painted the air with ribbons of light.  It had become a comfortable, familiar sight in its own right, and the ache of remembering Kiannae doing the same kept its distance for once.  “I love the snow more,” she mused, “but I guess you can’t have that all year.”

Celia gave Katrisha a funny look.  “I like the snow well enough,” she laughed, “it’s pretty, but it’s so cold.”

“I’ve never minded the cold,” Katrisha said leaning forward. “It’s refreshing, and it’s nice to bundle up tight in warm winter clothing.”

“I suppose there is that,” Celia said waving her drawing away, and forming a small orb of light which she tossed towards Katrisha who caught it, but perked a brow at the act.  Celia made another, and tossed it to Katrisha, who threw the first one back to Celia, who stopped it between them, and threw another out on a slow arc around the floating one.

“I see your game,” Katrisha said throwing the orb she was still holding around the other side at the same time, and catching Celia’s.  Celia caught Katrisha’s throw as it came around in a graceful arc, and sent it back split it into two, which twisted about the central orb in a spiral until one flew off in Katrisha’s direction.  The two kept adding spheres to the game, catching ones that came near, and sending them back on new trajectories.  Ever so often one would fly off in some random direction, and pass harmlessly through a wall.  Eventually the pair started keeping a rough score, and argued laughingly over who had last touched any stray.

They continued their game for some time, until a startled cry came from the corridor, and the girls both hunched down in mischievous giggles.  After a moment there came a knock at the door, and Celia’s mother peaked in.  “I believe you two lost something,” Renoa said holding out one of numerous lost orbs.

“Thank you,” Katrisha said with a laugh, and a wave of her hand, forming a new one, “but we can always make more.”

“Very well,” Renoa said shaking her head, and waving her hand dispersing the orb she was holding.  “Just do try to be more careful you don’t startle people.”

“Sorry,” Celia said clearly restraining a laugh.

“Have you two eaten?” Renoa said with reserved disapproval of the humor the girls seemed to have over giving her a start.

“No,” Katrisha said, “not since breakfast.”

“Why don’t you two go do that then,” Renoa said pointedly.

“Ok mother,” Celia sighed, hopped up and grabbed hold of Katrisha’s hand.  “Come on,” she said pulling Katrisha to her feet, “let’s go.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 4

A silver drop of living light,
that shimmers and shines,
but of true nature lies,

what is this thing that devours,
yet such great worth harbors,
this price for powers gained,

liquid essence of aether,
or be it cold dew of nether,
strange tangible immaterial,

a slow poison to its maker,
and boon to the skilled shaper,
the blood of we mages born.

– Writings of Queen Regent Adria, circa 40 E.R.

Mage Blood

Estae 10th, 647 E.R.

Kiannae pondered the small sprout before her.  It had been a seed not two minutes before, and yet it stood a full two inches tall.  Landri watched expectantly as Kiannae simply stared at the plant.  Slowly she reached out her hand, and brushed a leaf with a fingertip.  She felt for the will of the plant, like she had long learned to seek the workings of a spell.  There was a way it wanted to grow, a pattern to it, it was deep, gentle, and hard to read, so much more complex than the weaving of magic she understood.

With her eyes closed Kiannae pushed, she let her gift flow through the will of the sprout, let it feed the living pattern, and after a moment opened her eyes again.  It had grown, and a new leaf had started to split from the stem.  “Very good,” Landri said, “not many can accomplish that so soon.”

“It…it’s like the plant itself is a spell,” Kiannae mused, “almost infinitely more complex than any magic I have ever imagined, but I could feel it.”

“The will of life, the force of order within every cell,” Landri replied.  “The purpose, and structure of living things resonates so strongly that it creates a parallel pattern.  The Sylvans call it Ki.”

Kiannae pursed her lips.  She had considered several times to press her curiosity on what her name might mean, but had avoided it time, and again because it reminded her of the prophecy.  Now she had the missing piece, or at least part of it.  She wasn’t quite sure what to make of the idea.  Honored daughter, and, what, soul? Seemed trite.

“The practices of mages are but a pale imitation of the splendor of Thaea.  Look again, with the trained eyes of a mage, follow the threads you find, and tell me what you see.”

Kiannae frowned, and tried.  She followed the threads of life that flowed along the fibers of the sprouts stalk, along the roots, out the leaves, along the edges.  Slowly, faintly she saw a glimmer, out past the roots, a web through the earth in every direction.

It was not merely like a spider’s web, but one awash in morning dew.  A delicate thing that wove around everything, but there were buds of light blooming.  Each seemed to represent something, the aura of a bug, a new born sprout, a colony of microorganisms.  The ants were things moving along a thread, a chemical certainty to their future, their decisions made, but that of the world around them still shifting.  As quickly as she saw it, and all this occurred to her, it was gone.

“Yes, I can see it in your eyes, you saw,” Landri said with amusement.  “The web of life is subtle, but however fragile it might seem, it is more enduring than anything woven by mages.  There is a will to the world, a will to all of life.  It is stronger than the will of the stones, for they are simple things, stubborn, but ready to be pushed aside.  Stronger than the will of man, for man is but a part, a single bud on the branch of the tree.”

“If life itself is magic, then why do only some have the gift?” Kiannae asked with obvious frustration.  She had asked similar of Laurel in the past, and never been satisfied with his answers.  The assertion that life was magic just made it more dubious.

“That, is an old question,” Landri said with a sigh.  “Some think that the fibers of the web of life bind around certain family lines, that these lines are the branches of the tree, and those without the gift, mere twigs, and leaves.”

“Is all of mankind a bud on the branch, or are mere families branches?” Kiannae grumbled.

“It’s an analogy dear girl,” Landri laughed, “but you know that, and are only being difficult because it is your way.”

“So that is what I am,” Kiannae said irritably, “difficult?”

“We cannot all be the gentle brook, or the spring rain,” Landri offered with a smile.  “The mighty river and the tempest are needed too.  Yet every storm must pass, and all rivers will follow their course in time.”

Kiannae flinched, and looked away.  Causing Landri a moment of confusion.

“Surely it is not now that I have offended you so?” she asked after studying Kiannae’s troubled expression.

“It’s nothing,” Kiannae sighed.

“There is no such thing as nothing,” Landri laughed kindly, “there is that which we do not want to share, and that which is not of great importance at the moment, but there is never nothing.”

“It’s just an old story,” Kiannae muttered.

“Do tell,” Landri pressed with a disarmingly earnest smile.

“I don’t remember it well, it was something my father told to me…and my sister when we were very little.”  Kiannae sighed, and rubbed her face.  “I only…what you said only troubled me because it reminded me of my her.  He would call us both at times by the titles in the story.”

Landri perked a brow curiously.  “And what titles were those?”

Kiannae frowned, “Must I dwell on this?”

“I suppose not, if it pains you so to think of your sister still,” Landri offered.

There was a long pause, and finally with a deep sigh Kiannae repeated the words as she had many times before.  “He called Katrisha daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost…and me daughter of summer glades, and the passing storm.”

“I’ve heard those before,” Landri said with a laugh, “the story isn’t all that old.  Unna fer Lun-ka, juer unsiler ybon,” she mused.  “Ah, but what…”

“It isn’t that old?” Kiannae interrupted both in surprise, and unease to hear the words again, to be reminded of all they meant.  She had always imagined the story one of long ago, and far away.  A wistful tale fit for small children.  She let this illusion shattering distract her from another surge of sorrow.

“No, I met the woman…” Landri trailed off and looked uneasy.

“What’s the matter?” Kiannae asked curious at the sudden silence, and expression from her instructor.  She was further distracted from her own discomfort for a moment by the fact that Landri was the one who looked like she had seen a ghost.

“Oh, sorry,” Landri said clearing her throat.  “Some think that her meeting with us druids sparked the Sylvan civil war.  Please, sit here, and meditate for a while.  See if you can glimpse the web of life again,” she said as she got up to leave.  “There is something I must attend to.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“What aren’t you telling me?” Landri snapped as she barged into Ezik’s house, and found him staring out a window.

Ezik gave her a curious look.  “A great many things,” he answered almost dismissively.  “Please, narrow it down.”

“Son of summer glades, and passing storms,” Landri said.  “Daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost.  Or that her name practically means…”

“Interesting,” Ezik interrupted.  “Ah, what father does not so adore his daughters, as to elevate them so.  Not that I ever had any.”  He shrugged.  “Just the one son.  I did plead with my dear wife for another.  I always wanted a daughter.”

“You are evading,” Landri said tersely, and shook her finger at him.

“No,” Ezik said in a tone more disappointed than angry, but none the less with some force.  “You are chasing the least interesting detail, and possibly nothing.  Does she look like she has Osyrean blood?  No.  What of her aura?”

“It would barley be a trace, it wouldn’t show.  And her aura…so it is bright,” Landri seemed disinterested.  “I’ve never met a Sylvan whose aura was not brilliant.”

“Dear woman,” Ezik shook his head, “you have never been one to miss the forest for the trees.  It is so unnatural it should be burned into your mind.  Look again, close your eyes, and really look at the memory of her.”

“It’s…almost like…there is a tear in her,” Landri said.

“A tear?” Ezik laughed darkly, “it is as though the very center of her, half of her very being was ripped out, and the rest fell in to fill the hole it left.  She is like a scar on nature itself.  A mage, even a healer I could forgive for missing it, but a druid of your caliber…”

“Has anyone else?” Landri all but growled.

“No,” Ezik answered uncomfortably.  “Perhaps I am getting clear sighted in my old age, and expect too much of others.  I apologize.  Yet I maintain, I could care less for her linage – if her true aura is twice what we see…even dragonborn would pale to her.  Yet the tear…”

“Her twin?” Landri offered.

“I’ve met twins before, gifted ones, dragonborn even then…and yes one died in my short time knowing them.  That was a terrible thing to watch.  I saw a soul turn to fire, and protect his still living brother.  Yet there was nothing like that hole left behind…”

“Then what of it?” Landri pressed.

“Something to watch,” Ezik answered.  He was thoughtful for a moment.  “Have you ever dreamed of the storm?”

“Once,” Landri offered uneasily.

“Do you remember the face?” Ezik pressed.

“Silver hair,” she said, “the roar of an ocean, or a thousand oceans.  Something terrible, and shadows lurking all about, like paler patches of blinding light.  I did not look at her face.”

“I did,” Ezik said.  “I did.”

“Do you really propose that she is…” Landri began to ask incredulously.

“Perhaps,” Ezik was thoughtful.  “Or another.  Mothers often look like their daughters, and there is something of the creature in that dream that seems such to me.”

“We’ve only her word that her twin died,” Landri considered leadingly.

“Do not even breath such a possibility to her,” Ezik snapped…and then calmed himself.  “You’ve heard the story as clearly as I.  A girl thrown from a cliff in a fight with a dragon, the pain she felt, so well timed to have been her death.  She has had enough trauma.  To gain hope, and learn otherwise…it could destroy her.”

“You will look into it though?” Landri asked.

“Discreetly,” Ezik agreed.  “There are too many mysteries here to ignore.  Too many portents of something powerful moving in the world.  I will ask you however; leave it to me.  Please.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 21st, 647 E.R.

Kiannae had been sitting for some time beneath the branches of a large old birch.  She had heard the leaves rustle several minutes before, and ignored the young man moving stealthily amidst its branches.  There was a yelp at the snap of a limb, and Kiannae thrust out her hand casting a spell to stop Zale, and the branch he was still clinging to just a foot off the ground.  “Not what I would call a graceful leap,” she laughed, as he flopped awkwardly onto the forest floor, and she let the branch go.

“You knew I was there, didn’t you?” Zale said trying to recover some composure.

“You were trying so hard to be sneaky too,” Kiannae laughed.  “Not doing very well at it, but trying.  It’s not polite to sneak up on people you know – least of all a young woman alone in the forest,” she scolded.

“Just a joke,” Zale sighed.

“Why don’t I believe you?” Kiannae mused.

“What’s not to believe?” Zale asked defensively.

“Just something in your voice,” Kiannae said disinterestedly.

There was a moment of hesitation, and Zale sighed.  “Alright, so I thought I’d watch you, and see if anything strange would happen.”

“And what kind of strange event did you expect to see?” Kiannae demanded crossly, as though accused of something.

“I don’t know,” Zale said irritably.  “It’s just…ever since you have arrived there have been reports of a shadowy figure prowling around at night.”

“And what does that have to do with me?” Kiannae asked her expression growing shrewd.

“I don’t know, but no one really seems to think it’s a coincidence,” Zale said with a shrug.  “It’s always near the house where you are sleeping.  At first some people thought it was you, but when you were found to still be in your bed…well the rumors have been growing.”

“And what do they say?” Kiannae sighed.

“That maybe something followed you back from the forest,” Zale said with a shrug.

“Such as?” Kiannae demanded, knowing full well what it might be.

“No one knows, it seems human-ish, or Sylvan from the description, but no one has gotten a clear look,” Zale said in a flustered fashion.

“And no one has bothered to ask if I know?” Kiannae sighed.

“Well, do you?” Zale asked curiously.

“No,” Kiannae half lied.

“Now why don’t I believe you?” Zale asked, his own expression shrewd.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 32nd, 647 E.R.

Kiannae woke in the night, not so much with a start, as to sudden full consciousness.  She could even remember the dream she had been having in crystal clarity, though that quickly faded.  The strange array of illogical plants that had populated that world quickly became unintelligible when examined.  The dream had not woken her, she concluded, and shook the imagery away.

She sat up slowly, looked to the doorway of the small room she had been given, and shivered at the dark silhouette that stood there.  What was most unnerving about the clearly human form – what struck her for the first time – was he had no presence.  A concept she winced to even try to understand.  Even the ungifted had a presence, even Navi’s ghost had a presence.  He hand an aura, it was visible, clear as day, and bright as any strong gifted, but it did not feel like a person was standing there.  There was no discrete otherness about him.

“Who are you?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.  Fighting off her fear, a fear she realized was centered more on the fact that as unnerving as the shadow was, she did not really fear it.

The boy stepped into the moonlight streaming through her window, and she examined his features carefully.  His skin seemed simply impossible.  It was smooth, almost translucent, its color was hard to make out, blue grey, but vaguely prismatic, and it simply didn’t look at all like skin.  His hair seemed unreal in its own unfathomable way.  It was long, and its strands seemed to flow together in the most literal of senses, becoming one thing, and yet it still shifted about almost like hair should.

“Who are you?” Kiannae demanded again, just a bit louder than before.

“Kiannae,” he said awkwardly, pointing to her.  His voice was strange, melodious, and clumsy all at once.  He then pointed to himself, raised his cupped hands to his lips, and watched Kiannae’s expression turn sour.

“I just don’t understand,” Kiannae sighed.  The boy stepped closer, and reached out a hand cautiously towards her.  Baser instincts made her want to pull back, but she held still as he gently brushed her cheek.  It was a marvelous, and all together unimagined sensation.  His touch was as smooth as ice, almost damp, but warm, and soft.  She reached out her own hand, up to the persistent mystery boy’s cheek, and touched it.  It was the same implausible sensation as her fingers trailed across his skin.  She pulled her fingers back slightly, rubbed them together, and though there had been a sense of dampness to him, her fingers felt dry, as did her cheek.

Kiannae blinked, and as her eyes closed she felt him disappear.  He was gone, and what remained was only mist, fading quickly, but all around.  For just a moment she half remembered a story from her youth.  She remembered a line about faces in the fog, and a forest that grew where a lake had been drained.  It was a ghost story, she remembered that, but ghosts were not tangible, could not be touched.  That was what she had been told, but now she was not sure if it was true.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 36th, 647 E.R.

“Mages,” Landri said in a lecturing tone, “seek the power of the gods.  The Clarions, for their part, seek the immortality of the gods.  Lycians, respectably, seek only the peace of the gods.  We druids however seek instead to join with them.”

“How does that make you any different than the others?” Kiannae demanded again irritably.

“Mages, Clarions, and conjurers all care nothing for the wills of the world,” Landri added insistently. “Druids are channelers, we seek to become one with it.”

“So then, merely tools without purpose of your own?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“The strokes gods paint in are broad.  So broad as to be almost meaningless to one mortals concerns,” Landri corrected.  “They understand our world, our little lives as poorly as we understand them in their vastness.  By aligning ourselves with their greater wills, we gain dominion to shape the smaller things in life, but always in accordance with a larger plan.  It is a partnership.  The gods do not sweat the small stuff, that is our job.”

“So you say that the druids serve the gods, plural, but largely you have spoken only of Thaea,” Kiannae said moving on.  “What of the others?”

“Thaea is of greatest importance,” Landri said shrewdly.  “She is the mother, the living world.  The others, the older gods are more like grandparents, and ancestors.  Worthy of reverence, respect, and of use, but not our closest kin.  The shamans of old favored the elder gods for their power.”

“Teach me of these elder gods,” Kiannae asked in a polite, but insistent tone.

“What do you seek?” Landri was stern.  “Understanding, or power?”

“Yes,” Kiannae answered.

“Prove to me you can align yourself with the living world,” Landri said, “and then we will consider other possibilities.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 30th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha sat in a tower window, indifferent to Laurel and Mercu’s conversation by her chamber door.  She also ignored the cat who sat in her lap, rooting at her idle hand that was no longer petting him.  Her black hair rustled slightly in the breeze, white roots, plainly visible in the early afternoon sun.  Her skin was almost translucently pale.  She held a hand up in the sunlight absently, and turned it back and forth with vague interest.

“The King isn’t happy about my request,” Laurel sighed. “His persistent reaction to anything involving the Sisterhood makes me think you are right about why, but I still don’t fully understand it.  Unlike his father he’s always been cordial with them, that much is clear.  Maybe it’s just saving face, maybe its more.”

“They are sending Wren I assume?” Mercu asked casually, giving little sign he was paying attention to Laurel’s musings.

“I expect so yes,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “She’s as ill of heart as whatever else is eating her body.  I expect they would send her brother to comfort her, as little time as they have had together, there has always seemed to be a strong bond there.  Enough even to make Kiannae jealous.”

“I hate seeing her like this.”  Mercu looked again to the oblivious girl sitting in the window.

“I hate talking about her like she isn’t here,” Laurel grimaced, “but it is almost like she isn’t.  A week now, and barely acknowledges me any more if I speak directly to her.”

“I know.  It will be alright,” Mercu said resting his hand on Laurel’s shoulder.  He let go of being told things he already knew, certain it was Laurel just trying to comfort himself by saying it aloud, as though it would not be true.  “The Sisters can fix this, they aren’t allowed to stay in kingdoms on their good looks…though I’m sure they don’t hurt.”

Laurel huffed softly.  “You would know better than I.”  Laurel sighed, and walked towards the window.  He gently set a hand on Katrisha’s shoulder, and after a moment she turned her head, and looked up at him.  There was something only half there in her green eyes, and it broke Laurel’s heart to see emptiness in her expression.  “Is there anything you need?” he asked intently.

Katrisha simply stared up at him for a moment, before finally shaking her head and looking back out the window.  Laurel sighed deeply.  “A servant should be up with food in a couple hours, eat something, please.  I’ll be in the tower study should you need anything.”

Mercu stepped beside Laurel, and whispered softly.  “I’ll stay with her, I doubt I will do her much good, but I don’t think she should be alone.”

“Thank you,” Laurel said softly and rubbed his eyes before he left the chamber, and Mar slipped out behind him.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It was late in the evening, and the first few stars could be seen in the dimming sky when a knock came at Katrisha’s chamber door.  Mercu set aside the lute he had been strumming at idly, and opened the door for two white robed women, and young man to enter.  He recognized Renae and Wren, but Audry he was quite sure he had not met.

Wren’s posture shifted when he saw Katrisha, who still sat in the window staring into the evening sky.  Wren looked up to Renae, and barely waited for a nod before running across the room.

“Kat!” he said excitedly, but Katrisha turned her head slowly, and for a moment it almost seemed as though she did not recognize her brother.  Wren frowned deeply, until at last a slight strained smile crept into the corner of her lips.

“Oh Kat…” Wren said as he leaned into window seat, and threw his arms around his sister.  “They said you weren’t well.  I guess they weren’t exaggerating.”

Katrisha leaned her head against her brother’s, and simply closed her eyes.

“How long has she been like that?” Renae asked Mercu with deep concern as they approached the embracing pair.

“Three days now, but on and off for a while, since…” Mercu hesitated, “since not long after that damn fool business with the dragon.  At first I thought it was just the trauma, and worry.  She seemed mostly there even for the wedding in South Rook, but I knew something was wrong.”

“Dearest, do you mind,” Renae said softly touching Wren on the shoulder.

Wren turned his head to look up at Renae.  He reluctantly released Katrisha from his embrace, and stepped aside.  “Of course Mother,” he said meekly with a nod, and Audry took his hand comfortingly.

Renae leaned over Katrisha, and brushed some of the girl’s hair back, examining the white roots.  She looked deep into the girl’s eyes, and frowned at the only faint recognition she saw there.  “What have you done to yourself girl?” Renae muttered as she knelt beside the window.  She took Katrisha’s hand in both of hers, and closed her eyes, focusing deeply on something unseen.

Several minutes of silence were interrupted when Laurel entered the chamber, a large book cradled in his arms.  He considered the scene at the window, and thought to announce his presence, but decided to wait.  After a moment Renae stood, turned back into the room, and acknowledged Laurel with a nod.  She raised her hand, palm up with only her index finger extended.  “I take it you will recognize this.”

Laurel stepped closer, and squinted in the dim light at the tiny silver drop balanced on Renae’s finger.  “So it’s as I suspected then,” Laurel said with a grimace.

“I wasn’t told, what you expected,” Renae said a bit coldly.

“No, and I apologize,” Laurel started a bit stiffly.  “I wanted a fresh perspective, not distorted by any preconceived notions.”

Renae nodded understandingly, and placed the tiny droplet in the palm of her hand for safer keeping.  “It’s mage blood poisoning, without question.  You however should know as well as I, it should have taken more than just a few minutes to extract that much.  It’s almost a wonder the poor girl is still conscious, her blood is…beyond saturated.”

“Yes,” Laurel said with a frown, “that’s what I thought, but to say the least I’ve never heard of a case like this.  I’ve been through every relevant book in my library,” he said tapping his fingers on the one he held. “The youngest case on record was late into his twenties, and had undergone a much slower, less severe decline.”

Renae looked back to Katrisha for a moment.  “I certainly have not heard of the like myself.  It might be her linage, there is no telling.  As I understand it the Sylvans do not practice as mages, and only mages have been observed to suffer from this.  It makes me worry more for Kiannae though.  I take it there is still no sign of her?”

“None,” Laurel said closing his eyes.  “She is lost to the Sylvan territories still, so far as we can determine.  I have no idea what they would do with her if that’s the case.  Nor do I know why she has run away, save the assumption she believed Kat dead.”

“I still cannot believe that was allowed to happen,” Renae said, anger slipping into her voice.

“No one allowed anything,” Mercu interjected cutting off pointless recrimination.  “The girls were set on that foolish course, and short of slapping them in enchanted irons I doubt we could have stopped them.”

“No,” Renae said considering Mercu thoroughly, “perhaps you are right.”  She took a long breath.  “Forgive me, I am distressed by it still, and these circumstances…”

“We all are,” Laurel said consolingly.  “I know you love Wren as your own, and have looked upon the twins with almost as much regard.”

“I…” Renae started, “yes…as my own.”

Laurel considered Renae’s response for a moment, “I’ve never pressed my suspicions…but I have looked into it in the past.  Was Adel…”

“Yes,” Renae said tersely, “and I will ask you not to finish that sentence just now.”  She turned to glance at Wren who had returned to his sister’s side.

“You have reasons?” Laurel pressed gently.

She nodded.

Laurel shook his head.  “Back to the business at hand then, I assume you can help Katrisha’s condition.”

“Yes,” Renae said hesitantly, “but more so than normal, this will only be a temporary fix.  It’s obvious with the rate of production, and concentration that this will require more than just a periodic cleansing.  It would be best if she lived with us for a while.  She will need to be trained to care for her own state, and will need time to recover.”

“I…” Laurel started, inclined to argue against the removal of his charge.  “I can accept your recommendation, reluctantly.  Beyond my own feelings on the matter, I do not relish convincing the King.  He is fond of the girl, but perhaps his current ire over…certain incidents may sway him.”

Renae seemed to ponder something deeply for a moment.  “I would offer to make the argument for you…but there are things I would rather not discuss with the King, which could make matters worse.”

Laurel considered pressing his curiosity, but thought better of it.  Renae turned to Wren and Audry.  “Please gather things for Katrisha, she will come with us tomorrow.  For now, I will resume her treatment.”

“A bit presumptuous,” Laurel remarked in surprise. “I have not yet even attempted to get the King’s approval.”

“It may be presumptuous, but it is also practical,” Renae all but snapped.  “If you can’t convince him, I will be forced to make a case I do not wish to, but I am quite certain I will win, even if I am not sure of the cost.  Besides, his authority in this matter is limited, so long as I have your approval.  You are her guardian, and her father by law, do you have any intention to change your mind?”

“Very well,” Laurel said taken aback by the severity of Renae’s tone.

Renae paused, obviously calming herself.  “Forgive me, please,” she stated in an even tone, “My frustrations are of my own making, not yours.”

Laurel considered the well aged woman before him thoroughly, he could not say that he knew her well, but in all past encounters he could not recall ever before seeing her so terse, and ill tempered.  “I will do what I can,” Laurel said, and left the healers to their work, leading Mercu out with him.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 31st, 647 E.R.

Midnight was upon Renae as she poured a few last drops of mage blood from her palm into a small vial.  Each of the three healers had worked in turn on Katrisha, Renae teaching Wren, and Audry in the process.  Wren had excelled – to no one’s surprise – above even Renae’s results, producing fully half of the ounce of precious and troublesome material that Renae now examined in the moonlight.

Renae wondered at the strange mercury like substance, and its brilliant shimmering aura visible only to those with the gift.  A strange accident of nature, a fluke of some mages gift, and practices, and worth a hundred times its weight in gold for its rarity, and odd properties, even if it acted almost as a poison to the body that made it.

Renae looked down at the sleeping girl in her bed and sighed.  She considered Wren who had curled up next to her, and drifted off.  She gently shifted the blankets around Katrisha to tuck her in more comfortably, and pulled the other side over Wren.

She slowly stood from the chair she had brought to the bedside, and stretched stiffly.  Automatically she sought out the more offended joints that complained from long hours hunched over.  She soothed the inflammation with practiced, near indifference, yet somewhere at the back of her mind remembered to curse the rigors of age.

Renae looked again to Katrisha, and Wren, and let a half troubled smile cross her face.  She took comfort that they could, and already had helped her greatly, but the effects on her mind, and her soul she could not be sure of.  The business with Kiannae did not help matters, and hurt Renae deeply.  She worried for how the girl could possibly be fairing.  Was she even still alive?  To be lost in the wilds, and stricken with such an illness, it was hard to imagine.

Renae pushed such troubling thoughts aside, and turned to leave.  She had been informed that the quarters she usually took up on her visits would be prepared, but she was less than sure where Audry had been taken after drifting off an hour before.  She tightly corked the vial in her hands and walked to the chamber door tiredly.  As she opened the door she found someone beyond, standing in the moonlight.  She expected Laurel, or Mercu, but who she found standing before her startled her from growing weariness.

“Your Majesty,” she said almost on instinct.

“It…” the King started uncharacteristically uncomfortably.  “It has been a long time, Renae.”

“Surely four months since my last visit does not make a very long time,” Renae said, confusion tinging her voice.

“I…” he said seeming to try on the pronoun awkwardly. “I have spoken to you many times as your King…” he said hesitantly, and at last turned to look Renae in the eye.  “But it has been a very long while since I have spoken to you as a man.”

“I do not know that you have ever spoken to me as a man, John,” Renae said bluntly, but quickly thought better of it, as the King grimaced.  “No, no please do not take offense at that.  I mean only…” she took a deep breath, and let it go.  “We were both barely more than children then.  I was no more a woman, than you a man.”

The King’s expression softened slightly.  “Perhaps there is truth in your words, but please, do not to belittle that time.”

“I do not belittle it, merely accept that I was once but a foolish girl, and you a dashing defiant young prince.  I will not pretend I do not hold fond, and dear memories from that time, but a lifetime stands between then and now.  I am an old woman, too knowledgeable of the world for her own good, just as then I was too naive.”

The King’s expression softened further.  “Would it amuse you to hear me say, I think you were the dashing one?  Climbing trees, and mocking the King’s guard with seeming impunity.”

“How the Matron ever put up with me…” Renae trailed off for a moment, but her amusement was clear.  “Still, little I haven’t had to deal with in my own time in the position.”

“Surely none of them have quite had your wit,” the King laughed.

“Oh a few, very few.  Though I dare say I’ve yet to need deal with any trying to run off with a young prince,” she said, her voice darkening a bit near the end.

“I should hope not.”  The King laughed, but darkened again.  “I feel at a disadvantage,” he started again uncomfortably, “that you, as any citizen of the kingdom know of…well the Queen, of course.  I married, quite obvious really that I moved on.”  He rubbed his forehead.  “I do love her dearly.  She is a fine, proper, and strong woman.  Possessed of sufficient wit and charm to have made my life as King content.  Yet…it’s never been my place to enquire of you.  Please do not think me an arrogant fool who imagines for even a moment you did not move on, it is just…friendly curiosity, and perhaps imprudent – I apologize.”

Renae sank into thought.  “I have had my share of love affairs, but only one has lasted.  Though we have drifted apart many times, and strong passion has long since given way to practical companionship, and warm affection.  In the end she stuck with me when I needed her most, and though we have had our times apart…she has always remained my friend.”

“Oh..” the King said, seemingly uncomfortable.

“You should not be surprised,” Renae said gently chiding the King.  “I will not pretend the Sisterhood has not earned our reputation.  We are – well, those of us who are – what we are.”

“No, it…” the King’s expression grew thoughtful.  “I have heard rumors, that I have never pressed.  Heard that you had a daughter.  In fact some say she was Adel of the North.”

Renae looked away then, she could not hold the King’s gaze.  “At last we come to it,” she said weakly, her voice strained.  “You have not heard wrong, my King.  It has been a long life, and I have been with a few other men…but none of them were the father.”

The King took a deep breath to steady himself.  “And I was never told…  You,” he began, his voice growing dire, “never told me?”

“Your father, and grandfather knew,” Renae growled.  “I don’t know how they knew, but but they knew.  I fear our daughter…” she said her voice growing softer, wounded. “She became a pawn in the conflict between your father and the Sisterhood.  We kept the secret of her lineage, and the King would continue to keep his son in check – would continue to protect us.”

“That hardly explains her end,” the King demanded, stuck somewhere between shock, rage, and disbelief.

“I tried to be a good mother, I did.  Maybe I was…fates if I know why, but she was never happy, never content at Highvale.  There was something different about her gift, she wasn’t weak, but she was never more than an adequate healer.  She left only days after she turned eighteen…I only know pieces from there.  Pieces I learned when I returned from my travels…”

The King turned and leaned on the window frame, trying to calm himself to little avail.  “The same pieces everyone knows I expect.  She traipsed about, being both healer and…” he clearly struggled with the thought, and set it aside, “till the man Ashton stood by her when Clarion zealots attacked her.  She fell in love with, and married that simple farmer,” he laughed darkly.  “Oh and how he wasn’t a simple farmer after all…and then she died defending her daughter from a wild drake.  I just…” the King choked, “I never knew it was the story of my daughter.  My own flesh and blood.”  He wept, and looked as though he could barely stand.

“I’m sorry,” Renae said sincerely.  “I’m sorry that this is the way you learn.  All these decades later, but we are both growing old, and at last it seemed it could no longer be avoided.  I wanted you to know, that…I don’t just love Wren – love the twins – as my own, they are my own…our own,” she corrected herself.

The King pounded on the frame of the window furiously.  “And why was our grand daughter left on that farm then?  Left to wind up dead of nothing more than childbirth?” he demanded frothingly.  He drew back his now throbbing hand, and rubbed it.

Renae leaned against the cold stone wall by the chamber door.  “The Ashton man…James…he was so bitter, so angry after his wife’s death.  He wanted no part of me, of the Sisterhood.  Maybe he was just afraid I would take away his daughter, the only thing he had left of his wife.  I tried eight times those first few years to visit, and he turned me away on each occasion.  The last time I made him promise me something, and in turn I would not return until her eighteenth birthday had passed.  I left a letter with him, and made him swear on Adel’s grave to give it to her on that day.”

“And he broke his word?” the King all but growled, barely restraining his volume.

“I…I am not sure,” Renae said doubtfully.  “I think perhaps that he died while she was still seventeen, and then…then you know the rest.  I was giving it time…I was about to make my excuses to travel…and Wren arrived.”  She watched the King still nursing the hand he had slammed against the stone, and started to move closer.

“So it is…” the King mused darkly.  “So it is that in mere moments I gain and lose a daughter, a granddaughter, and you wish to take away my great-granddaughter as well, while the other remains missing…”

“Let me see that hand,” Renae commanded kindly.  The King eyed her indecisively for a moment, and then relented, offering his aching hand, but looked away.  “She is ill,” Renae said after a moment of working on the abused joins, “and I will not tell you that she need come with us to live, but…I am certain it is for the best.”

Renae paused wearily, as she began to knit a slight fracture.  “You are quite strong still, you know,” she started in a kind tone.  “Even if age has made your bones brittle.  You fractured this one with the force of that blow.”  She ran her finger along the edge of his palm as she finished her work, but thought better of the familiarity, and stepped back.

The king pulled his hand close to his chest, and rubbed it still, though perhaps it was more a nervous wringing then.

“I leave it to you.  She will need to learn to cure this sickness herself.  It is a part of her, it will not go away.  She will need the care, and tutelage from multiple healers.  Do you wish for up to a year to house Sisters here at court, to seek a similar complement of Clarion priests, or to send her with us?”

“I will not involve the Clarions,” the King growled. “I struggle every day to tolerate their madness, but I will not have them trying to influence my court any more than they already do.”

“Then what is it to be?” Renae pressed gently.

“Take her,” the King grumbled, his fist clenched, but he quickly stopped short striking the stone again.  “I will have your word she will return in no more than a year.  I will know my great granddaughter, as my blood, while there is still life in these old bones.”

“You have my word, my King,” Renae said cordially and turned to leave.

“I did love you once,” the King said distantly, stopping her from leaving.  ”It was love all those years ago, not simply childish fancy.”

“And now?” Renae questioned, unsure how to respond, and not even turning back.

“Now I remember that love,” the King said distantly.

“As do I,” Renae said sadly, and descended the tower stairs.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 33rd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha looked absently around the simple sparse room she had been lead to by her brother.  The space was like a closet compared to her full floor of the tower, but was typical of the cloister’s bed chambers, including the empty bunk bed, as such rooms were normally shared.

“Come, sit,” Wren said gesturing to the lower bunk.

Katrisha walked to the bed, sat, and slowly turned to lay down.  It wasn’t completely unpadded, but was quite firm compared to the deep piled down she was use to.  All this however went without comment, or visible complaint.

Audry set the bundle of Katrisha’s things on a chest beneath the window, and put a consoling hand on Wren’s shoulder.  Wren looked at Audry, and smiled weakly.  “Come on,” he said as he knelt down beside the bed, took Katrisha’s hand, and closed his eyes.  “Let’s see if we can get some more of this poison out of you.”

Audry sat behind Wren, and lay her head to the back of his shoulder as he worked.  She watched with her mind’s eye, every detail of the process even though she had already been taught.  Seeing if she could glean anything useful from Wren’s more successful attempts.  Eventually she gave it up as pure talent, and gift, and instead let herself focus on Wren’s presence.

He was warm, always so warm like fire light.  Like a hearth on a cold winter’s night, even in the heat of summer the thought of stepping away from him seemed cold.

Everyone turned together as a knock at the open door caught their attention.  “I’m sorry if I’m intruding,” Celia said examining the scene.  “I had heard you two were back…with a guest?”

“Come in,” Wren said coming out of his trance like state.  “This is my sister, Katrisha.  She’s fallen ill, and has come to stay with us for a while.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Celia said as she stepped into the room, and looked down at Katrisha’s somewhat distant gaze.

“This is Celia, one of my dearest friends,” Wren said checking the pool of mage blood in the palm of his hand.  He showed it to Audry who fished for an empty vial amidst the collection of things she had set on the chest under the window.

“What’s that?” Celia asked curiously.

“My blood,” Katrisha laughed darkly.  Celia shook her head in surprise at the response, and almost took a step back.  “Sorry, it’s not…quite that morbid,” Katrisha said with a weak smile, “but I suppose it’s accurate enough, from what Renae says.”

“You are doing better to be making light of things,” Wren said as he poured the silvery substance into the vial Audry had handed him.

“Maybe,” Katrisha sighed tiredly, “and I am sorry, it’s nice to meet you as well.  Wren has mentioned you on his visits.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Celia said with a smile.

“Did he ever mention me?” Audry said with the tiniest hint of jealousy in her voice that was lost on Katrisha.

“Hmm?” Katrisha said slowly drifting off to sleep, “it’s been a year or so, he mentioned you both though.  His two best friends, that he didn’t know what he would do without.  I’m glad he’s had you…” she added, as sleep took her.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 40th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha sat in the sunlight with her eyes closed.  It was not her favorite place in the world, but where she had been told to sit.  “My name is Theron,” a stern but kind male voice stated somewhere behind her.  “I have been told you are Katrisha, and that I should insure you are completely with me before I begin.”

“I am here,” Katrisha said opening an eye hesitantly in the bright sunlight, as Theron stepped in front of her.  “…for the most part.”

“Good,” Theron said.  “I am the head of spiritual study here at the cloister, and yes, before you ask,” he said firmly, “men do occasionally hold such positions within the Order, when we are deemed the best suited at the time of choosing.”

“I was aware, I suppose, that there were men with the ‘Sisterhood,’” Katrisha said trying not to laugh at the miss match of terms.  “My brother has lived here most of his life.”

“So it is,” Theron said calmly, “though as I can tell from the tone of your voice, you realize that the term ‘Sisterhood’ is as such questionable.  Properly we are the Lycian Order of the Light, or a number of other long winded mouthfuls, depending on who you ask.  Many organizations refer to themselves as ‘Orders,’ and ‘Sisterhood’ stuck long ago for any number of reasons.”

“I see…” Katrisha said uncertain what she should say.

“I offer this only for perspective,” Theron said with a shrug.  “I do not often interact with outsiders, and when I do, the questions seem inevitable.”

“What…exactly is the head of spiritual study?” Katrisha asked curiously, and glad for the chance to move off of what seemed to be a sore subject for the man before her.

“Spiritual studies deal with the union of the mind, the spirit, and the body,” Theron said in a practiced lecturing tone. “We are students of philosophy, and the practical science of the material mind, nervous system, and how it interacts with the soul.  We also council on issues of the heart, maladies of the mind, and emotional distress.”

“Ok…” Katrisha said a bit distantly.

“Your condition is physical, but it’s causes, and consequences are less mundane,” Theron said in a kinder tone. “There was debate as to who would be best to teach you first.  I won the argument it seems, to my own increased workload.  The core of what you must learn is to tell the poison that your magic creates, from your own self.”

“Wouldn’t it just be easier to give up magic?” Katrisha laughed darkly.

“A jest that I have no doubt you would find impossible to follow through on,” Theron said sternly.  “For one who has known the magic their whole life, such would be like giving up part of yourself, like pretending you’ve lost your right hand.  Even if you could do it, it would be another grave wound atop so many you have already suffered, and there is no guarantee even then it would work.  That your spirit would not keep collecting wild magic within you.”

“What do you know of my ‘wounds’?” Katrisha said looking away angrily.

“A great deal,” Theron said sadly.  “I lost a sister once, and far more certainly.  She was crushed by a toppled cart in a caravan before my very eyes.  I loved her so much that I almost gave my very life in vain to save her…my mother had to pull me from her, that she did not lose a second child that day.”

“I…” Katrisha said embarrassed.  “I’m sorry…my sister, Kiannae.  She isn’t dead, if I’m here alive, then so is she.  No forest is going to stop her, she’s strong…but…”  Katrisha trailed off, and began to cry.

“I know only what I have been told, and what I am told, has been suggested to you already,” Theron said gently resting a hand on Katrisha’s shoulder.  “All that you can do, is try to find peace – find a path back to health, that you are well when she does return to you.”

Katrisha glared at Theron the last of her obstinate manner wavering.  “Where do we begin?” she asked exhaustedly.

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