Chapter 16

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

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

– unattributed, circa 100 B.E.

Cats Among Wolves

Coria 5th, 645 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles simply stared down at his plate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wolves perhaps?” Philip offered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hopefully it is nothing dire,” Katrisha offered.

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 15th, 645 E.R.

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

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

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

“To you as well, Arlen,” he offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 12th, 645 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still, you tricked me,” Kiannae sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds lonely,” Katrisha interjected.

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

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

“Good on you then,” Mercu laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?” Mercu demanded.

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

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

“Stay still,” Kiannae said firmly.

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

“Not really,” Kiannae admitted.

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

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

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

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

“Unless they have young,” Eran countered.

“Oh please don’t remind me of that.”

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

“Yes, let’s pretend that for now.”

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

“So walking then – back, or forward?”

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katrisha clung a little more tightly, but said nothing.

“It’s our duty, to protect others.”

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

“Always,” Kiannae affirmed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So about the jeweler…” Katrisha prodded.

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

“Really?” Katrisha said excitedly.

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

“Which?” Kiannae pressed.

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 15

I see a child who stands before,
ancient eyes dead and hollow,
he longs for glories lost to men,
this abyss bound princely one,

he skulks in crypts beneath his home,
his heart to dark schemes doth turn,
the blood of kings and common man,
shall stain claw sword and hand,

as shadow he is betrayer to one and all,
his hunger unmatched in mortal downfall,
he becomes what was not again to be,
and brings an end to the way of peace.

– Diary of Cassandra Alm, 621 E.R.

Marks of the Passed

Coria 39th, 644 E.R.

Mercu idly stroked a small ball of black fur held in his arms, and it purred contentedly for the attention.  He didn’t like the situation he was in.  The delivery had come to him explicitly, but with no real explanation save the origin – a final mocking stab of an old woman he barely knew, and certainly did not like.  He lifted the tiny kitten up and looked it in the eye for the third time since it had arrived.  It didn’t seem evil, or deranged.  In fact it could hardly have been more docile.

He tried to think who he could pawn it off on before the girls discovered it, and invariably fawned over it for the adorable little creature that it was.  Not that he thought it was necessarily a bad idea that the girls have a pet, but the source was questionable.  The only contact the girls had ever had with Cassandra was a singular unsettling encounter, and Mercu could not guess the reason behind her parting gifts.  He’d yet to even thoroughly examine the contents of a trunk that had come along with the cat.  There were several books, and smaller boxes, but no note.

He cringed as his door opened, but was relieved to only see Laurel walk in, who gave the tiny ball of fluff a strange look.  “A kitten?” he said in a curious questioning tone.

“Your grasp of the obvious is astounding,” Mercu muttered.

“It’s adorable…but is it what I think?” Laurel asked moving to examine the cat more closely.

“Yes, probably,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “It seems the same Cassandra owned when we knew her on the road all those years ago.”

“Impressive work then,” Laurel said curiously, “but what is it doing here?”

“Outliving its owner, it seems.” Mercu sighed.  “I feel, I don’t know, dirty somehow – besmirching the parting gift of a dead woman, but I have a hard time thinking it’s a genuine thought on her part.”

“It’s just a cat, whatever magic may have been done to keep it a kitten for so long,” Laurel said incredulously.  “You don’t think it’s been trained to kill or something, do you?” he laughed, but stopped to consider if that was a legitimate possibility.  His knowledge in the field of shaper magic was spotty enough to give him a moment of pause.

“No,” Mercu said shaking his head.  “Cassandra was insufferable, full of herself, but harmless.  I can’t imagine what she intended though.  Perhaps I was the only person she could think to send the poor old thing to.  It’s been in the custody of the staff while we have been traveling.  I think that trunk is possibly everything else she owned.”  He nodded across the room.

“Don’t worry too much then I guess, though we should keep it away from the girls, it can’t have long left to live,” Laurel said with a frown.

“Well, I’m not even sure it’s the same cat,” Mercu said uncertainly.  “I’ve read a bit about shaped creatures over the years, some of them live for centuries, others have fairly mundane life spans.  Anything is possible.  I suppose tomorrow it could sprout wings and fly away.”

“Technically…” Laurel said trailing off.  “Give it here I want to see if I can work out how much longer it has before we decide what best to do with it,” Laurel took the kitten, which immediately rubbed it’s head against his chest, before curling more comfortably into his arm.  “Do you even happen to know its name?”

“I’m sure I heard Cassandra call it by name a dozen times, but that was so long ago,” Mercu said trying to think back.  “I think it might be Mar’etten.”

“She named it after him of all…” Laurel laughed.  “Who in the burning heavens names a cat after a greater black dragon?”

“Am I now the expert on the minds of mad seers?  Maybe she thought it would one day betray her, and spoil her evil schemes of world conquest?”

“Or wind up living with the enemy?” Laurel laughed uncomfortably.

“I hardly think she ever thought of me as an enemy.  Try as I might have, I always got the unsettling impression she liked me.”

“You think everyone likes you,” Laurel chided.

“Don’t they?” Mercu said with a wounded glance.

“Most do, but don’t play, you are not so daft to think Arlen – for instance – has any tolerance for you at all,” Laurel countered.

“Ah yes, Arlen.  He is stewing quite grimly,” Mercu noted casually.

“What else is new?” Laurel shook his head.

“He’s the look of a man playing chess, and losing badly.  I don’t trust it.”

“What can he do?” Laurel pressed.

“For the moment nothing, but Fenlin was a friend to him, and nothing tells me that Arlen is anything but a patient man when it comes to grudges.”

“I would hardly call it patience,” Laurel countered.

“Something less noble then.” Mercu sighed.  “I stand by the point.”

“And what would you have us do?”

“Watch him?” Mercu shrugged.

“That, good sir, is your job, or have you forgotten?”

“Yes, well, it does little good for me to watch if I do not report,” Mercu answered with some humor.

Mar grew restless, and began to climb the front of Laurel’s robe, to his clear displeasure, but he seemed uncertain how to dissuade the cat as it crawled onto his shoulder precariously.  “Were my arms not good enough you, troublesome thing?” he demanded, dodging a snaking tail.

Mercu got up, and grabbed the kitten by the scruff of the neck, rendering it momentarily placid, and set it back in Laurel’s arms.  “Do not worry, I am adept in the ways of handling errant cats.”

“Yes, I am well aware,” Laurel cut back.

“Speaking of grudges,” Mercu frowned.  “Are you to now start holding such things over me?  She is such a lovely woman, and hardly a threat.  I assure you, her heart is many other places before me, not the least of which is some man she will not name – most curious that – and mine still is most assuredly where you last checked.”

“So you are not her only attachment, outside of that woman that shares her bed?” Laurel asked curiously.

“I’ve only the confidence from her to know of the matter in vaguest terms, but I will wager his name is John,” Mercu said pointedly.  The look in his eyes said he had more assurance than that, and that he was even in their confidence playing the truth of it close to the chest.

Laurel was shrewd then.  “That could be trouble.  Is this a recent development?”

“No,” Mercu said firmly.  “Very long past by my estimation, but lingering.  First love, I would guess.  The matter had that sort of wistful quality to it.  The man in question surely plays a part in her manner about it though.  I’ve heard he was quite a rapscallion, and there are long faded whispers that would put him in the company of a Lucian girl in his youth.  Well, less faded after recent events I suppose.”

Laurel sighed, and softened.  “What you are, is useful, in more ways than one.  You know I do not feel right to judge, so forgive me my occasional displeasure on the matter, and a touch of ill humor?”

“So long as it is humor,” Mercu pressed kindly, rested his hand on Laurel’s shoulder and smiled, “then by all means, accuse me of all manner of feline knowledge.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 644 E.R.

“It’s not right,” Charles said rather out of the blue, having walked up on Katrisha in the upper court of Broken Hill.  They had not spoken since Wesrook, always a buffer of the new children from South Rook between them, mostly surrounding Charles.  It seemed an ill advised situation to permit, as much as they shared temperaments, but she did not speak her mind on the matter.  His declaration though seemed wildly devoid of context.

Katrisha turned to glare at him, more out of habit than specifically based on what he had said.  Though as it sunk in she became quite certain she should be annoyed with his words, and not just his presence.

“What gibberish are you on about now?” Katrisha demanded, narrowing her eyes at the irksome boy.

“That brother of yours,” Charles said in an almost dismissive tone, as though it should have been obvious.  This again caused as much irritation as the words themselves.

“What…” Katrisha started angrily, only to be interrupted by her own fears well before Charles.  Some part of her worried that others had come to the same suspicions she kept to herself after South Rook, but how.  No one else knew about what Varmun had told her.  She had found nothing in any books.

“He’s not much of a boy,” Charles answered, “more a girl than anything.  Should just call him your sister.”

Katrisha was more than a bit bemused.  Fully offended, but it was taking her a moment to process all the possible ways.  She wasn’t sure if she should be more defensive of Wren, insulted herself, or relieved that it was something so absurd.  “What possibly could be wrong about the way Wren is?  He’s sweet and kind, and more than a bit smarter than you.”

“He’ll never be a proper man,” Charles countered, “he’s having all that crushed out of him by those terrible women.”

Katrisha clenched her fist.  “Renae is a wonderful woman.  She loves Wren like a son.”  She was in no mood to hear more hatred for the Sisterhood after all that she had heard, and seen in South Rook.  Yet she was not surprised by the source, and suspected that South Rook had everything to do with riling Charles into his current snit.

“Like a daughter perhaps,” Charles countered, seeming smug as ever.  “They hate men, hate everything about men.  It’s why they lay with each other.  It’s not right for a boy to be there.  You should demand he be taken out of that awful place.”

“The only awful thing about that place, from all he has ever told me, is another boy,” Katrisha growled taking two firm steps towards Charles.  “Oh and he’s a boy alright, like you think they should be.  A bully, a brute, a nasty little piece of work.  Yes, everything a male should be, right?  Just like you.”  Katrisha’s aura could be felt even by one as ungifted as Charles, it was furious thing, oppressive, like a thick fog smothering him.  “Clearly they don’t crush the man out of them well enough up there.  Wren is, who Wren is.”

Charles stood his ground.  “If he wasn’t so weak, he wouldn’t have a problem.  They made him weak, like a girl.”  He insisted.

“Am I weak?” Katrisha snapped at Charles, stepping right up to him, her face in his.  He was a few inches taller than her, and yet oddly he felt very small just then.  “I could hurl your worthless hide across this courtyard with ease.”

“With magic,” Charles said defiantly, and defensively in the most unproductive sense.  It seemed a futile argument, and ill advised under the circumstances.

“And with leverage a smaller man, can throw a larger one to the ground,” Katrisha countered, “are we to judge only brutish force to be the measure of strength?  How about the fact I have not broken you.  That takes more strength than you could ever possess.  Men are weak.  In more ways than one.  The gifts of women are stronger, did you know?”

“What?” Charles asked a bit put off, by the seeming change of topic, and further by the assertion.

“Take any man, and any woman of the same lineage,” Katrisha explained very heatedly, and took several breaths, trying to calm herself with rational argument, “and seven out of ten of the women will have a stronger gift than the man – measurably, if not obviously. Many times in history training of women as mages has been limited, or outlawed.  Women were directed into the healing arts, yet this is not the reason you find so few men as healers.  Most simply cannot do it, they do not simply lack the temperament, they lack the power, the raw gift to be good healers.  They, are, weak.”

Katrisha watched Charles’ face.  It actually did seem new information to him, caught somewhere between disbelief, and understanding.  He looked as though he wished to question, to debate, to counter – but he knew nothing of it.  It grated against his prejudices, but he knew he was ignorant on the topic, and he did not doubt a word of how easily Katrisha could break him.  He was no mage, just a young noble.  He also really hadn’t meant to offend, and he struggled to understand it.  He had just said the truth as he saw it, the crime he saw in what had been made of her brother.  He hadn’t meant to ridicule him, rather his perceived treatment.  It had gone off track at some point, and then he had gotten carried away.

“I’m sorry,” he tried, not quite meekly, but with the tenor of one who knew they were in some peril.  He wasn’t really sorry, for he lacked the understanding of precisely what he should be apologizing for.  The world had an order as he understood it, men above women – and a boy lowered to a girl’s temperament he believed was wrong.  Yet as he struggled with it he did understand the unspoken order of the world, mages above commoners, perhaps even nobles.  It was a tricky hierarchy, the laws outlined it, but that was more fancy words than he had ever been good with.  The history was muddier.

Laurel served at the pleasure of the King, and the King reigned at the sufferance of the council.  A Court Mage served the King, but Charles had not been entirely deaf to the King, or to his own mother, ‘Those who lead, must serve those who follow.’  It did not quite seem to apply, and yet it stuck there in his thoughts.  Surely Laurel was above him.  It was more vague where his apprentice lay.  She was more powerful than he could ever be, perhaps even than his father…

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, and this time his voice was different.  For it sounded as though he at least thought he should mean it, even if he was still not sure why.

Katrisha’s face shifted.  Her rage abated, but not her disdain.  She walked away, with barely a further sidelong glance at Charles.  He watched her go with a curious opinion, that was not had for the first time.  She did not walk like a noble, nor like a servant.  Her grace was not lost on him, but it was not that of a lady of the court, nor of a young man.  It was proud, and singular – even perhaps distinct from her sister.

He did not like that thought particularly, but it did make some things easier, even if he was utterly terrible at moving events in that direction.  He steadied himself, and put it out of his mind.  He had other orders to deal with.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 4th, 644 E.R.

Kiannae peaked into Mercu’s room.  She had knocked, but guessed he wasn’t in to begin with.  She walked over to one of his bookcases, looking for a book Laurel told her he had borrowed from the tower library.  She was terribly bored, and Katrisha was constantly trying to make friends with the guests – or prisoners, depending how you framed it.  Neither girl liked them much, though Lukas was pleasant enough, but a bit quiet to be of any interest.  Kiannae couldn’t understand why Katrisha bothered.  The King surely wouldn’t keep them long, the maneuver had the intended effect, but it was not clear if it could persist.  Their enemies knew all too well what they were not capable of.  It was proprietary keeping them in check, not fear.

Kiannae did not see what she was looking for, and checked the next to no more success.  She considered it could have been on one of the upper shelves, but thought that unlikely.  She checked the desk, paying little attention to an open chest beside it.

There were several curious things strewn about, but no sign of the book.  She considered two stacks of cards, and picked one up.  The card was pleasant to look at – about the size of the palm of a man’s hand.  On the back an elaborate pattern surrounded a spiral formed of three lobes, one black, one red, one white, the last outlined half in each.  Red, and black were the colors the cards were printed in throughout, though fields of white formed a third color, always outlined in red or black to an edge.

It was obviously a printed work, stamped with the same clean lines over, and over again.  It was always distinct from hand done scribe work.  Kiannae could never understand why so many preferred scribed works to printed.  It was always crisper, and cleaner.  She turned the card over, her curiosity piqued.

On the face a variety of art was displayed, but there was some consistency.  In the upper left, and lower right corner of each card there was one of three symbols; a four pointed black star, a heart of red, or a flame of white.  Most were accompanied by a either a number, or a letter.  The primary color of the card seemed dictated by these symbols, but all used fields of each to artistic effect.

Each card that depicted persons seemed composed of two busts, blended at the midriff, and facing a different way from one another, some forward, some moonward, some sunward.  The joined busts each seemed a man on the one side, or a woman on the other.  Kiannae considered the letters, M, C, or K, and the dress of each.  The K was obvious, most bearing shield and sword, and some plumed helms – they were Knights.  The M and the C were more perplexing, they looked royal, like a King, and Queen, but each was the other if the card was reversed.  Monarch, Kiannae decided, and Consort.

On each card that had no number on its corner stood a different object.  The hearts held a Tower, the Stars a Sun, and the Flames a Sword atop a Shield.  The remaining cards of each type had arrangements of the chief symbol, that matched the number on the card.  There were ten of each, one for the object, six arrays, and the three face cards.  They were well worn along the edges, soft with use and time, but overall seemed in good condition.

Kiannae was not certain, but had a guess of the purpose of the cards.  ‘Playing Fates,’ she’d heard the term, and had guessed that it involved cards.  It was a form of gambling, frowned upon by some, loved by others.  Another stack of cards sat beside where the first had been.  She returned the playing cards, and picked up the others.

These were quite different, and a little longer than the first.  No symbols on the corners, no sets that were instantly recognizable, the backs a plain brown.  Each had a name along the bottom, and upside down along the top, but some were hard to read, some seemed spelled wrong, or to use odd letters.  There was a semblance of groupings, people, things, and others.  They seemed painted, and there was a faint enchantment on them, protective certainly, but each seemed vaguely different.  There were quite a few more of them, she counted in the back of her head as she examined them.

There were forty-nine.  She sorted them into obvious groups.  People who seemed kings, queens, mages, knights, and one quite contrary, who stood at a crossroads, not upon the road, but upside down beneath the sign.  There were things of the night sky, though many of these also held the faces of people, still they seemed to go together.  There were animals, common folk, and elemental forces.  There were objects made by people, a sword, a shield, a tower, a wheel, others, and there were quite a few she couldn’t place.

Kiannae pondered one of the celestial cards at length.  It was a simple unassuming thing, but it’s label could be more clearly read than most, ‘The North Star.’  This struck Kianne oddly.  There was a South Star, it made sense for there to be a north one as well, yet in Laurel’s astronomy lessons he had not mentioned it that she could recall.  Stranger still there was no south star in the deck.  She set it aside with its like, and pondered other mysteries.

Some of the cards bore two faces like the first deck.  A king, and a queen most notably, yet unlike the playing cards the opposite bust was different in pose, and tone, but not gender.  The king bore a scepter on one side, and a thorned rose on the other, his robe open, with a knowing smile.  The queen wore a crown, and a regal air at one end, and the other her chest was bare.  At one end she held a cup, a dagger at the other.

She shuffled things around for a bit, it seemed seven was the operative number, so surely seven sets of seven.  There were a few that could go into one set or another.  One perplexing card showed a river, which divided seven times, and then each of those streams divided seven more.  The seven rivers it was labeled.  Another was a solitary coin.  She pondered these, and of each set that perplexed her, she found that one might be pulled out, and placed between.  One coin, a two forked road, three women – labeled The Fates – a sprout with four leaves, five men, a crown with six stars, and lastly the seven rivers.

Everything seemed in order, as though they belonged together.  What these cards were she was uncertain.  The other stack, less than half the number was used for playing a game, a game of chance which alluded to fate.  She frowned.  Divination, prophecy, these were all things Laurel would not touch upon.  They were rubbish at best, and dangerous at worst, and something of them spoke to that end.

Kiannae considered why Mercu kept them – he was no fan of such matters either.  They did seem lovely to look upon though, finely crafted.  Perhaps he kept them for that reason.  The gambling cards were no guess she thought, not as exquisite, but well made, and he would play a game like that most assuredly.  She gathered the groups of cards up, but one slipped away from the lot.  It showed a child, and as she moved to place it on top the stack, the storm that raged there caught her eye as she set the child onto it.

The child at the eye of the storm.  The words returned to her, she frowned, and pushed it willfully from her mind, flipping the deck over, and returning it to it’s place on the desk.

Try as she might, one last thing held her eye.  A large scrap of paper, clearly a note.  More snooping than she was already guilty of, and yet she could not resist.  She picked it up, and eyed the words dubiously:

I’ve seen such love in the eyes of the child foretold,
to bend even the unshakable wills of fates of old,
she who rides the storm was meant to walk alone,
cruel fate by kind follies lays yet half atoned,
crooked is the path that leads to salvation,
when all else is bound ever to be forsaken,
a fool’s errand holds the only wisest course,
and the wisdom of elders shall bring remorse,
yet at last it comes err to a final hopeful pass,
though blood will spill from lips before the last,
an unlikely pair shall over many stars preside,
till shadowed days long past the end of time.

She put the note back unhappily, and finally understood.  It had not escaped her – much as Laurel, and Mercu had tried – that the cat Mar, had belonged to Cassandra.  The rest it seemed did as well.  She stepped away from the desk, and tried to forget the lot.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“What’s the North Star?” Kiannae asked of her sister as they sat alone in their room.  She had tried to let the whole thing go, but that bit was particularly odd to her, and seemed in itself harmless.

Katrisha looked bewildered a moment.  “Do you pay any attention to our astronomy lessons?” She final asked in lieu of an answer.

“Yes,” Kiannae growled defensively.

“Then you should know,” Katrisha sighed.

“Just tell me,” Kiannae grumbled.

“It’s the brightest star in the sky, though we will likely never see it.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Kiannae protested.

“You really haven’t been paying attention,” Katrisha laughed.

“Must you?” Kiannae winced.

“After your chiding me for failing Moriel’s spelling test…yes.”

“I still don’t see why, you read as well as me.”

“Better,” Katrisha countered, “according to Moriel.”

“Which makes even less sense, you read half as much as me.”

“Perhaps you are trying too hard,” Katrisha offered.

“Can you just tell me what the North Star is,” Kiannae snapped.

Katrisha closed her book, folded her arms over it, and stared at her sister a moment.  “Very well,” she said, and with a flick of her wrist an orb appeared before her.  “Let’s say this is Thaea,” she continued.  “You do remember the South Star, yes?”

“Yes,” Kiannae rolled her eyes.

“Just checking,” Katrisha laughed.  “The South Star appears steady in the sky, because it is here.”  She placed a bright point of light below the sphere.  “It is called a pole star, because it is roughly above the pole.”  She drew a line from the bottom of the sphere.  “The North Star is its opposite,” she drew a line from the top of Thaea.  “It is roughly above the north pole,” she placed another bright point of light.

“And you said it’s the brightest star?”

“Except for the sun of course.”

“Of course,” Kiannae responded irritably.  “And we won’t see it because Thaea is in the way.”

“Exactly.”

“Why would anyone care about it though?” Kiannae frowned.  “A star no one will ever see.”

“Other than Laurel, and now you, I’ve only ever heard one person mention it before.”  Katrisha pursed her lips.  “It was one of the soldiers, said he was looking for his ‘north star.’”

“Odd.”

“Very,” Katrisha greed.  “I asked Mercu about it, he said it is a very old saying.”

“How old?”

“‘Ancient beyond reason,’ I believe were his exact words.”  There was a long pause, and Kiannae nearly returned to her reading, when Katrisha pressed the point.  “Why the interest in the North Star?”

“It was a painted card on Mercu’s desk,” Kiannae said, not mentioning the rest.

“Curious,” Katrisha said.

“I thought so,” Kiannae agreed.

“The south star is used for guidance, to know east from west, north from south.  Though I believe Mercu said tradition holds to turn your back on the south star, and face north.  That the coming day is on your right hand, and the passing night on your left.”

“That’s how most maps are drawn,” Kiannae considered.

“It would seem easier to face them the other way, wouldn’t it,” Katrisha noted with some humor.  “I asked Mercu about that too.  How did he put it…”  She seemed thoughtful.  “Traditions are like dragons, immortal, full of teeth, and best not questioned.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 12th, 644 E.R.

“Another attack, brutal as the last,” the King growled.

“Worse technically,” Arlen noted.  “No survivors at all, not even any of our men guarding it.”

“I would wager far less was taken, than burned with the wagons,” Laurel said.  “This remains clearly an act meant to terrorize caravans back away from the east road, rather than any effective form of robbery.  Now, after only two have finally passed that way again, after all these years.  It will be prove more effective than the last.”

“And all hope for an eastern pass is lost to us,” the King rested his head in his hand.  “After South Rook there will be no political will to undertake the task, even if it were doable.  Which it is, but only at wild costs we could never afford.”

“Such is the way of disrupting succession so,” Arlen said in a measured tone, that hid nothing of his real opinion.

“Do not tempt Us, to disrupt it further,” the King said coldly.

“I merely state the facts,” Arlen said with thin, practiced calm.

“Do not begrudge a man some displeasure for the fall of his friends,” Laurel offered diplomatically.  “They did fall very far, conspiring to reward those responsible for the deaths of innocents, and prosecute more innocents in their place.  Surely, such was a singular aberration of two men more corrupt than truly pious.  Whoever he once knew them as.”

“Surely,” Arlen agreed uneasily, he didn’t seem to like the opinion implied, but did so anyway.  “The costs are none the less evident.  It will take years, if not decades to mend the damage done.”

“There is hope in good Maraline,” the King noted.  “Lukus takes well to her comforts still, and though I was ready to let him return to South Rook, to ease these tensions, he of his own accord petitioned to stay another month.  Should they wed one day, and Parin step aside for the boy who remains the rightful heir, it will go a long way.”

“It would,” Arlen agreed though he hardly seemed overly pleased with that thought either.

“The damage is done,” the King said.  “On all counts.  Have a light scouting team probe the forest carefully.  No big show of force this time to rouse the Sylvans.  Should they go missing, or find anything to report then we can act, yet it seems reasonable to suspect these ‘bandits’ will have vanished again.”

“Unless they are waiting to insure another caravan does not brave it,” Laurel noted.

“All the more reason to be quick in scouting, in the implausible event we should be so lucky,” Arlen agreed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 20th, 644 E.R.

Eran looked uneasy.  At least that was Katrisha’s best guess at precisely what the man was feeling.  “Do you know when Laurel will be back?” he asked after a moment of considering the young woman that had answered his knock at the study door.

“Soon, I would think,” Katrisha answered.  “He went to get us both food from the kitchen.  He would have sent me, but left muttering something about wanting to actually have some of the food arrive at the study.”

Eran superseded a laugh, and looked about.  “Where is your sister?” he asked in lieu of anything else to fill the silence.

“Reading somewhere along the wall I expect,” Katrisha shrugged.  “She said she felt like some sun.”

More silence followed.

“You can come in and sit if you like,” Katrisha finally offered.

Eran considered Katrisha, the room, and after a moment of hesitation nodded, and entered.  Katrisha closed the door behind him.  Eran glanced about curiously for a moment, before Katrisha gestured to a chair beneath one of the bookcases that lined the round lower tier of the study.  Eran nodded again, and took a seat, but did not lose the curious flitting looks about the room.

“Have you never been in the tower?” Katrisha asked after a bit.

“No,” Eran answered, “can’t say as I have.”

“What did you need to speak to Laurel about?” Katrisha enquired curiously.

“I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for me to say.”  Eran frowned, but continued to look a bit nervous.

“I am an apprentice of the Court Mage, am I not?” Katrisha pressed.

“So you are,” Eran consented, “but while you may be privileged enough to hear what I have to say, I am not sure it is fit for your ears.”

“I’m not a child,” Katrisha protested.

“Aren’t you?” Eran raised an eyebrow.

“I am eleven,” Katrisha stated firmly.  “I am a young lady now, Mercu says so.”

“And what I have to speak with Laurel about is not fit for the ears of ladies, I assure you,” Eran countered.

“Rubbish,” Katrisha sneered.  “I’ll not be treated like some delicate flower.”

Eran smiled.  “Yes, you are more like the women I knew before I came to the castle.”  Katrisha looked perplexed for a moment, and Eran amused, if in a sad sort of way.  “No, no you are quite right.  Do you wish to hear my report?”

“Yes,” Katrisha said flatly, and crossed her arms.

“I have returned from the north,” Eran began.  “Scouting for bandits – our last expedition some years ago found them to have fled after a bloody, and impressive fight with the Sylvans, and then nothing till recently, but I assume you have heard about the most recent attack?”

“Yes.  Just when caravans had started to take the eastern road again in earnest.  Terrible news, killed everyone again.  I was so relieved to hear it wasn’t Mercu’s sister.”  Katrisha looked a bit ill thinking about it.

“Rather than send a full expedition it was scouts only this time – moving light, avoiding rousing the Sylvans, or hopefully getting ambushed ourselves.  Track and report only.”

“I presume you found something?” Katrisha pressed.

“Yes, I found the bandits,” Eran nodded, “or I can only presume what was left of them.”

“Did some form of justice meet them again before the Kings?” Katrisha asked hopefully – she had been worried that Laurel would have to go again.  Particularly when she had snuck a peek at the report, and seen that the caravan had been destroyed in spite of two mages in their employ.

“Perhaps,” Eran narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.  “I was the deepest scout – the others were not willing to go in that far, not after last time.  I found the ruins of a camp.  Most would chalk it up to the bandit’s luck having run out again.”

“Not you?” Katrisha asked.

“I can not say I know much of Sylvan tactics, or gifted abilities,” Eran prefaced hesitantly, “but what I saw, gruesome as it was, did not look like an attack from the outside.  Not like last time.”

“What did it look like?”  Katrisha crossed her arms again, so far unimpressed, but very curious.

“Like a monster was dropped in their midst,” Eran shrugged, but he clearly was holding something back.

“What kind of monster?” Katrisha pressed.

“Are you sure you wish to hear the details?” Eran countered.

“Yes,” Katrisha assured him.

“Very well,” Eran said, and leaned back.  “The kind of monster that only a mage can be.”  He paused for effect, and seemed almost amused at Katrisha’s cross expression.  “With the exception of some bodies flung against trees, or farther out into the woods – which had been heavily eaten by scavengers – most were circled around the shredded ruins of a tent.”  He paused, it seemed less for effect, than to steal him self.  “Those that weren’t eaten by animals appeared to have been burned alive.  Based on their contorted possess, and stricken expressions.  I don’t think it was a quick death.”

“And you don’t think it was the Sylvans because the bodies were centered around the camp?” Katrisha asked, holding her composure at the gruesome thought.

“Yes,” Eran nodded.  “They didn’t look like they were fighting a force on the outside, but something from within.  Clearly a mage, or some other gift, but I’d say it would have to be a mage.  We’ve long suspected from the caravan wreckage from both attacks, the wards, the damage at the campsite previous, that there is a mage in the bandit’s midst.  Now I would say either they turned on the mage, or the mage turned on them.  Why we can’t guess, but the results are the same.”

“So the bandits are dead then?” Katrisha asked.  “The east road is safe?”

“Perhaps – for now,” Eran shook his head.  “There was no evidence of the mage himself amongst the bodies.  Whoever killed his compatriots likely still lives, and it looked like someone was dragged out of the camp to the north west.  The Sylvans are watching that camp site, a warning shot from them drove me off before I could search for any firm evidence.  There is no telling what the mage might do in future, but the numbers of his force are seemingly dwindled.  That’s two lost camps now, maybe he will give up.”

“You think the mage was the leader?”

“Would you expect otherwise?”

“No.”

“I’ll press you not repeat this, though it’s reached my ears so it can be no great secret.  There are rumors, and speculations to say the mage leading these attacks is a character known as The Wolf.  A Duke of Osyrae, and as nasty a piece of work as I’ve ever heard of.”

“And you believe these rumors?”

“Burning traitors, or failures alive would seem in keeping with what I have heard of the man in question. Still, these games, playing in the shadows like this does not fit.  He was the favored younger son of the mad king after all, a proud man obsessed with honor.  Regardless, I don’t foresee caravans returning to the eastern road again, not for many years.  They will all do the smart thing, and wait for someone else to take the chance first.”

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Chapter 12

The land did fold, the hills did swell,
mid valley deep and shallow dell,
twas born fair Avrale,

a Queen she rose, ‘fore days of kings,
she set the Rooks, she made the peace,
upon the Broken Hill,

from Summers North, to Evenings West,
Southern Hearth, and Morning’s Breath,
these fair Towers stand,

these keepers were, the keepers are,
of golden field, forest green, n’ winding vale,
in noble Avrale.

– Every Vale, circa 50 E.R.

The Western Road

Coria 5th, 644 E.R.

A well adorned coach rolled through the early morning streets of Brokhal.  Such adornment was appropriate, as it indicated the importance of some of the occupants.  It was not however as Laurel would prefer to travel, for he did not thrive on attention the way Mercu did.  When he had traveled to Nohrook his visit was to be discrete – to some extent.  An adorned royal coach headed north would have fanned fears for any who knew of affairs in Osyrae.  Such was the argument he had made, and there had been no protest on that occasion.

Had there been any argument for subtlety on a tour of western Avrale, it was moot, for Mercu insured that it was deemed vital that the young Ladies Ashton be presented in style, as future mages of Avrale.  As to the young Ladies in question, they slept that morning, given they had not for much of the previous night.

Mercu himself sat half awake next to the twins, and opposite Laurel.  He had claimed, once the effort of loading half sleeping children was past, that it had been his plan all along to keep them subdued and manageable.  He had after all done everything he could to fan their natural excitement leading up to the trip, and had paid with his own sleep deprivation in the end.  Laurel had been minimally impacted by the whole affair, and as such felt more pity than scorn for his weary companion that morning.

Laurel looked out the window as the coach turned up the northern fork of the road leading away from western Brokhal.  He grimaced.

With the knowledge that comes from years of close company, Mercu smiled, and spoke as though reading Laurel’s mind.  “You know I’m right, it’s better this way.”

“Oh you are right,” Laurel sighed, “but it’s the principle of it.  I hate these trips, and extending them for scenic detours goes against the grain for me.”

“And the reason you hate these trips is the attention, and the demands of the little people.”  Mercu laughed.  “Much quieter to take the scenic route.”

“You know it’s not the little people,” Laurel muttered.

“Oh but isn’t it?” Mercu said with a shake of his head.  “No one more little, and petty than the scattered pretenders to royal authority.  So tiresome.”

“And yet you adore their time, and attention,” Laurel counters incredulously.

“The most fun of things, are always tiresome.”  Mercu grinned impishly.

“Aren’t they though,” Laurel laughed.  “Though, I would be mindful of calling Duke’s petty, and tiresome, given one’s son is sitting up behind you.”

“Charles,” Mercu chimed, “remind me, does your father style himself Duke, or Knight Commander?”  There was no answer from the front of the coach, and though it was not visible to anyone but Horence beside him, the already put out young man scowled a bit more.  He was happy to be headed west, but not at all thrilled with the company he was being forced to keep, and as such had chosen not to sit inside the coach, next to two girls he was not always on the best of terms with.

After a rather long stretch of Laurel’s disapproving gaze Mercu shrank slightly.  “Sorry,” he said with a sigh, “just having a bit of fun.”  He paused, thinking of a way to change the subject.  “Speaking of tiresome fun,” he said thoughtfully.  “Is it just me, or was the Lady Alice positively glowing this morning?”

Laurel considered Mercu shrewdly.  “More than you know,” he said with a nod.  “I dare say her aura is brighter than it has been in years, since before she gave up her studies.”

“Interesting,” Mercu said leaning forward.  “Do you think?” he asked in a hushed tone.

“I suspect, yes,” Laurel nodded.

“How delightful,” Mercu laughed and leaned back.

Laurel hummed slightly, and stroked his beard.

“What hmm?” Mercu prodded.

“Well, look who’s awake,” Laurel said, making every effort to appear not to be dodging the question.

Mercu turned to see Kiannae leaned against the coach door, staring out at the passing scenery.

Kiannae rubbed her eyes.  “What time is it?” she asked sleepily.

Laurel held out his hand, and a series of concentric marked rings formed, with a bobbing pyramid at its center that turned, wobbled, and came to rest.  “Almost seven,” he said, and waved the intricate configuration away.  Kiannae looked back out the window – she had mostly mastered a basic version of the spell herself, but was too drowsy to have tried.

Katrisha shifted, and clung tightly to her sister’s arm, giving no indication she was ready to rouse fully herself.  Kiannae rocked her head against her sister’s, and began to draw glowing lines absently in the air.  She paid no mind to keep them in tow with her, and so they trailed through the coach past Laurel.

Kiannae grew bored of absent minded magic, and decided to practice the spell Laurel had used to tell the time.  She poked, and prodded at it a bit, being uninterested in watching the slow crawl of time, and the pyramid changed its behavior, going from following the sun, to pointing northward.  Kiannae scrunched up her face with some confusion.  “Why are we going north?” she asked with some surprise.

“Mercu’s idea,” Laurel said restraining mild consternation from his voice.  “More scenic route, and I believe he’s arranged a special meeting along the way.”

“What meeting?” Kiannae asked her curiosity piqued.

“I’d rather not say,” Mercu said shrewdly, “I wasn’t able to confirm the arrangement, so it might be nothing more than a pleasant detour.”

Kiannae pouted, but Mercu simply smiled at her, and eventually she gave up, and looked back out the window in a huff.  After several more minutes she crossed her arms, and declared, “I’m bored.”  The act of which pulled her arm from Katrisha, jostling her awake.  Katrisha rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked around.

“We’ve quite a ways still to Aldermor,” Laurel said taking a breath, and braced for dealing with the girls becoming difficult so soon.

“I have read there was a time when Sylvans lived in Aldermore,” Mercu offered thoughtfully.  “A group that had settled down from the highland tribes, that have also long since left Avrale.”

“I thought the Sylvan’s only lived in the great forest,” Kiannae said curiously.

“It was a long time ago,” Mercu nodded, “hundreds of years at least even before the empire came here.  “The Sylvans had tribes that extended through the highlands, while the people of Avrale dwelled in the valleys below.  Except in Aldermor, where the highlanders would trade with us lowlanders.  They say ever so often a child is stillborn there to this day, with adorned ears, or eyes like the two of you.”

“Why did the Sylvan’s leave?” Katrisha asked.

“War,” Mercu said with a frown, “but not between us and them.  When Osyrae came the first time into the northern vales, the highland Sylvans deemed themselves above the squabbles of lowlanders.  That started some bad blood I think.  What I’ve read though said they remained another thirty or so years, till the death of the reigning queen, when her son took the throne.  There seems to be consensus that is when the exodus began.”

“Did the new king make them leave?” Kiannae frowned.

“I can’t really say,” Mercu shrugged.  “There is no clear record of any direct action, no royal decrees in any of the books, but it was a very very long time ago.  So many wars, and changes of power, and the fall of the old tower at Broken Hill.  Who knows what happened that long ago.”

Katrisha and Kiannae were clearly displeased by the lack of any real answer, and Mercu shook his head.  “What I do have,” he carried on, “is an old story purportedly told by a Sylvan elder of Aldermor, to a scribe of the day.”  The two perked up, and Mercu smiled.

“It is said that the goddess Laeune had three children,” Mercu began. “Most lore agrees upon this number, or takes no stance.  Amongst them were Brother Wolf, Sister Lynx, and Yaun the Light, the first man – or woman – on this there is contention.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“Many believe Yaun to have been a man,” Mercu said with a shrug, “others contend the first as a man is a preposterous fallacy, as children inevitably resulted.  Forget that any which way you slice it, the myth is fraught with problems of how one human became many.  This though is the story of how Yaun, the youngest, came to rule.”

“Brother Wolf, and Sister Lynx one day argued over who was mother’s favored child.  Each brought before Laeune many gifts hunted from far and wide across the world, trying to earn Laeune’s favor, and spur her to declare a favorite.  For such a plan to work they could not tell their mother of their competition.  Laeune was pleased at first, but grew weary of her children pestering her with gifts.”

“Seeking quiet and rest, Laeune snuck away while her children scurried off to seek more offerings, and borrowed a boat from Vhale, her grandson, and floated down a river through a wide wood.  As she dreamt, at last free to slumber without bother, she wondered upon her youngest, who had long ago begun to wander and rarely returned home.”

“As Laeune’s boat drifted to the base of a great mountain, she found Yaun sunning upon a high rock by the river, and sleepily considering a brilliant gem of many colors in the sun’s light.  Laeune asked what her child held, and with a smile Yaun said that it was the most precious of things, a single tear Laeune had cried when Yaun’s first child was born.”

“A tear was a gem?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“There is a gem named such,” Laurel said thoughtfully, “and it does match the description.  It is a clear gem that refracts any light into many colors.  Still, it is not an actual tear.”

“The story says otherwise,” Mercu grumbled, and continued.  “It so happened that Brother Wolf and Sister Lynx each had come to hunt below the mountain that same day, and heard as Laeune proudly proclaimed Yaun her favorite, for such a treasured moment.  Each were infuriated and driven to rage.  They were bested by their younger sibling, and each plotted cruel vengeance for the slight.”

“How terrible.”  Katrisha crossed her arms and pursed her lips.

“Days later, Yaun strode the forest that was home to the eldest children of man, unaware of cold calculating eyes that watched her every step.  Nor were Brother Wolf or Sister Lynx aware they stalked the same prey.  As Wolf and Lynx pounced, they found themselves entwined with one another, and not their intended victim.  Yet anger fueled their fight even more, and their wounds were grievous.”

“There was much shame when Wolf and Lynx each woke to find their wounds tended by Yaun.  They could see in sad eyes, that Yaun knew what they had tried to do.  Nonetheless Yaun cared for each with such compassion.  Laeune, who had been dwelling near had seen the whole affair, and interceded upon Yaun’s behalf, misguiding her wrathful children to attack one another and not her most beloved.”

“Later, when Yaun was away, Laeune came before Wolf and Lynx.  She told them what she knew, and proclaimed that, ‘Never shall you, or your heirs rein.  Though I still love you, you have proven unworthy – but this one, whom you sought to harm, has shown you kindness.  To Yaun’s heirs I leave the all the world where my light falls.  Ever shall you pay your debt, as servant, and protector to Yaun’s blood, and in such you shall regain my respect.’”

“What did that have to do with the Sylvan’s leaving Aldermor?” Kiannae protested.

“It was a good enough story I suppose,” Katrisha consented, “but yes, what was the point?”

“Well,” Mercu laughed, “you see that is the story as I first read it, but I am told there is more.”

“Well?” Kiannae prodded.

“I knew a man,” Mercu answered, “a good fellow, though I must admit when I first met him I mistook him for a woman.”

“Did you now?” Laurel laughed.

Mercu gave Laurel a snide smile.  “He was a generation or so removed from the Sylvan lands, but his family kept some traditions alive.  I got him talking over drinks, that I bought in apology for my aforementioned mistake.  I’ll admit precisely how the topic came up I’m hazy, there were quite a few drinks involved.”

Laurel clearly repressed another laugh, and Mercu continued.  “At any rate, he said that the story, as he knew it, goes on to tell that Yaun’s children grew arrogant, and did not learn the lesson of Wolf and Lynx.  They set upon each other, and warred, and did many terrible things.  So it was that the Lynx’s children left the lands of men.  For you see – the Sylvans are the Lynx in the fable.”

“That’s why our eyes are the way they are?” Kiannae asked.

“We are part cat?” Katrisha laughed.  “Kat!  My name is Kat!  Is it true?”

“Well,” Laurel interjected, “that is the common wisdom, with what evidence there is.  Sylvans do normally bare both the slit eyes, and pointed tufted ears of a Lynx.  Half blood’s such as you two, and your brother tend to lack the ears, though you all, particularly Wren do have a slight point.”

Katrisha ran her fingers over her ear, and nodded.  

“One in a few hundred they say are born with fur, and decidedly feline features, maybe even a tail – which leads many to believe that ‘shaper’ magic was involved, that at some point in the past they made themselves part cat.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked scrunching her brow.

“Haven’t a clue.”  Laurel shrugged.  “It’s not even fully agreed upon theory.  The Sylvans by all account have nothing to say on the matter, they simply consider themselves to be, as they are.  Though I did once hear a man from Napir call them ‘the children of the wolves, and the cats.’”

“Wolves?” Katrisha asked a bit perplexed.

“There is another Sylvan forest, far to the east past Lycia,” Laurel answered stroking his beard, “More reclusive even than those who live to our north.  Purportedly they lack the slit eyes, but have even more pronounced ears – and there are tales of great, hulking wolf men among them.  I’ve never met one, nor do I know anyone who has.”

“But you were just talking about Napir,” Kiannae protested.

“Ah, yes,” Laurel said with a nod. “In the high passes, and south from the Storm Peak in Napir live small mixed tribes, purportedly of both breeds, but their bloodlines have been thinned with each other, and the common folk of the land.  Still, even amongst these are tall tales of ‘great lions’, and ‘mighty wolves.’  I couldn’t tell you if they are any more than tales though.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Aldermor was a small village, which seems to cling tenaciously to the edge on a wide raised tract of land that looked out over a very broad stretch of the local vale.  Fields stretched as far as the eye could see below, but only a few scattered alder trees broke up the rocky, overgrown area between the village, and the higher hills behind it.  Even the wild shrubs, and grasses seemed slightly sickly, and it was reasonable to assume the locals had long decided this land was of no use to try and cultivate, but a passable place for a village overlooking the fertile lands below.

Everyone but Horence had disembarked from the coach, which he had lead on across town to arrange a place to park it, and stable the horses.  Even the adults had rarely visited the quiet town, and all examined the area in more detail.

A long, freshly worn path lead off the main road from where they stood, to a far edge of the highland, where a small grove of trees stood beside the framework, and half finished walls of a large new structure. It rose defiantly where only crumbled low stone walls, and ancient foundations stood about.  This structure seemed odd, out of place even, but it meant little to the twins, who quickly lost interest in it.  

Charles seemed slightly more affected by the sight, which caught Katrisha’s curiosity for a moment before she recognized a woman in white, half surrounded by villagers.  She tugged at her sister’s sleeve, and then ran off towards Renae.  Kiannae followed at a more reserved pace, but cocked her head to the side when Katrisha veered off suddenly.

“Wren!” Katrisha yell, and then Kiannae noticed the boy, sitting on a short stone wall behind and to the side of the crowd.  At first Kiannae had not recognized her brother, who had let his hair get quite long, and had grown significantly in the past six months.

Wren looked up just in time to be scooped up by his taller sibling.  It was rather impressive to watch.  Wren was not much smaller than Katrisha, and did not look as though he could be so easily lifted by her – yet she had managed it, complete with spinning him about as she often did in greeting.

“Why aren’t you with your sister?” Charles asked, stepping up behind Kiannae, who had stopped to observe the curious chain of events.

“Why are you even here?” Kiannae asked crossly, as Mercu walked by towards the village shops, giving the pair’s exchange only a passing glance, and Laurel moved on towards Renae.

“I am going to visit my mother,” Charles said tersely.  “She lives in Wesrook, with my uncle, and my sister.”

“Yes,” Kiannae sighed, “but why are you here, with us?”

“I am no happier about it than you are,” Charles grumbled.  “It was my father’s idea.”

“Whatever for?” Kiannae said shaking her head.

“He said I should be nicer to the two of you,” Charles said uncertainly, as though it wasn’t exactly what he’d been told.  Kiannae had never though much more of Charles father, than the boy himself.  It seemed like a good thing, but it also seemed out of character, and the hesitation in the way Charles had said it seemed dubious.

Any further thought on the matter was abated as Renae walked up, crouched down, and hugged Kiannae to her.  “Hello dear,” she said sweetly, held the girl back out at arm’s length, then looked her up and down.  “How are you doing, and who’s your friend?”

“He’s n…” Kiannae started a bit terse, but thought better of it, “he’s Charles,” she finished instead.

“Ah,” Renae said considering the boy again.  “Sir Arlen’s son, yes?” Renae asked delicately, the boy had done nothing to earn her ire, but the way he looked at her was not particularly friendly.  It was apparent the boy was well aware of his father’s opinion of Renae, and knew who she was.  It was less clear how much stock he put in it.

“Yes,” Charles acknowledged, “heir of Wesrook.”

“Ah yes,” Renae said thoughtfully, she had heard pieces of that story.  “So it is true what I’ve heard, that your father is the Duke proper, and retains the right to the seat in his absence?”  Charles simply nodded.  “Curious,” Renae remarked, and stood, taking Kiannae’s hand.  “Come, let us join your sister, and Wren.”

Kiannae glanced back at Charles as they walked away.  She had heard Mercu before on the ride, but hadn’t really been paying attention.  She wasn’t really sure what to make of it, the annoying boy wasn’t a knight’s son after all.  It was worse, he was a duke’s.

“So what are you doing here?” Katrisha asked ruffling Wren’s long hair, which he went about straightening afterword.

“Renae is here to help oversee the construction of a new Cloister,” Wren said as he motioned to the distant half finished building.

“Another?” Katrisha said curiously.

“Yes,” Renae said as she walked up, Kiannae in tow. “Things are getting a bit cramped back home, and the locals have welcomed us here.  Though we needed to get assurance of the King’s consent.”

“Why wouldn’t the King approve?” Katrisha asked tilting her head.

“It’s not a question of whether the King would approve,” Renae said thoughtfully, “so much as if he would be willing to make his approval official.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“Not all care much for our order,” Renae said with a forced smile.

“Why?” Katrisha prodded in turn.  There had always been hints on the matter, but never answers.

“To be honest, I often wonder myself,” Renae said with a sigh.  She glanced at Charles, who had walked off in his own direction.  She was more than glad he would not do her the service of explaining.

“It’s because our kindness weakens their grip on the people’s hearts,” Wren said bitterly.  Everyone looked to Wren a bit curiously.  “That’s what Audry’s mother says,” he shrugged.

“She’s probably not wrong,” Renae agreed hesitantly.  She wasn’t happy to have the girl’s opinions stirred so.  They showed signs of growing into hot headedness, and expressing open anti-Clarion sentiments would do them no favors.  “Still, we grin, and bear life’s troubles – one can only do so much, and those who will not listen, will not be persuaded.”

Laurel walked up then, and looked a bit flustered.  “I must…thank you…for bringing that issue to my attention,” he said with some annoyance.

“I’m sorry,” Renae said, somewhat disingenuously.  “The boy’s trouble – I’m not keen on saddling the new Matron down here with that kind of fuss, but there is no question he is gifted.”

“No,” Laurel said shaking his head. “I don’t think that would do at all well, another year or two, and he’ll be running amok with any young girl who will give him the time of day.  No sense making that easier.”

“Indeed,” Renae said, “though perhaps it would rub off some of the rough edges.”

“I’ve told his grandfather I will speak to Daven personally.  I’ve already two apprentices of my own after all,” Laurel said looking to the twins.  “I’ve no wish for a third, and a troublemaker at that.  Given he’s already whipping up little dust devils on his own, with no training, I suspect he’ll turn a proper enchanter’s education into passable combat magic, and run off with a caravan in a few years.  It’s unfortunate the only druids that are easy to get ahold of are so far away, his talent seems suited to their practices.”

“I suspect you are right,” Renae said thoughtfully.  “I rather think the boy would do better with us, than Daven though.  I believe your predictions of his fate down that road are quite right, that’s a dangerous life to doom him to.”

“He might take to the discipline, and stick around.  It would be his choice of course, in the end,” Laurel said somewhat absently.  “Still, if you wish to convince the new Matron to take the boy on, it’s little difference to me.  It would keep him closer to his mother.  I’ve made my promise to speak on his behalf – then perhaps he will have options.  Though given the option, I haven’t much doubt what he will choose.”

Katrisha looked back, and forth between the two adults.  “You said mother, and grandfather,” she said curiously.

“Hasn’t he a father, why can none of them teach him?” Kiannae chimed in.

Laurel winced.  “His father, by all reasonable accounts was a caravan mage who passed through this town once.  He’s not been back.”

“How awful,” Katrisha frowned.

“If he’s got his father’s sense, he might be better off in a Cloister,” Laurel sighed.  “He’ll be less likely to cause a girl trouble that way.”

“What do you mean?” Kiannae asked.

Laurel looked to be half way through formulating a dodge for that question, when Mercu sauntered up, flowers in hand.  This seemed to distract him thoroughly.  “I bring a gift, dear lady,” Mercu said with a bow.

Renae didn’t seem quite sure what to do, and finally relented to reach out, and take the flowers.  “Aren’t these the one’s the shopkeeper had on the counter?” she asked.

“The same,” Mercu admitted.

“I have no where to put them,” Renae laughed.  “What ever were you thinking?”

“Of that darling perplexed look on your face, of course,” Mercu said with an impish grin.  “Yet far be it from me to make the lady carry the load.  I shall hold them for you until such time as we can find a place to set them properly.”  He held out his hand again, and took the flowers back, then proceeded to loop his arm with Renae’s.  “Off then we go, on a grand quest for a table!”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The Inn in Aldermor sat directly on the cliff face, and it’s dining hall protruded in an arc such that windows faced both west, and east down the valley.  It gave a lovely view of the sunset down the vale to the west, and surely did as well for sunrise.  The three siblings sat side by side, with Katrisha in the middle.  Wren was half asleep on her arm.  His energy had proved no match for his sisters’ as they explored the old ruins.  Though part of Wren’s exhaustion was owed to the fact he had sprained his ankle quite badly, and healed it himself.  Renae had found out anyway, and scold him for being reckless.

Laurel would likely have received most of the scolding, had Renae learned that in her absence the children had been allowed to run completely free.  Even without having attracted Renae’s ire, Laurel seemed a bit distant, and reserved as the company sat around the table for dinner.  The twins for their part were also tired enough to not enquire where Renae and Mercu had been most of the afternoon.

“I’ve been thinking,” Mercu said idly – setting his fork aside.  “This gifted boy,” he continued, “what are the odds of him having this gift, when his mother did not?”

“Little less than half,” Laurel said absently.  “Statistically speaking of course.  Maybe as much as ten percent to be as strong as it obviously is.”

“You think maybe the mother has some Sylvish blood in her?” Mercu pondered.

“Not impossible,” Laurel shrugged.  “Though there’s no sign of it.  Even a little might have skewed the odds in his favor.”

“Is that why we are so gifted?” Kiannae asked.

“Cause our father was Sylvan?” Katrisha added.

“Your mother was gifted as well,” Laurel said thoughtfully.  “From what I know of her, your grandmother was a woman of the Lycian Order.  A woman with the gift most often passes it to her children.”

“But not the father?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Correct,” Laurel nodded.  “Both parents contribute to the gift of their children, but conventional wisdom says the mother has the strongest influence on the presence of the gift, while the father has slightly more influence over the strength.  Still there are no guarantees.  True emergent gifts occur, even strong ones from no appreciable linage.”

“Do gifted parents ever have ungifted children?” Kiannae asked.

“No,” Laurel answered.  “If both have the gift it can diminish, but not disappear between generations.  That is why most Royal lines still have traces of the gift, since the most adequately prepared individuals at the time of the Council’s founding were gifted.  The Council wished to avoid returning to the cycle of mage kings, so they picked those with the best mixture of education, even temper, and where possible weaker gifts.”

“Why didn’t they want gifted people to rule?” Katrisha frowned.

“It seems kind of silly.  Wouldn’t the strongest mages make the best kings, and queens?” Kiannae added.

“That was the belief for a very long time,” Mercu interjected.  “Yet ruling a kingdom doesn’t require magic.  It wasn’t just rulership that the gifted people were pulled out of either, they were also removed from the armies.  The Dragon War carried a terrible price – so many mage lines were decimated, so many of the strongest, and most gifted lost – three fifths some say, others claim it was more.”

“So the Council decided,” Laurel said with a nod, “to pull together the surviving mage lines, to help rebuild our numbers.”

“And to discourage them from starting wars, by taking them out of the seats of power,” Mercu added.  “After all – mages have power enough to begin with.  Make one a King, and it’ll go to their head.”

“As if it wouldn’t go to your head,” Laurel shot back.

“What can I say,” Mercu laughed, “I’m a passionate sort.”

Laurel rolled his eyes, and glanced at Renae, who had seemed uneasy for some time, and was staring out the windows at the sunset.  She seemed not to want to make any eye contact, and stopped eating.  

“We are what we are,” Laurel said with a sigh – and picked at his plate.  “I don’t think the council is wrong in their stance,” he continued, shifting his tone.  “Nor do I think they are right.  Perhaps it’s a prudent precaution, but those few kingdoms who slipped through the cracks and are still ruled by minor mages…they aren’t causing any more trouble than the rest.”

“I hear the prince of Western Palentine is something of a nuisance,” Mercu retorted.

“Only to his cousin in the East,” Laurel laughed, “and that’s more of a Clarion-Lycian squabble than a magely one.  Also, far more political, than volatile.  Palentine is almost obnoxiously stable.  They bluster, and fuss openly, but behind the scenes things are quite tame.”

“True,” Mercu nodded thoughtfully.  “I suppose the bigger problem is a lack of rules regarding Paladin Kings.”

Laurel simply huffed with amusement.

“Excuse me,” Renae said, and looked as though she was about to get up.

Mercu caught her hand gently.  “Are you alright, dear Lady?”  He glanced at her plate.  “You have hardly eaten.”

“You are kind to worry.  Thank you, just things on my mind.  So much to do.”

“Have we somehow offended?”  Mercu pressed.

“Oh – no, not at all.  The company is charming, as always – if anything I feel I may have caused some.  Regardless, I will be honest that I am stuck upon something I cannot decide if I would rather remember, or forget.”

“Then unless you are truly feeling unwell, perhaps remain for the distraction?  Further if you are working yourself hard, you really should eat.”

Renae glanced at Laurel, the twins, and Wren.  “Perhaps you are right.  I do apologise if I am not talkative.”

“I assure you dear Lady, I can talk for two,” Mercu offered whimsically.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 6th, 644 E.R.

Breakfast brought the same view in reverse as dinner had the previous evening, with the sun shining down the valley from the east.  Wren was more awake that morning, while his sisters were the drowsiest ones at the table, with their heads lain on their arms over the table as they waited for food to arrive.

“Will I be joining you on your trip?” Wren asked as Laurel arrived late to the gathering.

“I am told that is the plan,” Laurel nodded, and rolled his head to the side, stretching his neck.  “I’ve no objections of course – you should have more time with your sisters.”

Katrisha perked up at this news.  “Wren’s coming with us?”

“Yes,” Mercu answered.  “I figured he could use a chance to see more of Avrale – so I arranged for Renae to bring him along on her trip here, and spent a good deal of time convincing her to let him join us.”

Renae laughed, and sipped at her cranberry juice.  “As if you worked so hard.”

“Enjoying one’s tasks does not make them a lack of work,” Mercu shot back, “it is rather the satisfaction of a job well done, that makes enjoying the work all the more pleasurable.”

“Well,” Renae smirked, “you did do quite well.”

“Must you two?” Laurel said rubbing his eyes tiredly.

Renae looked away, a bit embarrassed, but Mercu for his part casually shrugged.  The contrary illusion as to which of the two seemed the elder was for the moment exaggerated.  Any question as to the meaning of the exchange from the half awake children was cut off, as food arrived.

“You at least seem in better spirits this morning,” Mercu offered.

“I am, I thank you for encouraging me to stay for dinner last night.  Melancholy can become quite treacherous at my age.  Truly, I do not know what I was thinking trying to leave, there is more comfort at this table for what ails me.  I lost my daughter so long ago…and never got the chance to know my granddaughter.”

“I did not know you had a child,” Laurel commented, “or had lost her.  My condolences.”  That word seemed to make Renae cringe a bit.

“It was well before I met either of you.  She was a young woman before I first wandered from Avrale.  Neither I, nor my mother could keep her at the Cloister.  I have always thought at heart she wanted to be a mage, though I was the one who wandered afar in her absence.  When I returned both my mother, and daughter had passed, and my son in law wanted no part of me for his child.”

“That does sound a rough lot,” Mercu offered kindly.

“Were it not for Adria I would have felt entirely alone in the world.”

“Do forgive me if I am impertinent, but it was not a Clarion mater, was it?”  Mercu asked.  “I wonder only because such squabbles – and they are not always so gentle – were the subject when you thought to leave last night.”

“No – no, nothing quite so…” Renae sighed.  “You are not impertinent, I will assure you, but no I would rather not speak of it.”

“Forgive me then,” Mercu offered.

“If there is anything to forgive, it is on my part.  Let us eat,” Renae said with soft smile, only slightly forced.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Wesrook was not the largest city of Avrale, only the third.  Yet approaching it from the east, through the vineyards of the Serpent’s Spine, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for the largest city in all the western kingdoms.  The castle, and proud tower from which the city took its name sat on a bluff above a sheltered bay.  It brought commerce in from the island of Carth to the west, Osyrae and the free cities to the north, and from so far south as Napir.

Wesrook was rich, it was sprawling, and one could hear the clamor of the city in the day, all the way up in the high hills.  The view from the high road was like looking at a living map, the winding streets, and clustered buildings laid out below in an intricate web.  The impression lingered as well, as the road wound back and forth, a half mile at a time, to descend over five hundred feet to the city below.  It was a reminder – if the endless foothills that framed the valleys of the kingdom were not enough – that Avrale was built within a mountain range.

Far off in the distance, across a narrow straight, great hills could be seen to rise out of the mists, with a volcanic crater smoldering at the island’s north end.  This was the farthest vantage point visible from any of the roads of the old empire.  The distant mists of Carth, as seen from the high road were the things of famous poetry, and paintings.  One of which the twins had seen before, though neither could recall precisely where in the castle it hung.  It depicted the great eruption of the northern peak over a hundred years prior.

As the coach came lower, closer to the level of the city it became more evident that the tower of Wesrook was not its only prominence.  A great gleaming spire rose near the center of the city, much taller than even the highest mansions around it.  The structure did not seem to be stone, or even metal – there was only one thing that immediately came to mind from the way it glimmered – glass.

The coach would have been quite cramped, had all its occupants been fully grown.  Yet as most were young children, six sat in relative comfort, though Mercu found himself inclined to favor being pressed up against Laurel, giving the slightly gloomy boy to his right a wide berth.

As the twins pointed, and demanded to know what the tower was, Mercu explained.  “That is Daven’s Flame – home of the enchanter Daven, perhaps the greatest of his craft alive today.  He was once the Arch Enchanter of the Council in Mordove, and one of the richest men of the east.”

“Why does he live here now?” Kiannae asked.

“They say he fell in love with a woman of Carth, Caladine I believe she called herself,” Mercu said sagely, “a trader of magical wares that had traveled far, and wide, in spite of her young age.  This enchantress he believed far better than the station in life she happily maintained, and he proposed to her.  Something of a scandal really.”

“Did they marry, and move here to be closer to her home?” Katrisha asked.

“The story goes that Daven’s love would not stay in Mordove, and he, an important man, would not leave,” Mercu mused somberly.  “Years past before Caladine came again to Mordove, and wounded as his pride was, Daven proposed again, but again she left.”

“So he followed?” Wren asked curiously.

“Not at first, no,” Mercu said.  “Daven was a proud man, but pride comes before every fall.  Eventually his heart brought him here, to seek the woman he loved.  He renounced his seat on the Council, sold his holdings in the east, and came to a foreign land – with no more than a hope.  I won’t say he wasn’t a fool, for love makes fools of us all.  The woman he sought was a wanderer, and it was years before she returned to Wesrook, on her way home.  Daven had settled in well to the city by then, being little worse for wear in riches, or prestige.”

“She said no again, didn’t she?” Katrisha sighed.

“Well,” Mercu laughed, “not precisely.  It’s a bit much for even me to believe, but the stories say that she told him if he truly loved her, that he need not follow.  That if his love shone as brightly as he claimed, she would see it from the shores of Carth itself.”

“Difficult woman,” Laurel laughed.

“Well,” Mercu mused, “undoubtedly, but it would seem that Daven was as stubborn.  It took a few years as I’ve heard it, before inspiration struck him, one night as he watched a light house up the coast.  First he had a tall tower built upon the corner of his mansion in the city.  This alone was a grandiose act that drew much attention, but he had an exterior frame work fashioned around the tower, which caused even more perplexed rumors.  Lastly loads, literally tons of sand were delivered, and he cast out all the workers, and all his servants.”

No one seemed to have anything to say, and Mercu smiled.  “They say it happened in one night, that the crazy fool did it all himself.  He used magic to forge the sand into pristine, perfect sheets of glass, and set them into to the framework of the tower.  In the morning the people gathered around, and looked up at the new gleaming spire in the midst of their city.  In the evening it shone brilliantly in the setting sun, like a frozen flame.  Days passed, then weeks, then at last a well adorned ship flying the colors of Carth came into port.”

“You see,” Mercu laughed, “the woman Caladine, was not just an enchanter.  Caladine was not even her real name, she was Cadinae, a Princess of Carth.  She was the youngest of her father’s children, too far from the throne to be a real heir.  She had run away when she had been only fifteen, seen the world, crafted her wares, had many lovers.  A few she favored above the rest.  Only one had followed, only one had finally done something to impress her.”

Mercu paused, enjoyed the silence, and then shrugged.  “That’s the story, and by all accounts it is at least mostly true.  She married the man who build the glass tower over Wesrook.  Though she had gotten on in years by then, her gift was strong, and she was still fertile enough to bare him one son, and a daughter.  They live up there, in the tower he built, to this very day.”

“You have at least one thing wrong,” Charles said smugly.

“How would you know?” Katrisha said crossly.

“Because I know Daven,” Charles retorted.  “He has done a great deal of work for my mother, and she has been to the royal palace on Carth.  She told him once that you could see his “flame” all the way from there, and he told her that he knew, he had meant for it to be visible from the palace.”

“How did he know?” Mercu asked curiously.

Charles pondered for a bit.  “He’d been a man of some importance in Mordove, as you say.  When a man was caught harassing his…companion of the time, he interrogated him personally.  The man was an agent of her father, who had tracked her all the way to Mordove.  That was when she left the first time.”

“What a lovely bit of intrigue to the story,” Mercu laughed.  “I’ll have to remember that.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Upon entry, the city of Wesrook was not as clean as it appeared from afar – though it was evident that great efforts were made, as evidenced by men sweeping the streets.  One wondered readily if it was truly a complete exercise in futility, or how much dingier things would be without their diligent work.  

The three siblings were struck quite thoroughly by deep lustrous bronze skin of the occasional northerner they passed along the way, and almost as surprised by the remarkable pale complexion of those from the far south.  Foreign dignitaries were not entirely uncommon at Broken Hill, but none had come from Osyrae, or Napir in the time the twins had resided there.  

One man in fine clothing sat on a bench by the roadside, feeding pigeons.  His skin was nearly pitch black, a sight even Mercu seemed struck by.  After they had passed Mercu explained that the man was surely from the Northern Wastes, and that he had rarely seen one of such pure blood so far south.

Laurel added that peoples of northern climates tended to have darker skin, to endure the sun which did not wane in the winter months.  Further that the pale skin of people from Napir was believed to give them some advantage against the long cold nights of their winters.

A fountain square dominated the middle of of the town, directly beneath the gleaming spire of Daven’s Flame that had begun to shimmer orange in the evening sun.  They had passed inns, both questionable, and fine, but had not stopped at any.  The twins had begun to wonder exactly where they were going, and Wren had simply drifted off on Katrisha’s shoulder after a long day’s ride.

As the coach turned north again, Kiannae was about to ask when Mercu answered the question out of hand.  “We will be staying at Wesrook Castle,” he said with a smile, “I am told we will be expected.”

Charles had known his destination from the beginning, and suspected that the others would be coming.  He was none the less displeased at the final confirmation.  “Mother does love to host guests,” he offered masking his feelings on the matter as best he could.

“The Lady of Wesrook is a lovely woman,” Mercu laughed.  “I wish she would visit Broken Hill more often, but something it seems keeps her away.”

Charles glared at Mercu, but said nothing.  Mercu simply shrugged the accusatory stare off, and continued.  “I’ve never had the privilege of staying in Wesrook tower before, I hear the view is quite stunning.”

“We live in a tower back home,” Kiannae stated dubiously.

“What’s the difference?” Katrisha asked.

“The ocean,” Charles answered before Mercu could.

“It’s not strictly speaking the ocean,” Mercu noted.  “Though close enough.  Waves still crash against the rocks below the tower.”

“I thought you hadn’t been,” Kiannae protested.

“I’ve been through Wesrook several times in my travels,” Mercu defended himself.  “And I’ve slept in ear shot of the ocean many times.  The waves here are muted some by Carth blocking the full fury of the sea, but they should still crash quite pleasantly to the shore beneath the cliff – from what I’ve seen passing through before.”

“It is one of the things I miss back home,” Charles said, “the sound of the ocean at night.”

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Chapter 5

The seasons pass without fail,
bring forth winds of change,
in ageless rhythmic cycle,

what comes around again in time,
is as has been before in days gone by,
and for all life’s shifting changing way,
familiar troubles seem to ever stay.

– Writings of King Andrew of Avrale, circa 610 E.R.

Seasons

Winter

Styver 19th, 636 E.R.

The first winter snow lay thick over the Castle on Broken Hill.  Twin girls stood with trepidation on the steps of the keep, with Mercu between them.  In the courtyard below, Darion and his brother played jovially with their young children in the snow.  The wife of the younger prince looked on from the base of the steps, a parasol in hand to keep off the continued fall.  Several other children, the sons of knights were off in their own corner of the courtyard.

Katrisha was the first to step forward, as Kiannae still clung to Mercu’s leg.  The Princess turned as the snow crunched under foot on the first step, and she frowned at what she saw.  “Now then, Mercu, are you really going to let her do that alone?”

“No, Aria…ummm,” Mercu said as he carefully wrested his leg from Kiannae’s grasp, as she still did not wish to move.  “Just my attention divided a bit between the pair,” he said and took Katrisha’s hand, steadying her before she could slip.

Kiannae for her part shrunk back against the keep door as Mercu helped Katrisha down the steps.  Aria still regarded Mercu unfavorably.  “You left the other one, you know?”

Mercu looked back up the steps where Kiannae stood with her back to the door, and Katrisha slipped from his grasp, taking the last bounding step on her own, and ran off into the courtyard.

“To be fair I don’t think she’s in any danger staying up there,” he said a bit flustered, and glanced to see where Katrisha had dashed off to.

Aria gave Mercu another reproving look, and climbed the steps.  At the top she gracefully dropped down closer to Kiannae’s level, who looked up at her with unhappy eyes.  “Are you alright, dear?”

“It’s cold,” Kiannae said pulling her winter cloak more tightly around herself.

“It is, isn’t it,” Aria said with a smile, “but it is pretty yes?”

“Suppose,” Kiannae permitted begrudgingly, still hunkered up against the door.  “I like flowers better.”

Aria turned and looked at Katrisha who ran happily through the snow, and who when pegged by a snowball from the Aria’s nephew, returned a volley with no hesitation.  The boy’s father quickly found it necessary to step between the escalating arms race, and took blows from both sides.  The two combatants soon thought better of plastering the Crown Prince, and parted to different corners of the courtyard.

“Your sister seems to like it well enough,” Aria said with a touch of confusion.  “I thought you two were the same?”

“D’no,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“You should come down, and try to enjoy it,” Aria said offering her hand.  “It’s warmer if you move around.” Mercu decided Aria had things well enough in hand, and wandered off to converse with Darion, who was dusting himself off from the children’s assault.

“Ok,” Kiannae agreed dubiously, took Aria’s hand, and let herself be lead slowly down the stairs.  Aria glanced to her nephew as they too the first step, and noted he seemed deep in conspiratorial proceedings with the other boys.  With Kiannae’s reluctant progress, the two were only half way down the stairs when the keep doors opened a crack, and Laurel emerged, himself wrapped tightly in a fur lined long gray winter cloak.

Aria regarded Laurel curiously.  “What brings you out of your warm tower all of a sudden?”

“A misplaced message has just reached me,” Laurel muttered, chattering against the cold.  “A fine time she picks to finally visit.”

“Do speak clearly?” Aria demanded lightly.

“Matron Renae,” Laurel grumbled, “who has been taking care of the twins’ younger brother.  S expressed a wish to meet them, and has decided that today would be a good day to finally get around to visiting.  This message however went first to the King, who was indisposed, was then misplaced by the Queen, and has come to my attention on the day that she is to arrive…if of course she has decided to travel in the snow.”

“Do you think she would?” Aria asked, a bit surprised at the possibility.

“I don’t really know her well enough to be certain.”  Laurel sighed, and watched his breath swirl before him.  “The King seemed inclined to believe she would arrive on schedule.  And for my part, I think her more than capable of keeping herself and a horse both warm, and well through the pass.  So it is a reasonable possibility.”

Kiannae’s hand slipped from the Aria’s grasp, and she descended the remaining few steps unattended before the Princess could protest.  “Well, at least she’s finally decide to join her sister.”  Aria shook her head.

“Oh, what was holding her up?” Laurel asked half interested.

“Seems she doesn’t like the cold,” Aria shrugged.

“I can relate,” Laurel said pulling his cloak tighter.  He lifted the hood, and pulled it forward over his head in an effort to stay warm.

“Her sister seems to like it well enough,” Aria said looking back to the twins who were now playing together, after a fashion.  Though Kiannae continually stopped, and bundled up for a bit against the cold.  “Curious that they are identical,” she mused.

“They are curious, yes,” Laurel said watching the girls thoughtfully.  “They can be fairly competitive, yet finish each other’s sentences.  One day one will take charge, and the next day the same one will be the timid follower.”

“How ever to you keep track?” Aria asked in a weary tone from the very thought of dealing with two children she couldn’t tell apart.

“At first, I must admit I couldn’t,” Laurel shrugged, “but now I usually just know, and couldn’t tell you how.  I think it is their gifts, still so alike, and yet…”  He mused over how to describe it, their presence was complex for young children.  He mused over how Mercu might describe it if he could feel it so clearly.  One the winter wind, one the sea.  One the sun on a cloudy day, the other the moon on a clear night.  One written in stone, the other…  He frowned.

Laurel shook his head, the musing had gone more than far enough.  A signal flag on the wall above the gate pulled his distracted attention, and prompted him to descend the stairs.  “Your leave, your highness,” he said as he passed her, forgetting quite intentionally his unfinished thought.  ”It appears we will soon have a guest.”  As Laurel marched across the courtyard to see if it was in fact Renae arriving, Mercu moved to follow at his side.

“What brings you out into this lovely weather?” Mercu asked jovially.

“Renae Somavera,” Laurel grumbled, “or nothing at all.  One of the two.”

“Oh the lovely Renae,” Mercu said with a pleased smile.  “You had mentioned some time ago she might wish to meet the twins.  I’d given up hope she would finally come around to do so.”

Laurel stopped, and eyed Mercu incredulously.  “You do know she already keeps a lover?   I met her when I took Wren to the cloister.”

“You say that as though it should dampen my spirits,” Mercu said feigning injury, as Laurel turned and walked on.  “Who says I do not simply relish the idea of lovely conversation with a beautiful woman, who, on our last meeting told such charming stories.”

“I know you more than well enough,” Laurel answered tersely, “to be quite sure you would like to share more than stories with Renae, even if she is well more than a decade your elder.”

Mercu stopped, and eyed Laurel as though the latter point was quite odd given the source.  An antic entirely lost on its intended target.  “And just as you,” he said catching up, “she does not look it, blessed gifted.  You would swear I was a few years hers, so can you blame me?” Mercu laughed.

“Can, oh yes, most certainly.  Will…no, probably not,” Laurel sighed.  “Just because I have long come to terms with the way you are, and it even has its use, doesn’t mean I don’t reserve the right to shake my head disapprovingly.”

“Shake away good sir, shake away,” Mercu prodded.

The pair reached the edge of the upper court just as a lone horse trotted in through the gate, bearing a rider wrapped in white.  The horse slowly circled the large fountain in the lower court as Renae waited for some sign of a stable attendant to emerge.  She was not anxious to dismount into the snow, only to wait.  The horse impatient with standing about in the cold kicked at the snow, its white spotted legs blending with the blanket of white it scratched at uncomfortably.

Renae looked up as Mercu waved from the upper court wall, and nodded in acknowledgment, her face obscured beneath her white hood, and in its thick fluffed trim.  When at last an attendant reluctantly emerged from the shelter of the stables, and hustled towards her, Renae relented to slide from her saddle, and into the freshly fallen snow.

“Gather the girls,” Laurel commanded, and Mercu gave him a look as though to protest, but quickly hurried off to do as he was bid.  “Your sense of timing could use improvement,” he hollered to Renae as she climbed the stairs.

“There is merit to that.”  Renae laughed, once close enough to be heard. “The weather was clear when I sent word, but things change.”

“I’ve just wondered what took you so long,” Laurel pryed of the woman ascending the steps below him. “You had requested to meet the girls months ago.”

“Wren has been…difficult.”  Renae sighed, and stopped a moment directly beneath him.  “It is harder that weaning a child, much harder given there is no tapering off, just constant vigilance.”

“I see,” Laurel said, “and I take it that he is better now?”

Renae finished her climb, turned to Laurel, and nodded with a huff.  “Yes.  I waited a two weeks before I even committed to the trip…I’m sure he is cured.  He also said his first words just before I left.”

Laurel looked shocked.  “But he’s not three months old.”

“It wasn’t exactly a sonnet.”  Renae laughed nervously, and surveyed the courtyard, “but it worries me nonetheless.  I’ve read the books we have, books written mostly by mages.  None of them can really tell me how much of a consciousness can be carried in the soul.”

“I would assume the Lycians or Clarions would know more than us,” Laurel said with his own uneasy laugh.

“We don’t believe in chasing ascension,” Renae said shaking her head, “and the Clarion dogma hasn’t really worked out for them, has it?  No, mages have the more useful texts on the matter, they have studied the elementals, the half-flesh, and ghosts more thoroughly than anyone else.  That one fellow was a mage after all.”

“I suppose you are right on that to some extent,” Laurel offered, and shook his head in turn, “but what of the Avatar?”

“The Clarions would never admit it,” Renae laughed, “but his methods seem more like those of a mage…or so the rumors say any way,” she added quickly.

“I have heard that rumor,” Laurel mused, “but no council mage has ever been granted an audience, that I am aware of at least.”  Laurel perked a brow as Renae seemed to glance away at that statement.

Mercu had become distracted in conversation with Aria, not half way to gathering the girls.  Any thought on this was cut short at a decided yelp, and all turned to see three boys pegging Kiannae and Katrisha with snowballs.  Katrisha for her part took evasive action, scooped up handfuls of snow, and began returning the assault in kind, but Kiannae cringed under the onslaught, and as the easier target was taking far more hits.  Mercu rushed to intervene, but stopped short as several snowballs burst in mid air, and a sudden flurry of blown snow accompanied the closest boy being knocked soundly on his rear.

The other boys all looked quite stunned, and Katrisha took the opening to plaster them thoroughly.  After taking several hits in their startled state the two still standing, including the young prince, ran.

“It’s not knightly to attack defenseless younger ladies, Charles, “ Mercu said, walking up to the slightly stunned boy sitting in the snow.

“She’s not defenseless,” Charles said pointing at Kiannae who was struggling to rid herself of residual snow, and shivering.

“When they aren’t defenseless, it is only more unwise,” Mercu smiled, just as Katrisha walked up, and slapped a handful of snow on top of Charles’ head.  He squeaked, and flailed slightly as he tried to get the cold melting snow out of his hair.

“Was that quite necessary?” Mercu asked in a mildly reproving tone.

Katrisha looked at her shivering sister, and nodded firmly.  Mercu restrained a laugh at her defiance, but a wry smile crept in at the corners of his lips nonetheless.

Mercu turned at the sound of crunching footsteps, and nodded at Renae, before taking a graceful bow.  “Might I introduce the young ladies Katrisha and Kiannae, if not at their most dignified.”

The two girls stepped up, and Renae stooped down before them, and looked each in the eye.  There was an obvious sadness in her expression that prompted an exchange of glances between Mercu and Laurel.  “It’s nice to finally meet you both,” she said sweetly, “you two have such lovely eyes, like your brother.”

The Crown Prince, his brother, Aria and their young children – one of whom still bore signs of winter combat – walked up on the gathering.  Charles for his part made a quiet exit as he noted no one was paying much attention to him.

“Matron Renae,” the Prince said with a twinge of surprise in his voice, “I was just now informed of your visit.”

“You must forgive the lack of a proper welcome,” Aria added with a nod of apology.

“It’s quite all right Darion, Aria,” Renae said glancing up from the twins, “Avery,” she added in acknowledgment to the remaining prince who stepped up close beside his wife.  “My visit is not a formal one by any means.  I came to meet the sisters of a little boy that has been left to my care.”

“So I am told,” Aria replied, “still a proper welcome would not have been too much to ask of us.”

“It’s alright,” Renae said looking back to the girls.  “I know the King has had a lot on his mind, since word came of the latest change of power in Osyrae.”

“You’ve heard?” Darion said with interest, “my father has been reluctant to speak even to me of it.”

“We Sisters hear many things,” Renae said dismissively, and quickly pulled the girls close.

“I suppose you might,” Aria said perking a brow.

“Come, let us go inside,” Renae said with forced cheer as she stood up.  “I would get to know these two darlings somewhere warmer.  Do give my understanding to the King if he does not have time to meet with me on this visit.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Spring

Vhalus 26th, 637 E.R.

Renae cradled the young Wren in her arms and stared absently at the icicles melting outside her window.  She closed her eyes, and let the child’s presence wash over her.  It was a sense of inestimable distant warmth, that somehow defied examination at even the smallest distraction.

“I don’t know why you rock him so much,” Andria said behind her, “not like he cries.  Even from the day he came to us he has been quiet…strange for a boy who has started to form almost full sentences.”

“Maybe I do it more for me than for him?”  Renae sighed.

“You could rock me in your arms,” Andria laughed playfully.

“Yer sweet, dear,” Renae said shooting her a funny look, “but it’s not the same.  As pleasant a distraction as that is, remembering my own daughter of so many years ago is…”  she trailed off.

“She wasn’t a quiet one,” Andria said shaking her head.  “Never in all my years have I seen a daughter of the Sisterhood so intent not to be calmed.”

“I’m almost surprised you remember, you were ten then, weren’t you?” Renae said perking a brow.

“I was right across the hall from you,” Andria laughed, “that wailing is burned into my ears to this day.”

“She wasn’t that bad,” Renae said tersely, looking back out the window.

“No, I’m sorry,” Andria apologized realizing how poor her humor had been.

Rene closed her eyes, and tried to still her frustrations on the matter.  Her daughters wail had indeed been a piercing thing, she admitted to herself, less than inclined however to do so aloud.  Standing there she felt Andria’s ever familiar presence.  It was a shifting thing, soft and feathery like a warm bed, alternated with the feel of the most supple well worn book binding.

For a while there was awkward silence, and then Renae changed the subject.  “Abigail returned today, she was a bit shaken up.”

“I thought I’d seen her,” Andria said with a touch of concern.

“Had a very uncomfortable run in with some locals in the village up north, last of many it seems,” Renae continued in a pained tone.  It was not a thought quite far enough from other unpleasant musing.

“Clarions still stirring people up against us?” Andria muttered rhetorically.

“Of course,” Renae said tersely.

“Do they really hate us that much?” Andria sighed leaning back against the door frame.

“Maybe,” Renae said turning back to her, “or maybe it is all just about power, and influence.  Perhaps a convenient convergence of the two?  Either way, they learned well from the Empire they turned their backs on.  If you can’t win over the King, win over the people.”

“What do they get out of it?” Andria growled, “what do the Clarions offer that we don’t?  We give them more if you ask me, more kindness, more aid.”

“We don’t offer them a purpose larger than themselves, as sad as that may seem.”  Renae furrowed her brow.  It was easy to forget how little Andria had ever ventured beyond Highvale.  How rooted her worldview was in the only way of life she knew.  “We don’t offer them the tantalizing idea of eternity.  We also don’t have a cursed Avatar as a shining beacon of immortality.”

“They have all of one of those,” Andria laughed incredulously, “and he didn’t exactly follow orders, now did he?  Stood with the Empire and all that.”

“They gloss over that bit.”  Renae laughed darkly.  “Say he chose the lesser of two evils, and parted ways when the job was done.”

“Still what good is he?” Andria demanded.  “He proves nothing.  I’ve never seen him as anything different than the dragons the Clarions so abhor.”

“He’s not,” Renae said, looking at Andria sadly, “not in my opinion any way.  But him, and their lies…well, are they lies?  It’s faith, that’s all any of us have, and he makes a convincing spectacle.”

“Not that anyone ever sees him,” Andria countered snidely, and crossed her arms as though she had won the argument.  Not that she really wanted to be having an argument, or knew why it had become one.

Renae’s stance shifted, and she was quiet for some time, and looked back out the window.  “I have,” she offered weighted.

“Wait, when…you never…” Andria sputtered in disbelief, her arms falling back to her sides.  She took a half a step forward, but stopped, and shook her head.  It had to be a joke, or something.

“You should remember,” Renae said glancing back.  “It was after Adel went away…long before you and I.”

“You went on a journey,” Andria said stepping away from the door frame, “but you never told me, not in all these years.”

“I never told anyone, not a single soul,” Renae said tersely. “I questioned a lot of things in those years.  Along my travels I went to the High City, to see it, to feel what it really was at the heart of the Clarion’s power.”

“They let you, a Lycian Sister, see the Avatar?” Andria said stepping closer again, still not quite believing her own ears.

“I hadn’t gone there to…or…at least hadn’t expected…” Renae said staring out the window, the troubles on her face almost showing her age.  “And I wasn’t stupid enough to tell anyone my affiliations.  One day though – as I was walking down a street, minding my own business – three paladins swept me off.  I was terrified…”

Andria rested her hand on Renae’s arm, and Wren stirred slightly.  They both looked to the boy, and Andria wrapped her arm around Renae waiting for her to finish her story.  After a long pause she continued.  “I was held for a day…I wanted to protest, ask why I was taken in, but I held my tongue.  I was too afraid.”

Andria squeezed Renae tighter.

“As suddenly as I was taken, I was whisked into the grandest chamber I have ever seen, or could even imagine,” Renae said distantly.  “There were six men there, all dressed in the heaviest and most formal of robes.  All kept their distance, though they obviously knew I was there.  Finally he swooped in from out of the corner of my eye, and hovered before me…” she trailed off.

Renae swallowed, and turned her head to look at Andria.  “I’ve never decided if he was the most beautiful, or tragic thing I have ever seen.  Beauty certainly struck me first, the light, the halo around him was brilliant, so bright it should have been blinding, and yet it didn’t hurt to look upon him.  Finally I saw through the light, past that brilliant aura, and saw him…the strange thing inside.”

“So he has aged then?” Andria asked, thinking she understood.

“I don’t know if aged is the right word,” Renae responded.  “Changed certainly, shriveled might almost be right, but no, as impossibly slender and skeletal as he has become his skin was tight, smooth, impeccable…and I can say with little doubt ‘he’ is no longer the right word,” she laughed darkly.

“So what, the Clarions precious Avatar became a woman?” Andria laughed.  “That would be rich irony.”

“No, it wasn’t a woman either.  It just was, and for all its strangeness, even the sad bizarre form within was elegant, and beautiful in its own bizarre graceful way…” Renae seemed to search for the right words. “Yes sad is accurate.  I’m sure his grand assembly read it as something else, something more noble and perfect, but I saw sadness, a odd kindness as well, and more still that I couldn’t even put to words…but definite, heart rending, sadness.”

“What then?” Andria asked taken in by the story.

“Nothing,” Renae said in an angry detached tone.  One could have almost mistaken it for dismissive, as though the point had been missed, and she was not inclined to explain.

“What?” Andria demanded confused.

“He drifted off, no explanation, just nothing.”  Renae shrugged as though she wanted Andria think she didn’t care, or as if she was trying to convince herself.

“There’s more, isn’t there,” Andria pressed.

“I’m here, of course there is more.  I lived after all,” Renae countered with thin humor.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Andria offered.  “Did…I don’t even want to ask.”

Renae sighed.  “Nothing,” she repeated.  “After a few minutes of standing there gawking in the direction he had gone, and looking around at the impassive assembly of Clarion Cardinals…I was just lead away with as little explanation as anything else.”

Renae glanced at Andria, whose expression said she knew there was more.  There was she joked in her head darkly again, always more, if you live.  It hurt to think those words.

She took a long breath.  “Three days later – as I prepared to leave the city – a note arrived where I was staying.  It was addressed to me by name, sealed in white wax with a sun seal, but there was no sender, no signature.”  She trembled slightly.  “Just a single word in immaculate, perfect, and yet almost illegibly flowing script.”  Renae started to cry.

Andria squeezed Renae tightly, and let her sob.  She saw a tear fall from Renae’s cheek onto Wren, who seemed to cringe at the intrusion.  He was awake, and still silent, just staring up at Renae.

“What single word can hurt you after so long?” Andria asked stroking Renae’s hair.

“Condolences,” Renae said calming herself, forcing it back down.  “At first I didn’t understand, I didn’t even imagine, as I unknowingly hurried back here.  I didn’t realize, not till months later that I was even was hurrying.  I passed from caravan to caravan without stopping anywhere, without staying with any journey to its end.  But when I arrived…”

“Your daughter, and your mother,” Andria added understanding suddenly.  “I knew you were not here for the funerals, that you returned from your travels to that news.  I never imagined you had received word…and from such a strange source.”

“I’d already heard about mother, she had been dead nearly a year, word had reached me, and it had made me even less inclined to return.”  Renae took a deep breath.  “We’ve all had those dreams, the ones that come true, or almost come true,” she muttered.  “I had seen his light before, and never understood.  It always hurt, and yet…I didn’t think it would happen, I didn’t think the dream really meant…and yet I went to the High City anyway.” She struggled a moment.  “My daughter was still alive when I received that note, I did the math, countless times…she died three days after…” she paused for moment, and let herself breath.  “Her husband never forgave me for not being here, never trusted me with his daughter.”  She looked down at the boy, in her arms.  “I have this now, and I can remember rocking my daughter to sleep just a little better.  So yes, it helps me.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Summer

Rhaeus 37th, 637 E.R.

Mercu sat indifferent in the summer sun on a bench in the upper courtyard of the castle.  “Where are the girls?” Laurel asked behind him.  After a moment he gestured to his right, and to his left where stood Prince Darion on one side, and Lady Catherine on the other, both looking quite cross.

“I don’t understand?” Laurel said a bit confused by the response.

“Look closer,” Mercu sighed, “and leave me to the sun.”

Laurel looked back and forth, and finally opted for the Prince first, but as he approached he saw the cause of his displeasure.  Perched on a branch above his head was Kiannae, her nose in a large book.  Laurel was at a loss to explain how she had gotten up there, let alone with a book she surely could barely carry on flat ground, or for that matter up a tree.

“How did she…” Laurel started.

“I saw it, and I couldn’t explain it,” Darion said shaking his head.

“Why?” Laurel said perplexed.

“You tell me,” the Prince said turning to look at Laurel incredulously, “you are the mage, their mentor, even their father by law.”

Laurel shook his head, and looked up at Kiannae, who he thought he caught peeking down for a moment.  “Ok, so what is Catherine looking so cross about?” he asked turning to face the fountain in the middle of the courtyard.

“That, would be the other one,” Darion sighed, “not nearly as clever a trick, but less dignified to be sure.”

“What?” Laurel asked again.

“Go look for yourself,” Darion muttered walking away,. “I’m getting a gardener, and telling him to bring a ladder.”

Laurel crossed the courtyard, and poked Mercu hard in the shoulder as he passed.  Mercu for his part barely acknowledge the interruption.  As Laurel walked up to Catherine she sat down from her pacing, and fanned herself under her parasol.  “I’m told Katrisha is somewhere here, causing your present frustration?” he said questioningly, and looked about.

Catherine simply pointed with a huff into the fountain.  “Oh,” Laurel said catching sight of Katrisha sitting in it’s shadow, with water running over her.  “What are you doing in there Katrisha?”

“It’s hot,” she muttered after a bit of silence.

“It’s undignified is what it is,” Catherine grumbled.

“I suppose it is a bit,” Laurel laughed, “why not use the ladies bath at least?”

“Warm, water,” Katrisha enunciated firmly.

“Ah…I could teach you a spell to fix that,” Laurel laughed, “it’s uh, actually almost the same spell as the lights.”

“Really?” Katrisha said leaning out of the water for a moment.

“Whatever it takes to get her out of that fountain,” Catherine sighed.

“Come on,” Laurel said putting his foot on the edge of the fountain, and offering his hand to Katrisha.  “Let us stop antagonizing the good Lady with our undignified presences.”

Katrisha took Laurel’s hand after staring at it for a moment, and let him pull her, drenched robe and all from the fountain.  Her short legs, and sloshing footsteps slowed their approach to where Mercu still sat.  “Prince, gardener, or whatever help you need I leave the other one for you to retrieve.”

“So long as I’m not stuck between the two,” Mercu shrugged.

“Katrisha wasn’t hard to get out of the fountain,” Laurel chided.

“I was talking about Catherine, and the Prince,” Mercu sighed.  “I was perfectly happy to sit, and enjoy the sun while the girls were occupied on their own.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Autumn

Harfast 25th, 637 E.R.

Katrisha sat cross-legged on a bench in the upper courtyard, with freshly fallen leaves all around her.  She was staring up at a crescent moon hung high, as sunset faded to dusk.  The courtyard was empty save her, and she did not seem to mind.  She closed her eyes as a cool late autumn breeze washed over her, blissfully content even as most would have been uncomfortably cold.  She lost track of time for a moment until she heard footsteps crunching through the leaves towards her.

“What are you doing here?” asked a blond haired boy not a year her elder.

“What are you, Charles?” she cut back.  Katrisha did not much care for him.  She felt he thought himself far too important, and that he was much too nosey, but most of all there had been bad blood between them since the last winter.  She knew full well he had gone to his father, claiming Kiannae had attacked him with magic, and that Katrisha herself had ground snow into his hair.  Both claims quite true, technically.  Not much had come of it though, and really Katrisha believed he’d gotten the worse of it from his father, for being humiliated by ‘two little girls.’  She would rather have been in trouble.

“I asked first,” Charles said adamantly.

“Just looking at the moon,” Katrisha sighed.

“Why?” Charles demanded with a funny look.

“Because I love the moon,” Katrisha stated crossly.

“That’s silly,” Charles said dismissively, but didn’t leave.

“You’re silly,” Katrisha retorted no less childishly.  “I answered your question, now mine,” she demanded, tough she really didn’t care.  She just wanted him to go away, but it was the principle of the thing at that point.

“My father sent me with a message to the gate,” he said all too proudly.

“Boring,” Katrisha yawned mockingly.

“And the moon isn’t?” Charles cut back quite hurt.

“No, she isn’t,” Katrisha stated emphatically.  “She’s beautiful.”

“Silly girls,” Charles muttered, and walked away.

Katrisha became very cross then, got up, and marched after him.  Just before she caught up to him he turned, and glowered at her.  “What?” he demanded angrily

Katrisha wrinkled her nose and pursed her lips.  She resisted the urge to call him silly again – that was too awkward, even she realized.  That in mind she really didn’t know what to say, and she thoroughly didn’t know why she hadn’t just let him walk away.  She had wanted him to go after all.

“The moon lights the night, and guards us from the dark.  She is the tranquil lady, who rules the ocean tides, and the rhythms of the world.  She is the tranquil mirror of the sun’s daunting fire.”  It was bits and pieces of poetry and stories Mercu had told her, or her father.  It all blended together.  “And…and I am her daughter – the daughter of the moonlight,” she protested.  It was what her father had called her, daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost.  It was almost the only thing she could remember of him any more.  Those words meant the world to her.

Charles honestly did not know what to make of the outburst, though something nagged at the edge of his thoughts to comment that there was nothing tranquil about this girl, yet he didn’t quite bring himself to say it, and he wasn’t sure why.  Perhaps a touch of wisdom, or simple startled silence.  Instead he just stood there confounded, and oddly moved by the intensity with which it had all been said.  Though no less annoyed by its perceived impertinence.

It seemed neither had much more to say at that point.  After a moment more of the awkward standoff, Katrisha turned around, folded her arms, and said, “You can go.”

This further irritated Charles – who was she, this little farm girl – to tell him when he could go?  He marched up to her, grabbed her by the arm, and yanked her around.  “I am the son of a Knight – more by right,” he growled.  “I am an heir of title – and you are nothing.  Just a lucky little brat with a gift, and a half bread no less, a Sylvan bastard.”

Katrisha had been in a huff before, flustered and on edge, but with that she was absolutely furious.  “You take that back,” she said narrowing her eyes.

“No,” Charles said, “because it’s all true.”

Katrisha wrested her arm from his grasp, and just as quickly pushed Charles, and to his surprise he was knocked from his feet.  If Charles was to be thought less of for any reason, it was not for falling from that blow.  The force behind it was not to be underestimated, and by far he had no idea the strength the gift could give those who possess it, even on instinct, and in the heat of the moment.  Even aware of these things a grown man would have more than likely fallen.

Charles for his part landed violently on his rear more than a foot farther back, and flopped over hitting his head against the reasonably soft grass, and leaves.  The impact was still more than hard enough to rattle his teeth, and hurt – the wind already knocked out of him from the blow itself.  It had been only a moment before that the keep doors had opened, and Laurel had witnessed the end of the exchange from a distance – the power behind it, and all, but had not quite had the presence of mind to stop the unexpected event.

“What is the meaning of this?” Laurel yelled as he marched down the steps quickly.  Katrisha’s expression shifted as she looked up.  She went from anger to worry, as she realized she was about to be in trouble.  Charles simply lay before her rubbing his head, and holding his ribs – she had hit him much harder than she realized, intended, or imagined she could.

“He started it,” Katrisha protested thinly in shock.

“It certainly did not look that way,” Laurel said stepping up next to the pair, and looking down at Charles.  He leaned down, and offered him his hand.  Charles took it, and got to his feet.  Laurel swept his hand over him briskly, finding no major damage, though it seemed likely a bruise would form by morning.  “Are you alright?” Laurel asked with some concern, sweeping his hand over the boy’s head more slowly.  Still nothing, it seemed, but he realized how volatile the incident alone could prove.

“I’m fine,” Charles sneered, brushed Laurel’s hand away, turned, and marched off fiercely.

Laurel thought to protest, but turned instead to Katrisha.  “What happened?” he demanded angrily.

“He grabbed my arm, and called me a bastard,” Katrisha declared defiantly, her nose scrunched up once again.

Laurel looked to see how far away Charles had gotten.  “That is still no reason to strike him,” Laurel scolded.  “You could have hurt him badly – and you would have had to live with that, even if it were not for the trouble it could cause us all.”

Katrisha looked away.  “I’m not a bastard,” she said starting to cry.

“Of course not, dear,” Laurel said, dropped down to her level, and pulled her close, not entirely sure what to do.  “But you are better than him, more powerful than he could ever be.  You must not abuse that power, however much in the moment you feel like he deserved it.  He isn’t worth it – his insults aren’t worth what hurting him could do to you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Winter

Styver 25th, 637

Snow lay heavy a cloister courtyard at Highvale, and fresh snow continued to fall in large loose clumps.  Amidst the swirling snow stood Wren – not indifferent to the cold, but in spite it nonetheless.  It was the kind of gray morning that saw most denizens of the Highvale cloister sleeping in, tucked into warm beds, preferably not alone.  But Wren was not entirely alone in the courtyard, for not only snow hung in the air about him.

Faint lights could be seen shifting in a slow dance among the falling flakes.  It was not unheard of for wisps to be seen in the woods around the cloister, or even to wander into the orchards, or dance near an outer window.  It was rare, but not unheard of.  What was strange, what no one in living memory had seen was what had caught Wren’s attention when he woke, and followed from bed that frigid morning.

No other brothers or sisters had yet noticed.  The only other people at that point who should have been out of their beds were those on kitchen duty, content near their warm stoves – unless they were late – preparing the morning meal.  Another had dragged herself from warm comfort, in something of a fright.  Renae rushed into the courtyard, and wrapped a blanket around Wren, not even having noticed the strange sight that had the boy’s eyes fixed upward.

Her hurried arrival seemed to drive the wisps higher, so she might have been forgiven for not noticing their faint glows, her attention entirely on a tiny barely dressed boy hip deep in the snow.  “What are you doing?” Renae demand holding him close.  Wren shivered, and then wrestled an arm free of the blanket to point up.

Renae did not understand, until a faint glow drifted along the top of her field of view, and she looked up.  Renae had seen a wisps before, several times in her long life, but never once closer than a dozen yards.  This one hovered not a foot above her, drifting ever so lightly back and forth, but not without it seemed disturbing the snow, which seemed to swirl about it slightly.

Then Renae was as rapt as the boy she held.  The wisp was not alone, she counted, four, five, and as she focused she thought she saw a sixth, and seventh farther up.  There were no less than three remarkable things that struck her, competing for which was most out of place.   All conventional wisdom on wisps it seemed had gone out the window before her eyes.  Wisps were presumed intangible, and yet these disturbed the snow.  They do not wander where people dwell, yet they were there in the cloister courtyard.  Lastly they do not appear in winter, and yet there they were, amidst the snow.

“They are singing,” Wren said, but Renae could hear nothing other than her breath, her heart pounding, and the gentle sound of wind over the rooftops.

“It’s just the wind,” Renae guessed.

“No,” Wren protested.

Renae finally had the presence of mind to lift the boy out of the snow, and wrap his surely freezing feet in the blanket.  The wisps backed off at the motion, and she watched, hesitantly.  It was painfully cold, and yet such a strange opportunity was hard to pass up so readily.  She closed her eyes, and turned to head back into the cloister, but just as she was about step through the door, she thought she heard something, faint, like a woman’s voice humming upon the breeze.

She turned back, and watched as the wisps slowly drifted up, and away, and with them went any hint of the song – and yet it lingered, strange, distant, and painfully familiar, more memory than sound.  Where had she heard it before, why did she feel that she knew it, and why did she want to cry?  Why did she want to cry, and never stop?

Wren was playing with the button clasp of her robe.  “Button,” he said.  Then Renae wept, she collapsed against the pillar of the arch she stood under, and cried for almost a minute, clinging to the small boy in her arms.  He didn’t know, he was just saying the word.  He couldn’t have known, she chided herself.  Could he?

She had managed to gather herself, and reach the door back into the cloister when Andria found her, and ushered her in.  “Are you alright?” she demanded, her face stricken with worry.  There was no hiding that Renae had been crying.  “Is Wren alright?” she added.

“He’s fine,” Renae managed, “I’m fine.”

“What’s wrong?” Andria asked.

“Nothing,” Renae deflected plainly, it was too much to explain, or put into words.  “We should check his feet, and legs though,” she said changing the subject.  “He was standing bare foot out there.”

“What were you thinking child?” Andria asked staring at Wren in disapproval.  “Wait how did he even get out there?” she asked taken aback.

“I think he walked,” Renae answered uncertainly.

“But down the stairs, and all?” Andria said dubiously.

“They were singing,” Wren protested.

Andria looked to Renae in confusion, who simply shook her head, her eyes pleading ‘not now.’  She hugged Wren close, and whispered under her breath, “What am I to do with you little bird?”

Outside, on the upper level of the cloister walkway, a young redhead woman watched curiously as the last of the wisps moved away.  She was late for her duties, and had come upon the strange scene just as Renae had first rushed out to the boy in the snow.   Sasha, was fascinated.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Spring

Vernum 3rd, 638 E.R.

The spring festival was well underway, and twin girls sat side by side high atop the east wall of the castle.  Katrisha’s head was leaned on her sister’s shoulder, and their feet dangled down from the notch in the wall where they sat.  Each sucked at hard candies on sticks, stolen from the royal kitchen through subterfuge, and misdirection – the ill-gotten gains of the morning.

“There you are,” a slightly winded voice called out from behind them.  Mercu seemed a bit cross when they turned to look.  “I have been looking everywhere for the two of you,” he grumbled, “charged most vehemently with your apprehension, no less.”  The girls each bit their lips, looked at each other, and then Kiannae offered Mercu one of the candy sticks.

Mercu considered the offering suspiciously for a moment, looked about, shrugged, and took it, opting to lean against the battlement behind them to catch his breath.  “This doesn’t seem a very safe spot,” he added, and began enjoying the candy himself.

“It’s a good view,” Kiannae contested.

“And the patrols don’t often come all the way to the north tower,” Katrisha noted.

“No, I suppose they don’t,” Mercu agreed, “not much need really.”

It was a warm spring already, after a very cold winter.  Flowers dotted the fields below, where grazing sheep had not yet eaten them.  Mercu looked from the fields below, to the girls sitting just before him.  He was really only cross with them for the imposition of being put upon to find them for punishment.  They hadn’t done anything he wouldn’t have, or didn’t when he was much younger.  Though he dared say he caused less commotion, and fuss in a candy heist, and did a bit better not to get caught.

“You know you shouldn’t steal candy,” Mercu said in way of reproval.

“There was so much of it,” Katrisha protested.

“No one would miss a couple,” Kiannae added.

“Yes, well, perhaps, but your little light show distraction didn’t leave much guessing who was to blame, did it?” Mercu chided.

“No,” Kiannae admitted.

“I guess not,” Katrisha echoed her sister’s tone.

“First lesson,” Mercu intoned, “don’t steal.”  The girls wrinkled their noses.  “Second lesson,” Mercu said more earnestly, “don’t make it so obvious who stole.”  He held a very serious face for a while, and then slowly his expression broke into a smile, and he laughed.

“Third lesson though,” Mercu nodded approvingly, “if you get caught, bribe the one who catches you.  Good job there at least.  It’s only going to buy you time though – I can be bought off, Laurel, I don’t think will be so easy.”

“Fourth lesson,” Mercu said leaning in, and whispering quietly, “lay low.  I’d say make yourself scarce for a couple more hours.  Let everyone cool down, and stay out of any more trouble.  You hear?”

The girls looked at each other, then back at Mercu, and nodded.  “Very good then,” Mercu said, and walked off.  “Now where did those troublesome whelps get to,” he said somewhat loudly, mostly for the girl’s benefit, as no one else of note was in earshot.

The girls went back to watching the scenery below, and enjoying their candy, and another good fifteen minutes passed before they peeked back at the sound of approaching footsteps.  Charles did not notice the girls look out from their notch in the battlement, as he had already turned to climb into another crevice of the wall himself.

Nothing had ever come of Katrisha’s altercation with Charles, except for the two avoiding each other.  Katrisha figured he had learned better than going to his father for help concerning either of them.  Katrisha pursed her lips, and wrinkled her nose like she was considering something she didn’t much care for.  Then before Kiannae could protest she leapt down from the parapet, the sound of which caught Charles’ attention.

Charles watched Katrisha approach guardedly.

“Hello,” she finally said standing just below where he sat on the wall.

“Yes?” he asked demandingly, and perhaps just a bit afraid that if this lead to her pushing him as hard as the last time they spoke, he would sail clean off the wall.

“Is your father making you run errands again?” Katrisha asked, not trying to sound mean, but it came off that way any how.

“What do you care?” Charles asked incredulously, and eyed Kiannae with equal suspicion as she stepped up beside her sister.

“I wanted to say I was sorry,” Katrisha said changing her tact.  Charles didn’t quite know what to say to that, really overall he seemed a bit taken aback by the concept, and not keen to believe it.  After a long pause Katrisha offered him one of the candies she was holding.  With a timidness that did not quite match his conventional demeanor, Charles took the sweet, but still eyed it with some suspicion.

There was another long pause, and when it seemed no one else had anything further to say, Katrisha curtsied slightly – not quite mock, but not quite respectful either, more an odd acknowledgment, and then she turned to walk away.  Charles tentatively tasted the sweet, and found it was precisely what it appeared.  Just before the twins were out of earshot his heart softened, and he yelled back, “I’m sorry too.”

“What was that about?” Kiannae demanded, as they passed through the north tower.

“Laurel said we are better than him,” Katrisha said with a shrug.  “So I thought…I would be better than him?”  Kiannae scrunched her face thoughtfully, and nodded agreement without too much reluctance.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Summer

Raehune 41st, 638 E.R.

It was a terribly, and unreasonably hot summer afternoon as Mercu walked the upper corridor towards the west tower.  He had already undone several buttons of his shirt, and relished the idea of being rid of his garments, and collapsing by his window for the rest of the miserable day.

There were two entirely valid options when making for his room in the tower.  The lower path along the base of the wall, or the upper corridor that lead past the ladies bath.  He always favored the latter, not that there was anything to be seen, or anything quite so unseemly in his reasons.  He nodded to a young freshly bathed woman who walked past him.  It was more simply the company one might run into along the way.

Just as he passed the bath however he could not help but notice a slight yelp from within.  Nothing dire, nothing concerning, but it had been very distinct, and made him stop.  He hesitated a moment, then walked on as there was nothing he could do to sate his curiosity.  Half way down the hall he heard the door open, and looked back.  Marian stood there, looking a bit flustered, and still rather damp.  She stood there stewing a moment before she noticed Mercu out of the corner of her eye.

She gave him a rather hard to read look, and he simply gazed back bewildered by it.

“I can appreciate it is a hot day,” Marian started loud enough for him to hear as she walked towards him, “I truly can, but there is such a thing as too cold.”

When Mercu seemed no more clear on where she was going about her sudden line of conversation, Marian simply gestured back towards the door.  “There is no one else in there, except those two,” she started, “perhaps you should deal with her.”

Mercu sighed, and wondered what new mischief the twins were causing.  He set that aside, and decided this was as good a chance as any to see the inside of the ladies bath, he had always been curious.  He walked back, opened the door with some timidness, and entered.  Around the wall that blocked immediate view from the hall, he found the twins on opposite sides of the room.

On one side Kiannae sat, her feet dangling in the water, reading a book.  On the far end Katrisha was floating, only her face above the surface near one of the curtains of water for showering.  At a glance nothing seemed entirely out of place, and Mercu let himself get distracted pondering the room itself.  It was about as grand as he had envisioned, certainly more ornate than the common bath for the men, and decidedly more open.  Women he decided must mind seeing each other less than men.

Looking back at the twins he was still unsure what the issue was – until at last he noticed that there seemed to be something white around the spout behind Katrisha.  Mercu walked closer, and upon examination it appeared to be frost – if he tried he could make out a hint of the spell.  He dipped his finger in the curtain of water, and found it very cold indeed.

“By the light girl, how can you bear it?” Mercu asked noticing Katrisha had opened her eyes, and was looking at him.

“I like it,” she said.

“I could almost understand, but really, this cold?” Mercu protested shaking his finger.

“I think she’s crazy,” Kiannae said from her end of the room.

“Why did Marian yelp though?” Mercu asked shaking the water from his finger.

“She stepped into the stream,” Kiannae laughed.

“And you didn’t warn her?” Mercu chided.

“Didn’t think to.  No,” Katrisha mused.

“I was reading,” Kiannae protested.

“Well, next time warn someone.  Ok?” Mercu said sternly, “Oh, and do make it a little less cold,” he said with some concern, testing the water again, “for your own good.”

“Ok,” Katrisha sighed.

He stood up, looked around once more, and walked back out.  Marian was waiting outside.  “Well?” she asked impatiently.

“I told her to warn people in future, and that it can’t be good for her to be that cold either,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I’d assume the far spouts are untampered with, if you were still wanting to bathe.”  He tipped his hat, and turned to walk on.  “Though…” he said stopping, and looking back, “if you are in no hurry, such charming company as yourself, could never go amiss, even on such a dreadfully warm day.”  He smiled, in his most devilish sort of way.  Marian, decidedly did not frown.

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