Chapter 2

What men walk the Sylvan wood,
these ones of blended ancient kin,

tall slim and proud they stand,
with quick feet and steady hand,

of most little more can be discerned,
but of shining eyes and ears adorned,

yet few of those noble born ne’er to rule,
those great lions broad stout and true.

– unknown origin, circa 200 E.R.

Out of the Woods

Coria 40th, 647 E.R.

A raven haired young woman awoke in a great deal of pain.  Everything was scratched and bruised, and she was deathly cold.  She could rarely remember being cold.  Winters had never bothered her much, and spring well underway.  Though it did not help she she had left her robe somewhere.  Where seemed an overly complicated and relative question at that point.  After a single excruciating breath, and a foolish attempt to move, her burning chest and throbbing leg easily drown out every other sense.

There was an instant of amazement as she realized what had stirred her back to consciousness.  She was moving, or rather someone was moving her – which hurt almost more than moving herself.  Her emerald eyes flicked around deliriously, but in the early morning light, and her dazed frame of mind the onlookers seemed little more than meaningless shadows.  Patches of darkness shifting through a sea of murky sapphire, flecked with the last bright stars of morning.  Those stars felt oddly closer than the people around her.

She tried to remember where she was, and how she had gotten there.  She remembered being hit, the sound of cracking bone, a sweep of starry sky, and then the ground rushing up to meet her.  She remembered trying to stop her fall, setting off the spell both too soon, sloppily, tumbling, and then the sound of her leg breaking from the impact at the end.  The sound was a sickening memory, but she hadn’t even felt it.  Just darkness washing over her, more stars, and a cold distant ache.  There were whispers, arguing, bickering, but it all slipped away, replaced with the world pulling her back in.

People were talking, and it took the girl a moment to actually process any of what was being said.  Her name slipped through a few times, stirring the deep quagmire of her mind.  Katrisha.  It was familiar, but it didn’t fully sink in.

The voice of her mentor and adoptive father clicked first.  “I swear, if I felt sure enough of either Eran or myself as a healer, I’d send you away now.  Your carelessness up on the cliffs made this already insane situation worse.”  Laurel was his name, Grey the family, by all accounts earned long ago for the striking silver eyes the line was known for.

Katrisha squinted and tried to focus on the man who was attempting to lay her on her back.  She recognized Idolus after a few moments, a somewhat troublesome priest she thought little of.  His services by her reckoning always came at a price, be it gold or influence. His glance barely acknowledged that he had noticed she was awake.  His left arm hung in a sling, even as he moved his right hand over her body seeking out critical injury.

“And you,” Laurel snapped, realizing Katrisha was conscious. “You stupid, arrogant, insufferable child.  If I wasn’t just glad to see you breathing, I’d tan your damned hide till you couldn’t sit for a month…even with healing.”

Katrisha just turned her gaze up, and stared at the slowly brightening sky.  She had never imagined pain like she was feeling.  It was bad enough that she couldn’t even scream.  Quick intakes of breath that came when the pain spiked caused deep burning agony that turned what would be guttural cries into pitiful squeaks.  Yet at once it all seemed vaguely detached and far away.  She glanced again at Idolus, and as much as she knew she needed his healing, she liked him less than ever.  There was something in the way he looked at her as he worked, that made her very unhappy she had opted to remove her robe before the fight.

What had made her do that?  She focused on it, trying to be anywhere but in that moment.  It had been a book, and a realization on the long ride into the mountains.  Even enchanted the robe would have done almost nothing to save her from a single swipe, or the crushing bite of the dragon.  Yet ironically the only strike that had even touched her – an accidental sweep of the tail – might, just maybe have not broken her ribs if she had kept it on, but just as any blunt force it probably wouldn’t have done much.  Further she was all the less certain if she would have avoided the rampaging dragon that could not see her, if she had kept the robe.

Which was it; a mistake, or the right move after all?  The whole thing was foolish, but the craziest detail made for a great distraction given she could legitimately question her own logic, focus on it, and almost ignore everything else…almost.  Pain is very good at breaking through even the best distractions.  It is not meant to be ignored.  It is meant to make you stop what you are doing, or at least think twice before you do it again.

Laurel railed on for several more seconds before thinking better of the fact he was clearly being ignored, and turned his ire instead to the knights and Eran, who he chastised mercilessly for not turning their backs on the scene.  Katrisha stifled a laugh, successfully, but simply drawing the breath to do so sent her head spinning with blinding agony, and she nearly passed out.

“She’ll live,” Idolus said in a matter of fact tone.  “Her insides are quite bruised, some significant internal bleeding in the broken leg, and multiple fractured, or outright broken ribs.  I can stabilize her enough to move her, but it will take an hour or more.”

Katrisha finally looked at Laurel, and focused long enough for his expression to actually sink in.  His scowl slowly softened to disappointment, concern, and for just a moment she felt embarrassed for what she had done.  Had there been another way?  It didn’t matter, he was alive, she was alive.  It didn’t matter if there had been another way.  Any pain was worth it that he was alive, that everyone was alive.  Even cursed Idolus.

Where was Kiannae she suddenly wondered?  And a touch of fear crept in around the edges.  The prophecy still hung on her.  Yet everyone else was there, and her sister had not been down in the ravine.  She wanted to ask, but could not draw a breath deep enough to do so.  She closed her eyes.  She had to be alright…she had to.  Didn’t she?  They had the talent of battle mages, gifts not plausibly won from only a single future fight, and Kiannae hadn’t even been in the fight.  Had she?  What had happened after Katrisha’s fall, she couldn’t know.

“In that case can you please get her to the point we can put her robe back on,” Laurel said in dismay.

“Y…yes,” Idolus said his voice slightly unnerved.  Katrisha screamed as he set her broken leg, and could feel as he began to mend severed veins, and knit broken bone.  She had felt healing magic before, but there was something cold and uncaring to Idolus’ touch.  It was precise, pinpoint, and did little to hide the pain caused by the injuries as they were mended.  His manner was stiff and dispassionate, even as she could feel his gaze wandering.  She wanted to be mad, embarrassed, she wanted to cover herself, but she could do nothing but lay there motionless, and be healed.

“Someone get a cursed blanket,” Laurel yelled at the knights.  Promptly Eran moved to a horse, removed the saddle, and took the blanket from underneath.  He handed it to Laurel who quickly  brought it over, and covered Katrisha.  He then gave the most reproving look she had ever seen to Idolus, that paled even to how he had been glaring at her.  She felt at once vindicated, and ill that he had seen something in the man’s gaze as well.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It was late evening when the slow march of horses stopped in a vaguely familiar village square.  The procession had been slow, and taken many breaks to rest, and insure that broken bones, and bruised organs remained healed.  It had been a long, miserable, and very somber day of few words.   Laurel had not even spoken to his wounded charge directly in hours.  Not even to answer about Kiannae as he sent Eran off in search of her.

Katrisha looked around tiredly, she was sore everywhere.  Most of her scrapes and bruises had been left.  Idolus had exhausted too much of his reserves dealing with her broken bones, other major injuries, and apparently his own, to manage minor details.  She doubted if he would have any way.  She had tried to deal with some of the more agitating annoyances along the ride, or at rest stops, but her skills were lacking, and her own reserves drained far more than she felt they should be.

Katrisha looked down at a knight who was offering to help her down off her horse, and reluctantly accepted.  Though the bone in her leg was mended, muscles were still strained, and slightly torn.  She found she walked painfully with a limp, even with the knights help.

There were a lot of side long glances from anyone in the street.  Knights and gifted coming from the north in sore shape drew interest, and concern, but not questions.  Only two knights remained, out of the four that had road with Laurel to the mountain.  One had gone on with Eran to search for Kiannae, and one had ridden on early in the day to give word to the King.  Idolus for his part had proceeded without stopping after a single fierce glance from Laurel.

Katrisha looked about at the tavern they entered, but said nothing as she was lead to a corner, and sat at a table almost forcefully.  She glanced at Laurel who was engaged in what – at that point of exhaustion – must have passed as lively debate over arrangements.  After a minute or two he walked over, a drink in each hand, and nearly slammed one down in front of her.

Katrisha looked up at Laurel with obvious confusion on her face.  She had only once been offered some wine before, and only vaguely remembered her distaste at the time.  Laurel just shook his head. “Drink, figure at this point it couldn’t hurt.  In fact it might help with the pain.”  Hesitantly she lifted the tankard, sniffed it, and wrinkled her nose at the odor.  She looked at Laurel again who pulled out a chair from the table and, sat down with great resignation, and then just seemed to watch her curiously.

At last Katrisha convinced herself to take a sip, and it was all she could do to not gag at the bitterness.  “Mercyful fates,” she cursed, “why would anyone ever willingly drink that?”

Laurel shrugged and took a long swig.  After a moment he leaned forward, and rested his head on his left hand, and sighed.  “It’s an acquired taste I guess,” he mused, “or perhaps it’s just a taste for distraction.”  Katrisha hesitantly tried another sip, but wrinkled her nose and shook her head, still disgusted.

“I could lecture you,” Laurel sighed.  “I could lecture you, and tell you how incredibly stupid you are…” he trailed off, his voice having risen more in tenor than he wished.  He took another drink, and sighed again, before continuing in a softer tone, “But it doesn’t seem to help, does it?  So what will…what do I have to do?”

Katrisha looked away, embarrassed, angry – angry at him, angry at herself, angry at things she couldn’t even name.  She wondered if there was something wrong with her.  Was she really just stupid, hopeless, foolish, reckless, and destructive?  Were these the words that would define her, that people would think of to describe her?

She had acted on a prophetic dream, one she was sure of, one that a voice had told her to.  Yet none of that was a sensible excuse.  For all Laurel had ever told her on the matter, she only felt it could make things worse to mention.  He was alive, she was alive, Kiannae – wherever she was – surely was alive.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said defiantly, but still looked away.  She watched the animated gestures of one of the knights.  He was talking to a barmaid, no doubt retelling the tale of the previous evening, with far more importance on himself.

“I wish you did,” Laurel muttered, and leaned back.  “I could really use the help.”

Katrisha tried a third sip of her beer, grimaced, and thought to herself that maybe it was about distraction.  If all you are thinking about is how bad it tastes, you aren’t thinking about anything else, and so she continued to nurse her drink quietly.  There were after all, a great many things she didn’t want to think about.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 647 E.R.

Katrisha rolled her shoulders, and winced even as the cracking in her neck made her feel slightly better.  She felt like she hadn’t slept well, though she had no memory of tossing or turning in the night.  Her head hurt, and she wondered if it had gotten knocked hard at some point she had forgotten, during either the fighting, or more likely the fall.

Laurel sat in a far corner of the tavern, and seemed disinterested that Katrisha had finally been dragged from bed by the staff.  A bar maid appeared from the kitchen, and urged her to a nearby table, setting bacon and eggs before her.  The woman stopped to consider her for a moment, and Katrisha recognized her as one the knight had been chatting up the evening before.

At last it seemed she got up the nerve to speak her mind.  “Is it true what those braggarts told me?”

“Depends what they told you,” Katrisha offered with some reservation.

“Did you really try to fight a dragon…naked?”

Katrisha winced, a part of her wanted to be proud, but really she did feel justifiably stupid for the first time.  “Maybe,” she said blushing, “maybe try isn’t even the right word.  I think I was winning till that damn priest decided he wanted a better view of the fight.”

The woman laughed, a bit uncomfortably, but there was a certain admiration in her obvious condemnation.  It had an oddly pleasing effect Katrisha could not place.  “Well, I dare say, you’ve got more balls than any man I’ve ever met.  Possibly less sense too, but that would be close, I’ve met some damn fools.”

Katrisha considered the smiling woman before her, it was her turn to laugh – which still hurt a bit.  “Yer right on the last count, I’ve accepted that.  I think maybe I’m not right in the head.  I also wasn’t doing it alone…” she trailed off.

“Yer sister, right?” the barmaid asked.  “Some kind of fancy illusion to make the dragon not see you?”

“Yeah,” Katrisha said prodding at the food in front of her, “something like that.”  She was an odd mixture of desperately hungry, and queasy.

“Sounds clever,” the woman continued, “for a damned fool stunt, anyway.”

Katrisha simply nodded, and started to eat as the woman walked away shaking her head.  In another corner of the tavern she saw two knights sitting, and quietly eating.  After a moment she realized Eran was also with them, and had fallen asleep at the table.  It took her a further strained thought to connect that he, and the second knight had been the ones searching for Kiannae.  They had not arrived till either very late, or after dawn.  She looked around, but there was no sign of her sister.

Katrisha was about to walk over and ask if there had been any sign of Kiannae, when she noticed that Laurel had moved, and was pulling out the chair across from her.  He looked her up and down, and then followed her repeated gaze to the knights.

“Eran arrived not long ago,” he began.  “He found her horse out east, but no sign of her.  He says it looked like she had run off into the woods.  He followed her trail a ways, but it vanished in a rocky area too close to Sylvan territory for comfort.”

Katrisha hung her head, and told herself her sister was fine, that she could take care of herself.  She looked back up at Laurel and tried hopelessly to read his expression, till at last he went off on another tangent.  “I doubt I told you, given how little we talked yesterday – so forgive me if you know this – but the dragon is dead.”

Laurel seemed to ponder for a moment.  “Frankly I think the thing would have died without my help, or one of the knights running the throat through to be sure.  Fates forbid I encourage you, but you two did quite a number on the beast.  I don’t think you are going to live down the fact you were fighting it naked.  Actually, I’m half tempted to make quite sure of that, in the hopes it will embarrass you into never trying anything so stupid again.”

Katrisha looked away, and tried to let it all go, but couldn’t.  “It seemed like the right way to do it at the time. I needed to be able to…move…” she trailed off, thinking better of trying to defend herself.

“That, I don’t get,” Laurel said shaking his head. “Even when you are being so impetuous, so foolish, and lacking any semblance of sense in your head, you find a way to do something that even though superficially justified…just makes it all the more insane.”

“I…” Katrisha sighed.  “We both had the same dream.  You were dead, being brought into the castle…it wasn’t…good.  My dream told me…literally, to ‘heed the warning.’  You…you wouldn’t have listened.  You were treating us like children.  We’ve fought before, we could have helped, but you would have gone off, and gotten yourself killed…rather than let us help, or trust our…” she trailed off.  Her anger, and frustration with everything faded.  She felt a fool again, sitting there scolding Laurel, but she also felt like she was right.

“Well you damn well acted like children,” Laurel snapped, but seemed to think better of it, or at least decided it wasn’t helpful.  “Fates know plenty of silly little kids have trotted off thinking they are going to slay a dragon, but usually a good six years younger, and a few hundred miles shorter of finding one, let alone almost doing it.”  He huffed, closed his eyes, and steadied his breath.

“Say that again?” Laurel asked sternly.

“What?”

“The dream ‘literally’ told you to head the warning?” Laurel asked uneasily.

“Yes,” Katrisha answered.

Laurel’s expression was hard to read.  There was a long pause, he shook his head, and looked away.  “I also had a dream,” he admitted, though it seemed almost like changing the subject.  “That you died.  I ignored it though, because there was no way I ever would have considered letting you go.  I ignored it…and you went.  Yet here you are alive.  Thank the merciful fates,” he muttered, and rubbed his face, looking on the verge of tears.

Katrisha nibbled on some bacon, and refused to make eye contact for some time.

Laurel moved on to rubbing his forehead, and looked down as well.  “You might be interested to hear,” Laurel started distantly, “that there were eggs.  Two were crushed in the fighting, or by flying debris, but three were intact.  I’ll have to ask the King what he wants to do about them.”

Katrisha scrunched her brow thoughtfully, and finally gave up and asked, “What is even the question?”

“Surely Mercu has told you at some point,” Laurel said perking a brow, “it’s his favorite bit of dragon lore.  Sometimes, very rarely, dragon eggs hatch into humans.  Even from a beastly lesser dragon like that one.  Though as big as it was, I have my doubts if it wasn’t a feral minor dragon.  Still it seemed the invisibility worked…I don’t know.”

Katrisha cocked her head to the side.  “Maybe I remember him saying that once, it was a terrible long time ago, and I don’t think I took him seriously.  Dragon born,” she half remembered.

“Oh it’s true,” Laurel said pulling at his beard.  “Poor things don’t stand much a chance born to a wild mother like that.  Invariably they wind up eaten by either the mother, siblings, or simply crushed by careless steps.”

Katrisha went white, and lost what little appetite she had.  “That’s horrid,” she said feebly.

“No doubt about it.  It is horrid.”  Laurel agreed.  “No telling yet with those eggs, they were very fresh, makes me worry.   Where is the mate?  She has been here a while.  I don’t know much about dragon reproduction…but that seems a stretch.”  He paused obviously lost in thought.

“The possibility of human offspring isn’t the only reason to hesitate in just getting rid of them,” Laurel said rubbing his face a bit tiredly.  ”The Storm Queen likes to try and rehabilitate lesser dragons, and a feral mother doesn’t really set the potential intelligence of the offspring in stone.  Napir is a bit far, but a good country to earn favor with.  I’d respect the Queen more for it on merit, but she actually has the one thing that makes that task doable; the allegiance of minor, and even greater dragons, not to mention Roshana herself.  Not that the former Empress would deign to wake from her multi-decade long naps to help.”

Katrisha looked at her plate, and considered trying to eat again.  Eventually she looked back to Laurel.  “I had no idea it was so involved.  I mean, I remember some of Mercu’s stories, but I didn’t realize that there were actually politics to consider regarding dragon eggs.”

Laurel huffed.  “Dear, there are politics regarding everything under the Sun, and frankly most things that aren’t.  Where it gets tricky, is that it is a long way to transport eggs that can hold a grown man.  Particularly through Niven.  They really don’t like dragons down there.”

“More so than anywhere else?” Katrisha asked mockingly.

“Oh fates yes,” Laurel laughed.  “Most kingdoms are wise enough to give a greater dragon a chance to speak, or show intentions before attacking it.  The people of Niven will try to kill any dragon on sight…or at least run.  I suppose I can’t blame the ones who run.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 42nd, 647 E.R.

As Kiannae woke she was surprised to be alone.  The camp had been pulled up, the meat was gone, and dirt covered the coals of the night’s fire.  After a moment of looking around she found Iven perched on a stump some distance away.  As she approached him she wondered why they had let her sleep through breaking camp, only to leave one of their own behind to escort her.

Kiannae stood by the stump a while, but Iven seemed to make no move to actually leave.  His glances acknowledged her presence, but largely he seemed not to care.  Eventually she tried to stir some kind of action and asked, “We go?”

Iven looked at her again, shook his head, leapt from his speech, and grabbed a small sack of meat that had been sitting beside him.  He gestured for her to follow as he walked away.

Before they left camp Kianne couldn’t help but notice the tracks left by the others lead another way.  That worried her.  She checked a spell that could tell where north was.  The tracks went north, they were headed east.

“Iven,” she said loudly to get his attention.  He stopped, hesitated, and finally relented to turn to face her.  She pointed to the tracks, and the direction they lead.  He looked at her, and for a moment she thought there was a touch of respect in his expression, but he shook his head, and then gestured the way he had been walking.  Offering nothing more, he moved on.  Kiannae sighed, and decided whatever it was leading to, resisting wouldn’t make it better.

They walked a very long ways.  Kiannae was sure it had been farther than she had in any of the previous days.  The many rest stops they made seemed more for her sake than his, and as night set in they made camp again without a word.  The most meaningful communication between them was in the form a gesture towards a prepared fire pit, which Kiannae lit.

That night she found it impossible to think of anything but her sister, and though she tried to maintain a brave face, inevitably she broke down into tears.  She cried for nearly an hour, before she noticed Iven sit down beside her, and looked to him with tear streaked cheeks.  His discomfort was obvious, even past her sorrow she could read in his body language that he was fighting very hard to not move away from her.

“What?” Kiannae finally demanded hoarsely.

Iven slowly moved closer, wrapped his arm around her shoulder, and pulled her head gently to his chest.  For a moment she was as reluctant as he obviously was, but finally, uneasily, she let go, clung to him, and continued to cry.

Softly under his breath he began to sing.  It was a somber, yet oddly joyous tune.  One she recognized only vaguely, one her father had sung to her and Katrisha as children.  It at once comforted and deepened her sorrow.

Vonjon vejon, jon os soer ven,
Fer kwo eno ely so, jo vyn so ji,
Jon gon jos, fer unsil hos won,
Je ungon so ky, wosil jos jo…

The first verse then repeated, ever more wistfully, and slowly her tears dried up, but the pain in the center of of her very being did not subside.  Though the hole felt ever less empty, filled by a distant warmth that eased the ache of loss.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 2nd, 647 E.R.

Days of walking finally came to an end at the edge of a steep hill looking down on what seemed to be a small village woven amongst the trees.  As they worked their way down the hill, a small child leapt from behind a rock, only to be tackled by another leaping from behind the opposite tree.

Iven laughed, which was a pleasant change in his demeanor.  He chattered at the two in a playful tone, and both looked at Kiannae, their eyes going wide, and fled down the path into the village, calling out wildly.  He glanced at Kiannae, and continued down after the children at a more casual pace than before.

What passed for a village seemed no more than six buildings.  Their shape was odd, and something out of place, but Kiannae did not let herself be distracted by curiosity, and rather became concerned that the population had split between a tightly packed group greeting them, and locking themselves away.

Five adults stood at the center of the square, and there was no sign of children any more.  Iven yelled out a greeting, and one of the women smiled, though the rest seemed fairly displeased, save an old woman whose shrewd gaze was hard to read.

The woman spoke first, and Iven shook his head with a one word response.  “Ye.”

She shook her head, and just stood there, staring at Kiannae.  Her presence was striking, like an old tree rooted deep into the bedrock.  One felt as though their own presence was pressing feebly against a mountain; that all of nature flowed around her like an island in the stream.  It stood in contrast with the other Sylvans, who all felt like something caught on the breeze, barely noticeable.  Even if there was an itch of strong gift under there somewhere.

“Then I must sta words of sen Empire,” the old woman said with a harsh rumbling voice, it seemed almost less an accent than the effects of age.  Kiannae was at once surprised and relieved to hear words she mostly understood.  The old woman smiled, though there seemed some darkness to her humor.  “Te.  I see you do not expect to hear sen own words.”  She pursed her lips, “Your,” she corrected herself, “words.  Forgive, it has been many years.  I know a few tongues.  Only two are of any use…often I question if I count this.”

“I am glad at last to be able to speak, and be understood,” Kiannae said with great relief.

“I see this, though you could come to much worse here unken,” the old woman said a bit coldly.  She smiled at Kiannae’s shocked expression.  “Not be offend, I speak simple truth.  Sure you know ‘Sylvan’ – you call us – do not like osjern?  Did you think se ken meant something?  It meant only se have come this far, but no more.  You are to be taken out, and left to…your osjern ken.”

“Oh,” Kiannae said, her moment of relief turning to disappointment, and a dash of renewed unease.

“I shall take you cross river,” she said bluntly, gesturing with her walking stick as she turned, “and leave you with ‘druids’ of sen ken, that we permit there by old treaty.”

Kiannae looked around at the unfriendly faces.  She looked to Iven who had been it seemed far kinder than most would have liked.  She bowed, and once more said, “Thank you,” before relenting to follow the old woman, who already stepped away from the square.  Kiannae turned back once more as she caught up, and saw a glimpse of Iven hugging the woman who had smiled at his greeting.  He offered her the sack of meat he had brought, and she looped her arm with his as they walked away.

“Ivan tahan,” the woman said, seemingly almost more to herself than Kiannae.  “He is good – boy – te that was word.  Treat my aunna-unna well, wish to be her Akoman.  So much trouble that.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“His mother unken,” she answered.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“En is the blood, the essence, ke the…power,” the woman said with some hesitation.  “Un is less, little.  Such a judgement for so little.  Generations pass, but that hair remains, the Osjrean blood.”  She stopped, shook her head, and glared at Kiannae.

The old woman glanced back the way they had come.  “Were up to san – me – I might offer a chance.” She pressed on toward a decrepit bridge.  It was a rickety crossing over a deep narrow stretch of a wide stream.  “I can speak freely away from Tepal.  Though only my aunna-unna knows any of the Empire’s words.”  There was a hint of kindness in her voice then, which gave Kiannae some relief.

“If it was true your wish to leave the osjern, and live with the Tepal, I would…understand,” she said hesitantly, as though doubting she had got the word right.  “I side with Hansjon, not Unjon.  After all, I…speak the words, it is my tetan – purpose, good I do – and my Akoman.  We speak, sometimes trade with osjern, for many years, just as my ken before.  I know the osjern, they not all so unta as some think.”

Kiannae took a moment to absorb what she could of that.  “Hansjon?” she asked at last.  She knew she had heard that before.  It had been something her father had said.  Never to her, only to her mother, several times.  He had always been so sad.

The old woman snorted.  “Yes, we hide from the osje – outside – world because we think us ta, or simply osjern so much…worse.  Maybe some, but I have unte – doubt – if this is…true.  Not any more.  We had peace, for uncounted…years.  Then we war with son own ken over to trade or os – not – with the osjern, all around us.  In end even to sta to your ‘druids,’” she shook her head, “we are forbidden.  Unosta, now.  Now Hanste sit in Akitrern.  Even if unki – little power.”

Kiannae sighed.  She understood most of what the woman was saying.  She guessed te was true, and ta was good, and the occasional correction helped fill in some gaps, but it was still a bit hard to follow.  She got the sense Sylvan language was filled with little root words, and was thankful for pressing Moriel on the concept in her instruction.  Not that they matched roots she was familiar with.

“I had hoped…”  Kiannae hesitated.  “I had hoped to find my father in these lands, to know why he was taken away from me by his people.”

The old woman gave Kiannae a strange long look.  There was something troubled in her eyes.  “I un-…” she stopped herself. “I little imagine, what would make Tepal to ‘take’ anyone.  Yet alone by force.  Those who leave are then as osjern, even atapal unwelcome.  Are sure of what you sta?”

“Was my father perhaps a criminal?” Kiannae asked with doubt, and disheartened.

The old woman seemed to ponder the prospect genuinely, and stopped to look Kiannae up and down.  “No,” she said flatly. “No, won you born these reign, the Unjon echk – kill – the Hansjon, all Haste, even Aunna!  If common untan, or unten, he be left to your pal…if he te – true – fer Unhansjon, you not be born.  No.  I wonder…” she trailed off.  “Un,” she shook her head, and tapped her forehead.

“Tell me?” Kiannae implored as the old woman turned, and walked on.

“Un,” the old woman repeated almost fiercely.  “It pains, but even true, this is fer ta.”  She considered Kiannae’s expression at her words.  “Good,” she corrected.  “Is fer good.”

Kiannae considered pressing the issue, but she was weary, and without any heart to put into it.  She struggled instead to keep her sister from her mind, and maintain some form of composure as she was marched away from the very goal she had set herself to.

They walked another five minutes in silence before the woman stopped again. “There,” she said, pointing with her walking stick through the trees.  “Not much more, there se find ‘druids.’  Go, and not return, you meet much worse fate.  I wish you ta unna.  Please not unten – not un-…less than understand.  This simply is.”

“Will you not introduce me?” Kiannae asked, not keen to march in amongst yet more strangers she knew nothing of.

“I not sta with them in many years.”

Kiannae struggled to hold any composure.  To think of any way she could turn the situation around.  She wanted to cry, yet the very want, and a rejection of using tears to get her way actually held them back.  All the same, the sorrow on her face was plain.

The old woman considered her with an inscrutable expression.  “What is name, unna?” she relented to ask, with nothing else it seemed to offer.

“Kiannae,” she managed meekly.

“Ki-Unna?” the woman asked with a stern shift in her expression.

“Annae,” she corrected.  “Kiannae.”

The woman pursed her lips, shook her head, and set her hand on Kiannae’s shoulder.  As she pulled it back she considered a stray dark hair between her fingers curiously.  She turned to walk away, and hesitated.  “I will not start to sta again this day, even if I miss arch-druid’s company…” She held a moment more, and turned back just long enough to say, “Should old Ezik live, tell him…Astia thinks of kykuman.”

Kiannae watched Astia walk back towards her village.  She tried to make sense of the parting exchange, but gave up, particularly as Astia grew distant.  She could ask no more questions, get no more answers.  Her one seeming chance to ever find her father had passed.  Perhaps that chance had never been there.

Kiannae turned towards where the woman had pointed.  She sighed and marched on, tired, and troubled.  Then her thoughts turned again to why she was there, and she cried.  She cried for her sister who she had failed – or who had failed her – she couldn’t decide.  For the first time she considered that it was Katrisha’s clever stupid plan.  She had insisted, she had gone down alone into that ravine to fight the dragon with only Kiannae’s spell between her, and the dragon’s teeth and claws.  Still she cried, even as she grew angry at her, she mourned her twin.

Kiannae’s arrival in the druid village did not go unnoticed, particularly with her obvious distress.  There were many side long glances, and men and women pointing for their fellows who had not yet noticed.  She bore them no mind, simply marched to a bench by a fountain in the center of the small square, and sat.  Her tears turned to weeping, and she waited for what fate would come to her next.  She was through trying to follow her own course, ready to simply be where the winds would take her.

Kiannae could feel as people gathered around her, and heard them start to murmur amongst themselves.  She did not bother to look up, not even when at last a young man’s voice spoke, “Are you alright?”

Kiannae sat there for a moment, gathering herself back together – just a bit – before finally a flippant answer fought its way past her lips, “Been better.”

She felt a hand at her chin, relented to its gentle instance, and looked up.  A young man of maybe sixteen, with a friendly concerned face considered her tear streaked, and quite dirty one.  There was a kindly nature to him, with hazel eyes, and black hair.  He was pale, moreso perhaps even than Laurel.  Clearly a man of the south east in origin.  “Yes,” he said after a moment, “I don’t doubt that.  I’ve not seen you around here before, and I might say it’s odd to have anyone come from across the river.  You see, the Sylvan’s don’t visit us any more.”

“So they told me,” Kiannae sighed.

“Oh did they now?  Who did you speak to, was it old Astia?  Does she still live?” the boy asked obviously curious.

“Y…yes, as a matter of fact,” Kiannae said with some surprise.  “She said to give a message to a man named Ezik.”

“Did she?” came the voice of an old man who had just arrived through a crowd that parted around him with respect.  “And what did she say, dear girl?”

“Glad you could make it grandfather,” the boy before Katrisha said with a loving, but almost mocking tone.

“I may be old, but I can still walk, Zale,” he said tapping his staff firmly to the ground as punctuation.

“Barely, grandfather,” Zale said, but there was a touch of sadness to his jab.

Ezik eyed his grandson unflatteringly.  “I’ll have no more of your lip.  Bring the girl to my house.  I would speak with her in private, and someone find my son, and Landri,” he commanded and turned away.  The crowd again shifted from his path.

“Well, you heard him,” Zale said offering Kiannae a hand, “Come along.”  Kiannae looked away, and considered the crowd.  She had really been quite ready to sit there for a while, and be a spectacle for all she really cared.  She glanced back to the hand Zale offered, and reluctantly took it.  She got to her feet, and followed him the way Ezik had gone.

As Kiannae approached Ezik’s house she noticed for the first time the way the houses of the village were constructed.  It was much the same as the Sylvan dwellings.  There was something more than curious about the architecture.  Suddenly it struck her as she noticed a green leaf growing from a twig that had sprouted from a timber at the side of the house.

Her eyes traced down to what should have been a foundation.  Yet there it flared into roots growing into the ground.  All of the timbers ended in roots.  Kiannae took a deep startled breath.  The houses were living trees.  She was awestruck with the beauty of it.  She had noticed the roofs were green before, but now she clearly saw the shingles were not coated in moss, but rather they were layers of leaves.  Kiannae looked at the arch of the door to the house, and at its windows, mesmerized by the craft of it all.  Branches bent fluidly around each door and a window, forming the frame.

The doors themselves did not appear to be living wood she noted, as one was opened before her.  It seemed a reasonable limitation, but hardly detracted from the rest.  A window stood open nearby, it too seemed to be separate from the house itself.  It was hard to tell at a glance if the panes of the window were in fact glass, or something more exotic.  Yet it seemed all the rest of the house was a living thing, she could feel the presence, soft, inviting, old, very old, but never aged.  She wanted to stop where she stepped, and take root in the floor.  It was a strange and alien feeling, yet all at once it felt like coming home for the first time.

As they entered Ezik could be seen seated at an old table beneath a skylight, and beside a large round window.  “Come, sit,” he said to Kiannae kindly.  Quietly she took a place across from him, and looked out the window to see what he was staring at.  Nothing apparent stuck out to her, he seemed to simply be gazing off into the forest.  “You have a message for me?” he asked after a few moments of silence.

“Only that she still thinks of,” Kiannae struggled to get the word right, “kykuman,” said worrying to disappoint with the brevity of it.  As she watched him frown she feared she was right, the message was not enough.

“I suppose I could not expect more…everything else aside we are old now, with little time left.  A shame to waste what remains though,” he said with a disheartened laugh.

“What would grandmother think to hear you say that?” Zale cut in with some discomfort in his voice.

“Hmph,” Ezik replied gruffly. “Do you know what kykuman means?”

“No,” Zale said exasperatedly.

“It would be directly translated as dear one of the activity of life.”  He let that sink in.  “You didn’t know your grandmother when she was younger.  You know she didn’t come from a circle.  I met her on the road – she bewitched me, took me to her bed.  She never would say why she stuck with me…she was the one who approached Astia, not I…not that I ever regretted the result.  Kykuman was more often what Astia would call her, than me.  It is a word most often for dear lovers of the same sex, since no children will result, but I guess as an outsider I count the same.”

“Eww,” Ezik said, seeming as though he wanted to spit.

“Oh yes, your grandmother was that way…perversion of nature…garbage…bending the rules I say.  All open to interpretation.  Took me many years to come completely to terms with it.  We bend nature to our will all the time, we shape it, guide it, not leave it to its own course.  How are such unions any different?  The Sylvans even have a word of endearment for it, and they are closer to nature than us.”

“Feh, fine – I don’t care.  Just don’t put such images in my head of grandmother,” Zale said with distinct expression of some one who had bitten into an unripe fruit.

“I suppose I can’t blame you for finding that aspect of it unsavory, no,” Ezik mused with wry humor.

Kiannae just sat silently observing the awkward exchange, distracted from some more uncomfortable aspects by dissecting new meaning from the words.  Yet trying to make sense out of the roots she thought she was discovering only seemed to make gibberish.  Ky was love or dear.  Ke was power.  Unna was girl.  Her name was not Ke or Ky-unna, Ki-aunna however was close.  Perhaps it was a sub group of Sylvans?

“What does aunna mean?” she asked.

Ezik glanced at her curiously.  “It means first, or honoured daughter.”

Kiannae dug her nails into her palm.  Confirmation, at last, that she was the first born.  That Cassandra’s prophecy fit the truth.  She was too angry to cry again.  Her very name felt like a dirty thing in that moment.

She turned with a start as the door opened behind her to see a man who looked much like an older version of Zale, and a elegant older woman behind him.  “Ah, good, they found you Xander, Landri.  You may leave, Zale,” he said dismissively.  At first Zale did not move, until he got a fiery glance.  It had been a command, not permission.

Xander waited till his grandson was out the open door, and closed it behind himself.  “I called for you at first because I thought there was news from the Sylvans,” he said to the new arrivals, who moved closer.  “Still, if nothing else our new arrival is worthy of discussion.  It occurs to me I haven’t yet asked your name yet, girl.”

“Kiannae,” she said with some reluctance.

“Hmm,” Ezik said thoughtfully.  “Not quite Sylvan, terribly close, imperialized certainly, yet your asking what aunna means tells me you know little of them.”

“Ashton,” Kiannae interjected her family name wearily.

“Now, that is definitely not Sylvan,” Landri, said as she moved to sit at the table, Xander in turn took a spot opposite her.  “It definitely has the sound of a northern name from Avrale, yet I am to understand you have come to us from the Sylvans?”

“Yes,” Kiannae said, not sure what to make of the questioning.

“And how did you come to be amongst them?” Xander pressed.

“Suppose I ran into them,” Kiannae said meekly.

“That’s no small feet,” Ezik said with interest, “and to come out in one piece I might add, on good terms, such as terms ever are these days.  Even for one of your linage.  Yes, I’ve noticed your eyes girl, if your name was not confirmation,” he added as he saw her expression shift.

Kiannae stared down at the table, not sure what to say, or what the people around her wanted her to.  Katrisha she thought was usually the better one at finding something clever to say, she held back a sob at the thought.

“I’m sorry, have I offended?” Ezik asked, his tone softening.

“No,” Kiannae said, trying not to cry, “no, it’s just…my sister…”

“What happened to your sister?” Xander asked kindly.

“Dragon…” Kiannae said for lack of being able to quite formulate it all.

“That’s…horrid,” Landri said, finding she didn’t quite have better words to respond.

“Where was this?  If you’ll forgive me pressing,” Ezik said softly.  “I’ve heard of no dragons in these parts, and the Sylvans are quite capable of keeping them at bay.  Even in the war Osyrae’s dragons struggled with the Sylvans to little gain.”

“Far away,” Kiannae sobbed, “mountains up north of Avrale.”

“I think I may have heard of a dragon up that way,” Landri said.

“What, was she doing up there?” Xander asked obviously a bit perplexed.

“She…” Kiannae trailed off looking out the window, “we…were trying to kill it.”

There was a distinct clap of hand to forehead, which pulled Kiannae’s tear streaked face back towards Ezik, who, once he recovered some composure looked her up and down, as though trying to make sense out of her.  The expressions on Xander, and Landri’s face were no less unsettled.

“So, I am to understand,” Ezik started in a measured tone, “that a half Sylvan girl, presumably from Avrale, went into the mountains with her sister, tried, and without much surprise, failed, to kill a dragon,” he paused for breath – there was not quite humor in his voice, but there was something darkly comical about his disbelieving manner, “and then, I can only guess having not yet filled her wish for death, ran into the Sylvan woods, only to catch a well un-deserved break, and be dropped here in our midst.”

Kiannae broke down sobbing, and dropped her head to her arms on the table.

“That was…uncalled for, father,” Xander said glaring at the old man disapprovingly.

“It was unkind,” Ezik said, almost a hint of apology in his voice, “but damn well called for.  The whole story is so preposterous that I am forced to assume that if the girl is not outright lying, she is either delusional, or utterly insane.  Even if it is all true, I believe at least one of those must still apply.”

“Enough,” Landri cut in with displeasure.  “I won’t deny there is truth to your words Ezik, but you are accomplishing nothing antagonizing the girl.  Her spirit is broken, be it from figments of her imagination, or from the trauma of it being real.  But there is something else, I can feel it even now, she’s ill, there is a poison in her very blood, and soul.”

“Yes,” Ezik said sourly, “I felt it when I first saw her.  I’ve met many mages in my travels, it’s that sickness of theirs, wild magic in the blood.  Never in all my years have I felt it so vividly, and in one so young…  They are blind to it of course, some Clarions and Lycians can sense it with great care, but her unnatural state is like a burning flame to us.”

“Is she going to be all right?” Xander asked with concern in his voice for the poor sobbing girl next to him.

“It can be treated, but not cured…” Ezik said trailing off.  “It is a curse they bear for the practice of magic.  Some never suffer for it, others grow ill with time, and age…but one so young…”

“If it’s the way they practice, then surely the cure is to practice differently?” Landri asserted firmly.

“Perhaps,” Ezik said dourly, “but I’ve never heard of the mage who gave it up, to spare themselves the sickness.  It doesn’t kill them, doesn’t even shorten their lives as paradoxical as it seems, just makes them frail, miserable, and addles their minds.  This though, this is different, I’ve never heard of the like.”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not even here,” Kiannae suddenly snapped viciously between sobs, sat up, and slammed her fist on the table.

“What would you have us do then, girl?” Ezik asked bluntly.

“I…I don’t know.  I don’t know anything, part of me just wants to die, to find out if there is an afterlife, and find my sister there,” Kiannae whimpered.

Ezik sighed.  “I’ll have none of that.  Life and death happen, as with all things of nature we may try to guide their course, but it is not ours to choose our end.”

“Nor is it necessarily ours to choose her fate either,” Xander interjected, “surely if she is a mage, there is some one in Avrale who trained her, and that will be missing her.”

“I won’t go back,” Kiannae sobbed.

“What is so horrible about returning to your home?” Landri asked softly.

“I won’t go back,” Kiannae simply repeated more tersely.

“Surely you still have family there who miss you?” Landri pressed again.

“Kat’s dead…” Kiannae cried. “I failed her…I didn’t stop her…I don’t know.  Our parents are long gone…Wren…” she muttered his name.  There was some hesitation in her voice, but it faded as her expression grew grim, and she looked out the window “…doesn’t need me.  I won’t face the others, what’s the point…”

“Enough,” Ezik sighed. “I will permit her to stay, as it is her wish, on the condition she learns our ways.  Landri, you will help her cleanse herself of this poison in her veins, and begin her training.  Take care to save it, there are those who will pay a greatly for the substance.”

“Are you sure that is wise father?” Xander pried gently.

“I have made my decision, and it stands until I find reason to reconsider, or until you are arch-druid,” Ezik said flatly.  “If asked, you will say only that she is an orphan, and that we are taking her in.  Not exactly a lie, yes?  Broken as she is, I sense great potential, and I fear it will be lost in turning her away.”

“And if some one from Avrale comes looking for her?” Landri asked with reservation.

“That will be reason to reconsider…won’t it?” Ezik grumbled, shook his head, and sighed.

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Chapter 21

The fire burns north,
‘n the ice lays south,
between these stand,
not but fear ‘n doubt,

always there’ve been,
the men of bold Osyrae,
‘n always there were,
Queens to hold storm at bay,

there was contention enough,
without dragons at each hand,
the kingdoms err between,
cling more tightly to their land.

– untitled bard song, circa 450 E.R.

Where the Dragon Lies

Coria 38th, 647 E.R.

The stables were always empty at night, save the horses.  The night attendant slept deeply, and rarely needed to be woken by a soldier running in to get him in the event of unexpected arrivals.  The twins none the less moved with the caution of mice sneaking through a cat bed.  They had already dodged all the patrols they knew by heart, not that there were a great many.

The twins had only cursory instruction on riding, most of which they had gotten at Horence’s insistence, as he argued if he was to train them to fight, he would train them to get to a fight.  Laurel had not protested the argument further.  They considered the bridles, and saddles, but their instruction on them had been too cursory, and their sense of urgency too great – to get out before they were discovered.  Particularly as the horses were already stirring uncomfortably over the unexpected night visitors.

“Simple harness, and bareback?” Kiannae suggested quietly.

Katrisha nodded, and each picked a horse they knew from their few times riding.  Katrisha picked a black mare with white spots, whose name she had forgotten.  Kiannae picked an older brown stallion named Golden, that had seemed to have a liking for her once.

The two put on the harnesses carefully, and then lead the horses out of their stalls.  “Let me go first,” Katrisha whispered.  She pushed open the stable doors enough for them to exit single file.  “Just before I reach the gate, when the guards have noticed me, make me vanish.  That should confuse them enough for you to slip through behind.

Kiannae pursed her lips doubtfully at the plan, but finally nodded agreement.

Katrisha considered the task of mounting without stirrups, carefully judged how much extra force she would need, and lept onto the horse’s back.  She gently snapped the reins, once, twice, three times, and the horse was off at a gallop.  She glanced back to be sure her sister was close behind.

Katrisha threw up a dim light orb.  Hoping that perhaps the use of spell craft, but not providing enough light to see, could make her be mistaken even for a moment for Laurel in the dark.  The guards shifted uncertainly, and then Katrisha released the orb, and vanished as she felt her sister’s spell weave around her.

The guards stepped back, both from what had been a fast approaching horse, and uncertainty as it vanished.  A second horse in the first’s wake only made them more doubtful what to do.  Stopping people leaving was rarely if ever their instructions, but there had been no expectation of a departure, and strange magical elements of the whole affair left them bewildered as the twins road off into the night.  They argued a good half hour as to who was going to report, or at least that was the report of the nightwatch on the tower, who finally took it upon himself when the others did not.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 39th, 647 E.R.

Kiannae considered a carefully copied map for some time, as her horse milled a bit at the crossroads they had stopped at.  She brightened her light several times trying to make out their sloppy penmanship.  Katrisha worked to soothe overworked muscles on her mare as Kiannae frowned, and glanced up the road she was fairly sure was the right one.

“We’ve been riding them hard for several hours,” Katrisha said.  “You should do something for Golden, even just a little.”

Kiannae tucked the map under her arm, and ran her hands down Golden’s shoulders.  She hadn’t really been trained as a healer, but she knew well what she did for her own sore shoulders after practice.  Golden calmed his insesent mulling, and snorted contently.  “I’m fairly sure this is the fork we want,” she said nodding her head up the left path towards the mountains.

“We should stop a good ways from the nest,” Katrisha sugested.

Kiannae checked the map.  “The nest is in a broad dry ravine behind a steep ridge, we can stop, and tie up the horses at the base.”  She tucked the map into her robe, and snapped the reigns twice, getting her up to a decent trot, but holding back a bit given how long they had been riding, and the territory they were headed into.

Katrisha moved to catch up, and glanced up at the hills nervously.  ‘Where the dragon lays,’ crossed her mind.  The words hung there quite a while on the ride.  She summoned a spell to check the time, a pyramid bobbed and spun towards the sun somewhere opposite the world.  It was half past one in the morning.  Miles up into the foothills, three or four hours at their current rate.  They would have time to work with in the dark for at least the first part of the fight.

The words wouldn’t go away as she tried to think about all the pertinent details, but what could be more important than the fact that a ‘dragon lies’ ahead.  She almost stopped her horse there, her heart certainly froze.  She remembered Cassandra’s eyes.  She heard the words, ‘the second is born and first to die.’  Another voice all but screamed ‘head the warning,’ in her head.  Which warning.  Laurel dead, one of them.  Katrisha started to cry.  She was the one going down, Kiannae was better at the spell that the whole plan hinged upon.  She would be at risk, her sister would be safe.

Beware did not mean it was the dragon that would kill one of them.  Beware meant to know the risks.  The risk of inaction was all but certain.  The warnings had been headed, they would be headed, she would do everything she could to prevent the alternative.  There was only forward, and Katrisha thought through every single book she had read.  She considered every advantage she could have in that fight.  Everything.

Her robe was enchanted, but really only against something sharp, fire, or spells.  A crushing blow, being stepped on.  If she was hit with a swipe of claw, or the crushing force of a bite it would do nothing.  If she did not avoid the attacks, it did not matter if the robe kept her from being stabbed or sliced, the force would still crush her.

If there was fire?  Katrisha considered worriedly.  The robe would not protect her head any way.  If there was fire, it was a greater dragon, and the whole plan was shot.  They had already thought through the contingencies to test.  Fire was not an issue.  By the moment the robe felt like a liability.  That had been what one book had asserted.  She laughed mutedly at that, no more than two quick almost soundless huffs through her nose.  Was it mad?  She shook her head, and road on, catching up with her sister who was trotting just a bit faster.

It would be fine.  They had a plan, and the alternative was foolish.  The alternative was to be blind, and stumble forward.  Her magic had sliced solid stone, she could do it.  She felt battle hardened, confident.  It wasn’t hers, it didn’t belong to that moment, but all at once, it was hers.  She was a battle mage, because her fate was to fight.  She wasn’t sure she liked that, but it came with confidence.  Those kind of instinct would not come from one encounter.  Kiannae had them as well.  It wouldn’t be just the one fight in their future.  This, was the right path.

Katrisha was certain of her course.  She was afraid, the animal facing danger filled with adrenaline, but the spirit, and mind were clear.  She had a destiny.  Prophecy was one thing, but destiny was another in her head.  They were words from stories, tales of adventure that Mercu liked to tell.  ‘Prophecy is what is handed to us, destiny is what we take, in spite of it.’

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The twins moved cautiously up the ridge in the dead of night.  Weaving around thorn bushes, and avoiding scattered twigs for fear of making any sound.   They had left the horses tied a few hundred yards below to keep them out of earshot, but still winced when they could make out a distant snort or clop of shuffling hooves.

So far Eran’s map had proved accurate – old trails and animal tracks winding off a little used road that lead into the mountains had brought the girls to that hesitant, breathless final stretch.  Getting to their knees they moved cautiously the last few feet to peer into the moonlit ravine below.  It was hard to make out clearly in the pale moonlight, but dark shimmering scales could be seen amidst the black rock.  The scales moved rhythmically with each of the dragons quiet shallow breaths.  Kiannae was relieved to see the creature was asleep for the moment, this would give them time to get a better vantage point.

They worked their way carefully down the crag, between sharp rocks, and through deep fissures in the stone.  Their hearts stopped every time loose stones shifted, and tumbled clattering down, sometimes dislodging others along the way.  At last they came to a small outcrop of rock on a ledge just above the beast.  Its breaths though soft could now be heard, and the outline of its form discerned clearly by the sheen of it’s scales in the moonlight.

It was larger than any living thing the girls had ever seen, one of the horses they had road on could fit easily inside it, and leave plenty of room for the both of them.  A chilling and all too likely outcome Katrisha realized, if their plans did not work out.  She continued to convince herself it would.  She leaned close to her sister and whispered in her ear, “See that boulder up there on the opposite cliff, I’ll nudge it loose, you turn it invisible, we’ll see what the dragon does when something it can’t see hits it.”

Kiannae nodded and closed her eyes for a moment, focusing.  Katrisha watched as the bolder shimmered and disappeared, leaving only a faint magical aura revealing it was still there.  She reached out and carefully formed a spell for directed force.  It unleashed in a burst which briefly revealed the bolder.  There was a sound of stone grinding on stone, and a loud crack as the heavy stone caught on a lip of the cliff wall, and vanished again.

The dragon’s head shot upright at the sound.  It could not see the bolder coming, but heard it as it scraped down the cliff face, and struck the floor of the ravine with great force.  It was not prepared as the boulder tumbled into the wing folded at its side, and let out a deafening roar with the impact as it staggered to its feet.

The great beast shuffled about cautiously, the weight of its steps producing loud thuds.  It spread its vast wings almost cliff to cliff, one twitching slightly where it had been struck.  It did not understand, did not see what had hit it.  Katrisha watched closely as one of the dragon’s legs stumbled over the invisible stone, causing it to turn violently and look for what it had tripped over.  Nothing was there, not to the dragon’s eyes at least.

The dragon sniffed the air and growled loudly.  It looked about suspiciously, but saw nothing, heard nothing of merit but the wind blowing down the canyon.  Slowly, cautiously it began to return to its resting spot, only to find a vexing invisible lump in its way.  The creature poked with a front claw at what it could not see, and the great stone rolled slightly under the force.

Displeased and perplexed the dragon backed away, and settled farther down the ravine, closer to the edge where the land plummeted into the valley below.  It lay, and stared intently at where the unseen bolder lay.

“Well that worked,” Katrisha whispered softly, “how are you holding up?”

“I’m fine,” Kiannae said softly, her eyes still clenched shut, focusing on maintaining the illusion.  “I could probably keep this up a good ten, fifteen minutes easily, but I would much rather reserve such efforts for when it counts.”

The sound of stray pebbles tumbling down the far cliff caused the dragon to turn its head away from the bolder, and Katrisha softly commanded, “Let it go.”  The bolder shimmered back into view at the periphery of the dragon’s vision, causing it to snap its head back and stare intently.  It could see the bolder then, could see what had hit it, but still did not understand.  The bolder just sat there.

Katrisha began stripping off her robe, drawing a perplexed look from her sister.  “What are you doing?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.

“This robe is too heavy,” Katrisha whispered softly, “Like the book said, if I’m going to move fast enough…it would just get in my way.”

“But the enchantments…” Kiannae protested with concern.

“Won’t do a bloody thing,” Katrisha said with a grimace.

“I…” Kiannae started hesitantly, for the first time doubt in her voice, “I’m not sure about this plan any more.”

Katrisha folded her robe on the rock and considered her sister for a moment.  She tried moving, but found the billowing of her undergarment worse than the robe, it was too loose, if not nearly as restrictive.  She pursed her lips doubtfully, took it off, and lay it atop the robe. Kiannae gave her an even more disbelieving look as she crouched naked in the moonlight.   “Can you maintain the spell?” she asked bluntly.

“Yes….yes,” Kiannae shot back defensively. “I… I’m just scared.  It’s bigger, much bigger than we thought.  I…don’t want to lose you…”

Katrisha leaned closer to her sister, and put her forehead to hers, “You won’t, the plan will work.  The dragon couldn’t see the bolder, it won’t be able to see me – at least, not long enough to catch me.”  She sighed, then half smiled.  “We have to do this.”  She kept all her reasoning to herself.  Kiannae didn’t need more to worry about, if she hadn’t yet realized.  Katrisha was fairly sure her twin hadn’t put together what she had.

“Ok,” Kiannae said reluctantly, looking her sister square in the eye.  She kept feeling like she had forgotten something, something very important, but it kept just out of reach.

Katrisha nodded, and Kiannae began the spell, wrapping light around her sister, turning her invisible to mundane eyes.  Katrisha was relieved that in the dark of night, the fuzzy outline of the world was almost easier to see.  Carefully she began to work her way down the broken cliff face, and moved to where the bolder now stood.  She could faintly see the thin slits of the dragons massive eyes reflecting light, and appearing to glow with their own brilliance.  They were almost closed, the dragon almost back to sleep.  It was less prepared for what was coming than it had been even for the bolder.

Gathering all of her focus Katrisha prepared the spell, and put a great deal of her power into the first shot, intending to make it count.  She could feel the spell around her falter, as she knew it would, her own magic interfering with it for a moment.  The dragon’s head shifted at the sight, just enough, as a spear of ice nicked its jaw, tearing scales away, and buried itself in its shoulder.

The beast’s roar of agony was deafening as it staggered to its feet, favoring its now slightly wounded front hip.  It glared at the tiny pale thing that had appeared from nowhere, and with barely a moment’s hesitation barreled towards the attacker, but she was gone.  Katrisha had already bolted from her position, and now stood with her bare back to the cold stone of the cliff face.  She forced her breath to be steady, slow, controlled, not to let it give her away.  She took comfort in the eerie world of shadowed outlines that let her know she was invisible, protected.

The spear of frozen air and water vapor boiled away slowly from the dragon’s shoulder, drawing ever more angered pained growls from the beast.  Katrisha gathered her strength again, pulling power from the air, from the stone, and from the aether.  Her heart was beating so fast, some part of her was afraid, but that part could gain no audience as exhilaration ruled uncontested in her mind.  

Katrisha struck again, and another shimmering spear shot forth, pulling the air into a solid razor sharp lance of ice, turning heat into velocity.  Even the stone hard scales of the dragon could not stop all of the force, but once again the wound was shallow, not even a foot of penetration into the immense bulk of the beast.  The dragon shrieked in pain with deafening volume, and turned toward the direction the attack had come from, barely catching a glimmer of the tiny thing that had been there.

Katrisha was forced to roll out of the way as the dragon charged again for the wall she had stood against.  She felt sharp stone and pebbles scratch and cut her skin, and winced.  She could smell the blood of the dragon, as large drops fell to the ground from the steaming wound in its side.  She crouched hesitantly, and considered moving – the dragon was far too close for comfort.

Katrisha analyzed the situation, her strikes were wounding the beast, but as much volume of blood now oozed from its wounds, these were nothing more than deep scratches to a beast its size.  Sure maybe they would fester, and the creature would die of infection, but she did not have weeks to work with.

Above this contest of wills, Kiannae risked her concentration to look up when she heard loose pebbles tumble down beside her.  She cursed softly and closed her eyes again when she saw four knights, Laurel, Eran, and Idolus all perched above her on the cliff.

Katrisha considered her new vantage point, the scales were layered, overlapping like shingles from head towards tail.  Her previous strikes had barely cut through the scales, but from this angle she wondered if she could wedge her attack under the scales, allowing it to penetrate deeper.

Gathering her strength Katrisha struck again, the brilliant glass like shard sliding almost effortlessly between the scales.  Several tore completely free under the force of the attack, and the spear disappeared entirely into the creature, only to boil forth slowly as steam from the deep wound.  The dragon thrashed wildly in agony, its wings crashing carelessly against the cliff walls as Katrisha once again sought a safer vantage, and tried to dodge falling rocks that were easily as deadly as the dragon.

Laurel and Idolus had made their way down to Kiannae by this point, and Laurel’s first harshly whispered demands for answers had been completely ignored by the deeply focused girl who sat before him.  The priest turned from the one sided staring contest and peered into the gorge below, perplexed at what he saw.   All too quickly he realized as another spear of ice shot into the dragon’s side, and Katrisha was again revealed, that the girl fighting the dragon below was quite naked.

He moved along the narrow ridge, trying to get closer to where he could vaguely make out the moving aura.  He watched in amazement as the graceful young girl struck again, her sweat soaked skin shining in the moonlight, and just as quickly vanished.  He looked then to the dragon which shuffled aimlessly, growling, snorting, and groaning constantly, seeking a target, any target in its pent up rage.

Katrisha moved quickly, quietly, constantly seeking a better, less visible angle of attack.  She could smell her own sweat, and dreaded for just a moment that her scent would give her away.  The dragon had moved to where she had last struck, it was learning, she was sure it hadn’t even seen her that time.  It sniffed at the air, turning its head back and forth.

Katrisha thought little of it as the creatures wings carelessly scraped along the top of the ridge.  Little of it that is, until she heard a man’s yell, and turned to see some one slide helplessly down the steep stone cliff face and crumple to the ground amidst shattered stone.

It was instinct, something automatic, she knew without even thinking that whoever had stumbled into this was dead if she didn’t act.  Katrisha struck again, wildly, recklessly this time, she put too much into the spell and was left staggered by it.  The shard of ice had been nearly as large as her, and even the gust from its departure nearly pulled her over.  It penetrated deeply into the dragon’s flank, drawing it back away from the trembling Idolus who lay desperately trying to heal his wounds.  The power of the spell had fed back through Kiannae’s illusion and broken her concentration, leaving Katrisha exposed as the dragon barreled towards her.

The Dragon was almost upon Katrisha before Kiannae could leap up to get eyes on her sister, and reform the illusion.  Katrisha was left little choice but to dive between the immense legs.  Heavy crashing feet barely missed her with force that would have left her little more than a smear on the cold stone.  The sound alone of each thunderous step was bone rattling, and her ears were left ringing.

Katrisha was scratched and bruised from her desperate maneuvers, but otherwise intact.  The beasts vast belly was suspended mere inches above her.  Part of her thought – for just a moment – of the perfect opportunity the angle presented her to strike what might be a mortal blow.  Her last reckless move however had left her too weak to try, and she realized she was too close to get any good acceleration on the attack.  Lastly in that moment of forced hesitation, a glimmer of sense came to her for how precarious her current position really was.

Katrisha turned her head in confusion as a bright flash of light caught her attention.  She rolled and scrambled to avoid the dragon’s shuffling claws as it was also drawn to the new distraction.  She had barely gotten to her feet as the dragon’s tail swept around, too low to the ground to avoid, the blow knocked the wind from her, and she heard a rib crack from the impact.  She felt the acceleration, the whole world tumble.

Katrisha didn’t see that the light had been Laurel on the cliff, trying to distract the dragon.  She only knew that past the pain, numbed by shock, she felt weightless.  It took her a moment, perhaps an eternity, perhaps only half a second of looking up at the moonlit sky, and twinkling stars to realize she was falling.  The dragon’s tail had swept her clean off the cliff at the end of the ravine.  Katrisha  rolled painfully in the air, and looked down in dazed terror at the oncoming rocks below.

Far above, Kiannae had lost her focus, and she watched as a wounded dragon landed precariously on a ledge not far away, sending pieces of stone tumbling into the ravine.  Laurel shattered the stone beneath the dragon’s feet, causing it to lose its grip, and tumble with terrible force to the ground below.  Kiannae panicked, she didn’t know where Katrisha was any more, and as she looked to the ravine floor below, and then the direction she had last been able to track her sister, she saw the cliff.  Then she felt something inside her snap, like ice piercing the very center of her.

Kiannae’s face went white, her thoughts spiraled unintelligibly out of control, and she ran, scrambling up the cliff where she had previously come down.  She stumbled half blind as tears formed, and blurred her vision.  She ran past Knights who could not quite get hold of her, and down the path she had climbed before.  It was all she could do to get onto the horse she had come on, even as someone was running after her.  She burned the reins away, that held the horse to the tree it was tied to.  The horse bolted from everything going on, and carried Kiannae away.

All she wanted then and there was to be anywhere else.  Dark thoughts plagued her mind, half formed, as she became certain, as the only plausible reality seared into her mind.  She had failed, she had not been good enough, and now, her heart broke, she couldn’t even bare to think the words she could finally remember, that she then knew to be true.  The words of an old woman from years before echoed in her head.

Kiannae wondered how she had forgotten, how Katrisha had forgotten.  Laurel had told them to, that was why.  They had come to save him, they had done it to save him, and…she trembled as she clung to the horse, all of her wild fear and fury driving it on.  They had never been completely sure which of them was born first, but now Kiannae was sure.  Katrisha was born second.

Kiannae began to cry without reservation, as the words rang so loud in her head someone could have been screaming them in her pounding ears, ‘first to die.’

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae lay against her horse’s back, bathed in moonlight as trees flew by at the roadside.  She had ridden for hours without direction, or clear thought, as overwhelming sorrow, weariness, and guilt plagued her delirious mind.  She didn’t know where she was, she didn’t care.  If the horse slowed she simply clenched her fingers into his fur tighter, and let all her sorrow and rage flow into the innocent creature as unformed wild energies spurred it on.

When exhaustion finally won the contest of wills with madness, Kiannae passed out.  No longer clinging tightly she slipped from horse’s back, and was shocked awake by the cold hard ground, as tumbled several times. For a moment pain pulled her from her fevered delusions.  She looked up to see the horse a dozen yards away, cautiously examining its former rider – torn between training, and the relief to have the wild creature off its back.  Kiannae winced as she moved, everything hurt, and her head seemed to be ringing like a bell.

Waveringly she managed to push herself up.  As she sat dazed on the road she became aware of the blood trickling over her lips, and down her chin.  She brought her hand to her nose, and touched it gingerly.   It was covered in blood that was almost black in the moonlight.  She laughed, she didn’t know why, it was a single short laugh with no humor in it.  She looked around absently, not caring for the horse that scratched at the ground and snorted a short distance away, nor the blood that still flowed from her face.

After a minute of vacantly surveying her surroundings Kiannae came enough to her senses to try to stop the bleeding from her nose.  She brought both hands to her face, and focused past every other screaming muscle and joint to stop the blood.  The delirious spiral of emotions that had consumed her abated for a moment, as a cold analytical state took over her shock addled mind.  The horror was still there, somewhere, at the edge of her consciousness, like swirling storm clouds on the horizon.  As she finished her nose she began to take stock of each cut, scrape, and strained joint.  This seemed to keep larger troubles at bay for the moment.

Finding her legs mostly intact Kiannae tried to get up, but fell with a shriek on the first attempt having found that her right shoulder could bear no weight.  She tried again using her left arm to help herself up, and managed to stumble to her feet.  She watched apathetically as the horse backed away farther, obviously uninterested in the possibility of her remounting it.

Kiannae looked up and down the unmarked forest road.  She could only guess at that point which way she had even come from.  For all she knew she had tumbled fully over in the fall, and the horse had circled around.  For a moment she considered returning, going back to the castle and facing the wrath of the the King, Laurel…everyone.

There was no point to it.  Returning would not bring Katrisha back, there was nothing there for her any more.  Not even Laurel, or Mercu – they had told her to ignore, to forget…she had, and then she hadn’t…but she wouldn’t…she was so angry, looking for anyone to blame but herself.  On a level she knew that, and yet there was a righteous indignation right behind that knowledge.  Why would she face their wrath…or Wren, who had lost his favored sister.  She had warmed to her brother, but not fully.  She wanted no part of it, not any of it.

She looked away from where she had come, or so she presumed.  She considered the road ahead – another kingdom, perhaps?  She was unsure where she was.  She could join a merchant caravan, if perhaps she could convince them she was older.  It would be a hard sell, however good she was at magic. What did it matter, what did she care for that life?  She stumbled to the side of the road, leaned against a tree, and found herself staring into the forest.

What forest was it, Kiannae wondered.  Had she been riding east?  She must have been given the mountains she had ridden from.  Was she on the edge of the great forest in which the Sylvans dwelled?  Could her half forgotten father be out there somewhere?  There was something to that, even as madness tried to take her again.  The cold inside of her, the place that felt like a hole where her sister had always been, ached.  She formed a spell that told her which way was north.  It had to be where she was, it was that forest, she was convinced.

As a child Kiannae had stood at the forest’s western border. She had tried to find the courage to cross the stream that ran behind her grandparent’s crypt…long since her mother’s too.  Her sister had taken her hand, and she had turned back.  She had let go of her father, and the mad idea of finding him.  Her sister wasn’t there to take her hand then.  Never would be again, Kiannae considered darkly as tears streamed down her cheeks.  She set herself to that unreasonable goal.  She left the road, the horse, and her ruined life behind – cast adrift like a loose filament of a failed spell, caught in the wind.

Fate had no more power over her, it had taken all it could.  From far above the vantage of mortal eyes, one could see it was so.  She was indeed a loose thread, still spiraling around greater events, her purpose long lost to another.  She was a wild card in a game she could not imagine the players of – a pawn just one square from the far side of the board.  No threat at all, to those still learning the rules of the game.

The Beginning…

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Chapter 20

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

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

– untitled bard verse, circa 610 E.R.

Stirrings in the North

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 10th, 647 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hesitated.  “Yes?”

“What’s wrong?” Celia pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he finally said.

It was Celia’s turn to swallow.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” Wren said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it is,” Wren said disinterestedly.

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

“Been better,” Wren muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 31st, 647 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What nonsense are you babbling?” Andrew growled.

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut it Henry,” Rory coughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I’ll stay,” Henry said deflated.

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 38th, 647 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three times,” Katrisha corrected.

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” Eran said not slowing.

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

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

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

“And the blood?” Horence asked pointedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have to protect others,” Kiannae said.

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 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.”

< Previous || Next >

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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