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 19

Not only the rose has thorns,
so to blooms fruit of the storm,
herald of ever greater doom,
our champion of life in truth,
one player for the good of all,
many more to bring her fall,
yet there is further shadow,
an avatar midst mortal battle,
what blood binds storm ‘n man,
and brings to play a final hand.

– The Book of Entropy, circa 30 B.E.

Pieces In Motion

Vhalun 13th, 646 E.R.

It had long became apparent to the twins that training under Laurel was, and would remain more grueling than Horence had already been on them.  All of it came in addition to their existing sparring practice, save that Laurel was often an opponent in addition to Horence, and each other.

It was an unfair match that morning.  A thirteen year old against a grey haired old mage who had seen a fair share of battles, and had kept up his sparing practices going on two decades of relative peace as Court Mage.  In normal instruction, as Horence had provided, it was a simple matter of holding back, for Laurel it was a deeper riddle; that wouldn’t work.

Kiannae was – by a measurable margin – the better of the twins.  She came closest to challenging Laurel, and had only twice lost a proper match against her sister.  If Laurel held much back from his blows they were easily deflected.  Yet this was all reaction, and physical skill.  On the other side there was no blow Kiannae could hope to land against Laurel, he blocked attacks before she even made them.  This had gone on over two months, and fifteen minutes into yet another bout Horence called it.

Laurel seemed unphased, but Kiannae was clearly winded as she leaned on her staff, her breath forming swirling clouds in the cold morning air.  She had been putting everything, perhaps too violently into landing blows out of frustration.  Horence had partly called the match for seeing some splintering of the staves.  They had trained all through the winter, much to Kiannae’s displeasure.  Katrisha had been at her best when the other three had struggled with the cold, completely unphased, and seemingly better for it.  It had still only won her a single new match against Kiannae, in part because she had nearly lost her footing.

“You still aren’t reacting ahead,” Laurel noted.

“I don’t see how I can,” Kiannae protested.

“Horence,” Laurel called.  “Grab a staff, would you?”

“Sure,” Horence said, and picked up the one laying next to him.

Laurel held his staff in front of him, and closed his eyes.  “Alright,” he said, “watch very closely.”  He bowed to Horence, and assumed a ready stance.  The two began exchanging testing blows, which quickly escalated into real tries.  On rare occasion the twins had caught the two sparring before they began their training, but not often as before they had begun training they were rarely awake early enough.

Both combatants were fast, and seemingly evenly matched.  The show got very interesting quickly, and yet what the twins were watching for they were not sure.  It was all the techniques they had already been shown, and while the two reacted almost fast enough to seem like they were reacting before, it was clear that it was just from reading each others bodies.

This quickly devolved into feints, and counter feints, and moves that were above the twins skill level, and almost before anyone could see it coming Horence was flat on his rear, and Laurel was leaned on his staff, and offering him a hand.  Horence took the offer, and got back to his feet.

“That was impressive,” Kiannae said, “but I didn’t see anything specific.”

“Me either,” Katrisha added.

“That’s because there wasn’t anything to see,” Laurel chided.  “I forced myself not to use my gift in that fight.”

“Oi,” Horence said.  “No need to add insult to injury.”

“I’m not,” Laurel said dismissively.  “Again – this time I won’t hold back.”  Horence did not look at all encouraged.  “Trust me,” Laurel said with a knowing nod.

Horence rolled his shoulders, nodded, and assumed a fighting stance.  At first it didn’t look all that different.   The moves were in a different order, the staves seemed to connect with much more force.  Slowly though it became apparent that while Laurel was moving quicker, and hitting harder, Horence was blocking his blows with greater ease.  In fact he was quickly a step ahead, found an opening, and caught Laurel in the shoulder.

“Alright,” Horence said, “I don’t get it.  That was easier.”

“Did it look easier?” Laurel asked, tending to his shoulder.

“No,” Katrisha said.

“You were both moving much faster,” Kiannae said.

“We were?” Horence looked legitimately confused.

“Well, Laurel was,” Katrisha said.  “It was more like Horence was moving first.”

“Good,” Laurel said.  “He was.”

Horence only looked more confounded.

“Sorry friend,” Laurel laughed.  “I never let on because I wasn’t sure what the result would be.  You’ve got a gift – a weak one, but somehow you figured out who to read what people will do with theirs.  At first I was curious if it was intentional, but eventually I determined it was all instinct.”

“You are kidding?” Horence looked absolutely dumbfounded.

“I always thought you were gifted hun,” Alice said having walked up on the group.  She held a small boy cradled in her arms, and the curve of her belly hinted at another child on the way.

“Thanks love,” Horence laughed.  “Still not sure I buy what Laurel is selling.”

“It’s what I’m trying to teach these two,” Laurel said with an emphatic gesture.  “They already did it once, and nearly killed each other because of it.  Pure instinct.  Have you ever noticed I can beat most of those you can’t?  Yet you and I are usually a close fight?”

“Suppose I have,” Horence nodded.  “Guess it is strange.  Thought maybe you were going easy on me.”

“Think about the ones I can’t beat,” Laurel said.

Horence looked funny for a moment.  “I usually beat them.”

“Consider the lineages,” Laurel pressed.

“Knights mostly, duke’s sons,” Horence thought.

“All have minor gifts.  None seem to have your particular talent, but they still use it to fight, on instinct.”

“But then why can’t you beat them just as well?” Horence said.

“Because you are better at it,” Laurel shrugged.

“Hey hun, the mage says I’m better at magic than him,” Horence laughed.

“Oh, you are magic, dear,” Alice called back.

“Only at reading gifted actions,” Laurel glowered.

“Still sounds like magic to me,” Horence taunted, and assumed a fighting stance again.

The sparing resumed, and Katrisha, and Kianne were a bit perplexed by what they saw.  It was a blend of the first and second bout, and just when it looked like Horence might get ahead again Laurel’s blow caught him completely unaware, and staggered him, while his attempt to slip under what he expected to be an open guard was completely blocked.

“Alright,” Horence winced, “so not better than you?”

“Chess,” Laurel laughed.  “I’ve been feigning you for years, it’s how I win when I do.  Now that you know, I expect things to get more interesting in future bouts.  Or maybe knowing will foul the whole instinct you’ve had going.  Interesting experiment.”

“I sure hope not,” Horence growled.  “Not keen to have my fighting skill be the sacrifice to get these two sorted.”

“I hope not as well,” Laurel said.  “I’d offer you another round to be fair, but the girls are the point.”

“Aye,” Horence agreed.

Alice walked up, and kissed her husband on the cheek.  “I still love you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Ultimately the trouble proved that replicating the instincts that had caused problems in the first place, required Laurel to go against his own more cautious judgements.  He had to stop pulling his blows, which lead to more than a few delays for heeling over the first few weeks as the twins struggled to tap into the sense Laurel insisted they had.

Katrisha was actually the first to break through, it didn’t win her the match, but it did push Laurel very hard.  Before she could win with her new found talent, Kiannae made her own breakthrough, and as the already more skilled combatant won a match against Laurel within the day.  Laurel showed less often for training after that, and the twins were left to focus on each other, and Horence.  Learning to feign with their gifts was ultimately more difficult still.

Katrisha had more success overall achieving the faints themselves, Kiannae proved more successful in profiting from them.  The result was that the two remained a tight match, but Kiannae almost always won.  Something she was inclined to remind her sister of frequently.  Though any damage to Katrisha’s ego paled to the number of broken staves from their sparing.

If they had not expected sparing to remain so large a part of training to be battle mages, less did they account for all the additional reading.  Where Laurel dredged up some of the hefty tomes begged questions, which often had exhausting answers.  One such book was an antique.  An imperial age print that Mercu was almost aghast to permit actual educational use of.

The book was not only thick, but very stringent in its language.  It was a treatise written by one of the highest generals of Emperor Corinth, who had formed, and ruled the imperial war college with a literal iron fist.  There was even a chapter written on enchanted prosthetics, written in part from personal experience as the man had lost both a hand, and a leg in his long military career.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 25th, 646 E.R.

Katrisha sat reading a lengthy chapter on practical armor, and enchantments.  Mar was curled up at her side dozing comfortably.  The book had put her half to sleep, and she rubbed her face, before turning another page:

Robes – practical, comfortable attire for domestic, city, and regal life.  A symbol of intellectual affinity, harkening to kings on their thrones, and scholars in their libraries.  Let me tell you they are rubbish, a travesty, and a fad that I will not endure to permit on the battlefield.  The mage that wears a robe into battle has sacrificed mobility, for identifiability – the most misguided exchange imaginable.

To fight in a robe is no more than an act of bravado, less sensible than the legend of so-called berserkers, who would wade naked into combat.  This was meant to intimidate, to defy, to signify that they were so far above mortal men, as to think armor a hindrance, and I will say that truly, no matter how well enchanted, that is what a robe represents – a hinderance.  Were I forced to choose between fighting naked, or in a robe, I would chose to stand as nature made me, and free to move.

More realistically…

Katrisha started laughing, and then groaned from the effort.  She flopped back on the bed, and laughed some more anyway.  Mar lifted his head groggily from the disturbance, and moved away from her hip, displeased with the impertinent back warmer that had disturbed him.  He stretched, and looked around a moment.

“Surely there is nothing so funny in that book,” Kiannae glared at her sister.

“Oh not so much the book,” Katrisha said.  “Just…this was written by a man, and I started imagining a woman making the same claim.  Striding across the battlefield nude, rather than in a robe.  I’m sure that would confound a few people.”

“Oh, that bit,” Kiannae laughed slightly as she started to imagine it as well.  “Yes, I’d pay to see the looks on their faces.”

Mercu entered then.  “The looks on who’s faces?”

“Just imagine a bunch of Paladins,” Katrisha snickered.

Katrisha and Kiannae gave each other another look, and laughed even harder.  Mercu walked over, and lifted up the cover of what Katrisha was reading, and frowned.  “What possibly could be so funny in that dusty – valuable,” he said irritably, “old thing.”  Mar saw Mercu’s arm nearby as an offer to be petted, and started rubbing against it.

“Oh just imagine, Mercu.  Some great mage – a woman mind you – striding out into the battlefield nude, throwing down the spells and arrows of her enemies…”

“And their jaws,” Mercu laughed, and gave into the demands of the persistent ball of fluff that had moved to rub against his side when he hadn’t taken the initial hint.  “Yes that would be a sight.”

“I could never,” Kiannae laughed.  “I’d die of embarrassment before anything else could do me the favor.”

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said. “I think I could…maybe.  I’d need the right motivation though.  I’d need to want to mock the whole blighted world.”

“Has anyone ever done that?” Kiannae asked.  “In a real battle?”

“Well, there are legends of berserks of course,” Mercu frowned, “but I’m guessing the book mentioned them.”  He picked up the cat that seemed less than content to merely have his head scratched, and curled up in his arms satisfied to finally be getting an acceptable amount of attention.

“Yeah.”  Katrisha sat back up, and stretched.

“Historically I don’t know that I can think of an instance,” Mercu thought.  “I mean plenty of people have gone into battle wearing little to no meaningful armor, but utterly nude…outside of those legends…no I’ve never heard of it, and I doubt I’d have missed that story if it was out there to be had.”

“That’s a shame,” Katrisha sighed.

“No,” Mercu chuckled, “I do believe it would require a lack of shame.”

Katrisha fell over giggling again.  Kiannae merely shook her head, but was plainly trying to hide her amusement.

“Do you disagree?” Mercu pressed, and assumed something of a pompous pose.  Mar disliking this decided that he wanted a higher perch, and lept onto Mercu’s shoulder, then threw his tail across the man’s face doing everything for the absurdity of his antic.

“Oh no…I agree,” Kiannae laughed.  “You’d do it in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?”

“Damned right,” Mercu said, blowing on the tail with the hopes it would move away from his nose.  It curled up instead, momentarily giving him a laughable mustache until he sneezed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 28th, 646 E.R.

“So,” Laurel said.  “Back where this all started.”

They were standing on the archery range, though on the northern edge near the cliff.  There hadn’t been much explaining, rather their morning practice had been cut off with Laurel’s arrival, and the two girls had been ordered to follow Laurel.

“You won’t be hitting target dummies today though,” Laurel said.  He threw up his hands, and a complex spell wove behind him.  Most obviously it formed two sets of target rings, but there were far more intricate parts to the spell.  Certainly it was a barrier, a very involved one, filled with triggers, not unlike the ones the girls had tried to catch Navi with.

“In the unlikely event either of you can overpower this, your spells will sail harmlessly into the northern hills.  Now impress me, overpower it,” he said moving well out of the way.

Katrisha, and Kiannae glanced at eachother, and then back at Laurel who stood to the side expectantly.  “Go on,” he said.  “Everything you’ve got.”

Katrisha bit her lip, and then thrust out her hand, sending a spear of ice hurtling at the target where it hung for a moment in a middle ring before suddenly evaporating.

“Oh, I know that is not your best,” Laurel chided.  “I’ve seen the holes you made, unless all of that was Kiannae.”

Katrisha threw several more spears, some faster, some larger, some both.  She gathered herself, and put a lot of effort into one both large and very fast.  The gust of it ripping away from from her blew her hair about wildly.  It stopped harmlessly as the others had.

“Much better,” Laurel said.  “Don’t be shy Kiannae.”

Kiannae bit her lip, and struggled a moment.  “It’s not solid,” she said.  “I can’t…use lightning on it.”

“Try,” Laurel said, “Focus on the filaments, they are meant to dissipate energy.  It should actually make accuracy a little easier.”

Kiannae held up her hand, and lightning crackled over her fingers for a moment before finally several bolts arced to the target, striking wildly at first, and then finally focusing repeatedly on the bullseye.”

“Don’t hold back now,” Laurel said.

Kiannae grimaced in irritation, and threw everything she had into the target, changing hands, back, and forth, and then finally she tensed, and her hair stood a bit on end before a blinding flash made Katrisha, and Laurel cover their faces.

Laurel’s spell fizzled, and parts of the target dissolved before the whole thing came apart.

“That was not a spell,” Laurel said a bit perplexed, “or well, most of it wasn’t.  What was that?”

“I’m not sure,” Kiannae said, a bit winded. “I just…rather than forming the spell, I just did…what the spell would.”

Laurel stroked his beard.  “I’d say you conjured that, but…I’ve seen a conjurer do lightning before.  A druid I fought alongside once, it didn’t look like that.  Can you do it again?  Doesn’t have to be as strong.”  He waved a hand, and the target spell reformed.

Kiannae tried, but it slipped away from her repeatedly.  She did the spells again, trying to build up to it, but it eluded her.  “No, I don’t think I can,” she seemed a little weary.

Laurel frowned.  “Surely you can do something else?”

Kiannae stooped down, and picked up a handful of rocks, and pebbles.  She proceeded to send them flying in rapid succession, stopped, and then made a spell holding the remainder in the air in front of her.  She put her hand behind them, and they proceeded to zip away at progressively more blinding speed till they stopped appearing to move at all, and simply disappeared from before her hand, and stopped at the barrier.

When that was through Kiannae summoned the biggest ball of fire she could control, and sent it hurtling into the target where it destabilized, and exploded in a plume of fire which was mostly sucked up into Laurel’s spell that barely seemed to register it.

“Katrisha?” Laurel said.  “I remember hearing that you did some of the burning of the targets.  Anything else up your sleeve?”

Katrisha bit her lip, she had an idea, but she had only partly tried it before.  She began by throwing spears of ice at the target, all blindingly fast, but some of the energy absorbed in turning the air to ice was being stored rather than accelerating her projectiles.  On the end of this she unleashed quite suddenly a ball of broiling plasma that struck the target, and seemed to momentarily give Laurel’s spell some trouble to absorb it.

“Good technique,” Laurel nodded.  “An effective switch like that could catch a lesser mage off guard.”  He refreshed his spell.  “Now then, throw whatever you want at it.  Go until you are absolutely spent, if either of you have strength enough to stand when you are done, I will be disappointed.”  The two hesitated.  “Get to it,” he said firmly.

The twins began throwing everything they could at the target.  Kiannae again attempted to recreate her brilliant blast of lightning, but never quite found the spark of insight that had allowed the first.  Katrisha tried everything, but kept coming back to her most basic spell.  It felt natural, she could wield the sharp lances of ice fairly easily.  Which did little to fulfil her command to drain herself.

Kiannae began seeing if arcing her lighting around within the spell could overwhelm it’s design, she did see flickers, and straining, but nothing to approach the effect the one bolt had caused.  Katrisha began using the swinging technique she had tried before, building excess energy, and then releasing it in balls of fire.  She tried larger, faster, and more powerful lances, which were more taxing, and took longer to form, and control.

Eventually Kiannae tired of lighting.  She tried other spells, fire, ice as her sister was using primarily, and all were successful, but none felt natural.  She experimented with a spell on the ground before her.  This ripped up stones a few at a time, which she then sent flying at the target.  Getting bored of this Kiannae started examining Laurel’s spell, she looked where it was grounding out the energy, and tapped into it, stealing the power Katrisha continued to pour into her target.  Just containing the bundle of energy she was siphoning off quickly became taxing.

Laurel did not miss Kiannae’s move, and watched cautiously what she was trying.  The spell she was forming was a conversion to pure kinetic force.  He almost stopped her before he saw that she was correctly accounting for the forward thrust this would have on her, but prepared for emergency correction if she got it wrong.

When Kiannae thrust her arms out a column of air blasted away from her, even as she was thrown slightly back.  Her hair whipped forward in the tremendous gust of wind.   She had misjudged the necessary counterforce, but not enough to quiet knock her from her feet.  Katrisha on the other hand was knocked forward, and lost her balance from the outermost halo of the blast.

Laurels spell struggled with the force, and nature of the spell.  Designed to handle raw energy, and solid objects the fluid nature of a column of air that would have sent an armored man sailing a hundred feet mostly bypassed the spell’s design.  Even then what little energy could be absorbed strained the delicate latticework nearly to its limit.

“What in the abyss…” Katrisha growled up from where she lay on the ground.

Kiannae looked down.  “Uh…sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“Impressive,” Laurel said. “I didn’t account for the side splash that would create either.  You ok Kat?”

“I’m fine,” Katrisha muttered, and got back to her feet.  “What did she do?”

“Used everything you were throwing at your target to fuel her own spell,” Laurel laughed.

“Cheating,” Katrisha said.

“Oh, I quite agree,” Laurel seemed amused.  “And the first rule of combat magic, always cheat.”  He refreshed his spell.  “Resume.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 31st, 646 E.R.

Two more days of sparing, and then back to the archery range.  Yet it seemed Laurel had another lesson in mind, and stopped them in front of the target dummies.  “Today,” he began, “the two of you will be trying to destroy these target dummies.”

Both twins looked incredulously at their mentor.  Doing exactly that had been part of what sparked trouble they had been in for nearly a year.  He smiled.  “You will be taking turns.  It will be the job of one to destroy the target, and the job of the other to do everything in her power to protect it.  The winner, since you two like to compete, will be gauged on who has the most still standing targets by the end.  Five minutes each, then switch.  Kiannae, you will be on defense first.”

Kiannae did not seem overly happy with the starting position on their tasks, but took up a spot well to the side of one of the targets, as Katrisha took a place at a mark away from one.  She started with a bolt of ice, which Kiannae deflected such that it struck the dirt some distance away.  This repeated, several times, until Katrisha slipped a second in on the tail of a first which struck the target splintering it significantly.

The next attempt at the same trick failed, as did a third.  A ball of fire did little better, but being deflected sent it into another target which burst into flames.  Kiannae quickly snuffed the fire, but the target was quite blackened.

“You need not only protect yourself,” Laurel chided, “but bystanders, and allies.  A blow deflected carelessly can still undermine the battle.”

As the round resumed Katrisha became much quicker with her lances of ice, and Kiannae tired of trying to control where they wound up, she tried to stop them instead.  This however proved more difficult.  She changed her approach and blasted them from the air with lighting, vaporizing them, though a few slipped through as small slivers that did little or no damage.  At one point she managed to arc between two Katrisha unleashed almost simultaneously using a single bolt.

Katrisha followed that attack however with a direct burst of flame that surrounded the target.  Kiannae quickly put out the flames, but a very large shard of ice slipped through while she was distracted shattering the target completely, and it fell away.

“One down,” Laurel declared over the blackened bail of hay, and broken target board.  “To make things interesting,” Laurel said, “Katrisha will be defending the one she already scorched earlier.”

“Not fair,” Katrisha protested.

“Switch,” Laurel said ignoring the complaint.

As soon as they were in position Kiannae struck with a bolt of lighting that set the target aflame.  Katrisha stopped the flames without difficulty, but another bolt followed reigniting the already blackened target.  Katrisha formed a field of intense cold around the target.  This did nothing to stop the lighting strikes which did little more damage, but kept the remainder of the target from burning.  Kiannae picked up some stones, and sent them flying at the already fragile target, but the field quite effectively stopped them.  She tried ice, which also was stopped.

Frustrated Kiannae went back to lighting, intent to destroy the board by attrition if nothing else.  After only a few more strikes Katrisha managed to form some rudimentary grounding spells into her barrier which pulled the lighting off, and into the ground making small smoldering patches of glass.  Kiannae first tried to circumvent these, and then began tearing them down as quickly as Katrisha could put them back up.  She tried to dismantle the field itself several times as well, and at one point managed to overload it, directing the released energy into the target which went flying, and smashed against the castle wall in a shower of charred wood splinters, and blackened straw.

“Zero, and Nil,” Laurel said.

This went on for three more targets.  The techniques grew more complex, but the results less dramatic as both girls grew weary.  Each target was however completely destroyed before time.  On the final target however Kiannae failed to get completely past Katrisha’s defenses.  The target, though slightly scorched still stood, and Katrisha got to take her shot at it.

Kiannae had managed by then to copy much of Katrisha’s defensive techniques, but proved slower at them.  Katrisha remained lacking when it came to lighting, and this was the most effective at getting through.  It finally came down to a battle over spellcraft, and Katrisha got clever.  She added to the spears of ice, and though it took several tries to get one wedged harmlessly in the target board she had the setup she needed.  From there she worked on the shield Kiannae was maintaining.

Time was almost up, and Kiannae focused fervently on keeping up her barrier.  Katrisha however was no longer trying to tear down the barrier, but tap into all the energy it had stored.  Laurel had raised his hand to call time just as the target suddenly exploded, shredding itself within the barrier that protected it.  The fragments stopped, and hung for only a moment before dropping to the ground.

“How did…” Kiannae protested.

“That one shard I got through, the spell was the important part, not the ice itself,” Katrisha said winded.  “I designed the spell to detonate outward, but I needed energy to trip it.  The shield provided that, you were so busy keeping it up you missed me tapping into it.”

Kiannae huffed, and flopped onto the ground tiredly.  Katrisha did the same a moment later.

“Winner, Katrisha,” Laurel shrugged.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 16th, 646 E.R.

Wren had seemed distant since his arrival.  He had listened with some interest to his sisters recount their ever escalating sparring, and training, though made no mention of their near fatal falling out.  None of it had seemed to hold his attention, and all through the story he had seemed distracted.  When Mercu left the three alone Wren had retired to one of the window seats, and began staring out over the valley.

Katrisha’s first instinct was to hug her brother, and demand to know what was wrong, but she tried her hand instead at pressing Kiannae to do so.  Though reluctant, Kiannae begrudgingly wandered over to sit by her brother in the window, and after giving several pleading glances to Katrisha to be the one to press the issue finally did so herself.

“Are you alright?”

Wren was silent for a moment, and other than a slight freeze almost appeared not to have heard the question.  He finally relented to look at Kiannae, who had been sitting beside him for some time.  He wasn’t comfortable with the topic to begin with, and he had always had a feeling that Kiannae did not like him much.  Still, the topic he did not even dare discuss with the two in his life that knew the truth nagged at him.

“I did something,” Wren said.  “I didn’t mean to, I don’t know how…but…”

Kiannae set her hand on her brother’s in an attempt to be reassuring, and it seemed to have some effect.

“In South Rook, it was me,” he said.

“It was…you…” Kiannae seemed to say more than ask, her expression puzzled.  It was as though she had understood instantly, and rejected it could have been what he meant.

“The voice?” Katrisha offered stepping up to the window, and adding her own hand to the pile.

“Yes,” Wren said looking down, “people were going to die, it was going to get worse, I knew it, and I…I made it stop.  I made everything stop,” he let out a long breath, and took another, “just for a moment.”

“Everything didn’t…” Kiannae protested.

“No I think he’s right,” Katrisha said.  “It was just a moment, but we weren’t just dazed, we all stopped.  I saw it, I think…”

“I didn’t, I saw no such thing,” Kiannae said defiantly.

“Think,” Katrisha said, “if you really stopped, you might not have known.”

“But you did?” Kiannae shook her head.

“I didn’t understand it till just now,” Katrisha said, “what I felt like I saw, or maybe just felt.  It felt borrowed, and I easily took it back.”

“Well, I still don’t remember it,” Kiannae refuted.

Wren pulled his hand away, and retreated against the wall.  “I did it.  Whatever I did, I did it,” he said on the edge of sobbing.

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae offered.  “I didn’t mean to doubt you.  Whatever you did…it was a good thing.  It stopped the fighting.”

“That wasn’t the only time,” Wren said pleadingly.

Katrisha put her hand on Wren’s shoulder.  “What was the other time?”

“Andrew…he…” Wren shook angrily, “he was scaring me, he pushed Celia, he was shaking me…and I told him…I made him…he can’t talk any more.”  He looked at each of his sisters in turn, begging them to understand, forgive, even to believe.

“You are sure?” Katrisha asked.

“He doesn’t talk, not at all,” Wren protested.  “He has to write now, he can’t say a word.  No one can find anything physically wrong.”

“And he hasn’t told anyone, blamed you?” Kiannae asked.

“No…I don’t know why, maybe he’s afraid, maybe…maybe he doesn’t even remember?”

“And no one else knows?” Katrisha asked.

“Celia and Audry do.  Celia was there, she believes me, Audry…mostly believes me.”

“You haven’t even told Renae?” Katrisha asked.

“I can’t…and…she doesn’t even want to believe about the ghosts.”

“Ghosts?” Kiannae pressed.

“Four of them, four of them in the cemetery.  They talked to me, just like Navi…so many voices in the cemetery.  Renae doesn’t want to believe it, but I think she does a little…just like Audry believes…a little.”

Katrisha forced her arm behind her brother, and hugged him tightly to her.  “I believe you,” Katrisha said.  “At Wesrook, you remember Varmun?”

“Yes,” Wren said softly.

“You remember about that girl he knew.  The one like you?”

“Yes,” Wren answered sadly.

“He told me more that night on the balcony, while you were asleep.  Everything he said, she was like you.  He loved her, he thought the world of her, there is nothing wrong with what you are, even if it scares you.”

“But I hurt him,” Wren protested.

“Did you really?” Katrisha pressed.

“He can’t talk,” Wren said somewhat angrily.

“Was he doing anything particularly useful with his talking?” Kiannae tried in ill humor.

Wren looked almost like he wanted to smile, he was still too bothered with what he had done, but his sisters jab at Andrew broke through a bit.  “No,” he said with mixed reservations.  “It still wasn’t right.”

“Doesn’t sound like what he was doing was very right either,” Kiannae countered.  She closed her eyes.  “Some time ago…Kat…she and I had a squabble,” she pursed her lips, and looked at her twin.  “Never mind what it was about, it came to blows, and I almost…”

“We,” Katrisha cut her sister off, “almost did each other a great deal of harm.”

Wren looked disbelievingly between the two, then something else crossed his face, hard to read.  “Why?” he finally asked.

“Laurel says it was precognitive, that we were caught in a loop, escalating beyond our control,” Kiannae offered.  “It makes me feel no less guilty about what I did.”

“Andrew has always,” Wren hesitated.  “I was going to say hated me, but it’s far less simple than that.  I’ve always felt like he was afraid of me.”

“You think…” Kiannae began thoughtfully.

“I don’t know, but I’ve heard rumors that he had nightmares about me,” Wren answered.

“Do you think you can help him?” Katrisha asked.

“I don’t know…”

“When you think you are ready,” Kiannae offered, “try then, but not until you are really ready.”

“Thank you,” Wren said, and grabbed Kiannae’s hand again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 16th, 646 E.R.

Jeoffrey wore a beleaguered look as he entered the King’s Antechamber, and considered the others around him.  He had returned to Avrale on orders late that afternoon, and been allowed to clean up a bit from days of travel while court finished out its day.

“Sit,” the King offered kindly.

Jeoffrey took a seat opposite the King, and steeled himself very obviously.

“Are you well?” the King asked.

Joeffrey hesitated, and looked down.  “I have been better,” he admitted.

“Your communications, while valuable, have also been perplexing for some years,” Laurel offered.  “It took us some time to conclude what your more cryptic statements have regarded, but dare I wager that you believe your niece to be alive?”

“I do,” Joeffrey began, “or did.  I do not know.  I think perhaps I have gone mad.  When the dragon first came to the capital I had a runnin with a cut purse.  I caught her in the act, but only briefly saw her eyes before she escaped.  I dare say I nearly cried at the sight of those eyes, for my heart told me they were my dear sister’s.”

“Yet you have had no fortune in finding the would be thief?” the King pressed.

“Only rumors of a ‘shadow,’ a thief that is never caught, or seen.”  Joeffrey threw his face into his hands, and braced his elbows on his knees.

“If this thief is never seen, what makes you connect her with the cutpurse?” Arlen asked incredulously.

“The stories say that one’s eyes slip right off her,” Jeoffrey said looking up.  “That you might catch a flash of fingers, or long red hair, but never the face of the girl.”

“Yet you say you saw her eyes?” Laurel asked, all the more dubious of the internal logic of the claim.

“Only with great difficulty,” Jeoffrey said.  “Even having caught both of her hands…it was as though everything else was more important than her.  People stomping about, bumping into us.  It was the strangest thing, and save the eyes, the eyes burned into my heart, the memory of the event tries desperately to vanish.  Almost like it did not happen, like an image from a dream.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Laurel shook his head.

“I have from a dozen sources,” Jeoffrey protested.  “It isn’t just me.  Whatever that mystery girl is, she…exists, I am sure of that.  If she is my niece I do not know.  Everyone believes her dead, and I have seen no obvious interest by Vharen, or his officials in the ‘Shadow Rose,’ as some have started calling her.  She’s a matter for law enforcement, and they mostly consider her a tall tale, a myth for drunks with overactive imaginations.”

“You have returned before your last report would have been sent,” the King changed the subject.  “Is there any more news worth sharing?”

“Yes,” Jeoffrey answered.  “I meant it to be the first thing I said, before I was questioned about…never mind.  There was another dragon outside the city.  I was penning the news even as I received word I had been recalled.”

“Another?” Laurel asked with displeasure.

“Or the same,” Jeoffrey shook his head.  “I’m no expert in identifying dragons.  It well could have been the same – it was big enough.  It came to the city on its own late one evening, and though it caused quite a stir, it did nothing but below – there is no other word for it – mournfully towards the city until Vharen himself came forth surrounded by his men late in the night.”  Jeoffrey shook his head.  “Vharen had his men stand back, and approached the dragon alone.  No one could see precisely what transpired, but the dragon flew off towards the south.”

“You are certain?” the King pressed.

“Yes,” Jeoffrey said.  “I saw the way the dragon flew with my own eyes.  Yet I could not tell you to where it has gone.  Has there been word of any sightings in the north?”

“No,” Laurel said.  “Nothing as yet, but this will bear careful watching.”

“I do not doubt,” Arlen said, “that a dragon, particularly of such size will have some difficulty going unnoticed for long.”

“Perhaps,” Laure countered, “but there are high mountains between Nohrook, and the northern plains.  Were it a greater dragon, clever, or perhaps just very lucky, and flew in by night, it might evade detection for a while.”

“To what end though?” the King shook his head.  “Unless this is to be an attack, a test of our resolve, the councils, even Roshana herself?”

“The others will not act,” Laurel said, “not unless there is proof it is a greater dragon in play.  A clever one could easily play the part of a fallen beast.  Fire, and speech are all that could prove such a thing.  And considered no more than a stray beast?  No, we will be all but told to deal with it ourselves, I am certain.  The council did nothing about that young drake, after all.”

The group exchanged glances silently for a moment, none quite sure what to say.  The council had done nothing to help before, that was true.  Not that there had been a great deal of time involved.  A few months of the initial attacks, then Adel’s part, and the wounded dragon was hunted down easily enough after that.

Laurel growled, breaking the silence.  “They posture, and move like a nation ready for war,” he said distastefully.  “Bandits, dragons, armies shifting along borders, and yet year after year they do not move, save these games of cloak and shadow.  Should I be grateful?  I do not want war, and yet the constant threat makes me wish for the inevitable to come.”

“Do you really?” Jeoffrey asked.

“So long as Vheren sits on that throne…It will come.  Be it years, or days.  It must.  Everything points to a man that hungers for war, for the chance to conquer.  He did not depose his brother to sit idly.  Surely you of all people cannot think he did that just to reign?  That he would kill his own brother, and your sister for nothing more than political gain?  Not that we have proof.  Fire, indeed…”

Jeoffrey glanced away.  He had been far too concerned with the past, with the loss of his sister, to be looking forward to intention.  It hadn’t quite gotten him the wrong answer, but he had none the less been distracted.  Could he blame himself?

“This can not carry on forever,” Laurel added in the man’s silence, and with every passing year the Council grows more complacent, not less.  It pains me to say it, but the sooner a war comes, the better our chances.  Though they are already slim to none as it stands.”

“Death is inevitable as well, it comes in days, or years.  Yet We do not wish it to come sooner,” the King countered.

“I tire of this sword hanging over our heads,” Arlen offered, having listened quietly from the corner for some time.

It gave Laurel little comfort to have Arlen arguing on his side.  He frowned.  “Perhaps the smallest part of me wants the satisfaction of going out in a blaze of glory, while I am still young enough to be a presence on that battlefield.”

“You are a good man, and a great mage – but We doubt you would even slow them down,” the King shook his head.  “We know them to have an army of mages, all trained to be warriors, not guards, and politicians.”

“You are right of course,” Laurel shook his head, “but need you speak the truth?”  It was a thin gest, with an ill laugh.

“If it helps, I doubt a one of them could manage a day in that court without frying at least one petty baron,” Jeoffrey offered.

“Or survive those two girls of yours,” the King added.

“So my great, and unmatched power is patience?” Laurel laughed.  “Have we not established that runs thin?”

“Or a lack of murderous rage,” the King suggested.

“So helpful, yes, thank you,” Laurel shook his head.  He looked thoughtful though, and then furrowed his brow.  “Jeoffrey, Vharen’s uncle, I forget his name, but he had long absences from court, enough that you made note of them.  Also there were the prisoners being sent to work camps.”

“It would match, yes,” Jeoffrey agreed dubiously.  “Yet…it makes as little sense as anything else.  Cadith is a proud, and powerful mage – he makes Vharen look like a puppy.  Which I guess fits with them calling him The Wolf.  I do not see him submitting to such menial shadow play.”

“He is also trouble though, even for Vharen?” Laurel pressed.

“He was locked up for a number of years after the terrible business with the mad king,” Jeoffrey answered.  “He’d been on the wrong side after all, no surprise there.”

“And since?” Laurel pressed.

“Vharen had him released soon after his ascension.  Other than that, I’m not sure.  Little things,” Jeoffrey shook his head, “all rumors, and speculation.  Hints of a battle…or two in the throne room.  Publicly they present a united face, but yes, there are many whispers of descent.  There are hardliners who chomp at the bit even as Vharen pushes against any border the Council will not defend…and those, they do love Cadith.”

“What does it give us to speculate who leads the attacks?” Arlen asked.

“It would explain the signs of battle at the first camp,” Laurel considered.  “That was no hedge mage.  A battle mage of that lineage,” he shook his head.  “I’m almost more terrified that the Sylvans could even press him into retreating.  I have always understood their practices can be devastating, but they are more closely related to the shamans of old, or so I was taught.”

The King considered.  “Perhaps something can be twisted between Vharen, and Cadith.  If it is true he is being thrown around like a lowly underling to do the dirty work.  The dragon is the pressing concern however, we need eyes in the north.  Yet that need not concern you, Jeoffrey.  We will ask, are you fit to return to your duty, can you focus and not chase shadows?”

“Yes,” Jeoffrey answered.  “Yes, but I will not turn a blind eye either.  I will keep my ears open, not merely because she is my niece, but because if somehow she does live…”

“Then she could prove very useful,” the King agreed.

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 17

As the child grows,
any parent knows,
so too the troubles go,

yet a common child,
shall never be so wild,
as those gifted born.

and so mages well beware,
the children you might sire,
or to be mother of the storm.

– Lament of Araena Grey, circa 100 E.R.

Young Troubles

Estae 25th, 645 E.R.

Katrish and Kiannae stood side by side on north balcony above the throne room, watching the proceedings below impatiently.  It was far from the first time, but invariably they grew bored with all the formalities, and repetition.  Grain reports and petty grievances, petitions for justice for minor crimes, and worries both that too much, or too little is spent on the Osyrean border in the north.  Mercu’s tales of Clarion political maneuvering had however piqued their interest to try again, waiting to see if anything would happen.  Nothing really had, not at least on the four occasions they had taken an hour or less to watch since.

That day though Idolus was in court, standing at Arlen’s side as Mercu had implied was often the case.  Arlen’s place in the order for the day had yet to come up, to Arlen’s clear frustration, as much as the girls.  They were growing painfully bored with the minutia of running a kingdom, but something of the airs the two men possessed spoke of trouble they were not ready to miss.

“The court recognizes Sir Arlen, of Wesrook,” the court herald declared, bringing the twins back from their own musings.

“Your Majesty,” Arlen said with a bow, “a matter of some concern has arisen.  It has come to my attention that the Court Mage’s twin apprentices are likely being poisoned against the merits of Clarion teaching.”

Both girls glanced at each other, uncertain what to make of the accusation.  They certainly had not expected to be the subject that Arlen opened on.  Kiannae looked to the king for a response, but Katrisha caught a brief sneer of Idolus up at them.  Even after South Rook she was not sure she had seen such a look of hate.

“Will this be the point at which you claim Lycian influence behind this attitude?” the King asked with an obvious lack of amusement.

“One can not be sure,” Arlen said shrewdly, “yet they do most vehemently besmirch our beliefs.”

“That is an interesting, but not uncommon viewpoint,” the King said drolly. “I have never known the Sisterhood to walk the streets proclaiming much of anything for their order, or against any other.  They will of course lend their own version of wisdom, to those who ask, without much hesitation.”

“They do walk the streets,” Arlen offered sharply, and overly proud of his own jab from the look on his face.  There were a few chuckles through the court.

“As do we all, at times,” the King cut back with much less pleasure, “or do you mean to imply that the Sisterhood sell their…attentions.  Then We would need ask who besmirches who, since this is both less than true, and breaks no law of the land.  Even if it were.  Moreover it is the attentions of a Clarion healer that must most often be paid for.  We should know, for how much of Idolus’ time this court has paid.”  There was more uncomfortable laughter at this.

Katrisha tugged at Kiannae’s sleeve, feeling that leaving might be best, but Kiannae stood firm, and gave her a look that said she had no interest in shrinking from the argument below.

“If We might, my King,” the Queen interjected, “perhaps the girls in question could speak for themselves?  They were more than capable of felling a mighty dire beast bigger than a horse, We doubt a few questions will give them all that much trouble.  Certainly they can speak more authoritatively to the matter of their educational sources and leanings.”  She looked up to where the two stood on the balcony above.  Katrisha reluctantly stepped back beside her sister.  “Please, do speak plainly girls, what have you been taught of the Clarion beliefs?”

The two exchanged an uncomfortable glance, and stood there a bit longer than was perhaps dignified under direct question.

“We have been taught that the Clarions believe in the Path of Ascension,” Katrisha offered, when Kiannae in spite of her stubborn insistence to stay did not jump to speak. “That through casting off the unnecessary distractions of the flesh, all which is not needed to continue life, and propagate the species.  To the end that we might better focus on moving towards becoming one with the light.  They believe this is the one true path, and the only valid use of one’s life.”

“What have you been taught of the beliefs of the Lycian Order, or perhaps you know them better as the Sisterhood?” the Queen asked.

“That the Lycians believe, as is the official position of the Council,” Kiannae began, finding her nerve again, “that there is no proof that Ascension is even possible, let alone desirable.  They chose instead to focus upon the merits of this life, rather than the promises of another.  They do not begrudge the Clarions the core tenants of their faith, only their doctrine to force this upon others, purportedly for their own good.”

“Anything more?” the Queen asked, “what do you believe, and from what source do you draw your conclusions?”

The girls again exchanged looks, and after a moment Kiannae spoke first.  “I believe that the Council’s assessment is accurate in that there is no proof of the functional possibility of Ascension.  The Clarion argument that the flesh itself is the sacrifice that allows the soul to ascend is plausible, but does not answer any questions of the nature of existence beyond the Veil, not a testable conclusion that it works.”

“And you?” the Queen prodded.

“I believe that there is no practical answer to either Ascension being true, or false,” Katrisha said hesitantly.  “We concern ourselves with that which is known, that which can be determined to be human nature.  If the Light made us with a true path, whatever that might be, then it must be in our natures to follow it, not against that nature.”

“What of the pull of the Abyss?” Arlen interjected after a quick whisper in his ear from Idolus.

“Is this a material pull, or an intelligent manipulation?” Katrisha demanded irritably.

“The Abyss is the void, without thought, or intent, it is nothing but endless hunger,” Arlen said without further prompting.

“Then does it change our intelligent nature, or does it anchor us down by force?”  Katrisha cut back.  “If you argue it is unintelligent, then the latter must be true.  Our nature should then be unaffected.”

“We must be prepared to sacrifice the physical to attain Ascension,” Arlen said again prompted by Idolus, “as the Council itself is prone to pointing out, if Ascension is possible, then something must descend to give the soul the power to rise.”

“Enough,” the King declared coldly. “I will not allow further ideological debate in my throne room.  Nor have you continue to pester these fine young women who have so recently done a great service for the crown, and this nation, at grave risk to their own health.  We will have answers to the charge of the willful teaching of these two against the Clarion faith.  Answer now girls, from where have you drawn your conclusions regarding Clarion teaching?”

“From Laurel, who has instructed us according to Council practice,” Kiannae answered.

“What proof do we have that Laurel himself then is not adherent to the beliefs of the Sisterhood?” Arlen demanded.

“We know it to be the case that Laurel was raised by parents who were staunch Clarion adherents,” the King said dismissively.

“Yet he is known to consort with, and bring the Matron of Highvale here to court!” Arlen proclaimed, seemingly off Idolu’s leash, and enraged to his own ends.

“For the purpose of allowing his adopted daughters, and aprentices to know their younger brother.  A poor child afflicted with unfortunate circumstances of birth, who was left to their care,” the King stated firmly.  “Would you begrudge these children to know their own blood?”

“If he is a corruption, if he brings in the false teachings to the court,” Arlen said without as much fire as before, “then unfortunately yes, such it must be.”

“Tell me girls,” the King said glancing up to the twins, “what has the Matron Renae, or Wren told you of their order?”

“Little of note,” Katrisha said finding it curious herself that such topics had rarely come up.  “Day to day life, chores, that some days are free, and others set aside for meditation.  Of his trials with a belligerent young man of the order.”

“Do you attest to this also Kiannae?” the King pressed.

“Yes,” Kiannae said curiously, “Renae has been nothing but kind to us, asked us of our lives, but told us little of hers.  I know she traveled with caravans once, and saw much of the world.  I have not known her to preach as I have seen Idolus do as he walked the street the other day.”

“So it would seem,” the King said flatly, “that the girls have attained their opinion of Clarions from the teachings of the Council.  Whether or not We agree with these opinions, or how they are stated, the Council’s authority is officially recognized in this kingdom, by treaty.  If you wish to take issue with their teachings, We recommend taking your grievances to Mordove, you will find it well east of this court.  If you are in a hurry, might We suggest the east pass.”  There was more uncomfortable humor at this, and Arlen stepped away from the dias with a less than graceful bow, clearly still fuming.

Idolus for his part eyed the girls spitefully, and then slipped back into the crowd, and out of the throne room.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 17th, 645 E.R.

Mercu stepped aside as an irate Katrisha tore past him in a fit.  He glanced down the hall where she had come from only to catch a snide look from Lady Catherine, who turned, and marched away in her own more dignified huff.  Mercu sighed, shook his head, and turned around to follow Katrisha.  It had been a good morning he thought, and that it seemed would not continue.

By the time Mercu caught up with Katrisha she had climbed the stairs halfway to the her tower chamber, and sat beneath one of the many windows off the spiral stair.  “Might I enquire as to the meaning of that scene?” he asked in a kind yet chiding tone, that drew a remarkable look of disapproval from the tear streaked face of the girl sitting before him.

“Who died, and made her Queen?” Katrisha demanded.

Mercu was a bit taken aback by Katrisha’s question, but finally settled on a response.  “Her father, actually,” he said stroking his chin, and watching Katrisha’s expression change to one of confusion.

“What?” she asked still half sobbing, and shaking her head for the lack of sense the statement made to her.

“Didn’t you know?” Mercu asked with a laugh. “Haven’t you ever wondered why Catherine holds so much sway in the court?  Catherine was the elder sister of the King.”  He watched with some amusement as confusion melted to an unmistakable expression of doubt, and disbelief.  “It’s true,” Mercu insisted.

“Then why…isn’t she Queen?” Katrisha asked, clearly caught somewhere between her current distaste for the woman, and a sense of injustice at this knowledge, that she seemed not entierly prepared to believe either.

“In part because her father was not,” Mercu said searching for the best way to explain.

“Then why is the King…” Katrisha started, but was not quite sure how to finish her question.

“The proper heir to the throne of the Elder King was his first born son,” Mercu said trying to recall what he had learned over the years.  “He died at a young age, leaving the heir apparent his brother, but the King had lost control of the influences some of the knights held over his younger child.”

“But they are his knights,” Katrisha protested, “why would he approve of them, but not their influence?”

“Just as the throne is inherited, so are knighthoods,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “At least in Avrale, I’ve always found the titles of this land quaint.  No Earls, or Counts, every duke’s younger brother automatically a knight commander.  Some other knighthoods inherited, others not.  At any rate,” he said with a dismissive gesture for his own train of thought, “the children of your father’s friends, are not always your friends.  Yet in noble circles you are oft obliged to pay difference nonetheless.  So it is with the court, not everyone who bows to the King does so with love in their heart, some do it out of grudging duty.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Katrisha said momentarily distracted from her prior upset.  “Though perhaps it explains Arlen,” she said thoughtfully.

“Yes, quite,” Mercu laughed.  “Regardless, so it was with the chosen mentors of Theodore, the Elder King’s second born.  He did not trust his son would be the heir he wanted.  As King he had the power to choose his successor, to a point, but there is always a chance of discord, or even civil war when breaking from traditional inheritance.  So choosing between his grandchildren to groom, he picked the younger, who as a male child might lessen the potential strife.”

“That’s hardly fair,” Katrisha grumbled irritably.

“In private, with a few glasses of wine in her,” Mercu offered with a knowing smile, “Catherine might agree with that sentiment.  The ways of things however are not always fair, and for Catherine the slight of being passed over for the throne was not the end of her indignity.  Her father, having his son’s instruction taken out of his control, took it out on her, pushing her twice as hard to be a proper Clarion child.”

“So that’s why she is such a nasty old woman?” Katrisha demanded disapprovingly.

“I’ve seen her softer side,” Mercu chided gently, “…on occasion.  But yes, things were not always easy for her – and she was forced to choose a side in the scramble for the succession.  I’ve never been quite clear which she took, I suspect she sided with her father, and so later styled herself down.  It was fortunate – if still tragic – that Theodore died soon after his father, before things could progress too far.”

“That seems an awful thing to say,” Katrisha said a bit stricken.

“Awful things are sometimes nonetheless true,” Mercu noted.  “I’ve only heard the rumors, but things might have gotten very ugly.  Theodore’s timely death likely saved lives, since a war over successions is not a pretty affair.  Not that any war is, but cousins and brothers wind up on opposite sides in such wars.  Or sisters, and brothers, as it were.  Then there is no telling what would have happened, when, if, or even after the Council finally stepped in.  To date the Council’s resolve in these matters has been suspect.”

“How horrible,” Katrisha said, and looked down.

“As I said, it didn’t happen – fortunately,” Mercu said stooping down before the girl, and lifting her chin.  “Now that I’ve answered your questions, might you do the same for me?”

“I suppose…” Katrisha said uncertain what Mercu was asking any more.

“What did you fight with Catherine about?” Mercu asked.

“She was being very mean to one of the servants,” Katrisha said with a stern frown, “made her cry.  I told her she shouldn’t be mean, and she yelled at me for spying…but…I wasn’t, not really…not much.”

Mercu laughed.  “Spying isn’t nice.  This is why you should never get caught.  Not that it’s stopped you so far.”  He looked thoughtful for a moment.  “How did she make the servant cry?”

“I couldn’t quite hear.”  Katrisha frowned.  “Something about getting something.”

“Well, that is what servants generally do,” Mercu said distantly, obviously working something over in his head.

“She still didn’t have to be so mean,” Katrisha said stubbornly.  “She was threatening the girl, something about a secret.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mercu said with a convincing false smile.  “Go play with your sister.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“I’ve one account as to what that was about, but I find I am curious of yours,” Mercu asked kindly of Catherine, who had been staring out the window in the middle of the grand stair behind the royal antechambers.

“I will see the girl dismissed, and assure she never finds a position again,” Catherine said in a measured, but vehemently furious tone.

“And then how will she eat?” Mercu pressed.

“The little thief can rot for all I care,” Catherine growled.

“Did you find something missing?”

Catherine glared at Mercu.

“Someone put her up to finding something, didn’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Then blame whoever coerced the poor girl, not her.  She is hardly the first in these halls to find herself a victim of you all scheming against one another.”

“She claimed not to know who had demanded it of her, nor could I wrest what secret was being held over her head from her lips, before that little spy interfered.”

“I’ll note her spying has been of some use,” Mercu countered.

“Yes…use,” Catherine said with displeasure.

“Do you object that justice was done?” Mercu asked rhetorically.  He knew her better than that, or at least he liked to think he did.

“You know that is not my concern,” Catherine said, and turned to glare out the window again.  “It was justice at a cost, one that we cannot yet judge, but is already very high.  Arlen is up to something new after that falling out in court, I do not know what, but I know that he is, desperation is making him bold.”

“It was justice, plain and simple,” Mercu said flatly.  “We cannot play the game of placation forever.  Something will give, and Arlen is holding a losing hand.”

Catherine looked at him, her expression hard to read, anger touched with sorrow.  “I do not know what to do with you,” she finally said.  “Sometimes I think you a better man than most in these halls…and others…”

“I do aim to be trouble,” Mercu bowed slightly.  “Yet always in the best sorts of ways.”

“Yes…trouble.”  Catherine sighed exasperatedly, and looked back out the window with less ire, softening to something that seemed more sadness than her former rage, though her nails still dug at her thumb in a bad habit, one Mercu had caught before playing cards against the woman.

“Do you know at least what she was looking for?”

“No,” Catherine said firmly, but Mercu suspected otherwise.  The fidgeting with her fingers was like when she was bluffing.

“Well that is peculiar,” Mercu acknowledged, hiding that he knew she was lying.

“Very.”

“Did she find it?” he said doubling back, trying to catch her off guard.

“I am through being questioned,” Catherine snapped, her fists clenched at her sides.

“I shall simply wait for a servant girl to be dismissed, and question her.”

“Then I will bide my time, and see her dismissed when you can no longer be certain,” Catherine cut back.

“I am sure Katrisha can identify the girl for me.”

Catherine glared at him again, and then looked back out the window.  “If you wish me to permit the girl to stay, then leave me be, but I will not have her enter my chambers again.”

“As you wish, fair lady,” Mercu bowed.

Catherine huffed in protest.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 23rd, 645 E.R.

A bolt of lightning shattered a glimmering shard of ice high above the cliffs below the west tower at Broken Hill.

“Hey!” Katrisha snapped at her sister.

“Sorry,” Kiannae sighed.  “I just wanted to see if I could do it.  You are better at that spell than I am, and I’m bored.”

“Well try the fire again, leave my spells alone.”

Kiannae conjured a sputtering ball of fire, and sent it zipping into the distance, though it whiffed out only a few hundred feet away.

“Better,” Katrisha said encouragingly.

Kiannae shrugged, and leaned back against the wall of their window seat.

Katrisha reached out again.  The weaving of an icicle was an oddly natural thing for her.  It was almost the form of her magic to begin with.  A small crystalline arc, a thing that slipped from her finger from a jagged web that had woven up her hand, a shape just as the form would be, roughed and faceted and sharper than any razor.  Air frozen denser than diamond, the atmosphere before it collapsed, the pressure behind it pushed forward.  It slipped frictionless, a perfect mirrored surface cutting through the vacuum left as it formed.

As it zipped away it was again shattered by lightning.  Katrisha gave her sister a dirty look, and Kiannae just shrugged and smriked.

“Well, you are better at that than I am,” Katrisha said crossing her arms.  “And with raw force.”

“Not much fun without a target,” Kiannae countered.  “Are you sure those ice shards are safe to be shooting off like that, won’t they come down somewhere?”

Katrisha shook her head.  “My math says they will reach escape velocity well before the spell wears off.”  Katrisha sent another one flying, this time much faster, Kiannae’s bolt missed and formed a ball that wove about a bit in the air before it dissipated.

“That was interesting,” Kiannae remarked, and tired to repeat it to little results.  The charge she had formed did not want to leap to the empty space.  She carefully grounded it into the stone of the castle slowly, lest it leave a mark.

“What are you two doing?” Laurel demanded having entered the room unnoticed.

“Just practicing,” Katrisha said defensively.

“We want to be prepared if we have to fight again,” Kiannae added.

“After South Rook, and the cougar,” Katrisha added.

Laurel sighed, and rubbed his forehead.  “Please don’t throw spells out the windows.  I’ll see if I can get you some time to practice with proper targets, where you can’t do any harm.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 24th, 645 E.R.

Katrisha peered down over the parapet she sat upon, and into the courtyard below.  “Are you sure about this?” she asked uncertainly.

“I haven’t had any trouble so far,” Kiannae said perched on her toes at the very edge.

“I have,” Katrisha said nervously.

“You stopped yourself just fine, you just didn’t account for forward momentum,” Kiannae chided.

“And almost slid off the roof,” Katrisha grumbled.

“Well, that’s not a problem here, is it,” she said pointedly.  “Besides, I’ll catch you if you get it wrong.”  With that she jumped, and and rolled into a tight ball as she fell a good thirty-five feet before spreading her arms in a sweeping gesture, and stopping about three feet off the ground.  Katrisha could see the grass and surrounding bushes blow about wildly for just a moment as Kiannae gracefully stuck the landing from the last few feet.

The guards at the keep door turned to stare at the young mage who seemed to have simply appeared out of nowhere only a few dozen feet away.  They looked at each other, and then up where Katrisha was now standing, just in time to catch a glimpse of her perched on the edge before she jumped.  Katrisha did just as her sister had before her, but stopped a good seven feet up, instead of three.

Realizing her mistake, Katrisha quickly tried again as she started to fall the rest of the way.  She stopped just an inch above the ground, but failed to keep her balance as she landed, and fell flat on her back.  “Ow,” she muttered, and and reached to rub her head.

“Good work,” Kiannae laughed, “except for the landing part.”

“I’d say you do better…but I guess you already did,” Katrisha growled.

“Come on then, on to the archery range,” Kiannae laughed and headed on.

“Can we skip the rest of the shortcuts please?” Katrisha asked hopefully, getting to her feet.

“You can if you want,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “I intend to practice.”

“Oh, so it’s going to be like that,” Katrisha said as she dusted herself off, and then sprinted past her sister.  Kiannae blinked with surprise, and ran after her.  A hand full of people around the courtyard watched the ensuing race curiously, and all with equal disbelief gasped as Katrisha vaulted over the rail at the edge of the upper courtyard, with her sister following close behind.

Katrisha timed her deceleration better, stopping only two feet off the ground, but failed to get all of her forward momentum, and was forced to roll out of her landing.  She scrambled to her feet with what was left of her grace, as Kiannae landed just behind her.  “Sloppy landing again sister,” Kiannae yelled.

“Still ahead,” Katrisha called back as she ran on.

As the pair bolted past the castle gate they were given strange looks by guards who opted not to interfere.  Katrisha leapt from the steep hill beside the road leading out of the castle gate, and this time rather than trying to stop herself turned her fall into more forward movement, clearing the bottom of the slope of the hill, and then a bit awkwardly stopped herself at the bottom, sending a wild shock wave out through the air.  The air snapped back with enough force that she stumbled on her landing.

Kiannae watched the maneuver, impressed with the ingenuity, if not the execution.  Refusing to be outdone she did the same, and leapt from the hill, propelled herself forward, and rolled gracefully out of her landing when she slowed herself at the bottom.  Katrisha had already managed to get back to her feet, and the two were now tied as they ran into the archery range.

“Not bad Kat, not bad,” Kiannae laughed between gasps for breath.

“That was an interesting show over there,” a man with a bow slung over his shoulder said as he approached the pair.  “Can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone  jump off that hill before.”

“You should have seen us off the keep wall,” Kiannae laughed.

“Indeed,” the man said with a raised eyebrow.  “I do not believe we have met, I am Bern, and I assume you are the infamous twins.  I was told you had been granted use of the archery range, to practice things other than archery.”

“Yes,” Katrisha said rubbing her neck that was a bit sore from her tumbles, “Laurel has given us permission to experiment with offensive spells.  Though he stressed ‘no giant balls of fire’ rather strongly.”

“That would be appreciated,” Bern said with a dark laugh, “as the targets are mostly straw.  As you will ladies, I’ll be watching if you don’t mind.”

“I never mind an audience,” Kiannae said with a smug grin.

“Shall we start with ice?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“You would chose ice,” Kiannae muttered.

Katrisha eyed the distant target, and carefully started to form the spell, which flew from her hands and accelerated to the target.  The narrow shard of ice nicked the edge of the target, and flew past shattering on the base of the castle wall.

“Well, you gave it enough force, but the aim needs work,” Kiannae remarked, building up her own spell.

“That is what we are here for,” Katrisha shrugged, as Kiannae released her spell which stuck in the second outer ring but bounced off, and slowly steamed away on the ground.  “Not bad, not as much force, but better accuracy I must admit.”  Katrisha began to wind up her spell, and released it with as much force as the first one, but this time landed a hit on the second inner ring that passed right through the target board, and buried itself in the ground behind.

“Very good,” Kiannae acknowledged grudgingly, as she prepared her next shot.

Katrisha considered the way it formed, there was a coiling nature to the magic, rather than crystalline.  It worked all the same, it was just the shape was wrong.  The curls sent the thing spinning which only made it fly straighter, but the initial direction was uncontrollably in question.  By chance more than anything Katrisha was sure, it struck with enough force to push its blunted end through the board in the second inner ring.

“Likewise,” Katrisha said unleashing her spell with more force than the first two.  The spear of ice was also much larger this time, and shattered the target board outright through the bullseye, and stuck the castle wall shattering in a glimmering cloud, and leaving a small mark.

“Hmph,” Kiannae said admitting momentary defeat on that one.

“Sorry about the target,” Katrisha said turning to Bern with a slight bow.

“It happens…I guess,” Bern said a bit bewildered.  He had watched Laurel practice once or twice, but he was always more reserved than it seemed the two twins before him were inclined to be.

“Fire next?” Kiannae asked.

“Alright, but keep it small, and we’ll take turns putting it out on impact,” Katrisha said flatly.

“Very well,” Kiannae said carefully weaving a spell that ripped the air up into combustible materials, which burned in a continuous chain reaction.  Slowly a small spark grew into a fist sized ball of fire, which she directed forcefully towards a new target, but it sputtered out just short of impact, making it’s accuracy impossible to judge.

“Not a bad first try,” Katrisha said weaving her own spell, which she sent flying into the target.  A distinct burn mark was made across several of the inner rings, and smoke began to waft from inside.  Kiannae quickly snuffed out the fire transferring all its heat to a spot on the ground next to her which turned black, and briefly smoldered.

Kiannae frowned, and tried again, building the ball of fire, and releasing it.  It veered off course just before the target, and clipped the edge which immediately burst into flame as the spell dissipated.

Katrisha reached out her hand, and the flames extinguished, and a shimmer of frost formed on the target as a scorched spot formed on the ground before it.  “Better than the first try,” Katrisha said consolingly.

“Bah, lightning then,” Kiannae said irritably, and almost before the words were out of her mouth there was a tingle in the air.  Lightning was not at all the shape of her magic, which seemed more like the forces of swirling air, friction knocking loose energy, a charge built along the a coiled line, and then snapped to the path of least resistance as it was discharged into the target.  To gifted senses it was there barely a moment before the flash, a spiraling tree of spell lines that spelled powerful doom for whatever was on the other end.

The bullseye sizzled for several seconds, blackened with little embers, but it did not quite catch fire.

“Um, good shot,” Katrisha said, and tried to replicate the feat, but her spell took longer to form, and struck the outer ring rather than the center.  “I guess we each have our strengths,” she laughed.  “Still I’m two for three dear sister.”

“Oh really,” Kiannae said picking up a small rock from nearby, and sending it flying through the inner ring of the target, which splintered slightly on impact.  The rock carried through, and hit the castle wall with enough force to shatter.  “I count two and two now, your turn,” Kiannae challenged.

Katrisha picked up a stone as well, and tried, her shot hit the outer ring, with enough force to pass through, but not enough to quite reach the castle wall.  “Yes, it seems you are right, two and two.” Katrisha turned to the archery master behind her.  “Bern, would you be so kind as to fire some arrows for us.”

“Um, I suppose,” Bern said a bit confused by the request, and grabbed a bow and quiver from a rack near where he sat.  He plucked an arrow from his quiver, and drew his bow string with practiced grace.

“What are you playing at?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“Defensive magic,” Katrisha said as Bern released the first arrow.  Katrisha’s hand shot out at the same moment, and the arrow fell, encased in steaming ice just short of the target.

“Not bad,” Kiannae admitted, “but what did you do with the energy?”

“Nothing yet,” Katrisha said and threw a ball of fire at the ground before the target.

“If you would fire another one,” Kiannae said turning to Bern, who had a bit of an annoyed expression.  He obviously did not like being shown that his well honed skills with a bow were effectively useless against even these two young mages.

“Very well,” he said nocking another arrow, and let it fly.  This one though was struck by an arc of lightning from Kiannae’s hand, which continued down into the ground as the arrow disintegrated in flight, the head flipping off, and landing in the dirt.

“How quickly can you fire those off?” Katrisha asked.

“Fairly,” Bern said with a touch of irritation.

“Would you be so kind as to fire as quickly as you can?” Katrisha asked, “don’t worry about accuracy, just speed.”

“If you insist,” Bern said with a sigh, and quickly began knocking and releasing arrows at about a rate of one every second and a half.

Katrisha closed her eyes, and the arrows began dropping one after another, all covered in a thin shimmering layer of frost.  Slowly a glimmering haze formed around the target, and Kiannae realized that Katrisha was simply pulling all of the energy out of that region, rather than focusing on any one arrow.

Not ready to be beaten Kiannae began flicking the arrows off course, causing them to miss the target, and the protective shield Katrisha had formed around it.  Katrisha took all the energy she had stored up, and quickly started incinerating the deflected arrows, until finally Bern stopped, and walked away.  “I’m through feeling useless, do as you will,” he said cutting off any question.

Katrisha released the remaining energy she had stored up in small plume of flame that burst from the ground a short distance away, and left a small patch of black glass in its wake.  “So, I’m better with ice, and fire, you seem to have lightning, and good old kinetics down, but who’s stronger?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Seems like comparing apples, and oranges to me,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“Well, it’s not about which one tastes better, it’s about how big a hole it can make,” Katrisha laughed.  She gathered all of her strength, and threw a spear of ice as big as her head, and as long as her arm at the castle wall.  It cut into the stone like clay, and sat there steaming.

Kiannae picked up a small stone, and looked at it with an underwhelmed expression, refusing to give up without trying she sent it flying with all the power she could muster.  The stone struck the castle wall and simply disappeared in a large cloud of dust.  As the dust settled, the crater the impact left could be plainly seen, as well as cracks radiating out along the stone.

Not quite satisfied that her feat merited a tie Kiannae threw a huge arc of lightning at one of the targets, which burst into roaring flames.  Katrisha took just a moment to focus, and the target next to Kiannae’s burst into a pillar of fire, just as Kiannae’s was snuffed out, and a thin shimmering layer of frost formed on the ground around Katrisha’s target, and out in a great circle that encompassed the other.

Kiannae glared at Katrisha and made lightning jump between all of the targets, which all billowed smoke, and then fire.  Katrisha quickly responded by snuffing all the flames at once, leaving a thick layer of frost on the ground, then completely incinerated one the the targets in a flash that left nothing but smoldering ash.

“What in the abyss,” Bern yelled waving his hands, “get off my archery range, both of you!  Laurel will hear of this.  Go!”  Both girls seemed suddenly to come to their senses, realized what they had done, and bolted.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Unacceptable,” Laurel growled, and resumed drumming his fingers as he had been since the girls entered the tower library.  He ignored the old kitten Mar trying to nuzzle his head under his hand, which did nothing to help his attempt to look stern and disapproving.  “But not unexpected, I suppose.  Still, for getting carried away you went a bit farther that I had feared.  Destroyed target dummies, I expected, though not all of them, still it is what they are for, but holes, however small in the castle wall…dear fates do you have no sense between you?”

“I…am sorry,” Kiannae started.

“I did more of the damage,” Katrisha said with just a touch of disingenuous pride creeping in.  “It just didn’t seem…like a big deal.  We didn’t put holes through the walls, just…some small dents in a couple of stones.”

“No, and had you actually put holes through the wall…this would be another conversation entirely,” Laurel sighed, as he also relented to absently pet the insistent cat.  “I sent you out there in part because I needed to know just how carried away you would get.  However, I did not hope for this result.  Even if to a degree I expected it, this still does not excuse the behavior.”

“I’m sorry,” Katrisha finally added in turn to her sister’s prior apology.

“Even if I accept these apologies as fully genuine, there is also the issue of jumping off walls, and hills…no, something must still be done,” Laurel grumbled.  “You need discipline, and I have been considering for some time sending you to Horence for training.  Starting tomorrow, every morning, and every evening you will be learning stave fighting techniques.  You will need to be up at dawn.”

“Why?” Kiannae protested.

“Because I said to, it’s part of the whole discipline thing,” Laurel snapped, and then sighed.  He picked up the cat that was rooting at his hand protesting the crime of not being petted for even a second, “now go to your room, and stay there.”  He watched as Katrisha moved as though about to speak again, and cut her off, “Now.  And no more ‘short cuts’ either.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 25th, 645 E.R.

Horence eyed his two new recruits with clear frustration.  “I will make no pretenses that I am not fond of the pair of you,” he growled, “but I’ve heard of your antics, and I will have none of it.  I will train you as any new recruits, though the specifics of the request for your training are…not something we normally specialize in.  Still the general principles of close spear, and polearm combat should carry over well enough to staves, and I’ve spared with Laurel enough to know what he wants you to learn.”

“I still don’t understand what we are to gain from this,” Kiannae protested.

Horence picked up one of the staves that was leaned against the wall near him, and without warning swung at Kiannae, but stopped just short of landing the blow, she flinched far too late to have done herself any good.  “For now, you will ask permission to speak like any recruit.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Kiannae said meekly, and gently pushed the stave away from her shoulder.

“It’s not that the question isn’t fair, mind you,” Horence said beginning to pace before the pair.  “Ignorant, but as Laurel has told me in the past, ‘ignorance can be cured.’  I’ve heard you can stop an arrow in flight, and perhaps your magic in time could bring down an army.  Perhaps this is all true, but stopping ninety-nine out of a hundred men will still leave you dead, by the one who got through.  At close quarters, blind sided by a strong man with a sword your magic may not save you.”

Horence paused to see if either girl would speak up again, “Rely on your magic if you will, make it the heart of your defense, but it won’t protect you from the blow you didn’t see coming.  You will learn to see it coming, you will learn how to fight, so that you can know how your enemy may attack you.  Am I understood?”

“Are we expected to fight?” Katrisha asked with a touch of confusion, and quickly added at Horence’s reproving glare, “if I might ask.”

“You are expected to know how,” Horence lectured.  “Avrale has an army not because we are at war, or even have been in centuries, but because we must be prepared to defend ourselves.  There will always be those with ill intent, or who will act violently to take what they want, if you haven’t been paying attention Osyrae is no longer our friend, and bandits have plagued the north.  The army protects us not just from threats beyond, but from within.  These skills shall be to you as the army is to Avrale.  They shall keep the peace, and protect you, if the worst is to come, even if the ‘diplomacy’ of your magic keeps such dangers at bay.  Now, am I understood?”

“Yes,” the girls said in unison.

“Good, then we begin,” Horence said and tossed a stave to Kiannae, who caught it, and another to Katrisha who fumbled the catch.

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Chapter 13

Upon the rock we stand,
above the sheltered bay,
watch over passing ships,
come with war or trade,

none shall carry us away,
ever we stand our own,
ne’er harm from the sea,
come to Avrale our home.

– The Watches of Wesrook, circa 40 B.E.

The Tower of Wesrook

Entering the courtyard of the Castle of Wesrook was not entirely unlike entering the lower court at Broken Hill.  Though as there was no upper court above, the keep doors stood prominently at one end, and the main tower loomed above, and drew one’s eyes up.  It was in fact slightly taller than the western spire at Broken Hill, slightly wider, but gave the illusion of being much more so.

The castle was situated just north of the rocky breakwater that formed Wesrook bay.  Even over the clamor of the city behind them, still murmuring into the evening, one could hear the crash of waves beneath the cliffs.  Four children piled out of the coach, followed by Mercu, and Laurel, as Horence dropped from the front, and patted, and rubbed the horse reassuringly.

A well dressed older gentleman walked up to greet the company, bowed to Charles, and nodded to Mercu curiously.  “Young Lord, and good sir,” he addressed Charles, and Mercu.  “Welcome to Wesrook – our Lady shall be along shortly, but the Duke Regent is indisposed for company this evening.”

“Chamberlain Faren,” Charles said in a manner that almost seemed pleased.

The twins were still on the far side of the coach with Laurel, and when Faren looked to Wren, with his long hair, he came to the wrong conclusion.  “Ah, is this one of the twins we’ve all heard of?”

Charles looked at Wren, and then laughed.  “That’s their brother,” he said just as the other’s rounded the coach.  “Though I can understand the confusion, he does rather look like a girl, doesn’t he.  Probably his upbringing.”

“Ah,” Faren said a bit embarrassed, “my apologies young sir.”  Wren nodded to Faren, but gave Charles a bit of an unkind look, as Laurel and the twins emerged from behind the coach.  “Court Mage Grey,” Faren said with a bow, “and these then, must be your twin apprentices.  We were not informed their brother would be joining them.”

“A last minute addition to our company, my apologies if it cause any trouble Faren,” Laurel nodded.

“No,” Faren said, “there is plenty of room in the tower, and the Lady does adore children.”

“That I do,” said a woman approaching from the direction of the keep.  She was tall, and elegant with flowing blond hair that wafted about as she walked.  She carried herself with a grace, and purpose, that contradicted the readiness with which she knelt down, and hugged Charles as she reached him.

“Hello mother,” Charles muttered with a clear air of embarrassment, but returned the embrace nonetheless.  She kissed her son on the forehead, and then stood up, taking stalk of the new arrivals.

“Laurel, Mercu, so good to see you,” the Lady said with a nod.

“Likewise Lady Meloria,” Mercu said with one of his more exaggerated bows.

“The twins are growing up quite nicely I see,” Meloria said with a smile, “They put on quite the show last I saw them.”  Katrisha, and Kiannae each shot each other a confused look.  “We were not properly introduced, so I am not surprised you do not recognize me,” Meloria added with a smile.

“You do look familiar,” Kiannae said.

“I believe I saw you dancing with Prince Darion,” Katrisha added.

“Ah, very good,” Meloria said.  “Yes, Darion was so sweet to offer to dance with me when my husband left early for the evening.”

“I’d have done the service myself,” Mercu said apologetically, “alas I was otherwise occupied.”

“Yes, with these two lasses here.”  Meloria laughed.  “The show was quite worth it, I assure you.”

A little golden haired girl about two years younger than the twins bounded across the courtyard, and all but pounced onto Charles.  “Charlie!” the girl squealed.

“Hello, Millarae,” Charles acknowledged with further embarasment, and hugged her.

“Your sister has been ever so anxious for your arrival,” Meloria commented.  “Then of course she took forever getting ready.  You should however call your brother by his proper name,” she admonished the girl lightly.

“Sorry Charles,” Millarae said sweetly.

Horence handed the reins of the horse over to the stable attendant, and came around to where the group was standing.  “My Lady,” he said with a bow.

“Horence, good Sir!” Meloria proclaimed, to Horence’s obvious surprise.  “How is your dear Alice?  Any children on the way?”  Horence looked more than a little uncomfortable.  “Have I been too forward?” Meloria asked apologetically.

“No,” Horence said.  “It is not something we had chosen to share yet.”

“Ah,” Meloria remarked thoughtfully.  “My apologies.  Come,” Meloria said gesturing towards the keep, “dinner will be served shortly.”

Katrisha tugged at Horence’s coat hem as the group walked towards the keep.  “Alice is having a baby?” she asked when Horence acknowledged her.

“Yes,” Horence answered simply trying to smile at the inquisitive little girl.

“Why haven’t you two told anyone?” Kiannae chimed in.

“Leave Horence alone you two,” Laurel scolded lightly, as he could see the poor man was a bit put out by the questions, and he suspected why.

“It’s alright,” Horence said somberly.  “It’s cause the first didn’t take, and we wanted to give this one time, to be sure.”  Horence said in a matter of fact tone, but his face betrayed his even demeanor.

“Why…” Katrisha started to ask, but stopped as Mercu gave her a stern look, which actually carried more weight than any scolding from Laurel, as it came so rarely.  Mercu patted Horence on the back consolingly, and they all walked into the keep.

Within the doors things were quite different from Broken Hill.  Rather than a corridor, with a throne room past it, a round room greeted the visitors upon entry.  It was not entirely unlike the throne room, as a balcony overlooked the lower floor, but there was no throne, and only a few benches were set against the wall, between stands holding vases, and other decorations.

At the far end of the foyer stairs followed the curve of the wall up to the balcony, and this was the way Meloria lead her guests.  “I hope you do not mind that we will be dining upstairs,” Meloria commented.  “I much prefer the rear dining hall for smaller affairs, it’s more intimate, and has a view out over the water.  You’ve arrived just in time for the last of sunset.”

“That’s fine,” Laurel said, “our apologies for the late arrival, it’s a long way from Aldermor, but we thought it better to try in a day rather than stop along the way.”

“Yes, it’s a tricky choice that,” Meloria acknowledged.  “I swear every other time I make the trip I change my mind on it, and neither way quite feels right.”

“One of these days they will have to invent a better horse,” Mercu suggested jokingly.

“They’ve already done that,” Laurel noted.  “Not many have bothered with the expense though.  So few people have the knack for shaper magic any more – though I have heard there may be a wild dire herd in Lycia that has promise for a sustainable breed.”

“I’ll have to have my steward look into that,” Meloria commented.  “My husband will give me some hassle on the expense I am sure, but to be able to more regularly visit my son would be worth bargaining with him over.”

Katrisha eyed the way young Millarae hung on her brother’s arm, and wondered if maybe Charles wasn’t as bad as she often thought him to be, if the little girl adored him so.  The girl looked up at her curiously, and Katrisha smiled back.

At the top of the stairs the party turned right down a well adorned corridor, and promptly arrived at double doors that opened on a small dining hall, big enough to seat about twelve.  The room was bathed in deep orange light from the setting sun that licked the distant hills of Carth, and flashed off the waves crossing the vast expanse of water below.

Though this sight held everyone’s attention for a moment, but it was impossible to ignore for long a well dressed man with pitch black skin who sat at the right end of the table.  At a glance one not familiar with his countrymen could be forgiven for mistaking him for the man from the city square.  Such however was clearly impossible, as that man could not have arrived before the coach that had passed him.  Further, upon closer examination he clearly had a much squarer jaw, and then all else could nearly be forgotten for a glimmer of his violet eyes.

“Might I introduce his Lordship Varmun Iverhn,” Meloria said addressing the new arrivals.  “He’s something of a remarkable man.  Born a royal to a tribe of the deep Northern Wastes, he has become a man of the sea, a trader, a diplomat, and even a musician.”  The man stood, and bowed.  “These,” Meloria continued in turn, “are Court Mage Grey, Sir Horence, Mercu, the young Ladies Ashton, their brother, and of course my son Charles.”

“A pleasure,” Varmun said in an almost frighteningly deep resonant voice with a thick unfamiliar accent.  “The Lady speaks far too kindly of me.”

“On the contrary,” Meloria protested, and guided her guests toward seats. “I dare say your story is more remarkable than I have let on.”  The three siblings were seated on the near side of the table, with Kiannae nearest the curious foreigner, Katrisha beside her, then Wren, and Mercu.  Laurel was offered the seat at the left end, and Meloria took a seat between her children with their backs to the view, leaving two seats open for Horence who sat at the far right of the table next to the stranger.

“Do please, tell your story again,” Meloria said insistently.

“It’s not so much,” the man said in his thick voice.  “I did only what many men so placed might have.”

“If many men of your land are so bold, or talented as you,” Meloria refuted, “I do not think you would be seeking allies so.  Osyrae would not stand a chance.”

Varmun laughed lightly, though even this was a bit of a low rumble.  “There are many quite bold in my land,” he replied, “but those of Osyrae are cold, cruel, and just as bold.”

“So they are,” Meloria nodded, “though not all of course.”

“No, not all of course,” Varmun admitted.  “Those who I am unfortunately most acquainted, have harassed, and enslaved my kind since before living memory.  Even the eldest shamans say it was so before their fathers, fathers, fathers.”

“You still have shamans in the north?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Oh yes, many,” Varmun nodded.  “I think there are more shamans left than free common men in the north.  Osyrae has enslaved all who can not fend for themselves.  The shamans have lead the free together, and ever farther north, to the deepest oasis.  I myself have the blood, as a chieftain’s son.”

“Does that make you a prince?” Katrisha asked.

“Much less I think,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “my father is Second Chief of the combined tribes, and I his fourth child, and third son, by his second wife.”

“Second wife?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“You have not yet heard of our First Chief,” Varmun said with a flash of white teeth between his deep burgundy lips.  “She has three husbands, and is the most powerful of all the shamans, she is.”

“How a woman could ever bare even two husbands I’ll never imagine,” Meloria laughed lightly, drawing a chuckle from Mercu.

“I was not so important by my birth,” Varmun continued, “not the most gifted of my father’s children, or even the strongest.”

“Yet the most clever,” Meloria offered.

“Hmm, yes,” Varmun nodded, “or so my mother would tell me.  Perhaps she is right, I can not say.  I did find I had more a way for the mage’s tricks, which did not earn me much more love.”

“I can not imagine why, your magic is spectacular,” Meloria protested.

“I have been told it is a gift all my own,” Varmun admitted, “but illusions are not much use – not compared to my eldest brother who’s strong as a wild dune walker, or my sister whose voice can bring any man, or woman to their knees, and call the wind to dance.”

“What’s a dune walker?” Katirsha asked.

“Perhaps I should show you,” Varmun hummed, and closed his eyes.  A swirl of dancing light formed to his right, and traced out the contours of a great horned head, and ears which hung as large sheets that flapped back, and forth occasionally.  The light traced back along a stout neck, to thick shoulders, and down legs at their narrowest point as hefty as a grown man’s chest.  A low slung belly, and high humped back formed last, and vanished back through the wall.

“They are noble, but fierce beasts of burden.”  Varmun smiled, and looked over the awestruck party.  Horence could be seen to lean slightly away as the apparition shifted its stance in his direction.  It started to unravel, and began to reform into a tall, broad shouldered man whose chest was indeed wider than the former illusions legs.  “This of course is my eldest brother, do you see the resemblance?”  He laughed leadingly.

The second form came apart in a swirl of birds that swooped around Varmun, and formed another luminous image to his left, that took on the face of a slender woman, with short densely curled hair.  “My sister,” Varmun said, and the woman bowed, before dancing across the room, and vanishing through a wall.

“That is a very impressive technique,” Laurel said shrewdly.  “I must say, I’ve only once seen the like.  A mage who fancied himself an entertainer.  His illusions were almost as elegant, but much smaller.  That swarm of birds would have been past his limit.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “You see, I am nothing special, even my gift is not unique.”

“Yet what you have done,” Meloria protested.  “Taking your small share of wealth, and turning it into a trading empire, all to travel far, and wide in search of allies for your people.”

“Wealth I have found,” Varmun nodded.  “A good life even, but allies, less so,” Varmun said sadly.

“I fear the Duke Regent, and myself each lack any authority on the matter,” Meloria said looking to Laurel.

“I can not say I agree with the Council on this,” Laurel offered carefully.  “Yet the treaty does not cover the lands north of Osyrae, and I fear they have lost the will to act, even if it did.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “So I have been told.  They will march south again you know, it is their way.”

“I know,” Laurel answered, “it seems inevitable.  Their great interest in your lands is resources, the deep desert mines are filled with rare, and precious stones.  Not the least of which is Amberite.  If they intend war, they will want as much of that as they can have.”

“Indeed,” Varmun agreed.  “We are nothing more than a practice war for them, in preparation for their real goals.  For the moment at least they remain unwilling to commit to more, so your Council, and your Kings ignore them.”

“We do not ignore,” Laurel said solemnly, “but we cannot act.  At best we start a war without support, at worst we find ourselves between Osyrae and the Council.”

Varmun looked sadly out to the darkening sky.  “As I say, I am not so much.  I try, and try, but this is always the answer.”

“What will you do?” Katrisha asked.

“As I have,” Varmun said looking to the little girl.  “I shall continue my travels, head south to other lands again.  Seek audience with the White One.”

“I wish you luck,” Laurel said hesitantly.

“I know I have little chance of gaining such favor,” Varmun said sternly.  “Yet as you say, if the Council will not aid us, only the former Empress sits beyond their authority.”

“There is little hope of her involving herself, unless the Black Flight joins Osyrae’s campaign.”  Laurel grimaced at his own framing.

“So it is, but what other choice do I have?” Varmun shrugged.

“None I fear,” Laurel admitted.  “It is no more a fool’s errand than to head east to Mordove, and there is the frightful possibility that Vharen will somehow drag the Black Flight to his side.  That I could only hope would move her…”

“A terrible thing to hang hopes upon,” Varmun said with displeasure.

“Yes,” Laurel said with a nod.  “It seemed he thought his conquest of a lesser dragon would win them over.  If anything, I personally expected the capital to be burned to the ground for the slight.”

“I have heard of this madness,” Varmun said narrowing his eyes.  “It is true then?”

“Yes,” Laurel said.  “Though nothing has happened so far, either way.  It is almost like the whole thing never happened – though reports say he has less humor than ever.  I consider that a good sign, such as they come.  That he won no favors for his theatrics.”

“Enough of such trying matters,” Meloria interjected as food began to arrive.

“Quite right,” Varmun agreed, seeming more cordial than genuine, there was still a sternness to his air.  “I am delighted to see what new your chef has created.”

“Of all the accomplishments Meloria listed,” Mercu remarked, “I fear we heard nothing of your music.”

Varmun’s posture softened, and he let out a long breath.  “Yes.  Though I was of music long before I became a man of the world.  I fear I left my instruments in my room.”

“You play more than one then?” Mercu asked.

“Three,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “more or less.  There is a flute like instrument native to my people, I learned to play when I was a boy.  The captain I hired for the first ship I bought played a violin, and taught me in the time he was in my employ.”

“And the third?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Well, that I do carry with me,” Varmun laughed.  With a wave of his hand strings of light formed before him of varied lengths, he plucked several experimentally.  There was a barely audible ring with each, halfway between a plucked cord, and a rung bell.  He ran his fingers along several of the strings, and then without further hesitation began to play a haunting melody, as food was placed at the table.

“Is it not spectacular?” Meloria asked pointedly.

“Quite,” Mercu remarked.

“It’s very clever,” Laurel nodded.  “Strung spell filaments tuned to musical chords, and solidified enough to interact with the air.  Much more portable than even the lightest instrument.”

“I think it’s lovely,” Kiannae said leaning against the table, and listening intently.

“It sounds like the lights,” Wren said with a furrowed brow.

“The lights?” Laurel asked curiously.

“The ones from the woods,” Wren said staring at the strings.

“I think he may mean wisps,” Mercu said incredulously.

“Wisps don’t…” Laurel started before Mercu interrupted.

“I know.”  Mercu sighed.  “Renae might have mentioned something about seeing wisps around him.  Though that was several years ago.”

“That is also something Wisps do not do,” Laurel shook his head.

The music stopped, and Varmun seemed to be considering the boy who was staring at him intently.  “Wisps,” he said thoughtfully.  “There are lights in the desert, as well as your forests.  There was a girl who’s mother died in childbirth, she was touched all her days, and would be seen to walk into the night, and the lights would come to her.”

Wren looked away.  “I see,” Varmun nodded, “my apologies.”

“A terrible business that,” Meloria nodded.

Katrisha pulled her brother closer.  “It’s ok,” she said softly.

“Let us eat,” Merloria suggested.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 7th, 644 E.R.

Katrisha lay staring out into the night – she had been for some time.  It was well after midnight, and she could not sleep.  She rolled over gently, and looked at her twin in the moonlight.  Kiannae was fast asleep, her face half buried in a pillow.  Katrisha closed her eyes, and listened to the rhythm of waves breaking far beneath the tower as she had for hours.  A faint melodic sound could be heard somewhere far away.  Completely frustrated, she slipped out of bed carefully, so as not to wake her sister.

Katrisha’s robe hung in a wardrobe by the door.  She put it on, gently opened, and then closed the chamber door behind her.  The hallway was very dark, and with a wave of her hand a bright blue orb illuminated her surroundings.  The distant sound of music could still be heard, and she strained to tell which direction it was from.  Deciding it was right she headed that way, and down a flight of stairs to a lower level of the tower.  As she passed westward windows out over the ocean she could hear the music more clearly above the rumble of crashing waves.

Down another flight of stairs Katrisha came to double doors, one of which stood half open onto a large moonlit balcony.  She waved away her light, and peaked through the open door.  There in the moonlight stood Varmun, leaned against the railing casually, staring up into the sky.  He strummed at his conjured harp, which scintillated with ethereal light.  It took a moment for Katrisha to notice he was not alone on the balcony.  Wren was lain against a wall, seemingly asleep.

“Come in,” Varmun said in his deep resonant voice.  “Or out, as it were.”

Katrisha had a start that she had been discovered, and sheepishly stepped out onto the balcony.  “Your brother came not so long ago,” Varmun nodded towards the sleeping boy.  “It seems none of us three could sleep, though it seems I have helped him in that regard.”

“I am sorry to intrude,” Katirsha said with a bow.

“Do not be,” Varmun said, and continued playing.  “This is a public place after all.”

“Why couldn’t you sleep?” Katrisha asked, but then thought perhaps the question was impertinent.

“Why couldn’t you?” Varmun asked in turn.

“I often can’t,” Katrisha admitted, “but I asked first,” she pressed childishly.

“We are much the same in this,” Varmun replied.  “I have always been a night walker.  This was how I knew the girl who called the lights.”

“I’ve heard of wisps before,” Katrisha said thoughtfully, “but never seen one.”

“Most only see them from afar,” Varmun hummed.  “It was only because of Eshai that I have seen one more closely,” there was a strange wistfulness to his voice as he spoke the girl’s name.

“Were you and Eshai close?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps,” Varmun said with an odd wobble of his head.  “She did not speak much, but when she did…”  He hummed deeply.  “She was a beautiful girl,” he sighed.  “Even those who scorned her could not deny this.  A delicate desert flower.  I loved her of course, I was a fool in many ways for this.”

“Why?” Katrisha asked walking closer to the large man whose face was almost a void against the twinkling stars.

“Why did I love her, or why was I a fool?”  Varmun laughed.

“A fool of course.”  Katrisha laughed more awkwardly.

“It is not polite to speak the reason,” Varmun frowned.  “I shall say only she was for no man.  Yet this, he said strumming the luminous strings before him.  One of many tricks I learned from an exiled foreigner, who lived amongst us.  It won me her friendship, if not more.”

Katrisha was curious what he had avoided, but held her tongue on the point.  She asked something else instead.  “Did she hear something else in the music, like Wren seems to?”

Varmun nodded.  “She said the lights whispered secrets, and sometimes those secrets were like a song.”  He ran his fingers along the strings, rather than plucking them.  The sound they made was hard to hear, distant and wavering.  “She said it was like this, but as though words – if not all she could understand.”

“What kind of secrets did they tell her?” Katrisha asked rapt.

“Warnings, portents, true names, and forgotten deeds,” Varmun shrugged.  “The things of seers, but also things they do not see.”

Katrisha frowned.  “I’ve been told not to listen to prophecy.  It’s unreliable.”

“Yes, it is,” Varmun nodded.  “Or so I am told.  To glimpse the future is not to see what will be, but a shifting thread in motion.  Most often you see only where it is, and not quite where it will land.  There is solace in this, that the future is not set in stone.”

“Where is Eshai now?” Katrisha asked leaning against the rail next to Varmun, and peaked over it at the distant shimmering waves below.

“Still home, and safe I hope,” Varmun replied.  “My sister guards her, and none refuse my sister – not father, not the shamans, or even the First Chieftain.  I have seen her voice bring great warriors to their knees.”

“How?” Katrisha asked.

Varmun shrugged.  “Your mages do not know everything, nor our shamans.  There are secrets still in the world, old, potent, and subtle too.  Eshai told me this, and I believe her – I believe also it is she that taught my sister this gift.  For I heard it first from her, to call wisps, wind, a tone command that could move the world, and tremble the land.  She even once called the Lady of the Sands herself.”

Katrisha’s eyes lit up.  “I’ve heard of her, she’s real?”

“Oh yes,” Varmun nodded.  “She comes like snakes whipping across the dune, and then rises ageless, beautiful, and naked as the day we are born.  No shame, and profound pride.  She gave a kiss to each of us three that night, and only I could not hold her gaze.  She made us a castle from the desert sands that stood for two days before it returned to dust.”

“How strange,” Katrisha said.

“Hmm, yes, the castle made the tribe whisper many things,” Varmun agreed.  “The kisses…” he shook his head, thinking better of his musings.

“What of them?” Katrisha pressed curiously.

“They showed me where ever my heart lay, it would have to lay elsewhere,” he answered, and resumed his playing thin lipped, and wove a mournful happy tune.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae stirred, and pulled her blankets more tightly around her.  As her eyes opened she was struck by the empty bed beside her.  It was not like Katrisha to wake before her, and most mornings, at least cool mornings such as it was, Kiannae would find her sister curled up to her.  She sat up groggily, looked around the room, and saw that Katrisha wasn’t in the room at all.

Kiannae walked over to the wardrobe, which had been left partly open.  She Pulled out her own robe, and slipped it on, before opening the door.  No one was around, though she thought she heard voices somewhere.  Taking a guess she walked towards the stairs, and down to a lower level of the tower where she found Laurel engrossed in conversation with Varmun.

“Will you truly not petition the Council on our behalf?” Varmun said a bit irritably.

“You misunderstand me,” Laurel said wincing in frustration.  “I will tell the Council all that you have told me.  Yet I am certain they have heard it all before – even from me they already have third hand reports that Osyrae had turned aggressive towards the north.”

Varmun looked like he wanted to protest further, but did not.

“Where’s Katrisha?” Kianane asked.

Laurel simply shrugged.  Varmun however looked to the little girl, and smiled.  “I believe your twin is in young Wren’s room.”

“Thank you,” Kiannae said, and turned towards the chamber doors.  She found however she wasn’t sure which room was Wren’s.  Mercu emerged from one, and Kiannae walked up to him.  “Which room is Wren’s?” she asked.

Mercu pointed to the room opposite his own, and rubbed his neck.  “Thank you,” Kiannae said again, walked across, and opened the door without knocking.  Katrisha, and Wren were both asleep, curled up together.

Kiannae had a twinge of jealousy.  Katrisha was her twin after all, and though some mornings extracting herself from her sister’s sleepy embrace was a bit of frustrating effort, it always felt nice to wake up to being held.  Kianane was also more than a little perplexed how they had wound up that way.

Kiannae walked over, nudged Katrisha who stirred only slightly.  This however woke Wren who was momentarily startled, and sat up with a start, which threw Katrisha’s arm off him, and rolled her onto her back.  This at least partially woke her.

Katrisha made an unintelligible murmur, and blinked up at her twin.  There was nothing particularly new about this to her at first, as Kiannae was often awake before her, and would wake her up.  She slowly realized that not only Kiannae was dressed, but she was as well.  Slowly she remembered having been too tired when Varmun had carried Wren back to bed, and rolled her head to the left where Wren was rubbing his eyes.

“Morning,” Katrisha half mumbled.

“Why are you down here?” Kiannae half demanded.

“Mmm, couldn’t sleep.”  Katrisha yawned.  “Heard music, and went down stairs, found Varmun playing, and Wren asleep on the balcony.  I think he put us both to bed up here.”

“Ok.” Kiannae frowned, there was still just a twinge of jealousy.  “I’m hungry,” she said putting it aside.  “I hope breakfast is soon.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Breakfast in the westward dining hall was much the same as dinner.  Though with fewer light shows, and far more disheveled children, particularly Katrisha, and Wren who had slept in their robes.  All three had failed to brush their hair by the point Kiannae had insisted she was too hungry, and so Mercu had fetched a brush which they had each been using in turn as food was served.  It not completely up to the best standards of decorum, but was passable for children.

Katrisha, and Kiannae had brushed their own hair in turn, and Katrisha was in the process of brushing Wren’s as their food was set in front of them.  Kiannae continued to having pangs of jealousy, but was feeling stupid, as she hadn’t offered to brush Katrisha’s hair either.

“I know you are not scheduled to stay long,” Meloria asked as her children began poking at their food.  “But what are your plans?”

“I have unexpected matters to attend to with Daven, if the Duke Regent has nothing of importance to report, and remains too unwell to speak with me,” Laurel answered.

“I do wish he would submit to healing, there is no cause to suffering through this cold he has,” Meloria said with some displeasure.

“He’s as devout with his convictions as his brother it seems,” Mercu said in an even, metered tone.

“Oh, I assure you,” Meloria smiled in a faintly disingenuous fashion, “no one is as devout as my husband.  Alas I fear the Duke Regent does not have his brother’s constitution.  No common ailment would dare challenge his noble form.”

“I do believe you are right,” Mercu remarked.  “I do not think I have seen Arlen sick a day in the past fifteen years.”

“I think I saw him sniffle once,” Katrisha offered.

“So not completely impervious,” Meloria laughed, “just insufferably close.”  She turned to Laurel, “What is your business with Daven?  If it is not too sensitive of course.”

“Not at all,” Laurel nodded.  “Just a small matter I was asked to see to personally.  I have enough apprentices of my own, and a gifted young man has manifested in Aldermor.”

“Oh,” Meloria said shrewdly, “you may not have luck there.  He’s two already, taken on just in the last three months.  Plus his own children, it’s slowed down his more complicated work.”

“Who were the parents?” Laurel asked more than a bit curious.  “Not a traveling mage I dare hope?”

“No, no.”  Meloria shook her head.  “Nothing so scandalous.  Stranger in fact, a blacksmith’s daughter on one hand, and a fishing captain’s son on the other.  Neither of them have linage, but each of their parents are contentedly married by all accounts.  It seems there is a rash of emergants.  Daven has expressed some consternation on the matter, he says they are quite strong too.”

“How peculiar,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “The mother of the young man I am to speak for confessed that while she did sleep with a traveling mage – she suspected the father was actually a local boy.  She blamed the mage for his sake.  Three strong emergents in one generation in Avrale.  That would be more than peculiar.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The inside of Daven’s flame was as curious a sight onto itself.  Most of the floors were open framework surrounded in tinted glass – with abstract arrangements of mirrors that helped it glimmer at dawn, and dusk.  It was no more stairs than Laurel was used to climbing back home, but still a tiresome endeavor to reach the study on the top floor.

“Ah Laurel,” an elderly man said as Laurel ascended the last step.  He began to walk over to his guest.  “Do forgive me for not coming down.  I do not trust these two alone for a minute.”  He gestured to a young man, and woman who sat opposite each other at a workbench, visibly glanced up at each other, and giggled.

“It’s most alright Daven, and I am glad you remember me.  We have only met the once when you visited Brokhal some years ago.  Are your new students troublemakers?” Laurel asked curiously.

“After a fashion,” Daven glared at the two, and any hint of giggling ceased.  “It’s no place of mine to judge, but I’ll not have their parents set upon me for them dallying under my roof.”  He offered a hand to Laurel.

“Ah the troubles of youth.”  Laurel nodded, and shook the older man’s hand.  “Initially my visit was to be on behalf of a young man from Aldermor, but on hearing the news of your two students – giving my word aside – curiosity insisted that I visit.  Is it true they are both emergent?”

“So it would seem,” Daven nodded.  “The fathers both trust their wives implicitly.  None the less…well let me show you.”  He walked over to a shelf, and picked up a rod, and a large instrument with two curved prongs.  “Strictly speaking this is all conjecture, but do you know what this is,” he raised the pronged object.

“I’ll wager it measures something,”  Laurel said with the tilt of his head.  “I don’t recall precisely what, it’s been years since I’ve dabbled in advanced enchantment.”

“Simply it measures strand density in magical effects,” Daven said absently.  “It’s not exactly a precise science, as it must be calibrated to ambient sources.  This here,” he indicated the rod, “is a calibration tool.  It’s an old one, but doing the math for decay I know precisely how strong it should be.  Now fluctuations happen all the time, we enchanters mostly ignore them, since they are hard to find a baseline to measure against.”

“And you think a fluctuation happened recently?” Laurel wagered a guess.

“Well, recently being a relative thing,” Daven nodded.  “You are aware of Vemdel’s law are  you not?’  Laurel searched his memory, but upon taking too long Daven simply sighed at him.  “Court mages, you always forget the basics.  Too caught up in politics, and flashy showmanship to really appreciate the academic.  Vemdel’s law says that the rate of decay of an enchantment is inversely proportional to the ambient strands available during infusion.”

“So the age of the rod is the key here?” Laurel wagered another guess.  It had been a long time since someone had lectured him on anything magical, and he had forgotten how much he did not like it.

“Yes, quite,” Daven placed the rod between the prongs, and a rune formed above it.  “Twice as strong as it should be, give or take.  That implies exceptional excess ambient strands at the time.  Now this rod, it’s old, usually I’d have thrown it out, but it was made by my daughter, her, first notable enchanting success.  As such I also know precisely when it was made, and that was within weeks of when these two,” he gestured at his clearly distracted students, “hypothetically would have been conceived.”  He stood up a bit straighter.  “Now, I’ve done some measurements against some of my own work at the time, under the guise of ‘checking in.’ All of it, within about a two month period has decayed about half as much as it should have.  With results to either end trailing off to within margins for error.”

“So there was a significant spike,” Laurel mused.  “You think that caused a rash of emergants?”

“The rash of emergents I can confirm,” Daven said firmly, “the rest remains speculative.  What is not speculation is the farther west, the more one can find.  Two here, fifteen on Carth.  That’s just counting the major ones, I think there are a lot extra minor gifts kicking around, that no one has, or will notice.”

“A third major one out east in Aldermor,” Laurel added.  “Assuming the mother is right, and the father wasn’t a passing caravan mage.”

“Is that so,” Daven mused.  “There is a bit more to my speculation.  You are a student of the sky are you not?  I seem to recall hearing you have quite the orrery built up in your tower at Broken Hill.”

“Yes,” Laurel admitted.  “A hobby of sorts.”

“You know then of the dark companion?” Daven pressed.

“The hypothesis, yes,” Laurel said curiously.  “There have been some theories put forth, mathematical proofs based on orbital anomalies that claim to predict the path, but no observation has been made to prove it’s existence.  That is in part why it is called ‘dark’ because if it is there, it cannot be seen.”

“There have been several major bursts of emergent gifts recorded since the dawn of the Empire, and a few implied by pre-imperial record,” Daven started again.  “Now the date ranges are all very fuzzy for most of these surges in gift, but checking against them, and the period of the observable spike, and conception of this latest batch of emergents – then checking it against several of the projected orbital paths, one matches up.  Or rather it matches up with approximately when Thaea would pass through the path of the ‘companion.’”

“Have you submitted your findings to the Council?” Laurel asked suddenly quite interested.

“Not yet,” Daven shook his head, “nor am I sure I will bother.  The council has been no fan of mine since I resigned, and further has taken a dim view on conjectures regarding the ‘dark companion’ for, truthfully as long as I was in their number.”

“Unfortunate,” Laurel said disappointedly.

“Yes,” Daven nodded.  “Perhaps I will get around to it.  I need to project the course forward a bit, and make some observational attempts.  I don’t expect to see anything, no one ever has.”  He paused for a moment.  “So the boy in Aldermor, what of him?  It seems he was the original reason for your visit?”

“I’m a obliged, as a matter of course to ask if you would take him on as an apprentice,” Laurel said with a shrug.  “Yet under the circumstances I have no illusions you will do so.”

“No,” Daven shook his head.  “Much too busy with those two,” he gestured at his students again.  “I saw that,” he raised his voice slightly.  The two pulled their hands apart quickly, and pretended to have been working the whole time.  “I will put the two of you in separate labs if you can’t stay on task.”

“I wish you the best of luck with that,” Laurel laughed reservedly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 9th, 644 E.R.

All were gathered in the courtyard at Wesrook Tower to bid goodbye to guests.  It was still early, and the twins were their usual sleepy selves.

“You are sure you can not stay longer?” Meloria implored more out of polite manner, than any real pressure.  She was actually quite aware of the schedules to be kept.

“Much as I would like to avoid South Rook entirely,” Laurel laughed, “I fear I must attend my appointments there.  At least by virtue of taking the western road I will have to stop there only once.”

“You must visit again,” Meloria said insistently.  “And bring these darlings with you again,” she added leaning a bit towards the twins, and Wren.  “And good Mercu as well,” she said with a smile.

“Wild horses could not keep me away my lady,” Mercu said with a nod of the head.

“Ah,” Meloria grinned, “but might they bring you?  I really must learn more of this breed from out east.”

“I will see you all at Broken Hill in a few weeks,” Charles said with a bow, seemingly directed particularly at Katrisha.

Millarae trotted up to Katrisha, and pulled slightly on her sleeve.  Confused Katrisha relented to lean closer.  Millarae got up on her toes, close to Katrisha’s ear, and failed entirely to whisper in spite of all other efforts to be conspiratorial, “My brother likes you.”

“I don…” Charles started defensively, and then cut himself off.  “I think you, and your sister are becoming fine ladies of the court.  Nothing more.”

“You like her,” Millarae said snootily, and stuck her tongue out at her brother.

Meloria covered her mouth to try and contain her laughter.  Katrisha narrowed her eyes at Charles – something seemed very fishy to her about the whole thing.  She was distracted however when Meloria spoke up.  “Should such a thing come to pass, it has my blessing.  Either of you girls would make darling additions to the family!”

“That might be a bit politically complicated,” Laurel offered, wary of Katrisha’s history with Charles, if not so many other issues.

“Ah but not strictly forbidden,” Meloria offered.  “If it is true love, ways can be found.”

“I assure you there is some distance to be walked along that road.”  Mercu cautioned, with humor.

“Ah, but that there is a road at all,” Meloria mused, “a lady can dream.”

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Chapter 3

High atop that Broken Hill,
‘bove shining waters calm ‘n still,
strong noble walls there defend,
lines of kings of varied kin,

‘n though lineages were broken,
of all the same shall be spoken,
fair ‘n true rulers be they all,
O’ venerable keepers of Avrale.

– old folk song of Avrale, circa 300 E.R.

The Castle on the Broken Hill

Jovan 10th, 636 E.R.

From daybreak it was a quiet five hours from the High Pass Lodge to the village of Brokhal.  It was a large village, sprawled lazily across a broad deep valley basin.  Brokhal would not at a glance be mistaken for a capital city, though it was. What it lacked in density, or elaborate architecture typical of such places, it made up for in sheer land area, and a serene meandering quality not easily gaged from the main road.  Not that any of the four travelers were looking.  Laurel and Horence were well acquainted with the sight, and the twins for the most part slept.  Permitting those hours to be quiet.

Laurel had worried when the girls again insisted to sit on the front of the coach, and had attempted himself to slip into the back.  He thought better of it after a very cross look from Horence, and sat instead opposite him with the twins nestled between.  To their mutual relief the two had huddled up together, and promptly returned to slumber.  

At some point the pair shifted, and Katrisha’s head wound up against Laurel’s arm, and subsequently she had claimed it with a tight embrace, her sister in turn clinging to her.  Laurel had smiled at the pair, and apologized to Horence for having left him to their pestering the prior evening.  Horence had smirked in a somewhat concerning manner, and said it was “all right” in a weighted tone.  He had finally thought of his revenge.

Thick mists hung above the village in spite of the late hour of the morning, and Laurel was quite aware as Katrisha woke, and began to look about curiously.  Her attention was fleeting, so many things were new to her; the bustling people in the street, moving quickly from the path of an oncoming coach.  The large shops, and town homes of the village.  Even the mist that rolled lazily over the rooftops was a strange, exotic creature for a girl that had spent her scarce few years in the drought gripped north.

The buildings of Brokal were a far cry from the almost vacant village where she had found Laurel, or the small lodge near Silverbrook.  Midrook’s buildings were comparable, perhaps grander, but this was not evident from barren track of the main road.  Katrisha would not have begun to fathom the idea that many found Brokal a tragically humble place – given its role in the larger scheme of things.

There was however good reason for this.  While it lay very near the seat of royal power in the land, and along a marginal trade route, it had little else of great significance to offer.  Most who lived there thought it struck a good balance between rural and city life, and were content enough to bear the scorn that came with being quaint.

The distance Katrisha had walked had seemed forever, endless, and yet with the ease of a coach and horses, in little over a day she had been carried farther from home that she had ever imagined existed.  For even if she had been told a few tales of long ago, and far away, she had perspective on neither, and barely an inkling even then.  Vast distances were pushed from Katrisha’s thoughts again by the faces, and the curious glances of strangers.  Most wore indifferent or inconvenienced expressions, but a few seemed to look up inquisitively, with the same look of what she correctly guessed was recognition.

This struck Katrisha oddly, but was quickly forgotten as the coach rounded a corner, and passed from under a bank of rising fog.  She shot upright in surprise, startling her sister awake.  Kiannae rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked at her sister with mild consternation, only to follow her transfixed gaze into the distance.

Above the still broad waters of a steaming lake rose imposing sheer cliffs.  There top by gray stone walls, framed by lofty towers, one taller than all the rest.  Laurel looked down at the two awestruck girls and smiled.

“It is an impressive sight isn’t? I’ve seen many wonders in all my travels 0 and perhaps this pales to some – but I’ve always had a fondness for the simple majesty of the castle on Broken Hill.  I’ve been proud to live here for many years, and I hope you will find it a pleasant home as well.”

The girls looked up at Laurel in disbelief.  He had quite intentionally failed to mention certain key details of their destination.  He had told Horence as well to hold his tongue, a request the man had thought strange until around the thirtieth inane excited question of the previous day.  Laurel smiled and ruffled the girl’s hair each in turn, and they looked back to the towering sight before them.  He was glad to see them excited, distracted from grief, but of equal importance to him that moment, stunned into further silence.

The coach rolled on down the road towards the lake shore, and over a small bridge across a river feeding the north end.   The road wound along the base of the great hill, till the cliffs, and walls disappeared from view, but the tallest of the towers could always be seen, save briefly in the shadow of tall groves of trees.

Eventually the road rose higher, and snaked slowly upwards till the hill’s slope grew more level.  There trees gave way to manor houses, stables, and small fields.  A man herding sheep on horseback stopped, and noticeably stared at the coach as it passed.  Soon two armored men approached on adorned horses, and moved to each side of the cart.  A moment passed without a word before the tallest, and most well adorned man spoke from the back of his white steed, “Your quick return is unexpected, Laurel…Horence.”

Horence avoided the gaze of his superior, and remained quiet.  He reconsidered his choice the previous morning.  That he didn’t try the poor old donkey at the farm as a means to continue on to the border.  Though there was no reason for him to go without Laurel.

“There was an unfortunate turn of events Arlen,” Laurel said calmly, though Horence thought perhaps he heard something annoyed in the way the Knight Commander’s name was said, “and more pressing matters have brought me back.”  Laurel glanced informatively down at the two little girls.  “I think the King will be most understanding, under the circumstances.”

Arlen looked the two in the middle over.  He had noticed them, made note of them curiously, but mostly ignored them to that point.  He was notably unimpressed by the look of them.  Katrisha and Kiannae each glanced only fleetingly at the middle aged man, and as small children are apt to do, immediately decided they did not like him.  This made the unspoken opinions of those on the coach unanimous.

The procession passed beneath the castle gate together, and into the lower courtyard.  Stables and servant quarters lined the walls, and people moved about on their daily business.  Many stopped briefly on recognizing the two men on the coach, then hurried on at even the slightest glance from the Knight Commander.

Laurel halted the coach as stable hands gathered round.  He stepped down as the two knights that had come out to greet them dismounted in turn.  He offered a hand to Katrisha who crawled from the blanket she and her sister were wrapped in.  The knight’s horses were lead away as Horence got down, and helped Kiannae to the ground as well.  Arlen ordered his companion back to the wall, and then lead the way up the stairs to the upper court.  Horence and Laurel each took a girl in their arms to spare the time and effort of the two climbing the many steps.

At the top of the stairs three well dressed women sat beneath a gazebo overlooking the lower court, and regarded the group with great interest.  Horence nodded to the ladies as he set Kiannae down at the top of the stairs.  The shortest of the ladies smiled at him warmly, and brushed back a strand of her red hair.  The tallest, and eldest woman in the middle spoke, “What poor wild creatures do we have here?”

Laurel turned and regarded the three ladies passingly.  “They will be introduced to the court shortly, if you wish to come and observe, Lady Catherine.”

Catherine gave Laurel an odd look with the slightest hint of indignance, and stood, her two companions moving in step.  “Yes, I think we shall,” she said coldly.

Catherine followed several paces behind the group as they crossed the upper courtyard.  Her companions were closely in tow behind her as she chose to walk right around the fountain, and the others went left.  I was somewhat remarkable that Catherine herself did not seem to have rushed at all, and yet had managed enough haste that the two groups met equally at the opposite end.

Arlen nodded to the ladies a bit tersely, and gestured on.  Catherine nodded in kind, with a certain air that said she had shown them all their place, and moved towards the keep.  Of the ladies only the red haired woman at the rear seemed at all bashful about the exchange, and a bit rushed to keep up.

Guards opened large wooden doors that lead into a wide corridor that lined the front of the main keep.  Another door stood opposite, and upon seeing the procession the guards standing to each side opened it as well.

The ladies and Arlen filed off to opposite sides of the hall a short distance from the dais.  People shuffled to give Arlen and Catherine a good deal of space, though little difference was given to Catherine’s two companions.   Laurel, Horence, and the two girls continued towards the throne.

The King and Queen looked up from the regally dressed man who had been speaking, and considered the new arrivals.  The King gestured for the petitioner to step aside, and make way.  He did with only the slightest hint of displeasure, considering the new arrivals with curiosity that slowly melted his expression to one of interest, as much as dissatisfaction.

As the base of the dais cleared Laurel stepped up to it and bowed.  He waited what might have seemed a bit long for those not familiar with court proceedings, and then the reason became more clear.

“The court recognizes Court Mage Laurel Grey,” the herald announced in a perplexed tone, having come back to his senses.

“A very proper bow for such an improper return,” the King remarked as he leaned forward, and focused on the two girls that now stood at either side of Horence, each clinging to a leg.  “We did not expect to see you again for at least two weeks.  What strange state of affairs has returned you to court so soon?”

“A tragedy I fear your Majesty,” Laurel said looking up as he began to speak.  “You surely recall Adel Ashton, the hero of the north.”  Laurel himself had only quite recently learned the name, though he believed he had heard it before in passing.  It however did something for his at times dubious air of authority, to speak as though he knew everything.  The King of course was expected to know such things, and for Laurel it was a win either way the King’s memory swayed.

“Of course,” the King said in a matter of fact tone, though with a breath of hesitation as he searched his memory.  “We were there when the Elder King honored her posthumously, though We have not heard the Ashton name in…” he paused thoughtfully.  “There was mention that the man and his daughter had remained last year when place was offered for them in the south.”

“I fear the honor bestowed upon the Ashtons at their farm has seen more occupants this year,” Laurel said taking on a dire tone.  “Of those we knew, two more have passed from this world.”  He paused as a murmur passed through the sides of the court.  A rough looking man in none the less fine clothes took off his hat, and lowered his head somberly.  Horence recognized him as the elected representatives for the displaced northern farmers.

The King’s face grew more firm.  “This is troubling news on such a fine morning.  What has happened?”

Laurel turned and nodded at Horence who brought the two girls forward before the King, and Queen who each regarded them with curious scrutiny.  Their clothes were very simple, and though they had been cleaned up from the previous days it was most unusual for such underdressed, or young children to stand before the King at court.  They moved to hide in the folds of Laurel’s robes, trying to escape the intrusive gaze of strangers, which they were most unaccustomed to.  They had always been told to stay out of sight when visitors came to the farm.

Laurel gave a moment and then spoke again, “Not all of the details are clear, but this much we know.  Earlier this year James Ashton passed, but Meliae, his daughter, continued on at the farm in his stead.  Without her father, or it would seem the father of her children at her side.  The young Meliae died after bearing her third.”

The King considered his questions for a moment.  “And what has become of the third?  You said two Ashtons are no longer with us, not three.”

Laurel nodded.  “Astute my King. The woman Meliae it seems had the gift, and though untrained was able to give greatly of herself to sustain her weak newborn.  The result was tragic, though the boy lives, the mother does not.  I have left him in the care of the Lycian Sisters, for fear only they could properly handle his condition.”

Fresh murmurs washed over the court as the King sat back in his throne, and stroked his beard thoughtfully.  After a moment he leaned forward again, and considered the two scared little green eyed girls who peered up at him, half hidden behind Laurel’s robes.  “We assume that these two have been brought before us with a request, that something is to be bestowed upon them?  Surely they do deserve better as the descendants of a hero than to be relegated to an orphanage.”

Laurel gave the King’s words a moment, and then spoke plainly.  “These girls, as their mother, have the gift.  Their potential is not insignificant, and I wish permission to raise them here at court, and train them to be mages.”

The King leaned back and pondered at length.  “An unusual, but not unreasonable request – though I do worry how much of a drain upon your time they might be.”

“A wise concern of course,” Laurel nodded his understanding.  “Though there are personal resources at my disposal, at times there may be need of assistance from the court.”

The King thought for bit.  “Given the circumstances We are inclined to oblige.  Though We know nothing of the trouble young mages might be, to have more full grown at court could be desirable – a privilege so far from Mordove these days – though a tricky one.  What of the Council?”

Laurel bowed deeply in appreciation, and spoke humbly, “At your will my King.  I know the treaties well, adopted as my daughters the council can have no official quarrel.  I thank you for this indulgence, and for the girl’s sakes.”

“So long as it is more your indulgence, than the courts, it is We who will thank you,” the King intoned such that it was hard to tell if it was more a warning, or a matter of respect for Laurel’s generosity in tanking them in.

Laurel nodded.

The Queen then leaned forward, watching to be sure it was apparent to all she intended to speak.  “Before you usher them away to begin some arcane study or another, We think they should be dressed more appropriately for members of the court,” she began sternly.  “The royal handmaidens shall attend to them, surely there are some clothes fit for young girls to be found.  I believe young Princess Maraline has outgrown a few.”  She motioned for her attendants, four of whom emerged from behind the crowds at each side of the dais, and approached the girls who hid more deeply in Laurel’s robes, and then inched backwards towards Horence.

Laurel tried to turn as he felt the girls shift behind him, but found the attempt awkward at best, and clumsy more so with his robe firmly in their grasp.  Horence knelt down and regarded each girl in turn with a steady kind gaze, and then up at the approaching ladies.

Laurel shuffled around in as dignified a manner as one can when two children are clinging to your clothing, but soon realized Horence had the matter well in hand.

“Go with these nice women,” Horence said with a reassuring nod.  “They will give you baths, and some pretty new clothes.  Everything will be fine.”

Katrisha bit her lower lip as she looked at Horence intently, then to her sister.  Kiannae hesitated, and then nodded.  They both let go of Laurel and were lead swiftly away through the parting crowd.

Laurel’s attempts to face the girls had left him standing a bit to the side, and most of this exchange was observed by the Queen, who leaned back thoughtfully.  She decided she would do well to have a word with Arlen, to insure who would bear the brunt of any extra care the girls needed in Laurel’s inevitable absences.  It was not precisely that the Queen did not trust the man she knew to be Laurel’s intended second, more it was that she trusted him in a very particular kind of way.

The Queen was not the only member of court who had keenly observed how Horence had handled the girls.  A lovely young woman who stood at Lady Catherine’s side, had also watched with a different sort of interest.  She brushed aside a perpetually unruly – to the point of seeming intentional – lock of red hair, and smiled just long enough to be sure he had seen her do so.  He bowed to the King, and nodded to the lady before following Laurel’s lead, and made himself scarce so that normal proceedings could resume.

The lead handmaid moved a curtain aside, revealing a door into the Queen’s antechamber, and on into royal complex that dominated the west wall of the castle.  The girls were lead down a well adorned corridor, and up a flight of stairs.  At last they came to a large double door, not so grand as the throne room’s, but larger than any they had passed along the way.

The door opened quite curiously onto a wall, set back a few feet from the entrance.  Both girls boggled at this rather incongruous discovery for a moment, and even as they tried in unison to ask  “Why…” they were pressed on ahead, and around the offending wall which served to obscure the room from any prying eyes that might pass.

Within lay a large U shaped basin that wrapped around the majority of the room, with tall columns laid evenly along its arc, and gentle steps descending into it.  Green leaved vines covered trellises on the walls, around flowing water showers that fell in perfect unbroken curtains feeding the pool.  A small stone bridge crossed the middle of the arc, and at the far end of the room amidst huge flowering potted plants sat a massive porcelain tub, laid before a broad stained glass window.  Clear central panels would give the occupant of that tub an unobstructed view of the distant valley below.

The girls were awestruck, and barely noticed the women moving quietly around them.  Two that had removed their own fine outer garments already knelt, and stripped the girls without effort or ceremony.  They then lead them into the shallow, gently flowing water at the pool’s edge.  The twins were urged to sit, and resisted only very slightly.  Soaps were brought by a third woman who remained fully dressed.

The smell of lavender and vanilla filled the air as soap was lathered, and a pitcher was dipped into the flowing water.  Glimmering runes could be seen beneath the rippling surface, and Katrisha wanted to move closer, fascinated by the pale blue light.  Before she could investigate however her head was pulled back, and water poured over her hair, and a moment later over the rest of her.

The fragrance of the soap grew stronger as hands worked through Katrisha’s hair, and massaged her scalp.  She glanced over at her sister who wrinkled her nose as a trickle ran down her face.  Katrisha smiled, laughed, and then squinted as she felt soapy water creeping down her own forehead.

The women washing them would occasionally lean close and whisper into each other’s ears conspiratorially, not quite loud enough for either girl to make out.  It seemed quite infuriatingly intentional, as curiosity begged to know what they were saying.  Particularly after any well restrained titter.

The head handmaiden, who had left in search of clothes returned, and conversed in similar private fashion with the fourth, who had gathered large towels that were draped over her arms.  The towel bearer stepped forward as insistent scrubbing changed to multiple pitchers of water being poured over the girls to notable protest.

The girls were lead up from the waters, and great warm towels wrapped around them from head to toe.  When at last their faces emerged they were presented with two lacy multi layered dresses, about a size too big for them.  There was another whisper from one of the handmaidens addressed to their leader, who seemed too busy showing the dresses to be cautious, and simply said, “Darion insisted.”

Katrisha was distracted by having finally heard something – which she then decided had been meaningless – and Kiannae picked first, pointing to the green one.  This left the pale blue for Katrisha, who decided she would have prefered it anyway.  Brushes were run through their dark hair, catching on small knots, and drawing yelps of protest.  Once their hair was passably straightened the dresses were put on over the girl’s heads, and the handmaid’s considered their work, as the two who had bathed them finished redressing.

The head handmaid took a pin from her hair, allowing a bit to fall free in a still dignified manner, and grabbed one without asking from her closest companion, who shot her a dirty look.  She bundled each girl’s hair up at the backs of their heads, cocked her head to the side and nodded approvingly at the results.

A tiny rumble from Katrisha’s belly drew a quick exchange of glances between the women – some quite amused – and they promptly lead the girls from the great bath, and back down stairs.  They crossed the corridor at a bit of an angle to another door, which opened onto a great hall dominated by long tables laid end to end, and many chairs.

A high ceiling rose above with chandeliers dangling from broad rafters.  Light streamed down through skylights high above, and an old woman in the gallery overhead paused in her cleaning to watch the procession as they left the grand dining hall, and entered the kitchen.

Staff worked to clean dishes, and a tall slender man in a puffy white hat adorned pastries carefully at a central work space.  He turned to consider the Queen’s handmaids coldly, and looked down at the two small girls they surrounded with some confusion.  Their leader moved quickly to the man’s side and whispered in his ear.  His expression softened.  “Of course Lady Marian,” he said with a hint of a sigh, and gestured for one of his subordinates to come closer.

More whispering transpired as the girls watched the curious exchange.  Suddenly the young kitchen attendant grabbed a large platter, and scurried to a huge wooden door which he opened only a crack, and disappeared behind.

Marian returned and ushered the girls to a small table in the corner of the kitchen, situated beside the mysterious door from which a chill could be felt.  She dismissed the others with a wave, and leaned down to help the girls up onto tall stools.

Through the large door to was still open the girls could see the apron clad servant scurrying in and out of view, the platter he had taken rested on one hand.  At last he emerged, pushing the heavy wooden door open with his shoulder, stepped around and leaned back against it to close it firmly.  With less haste he strode towards the table the girls sat beside, and set the platter before them with a bow.

The girls looked hungrily at the array of meats, cheeses, and small pieces of bread set before them.  The servant smiled, and nodded to Marian who considered him in a not altogether aloof manner.  However before he could properly read the woman’s demeanor he fled at a sideways glance from the kitchen’s master.

Indecision quickly was overcome by hunger, and the girls each grabbed randomly, nibbling at the pieces individually with no mind to try and put them together.  Some drew delighted little sounds, while others resulted in wrinkled noses.  As each was on about their sixth piece the servant breezed by again, setting small metal cups before the girls, each filled with fresh cider.

As though not to be upstaged by a subordinate in the service of the honored young guests – or before the Queen’s chief handmaiden – the head chef set a fresh pastry before each girl causing their eyes to go wide.  The man nodded to the Lady who smiled at him slightly, and he returned to his work.

As the girls ate their pasty with great delight their attention began to wander to their surroundings, to hanging pots and pans, racks, knives, and chopping blocks.  They could recognize most of the parts from home, and watching their mother cook, but at such scale and quantity they were bewildered.  They had seen all the people in the throne room however, surely they all needed to eat, so a kitchen that vast made some sense to them, even if they could not imagine so much food.

Their eyes were drawn particularly to faint glowing runes on the bottom of every pot and pan, and similar forms that glowed dimly on counter surfaces.  There were no obvious stoves, or fires for cooking, which puzzled them.  Their pastries picked apart, and finished the girls nibbled at more of the meat and cheese from the platter, though with less excitement as they began to grow full, and ran out of the ones they liked.

Kiannae was the first to notice as Laurel entered the kitchen, and dropped from her chair, catching Her sister’s attention, who quickly followed behind.  The two wove between counters, and  pounced onto Laurel’s robes, slightly teetering him.  Marian walked gracefully up to Laurel and considered the girls clinging to him.  “You seem to have made an impression,” she remarked breaking her near silence to that point.

“I guess all levels of familiarity are relative,” Laurel said patting each girl on the head in turn.  “Had Horence been at my side I might suspect the girls would accost him instead, as he has spent more time with them to date.”

Marian repressed a laugh.  “The day I see a woman, or girl, of any age pounce upon Horence with such intensity, is the day I check to see the sun still rises.”

“You judge the man far too poorly, Marian,” Laurel chided.  “He is of good heart, and strong sinew.”

“This may be, I do not deny,” Marian said regarding Laurel shrewdly. “Yet I stand by my assertion as to the level of excitement inspired.”

“Perhaps,” Laurel said playing along, “yet to all their own tastes I suppose.  Surely should he have a daughter she might love him so, and so too perhaps a good wife, who knows him for better virtues than the most superficial.”

“Hmph,” Marian dissented.  “Yes, perhaps as well.  I shall leave you to your little lasses, and return to my Queen’s side.”

Laurel looked down at the girls clinging to him, and gingerly took a step forward until they moved in tow, still loosely hanging onto his robes.  He walked to where they had been seated, and took some of the leftovers, drawing a displeased look from the cook.  He shrugged as if to say, ‘it was there.’  The cook said nothing, it was not quite his place to protest, as much as he felt it should be.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood in quiet meditation, leaned against the curved wall of a large tower chamber.  He opened his eyes now and then to make sure the two girls still sat in one of the three window seats.  He was glad that for the moment they seemed transfixed by the spectacle of looking down on the valley below.  He had no illusions this distraction would last even the remainder of the day – or hour – and considered that amidst the myriad responsibilities he had taken on he would also need to insure the girls remained reasonably entertained.

Laurel became keenly aware of how little thought he had ever put into rearing children.  It wasn’t something that had ever seemed to be in his plans, much to his parents dismay.  He hadn’t thought the arrangement through beyond the horizon – at every turn it had simply been a matter of the right and practical thing to do.

He allowed himself some solace in the idea that he could get some help from the royal tutors with raw academics.  Then there was Mercu, surely his flair for drama, art, and all things unconventional would help.  ‘Thank the merciful fates for Mercu,’ he mused.

Almost as if summoned, a familiar voice chimed in at the open door.  “To say that I was surprised to hear you had returned so suddenly, would be an indifferent misstatement of the truth.”  His presence had snuck up on him, a thing like a gentle yet intemperate breeze, easily missed till it was upon you.  Oddly soothing once it was.

Laurel turned to regard the thin well dressed man that stood at the chamber door.  His feathered cap was ever so slightly, and intentionally askew atop a sweep of hazel hair, that might have shown the first strands of gray.  He had the look of a man that took great pains to insure he appeared to have given it no thought at all.

“You of all people,” he started with mild amusement, “should appreciate the unexpected, dramatic turns of life.”

Mercu considered a dusty old chair that had been left sitting by the door.  He tilted it, turned it, patted the seat, and waved away a cloud of dust futilely before sitting down.  “Appreciation for such twists does not necessarily make them any less unexpected.  When I first heard from a fellow patron in a shop down in the village, that he had seen the Court Mage coming back through town today, I brushed it off as a mistake.”

He looked to the window seat where two sets of curious green eyes were focused upon him.  “When however I overheard a mildly inebriated young soldier in a tavern speaking of two little girls introduced – most under dressed – at court by same said mage, then I knew investigation was in order.”

Before Laurel could make a retort, two servants entered, a huge down bed sac carried awkwardly between them.  The leading servant looked to Laurel as if for direction, who simply shrugged, then gestured to beneath one of the windows.

Ignoring the interruption, Mercu continued his little rant. “Now, if all these strange affairs were not enough, upon arriving at the castle, and while passing through the upper court I witnessed something to make me question if I still resided in the same world I woke up to this morning.  For there, amidst no less than five charming young women stood Horence, who seemed to have their full and quite undivided attention.  I do not think even one noticed me bow as I passed.”

Laurel scoffed as the two servants extracted themselves quickly.  “You are as terrible as Marian.”

“Oh, and now you are flattering me,” Mercu shot back.  “To be compared to lovely Marian, however chidingly.  Truly I have indeed stepped foot into some other realm, perhaps not entirely unlike my own, yet so keenly different all the same.”

The girls, disinterested in the exchange of the two adults had jumped into the soft recesses of the great down filled sac, and rolled about giggling.  Drawing the gaze of both their elders, and distracting them from their own fun.

“So tell me please,” Mercu continued, looking back to Laurel, “what in the King’s name is going on around here?”

Laurel sighed and moved to close the chamber door.  He leaned back against it, insuring for the moment at least there would be no more sudden intrusions.  “Some of what I am about to tell you,” he started in a cautioning tone, “I have yet to tell the King.  I did not wish to announce every detail in open court.”

Mercu simply nodded his understanding.

“While I did not really know the story of Adel Ashton until quite recently, I assume you are well versed?” Laurel continued questioningly.

Mercu thought for a moment.  “Yes, yes.  Hero of the north, farmer’s wife.  She tried to fight off an immature black drake with a pitchfork, and did better than most knights probably would have with a sword.  Died for her troubles though, leaving her husband and daughter.  Though the tales say the daughter probably would not have survived otherwise.”

“Well those two over there”, Laurel intoned, his inflection implying disapproval of Mercu’s callous version of events, “are her granddaughters.”

“Oh,” Mercu said, and then frowned.  “Why do I feel there is more tragedy to be added to that family line?”

“I fear so.”  Laurel sighed.  “Their grandfather died sometime earlier in the year, and according to their limited account, I do not believe of natural causes.  In the same incident their father I believe was taken back by force to his people, and the mother’s fate is even more grim.”

“Dare I ask either what you mean by ‘his people,’ or what could be ‘more grim’ than death, or abduction?” Mercu prodded with morbid curiosity.

“I am quite certain the father was Sylvan,” Laurel paused for effect and watched Mercu’s expression shift.  “Based largely on a mixture of circumstantial statements, and the girl’s eyes and ears.  As to the mother, she had the gift, but was never trained, or trained properly.  Her efforts to save her newborn were…catastrophic.”  He glanced to the twins who did not seem to be listening, to his relief.

Mercu was obviously mortified at the thought, but found the presence of mind to ask, “Did the child live?”

“Yes,” Laurel said obviously clinging to one of the few positive details of the story.  “Mercifully we found the boy in time, thanks in large to the bravery of those two little heroes over there.  Katrisha walked a good ten miles, half of it alone when her sister sprained her ankle.  She stumbled upon me in Minterbrook, almost delirious, and quite dehydrated.”

Mercu glanced over at the girls who were now peaking over mounds of down bedding.  He simply shook his head for a moment, and then moved on to something less dire.  “How ever do you tell them apart?”

“If I try quite hard I think I can tell them apart by their auras,” Laurel paused, considering for a moment, “I would not however stake my life, or anything else of notable value upon it.  Further telling them apart, and which is which are not quite the same thing.  Still the different dresses help, but that’s hardly reliable.”

Mercu leaned the old chair he sat in back against the wall, and sighed. “Well, certainly I understand a great deal more.  I will even wager a guess as to why Horence was so accosted by fine young maidens – he has the gossip to share.  Good for him, the boy deserves a break.”

Laurel rolled his eyes.  “You did not ask however why they are here in the tower,” he prodded trying to catch Mercu in having not thought something through.

Mercu perked a brow.  “Oh that part seemed painfully obvious with the rest.  Mother had the gift, you plan to teach them to use it.  I know all too well – you remember – how these things work.  Try as I may, I’ll never be a mage, wasn’t born with it, largely because in turn neither of my parents were.”

Mercu sighed, and leaned the chair forward with a creak, and a thud.  “I also won’t pretend I’m happy about the obvious implication you expect me to help, or you damn well better.  Those girls need more in their heads than academics, and you dear sir are not the one to teach things such as art, poetry, or music.”

“Why no,” Laurel said in a sarcastic tone, “it had not crossed my mind.  However since you offer – accepted.”

Mercu scoffed.  “Fine.  Settled.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 13th, 636 E.R.

There had been some debate if the young twins were ready to sit at a royal table, and Mercu had been on the dubious side.  He tested their etiquette at a few private dinners, and decided that it was reasonable enough, if lacking in any semblance of refinement.  They were tame at the dinner table, and so he made the case to include them at evening meals.

The cost of this consideration displaced Mercu from a more favorable place at the table, and often with company he was less fond of.  That evening he found himself across from Arlen, and his son Charles.  The boy had arrived seeming sweet enough the year before – his mother’s influence Mercu was sure – but was slowly adapting to the disposition of his father.

Mercu helped Kiannae into her seat, and noted that Charles was conversing with Prince Philip to his right, and did not look away until chastised by his father for speaking at all.  Kiannae seemed simply transfixed by everything, and oblivious to any one person.  Neither child seem to have any interest in the other, which Mercu decided was by far for the best.

He helped Katrisha into her seat next, and she waved slightly to the prince across from her.  Mercu gently urged her hand down, but there seemed no harm as Philip smiled cordially.  Mercu then moved to his own seat, and exchanged less than pleasant nods of recognition with Arlen.

“Hello,” said the girl to Katrisha’s left, and she looked up at her.  She was about four years older, and at that age much larger than Katrisha, though her more upright posture exaggerated the perception.  “My name is Princess Maraline,” the girl introduced herself, brushing back an auburn lock of hair.  “You must be either Katrisha, or Kiannae,” she offered with a nod.

“Kat,” Katrisha said.

“A pleasure to finally meet you,” Maraline nodded.  “Though I do believe I’ve seen you about.  Are my old dresses treating you both well?”  She asked, glancing to Kiannae who noticed she was being spoken to, and nodded.

“Yes, thank you,” Katrisha said.

“That’s good.”  Maraline smiled.  “Mother says the moths would surely have gotten them soon, and I do remember being fond of them once.  They look good on you both, if a bit big, I’m sure you will grow into them.”

“I don’t mind,” Kiannae said.

“They have both been grateful,” Mercu offered.  “I think though they are obsessed with getting robes like Laurel’s.”

“Why would you want stuffy things like that?” Maraline asked.  “Dresses are so much prettier.”

Katrisha shrugged.

“I think robes look nice,” Kiannae offered.

“I hear Laurel is off again?” Arlen asked from across the table, if for no other reason than to talk over the chatty children.  “Now that unfortunate delays have been dealt with.”

“Left this morning, yes,” Mercu answered.

“Wards or not, I feel like we should certainly restore Andersted,” he said grimly.  “It simply is not good that we have left the border there so unguarded.”

“Andersted?” Mercu said curiously.  “Is that the name of that old ruin?  I thought it was Ashrook.”

“Both,” Arlen seemed unamused.  “It was renamed for some northerner back during the late Empire.  Not even a proper rook really, just an over glorified barracks on a hill.  At its height there was a small village around it.  I guess there still is, if you can even call it that.  Most locals call it Anders, though that ruin goes by either name.  It is where Armon and his son herald from.”

“And the northerner?” Mercu pressed curiously.

“Gifted of course, cropped up on some farmland.  Received a duchy to legitimize his marriage to a princess that fancied him.  The area was such a backwater, caught between Osyraen aggression, and Avrale proper since…always really.”

“Why was the duchy never restored?” Mercu asked curious of a new take on the matter.  He had heard vague versions of the tale before, but there seemed new details to be had.

“Ashton lost his wife and heirs in the war, but lived on himself.  He returned to the farmland of his birth, and married some common woman.  Which he should have done to begin with.  He had the audacity however to leave it all to common people, and the king of the day permitted it.  Or was it Queen…I’ll admit I’m fuzzy who had authority at the time.  The recovery after the war was so chaotic.  Such a mess, but they managed tolerably I suppose.  Eaking out a living without any proper governance.”

“His name was Ashton you say?” Mercu pressed.

“Yes,” Arlen said with some displeasure.  “It is more than possible that the name passed down, or it was just the name of the people in that area.  He came from there after all.”

“Are you talking about us?” Kiannae asked.

“Your ancestors possibly,” Mercu said.

“An…cestors?” Katrisha asked a bit bemused.

“Your father’s father’s,” Maraline offered helpfully.

“Our father came from the forest,” Kiannae offered.

Arlen gave Mercu a curious look, and Mercu was shrewd.  “It is a suspicion.  We are being quiet about it.”

Arlen nodded, but Mercu did not like the attitude of it at all.

“A Sylvan?” Maraline asked with rapt curiosity.

“Grandfather called him that sometimes,” Katrisha said.  “Only when they fought though.”

“How curious,” Maraline said, as food began to arrive.

Mercu was glad of the distraction, though the damage was mostly done.  Still, he had his own curious avenues to explore from it, and was thoughtful for some time.

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Chapter 2

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

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

– The Twins Stand, 20 B.E.

The Twins Pass

CloisterChapter2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how do you know?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl was more than a bit too close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Laurel said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

“May I?” the woman asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” Ann asked in a perplexed tone.

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

“May I join?” Sasha asked pleadingly.

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 8th, 636 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 9th, 636 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Featured

Chapter 1

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

– Ballad of Adel Ashton, 620 E.R.

The Autumn Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Candle2

Jovan 7th, 636 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Made her sad,” Katrisha said uncertainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By the trees,” Katrisha answered between sobs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2 >