Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

– unknown origin, circa 200 E.R.

Out of the Woods

Coria 40th, 647 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 647 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Say that again?” Laurel asked sternly.

“What?”

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

“Yes,” Katrisha answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 42nd, 647 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Kiannae finally demanded hoarsely.

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 2nd, 647 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“His mother unken,” she answered.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I not sta with them in many years.”

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

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

“Kiannae,” she managed meekly.

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

“Annae,” she corrected.  “Kiannae.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So they told me,” Kiannae sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Zale said exasperatedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does aunna mean?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

“Kiannae,” she said with some reluctance.

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

“Ashton,” Kiannae interjected her family name wearily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t go back,” Kiannae sobbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 21

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

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

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

– untitled bard song, circa 450 E.R.

Where the Dragon Lies

Coria 38th, 647 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 39th, 647 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the enchantments…” Kiannae protested with concern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginning…

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