Chapter 3

We are who once we were,
but never again the same,
as the world changes do we,
and cycles pass without name,

rely not on man to alter his way,
nor on the individual to remain,
we ghosts are believed eternal,
yet even ageless,
I have changed.

– Writings of Theseus Moria, circa 410 E.R.

State Decay

Estae 7th, 647 E.R.

The room was lush yet stark, dripping with showy regal splendor, from the tapestries on the walls to elaborate carpets with floral and geometric patterns.  Fine rare vases held flowers along the walls, if their ancient cracked surfaces could bear water.  Others – often in prominent positions – were clearly too old and fragile for actual use.

A blond haired man with a soft olive complexion considered the priest pacing his quarters.  His expression was hard to read, but seemed perhaps concerned for the agitated older man.  The priest, Idolus, wore a grey robe, and had recently shorn his hair down to the skin.  This in itself was arguably an improvement, as he had been balding for years.  Still, it seemed part of a larger, more unnerving pattern.  One that included the way he was pacing frantically, his arms behind his back, his hands wringing fervently.

“Arlen, you must listen to me, she is the void itself I tell you,” Idolus implored more than said to his host.

“A wild half Sylvan thing, surely.  A young woman of erratic nature without question, but the void itself, Idolus?” Arlen almost seemed amused past the look of concern that took over his face.

“What happened on that mountain…that she fought the dragon…naked…that is the least of it,” Idolus stopped, spun on his heel, and stared at his companion.  “The very ground where we found her – the stone where she fell – it had been reduced to something like brittle clay beneath her.  Like the very substance of the rock had been corrupted.”

“Perhaps it was merely an odd property of the area?” Arlen offered.

“No, no, no,” Idolus refused.  “It was the same stone as everything else, but brittle, crumbled at a touch to a fine powder.  Like the loadstone of an enchanted fire lamp.  Laurel, the fool did not see it for what it was…and the way…she burned into my mind.  I cannot think of anything but her.  She is like a scar on the world.  I see her face in dreams amidst a sea of light…but her hair…it has turned something wild, and more unnatural than those cursed eyes of hers.  I feel something in my very bones at the thought of it.”

“We all stray to the thoughts of the flesh,” Arlen said consolingly.  “Even the strongest of us.”

“No,” Idolus snapped, and slammed his fist on a table, his eyes wild.  “I have found it in the Black Book.  I have felt it since the first time she touched my hand in the square.  The storm child walks among us, and she is the abyss, the void.  She will tear this world into oblivion.”

“Idolus,” Alren said firmly.  “She is just a girl.  A mage, a troubled child, yes, but harmless.  I have even consented to my wife’s wishes that Charles seek her favor.  If her sister remains missing, then she stands to inherit a great swath of the north.  My family could control two duchies, we could rival the King to reign in this land, and perhaps one day cast out the heretics.”

“Are you not listening?” Idolus all but screamed.  “She is not what she appears.  She is not.  If you tie yourself to her…I will have no part of it.”

“Please,” Arlen said measuredly, “old friend.  Find your senses.  We will watch her, but consider her sister too bares the same face.  Have you not possibly mistaken one for the other?”  He did not really consider that any more likely, but it seemed an easy way to cast doubt.  Normally he had high respect for Idolus, but his behavior had become slowly unstable for some time.  Arlen no longer trusted his judgement as he once had.  He worried if the ordeal with the dragon had broken the man for good.

Idolus sat down stiffly, and then wept.  “I do not know, but the world is wrong.  Something terrible is shifting.  I must consult my books, I must understand.  Do not let her be your undoing my friend.  Be cautious of this one.”

“I will,” Arlen said, and set his hand on Idolus’ arm.  His pity was honest, and what was more he thought little of Katrisha’s character.  “Do not think I trust her,” he offered.  “My son is erant, and I fear there is no bastion of correction left to send him too within Avrale.  Wesrook is a cesspool that my brother can barely restrain.  South Rook has fallen to that miserable man Perin…that they now call him, Duke…”  He seemed ill.

“So what?” Idolus said trying to recover himself.  “You have given up on your child?”

“I am attempting to make the best of many bad situations,” Arlen said.  “If the boy is to be corrupt, then I shall at least exploit it for the greater good.  If he can wed the wild creature, then there is at least potential to tame her, and use her dubious birthright to accomplish better things.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 13th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha picked at her plate idly, not even looking up at those seated around her at dinner.  To her left sat princess Maraline, as was often the case.  The princess considered the melancholy girl with some concern, and brushed back an auburn lock that had come loose.

“You really should eat,” Maraline offered.  “You’ll do your sister no favors starving yourself.”

Katrisha looked up, and seemed almost startled.  “Sorry,” she said, “merely lost in thought.”

“You have been quite a lot of late,” the young man to Maraline’s left offered.  “Though I dare say there is no blame to be had for such distraction.  Were any of my dear relatives missing for so long, let alone a twin…” he seemed quite affected by the thought.

“Quite so Adrien,” Maraline said, “though it does for me present some trouble.  I have been thinking to ask Katrisha to stand as my maid of honor, but if she is so distracted…”

“I think I could manage to focus,” Katrisha offered with only a touch of excitement, tinged with a hint of bewilderment, and her persistent malaise.  “Though I had no idea I was being considered.”

“We’ve always been quite amiable,” Maraline offered.

“We have,” Katrisha agreed.  “Still, I would think you to have closer friends than I.”

“My brother, of course, dear cousin Philip,” she nodded across the table to another young man, “but they are hardly maids.  I dare say we are closer than any of my other cousins, or than I am to any of my servants.  My mother’s efforts to find me proper handmaidens, ones I could call friend, have been…mixed.  Yet all this aside, truly, to have a dragon slayer at my side, few brides could be so honored.”

“Attempted,” Katrisha corrected awkwardly.

“Yes,” Maraline agreed, “but that is not quite the tale being told in many quarters.  Still, I think we can find more appropriate attire for you in the wedding party.”  She smiled a bit coyly.

“I should hope,” Katrisha agreed, with a mixture of humor and embarrassment.  “I would be honored if it is your wish.”

“Then it is settled,” Maraline smiled.  “Perhaps you might even catch the eye of an eligible young nobleman.”

“I should hope Laurel would dissuade any such interest,” Katrisha countered.  “Truly I agree with his current refrain.  I am far more trouble than I am worth.”

“Nonsense,” Maraline protested, “you are becoming quite lovely, and I dare say I would give my title to be as capable as you.”

“Capable of misadventure,” Philip cut in.

“Cousin!” Maraline snapped, aghast.

“I merely agree with the young lady,” Philip said in lieu of apology for his poorly considered jab.

“Surely not all young men long for delicate flowers?” Maraline questioned.  “Truly, I am such a prize – I will not deny – but if a young woman’s heart can flutter for a dashing man, why not a man’s for a fiery young lass?  Surely you are as delicate as I, Philip,” she said with some restrained amusement.

“Alas,” Philip countered, “my delicacy, prefers delicacy.  Though I do not deny the lady is lovely, and that her roguish nature is not without charm.  What of you Charles?  Want you mouse, or lion?”

Charles had been quiet, and seemed thoughtful when questioned.  “Though we have not been without our differences,” he answered diplomatically, “I do agree Katrisha has some admirable qualities, and among them a budding beauty.  I’m of mixed opinion on the affair with the dragon.  On the one hand foolish, on the other quite brave.”

“Perhaps,” Adrien began, “there is little difference between the two.  I’ve heard that our dear girl thought herself acting in the interest of her mentor.  So brave then, for acting against the better judgement of her own well being, which then some would label foolish.  Perspective.”

“Was that the reason?” Maraline asked.

Katrisha looked unhappy to answer, but felt she must.  “Yes.  A dream told me that Laurel would return dead, and Kiannae had the same vision.  In that dream we were here when he returned.  This told us that if we waited…still it was foolish.”

“And brave,” Adrien concluded.

“Agreed,” Charles laughed.  Katrisha gave him a funny look, but found his expression amiable.  She looked back to her plate.

“Now surely,” Maraline said, “you’ve some interest in a fine young man to wed?”

“I’ve not thought much on it,” Katrisha answered.  “Not in some time anyway.  Such daydreams were more my fancy when I was small, but I’ve had other interests with age.”

“How contrary,” Maraline shook her head, “that with the blooming of womanhood you have lost interest in love.  We must see if we cannot get someone to catch your eye then.  I’m sure if your heart was in it, your lovely charms could win any young man you wished.”

Katrisha gave Maraline a funny look.  It all seemed to her a very misplaced endeavor, but the compliment suiter her a little all the same.  If Marline, who had always seemed to her very pretty, thought she could have her pick, that surely was worth something.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 42nd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha blocked the sun from her eyes as she moved to exit the coach that had carried her, and the Princess for the last leg of their journey.  She had not been pleased that accepting a place as Maraline’s maid of honor had meant traveling to South Rook.  Her last visit had not gone entirely well.

It had been an ever shifting set of plans, but ultimately it was decided that the wedding should occur there, to ease the lingering tensions from the events that had displaced the former duke.  The reasoning – as it was explained – was that it must be perceived that South Rook gained a princess, not lost the heir to the seat.  All very political, and Katrisha could not disagree with the premise, though she prefered the comforts of home.

She surveyed South Rook, and looked up to the tower that loomed high above.  It hardly seemed any less grand than when she had been much younger.  To her surprise, Katrisha found Charles offering her a hand down, which only earned an odd look from her.  She slipped from the seat without accepting the hand, and landed with grace.  She nodded to him more challengingly than cordially, and stepped aside.

The princess for her part took his hand, and got down more carefully.  “I do adore South Rook,” Maraline declared as she looked around the city.

“That is fortunate,” Katirsha laughed, “since you are marrying the man destined to rule it.”

“It is certainly some comfort,” Maraline agreed, ”given I must leave Broken Hill behind, and only visit.  Still, that the city and the man are a pair….  Yes, I dare say my heart is content in this.”

Charles bowed to Maraline, and showed almost as much difference to Katrisha, who found it more than a bit odd, but consented to nod to him politely as he walked off to see to his own affairs.

“Why is Charles here any way?” Katrisha asked quietly of Maraline as they began to walk towards the keep’s outer gate.

“Appearances, mostly,” Maraline answered.  “His whole family was invited.  His father had no interest, but I expect to see the Duchess of Wesrook, and…”  The princess covered her mouth, laughed, and Katrisha followed her gaze in the direction Charles had gone.

“Charlie!” could be heard as a blond haired girl a head shorter than the young man finished her run at her brother, and to even Katrisha’s amazement lifted him off his feet.

“My, she’s getting quite strong,” Maraline said trying to reign in her humor.  “I think she got that one from you.  The only other young woman I can think of who lifts her brother off his feet.”

“At least Wren is smaller than me,” Katrisha laughed, “and younger.”

“Millarae!” an equally fair haired older woman yelled as she walked up on the scene.  “Show some dignity, please!”

“Duchess Meloria,” Maraline nodded as she and Katrisha approached the family reunion.

“Princess Maraline, Lady Ashton,” the Duchess nodded.  “Curtsy dear,” she said nudging Millarae, who did as she was bid.  “It is Katrisha, I presume?  Do forgive me, I never did learn to tell you from your twin…who I believe I have heard is still, absent.  Oh dear… Forgive me, that was poorly done, wasn’t it.”

Katrisha was stony faced.  “Yes, on all counts,” she took a breath, “and you would not be the first to raise the issue in precisely that way.”

“Again, my apologies,” Meloria offered.  “Still, it is very good to see you.  It has been several years since I have found cause to visit Broken Hill.”

“And it is good to see you as well,” Katrisha nodded.  “I barely remember little Millarae from my visit to Wesrook.  Not quite so little any more, she seems to have caught up to me.”

“I remember you,” Millarae laughed, “mostly ‘cause Charles could not be quiet about you.”

“Only because you would not stop asking questions about her,” Charles cut back.

“I asked about both of them,” Millarae scrunched her face up at her brother.  “You were all Katrisha did this, Katrisha did that.  You would swear her sister wasn’t even there.”

“Millarae,” her mother chided with false calm.

“Oh,” Millarae said uncomfortably.  “Sorry…”

Katrisha was already over it, but found the stony look on Charles’ face perplexing.  She was interrupted from her curiosity as Mercu arrived.

“Lady Meloria,” Mercu declared as he walked up on the exchange.

“Oh, good Mercu,” Meloria said.  “A pleasure to see you.”

“More so on my account, I assure you,” Mercu offered his hand, and Meloria obliged for him to kiss hers.  “I’d hoped you might attend the wedding.”

“I would not miss the opportunity,” Meloria said with a wry smile.  “Not every day a princess marries the heir of South Rook, and clears up this whole mess about succession.”

“Indeed,” Mercu obliged.  “I’m sure you have no other designs in your visit.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Meloria said with a laugh.  “Never to early to nudge things along in the right directions.”

“Any particular directions in mind?” Mercu asked conspiratorially.

“That, would be telling,”  Meloria said with a smirk.  “Let us head in, so much to do.  So many details to wrap up.  Most unfortunate that so much of the affair has been left to the last minute over political waffling on locations.  Men,” she muttered.  “So worried about how things look, that they undermine getting everything to look right.”

“I’d know nothing about that,” Mercu offered with a chuckle.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha glanced across the ballroom.  She had begun to lose interest in balls some years before.  She loved the dresses the women wore, the grace of some of the dancers, but the pomp and posturing had worn thin on her.  She was also not terribly fond of dancing any more herself, though perhaps it was the game implied with the coming of age.  She had other interests, the whole thing seemed a frivolous distraction, and she had enough of those.

As much as she admired many of the dresses she had rejected all of the options presented to her, and gone for her finest formal black robe, with silver trim.  She wore her favorite silver pin, gemmed with green glass.  While cheap in fact it held up quite well in practice.

She had accepted, with less reluctance, a loan of emerald cuff earrings, and and a necklace to match.  Her hair was up, held in a bun with pins.  On the whole she looked like a more refined version of her usual self.  She had successfully avoided being asked to dance, and stood along a wall simply watching the affair absently.

Millarae had largely dominated her brother’s time on the dance floor, and Katrisha was oddly heartened by how much the girl adored him.  That he showed her a remarkable amount of deference stood in odd contrast to Katrisha’s usual opinion of the boy.  Certainly it seemed he had some virtues that had escaped her, though she was little more capable of naming them for the observation.

Katrisha sipped her drink, and began idly forming an arrangement of orbiting spheres.  This drew passing attention from the other guests near her.  She quickly became lost in her idle entertainment, and barely noticed as someone approached her.

“I do not believe I have seen you dance at all tonight,” Charles commented.

It took Katrisha a moment to even realize the words had been meant for her, and she gave the hand being held out to her a rather curious glance.  “I would not wish to deprive your sister of a partner,” she opened with, in an attempt to politely reject the extended offer.

“She has already found one,” Charles said gesturing across the ballroom where Millarae danced with a young man of about her age.

Katrisha considered her options, found a place to set her drink, and rather than dispel her array of spheres, scattered them out into a slow moving cloud around them.  She raised an eyebrow, and took the hand, permitting Charles to lead her onto the dance floor.  “I never had the impression,” she began as the song started, and Charles took her other hand, “that you, and I were on such amiable terms.”

“We’ve certainly had our issues,” Charles answered, “but you, I believe made the first efforts long ago to mend that.”

“And you have continued to bungle matters,” Katrisha counterrd frankly.

“Through no intention, I assure you,” Charles replied as they moved through the crowd that gave some space to Katrisha’s orbiting light show.  “I admit though that I have little understood how to speak with you.”

“Presumptions, I think have always been your problem,” Katrisha offered.  “You presume that the world is, as you have been taught.”

“To be fair,” Charles countered, “I have been taught, what I have been taught.  Am I to think otherwise?”

“Are you incapable of considering things for yourself, and reading of your own accord?”

“Fair,” Charles offered, with some displeasure to admit.  Failing to find a good argument he moved on.  “My mother, and sister certainly think highly of you.”

“Curious,” Katrisha said.  “I barely know either.”

“Ah, but they have made it their business to know of you,” Charles countered.

“Whatever for?”

“Mother’s reasons are her own, but I think you, and your sister have become something of an inspiration to Millarae.  She has refused all efforts to dissuade her from practicing with the guard trainees.  At first of course they would go easy on her, when she would jump into a practice against orders, and start swinging.  I hear however, that she has begun to require more serious effort to avoid embarrassing them.  My father is fuming that it has been permitted, my uncle disgusted with her behavior.  He even gave the order to knock her down in any way that wouldn’t leave a mark, which has only lead to her getting better,” he laughed lightly.  “Mother I think has made peace with it at least.”

“Have you spared with her?” Katrisha asked.

“I have.  No challenge, but I have many years on her,” Charles offered.

“You do not think it is merely because she is a girl then?” Katrisha challenged.

“She is younger, yes, but you are both of these as well, and have bested me.”

It seemed only a slight dodge.  Katrisha let it slide.  “No excuses this time?”

“Less an excuse, than a fact,” Charles answered.  “You are still the only opponent I have faced armed with a stave.”

“We could try again,” Katrisha offered.  “Perhaps in the morning?”

“Not enough dancing tonight?” Charles asked with nervous humor.

“More fun in the ring, I’m allowed to knock you on your rear,” Katrisha countered.

“Won’t you be busy though?”

“The wedding is not for another day,” Katrisha protested.  “Are you making excuses?”

“Only making sure.”  Charles laughed uncomfortably.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 1st, 647 E.R.

It was very early, but this had not stopped a collection of curious onlookers from gathering.  Word had spread quickly of a duel proposed between the young mage who had fought a dragon, and the heir of Wesrook.  Many whispers had curiously mentioned that it had been arranged over a dance, and the novelty of that alone had something of a draw.

Katrisha, for once, had been up very early, and been waiting for Charles for some time.  She was meditating as the crowd had gathered.  Meditation had never been her strong suit, so she was surprised to notice that she had missed the gathering, and Charles’ arrival.  She did her best to hide her foggy frame of mind as she glanced about.

Katrisha considered that there was quite a royal audience at the front.  The Duchess of Wesrook, and Millarae were behind Charles.  The King, Crown Prince, and Maraline to her left.  The Princess looked as though she was worried that her maid of honor might be bruised for her wedding day, in spite of Katrisha’s assurances that she could heal anything unsightly.  In of course the implausible event Charles could even land a blow.

The groom to be, and the sitting Duke Parin were to Maraline’s right.  Mercu stood a few steps behind, and had an uncharacteristic expression that was hard to read.  Something less than jovial, shrewd certainly.  She doubted he entirely approved of her little challenge, but had kept his silence.  He had no power to dissuade her, and wouldn’t think to do so now that a crowd had gathered.  Katrisha was less certain of the rest of the gathered onlookers, but she intended to put on a good show.  Mercu might not approve, but he had certainly taught her showmanship.

“So, sticking with sword and shield?” Katrisha asked as charles moved to arm himself.  She lept up, and struck a fighting stance, a little more exaggerated to be showy.  “The stave does still have the advantage of reach.”

“Though you said I was the only one you’ve fought with a stave,” Katrisha observed teasingly.

“Wasn’t really proper matches, just pointers.”

“And have you beaten Horence?” Katrisha asked.

“Once,” Charles said.

“Twice,” Katrisha smiled, and bowed to her opponent.

“Who opens?” Charles asked, and bowed himself.

“The one with the guts,” she taunted, and before Charles could set himself to it, she had already struck.  He was more than able to catch her blow, the shield providing defensive advantage, where the stave had reach.

Charles of course could not remain defensive, and maintain face, so made his own cautious move.  This was easily deflected into a counter strike, taken again loudly by his shield.  Neither move had been serious, not merely testing, but there was an unspoken showmanship that went with dueling before a large crowd.  You open slow, not merely to avoid overcommitting, but also to not finish quickly.

The following series of traded blows were faster than the first.  Charles parried with his practice sword, and tried instead an attack with the shield.  Early for such an opening gambit, but the surprise did earn him more effort, and some dramatic movement by Katrisha to deal with the threat.  Charles attempted to exploit this and get a thrust in, but she evaded it, and brought her staff around hard into another successful block.

“No magic,” Charles taunted.

“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction,” Katrisha laughed, and another series of quick blows were traded, parried, blocked.  Katrisha made ample use of the flexibility of the staff to deflect a blow, and carry through an attack with the other end.  Charles easily dealt with this, the independance of the sword, and shield showing advantage.

Katrisha came down from above with a swing, Charles brought himself under the wild move, blocking above, and thrusting forward, but Katrisha was already out of the way of the thrust, and flicked the sword away with the other end of the staff.

“Sure you aren’t using magic?” Charles laughed.

“Magic,” Katrisha said, “is spells.  The gift is in the blood, the bone, and the flesh.”

They exchanged more blows quickly to no advantage.  “Still seems like cheating to me,” Charles said.

“Would you have me hold back?  Tie a hand behind my back?”  Katrisha chided.  “You even use a bit of gift yourself, the blood of dukes, and all that.  Nothing worth training for magic, but I can read your stronger strikes before you make them, because you are channeling it.  Typically, I expect you would think you have an advantage in strength, being a man.”  She moved quickly, striking several times with great force, and pushing Charles onto defense.  “But I have the greater gift by far, so I can actually hit harder than you.”

“Still sounds like cheating,” Charles countered.

“Whatever helps you save face,” Katrisha laughed, and parried a series of his blows with no thought to counter any of them.  “Here, let me help.  I will tie a hand behind my back, more or less.”  She threw out a series of light orbs with sweeps of her staff that hovered around the edge of the ring.  “I’ll maintain these, while fighting you.  Just a little distraction to keep things interesting.  Of course if you get distracted by them too, that’s your problem.”

Charles dubiously tried several more attacks, but found Katrisha still more than capable.  He hardly trusted that what she had just done did not help her in some way.  She had however been honest, it was a distraction to do so, but the temptation to have some fun crept in.  She absorbed some of the force from every blow she blocked, storing it off into the orbs, making new ones if any showed signs of overloading.

“What are you up to?” Charles asked after their dance had gone on a while longer.

“Just a little fun,” Katrisha smiled.  “Nothing I’ll use on you, promise.  Really quite distracting.  I might have to start trying to fight you soon.”

Charles got more aggressive at the taunting, and true to her word Katrisha did have to start struggling with some of his blows, but not so much as to keep her from counter attacking frequently.  One particular parry let her get her staff behind his shield to strike his shoulder, and knock him off balance.  She parried a counter stroke that he tried anyway, and swept his leg landing him on his rear.

Exhilarated Katrisha came out of the sweep, and struck the ground hard, using all the stored energy she had to launch herself upward spectacularly, shattering the spheres, and cresting a good ten feet in the air.  She lacked the actual grace to control the resulting tumble, and had to use magic to correct it.  She shed the force of her fall into the air around her as she landed some distance behind the already downed Charles.  In truth she nearly toppled from the landing, but quick use of her stave for balance made the whole thing look quite nearly flawless.

She huffed several times wondering what had come over her.  It had felt so natural, riding a wave of adrenaline, but it had been wildly impetuous.  The stunned crowd started clapping for the finish.  Katrisha straightened up, and walked over to offer Charles her hand.  “Sorry, got carried away.”

He took the hand reluctantly.  “Shall we try that again, without showing off?”  He said.

“If you insist,” Katrisha laughed, “but it will only go worse for you.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“What do you all say?” Katrisha hollered, turning to look over the crowd. “Would you like an encore?  Without the flourish?”

“With!”  Someone yelled back.

“I’ll take another challenger after I give Charles his boring round,” Katrisha laughed.  Mercu’s expression underwent a barely perceptible shift.  “Or three!”  She turned back, and bowed to Charles, who returned it.  Already warmed up the two went quickly into real attacks, no longer really needing to test the other.  It was evident to Katrisha that Charles was putting everything he had into the match then, and she kept it simple, making sure that there was no chance it looked as though she did anything but fight him fair, and square.  However in simple truth he was at a disadvantage.

The match ended almost the same – save no dramatic aerial performance – but with a twirl that took her out of the path of a swing, and brought her staff behind Charles, knocking him forward.  She offered him her hand again, and he took it.

“Let’s hear a round for Charles,” Katrisha said, and there was some modest clapping, though more enthusiastic from his sister.  “Alright.  I’ll need three volunteers.  Let’s help the boy save some face by showing what I can really do.  I’m the girl who fought a dragon, who wants a go?”  What had become at times a thing of some embarrassment, right that moment, high from victory, was an almost giddy badge of honor.

The knight commander of South Rook stepped forth, as did two of the guard.  “You sure it’s a fair fight?” he asked.

“Only one way to find out,” Katrisha laughed, and grinned a bit impishly.  “But I will be going all in this time, magic and all.  Nothing too rough of course.”

The commander nodded.  “Alright, swords, and shields boys.”

“Little more room everybody,” Katrisha yelled out.  “Don’t want any bystanders getting in the way.”  She rolled her shoulders, and the three men armed with practices swords, and shields surrounded her.  Her barrier went up, a simple enough spell that would slow anything inert except her own stave, which she quickly enchanted to counter the effect.  She made sure though not to slow the incoming attacks too much, just for the sake of show.  It would give her a strong advantage, but not directly tip off ungifted observers what was going on.

“Gentlemen first.”  Katrisha laughed, and bowed.  Her three opponents returned it, though only two were in view.  Taking Katrisha’s comment as an instruction the commander opened.  His attacks were testing, and no real threat.  “Come on,” Katrisha chided the other two, “join in.  I want to make this interesting.”

The barrier slowed the strikes of her attackers just enough to allow Katrisha to deflect two separate blows with a single swing.  To them it felt as though they were striking molasses, and they could feel a chill in their blades.  The guard behind her, seeing she was distracted tried for obvious advantage, only to find his thrust parried, as Katrisha could sense it entering her field.  Though she largely had to guess where precisely the strike was, her staff made a broad sweep effective.  

She turned into the single opponent, gave him a quick thrust to the chest that he failed to block, and put him on his rear.  Pulling out of her previous attack, she came around again with a wave of force stored up in her barrier.  This knocked the other guard from his feet, and staggered the commander.

She dueled with the commander momentarily for fun, while the other two got back up.  He was good, much better than her, and in a fair fight she wouldn’t have stood a chance, but she wasn’t arranging a fair fight, she was showing off.  He was also gifted, even more so than Charles, which was still to his disadvantage.  She could read his moves before he made them, while he had to read her body language, and tells.  Something that decades of experience made him quite good at.

On the whole Katrisha suspected the man to be Horence’s equal at least, if not slightly his better.  He did not however have the same talent for reading the moves of gifted, and this in turn was in Katrisha’s favor.  On the whole it was only managing two other opponents that was making it a nearly fair fight.

Katrisha felt another strike coming from behind, and dodged, sweeping the leg of the second guard who had only just gotten back up, and returning him to the ground.  She struck the back of the man who had come from behind, and pushed him forward, forcing the commander to back off.  All three were then in front of her.  She brought her staff around for several more swings with reach, each of which were parried.  She made a move that was better to dodge than block, and forced the commander into position for a blow of force that teetered him, and forced the others to the ground.  He almost recovered before her next staff swing brought him down.

Katrisha bowed again, and the crowd clapped.  “Now that,” she laughed.  “Is how you cheat.”  She offered a hand to a guard who was still down, and then to the commander.  “Thank you,” she said, “I’ve never gotten to do that before.”  He did not look particularly more pleased.

Katrisha walked over to Maraline who was particularly enthusiastic with her applause.  She curtsied to the princess.  “So, still worried about me being marked up for tomorrow?”

“No, but I do have some concerns about my other guests,” Maraline laughed.

“Why?” Katrisha grinned, “I’ll protect them.”

“But who ever will protect them from you?”

“Their own good sense not to fight me?” Katrisha suggested.

“After today, I should hope.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 2nd, 647 E.R.

The wedding was a lovely affair.  Far grander than anything Katrisha had witnessed, and even for all the regal airs it did touch something in her.  Still, even a more spectacular ball than the one which had first welcomed the wedding party to South Rook, could not hold her interest for very long.  She had heard that there would be fireworks, and retreated to a higher floor, where from years past she recalled a public balcony.

The view out over South Rook was a lovely thing, and for a moment it brought Katrisha some peace.  Though a moment of calm from the storm growing in her mind, only provided opportunity for her to grapple with what was truly troubling her.  She was happy for Maraline, she was, she assured herself.  There was no question in her mind that Lukus was dear to her, and that she would be content in South Rook.  It was South Rook that bothered her.

Katrisha remembered all too well the conversation that she and her sister had overheard in that very spot years before.  The schemes of a duke and baron to elevate criminals, and blame the innocent.  As distasteful as that aspect was, it was her sister that bothered her.  Kiannae was gone, somewhere far away.  That was if she still lived, and Katrisha had to believe her sister had not come to some terrible end.  Yet believing so at that moment took far more effort that she was comfortable with.  Effort, that if Laurel’s theories were correct, Kiannae had not given to imagining Katrisha could have survived.  She waffled from sorrow, to anger, and then settled on thoughts of Maraline.

She was honored, and touched that Maraline had chosen her to stand as maid of honor, but also troubled by it.  Katrisha was unsure if she really considered Maraline a friend, but if she was not, then Katrisha had to accept she had none.  Wren counted, surely, even if he was blood, but the distinction whittled away at the thin comfort.

Even if Maraline was Katrisha’s friend, she would no longer reside at court on Broken Hill, and Wren lived in the north with Renae.  The wedding meant that Katrisha would be alone, with no confidant at all, save Laurel and Mercu.  However much she loved each they were like fathers to her, not the easy comfort of friendship, or her bond with her sister.

“I thought I saw you head up into the tower,” Charles commented behind her.  She was almost startled, but even distracted by her own thoughts, on some level she had known someone had approached, and stood there for some time.  Maybe even on some level knew who, Charles did have gift enough that his presence gave a unique impression.  Not unlike the feel of soft piled hay, a fleeting memory from a childhood home long gone.

Katrisha turned irritably to the young man, who for his part looked to her with none of the venom she offered.  He wore a kind smile, and regal attire appropriate to the day’s festivities.  His blond hair was swept to the side, and on the whole he was very put together.  For just a moment she could forget how often in her life he had annoyed her.  He had been trying so very hard to be better it seemed, yet she was ill at ease to release the grudges she held.

“I sought solitude,” Katrisha began, but then thought better of it, “and have come to question if I truly desire it.”  She was not inclined to encourage Charles to remain, nor as she thought on it entirely ready to be alone anymore.  She leaned against the rail, and crossed her arms, giving him a look she couldn’t have read herself.

“Tell me what it is you would prefer,” Charles offered.

“That I have any friends left in this world,” she offered in confidence that she immediately reconsidered.

“Surely you are Maraline’s friend,” Charles questioned, “she did name you her maid of honor.”

“She and I,” Katrisha began with some reservation, “are somewhat in the same predicament.  I’m not sure if either of us would readily say friend of the other, save to be polite, and not split hairs unnecessarily.  Yet what real confidence we have, I cannot say.  No, perhaps I am unfair.  She has often offered me confidence more than once regarding her beloved, now husband.  I’ve had nothing similar to offer in kind, nor do I know if I would have.  However much we have been raised in the same court, I feel none the less like we are part of different worlds.”

“I see,” Charles nodded, and stepped further onto the balcony.  He leaned on the rail a respectful distance away.  “Who has my confidence, I am also less than certain,” he offered.  “I’ve sparring partners certainly,” he said thoughtfully, “and a camaraderie of sorts that comes naturally with my fellow heirs.”

“What of Philip?” Katrisha pressed.  “The two of you have always seemed quite amiable.”

“Perhaps,” Charles seemed quite dubious on the suggestion. “Yet what interests do we really share?  Polite conversation over affairs of a nation that one day will actually be our responsibility?  He’s more favorable of the views my father holds than his cousin, or you…or the King.  It seems a losing proposition altogether.”

“Do I hear doubt in your voice for Clarion teaching?” Katrisha asked cautiously.

“Doubt…certainly,” Charles offered.  “Who in this world is without doubt?  Yet who am I to question, and all the more who am I to ignore that my betters question.  I cannot say that I do not find a sense of peace in the teaching, and yet there is so much fire that belies the harmony promised.”

“Life is suffering,” Katrisha mused.

“Not words I would imagine to hear from your lips,” Charles pressed curiously.

“And why wouldn’t I?”  Katrisha countered.  “My sister is lost to me, and I must cling defiantly to the hope that she lives.  I have no true friends, save my own brother who spends much of the year far away.  Further I have not felt entirely right since the mountain.”

“Surely your injuries were an ordeal, and the strain of the circumstances would linger,” Charles suggested kindly.

“I keep feeling it is more.”  Katrisha shook her head.  “That something other than the obvious is wrong.  Not even the shadow of a war that ever looms, but never comes, seems to answer the call of what troubles me.  I find that… I am drifting, losing focus.  That time sometimes slips by, and I fail to even notice.”

“You seemed focused enough in our duel,” Charles countered, “or when you defeated three grown men, expertly trained to fight.”

“When I have something to focus on,” Katrisha said, “particularly something as invigorating as a sparring, it is not so difficult.”

“Does conversation help?”

“It would seem,” Katrisha consented, and looked back out over the city.

“Then perhaps I will remain here with you.”

Katrisha glanced at the young man.  She was still not sure she liked him at all, but there was something pleasant in the way he looked at her.  She nodded, and turned back to the city.  “As you will.”

A series of fireworks began to light the darkening sky, and as lovely as they were, Katrisha found herself closing her eyes, and listening to the sound.  She felt a hand beside hers on the rail, nothing quite so forward as to place it atop hers.  She barely looked down, somewhat willfully ignored that Charles had moved closer, and returned to the display in the sky.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 12th, 647 E.R.

Laurel considered with some curiosity the complex array of orbs that buzzed about Katrisha’s tower chamber.  It filled most of the room, and was to his eye the most detailed recreation of the solar system he had ever seen, rivaling anything he had ever done himself.  Planets, moons, and even asteroids moved along projected arcs, and a great many arcane symbols followed, or labeled the courses.  Though he recognized most of the symbols, the notation meant nothing to him.  It seemed likely something of Katrisha’s own devising.

He dodged planets as he made his way towards where Katrisha sat, seemingly absent mindedly in bed.  His passage slightly disrupted the projected paths, but seemed to do little to the overall function of the spell.  He stopped to consider a number of runes that moved on their own curious paths not seeming to label anything obvious, but quickly became more concerned with Katrisha’s acknowledgement of his presence.

Taking less care to avoid the moving parts of the spell he waked to Katrisha’s bed.  Still she just sat there, staring distantly past the center of the room.

“Katrisha?” Laurel pressed, and received no response.  He grabbed her by the shoulders gently, still nothing.  He gave a light shake.   “Kat, wake up.”

Still Katrisha sat there unblinking, and Laurel could barely have cared less as a large planet and accompanying moons crashed into him, and dissolved in swirls of light that washed over them.

Katrisha blinked, and looked around.  “What?” she asked.

Laurel got down on his knees.  “Are you alright?”

“I think so,” Katrisha seemed confused.  “What’s going on?”

“That’s my question,” Laurel demanded.

“What?” Katrisha looked around even more confused.

“What were you doing?” Laurel asked in a measured tone.

“I wasn’t doing anything…I…”  She looked bewildered.  “I was just laying down for a nap.”

“When was the last time you ate?” Laurel asked befuddled, and worried.

“Breakfast,” Katrisha answered.

“Go get some lunch,” Laurel ordered, and Katrisha nodded somewhat absently.  She got up, and Laurel got out of her way as she walked out of the room.  There were no traces of the spell, and Laurel was less than certain if she had dispelled it, or if it’s decay had been what had finally woken her.

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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.

< Previous || Next >

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…

< Previous || Afterword || Book 2 >

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 15

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

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

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

– Diary of Cassandra Alm, 621 E.R.

Marks of the Passed

Coria 39th, 644 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think everyone likes you,” Laurel chided.

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

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

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

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

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

“What can he do?” Laurel pressed.

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

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

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

“And what would you have us do?”

“Watch him?” Mercu shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 41st, 644 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 4th, 644 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

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

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

“Yes,” Kiannae growled defensively.

“Then you should know,” Katrisha sighed.

“Just tell me,” Kiannae grumbled.

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

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

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

“Must you?” Kiannae winced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Kiannae rolled her eyes.

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

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

“Except for the sun of course.”

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

“Odd.”

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

“How old?”

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

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

“Curious,” Katrisha said.

“I thought so,” Kiannae agreed.

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 12th, 644 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 20th, 644 E.R.

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

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

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

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

More silence followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t you?” Eran raised an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I presume you found something?” Katrisha pressed.

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

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

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

“Not you?” Katrisha asked.

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

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

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

“What kind of monster?” Katrisha pressed.

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

“Yes,” Katrisha assured him.

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

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

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

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

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

“You think the mage was the leader?”

“Would you expect otherwise?”

“No.”

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

“And you believe these rumors?”

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

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