High atop that Broken Hill,
‘bove shining waters calm ‘n still,
strong noble walls there defend,
lines of kings of varied kin,
‘n though lineages were broken,
of all the same shall be spoken,
fair ‘n true rulers be they all,
O’ venerable keepers of Avrale.
– old folk song of Avrale, circa 300 E.R.
The Castle on the Broken Hill
Jovan 10th, 636 E.R.
From daybreak it was a quiet five hours from the High Pass Lodge to the village of Brokhal. It was a large village, sprawled lazily across a broad deep valley basin. Brokhal would not at a glance be mistaken for a capital city, though it was. What it lacked in density, or elaborate architecture typical of such places, it made up for in sheer land area, and a serene meandering quality not easily gaged from the main road. Not that any of the four travelers were looking. Laurel and Horence were well acquainted with the sight, and the twins for the most part slept. Permitting those hours to be quiet.
Laurel had worried when the girls again insisted to sit on the front of the coach, and had attempted himself to slip into the back. He thought better of it after a very cross look from Horence, and sat instead opposite him with the twins nestled between. To their mutual relief the two had huddled up together, and promptly returned to slumber.
At some point the pair shifted, and Katrisha’s head wound up against Laurel’s arm, and subsequently she had claimed it with a tight embrace, her sister in turn clinging to her. Laurel had smiled at the pair, and apologized to Horence for having left him to their pestering the prior evening. Horence had smirked in a somewhat concerning manner, and said it was “all right” in a weighted tone. He had finally thought of his revenge.
Thick mists hung above the village in spite of the late hour of the morning, and Laurel was quite aware as Katrisha woke, and began to look about curiously. Her attention was fleeting, so many things were new to her; the bustling people in the street, moving quickly from the path of an oncoming coach. The large shops, and town homes of the village. Even the mist that rolled lazily over the rooftops was a strange, exotic creature for a girl that had spent her scarce few years in the drought gripped north.
The buildings of Brokal were a far cry from the almost vacant village where she had found Laurel, or the small lodge near Silverbrook. Midrook’s buildings were comparable, perhaps grander, but this was not evident from barren track of the main road. Katrisha would not have begun to fathom the idea that many found Brokal a tragically humble place – given its role in the larger scheme of things.
There was however good reason for this. While it lay very near the seat of royal power in the land, and along a marginal trade route, it had little else of great significance to offer. Most who lived there thought it struck a good balance between rural and city life, and were content enough to bear the scorn that came with being quaint.
The distance Katrisha had walked had seemed forever, endless, and yet with the ease of a coach and horses, in little over a day she had been carried farther from home that she had ever imagined existed. For even if she had been told a few tales of long ago, and far away, she had perspective on neither, and barely an inkling even then. Vast distances were pushed from Katrisha’s thoughts again by the faces, and the curious glances of strangers. Most wore indifferent or inconvenienced expressions, but a few seemed to look up inquisitively, with the same look of what she correctly guessed was recognition.
This struck Katrisha oddly, but was quickly forgotten as the coach rounded a corner, and passed from under a bank of rising fog. She shot upright in surprise, startling her sister awake. Kiannae rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked at her sister with mild consternation, only to follow her transfixed gaze into the distance.
Above the still broad waters of a steaming lake rose imposing sheer cliffs. There top by gray stone walls, framed by lofty towers, one taller than all the rest. Laurel looked down at the two awestruck girls and smiled.
“It is an impressive sight isn’t? I’ve seen many wonders in all my travels 0 and perhaps this pales to some – but I’ve always had a fondness for the simple majesty of the castle on Broken Hill. I’ve been proud to live here for many years, and I hope you will find it a pleasant home as well.”
The girls looked up at Laurel in disbelief. He had quite intentionally failed to mention certain key details of their destination. He had told Horence as well to hold his tongue, a request the man had thought strange until around the thirtieth inane excited question of the previous day. Laurel smiled and ruffled the girl’s hair each in turn, and they looked back to the towering sight before them. He was glad to see them excited, distracted from grief, but of equal importance to him that moment, stunned into further silence.
The coach rolled on down the road towards the lake shore, and over a small bridge across a river feeding the north end. The road wound along the base of the great hill, till the cliffs, and walls disappeared from view, but the tallest of the towers could always be seen, save briefly in the shadow of tall groves of trees.
Eventually the road rose higher, and snaked slowly upwards till the hill’s slope grew more level. There trees gave way to manor houses, stables, and small fields. A man herding sheep on horseback stopped, and noticeably stared at the coach as it passed. Soon two armored men approached on adorned horses, and moved to each side of the cart. A moment passed without a word before the tallest, and most well adorned man spoke from the back of his white steed, “Your quick return is unexpected, Laurel…Horence.”
Horence avoided the gaze of his superior, and remained quiet. He reconsidered his choice the previous morning. That he didn’t try the poor old donkey at the farm as a means to continue on to the border. Though there was no reason for him to go without Laurel.
“There was an unfortunate turn of events Arlen,” Laurel said calmly, though Horence thought perhaps he heard something annoyed in the way the Knight Commander’s name was said, “and more pressing matters have brought me back.” Laurel glanced informatively down at the two little girls. “I think the King will be most understanding, under the circumstances.”
Arlen looked the two in the middle over. He had noticed them, made note of them curiously, but mostly ignored them to that point. He was notably unimpressed by the look of them. Katrisha and Kiannae each glanced only fleetingly at the middle aged man, and as small children are apt to do, immediately decided they did not like him. This made the unspoken opinions of those on the coach unanimous.
The procession passed beneath the castle gate together, and into the lower courtyard. Stables and servant quarters lined the walls, and people moved about on their daily business. Many stopped briefly on recognizing the two men on the coach, then hurried on at even the slightest glance from the Knight Commander.
Laurel halted the coach as stable hands gathered round. He stepped down as the two knights that had come out to greet them dismounted in turn. He offered a hand to Katrisha who crawled from the blanket she and her sister were wrapped in. The knight’s horses were lead away as Horence got down, and helped Kiannae to the ground as well. Arlen ordered his companion back to the wall, and then lead the way up the stairs to the upper court. Horence and Laurel each took a girl in their arms to spare the time and effort of the two climbing the many steps.
At the top of the stairs three well dressed women sat beneath a gazebo overlooking the lower court, and regarded the group with great interest. Horence nodded to the ladies as he set Kiannae down at the top of the stairs. The shortest of the ladies smiled at him warmly, and brushed back a strand of her red hair. The tallest, and eldest woman in the middle spoke, “What poor wild creatures do we have here?”
Laurel turned and regarded the three ladies passingly. “They will be introduced to the court shortly, if you wish to come and observe, Lady Catherine.”
Catherine gave Laurel an odd look with the slightest hint of indignance, and stood, her two companions moving in step. “Yes, I think we shall,” she said coldly.
Catherine followed several paces behind the group as they crossed the upper courtyard. Her companions were closely in tow behind her as she chose to walk right around the fountain, and the others went left. I was somewhat remarkable that Catherine herself did not seem to have rushed at all, and yet had managed enough haste that the two groups met equally at the opposite end.
Arlen nodded to the ladies a bit tersely, and gestured on. Catherine nodded in kind, with a certain air that said she had shown them all their place, and moved towards the keep. Of the ladies only the red haired woman at the rear seemed at all bashful about the exchange, and a bit rushed to keep up.
Guards opened large wooden doors that lead into a wide corridor that lined the front of the main keep. Another door stood opposite, and upon seeing the procession the guards standing to each side opened it as well.
The ladies and Arlen filed off to opposite sides of the hall a short distance from the dais. People shuffled to give Arlen and Catherine a good deal of space, though little difference was given to Catherine’s two companions. Laurel, Horence, and the two girls continued towards the throne.
The King and Queen looked up from the regally dressed man who had been speaking, and considered the new arrivals. The King gestured for the petitioner to step aside, and make way. He did with only the slightest hint of displeasure, considering the new arrivals with curiosity that slowly melted his expression to one of interest, as much as dissatisfaction.
As the base of the dais cleared Laurel stepped up to it and bowed. He waited what might have seemed a bit long for those not familiar with court proceedings, and then the reason became more clear.
“The court recognizes Court Mage Laurel Grey,” the herald announced in a perplexed tone, having come back to his senses.
“A very proper bow for such an improper return,” the King remarked as he leaned forward, and focused on the two girls that now stood at either side of Horence, each clinging to a leg. “We did not expect to see you again for at least two weeks. What strange state of affairs has returned you to court so soon?”
“A tragedy I fear your Majesty,” Laurel said looking up as he began to speak. “You surely recall Adel Ashton, the hero of the north.” Laurel himself had only quite recently learned the name, though he believed he had heard it before in passing. It however did something for his at times dubious air of authority, to speak as though he knew everything. The King of course was expected to know such things, and for Laurel it was a win either way the King’s memory swayed.
“Of course,” the King said in a matter of fact tone, though with a breath of hesitation as he searched his memory. “We were there when the Elder King honored her posthumously, though We have not heard the Ashton name in…” he paused thoughtfully. “There was mention that the man and his daughter had remained last year when place was offered for them in the south.”
“I fear the honor bestowed upon the Ashtons at their farm has seen more occupants this year,” Laurel said taking on a dire tone. “Of those we knew, two more have passed from this world.” He paused as a murmur passed through the sides of the court. A rough looking man in none the less fine clothes took off his hat, and lowered his head somberly. Horence recognized him as the elected representatives for the displaced northern farmers.
The King’s face grew more firm. “This is troubling news on such a fine morning. What has happened?”
Laurel turned and nodded at Horence who brought the two girls forward before the King, and Queen who each regarded them with curious scrutiny. Their clothes were very simple, and though they had been cleaned up from the previous days it was most unusual for such underdressed, or young children to stand before the King at court. They moved to hide in the folds of Laurel’s robes, trying to escape the intrusive gaze of strangers, which they were most unaccustomed to. They had always been told to stay out of sight when visitors came to the farm.
Laurel gave a moment and then spoke again, “Not all of the details are clear, but this much we know. Earlier this year James Ashton passed, but Meliae, his daughter, continued on at the farm in his stead. Without her father, or it would seem the father of her children at her side. The young Meliae died after bearing her third.”
The King considered his questions for a moment. “And what has become of the third? You said two Ashtons are no longer with us, not three.”
Laurel nodded. “Astute my King. The woman Meliae it seems had the gift, and though untrained was able to give greatly of herself to sustain her weak newborn. The result was tragic, though the boy lives, the mother does not. I have left him in the care of the Lycian Sisters, for fear only they could properly handle his condition.”
Fresh murmurs washed over the court as the King sat back in his throne, and stroked his beard thoughtfully. After a moment he leaned forward again, and considered the two scared little green eyed girls who peered up at him, half hidden behind Laurel’s robes. “We assume that these two have been brought before us with a request, that something is to be bestowed upon them? Surely they do deserve better as the descendants of a hero than to be relegated to an orphanage.”
Laurel gave the King’s words a moment, and then spoke plainly. “These girls, as their mother, have the gift. Their potential is not insignificant, and I wish permission to raise them here at court, and train them to be mages.”
The King leaned back and pondered at length. “An unusual, but not unreasonable request – though I do worry how much of a drain upon your time they might be.”
“A wise concern of course,” Laurel nodded his understanding. “Though there are personal resources at my disposal, at times there may be need of assistance from the court.”
The King thought for bit. “Given the circumstances We are inclined to oblige. Though We know nothing of the trouble young mages might be, to have more full grown at court could be desirable – a privilege so far from Mordove these days – though a tricky one. What of the Council?”
Laurel bowed deeply in appreciation, and spoke humbly, “At your will my King. I know the treaties well, adopted as my daughters the council can have no official quarrel. I thank you for this indulgence, and for the girl’s sakes.”
“So long as it is more your indulgence, than the courts, it is We who will thank you,” the King intoned such that it was hard to tell if it was more a warning, or a matter of respect for Laurel’s generosity in tanking them in.
The Queen then leaned forward, watching to be sure it was apparent to all she intended to speak. “Before you usher them away to begin some arcane study or another, We think they should be dressed more appropriately for members of the court,” she began sternly. “The royal handmaidens shall attend to them, surely there are some clothes fit for young girls to be found. I believe young Princess Maraline has outgrown a few.” She motioned for her attendants, four of whom emerged from behind the crowds at each side of the dais, and approached the girls who hid more deeply in Laurel’s robes, and then inched backwards towards Horence.
Laurel tried to turn as he felt the girls shift behind him, but found the attempt awkward at best, and clumsy more so with his robe firmly in their grasp. Horence knelt down and regarded each girl in turn with a steady kind gaze, and then up at the approaching ladies.
Laurel shuffled around in as dignified a manner as one can when two children are clinging to your clothing, but soon realized Horence had the matter well in hand.
“Go with these nice women,” Horence said with a reassuring nod. “They will give you baths, and some pretty new clothes. Everything will be fine.”
Katrisha bit her lower lip as she looked at Horence intently, then to her sister. Kiannae hesitated, and then nodded. They both let go of Laurel and were lead swiftly away through the parting crowd.
Laurel’s attempts to face the girls had left him standing a bit to the side, and most of this exchange was observed by the Queen, who leaned back thoughtfully. She decided she would do well to have a word with Arlen, to insure who would bear the brunt of any extra care the girls needed in Laurel’s inevitable absences. It was not precisely that the Queen did not trust the man she knew to be Laurel’s intended second, more it was that she trusted him in a very particular kind of way.
The Queen was not the only member of court who had keenly observed how Horence had handled the girls. A lovely young woman who stood at Lady Catherine’s side, had also watched with a different sort of interest. She brushed aside a perpetually unruly – to the point of seeming intentional – lock of red hair, and smiled just long enough to be sure he had seen her do so. He bowed to the King, and nodded to the lady before following Laurel’s lead, and made himself scarce so that normal proceedings could resume.
The lead handmaid moved a curtain aside, revealing a door into the Queen’s antechamber, and on into royal complex that dominated the west wall of the castle. The girls were lead down a well adorned corridor, and up a flight of stairs. At last they came to a large double door, not so grand as the throne room’s, but larger than any they had passed along the way.
The door opened quite curiously onto a wall, set back a few feet from the entrance. Both girls boggled at this rather incongruous discovery for a moment, and even as they tried in unison to ask “Why…” they were pressed on ahead, and around the offending wall which served to obscure the room from any prying eyes that might pass.
Within lay a large U shaped basin that wrapped around the majority of the room, with tall columns laid evenly along its arc, and gentle steps descending into it. Green leaved vines covered trellises on the walls, around flowing water showers that fell in perfect unbroken curtains feeding the pool. A small stone bridge crossed the middle of the arc, and at the far end of the room amidst huge flowering potted plants sat a massive porcelain tub, laid before a broad stained glass window. Clear central panels would give the occupant of that tub an unobstructed view of the distant valley below.
The girls were awestruck, and barely noticed the women moving quietly around them. Two that had removed their own fine outer garments already knelt, and stripped the girls without effort or ceremony. They then lead them into the shallow, gently flowing water at the pool’s edge. The twins were urged to sit, and resisted only very slightly. Soaps were brought by a third woman who remained fully dressed.
The smell of lavender and vanilla filled the air as soap was lathered, and a pitcher was dipped into the flowing water. Glimmering runes could be seen beneath the rippling surface, and Katrisha wanted to move closer, fascinated by the pale blue light. Before she could investigate however her head was pulled back, and water poured over her hair, and a moment later over the rest of her.
The fragrance of the soap grew stronger as hands worked through Katrisha’s hair, and massaged her scalp. She glanced over at her sister who wrinkled her nose as a trickle ran down her face. Katrisha smiled, laughed, and then squinted as she felt soapy water creeping down her own forehead.
The women washing them would occasionally lean close and whisper into each other’s ears conspiratorially, not quite loud enough for either girl to make out. It seemed quite infuriatingly intentional, as curiosity begged to know what they were saying. Particularly after any well restrained titter.
The head handmaiden, who had left in search of clothes returned, and conversed in similar private fashion with the fourth, who had gathered large towels that were draped over her arms. The towel bearer stepped forward as insistent scrubbing changed to multiple pitchers of water being poured over the girls to notable protest.
The girls were lead up from the waters, and great warm towels wrapped around them from head to toe. When at last their faces emerged they were presented with two lacy multi layered dresses, about a size too big for them. There was another whisper from one of the handmaidens addressed to their leader, who seemed too busy showing the dresses to be cautious, and simply said, “Darion insisted.”
Katrisha was distracted by having finally heard something – which she then decided had been meaningless – and Kiannae picked first, pointing to the green one. This left the pale blue for Katrisha, who decided she would have prefered it anyway. Brushes were run through their dark hair, catching on small knots, and drawing yelps of protest. Once their hair was passably straightened the dresses were put on over the girl’s heads, and the handmaid’s considered their work, as the two who had bathed them finished redressing.
The head handmaid took a pin from her hair, allowing a bit to fall free in a still dignified manner, and grabbed one without asking from her closest companion, who shot her a dirty look. She bundled each girl’s hair up at the backs of their heads, cocked her head to the side and nodded approvingly at the results.
A tiny rumble from Katrisha’s belly drew a quick exchange of glances between the women – some quite amused – and they promptly lead the girls from the great bath, and back down stairs. They crossed the corridor at a bit of an angle to another door, which opened onto a great hall dominated by long tables laid end to end, and many chairs.
A high ceiling rose above with chandeliers dangling from broad rafters. Light streamed down through skylights high above, and an old woman in the gallery overhead paused in her cleaning to watch the procession as they left the grand dining hall, and entered the kitchen.
Staff worked to clean dishes, and a tall slender man in a puffy white hat adorned pastries carefully at a central work space. He turned to consider the Queen’s handmaids coldly, and looked down at the two small girls they surrounded with some confusion. Their leader moved quickly to the man’s side and whispered in his ear. His expression softened. “Of course Lady Marian,” he said with a hint of a sigh, and gestured for one of his subordinates to come closer.
More whispering transpired as the girls watched the curious exchange. Suddenly the young kitchen attendant grabbed a large platter, and scurried to a huge wooden door which he opened only a crack, and disappeared behind.
Marian returned and ushered the girls to a small table in the corner of the kitchen, situated beside the mysterious door from which a chill could be felt. She dismissed the others with a wave, and leaned down to help the girls up onto tall stools.
Through the large door to was still open the girls could see the apron clad servant scurrying in and out of view, the platter he had taken rested on one hand. At last he emerged, pushing the heavy wooden door open with his shoulder, stepped around and leaned back against it to close it firmly. With less haste he strode towards the table the girls sat beside, and set the platter before them with a bow.
The girls looked hungrily at the array of meats, cheeses, and small pieces of bread set before them. The servant smiled, and nodded to Marian who considered him in a not altogether aloof manner. However before he could properly read the woman’s demeanor he fled at a sideways glance from the kitchen’s master.
Indecision quickly was overcome by hunger, and the girls each grabbed randomly, nibbling at the pieces individually with no mind to try and put them together. Some drew delighted little sounds, while others resulted in wrinkled noses. As each was on about their sixth piece the servant breezed by again, setting small metal cups before the girls, each filled with fresh cider.
As though not to be upstaged by a subordinate in the service of the honored young guests – or before the Queen’s chief handmaiden – the head chef set a fresh pastry before each girl causing their eyes to go wide. The man nodded to the Lady who smiled at him slightly, and he returned to his work.
As the girls ate their pasty with great delight their attention began to wander to their surroundings, to hanging pots and pans, racks, knives, and chopping blocks. They could recognize most of the parts from home, and watching their mother cook, but at such scale and quantity they were bewildered. They had seen all the people in the throne room however, surely they all needed to eat, so a kitchen that vast made some sense to them, even if they could not imagine so much food.
Their eyes were drawn particularly to faint glowing runes on the bottom of every pot and pan, and similar forms that glowed dimly on counter surfaces. There were no obvious stoves, or fires for cooking, which puzzled them. Their pastries picked apart, and finished the girls nibbled at more of the meat and cheese from the platter, though with less excitement as they began to grow full, and ran out of the ones they liked.
Kiannae was the first to notice as Laurel entered the kitchen, and dropped from her chair, catching Her sister’s attention, who quickly followed behind. The two wove between counters, and pounced onto Laurel’s robes, slightly teetering him. Marian walked gracefully up to Laurel and considered the girls clinging to him. “You seem to have made an impression,” she remarked breaking her near silence to that point.
“I guess all levels of familiarity are relative,” Laurel said patting each girl on the head in turn. “Had Horence been at my side I might suspect the girls would accost him instead, as he has spent more time with them to date.”
Marian repressed a laugh. “The day I see a woman, or girl, of any age pounce upon Horence with such intensity, is the day I check to see the sun still rises.”
“You judge the man far too poorly, Marian,” Laurel chided. “He is of good heart, and strong sinew.”
“This may be, I do not deny,” Marian said regarding Laurel shrewdly. “Yet I stand by my assertion as to the level of excitement inspired.”
“Perhaps,” Laurel said playing along, “yet to all their own tastes I suppose. Surely should he have a daughter she might love him so, and so too perhaps a good wife, who knows him for better virtues than the most superficial.”
“Hmph,” Marian dissented. “Yes, perhaps as well. I shall leave you to your little lasses, and return to my Queen’s side.”
Laurel looked down at the girls clinging to him, and gingerly took a step forward until they moved in tow, still loosely hanging onto his robes. He walked to where they had been seated, and took some of the leftovers, drawing a displeased look from the cook. He shrugged as if to say, ‘it was there.’ The cook said nothing, it was not quite his place to protest, as much as he felt it should be.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Laurel stood in quiet meditation, leaned against the curved wall of a large tower chamber. He opened his eyes now and then to make sure the two girls still sat in one of the three window seats. He was glad that for the moment they seemed transfixed by the spectacle of looking down on the valley below. He had no illusions this distraction would last even the remainder of the day – or hour – and considered that amidst the myriad responsibilities he had taken on he would also need to insure the girls remained reasonably entertained.
Laurel became keenly aware of how little thought he had ever put into rearing children. It wasn’t something that had ever seemed to be in his plans, much to his parents dismay. He hadn’t thought the arrangement through beyond the horizon – at every turn it had simply been a matter of the right and practical thing to do.
He allowed himself some solace in the idea that he could get some help from the royal tutors with raw academics. Then there was Mercu, surely his flair for drama, art, and all things unconventional would help. ‘Thank the merciful fates for Mercu,’ he mused.
Almost as if summoned, a familiar voice chimed in at the open door. “To say that I was surprised to hear you had returned so suddenly, would be an indifferent misstatement of the truth.” His presence had snuck up on him, a thing like a gentle yet intemperate breeze, easily missed till it was upon you. Oddly soothing once it was.
Laurel turned to regard the thin well dressed man that stood at the chamber door. His feathered cap was ever so slightly, and intentionally askew atop a sweep of hazel hair, that might have shown the first strands of gray. He had the look of a man that took great pains to insure he appeared to have given it no thought at all.
“You of all people,” he started with mild amusement, “should appreciate the unexpected, dramatic turns of life.”
Mercu considered a dusty old chair that had been left sitting by the door. He tilted it, turned it, patted the seat, and waved away a cloud of dust futilely before sitting down. “Appreciation for such twists does not necessarily make them any less unexpected. When I first heard from a fellow patron in a shop down in the village, that he had seen the Court Mage coming back through town today, I brushed it off as a mistake.”
He looked to the window seat where two sets of curious green eyes were focused upon him. “When however I overheard a mildly inebriated young soldier in a tavern speaking of two little girls introduced – most under dressed – at court by same said mage, then I knew investigation was in order.”
Before Laurel could make a retort, two servants entered, a huge down bed sac carried awkwardly between them. The leading servant looked to Laurel as if for direction, who simply shrugged, then gestured to beneath one of the windows.
Ignoring the interruption, Mercu continued his little rant. “Now, if all these strange affairs were not enough, upon arriving at the castle, and while passing through the upper court I witnessed something to make me question if I still resided in the same world I woke up to this morning. For there, amidst no less than five charming young women stood Horence, who seemed to have their full and quite undivided attention. I do not think even one noticed me bow as I passed.”
Laurel scoffed as the two servants extracted themselves quickly. “You are as terrible as Marian.”
“Oh, and now you are flattering me,” Mercu shot back. “To be compared to lovely Marian, however chidingly. Truly I have indeed stepped foot into some other realm, perhaps not entirely unlike my own, yet so keenly different all the same.”
The girls, disinterested in the exchange of the two adults had jumped into the soft recesses of the great down filled sac, and rolled about giggling. Drawing the gaze of both their elders, and distracting them from their own fun.
“So tell me please,” Mercu continued, looking back to Laurel, “what in the King’s name is going on around here?”
Laurel sighed and moved to close the chamber door. He leaned back against it, insuring for the moment at least there would be no more sudden intrusions. “Some of what I am about to tell you,” he started in a cautioning tone, “I have yet to tell the King. I did not wish to announce every detail in open court.”
Mercu simply nodded his understanding.
“While I did not really know the story of Adel Ashton until quite recently, I assume you are well versed?” Laurel continued questioningly.
Mercu thought for a moment. “Yes, yes. Hero of the north, farmer’s wife. She tried to fight off an immature black drake with a pitchfork, and did better than most knights probably would have with a sword. Died for her troubles though, leaving her husband and daughter. Though the tales say the daughter probably would not have survived otherwise.”
“Well those two over there”, Laurel intoned, his inflection implying disapproval of Mercu’s callous version of events, “are her granddaughters.”
“Oh,” Mercu said, and then frowned. “Why do I feel there is more tragedy to be added to that family line?”
“I fear so.” Laurel sighed. “Their grandfather died sometime earlier in the year, and according to their limited account, I do not believe of natural causes. In the same incident their father I believe was taken back by force to his people, and the mother’s fate is even more grim.”
“Dare I ask either what you mean by ‘his people,’ or what could be ‘more grim’ than death, or abduction?” Mercu prodded with morbid curiosity.
“I am quite certain the father was Sylvan,” Laurel paused for effect and watched Mercu’s expression shift. “Based largely on a mixture of circumstantial statements, and the girl’s eyes and ears. As to the mother, she had the gift, but was never trained, or trained properly. Her efforts to save her newborn were…catastrophic.” He glanced to the twins who did not seem to be listening, to his relief.
Mercu was obviously mortified at the thought, but found the presence of mind to ask, “Did the child live?”
“Yes,” Laurel said obviously clinging to one of the few positive details of the story. “Mercifully we found the boy in time, thanks in large to the bravery of those two little heroes over there. Katrisha walked a good ten miles, half of it alone when her sister sprained her ankle. She stumbled upon me in Minterbrook, almost delirious, and quite dehydrated.”
Mercu glanced over at the girls who were now peaking over mounds of down bedding. He simply shook his head for a moment, and then moved on to something less dire. “How ever do you tell them apart?”
“If I try quite hard I think I can tell them apart by their auras,” Laurel paused, considering for a moment, “I would not however stake my life, or anything else of notable value upon it. Further telling them apart, and which is which are not quite the same thing. Still the different dresses help, but that’s hardly reliable.”
Mercu leaned the old chair he sat in back against the wall, and sighed. “Well, certainly I understand a great deal more. I will even wager a guess as to why Horence was so accosted by fine young maidens – he has the gossip to share. Good for him, the boy deserves a break.”
Laurel rolled his eyes. “You did not ask however why they are here in the tower,” he prodded trying to catch Mercu in having not thought something through.
Mercu perked a brow. “Oh that part seemed painfully obvious with the rest. Mother had the gift, you plan to teach them to use it. I know all too well – you remember – how these things work. Try as I may, I’ll never be a mage, wasn’t born with it, largely because in turn neither of my parents were.”
Mercu sighed, and leaned the chair forward with a creak, and a thud. “I also won’t pretend I’m happy about the obvious implication you expect me to help, or you damn well better. Those girls need more in their heads than academics, and you dear sir are not the one to teach things such as art, poetry, or music.”
“Why no,” Laurel said in a sarcastic tone, “it had not crossed my mind. However since you offer – accepted.”
Mercu scoffed. “Fine. Settled.”
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Jovan 13th, 636 E.R.
There had been some debate if the young twins were ready to sit at a royal table, and Mercu had been on the dubious side. He tested their etiquette at a few private dinners, and decided that it was reasonable enough, if lacking in any semblance of refinement. They were tame at the dinner table, and so he made the case to include them at evening meals.
The cost of this consideration displaced Mercu from a more favorable place at the table, and often with company he was less fond of. That evening he found himself across from Arlen, and his son Charles. The boy had arrived seeming sweet enough the year before – his mother’s influence Mercu was sure – but was slowly adapting to the disposition of his father.
Mercu helped Kiannae into her seat, and noted that Charles was conversing with Prince Philip to his right, and did not look away until chastised by his father for speaking at all. Kiannae seemed simply transfixed by everything, and oblivious to any one person. Neither child seem to have any interest in the other, which Mercu decided was by far for the best.
He helped Katrisha into her seat next, and she waved slightly to the prince across from her. Mercu gently urged her hand down, but there seemed no harm as Philip smiled cordially. Mercu then moved to his own seat, and exchanged less than pleasant nods of recognition with Arlen.
“Hello,” said the girl to Katrisha’s left, and she looked up at her. She was about four years older, and at that age much larger than Katrisha, though her more upright posture exaggerated the perception. “My name is Princess Maraline,” the girl introduced herself, brushing back an auburn lock of hair. “You must be either Katrisha, or Kiannae,” she offered with a nod.
“Kat,” Katrisha said.
“A pleasure to finally meet you,” Maraline nodded. “Though I do believe I’ve seen you about. Are my old dresses treating you both well?” She asked, glancing to Kiannae who noticed she was being spoken to, and nodded.
“Yes, thank you,” Katrisha said.
“That’s good.” Maraline smiled. “Mother says the moths would surely have gotten them soon, and I do remember being fond of them once. They look good on you both, if a bit big, I’m sure you will grow into them.”
“I don’t mind,” Kiannae said.
“They have both been grateful,” Mercu offered. “I think though they are obsessed with getting robes like Laurel’s.”
“Why would you want stuffy things like that?” Maraline asked. “Dresses are so much prettier.”
“I think robes look nice,” Kiannae offered.
“I hear Laurel is off again?” Arlen asked from across the table, if for no other reason than to talk over the chatty children. “Now that unfortunate delays have been dealt with.”
“Left this morning, yes,” Mercu answered.
“Wards or not, I feel like we should certainly restore Andersted,” he said grimly. “It simply is not good that we have left the border there so unguarded.”
“Andersted?” Mercu said curiously. “Is that the name of that old ruin? I thought it was Ashrook.”
“Both,” Arlen seemed unamused. “It was renamed for some northerner back during the late Empire. Not even a proper rook really, just an over glorified barracks on a hill. At its height there was a small village around it. I guess there still is, if you can even call it that. Most locals call it Anders, though that ruin goes by either name. It is where Armon and his son herald from.”
“And the northerner?” Mercu pressed curiously.
“Gifted of course, cropped up on some farmland. Received a duchy to legitimize his marriage to a princess that fancied him. The area was such a backwater, caught between Osyraen aggression, and Avrale proper since…always really.”
“Why was the duchy never restored?” Mercu asked curious of a new take on the matter. He had heard vague versions of the tale before, but there seemed new details to be had.
“Ashton lost his wife and heirs in the war, but lived on himself. He returned to the farmland of his birth, and married some common woman. Which he should have done to begin with. He had the audacity however to leave it all to common people, and the king of the day permitted it. Or was it Queen…I’ll admit I’m fuzzy who had authority at the time. The recovery after the war was so chaotic. Such a mess, but they managed tolerably I suppose. Eaking out a living without any proper governance.”
“His name was Ashton you say?” Mercu pressed.
“Yes,” Arlen said with some displeasure. “It is more than possible that the name passed down, or it was just the name of the people in that area. He came from there after all.”
“Are you talking about us?” Kiannae asked.
“Your ancestors possibly,” Mercu said.
“An…cestors?” Katrisha asked a bit bemused.
“Your father’s father’s,” Maraline offered helpfully.
“Our father came from the forest,” Kiannae offered.
Arlen gave Mercu a curious look, and Mercu was shrewd. “It is a suspicion. We are being quiet about it.”
Arlen nodded, but Mercu did not like the attitude of it at all.
“A Sylvan?” Maraline asked with rapt curiosity.
“Grandfather called him that sometimes,” Katrisha said. “Only when they fought though.”
“How curious,” Maraline said, as food began to arrive.
Mercu was glad of the distraction, though the damage was mostly done. Still, he had his own curious avenues to explore from it, and was thoughtful for some time.