Chapter 18

Not all nature hath given is worthy of trust,
the instincts of body are animalistic urges,
these care not for light, mind, or spirit will,
and err toward a primitive world that was,
yes endure we must to walk worthy paths,
yet a tainted soul is for the voids sure gain,
commit not the nature fickle flesh to spirit.

– The Path of Ascension, Saint Taurien, circa 10 B.E.

Fighting Instincts

Jovan 1st, 645 E.R.

“The Empire Reconciliation began in the year thirty-four of the reign of first Emperor Corinth,”  Kiannae read, and then frowned.  “Though Corinth is said to have resisted putting such emphasis on the year of his ascension, it was ultimately…”

“We’ve covered this,” Katrisha protested.

Moriel turned a bit tersely, but then hesitated.  He marched up to the desk the twins were sitting at, flipped through a few pages, checked the cover, and shook his head.

“My apologies, I seem to have crossed up lesson plans with the young prince,” he said, and walked the book back across the room.

“But we covered that a year ago,” Kiannae said a bit incredulously.

“He’s older,” Katrisha added, and rubbed a sore shoulder from morning training with Horence.  She had fallen rather hard on it when Kiannae had swept her leg.

Moriel tapped his finger along the spines of several books, pulled one out, and set it before the girls.  “Yes, he is.”  There was no particular tone with it, nor an expression that hinted at humor.  Kiannae nonetheless started to laugh, but stopped at a stern glance.

“Katrisha, please begin,” Moriel said when he was satisfied they had both calmed themselves.

She opened the book, turned a few pages, and pursed her lips.

“Perceiving Magic,” she began.

The underlying organism appears to have e-volved in abstract of the gift, and acquired it later.  Further this is reinforced in the individual by the gradual growth of aura, leading into adolescence and adulthood.

“Evolved?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“Hmm,” Moriel considered the two.  “Perhaps we should have begun instead with Cadius’ Comparative Species.”  He shook his head.  “We’ll get to that later.  Laurel thought this one would be good for you when I showed it to him.  In short, evolution is the manner in which the creatures of the world – people included – have changed over time by inheritance, mutation, intentions of the world, dire instincts, and mortal intervention.  Though the distribution of these effects, and mechanisms are sometimes in debate.”

“How the Sylvans are part cat?” Katrisha asked, and brushed the tip of her ear thoughtfully.

“Or the eastern ones part wolf,” Kiannae corrected.

“That would fit into mortal intervention in all likelihood,” Moriel nodded.  “Though it causes all manner of problems.  Shaper magic to our knowledge was not refined enough for such a task till at least the middle empire, but the Sylvans were as they are long before the Magi. Perhaps something more akin to the instinctual changes of dire creatures.”  He seemed thoughtful a moment.

“I’m not dire,” Kiannae said crossing her arms, and staring up at their tutor.

Moriel perked a brow, and leaned over the table, peering over his glasses in an almost comical manner, even if his expression remained its usual neutral.  “Aren’t you?  I think I’ve heard some tales that imply a few youth of the court might disagree.”

“I think that was me,” Katrisha said jumping to her sister’s defense, and with very little sheepishness about it.

“As if they can tell you two apart,” Moriel waved dismissively, and stood up straight again.  “A dire creature is at the heart little more than gifted are.  Yet instincts in an animal seem liable to shape them in ways mortals are – at least typically – not.  Still, there are exceptions.  Mostly shaper magic such as changed Roshana, and the other dragons.  But some with profound gifts not trained as mages do become larger, more muscular.  The legends refer to Osier, first king of the nation that still bears his name, to have been more giant than man.  A warrior who should have been counted among the shaman, but was refused.”

“That’s how Osyrae got its name?” Kiannae asked curiously, it had never come up before.

“Yes,” Moriel nodded.  “Much the same way that the nation – later Empire – of Corinthia came to be named such.  Formerly it was Anderhale, named for another line of kings.  In Osyrae, and perhaps the whole world, Osier was the first king.  That land though had no other name as a united people.  I’m sure the vale people referred to them all as Nords at some point, though I am aware of no clear written record of it.  Nord of course derived from the old vale speak nor, or North.  Much as Nohlend…”

“So was Avrale conquered by someone named Ave then?” Katrisha interrupted dubiously, not having realized Moriel was going to continue after a momentary pause.

“No.”  Moriel sighed.  “We are off topic,” he said as the interruption allowed him to consider he was rambling.  He glanced at the twins, and saw they seemed determined.  He marched up to the blackboard, and tapped the chalk thoughtfully.

“Words, Names, Titles, Language itself is much like the organisms of the world.  Changing, adapting, mutating over time,” he began.  He scrawled four letters quickly on the board, ‘Cwen.’  He underlined this, and turned back towards the girls.  “Writing was in a primitive form when the Magi left ancient Osyrae, but after the things they experienced the preservation of knowledge was critical to them.”  He turned back, and wrote ‘Maji’ and drew an arrow to ‘Magi.’

“So the spelling changed?” Katrisha asked.

“And the pronunciation,” Moriel said with a nod.  “The original form is believed to have sounded more like maz-i.  It meant, ‘teacher,’ or perhaps ‘teacher of peace.’  In all the great irony that gives us.  It changed further you might know, to refer to those they taught, and became mage.”

“What is, C-wen,” Kiannae sounded out, and then the look on her face almost implied she got it.

“Seems you have a guess,” Moriel said shrewdly.

“Queen?” Kiannae offered.

“In one,” Moriel said encouragingly.  “In the original form it meant woman, or possibly more like the honorific Lady.  We owe the original connotation to Navi, who declared herself Cwen of Every Vale, though it is most often translated as She of Every Vale, or Lady of Every Vale.  We owe then the modern queen to Napir, and the influence of the Storm Queen, who took up the word, liking the implication of female rule.  There is some semantic debate if Navi or Ashai the Storm Queen of the day would be the first true queen.  The line of the Storm is older, but their role is more Empress than queen, but the word in its modern form comes from the land.”

Moriel shook his head.  As in instructor he hated questions he had not predicted, not because he did not know the answer, but because he sometimes struggled not to ramble on with too much more.  A natural affliction perhaps from having spent too many years buried in books.  With his eyes as they were, his face a bit more buried than most.

“So is king just man in the end?” Katrisha asked dubiously.

“A reasonable guess,” Moriel offered, “but no.  It is related to kin, or kon in the original Osyrean.  The g was added to the end implying a sort of ownership, or possession, being above kin.”  He turned, and wrote two more words on the board.  “Notably it sounded more like Kon-ing, than Kong, as one might expect to pronounce it.  In some irony kin’s original meaning was ‘to birth,’ or ‘to spring forth.’”

Kiannae laughed.  “So both King and Queen come from feminine meanings?”

“In a matter of speaking,” Moriel offered in an indecisive tone.  He could sometimes be a hard man to read, with his somewhat pudgy face that always looked oddly jovial, even if his thin lipped expression rarely varied to either humor or displeasure.  He did have moments he cracked to an impish smile, but they were rare, even when it did seem he was joking.

“So,” Katrisha started with a pause, “Cwen was the title taken by Navi, Cwen of Every Vale, and like the song Every Vale became Avrale with time?” she guessed with less than certainty.

“Precisely,” Moriel nodded.  “Sorry, this happens when one doesn’t set out to follow a lesson plan.”  He turned back to the board, and again scrawled out some letters.  “Avr Vrael is the best record we have of the ancient words used in the title.  Though as Avr meant all, in a context of the land, and all of the land was vales it was somewhat redundant.  How exactly it shortened to Avrale over time is less well understood, but it is surmised that the two ‘vr’s merged.”

He considered his two pupils a moment.  “I will be glad to prepare lessons on comparative linguistics, and evolution if they are of interest, but let us return to the prepared topic for the day.”  He pointed to Kiannae.

She shifted the book, and tried to pick up where her sister left off.

As such the mind and nerves do not develop a direct method of understanding these energies they can later perceive.  The result is a form of syn-es-the-sia.  Eliciting texture, smell, taste, warm and cold, and perhaps most notably visual or rarely auditory phenomena that are not gathered by the eyes or ears.

“Synesthesia?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“It is much as the text implies, a conflation of one sense with another.  If you have ever noticed what seems like light when rubbing your eyes, this is at least related.  Injury, disease, and other causes do sometimes impart more widespread crossing of senses.  You each could speak to the fact better, but this text implies that your perceptions of gift, aura, and magic are thus.”

Kiannae pursed her lips, and resumed reading aloud.

To this end tuning out the direct stimuli and focusing on those intruding on a sense helps to better observe auras.  For example, unfocused vision, or even closing your eyes can be of use.  Unfocused vision is the preference as closing one’s eyes can confuse, and remove visual cues that help anchor perceptions in our grasp of depth.  

On the whole physical sensations are more reliable because – ironically – the confusion of stimuli is deeper to the point of making it hard to tell what comes from the gift, or from touch.  At the root all such perceptions are the influence of auras on our own, and by consequence our peripheral nerves which is their primary source.

“We already know this,” Kiannae protested.

“Do you?” Moriel pressed.

Katrisha frowned.  “I think perhaps more we know some of it.  I’ve heard of nerves, they let us feel things, but I didn’t know they were the source of our auras.”  She held up her hand, trying to look deeper, but she wasn’t sure if she could make out anything new.  She grabbed her sister’s to a small sound of protest, and tried again.  She just shook her head.

“Why don’t you continue reading, Miss Katrisha,” Moriel suggested.

She shifted the book, and found her place.

This connection is one aspect of the strength of gestures in performing gifted practices.  Gesture itself carries kinetic energy, and intention, forming symbolic linkages with the power of the primordial mind.  Though with this said, keep in mind that gesture is easily more crutch than boon, and can be deeply limiting if relied upon too heavily.

Magic is ultimately an abstract process, unlike the more primitive applications of conjuration and channeling.  With practice one can form spells around themselves without any motion at all.  With further practice more primitive offensive spells can be directed with gesture, while the conscious mind focuses on the more arcane areas of defense.

“That does seem more useful,” Kiannae admitted.

“I would surmise,” Moriel said with a thin sort of humor.  Having no experience in the matter himself, it had proven an interesting read when trying to better understand the girls he was expected to help teach.  Getting the twins to accept he had something worthwhile to teach them, was often enough of a challenge to give him a touch of pride when he got through.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 32nd, 645 E.R.

Katrisha kissed Wren on the forehead, and then helped him up to Renae’s waiting arms on the horse.  “I hope you two will visit again soon, it had been too long since the last time,” Katrisha said, as Renae settled Wren behind her.

“Yes, of course,” Renae said with a smile, “Perhaps you could come visit the Cloister as well, it’s very pretty there this time of year.”

“I fear Laurel is still far to cross with us to let us off castle grounds,” Kiannae said dismissively.  In truth she was quite sure the tensions with Arlen would also play some role in insuring that was not an option.

“Rightly so, it sounds as though you two were being very reckless,” Renae said disapprovingly.

“Yes,” Katrisha said sheepishly, “anyway, take care of yourselves.”

“You too,” Wren said as Renae urged the horse to turn.

“I will try and arrange to be here in the spring, but I can never be sure,” Renae said as she started the horse out the castle gate.

“I’ll miss you Wren,” Katrisha yelled as she waved, and turned to her sister who seemed cross.  “What’s wrong?” she asked after a moment of silence.

“Nothing,” Kiannae grumbled, and turned to climb the stairs to the upper court.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha was startled when Kiannae slammed their chamber door in her face before she could enter.  She opened the door slowly, and watched as Kiannae finished marching across the room to the window, where she leaned on the seat, and stared out at the valley below.

“Ok,” Katrisha said taking a breath, now a bit cross herself, “what is bothering you already?”

“Nothing,” Kiannae muttered.

“That’s obviously not true, you’ve been stewing on something all day.  This isn’t because I finally beat you in a spar this morning, is it?”  Katrisha walked over and put her hand on her sister’s shoulder, but the gesture was shrugged off.

Katrisha was not really sure how to take Kiannae’s behavior, they had each seen the other angry countless times, but Katrisha couldn’t think of an instance where her sister had ever been unwilling to talk to her.  Katrisha frowned, and started to walk towards the bed, intending to flop down in frustration.  If it was really about the spar, she was going to be very cross, after all the times Kiannae had beaten her, and teased her for it.

“Why do you like him so much?” Kiannae demanded just as Katrisha reached the foot of the bed.

“What?” Katrisha said honestly confused, and turned back.  It was so far afield of her expectations it took her a moment to even begin to put a who to the implication.

“Wren,” Kiannae said angrily, “why do you love Wren so much?”

“He’s our brother!” Katrisha snapped tersely, and marched back towards Kiannae.

“He’s weird,” Kiannae said uneasily.

“One to talk Ki,” Katrisha said scrunching up her face angrily.

“It’s true,” Kiannae said shrugging off Katrisha’s attempt at levity, and turned to her angrily.  “And whenever he’s here, you pay more attention to him than me.”

“Because he’s here so rarely, and you are always here,” Katrisha countered defensively.  “He’s your brother too,” she added.

“I’m not like him,” Kiannae said narrowing her eyes, and clenching her fist,  “I didn’t kill mother.”

“Don’t say that,” Katrisha snapped back angrily, balling up both fists.

“If it wasn’t for him mother would be alive,” Kiannae insisted flatly.

“That wasn’t Wren’s fault,” Katrisha protested, and started her sister square in the eye, half remembering something, the oddest horrible little thing.  She had asked for a little brother, she remembered that suddenly.  She had forgotten.  She wasn’t sure why she had asked – she hadn’t been sure why at the time.  It nagged at her like something important, like a voice in a dream that had planted the idea.  Did that make it her fault she half wondered?  Had she asked for Wren…why had she?

“It’s still true,” Kiannae said stubbornly.

“I said not to say that,” Katrisha demanded fiercely, stepping up on her sister, “you know how he feels about it.”

“Is he here,” Kiannae gestured around, and sneered.  “What does it matter, I can speak the truth when the little killer isn’t here.”

“You don’t even remember mother,” Katrisha growled, “you don’t even listen when Wren talks.”

“What do I care what he has to say?”  Kiannae said turning away furious, but Katrisha grabbed her shoulder, and made her turn back to face her.

“I remember mother sometimes when I talk with Wren, when he tries to sing,” Katrisha said in a pained tone, almost crying.  Her mother’s smile intruded on her memory, her wrapping her arms around their father, and asking what he thought of the idea.  He hadn’t objected.  Katrisha’s nails were digging into her own palm.  She was so angry, but she wasn’t even entirely sure who with.  It was a jumble of sorrow and rage out of proportion with sense.

“That’s because he stole her soul,” Kiannae growled, and wrested fiercely free of Katrisha’s grasp.

“Don’t say that,” Katrisha said tearfully – not sure if she was defending Wren, herself, or both of them.  She pushed her sister hard enough to stagger her.  There was a clap like thunder, and Katrisha found herself thrown across the room, and dazed.  She wasn’t even thinking at that point, her sister had attacked her, had thrown her clear across the room.  She didn’t even quite realize she had stopped herself from hitting the wall, or just how hard she had been thrown.  Something snapped in her, some foreign instinct took hold, and she struck, struck before she had even stopped herself from hitting the wall…struck almost before she had even been thrown.

There was a moment of frozen horror on both sister’s faces as they realized what had happened, as they both realized what they had done.  A shard of razor sharp ice the size of Katrisha’s arm hung inches from Kiannae’s left shoulder, and was thrown forcefully to the floor where it shattered, and sizzled.  Both looked unsteadily to the door where Laurel stood, a hand out stretched, an expression stricken with complete horror, shock, disbelief, and rage on his face.  His own hand slowly curled into a fist.

“Why!?” was all Laurel seemed to be able to yell, panting from the adrenaline of the moment as it caught up to him.  Even the instinct that he had spun on, even the sound that had nearly rattled their chamber door from its hinges.  He had reacted before it had happened, and his ears were ringing.

Kiannae nudged a frozen shard with her sandal.  Katrisha tried to look at her sister, but couldn’t meet her gaze.  She couldn’t fathom what had just occurred, what she had just done.  She didn’t even remember doing it completely.  It had been a gesture at most, one half caused by the blow itself as the air was forced from her lungs.  That was what the book had said, one could learn to do simple offensive spells with a gesture, but she had not learned to do any such thing.  Yet as much as she could not understand how she had done it, as much as no thought or intent had time to enter into it, it was hard to feel it was an accident.

Kiannae hesitantly started to walk towards Katrisha, and gave a hurt glance to Laurel as he stepped towards them, prepared to intercede.  Kiannae held her hand out to her sister where she was leaned against the wall.  At first Katrisha didn’t notice, and continued looking anywhere but at Kiannae.

After a moment Katrisha managed to bring herself to glance at her sister, and at the hand that was offered to her.  Hesitantly Katrisha took hold of her sister’s hand, and was helped to her feet.  Kiannae slowly stepped closer, and wrapped her arms around her twin, who stood there impassively.

“I can’t believe…” Katrisha said hauntedly.

“I…” Kiannae started meekly, “I felt it too, I could have…”

“You…” Katrisha stepped back, and looked her in the eye incredulously.  “I…I nearly…”

“I threw you hard, really…I…I…” Kiannae stammered starting to cry.

“No,” Laurel commanded agitatedly.  “No, no!  You two do not get to break down into tears before you tell me what in the abyss just happened!  Both of you, too my study,” he growled.  “Now!” he snapped when the two simply stared at him with injured expressions.  He still seemed short of breath.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood, rubbing his head tiredly, and looked again at the two identical girls, who stood silently before him, holding the other’s hands tightly.  Not the image of two children who had just nearly killed one another in a violent outburst.  He looked at them more closely, they weren’t quite identical he noticed, Katrisha was slightly paler than her sister, and it was beginning to make her freckles stand out more.  It was subtle, hard to notice, probably no more than Kiannae favoring getting more sun, but there it was, nonetheless.  It was the first time he had ever noticed such a distinct physical difference between them.

Laurel sighed after the uncomfortable silence had dragged on for too long.  The two girls accounts of their conflict had been equally sheepish, and strikingly similar – each had accepted blame without question for striking out at the other.  Kiannae had struck first, neither had challenged this, though Katrisha had vehemently insisted that the force she had been thrown with was not significant.  Laurel knew Katrisha was wrong, he had felt the magic, and the shockwave.  It had shaken their chamber door nearly free of it’s hinges beside him.  Had he not been there at that exact moment…

He closed his eyes, and steadied is rage, at that moment directed as much at himself, as the girls.  He had been concerned when he had heard of a splintered staff that morning in the girl’s spar.  Horence had insisted it had just been cracked before hand.  Laurel had an instinct it wasn’t.  Horence had previously reported that Kiannae seemed to be the naturally better fighter, always keeping Katrisha on her guard, but that he found it curious, that the harder Kiannae pushed, the better Katrisha seemed.  The staff had splintered at the moment Horence had been about to step in because it was getting out of hand.

Katrisha had taken the force of the blow, and brought the other end of her staff around so fast that even parried the blow followed through, and struck Kiannae hard enough on the shoulder to leave a bruise that she had spent an hour healing.  It was possible Katrisha herself had swung too hard, almost likely, but if Laurel did the math, with Horence’s description, the short to high leverage, force enough to have splintered a staff one one end, and break the attacker’s own block on the other…

“I am doubling your time with Horence,” Laurel said almost dispassionately, still in shock.  He had stopped Katrisha’s attack milliseconds short of catastrophic consequences.  He had managed that only because of the same instincts he knew in his gut had caused it.  The terror of the incident had left a mark on him he had not yet allowed himself time to fully process, distracted with far more intellectual ramifications.  “What you have told me…” he held a moment, calmed, changed his tone, and rethought his words.  “What Horence has told me of your training leaves me with almost no doubt.  You have the instincts of battle mages – and as much as it displeases me, I know what must be done.”

“What?” Kiannae asked uneasily.

“What happened between you two today…was not wholly your own faults,” Laurel said in a reserved tone.  “Though you will bear the responsibility of learning to control these instincts, as well as it seems, your tempers.  And as much it rattles every parental instinct I have come to harbor, as a mage I know that the only way to train you to control this, is to fully train you in combat magic.”

Laurel watched the small, confused, and almost excited glance between the girls.  “And to be clear,” he said with agitation, “I will work you so hard, as to leave no question this is a punishment.”

“Yes,” Katrisha said in a small voice.  Kiannae simply looked down again.

“As I said,” Laurel sighed, changing his tone again.  “This is not entirely your fault.  I fear I may have stirred these…’gifts’…through your training with Horence.  They would have emerged eventually, but…”  he shook his head.  “You will also need to resolve your conflict over your brother,” he said focusing squarely on Kiannae.  “I believe the escalation you experienced fed on itself presciently, and only the shock of the outcome startled you two out of the cycle.  I can only hope by learning to control it, that this kind of emotional feedback will not occur again.  Failing that, some form of meditation may be necessary.”

Laurel ran his fingers through his hair.  “As to the subject of your conflict, I can not tell you what to feel,” he said still focusing on Kiannae. “Only that I do not hold Wren responsible for your mother’s fate.  There is a great deal of blame to go around for what occurred, but no singular person can bear responsibility for the end result.  Do not throw away a sibling, who from all my dealings with him is a wonderful, promising boy, over something he had no choice in.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 1st, 645 E.R.

Wren slowed his quick gate, and his sobbing trailed off as he took stock of where he stood.  The wood beyond the north wall of the cloister contained a large clearing.   Wren had known it was there on some level, the cemetery was not a secret, just rarely spoken of.  Death was inevitable, even if great gifts could stave it off for a time.  The many gravestones arrayed in ordered rows before Wren stood as a reminder that even that was not forever.

The number was striking, given the history lessons ingrained upon children of the order from a young age.  The cloister was only a few hundred years old, and had not stood at the time of the great war.  The dead that lay in that hallowed ground had passed in the simple course of time.  The eldest of the founding sisters and brothers came first, and then the younger members of the first generation in due course.

The weathering of the stones lessened towards the back, and Wren plopped down near a gravestone, and with a puzzled look reached out his hand to touch it.  He traced the name Somavera as hasty footsteps cracked twigs entering the clearing behind him.

“Are you alright?” Celia asked in a consoling tone.

“No,” Wren said plainly.  “I’m not right at all.  He’s right about that, I’m a monster.”

Celia ran up behind Wren, dropped to her knees, and hugged him tightly.  “Stop saying that,” she demanded.

“If I didn’t say it, it would still be true,” Wren choked out.

“It’s not true at all,” Celia said as a chill wind blew across the clearing, and made her shiver.

It was growing darker, the sun long out of view behind the trees, and the mountain range to the west beginning to shadow Highvale from what was left of the evening sun.  A few flickers of light began to dot the edge of the woods.  Celia scrunched her face with some concern, she’d never seen such a peculiar occurrence.  The lights danced ever so slightly, slowly swirling about each other in graceful arcs.

Another set of footsteps could be heard crunching leaves, and slowly entering the clearing behind the pair.  Celia turned to see Audry transfixed by the sight.

“They are like fireflies,” Audry said in a curious tone, “but they aren’t, are they?”  They were too large, and many much too blue in color.

“What are they then?” Celia asked confused.

“Wisps,” Wren said looking up almost irritably at the display before him.

“That sounds about right,” Audry said with an air of false authority.  “I remember now, a kind of elemental, right?”

A group of the wisps grew closer together, swirling about above one of the graves near Audry, and then quite suddenly scattered as a shimmering form appeared, and looked around as though confused.  Audry fell over backwards in shock, and Celia clung tightly to Wren who seemed expressionless as he stared at the new arrival.

This unnerving process repeated three more times, lastly right next to Wren and Celia.  She grabbed Wren’s hand, and pulled him off balance as she scurried away, but lost her grip.  Wren struggled to sit back upright, and simply looked up at the glowing white figure above him.  The ghost knelt down, and looked at him curiously.

“I’m Wren,” he said, as though answering some unheard question.  “No,” Wren said in a correcting tone, “Renae is not my mother, but I call her such.”

The ghost cocked its head to the side curiously, and looked up as an angry voice called out from the thin strip of wood between the clearing, and cloister.  “Audry?” Andrew called out irritably.  “Why won’t you listen?” he demanded.  “He’s evil I tell you,” he implored as he stepped into the clearing, and found his sister on the ground before him, and ghosts milling aimlessly.

Andrew had never seen a ghost before, and without much hesitation he grabbed Audry’s arm, and pulled her to her feet.  He tried to drag her with him from the clearing, but she shook his grip free, and stared at him defiantly.  There was a touch of fear in her eyes nonetheless.

“This isn’t right,” Andrew said sternly.  “This shouldn’t be happening!”

“What do you know?” Audry growled.

“I read it,” Andrew insisted, “ghosts are rare, very rare.”

“Since when do you read?” Audry cut back, all eyes, living and dead upon the brother and sister arguing.

“I read,” Andrew cut back.

“You certainly don’t read your assignments for class,” Audry sneered.

“Cause that’s boring,” Andrew muttered, “but this…this isn’t right.  Let’s get out of here, and away from the little soul eater.”

“Wren is not a soul eater,” Audry snapped, and pushed her brother who almost fell over.

“He’s not just a soul eater, he’s a necromancer,” Andrew yelled, grabbed his sister’s arm forcefully, and tried to pull her from the clearing.

“Wren didn’t do this,” Celia said, uncertainty in her voice, as she turned to Wren who still sat passively, his eyes closed, and tears running down his cheeks again.

Audry struggled again to get free of her brother’s grasp, and did so, falling over, and through an approaching ghost, which swept right up to Andrew, and stared down at him with a disapproving glare.

“To the Abyss with all of you,” Andrew said as he turned, and ran.

“He’s right,” Wren said.  “This shouldn’t be happening, I shouldn’t hear them.”

“Hear, what?” Celia asked.  “I don’t hear anything.”

“I do,” Wren said, and looked at Celia, his lips pursed definitely.  “They ask, they whisper, I don’t understand all of it, but I hear it.  I shouldn’t, no one else does, but I do.”

“How do you know?” Audry asked walking cautiously past one of the ghosts, and sitting down next to Celia and Wren.

“Because I read the same book he did,” Wren said with a shrug, and looked away.

“Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true,” Celia offered.

“Do you hear them?” Wren asked rhetorically.

“No,” Celia admitted again.

“It just means you are special,” Audry offered uncertainly, her eyes darting nervously about at the ghosts that were slowly circling the trio.

“That’s a word for it,” Wren said, and closed his eyes again.  Celia reached out, and took Wren’s hand comfortingly, and Audry did the same.  There was a moment of painfully uncomfortable silence, and then without warning Wren whispered just loud enough to be heard. “Rest,” and the ghosts seemed to wash away in swirling strands of light caught in the gentlest breeze.

The wisps remained for a little while, some slowly swirled off into the wood, others seemed to flicker and fade.  “No,” Wren said sorrowfully, stood, and helped his friends to their feet.  “He’s right.  I did this, though I couldn’t tell you how.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Renae considered her adopted son thoughtfully.  Wren was all too aware of the coming question, but did not press to be asked.

“Can you explain to me the things I’ve been hearing?” she finally questioned, seeing the impatient irritation in Wren’s eyes.

“Depends what you have heard,” Wren said grumpily, and crossed his arms.

“Andrew raised a holy ruckus to his mother, in public no less, about you conjuring ghosts in the graveyard.” Renae sighed.  “As preposterous as it sounds…I’d not even ask, but, something tells me I should.”

“It’s true,” Wren said, “not that conjuring is the right word.”

“Then what is?” Renae said in a metered, perplexed tone.

“Causing?” Wren said uncertainly, looking out the window.  “I didn’t go out there to do anything,” he protested, “just to get away from Andrew.”

“He’s still not leaving you alone?” Renae asked unhappily.

“He’s never left me alone,” Wren said venomously.

“And you are saying what he said is true, that multiple ghosts manifested in the graveyard?” Renae asked uncomfortably.

“Four,” Wren answered.

Renae took a long slow breath.  “A ghost has been reported, now and then,” Renae said thoughtfully, “but four…”

“I caused it,” Wren said flatly.

“How could you have caused a ghost to appear?” Renae demanded doubtfully.  “Let alone four.  Real necromancers, if you can argue there even is such a thing – and not simply charlatans – have only the scarcest of success rates when mustering all their will.”

“I just did,” Wren said angrily, wishing he could deny the truth as easily as Renae seemed to be trying to.  “Do you want me to prove it?”

“I just…” Renae started, winced, and walked over to Wren, knelt down and hugged him.  “You don’t have to prove anything.”  Renae said, somberly.  “I’m just trying to understand.”

“I don’t know what’s worse,” Wren said, not returning the embrace.  “Andrew hating me for the truth, or you not believing it.”

“I believe you,” Renae said reassuringly, but there was still a touch of rational doubt in her voice.

“Iraen was your mother, wasn’t she?” Wren asked pointedly.

“Yes,” Renae said, “she’s buried out there.  She was older when she had me, much older than most, and she died young…there was a flaw in her heart that would not heal.”

“She said to tell,” Wren seemed to struggle for a moment, “‘Button,’ that she loves her.  That her heart is still with her.”

Renae pulled back and looked stricken for a moment, staring at Wren.  It was possible – only possible – Wren had heard her mother’s old pet name for her at some point, but she knew in her heart she had never told him, and it wasn’t the first time.  The winter morning with the wisps in the courtyard, when for just a moment she thought she had heard the hum of her mother’s voice, singing her to sleep.  He had said it, she had pushed it aside, he couldn’t have known, he shouldn’t have known even then.

“She called me Button,” Renae said weakly, “that I was the Button on her heart, that kept it together.  She…she died while I was far away.”  Renae began to cry, for so many reasons, not the least of which was the kind gifted boy in her arms, that she so rarely knew what to do with.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 3rd, 646 E.R.

Wren tapped his foot impatiently as he leaned against the wall next to Celia.  He glanced over as Celia’s incessant swirling of her finger in the air began to produced a thin trail of light, which momentarily distracted him from his boredom.  “You did it,” he said with a slight laugh.

“Took me long enough,” Celia sighed, and shook her hand attempting to get feeling back from how long she had been trying.  Her progress dissolved, and she glanced at Wren.  She smiled somewhat in spite of herself.

Wren’s presence was like a hearth on a cold autumn night.  He somehow made the world away from him seem a little colder.  Yet all at once there was a sense of that nature of fire behind it, an intensity that smoldered – perhaps impatiently – for the world’s plodding way.  This was enough to give the wary pause, and he could seem a flame that easily called all the moths of the world toward him.  That thought lingered, and bothered Celia, she wasn’t even sure why she had thought it.

“You’ve only been at it a couple days,” Wren said encouragingly, “on your own, Aaron has been training with Sister Calis for weeks.  I’ll ask Renae if you can come with us the next time I visit my sisters.  They can do so much more, maybe they could teach you.”

“I’d like that,” Celia laughed, “but I don’t know if my mother would let me leave the cloister.”  She started again, and almost instantly a trail of light formed.  She bit her lip excitedly that it had come quickly that time.

Wren glanced down the corridor again.  “Where is Audry?” he asked with a faint hint of concern, “it’s not like her to be so late.”

“Maybe we should go look for her?’ Celia said with a shrug, and let her glowing figure-eight drift away.

“I guess,” Wren said and started walking down the hall.

As they rounded a corner they came upon Andrew.  In the past year had undergone a growth spurt to the point of towering over the two.  He had long had an intemperate presence, one that shifted from a harsh breeze, to stone.  That moment he felt like a rolling boulder coming towards the two.  Neither had in their lives seen someone so obviously, and violently angry, but some instinct kicked in, and told them both to back off.

It wasn’t enough.  Andrew marched menacingly straight up to Wren, even as he tried to get out of the way.  “Stay away from my sister!” he barked as Wren found himself frightened and backed up against a wall.

“Leave him alone!” Celia yelled, but fell short of laying hands on Andrew to pull him back.

“Stay out of this,” Andrew spat, turning towards Celia, who stood her ground, but couldn’t quite bring herself to move towards Wren.  “Do you hear me?” he demanded turning back to Wren who was hunkered down on the floor against the wall.  “Stay away from my sister.”

“Shut up,” Wren squeaked in a small frightened voice.

“No,” Andrew said, “not till you promise to stay away from my sister you little mongrel.”

“Leave him alone,” Celia repeated demandingly, and moved to put herself between the two.  Andrew pushed her back, and she fell.

“Answer me you little shit,” Andrew demanded, “what are you going to do?”  Wren shrunk further, as Andrew leaned down over him, “hello, do you hear me you little freak?  Stay away!”

“Shut up,” Wren whimpered in a tiny voice.

“No,” Andrew said, “not until you promise.”

“Shut up,” Wren squeaked again, just a hair louder.

Andrew grabbed ahold of his robe, and shook him.  “No,” he said viciously, “promise me you will stay away!”

“SHUT UP!” Wren suddenly boomed in a horrifying voice not at all like his own.  The sound of it seemed to reverberate in the rafters, and rattle the bones.  It frightened Celia to her core who had grabbed ahold of Andrew to try and pull him off Wren, and her fingers slipped weekly off his arm.  Andrew fell backwards barely catching himself.  He scrambled in a strange helpless fashion for a moment.  His eyes were wide, and his face as white as a sheet.  He frantically clutched at his throat, he opened his mouth as though trying to speak, trying to yell, and suddenly without a further word pushed himself up against the far wall, and ran away.

Celia watched as Andrew stumbled, and flailed down the hallway in his haste, and then turned back to Wren who was curled up in a tiny ball, sobbing.  “Are,” Celia coughed slightly as though her throat was dry.  “Are you alright?” she asked cautiously moving towards her friend.  Wren simply continued to cry, and didn’t answer.  “Wren?” Celia said questioningly, her concern quickly starting to override her uneasiness.  She coughed again, and rubbed her throat.

“I…I…” Wren sputtered between sobs, and then gave up.

Celia wrapped her arms around him consolingly, and gently stroked his hair.  “It’ll be alright,” she said softly.  “It’s ok, he’s gone.”

“I…” Wren tried again, “he…he was right about me,” Wren whimpered.

“What do you mean?” Celia asked in confusion, but Wren seemed to just descend further back into sobbing, and began to noticeably tremble.

Several minutes passed, and Wren slowly began to calm.  When he finally met Celia’s gaze his expression was one of horror, sadness, and utter heartbreak.

“What happened?” Celia asked in as gentle a tone as she could manage.

“I don’t know,” Wren said with a haunted voice.  “I did something…I don’t know what I did, but I felt myself do it.  I think I might have hurt him.”  He looked away helplessly, unable to look his friend in the eye after admitting his fear.

“He was attacking you,” Celia said softly, “it’s ok.  He was well enough to run away.  It’s ok.”

“I don’t know what I did,” Wren said again with and unnerving tremor in his voice.  “It’s not…I…” he couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought as the memory of South Rook gripped him.  How everyone had stopped for a moment, and even afterword seemed dazed, how he had ran to his room, and hid not knowing what he had done, or how.

“It’s ok, whatever it was he deserved it,” Celia said trying to calm Wren down.

“Maybe I deserve it,” Wren said in a small voice.

“No,” Celia said firmly, “you are sweet, and wonderful, and he is an ass.  He’s always hated you, for no reason.”

Celia turned as quick footsteps echoed down the hall.  Audry was running towards them, holding her arm tightly.  “Is he alright?” she asked obviously scared.

“He isn’t hurt,” Celia said, “but he’s been crying for a while now.”

“What did my bastard brother do to him?” Audry said in a tone almost as angry as Andrew’s.

“He was yelling, and shaking him,” Celia said, “and then…” she hesitated not sure how to describe Wren’s part.  “He ran like he was terrified.  Is your arm alright?” she asked trying to change the subject as her own suspicions sunk in.  It wasn’t possible, and yet it fit.

“He was keeping me in my room,” Audry growled, “wouldn’t let me leave.  Kept yelling at me, trying to make me promise to stay away from Wren.  I tried to push past him, and he pushed me down, and I hurt my arm.”  Audry rubbed her arm a bit.  “I’ve been working to heal it.”

Audry leaned down and looked Wren in the eye.  “Are you alright?” she asked anger and concern mixed in her expression.

“I think I hurt him,” Wren whimpered.

Audry’s expression suddenly shifted to dumbstruck.  “You…are crying ‘cause you think you hurt, him?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” Wren said in a small voice, “partly.   I’m scared,” he added.

“He ran off,” Audry said reassuringly, “and if he comes back we’ll make him leave.”

“I’m scared of me,” Wren corrected her.

“You…” Audry started bewildered, not sure what to say.

“He had him cornered,” Celia offered, “his voice changed…it was so loud it hurt, and I kind of felt it when he lashed out.  I…”  She rubbed her throat, which felt a bit like she needed to clear it, but the coughs had done nothing.  She remembered Andrew grabbing his.  “He earned whatever he got.”  She added, keeping her suspicion to herself.  It was passing, whatever it was.

Audry shook her head.  “You darling, impossibly wonderful little thing,” she said touching Wren’s tear streaked cheek. “You get cornered, frightened half out of your wits, and now you are more worried about what you did to the monster who was bullying you, than what he did to you?”

“He’s not a monster,” Wren said defiantly, “he was scared, angry…I…”

Audry pulled Wren to her, and hugged him.  “Quiet,” she said firmly, “it’s no excuse, you never did anything to him, nothing.  He’s my blood and I won’t defend him, not for a moment, don’t you.  Don’t you dare waste another thought on him.  You are wonderful, and that’s all you need to know.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 22nd, 646 E.R.

Rennae rubbed her face tiredly as Andria walked into their room.  “Are you alright?” Andria asked with some concern.

“Shandra has been harassing me repeatedly about her son,” Rennae said looking at Andria with a cross expression.  “He won’t talk, won’t leave his room, and has been crying a lot it seems.”

“I’ve heard,” Andria sighed, “no one knows what’s wrong with him.”

“She’s started saying odd things about Wren, but nothing outright,” Rennae said looking out the window. “Nightmares, and obsessions.  Of course she mentioned none of this when I had talked to her repeatedly about the boy harassing Wren.”

“You don’t actually think he has something to do with it do you?” Andria asked doubtfully.

“I…” Rennae sighed. “I don’t know, I don’t think so, but I’ve heard he’s been bordering on bullying with some kids.  Getting worse not better, particularly towards Wren, and Wren has been…different lately.”

“And so…what?” Andria asked not sure where the connection was.

“You know as well as I do the potential power of that boy,” Rennae said laying her forehead on her hand.  “I mean…maybe if he cornered him somewhere, pushed him to the edge, maybe he could have done something…I don’t know.  I don’t think I could bring myself to ask him either.  He’s seemed so distant lately, and I…  I don’t know what to think.  There were also reports of a terrible yell heard in part of the cloister the other day.  Something, unnatural according to those who heard it.”

“You aren’t thinking of the madness in South Rook, are you?” Andria pressed.

“Wren was there,” Renae answered.

“That doesn’t mean Wren had anything to do with it.”

“No it doesn’t, but no one has an explanation.  No one has heard of anything like it.”

“It bears watching I guess,” Andria said with a frown. “Even if it’s true, as you say, if he was pushed to the edge I don’t think we need to worry about a repeat…but if some one else comes to that conclusion.  How can we control this if people start talking?”

“I don’t know,” Rennae said darkly, “and that’s why I’m worried.”

< Previous || Next >

Advertisements

Chapter 12

The land did fold, the hills did swell,
mid valley deep and shallow dell,
twas born fair Avrale,

a Queen she rose, ‘fore days of kings,
she set the Rooks, she made the peace,
upon the Broken Hill,

from Summers North, to Evenings West,
Southern Hearth, and Morning’s Breath,
these fair Towers stand,

these keepers were, the keepers are,
of golden field, forest green, n’ winding vale,
in noble Avrale.

– Every Vale, circa 50 E.R.

The Western Road

Coria 5th, 644 E.R.

A well adorned coach rolled through the early morning streets of Brokhal.  Such adornment was appropriate, as it indicated the importance of some of the occupants.  It was not however as Laurel would prefer to travel, for he did not thrive on attention the way Mercu did.  When he had traveled to Nohrook his visit was to be discrete – to some extent.  An adorned royal coach headed north would have fanned fears for any who knew of affairs in Osyrae.  Such was the argument he had made, and there had been no protest on that occasion.

Had there been any argument for subtlety on a tour of western Avrale, it was moot, for Mercu insured that it was deemed vital that the young Ladies Ashton be presented in style, as future mages of Avrale.  As to the young Ladies in question, they slept that morning, given they had not for much of the previous night.

Mercu himself sat half awake next to the twins, and opposite Laurel.  He had claimed, once the effort of loading half sleeping children was past, that it had been his plan all along to keep them subdued and manageable.  He had after all done everything he could to fan their natural excitement leading up to the trip, and had paid with his own sleep deprivation in the end.  Laurel had been minimally impacted by the whole affair, and as such felt more pity than scorn for his weary companion that morning.

Laurel looked out the window as the coach turned up the northern fork of the road leading away from western Brokhal.  He grimaced.

With the knowledge that comes from years of close company, Mercu smiled, and spoke as though reading Laurel’s mind.  “You know I’m right, it’s better this way.”

“Oh you are right,” Laurel sighed, “but it’s the principle of it.  I hate these trips, and extending them for scenic detours goes against the grain for me.”

“And the reason you hate these trips is the attention, and the demands of the little people.”  Mercu laughed.  “Much quieter to take the scenic route.”

“You know it’s not the little people,” Laurel muttered.

“Oh but isn’t it?” Mercu said with a shake of his head.  “No one more little, and petty than the scattered pretenders to royal authority.  So tiresome.”

“And yet you adore their time, and attention,” Laurel counters incredulously.

“The most fun of things, are always tiresome.”  Mercu grinned impishly.

“Aren’t they though,” Laurel laughed.  “Though, I would be mindful of calling Duke’s petty, and tiresome, given one’s son is sitting up behind you.”

“Charles,” Mercu chimed, “remind me, does your father style himself Duke, or Knight Commander?”  There was no answer from the front of the coach, and though it was not visible to anyone but Horence beside him, the already put out young man scowled a bit more.  He was happy to be headed west, but not at all thrilled with the company he was being forced to keep, and as such had chosen not to sit inside the coach, next to two girls he was not always on the best of terms with.

After a rather long stretch of Laurel’s disapproving gaze Mercu shrank slightly.  “Sorry,” he said with a sigh, “just having a bit of fun.”  He paused, thinking of a way to change the subject.  “Speaking of tiresome fun,” he said thoughtfully.  “Is it just me, or was the Lady Alice positively glowing this morning?”

Laurel considered Mercu shrewdly.  “More than you know,” he said with a nod.  “I dare say her aura is brighter than it has been in years, since before she gave up her studies.”

“Interesting,” Mercu said leaning forward.  “Do you think?” he asked in a hushed tone.

“I suspect, yes,” Laurel nodded.

“How delightful,” Mercu laughed and leaned back.

Laurel hummed slightly, and stroked his beard.

“What hmm?” Mercu prodded.

“Well, look who’s awake,” Laurel said, making every effort to appear not to be dodging the question.

Mercu turned to see Kiannae leaned against the coach door, staring out at the passing scenery.

Kiannae rubbed her eyes.  “What time is it?” she asked sleepily.

Laurel held out his hand, and a series of concentric marked rings formed, with a bobbing pyramid at its center that turned, wobbled, and came to rest.  “Almost seven,” he said, and waved the intricate configuration away.  Kiannae looked back out the window – she had mostly mastered a basic version of the spell herself, but was too drowsy to have tried.

Katrisha shifted, and clung tightly to her sister’s arm, giving no indication she was ready to rouse fully herself.  Kiannae rocked her head against her sister’s, and began to draw glowing lines absently in the air.  She paid no mind to keep them in tow with her, and so they trailed through the coach past Laurel.

Kiannae grew bored of absent minded magic, and decided to practice the spell Laurel had used to tell the time.  She poked, and prodded at it a bit, being uninterested in watching the slow crawl of time, and the pyramid changed its behavior, going from following the sun, to pointing northward.  Kiannae scrunched up her face with some confusion.  “Why are we going north?” she asked with some surprise.

“Mercu’s idea,” Laurel said restraining mild consternation from his voice.  “More scenic route, and I believe he’s arranged a special meeting along the way.”

“What meeting?” Kiannae asked her curiosity piqued.

“I’d rather not say,” Mercu said shrewdly, “I wasn’t able to confirm the arrangement, so it might be nothing more than a pleasant detour.”

Kiannae pouted, but Mercu simply smiled at her, and eventually she gave up, and looked back out the window in a huff.  After several more minutes she crossed her arms, and declared, “I’m bored.”  The act of which pulled her arm from Katrisha, jostling her awake.  Katrisha rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked around.

“We’ve quite a ways still to Aldermor,” Laurel said taking a breath, and braced for dealing with the girls becoming difficult so soon.

“I have read there was a time when Sylvans lived in Aldermore,” Mercu offered thoughtfully.  “A group that had settled down from the highland tribes, that have also long since left Avrale.”

“I thought the Sylvan’s only lived in the great forest,” Kiannae said curiously.

“It was a long time ago,” Mercu nodded, “hundreds of years at least even before the empire came here.  “The Sylvans had tribes that extended through the highlands, while the people of Avrale dwelled in the valleys below.  Except in Aldermor, where the highlanders would trade with us lowlanders.  They say ever so often a child is stillborn there to this day, with adorned ears, or eyes like the two of you.”

“Why did the Sylvan’s leave?” Katrisha asked.

“War,” Mercu said with a frown, “but not between us and them.  When Osyrae came the first time into the northern vales, the highland Sylvans deemed themselves above the squabbles of lowlanders.  That started some bad blood I think.  What I’ve read though said they remained another thirty or so years, till the death of the reigning queen, when her son took the throne.  There seems to be consensus that is when the exodus began.”

“Did the new king make them leave?” Kiannae frowned.

“I can’t really say,” Mercu shrugged.  “There is no clear record of any direct action, no royal decrees in any of the books, but it was a very very long time ago.  So many wars, and changes of power, and the fall of the old tower at Broken Hill.  Who knows what happened that long ago.”

Katrisha and Kiannae were clearly displeased by the lack of any real answer, and Mercu shook his head.  “What I do have,” he carried on, “is an old story purportedly told by a Sylvan elder of Aldermor, to a scribe of the day.”  The two perked up, and Mercu smiled.

“It is said that the goddess Laeune had three children,” Mercu began. “Most lore agrees upon this number, or takes no stance.  Amongst them were Brother Wolf, Sister Lynx, and Yaun the Light, the first man – or woman – on this there is contention.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“Many believe Yaun to have been a man,” Mercu said with a shrug, “others contend the first as a man is a preposterous fallacy, as children inevitably resulted.  Forget that any which way you slice it, the myth is fraught with problems of how one human became many.  This though is the story of how Yaun, the youngest, came to rule.”

“Brother Wolf, and Sister Lynx one day argued over who was mother’s favored child.  Each brought before Laeune many gifts hunted from far and wide across the world, trying to earn Laeune’s favor, and spur her to declare a favorite.  For such a plan to work they could not tell their mother of their competition.  Laeune was pleased at first, but grew weary of her children pestering her with gifts.”

“Seeking quiet and rest, Laeune snuck away while her children scurried off to seek more offerings, and borrowed a boat from Vhale, her grandson, and floated down a river through a wide wood.  As she dreamt, at last free to slumber without bother, she wondered upon her youngest, who had long ago begun to wander and rarely returned home.”

“As Laeune’s boat drifted to the base of a great mountain, she found Yaun sunning upon a high rock by the river, and sleepily considering a brilliant gem of many colors in the sun’s light.  Laeune asked what her child held, and with a smile Yaun said that it was the most precious of things, a single tear Laeune had cried when Yaun’s first child was born.”

“A tear was a gem?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“There is a gem named such,” Laurel said thoughtfully, “and it does match the description.  It is a clear gem that refracts any light into many colors.  Still, it is not an actual tear.”

“The story says otherwise,” Mercu grumbled, and continued.  “It so happened that Brother Wolf and Sister Lynx each had come to hunt below the mountain that same day, and heard as Laeune proudly proclaimed Yaun her favorite, for such a treasured moment.  Each were infuriated and driven to rage.  They were bested by their younger sibling, and each plotted cruel vengeance for the slight.”

“How terrible.”  Katrisha crossed her arms and pursed her lips.

“Days later, Yaun strode the forest that was home to the eldest children of man, unaware of cold calculating eyes that watched her every step.  Nor were Brother Wolf or Sister Lynx aware they stalked the same prey.  As Wolf and Lynx pounced, they found themselves entwined with one another, and not their intended victim.  Yet anger fueled their fight even more, and their wounds were grievous.”

“There was much shame when Wolf and Lynx each woke to find their wounds tended by Yaun.  They could see in sad eyes, that Yaun knew what they had tried to do.  Nonetheless Yaun cared for each with such compassion.  Laeune, who had been dwelling near had seen the whole affair, and interceded upon Yaun’s behalf, misguiding her wrathful children to attack one another and not her most beloved.”

“Later, when Yaun was away, Laeune came before Wolf and Lynx.  She told them what she knew, and proclaimed that, ‘Never shall you, or your heirs rein.  Though I still love you, you have proven unworthy – but this one, whom you sought to harm, has shown you kindness.  To Yaun’s heirs I leave the all the world where my light falls.  Ever shall you pay your debt, as servant, and protector to Yaun’s blood, and in such you shall regain my respect.’”

“What did that have to do with the Sylvan’s leaving Aldermor?” Kiannae protested.

“It was a good enough story I suppose,” Katrisha consented, “but yes, what was the point?”

“Well,” Mercu laughed, “you see that is the story as I first read it, but I am told there is more.”

“Well?” Kiannae prodded.

“I knew a man,” Mercu answered, “a good fellow, though I must admit when I first met him I mistook him for a woman.”

“Did you now?” Laurel laughed.

Mercu gave Laurel a snide smile.  “He was a generation or so removed from the Sylvan lands, but his family kept some traditions alive.  I got him talking over drinks, that I bought in apology for my aforementioned mistake.  I’ll admit precisely how the topic came up I’m hazy, there were quite a few drinks involved.”

Laurel clearly repressed another laugh, and Mercu continued.  “At any rate, he said that the story, as he knew it, goes on to tell that Yaun’s children grew arrogant, and did not learn the lesson of Wolf and Lynx.  They set upon each other, and warred, and did many terrible things.  So it was that the Lynx’s children left the lands of men.  For you see – the Sylvans are the Lynx in the fable.”

“That’s why our eyes are the way they are?” Kiannae asked.

“We are part cat?” Katrisha laughed.  “Kat!  My name is Kat!  Is it true?”

“Well,” Laurel interjected, “that is the common wisdom, with what evidence there is.  Sylvans do normally bare both the slit eyes, and pointed tufted ears of a Lynx.  Half blood’s such as you two, and your brother tend to lack the ears, though you all, particularly Wren do have a slight point.”

Katrisha ran her fingers over her ear, and nodded.  

“One in a few hundred they say are born with fur, and decidedly feline features, maybe even a tail – which leads many to believe that ‘shaper’ magic was involved, that at some point in the past they made themselves part cat.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked scrunching her brow.

“Haven’t a clue.”  Laurel shrugged.  “It’s not even fully agreed upon theory.  The Sylvans by all account have nothing to say on the matter, they simply consider themselves to be, as they are.  Though I did once hear a man from Napir call them ‘the children of the wolves, and the cats.’”

“Wolves?” Katrisha asked a bit perplexed.

“There is another Sylvan forest, far to the east past Lycia,” Laurel answered stroking his beard, “More reclusive even than those who live to our north.  Purportedly they lack the slit eyes, but have even more pronounced ears – and there are tales of great, hulking wolf men among them.  I’ve never met one, nor do I know anyone who has.”

“But you were just talking about Napir,” Kiannae protested.

“Ah, yes,” Laurel said with a nod. “In the high passes, and south from the Storm Peak in Napir live small mixed tribes, purportedly of both breeds, but their bloodlines have been thinned with each other, and the common folk of the land.  Still, even amongst these are tall tales of ‘great lions’, and ‘mighty wolves.’  I couldn’t tell you if they are any more than tales though.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Aldermor was a small village, which seems to cling tenaciously to the edge on a wide raised tract of land that looked out over a very broad stretch of the local vale.  Fields stretched as far as the eye could see below, but only a few scattered alder trees broke up the rocky, overgrown area between the village, and the higher hills behind it.  Even the wild shrubs, and grasses seemed slightly sickly, and it was reasonable to assume the locals had long decided this land was of no use to try and cultivate, but a passable place for a village overlooking the fertile lands below.

Everyone but Horence had disembarked from the coach, which he had lead on across town to arrange a place to park it, and stable the horses.  Even the adults had rarely visited the quiet town, and all examined the area in more detail.

A long, freshly worn path lead off the main road from where they stood, to a far edge of the highland, where a small grove of trees stood beside the framework, and half finished walls of a large new structure. It rose defiantly where only crumbled low stone walls, and ancient foundations stood about.  This structure seemed odd, out of place even, but it meant little to the twins, who quickly lost interest in it.  

Charles seemed slightly more affected by the sight, which caught Katrisha’s curiosity for a moment before she recognized a woman in white, half surrounded by villagers.  She tugged at her sister’s sleeve, and then ran off towards Renae.  Kiannae followed at a more reserved pace, but cocked her head to the side when Katrisha veered off suddenly.

“Wren!” Katrisha yell, and then Kiannae noticed the boy, sitting on a short stone wall behind and to the side of the crowd.  At first Kiannae had not recognized her brother, who had let his hair get quite long, and had grown significantly in the past six months.

Wren looked up just in time to be scooped up by his taller sibling.  It was rather impressive to watch.  Wren was not much smaller than Katrisha, and did not look as though he could be so easily lifted by her – yet she had managed it, complete with spinning him about as she often did in greeting.

“Why aren’t you with your sister?” Charles asked, stepping up behind Kiannae, who had stopped to observe the curious chain of events.

“Why are you even here?” Kiannae asked crossly, as Mercu walked by towards the village shops, giving the pair’s exchange only a passing glance, and Laurel moved on towards Renae.

“I am going to visit my mother,” Charles said tersely.  “She lives in Wesrook, with my uncle, and my sister.”

“Yes,” Kiannae sighed, “but why are you here, with us?”

“I am no happier about it than you are,” Charles grumbled.  “It was my father’s idea.”

“Whatever for?” Kiannae said shaking her head.

“He said I should be nicer to the two of you,” Charles said uncertainly, as though it wasn’t exactly what he’d been told.  Kiannae had never though much more of Charles father, than the boy himself.  It seemed like a good thing, but it also seemed out of character, and the hesitation in the way Charles had said it seemed dubious.

Any further thought on the matter was abated as Renae walked up, crouched down, and hugged Kiannae to her.  “Hello dear,” she said sweetly, held the girl back out at arm’s length, then looked her up and down.  “How are you doing, and who’s your friend?”

“He’s n…” Kiannae started a bit terse, but thought better of it, “he’s Charles,” she finished instead.

“Ah,” Renae said considering the boy again.  “Sir Arlen’s son, yes?” Renae asked delicately, the boy had done nothing to earn her ire, but the way he looked at her was not particularly friendly.  It was apparent the boy was well aware of his father’s opinion of Renae, and knew who she was.  It was less clear how much stock he put in it.

“Yes,” Charles acknowledged, “heir of Wesrook.”

“Ah yes,” Renae said thoughtfully, she had heard pieces of that story.  “So it is true what I’ve heard, that your father is the Duke proper, and retains the right to the seat in his absence?”  Charles simply nodded.  “Curious,” Renae remarked, and stood, taking Kiannae’s hand.  “Come, let us join your sister, and Wren.”

Kiannae glanced back at Charles as they walked away.  She had heard Mercu before on the ride, but hadn’t really been paying attention.  She wasn’t really sure what to make of it, the annoying boy wasn’t a knight’s son after all.  It was worse, he was a duke’s.

“So what are you doing here?” Katrisha asked ruffling Wren’s long hair, which he went about straightening afterword.

“Renae is here to help oversee the construction of a new Cloister,” Wren said as he motioned to the distant half finished building.

“Another?” Katrisha said curiously.

“Yes,” Renae said as she walked up, Kiannae in tow. “Things are getting a bit cramped back home, and the locals have welcomed us here.  Though we needed to get assurance of the King’s consent.”

“Why wouldn’t the King approve?” Katrisha asked tilting her head.

“It’s not a question of whether the King would approve,” Renae said thoughtfully, “so much as if he would be willing to make his approval official.”

“Why?” Kiannae asked.

“Not all care much for our order,” Renae said with a forced smile.

“Why?” Katrisha prodded in turn.  There had always been hints on the matter, but never answers.

“To be honest, I often wonder myself,” Renae said with a sigh.  She glanced at Charles, who had walked off in his own direction.  She was more than glad he would not do her the service of explaining.

“It’s because our kindness weakens their grip on the people’s hearts,” Wren said bitterly.  Everyone looked to Wren a bit curiously.  “That’s what Audry’s mother says,” he shrugged.

“She’s probably not wrong,” Renae agreed hesitantly.  She wasn’t happy to have the girl’s opinions stirred so.  They showed signs of growing into hot headedness, and expressing open anti-Clarion sentiments would do them no favors.  “Still, we grin, and bear life’s troubles – one can only do so much, and those who will not listen, will not be persuaded.”

Laurel walked up then, and looked a bit flustered.  “I must…thank you…for bringing that issue to my attention,” he said with some annoyance.

“I’m sorry,” Renae said, somewhat disingenuously.  “The boy’s trouble – I’m not keen on saddling the new Matron down here with that kind of fuss, but there is no question he is gifted.”

“No,” Laurel said shaking his head. “I don’t think that would do at all well, another year or two, and he’ll be running amok with any young girl who will give him the time of day.  No sense making that easier.”

“Indeed,” Renae said, “though perhaps it would rub off some of the rough edges.”

“I’ve told his grandfather I will speak to Daven personally.  I’ve already two apprentices of my own after all,” Laurel said looking to the twins.  “I’ve no wish for a third, and a troublemaker at that.  Given he’s already whipping up little dust devils on his own, with no training, I suspect he’ll turn a proper enchanter’s education into passable combat magic, and run off with a caravan in a few years.  It’s unfortunate the only druids that are easy to get ahold of are so far away, his talent seems suited to their practices.”

“I suspect you are right,” Renae said thoughtfully.  “I rather think the boy would do better with us, than Daven though.  I believe your predictions of his fate down that road are quite right, that’s a dangerous life to doom him to.”

“He might take to the discipline, and stick around.  It would be his choice of course, in the end,” Laurel said somewhat absently.  “Still, if you wish to convince the new Matron to take the boy on, it’s little difference to me.  It would keep him closer to his mother.  I’ve made my promise to speak on his behalf – then perhaps he will have options.  Though given the option, I haven’t much doubt what he will choose.”

Katrisha looked back, and forth between the two adults.  “You said mother, and grandfather,” she said curiously.

“Hasn’t he a father, why can none of them teach him?” Kiannae chimed in.

Laurel winced.  “His father, by all reasonable accounts was a caravan mage who passed through this town once.  He’s not been back.”

“How awful,” Katrisha frowned.

“If he’s got his father’s sense, he might be better off in a Cloister,” Laurel sighed.  “He’ll be less likely to cause a girl trouble that way.”

“What do you mean?” Kiannae asked.

Laurel looked to be half way through formulating a dodge for that question, when Mercu sauntered up, flowers in hand.  This seemed to distract him thoroughly.  “I bring a gift, dear lady,” Mercu said with a bow.

Renae didn’t seem quite sure what to do, and finally relented to reach out, and take the flowers.  “Aren’t these the one’s the shopkeeper had on the counter?” she asked.

“The same,” Mercu admitted.

“I have no where to put them,” Renae laughed.  “What ever were you thinking?”

“Of that darling perplexed look on your face, of course,” Mercu said with an impish grin.  “Yet far be it from me to make the lady carry the load.  I shall hold them for you until such time as we can find a place to set them properly.”  He held out his hand again, and took the flowers back, then proceeded to loop his arm with Renae’s.  “Off then we go, on a grand quest for a table!”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The Inn in Aldermor sat directly on the cliff face, and it’s dining hall protruded in an arc such that windows faced both west, and east down the valley.  It gave a lovely view of the sunset down the vale to the west, and surely did as well for sunrise.  The three siblings sat side by side, with Katrisha in the middle.  Wren was half asleep on her arm.  His energy had proved no match for his sisters’ as they explored the old ruins.  Though part of Wren’s exhaustion was owed to the fact he had sprained his ankle quite badly, and healed it himself.  Renae had found out anyway, and scold him for being reckless.

Laurel would likely have received most of the scolding, had Renae learned that in her absence the children had been allowed to run completely free.  Even without having attracted Renae’s ire, Laurel seemed a bit distant, and reserved as the company sat around the table for dinner.  The twins for their part were also tired enough to not enquire where Renae and Mercu had been most of the afternoon.

“I’ve been thinking,” Mercu said idly – setting his fork aside.  “This gifted boy,” he continued, “what are the odds of him having this gift, when his mother did not?”

“Little less than half,” Laurel said absently.  “Statistically speaking of course.  Maybe as much as ten percent to be as strong as it obviously is.”

“You think maybe the mother has some Sylvish blood in her?” Mercu pondered.

“Not impossible,” Laurel shrugged.  “Though there’s no sign of it.  Even a little might have skewed the odds in his favor.”

“Is that why we are so gifted?” Kiannae asked.

“Cause our father was Sylvan?” Katrisha added.

“Your mother was gifted as well,” Laurel said thoughtfully.  “From what I know of her, your grandmother was a woman of the Lycian Order.  A woman with the gift most often passes it to her children.”

“But not the father?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Correct,” Laurel nodded.  “Both parents contribute to the gift of their children, but conventional wisdom says the mother has the strongest influence on the presence of the gift, while the father has slightly more influence over the strength.  Still there are no guarantees.  True emergent gifts occur, even strong ones from no appreciable linage.”

“Do gifted parents ever have ungifted children?” Kiannae asked.

“No,” Laurel answered.  “If both have the gift it can diminish, but not disappear between generations.  That is why most Royal lines still have traces of the gift, since the most adequately prepared individuals at the time of the Council’s founding were gifted.  The Council wished to avoid returning to the cycle of mage kings, so they picked those with the best mixture of education, even temper, and where possible weaker gifts.”

“Why didn’t they want gifted people to rule?” Katrisha frowned.

“It seems kind of silly.  Wouldn’t the strongest mages make the best kings, and queens?” Kiannae added.

“That was the belief for a very long time,” Mercu interjected.  “Yet ruling a kingdom doesn’t require magic.  It wasn’t just rulership that the gifted people were pulled out of either, they were also removed from the armies.  The Dragon War carried a terrible price – so many mage lines were decimated, so many of the strongest, and most gifted lost – three fifths some say, others claim it was more.”

“So the Council decided,” Laurel said with a nod, “to pull together the surviving mage lines, to help rebuild our numbers.”

“And to discourage them from starting wars, by taking them out of the seats of power,” Mercu added.  “After all – mages have power enough to begin with.  Make one a King, and it’ll go to their head.”

“As if it wouldn’t go to your head,” Laurel shot back.

“What can I say,” Mercu laughed, “I’m a passionate sort.”

Laurel rolled his eyes, and glanced at Renae, who had seemed uneasy for some time, and was staring out the windows at the sunset.  She seemed not to want to make any eye contact, and stopped eating.  

“We are what we are,” Laurel said with a sigh – and picked at his plate.  “I don’t think the council is wrong in their stance,” he continued, shifting his tone.  “Nor do I think they are right.  Perhaps it’s a prudent precaution, but those few kingdoms who slipped through the cracks and are still ruled by minor mages…they aren’t causing any more trouble than the rest.”

“I hear the prince of Western Palentine is something of a nuisance,” Mercu retorted.

“Only to his cousin in the East,” Laurel laughed, “and that’s more of a Clarion-Lycian squabble than a magely one.  Also, far more political, than volatile.  Palentine is almost obnoxiously stable.  They bluster, and fuss openly, but behind the scenes things are quite tame.”

“True,” Mercu nodded thoughtfully.  “I suppose the bigger problem is a lack of rules regarding Paladin Kings.”

Laurel simply huffed with amusement.

“Excuse me,” Renae said, and looked as though she was about to get up.

Mercu caught her hand gently.  “Are you alright, dear Lady?”  He glanced at her plate.  “You have hardly eaten.”

“You are kind to worry.  Thank you, just things on my mind.  So much to do.”

“Have we somehow offended?”  Mercu pressed.

“Oh – no, not at all.  The company is charming, as always – if anything I feel I may have caused some.  Regardless, I will be honest that I am stuck upon something I cannot decide if I would rather remember, or forget.”

“Then unless you are truly feeling unwell, perhaps remain for the distraction?  Further if you are working yourself hard, you really should eat.”

Renae glanced at Laurel, the twins, and Wren.  “Perhaps you are right.  I do apologise if I am not talkative.”

“I assure you dear Lady, I can talk for two,” Mercu offered whimsically.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 6th, 644 E.R.

Breakfast brought the same view in reverse as dinner had the previous evening, with the sun shining down the valley from the east.  Wren was more awake that morning, while his sisters were the drowsiest ones at the table, with their heads lain on their arms over the table as they waited for food to arrive.

“Will I be joining you on your trip?” Wren asked as Laurel arrived late to the gathering.

“I am told that is the plan,” Laurel nodded, and rolled his head to the side, stretching his neck.  “I’ve no objections of course – you should have more time with your sisters.”

Katrisha perked up at this news.  “Wren’s coming with us?”

“Yes,” Mercu answered.  “I figured he could use a chance to see more of Avrale – so I arranged for Renae to bring him along on her trip here, and spent a good deal of time convincing her to let him join us.”

Renae laughed, and sipped at her cranberry juice.  “As if you worked so hard.”

“Enjoying one’s tasks does not make them a lack of work,” Mercu shot back, “it is rather the satisfaction of a job well done, that makes enjoying the work all the more pleasurable.”

“Well,” Renae smirked, “you did do quite well.”

“Must you two?” Laurel said rubbing his eyes tiredly.

Renae looked away, a bit embarrassed, but Mercu for his part casually shrugged.  The contrary illusion as to which of the two seemed the elder was for the moment exaggerated.  Any question as to the meaning of the exchange from the half awake children was cut off, as food arrived.

“You at least seem in better spirits this morning,” Mercu offered.

“I am, I thank you for encouraging me to stay for dinner last night.  Melancholy can become quite treacherous at my age.  Truly, I do not know what I was thinking trying to leave, there is more comfort at this table for what ails me.  I lost my daughter so long ago…and never got the chance to know my granddaughter.”

“I did not know you had a child,” Laurel commented, “or had lost her.  My condolences.”  That word seemed to make Renae cringe a bit.

“It was well before I met either of you.  She was a young woman before I first wandered from Avrale.  Neither I, nor my mother could keep her at the Cloister.  I have always thought at heart she wanted to be a mage, though I was the one who wandered afar in her absence.  When I returned both my mother, and daughter had passed, and my son in law wanted no part of me for his child.”

“That does sound a rough lot,” Mercu offered kindly.

“Were it not for Adria I would have felt entirely alone in the world.”

“Do forgive me if I am impertinent, but it was not a Clarion mater, was it?”  Mercu asked.  “I wonder only because such squabbles – and they are not always so gentle – were the subject when you thought to leave last night.”

“No – no, nothing quite so…” Renae sighed.  “You are not impertinent, I will assure you, but no I would rather not speak of it.”

“Forgive me then,” Mercu offered.

“If there is anything to forgive, it is on my part.  Let us eat,” Renae said with soft smile, only slightly forced.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Wesrook was not the largest city of Avrale, only the third.  Yet approaching it from the east, through the vineyards of the Serpent’s Spine, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for the largest city in all the western kingdoms.  The castle, and proud tower from which the city took its name sat on a bluff above a sheltered bay.  It brought commerce in from the island of Carth to the west, Osyrae and the free cities to the north, and from so far south as Napir.

Wesrook was rich, it was sprawling, and one could hear the clamor of the city in the day, all the way up in the high hills.  The view from the high road was like looking at a living map, the winding streets, and clustered buildings laid out below in an intricate web.  The impression lingered as well, as the road wound back and forth, a half mile at a time, to descend over five hundred feet to the city below.  It was a reminder – if the endless foothills that framed the valleys of the kingdom were not enough – that Avrale was built within a mountain range.

Far off in the distance, across a narrow straight, great hills could be seen to rise out of the mists, with a volcanic crater smoldering at the island’s north end.  This was the farthest vantage point visible from any of the roads of the old empire.  The distant mists of Carth, as seen from the high road were the things of famous poetry, and paintings.  One of which the twins had seen before, though neither could recall precisely where in the castle it hung.  It depicted the great eruption of the northern peak over a hundred years prior.

As the coach came lower, closer to the level of the city it became more evident that the tower of Wesrook was not its only prominence.  A great gleaming spire rose near the center of the city, much taller than even the highest mansions around it.  The structure did not seem to be stone, or even metal – there was only one thing that immediately came to mind from the way it glimmered – glass.

The coach would have been quite cramped, had all its occupants been fully grown.  Yet as most were young children, six sat in relative comfort, though Mercu found himself inclined to favor being pressed up against Laurel, giving the slightly gloomy boy to his right a wide berth.

As the twins pointed, and demanded to know what the tower was, Mercu explained.  “That is Daven’s Flame – home of the enchanter Daven, perhaps the greatest of his craft alive today.  He was once the Arch Enchanter of the Council in Mordove, and one of the richest men of the east.”

“Why does he live here now?” Kiannae asked.

“They say he fell in love with a woman of Carth, Caladine I believe she called herself,” Mercu said sagely, “a trader of magical wares that had traveled far, and wide, in spite of her young age.  This enchantress he believed far better than the station in life she happily maintained, and he proposed to her.  Something of a scandal really.”

“Did they marry, and move here to be closer to her home?” Katrisha asked.

“The story goes that Daven’s love would not stay in Mordove, and he, an important man, would not leave,” Mercu mused somberly.  “Years past before Caladine came again to Mordove, and wounded as his pride was, Daven proposed again, but again she left.”

“So he followed?” Wren asked curiously.

“Not at first, no,” Mercu said.  “Daven was a proud man, but pride comes before every fall.  Eventually his heart brought him here, to seek the woman he loved.  He renounced his seat on the Council, sold his holdings in the east, and came to a foreign land – with no more than a hope.  I won’t say he wasn’t a fool, for love makes fools of us all.  The woman he sought was a wanderer, and it was years before she returned to Wesrook, on her way home.  Daven had settled in well to the city by then, being little worse for wear in riches, or prestige.”

“She said no again, didn’t she?” Katrisha sighed.

“Well,” Mercu laughed, “not precisely.  It’s a bit much for even me to believe, but the stories say that she told him if he truly loved her, that he need not follow.  That if his love shone as brightly as he claimed, she would see it from the shores of Carth itself.”

“Difficult woman,” Laurel laughed.

“Well,” Mercu mused, “undoubtedly, but it would seem that Daven was as stubborn.  It took a few years as I’ve heard it, before inspiration struck him, one night as he watched a light house up the coast.  First he had a tall tower built upon the corner of his mansion in the city.  This alone was a grandiose act that drew much attention, but he had an exterior frame work fashioned around the tower, which caused even more perplexed rumors.  Lastly loads, literally tons of sand were delivered, and he cast out all the workers, and all his servants.”

No one seemed to have anything to say, and Mercu smiled.  “They say it happened in one night, that the crazy fool did it all himself.  He used magic to forge the sand into pristine, perfect sheets of glass, and set them into to the framework of the tower.  In the morning the people gathered around, and looked up at the new gleaming spire in the midst of their city.  In the evening it shone brilliantly in the setting sun, like a frozen flame.  Days passed, then weeks, then at last a well adorned ship flying the colors of Carth came into port.”

“You see,” Mercu laughed, “the woman Caladine, was not just an enchanter.  Caladine was not even her real name, she was Cadinae, a Princess of Carth.  She was the youngest of her father’s children, too far from the throne to be a real heir.  She had run away when she had been only fifteen, seen the world, crafted her wares, had many lovers.  A few she favored above the rest.  Only one had followed, only one had finally done something to impress her.”

Mercu paused, enjoyed the silence, and then shrugged.  “That’s the story, and by all accounts it is at least mostly true.  She married the man who build the glass tower over Wesrook.  Though she had gotten on in years by then, her gift was strong, and she was still fertile enough to bare him one son, and a daughter.  They live up there, in the tower he built, to this very day.”

“You have at least one thing wrong,” Charles said smugly.

“How would you know?” Katrisha said crossly.

“Because I know Daven,” Charles retorted.  “He has done a great deal of work for my mother, and she has been to the royal palace on Carth.  She told him once that you could see his “flame” all the way from there, and he told her that he knew, he had meant for it to be visible from the palace.”

“How did he know?” Mercu asked curiously.

Charles pondered for a bit.  “He’d been a man of some importance in Mordove, as you say.  When a man was caught harassing his…companion of the time, he interrogated him personally.  The man was an agent of her father, who had tracked her all the way to Mordove.  That was when she left the first time.”

“What a lovely bit of intrigue to the story,” Mercu laughed.  “I’ll have to remember that.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Upon entry, the city of Wesrook was not as clean as it appeared from afar – though it was evident that great efforts were made, as evidenced by men sweeping the streets.  One wondered readily if it was truly a complete exercise in futility, or how much dingier things would be without their diligent work.  

The three siblings were struck quite thoroughly by deep lustrous bronze skin of the occasional northerner they passed along the way, and almost as surprised by the remarkable pale complexion of those from the far south.  Foreign dignitaries were not entirely uncommon at Broken Hill, but none had come from Osyrae, or Napir in the time the twins had resided there.  

One man in fine clothing sat on a bench by the roadside, feeding pigeons.  His skin was nearly pitch black, a sight even Mercu seemed struck by.  After they had passed Mercu explained that the man was surely from the Northern Wastes, and that he had rarely seen one of such pure blood so far south.

Laurel added that peoples of northern climates tended to have darker skin, to endure the sun which did not wane in the winter months.  Further that the pale skin of people from Napir was believed to give them some advantage against the long cold nights of their winters.

A fountain square dominated the middle of of the town, directly beneath the gleaming spire of Daven’s Flame that had begun to shimmer orange in the evening sun.  They had passed inns, both questionable, and fine, but had not stopped at any.  The twins had begun to wonder exactly where they were going, and Wren had simply drifted off on Katrisha’s shoulder after a long day’s ride.

As the coach turned north again, Kiannae was about to ask when Mercu answered the question out of hand.  “We will be staying at Wesrook Castle,” he said with a smile, “I am told we will be expected.”

Charles had known his destination from the beginning, and suspected that the others would be coming.  He was none the less displeased at the final confirmation.  “Mother does love to host guests,” he offered masking his feelings on the matter as best he could.

“The Lady of Wesrook is a lovely woman,” Mercu laughed.  “I wish she would visit Broken Hill more often, but something it seems keeps her away.”

Charles glared at Mercu, but said nothing.  Mercu simply shrugged the accusatory stare off, and continued.  “I’ve never had the privilege of staying in Wesrook tower before, I hear the view is quite stunning.”

“We live in a tower back home,” Kiannae stated dubiously.

“What’s the difference?” Katrisha asked.

“The ocean,” Charles answered before Mercu could.

“It’s not strictly speaking the ocean,” Mercu noted.  “Though close enough.  Waves still crash against the rocks below the tower.”

“I thought you hadn’t been,” Kiannae protested.

“I’ve been through Wesrook several times in my travels,” Mercu defended himself.  “And I’ve slept in ear shot of the ocean many times.  The waves here are muted some by Carth blocking the full fury of the sea, but they should still crash quite pleasantly to the shore beneath the cliff – from what I’ve seen passing through before.”

“It is one of the things I miss back home,” Charles said, “the sound of the ocean at night.”

 < Previous || Next >

Chapter 9

Good traveler hear,
words for the wise,
and journey in numbers,
if you value your lives,

for along all the roads,
more and less traveled,
stand hills ‘n groves,
that harbor deep shadow,

and from these places,
convenient ‘n obscure,
may spring bandits, dragons,
or beasts yet unheard.

– old caravan rhyme, circa 350 E.R.

Sisters of the Road

Vhalun 37th, 641 E.R.

Mercu watched Katrisha and Kiannae entertain themselves, and one another alternately.  The two girls rarely did the same thing at once any more, opting instead to show off for their mutual amusement, and often Mercu’s.  He pondered how much the two had grown in four years.

Katrisha for her part had become very fond of a trick to make small orbs of light attract each other, and further take less effort to touch and grab hold of.  Before her danced a half dozen or so such orbs of varied size and color.  The largest hovered stationary, as the others zipped around it, and each other in intricate arcs, and spirals.  Ever so often she would nudge, slow, or grab one to radically alter its trajectory.

Mercu had seen Laurel do similar things over the years, but his more prosaic displays were generally meant to match the exact behavior of real astronomical bodies.  Katrisha’s displays were often more intriguing for their playful artistry, and unusual eccentric orbits.  Even if this chaos and experimentation frequently lead to strays flying off through walls, and needing to be remade by their disgruntled mistress.

Though Kiannae had at times done the same, she was more fond of making swirling twisting patterns of light in the air.  Mercu had tried without much success to convince her to express her intricate forms with paint, or charcoal.  The results however, even barring the obvious disadvantage of not being luminescent, three dimensional forms, further lacked the same precision and grace.  She seemed over all uninterested in spending the time to learn the coordination it would take to match what she could do by intent alone.

A stray orb careened out of its previous tight orbit, and through a flowery display of intricately twined light, causing a momentary explosion of brilliant swirls.  Mercu braced himself for Kiannae to be very cross with her sister, but saw both girls transition from surprise to amusement as the fireworks of the collision evolved, and settled.

“How would you two like to come into the village with me today?” he asked before the two could get too deeply enthralled in their entertainments again.  Both looked to him with expressions of distinct disbelief.

“Really?” Kiannae asked uncertainly.

“You always say we can’t come,” Katrisha added hesitantly.

“This time I asked Laurel very nicely,” Mercu laughed, “and with the utmost of begrudging muttering, he relented to allow you two off the castle grounds.”

With that reassurance the girls bounded from their respective places, and were at Mercu’s side in a heartbeat.  “I will take that as a yes then?” he chuckled.

Both nodded, no longer risking questioning their good fortune.

“I’ve asked for you two to come along so that you can meet my sister, if you don’t mind.”

“You have a sister?” Kiannae asked obviously a bit confused.

“You never mentioned her,” Katrisha added.

“Didn’t I?” Mercu laughed a bit nervously, “lovely woman too, can’t think why.  I’m sure with you two along the odds of her killing me will go down by at least two thirds.”  The girls both looked a bit concerned at Mercu’s jest.  “No really, she wouldn’t hurt me…well ok she definitely wouldn’t kill me, but I fear it’s nothing I haven’t earned in one way or another.”

“Did you make her mad?” Katrisha asked in an almost scolding tone.

“I made her rich,” Mercu said with a knowing smile, “that’s almost worse.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Why are we walking?” Katrisha grumbled, and kicked a small rock down the road ahead of her.

“Because it’s good for you,” Mercu answered.

“How much farther?” Kiannae asked.

“Two more miles,” Mercu shrugged.  In truth he had tried to arrange a coach, but too much was going on.  However good he was at getting what he wanted, he was still very low on the ladder compared to official business.  The three mile walk was hardly his first choice, but he would never hear the end of it if he didn’t make the trek.  He began humming to himself absently as they walked on.

“What’s that?” Kiannae asked after a few minutes.

“Hmmm?” Mercu questioned looking to see if she was pointing at something.

“The song,” Katrisha clarified for her sister.

“Oh – just an old Palentine tune,” Mercu said dismissively.  “Gets stuck in my head sometimes.”

“I don’t recognize it,” Kiannae pressed.  “What is it?”

“Let me see if I remember all the words,” Mercu said thoughtfully – then began to sing:

“A minstrel girl to war hath gone,
still plying her bow ‘n strings,
she’s pierced near the hearts,
with arrows as songs,
the minstrel girl of Dawn,

Lost a father for bread,
her mother for scorn,
armed with fiddle ‘fore bow,
long after adored everyone,
that little dear in Dawn,

O’ With sorrow she strung,
ne’re a tear she shed,
each eve her cup was full,
great ‘n small hung their head,
for the songbird proud of Dawn,

Of age she was comely,
and keen of the eye,
come one way or another,
none could pass there by,
great lady come from Dawn,

They crooned of her voice,
the song of her bow,
the curve of her chest,
the grace of her draw,
fair hero born of Dawn.

She’s up on that hill,
where she tarried her days,
‘nother grave there beside,
prince or pauper none say,
who married a girl from Dawn.

So stand all good folk,
as a fierce lass once did,
utter take not another,
cry yet take me instead,
for home, for country, for Dawn.”

“Why doesn’t anyone know who married her?” Katrisha asked, as Mercu trailed off on Dawn.

“No one is really sure if she even existed,” Mercu answered.  “If she did, it was very, very long ago.  Centuries before the Empire at least.  Still there are two graves on the eastern hill above Dawn.  I’ve seen them myself.”

“Don’t they have names?” Kiannae prodded.

“I said very long ago,” Mercu laughed.  “You know the expression, ‘written in stone?’”

“Yes,” Katrisha said incredulously.

“Of course,” Kiannae protested.

“Well what does it mean?” Mercu countered.

“Permanent?” Katrisha offered.

“Even what is written in stone is not forever.”  Mercu shrugged.  “That the locals have kept the hill clear, and the graves from being completely overgrown is a wonder itself.  There’re marks on the gravestones, if you wipe away the moss.  Written in script so old no one knows it, and so eroded by the rain that even if one could read ancient Palentian you couldn’t make a thing of it.  They might as well be a few more scores cut by the rain.”

“If she married a prince wouldn’t there be a record?”  Kiannae countered.

“Oh yes – there probably would have been.  Yet there were so many, and they lived, and died, and castles burned, and lineages were forgotten, and true enough a couple wouldn’t you know it have claimed that it was one of their ancestors the song is about.  Course not a one can prove it.”

“What was the bit about losing her father for bread, and her mother for scorn?” Katrisha asked.

“It’s all sketchy.  The stories say she was the daughter of a common minstrel, very poor save his precious instrument.  He taught her to play, but could not keep food on the table.  He stole some bread to feed her – and wound up dead.”

“Over bread!?” Katrisha said furiously.

“The world is not always fair, or kind,” Mercu answered, and neither girl seemed satisfied.

“What about her mother?”  Kiannae asked.

“Stories vary – not all versions are quite polite.  Some say she blamed her daughter, or herself, went mad, or…well never mind,” Mercu was thoughtful.  “In the end the girl was left alone.  They say her sorrowful playing in the square filled her cup every day.”

“And then she became an archer?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes.  Dawn was always caught in the struggles between ancient Nohlend and Old Palentine.  The stories say – as the closing verse implies – that she volunteered, and became a great archer.  That not only did she offer to serve, but demanded to when first, second, and even trice refused.”

“Why would they refuse her?” Katrisha frowned.

“Because she was a young girl.  They gave her a bow ostensibly to keep her out of trouble.”

“Hmph,” Kiannae protested.

“Oh I quite agree – but that very arrogance helped earn her her fame.  When men were shrinking from the fight, men who thought so little of women, let alone a small girl, she stood up.  She pledged her life to the very people that had cost her her parents.  So there are noble families that squabble to own her legacy a thousand years later.”

“But she was just an archer, not a mage?” Katrisha asked.

“She might have had some gift – who can say.  Great warriors of old often did.  There are more practices than we always remember today.  Back then, in the early Age of Kings a little border town like Dawn would easily have let a gift slip through untrained.  And though great Mage Kings were terrors on the battlefield, they needed armies to counter each other’s.”

“Why is it called Dawn?” Kiannae asked.

“Nothing special – just an eastward port on the North Sea – could have been a hundred places with the name.  That one stuck.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha had only the vaguest memory of the village from a morning passage years before.  Yet as vague as her memory was she was quite sure it had not been nearly so busy.  As they passed out of the north side of the village proper she realized there had not been so many large enclosed wagons either.  She had heard that the caravan was in town, but while she knew what that meant functionally, she had never put much thought into what it might look like.

Kiannae, who had slept through the village all those years ago was even more overwhelmed by the diversity of sights, sounds, and people.  It was even more daunting than any of the weddings or balls that had been held at court in her time there.

The trio walked up to an enclosed wagon larger than either girl had ever imagined existed, and Mercu waved enthusiastically.  “Harris, my old friend!” he yelled his arms spread wide as he approached a man sifting through various bundled goods.

The man stood up and turned only to be embraced before he could fully recognize his assailant.  “Mer…Mercu?” Harris said questioningly as he pushed Mercu back, and looked him up and down.  “By the fates it is you, it’s been at least ten years since I saw you last.”

“Oh, more than that I think,” Mercu said with a chuckle.

“Who are those two,” Harris said gesturing to Katrisha, and Kiannae as they walked up behind him.  “You haven’t gone and had children have you?”

“No…though I suppose after a fashion,” Mercu laughed.  “They aren’t my blood, but are about as close as I’m likely to get, I think.”

“Fair enough, I won’t pry,” Harris said considering Mercu shrewdly, “I shouldn’t have been so surprised to see you though, I thought I heard Sam muttering something about her worthless brother other day.”

“Speaking of that, I seek the caravan master!” Mercu laughed.

“Yes, yes of course,” Harris said grabbing a rod that lay nearby, and rapped on the side of the wagon.

“Oi, what in the abyss is it?” a woman’s voice called out after a moment irritably, and a window on the side of the wagon swung open.  A lady with short chestnut hair looked down at Harris, and Mercu, and shook her head.  “Oh, it’s you,” she said dismissively, and yet with an air of surprise.  “I’ve passed through this kingdom no less than five times in the past ten years, and have to come almost to your door to get more than a letter handed to me.”

“It wasn’t the distance, dear Samantha, it was the company,” Mercu shot back.  “When your letter said father had finally retired somewhere out east, I figured it was time I did better by my dear sister.”

“Yes, yes, and I’ll believe your personal convenience had nothing to do with it,” Samantha responded leaning her head on her arm, a wry smile creeping across her lips.

Katrisha and Kiannae slowly inched up beside Mercu, and drew glances from Harris, and Mercu’s sister.  “Believe what you will,” Mercu laughed, “but the convenience of your visit did allow me to bring guests.”

“Are these the two then?” Samantha said smiling down at the twins.

“Indeed they are,” Mercu answered.  “Introduce yourselves girls – you do it so well.”

“I am Katrisha, daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost,” the first said with a curtsy.

“And I am Kiannae, daughter of summer vales, and the passing storm,” the other proclaimed in turn.

“Well those are curious titles,” Samantha said cocking her head to the side.

“Something their father called them when they were little,” Mercu said, “or so I am told.  At some point I started encouraging the use, seemed fittingly mystical for young mages in training.”

Samantha gracefully hopped onto the windowsill, and slid out, landing in a crouch before the twins.  “You two,” she said grinning wildly, “are darling, and should not allow my wicked treacherous brother to corrupt you any further than he surely already has.”

“I will have you know,” Mercu said in a very officious tone, “that I am tasked with seeing that these two are wholly incorruptible.”

“Then we are all doomed, and the very chief future servants of the abyss stand before us,” Samantha said, throwing up her arms as she straightened up, and stared at her brother incredulously.  Mercu scrunched his face up in a slightly childish manner, obviously displeased to be so quickly besmirched before his young charges.

Samantha cocked her head to the side, frowned slightly at the lack of a witty comeback, and suddenly pounced upon her brother with an abrupt hug, kissing him on the cheek.  “I missed you, you insufferable lout,” she said squeezing him tightly.

She had the most remarkably calming, yet energetic presence.  Like an open field of flowers in summer, wavering in a gentle breeze.  You couldn’t feel it more than a foot away, but it then suddenly washed over you.

“You too dear sister,” Mercu said in a more relaxed tone, and returned the embrace. “I did write, but…I simply couldn’t face father any more.”

“Well you did kind of put him in a bit of a bind, didn’t you?” Samantha said pulling back, and looking her brother square in the eye.

“I only made him do, what deep down in his heart he wanted to, and knew was right,” Mercu offered coyly.

“Oh yes, and thank you for that.  It’s been such a chore convincing traveling merchant’s to follow a woman,” Samantha nearly hissed.  “Do you have any idea how much I miss having long hair?  But no, for some reason these insufferable men – who surround me – give me more respect if I look more like one of them.”

“I always respected you fine,” Harris said as he walked away, having felt his presence was an intrusion for some time.

“Sorry Harris,” Samantha called after him, “I just forget sometimes you are a man.”  Harris noticeably grumbled, and made a strange gesture as he disappeared behind the wagon.

Mercu laughed.  “I was wondering what was up with the hair, but how ever did you come to such a strange conclusion?”

“Well it started with a woman merchant, enchanter by trade,” Samantha said, moved to her brother’s side, and ushered him to walk into town.  She looked down at the two bewildered little girls beside them, and simply said “follow along you two.  I intend to find a drink for my brother and myself – he’s buying.”

Mercu looked as though he wished to object in some way, but simply remained silent as Samantha launched back into her story.  “Now where was I?  Oh yes, the merchant girl.  Sweet lass, simply failed to grasp that I preferred the company of men, however much they may aggravate me.  She kept saying I was repressing something.”

“You, repress something?” Mercu laughed.

“One to talk, dear brother,” Samantha cut back, and tapped him on the nose.  “At some point or another, when we were a bit drunk, she said the short hair makes them think of you less as a woman, makes them listen.  I really just wrote the whole statement off at the time, she was so drunk.  Then there was an incident with some tar…have you ever, in your life, tried to get tar out of hair?”

“No,” Mercu said with a bit of a cringe, “but…how did that happen exactly?”

“One story at a time,” Samantha laughed, “so anyway, not much choice, had to chop it all off you see, god it looked terrible for a while, but it happened at a waypoint where a lot of people were changing out.  Wouldn’t you know it, I had a lot less trouble getting the men to follow directions ever since.  Not night and day mind you, but noticeable – hit on me less too…which eh, blessing and a curse some days.”

“Sounds positively dreadful,” Mercu said in a mock somber tone.

“Eh, not the end of the world.  Slap ’em in the face with the knockers,” Samantha laughed, wiggling her shoulders, “if I really want the attention.  That’ll work nine times out of ten.”

“And the tenth time?” Mercu laughed.

“The tenth time I guess they have no interest in a good pair of knockers,” Samantha chuckled.  “I’d ask if you know what that’s about dear brother…but I forget you have a very broad appreciation in such matters.”

“You are terrible, sister,” Mercu said with a wide grin, “and have the nerve to imply that I will corrupt these darling little girls,” he said glancing back to be sure the uncharacteristically quiet pair were still following.  They were, and to his amused discomfort clearly rapt with their conversation.

“One need not be a Palentian saint to warn travelers that the bridge is out,” Samantha shot back.

“Still, for you to call my appreciation broad, is not unlike the sunrise calling the sunset orange,” Mercu laughed dryly.

“I dare say I am at least more particular than you, just not in the same petty ways,” Samantha said thwapping her brother lightly on the back of the head with the hand that had been rested on his shoulder.

“Is it petty to have a weakness for a keen mind?” Mercu said incredulously, re-adjusting his hat, “Really I would have thought it the other way round.”

“I know for a fact at least a couple of your lovers have not been the brightest…dear brother,” Samantha shot back with an accusatory glance.

“Each clever, and wise in their own ways, I assure you,” Mercu said defiantly, “though I won’t deny sometimes a pretty face…and other virtues cover a great many follies.”

“So that one you ran off with then, which was it, pretty face, or…other virtues?” Samantha needled.

“All of the above, and a way out from under father’s nose,” Mercu said flatly.

“If you say so, I never saw it,” Samantha said shrugging off the obvious dodge.  “Ah here we go,” she said stopping at the step of a large building at the edge of a town, above which hung a sign that declared in bold red lettering, ‘The Grey Lamb.’  Samantha let go of her brother and marched up the steps without a further word.

Mercu looked to Katrisha and Kiannae, and doubted the wisdom of bringing them along after all.  He realized he should have known his sister better.  It was not completely unacceptable to bring young children into a tavern, but he had always thought less of the rare parents he had seen do so.  “So what do you think of my sister?” he asked the twins, hesitant to follow just yet.

“She’s…” Kiannae seemed to be looking for the word.

“Loud, crazy, uncouth?” Mercu provided questioningly.

“Interesting,” Katrisha offered.  Her sister glanced at her and nodded.

Mercu laughed heartily.  “Perhaps in the ancient proverb sense of the word.”  He sighed.  “Ok, so we are going into this building here.  Talk to noone but me, my sister, and the bartender if need be.  Stay very close, and stay out of anyone’s way.  Ok?”

The girls looked at each other, nodded, and in unison said, “Ok.”

Upon entering the tavern the barkeep gave Mercu one look, and laughed.  “Oh and what ancient god of myth have I angered this day, to find both the Merchant Queen, and the Court Jester in my tavern at once?”

“Court Artist, thank you very much,” Mercu offered in standard retort.

“Indeed,” Samantha laughed, “only the Merchant Queen may so malign her own brother!”

“Oh, how had I not guessed as much,” the barkeep declared dryly.

“Because you are a dim little fellow Olie, though I guess you were bright enough to move down here from up north,” Samantha chuckled.

“Doesn’t take much brains to know a village with no people doesn’t much need a tavern,” Olie chuckled.

“Which explains why you were able to put it together,” Samantha added.

Mercu helped Katrisha and Kiannae up onto two bar stools between Samantha, and himself, and shrugged off the questioning glance from Olie.  “A round of your second best,  for my sister and I,” Mercu declared, “and something…lighter for the little lasses.”

“Only second best dear brother, am I not worth better?” Samantha asked in a hurt tone.

“Only if you enjoy the distinct flavor of cat…piss,” Mercu said, hesitating to say the last word but just embracing the inevitable exposure to excess swearing the girls would get that day.

“And you would know for a fact, that is the exact flavor?” Samantha chuckled.

“It is less of a flavor than a smell.  The tongue refuses to register flavor at all, and simply goes numb on contact,” Mercu laughed defensively.

“So something to drink when forgetting the world is the goal, not for reminiscing about how it used to be?” Samantha asked shaking her head.

“More like something to drink when leaving the world is the goal,” Mercu offered.

“I suppose second best will do then, to early in the day to leave the world!” Samantha declared.

Olie set two large mugs before Mercu and Samantha, and eyed the twins wondering what to give them.  “You two, you are the mage girls from up at the castle aren’t you?” he asked finally realizing he had the subject of many little rumors before him.

“I guess we are,” Katrisha said curiously examining the barkeep with an analytical gaze that made him uncomfortable.

“Don’t believe there are any others,” Kiannae added looking around the bar at the few customers, all seated far apart.

“And what do little mage girls drink?” Olie asked curiously.

“Cider mostly,” Kiannae responded.

“Humph, not the kind I have I’ll wager,” Olie laughed.  “Bah, I’ll figure something out,” he said and wandered off into the back.

“So, tell me of life at the castle girls,” Samantha prodded, and sipped from her mug.

“Why not ask me?” Mercu said feigning injury, “I’ve certainly been there longer.”

“I wanted the truth” Samantha chided, “and barring that, I’ll take the exaggerations of eight year olds, over yours.  They should be at least half as distorted.”

“Very well,” Mercu said and took a drink.

“So, please, do tell me of life at the castle,” Samantha prodded.

“It’s all right,” Kiannae said, “better sometimes than others.”

“Like when there is a ball,” Katrisha added.

“I guess those can be fun, but all the old people can be so dull,” Kiannae said absently looking about.

“We get to stay up later at least,” Katrisha countered.

“As if any force in the cosmos could change how late or early you two go to sleep.”  Mercu laughed.  “A ball just means you might get yelled at less for it.”

“And that’s nice,” Kiannae said, biting her lip playfully.

“I agree, staying up late for a good ball when the old people aren’t being boring is always grand,” Samantha laughed and took another sip, “not getting yelled at for it is even better.”

“Since when do you know much of balls dear sister?” Mercu asked incredulously.  “Getting yelled at on the other hand, I suppose you could speak volumes on that.”

“Oh, more than you would think,” Samantha laughed.  “Even if father never asked me to come along, like he did with you, I usually managed to steal something from the wares, sneak my way in, and have a grand time.  As for the yelling, did you ever wonder what it was about some of those nights?”

“It did seem every party, about half way through I’d see this very cross look on his face,” Mercu said thoughtfully.

“Do you remember in Western Palentine, the summer festival in the grand courtyard?” Samantha asked with an egging tone.

“It was a masquerade ball wasn’t it?” Mercu said eying his sister shrewdly.

“Yup, and you remember when a girl dancing with the young crown prince suddenly bent him,” Samantha stressed, “over, and kissed him.”  She laughed.

“Oh, fates…that was you wasn’t it?” Mercu laughed.  “I knew you were impossible, impetuous, I maybe even suspected you snuck into a few of those balls…but that.  Dear sister I do believe my respect for you just went up tenfold.”

“Would it go up any farther if I told you the prince proposed?” Samantha laughed.

“He what?” Mercu gasped almost spitting his most recent sip.

“Had to let him down of course, his father would never have let him go through with it,” Samantha said wistfully.  “I let him down very gently of course…very very gently,” she chuckled.

“I never thought it possible, but perhaps you are worse than me,” Mercu said shaking his head, “and you know what, I think I remember father muttering something about paying the King to take you off his hands.”

“To father,” Samantha laughed raising her mug towards her brother over the girls heads.

“May he rest comfortably in whatever pleasant home he’s found,” Mercu added, and tapped his mug to Samantha’s, “very, very far from here.”   They both drank.

“So the prince really liked you?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“He inclined me to believe so,” Samantha said taking a small sip.  “When it gets right down to it, royals are real people, even if they often have very big heads.  They are trained to be outsiders, to not be treated like real people, but guess what, deep down, it’s what a lot of them actually want.”

“So you treated him like a real person?” Katrisha asked a bit confused.

“Sort of.  To be fair I think I treated him like a piece of meat, but men don’t often know the difference,” Samantha laughed.

“You treated him like meat?” Kiannae asked her face scrunched up in confusion.

“That doesn’t sound nice,” Katrisha said flatly.  “Why did that make him like you?”

“You know, I suppose I don’t really get it either, but he wasn’t the last to have that reaction,” Samantha said leaning her head on her hand, and taking another sip.

“Boys are funny,” Katrisha said looking at Mercu, and then thinking better of it as he raised an eyebrow.

“Some of us aim for funny,” Mercu said with a laugh.  “It attracts a better kind of attention…well and the worse kind too still, really.”

Olie returned with two mugs similar to the ones Mercu and Samantha were slowly nursing, but containing a distinctly redder liquid.  “There,” he said with a touch of pride in his voice “not a drop of alcohol, and surprisingly not horrid for it either.”

Katrisha pulled the one before her closer, and sniffed at it.  Hesitantly she leaned the heavy mug towards her and took a testing sip.  “Strawberry?” she remarked questioningly.

“Among other things, had to cut the syrup down a bit, added twist of this and that for flavor,” Olie said vaguely. “Not quite as good as some of the things I make for my little one at home, but not bad for what was on hand.”

“You have a little one?” Samantha asked with genuine surprise, and mild interest.

“She’ll be six this fall,” Olie said absently, “darling little thing, ‘bout the same size as these two.”

“We’re eight,” Kiannae corrected.

But before Olie could offer his apology he caught a cold stare from Samantha.

“Funny,” she said in venomous voice, “think the last time I saw you was five years ago.”

“Oh,” Olie said, and cleared his throat, “it’s really not like that.  Girl’s not mine, might as well be though, since I’ve been helping her ma out ever since she was born.  She and I were just friends back then, but I married her two years ago.”

“I see,” Samantha said her eyebrow raised, “well congratulations on both counts then, I guess.”

“Yes, thank you,” Olie said, and quickly extracted himself.

“Story matches what I’ve heard,” Mercu said sipping at his drink, and restraining a laugh.

“Good,” Samantha said tapping her fingers.

“You really do have father’s temper you know,” Mercu laughed.

“And you have mother’s big mouth,” Samantha shot back.

“What’s Samantha mad about?” Kiannae asked Mercu quietly.

“Oh nothing,” Mercu said patting her gently.  “She just thought she’d gotten caught up in a bad situation.  Was a misunderstanding, nothing more.”

“Ok,” Kiannae said not quite understanding.

Two large men had been slowly making their way down from the far end of the bar.  As they arrived the closer of the two bowed, in a slightly wobbly way to Samantha.  “What brings a fine lass such as yourself here today?  I’ve not seen old Mercu bring in a lady before.”

“Well, then today you’ve seen the reverse, a lady brought him in,” Samantha said not even turning to look at the man.

“Now why would such a lovely sight as yourself lessen your own ample contribution to the atmosphere, by bringing along the silly old bard?” the second man asked in a meandering drunken tone.

“You hear that brother, they called you a bard,” Samantha said with a laugh, and took another drink.

“Oh, my condolences,” the second man said with a laugh.  “Explains what you are doing with him.  And makes good sense you are so lovely, given he’s such a pretty boy, you’ve got to compete.”

“You hang out around here much brother?” Samantha said ignoring the two men.  “Locals seem to know you pretty well.”

“I stop by now and then, when I want to hear the more slurred and drunken version of recent events,” Mercu said with a shrug.

“Hey now,” the closer man snapped.  “My friend and I don’t take kindly to being ignored.”

“That’s unfortunate, because I was being kind by tolerating your presence,” Samantha said taking a large swig of her drink.  “I could instead ask you to leave.”

“And if we don’t want to leave?” the closer man laughed.

“Well, that’s the still being nice option, the one that’s left is making you,” Samantha said in a tone that sounded more bored than threatening.

“Now now sister, lets not get hasty,” Mercu said eying her expression shrewdly.  “The village doesn’t take kindly to brawling, and neither does Olie.”

“It isn’t brawling to smack some respect into a weak little woman,” the second man all but yelled, “even less to grind her sissy little brother into the ground.”

“First off,” Samantha said and took the last of her drink in one long gulp.  “I am the little sister.”  Then without warning she swung at the man, and landed her punch square on his nose.  The man staggered backwards, almost knocking over his friend.  “Second, you want a woman asking for it, right here, let’s see if you are as much of a man as you think you are.”

“Oh fates,” Mercu said looking at the twins next to him.  He quickly lifted Kiannae over the bar,  as Olie made haste towards them.

“You stupid bitch,” the first man said with slurred speech as he held his bleeding nose.

“Stop this right now Matly,” Olie yelled picking up a half empty bottle, and brandishing it at the man whose nose was bleeding.

Mercu quickly put Katrisha beside her sister behind the bar, and glared at them firmly.  “Stay down.”

“Me!” the man spat through blood soaked lips.  “She hit me!”

“And I know you both well enough to know who started this trouble,” Olie shot back, “and who’s more likely to back down from a fight.”

“I never backed down from a fight,” Matly spat again.

“That isn’t true, now is it?” Olie said looking at Matly’s startled friend.

“Well, there was that one time,” the man said.

“Cut it Anton,” Matly growled, “I’m not stoppin’ anything till this little shit learns to respect her betters.”

“To the abyss with you then,” Olie said putting down the bottle, “the damages go on your tab.”

“What damages?” Matly asked incredulously as Samantha lunged towards him.  He swung at her approach, but missed as she dropped, and kicked the side of his leg, causing him to stumble sideways, and crash into a table.  The sparse other patrons who had been watching the escalation didn’t quite know what to make of the scene.

One large man stood, and walked towards the dazed Matly, who was rubbing his head where he had hit it on the now broken table.  “What’s the problem brother?” the man almost laughed, “this little girl giving you trouble?”

“Bitch broke my nose,” Matly growled.

“If you let her, you probably deserved it,” the man laughed, “but I suppose I can’t let that stand.”

“You aren’t drunker than your brother,” Samantha said as she watch the way the man approached her, “so I can only assume you are stupider.  So what’s your name pretty boy?”

“Hanson,” the man said sizing up Samantha’s stance carefully.

“You make a habit of getting in your brother’s fights?” Samantha asked looking for an opening.

“Not usually, only when his honor is sullied enough I need to save face for the family,” Hanson said taking a guarded testing swing at Samantha that she easily avoided, then tried for his leg, to no avail.

“Shouldn’t you maybe be trying to beat some sense into him yourself then?” Samantha said throwing her own testing strike, finding it deflected, and barely avoiding the returned blow.

“Don’t think I haven’t tried, boy doesn’t learn,” Hanson said with a shrug.  “Always goes off again and pisses off some worthless woman, then has to deal with her brother, husband, cousin…usually manages it himself though.  First time he’s been drunk enough to let a woman land a blow on him.”

“So you think the only reason I could land a blow on him, was because he was drunk eh?” Samantha asked with a laugh.  Hanson simply shrugged again, but didn’t see the kick to his groin coming.  “Stupid people don’t need to breed,” she said as the man crumpled to the ground.

Anton started to approach Samantha, but found Mercu in his way.  “If you and your friends really think so little of women, wouldn’t it be giving them too much credit to make the fight three on one?”

Anton glared incredulously at Mercu, and gave him a hard shove.  “Out of my way, no one lands a cheap shot on Hanson like that, and gets away with it.”

“Ok, not listening to reason,” Mercu said, and swung, catching Anton in the gut, then another to the face.

Anton rubbed his jaw a bit where the punch had landed.  “You hit like a girl,” he said, just as Matly got to his feet, and charged at Samantha.  She ducked, and rolled the man over her, and into another table.

“Thank you,” Mercu said with a laugh, and dodged as Anton threw a punch at him.

Hanson stumbled to his feet, grabbed a chair, and started to swing it at Samantha, but found himself blinded by a sudden flash of light.  He missed, and lost his grip on the chair which flew into Matly, who crumpled under the blow.  Samantha kicked the staggered Hanson in the stomach, tipping him over, and causing him to hit his head on the floor knocking him out.

Anton, who was distracted by the sight of Hanson and Matly’s defeat missed Mercu sweeping his leg out from under him, and knocked his head hard on the bar.

“I saw that you two,” Mercu said glancing at the girls peeking up from behind the bar.

“Sorry,” Katrisha said hesitantly.

“No, no, very good,” Mercu said as his sister walked over, dusting off her hands.  He turned to her, and with only a hint of humor asked, “As for you, dear sister.  That incident with the tar…it didn’t also involve feathers, did it?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Mercu lifted Katrisha and Kiannae into Samantha’s wagon behind her, and pulled himself up as well.  He watched as the girls looked around the cramped interior of the wagon, and Samantha rummaged through various stacks of small wares at the far end.

“So this is where you grew up?” Kiannae asked.

Mercu looked around thoughtfully.  “One of them I think,” Mercu said uncertainly, “it’s hard to be sure if it’s the same wagon after all these years.”

“It is,” Samantha said emerging from her private stockpile with a bottle of wine in one hand, and a bundle of small sticks with various colored crystals at the end in the other.  “Axle broke on the way into the town father retired in.  I considered just replacing the wagon, but I couldn’t get a good price for it, nor a replacement fast enough.”

“It’s very small,” Katrisha said bluntly.

“It is a cramped way to grow up,” Mercu agreed, and then his face saddened, “particularly when mother died, and Samantha started traveling with us.”

“You never told us your mother was dead too,” Katrisha said sadly.

“I don’t think of her much,” Mercu admitted with a bit of shame.  “I only saw her every year or two when we would stop in the town where she, and Samantha lived.  I barely remember her any more.”

“I barely remember mother either,” Kiannae said sadly, “just the way she used to sing.”

“Here you two,” Samantha said offering the twins each one of the sticks she held.  “Palentian honey candy, very sweet, and they swear actually good for you…but never trust anything a merchant tells you about the merits of her wares.”

“Thank you,” each girl said in turn.

“Here, you too brother,” Samantha said offering Mercu one.  “I do know how you love to suck on things.”

“Must you?” Mercu said taking it, and rolling his eyes.

“What?” Samantha said feigning innocence. “I remember whenever you would get your hands on one of these when you were younger, you would sit around all day chewing on the stick while you drew in that book of yours.”  She popped the last of the candies into her mouth, plucked two glasses from a cupboard overhead, and poured wine into each.

Mercu accepted his glass of wine, and took a seat on a bench at the head of the wagon.  “It’s been so many years since I’ve been inside of one of these,” he said wistfully.

“If you miss it, you could have come to visit sooner,” Samantha chided.

“I really don’t,” Mercu laughed as the twins squeezed onto the bench next to him, “oh don’t get me wrong, the road itself, the company, even including you dear sister, but not these cramped overloaded wagons.  That I could do without.”

“Still good to get back to your roots, even the less pleasant parts, at least now and then?” Samantha said in a questioning tone.

“I suppose,” Mercu agreed with some humor.

“Do you have anything for us to drink?” Katrisha asked taking her honey candy out long enough to speak.

“Not much on hand,” Samantha said thoughtfully.  “You can try some of my wine if you like.  Mother let me have a little sip when I was about your age.”

Mercu perked a brow.  “I’m not sure if Laurel would approve, but I guess what’s the harm in a sip.”

Samantha leaned over towards the girls, and offered her glass to Katrisha.  “Be very careful with the glass she said.”  Katrisha took it, sniffed, and scrunched up her nose before trying a sip.  She shook her head in obvious distaste.  In spite of her sister’s reaction Kiannae took the glass from her, and tried it as well.  She put on a brave face for a moment, but inevitably gave way to perfect copy of her sister’s expression.

Samantha took the glass back, and laughed.  “Yeah that was about my reaction at your age as well.”  She looked to her brother, and sighed.  “So I don’t suppose you know of any good healers looking to travel?  Our current one is preparing to return home to the local cloister, she’s tired of traveling with two children in tow I guess.”

“I’m afraid that will probably be your best bet to find one as well,” Mercu said dourly, “unless you want to try and hire away the local Clarion priest, the King might even offer you a small boon for getting him off our hands.”

“The King does not favor the Clarions?” Samantha asked with some surprise.

“The King has tried to remain neutral,” Mercu said flatly.  “I think in spite of better judgement.  He seems to have earned most of the ire he could have from the Clarions, while gaining none of the benefits of keeping Sisters at court.  It’s been years since we have had a resident healer.”

“That does seem an awkward place to be in,” Samantha said and sipped her wine.

“Endlessly.  It’s only gotten worse with the Matron visiting regularly now,” Mercu laughed.  All we have left are preachers, and Idolus.  Miserable man, barely competent.”

“The Matron?” Samantha asked curiously.

“To keep the girls here in touch with their brother.”

“You had mentioned a brother in one of those letters,” Samantha said absently.

“You might meet him if you go looking for a healer at Highvale,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “Where are you headed next any way?”

“North through the pass of course…then north again,” Samantha said feigning indifference, but clearly she wasn’t.

“Much as we need someone to risk the east road,” Mercu said hesitantly, “I’m glad it won’t be you.  Even though there has been no sign of the bandits for well over a year, they were never caught, and they even killed old Hamon.”

“Hamon you say.  Everyone has heard about what happened, but I’d missed that he was involved.  That is troubling, and a damn shame too.  I’ve had an offer to reconsider, since Osyrae is itself not a charming picture,” Samantha said with a frown. “Still you know what father always said, the riskier the road…”

“The more we get our monies worth for the mercenaries we have to hire any way,” Mercu finished with a dark laugh.  “Still, an offer?”

“It was from a baron in South Rook,” Samantha said.  “Strictly it was an offer of payment to make a delivery.  It was clear it was a bribe.  I took a vote any way, and several people I expected to be against it, weren’t.  I don’t think I was the only one offered a lucrative opportunity, but not enough to sway the vote.”

“The road is heavily patrolled now.  There have been no signs, and where the bandits had camped in the northern woods showed signs they were driven off by Sylvans.”  Mercu hesitated. “Not that for the life of me I can think why I am making a case for you to try it.”

“Because someone needs to, and you are vested with the wellbeing of this nation.  Still, that they took down Hamon,” Samantha said coming back to the thought uneasily, and took another sip. “I wish I had another mage, I might consider it, but decent mages are hard to come by this far from Mordove, at least until you get into Osyrae, or one of the free cities.”

“I am a decent mage,” Katrisha offered in an offended tone.

“As am I,” Kiannae chimed in as well.

Samantha laughed, “After today I’d trust the pair of you to do the job.  I’m not sure I’ve seen our current mage do more than a common light orb.  Alas I don’t think Mercu here would spare you.”  The twins each looked a bit deflated, but seemed to accept Samantha’s answer.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 5th, 641 E.R.

Wren sat between the bars of the railing above the main entry to the cloister, kicking his feet idly.  He looked up as three new arrivals entered.  A tall woman with long blond hair was greeted by Andria, and introduced her son and daughter each several years Wren’s elder.

The girl waved to Wren absently as she glanced up in his direction.  Wren waved back, and the girl walked to stand just below him.  “What are you doing up there?” she asked curiously.

“Nothin’,” Wren said absently, “just watchin’.”

“You should come down, and be introduced proper,” the girl said sternly.

“What’re you giving him grief for,” the girl’s brother said walking up beside her, “he’s just a little kid, leave him be.”

“I just wanted to say hello,” the girl said defensively.

“Well you have, let’s get back to mother,” the boy said firmly.

“I’m Audry,” the girl said ignoring her brother’s insistence.

“I’m Wren,” he replied in kind.

“Nice to meet you,” Audry said with a curtsy.

“Come on,” Audry’s brother insisted.

“Alright, Andrew,” she said dismissively.

“Have you been placed yet?” Audry asked, “Mother says now that we aren’t on the road we will be placed for teaching.”

“No,” Wren said absently, “my mother has been teaching me.”

“Oh,” Audry said, “guess that makes sense.  We are older.  Mother has been teaching us till now.”

“Others have been placed,” Wren said with a shrug.

“Audry,” the tall woman called waving her daughter over.

“Gotta go,” Audry said as she turned to leave, “guess I’ll see you around.”

“Watching the new arrivals?” Renae asked as she stepped behind Wren.

“Where are they from?” Wren asked, as he watched a woman with short brown hair walk in and look around searchingly.

Renae considered the group, and recognized the woman talking with Andria.  “Shandra, their mother, grew up here many years ago, but wanted to see the world,” Renae said rubbing Wren’s head.  “So like I once did, she signed up with merchant caravans.  The good ones never travel without a healer.  Most prefer us to the Clarions, more service, less preaching.”

“Who’s that one?” Wren asked curiously.

“A merchant prince’s assistant I expect,” Renae offered with only moderate interest.  “No doubt looking for some young Brother or Sister with the wander lust.  Usually they come themselves, but sometimes send a proxy to save time.”

“Hello there, who’s your caravan master?” Renae yelled down at the woman, who looked up at her a bit coldly.

“Yer talkin’ to her,” Samantha shot back. “I’d expect better of the Sisterhood than to make such assumptions.”

“Your pardon then,” Renae said with good humor.  “I expect less of the world to be fair.  Only once before met a woman in command of a caravan.”

“Apology accepted,” Samantha laughed, “it’s just fun to catch people in their reasonable preconceptions.”

“Your name then, if you would, oh grand caravan master,” Renae enquired leaning on the rail above Wren.

“Samantha Peregrine,” she said simply.

“Peregrine, surely it can’t be,” Renae said perking a brow, “are you any relation to a Mercu Peregrine who lives at court on Broken Hill?”

“My dear brother, who I had not seen in many years till just a few days ago.” Samantha laughed. “Why am I not surprised to find he is recognized by name in a Lycian Cloister?”

“I am not sure if I should take that comment kindly,” Renae said a bit tersely.

“I surely am not one to be making any judgements,” Samantha said more seriously, “just curious observations, and likely connections.”

“Yes there is no doubt you are his kin,” Renae said with a laugh, “but you’ve been caught in your own preconceptions.   I am quite familiar with good Mercu, but for reasons of a shared interest.  Have you met the twins?”

“Yes,” Samantha said with a smile, “darling clever little things they are.”

“And you are aware there is a brother then?” Renae continued.

“Ah, so then, the Matron Renae,” Samantha said assuming a shrewd expression, “and I shall risk being wrong again, and guess that the little one below you is the young Wren?”

“You would be right,” Wren said curiously.

“He speaks well,” Samantha remarked with some surprise, “a credit to his line, or perhaps to you?”

“I wish I could take more credit,” Renae said guardedly, “though I suppose I have a hand in it.”

“So tell me, good Matron,” Samantha began again, changing her posture slightly, “do you know of any you can spare, who might wish to see the world?”

Renae pursed her lips.  “There is one I can think of, who I’d like to think could be convinced.”  She was at least hopeful that it was the case.

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 8

I longed once that an Empress take the throne,
all such hopes passed that a dragon had come,
that one born woman is greatest err yet to rise,
is but small consolation that woman in her died,
we needed not another to raise these stakes,
to change the game be it now forever too late?

– writings of Sylvia Grey, circa 140 E.R.

Weary Shadows

Estae 2nd, 640 E.R.

Laurel paced the King’s antechamber behind the throne room.  “I do not like this,” he admitted.

“We are loathed to admit We agree,” the King said heavily.  “That no further violence has plagued the east road seems ill comfort, as only our men travel there now to be so plagued.  If as we suspect Osyrae was behind that caravan’s complete destruction, then they achieved what they wished with a single attack.  We’ve received confirmation that no caravans will pass that way any time soon.  Choosing instead to pass on through our kingdom into Osyrae, and few will bother to move the other way.  Nohlend has a better market for Osyrean goods.”

“A huge disruption to the trade routes,” Laurel agreed.  “Who knows how many years it will persist.  If no one uses the road, then no one will gain confidence it is safe.  All the while we are forced to patrol a useless thoroughfare.”

“Further we will have little access to goods from the east, as Niven will consume most long before caravans reach us from the south.”  The King grimaced.

“We could consider finishing the east pass,” the Queen suggested.

“The expense of that though,” the King shook his head.  “Even the Empire abandoned the notion, and it is a ruin hundreds of years old.”

“I do not believe it undoable,” Arlen offered.

“Would Helm agree to cutting a new road to meet it though?” Laurel mused.  “The pass alone would be a challenge, but fruitless if it is a road to nowhere.”

“I’ve no opinion of the disposition of Helm,” Arlen consented.

“It is possible that they would be willing for greater access to the grains of South Rook,” the Queen suggested.

“I am less sure,” Laurel said.  “There are many barons in Helm that have long sought greater independence from Avrale’s bounty.  It’s been so since I lived on those roads.”

“We could at least investigate the pass, and gauge the cost,” the King considered.

“You have a good report with Fenlin and Castor, don’t you?” the Queen began, turning to Arlen.  “Could you make a recommendation to them on the idea.  Perhaps they can lend not only funds to such an endeavor, in their benefit, but also have some sway with the barons of Helm.”

“I shall, if the opportunity presents itself, make conversation on the matter,” Arlen nodded.  “Castor I believe will be in Brokhal this autumn.  I think a private royal audience would have more impact.”

“Such can be easily arranged,” the King laughed.

“Who best to survey the pass though?” Laurel asked.

“Miners from Silvercreek would be easiest,” the Queen suggested.

“The gold miners Seaperch are more skilled,” Arlen countered with some pride.

“A long trip,” Laurel countered.

“Let us send word to both,” the King suggested.  “Two opinions surely cannot hurt.”

“Agreed,” the Queen concurred, making any further argument ill advised.

Laurel nodded.  “Very well, your leave your highnesses,” he said, and at their nod turned to exit through the rear chamber door.  He stopped just outside, and turned to look at a suit of armor, behind which could be seen two little girls, doing a passable, but ineffective job of hiding.  “You two are making quite a habit of snooping.”

Katrisha, and Kiannae slipped out from behind the armor a bit sheepishly.  He gestured for them to follow as he headed towards the west tower.

“There is an east pass?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” Laurel answered, “you can see it easily if you look out from any of the eastern towers.”

“Why isn’t it used?” Katrisha asked.

“It was never finished as a road.  The wildlands east of the mountains between Avrale and Helm are untamed.  Many reports of various dire beasts there.  A lot of expense to cut a road through, beyond just the pass.  That is why we would want support from South Rook.  They would benefit highly from such an endeavor.”

“Wouldn’t that also be close to the border of…” Katrisha hesitated forgetting the name of the kingdom south of Helm.

“Of Thebes, yes,” Laurel offered the name.  “They have much less to gain than Helm though.  They get more of their grain from eastern Niven, and we would compete with them for gold and silver exports.  In fact, I expect them to pressure Helm against such an endeavor.”

“What do we get from Helm?” Kiannae asked.

“Fruit mostly,” Laurel answered.  “Though we have vineyards to the west, and many orchards, citrus are prevalent in Helm.  Mostly we get trade from farther east on that road, textiles, and enchanted wares from New Corinthia, and Mordove.  As well as rare delicacies from Palentine.”

“How did the caravans come about?” Katrisha asked.

“The Empire laid the roads, but by some accounts the trade caravans are older.” Laurel answered.  “At any rate, the goal was to unite the once warring peoples of the world more firmly under the Empire.  Mercu would say the Emperor cut his roads along the well worn tracks of the more ancient traders.  That these in turn became the trade princes under the first Emperor.  They trace their lineages as proudly as any Kings.  Some claim to have been of the Maji originally, but I doubt such assertions.  There are few or no mages among them.”

“You traveled with Mercu,” Kiannae began, “with the caravans, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Laurel laughed.  “That’s how I know the trade princes are no mages.  They have to hire people like me, just incase bandits have a rogue mages backing them.  Of course some risk it, but most mages have better avenues of profit than thievery.  Still, even a clumsy hedge mage with enough practice can be a serious threat to common mercenaries.”

“There was a mage among the bandits in the north, wasn’t there?” Katrisha asked.

Laurel stopped, and considered her.  “More snooping I’ve missed,” he said narrowing his eyes.  “Yes, there were wards where their camp was.  The damage to the caravan could leave one suspect, but the wards were unmistakable.  Not the work of an unskilled mage either.”  He made no mention of the battle field they had found, or the unnerving aspect that one or more powerful mages were in play.  No sense starting into that if they did not already know.

“So why would he work with thieves?” Kiannae pressed.

“I think you know the reason,” Laurel countered, glad it seemed they had not learned the scope of the matter for the moment.

“Because Osyrae was behind it?” Katrisha offered.

“Our standing assumption,” Laurel nodded.  “Though why they went to such efforts I am unsure.  They gain a little advantage in the trade routes, but that hardly seems their end goal.  The Council refuses to consider my assessment of Osyrean involvement.  It would warrant action on their part, and they do not want to act.”

“Why?” Kiannae said scrunching up her face.

Laurel waved for them to continue following, and checked that no one was in earshot.  “Because even seriously investigating the matter could escalate the whole thing.  We do not want war, the Council want’s it less.  Osyrae has nearly as many mages as the rest of the kingdoms combined.  Though to be fair their internal politics and dragon presence keeps many occupied securing them against the two black flights.”

“Why are there two flights?” Katrisha asked.

“Because after the death of the Vhale, his Queen and highest General split over who had the right to rule Osyrae.  The Empress, or more over her generals cut an agreement – with her consent – between the human heir to Osyrae, and the two rival leaders of the black flight.  That has secured relative peace between Osyrae and the rest of the world for centuries.  Baring largely internal struggles.”

“And that is why it is bad for Osyrae that their king is meddling with dragons?” Kiannae asked.

“Very bad for them,” Laurel said grimly.  “Though the flights look down on lesser dragons, the risk is still high of them taking offense.  Even if Osyrae descends into its own Dragon War, the outcome could be very bad for everyone else.  If a single victor arose between the two flights, that could spell an end to the stalemate, and a return to a reigning dragon in Osyrae.”

“Who might be willing to start a war?” Katrisha questioned uneasily.

“Isn’t Vharen trying to start a war by attacking caravans though?” Kiannae interjected before Laurel could answer.

“Yes, and seemingly.”  Laurel sighed as they entered the base of the tower.  “I feel as though Vharen is trying to goad us into action.  The King will not take such bait though.  Wounded, and insulted as our nation is to do nothing, to act would defy our treaties, and the Council would turn on us…almost everyone would turn on us.  Avrale as a whole could be handed to Osyrae to keep the peace.”

“That’s insane,” Katrisha snapped.

Laurel stopped, and leaned against the curved outer wall of the tower near a window.  “Such is the nature of politics.”  He shook his head.  “All we can do is patrol our borders, and our roads, or perhaps forge a new road to avoid the old eastern one.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 39th, 640 E.R.

Laurel stopped just inside the twins bedroom chamber.  The circle of runes before him was strange, complex, seemingly meant to go unnoticed, and extended to the ceiling.  It pushed the limits of what he had taught the girls, and its purpose was all but completely obtuse to him.  “What in the fates are you two doing?” he demanded aloud.

“Navi was here again,” Kiannae said.

“We decided to see if we could catch her,” Katrisha answered.

Laurel shook his head.  “No one has ever been able to catch a ghost,” he reproved them.

“They are closely associated with magic,” Kiannae said.  “It seems reasonable that a spell could interact with them.”

“Well, assuming you manage something, be sure it won’t hurt her,” Laurel laughed, mostly humoring them.  He doubted very much they would accomplish anything, but he put little past the two with absolute certainty.

Katrisha flicked a light sphere across the room which passed into the circle, there was a flash as the spell triggered, and the sphere bounced around for a moment seemingly undisrupted.  “It’s just designed to be resistant to passing filaments after a spell passes through.”

“Clever,” Laurel acknowledged.  It made sense enough, but nothing like it had ever worked from his reading.  “You’ve lessons to be doing though, rather than fooling with unproven spells.”

“Alright,” they both said, and reset their spell before returning to their assignments from Moriel.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Dinner that night was as it often was, with the whole gathered royal family, and many knights, and other minor members of the court.  Katrisha, and Kiannae found themselves opposite Charles to no one’s obvious pleasure.  They were however much more amiable towards Princess Maraline who sat next to them.  They had over the years inherited several dresses she had outgrown, though they prefered to wear robes, like Laurel.

Her cousin Philip on the other hand prefered the company of Charles, and as such the two sides of the table largely ignored one another, save that Darion’s son, the younger Crown Prince, Adrien had no qualms conversing with either group, and could be ignored by none lightly, given his rank.

“I’m to visit South Rook soon,” Maraline offered, glancing towards Katrisha.  “Mother wishes me to spend more time there, she hopes the Duke’s son will take a greater liking to me.”

“Do you like him though?” Katrisha asked.

“Lukus seems nice,” Maraline said noncommittally.  “Nicer than the Duke himself certainly.”

“I’m surprised you have not been tasked with whispering things in his ear to nudge his father to help with the east pass,” Adrien commented.

“Who says I have not?” Maraline laughed lightly.  “For what good it would do.  Poor boy almost cried the last time we met over how little his father respects him.”

“He’s young yet,” Adrien offered.  “I’m sure he will manage to impress the Duke eventually.”

“I do not think anything impresses Duke Fenlin,” Maraline said with a mischievous smile.  “I’m sure if the Avatar himself deigned to parade through the streets of South Rook, he would find it quaint.”

“I do not doubt this at all,” Adrien agreed.  “Perhaps poor Lukus is doomed entirely.”  He glanced across the table.  “What do you think Charles.  Will your father convince Baron Castor to buy into the venture?”

Charles looked up from his conversation with Philip, and seemed dubious.  “He might, but I’ve a feeling the whole thing is a loss.  He was very displeased with one of the hires from Seaperch the other day.  Sounded as though exploratory attempts to clear some slides in the pass have collapsed sections of the rockbed into underlying caverns.  More bridges will be needed at least.”

“Oh my,” Adrien frowned.  “No, that would be a problem.”

“I’ve heard there was an unpleasant run in with a dire bear,” Kiannae offered.

“That I believe was just a regular bear,” Adrien shook his head.  “Still not a friendly though – possibly rabid.”

“I’d rather a rabid dire bear than to hear another speech from Duke Fenlin,” Maraline groaned.  “He was preaching so fervently at dinner last I was in South Rook, that I could see spittle from his lips shower the roast.”

“Eww,” Katrisha scrunched up her face.

“Oh yes, and then I was offered more of the roast,” Maraline laughed.  “I very politely declined.”

“Don’t we need the east pass?” Kiannae pressed.

“I think so,” Adrien said.  “Yet needing, and getting are not always the same.  If the costs are too high, or the challenges too great…  We can survive I think being cut off from Helm for a few years.”

“The real problem,” Charles offered, “I think is more that few caravans will be going into Niven, the flow naturally goes north currently.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Adrien acknowledged.  “I’d not thought of that.”

“We’ve all we really need though, don’t we?” Katrisha offered.

“Yes,” Adrien nodded.  “Good trade is advantageous though.  The North will be poorer for this, not that there are so many living there now.  Still the drought must end eventually.  Perhaps by then the caravans will be willing to risk the east road once more.”

“Or we could install a proper duke in the north,” Charles said, and got a dirty look from both twins.

“The North has done fine without,” Adrien said.

“Not so fine,” Charles countered.

“Save the drought,” Adrien shook his head, “nothing a duke could do to help.  They did well managing things in the beginning.  Honestly the drain on resources from royalty could only have made things worse.  I hope we never have such trouble in the south.”

“Unlikely,” Kiannae said.  “The climate in the north has been impacted by a shift in the high winds, this has driven most of the rain into the highlands near Mt Saeah.  South Rook is perched in such mountain ranges, however the winds shift the rain still comes.  Though the forests to the east, or Thebes could suffer.”

“Interesting,” Adrien nodded.  “I think I heard Laurel explain that once, but I couldn’t follow how he said it.  Your version was much clearer.”

Kiannae smiled, and returned to her food, but Katrisha caught Adrien considering her sister a moment longer.  She found this curious till she caught Charles staring at her, and gave him an unfriendly look which spurred him to return to his plate.

“Do you two think you will ever travel?” Maraline asked.

“I think I want to,” Kiannae said.  “See the world.”

“Oh adventurous,” Maraline said excitedly.  “I just meant the kingdom.”

“Is there so much to see?” Katrisha asked.

“Oh South Rook is very impressive,” Marlaine said with eager earnestness.  “Everything is so tall.”

“I prefer Wesrook,” Charles said.

“But you were born there, of course,” Maraline countered.  “The ocean is nice though, I’ll admit.  I’ve only been once.”

“I got to visit Nohrook once,” Philip interjected.  “You can see forever from the top of the tower.  Cities across the plains of Osyrae.  That is why no army has ever marched unseen on Avrale.”

“From the north at least,” Adrien said.

“Or from the south,” Maraline added.  “Though you cannot see down the pass from South Rook, the villages down the southern slopes can see anything coming up from Niven.”

“The fleets of Wesrook hold the sea,” Charles offered.

“And of course nothing comes from the East,” Philip said.  “Which is why we are trying to fix that.  Though I’d think a new Rook would be in order if we finished the pass.”

“I believe the King has considered that,” Adrien agreed.  “Though where is the question.  None would be overly pleased to hold a lonely tower, and there is so little to support a proper town through that pass.  Unless mineral veins are found, even tin could prove valuable enough.  Failing that perhaps in the lower reaches of the far side – hunting the wildlands…though Helm claims most of them.  Still I think the upper hills are strictly ours.  The treaty is very vague since no one really lives there.”

“I’m sure if the pass is completed we will come to some agreement,” Philip suggested.

“And without one,” Charles said, “we’ve the high ground in our favor.”

“Perish the thought,” Adrien said with a stricken expression.  “We’ve no wish of a squabble with Helm.”

“They would seem the aggressors,” Charles countered.  “The Council might expand our borders in recompense.”

“And you would wish such a thing?” Maraline glared at him.  “What of those that might die in such a contest?”

Charles looked as though he wished to protest her opinion, but merely lowered his head.

“Further we need Helm’s help for the eastern pass to succeed,” Katrisha said.  “The point is trade.  How much do you think there would be if the Council took lands from Helm, and gave them to us?”

“I merely wished to consider the possibility that we would not lose in such an event,” Charles said firmly.  “Of course I would not want a war, just showing that we have the advantage.”

“I do agree with that assessment,” Adrien said diplomatically.  “Better to have no battles fought, but if we could not avoid them, knowing we would win is comforting.”

“If only we had such comfort about Osyrae,” Maraline said sadly.

“I find the mater perplexing,” Philip said.  “Not that they tell us much.  Yet if King Heron was really killed by his brother, a man who seems by all accounts obsessed with the old ways, what is his game?”

“He wants the support of dragons,” Kiannae offered.

“And thankfully there is little chance of him getting it,” Adrien said.  “As if their great General or Queen would bow to an unproven mortal.”

“And that, for better or worse,” Katrisha said thoughtfully, “is why he is trying to prove himself.”

“And let us hope that he only proves himself flammable,” Maraline proposed grabbing her cup, and holding it up.  The others all raised theirs to this, including adults near nearby who had overheard the children’s conversation.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 3rd, 640 E.R.

Days of setting a trap for Navi had failed to accomplish anything.  The twins had all but agreed to give it up, before returning to their room one day, and finding the trap triggered but empty.  Several of the runes had however been nudged around, the arrangement forming an arrow that simply pointed down.

“What does it mean?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Not a clue,” Kiannae offered.  “Other than the obvious.”

“Do you think Laurel did this?” Katrisha considered thoughtfully.

“Mercu maybe?” Kiannae countered.

“Do you even think he could?” Katrisha pressed.

“Maybe if he tried very hard?” Kiannae said uncertainly.

“What’s down though?” Katrisha said rhetorically.

“Storage rooms…lots of things.”

“Even assuming it were a prank, it would be meant to be a message from Navi,” Katrisha said.  “The tower she built was destroyed.  So, maybe all the way down?”

“There is a door at the very bottom,” Kiannae said thoughtfully.

“I never went below the lower hall,” Katrisha mused.

“I asked Laurel about it once,” Kiannae said thoughtfully.  “He said it was just an old stone down there.  Historical significance or something.  Nothing that sounded interesting.”

“We could go check,” Katrisha suggested.

“The door is locked.”  Kiannae shook her head.

“So?” Katrisha laughed.  “We know how to operate the latch on Laurel’s study, I’m sure a lock wouldn’t be too hard.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It was not a particularly complicated lock.  Really only a simple catch, and turning it proved little more complicated than opening the study.  Inside however was complete darkness.  Katrisha, and Kiannae summoned lights that drifted about them as they walked into the room beneath the tower.  There was loose stone here and there, and even old planks piled against a wall.  It was at once an eerie place, and seemingly quite uninteresting.  Save a large stone that occupied the center of the main chamber.

The two walked up to it curiously.  It was covered in dust, that mostly filled the faint hint of lines carved into its surface.  They looked like the lines, and runes of a spell, but there was no discernible magic.  Kiannae brushed away some of the dust, and looked more closely at the markings.

“How strange,” Katrisha said, doing the same.  “What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said.  “I almost feel something, but I can’t see any magic.”

“How long do you think it has been here?”

“Longer than the tower maybe?” Kiannae suggested uncertainly.

“Than the old one you mean?” Katrisha asked.

“Yeah, why not?”  Kiannae said.  “I mean it looks like the stone is really part of the hillside, and that the tower was built around it.”

Katrisha brushed away more of the dust.  “Did Laurel really say nothing else about it?”

“I think he said it was a marker, something about…lines, shamans, I don’t know.”

“But I thought shamans didn’t do magic?”

“Yeah, by definition,” Kiannae said curiously.  “Sure looks like a spell, but with no obvious magic any more, there is no telling what it was for.”  She held her hand against the stone, and closed her eyes, trying very hard to feel a strange sensation nipping at the edge of her awareness.

Katrisha did the same, and for a moment neither really felt anything.

“Ow,” Katrisha yelped with surprise, yanking her hand back.

“What?” Kiannae asked.

“I don’t know, it started to feel hot,” Katrisha said shaking her hand.  “I didn’t notice, and then suddenly it hurt.  My whole arm feels warm.”  She stared at her hand.  “Does my arm look brighter to you, the arua I mean?”

Kiannae walked over, and considered her sister’s arm.  “Maybe just a little?”

“I thought I heard something down here,” Laurel said stepping into the room behind her, his own light following him.  “What are you two doing?”

“Our ghost trap,” Katrisha started, and hesitated.

“Someone rearranged the runes into an arrow, it pointed down,” Kiannae finished.

“And so you decided to poke around in a locked room?” Laurel pressed.

“Well,” Katrisha said, “I mean if the message really was from Navi…”

“Or supposed to be,” Kiannae said weightedly.

“Yeah, either Navi, or you, or Mercu wanted us to look down here.”

“Wasn’t me,” Laurel said curiously.  “Mercu maybe, but if it was, I don’t get the joke.”

“What is it?” Katrisha asked.

“Just an old marker stone,” Laurel said walking over, and crouching down to look at the markings himself.  “No one really knows who made them, but they are found along ley lines, and at nexuses.”

“What are ley lines again?” Kiannae asked.

“Or nexuses?” Katrisha added.

“Well,” Laurel laughed, “nothing all that important.  There are variations in the energy fields of the world.  They form lines, and those lines have to cross somewhere.  There are slight advantages when performing grand acts with the gift to being on a line, or at a nexus.  This here is where at least five lines converge.  One runs almost perfectly parallel with the cliff.  Some theorize that isn’t a coincidence.  Yet how or why Broken Hill was broken is…well no one really has a good idea.  Still the name itself implies some truth to it.”

“Why can’t we feel anything then?” Kiannae asked.

“Like I said, it’s mostly a slight difference,” Laurel answered, standing back up.  “But you’ve lived here almost your whole lives.  I can barely feel it any more myself, even down here.  We are just used to it.”

“It burned when I held my hand on the stone for a while,” Katrisha said.

Laurel gave her a funny look.  “That would be a new one.  Are you sure?”

Katrisha held out her left and right arms.  “It feels like it’s fading, but do the auras of my arms look different to you?”

“A bit,” Laurel said curiously.  “Your right seems brighter…a little…bluer.”

“That’s the one I had on the stone,” Katrisha said.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Laurel shook his head.  “Are you sure this isn’t some kind of weird joke?”

Katrisha got a funny look on her face, and stared past Kiannae, and Laurel.  The two finally glanced behind themselves, but there was nothing there.  “What?” Laurel pressed.

“I…nothing,” Katrisha said a bit distantly.  She had seen Navi standing there for a moment.  She had looked at her, smiled, and held a finger to her lips before dispersing.  “If it’s a joke, we aren’t in on it.”

“Come on, let’s get out of this stuffy old place,” Laurel said pointing towards the door.  “And no more picking locks.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

That night as Katrisha slept she dreamt of the stars.  It was a familiar dream, at once comfortable, and unsettling.  She felt very alone, and sad about something, but she could not remember what.  It was a sky she did not know, and yet in the dream she did.  She could name all the stars in those heavens far better than those above Avrale, though the names never stuck.

She glanced some distance away.  A boy, and a girl she did not recognize sat there.  She could not decide if they were arguing, or merely discussing.  Each pointed to one star or another.  She did not trust them, and yet felt that they were just children, small, insignificant, and somehow her responsibility.  There was a sense of annoyance at this. They faded away, and there was only the sky.  She felt very alone.

She closed her eyes, and saw not stars, but lines, a pattern that stretched out before her eyes.  She no longer felt alone, it was as though there were shadows around her, tugging at the lines like puppet strings, but at once no one seemed there.  She opened her eyes again, and nothing changed.  No stars, no one there, just the lines.  She could see how something flowed along those lines.

“How?” it was like a whisper.  “Who else is meddling now?”  Katrisha looked around, and saw nothing still, just lines that spread in every direction.  She could feel a presence, but could not see it.  “You shouldn’t be here, not yet,” the voice said.  “Please go.”  It was oddly pleading.

“Who are you?” Katrisha demanded.

“Just a dream,” the voice said.

“I don’t believe you,” Katrisha said.

“Always too clever,” the voice seemed half amused.  “Just think of the stars.  It’s better.  This is prophecy, and you want nothing to do with that.”

“Prophecy?” Katrisha asked uncertainly.  She thought she had heard the word, but only in passing.

“Threads in motion,” the voice said, “you never know whether you are seeing them spiral together, or drift apart.  I really don’t want you thinking about this.  I prefered not knowing this.”

“I don’t understand,” Katrisha almost growled.

“Good.  Stars, just think about them, or the moon – you love her right?”

The command had some effect, and almost as soon as she closed her eyes, she was staring at a starry sky again.  Still one she did not know, and still somehow familiar.  For a moment she wondered what she had just been thinking, or saying.  It bothered her, but not so much as the loneliness.  She felt like she was missing someone.  Where was Kiannae?

Katrisha woke with a start, her head foggy.  She glanced around in the dark room.  Her sister was asleep next to her.  She rubbed her eyes, and looked at the trap they had set.  Faintly her eyes focused on Navi standing before it.  She cocked her head to one side, then the other, drifted around until she was behind it, and faced towards Katrisha.

The ghost’s expression was placid, like someone lost in thought, until it seemed her eyes fell on Katrisha.  She smiled, and though she didn’t frown, it seemed a sad smile.  She stepped into the trap, which went off, growing bright around her.  She nodded, and then disappeared in a swirl of light, and the trap dissolved with her.

Katrisha pursed her lips, all the less sure what to make of any of it.  Her arm felt warm again, and the only thing she could remember from her dream was feeling alone.  She curled up to her sister, who stirred slightly, and grabbed the arm draped over her.  Katrisha felt a bit better, but still struggled to fall back asleep.

Some stars flicked before her eyes as they closed, she felt as though they all had names, but none she could remember.  There was one, bright like lamp in the dark, warm like the sun.  It had a name – she was sure – yet the name eluded her, only it’s meaning, ‘My Light.’  It was a very pretty star she decided, and finally found sleep again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 4th, 640 E.R.

“Where’s the trap?” Kiannae asked her sleeping sister, who barely stirred.

“What?” Katrisha murmured.

“The trap is gone,” Kiannae said.

Katrisha blinked several times, and glanced across the room where the trap had been.  She only vaguely remembered seeing the ghost dissolve along with it.  “Navi…dispelled it I think,” Katrisha answered.

“Really?” Kiannae said incredulously.

“I think so,” Katrisha said.

“But Laurel said…”

“I think we should stop trying,” Katrisha said, shaking her head.

“Do you think we are bothering her?” Kiannae asked.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said.  “Something…I just feel like we are going to cause trouble.”

Kiannae clearly didn’t like the answer.  Katrisha took her hand.  “Can we just not?  Leave her be, I feel like we should.”

“Ok,” Kiannae sighed.

“Thanks,” Katrisha said, and rubbed her face.

“I’m hungry,” Kiannae said, and Katrisha’s belly grumbled before she could answer for herself.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Breakfast was a more subdued affair than dinners typically were.  People came, and went at varied times.  Only King John, and Aria were eating when the twins arrived.  Both considered the two curiously.

“It does not seem like the two of you to be up so early,” the King said, as the two sat across from the princess.

“We were hungry,” Kiannae said.

“Well, that does sound more like them,” Aria offered.

“Indeed,” the King said with some amusement.

A servant brought plates with pancakes, topped in butter, and set them before the girls.  The princess nudged the syrup pitcher closer to where they could reach it.  Katrisha poured a sizable amount over her’s, and Kiannae followed.

“I still wish it had worked,” Kiannae said, even as her sister began eating.

“What had worked?” Aria asked curiously.

“We’ve been trying to catch a ghost,” Kiannae answered, and took a bite herself.

“You’ve been troubling the White Lady?” the King said a bit startled.

“To be fair I don’t think she was much troubled,” Katrisha answered.  “She seemed more inclined to meddle with our trap than get caught.”

“Seriously you jest,” Aria said a bit shocked.  “Ghosts can’t do such things.”

“Also, I’ll have no trapping of royalty in my castle,” the King said sternly.  “Alive or otherwise.”

“We’ve given up,” Kiannae said a bit sadly.

“Good,” the King said.  “I’ll not have some foolish mages trying to capture my ghost when I am gone.  I would be very…” he stopped as a servant hurried in, and seemed to be headed towards him.

“There’s been another collapse up in the east pass,” the servant said.  “Reports of injuries this time.”

“Fates,” the King said standing up, and wiping his mouth.  “Send riders for healers, immediately.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 5th, 640 E.R.

Renae ran her hand over one of the many wounded quartered in rooms of the castle.  She glanced at Idolus who was working on another man, and looked back to her own patient.  “Incompetent,” she muttered under her breath, and tried to figure out what to do about the bone in the man’s leg.  The alignment had been off when it had been healed.  And re-breaking it would be cruel, but if it was not fixed he would easily break it again, and probably walk with a limp even if not.   What remained would be to carefully reshape it, which would take an hour at least.

“We’ll need to work on this later,” Renae said to the man, “but you will be fine,” she reassured him.  He nodded, and she moved onto the next patient, who looked a bit uncomfortable to have a four year old examining his arm.

“What do you feel?” Renae asked.

“I’m not sure,” Wren said.  “Something…not right.”

She ran her hand over the arm, examining the interior carefully.  The bone was fine, she could feel where the break had been, but it had set properly before being healed.  She probed around it, trying to understand what Wren might have felt wrong.  She considered he might just be too new, but checked again, finally finding the clot amidst the swelling.  It was inside the vein, and threatened to easily break lose.

“Oh,” she said, swallowed, and carefully dissolved the dangerous thing.  “Good catch honey.  You tell me if you ever feel anything like that again.”  The man looked concerned.  “You’ll be fine sir.  Just a little clot, all better now.”

Renae caught Idolus moving at the corner of her vision, and saw the hateful look on his face, directed at her.  Her blood nearly boiled, and she made herself look to the next patient.  His face was a bit swollen on one side, and he was clearly having trouble opening that eye.

“Hello,” he said in an overly friendly tone.

Renae nodded, and checked his head.  Nothing significant was wrong, but the residual swelling would take some effort to lower.  “Wren, feel what I do,” she said, and began working to mend the inflamed tissue.  Wren put his hand over Renae’s, and tried to pay attention.

“That feels very nice,” the man said.  “Don’t often get such attention from a pretty lady.”

“As if you can see me,” Renae chided, and the man’s eye opened a bit more.

“Well, I do now,” he laughed.  “Little girl yours?”

“My son,” Renae said pointedly, “is learning to be a healer.”

“Ah,” the man laughed, “sorry boy.”  Wren gave both a funny look.  “And sorry to you too, ma’am.”

“It’s fine,” Renae reassured him as the swelling continued to go down.  “I keep telling him we should cut his hair, but he doesn’t like it.”

“I like my hair,” Wren said firmly.

“Don’t blame you kid,” the man said patting the top of his head which had a receding hairline.  “Maybe I’d have kept more if I cut it less.”

“Doesn’t work that way,” Renae said.

“Oh good,” the man laughed, “not my fault.  More than I can say for the slide.  I told that damn fool from Silvercreek I didn’t like the way he’d set the charges.  He didn’t listen…I should have made him.”

“Doesn’t sound like your fault really,” Renae offered reassuringly.

“Just wish I had stuck to my instincts,” he said distantly.  “Others got it worse than me though.”

“There you go,” Renae said.  “How’s your head feel?”

“Much better,” the man said, and sat up.  He rubbed where his face had been swollen.  “Bit tingly, and…huh sensitive, but not in a bad way.”

“That’ll go away in a day or so,” Renae said.

“Shame,” the man said with a wry smile.  “Anything I can do for you?”

“The order always welcomes donations,” Renae said, and started to move on.  “Nothing you can’t easily afford of course,” she added.

A man groaned some distance away, and Renae stopped and stared at Idolus irritably.  “Do you do nothing for the pain?” she demanded, and at first it seemed almost like he did not hear her.

Idolus looked up after a moment however.  “Life is pain, it is good to be reminded, lest we forget, and cling when the time comes.”

“Leave that man right this instant,” Renae snapped, and marched toward Idolus.

“I will do no such thing,” Idolus said furiously.

“You are unfit to call yourself a healer,” Renae growled.

“I…” Idolus seethed, and the man he was healing yelped as he lost focus.  “You are little more than a whore.  You do worse than corrupt by merely being what you are, you actively seek corruption, and worm it under the skin of everyone around you.”

“Corruption?” Renae all but roared.  “How much are you charging the King to care for these men?  By the day, by the hour, by the injury?  You are the whore, you disgusting vulture, leave before I break my vows and strangle you.”

A guard entered uncertainty, and eyed the two healers that stood above a wounded man, seemingly ready to come to blows.  “What is the matter?” the guard asked, far from unaware, but at a lack of any other options to mediate a situation he did not wish to to deal with by force.  There did not seem a good way for that to go.

“Guard,” Renae commanded.  “Escort this defective, spiteful thing from this room.  Preferably from this castle.  He has no business tending to wounded.  I will attend everyone myself if I must, it will do no more harm than allowing him to lay his hands on them any further.”

“Ma’am,” the guard said, “I don’t answer to you.  He’s here at the invitation of the King.”

Eran entered then.  “I’d do as the lady says.”

“Sir?” the guard asked uncertainly.

“Abyss take you all,” Idlous snapped, and marched from the room furiously.

“Thank you,” Renae said, and turned to the patient Idolus had been working on.

“Figure they’ll heal better without his help,” Eran offered.

“Are you competent at all?” Renae asked.

“I…not much,” Eran said.  “I did what I could for the worst, and the first arrivals, but while I may have a better bedside manner than Idolus, I’m not even half the healer.  Figured I’d best stay out of it once he showed.”

“Can you at least triage, look for anything he’s botched too badly?” Renae asked.

“Yes Ma’am,” Eran nodded.  “You can go soldier,” he said to the guard, who gave him a funny look, and left.

“Start at the far end, and if you would show Wren what you find, and how to find it.  I need to focus on getting things done.”

“I’ll do my best,” Eran said, and considered the little boy who looked up at him expectantly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 25th, 640 E.R.

“The only fatalities died instantly, four total,” Arlen reported, “no thanks to interference in the infirmary.” He sneered slightly.  “We’ve only just now recovered the last of the bodies.”

“The pass itself?” the King asked, ignoring the aside.

“Worse for wear I’m afraid,” Arlen answered.  “We lost a huge section of the hillside in a secondary slide.  Another bridge, and not one that will be easy to build.  I’ve been given recommendations for an alternate route, but it isn’t that much more promising.”

“At this point do you honestly still have a case that this project is worth it?”  Laurel pressed.

“If we had confirmation from Helm that they will build a road to us,” Arlen answered.  “Right now it seems they are unwilling to commit to anything, until they see us succeed with the pass.  We’ve full commitment from South Rook to fund half the project, but that was with old estimates.  I will admit I am losing faith in the idea.”

“Then it is a question of how We abandon this gracefully,” the King said unhappily.

“If we can convince caravans to return to the eastern road, the cost of the construction would clearly not be worth it,” Laurel suggested.

“And can We do that?” the King pressed.  “You know the trade princes better than Us.”

“We can try,” Laurel said.  “If we stop trying to make progress, and pull back to simply investigate the pass more passively, that might buy us some time to try.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 6

As it is and always was,
shall now and forever be,
we seek to cleave to another,
in this find our true reprieve,

and by these ties that bind,
the whole is more secure,
and by these better virtues,
tame fickle nature and endure.

– wedding speech, circa 400 E.R.

Titles

Jovan 10th, 638 E.R.

Renae walked through the upper courtyard, a cumbersome child in her arms, and two soldiers escorting her casually.  “Do you think you can walk dear?” she finally asked growing weary of the boy’s weight.

“Ok,” Wren replied, and Renae set him down gently, and took his hand.  If anything the march slowed for the toddling steps of the little boy, but it was easier going.

“How old is he, if I might ask Mam?” one of the men enquired as the group slowly marched on.

“Just few days over two,” Renae said regarding the man kindly.

“A bit big for his age,” the other man remarked with some surprise.

“He’s a lot of things for his age,” Renae laughed, but her expression shifted.  “Do I know you sir?” she asked uncertainly of the first guard.

“Name’s Eran,” the man nodded, “and yes, we’ve crossed paths quite a lot.  I grew up in the cloister.”

“Ah, yes, Lanie’s boy,” Renae nodded.

“Have I heard right that he’s the brother of the two young lasses the Court Mage has taken in?” Eran asked.

“Yes, you’ve heard right,” she said with a slight smile.

“If you’ll beg my pardon mam, why was he left with you, and not brought here with the other two?” the second guard asked, and Eran gave him a questioning look for the tone of his inquiry.

The man shrugged as though to say he meant no offense.

“He was very unwell,” Renae said sadly.

“Yet he’s so big?” the second man repeated.

“Not every kind of sickness stunts your growth,” Renae laughed.

“No, I suppose not, sorry ma’am,” the guard said apologetically, and Eran elbowed him gently.

“Don’t worry, was a fair question, and not common wisdom,” Renae said shaking her head.

“Allow me ma’am,” Eran said as Renae bent down.  Renae stepped back as Wren was lifted into Eran’s arms, and carried up the stairs to the keep door.  The guards stationed at the doors opened them wide, as Eran set Wren back down, and the procession continued into the keep.

Renae took Wren’s hand again as the guards at the throne room door opened it in turn.  Eran nodded to Renae, and she walked into the throne room with Wren, and the doors closed behind them.  There were very few in the throne room that day.  The King and the Queen sat on their thrones, with Darion at their side, and Laurel stood below the dais.  To the side in the shadows under the balcony stood Mercu, with two identical little freckle faced girls by his side.

“My King,” Laurel said as Renae and Wren approached, and the throne room doors closed behind them, causing Wren to turn back and stumble.  Renae helped him back up as Laurel continued his introduction.  “Matron Renae Somavera of the Lycian Sisterhood, and the young Wren Ashton, brother to the girls Katrisha and Kiannae of the court.”

“King John,” Renae said with a curtsy, letting go of Wren’s hand for a moment, “Such a formal greeting for such a private audience.”

“It has been a long time Renae,” the King said leaning forward.  “We did not greet you at all on your last visit, and felt it…appropriate.”

“As you will my Lord,” Renae said.  “I have brought young Wren that he might meet his sisters, while they might still remember him.”  Mercu lead the girls from the shadows, and up to Wren who they hesitantly considered.

The boy’s presence was a curious thing, like heavy satin, something stifling and yet unreasonably smooth.  All at once it retreated from one’s awareness shyly, like a giant afraid to break the little things around him.  It was a striking and yet fleeting impression that did not match the tiny form it belonged to.  Though shy certainly fit.

Renae knelt down beside Wren, and gestured to one of the two.  “Wren, this is…”

She was interrupted from her awkward pause, having realized that she didn’t know which was which, not by Katrisha identifying herself, but by Wren offering, “Kat.”

“That’s right,” Katrisha said eyeing her brother suspiciously.

“Kia,” Wen said biting his robe, and turning to look at his other sister.

“That is remarkable,” the Queen said astounded, “how did he know which was which? I’ve never been able to tell.  Save if it’s the one running through the snow, or huddled under running water on the hot days of summer.”

“I…I really can’t be sure,” Renae said awkwardly, “I believe it is his mother’s influence.”

“That…matter regarding how she died?” the Queen asked uncomfortably.

“Yes,” Renae sighed, and stood up.  “He speaks far far too well for his age, when he isn’t being timid and quiet.  Which I must admit is most of the time.  Ever so often there is the glimmer of something more as well.”

“I see,” the Queen said measuredly, “but he is not his mother then, reborn or any such witchery?”

“No my Queen,” Renae said reassuringly.  “Just gifted, and cursed.  He learns fast, but rarely offers things he was not presented with first – as he did here.”

“Mercu,” the King interjected, “would you take the children elsewhere, I would speak to the Matron at length, regarding other matters.”

“Of course your Majesty,” Mercu said taking Kiannae and Katrisha’s hands, and before he could ask Katrisha had taken Wren’s in turn.

When the four were out of the throne room the King regarded Renae shrewdly.  “We have been told you know of the trouble in the north, yes?” he asked.

“Yes,” Renae said without elaboration.

“How much do you know?” the King asked leaning back.

“The King, Queen, and heir apparent of Osyrae are dead,” Renae recounted from her memory of pieced together accounts.  “There was a fire in the wall that held the royal chambers…but not all believe that is the whole story.  They were mages after all – unlikely to succumb easily to such an event.”

“They were beloved by their people, and the Queen herself was a beloved relative of the crown.” The King grimaced.  “I had hope, for the first time since the great war that a true prosperous relationship with Osyrae could be upon us.”

“The new King is respected, for his power, and is considered a good ruler, at least by the upper class,” Renae continued, “but not beloved.”

“Nor as friendly to our emissaries,” the King added, “they are not turned away outright, but are lucky to get audience with lower officials, or even set foot in the palace itself.”

“Yes,” Renae confirmed, “I have heard similar.”

“Directly no doubt,” the Queen said with only a touch of distaste.

“I have seen the odd emissary, taking time away within our walls,” Renae said measuredly, “but have not spoken with any personally.”

“Please, let us stick to the business at hand,” the King commanded sternly.

“My King,” Renae said solemnly, “what is the business at hand?”

“Osyrae has not gone to war – in our direction at least – since the fall of the Empire,” the King said with false calm.  “Yet We are unsure of this new King, Vharen We find to the north.  If it were to come to war, We fear for the casualties, to the wounds that would be inflicted upon our people.  We ask if our long acceptance of the Sisterhood within our borders, has earned us your services if such dark days come to pass?”

Renae closed her eyes, and bowed her head for a moment, before looking up again sternly.  “We will heal any wound, that is our calling.  There are even those of us who would place themselves where the need is greatest, no matter the risk.  That is where we must draw the line, we can not sanction the following of troops onto foreign soil, however justified the act might become.”

“We cannot ask more,” the King said solemnly, “though We might have hoped.”

“My King,” Renae spoke again, “I must ask something though, not as a prerequisite for what is simply our duty, but that we might be better able to perform it.”

“Speak your request, and it will be considered,” the King said shrewdly.

“The Clarions go too far, they insight the people against the Sisterhood,” Renae said flatly.  “We are driven from our homes, our shops, and other places we might reside beyond Highvale.”

The King’s dour expression only deepened.  “We have heard a few such troubling reports, of incidents stopped by my men, and a few who went so far that they are now indentured servants to the crown as penance for their crimes.  Yet I know not what more We can do, the Clarions do not speak directly against the Sisterhood, and they are popular with many.”

Renae bowed her head, “As I said my King, not a demand, a request.  I know that you do not share your father’s views…that you have never spoken against us, but might it be too much to speak openly in our favor?”

“You ask something dangerous of Us,” the King said firmly, “but it will be considered.”

“There is one more thing I might ask,” Renae began hesitantly.  “A more trivial matter, but one that treads the same ground I fear.”

“Speak it,” the King commanded.

“There is disused land near Aldermor.  We’ve the tentative blessing of local baron to begin construction of a new cloister, but he is uncertain if he has that authority,” Renae began.

The King hummed thoughtfully, and Renae continued, “Sister Marin has resided there for the past two years, with no incident.  Clarion influence in the area is at least lacking venom.  If you could assure the Baron Woren that he has the authority to sanction the use of land.”

“Yes,” the King nodded, “that is within reason.”  He paused a moment, and considered another thought.  “Enough of such wearisome topics.  We will know how long you plan to stay?”

“A few days,” Renae said without much consideration.

“Have you heard that there is to be a wedding in a week?” Laurel interjected.

“I might have heard mention of some affair to be held at court,” Renae said glancing at Laurel curiously.

“The twins have been asked to be flower girls,” the Queen said leaning forward, “a place might be found for the young Wren as well.  Horence credits them, I am told, with allowing him to catch the eye of his bride to be.”

“Interesting,” Renae said.  “I suppose I might extend my stay, at the King’s leave of course.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 19th, 638 E.R.

Renae stood along the rampart of the western wall, leaned out, and watched the birds flock to and fro about the lake far beneath the the castle.  As the third flight she had seen that morning took wing to the north she heard footsteps behind her, and turned to see Mercu strolling casually toward her.

“What brings you to the west wall, so far from the growing excitement?” Renae asked perking a brow.

“I might ask you the same,” Mercu replied coyly, stopping to lean against the parapet a few steps away.

“Such would be fair, but decorum would require questions to be answered in the order asked.”  Renae offered a playful smile.

“Just a stroll to clear my head,” Mercu said with a tip of his hat.  “All the romance in the air, gets quite heady after a while.”

“If you will give me no real reason, then I shall say the same,” Renae offered with a nod, and turned back to the swirling flocks below.  “I simply longed to rest from all the commotion.”

Mercu considered Renae for a moment.  “It’s hard to explain…” he said with a slightly melancholy tone.  “I do love a good wedding, the traditional romantic feel of it all, but at the same time they remind me that I am unlikely to ever have one, not that I’m sure it’s quite fit for me.”

“You speak as though there is someone specific on your mind,” Renae said glancing back to Mercu, who then stood looking into the sky wistfully.  “You, who have spent the past week flirting with me mercilessly…and no, do not apologize, I quite enjoyed it.”

“And what if it is you?” Mercu laughed. “My darling lovely Renae, divine gracious beauty of the Sisterhood.  Why wouldn’t it be you that I dream of wedding?”

Renae sighed, but smiled appreciatively at the thinly veiled dodge in the form of a compliment.  “You do not have to tell me, you owe me no such confidence.  As for me, I could be wed, if I wished.  I have little doubt Andria would accept the offer, though such a union would be recognized only by the Sisterhood.  It’s not what I want though.  While I do adore and care for her, ours is an arrangement of convenience.  A respectable pairing – in our circle at least – but I do not deny a part of my heart lies elsewhere.  Quite foolishly, I should add.”

“Such tantalizing hints, but no clues,” Mercu laughed, “well played dear woman.”

“Oh if it were at all well played,” Renae said shaking her head.  “So many mistakes, so many tragedies that I am hard pressed to forgive myself for.  Even were the world itself not between us, even if he were still…no it could never have worked, and certainly can never be now.”

“Oh a man, how delightful.  Perhaps there is hope for me after all.”  Mercu laughed trying to draw Renae from her obvious dire train of thought.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”  Renae laughed.  “All tales, most particularly your own, tell of how utterly hopeless you are.”

“Oh, yes, there is that,” Mercu mused.  “No, it was more that I had wondered if you even fancied the more rugged sort.”

“You, rugged?” Renae chuckled incredulously.

“Do you besmirch my manhood?” Mercu declared in mock indignation.

“Oh, heavens no,  Just the use of rugged in any sentence pertaining to you,” Renae said trying to restrain her good humor, “and further absent of the word not.”

“I am wounded, dishonored, quickly I must find a dragon to slay with my bare hands – such that my virility be proven to the fair maiden!” Mercu declared raising his clenched fist to the sky.

“Bah, I am no more a maiden than you are rugged,” Renae offered in melancholy humor, but smiled warmly.  “Besides, I am sure you are quite virile.”

“Fine then,” Mercu said, and leaned lazily back against the parapet, “as long as that much is settled.”  There was a long silence, and at last Mercu stood up straight, adjusted his vest, and with hesitation returned to the earlier topic.  “I will grant you in kind, to be fair.  If I were to consider wedding, to give up my gallivanting ways, it would be…well it could never be, not in this day and age.”

Renae considered Mercu shrewdly, and a puzzled expression crossed her face.  “You don’t mean…”

“I do mean…or don’t mean, quite entirely based upon what you might guess,” Mercu chuckled, “but I’ll not be lead into revealing my secret.  Not with no guarantee yours is at least as grand.  So who’s is bigger?  I do wonder…”

“I thought we were through questioning your manhood?” Renae said with a wry playful grin.

“Bah,” Mercu said leaning back against the wall in a huff.  “I like you Renae,” he said after a moment had passed, and turned his head towards her with a crooked smile, “you are such very good sport.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Lady Catharine considered the bride to be examining herself in a full length mirror, and wondered at the troubled expression on her face.  “You look lovely Alice,” she said reassuringly, assuming she was fretting over her appearance on her wedding day.

Alice turned to Catharine a bit surprised at the sudden comment, a strand of her red hair rebelliously coming loose as she turned.  “Thank you Catharine,” she said after a moment, as though confused, but her expression still seemed ill at ease.

“What troubles you dear?” Catherine asked with genuine concern.

“Nothing of importance,” Alice said turning back to the mirror, and fussing with the loose lock of hair. “Idle chatter of idle minds.”

“Do share dear niece,” Catharine pressed kindly.  “it surely could only help to get it off your mind on such an important day.”

Alice looked down for a moment, then turned back to her aunt and considered her shrewdly. “There are those who do not approve, who think Horence is beneath me.  I pay them little mind, but…it wounds me none the less that they speak ill of my beloved.”

Catherine frowned, and for a moment it showed her age, not with frailty, but an imposing sense of knowing clarity. “I will not deny I was amongst those who questioned the courtship, at first – albeit only to myself I will stress.  He’s a good man, and though he has no title, I believe it is only for a lack of opportunity to distinguish himself.”

“Not all with title have truly done anything of distinction,” Alice said with some venom.

“Too true,” Catharine offered.  “I have often debated my wisdom all those years ago to style myself Lady.”

“I had never considered,” Alice said a bit taken aback, “that it had been a choice.”

“It was, and one that caused quite a stir,” Catharine laughed slightly. “Which at the time pleased me greatly, but in retrospect it was a childish gesture.  If anything I believe it meant I was not worthy of the title I discarded.  As such I have since dedicated myself to insuring the grace, and sanctity of the court.  I say again, while your betrothed has not been honored with title, I for my part have deemed him worthy, at least of the hand of my dear niece.”

Alice took a moment to ponder Catherine’s words, “I suppose I can find peace in that, even if your approval here in these chambers will do little to quiet those insistent on the useless wagging of tongues.”

“No, it will take more to quiet such decent.  Remember that when the time comes, and do not take offense at the disruption, it is for the best,” Catharine said with a smile.

Alice considered pressing the matter further, but was distracted by the arrival of two small girls with baskets, and pretty dresses, ushered in by one of the younger ladies of the court.  Both girls clearly fussed a bit in their dresses, more used to robes.

“Oh they look positively darling,” Alice declared ecstatically making as much haste as she could towards the girls without stumbling in her gown.

The twins looked up with equal suspicion at the great white shrouded woman that crouched before them becoming an amorphous lump of fabric with a head, and arms that seemed to exist for no other purpose than to pinch at their cheeks.

“I have before me the two best flower girls that any bride could hope for.  Fates I remember the first time I saw these two arrive at court.”

“As do I,” Catharine said taking Alice by the arm, and gently urging her to stand again.  “They have grown ever so much in those two years, though I do swear it seems far longer.”  Katrisha gave Catherine a funny look, but for once Catharine seemed to be smiling at her, and she relented to do the same.

A knock at the door brought all around to attention.  Alice quickly checked herself, and all others present before hesitantly commanding, “Enter.”  The door opened with caution, and an older man with deep red hair peppered in strands of gray peaked in.  “Daddy!” Alice yelled as she hustled back across the room towards the new arrival.

“I hope I am not intruding.  I only just arrived, and it has been a very long trip,” the man said, obviously a bit uncomfortable to enter the bridal suite on such short notice.  His nervousness visibly lessened when pounced upon by his daughter.

“It’s good to see you could make it, Jeoffrey,” Catherine said with some reservation in her voice. “It is always a shame to have a wedding without the father of the bride, bad enough her mother could not attend.  I am surprised however they could spare you.”

“For my part I will continue to not miss her,” Jeoffrey said a bit coldly, but managed to smile again as he looked to his daughter.  “As for me, I am of no use up there, they could only be less receptive to diplomacy now if they outright expelled us from the country, or declared war,” he added with dark humor.  “Besides it would have taken no less than a royal decree to keep me away on this day, and I dare say a defection, an army, and an unexpected general at its lead might have come before that stopped me.”

“You speak boldly in such company,” Catharine said with just a touch of humor.

“I speak plainly, and in good humor to my dear, and ever pompous cousin,” Jeoffrey said tersely.  “You know my suspicions of their King, even if I have no proof…it would be a warm day in the abyss before…” He shook his head, and stopped himself.  He was clearly rattled.  “Though over throwing his light forsaken reign…that I might consider,” he added in awkward humor, his tone forced, his smile quite thin.

“Oh come here,” Catherine said, and reached out to hug Jeoffrey, forcing Alice to reluctantly make way.  “I miss her too,” Catherine said kindly.  “There are others who can take up the role.  You should return home, and stay.”

“I will not,” Jeoffrey said plainly.  “I can play my role, I can keep my temper.  I will know the truth,” he said softening, but not relenting.

Catharine pulled back from the embrace, and held Jeoffrey at arms length, examined his state of dress, and nodded with approval.  A thin veneer of propriety sweeping back over her face as she let the subject go.  “Not quite full knightly attire, but it will do for such short notice.  It will never cease to amaze me how well you travel dear cousin.”

“It is a necessary prerequisite to diplomatic service,” Jeoffrey laughed putting aside his troubles with practiced skill. “It does not make an appropriate impression to arrive disheveled, or otherwise undignified.”

The sound of music started in the distance, and Catharine turned to the Lady attending the the twins, “Marry, find a Boutonniere for Jeoffrey, quickly.”  She turned back to Jeoffrey. “You really did arrive at the positive last moment, I do hope you aren’t too tired from your journey, to finish what you have started.”

Catharine slipped past Marry, as the woman made haste out the door in search of the requested adornment.  She double checked each of the girls.  “It’s time little ones, just as we discussed, are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” the twins answered in unison.

“Then let us begin,” Catharine said ushering the three past her.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The wedding procession moved into it’s final position before the dais, where the King and Queen sat in their most regal attire on their thrones.  As silence descended the King stood before the the wedding party, and looked across the gathered crowd.

“People of Avrale,” the King spoke in a firm, and practiced tenor.  “We have gathered here today to bless the union of two valued subjects.  In accordance with their wish, and the consent of their elders that they be joined in marriage before the sight of all.  That sacred union, most treasured and adored when taken in love, but most fruitful when taken up in good council, and for the betterment of all.  It is always with great joy that these two purposes of marriage’s sacred vows can find convergence, as they have on this day.”

The King looked over the court for a moment.  “Before we may commence, it is custom that a question be put before those gathered.  That should anyone present on this day see fit reason that these two should not be wed, they speak now, or forever hold their peace,” the King paused, longer than would have been custom.  There was a palpable but silent stir as some wondered if the King expected a response.

“No objections?” the King continued in a demanding tone.  “None dare speak their mind openly to the face of these good servants of King, and Country.  It would be unseemly wouldn’t it?  Yet We have heard such mutterings nonetheless.  That it is questionable that a relative, if distant, to the crown should marry to a common soldier.”  The King looked to Horence and Alice, and seeing the hints of distress in their eyes nodded ever so slightly in each of their directions.

“A dilemma has been placed before your King, We approve of this union, yet We can not ignore the descent of the court on this matter.  Not,” the King stressed firmly, “because We believe there is merit to this idle bickering, but moreover because We think it brings to light a keen oversight that has gone on, for far too long.”  The King paused for several seconds, and then continued, “Commander Armon Anders, of the King’s Royal Guard, step before your Lord, and kneel.”

From the groom’s side of the wedding party a gray haired man with sharp features stepped forth, and knelt beside the bride and groom, and before the King.  The King reached out both hands and waited, as the Queen gracefully brought forth his sword, lain across her palms.  Taking it firmly by the hilt he raised it, and gently lowered the flat of the blade to the left shoulder of Armon.

“For long, and faithful service, and for insuring the keen training, and skill of more than half of the sitting Knights of the realm this day, We name the Sir Armon of Anders,” the King spoke, raised the sword, and lay it on Armon’s right shoulder, “Royal Knight of the Realm, Defender of Avrale, and Keeper of the Sacred Trust.  Stand good Sir, return to your vigilant post, you are honored this day, but other pressing matters remain at hand.”

The King looked back, and forth across the court as Armon returned to his place in the wedding party.  “On this day these two stand before us now as peers, in law,” the King paused, “as much as they already had in merit.  They stand each with titles inherited by birth, not earned by their own deeds.  In their union they shall be expected to work together to uphold this privilege, and earn the blessings given to them by fate.”

“Now we shall continue, on a more traditional note,” the King said, and turned to Alice.  “Lady Alice of Lansly, please take the hand of your betrothed.”  Alice took Horence’s hand, and with great relief and pride in her eyes, looked into his.  “Do you Lady Alice Lansly, daughter of Sir Jeoffrey of Lansly, take this man to be your lawful husband, to love, and to cherish, to follow, and abide, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Alice said on the verge of tears.

The King turned to Horence, “Do you Sir Horence of Anders, son of Sir Armon of Anders, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to love, and to cherish, to respect, and defend, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Horence said happily looking into Alice’s eyes.

“Are the ring’s present,” the King asked as a formal cue, upon which Wren held them up with tiny trembling hands – he had spent much of the service to that point distracted, and staring at them intently for reasons he could not quite place.

“With these rings,” the King continued as the bride and groom took the rings, and slipped them in turn onto each other’s fingers, “which represent the cycle of life, of love, and the unbroken nature of this bond, these two are united.  Let no man put asunder what has been joined together here today.  I pronounce you man, and wife, you may now kiss the bride.”

A cheer rose across the crowd as the bride and groom threw themselves into each other arms.  Everyone present took their own points from ceremony, but three small children each for their part saw something different from one another.  One saw love defy the foolishness of its dissenters.  One saw a King humble his arrogant court in the defense of loyal subjects.  Lastly there was the smallest of the three, who for his part felt things he couldn’t quite understand, but in part, some where far at the back of his young mind he felt cheated, and he did not understand it.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood leaning against the rail of the balcony overlooking the wedding ball, a musical company occupying the one opposite him.  He absently noticed the father of the bride dance start, but was far more concerned with other matters.  He turned to face the sound of slowly approaching footfalls, after having ignored them for several seconds.

“I was fairly certain it was you I saw up here,” Renae said with a good deal of cheer.

“Too much commotion below,” Laurel laughed, “but it’s still nice to enjoy the ambiance, and merriment of a good party without being trapped within.  Rather like a roaring fire, nice to sit by, but I’d prefer to keep my distance.”

“Fair enough,” Renae said moving beside Laurel, and looking down as well.  “Doesn’t seem like Mercu to go missing mid party though.”

“That would be my fault,” Laurel said with a smirk, “and no I suppose he wasn’t too happy about it, but I asked him to take over watching the girls for a bit.”

“Aren’t they to bed already?” Renae asked perking a brow. “I lay Wren down two hours ago,”

“No, they should be…but it would also be a change if they were,” Laurel chuckled. “I swear those two do not sleep save by the combined will of the fates themselves.  Perhaps they will be tired enough after their present to fall asleep quickly, for once.”

“Oh,” Renae remarked with interest, “what present could they be giving that is so exhausting?”

“That,” Laurel laughed, “would be telling.  You’ll see.  They’ve been at it for an hour, I figure one more they should be ready.”

“Very well,” Renae said a bit bored with the secrecy.  After a moment she seemed to consider Laurel carefully.  “I can tell there is more on your mind than avoiding the party.  What troubles the Court Mage of Avrale this fine evening?”

“The same things as trouble the King.”  Laurel sighed.  “Though I, for my part have heard more rumors, that I do not know what to do with.  I have yet to decide when I should bring them to the King’s attention.”

“And yet you mention such sensitive information to me?” Renae asked a bit perplexed.

“It’s less sensitive…than curious, and concerning.  There are whispers that the new King of Osyrae seeks to capture a dragon, or even dragons,” Laurel laughed darkly.

“That almost sounds like good news,” Renae remarked with a nearly ill expression.  “They will kill themselves off long before we need worry about a march on Avrale.”

“Doesn’t it though?” Laurel sighed.  “It’s so crazy, so suicidal, so hard to believe.  The things is, I have understated the facts.  It’s more than just rumors, the sources are quite credible, save the content.”  He shook his head.  “Even raised from hatching wild dragons are hard to tame or control, too powerful, too intelligent, what could those fools think they would do with a full grown one?  If I believed their new king dim, or lacking in sense it would not trouble me so.  I do not believe him to be as idiotic as this appears, and so…I am concerned.”

“No,” Renae grimaced, “nothing I have heard inclines me to believe that Vharen is a fool.  Unstable perhaps, but no fool.”

“I shall trust your discretion for the moment Renae,” Laurel said eyeing her shrewdly.  “I shall tell the King tomorrow when the festive air has cleared.  It’s not information which can be acted upon, but it is my duty to inform him of what I have learned.  Regardless, if it is Mercu you seek, he is in the upper courtyard, outside the keep.”

“I shall seek him out momentarily then,” Renae smiled, “for now I shall enjoy your company as we observe the joyous atmosphere from afar.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Renae made her way from the ballroom, two drinks in hand, one for herself, and one for Mercu.  She found herself face to face with a stately man with pale hair in knightly attire, and a grim expression, going the other way.  “Terribly sorry,” she said having nearly bumped into him.

The man simply eyed her coldly, and pushed past her, nearly causing her spill one of the drinks.  “That was completely uncalled for,” she declared after the impertinent knight.  He walked on for several steps, then stopped, turned, and stared at her with distaste.

“Your presence is uncalled for apostate,” the man said darkly, “not all at court appreciate that we entertain Lycian whores.”

Renae glanced up, and down the main corridor in slight surprise that no one else was present to hear such remarks on such an active night.  “You speak boldly sir,” Renae laughed shrugging off the insult.  It had been some time since she had found herself personally in that vein of confrontation.  “Would you speak so plainly before your King?”

The man was silent for a moment, and Renae continued to consider his posture.  He was a bit drunk she decided.  “I thought not,” she continued.  “Where do the Clarions stand on excessive drinking?” she prodded rhetorically.  “A distraction of the flesh, unfit, unworthy, as I recall.  No less a corruption than ones of passion.  So tell me, that I might know those who set themselves up as my enemies, and hypocrites no less, who are you Sir?”

“Sir Arlen, of Wesrook – for what business it is of yours,” the man said, and turned promptly to continue down the hall.

As Renae turned she saw what might have prompted Arlen to depart suddenly.   Mercu could be seen approaching.  “Well met,” she declared, and offered him the second drink.

“So thoughtful,” Mercu said with a bow, and accepted the glass.  “What was that exchange about?”  He asked politely, taking a sip.

“Nothing worthy of your attention,” she said with restrained irritation.  “What brings you in?” Renae enquired.  “I had heard you were in the upper court watching the twins prepare some secret gift.”

“I was, but I have been commanded by the young ladies to acquire their intended audience.  Would you be so kind as to go keep an eye on them, I doubt they will burn down the castle in my absence, but one is never sure of such things.  I shall be along shortly when I can pull people away from the party, for the show.”

Renae nodded, and made her way to the keep doors, which stood open.  As she emerged she was struck quickly enough by the singular out of place sight.  Every bush seemed to be lit with countless glowing pale blue orbs.  A few people strolled about the courtyard, or sat giving little new interest to the sight, though three stood, and examined the bushes with great interest.

Katrisha and Kiannae could be made out faintly as they darted about the brightly illuminated bushes.  Renae found a bench, and sat to watch the girls work their magic, to some unknown end.  Certainly it was pretty enough in itself, but she suspected there was more to it than met the eye.

Several minutes passed, and finally a slow trickle of people began to emerge from the Keep, and descend the stairs.  Some went to examine the bushes more closely, while others stood back, chatted, and pointed.  When at last the bride, groom, King, Queen, and finally Laurel all stood atop the keep steps, Mercu wove his way down, and through the crowd.  He turned at its head, and launched into an overly dramatic and flourished bow.

“Ladies, Gentlemen, your Royal Highnesses, honored bride and groom,” he declared in his best speaking voice, as the twins hustled up to his side.  “I present to you, the gift of the young ladies Ashton.”

The two girls curtsied, then bowed their heads in concentration.  Renae caught the brief flicker of the filaments that still connected the girls to the spells they had woven in the bushes.  Then slowly the lights began to rise, and scatter, until the courtyard was filled with drifting balls of light.  The crowd murmured appreciatively, and from atop the steps clapping began.

As those gathered realized it was Alice applauding the spectacle the ovation spread, and the girls curtsied again.  Renae just barely caught the glance between the girls, and Katrisha’s quick nod.  There was a tiny flash of light above, and as everyone focused on where it had come from.  Tiny shimmering sparks were raining down and fizzled away.

There was another, that everyone saw this time, as one of the orbs burst and sent tiny ribbons of light outward which dissolved into sparkling dust.  Slowly more began to pop in brilliant showers of swirling light.  As the number of lights dwindled to about a third of what they were at the start, all that remained let lose nearly at once in one final dazzling cascade.

Through it all the crowd had oohed, and awed, and as the last brilliant burst faded away the previous applause returned with far more vigor, and a growing cheer.  There was a tear in Renae’s eye as Laurel walked down the steps, and sat next to her.  

“That was impressive,” she said approvingly – wiping her face discreetly.  “You’ve done a fine job teaching them.”

Laurel seemed to be eyeing the girls curiously, and finally spoke.  “I wish I could take more credit, but I didn’t even know they could do that last bit.”

“Oh,” Renae said with surprise.

“Oh indeed,” Laurel said with a nervous laugh.

The girls for their part curtsied each way to the crowd, and then at last simply started bowing in a less dignified manner, and with the same excessive flourish Mercu had used when introducing them.  Mercu for his part smiled proudly, and clapped along with the crowd.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 21th, 638 E.R.

“This – right here,” Mercu pointed insistently at the page he had turned to in a dusty old tome.  It was a bit of a faded manuscript, written in the hand of some court member long gone, and so not present to answer for near illegibility.

Laurel stared at the text, doing his best to make it out.

The Duke of Ashrook has chosen to wed the woman Alimae, an old farmhand of about his age, and unwed mother from the area he was born to.  There is more than a little talk that her grown son is in fact his.  The boy has no gift to speak of, and this quiets some, but the Duke was an emergent, and the mother ungifted.  My grandson, rightfully, has more pressing matters to consider, but as I prepare to step down as Regent, I do worry what this will mean for succession in the north – now that all the Duke’s legitimate heirs are gone.  I wish I could say few similar circumstances weren’t looming all around.  For all I have already lost, I must now contend with the greater costs.  Not just those to my weary old heart.  Oh Anton, if only you would have let me stand alone at Midrook.  Yet you would not run, my dear boy.

Laurel looked up dubiously.  “This alone doesn’t mean much,” he challenged.

“I’ve looked into it, this really is just the most conclusive statement on the matter,” Mercu said with a huff.  “All together it paints a fairly clear picture.  The Ashtons are not just relatives, or names sakes of the extinct line of Ashrook – they are his heirs.”

“It would explain their finances, but It’s a bit of a leap,” Laurel said shaking his head.  “What good does it do any way?  Being of royal lineage would only draw the eyes of the Council, and being descended from the bastard of a Duke would do them few favors in the eyes of the court,” he gestured emphatically.  “If we can even trust the source of this,” he added dubiously.

Mercu flipped to the front of the book, and tapped at the name written on the first page.  Most names of the heredity of Avrale would have meant little to Laurel, but there, written a bit more cleanly than most of her exaggerated script, was the name of the Emperor’s youngest daughter Gwendoline – first Queen Regent of the Midrook Dynasty.

“I will concede the point then,” Laurel sighed, “but please, I do stand by what I just said.  It does them no good.  Keep it to yourself.”

Mercu seemed satisfied at that, and nodded in acknowledgment.  “Of course,” he said, but with some reluctance.  “All at once, I will see this book preserved, and copies made in a more legible hand.  I’ve heard a bit of the tale before, but this journal…”  He trailed off tapping it.  “It is more than just the aftermath.  It contains a personal account of the fall of Avrale – the defeat of Empress, the start, and even end of the Dragon War.  It is a crime it has been locked away this long, it is a treasure fit for far more than to sit on a dusty old shelf.”

Laurel sighed.  “Very well, but please do not call any undue attention to this passage?”

“That I can do,” Mercu agreed.  “Really, I doubt anyone will take note of it.  Amidst the rest it is a fairly trivial matter.”

Laurel seemed thoughtful.  “Something still is bothering me.  It said the Duke was an emergent, and implied at least he was a commoner before?”

“Yes, there is more clear record on that.  He was a farmer’s son, nothing much to be said of the line before him,” Mercu said, rattling off what he remembered.  “His gift was so strong that he was discovered quite easily, pulled away, and pressed into service.  Somehow he caught the eye of the King’s third born daughter.  She managed to arrange that they be betrothed.  Before it became Ashrook it was something of a backwater, all farmland, far up north.  They were given it as a Duchy – had two sons, both died in the war, as did his wife.”

“His presumed son, according to the Queen,” Laurel began, “was not gifted, it says…”

“Nothing strange about that, flip a coin if a gifted father means a gifted child given a common mother,” Mercu shrugged.  “You know that.”

“Standard assumption yes,” Laurel nodded.  “There are other ideas though – recessive gifts.  Take two parents that each carry the the recessive trait, but did not manifest it, put them together, and you explain some of the stronger emergents that crop up.”

“So you think it’s not because they have Sylvan blood then?” Mercu frowned.

“Oh, no, I think that has everything to do with it still, just…something is bothering me, and I can’t place a finger on it.  Which means I’m probably chasing something prescient, and should stop.”  Laurel sneered.

“I have as much reason as you to be cautious of such things,” Mercu shrugged, “but I’ll never understand why you are so hesitant to even consider them.”

“Would you laugh if I told you I was once warned I would meet ill ends chasing prophecy?” Laurel laughed uncomfortably.

“Somehow I don’t think you are joking” Mercu frowned with some concern.

“No – sadly, I’m not.”  Laurel sighed.

“Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Mercu said picking up the book, and closing it.  “Since if you listen to that, you are still chasing one, or at least being chased by one.”

“I try to take it with the grain of salt that I’d already told her where she could stuff her visions.” Laurel laughed.

“Which of several entertaining places did you choose?” Mercu asked with a grin.

Laurel rolled his eyes.  “I wasn’t so specific,” he offered, “though to be fair I think I’d mistaken some of her remarks as a come on.”

“Oh, now I’m twice as interested,” Mercu chuckled, and leaned a bit on the table.

“She said I’d meet the love of my life, over the visions of a teller,” Laurel said with a half smile.

“Oh,” Mercu said, looking uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

“Indeed,” Laurel laughed.  “Now you see how much trouble prophetic visions cause me?”

“I swear you are almost as much fun as Renae,” Mercu said with a snide grin.

“Am I now,” Laurel said crossing his arms.

“Ok, ok,” Mercu waved dismissively.  “As much fun.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 5

The seasons pass without fail,
bring forth winds of change,
in ageless rhythmic cycle,

what comes around again in time,
is as has been before in days gone by,
and for all life’s shifting changing way,
familiar troubles seem to ever stay.

– Writings of King Andrew of Avrale, circa 610 E.R.

Seasons

Winter

Styver 19th, 636 E.R.

The first winter snow lay thick over the Castle on Broken Hill.  Twin girls stood with trepidation on the steps of the keep, with Mercu between them.  In the courtyard below, Darion and his brother played jovially with their young children in the snow.  The wife of the younger prince looked on from the base of the steps, a parasol in hand to keep off the continued fall.  Several other children, the sons of knights were off in their own corner of the courtyard.

Katrisha was the first to step forward, as Kiannae still clung to Mercu’s leg.  The Princess turned as the snow crunched under foot on the first step, and she frowned at what she saw.  “Now then, Mercu, are you really going to let her do that alone?”

“No, Aria…ummm,” Mercu said as he carefully wrested his leg from Kiannae’s grasp, as she still did not wish to move.  “Just my attention divided a bit between the pair,” he said and took Katrisha’s hand, steadying her before she could slip.

Kiannae for her part shrunk back against the keep door as Mercu helped Katrisha down the steps.  Aria still regarded Mercu unfavorably.  “You left the other one, you know?”

Mercu looked back up the steps where Kiannae stood with her back to the door, and Katrisha slipped from his grasp, taking the last bounding step on her own, and ran off into the courtyard.

“To be fair I don’t think she’s in any danger staying up there,” he said a bit flustered, and glanced to see where Katrisha had dashed off to.

Aria gave Mercu another reproving look, and climbed the steps.  At the top she gracefully dropped down closer to Kiannae’s level, who looked up at her with unhappy eyes.  “Are you alright, dear?”

“It’s cold,” Kiannae said pulling her winter cloak more tightly around herself.

“It is, isn’t it,” Aria said with a smile, “but it is pretty yes?”

“Suppose,” Kiannae permitted begrudgingly, still hunkered up against the door.  “I like flowers better.”

Aria turned and looked at Katrisha who ran happily through the snow, and who when pegged by a snowball from the Aria’s nephew, returned a volley with no hesitation.  The boy’s father quickly found it necessary to step between the escalating arms race, and took blows from both sides.  The two combatants soon thought better of plastering the Crown Prince, and parted to different corners of the courtyard.

“Your sister seems to like it well enough,” Aria said with a touch of confusion.  “I thought you two were the same?”

“D’no,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“You should come down, and try to enjoy it,” Aria said offering her hand.  “It’s warmer if you move around.” Mercu decided Aria had things well enough in hand, and wandered off to converse with Darion, who was dusting himself off from the children’s assault.

“Ok,” Kiannae agreed dubiously, took Aria’s hand, and let herself be lead slowly down the stairs.  Aria glanced to her nephew as they too the first step, and noted he seemed deep in conspiratorial proceedings with the other boys.  With Kiannae’s reluctant progress, the two were only half way down the stairs when the keep doors opened a crack, and Laurel emerged, himself wrapped tightly in a fur lined long gray winter cloak.

Aria regarded Laurel curiously.  “What brings you out of your warm tower all of a sudden?”

“A misplaced message has just reached me,” Laurel muttered, chattering against the cold.  “A fine time she picks to finally visit.”

“Do speak clearly?” Aria demanded lightly.

“Matron Renae,” Laurel grumbled, “who has been taking care of the twins’ younger brother.  S expressed a wish to meet them, and has decided that today would be a good day to finally get around to visiting.  This message however went first to the King, who was indisposed, was then misplaced by the Queen, and has come to my attention on the day that she is to arrive…if of course she has decided to travel in the snow.”

“Do you think she would?” Aria asked, a bit surprised at the possibility.

“I don’t really know her well enough to be certain.”  Laurel sighed, and watched his breath swirl before him.  “The King seemed inclined to believe she would arrive on schedule.  And for my part, I think her more than capable of keeping herself and a horse both warm, and well through the pass.  So it is a reasonable possibility.”

Kiannae’s hand slipped from the Aria’s grasp, and she descended the remaining few steps unattended before the Princess could protest.  “Well, at least she’s finally decide to join her sister.”  Aria shook her head.

“Oh, what was holding her up?” Laurel asked half interested.

“Seems she doesn’t like the cold,” Aria shrugged.

“I can relate,” Laurel said pulling his cloak tighter.  He lifted the hood, and pulled it forward over his head in an effort to stay warm.

“Her sister seems to like it well enough,” Aria said looking back to the twins who were now playing together, after a fashion.  Though Kiannae continually stopped, and bundled up for a bit against the cold.  “Curious that they are identical,” she mused.

“They are curious, yes,” Laurel said watching the girls thoughtfully.  “They can be fairly competitive, yet finish each other’s sentences.  One day one will take charge, and the next day the same one will be the timid follower.”

“How ever to you keep track?” Aria asked in a weary tone from the very thought of dealing with two children she couldn’t tell apart.

“At first, I must admit I couldn’t,” Laurel shrugged, “but now I usually just know, and couldn’t tell you how.  I think it is their gifts, still so alike, and yet…”  He mused over how to describe it, their presence was complex for young children.  He mused over how Mercu might describe it if he could feel it so clearly.  One the winter wind, one the sea.  One the sun on a cloudy day, the other the moon on a clear night.  One written in stone, the other…  He frowned.

Laurel shook his head, the musing had gone more than far enough.  A signal flag on the wall above the gate pulled his distracted attention, and prompted him to descend the stairs.  “Your leave, your highness,” he said as he passed her, forgetting quite intentionally his unfinished thought.  ”It appears we will soon have a guest.”  As Laurel marched across the courtyard to see if it was in fact Renae arriving, Mercu moved to follow at his side.

“What brings you out into this lovely weather?” Mercu asked jovially.

“Renae Somavera,” Laurel grumbled, “or nothing at all.  One of the two.”

“Oh the lovely Renae,” Mercu said with a pleased smile.  “You had mentioned some time ago she might wish to meet the twins.  I’d given up hope she would finally come around to do so.”

Laurel stopped, and eyed Mercu incredulously.  “You do know she already keeps a lover?   I met her when I took Wren to the cloister.”

“You say that as though it should dampen my spirits,” Mercu said feigning injury, as Laurel turned and walked on.  “Who says I do not simply relish the idea of lovely conversation with a beautiful woman, who, on our last meeting told such charming stories.”

“I know you more than well enough,” Laurel answered tersely, “to be quite sure you would like to share more than stories with Renae, even if she is well more than a decade your elder.”

Mercu stopped, and eyed Laurel as though the latter point was quite odd given the source.  An antic entirely lost on its intended target.  “And just as you,” he said catching up, “she does not look it, blessed gifted.  You would swear I was a few years hers, so can you blame me?” Mercu laughed.

“Can, oh yes, most certainly.  Will…no, probably not,” Laurel sighed.  “Just because I have long come to terms with the way you are, and it even has its use, doesn’t mean I don’t reserve the right to shake my head disapprovingly.”

“Shake away good sir, shake away,” Mercu prodded.

The pair reached the edge of the upper court just as a lone horse trotted in through the gate, bearing a rider wrapped in white.  The horse slowly circled the large fountain in the lower court as Renae waited for some sign of a stable attendant to emerge.  She was not anxious to dismount into the snow, only to wait.  The horse impatient with standing about in the cold kicked at the snow, its white spotted legs blending with the blanket of white it scratched at uncomfortably.

Renae looked up as Mercu waved from the upper court wall, and nodded in acknowledgment, her face obscured beneath her white hood, and in its thick fluffed trim.  When at last an attendant reluctantly emerged from the shelter of the stables, and hustled towards her, Renae relented to slide from her saddle, and into the freshly fallen snow.

“Gather the girls,” Laurel commanded, and Mercu gave him a look as though to protest, but quickly hurried off to do as he was bid.  “Your sense of timing could use improvement,” he hollered to Renae as she climbed the stairs.

“There is merit to that.”  Renae laughed, once close enough to be heard. “The weather was clear when I sent word, but things change.”

“I’ve just wondered what took you so long,” Laurel pryed of the woman ascending the steps below him. “You had requested to meet the girls months ago.”

“Wren has been…difficult.”  Renae sighed, and stopped a moment directly beneath him.  “It is harder that weaning a child, much harder given there is no tapering off, just constant vigilance.”

“I see,” Laurel said, “and I take it that he is better now?”

Renae finished her climb, turned to Laurel, and nodded with a huff.  “Yes.  I waited a two weeks before I even committed to the trip…I’m sure he is cured.  He also said his first words just before I left.”

Laurel looked shocked.  “But he’s not three months old.”

“It wasn’t exactly a sonnet.”  Renae laughed nervously, and surveyed the courtyard, “but it worries me nonetheless.  I’ve read the books we have, books written mostly by mages.  None of them can really tell me how much of a consciousness can be carried in the soul.”

“I would assume the Lycians or Clarions would know more than us,” Laurel said with his own uneasy laugh.

“We don’t believe in chasing ascension,” Renae said shaking her head, “and the Clarion dogma hasn’t really worked out for them, has it?  No, mages have the more useful texts on the matter, they have studied the elementals, the half-flesh, and ghosts more thoroughly than anyone else.  That one fellow was a mage after all.”

“I suppose you are right on that to some extent,” Laurel offered, and shook his head in turn, “but what of the Avatar?”

“The Clarions would never admit it,” Renae laughed, “but his methods seem more like those of a mage…or so the rumors say any way,” she added quickly.

“I have heard that rumor,” Laurel mused, “but no council mage has ever been granted an audience, that I am aware of at least.”  Laurel perked a brow as Renae seemed to glance away at that statement.

Mercu had become distracted in conversation with Aria, not half way to gathering the girls.  Any thought on this was cut short at a decided yelp, and all turned to see three boys pegging Kiannae and Katrisha with snowballs.  Katrisha for her part took evasive action, scooped up handfuls of snow, and began returning the assault in kind, but Kiannae cringed under the onslaught, and as the easier target was taking far more hits.  Mercu rushed to intervene, but stopped short as several snowballs burst in mid air, and a sudden flurry of blown snow accompanied the closest boy being knocked soundly on his rear.

The other boys all looked quite stunned, and Katrisha took the opening to plaster them thoroughly.  After taking several hits in their startled state the two still standing, including the young prince, ran.

“It’s not knightly to attack defenseless younger ladies, Charles, “ Mercu said, walking up to the slightly stunned boy sitting in the snow.

“She’s not defenseless,” Charles said pointing at Kiannae who was struggling to rid herself of residual snow, and shivering.

“When they aren’t defenseless, it is only more unwise,” Mercu smiled, just as Katrisha walked up, and slapped a handful of snow on top of Charles’ head.  He squeaked, and flailed slightly as he tried to get the cold melting snow out of his hair.

“Was that quite necessary?” Mercu asked in a mildly reproving tone.

Katrisha looked at her shivering sister, and nodded firmly.  Mercu restrained a laugh at her defiance, but a wry smile crept in at the corners of his lips nonetheless.

Mercu turned at the sound of crunching footsteps, and nodded at Renae, before taking a graceful bow.  “Might I introduce the young ladies Katrisha and Kiannae, if not at their most dignified.”

The two girls stepped up, and Renae stooped down before them, and looked each in the eye.  There was an obvious sadness in her expression that prompted an exchange of glances between Mercu and Laurel.  “It’s nice to finally meet you both,” she said sweetly, “you two have such lovely eyes, like your brother.”

The Crown Prince, his brother, Aria and their young children – one of whom still bore signs of winter combat – walked up on the gathering.  Charles for his part made a quiet exit as he noted no one was paying much attention to him.

“Matron Renae,” the Prince said with a twinge of surprise in his voice, “I was just now informed of your visit.”

“You must forgive the lack of a proper welcome,” Aria added with a nod of apology.

“It’s quite all right Darion, Aria,” Renae said glancing up from the twins, “Avery,” she added in acknowledgment to the remaining prince who stepped up close beside his wife.  “My visit is not a formal one by any means.  I came to meet the sisters of a little boy that has been left to my care.”

“So I am told,” Aria replied, “still a proper welcome would not have been too much to ask of us.”

“It’s alright,” Renae said looking back to the girls.  “I know the King has had a lot on his mind, since word came of the latest change of power in Osyrae.”

“You’ve heard?” Darion said with interest, “my father has been reluctant to speak even to me of it.”

“We Sisters hear many things,” Renae said dismissively, and quickly pulled the girls close.

“I suppose you might,” Aria said perking a brow.

“Come, let us go inside,” Renae said with forced cheer as she stood up.  “I would get to know these two darlings somewhere warmer.  Do give my understanding to the King if he does not have time to meet with me on this visit.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Spring

Vhalus 26th, 637 E.R.

Renae cradled the young Wren in her arms and stared absently at the icicles melting outside her window.  She closed her eyes, and let the child’s presence wash over her.  It was a sense of inestimable distant warmth, that somehow defied examination at even the smallest distraction.

“I don’t know why you rock him so much,” Andria said behind her, “not like he cries.  Even from the day he came to us he has been quiet…strange for a boy who has started to form almost full sentences.”

“Maybe I do it more for me than for him?”  Renae sighed.

“You could rock me in your arms,” Andria laughed playfully.

“Yer sweet, dear,” Renae said shooting her a funny look, “but it’s not the same.  As pleasant a distraction as that is, remembering my own daughter of so many years ago is…”  she trailed off.

“She wasn’t a quiet one,” Andria said shaking her head.  “Never in all my years have I seen a daughter of the Sisterhood so intent not to be calmed.”

“I’m almost surprised you remember, you were ten then, weren’t you?” Renae said perking a brow.

“I was right across the hall from you,” Andria laughed, “that wailing is burned into my ears to this day.”

“She wasn’t that bad,” Renae said tersely, looking back out the window.

“No, I’m sorry,” Andria apologized realizing how poor her humor had been.

Rene closed her eyes, and tried to still her frustrations on the matter.  Her daughters wail had indeed been a piercing thing, she admitted to herself, less than inclined however to do so aloud.  Standing there she felt Andria’s ever familiar presence.  It was a shifting thing, soft and feathery like a warm bed, alternated with the feel of the most supple well worn book binding.

For a while there was awkward silence, and then Renae changed the subject.  “Abigail returned today, she was a bit shaken up.”

“I thought I’d seen her,” Andria said with a touch of concern.

“Had a very uncomfortable run in with some locals in the village up north, last of many it seems,” Renae continued in a pained tone.  It was not a thought quite far enough from other unpleasant musing.

“Clarions still stirring people up against us?” Andria muttered rhetorically.

“Of course,” Renae said tersely.

“Do they really hate us that much?” Andria sighed leaning back against the door frame.

“Maybe,” Renae said turning back to her, “or maybe it is all just about power, and influence.  Perhaps a convenient convergence of the two?  Either way, they learned well from the Empire they turned their backs on.  If you can’t win over the King, win over the people.”

“What do they get out of it?” Andria growled, “what do the Clarions offer that we don’t?  We give them more if you ask me, more kindness, more aid.”

“We don’t offer them a purpose larger than themselves, as sad as that may seem.”  Renae furrowed her brow.  It was easy to forget how little Andria had ever ventured beyond Highvale.  How rooted her worldview was in the only way of life she knew.  “We don’t offer them the tantalizing idea of eternity.  We also don’t have a cursed Avatar as a shining beacon of immortality.”

“They have all of one of those,” Andria laughed incredulously, “and he didn’t exactly follow orders, now did he?  Stood with the Empire and all that.”

“They gloss over that bit.”  Renae laughed darkly.  “Say he chose the lesser of two evils, and parted ways when the job was done.”

“Still what good is he?” Andria demanded.  “He proves nothing.  I’ve never seen him as anything different than the dragons the Clarions so abhor.”

“He’s not,” Renae said, looking at Andria sadly, “not in my opinion any way.  But him, and their lies…well, are they lies?  It’s faith, that’s all any of us have, and he makes a convincing spectacle.”

“Not that anyone ever sees him,” Andria countered snidely, and crossed her arms as though she had won the argument.  Not that she really wanted to be having an argument, or knew why it had become one.

Renae’s stance shifted, and she was quiet for some time, and looked back out the window.  “I have,” she offered weighted.

“Wait, when…you never…” Andria sputtered in disbelief, her arms falling back to her sides.  She took a half a step forward, but stopped, and shook her head.  It had to be a joke, or something.

“You should remember,” Renae said glancing back.  “It was after Adel went away…long before you and I.”

“You went on a journey,” Andria said stepping away from the door frame, “but you never told me, not in all these years.”

“I never told anyone, not a single soul,” Renae said tersely. “I questioned a lot of things in those years.  Along my travels I went to the High City, to see it, to feel what it really was at the heart of the Clarion’s power.”

“They let you, a Lycian Sister, see the Avatar?” Andria said stepping closer again, still not quite believing her own ears.

“I hadn’t gone there to…or…at least hadn’t expected…” Renae said staring out the window, the troubles on her face almost showing her age.  “And I wasn’t stupid enough to tell anyone my affiliations.  One day though – as I was walking down a street, minding my own business – three paladins swept me off.  I was terrified…”

Andria rested her hand on Renae’s arm, and Wren stirred slightly.  They both looked to the boy, and Andria wrapped her arm around Renae waiting for her to finish her story.  After a long pause she continued.  “I was held for a day…I wanted to protest, ask why I was taken in, but I held my tongue.  I was too afraid.”

Andria squeezed Renae tighter.

“As suddenly as I was taken, I was whisked into the grandest chamber I have ever seen, or could even imagine,” Renae said distantly.  “There were six men there, all dressed in the heaviest and most formal of robes.  All kept their distance, though they obviously knew I was there.  Finally he swooped in from out of the corner of my eye, and hovered before me…” she trailed off.

Renae swallowed, and turned her head to look at Andria.  “I’ve never decided if he was the most beautiful, or tragic thing I have ever seen.  Beauty certainly struck me first, the light, the halo around him was brilliant, so bright it should have been blinding, and yet it didn’t hurt to look upon him.  Finally I saw through the light, past that brilliant aura, and saw him…the strange thing inside.”

“So he has aged then?” Andria asked, thinking she understood.

“I don’t know if aged is the right word,” Renae responded.  “Changed certainly, shriveled might almost be right, but no, as impossibly slender and skeletal as he has become his skin was tight, smooth, impeccable…and I can say with little doubt ‘he’ is no longer the right word,” she laughed darkly.

“So what, the Clarions precious Avatar became a woman?” Andria laughed.  “That would be rich irony.”

“No, it wasn’t a woman either.  It just was, and for all its strangeness, even the sad bizarre form within was elegant, and beautiful in its own bizarre graceful way…” Renae seemed to search for the right words. “Yes sad is accurate.  I’m sure his grand assembly read it as something else, something more noble and perfect, but I saw sadness, a odd kindness as well, and more still that I couldn’t even put to words…but definite, heart rending, sadness.”

“What then?” Andria asked taken in by the story.

“Nothing,” Renae said in an angry detached tone.  One could have almost mistaken it for dismissive, as though the point had been missed, and she was not inclined to explain.

“What?” Andria demanded confused.

“He drifted off, no explanation, just nothing.”  Renae shrugged as though she wanted Andria think she didn’t care, or as if she was trying to convince herself.

“There’s more, isn’t there,” Andria pressed.

“I’m here, of course there is more.  I lived after all,” Renae countered with thin humor.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Andria offered.  “Did…I don’t even want to ask.”

Renae sighed.  “Nothing,” she repeated.  “After a few minutes of standing there gawking in the direction he had gone, and looking around at the impassive assembly of Clarion Cardinals…I was just lead away with as little explanation as anything else.”

Renae glanced at Andria, whose expression said she knew there was more.  There was she joked in her head darkly again, always more, if you live.  It hurt to think those words.

She took a long breath.  “Three days later – as I prepared to leave the city – a note arrived where I was staying.  It was addressed to me by name, sealed in white wax with a sun seal, but there was no sender, no signature.”  She trembled slightly.  “Just a single word in immaculate, perfect, and yet almost illegibly flowing script.”  Renae started to cry.

Andria squeezed Renae tightly, and let her sob.  She saw a tear fall from Renae’s cheek onto Wren, who seemed to cringe at the intrusion.  He was awake, and still silent, just staring up at Renae.

“What single word can hurt you after so long?” Andria asked stroking Renae’s hair.

“Condolences,” Renae said calming herself, forcing it back down.  “At first I didn’t understand, I didn’t even imagine, as I unknowingly hurried back here.  I didn’t realize, not till months later that I was even was hurrying.  I passed from caravan to caravan without stopping anywhere, without staying with any journey to its end.  But when I arrived…”

“Your daughter, and your mother,” Andria added understanding suddenly.  “I knew you were not here for the funerals, that you returned from your travels to that news.  I never imagined you had received word…and from such a strange source.”

“I’d already heard about mother, she had been dead nearly a year, word had reached me, and it had made me even less inclined to return.”  Renae took a deep breath.  “We’ve all had those dreams, the ones that come true, or almost come true,” she muttered.  “I had seen his light before, and never understood.  It always hurt, and yet…I didn’t think it would happen, I didn’t think the dream really meant…and yet I went to the High City anyway.” She struggled a moment.  “My daughter was still alive when I received that note, I did the math, countless times…she died three days after…” she paused for moment, and let herself breath.  “Her husband never forgave me for not being here, never trusted me with his daughter.”  She looked down at the boy, in her arms.  “I have this now, and I can remember rocking my daughter to sleep just a little better.  So yes, it helps me.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Summer

Rhaeus 37th, 637 E.R.

Mercu sat indifferent in the summer sun on a bench in the upper courtyard of the castle.  “Where are the girls?” Laurel asked behind him.  After a moment he gestured to his right, and to his left where stood Prince Darion on one side, and Lady Catherine on the other, both looking quite cross.

“I don’t understand?” Laurel said a bit confused by the response.

“Look closer,” Mercu sighed, “and leave me to the sun.”

Laurel looked back and forth, and finally opted for the Prince first, but as he approached he saw the cause of his displeasure.  Perched on a branch above his head was Kiannae, her nose in a large book.  Laurel was at a loss to explain how she had gotten up there, let alone with a book she surely could barely carry on flat ground, or for that matter up a tree.

“How did she…” Laurel started.

“I saw it, and I couldn’t explain it,” Darion said shaking his head.

“Why?” Laurel said perplexed.

“You tell me,” the Prince said turning to look at Laurel incredulously, “you are the mage, their mentor, even their father by law.”

Laurel shook his head, and looked up at Kiannae, who he thought he caught peeking down for a moment.  “Ok, so what is Catherine looking so cross about?” he asked turning to face the fountain in the middle of the courtyard.

“That, would be the other one,” Darion sighed, “not nearly as clever a trick, but less dignified to be sure.”

“What?” Laurel asked again.

“Go look for yourself,” Darion muttered walking away,. “I’m getting a gardener, and telling him to bring a ladder.”

Laurel crossed the courtyard, and poked Mercu hard in the shoulder as he passed.  Mercu for his part barely acknowledge the interruption.  As Laurel walked up to Catherine she sat down from her pacing, and fanned herself under her parasol.  “I’m told Katrisha is somewhere here, causing your present frustration?” he said questioningly, and looked about.

Catherine simply pointed with a huff into the fountain.  “Oh,” Laurel said catching sight of Katrisha sitting in it’s shadow, with water running over her.  “What are you doing in there Katrisha?”

“It’s hot,” she muttered after a bit of silence.

“It’s undignified is what it is,” Catherine grumbled.

“I suppose it is a bit,” Laurel laughed, “why not use the ladies bath at least?”

“Warm, water,” Katrisha enunciated firmly.

“Ah…I could teach you a spell to fix that,” Laurel laughed, “it’s uh, actually almost the same spell as the lights.”

“Really?” Katrisha said leaning out of the water for a moment.

“Whatever it takes to get her out of that fountain,” Catherine sighed.

“Come on,” Laurel said putting his foot on the edge of the fountain, and offering his hand to Katrisha.  “Let us stop antagonizing the good Lady with our undignified presences.”

Katrisha took Laurel’s hand after staring at it for a moment, and let him pull her, drenched robe and all from the fountain.  Her short legs, and sloshing footsteps slowed their approach to where Mercu still sat.  “Prince, gardener, or whatever help you need I leave the other one for you to retrieve.”

“So long as I’m not stuck between the two,” Mercu shrugged.

“Katrisha wasn’t hard to get out of the fountain,” Laurel chided.

“I was talking about Catherine, and the Prince,” Mercu sighed.  “I was perfectly happy to sit, and enjoy the sun while the girls were occupied on their own.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Autumn

Harfast 25th, 637 E.R.

Katrisha sat cross-legged on a bench in the upper courtyard, with freshly fallen leaves all around her.  She was staring up at a crescent moon hung high, as sunset faded to dusk.  The courtyard was empty save her, and she did not seem to mind.  She closed her eyes as a cool late autumn breeze washed over her, blissfully content even as most would have been uncomfortably cold.  She lost track of time for a moment until she heard footsteps crunching through the leaves towards her.

“What are you doing here?” asked a blond haired boy not a year her elder.

“What are you, Charles?” she cut back.  Katrisha did not much care for him.  She felt he thought himself far too important, and that he was much too nosey, but most of all there had been bad blood between them since the last winter.  She knew full well he had gone to his father, claiming Kiannae had attacked him with magic, and that Katrisha herself had ground snow into his hair.  Both claims quite true, technically.  Not much had come of it though, and really Katrisha believed he’d gotten the worse of it from his father, for being humiliated by ‘two little girls.’  She would rather have been in trouble.

“I asked first,” Charles said adamantly.

“Just looking at the moon,” Katrisha sighed.

“Why?” Charles demanded with a funny look.

“Because I love the moon,” Katrisha stated crossly.

“That’s silly,” Charles said dismissively, but didn’t leave.

“You’re silly,” Katrisha retorted no less childishly.  “I answered your question, now mine,” she demanded, tough she really didn’t care.  She just wanted him to go away, but it was the principle of the thing at that point.

“My father sent me with a message to the gate,” he said all too proudly.

“Boring,” Katrisha yawned mockingly.

“And the moon isn’t?” Charles cut back quite hurt.

“No, she isn’t,” Katrisha stated emphatically.  “She’s beautiful.”

“Silly girls,” Charles muttered, and walked away.

Katrisha became very cross then, got up, and marched after him.  Just before she caught up to him he turned, and glowered at her.  “What?” he demanded angrily

Katrisha wrinkled her nose and pursed her lips.  She resisted the urge to call him silly again – that was too awkward, even she realized.  That in mind she really didn’t know what to say, and she thoroughly didn’t know why she hadn’t just let him walk away.  She had wanted him to go after all.

“The moon lights the night, and guards us from the dark.  She is the tranquil lady, who rules the ocean tides, and the rhythms of the world.  She is the tranquil mirror of the sun’s daunting fire.”  It was bits and pieces of poetry and stories Mercu had told her, or her father.  It all blended together.  “And…and I am her daughter – the daughter of the moonlight,” she protested.  It was what her father had called her, daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost.  It was almost the only thing she could remember of him any more.  Those words meant the world to her.

Charles honestly did not know what to make of the outburst, though something nagged at the edge of his thoughts to comment that there was nothing tranquil about this girl, yet he didn’t quite bring himself to say it, and he wasn’t sure why.  Perhaps a touch of wisdom, or simple startled silence.  Instead he just stood there confounded, and oddly moved by the intensity with which it had all been said.  Though no less annoyed by its perceived impertinence.

It seemed neither had much more to say at that point.  After a moment more of the awkward standoff, Katrisha turned around, folded her arms, and said, “You can go.”

This further irritated Charles – who was she, this little farm girl – to tell him when he could go?  He marched up to her, grabbed her by the arm, and yanked her around.  “I am the son of a Knight – more by right,” he growled.  “I am an heir of title – and you are nothing.  Just a lucky little brat with a gift, and a half bread no less, a Sylvan bastard.”

Katrisha had been in a huff before, flustered and on edge, but with that she was absolutely furious.  “You take that back,” she said narrowing her eyes.

“No,” Charles said, “because it’s all true.”

Katrisha wrested her arm from his grasp, and just as quickly pushed Charles, and to his surprise he was knocked from his feet.  If Charles was to be thought less of for any reason, it was not for falling from that blow.  The force behind it was not to be underestimated, and by far he had no idea the strength the gift could give those who possess it, even on instinct, and in the heat of the moment.  Even aware of these things a grown man would have more than likely fallen.

Charles for his part landed violently on his rear more than a foot farther back, and flopped over hitting his head against the reasonably soft grass, and leaves.  The impact was still more than hard enough to rattle his teeth, and hurt – the wind already knocked out of him from the blow itself.  It had been only a moment before that the keep doors had opened, and Laurel had witnessed the end of the exchange from a distance – the power behind it, and all, but had not quite had the presence of mind to stop the unexpected event.

“What is the meaning of this?” Laurel yelled as he marched down the steps quickly.  Katrisha’s expression shifted as she looked up.  She went from anger to worry, as she realized she was about to be in trouble.  Charles simply lay before her rubbing his head, and holding his ribs – she had hit him much harder than she realized, intended, or imagined she could.

“He started it,” Katrisha protested thinly in shock.

“It certainly did not look that way,” Laurel said stepping up next to the pair, and looking down at Charles.  He leaned down, and offered him his hand.  Charles took it, and got to his feet.  Laurel swept his hand over him briskly, finding no major damage, though it seemed likely a bruise would form by morning.  “Are you alright?” Laurel asked with some concern, sweeping his hand over the boy’s head more slowly.  Still nothing, it seemed, but he realized how volatile the incident alone could prove.

“I’m fine,” Charles sneered, brushed Laurel’s hand away, turned, and marched off fiercely.

Laurel thought to protest, but turned instead to Katrisha.  “What happened?” he demanded angrily.

“He grabbed my arm, and called me a bastard,” Katrisha declared defiantly, her nose scrunched up once again.

Laurel looked to see how far away Charles had gotten.  “That is still no reason to strike him,” Laurel scolded.  “You could have hurt him badly – and you would have had to live with that, even if it were not for the trouble it could cause us all.”

Katrisha looked away.  “I’m not a bastard,” she said starting to cry.

“Of course not, dear,” Laurel said, dropped down to her level, and pulled her close, not entirely sure what to do.  “But you are better than him, more powerful than he could ever be.  You must not abuse that power, however much in the moment you feel like he deserved it.  He isn’t worth it – his insults aren’t worth what hurting him could do to you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Winter

Styver 25th, 637

Snow lay heavy a cloister courtyard at Highvale, and fresh snow continued to fall in large loose clumps.  Amidst the swirling snow stood Wren – not indifferent to the cold, but in spite it nonetheless.  It was the kind of gray morning that saw most denizens of the Highvale cloister sleeping in, tucked into warm beds, preferably not alone.  But Wren was not entirely alone in the courtyard, for not only snow hung in the air about him.

Faint lights could be seen shifting in a slow dance among the falling flakes.  It was not unheard of for wisps to be seen in the woods around the cloister, or even to wander into the orchards, or dance near an outer window.  It was rare, but not unheard of.  What was strange, what no one in living memory had seen was what had caught Wren’s attention when he woke, and followed from bed that frigid morning.

No other brothers or sisters had yet noticed.  The only other people at that point who should have been out of their beds were those on kitchen duty, content near their warm stoves – unless they were late – preparing the morning meal.  Another had dragged herself from warm comfort, in something of a fright.  Renae rushed into the courtyard, and wrapped a blanket around Wren, not even having noticed the strange sight that had the boy’s eyes fixed upward.

Her hurried arrival seemed to drive the wisps higher, so she might have been forgiven for not noticing their faint glows, her attention entirely on a tiny barely dressed boy hip deep in the snow.  “What are you doing?” Renae demand holding him close.  Wren shivered, and then wrestled an arm free of the blanket to point up.

Renae did not understand, until a faint glow drifted along the top of her field of view, and she looked up.  Renae had seen a wisps before, several times in her long life, but never once closer than a dozen yards.  This one hovered not a foot above her, drifting ever so lightly back and forth, but not without it seemed disturbing the snow, which seemed to swirl about it slightly.

Then Renae was as rapt as the boy she held.  The wisp was not alone, she counted, four, five, and as she focused she thought she saw a sixth, and seventh farther up.  There were no less than three remarkable things that struck her, competing for which was most out of place.   All conventional wisdom on wisps it seemed had gone out the window before her eyes.  Wisps were presumed intangible, and yet these disturbed the snow.  They do not wander where people dwell, yet they were there in the cloister courtyard.  Lastly they do not appear in winter, and yet there they were, amidst the snow.

“They are singing,” Wren said, but Renae could hear nothing other than her breath, her heart pounding, and the gentle sound of wind over the rooftops.

“It’s just the wind,” Renae guessed.

“No,” Wren protested.

Renae finally had the presence of mind to lift the boy out of the snow, and wrap his surely freezing feet in the blanket.  The wisps backed off at the motion, and she watched, hesitantly.  It was painfully cold, and yet such a strange opportunity was hard to pass up so readily.  She closed her eyes, and turned to head back into the cloister, but just as she was about step through the door, she thought she heard something, faint, like a woman’s voice humming upon the breeze.

She turned back, and watched as the wisps slowly drifted up, and away, and with them went any hint of the song – and yet it lingered, strange, distant, and painfully familiar, more memory than sound.  Where had she heard it before, why did she feel that she knew it, and why did she want to cry?  Why did she want to cry, and never stop?

Wren was playing with the button clasp of her robe.  “Button,” he said.  Then Renae wept, she collapsed against the pillar of the arch she stood under, and cried for almost a minute, clinging to the small boy in her arms.  He didn’t know, he was just saying the word.  He couldn’t have known, she chided herself.  Could he?

She had managed to gather herself, and reach the door back into the cloister when Andria found her, and ushered her in.  “Are you alright?” she demanded, her face stricken with worry.  There was no hiding that Renae had been crying.  “Is Wren alright?” she added.

“He’s fine,” Renae managed, “I’m fine.”

“What’s wrong?” Andria asked.

“Nothing,” Renae deflected plainly, it was too much to explain, or put into words.  “We should check his feet, and legs though,” she said changing the subject.  “He was standing bare foot out there.”

“What were you thinking child?” Andria asked staring at Wren in disapproval.  “Wait how did he even get out there?” she asked taken aback.

“I think he walked,” Renae answered uncertainly.

“But down the stairs, and all?” Andria said dubiously.

“They were singing,” Wren protested.

Andria looked to Renae in confusion, who simply shook her head, her eyes pleading ‘not now.’  She hugged Wren close, and whispered under her breath, “What am I to do with you little bird?”

Outside, on the upper level of the cloister walkway, a young redhead woman watched curiously as the last of the wisps moved away.  She was late for her duties, and had come upon the strange scene just as Renae had first rushed out to the boy in the snow.   Sasha, was fascinated.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Spring

Vernum 3rd, 638 E.R.

The spring festival was well underway, and twin girls sat side by side high atop the east wall of the castle.  Katrisha’s head was leaned on her sister’s shoulder, and their feet dangled down from the notch in the wall where they sat.  Each sucked at hard candies on sticks, stolen from the royal kitchen through subterfuge, and misdirection – the ill-gotten gains of the morning.

“There you are,” a slightly winded voice called out from behind them.  Mercu seemed a bit cross when they turned to look.  “I have been looking everywhere for the two of you,” he grumbled, “charged most vehemently with your apprehension, no less.”  The girls each bit their lips, looked at each other, and then Kiannae offered Mercu one of the candy sticks.

Mercu considered the offering suspiciously for a moment, looked about, shrugged, and took it, opting to lean against the battlement behind them to catch his breath.  “This doesn’t seem a very safe spot,” he added, and began enjoying the candy himself.

“It’s a good view,” Kiannae contested.

“And the patrols don’t often come all the way to the north tower,” Katrisha noted.

“No, I suppose they don’t,” Mercu agreed, “not much need really.”

It was a warm spring already, after a very cold winter.  Flowers dotted the fields below, where grazing sheep had not yet eaten them.  Mercu looked from the fields below, to the girls sitting just before him.  He was really only cross with them for the imposition of being put upon to find them for punishment.  They hadn’t done anything he wouldn’t have, or didn’t when he was much younger.  Though he dared say he caused less commotion, and fuss in a candy heist, and did a bit better not to get caught.

“You know you shouldn’t steal candy,” Mercu said in way of reproval.

“There was so much of it,” Katrisha protested.

“No one would miss a couple,” Kiannae added.

“Yes, well, perhaps, but your little light show distraction didn’t leave much guessing who was to blame, did it?” Mercu chided.

“No,” Kiannae admitted.

“I guess not,” Katrisha echoed her sister’s tone.

“First lesson,” Mercu intoned, “don’t steal.”  The girls wrinkled their noses.  “Second lesson,” Mercu said more earnestly, “don’t make it so obvious who stole.”  He held a very serious face for a while, and then slowly his expression broke into a smile, and he laughed.

“Third lesson though,” Mercu nodded approvingly, “if you get caught, bribe the one who catches you.  Good job there at least.  It’s only going to buy you time though – I can be bought off, Laurel, I don’t think will be so easy.”

“Fourth lesson,” Mercu said leaning in, and whispering quietly, “lay low.  I’d say make yourself scarce for a couple more hours.  Let everyone cool down, and stay out of any more trouble.  You hear?”

The girls looked at each other, then back at Mercu, and nodded.  “Very good then,” Mercu said, and walked off.  “Now where did those troublesome whelps get to,” he said somewhat loudly, mostly for the girl’s benefit, as no one else of note was in earshot.

The girls went back to watching the scenery below, and enjoying their candy, and another good fifteen minutes passed before they peeked back at the sound of approaching footsteps.  Charles did not notice the girls look out from their notch in the battlement, as he had already turned to climb into another crevice of the wall himself.

Nothing had ever come of Katrisha’s altercation with Charles, except for the two avoiding each other.  Katrisha figured he had learned better than going to his father for help concerning either of them.  Katrisha pursed her lips, and wrinkled her nose like she was considering something she didn’t much care for.  Then before Kiannae could protest she leapt down from the parapet, the sound of which caught Charles’ attention.

Charles watched Katrisha approach guardedly.

“Hello,” she finally said standing just below where he sat on the wall.

“Yes?” he asked demandingly, and perhaps just a bit afraid that if this lead to her pushing him as hard as the last time they spoke, he would sail clean off the wall.

“Is your father making you run errands again?” Katrisha asked, not trying to sound mean, but it came off that way any how.

“What do you care?” Charles asked incredulously, and eyed Kiannae with equal suspicion as she stepped up beside her sister.

“I wanted to say I was sorry,” Katrisha said changing her tact.  Charles didn’t quite know what to say to that, really overall he seemed a bit taken aback by the concept, and not keen to believe it.  After a long pause Katrisha offered him one of the candies she was holding.  With a timidness that did not quite match his conventional demeanor, Charles took the sweet, but still eyed it with some suspicion.

There was another long pause, and when it seemed no one else had anything further to say, Katrisha curtsied slightly – not quite mock, but not quite respectful either, more an odd acknowledgment, and then she turned to walk away.  Charles tentatively tasted the sweet, and found it was precisely what it appeared.  Just before the twins were out of earshot his heart softened, and he yelled back, “I’m sorry too.”

“What was that about?” Kiannae demanded, as they passed through the north tower.

“Laurel said we are better than him,” Katrisha said with a shrug.  “So I thought…I would be better than him?”  Kiannae scrunched her face thoughtfully, and nodded agreement without too much reluctance.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Summer

Raehune 41st, 638 E.R.

It was a terribly, and unreasonably hot summer afternoon as Mercu walked the upper corridor towards the west tower.  He had already undone several buttons of his shirt, and relished the idea of being rid of his garments, and collapsing by his window for the rest of the miserable day.

There were two entirely valid options when making for his room in the tower.  The lower path along the base of the wall, or the upper corridor that lead past the ladies bath.  He always favored the latter, not that there was anything to be seen, or anything quite so unseemly in his reasons.  He nodded to a young freshly bathed woman who walked past him.  It was more simply the company one might run into along the way.

Just as he passed the bath however he could not help but notice a slight yelp from within.  Nothing dire, nothing concerning, but it had been very distinct, and made him stop.  He hesitated a moment, then walked on as there was nothing he could do to sate his curiosity.  Half way down the hall he heard the door open, and looked back.  Marian stood there, looking a bit flustered, and still rather damp.  She stood there stewing a moment before she noticed Mercu out of the corner of her eye.

She gave him a rather hard to read look, and he simply gazed back bewildered by it.

“I can appreciate it is a hot day,” Marian started loud enough for him to hear as she walked towards him, “I truly can, but there is such a thing as too cold.”

When Mercu seemed no more clear on where she was going about her sudden line of conversation, Marian simply gestured back towards the door.  “There is no one else in there, except those two,” she started, “perhaps you should deal with her.”

Mercu sighed, and wondered what new mischief the twins were causing.  He set that aside, and decided this was as good a chance as any to see the inside of the ladies bath, he had always been curious.  He walked back, opened the door with some timidness, and entered.  Around the wall that blocked immediate view from the hall, he found the twins on opposite sides of the room.

On one side Kiannae sat, her feet dangling in the water, reading a book.  On the far end Katrisha was floating, only her face above the surface near one of the curtains of water for showering.  At a glance nothing seemed entirely out of place, and Mercu let himself get distracted pondering the room itself.  It was about as grand as he had envisioned, certainly more ornate than the common bath for the men, and decidedly more open.  Women he decided must mind seeing each other less than men.

Looking back at the twins he was still unsure what the issue was – until at last he noticed that there seemed to be something white around the spout behind Katrisha.  Mercu walked closer, and upon examination it appeared to be frost – if he tried he could make out a hint of the spell.  He dipped his finger in the curtain of water, and found it very cold indeed.

“By the light girl, how can you bear it?” Mercu asked noticing Katrisha had opened her eyes, and was looking at him.

“I like it,” she said.

“I could almost understand, but really, this cold?” Mercu protested shaking his finger.

“I think she’s crazy,” Kiannae said from her end of the room.

“Why did Marian yelp though?” Mercu asked shaking the water from his finger.

“She stepped into the stream,” Kiannae laughed.

“And you didn’t warn her?” Mercu chided.

“Didn’t think to.  No,” Katrisha mused.

“I was reading,” Kiannae protested.

“Well, next time warn someone.  Ok?” Mercu said sternly, “Oh, and do make it a little less cold,” he said with some concern, testing the water again, “for your own good.”

“Ok,” Katrisha sighed.

He stood up, looked around once more, and walked back out.  Marian was waiting outside.  “Well?” she asked impatiently.

“I told her to warn people in future, and that it can’t be good for her to be that cold either,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I’d assume the far spouts are untampered with, if you were still wanting to bathe.”  He tipped his hat, and turned to walk on.  “Though…” he said stopping, and looking back, “if you are in no hurry, such charming company as yourself, could never go amiss, even on such a dreadfully warm day.”  He smiled, in his most devilish sort of way.  Marian, decidedly did not frown.

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 2

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

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

– The Twins Stand, 20 B.E.

The Twins Pass

CloisterChapter2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how do you know?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl was more than a bit too close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Laurel said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renae looked out the window, and stared at the darkening sky.  “No, it is fine.  I will see to his care, I will raise him as my own even.  Does he have a name yet?” Renae asked rocking him softly.

“I understand his mother called him Wren before she passed,” Laurel said distantly, and considered Renae’s words for a moment, before following her gaze into the distance.

“Like the bird,” Renae offered, more than asked.

“Presumably,” Laurel said, and stroked his beard.  “One of the girls said their mother loved the little birds.”  He returned to the point that had bothered him all afternoon.  “Decades without one sighting, one single interaction with any kingdom I know of.  Save of course a few long exiled travelers on the roads…and suddenly we have three little half blood children, and a dead mother to tell no tales.”

“What will you do with the other two?” Renae inquired pointedly.

“I’ve had a long, and tiring ride to think on that.  It seems best I take them in, bring them to court, and train them as mages.   Their auras are unnervingly strong, particularly for such young children.  Not so much as that little one’s poor blended soul, but it’s hard to imagine their potential.  I will have failed them utterly if they do not one day surpass me.”

“I’m glad to hear you will not send them off to that council of yours,” Renae said with distinct relief in her voice.  “I would have had to beg you bring them here as well before that.”

“I’m not the biggest fan of the Council’s ways, even if I aspire to fill my role in their grand design.  I’ll abide their rules, and do their bidding to a point, as is my sworn duty, but there are more rampant politics in their ranks than in all the kingdoms we shepherd combined.  It’s no place to grow up, I should know.  So no, I’ll do all I can to keep these girls from under the prying eyes of the oh so well meaning Council.”

“You are a good man Laurel,” Renae added, and looked down to the infant in her arms.

Laurel turned to consider Renae again.  “And I suppose I can offer you the same in kind.  I may not have been raised to think much of the Sisterhood, but you do good work with your lives, and take in strays such as this little one without hesitation.”

Renae looked up at Laurel curiously for a moment.  “Do you think I might meet the other two?” she asked.

“It certainly could be arranged, after I introduce them at court,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “That introduction shall be awkward given I will also be asking forgiveness for my deviation from plans.”

“I will announce my intention to visit soon,” Renae said distantly.  “You will be staying here the night I assume?” she asked almost as an afterthought.

“It seems I must,” Laurel said with some displeasure.  “I fear I have worked the horse that bore me here near to death, and I do not know what care it has yet received.”

“When Andria returns I will have her find Sister Charis, she has spent more years with caravans than I.  I’m sure she can attend to the poor creature,” Renae offered taking a long deep breath.  “With luck it will be ready for the morning, if not, perhaps we could offer you one of ours.“

“That is gracious of you,” Laurel said kindly.

“I have my guesses as to what business you have been pulled from,” Renae said firmly.  “I’ve only just heard the whispers myself.”

“Yes, of course,” Laurel said with only moderate surprise.  “Prudence over real urgency of course, whatever has transpired we will not feel consequences soon, surely.”

“No, I would not expect.”  Renae sighed.  “Dinner will be served shortly,” she said dropping the topic, “and though I am sure you are capable of attending to your self, do not hesitate to avail us of our services.  I can only imagine the strain this has been on you.”

“I will consider it,” Laurel said hesitantly, but reconsidered his tone.  He knew better, or he thought he did, that she had meant nothing dubious, and yet the look the young redhead had given him still nagged at him.  He was not one to read into such things, but he had found it unmistakable, and distantly familiar.  Finally he remembered where he had seen that look before.  He was made no more comfortable by the memory.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Dinner had been a simple affair, run like clockwork to feed well over a hundred standing residents, and guests in procession, with a dining hall that held only about sixty at a time.  The food was less fine than Laurel had grown accustomed to in recent years, but infinitely better than what he had eaten for over two decades traveling with trade caravans.  He had done as he had seen most do, and taken his dish to the kitchen.  It seemed the least courtesy an unexpected guest could offer.

It was a courtesy he regretted when he found himself beside the nosey girl from before.  He shifted uncomfortably trying to avoid being so close to Sasha, and winced, which she clearly saw, and adopted an exaggerated pout over.  Laurel was unamused by the antic, and turned to leave, heading into the courtyard.  He found a bench, and sat down with some care.  He looked up at the stars, which he always found soothing.

After several minutes a young woman he had not met approached him.  “Are you well sir?” she asked in a kind, and courteous tone.  He considered her coldly, but felt bad for it, she’d done him no wrong.  She seemed in her early twenties, with short dark hair, and shifted uncomfortably in his agitated gaze, which he softened slowly.  Her robe was of red, and this gave him some further hesitance.

“I’ve had better days,” Laurel finally replied, “but I’m fine.”  He looked back to the stars, but could not help but grab his neck as a twinge caught him off guard.

“May I?” the woman asked.

Laurel considered saying no, he could attend to it himself well enough, but the idea of simply relaxing won him over.  “Yes,” he said, and considered that some politeness was appropriate to add.  He settled on, “Thank you.”

Her touch was expert, and her gift gentle as it flowed into stiff, abused, and delicate muscles.  Her presence was soft, liquid, not the flame like presence of Sasha.  It wasn’t an insistent thing, merely there.  It had been a rare thing in his life to feel the power of another kindly, and rarer still with such frivolity.  His neck cared for, she moved out his shoulders, and he did not protest as she worked down his sore tired back.  Water he considered could wear away even stone, the flame was only suitable for lighting dry tinder.  The thought gave him wry amusement.  It would take some time to get past that resistance.

He was more relaxed than he had been in weeks when a now familiar voice undid half the good the woman had managed.  “Who do you have there, Ann?” Sasha asked rhetorically.  Laurel had no doubt she knew exactly who.

“A visitor,” Ann said straightening up in surprise.

“I’m jealous,” Sasha said in a tone that Laurel clearly read as playful, but he was not sure if the other woman did.

“Really?” Ann asked in a perplexed tone.

“Of you, not over you silly.”  Sasha laughed, stepped up to Ann, and kissed the other woman on the tip of her nose playfully.  Laurel could tell what had just transpired, but still turned his head out of an odd curiosity.

“May I join?” Sasha asked pleadingly.

Laurel stood, stretched, and with a laugh offered, “By all means.  I was just leaving.”

“You don’t have to go,” Sasha said leaning up against Ann.

“Sash!” Ann proclaimed reprovingly, but with clear mirth that said there was nothing inaccurate in the younger woman’s assertion.

“That’s quite alright,” Laurel said.  “Thank you miss Ann,” he said with a bow, “you’ve been more help that you know.”  With that he walked off, to enquire where he might sleep – alone.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Horence’s experience with animals effectively began, and ended with horses.  Though he had some memory of his father’s old dog when he was a small boy, he was hardly responsible for its care.  His experience with children was less.  Not even with siblings, as his sister had not survived birth, and taken his poor mother’s heart with her, literally, and figuratively.

The Clarion healers had tried, but she had lost the will to live they said, he had always taken that with a touch of disdain, believing more that they had been incompetent.  In that regard he figured he was a kindred spirit to the twins left to his care.  Yet all he really knew at the end of the day was the work ethic of a soldier, and that the best cure for your sorrows, short of a stiff drink, was the distraction of routine.

Routine – for him at least – was beyond reach, but the sorrow was not his to bury.  He endeavored to give the girls what vestige of routine he could.  They fussed, but in the end walked him through the motions, such as they knew, of caring for the animals, and gathering food from a small garden, that seemed the only tilled soil on the farm – more fertile than it seemed anything in the blighted land had reason to be.

It seemed to him a good life, a respectable one, one that the northerners had been blessed with for generations, and by the whims of nature had lost in those years.  The King had been kind, and good, and given them work in the south.  Yet he worried for the cost, for he had been witness on occasion to the thinly veiled whining of the barons of South Rook.  If the drought did not end, there would be turmoil, or worse.

What Horence did not know of animals or farming, he made up for marginally with cooking.  He would of course have been booted from the royal kitchen on charges of sacrilege, but he had learned to cook well enough after his mother passed.  Even to follow through with recipes, thought the chicken scratch in the ratty old cook book he found in the pantry was beyond him.  The first afternoon, and evening was hard, messy, haphazard, but at it’s end, the girls slept with full bellies, and Horence slept with the satisfaction of hard work, and passable success.

The second day was easier, it already felt like a semblance of routine, though he had no intention for it to become such.   At noon he made a cursory attempt to rig the harness for a single horse – which seemed unwise.  He then attempted to discern if the old donkey could be harnessed to the coach as well, but the mismatch seemed utterly absurd.  Failing that he checked on the decrepit farm cart in the barn, which it seemed had lost a wheel.

The girls had pestered him about the coach, claiming to see faint blue lines, and asked him what they were.  Horence had looked closely where they insisted, and once – just once – he thought he saw something, but passed it off as a trick of the light.  He assured them there was nothing there, and they gave him funny looks.  He went on with that day, and into the night, quite anxious for Laurel’s return.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 8th, 636 E.R.

Horence watched the two little girls asleep by the hearth, bathed in flickering firelight.  He couldn’t help but feel relief on their behalf that they were away from the horrors of the last two days.  He looked at the way the two had curled up together – ‘At least,’ he thought to himself, ‘they have each other.’

He picked at an extra ear of corn he had cooked, and allowed the melancholy of it all to wash over him for a bit.  He wondered how long he would be waiting for Laurel – he hadn’t said where he was going, or when he would return.  Horence did not mind the thought of another day of farm life so much, but he did fear the growing severity of any reprimand.

Horence looked around the room as warm firelight danced on the walls – it felt more like the home it had obviously been for generations, now that the dead had been laid to rest outside its walls, and a proper full day had passed.  He shivered at the eerie feeling that had been present when he first arrived.  There was warmth there again, if only a little.  Three children it seemed were all that was left of the family.  The house would soon sit abandoned, as all the surrounding farms already were.

He again considered the odd mix of rustic, and merely antique.  Though the place was small, there were still well more rooms than Ashtons, and the rafters fitted for sleeping.  The loft of the barn showed signs of this as well.  Perhaps accommodations for migrant farm hands, but some of it showed signs of use to recent to make sense in the drought.

The sound of hooves drew Horence to sit upright, and quickly move to a window.  A tiny glimmer of blue light bobbed up the hill from the main road.  He couldn’t tell if it was Laurel, but he suspect – hoped perhaps more so.  If it wasn’t Laurel, there would likely be much more explaining, and far less leaving.

Horrence opened the door as the horse approached, and watched as Laurel swung down from a saddled horse he did not recognize, a blue orb of light drifting at his side, and reins still grasped in his hand.

“You were gone for more than a day,” Horence said with clear displeasure, “where have you been?”

“I had to take the infant to Highvale – I fear the time involved couldn’t be helped.  They worked miracles on the horse, but even miracles take time,” Laurel grumbled.  “The Matron was kind enough to arrange a temporary exchange instead.  I took my time on the return, as this horse is not of the same caliber, and will need it’s strength to pull the coach tomorrow.”

“The Sisterhood?” Horence asked with some surprise, “that seems a bit extreme.”

“The boy’s condition left no other real option.  His mother’s death left him a danger to those not competent with living energies, and would you have had me subject the poor boy to Clarions?”  Laurel asked as he stopped before the door step.

“I suppose not,” Horence agreed.  He stepped out, and closed the door less their continued conversation wake the girls.  “The mother’s name was Meliae Ashton,” he said pointedly, “their grandmother was something of a hero.”

“So I learned – after a fashion – on my way back up through Minterbrook.” Laurel nodded.  “Are all matters attended to here?  I wish to leave at first light.”

“Everything is fine,” Horence reported, “the girls are fed, and asleep, and the animals have been tended to.”

“Good,” Laurel said reaching up, and grabbing hold of the light that hovered near him, he held it out before him, and spoke a bit distractedly for a moment.  “I’ve no illusions we will make it back before the morning after next, but we’ll see how we fair by Silverbrook.”  He let the light go, and it drifted to hover close to Horence instead.  “Now if you would,” he asked kindly, but with more than a hint of an order, “find a place to tie the horse for the night, and give it some feed.  I see there is a warm fire in there, and I can only assume some where I might lay down.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 9th, 636 E.R.

With the morning light, and scarcely after a rooster’s crow Horence and Laurel ushered two small girls into a coach, still wrapped in blankets.  They fit the harness to the new horse, and began the trek south.  They stopped in Minterbrook for breakfast, supplies, and to see if anything else had been remembered.  The account Laurel had heard the previous day was the extent anyone had to say on the girls.

From Minterbrook it was ten miles up the Senal Valley to the Midrook, and the expansive sight of its ruined wall.  This prompted what felt like hours of questions from the twins.  After this they insisted on sitting at the front of the coach for a better view.  Very little of Midrook was seen closely, for as Laurel explained it was once the largest city of Avrale, and in a terrible war the wall fell, and the central city was razed.

Though centuries had crept the edges of of the divided townships back towards the road, only a few buildings dotted the main course, and were mainly for the benefit of travelers.  Midrook tower had been spared in the war, but was a spec above the western end of the wall.  Horence explained that the slow recovery of the central city was partly superstition – that there was something tainted about the obsidian left by dragon fire.  This spawned even more questions about dragons.

The Twin Sisters, the high peaks that framed the main pass caused a stir, particularly by their title.  Kiannae claimed the eastern peak Saeah, and Katrisha the western peak of Navi.  Laurel found it curious how easily they came to the arrangement with no argument on the point.  Something struck him, like a notion of things yet to be, and he frowned, and set all further thought of it aside.

They made good time to an inn that stood by itself at a crossroads in the high pass, not far down the southern slope.  It was well before night fall, but the second horse showed signs of exhaustion, and with little debate it was decided to stay the night.

Late that evening the twins were restless, and full of questions they continually pressed any moment they were not sulking.  Eventually Laurel retired to his own room in frustration, leaving Horence to finish explaining the name Silvercreek.  It seemed easy enough at first, that the town was named for the creek, and the creek for flecks of silver found in the water.

Where the whole process of explaining began to go sideways was the revelation that the flecks of silver were from the glacier scraping away at silver veins beneath.  A bit of trivia Horence was somewhat surprised he recalled, but he did not particularly understand the mechanics of glaciers, and managed to deflect further questions with the detail that Silvercreek proper was built around the mines, and as such was an entire town beneath a glacier.  Which required explaining how that worked, if glaciers moved, and the wards that melted the oncoming ice, and a number of other things he did not grasp any better than how glaciers operated in the first place.

Horence fell asleep in the end before the twins, who eventually curled up to him, and slept as well.  He had been quietly plotting some form of revenge when he drifted off.  Something to do to Laurel for abandoning him to the fate of designated explainer.  He failed to think of any that he would be able to get away with, but relished the thought of a number of the ones he couldn’t before letting them go.

< Previous || Next >