Chapter 7

Weathered stones rest round ‘n crumbled,
of that old broken tower tall ‘n noble,

there a weary eye might catch a glimmer,
of long satin robes that wave ‘n shimmer,
a glowing face bares timeless eyes,
‘n gossamer hair brushes ghostly thighs,

a beautiful form fair ‘n striking,
a hollow visage doth easily frighten,
do not tremble for our good white lady,
count again omens give kindly,

for should she smile broad and clear,
know you are ever welcome there,
O’ though should she frown ‘n glance to you,
heed her warning ill fortune comes due.

– Ballad of the White Lady, circa 400 E.R.

The Lady of the Hill

Estae 17th, 639 E.R.

Laurel heard the clatter of little feet coming up the stairs in great haste.  It was hardly warning enough for a six year old to grab hold of one leg, nor her sister in turn to glom onto the other, nearly toppling him in the process.

“Laurel,” Kiannae began in a panic, “there was a lady in our room.”

“But she wasn’t all there,” Katrisha added.

Laurel steadied himself, and considered the frightened children clinging to him.  He smiled in his usual way, and shook his head.  “So you’ve met Navi, have you?  I’ve seen her a few times myself, over the years.”

Katrisha loosened her grasp on Laurel’s leg, and glared up at him, startled by his matter of fact reaction.  “Na…Navi?” she stuttered.

“Yes,” Laurel said almost laughing, “Navi.  Though most call her the White Lady, or some other such thing.”

Kiannae now seemed to relax her grip a bit, and looked up, the worry on her face softening.  “Who is Navi?” she asked choking back her calming hysteria.  “Isn’t that the name of a mountain?”

“Yes – good.  She was the first official ruler of Avrale as a unified nation.  At least so far as the best histories I have found are concerned.” Laurel paused thoughtfully.  “She is one of the more curious ghosts I’ve ever heard of.”  The girls faces both tensed with unease at that word, but Laurel just laughed.

“Don’t worry dear ones,” he said patting them both on their heads, “first off ghosts are harmless.  I’ve only ever heard of one that can even interact with the world around him, and he’s…quite friendly.  As for Navi, I’ve only seen her a few times over the years, she’s exceptional in that she actually turns to look at people, sometimes smiles or frowns, but no one has ever seen her do more.”

He watched both girl’s expressions, their relief was clear but they were obviously still on edge.  “Come,” he said with gentle command in his voice.  “Come up to the main study, I will tell you more about ghosts, spirits, and other such things.”

Laurel gently pulled his legs free, turned, and headed back up the stairs.  The girls followed close behind.  “As to Navi herself I fear there isn’t much to tell,” he began as they passed a storage room door.  “She is very old.  She lived before the Empire by hundreds of years.  She is an imprint ghost, though an exceptional and unusual one given she seems aware of the living world.”

“Why is she,” Kiannae paused making sure she repeated the word correctly, “an ‘imprint?’”

“There are two main kinds of ghosts,” Laurel said pleased with the question. “There are those that manifest near their remains – these tend to be more aware and responsive.  Then there are those that appear near where they lived, or where important things happened.  These tend to just be after images.  Like reflections in a mirror.”

“You said though that she looks at people, even smiles,” Katrisha said with some consternation.  “She smiled at me, I saw it, I was just too scared at the time to realize.”

Laurel laughed. “I’m glad to hear Navi approves of you.  But yes, very astute.  In cases like Navi it is believed that more is imprinted upon the place than just an image, that a very small amount of the person remains.  She had the original north tower built here in her day, much of the work she may have even done herself – according to the legends.  Though that tower fell very long ago, some of the stone was reused, so she remains.”

“So she only appears here in the tower?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“No,” Laurel corrected, “she appears near any of the scattered stones of the old tower.  Including above the waters of the lake below, as many stones fell from the cliffs when the tower was destroyed.”  He turned the unseen latch hidden within the study door, pushed inward, and stepped into the study.

“Why do some people leave ghosts and others not?” Kiannae asked, a touch of grief in her voice.

Laurel sighed deeply. “The day you can answer that with any proof is the day you earn a permanent seat on the Council.  No one knows.  All the obvious reasons seem to fail the test time and time again.  Of all the most powerful mages in history few have manifested as ghosts of any sort.  Some have theorized it is a matter of ‘precise mediocrity’ – that those too powerful burnout in death, and those too weak leave no mark.”

“That isn’t it either is it?” Katrisha asked scrunching up her face thoughtfully.

Laurel smiled, “No, it doesn’t seem to be.  History is full of innumerable mages of highly mediocre ability, and power.  Yet few, very few ghosts.  In spite of all this the one determining factor does seem to be the gift, and more often magic.”

“Wait, what’s the difference?” Katrisha asked a bit confused.

“Take your brother, or Renae,” Laurel answered.  “Both quite gifted, but neither are mages, because they have not trained in our practices.  Though I suspect Renae knows a few things.  Magic though, they very word comes from the Maji, from their specific practices.  Spellcraft is magic.”

“I’ve heard Renae speak of the living magic,” Kiannae countered, as they moved into the central study.

“Yes,” Laurel frowned.  “And you will hear commoners refer to any gifted practice as magic.  Does it really matter?  No, I suppose not, but it is better to use a word with proper meaning, is it not?  The superstitious will speak of witchery, and witchcraft as well, and the legends say they wove spells, but there is little evidence there were ever such practitioners.  Would either of you care to be called a witch?”

“I don’t know…” Katrisha said hesitantly.  “People don’t seem to like witches.”

“But does it really matter, as you said once, a name is just what we call a thing.  This rune, or that?”

“Ah,” Laurel laughed appreciatively.  “Yet as Mercu would assure you the words we use are very important, each synonym has it’s use – and maintaining their meaning is of value.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Can you heal so well as your brother?” he pressed.

“I don’t think so,” Katrisha admitted, though she had little to base the statement on.

“Can he conjure dancing lights, and craft spells?” he tried again.

“No,” Kiannae answered a bit proudly.

“What he has studied, and what you have studied are very different things,” he paused pointedly, “why should we call them by the same name?”

“We shouldn’t,” Katrisha agreed.

Kiannae seemed to mull something over for a moment. “You said some ghosts can touch things?” She said returning to the prior topic.

Laurel nodded at Kiannae. “One can.  Some rare ghosts that manifest near their remains can speak, or even answer questions.  They tend to come and go quite erratically, and forget things between manifestations.  There is however one notable, spectacular exception.  Theseus Moire, an instructor who lived during the mid Empire.  Legend says he was so stubborn, that when he died between classes he went on to teach the next as a ghost!”

Laurel paused thoughtfully. “He is the only ghost I have ever…heard of who can move objects at will, and who can still limitedly perform magic.  Some say he grew smarter in death than in life, and that he never forgets…anything.  He kept teaching part time till Corinthia fell, then he was lost for at least a century.  Some…believe the Council found him, locked him away, and never said why.”

Laurel noticed the girl’s attention drifting, and said pointedly, “Ghosts are not the only such entities in the world however.  Spirits, or those commonly called elemental or half-flesh are individuals who have transcended the death of the body, and anchor their souls to this world through a surrogate form.  Not to be confused of course with true emergent elementals, as old Norbert was,” he added gesturing up to the core of the simulation over his head.

Laurel had never explained why the elemental had been called Norbert, and in fact had expressed his own personal bemusement on the matter.  He had however revealed that it had been used for less dignified things over the years, including keeping perishables cold, and staving off the heat of a northern summer.  Mercu had been able to tell some more interesting stories about the enigmatic crystal’s origin, none of which Laurel had been inclined to confirm or deny.  Though he did admit Mercu had done a fair amount of research into the history over the years, that he had not bothered to.

The short version of Mercu’s tales could be summed up that it was the spoils of a harrowing fight with a vicious elemental, in a very distant northern wild-land, far beyond the equator.  It had been the property of Laurel’s great grandmother, who had defeated it, and was probably worth an unfathomable amount of money, if it was not bound by successive wills to never be sold.

Satisfied he had their attention he continued.  “They are vastly rarer than ghosts, but much as Theseus they retain significant and persistent mental ability, but more so are often very powerful.  They range from stone men, to dryads, or even the fabled Lady of the Sands worshiped by several nomadic tribes of the northern wastes.  There existence is well documented, but none have ever consented to be studied.”

“Do they never die?” Katrisha asked with interest.

“Some argue they did die, in the conventional sense.  They don’t have living bodies as you or I any more.  As such they don’t age, though some do fade with time, while others seem absolutely immortal – even when forcibly scattered they reform eventually.”

“How did they get that way?” Kiannae asked.

“It varies,” Laurel said thoughtfully, “The process has never been observed, or replicated intentionally.  In a few cases the individual was known to have started the process in life, becoming deeply attuned with the nature of some material or another.  When death came to call, or in a time of desperation they abandoned their bodies, and became one with the practice they had long worked.”

“Why doesn’t anyone know?” Katrisha asked irritably.

“For over a millennia there are records of the study of all things gifted, and supernatural,” Laurel said, half sitting on the central table.  “I sometimes think more has been lost than is still known.  Yet one thing has never been done, or well proven to be done, no one can see beyond the Veil.”

“What is the Veil?” Kiannae asked vaguely remembering hearing the term several times, but not knowing what it meant.

“That itself is an open question,” Laurel laughed.  “Some think of the Veil as the boundary between our world and things unseen.”

“And others think?” Katrisha said scrunching her face.

“That the Veil is a bad term, overly weighted with old superstition, and misleading, but that it -is- the universe,” Laurel replied.  “I tend to believe that my self.”

“How does that work?” Kiannae asked looking confused.

“The easiest analogy is to imagine the surface of the ocean…” Laurel reconsidered his choice of words, realizing the girls had never seen the ocean, “or well how about the lake.  The Ether is the sky above, the Nether the water below, and you, me, and everything else are ripples on it’s surface.”

“Is that what’s on your face?” Katrisha asked innocently.

“Um, no,” Laurel said shaking his head, “Though I suppose that’s a fun way to look at it.”

“We don’t have any ripples,” Kiannae said looking back and forth between Laurel and her sister.

“That’s because you are young and simple, like calm little ponds, and I am old and complex as the stormy sea,” he said looming playfully over the girls who giggled at his antic.  He leaned back again and sighed. “Don’t worry if the idea doesn’t make sense to you, I barely fully grasp it at times…and it is just an idea, no real proof…well there is this.”

Laurel picked up a small ink well from the desk.  “There are two arguments about why this works,” he said as a shimmer appeared around the bottle, and then it simply disappeared.  “Can you still see it?” he asked.

The girls looked in wonder at the object Laurel seemed to imply was still in his hand.  There was something there, the tiniest refraction, and the faintest aura, but both were so subtle as to be hard to notice.

“I think so,” Kiannae said.

“There is an aura around it, but it’s hard to see inside of yours,” Katrisha said trying to focus.

“Ah, yes, here,” Laurel said setting the invisible bottle on the table beside him and sliding away.

“Yes I can see it,” Kiannae said, “it glows.”

“Yes, it’s not a very effective trick against those with the gift,” Laurel laughed as the bottle shimmered back into full view, “still, if you weren’t looking for it, you could miss it, yes?”

“I guess,” Katrisha said with a shrug, “it’s still neat.”

“Back to my point,” Laurel said shifting back closer to the center of the two.  “Two views, both…acceptable.  It is not a conventional spell, more akin to a conjuration.  One view holds that filaments are bending the light around the object, you can’t see it because light isn’t reflecting off it, or being blocked by it.  The other view holds almost the same, but contends that we are bending the Veil, that even filaments are part of it, the surface of reality is warped around it, and that light then simply flows around.  To me it feels more like I’m bending the Veil…but that’s a feeling, not a fact.”

“Aren’t feelings facts?” Kiannae asked looking confused.

Laurel rubbed his head.  “I suppose they are facts for the ones feeling them, but everyone feels different things.  Facts can be tested by multiple people, the same results seen again and again.”

“Don’t different people see different things too?” Katrisha asked.

“That’s where we get in a lot of trouble,” Laurel laughed.  “We take a lot of things on faith, as fact, without going to all the lengths of testing what others have before us.  What they observed, we accept, because of trust.  Or what they trusted that someone else observed…and so on.  Trust to a point, but when climbing a mountain, check your own rope I guess is the lesson.”

Laurel rapped his fingers thoughtfully on the table he was leaning on, and walked over to one of the many bookshelves lining the walls.  He tapped several as he scanned for the particular one he sought, and at last pulled it from it’s shelf.  “Here,” he said opening to about a quarter of the way in, flipping a few pages back and forth before settling on a chapter start, “Moriel tells me you are doing well with your reading, practice on this, and I will be back in a bit.”

Laurel wondered what was compelling him as he left the study, surely as long as he had been talking to the girls the apparition was long gone, yet suddenly he felt a need to see her for himself.  He stopped before the girl’s chamber door, and hesitated, mostly afraid to feel a fool, sure he would find nothing within.  Something else was bothering him, the impulse itself, but for once, on such a simple thing, he could not resist.

Laurel opened the door, and there she stood at the window, half there, a transparent vision of flowing white hair, robes, and luminous skin.  The presence of a ghost is a stranger thing than a living being.  It is hollow, thin, but still there.  She felt almost like a feather caught on the wind, and the wind itself.  She turned to face him, she smiled ever so briefly, but as she turned away Laurel saw a frown cross her lips, and before he could pointlessly demand a meaning, she dissolved away in swirls of shimmering light.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Mercu struggled as he often did, trying to get the twins into their bed, and at last exasperatedly declared, “If you two do not stop fidgeting, and lay down this very instant, there will be no story tonight.”  He turned at the sound of the door opening behind him, but the girls, distracted by his threat relented to lay down.

“I thought,” Laurel said looking at Mercu’s perplexed expression, “that since you often complain on the matter I would help you put them to bed this time.”  He looked to the girls who now lay ready to be tucked in, “But it seems I am too late.”

Mercu glanced back to the girls, shook his head, and covered his face with his palm, “I suppose it is the thought that counts, isn’t it?”  He looked back to Laurel.  “Well, I guess you may as well stay for the story.”  He turned to the girls again, and as he tucked them in asked, “What shall it be tonight?”

“Tell us a ghost story,” Kiannae declared.

“Yes,” Katrisha agreed.

“Still with the ghosts?” Mercu laughed.

“Don’t suppose I blame them, I saw her myself today,” Laurel chuckled.  “I’m afraid I’ll be of little help though, I’m quite well out of ghost stories of my own.”

“Still I must do all the work,” Mercu said feigning indignance.  “Very well,” he said tapping his finger to his chin, “Ghosts, ghosts…aha!  Yes, the tale of Thethis.”  He sat down, and picked up the old battered lute he often used when telling the girl’s stories.  “Long ago, and not that far away, where now only forests stand, there was a great lake, broad enough to have islands midst it’s wide expanse.”

“Now on these islands, and on the north eastern shores,” Mercu said with a strum of the lute, “there were a people who loved their lake, who were at one, and at peace with its still waters.  The waters served the villages of Thethis, they could walk, and dance upon that shimmering surface, as easily as its shores.”

Mercu waited a moment, strumming idly, and then continued.  “The people were happy, and good, respected, but not well loved by their neighbors.  Save one, a Princess who came to love a boy she had seen dance across the lake’s calm waters.  One day, she too caught his eye, and he took her out with him to dance upon the lake.  The King, the Princess’ father did not approve of the girl’s affections, and forbid the pair to meet again.”

“The Princess though loved the boy who would dance upon the lake, and ran away with him, to live, and hide among the island refuges,” Mercu strummed for emphasis, “but the King sent his men, who came to blows with the villagers of Tethis while seeking their Princess, and the boy.  It came to the verge of war, and word in due course reached the two lovers.  The Princess could not bear the price of her happiness, and set out across the waters with her love by her side.”

Mercu eyed the girls who still clung to consciousness, and strummed several soft notes before continuing, “But the King’s men, who had already made threats upon the people to not use their gifts, saw the two crossing the waters as a threat.  They had never seen their Princess walk upon the lake, nor did they recognize the clothes she wore that day, and archer’s shot both down.”

“The boy,” Mercu continued, “could not maintain control, and struggled helplessly as his love sank into the depths.  The waters though, bore him to shore within the night, barely still alive.  Fevered he asked why they had killed their own.  Realizing his mistake the commander cast the still living boy back into the depths, and lied to his King.  He said the people of Thethis had killed her, not his men.”

“So it was,” Mercu said darkly, “that the King did give a decree, in his anger, and sorrow, to kill all the people of the villages, every last one.  The people of Tethis fought bravely, to the last man, to the last woman, and even child.  And as the last of them, an old shaman lay dying, she whispered to her killer, ‘The lake will take you, two for every life lost for a lie.’  It is said, that as she let out her last breath, she simply whiffed away into the night, and was gone.”

Mercu strummed softly for a bit before finishing. “They say that most who were ever alone near that lake again would disappear, and that faces were seen in the mists.  People would forget, or grow bold, or foolish after a time, and even more would be lost.  There were also stories of people the lake almost took, who were just as mysteriously saved from their peril, and instead borne safely ashore by a strange boy, before he would disappear…”

“After many generations a King ordered the lake drained, and the river that fed it diverted.  Still,” Mercu said as he stood up, and leaned over the sleeping girls to kiss them each on the forehead, “there were stories of the faces in the mist, until slowly the forests took the land where the lake had once stood, and people would forget, save to remember the forest of mists, where none dare to tread.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 2nd, 639 E.R.

Mercu was hardly awake from the groaning and thwack of a door thrown opened in haste, when a bawling lump hurled into his bed with force unbefitting meager size.  Instinctively he backed away from the unknown assailant, before he could register the proportions, and obvious disposition as a crying little girl.

“What’s wrong dear?” he asked in a groggy, but still startled tone – trying desperately to get his wits about him.  Katrisha continued to sob.

A minute passed as Mercu tried to calm the shaking girl in his arms, before a second girl, seemingly more bewildered than frightened wandered into the moonlight beyond his door.  “What’s wrong?” Kiannae asked sleepily, “I woke to Ka screaming, and then she ran away.”

“I don’t know,” Mercu said in a frustrated tone, he had been having such a nice dream too, which momentarily danced at the edge of his memory.

“There was a lady,” Katrisha finally whimpered, “a ghost…I think,” she paused uncertainly, trying to think straight.  “She was on a throne, in the dark, and something was moving…so big, and the eyes, the huge yellow eyes, and…and it was a dragon!” she finally blurted out her face stricken with fear, as though she had just then realized what she had seen.  “Her voice was so loud I could not understand, it rattled everything, even my bones.”

“That’s quite the nightmare you had, poor dear,” Mercu said slightly relieved by the triviality of the matter.

“It was real,” Katrisha demanded, and then seemed to feel silly for saying it.  Mercu considered her for a moment.  There was a certain dwindling faith in her statement, though it was passing, but not without striking Mercu curiously.  It wasn’t impossible…he dismissed it.  There was no sense encouraging the idea on so many levels.

“It was a dream my dear,” Mercu said reassuringly, “there are no ghosts upon thrones here, nor dragons lurking in the dark.”

“But…” Katrisha protested, and then gave up arguing, and clung closer to Mercu, burying her face in his shoulder.

“Well,” Mercu sighed, “you may as well come in also,” he said looking at Kiannae, “and do please close the door.”

Kiannae slowly walked in, and closed the door behind her, before moving to Mercu’s bed, and crawling up opposite her sister.

“So, I have told you of dragons,” Mercu mused, “and how they came to be.  Let me tell you of the kindest of all.  A daughter of Lycia, who sat ever adoringly at her Empres’ side.”

“She was the woman Alara, a handmaiden to the eldest princess of the Empire.  She was a controversial appointment.  The Lycian Order was young then, not even named, their defiance of growing Clarion influence all the more fresh, and burning of an affront to true believers.  They were however growing in popularity, most particularly in Lycia, with whom the Empire was always closest, and most vehemently entwined.”

“Why do the Clarions hate the Sisterhood?” Kiannae asked tiredly.

“That…” Mercu said thoughtfully, “is a good question, but an ever so long and dull story.  Dull at least without the bits far too unfit for young ears.”  He paused a moment.  “Now, as to Alara, she was the princess’ favorite amongst her attendants.  She was her closest confidant, dearest friend, and…they were close.”  He trailed off trying to reframe his tale.

“By training, Alara was a healer, a shining example of kindness and selflessness.  Everything a Sister of the Order would come to be, but surely not the model of what people think of dragons.  Yet when the time came, when the Empress asked for volunteers to fight the Black Flight, to become as she, there was none she could have trusted more.”

“Why – you might ask,” Mercu continued tiredly after a few moments of silence, “would a healer, seek to become a dragon?  Lycians love life, you see, they do not chase ascension, even if some believe it possible.  Alara loved life as much as any, and she was old, very old when the war came.  She did – they say – wrestle with her choice.  That if what she loved of life, she would forgo in the power that would consume her frail form.  Still in the end, she made her decision.”

“So was reborn Alara’sae,” Mercu said in a soft but dramatic tone, “unique amongst all dragons.  For while it is known that all other such creatures maws are death incarnate – be it by flame, by tooth, or more exotic means – Alara could breath life itself.  While all other dragon’s fought upon the front lines, trying to strike down foes, at the back of Corinthia’s army was a healer beyond all measure.”

“A dragon healer?” Katrisha laughed incredulously, as sleep fought to take hold again.

“So it was, and is,” Mercu said.  “She dwells still in Lycia, where she returned after the war.  A few of her brood, and her mate Mar’etten dwell there with her.  None ever have been able to match her particular gift, though each of her dragon-born daughters and sons are known for their unmatched skill as healers.  Only the most gifted of the Sisterhood are granted audience with her, to partake of the breath of life, and perhaps learn from its powers.”

“What’s a dragon-born?” Katrisha asked half asleep, her sister already slumbering.

“As dragon’s came from mortal man, so to are born mortals of dragon blood,” Mercu answered, and kissed Katrisha softly on the forehead, and smiled as she finally slipped back to sleep.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 17th, 639 E.R.

Katrisha hugged Wren consolingly, as Kiannae watched through the cracked door beyond which Laurel and Renae had descended into uneasy discussion of the events that had delayed their regular visit.  Mercu for the first time Kiannae could remember did not seem pleased by Renae’s presence.

“It was a wonder even Randal survived,” Renae said grimly, “and barely at that.  They tried damn hard to insure no one was left.  Poor boy was always gifted, but to have lived with those injuries after having been left for dead…”

“Has he been able to say anything meaningful regarding the attackers?” Laurel asked with obvious distress.

“No,” Renae said in a dishearten tone, “he’s pretty well in shock.  Had more to say about some mercenary named Hamon, who gave the bandits a run for their money.”

“Hamon?” Mercu said his face going white, “who was the master of the caravan?” he abruptly demanded.

“Uh,” Renae said suddenly on edge from Mercu’s reaction, “a man named Valden I believe, did you know him?”

Mercu visibly shrank back, and looked away seemingly embarrassed.  “I think so…but not well,” he said after a heavy breath, “but Hamon I knew, he traveled with my father’s caravan for years.  I never thought I’d see the day he got taken down by a bunch of common thieves.”

“By all accounts he didn’t go down without a fight,” Renae said consolingly, “as I said, it seems to be about all Randal can remember is Hamon cutting down five of the attackers before buckling under an onslaught of arrows.”

“That’d be Hamon alright,” Laurel said with ill humor, “once saw that man take a dire boar with nothing more than a dagger, after the beast broke his sword.”

“Wren was there when Randall was brought to us,” Renae grimaced, “he didn’t take well to seeing his wounds – such a terrible thing on his birthday.  Even for all the healing Randal had done to himself he was an awful mess.  The patrol hadn’t been able to do much, and the clarions had turned him away as a lost cause.  I’ve seen worse myself, though not many, still turned my stomach a bit.  I’m not sure if he will ever be quite the same.”

Mercu caught sight of Kiannae peaking through the door, and cut between Laurel, and Renae, pushed the door open, and closed it behind him.  “So I’m guessing you’ve heard all that,” he said irritably, “not that I guess we went out of our way to keep out of earshot.”

“Why would people do such a thing?” Kiannae asked angrily.

“Greed, or desperation usually,” Mercu muttered, “and the effectiveness of the attackers, as well as the King’s willingness to relocate northerners  who suffered from the drought leaves me no doubt the answer is greed.”

“But why?” Katrisha insisted.

“We don’t always get what we want in life, and certainly not right at the moment,” Mercu said and walked towards the window.  “Even in the best of times there will be those willing to take what they want by force, and kill to keep their secrets.  I just can’t shake the feeling this is much more than it seems…” he said staring out into the valley below.

“What more could it be?” Kiannae asked with confusion.

“Not every bandit is a free agent, some,” Mercu said looking back at the children, “some are tools of rulers, and unscrupulous orders who wish to weaken, and test their enemies.  These are hardly the first bandits to pester the eastern road.  Laurel once saved Darion in route to Helm, that is how we came to reside here at court.  Those were common thieves…and fled, or surrendered at the slightest sign of magic.”

Wren who had been clench fisted since he had arrived held up his hand, and in his palm lay a single golden button.  “What’s that?” Katrisha asked.

“I’m not sure,” Mercu said walking up, and kneeling before Wren.  “May I have that?” he asked.  Wren nodded, and Mercu took the button and turned it in the light.  “That,” he said furrowing his brow at a thrones rose embossed on the button, “is the emblem of Osyrae’s royal house.”

“Does that mean that Osyrae did this?” Katrisha asked nervously, she had often heard the whispered fears of Osyrae starting a war, when adults had thought she was not paying attention.

“Perhaps,” Mercu said eyeing the button suspiciously.

“It is at once too convenient, and too little,” Mercu stood, and looked towards the door.  “We don’t want war.  If Osyrae does, then we would give them what they wish if we act, particularly on so little.  It is evidence none the less, that we must take precautions,” and with that he marched out the door.

He did not see as a white wispy form stepped from thin air, and seemed to look about as though confused.  The ghostly woman looked down upon the three children before her, but seemed to look more through, than at them.  She slowly knelt down before Wren, and seemed to consider him more directly.  The twins for their part stepped back, but Wren, though obviously nervous at the presence of this new stranger simply stared up into her hollow face.

There was a long uncomfortable silence, and all watched the unreadable expression of the ghost.  She seemed, almost to frown for a moment, but then smiled, and as quickly as she had come, was gone.  “All things pass,” Wren said sadly, and scrunched up his face, almost as though he did not understand his own words, “yet most will come again…”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 37th, 639 E.R.

Eran moved silently between the trees.  The tracks were clear, no more than a week old, and it had not rained enough to disrupt them.  Animals had done their damage, but not enough to render the trail untraceable.  A large company followed a good hundred yards behind their tracker, and were less silent, in spite of some of their best efforts.

Arlan wore armor too heavy for stealth, Horence was simply not so graceful trekking through the underbrush, and the priest in their midst did not seem to care.  Laurel for his part moved quietly enough, but at the center of a blundering lot, he was hardly inconspicuous.  No one seemed at all pleased to be there, or many with each other.  A group of common soldiers circled the leaders of the party, and more scouts kept watch at some distance out, in all directions.

Laurel only opened his eyes periodically to make sure he was not about to stumble over something, he was focused on less mundane matters.  Only the gifted of the group had any notion of the array of magical lines that circled the company, listening for arrows, spells, or other conventional threats.  Ready at a moment to snap into an active defense.  The range of the array was limited, but Laurel was focused on feeling to the extended senses it gave him.

When Eran stopped abruptly, Laurel was immediately aware, and gestured for the others to stop as well.  Soldiers readied themselves, the priest moved to the back, and Horence, and Arlen prepared for the worst.  Two short whistles, followed by a third long one lowered their guard somewhat.  The party moved forward in step, and came upon where Eran was perched on a ridge.  The markings on the forest floor below were anything but subtle.  It looked like a battlefield.

Huge scorch marks dotted the landscape, trees were toppled and blackened, a few corpses could be recognized even at a distance.  Laurel could sense there had been a ward on the hill where they stood, too faded to give any warning to its absent maker.  He wondered if it had been any use at all.  He hoped not.

Scouts slipped around the permitter, and two whistles, followed by a third sounded from each cardinal direction.  The soldiers moved down the hill, and circled the clearing as the leaders stepped in, followed by Eran.

“There’s a trail of blood here,” Eran said prodding some leaves.  “Couple more patches that way it looks like.  They were headed north west by the looks of it.  This is all as old as the tracks in,” Eran shook his head.  “They are long gone.”

“I’d hoped you would tell me this was it, that they hadn’t gotten away,” Laurel grimaced.

“Other than the patrol that never returned this is the most evidence we’ve seen of the bandits outside of the caravan,” Arlen growled.  “At least some of them met justice.”

“All this really tells us is that they fled into Osyrae.  Telling, with everything else, but useless,” Horence offered.

“It’s enough,” Arlen gripped the hilt of his sword tightly.

Laurel stooped down and stared at the dried blood.  “There is no way they were driven off by our lost patrol.  Those bodies also aren’t our men I’ll wager.”  He looked around.  “This is also far too much damage for even one mage fighting common soldiers.”

“We’ll have to look closer at the dead,” Eran said, “but no, there is no way they are ours.  I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Nor have I exactly,” Laurel rubbed his beard.  “I’ve had a few proper fights with skilled brigand mages, but never did either of us leave a mess like this.  This looks like the work of two or more full war mages duking it out.  Maybe Sylvans…”

One quick whistle, followed by a cry of pain turned all to the north east.  One of the scouts ran, and stumbled into the clearing past the circled soldiers.  He lost his balance backwards, and fell, the arrow in his shoulder pushing through from the impact.  Everyone took positions, prepared for an attack.

“I can feel them out there, they are keeping their distance,” Laurel said under his breath.

“A warning shot maybe?” Eran asked.

“A bit bloody for a warning shot,” Horence countered.

“They are savages by their nature,” the priest said dismissively.

“They are no such thing,” Laurel snapped harshly.  “Keep your vitriol to yourself, Idolus.”

The priest sneered back at Laurel with equal displeasure.  He mulled over things he could say to further incite the man’s protective urges.  He had long abandoned further ideas of saving him, and therefor tormenting him was fair game, and could show him, and his dubious charges as the corruptive influence he held them to be.  He decided not to press the matter under perilous circumstances.

Eran moved cautiously to the wounded man’s side, as he struggled to get up.  He helped him to his feet, and brought him to Idolus.  “This will hurt,” Idolus said plainly, and pulled the arrow through.  The man shrieked, and Idolus began healing the wound.

“Still holding position,” Laurel repeated.

“We should hold our ground,” Arlen said firmly.  “We can’t let this evidence be lost.”

“There is nothing worth fighting for here,” Eran snapped.

“We must retreat,” Laurel said sternly.  “As a Council representative, I will not have us intrude if the Sylvan’s claim this part of the forest.”

“This land is still Avrale’s,” Arlen snapped.

“This stretch of forest was abandoned by Avrale hundreds of years ago,” Eran countered.  “Even then we are right on the traditional border.”

“We are going,” Laurel said flatly.  “Everyone form ranks, and back out slowly,” he yelled with commanding volume.  Several quick whistles from Eran gave the message to the remaining scouts.

< 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.



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.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃


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.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃


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.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃


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.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃


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.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃


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.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃


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.

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