Chapter 8

Laeune the moon,
daughter of night,
glorious barer,
of tranquil light,

she soothes us all,
that we might dream,
and takes harsh color,
from all we’ve seen,

Laeune the lover,
rhythm of womankind,
who’s gentle grace,
now guides my hand,

she brings us wisdom,
that we might yet see,
what lies before us,
there yet waiting to be.

– unattributed, circa 200 E.R.

The Moonlight

Vernum 1st, 647 E.R.

It was very late, and the corridors of the cloister were lit only by what moonlight could find a way through skylights, or the occasional window on the upper tier.  Katrisha knocked for the second time at Celia’s door, and waited uncomfortably.  She knew another Sister shared the room with Celia, and did not know quite what to say if the other girl answered instead.

A minute passed and Katrisha grew all the more awkward about the whole affair.  She hesitantly turned to leave, stopped herself, debated, sighed quietly, and turned back.  She was worried.  She had not seen Celia for three days, and their last meeting had been both brief, and odd.  Katrisha had wanted to thank Celia again for her help, but was still too embarrassed to do so publicly, and Celia for her part had seemed almost intent to extract herself from the conversation.

Katrisha raised her hand to the door, and paused, she wondered if it was worth pressing the matter so late in the evening, let alone with a stranger in the mix.  She resigned herself to leave, turned, and told herself it was nothing any way.  She stopped as she felt Celia’s familiar presence through the door.  She turned around again, but still there was a lingering moment before the door finally creaked open.

Katrisha formed a small ball of cool light in her hand that caught a glimmer of a tear on her friend’s cheek, before Celia could wipe it away.

“Are you alright?” Katrisha asked, her entire demeanor shifting towards concern.

“I’m alright,” Celia assured unconvincingly.  “It’s nothing.”

“I’ve not known you to be one to cry for no reason,” Katrisha said with a frown.  “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry at all.”

“Maybe…” Celia started, and floundered.  “Maybe you don’t know me well enough.”  She seemed to think better of her words, but also to be at a lack of an alternative, and so just held her tongue on that frustratedly.

“I’m sorry if I’ve intruded,” Katrisha said distinctly taken aback.

“No…” Celia said obviously pained.  “I didn’t mean…oh fates no I didn’t mean.”

Katrisha frowned.  “It’s a beautiful night out.  I was going to go watch the stars, but I was worried about you, and as I recall I said I’d bring you some time.  I don’t suppose you would like to?”

“I…” Celia seemed quite off balance.  “I would like that.”

“This way then,” Katrisha said motioning with the hand holding the light which wifed out as she turned.  “I hope I didn’t disturb your roommate too much,” Katrisha said apologetically.

“Huh?  Oh…uh, no, she’s out tonight,” Celia stammered slightly.

“Oh, why?” Katrisha said with mild curiosity, and wondered if perhaps it was related to Celia’s malaise.

“Just…out,” Celia said bashfully.  Katrisha could almost hear the blush in her voice, and turned to consider her friend in the inky shadow between skylights.  It was a tone Maraline had adopted on occasion when talking about Lukus, often with rosy cheeks.  Celia smiled meekly.  If her cheeks were at all a different hue it was impossible to tell in the pale light.

There was a charming helplessness about Celia at times, that Katrisha could never quite place.  She was smart, quick, and bold enough to ask Katrisha to teach her magic, even when she had heard her repeatedly turn down others.  Katrisha thought the bouts of self doubt did not do her justice, and yet it was part of her charm.  It suited her in spite of itself, and left a warm endearing quality.  Truly warm was what she felt like, simple enduring warmth, like a stone warmed in the sun, but softer.

“She’s staying with…a friend,” Celia said at last, looking away mid sentence.

“Ok,” Katrisha said scrunching her brow thoughtfully, and turning to head up the nearby stairs.  “Is that why you are sad?” she asked hesitantly after a few steps.

“W…What?” Celia asked, a bit off put.  It seemed almost as though halfway through her reaction she had changed from not understanding, to defensive.  “No, not at all.  I’m quite happy for her…though I’m not fond of the boy in question.  He has gotten…better.”

“Oh,” Katrisha said uncertain that had really answered anything.  She turned back at the top of the stairs.  “I hope I didn’t offend.”

“No,” Celia said, looking up at Katrisha, some confusion on her face.  “Why…no, I can guess why you would worry that.”  She seemed to be at a loss to put her jumbled thoughts together into words.  It was amusing, if worrisome.

Katrisha cocked her head curiously to the side at her friend for a moment, and waved for her to continue following as she turned down a short hall that lead outside.  They walked up to the railing overlooking the courtyard, and Katrisha watched as Celia gazed out, and then up into the starry sky above.

After a moment Katrisha kicked off her shoes, climbed onto a rail, and sought familiar footings, and handholds on the column.

“What are you doing?” Celia demanded in a harsh whisper.

“It’s better from the roof,” Katrisha said flatly, and with a hint of challenge in her voice.

“But,” Celia protested flusteredly as Katrisha deftly ascended the column, and pulled herself out of view.  Celia stepped to the side of the column Katrisha had climbed, and looked for the footholds she had used. They were obvious enough, if terrifyingly slim and precarious.

A moment passed before Katrisha hung her upper body back down, her silver hair dangling from the top of her head, shimmering mesmerizingly in the moonlight.  “Coming?” she asked simply, her head cocked again to the side.  She waited a moment, and then disappeared once more.

Celia bit her lip, and climbed up onto the rail, gingerly testing her traction on the ridges Katrisha had used to climb.  She placed her hand nervously on a swirl near the roof, and paused to take a deep breath.  She almost had the nerve, and then again had almost talked herself out the whole endeavor when she felt a hand on hers.

Celia looked up into the silver halo framing Katrisha’s face, and into the emerald eyes that seemed to glimmer down at her in the dark.  She steeled herself, took a step up, and let Katrisha pull her the rest of the way onto the roof.  She sat with her legs dangling down, and took several quick breaths, calming herself.

“See, nothing to worry about,” Katrisha said in a kind, but chiding tone.  Celia looked at her incredulously, but couldn’t help but return Katrisha’s crooked smile.

Katrisha moved deftly up the roof, found a spot, wiggled till the tiles were situated comfortably against her back, and crossed one leg over a propped up knee absently.

Celia moved more cautiously and lay a short distance to her side.  She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to relax, trying to enjoy just being in the moment without thinking or worrying.  She looked up at the sky, and it was beautiful.  She smiled to herself at the thought that Katrisha was right, there was something about lying down and looking up at it that was different somehow, better.

Celia looked over at Katrisha appreciatively, but was distracted by a strange glint between her fingers.  “What’s that?” she asked curiously.

“That,” Katrisha said measuredly past her concentration, “is a little trick I read about, and figured out how to do.  Takes a fussy lot of precision to get what I want out of it though.  The spell itself is fairly simple – though reach and clarity are a challenge.  I have to wonder if Kiannae would be better at it, she has something of a gift with manipulating light.  It isn’t quite like anything else though, it is a controlled amplification of light, making new light based on received light.  Not quite like common methods of invisibility, which are a redistribution of existing energy.  Still, reception is the key.”

“So, it’s not just a lense?” Celia asked.

“I tried that spell once.  Easy enough, but you can only see so much that way.  Surface area is the problem.  It’s very subtle but look out ahead of me.”

“Oh,” Celia remarked glimpsing the faint glimmer of magic a dozen feet above Katrisha, and a few feet across.  The filaments connecting it down to to the glimmer between her fingers, that did still looked a bit like a lense, stray rays of light amplified from various parts of the sky.

“Even knowing all the principles, I had to recreate the underlying behavior described in the technique.  Magic is so easily lost.  All the written principles in the world amount to very little, if one cannot master the basic conversion, and there is no writing that down.  It can only be experienced first hand.  Though, I suppose one could store conversions as enchantments, but those decay, and there are diminishing returns.  Copying copies.”

“But you did it?”

“What can I say, I’m exceptional, or perhaps just stubborn.  Laurel said he did not know the underlying conversion, and had never had the patience to try and find it.  Here, let me show you.” Katrisha rolled over, and placed two fingers in front of Celia’s right eye.  Startling her slightly. “Now close the other,” she commanded.  “Be warned, it can be disorienting at first.”  

Celia did as she was bid, and gasped as what she saw changed. It was almost as though she flew forward into the sky.  “Take my hand,” Katrisha said encouragingly after Celia’s initial shock had passed, “and move it very gently.  Tell me if you want to look closer.”

“O…ok,” Celia said shakily opened her left eye for a moment to confirm she hadn’t moved, and thought better of it as the split image hurt her head.  She brought her fingers hesitantly to Katrisha’s hand, and took a deep breath.

It was frustrating at first, how the tiniest movements made the sky fly by in an instant.  In one pass she saw something, strange, and it took well over a minute for her to catch a glimpse again.  “There, closer!” she said excitedly as she managed to get Katrisha’s hand at just the right angle.  “It’s beautiful, what is it?” she asked as she examined the intricate multi colored tendrils.

“Tell me what you see,” Katrisha said carefully, with metered breaths, doing all she could to hold her hand steady, and the spell perfectly stable.

“It’s like a flower made of light,” Celia said excitedly.

“I think you’ve found a nebulae,” Katrisha said with a smile.

“But…” Celia said a bit flustered, “what does that mean?”

“It’s the remnants of a dead star,” Katrisha said struggling to hold her focus.

“Dead,” Celia said doubtfully. “Why is it so pretty then?  That doesn’t seem right.”

Katrisha lost her focus, and the intricate filaments of the nebulae vanished as magical ones dissipated in faint swirls.

“Dead is…probably not the right word,” Katrisha said as Celia turned to look at her wide eyed.  “It’s like the smoke and embers of a fire, that stretches as far as it takes light to travel in years.”

Celia baffled for a moment over all the unknown parts of that idea, finally sticking to the idea that light takes time to travel, but was quickly distracted from that train of thought by Katrisha’s face in the moonlight.  She was fiddling again with her spell, this time looking off towards the horizon.  Celia sighed, which distracted Katrisha, who glanced down at her friend’s wide grin, and smiled back absently before returning to scanning the sky.

“Thank you,” Celia said after a moment. “For showing me that…for…for everything.”

“You, are welcome,” Katrisha said again glancing at Celia’s fixed expression.  She laughed from the seemingly comical intensity of it.  It was certainly an improvement from having found her crying, but she was just as much at a loss to explain the change.  Celia could be flighty Katrisha thought, but she chided herself that she could as well.  It seemed different somehow, like a powerful unseen force was tugging at her friends emotions, whipping her back and forth like a banner in the wind.

“You never told me what was bothering you,” Katrisha said laying her hand on the roof between them, “and I think I owe you at least an ear to listen, after the other day…”

Katrisha could almost see the wheels turning behind Celia’s eyes as she seemed to work backwards and forwards over what she wanted to say.  “I…I wasn’t offended,” she came to at last.

“I’m sorry?” Katrisha pressed not having followed the train of thought.

“When you implied I might be sad that Lena was out…with a friend,” Celia said awkwardly.

“Oh,” Katrisha said, understanding the reference at least, but not the meaning.  “I haven’t thought a lot on such things, but…I know they are,” Katrisha said not sure where she was going with the line of reasoning.  “I’m also not blind,” she settled on, “I’ve seen some of the other girls and women who…are obviously more than friends.”

“They tell us it’s not…as common outside of the cloisters, and that some people out there are offended by the very idea,” she frowned, obviously concerned with her own line of conversation.

“I…” Katrisha trailed off.  “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, in fact I can’t say it is true with any certainty…but…heh,” she shook her head.  “You don’t really know either of them.  There are too men, very close to me in my life.  I know in my heart there is something there between them.”

“Oh,” Celia said, a bit surprised.  “I suppose there is that as well.  It’s…rarer, but there are fewer men amongst us after all.”

“It would seem statistically less prevalent by consequence, yes,” Katrisha mused, and looked horribly embarrassed.  “Still I don’t know it to be true.  Just glances I’ve caught, an odd familiarity they share, a touch of a hand noticed out of…” she hesitated as a hand rested on hers.  “Oh…” she said, swallowed, and the hand was quickly withdrawn.

Celia looked away mortified.

“Oh…” Katrisha repeated flummoxed.

“I’m sorry,” Celia said sitting up, wrapping her arms around herself, and turning away, as she choked back a sob.

“No…” Katrisha started, “no…oh goodness I’ve been daft, haven’t I?  I…I said I haven’t thought much about such things, and that goes…farther than just philosophically.  I’ve barely considered boys in quite some time, let alone…oh fates I’m just making this worse.” her voice had raised more nervously with every syllable.

“No,” Celia said her voice strained, “no it’s my fault, you aren’t one of us…and you came to us so troubled.  I couldn’t have expected you to notice…to…I’m so sorry.”

Celia started to move, but Katrisha caught her shoulder, then cheek gently and turned her back to face her.  “Please, I didn’t ask you to go, did I?” she said her face stricken with a flurry of emotions, but chief among them concern.  “I didn’t…I didn’t say I wasn’t willing to entertain the thought, only that…I hadn’t…yet…”  She was trying very hard to smile reassuringly, but she was far too much in need of reassurance herself to pull it off.

“I’m sor…I need to stop saying that…I really do,” she said almost angrily.  Guilt and other conflicts plain on her face.  “Fates…I…didn’t…” Celia stiffened, but seemed to regain some composure.  “Fates, I feel horrid.  I’ve…I’ve been on the other side of this.  I should have known better, maybe.  Maybe it’s just ‘cause you are older…but what am I saying, I was older than him, and I wasn’t ready…and he…found someone else.  He was also the only one…the only…oh never mind.  I’m s…no I’m not saying that anymore.  Oh Light I shouldn’t be laying all this on you.”

“It’s ok,” Katrisha said her own thoughts spinning a bit at the situation.  “As I said…I owe you at least an ear for all that troubles you.  Not just for how you helped me the other night, but because you have made me feel welcome here, like…I belong.  More so than anyone.  Well except maybe Renae, but that’s not the same.  She’s been like a loving aunt, you have been a true friend.”

“I haven’t spoiled that friendship have I?” Celia asked hesitantly, a tear rolling down her cheek.

“No,” Katrisha said brushing the tear away with her thumb, and letting her hand rest there.  “No you haven’t.  You have been nothing but kind…and considerate, perhaps too much so for your own good.  And I have repaid you to date with blindness it seems.  I think I’m the one in the wrong here, not you.  I’m willing to figure out what…might be, but I promise you, I can’t bear the thought of not being your friend.”

“Only willing?” Celia asked hesitantly, trying to reassure herself that she wasn’t pushing something unwanted on her friend, but worried as soon as it was said it might seem all the more pressing.

“Curious, confused…fates I don’t know,” she ran her fingers through her hair, “seems like a novel new way I could cause Laurel headaches, if nothing else.”  Katrisha laughed awkwardly, but thought better of her levity.  “I’ve clearly been oblivious to the very possibility, so willing, perhapsm hopeful.  I don’t know what more I can possibly offer.”

Celia leaned closer to Katrisha, hesitantly, testingly, and watched her eyes for discomfort at her forwardness, but all she could see was kindness, a quizzical curiosity, and concern.  There was no fear in those haunting green eyes, no sign of an inclination to pull away, and then there was a glimmer of determination as Katrisha pulled Celia closer, and kissed her fleetingly.

Katrisha struggled between emotion and observation.  Analysis of feelings that stirred, her heart’s unquestionable response.  Years of an untended illness had held her back in many ways, and it seemed in that sliver of a moment something in her nature yearned to make up for lost time.  Yet all of this paled in comparison to the certainty with which Celia launched into another, more lingering, wanting kiss.

Moments faded to minutes, or hours for all the difference Katrisha would have known.  Only the familiar moon that hung in the sky lied about a finite passage of time.  Gentle fingertips wandered aimlessly, trying to find their place in a dance meant for soft lips, and humorously inconvenient noses.

If lips spoke of certainty, hands spoke falteringly of all that was unknown, and unsure.  They wove a caring step of caution, overwhelmed by powerful instincts new, and undefined.  It was not unlike learning to touch magic, the moment you felt it the first time it was remarkable, but you could hardly figure out what to do.  Formless, clumsy, there was a response in kind, and then it collapsed, but you had discovered something gloriously new.

Breathless, Celia gave way, and lay her head on Katrisha’s shoulder.  It is rare to truly sense the emotion of another, even in the most intimate moments.  Yet in that instant Katirsha knew Celia’s whole world lay wrapped up in that embrace. That all Celia had dreamed of for weeks felt possible, and right at her aimless fingertips.  It could hardly have felt a greater honor, or imposition.  A responsibility placed upon her that she was unsure if she could own.  That in a moment of impulse she had accepted.

Celia laughed suddenly, and and broke the fragile impression.  “From the moment I met you,” she murmured wistfully.  “I have been trying to figure out what your presence felt like.”  She sighed and curled all the more insistently against Katrisha.  “I always wanted to liken it to sunlight, but it’s not the warm prickles of a summer sun.  I’ve finally realized what it is.  You are moonlight, a cool wash of moonlight on my skin.  Yet right now, so close to you, I think even that is wrong.  You are the ocean, warm, dark, and deep.  I feel like I’m in over my head.  I should be terrified, but I’m not.  Which is just funny, really.  I’ve never seen the ocean, never swam in water deeper than my waist.  Never even left the cloister.  Yet I am as certain of these things, as I am that this is where I want to be.  If I drowned in you, I would die happy.”

Katrisha slowly came back to the living world.  Dragged unwillingly by the intensity of Celia’s musings.  She, was afraid, but she was not sure it was a bad kind of fear.  She kissed the top of Celia’s head.  She considered the assertion, and found that a passing embrace had never let her appreciate how much different a presence could feel that close.  Not warm like a stone in the sun, but like a raindrop refracting the sunlight.  It was beautiful, serene, complex, and seemingly fragile.  Fear, lay it breaking something so beautiful with a clumsy misstep.

She wondered what the difference between love and friendship was, and tried to remember what Mercu had to say on the matter.  ‘It is the difference between the river and the stream, the sky and the breeze.  Where one begins the other does not end, and more over the line does not exist any more than we foolishly protest that it must.’

“A half pence for your thoughts?” Celia asked after comfortable silence had faded to a sliver of doubt.

“Really, just thinking about things I don’t know.  Which seems to be a lot more than I usually like to admit,” Katrisha said softly.

“Oh fates, we are in trouble if you don’t know, aren’t we?” Celia laughed.

“Troubles an old friend.  I’ll introduce you, it’ll be fun,” Katrisha mused lightly.

Celia buried her face in Katrisha’s neck to stifle her laughter.  Katrisha held her friend close and sighed contentedly, she felt very good there in her arms.  Relief had finally caught up in the emotional jumble she felt.  All the fears that had lead her to Celia’s door that night were washed away.  A part of her had worried that Celia was mad at her for something she wasn’t aware of.  Perhaps she had, been a bit, Katrisha considered.  For not seeing how she felt.  She could own that guilt, as reasonable as her ignorance seemed.  More though it felt like she had been discouraged.

Doubt nagged still at the edge of her thoughts, was this what she wanted?  It certainly felt good, it certainly made Celia happy, and she admitted to herself she would be disappointed if it – whatever it was – stopped so suddenly.  There was potential, for what she still didn’t fully grasp, but potential was always exciting.

Potential was energy in waiting, ready, and anxious to become action.  You could feel it an object about to fall.  In an electric buildup reaching to discharge.  In a fresh flame sputtering to life.  Katrisha could feel that in herself, and it was a little unnerving.

Musings of uncertainty were cut short with a gasp as lips met a vulnerable neck, and the tingle down Katrisha’s spine quickly made doubts dull, familiar things, as all that was new and unknown proved vastly more interesting.  She hummed softly as Celia explored.  Her head rolled back, and eyes closed instinctively, which lead the trail of kisses downward across her throat.

“That feels lovely,” Katrisha murmured.

“I’m glad,” Celia responded nervously.  Katrisha felt Celia’s trembling hand rest on her heart, and gave a contented sigh.  It was sweet, simple, reassuring, and filled her with an absolute sense of peace.

Tentative fingers drifted from Katrisha’s heart, as lips still worked at her neck with seeking kisses, trying to find any sensitive spot.  She felt the a gentle flow of energy into her as Celia’s hand lovingly meandered.  Gentle living energy which made skin, muscles, every cell beneath the touch hum with life.  She felt more aware, more sensitive in all the right ways to the feathery touch, and somewhere past the growing pleasantness, and distraction, it clicked in her mind, a simple logical possibility already being put into practice.

Katrisha suddenly understood something she had never even considered, that the gift could be used affectionately.  That the same principles that allowed for such practices to temporarily enhance strength, allow the body to push farther, faster, and harder in battle could also be used to make it more sensitive, more aware.

In a way Katrisha was terrified.  The simple act of kisses on her neck had already started to addle most higher thoughts and concerns.  That wasn’t making love, it was barely undignified in public.  She knew precious little about what lay beyond that point, but if it was beyond, then it had to be more…and if fueled by the power of living gift. She bit her lip trying to imagine.  It was a heady overwhelming prospect, but any fear or doubt the idea raised in the back of her mind was quickly dwindling under what Celia was drawing out of her.

Willingness, and piqued curiosity were lost concepts.  Want, was then in search of a roost, a place in her to call its own.  It had always been there, like a shadow.  Though placing the moments the specter belonged to proved difficult, and the present seemed of more import.

Katrisha could feel herself sinking to the roof, melting under Celia’s attentions.  A part of her wanted to simply let go, to be Celia’s to do with as she pleased.  It was a powerful part, but surprisingly, unexpectedly it lost a contest of will Katrisha hadn’t even imagined was under way.  Almost before she knew what she was doing she was the one looming over Celia, kissing and caressing her, enjoying Celia’s gasps of pleasure and surprise more than she could have anticipated.

They were satisfying sounds, and the sensations, and the smell of Celia’s skin was delightful.  She realized it was almost as intoxicating from the other side, and there was a touch of frustration in that.  She had wanted back some semblance of control, and though it seemed her mind was clearer, she felt no more in control.  It was her own desire determining what happened, not Celia’s.  It was her desire.  She had barely imagined such a thing existed.  A slumbering creature truly woken for the first time, and wrapped around her heart possessively.

There was so much to learn, to understand.  Katrisha was lost in the act of exploring, feeling caressing.  She was delighted with each new discovery, and tried with great success to replicate the technique Celia had used on her.  As the minutes rolled on, and as lost as she was in her task she became more unsure of what came next.  

She could guess.  Obvious places unventured, but that seemed rushed, and clearly crossed a line to yet more undiscovered country.  It was a leap she wasn’t ready to make, and she settled back beside Celia, and nestled her head against her shoulder.  Taking time to let her heart come back down to reality, all the while daydreaming fretfully of new realities.

Katrisha watched Celia’s chest rise and fall beneath her robe, and let her fingers wander over her form in the moonlight.  She loved the moonlight, but she wondered if she loved Celia.  Treasured her friendship, without question.  Adored her company, and was ecstatic from new and unfamiliar feelings, and sensations, certainly.  She was closer to Celia than she had been to anyone in her life – save her own twin – and surely that meant something.  Yes, she convinced herself, yes she could love Celia, but was she in love?  What even she wondered was the difference?  Was it passion?  That seemed far too easily available, and far too simple.  Nothing was ever so simple.

She had placed her life between a dragon, and her mentor.  Between a dire cat, and a soldier who was only a passing acquaintance.  She felt like for Celia, she would stand against the whole world.  Even her own uncertainty, doubt, and sometimes bumbling social graces.  All at once, the feeling did not seem new, or changed, just understood.

“Yes,” Katrisha said softly.  “Yes, I want to know where this goes.  But…I need to know what you expect, what you need from me, because this is all much too new.  I’m afraid…I don’t want to lose…” she couldn’t even make up her mind what she meant to say there.  Anything, she finally decided, she didn’t want to lose anything.  She already felt like she had lost too much.  She couldn’t lose Celia.

“I need,” Celia started tentatively.  “I want,” she corrected, “to share with you all that I am.  That last little bit we all keep hidden away.  I expect nothing, but I hope that you will allow me to continue to hold you, and touch you, and…kiss you,”  she laughed nervously.

“I think I would like that,” Katrisha murmured softly.  “I think I would like that very much.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vernum 2nd, 648 E.R.

Katrisha woke to a feeling at once familiar, and strange.  She had curled up next to her sister countless times in the years they had shared their tower chamber.  The feeling of Celia’s sleeping form in her arms was different in so many ways, and yet the memory haunted her, and brought her a pang of grief, and confusion.  She clung more tightly to Celia, who stirred, and nuzzled against her chest, a relatively new sensation that washed away Katrisha’s troubles for at least a moment.

After several wandering sleepy kisses Celia looked up drowsily into Katrisha’s eyes.  “Hello,” Celia said softly, a touch of uncertainty creeping into her voice.

“Hi,” Katrisha said with the same nervous air.  She clung to the night they had spent kissing beneath the stars, and falling asleep in each other’s arms after wandering back to her bed at some forsaken hour before dawn.  

There was no regret in her for that, she was certain.  What ever was yet to be, the simple innocent awkwardness of the moment was exhilarating.  She was happy, she told herself, even as fear nagged at the edges of her mind.  Happy had been in painfully short supply for far too long.

Celia’s eyes suddenly went wide.  “What time is it?” she snapped, staring out the window at the bright daylight.

“I’m not sure,” Katrisha said, held up her hand, and a small triangular shape formed, wobbled, and pointed at in the direction of the sun.  “About mid morning,” Katrisha said absently.

“Crap,” Celia said wincing, “I’m late for garden duty.”

“Oh,” Katrisha said still half awake.

“Could you let me out,” Celia implored awkwardly, not really wanting to leave, but needing to, and lay trapped against the wall by Katrisha.

“Oh, yes,” Katrisha said and got up out of bed.  She scratched her head.  “Sorry.”

“No, please don’t apologize,” Celia said lifted up, hugged Katrisha, and kissed her firmly.  “It was wonderful, you are wonderful, and I hate to go…but I must.”

“It’s ok,” Katrisha said stealing a second kiss.  “Go, I have my own lateness to answer for, I’m sure.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Theron watched as a wrinkle on his hand slowly faded.  “Very good,” he said encouragingly.  “Age is not an easy adversary to push back,” he added.  “It’s natural, it’s one inclination of the body, but for the most part our forms want to be young, they just forget how.”

“How old are you?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“I’ll be eighty five next spring,” Theron said in a matter of fact tone.

“You don’t look it,” Katrisha said in mild disbelief, the man before her looked no older than Mercu, but was over thirty years his elder.  “You are even older than the King,” she added, though pondered that Laurel had never mentioned his age, even been evasive on the matter.  She knew that gifted people lived longer lives, had understood they aged slower, but had easily mistaken the common condition of age in the members of the court to be indicative of what she should expect.  That had been silly, but mostly just unexamined.

“I remember the King as a boy,” Theron laughed.  “Is it really so surprising how old I am?  You know Rennae is over seventy, don’t you?”

“I…didn’t actually,” Katrisha said with some embarrassment.

“Oh, yes,” Theron said thoughtfully.  “I suppose you might not have had reason to know that.”  He eyed her shrewdly for a moment.  “Something is different about you today,” he said seeming almost as though he was changing the subject.

“I…don’t know what you are talking about,” Katrisha winced.

“You lie badly when you are flustered,” Theron said with a laugh.  “You seem much happier, and yet…” Theron scratched his head, “troubled.  Yes, I see it now, you are in love…or at least right on the cusp of it.”

“I…I…how did you know?” Katrisha sputtered.

“How long did I just say I’ve been alive for?” Theron chuckled.  “And what are the core matters of spiritual studies?  You should remember that affairs of the heart are on that list.”

“Oh…” Katrisha sighed, and looked down.

“I won’t press the topic,” Theron said sympathetically, “but I am here if you need advice.”

“Thank you,” Katrisha said uncertainly.  “It’s just…I don’t want to talk about it, and yet…the whole thing is scary.”

“Such is the way of young love,” Theron said pointedly.  “It is full of excitement, and fear is after all very exciting.”

“Not terribly helpful,” Katrisha muttered.

“No,” Theron laughed kindly, “but honest.  I have known it from every angle in my many years.”

“The one thing…the thing that really bothers me,” Katrisha said as she fished for the right words.  “I never even considered loving…” she hesitated again, considering the wisdom of the admission.  It did seem a accepted state of affairs in that place, but still, she bit her lip.  “…another girl,” she finally steamed herself to say.  “And I do, I think.  At very least enough that I’m afraid I might change my mind, and hurt her, and that terrifies me.”

“I must admit, ‘never having considered’ it, is a new one by me.”  Theron mused.  “It is so easy to forget the world out there, and how it works.  Even then not so very new I suppose.  Everyone matures at their own rate, our gifts skew that problem more, not less.  The number of youth I have counseled who have found themselves hopelessly in love, or hopelessly loved…”

Theron shook his head, distracted by his own train of thought.  “When we really love someone, we concern ourselves for their wellbeing.  We are flawed creatures, prone to fickle whims, all of us, and so it is not unreasonable to fear our own impact on one dear to us.  The thing to cling to, is that you care, or you would not have this fear.  Always put that concern first, and you will do the best you can by her.”

“That…actually helps, I guess,” Katrisha said looking away.

“I have other duties that must be tended,” Theron said standing up to leave.  “Unless you are in need of more council presently?”

“No,” Katrisha said.  “No, and thank you.”

Katrisha sat in the sun for a while, and for once it didn’t bother her.  She let herself imagine the warmth was Celia’s touch.  She did love her, she tried to convince herself.  The idea was still new, and odd, and tangled up with all it meant.  She already had, she told herself.  What she felt had not changed over night, even if it had gained so many new dimensions.

The sound of footsteps in the grass caught Katrisha’s attention just as she felt the approach of a familiar aura.    He always felt warmer than the sun, and yet it never bothered her.  She opened her eyes, and smiled at Wren who was walking towards her in a seemingly casual manner.

“Hello,” Katrisha said with a half smile, “what brings you to the courtyard?”

“Oh, not much,” Wren lied.  “You seem…well, different somehow, though.”

“Oh, not you too with that,” Katrisha laughed awkwardly.

“I overheard, from the balcony,” Wren admitted with mixed humor.  “I…couldn’t resist.  To be fair I was listening in to start with, because I had already heard.”

“Already?” Katrisha winced.

“Sort of,” Wren said kindly.  “Celia was late today, there were questions.  She dodged a lot of them, and I put the pieces together from what she didn’t say.  I might not have been the only one to figure it out though.”

Katrisha sighed deeply.  “I….I don’t know what to say,” she said looking up to Wren for approval.  “I also…don’t know what to do.”

“I…wouldn’t feel right offering you advice,” Wren said looking away.

“But…” Katrisha started, “you, must know something of how this all works.”

“I know how things are for Audry, and me.  I suspect there are…differences…”  He laughed, but it seemed an odd sort of humor.  “Some things,” he started gain, “are better figured out on your own.  There is a certain…joy in muddling around at first I think.  Besides, I haven’t really figured out which one of you to scold not to hurt the other – yet.”

“She really means alot to you, doesn’t she?” Katrisha asked pointedly.

“She’s…a very close friend,” Wren said evasively.  “You, her, Audry, and Renae.  You four are the world to me.”

“I will try to do right by her,” Katrisha pledged nervously.  “I just…haven’t figured this whole thing out yet.”

“Give it time,” Wren said patting his sister on the shoulder, “and…though I don’t recommend looking it up right away, there is a book.  I know you like books for your answers.  You probably can get a copy of it from the library if you ask…  Audry was able to.  We’ve been reading it together.  It’s…enlightening.”

“What book?” Katrisha said scratching her head.

“It’s known best as the Red Book,” Wren said shrewdly.  “Written by a mage of all things…though she was really so much more.  Her name was Sylvia, Sylvia Grey for all her family tried to forget her.  I’ve sometimes wondered if she’s a distant relation to Laurel. I wouldn’t ask him though, he might be embarrassed if you did.”

“Is it that…bad?” Katrisha asked uneasily.

“I wouldn’t say there is a single bad thing about it,” Wren said sternly.  “Others, out there…” her gestured absently, “might disagree.  She was disowned by her whole family, then rose to more prominence than any of them ever had, or would.  Funny that, they disowned her, but she is the one the world remembers, while they passed into obscurity.”

“But Laurel is a court mage,” Katrisha protested.

“Of a minor kingdom,” Wren corrected, “and surely you remember Mercu’s tale of how Laurel found himself in that position?  I do.  I was there for one telling.”

“Right, Prince Darion,” Katrisha laughed, “saved him from bandits.”

“Before that he was just a mage traveling with caravans,” Wren added.

“His family was wealthy enough to have cut him off as a threat, at one point,” Katrisha said trying to remember various stories Mercu had told.

“Rich families do not necessarily have that much importance,” Wren sighed.  “Certainly not compared to a woman who openly defined the Clarions on their very border, whispered in the ears of princes, princesses, queens, and kings, and has an entire sect of Sisters devoted to her writings.  The entire order in some senses founded in her image.”

“And you are sure I shouldn’t read up on her sooner, rather than wait?” Katrisha laughed.

“She is in most post imperial history books, that haven’t purposefully written her out,” Wren said with a shrug.  “You’ll likely find more that have than haven’t though.”

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Chapter 5

Had I not known you,
I would be a lesser man,
even should I now reign,
in this unimagined land,
I would not be even half,
of who this day I stand.

– Alexander Durandal, circa 380 E.R.

Friends in Need

Rhaeus 26th 647 E.R.

Kiannae looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps, and found Zale walking somewhat cautiously towards her.

“Strange breeze today,” he remarked glancing around.  Kiannae let out a long slow breath, and the direction of the wind dramatically shifted.  “Oh,” he said an almost startled look creeping over his face as he fully appreciated what had happened.  He could feel it then, but far more subtle in action and profound in result than he was used to.

“Nice of you to walk up like a normal person,” Kiannae said rolling her shoulders, and rubbing her neck as the breeze came to a stop.

“I did say I was sorry about last time,” Zale sighed.  “Then I figured I’d give you some space.”

“Well, as Landri likes to point out, difficult is my way.”

“She can be a bit judgmental,” Zale offered as he sat down across from Kiannae.

“Oh, no,” Kiannae laughed, “she’s quite right.”

“They usually save teaching the elemental stuff for advanced students,” Zale mused, attempting to shift away from Kiannae’s self deprecating jabs.

“What can I say, I’m advanced.”  she said with a grin.  “I pressed Landri about it, she said they had been focusing on all the life stuff because it was farther from what I had already been taught,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“And then you insisted she expand her lesson plan?” Zale asked curiously.

“She was hesitant at first, concerned I would fall back on mage methods, and cause myself more trouble.”  Kiannae sighed.  “When she relented to teach me however she found that my methods were not as magely as she had expected.  I always found the direct solution to an end easier, unlike Kat…” she trailed off sadly.

“You miss her don’t you?” Zale said with a frown.

“What kind of miserable question is that?” Kiannae demanded with a touch of anger.  “She was my twin, like a part of my very soul.  Miss her…yes you might say that.”  She was fiery eyed, her breath quicker, and the wind a bit more erratic to match.

“I’m sorry,” Zale said with a flustered expression and nervous tone.  His eyes darted around a bit, trying to judge how much control she had over the wind, or her effect on it.  “I didn’t mean it that way.  I was just offering…an ear to listen…”

“I…” Kiannae sighed, and the wind calmed again.  “No, I’m sorry, I can tell you were trying to be friendly, and failing miserably.  Though I don’t know why you are going out of your way for me.”

“If you haven’t noticed there aren’t a lot our age around here,” Zale said pointedly.

“We aren’t exactly the same age,” Kiannae shot back.

“Closer than anyone else,” Zale sighed.  “There is Riley and Fenric, but they are twenty five, and joined at the hip…more than figuratively.  Then there are the little kids…”

“You poor dear,” Kiannae said in a mocking tone, “with only me for company.”

“Again,” Zale sighed, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“And if you are going to be hanging around me alot,” Kiannae said tersely, “you’ll need to learn to deal with the sarcasm.”

“Fair,” Zale laughed uncomfortably.

There was a stretch of awkward silence before Zale tried to break the ice again.  “So you are just out here playing with the wind?”

“It’s…relaxing,” Kiannae said with a shrug.  “What do you do with your free time, other than climbing around in trees, and sneaking up on younger women?”

“Not much,” Zale sighed, “about as much to do around here as there are people my age to talk to.  I miss being on the road with my mother…but father insisted I stay here for a while.”

Kiannae stood up, stretched, and with a wave of her hand called forth a gentle breeze.  “So play with the wind,” she said with a laugh and graceful twirl.  The air moved flawlessly with her, a strange zephyr that swirled in perfect sync as she spun.

Zale watched curiously as Kiannae began to dance to some unheard music.  Trails of light formed behind her hands, and smaller wild gusts whorled the light in all but unfathomable ways around her.  Leaves were lifted on the wind, and carried around her in a gentle spiral.

The light felt right to Kiannae, it was the wind, tracing forms that eyes could not see. The light came from the wind, her hands merely instruments.  Her motion itself was a whim, a whimsy, it was her forms shape on the breeze, and following its course seemed to take no energy, and even give, stollen not from the aether, but in spiraling tracks though the world.  A wind moved faster, a wind moved slower.  Everything conserved, nothing challenged.  An order emerged from chaos, and she was that order.  There was a breath to the world.  The winter would draw it in, the spring would exhale.

After several minutes of the unexpected spectacle Kiannae simply stopped, and the wind almost snapped to still, dropping the leaves it had carried like autumn colored snowflakes all around.  “So, were you going to join me?” she asked cocking her head to the side.

“I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” Zale said scratching his head.  “I know the basics of everything I just saw…but I can’t even fathom how you put it all together, or what inspired you to do so.”  He left out his doubts about the sheer power that seemed behind it, or if it was power precisely and not something harder to name.  Though he did carefully consider if flattery could be in his favor.

Kiannae huffed, strolled back to the tree, and sat against it again.  “You are going to need to work on being more interesting, you know?”

“I fear I’ll never be as ‘interesting’ as what I just saw,” Zale said with an awkward grin, gambling that playful might get him farther.

“Then I’ll have to teach you,” Kiannae said with a disappointed grumble.

“To make swirling wind and light?” Zale laughed dubiously.

“No, to be interesting,” Kiannae corrected. “Because if what you say is true, you are my best hope for company…and that, is to say the least worrisome.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 40th, 647 E.R.

Kiannae stood by the riverside as the other women of the circle undressed, and descended into the gently flowing waters.  At the castle she had bathed almost daily, but the druids only trekked up to a deep stretch of river a few times a week.  She noticed that only a very few would go with every group, and she was among them.  Even though the river was generally far colder than she would like.

They had left the men some distance downstream, and around a bend.  She was used to bathing around other women, and though the calm stretch of the river did not provide the same secure privacy as the walls of the castle bath, she had never caught sight one of the men spying.  That didn’t mean, she realized, it didn’t happen, or that they were not so deft as to go unnoticed.  Still, she certainly had not seen it.

She absently started to wander farther up stream, which seemed to go unnoticed as the other women were distracted chatting, or simply relaxing in the water.  As she walked Kiannae became absent minded.  On straight clear stretches she would close her eyes, and listen to the birds.  She passed a short two foot fall as she came to a third bend.  She began to wonder if she should head back, but decided peaking around the turn could not hurt.

There she found a beautiful pool, fed by an eight foot fall with large smooth stones at its base, and in places cascading off smaller outcroppings.  She wondered for a moment why the other women did not bathe there instead.  She decided it was simply too far, when the lower pool they generally used was entirely sufficient, if less idyllic.  Deciding she should bathe she stripped down, and slipped into the deep clear waters.  The pool was even slower flowing than the lower section of the river, and seemed much warmer than she had become accustomed to.  Which delighted her.

For a moment Kiannae was back at the castle, and five years old, when she was still small enough to properly swim in the shallow waters of the women’s bath.  She became completely lost in the sensation, and moved through the water with an absent minded glee.  She closed her eyes, and twirled slowly, feeling the flow of it around her.  Her training kicked in without even thinking, and she felt like a part of the stream.

Slowly her motions became more a dance than swimming.  She entirely lost track of time as minutes passed, and on into two hours.  She was at one with the river, timeless, and yet ever flowing.  For the first time in months there was no sorrow that could intrude, only a simple joy.  The way the water moved around her was delicate, perfect, and she was unaware as someone approached her private pool unannounced.

Kiannae opened her eyes at the end of a particularly successful twirl, and it took her a moment to come back to reality, and recognize that someone was standing a short distance in front of her on the bank.  Before even that had fully sunk in she realized first that it was Zale, and second that he was at eye level.  The twinge of embarrassment stood no chance against the realization that she was suspended in a spiral of water that was nearly five feet above the rest of the pool.

This condition changed almost instantly, and Kiannae found herself briefly floundering as the water collapsed out from under her.   She coughed as she struggled to regain her bearings, and get the water out of her nose, and off her face.  When she could see again she snapped into anger, glaring at Zale who stood awestruck, jaw quite literally dropped, and clearly unapologetic before her.

“You have some nerve,” Kiannae growled, the effectiveness of which was cut somewhat by another cough.

“I would have said something…as I approached,” Zale said starting to show some sign of embarrassment, “but…but what in the abyss was that?”

“Don’t change the subject,” Kiannae snapped defensively, still trying to process herself what had happened.

“Yes…yes, because me coming looking for you when the other women showed up without you, and happening upon…you…” Zale said, seemingly searching for words, “suspended five feet up in swirling water.  Yes, no…I suppose that’s not the subject,” he said defensively.

Kiannae seemed to shrink, and quickly covered her chest with her arms, finally making the mental connection between her embarrassment, and needing to do something about it.  Zale turned his back then, to his credit.  “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just…I couldn’t look away from…whatever that was.  It was breathtaking.”

“And the fact that I was naked didn’t enter into it at all?” Kiannae growled treading water again once she didn’t feel the need to cover up.

“Well perhaps you were breathtaking as well?” Zale offered in a legitimately uncomfortable tone, “but I have seen a naked woman before…that however was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

“And when have you seen a naked woman?” Kiannae demanded accusingly.

“I grew up on the road…one sees a great many things,” Zale said evasively, and laughed uncomfortably.

“Do you now?” Kiannae chided, “such as young women bathing in private?”

“There was little private about that show,” Zale laughed even more nervously, “but I dare say that dancer had less than half your grace, and not a third your beauty.”  The attempt at flattery fell flat for its exaggeration, even if it was clear there was some honesty buried under it somewhere.

“Not helping yourself,” Kiannae grumbled.  “Would you please leave, so I can dress?” she demanded angrily.

“Yes,” Zale said, and started to move back downstream, “I’ll wait for you around the bend.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Zale heard Kiannae approach, but she simply marched past him without saying a word.  He stood for a moment uncomfortably, and then hurried after her, as her brisk pace was carrying her quite quickly down stream.  “I’m sorry,” he offered again.

Kiannae stopped, and fumed.  “You should be,” was all she found to say in turn.

“I came around the bend, and there you were,” Zale protested.  “I…should have said something, but…alright, if I’m honest you being naked probably did have something to do with it, but that was at least the third thing I noticed.”

“Name the others?” Kiannae demanded tersely, turned on her heel and crossed her arms.

“The column of water,” Zale started, “how it moved…how you moved…then naked.  I really couldn’t even see much, but yeah, I noticed…alright?  I’m sorry.”  Kiannae didn’t look terribly appease.  “I should have said something, turned my back…but…how did you even do that?”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said.  “The same way as the wind?  I wasn’t trying, wasn’t thinking…I didn’t even know it was happening till I came out of it, and saw you.”

“Weren’t trying!?” Zale snapped suddenly, a bewildered expression crossing his face.

Kiannae took more than a moment staring at him, trying to believe the look on his face.  “I wasn’t,” she insisted.

“I don’t think there is a single druid here who could do what you just did if they tried with all their might,” Zale protested.  “And…you did it without even trying?”

Kiannae finally adopted another expression than irritation, or doubt.  She looked a bit confused.  “Are you sure?” she asked, trying to make sense out of that.

“I don’t know,” Zale said, “maybe?  I mean, maybe some of them could, if they tried, really hard.  Maybe,” he stressed.

Kiannae looked to the river, and was quite a minute.  “Why were you the one looking for me?” she finally asked.

“You are farther north than we are strictly supposed to go,” Zale said.  “I really shouldn’t have even come up here looking for you, but no one else seemed to be.”

“Is it a problem I came up here?”

“Probably not,” Zale said uncertainty.  “The river is the border most of the time, but this far north it gets fuzzy.”

“I’m sorry I snapped,” Kiannae said, on a level she wasn’t sure if she should be sorry at all, but some diplomatic urge intruded.  She doubted very much if things were reversed if she would have done any different.  Though she wasn’t sure at all she would have gone looking for Zale in the first place.  She didn’t find much comfort in that distinction either.

“No,” Zale said.  “I’m sorry.  I really…ah fates, there’s no point hashing over it.  I’m just sorry.”

Kiannae considered the young man before her.  She was still mad at him, but there was something cute about the flustered way he was acting, that cut away at the threatening feeling of being spied on, and she tried to tell herself that he hadn’t really been spying.  Not intentionally, and in that there was many some hypocrisy for all the people she had ever spied on with full intent.  Though never in the nude.  Except, well, she had considered the shape of other women bathing, wondered how she would look one day.  That wasn’t the same.  She ground her teeth riddling it all over.  It was different.

“So,” Kiannae started, changing the subject in her own head as much as between them, “am I really three times as beautiful as that dancer?”  It was playful, but mostly she just wanted to see the look of panic cross his face as he tried to figure out the right answer.  She was not disappointed, and she felt a little more even for the whole affair.

“In a few years,” he laughed, “I suspect it will be an understatement.”

Kiannae considered his response.  She pursed her lips, gave him a very shrewd look, smirked and started down stream again without another word.  She thought he’d done pretty well with that, in fact she suspected Mercu would have given it an applause.  She was less sure how she felt about that.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 3rd, 647 E.R.

Kiannae slipped from the back window of the house she was supposed to be asleep in, and into the moonlight.  It might have been easier to use the front door, but all of the houses of the glade had been grown with their only door facing the center of town, where two druids stood watch in shifts.

She peered around the corner of the house at the guards, and saw they were lost in some trivial conversation or another.  However in the bright moonlight she would easily be seen walking down any of the radiating paths that lead away from the central square.  Pulling her hood over her head she crept up to the front of the house behind hers, and moved slowly along the wall in hopes she would blend in with the bark enough to go unseen.

Kiannae stole an occasional glance to the central square, and saw that she had avoided notice.  She did not however see that someone stood in the open window behind her has she slipped past, and that he caught a glimpse of her face as she checked again on the night watch.

Clear of the house Kiannae moved into its shadow, and walked briskly into the woods.  She wondered how daft she was to be trying what she was, but decided she had to know.  She watched the bright patch of moonlight in the large clearing ahead with anxious anticipation.  She paused at the edge of the glade, gathered herself, and marched to its center where she sat, and closed her eyes.

Kiannae reached out in every direction, feeling for any large living thing.  She felt the ring of trees around her, some animals here and there, and pulled her senses back.  She could detect nothing within the field but the grass, bugs, and various critters of the earth.  “Where are you,” she whispered to herself.  “Show yourself,” she commanded under her breath.

She could feel the shift as it happened, feel the form before her, but her senses could not tell her what it was any more than ever.  It felt almost like it was a part of her, a part of her own aura.  She reached deep within herself, and tried to take stock of her being, her own essence, and then she finally saw it.  All around her, there was an otherness, a presence she had never noticed because it shared the same space as her, it didn’t just intersect, it was everywhere she was.

She opened her eyes to confirm what she knew, and stared at him, still focused on other senses.  If his skin had felt like water, his presence felt like wind.  He seemed more a change in pressure on one side, than the warmth of a living thing.  Yet it wasn’t true, the warmth was there, it just wasn’t his, it wasn’t centered on him.  He seemed just a dimple in her own presence, like a spell she had cast.  The conscious sense was not outside her in his head, but inside her own.  He wasn’t her, but he was woven through her tighter than the threads of her robe.

How had it happened, how had she become inseparable from him without even feeling it, without noticing.  It was as though he had fallen into a hole in her, as if something had stopped hurting just a little, or rather a great deal.  He had…there had been something torn out of her when Kat died, and he had soaked through that empty place, and become one.  It just was…she could see with her own senses they were inseparable, barely identifiable.  It was no wonder it had taken her so long.

“You are in me, aren’t you?” Kiannae asked of the strange boy standing before her in the moonlight.  He cocked his head to the side curiously.  Kiannae frowned, but for once did not become flustered by the lack of communication.  She pointed to the boy, then to herself, and feigned drinking as he had so many times.  There was a pause, a hesitation, and then he simply nodded.

“Water,” Kiannae said feigning drinking.  “Water,” she repeated pointing at the boy.  He sat down before her, and nodded again.  “Drink,” she said again feigning the act again.  “Drink,” she said pointing at the boy, then at herself, and repeating the act.

“Drink,” he spoke in his strange, awkward, oddly melodic way, and pointed at Kiannae.

Kiannae nodded, covered her face in frustration that it had taken her so long to understand.  “Yes, I drink,” she said wearily.  “I am so very sorry.”  It was all rushing back, it was all making sense.  The ache in her belly, the thirst, they hadn’t been the only thing that had eased when she had drank of the pool.  Another ache in the center of her had eased as well.

That wasn’t it though.  That wasn’t all of it.  She half remembered a story, a tale she had been told as a little girl after seeing her first ghost.  Only half remembered though, it was just out of reach.  Just slightly there.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 4th, 647 E.R.

The sky had turned orange, and Kiannae turned at the sound of chirping birds.  “Thank you,” she said to the boy, as she got up.  “Night, we talk again,” she said.

“Thank you,” the boy said in kind.  “Ok” he added, and faded away into the morning mist.  It had been a long, exhausting night.  The boy was learning almost too quickly Kiannae realized, but it was still slow and frustrating.  Wren had learned quickly she thought, far too quickly she had always heard.  Was it the reverse, was the ghost in her learning from her own memories.  It was a troubling thought.  It felt far more exposed than being seen by Zale…and the possibility…  She grimaced and refused to fully consider the thought that followed.

Confirmation had also only made Kiannae’s predicament harder.  She did not trust her new benefactors, nor their potential beliefs well enough to tell them the truth she had learned.  They had not noticed yet, just as she hadn’t.  The boy appeared to be a part of her to them, his aura was indistinguishable from hers, they had never met her before the merging had occurred, so there was no way for them to tell.

Kiannae doubted her analysis, the druids had detected the mage blood within her, had worked to separate it from her.  She worried that they might have harmed the boy in the process, but decided that was done, and over with.  There was no taking back what might have happened, and no pressing plans to repeat the process that had been used.

As she walked towards town she caught a glimpse of something beneath a tree.  Zale was asleep just past the edge of the glade, and in a flash she realized that he must have been watching her in the night.  Irritably she marched up to him, and nudged him with her foot till he stirred.

“So,” Kiannae grumbled, “what do you intend to do?”

“About?” Zale asked, rubbing his eyes.

“Don’t play dumb, even if you are,” Kiannae growled.

“About the boy?” Zale said awkwardly. “The boy who forms out of mist…” he added as he looked around, “and I can only presume returns to it just as easily.”

“Yes,” Kiannae sighed exasperatedly, “about that.”

“I suppose tell the elders,” Zale said with a shrug.

“Could you be convinced keep this between us?” Kiannae asked hesitantly.

“Why?” Zale asked getting up and scratching his head.

“Because I asked nicely?” Kiannae laughed doubtfully.

“You called me dumb,” Zale said perking an eyebrow, “you call that nice?”

“Perhaps you don’t want to see mean?” Kiannae suggested switching to a less friendly expression.  “He’s harmless,” she added, “and can’t even really speak for himself yet.”

“What ever.” Zale sighed. “Might keep me from having to answer for being out all night, even if I did follow you.  No promises though, if we can’t sneak back into the village unnoticed.”  He paused.  “Bring me with properly next time.  I want to meet this boy if I’m to be keeping his secrets,” he demanded.

“Deal…” Kiannae agreed hesitantly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 5th, 647 E.R.

As the day wore on, Kiannae grew weary of catching sidelong glances from Zale.  She didn’t know what to make of his sudden fascination.  Perhaps nothing had really changed, and she was only more aware of his attention.  She wondered what he really wanted – was he excited by the prospect of meeting something not quite human, was she herself – by some broad definition – fascinating to him for the same reason?

Kiannae found herself opposite Zale over dinner in the central hall, and grew more flustered in her attempts to read his intent.  She considered jealousy for the first time.  He had made quite a point that she was the closest person to his age in the circle, and by virtue of that his best options for friendship.  It occurred to her his only romantic prospect as well.  Her boy in the mist could seem a threat, if Zale had such designs.  She smirked to herself at the thought of what his reaction would be when he realized the boy was always naked, and all but broke down laughing at the curious glance her expression brought.

As the evening meal broke, Zale pulled her aside.  “So, what’s the plan?” he asked quietly.

“Same as last time I guess,” Kiannae said with a shrug.  “I sneak off, you follow…just this time, you join me in the clearing.”

“Bit simple,” Zale said, “thought you said I needed to be more interesting.”

“Sneaking off in the dead of night, to meet an ancient being that dwells in the mist isn’t interesting?” Kiannae gave him an amused glance.

“When you put it like that…” Zale said trailing off.

“Consider that lesson one of being interesting.”  Kiannae said pointedly.  “Remember to put things the right way.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae paused at the back of Zale’s house, and wondered how long she would have to wait for him to sort out his own exit.  After several minutes, and on the verge of heading off on her own again she saw the back window open, and Zale slip out just as she had, if slightly less graceful on the landing.  She snickered as he fell on his rear.

“Remind me to add how land properly to the list of things I need to teach you,” Kiannae said quietly as he walked up to her, and dusted himself off.

“Ok, just cause a branch broke, and I am more accustomed to exiting through doors than windows, does not make me clumsy,” Zale grumbled a bit loudly for Kiannae’s taste, and she held a finger up to her lips.

“I didn’t say you were clumsy,” Kiannae said softly but with a decided smirk.  “I said you didn’t know how to land.  Clumsy might be a good word for it though – so I’ll take it under advisement.”  

Zale looked quite unamused, which only amused Kiannae further.

“Anyway, come on,” she said waving for him to follow as she turned, and walked into the woods.

Zale moved several times to speak as they walked towards the clearing, and each time decided he was short of a good opening, and thought better of it.  As they entered into the glade Kiannae simply moved to the center, and sat down as Zale stood back a few feet, and watched.  

When nothing happened for several minutes Zale began to become impatient.  “How long does this take?”

“Not a clue,” Kiannae said without opening her eyes.  “I’ve not exactly mastered conjuring him up.  I’m not even sure if that’s actually under my control.  He has come so far entirely of his own accord.  Save perhaps last night when I called for him to show himself.”

“What exactly is he?” Zale asked still impatient, and finally a little nervous about what he had not only agreed to, but asked for.

“If I had to wager a guess,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “half flesh.  A step above a ghost, quite a few steps below the Avatar.  There is an old story one of my mentors told me.  About a race of people who lived on the shores of a great lake, and who were at one with its waters.  They were all wiped out, ages ago, and one…or more lay a curse on the waters.   Or so the fable goes…but curses aren’t real.  Spirits though…spirits are.”

“Are you sure it’s wise to consort with a spirit that’s been blamed for a curse?” Zale pressed suddenly very uneasy.

“Even the story isn’t so simple,” Kiannae chided irritably.  “There are two sides to the tale that follows.  Tales of people pulled into the water and drowned, of course, but there are also stories of some being saved.”

“So then…” Zale started, “you think he’s the benevolent old spirit of a lake?”

“That could be part of it,” Kiannae mused.  “You druids do believe in a higher intelligence to the elements of the world.  That elementals are not simply the rare anomalies we find in the wastes, and far reaches, but all around us, simply passive, and usually content.  What I have learned to feel and do gives me pause to consider there is some truth to it.”

“That is what Landri teaches,” Zale said hesitantly, and sat down across from Kiannae.  “Mother was never as…preachy.  She taught me practical druidic techniques, that which was useful to our time on the road.”

“I don’t pity you the lack of preachy,” Kiannae laughed, “but it has been enlightening at times.  Still I think he’s a lot more than a simple elemental.  I believe the form he takes is an echo of his old life.”

“Does he have a name?” Zale asked, intent to keep his mind of all that could go wrong away from the village at night.

“I’m sure he does,” Kiannae considered, “but I don’t think he remembers it.”

“How do you forget your own name?” Zale asked doubtfully.

“Knowledge does not pass perfectly from the mind to the soul I suspect,” Kiannae suggested, “and you try sleeping a thousand years.  See how much you remember.”

“A thousand years…” Zale said doubtfully.

“The story is I think about that old, give or take.  At least from what I know,” Kiannae said with a shrug, and suddenly opened her eyes.

Zale looked at her funny a moment, but her gaze was not on him he realized, focused just above and behind him.  He looked up, and quickly scrambled to Kiannae’s side when he caught the sight of the boy standing over him.  “I didn’t even…” Zale trailed off, “what in the bloody abyss,” he cursed, “he’s naked.”

“I don’t think clothes carry over as well as the body,” Kiannae said repressing a laugh. “It uh, took me by surprise the first few times.  I’ve kind of gotten…used to it….kind of.”

“You could have warned me,” Zale muttered, not quite able to keep his eyes from glancing where he would rather not.

“What fun would that have been,” Kiannae laughed.  “You know at dinner, when you gave me that funny look for smirking to myself.  The expression on your face right now, was what I was imagining.”

“Oh,” Zale sighed, “everything you hoped?”

“I’ve seen better,” Kiannae said dismissively, “but still priceless.”

“Wait – don’t ghosts have clothes?” Zale protested.

“They do actually,” Kiannae frowned.  “At least the one I’ve seen before.”

“You’ve seen other ghosts before?”

“Quite a few times in my room back home actually,” Kiannae laughed.  “Though she stopped coming around after my sister and I kept trying to catch her.”

“Wait, what?” Zale demanded, but Kiannae seemed to ignore the inquiry, and rethink what she might be revealing.

“Water,” Kiannae said addressing the boy.  “Zale,” she said pointing to Zale.

“Zale,” Water said in his melodic way, and nodded.

“What else can he say?” Zale asked curiously, setting aside other questions for another time.

“A few things,” Kiannae said eyeing Zale suspiciously.  “Water, Tell Zale name,” Kiannae said.

“I Water,” the boy said, “Kiannae drink Water.  Water with Kiannae, always.”

“Did you teach him all of that in one night?” Zale asked perking a brow.

“Pretty much,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “all our prior encounters ended with an impasse.”

“Water listen, Water learn.  I learn from dreams,” Water added.

“Ok…” Kiannae said uncertainty, “that bit was new.”

“I listen to Landri in dream,” Water said, “she teach of self to Kiannae.”

“That…is creepy,” Zale said more than a bit on edge.

Water cocked his head to the side.  “Not fear I.  Water good.”

“He’s perceptive at least,” Zale said trying to relax.

“You could talk to him, and not act like he isn’t here,” Kiannae chided.

“Um, sorry…Water,” Zale said properly looking at the boy.

“I think I saw this coming,” Kiannae shook her head.  “My brother…my mother gave her entire life to him when he was born.  He learned everything so much faster than he should have.  I think this is the reverse.  Which I won’t pretend I’m comfortable with.”

“We should give you a better name than Water though,” Zale said addressing the strange being before them.

“Seems wrong to just give him a name,” Kiannae said pursing her lips thoughtfully.  “I’m sure he had one once.”

“Now who’s talking about him like he isn’t here,” Zale chided.

Kiannae sighed.  “I suppose it is unfortunate to Keep calling you Water.  Are you sure you do not remember a name?”

“I remember Aeliae,” Water said hesitantly, sadly, and held his shoulder almost as though he was in pain.  “The water took her,” he said starting to shake, “took her away.  Not called Water,” he said firmly, began to cry, and slowly came apart and wiffed away.

“That was…odd,” Zale said uncomfortably.  “Will he be back?”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said thoughtfully, “even though he lives in me I am…not very aware of his presence.”

“What was all that about though?” Zale asked crossly.

“The tale of…” Kiannae thought back very hard to the story Mercu had told her years before, “The story of Tethis is kind of bloody.  A whole people were wiped out.  Not surprising if some of his enduring memories might be unpleasant.”

“Why do you suppose he remembered some girl’s name, but not his own?” Zale asked curiously.

Kiannae looked at Zale doubtfully, shook her head, and sighed.  “Love,” she said plainly.  Then after a moment of contemplation added with a haunted expression, “he was remembering how the girl he loved died, and how he did as well…”  She looked even more unnerved by the moment.  She was almost completely sure who he was, but she still didn’t know his name.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae glanced at Zale.  They had waited for some time for the elemental to return, before finally giving up.  As they walked towards the edge of town, Kiannae decided to press the matter.  “So, what do you think then?” she asked pointedly.

“Why not just ask me back there?” Zale sighed.  “Given it seems he can still hear us.”

“Nothing good to say, eh?” Kiannae grimaced as though joking, or hoping she was joking.

“No, he’s fine, if…rather naked,” Zale said shaking his head.  “He’s still not the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen though.”

“Oh?” Kiannae prodded half annoyed, part curious.

“The dryad wood is far more unnerving, not one ghost, but hundreds,” Zale said shaking his head, “and you don’t see them, just hear the whispers on the wind from every direction.”

“I’ve heard of dryads before…” Kiannae trailed off.

“From one of those mentor’s of yours?” Zale asked.  “Well whatever they told you, it’s nothing like being there.”

“So show me,” Kiannae said challengingly.  She set aside a suspicion she might have met one once.  She had almost forgotten the tree she had spoken to as a girl.  The whisper on the wind she thought she had heard once or twice.  Maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“It’s not up to me,” Zale said, stopped, and looked Kiannae up and down.  “The Dryad wood is sacred, and its location guarded.”

“I would assume it’s close though,” Kiannae said probingly.

“Somewhat,” Zale said and walked on.  “It’s actually part of the Sylvan land by treaty, or some such.  They don’t go there any more than we do however, and it’s largely considered neutral.”

“So who do I have to talk to, if I want to see the spooky woods?” Kiannae pressed.

“Start with Landri I guess,” Zale said with a shrug, “she’s your best bet.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 31st, 1148 E.R.

Kiannae looked at Landri, as she had many times that day through her lessons.  She kept thinking to ask the questions plaguing her mind, but never quite came to it.  Finally Landri got tired of the stares.  “What is it you wish to ask, but hesitate to?”

“I’ve…been reminded of an old story,” Kiannae said cautiously.

“What story is it?” Landri asked.

“The tale of Tethis,” Kiannae said with a wince.

“That’s a fairly bloody, and dark tale to be dwelling on,” Landri said curiously.

“So you know it?” Kiannae asked hopefully.

“Yes,” Landri said shrewdly, “what is it you are wondering?”

“It was told to me long ago,” Kiannae said still dancing around her point, “the thing is I’m not sure if the version I was told ever mentioned the name of the boy that the King’s daughter fell in love with.”

Landri stopped to think a moment.  “Talun, perhaps Talom by some tellings.  Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” Kiannae lied, “it just bothered me I didn’t know his name.”

Landri gave her more than a funny look, but shook her head, and moved on.

“I have heard there is a dryad wood near here,” Kiannae added then.

“Zale told you?” Landri asked displeased.

Kiannae nodded.

“I suppose it’s existence is not well guarded, though the location has been kept secret enough.”

“Could I go there?”

“Perhaps one day,” Landri said thoughtfully, “but I must be convinced that you are ready.”

“I think I met a dryad once before,” Kiannae pressed.  “I think I would like to again.”

“Where would you have met a dryad?” Landri asked doubtfully.

“Where I was born there was a lone tree,” Kiannae said.  “I asked my grandfather once how long it had stood.  He did not know.  Said it had always been there.  I remember a whisper on the wind, though not what the tree said to me, not any more.  I talked with him often, and sometimes it seemed the wind answered.  At least when I was little.  I have not been back since I was a child.”

“You are sure this was not some childish fancy?” Landri asked.  “I’ve not heard of a lone dryad before.  Only sacred groves.”

“Sure…” Kiannae laughed.  “No, but I’d like to see if it is at all what I remember.  If it is…then one day I must go back and thank that tree.  For the last answer I think he ever gave me, was to guide me to town, and save me, my sister, and my brother the day our mother died.”

Landri closed her eyes, and sat there a moment.  “I will consider it,” she finally offered.  “Let us return to your studies however.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 23rd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha put a at single tiny droplet of silver liquid up to her eye, and examined it carefully  She had managed to pull from her blood.  Two weeks of training, of watching carefully as others worked, of listening to their analysis.  Eight ounces all together sat in vials somewhere, pulled from her by others, and yet they said her blood was still saturated.

The others had stopped drawing as much out at a time, once her mental condition had markedly improved.  Ostensibly this was to allow her the opportunity to more easily discern the mage blood by volume.  Whether she really believed that reasoning she wasn’t sure, and didn’t care.  A part of her had decided that as much harm as the substance was to her, it was part of what made her special, and while she needed it out, she also wasn’t thrilled that it was being taken away from her.  To be sold presumably.  It bothered her.

Katrisha was weary, but her frustration had all but completely evaporated.  The tiny droplet she held was easily one of greatest senses of victory she had yet felt in her young life, because while it was the end result of weeks of work, the droplet itself had been produced in seconds.  She tried again, looked into her self, sought the errant power that was neither of her body, nor her soul, and pulled it to the surface.  The droplet doubled in size, it worked, in an instant she had gone from hopelessness, to complete success.

Katrisha looked in the mirror she had borrowed from Rennae, and frowned at the grey roots of her hair.  She had asked Renae about it, and been told that while possible, restoring the natural color of her hair was impractical.  Katrisha was told that if she learned how, she could do it herself, but that it was a tedious vanity that no Sister on record had ever followed through with.

A stray shed hair tickled Katrisha’s nose, and prompted her to brush it aside.  The hair fell into her hand, and touched the tiny droplet, causing the bead to wrap around, and stick to it.  She plucked up the hair, and watched the droplet slide down the shaft, slowly shrinking, as the hair itself turned silver.  She ran her finger along the strand, but it had absorbed every bit.  She felt could pull them back apart the same way she had in the first place, and did.

Katrisha looked again to the mirror, and a small smile crept across her lips.  If her hair was to be grey, she thought, then let it be silver instead.  She closed her eyes, and continued what she had begun to master only moments before.  Now though she kept her hands at her head, and ran her fingers through her hair, again, and again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 1st, 647 E.R.

Numerous tiny orbs orbited around Katrisha, and she watched their courses carefully, summoning more.  Her once raven hair had turned a pale silver, with just a hint of blue reflected from the sky, and shimmered brilliantly in the midday sun.  She turned to consider a gathering she had sensed forming, and finally noticed out of the corner of her eye.  Brothers and Sisters of varied ages watched her work, just as they had the previous couple days.  One or two had asked before if she would teach them, and she had declined as politely as she could think how, without inviting further requests.

Katrisha reached out a hand, and with one finger touched the central orb that hovered before her, adding a new detail to the spell that was replicated all around.  She smiled when a couple people gasped appreciatively at the appearance of ribbons of willowy light tracking the course of the whirling and spinning orbs.   She began throwing out more of the smallest type which had little influence on the others, but quickly added more texture and complexity to the whole arrangement.

At the far end of the courtyard she saw Wren and Audry talking casually, and holding hands.  For the first time she really considered Wren was very much with Audry.  Wren hadn’t mentioned it directly, but he had danced around the subject a few times.  She was happy for him, though she worried that the girl was nearly her own age.

Katrisha was pulled from her considerations as she noticed the several of the Brother’s and Sisters begin to sit on the grass around her.  She recognized most of the faces, but only Celia she could identify by name.  She nodded to Celia, and reached out, brushing her finger across the occasional orb that came into reach.  Their ribbons of light were replaced by a trail of twinkling embers, or several smaller ribbons, and would begin to spin creating spirals in their wake.

After a while she got bored with the elaborateness of it all, and with just a touch to the central sphere the whole vast simulation cascaded in a series of small showers of light.  There was some oohing, aweing, and a little clapping.  She considered her gathered audience, many of whom looked at her expectantly for what she might do next.

“So what do they teach you of astronomy?” Katrisha asked of no one in particular.

After a moment of glancing back and forth between the audience members, Celia was the one to speak up.  “Nothing really,” she said uncertainty. “I know the word, what it means I think, but they teach us mostly history, reading, writing, math, and healing.”

“Fair enough,” Katrisha said thoughtfully. “It’s more of a curiosity than practical subject, so I’m not surprised.”  Katrisha reached out her hand, and formed a green colored orb with a distinct rune at its center.  “For the sake of argument, let’s call this our world, Thaea,” as she moved her hand a copy came along, slowly shrank, turned a pale blue, and formed a different rune as she set it to its orbit.  “This is our moon, I have certain fondness for it, but that’s me.  Her proper name is Laeune, the same as the old goddess of myth.”

Katrisha pulled another copy of Thaea off to the side, which turned a bright luminous yellow as it began to circle.  “This is the sun,” she said, “or Rahn.  There was a time when some thought that Rahn, just as the moon, circled us down here on Thaea.  That we were the center of the universe.  In time however observations were made that did not make this seem sensible, and some clever mages determined that it is we, that circle the sun.”

The bright yellow orb, slowly came towards Katrisha, as Thaea and the moon shifted in unison, away, and began orbiting it instead.  Katrisha pulled a tiny white orb from Rahn, and set it in a tight orbit about the star.  “This is Vhael, the light bearer.  Also known as the morning, and evening star.  It circles closely to the sun, and may be seen often just before dawn, and just after sunset.”

With a sweep of her hand Katrisha made a field of little sparkling dots between Thaea and Vhale.  “These are the embers of Rhaea, fragments of a world that once shone brightly in the morning, and evening sky.  There are carvings on old monuments that show it clearly in conjunction with the sun and Vhale.  What became of Rhaea is a mystery.”  With a wave of her hand several of the tiny specs drifted from the half arc they formed around the sun, and spiraled into Thaea.  “If you have watched the sky on later summer nights, you may have seen a great number of shooting stars, which are stray embers of Rhaea that burn up in our atmosphere.”

“What makes them burn?” Celia asked.

“Some would tell you that it is simply their nature,” Katrisha laughed.  “I will tell you what I was taught, that high above the sky there is nothing, a great void, but as the pieces come close, they enter our sky and their incredible speed sets them ablaze.  The same way that if you run your fingers back and forth across fabric quickly they will grow warm.”

Katrisha pulled a large orange orb, and sent it out over the heads of her audience, which split off many smaller spheres from itself.  “This is Jove, the father of many children if you speak of the old god.  In reality Jove is a great collection of swirling storm clouds, with many moons, some of which are nearly as large as all of Thaea.”

Katrisha touched the bright yellow sphere of Rhan, and the trails began to form behind her growing solar system.  “This is Lauris,” she said pulling a tiny sphere off of Thaea and leaving it orbiting some distance behind it, but on a very similar course.  “By some great grace of good fortune this companion to our world, which visits once every thousand years or so, always passes by, though none have determined exactly why.  Some believe ‘the dark companion’ explains our continued safety, that there is a poorly mapped invisible world that has kept us safe all these eons by pulling Lauris from a disastrous intersection in course.  Some believe there is more than one such unseen mystery world at work in our skies.”

With the wave of her hand the Jove system copied, and even more moons sprang from the clone which orbited out past the heads of the onlookers.  “This is Elisia, the distant one, and her many daughters.  She is a blue world, believed to be one immense ocean a dozen times the size of our world.  Some have tracked worlds even farther out, tiny cold things, so far from the sun as to be frozen in near darkness.”

Katrisha let the system carry on as she got up, and began to walk away.  “Class dismissed,” she laughed as she went, and with the snap of her fingers, it all dissolved away, just as her previous display had done.  She stopped by a hall entrance off the court yard, and leaned against a column wearily.  Katrisha enjoyed the attention she got for her displays, but also found the inclination to do something new and engaging for her audience draining.  It never had been before, not since she she was very little.  Some after effect that would pas she hoped.

Soft footsteps pulled Katrisha’s gaze up, and she smiled slightly as Celia approached.  “Hello,” she said kindly.  “I’m sorry if I cut that off abruptly, I was just getting tired.”

“It’s quite alright,” Celia said with a bit of forced reservation, “that was incredible,”

“I’m glad you think so.” Katrisha said with a nervous smile.  “I was afraid I got too lecturey and esoteric with all the names of old gods, and distant worlds you would be hard pressed to even glimpse in the night sky.”

“I…” Clelia said and then hesitated. “I heard you decline  the other day…when some of the other Brother’s and Sisters asked you to teach them magic.  I cringe to ask, but…might you reconsider?  I’ve been wanting to learn real magic, but the archaist won’t take me for another year, or two at the earliest.”

Katrisha sighed, and half winced, but thought better of it seeing the deflated look on Celia’s face.  “I’ll do it,” she said, “for a friend of my brother.”

“You don’t have to if you really don’t want to,” Celia said meekly.

“Of course I don’t have to,” Katrisha said with a crooked smile, “but I’ll try.  I’ve never taught anyone before though, so I make no promises.”

“No, of course,” Celia said with obvious excitement.  “Thank you,” she added bashfully.  “When…when would you like to begin?”

“It’s my free day,” Katrisha thoughtfully, “and I have nothing better to do.  Come to my room, we’ll start now, and if we do it there, hopefully the other’s won’t get the idea to ask again.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 8th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha watched as Celia tried to form her fifth concurrent light sphere, and applauded the crescent arrangement she had created, which shrank towards each end.  “Very nice,” she said approvingly, “not bad for a week, and only a few hours each day.  A good ways from the pretty swirls you could make when we started.”  Katrisha tried to maintain an even tone as she remembered the sadness she had sunken into when Celia showed her her best trick, which reminded her far too much of her missing sister.

“Thank you,” Celia said appreciatively, and popped each of her spheres in order from left to right, only to remake them as quickly as she could.

“Ok, I do believe you have that one down,” Katrisha laughed as she saw the ease with which Celia recreated her arrangement.  Katrisha created her own simple sphere. “How about adding to the spell.  I have imprinted on this one the inclination to attract all copies of itself.  Try to see the difference, and do the same.”

Celia leaned in very close to the sphere floating in front of Katrisha, and formed her’s side by side, and carefully examined the pattern, until she was reasonably sure she could make out the extra structure that had been added.  “I think I see,” she said, and tried to changed her’s to match.  This failed, and her spell collapsed.

She remade hers, and tried again.  There was a little motion, but hers came apart once more.  She bit her lip, and tried a third time, very carefully.  When she finished the two spheres suddenly flew together, and tore apart right in her face, making her jump back in surprise.

“Very good.”  Katrisha laughed.  “I’m impressed, might have taken me longer the first time, and Laurel always seemed a bit bothered by how quickly we picked things up.”

Celia smiled, and blushed from the start she had given herself.  “Thank you,” she laughed.  “You are a good teacher,” she said with a smile, and brushed back her hair.

“I’ve mostly just shown you simple versions of what I do.  You are really teaching yourself for the most part,” Katrisha said with a smirk, “but I’ll take the compliment.  See if you can make yourself a little orbital system.”  Katrisha said, and closed her eyes for a moment sleepily.

Several minutes passed, and Katrisha almost had drifted off where she sat, when Celia’s excited laugh brought her back from the brink with a large yawn.

“Are you tired?” Celia said concerned she was boring Katrisha with teaching her.

“A bit,” Katrisha said shaking her head, and focusing on the four blue spheres that danced between them in a tight little knot of eccentric orbits.  “Very good by the way,” she said reassuringly, and stretched.  “I’ve just been up very late the last couple nights star gazing.  It’s been so clear out that I couldn’t resist.”

“Maybe I could join you next time?” Celia asked hopefully.

“If you like,” Katrisha said absently, “there have been clouds rolling in all afternoon though.  I don’t think it will be a good night for it, and I probably should sleep more if I’m getting so drowsy during the day.”

“Well, maybe some time?” Celia pressed.

“Sure,” Katrisha said, and yawned again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 20th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha leaned back against the wall beside her chamber window, and listened to the sound of the rain outside.  “I love the rain,” she sighed.

“It is a lovely sound,” Celia laughed, “and no garden duties when it’s raining.”

“I suppose there is something to that as well,” Katrisha yawned.  She opened her eyes, and watched as Celia painted the air with ribbons of light.  It had become a comfortable, familiar sight in its own right, and the ache of remembering Kiannae doing the same kept its distance for once.  “I love the snow more,” she mused, “but I guess you can’t have that all year.”

Celia gave Katrisha a funny look.  “I like the snow well enough,” she laughed, “it’s pretty, but it’s so cold.”

“I’ve never minded the cold,” Katrisha said leaning forward. “It’s refreshing, and it’s nice to bundle up tight in warm winter clothing.”

“I suppose there is that,” Celia said waving her drawing away, and forming a small orb of light which she tossed towards Katrisha who caught it, but perked a brow at the act.  Celia made another, and tossed it to Katrisha, who threw the first one back to Celia, who stopped it between them, and threw another out on a slow arc around the floating one.

“I see your game,” Katrisha said throwing the orb she was still holding around the other side at the same time, and catching Celia’s.  Celia caught Katrisha’s throw as it came around in a graceful arc, and sent it back split it into two, which twisted about the central orb in a spiral until one flew off in Katrisha’s direction.  The two kept adding spheres to the game, catching ones that came near, and sending them back on new trajectories.  Ever so often one would fly off in some random direction, and pass harmlessly through a wall.  Eventually the pair started keeping a rough score, and argued laughingly over who had last touched any stray.

They continued their game for some time, until a startled cry came from the corridor, and the girls both hunched down in mischievous giggles.  After a moment there came a knock at the door, and Celia’s mother peaked in.  “I believe you two lost something,” Renoa said holding out one of numerous lost orbs.

“Thank you,” Katrisha said with a laugh, and a wave of her hand, forming a new one, “but we can always make more.”

“Very well,” Renoa said shaking her head, and waving her hand dispersing the orb she was holding.  “Just do try to be more careful you don’t startle people.”

“Sorry,” Celia said clearly restraining a laugh.

“Have you two eaten?” Renoa said with reserved disapproval of the humor the girls seemed to have over giving her a start.

“No,” Katrisha said, “not since breakfast.”

“Why don’t you two go do that then,” Renoa said pointedly.

“Ok mother,” Celia sighed, hopped up and grabbed hold of Katrisha’s hand.  “Come on,” she said pulling Katrisha to her feet, “let’s go.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 4

A silver drop of living light,
that shimmers and shines,
but of true nature lies,

what is this thing that devours,
yet such great worth harbors,
this price for powers gained,

liquid essence of aether,
or be it cold dew of nether,
strange tangible immaterial,

a slow poison to its maker,
and boon to the skilled shaper,
the blood of we mages born.

– Writings of Queen Regent Adria, circa 40 E.R.

Mage Blood

Estae 10th, 647 E.R.

Kiannae pondered the small sprout before her.  It had been a seed not two minutes before, and yet it stood a full two inches tall.  Landri watched expectantly as Kiannae simply stared at the plant.  Slowly she reached out her hand, and brushed a leaf with a fingertip.  She felt for the will of the plant, like she had long learned to seek the workings of a spell.  There was a way it wanted to grow, a pattern to it, it was deep, gentle, and hard to read, so much more complex than the weaving of magic she understood.

With her eyes closed Kiannae pushed, she let her gift flow through the will of the sprout, let it feed the living pattern, and after a moment opened her eyes again.  It had grown, and a new leaf had started to split from the stem.  “Very good,” Landri said, “not many can accomplish that so soon.”

“It…it’s like the plant itself is a spell,” Kiannae mused, “almost infinitely more complex than any magic I have ever imagined, but I could feel it.”

“The will of life, the force of order within every cell,” Landri replied.  “The purpose, and structure of living things resonates so strongly that it creates a parallel pattern.  The Sylvans call it Ki.”

Kiannae pursed her lips.  She had considered several times to press her curiosity on what her name might mean, but had avoided it time, and again because it reminded her of the prophecy.  Now she had the missing piece, or at least part of it.  She wasn’t quite sure what to make of the idea.  Honored daughter, and, what, soul? Seemed trite.

“The practices of mages are but a pale imitation of the splendor of Thaea.  Look again, with the trained eyes of a mage, follow the threads you find, and tell me what you see.”

Kiannae frowned, and tried.  She followed the threads of life that flowed along the fibers of the sprouts stalk, along the roots, out the leaves, along the edges.  Slowly, faintly she saw a glimmer, out past the roots, a web through the earth in every direction.

It was not merely like a spider’s web, but one awash in morning dew.  A delicate thing that wove around everything, but there were buds of light blooming.  Each seemed to represent something, the aura of a bug, a new born sprout, a colony of microorganisms.  The ants were things moving along a thread, a chemical certainty to their future, their decisions made, but that of the world around them still shifting.  As quickly as she saw it, and all this occurred to her, it was gone.

“Yes, I can see it in your eyes, you saw,” Landri said with amusement.  “The web of life is subtle, but however fragile it might seem, it is more enduring than anything woven by mages.  There is a will to the world, a will to all of life.  It is stronger than the will of the stones, for they are simple things, stubborn, but ready to be pushed aside.  Stronger than the will of man, for man is but a part, a single bud on the branch of the tree.”

“If life itself is magic, then why do only some have the gift?” Kiannae asked with obvious frustration.  She had asked similar of Laurel in the past, and never been satisfied with his answers.  The assertion that life was magic just made it more dubious.

“That, is an old question,” Landri said with a sigh.  “Some think that the fibers of the web of life bind around certain family lines, that these lines are the branches of the tree, and those without the gift, mere twigs, and leaves.”

“Is all of mankind a bud on the branch, or are mere families branches?” Kiannae grumbled.

“It’s an analogy dear girl,” Landri laughed, “but you know that, and are only being difficult because it is your way.”

“So that is what I am,” Kiannae said irritably, “difficult?”

“We cannot all be the gentle brook, or the spring rain,” Landri offered with a smile.  “The mighty river and the tempest are needed too.  Yet every storm must pass, and all rivers will follow their course in time.”

Kiannae flinched, and looked away.  Causing Landri a moment of confusion.

“Surely it is not now that I have offended you so?” she asked after studying Kiannae’s troubled expression.

“It’s nothing,” Kiannae sighed.

“There is no such thing as nothing,” Landri laughed kindly, “there is that which we do not want to share, and that which is not of great importance at the moment, but there is never nothing.”

“It’s just an old story,” Kiannae muttered.

“Do tell,” Landri pressed with a disarmingly earnest smile.

“I don’t remember it well, it was something my father told to me…and my sister when we were very little.”  Kiannae sighed, and rubbed her face.  “I only…what you said only troubled me because it reminded me of my her.  He would call us both at times by the titles in the story.”

Landri perked a brow curiously.  “And what titles were those?”

Kiannae frowned, “Must I dwell on this?”

“I suppose not, if it pains you so to think of your sister still,” Landri offered.

There was a long pause, and finally with a deep sigh Kiannae repeated the words as she had many times before.  “He called Katrisha daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost…and me daughter of summer glades, and the passing storm.”

“I’ve heard those before,” Landri said with a laugh, “the story isn’t all that old.  Unna fer Lun-ka, juer unsiler ybon,” she mused.  “Ah, but what…”

“It isn’t that old?” Kiannae interrupted both in surprise, and unease to hear the words again, to be reminded of all they meant.  She had always imagined the story one of long ago, and far away.  A wistful tale fit for small children.  She let this illusion shattering distract her from another surge of sorrow.

“No, I met the woman…” Landri trailed off and looked uneasy.

“What’s the matter?” Kiannae asked curious at the sudden silence, and expression from her instructor.  She was further distracted from her own discomfort for a moment by the fact that Landri was the one who looked like she had seen a ghost.

“Oh, sorry,” Landri said clearing her throat.  “Some think that her meeting with us druids sparked the Sylvan civil war.  Please, sit here, and meditate for a while.  See if you can glimpse the web of life again,” she said as she got up to leave.  “There is something I must attend to.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“What aren’t you telling me?” Landri snapped as she barged into Ezik’s house, and found him staring out a window.

Ezik gave her a curious look.  “A great many things,” he answered almost dismissively.  “Please, narrow it down.”

“Son of summer glades, and passing storms,” Landri said.  “Daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost.  Or that her name practically means…”

“Interesting,” Ezik interrupted.  “Ah, what father does not so adore his daughters, as to elevate them so.  Not that I ever had any.”  He shrugged.  “Just the one son.  I did plead with my dear wife for another.  I always wanted a daughter.”

“You are evading,” Landri said tersely, and shook her finger at him.

“No,” Ezik said in a tone more disappointed than angry, but none the less with some force.  “You are chasing the least interesting detail, and possibly nothing.  Does she look like she has Osyrean blood?  No.  What of her aura?”

“It would barley be a trace, it wouldn’t show.  And her aura…so it is bright,” Landri seemed disinterested.  “I’ve never met a Sylvan whose aura was not brilliant.”

“Dear woman,” Ezik shook his head, “you have never been one to miss the forest for the trees.  It is so unnatural it should be burned into your mind.  Look again, close your eyes, and really look at the memory of her.”

“It’s…almost like…there is a tear in her,” Landri said.

“A tear?” Ezik laughed darkly, “it is as though the very center of her, half of her very being was ripped out, and the rest fell in to fill the hole it left.  She is like a scar on nature itself.  A mage, even a healer I could forgive for missing it, but a druid of your caliber…”

“Has anyone else?” Landri all but growled.

“No,” Ezik answered uncomfortably.  “Perhaps I am getting clear sighted in my old age, and expect too much of others.  I apologize.  Yet I maintain, I could care less for her linage – if her true aura is twice what we see…even dragonborn would pale to her.  Yet the tear…”

“Her twin?” Landri offered.

“I’ve met twins before, gifted ones, dragonborn even then…and yes one died in my short time knowing them.  That was a terrible thing to watch.  I saw a soul turn to fire, and protect his still living brother.  Yet there was nothing like that hole left behind…”

“Then what of it?” Landri pressed.

“Something to watch,” Ezik answered.  He was thoughtful for a moment.  “Have you ever dreamed of the storm?”

“Once,” Landri offered uneasily.

“Do you remember the face?” Ezik pressed.

“Silver hair,” she said, “the roar of an ocean, or a thousand oceans.  Something terrible, and shadows lurking all about, like paler patches of blinding light.  I did not look at her face.”

“I did,” Ezik said.  “I did.”

“Do you really propose that she is…” Landri began to ask incredulously.

“Perhaps,” Ezik was thoughtful.  “Or another.  Mothers often look like their daughters, and there is something of the creature in that dream that seems such to me.”

“We’ve only her word that her twin died,” Landri considered leadingly.

“Do not even breath such a possibility to her,” Ezik snapped…and then calmed himself.  “You’ve heard the story as clearly as I.  A girl thrown from a cliff in a fight with a dragon, the pain she felt, so well timed to have been her death.  She has had enough trauma.  To gain hope, and learn otherwise…it could destroy her.”

“You will look into it though?” Landri asked.

“Discreetly,” Ezik agreed.  “There are too many mysteries here to ignore.  Too many portents of something powerful moving in the world.  I will ask you however; leave it to me.  Please.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 21st, 647 E.R.

Kiannae had been sitting for some time beneath the branches of a large old birch.  She had heard the leaves rustle several minutes before, and ignored the young man moving stealthily amidst its branches.  There was a yelp at the snap of a limb, and Kiannae thrust out her hand casting a spell to stop Zale, and the branch he was still clinging to just a foot off the ground.  “Not what I would call a graceful leap,” she laughed, as he flopped awkwardly onto the forest floor, and she let the branch go.

“You knew I was there, didn’t you?” Zale said trying to recover some composure.

“You were trying so hard to be sneaky too,” Kiannae laughed.  “Not doing very well at it, but trying.  It’s not polite to sneak up on people you know – least of all a young woman alone in the forest,” she scolded.

“Just a joke,” Zale sighed.

“Why don’t I believe you?” Kiannae mused.

“What’s not to believe?” Zale asked defensively.

“Just something in your voice,” Kiannae said disinterestedly.

There was a moment of hesitation, and Zale sighed.  “Alright, so I thought I’d watch you, and see if anything strange would happen.”

“And what kind of strange event did you expect to see?” Kiannae demanded crossly, as though accused of something.

“I don’t know,” Zale said irritably.  “It’s just…ever since you have arrived there have been reports of a shadowy figure prowling around at night.”

“And what does that have to do with me?” Kiannae asked her expression growing shrewd.

“I don’t know, but no one really seems to think it’s a coincidence,” Zale said with a shrug.  “It’s always near the house where you are sleeping.  At first some people thought it was you, but when you were found to still be in your bed…well the rumors have been growing.”

“And what do they say?” Kiannae sighed.

“That maybe something followed you back from the forest,” Zale said with a shrug.

“Such as?” Kiannae demanded, knowing full well what it might be.

“No one knows, it seems human-ish, or Sylvan from the description, but no one has gotten a clear look,” Zale said in a flustered fashion.

“And no one has bothered to ask if I know?” Kiannae sighed.

“Well, do you?” Zale asked curiously.

“No,” Kiannae half lied.

“Now why don’t I believe you?” Zale asked, his own expression shrewd.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 32nd, 647 E.R.

Kiannae woke in the night, not so much with a start, as to sudden full consciousness.  She could even remember the dream she had been having in crystal clarity, though that quickly faded.  The strange array of illogical plants that had populated that world quickly became unintelligible when examined.  The dream had not woken her, she concluded, and shook the imagery away.

She sat up slowly, looked to the doorway of the small room she had been given, and shivered at the dark silhouette that stood there.  What was most unnerving about the clearly human form – what struck her for the first time – was he had no presence.  A concept she winced to even try to understand.  Even the ungifted had a presence, even Navi’s ghost had a presence.  He hand an aura, it was visible, clear as day, and bright as any strong gifted, but it did not feel like a person was standing there.  There was no discrete otherness about him.

“Who are you?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.  Fighting off her fear, a fear she realized was centered more on the fact that as unnerving as the shadow was, she did not really fear it.

The boy stepped into the moonlight streaming through her window, and she examined his features carefully.  His skin seemed simply impossible.  It was smooth, almost translucent, its color was hard to make out, blue grey, but vaguely prismatic, and it simply didn’t look at all like skin.  His hair seemed unreal in its own unfathomable way.  It was long, and its strands seemed to flow together in the most literal of senses, becoming one thing, and yet it still shifted about almost like hair should.

“Who are you?” Kiannae demanded again, just a bit louder than before.

“Kiannae,” he said awkwardly, pointing to her.  His voice was strange, melodious, and clumsy all at once.  He then pointed to himself, raised his cupped hands to his lips, and watched Kiannae’s expression turn sour.

“I just don’t understand,” Kiannae sighed.  The boy stepped closer, and reached out a hand cautiously towards her.  Baser instincts made her want to pull back, but she held still as he gently brushed her cheek.  It was a marvelous, and all together unimagined sensation.  His touch was as smooth as ice, almost damp, but warm, and soft.  She reached out her own hand, up to the persistent mystery boy’s cheek, and touched it.  It was the same implausible sensation as her fingers trailed across his skin.  She pulled her fingers back slightly, rubbed them together, and though there had been a sense of dampness to him, her fingers felt dry, as did her cheek.

Kiannae blinked, and as her eyes closed she felt him disappear.  He was gone, and what remained was only mist, fading quickly, but all around.  For just a moment she half remembered a story from her youth.  She remembered a line about faces in the fog, and a forest that grew where a lake had been drained.  It was a ghost story, she remembered that, but ghosts were not tangible, could not be touched.  That was what she had been told, but now she was not sure if it was true.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 36th, 647 E.R.

“Mages,” Landri said in a lecturing tone, “seek the power of the gods.  The Clarions, for their part, seek the immortality of the gods.  Lycians, respectably, seek only the peace of the gods.  We druids however seek instead to join with them.”

“How does that make you any different than the others?” Kiannae demanded again irritably.

“Mages, Clarions, and conjurers all care nothing for the wills of the world,” Landri added insistently. “Druids are channelers, we seek to become one with it.”

“So then, merely tools without purpose of your own?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“The strokes gods paint in are broad.  So broad as to be almost meaningless to one mortals concerns,” Landri corrected.  “They understand our world, our little lives as poorly as we understand them in their vastness.  By aligning ourselves with their greater wills, we gain dominion to shape the smaller things in life, but always in accordance with a larger plan.  It is a partnership.  The gods do not sweat the small stuff, that is our job.”

“So you say that the druids serve the gods, plural, but largely you have spoken only of Thaea,” Kiannae said moving on.  “What of the others?”

“Thaea is of greatest importance,” Landri said shrewdly.  “She is the mother, the living world.  The others, the older gods are more like grandparents, and ancestors.  Worthy of reverence, respect, and of use, but not our closest kin.  The shamans of old favored the elder gods for their power.”

“Teach me of these elder gods,” Kiannae asked in a polite, but insistent tone.

“What do you seek?” Landri was stern.  “Understanding, or power?”

“Yes,” Kiannae answered.

“Prove to me you can align yourself with the living world,” Landri said, “and then we will consider other possibilities.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 30th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha sat in a tower window, indifferent to Laurel and Mercu’s conversation by her chamber door.  She also ignored the cat who sat in her lap, rooting at her idle hand that was no longer petting him.  Her black hair rustled slightly in the breeze, white roots, plainly visible in the early afternoon sun.  Her skin was almost translucently pale.  She held a hand up in the sunlight absently, and turned it back and forth with vague interest.

“The King isn’t happy about my request,” Laurel sighed. “His persistent reaction to anything involving the Sisterhood makes me think you are right about why, but I still don’t fully understand it.  Unlike his father he’s always been cordial with them, that much is clear.  Maybe it’s just saving face, maybe its more.”

“They are sending Wren I assume?” Mercu asked casually, giving little sign he was paying attention to Laurel’s musings.

“I expect so yes,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “She’s as ill of heart as whatever else is eating her body.  I expect they would send her brother to comfort her, as little time as they have had together, there has always seemed to be a strong bond there.  Enough even to make Kiannae jealous.”

“I hate seeing her like this.”  Mercu looked again to the oblivious girl sitting in the window.

“I hate talking about her like she isn’t here,” Laurel grimaced, “but it is almost like she isn’t.  A week now, and barely acknowledges me any more if I speak directly to her.”

“I know.  It will be alright,” Mercu said resting his hand on Laurel’s shoulder.  He let go of being told things he already knew, certain it was Laurel just trying to comfort himself by saying it aloud, as though it would not be true.  “The Sisters can fix this, they aren’t allowed to stay in kingdoms on their good looks…though I’m sure they don’t hurt.”

Laurel huffed softly.  “You would know better than I.”  Laurel sighed, and walked towards the window.  He gently set a hand on Katrisha’s shoulder, and after a moment she turned her head, and looked up at him.  There was something only half there in her green eyes, and it broke Laurel’s heart to see emptiness in her expression.  “Is there anything you need?” he asked intently.

Katrisha simply stared up at him for a moment, before finally shaking her head and looking back out the window.  Laurel sighed deeply.  “A servant should be up with food in a couple hours, eat something, please.  I’ll be in the tower study should you need anything.”

Mercu stepped beside Laurel, and whispered softly.  “I’ll stay with her, I doubt I will do her much good, but I don’t think she should be alone.”

“Thank you,” Laurel said softly and rubbed his eyes before he left the chamber, and Mar slipped out behind him.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It was late in the evening, and the first few stars could be seen in the dimming sky when a knock came at Katrisha’s chamber door.  Mercu set aside the lute he had been strumming at idly, and opened the door for two white robed women, and young man to enter.  He recognized Renae and Wren, but Audry he was quite sure he had not met.

Wren’s posture shifted when he saw Katrisha, who still sat in the window staring into the evening sky.  Wren looked up to Renae, and barely waited for a nod before running across the room.

“Kat!” he said excitedly, but Katrisha turned her head slowly, and for a moment it almost seemed as though she did not recognize her brother.  Wren frowned deeply, until at last a slight strained smile crept into the corner of her lips.

“Oh Kat…” Wren said as he leaned into window seat, and threw his arms around his sister.  “They said you weren’t well.  I guess they weren’t exaggerating.”

Katrisha leaned her head against her brother’s, and simply closed her eyes.

“How long has she been like that?” Renae asked Mercu with deep concern as they approached the embracing pair.

“Three days now, but on and off for a while, since…” Mercu hesitated, “since not long after that damn fool business with the dragon.  At first I thought it was just the trauma, and worry.  She seemed mostly there even for the wedding in South Rook, but I knew something was wrong.”

“Dearest, do you mind,” Renae said softly touching Wren on the shoulder.

Wren turned his head to look up at Renae.  He reluctantly released Katrisha from his embrace, and stepped aside.  “Of course Mother,” he said meekly with a nod, and Audry took his hand comfortingly.

Renae leaned over Katrisha, and brushed some of the girl’s hair back, examining the white roots.  She looked deep into the girl’s eyes, and frowned at the only faint recognition she saw there.  “What have you done to yourself girl?” Renae muttered as she knelt beside the window.  She took Katrisha’s hand in both of hers, and closed her eyes, focusing deeply on something unseen.

Several minutes of silence were interrupted when Laurel entered the chamber, a large book cradled in his arms.  He considered the scene at the window, and thought to announce his presence, but decided to wait.  After a moment Renae stood, turned back into the room, and acknowledged Laurel with a nod.  She raised her hand, palm up with only her index finger extended.  “I take it you will recognize this.”

Laurel stepped closer, and squinted in the dim light at the tiny silver drop balanced on Renae’s finger.  “So it’s as I suspected then,” Laurel said with a grimace.

“I wasn’t told, what you expected,” Renae said a bit coldly.

“No, and I apologize,” Laurel started a bit stiffly.  “I wanted a fresh perspective, not distorted by any preconceived notions.”

Renae nodded understandingly, and placed the tiny droplet in the palm of her hand for safer keeping.  “It’s mage blood poisoning, without question.  You however should know as well as I, it should have taken more than just a few minutes to extract that much.  It’s almost a wonder the poor girl is still conscious, her blood is…beyond saturated.”

“Yes,” Laurel said with a frown, “that’s what I thought, but to say the least I’ve never heard of a case like this.  I’ve been through every relevant book in my library,” he said tapping his fingers on the one he held. “The youngest case on record was late into his twenties, and had undergone a much slower, less severe decline.”

Renae looked back to Katrisha for a moment.  “I certainly have not heard of the like myself.  It might be her linage, there is no telling.  As I understand it the Sylvans do not practice as mages, and only mages have been observed to suffer from this.  It makes me worry more for Kiannae though.  I take it there is still no sign of her?”

“None,” Laurel said closing his eyes.  “She is lost to the Sylvan territories still, so far as we can determine.  I have no idea what they would do with her if that’s the case.  Nor do I know why she has run away, save the assumption she believed Kat dead.”

“I still cannot believe that was allowed to happen,” Renae said, anger slipping into her voice.

“No one allowed anything,” Mercu interjected cutting off pointless recrimination.  “The girls were set on that foolish course, and short of slapping them in enchanted irons I doubt we could have stopped them.”

“No,” Renae said considering Mercu thoroughly, “perhaps you are right.”  She took a long breath.  “Forgive me, I am distressed by it still, and these circumstances…”

“We all are,” Laurel said consolingly.  “I know you love Wren as your own, and have looked upon the twins with almost as much regard.”

“I…” Renae started, “yes…as my own.”

Laurel considered Renae’s response for a moment, “I’ve never pressed my suspicions…but I have looked into it in the past.  Was Adel…”

“Yes,” Renae said tersely, “and I will ask you not to finish that sentence just now.”  She turned to glance at Wren who had returned to his sister’s side.

“You have reasons?” Laurel pressed gently.

She nodded.

Laurel shook his head.  “Back to the business at hand then, I assume you can help Katrisha’s condition.”

“Yes,” Renae said hesitantly, “but more so than normal, this will only be a temporary fix.  It’s obvious with the rate of production, and concentration that this will require more than just a periodic cleansing.  It would be best if she lived with us for a while.  She will need to be trained to care for her own state, and will need time to recover.”

“I…” Laurel started, inclined to argue against the removal of his charge.  “I can accept your recommendation, reluctantly.  Beyond my own feelings on the matter, I do not relish convincing the King.  He is fond of the girl, but perhaps his current ire over…certain incidents may sway him.”

Renae seemed to ponder something deeply for a moment.  “I would offer to make the argument for you…but there are things I would rather not discuss with the King, which could make matters worse.”

Laurel considered pressing his curiosity, but thought better of it.  Renae turned to Wren and Audry.  “Please gather things for Katrisha, she will come with us tomorrow.  For now, I will resume her treatment.”

“A bit presumptuous,” Laurel remarked in surprise. “I have not yet even attempted to get the King’s approval.”

“It may be presumptuous, but it is also practical,” Renae all but snapped.  “If you can’t convince him, I will be forced to make a case I do not wish to, but I am quite certain I will win, even if I am not sure of the cost.  Besides, his authority in this matter is limited, so long as I have your approval.  You are her guardian, and her father by law, do you have any intention to change your mind?”

“Very well,” Laurel said taken aback by the severity of Renae’s tone.

Renae paused, obviously calming herself.  “Forgive me, please,” she stated in an even tone, “My frustrations are of my own making, not yours.”

Laurel considered the well aged woman before him thoroughly, he could not say that he knew her well, but in all past encounters he could not recall ever before seeing her so terse, and ill tempered.  “I will do what I can,” Laurel said, and left the healers to their work, leading Mercu out with him.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 31st, 647 E.R.

Midnight was upon Renae as she poured a few last drops of mage blood from her palm into a small vial.  Each of the three healers had worked in turn on Katrisha, Renae teaching Wren, and Audry in the process.  Wren had excelled – to no one’s surprise – above even Renae’s results, producing fully half of the ounce of precious and troublesome material that Renae now examined in the moonlight.

Renae wondered at the strange mercury like substance, and its brilliant shimmering aura visible only to those with the gift.  A strange accident of nature, a fluke of some mages gift, and practices, and worth a hundred times its weight in gold for its rarity, and odd properties, even if it acted almost as a poison to the body that made it.

Renae looked down at the sleeping girl in her bed and sighed.  She considered Wren who had curled up next to her, and drifted off.  She gently shifted the blankets around Katrisha to tuck her in more comfortably, and pulled the other side over Wren.

She slowly stood from the chair she had brought to the bedside, and stretched stiffly.  Automatically she sought out the more offended joints that complained from long hours hunched over.  She soothed the inflammation with practiced, near indifference, yet somewhere at the back of her mind remembered to curse the rigors of age.

Renae looked again to Katrisha, and Wren, and let a half troubled smile cross her face.  She took comfort that they could, and already had helped her greatly, but the effects on her mind, and her soul she could not be sure of.  The business with Kiannae did not help matters, and hurt Renae deeply.  She worried for how the girl could possibly be fairing.  Was she even still alive?  To be lost in the wilds, and stricken with such an illness, it was hard to imagine.

Renae pushed such troubling thoughts aside, and turned to leave.  She had been informed that the quarters she usually took up on her visits would be prepared, but she was less than sure where Audry had been taken after drifting off an hour before.  She tightly corked the vial in her hands and walked to the chamber door tiredly.  As she opened the door she found someone beyond, standing in the moonlight.  She expected Laurel, or Mercu, but who she found standing before her startled her from growing weariness.

“Your Majesty,” she said almost on instinct.

“It…” the King started uncharacteristically uncomfortably.  “It has been a long time, Renae.”

“Surely four months since my last visit does not make a very long time,” Renae said, confusion tinging her voice.

“I…” he said seeming to try on the pronoun awkwardly. “I have spoken to you many times as your King…” he said hesitantly, and at last turned to look Renae in the eye.  “But it has been a very long while since I have spoken to you as a man.”

“I do not know that you have ever spoken to me as a man, John,” Renae said bluntly, but quickly thought better of it, as the King grimaced.  “No, no please do not take offense at that.  I mean only…” she took a deep breath, and let it go.  “We were both barely more than children then.  I was no more a woman, than you a man.”

The King’s expression softened slightly.  “Perhaps there is truth in your words, but please, do not to belittle that time.”

“I do not belittle it, merely accept that I was once but a foolish girl, and you a dashing defiant young prince.  I will not pretend I do not hold fond, and dear memories from that time, but a lifetime stands between then and now.  I am an old woman, too knowledgeable of the world for her own good, just as then I was too naive.”

The King’s expression softened further.  “Would it amuse you to hear me say, I think you were the dashing one?  Climbing trees, and mocking the King’s guard with seeming impunity.”

“How the Matron ever put up with me…” Renae trailed off for a moment, but her amusement was clear.  “Still, little I haven’t had to deal with in my own time in the position.”

“Surely none of them have quite had your wit,” the King laughed.

“Oh a few, very few.  Though I dare say I’ve yet to need deal with any trying to run off with a young prince,” she said, her voice darkening a bit near the end.

“I should hope not.”  The King laughed, but darkened again.  “I feel at a disadvantage,” he started again uncomfortably, “that you, as any citizen of the kingdom know of…well the Queen, of course.  I married, quite obvious really that I moved on.”  He rubbed his forehead.  “I do love her dearly.  She is a fine, proper, and strong woman.  Possessed of sufficient wit and charm to have made my life as King content.  Yet…it’s never been my place to enquire of you.  Please do not think me an arrogant fool who imagines for even a moment you did not move on, it is just…friendly curiosity, and perhaps imprudent – I apologize.”

Renae sank into thought.  “I have had my share of love affairs, but only one has lasted.  Though we have drifted apart many times, and strong passion has long since given way to practical companionship, and warm affection.  In the end she stuck with me when I needed her most, and though we have had our times apart…she has always remained my friend.”

“Oh..” the King said, seemingly uncomfortable.

“You should not be surprised,” Renae said gently chiding the King.  “I will not pretend the Sisterhood has not earned our reputation.  We are – well, those of us who are – what we are.”

“No, it…” the King’s expression grew thoughtful.  “I have heard rumors, that I have never pressed.  Heard that you had a daughter.  In fact some say she was Adel of the North.”

Renae looked away then, she could not hold the King’s gaze.  “At last we come to it,” she said weakly, her voice strained.  “You have not heard wrong, my King.  It has been a long life, and I have been with a few other men…but none of them were the father.”

The King took a deep breath to steady himself.  “And I was never told…  You,” he began, his voice growing dire, “never told me?”

“Your father, and grandfather knew,” Renae growled.  “I don’t know how they knew, but but they knew.  I fear our daughter…” she said her voice growing softer, wounded. “She became a pawn in the conflict between your father and the Sisterhood.  We kept the secret of her lineage, and the King would continue to keep his son in check – would continue to protect us.”

“That hardly explains her end,” the King demanded, stuck somewhere between shock, rage, and disbelief.

“I tried to be a good mother, I did.  Maybe I was…fates if I know why, but she was never happy, never content at Highvale.  There was something different about her gift, she wasn’t weak, but she was never more than an adequate healer.  She left only days after she turned eighteen…I only know pieces from there.  Pieces I learned when I returned from my travels…”

The King turned and leaned on the window frame, trying to calm himself to little avail.  “The same pieces everyone knows I expect.  She traipsed about, being both healer and…” he clearly struggled with the thought, and set it aside, “till the man Ashton stood by her when Clarion zealots attacked her.  She fell in love with, and married that simple farmer,” he laughed darkly.  “Oh and how he wasn’t a simple farmer after all…and then she died defending her daughter from a wild drake.  I just…” the King choked, “I never knew it was the story of my daughter.  My own flesh and blood.”  He wept, and looked as though he could barely stand.

“I’m sorry,” Renae said sincerely.  “I’m sorry that this is the way you learn.  All these decades later, but we are both growing old, and at last it seemed it could no longer be avoided.  I wanted you to know, that…I don’t just love Wren – love the twins – as my own, they are my own…our own,” she corrected herself.

The King pounded on the frame of the window furiously.  “And why was our grand daughter left on that farm then?  Left to wind up dead of nothing more than childbirth?” he demanded frothingly.  He drew back his now throbbing hand, and rubbed it.

Renae leaned against the cold stone wall by the chamber door.  “The Ashton man…James…he was so bitter, so angry after his wife’s death.  He wanted no part of me, of the Sisterhood.  Maybe he was just afraid I would take away his daughter, the only thing he had left of his wife.  I tried eight times those first few years to visit, and he turned me away on each occasion.  The last time I made him promise me something, and in turn I would not return until her eighteenth birthday had passed.  I left a letter with him, and made him swear on Adel’s grave to give it to her on that day.”

“And he broke his word?” the King all but growled, barely restraining his volume.

“I…I am not sure,” Renae said doubtfully.  “I think perhaps that he died while she was still seventeen, and then…then you know the rest.  I was giving it time…I was about to make my excuses to travel…and Wren arrived.”  She watched the King still nursing the hand he had slammed against the stone, and started to move closer.

“So it is…” the King mused darkly.  “So it is that in mere moments I gain and lose a daughter, a granddaughter, and you wish to take away my great-granddaughter as well, while the other remains missing…”

“Let me see that hand,” Renae commanded kindly.  The King eyed her indecisively for a moment, and then relented, offering his aching hand, but looked away.  “She is ill,” Renae said after a moment of working on the abused joins, “and I will not tell you that she need come with us to live, but…I am certain it is for the best.”

Renae paused wearily, as she began to knit a slight fracture.  “You are quite strong still, you know,” she started in a kind tone.  “Even if age has made your bones brittle.  You fractured this one with the force of that blow.”  She ran her finger along the edge of his palm as she finished her work, but thought better of the familiarity, and stepped back.

The king pulled his hand close to his chest, and rubbed it still, though perhaps it was more a nervous wringing then.

“I leave it to you.  She will need to learn to cure this sickness herself.  It is a part of her, it will not go away.  She will need the care, and tutelage from multiple healers.  Do you wish for up to a year to house Sisters here at court, to seek a similar complement of Clarion priests, or to send her with us?”

“I will not involve the Clarions,” the King growled. “I struggle every day to tolerate their madness, but I will not have them trying to influence my court any more than they already do.”

“Then what is it to be?” Renae pressed gently.

“Take her,” the King grumbled, his fist clenched, but he quickly stopped short striking the stone again.  “I will have your word she will return in no more than a year.  I will know my great granddaughter, as my blood, while there is still life in these old bones.”

“You have my word, my King,” Renae said cordially and turned to leave.

“I did love you once,” the King said distantly, stopping her from leaving.  ”It was love all those years ago, not simply childish fancy.”

“And now?” Renae questioned, unsure how to respond, and not even turning back.

“Now I remember that love,” the King said distantly.

“As do I,” Renae said sadly, and descended the tower stairs.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 33rd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha looked absently around the simple sparse room she had been lead to by her brother.  The space was like a closet compared to her full floor of the tower, but was typical of the cloister’s bed chambers, including the empty bunk bed, as such rooms were normally shared.

“Come, sit,” Wren said gesturing to the lower bunk.

Katrisha walked to the bed, sat, and slowly turned to lay down.  It wasn’t completely unpadded, but was quite firm compared to the deep piled down she was use to.  All this however went without comment, or visible complaint.

Audry set the bundle of Katrisha’s things on a chest beneath the window, and put a consoling hand on Wren’s shoulder.  Wren looked at Audry, and smiled weakly.  “Come on,” he said as he knelt down beside the bed, took Katrisha’s hand, and closed his eyes.  “Let’s see if we can get some more of this poison out of you.”

Audry sat behind Wren, and lay her head to the back of his shoulder as he worked.  She watched with her mind’s eye, every detail of the process even though she had already been taught.  Seeing if she could glean anything useful from Wren’s more successful attempts.  Eventually she gave it up as pure talent, and gift, and instead let herself focus on Wren’s presence.

He was warm, always so warm like fire light.  Like a hearth on a cold winter’s night, even in the heat of summer the thought of stepping away from him seemed cold.

Everyone turned together as a knock at the open door caught their attention.  “I’m sorry if I’m intruding,” Celia said examining the scene.  “I had heard you two were back…with a guest?”

“Come in,” Wren said coming out of his trance like state.  “This is my sister, Katrisha.  She’s fallen ill, and has come to stay with us for a while.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Celia said as she stepped into the room, and looked down at Katrisha’s somewhat distant gaze.

“This is Celia, one of my dearest friends,” Wren said checking the pool of mage blood in the palm of his hand.  He showed it to Audry who fished for an empty vial amidst the collection of things she had set on the chest under the window.

“What’s that?” Celia asked curiously.

“My blood,” Katrisha laughed darkly.  Celia shook her head in surprise at the response, and almost took a step back.  “Sorry, it’s not…quite that morbid,” Katrisha said with a weak smile, “but I suppose it’s accurate enough, from what Renae says.”

“You are doing better to be making light of things,” Wren said as he poured the silvery substance into the vial Audry had handed him.

“Maybe,” Katrisha sighed tiredly, “and I am sorry, it’s nice to meet you as well.  Wren has mentioned you on his visits.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Celia said with a smile.

“Did he ever mention me?” Audry said with the tiniest hint of jealousy in her voice that was lost on Katrisha.

“Hmm?” Katrisha said slowly drifting off to sleep, “it’s been a year or so, he mentioned you both though.  His two best friends, that he didn’t know what he would do without.  I’m glad he’s had you…” she added, as sleep took her.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 40th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha sat in the sunlight with her eyes closed.  It was not her favorite place in the world, but where she had been told to sit.  “My name is Theron,” a stern but kind male voice stated somewhere behind her.  “I have been told you are Katrisha, and that I should insure you are completely with me before I begin.”

“I am here,” Katrisha said opening an eye hesitantly in the bright sunlight, as Theron stepped in front of her.  “…for the most part.”

“Good,” Theron said.  “I am the head of spiritual study here at the cloister, and yes, before you ask,” he said firmly, “men do occasionally hold such positions within the Order, when we are deemed the best suited at the time of choosing.”

“I was aware, I suppose, that there were men with the ‘Sisterhood,’” Katrisha said trying not to laugh at the miss match of terms.  “My brother has lived here most of his life.”

“So it is,” Theron said calmly, “though as I can tell from the tone of your voice, you realize that the term ‘Sisterhood’ is as such questionable.  Properly we are the Lycian Order of the Light, or a number of other long winded mouthfuls, depending on who you ask.  Many organizations refer to themselves as ‘Orders,’ and ‘Sisterhood’ stuck long ago for any number of reasons.”

“I see…” Katrisha said uncertain what she should say.

“I offer this only for perspective,” Theron said with a shrug.  “I do not often interact with outsiders, and when I do, the questions seem inevitable.”

“What…exactly is the head of spiritual study?” Katrisha asked curiously, and glad for the chance to move off of what seemed to be a sore subject for the man before her.

“Spiritual studies deal with the union of the mind, the spirit, and the body,” Theron said in a practiced lecturing tone. “We are students of philosophy, and the practical science of the material mind, nervous system, and how it interacts with the soul.  We also council on issues of the heart, maladies of the mind, and emotional distress.”

“Ok…” Katrisha said a bit distantly.

“Your condition is physical, but it’s causes, and consequences are less mundane,” Theron said in a kinder tone. “There was debate as to who would be best to teach you first.  I won the argument it seems, to my own increased workload.  The core of what you must learn is to tell the poison that your magic creates, from your own self.”

“Wouldn’t it just be easier to give up magic?” Katrisha laughed darkly.

“A jest that I have no doubt you would find impossible to follow through on,” Theron said sternly.  “For one who has known the magic their whole life, such would be like giving up part of yourself, like pretending you’ve lost your right hand.  Even if you could do it, it would be another grave wound atop so many you have already suffered, and there is no guarantee even then it would work.  That your spirit would not keep collecting wild magic within you.”

“What do you know of my ‘wounds’?” Katrisha said looking away angrily.

“A great deal,” Theron said sadly.  “I lost a sister once, and far more certainly.  She was crushed by a toppled cart in a caravan before my very eyes.  I loved her so much that I almost gave my very life in vain to save her…my mother had to pull me from her, that she did not lose a second child that day.”

“I…” Katrisha said embarrassed.  “I’m sorry…my sister, Kiannae.  She isn’t dead, if I’m here alive, then so is she.  No forest is going to stop her, she’s strong…but…”  Katrisha trailed off, and began to cry.

“I know only what I have been told, and what I am told, has been suggested to you already,” Theron said gently resting a hand on Katrisha’s shoulder.  “All that you can do, is try to find peace – find a path back to health, that you are well when she does return to you.”

Katrisha glared at Theron the last of her obstinate manner wavering.  “Where do we begin?” she asked exhaustedly.

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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 >

Chapter 13

Upon the rock we stand,
above the sheltered bay,
watch over passing ships,
come with war or trade,

none shall carry us away,
ever we stand our own,
ne’er harm from the sea,
come to Avrale our home.

– The Watches of Wesrook, circa 40 B.E.

The Tower of Wesrook

Entering the courtyard of the Castle of Wesrook was not entirely unlike entering the lower court at Broken Hill.  Though as there was no upper court above, the keep doors stood prominently at one end, and the main tower loomed above, and drew one’s eyes up.  It was in fact slightly taller than the western spire at Broken Hill, slightly wider, but gave the illusion of being much more so.

The castle was situated just north of the rocky breakwater that formed Wesrook bay.  Even over the clamor of the city behind them, still murmuring into the evening, one could hear the crash of waves beneath the cliffs.  Four children piled out of the coach, followed by Mercu, and Laurel, as Horence dropped from the front, and patted, and rubbed the horse reassuringly.

A well dressed older gentleman walked up to greet the company, bowed to Charles, and nodded to Mercu curiously.  “Young Lord, and good sir,” he addressed Charles, and Mercu.  “Welcome to Wesrook – our Lady shall be along shortly, but the Duke Regent is indisposed for company this evening.”

“Chamberlain Faren,” Charles said in a manner that almost seemed pleased.

The twins were still on the far side of the coach with Laurel, and when Faren looked to Wren, with his long hair, he came to the wrong conclusion.  “Ah, is this one of the twins we’ve all heard of?”

Charles looked at Wren, and then laughed.  “That’s their brother,” he said just as the other’s rounded the coach.  “Though I can understand the confusion, he does rather look like a girl, doesn’t he.  Probably his upbringing.”

“Ah,” Faren said a bit embarrassed, “my apologies young sir.”  Wren nodded to Faren, but gave Charles a bit of an unkind look, as Laurel and the twins emerged from behind the coach.  “Court Mage Grey,” Faren said with a bow, “and these then, must be your twin apprentices.  We were not informed their brother would be joining them.”

“A last minute addition to our company, my apologies if it cause any trouble Faren,” Laurel nodded.

“No,” Faren said, “there is plenty of room in the tower, and the Lady does adore children.”

“That I do,” said a woman approaching from the direction of the keep.  She was tall, and elegant with flowing blond hair that wafted about as she walked.  She carried herself with a grace, and purpose, that contradicted the readiness with which she knelt down, and hugged Charles as she reached him.

“Hello mother,” Charles muttered with a clear air of embarrassment, but returned the embrace nonetheless.  She kissed her son on the forehead, and then stood up, taking stalk of the new arrivals.

“Laurel, Mercu, so good to see you,” the Lady said with a nod.

“Likewise Lady Meloria,” Mercu said with one of his more exaggerated bows.

“The twins are growing up quite nicely I see,” Meloria said with a smile, “They put on quite the show last I saw them.”  Katrisha, and Kiannae each shot each other a confused look.  “We were not properly introduced, so I am not surprised you do not recognize me,” Meloria added with a smile.

“You do look familiar,” Kiannae said.

“I believe I saw you dancing with Prince Darion,” Katrisha added.

“Ah, very good,” Meloria said.  “Yes, Darion was so sweet to offer to dance with me when my husband left early for the evening.”

“I’d have done the service myself,” Mercu said apologetically, “alas I was otherwise occupied.”

“Yes, with these two lasses here.”  Meloria laughed.  “The show was quite worth it, I assure you.”

A little golden haired girl about two years younger than the twins bounded across the courtyard, and all but pounced onto Charles.  “Charlie!” the girl squealed.

“Hello, Millarae,” Charles acknowledged with further embarasment, and hugged her.

“Your sister has been ever so anxious for your arrival,” Meloria commented.  “Then of course she took forever getting ready.  You should however call your brother by his proper name,” she admonished the girl lightly.

“Sorry Charles,” Millarae said sweetly.

Horence handed the reins of the horse over to the stable attendant, and came around to where the group was standing.  “My Lady,” he said with a bow.

“Horence, good Sir!” Meloria proclaimed, to Horence’s obvious surprise.  “How is your dear Alice?  Any children on the way?”  Horence looked more than a little uncomfortable.  “Have I been too forward?” Meloria asked apologetically.

“No,” Horence said.  “It is not something we had chosen to share yet.”

“Ah,” Meloria remarked thoughtfully.  “My apologies.  Come,” Meloria said gesturing towards the keep, “dinner will be served shortly.”

Katrisha tugged at Horence’s coat hem as the group walked towards the keep.  “Alice is having a baby?” she asked when Horence acknowledged her.

“Yes,” Horence answered simply trying to smile at the inquisitive little girl.

“Why haven’t you two told anyone?” Kiannae chimed in.

“Leave Horence alone you two,” Laurel scolded lightly, as he could see the poor man was a bit put out by the questions, and he suspected why.

“It’s alright,” Horence said somberly.  “It’s cause the first didn’t take, and we wanted to give this one time, to be sure.”  Horence said in a matter of fact tone, but his face betrayed his even demeanor.

“Why…” Katrisha started to ask, but stopped as Mercu gave her a stern look, which actually carried more weight than any scolding from Laurel, as it came so rarely.  Mercu patted Horence on the back consolingly, and they all walked into the keep.

Within the doors things were quite different from Broken Hill.  Rather than a corridor, with a throne room past it, a round room greeted the visitors upon entry.  It was not entirely unlike the throne room, as a balcony overlooked the lower floor, but there was no throne, and only a few benches were set against the wall, between stands holding vases, and other decorations.

At the far end of the foyer stairs followed the curve of the wall up to the balcony, and this was the way Meloria lead her guests.  “I hope you do not mind that we will be dining upstairs,” Meloria commented.  “I much prefer the rear dining hall for smaller affairs, it’s more intimate, and has a view out over the water.  You’ve arrived just in time for the last of sunset.”

“That’s fine,” Laurel said, “our apologies for the late arrival, it’s a long way from Aldermor, but we thought it better to try in a day rather than stop along the way.”

“Yes, it’s a tricky choice that,” Meloria acknowledged.  “I swear every other time I make the trip I change my mind on it, and neither way quite feels right.”

“One of these days they will have to invent a better horse,” Mercu suggested jokingly.

“They’ve already done that,” Laurel noted.  “Not many have bothered with the expense though.  So few people have the knack for shaper magic any more – though I have heard there may be a wild dire herd in Lycia that has promise for a sustainable breed.”

“I’ll have to have my steward look into that,” Meloria commented.  “My husband will give me some hassle on the expense I am sure, but to be able to more regularly visit my son would be worth bargaining with him over.”

Katrisha eyed the way young Millarae hung on her brother’s arm, and wondered if maybe Charles wasn’t as bad as she often thought him to be, if the little girl adored him so.  The girl looked up at her curiously, and Katrisha smiled back.

At the top of the stairs the party turned right down a well adorned corridor, and promptly arrived at double doors that opened on a small dining hall, big enough to seat about twelve.  The room was bathed in deep orange light from the setting sun that licked the distant hills of Carth, and flashed off the waves crossing the vast expanse of water below.

Though this sight held everyone’s attention for a moment, but it was impossible to ignore for long a well dressed man with pitch black skin who sat at the right end of the table.  At a glance one not familiar with his countrymen could be forgiven for mistaking him for the man from the city square.  Such however was clearly impossible, as that man could not have arrived before the coach that had passed him.  Further, upon closer examination he clearly had a much squarer jaw, and then all else could nearly be forgotten for a glimmer of his violet eyes.

“Might I introduce his Lordship Varmun Iverhn,” Meloria said addressing the new arrivals.  “He’s something of a remarkable man.  Born a royal to a tribe of the deep Northern Wastes, he has become a man of the sea, a trader, a diplomat, and even a musician.”  The man stood, and bowed.  “These,” Meloria continued in turn, “are Court Mage Grey, Sir Horence, Mercu, the young Ladies Ashton, their brother, and of course my son Charles.”

“A pleasure,” Varmun said in an almost frighteningly deep resonant voice with a thick unfamiliar accent.  “The Lady speaks far too kindly of me.”

“On the contrary,” Meloria protested, and guided her guests toward seats. “I dare say your story is more remarkable than I have let on.”  The three siblings were seated on the near side of the table, with Kiannae nearest the curious foreigner, Katrisha beside her, then Wren, and Mercu.  Laurel was offered the seat at the left end, and Meloria took a seat between her children with their backs to the view, leaving two seats open for Horence who sat at the far right of the table next to the stranger.

“Do please, tell your story again,” Meloria said insistently.

“It’s not so much,” the man said in his thick voice.  “I did only what many men so placed might have.”

“If many men of your land are so bold, or talented as you,” Meloria refuted, “I do not think you would be seeking allies so.  Osyrae would not stand a chance.”

Varmun laughed lightly, though even this was a bit of a low rumble.  “There are many quite bold in my land,” he replied, “but those of Osyrae are cold, cruel, and just as bold.”

“So they are,” Meloria nodded, “though not all of course.”

“No, not all of course,” Varmun admitted.  “Those who I am unfortunately most acquainted, have harassed, and enslaved my kind since before living memory.  Even the eldest shamans say it was so before their fathers, fathers, fathers.”

“You still have shamans in the north?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Oh yes, many,” Varmun nodded.  “I think there are more shamans left than free common men in the north.  Osyrae has enslaved all who can not fend for themselves.  The shamans have lead the free together, and ever farther north, to the deepest oasis.  I myself have the blood, as a chieftain’s son.”

“Does that make you a prince?” Katrisha asked.

“Much less I think,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “my father is Second Chief of the combined tribes, and I his fourth child, and third son, by his second wife.”

“Second wife?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“You have not yet heard of our First Chief,” Varmun said with a flash of white teeth between his deep burgundy lips.  “She has three husbands, and is the most powerful of all the shamans, she is.”

“How a woman could ever bare even two husbands I’ll never imagine,” Meloria laughed lightly, drawing a chuckle from Mercu.

“I was not so important by my birth,” Varmun continued, “not the most gifted of my father’s children, or even the strongest.”

“Yet the most clever,” Meloria offered.

“Hmm, yes,” Varmun nodded, “or so my mother would tell me.  Perhaps she is right, I can not say.  I did find I had more a way for the mage’s tricks, which did not earn me much more love.”

“I can not imagine why, your magic is spectacular,” Meloria protested.

“I have been told it is a gift all my own,” Varmun admitted, “but illusions are not much use – not compared to my eldest brother who’s strong as a wild dune walker, or my sister whose voice can bring any man, or woman to their knees, and call the wind to dance.”

“What’s a dune walker?” Katirsha asked.

“Perhaps I should show you,” Varmun hummed, and closed his eyes.  A swirl of dancing light formed to his right, and traced out the contours of a great horned head, and ears which hung as large sheets that flapped back, and forth occasionally.  The light traced back along a stout neck, to thick shoulders, and down legs at their narrowest point as hefty as a grown man’s chest.  A low slung belly, and high humped back formed last, and vanished back through the wall.

“They are noble, but fierce beasts of burden.”  Varmun smiled, and looked over the awestruck party.  Horence could be seen to lean slightly away as the apparition shifted its stance in his direction.  It started to unravel, and began to reform into a tall, broad shouldered man whose chest was indeed wider than the former illusions legs.  “This of course is my eldest brother, do you see the resemblance?”  He laughed leadingly.

The second form came apart in a swirl of birds that swooped around Varmun, and formed another luminous image to his left, that took on the face of a slender woman, with short densely curled hair.  “My sister,” Varmun said, and the woman bowed, before dancing across the room, and vanishing through a wall.

“That is a very impressive technique,” Laurel said shrewdly.  “I must say, I’ve only once seen the like.  A mage who fancied himself an entertainer.  His illusions were almost as elegant, but much smaller.  That swarm of birds would have been past his limit.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “You see, I am nothing special, even my gift is not unique.”

“Yet what you have done,” Meloria protested.  “Taking your small share of wealth, and turning it into a trading empire, all to travel far, and wide in search of allies for your people.”

“Wealth I have found,” Varmun nodded.  “A good life even, but allies, less so,” Varmun said sadly.

“I fear the Duke Regent, and myself each lack any authority on the matter,” Meloria said looking to Laurel.

“I can not say I agree with the Council on this,” Laurel offered carefully.  “Yet the treaty does not cover the lands north of Osyrae, and I fear they have lost the will to act, even if it did.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “So I have been told.  They will march south again you know, it is their way.”

“I know,” Laurel answered, “it seems inevitable.  Their great interest in your lands is resources, the deep desert mines are filled with rare, and precious stones.  Not the least of which is Amberite.  If they intend war, they will want as much of that as they can have.”

“Indeed,” Varmun agreed.  “We are nothing more than a practice war for them, in preparation for their real goals.  For the moment at least they remain unwilling to commit to more, so your Council, and your Kings ignore them.”

“We do not ignore,” Laurel said solemnly, “but we cannot act.  At best we start a war without support, at worst we find ourselves between Osyrae and the Council.”

Varmun looked sadly out to the darkening sky.  “As I say, I am not so much.  I try, and try, but this is always the answer.”

“What will you do?” Katrisha asked.

“As I have,” Varmun said looking to the little girl.  “I shall continue my travels, head south to other lands again.  Seek audience with the White One.”

“I wish you luck,” Laurel said hesitantly.

“I know I have little chance of gaining such favor,” Varmun said sternly.  “Yet as you say, if the Council will not aid us, only the former Empress sits beyond their authority.”

“There is little hope of her involving herself, unless the Black Flight joins Osyrae’s campaign.”  Laurel grimaced at his own framing.

“So it is, but what other choice do I have?” Varmun shrugged.

“None I fear,” Laurel admitted.  “It is no more a fool’s errand than to head east to Mordove, and there is the frightful possibility that Vharen will somehow drag the Black Flight to his side.  That I could only hope would move her…”

“A terrible thing to hang hopes upon,” Varmun said with displeasure.

“Yes,” Laurel said with a nod.  “It seemed he thought his conquest of a lesser dragon would win them over.  If anything, I personally expected the capital to be burned to the ground for the slight.”

“I have heard of this madness,” Varmun said narrowing his eyes.  “It is true then?”

“Yes,” Laurel said.  “Though nothing has happened so far, either way.  It is almost like the whole thing never happened – though reports say he has less humor than ever.  I consider that a good sign, such as they come.  That he won no favors for his theatrics.”

“Enough of such trying matters,” Meloria interjected as food began to arrive.

“Quite right,” Varmun agreed, seeming more cordial than genuine, there was still a sternness to his air.  “I am delighted to see what new your chef has created.”

“Of all the accomplishments Meloria listed,” Mercu remarked, “I fear we heard nothing of your music.”

Varmun’s posture softened, and he let out a long breath.  “Yes.  Though I was of music long before I became a man of the world.  I fear I left my instruments in my room.”

“You play more than one then?” Mercu asked.

“Three,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “more or less.  There is a flute like instrument native to my people, I learned to play when I was a boy.  The captain I hired for the first ship I bought played a violin, and taught me in the time he was in my employ.”

“And the third?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Well, that I do carry with me,” Varmun laughed.  With a wave of his hand strings of light formed before him of varied lengths, he plucked several experimentally.  There was a barely audible ring with each, halfway between a plucked cord, and a rung bell.  He ran his fingers along several of the strings, and then without further hesitation began to play a haunting melody, as food was placed at the table.

“Is it not spectacular?” Meloria asked pointedly.

“Quite,” Mercu remarked.

“It’s very clever,” Laurel nodded.  “Strung spell filaments tuned to musical chords, and solidified enough to interact with the air.  Much more portable than even the lightest instrument.”

“I think it’s lovely,” Kiannae said leaning against the table, and listening intently.

“It sounds like the lights,” Wren said with a furrowed brow.

“The lights?” Laurel asked curiously.

“The ones from the woods,” Wren said staring at the strings.

“I think he may mean wisps,” Mercu said incredulously.

“Wisps don’t…” Laurel started before Mercu interrupted.

“I know.”  Mercu sighed.  “Renae might have mentioned something about seeing wisps around him.  Though that was several years ago.”

“That is also something Wisps do not do,” Laurel shook his head.

The music stopped, and Varmun seemed to be considering the boy who was staring at him intently.  “Wisps,” he said thoughtfully.  “There are lights in the desert, as well as your forests.  There was a girl who’s mother died in childbirth, she was touched all her days, and would be seen to walk into the night, and the lights would come to her.”

Wren looked away.  “I see,” Varmun nodded, “my apologies.”

“A terrible business that,” Meloria nodded.

Katrisha pulled her brother closer.  “It’s ok,” she said softly.

“Let us eat,” Merloria suggested.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 7th, 644 E.R.

Katrisha lay staring out into the night – she had been for some time.  It was well after midnight, and she could not sleep.  She rolled over gently, and looked at her twin in the moonlight.  Kiannae was fast asleep, her face half buried in a pillow.  Katrisha closed her eyes, and listened to the rhythm of waves breaking far beneath the tower as she had for hours.  A faint melodic sound could be heard somewhere far away.  Completely frustrated, she slipped out of bed carefully, so as not to wake her sister.

Katrisha’s robe hung in a wardrobe by the door.  She put it on, gently opened, and then closed the chamber door behind her.  The hallway was very dark, and with a wave of her hand a bright blue orb illuminated her surroundings.  The distant sound of music could still be heard, and she strained to tell which direction it was from.  Deciding it was right she headed that way, and down a flight of stairs to a lower level of the tower.  As she passed westward windows out over the ocean she could hear the music more clearly above the rumble of crashing waves.

Down another flight of stairs Katrisha came to double doors, one of which stood half open onto a large moonlit balcony.  She waved away her light, and peaked through the open door.  There in the moonlight stood Varmun, leaned against the railing casually, staring up into the sky.  He strummed at his conjured harp, which scintillated with ethereal light.  It took a moment for Katrisha to notice he was not alone on the balcony.  Wren was lain against a wall, seemingly asleep.

“Come in,” Varmun said in his deep resonant voice.  “Or out, as it were.”

Katrisha had a start that she had been discovered, and sheepishly stepped out onto the balcony.  “Your brother came not so long ago,” Varmun nodded towards the sleeping boy.  “It seems none of us three could sleep, though it seems I have helped him in that regard.”

“I am sorry to intrude,” Katirsha said with a bow.

“Do not be,” Varmun said, and continued playing.  “This is a public place after all.”

“Why couldn’t you sleep?” Katrisha asked, but then thought perhaps the question was impertinent.

“Why couldn’t you?” Varmun asked in turn.

“I often can’t,” Katrisha admitted, “but I asked first,” she pressed childishly.

“We are much the same in this,” Varmun replied.  “I have always been a night walker.  This was how I knew the girl who called the lights.”

“I’ve heard of wisps before,” Katrisha said thoughtfully, “but never seen one.”

“Most only see them from afar,” Varmun hummed.  “It was only because of Eshai that I have seen one more closely,” there was a strange wistfulness to his voice as he spoke the girl’s name.

“Were you and Eshai close?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps,” Varmun said with an odd wobble of his head.  “She did not speak much, but when she did…”  He hummed deeply.  “She was a beautiful girl,” he sighed.  “Even those who scorned her could not deny this.  A delicate desert flower.  I loved her of course, I was a fool in many ways for this.”

“Why?” Katrisha asked walking closer to the large man whose face was almost a void against the twinkling stars.

“Why did I love her, or why was I a fool?”  Varmun laughed.

“A fool of course.”  Katrisha laughed more awkwardly.

“It is not polite to speak the reason,” Varmun frowned.  “I shall say only she was for no man.  Yet this, he said strumming the luminous strings before him.  One of many tricks I learned from an exiled foreigner, who lived amongst us.  It won me her friendship, if not more.”

Katrisha was curious what he had avoided, but held her tongue on the point.  She asked something else instead.  “Did she hear something else in the music, like Wren seems to?”

Varmun nodded.  “She said the lights whispered secrets, and sometimes those secrets were like a song.”  He ran his fingers along the strings, rather than plucking them.  The sound they made was hard to hear, distant and wavering.  “She said it was like this, but as though words – if not all she could understand.”

“What kind of secrets did they tell her?” Katrisha asked rapt.

“Warnings, portents, true names, and forgotten deeds,” Varmun shrugged.  “The things of seers, but also things they do not see.”

Katrisha frowned.  “I’ve been told not to listen to prophecy.  It’s unreliable.”

“Yes, it is,” Varmun nodded.  “Or so I am told.  To glimpse the future is not to see what will be, but a shifting thread in motion.  Most often you see only where it is, and not quite where it will land.  There is solace in this, that the future is not set in stone.”

“Where is Eshai now?” Katrisha asked leaning against the rail next to Varmun, and peaked over it at the distant shimmering waves below.

“Still home, and safe I hope,” Varmun replied.  “My sister guards her, and none refuse my sister – not father, not the shamans, or even the First Chieftain.  I have seen her voice bring great warriors to their knees.”

“How?” Katrisha asked.

Varmun shrugged.  “Your mages do not know everything, nor our shamans.  There are secrets still in the world, old, potent, and subtle too.  Eshai told me this, and I believe her – I believe also it is she that taught my sister this gift.  For I heard it first from her, to call wisps, wind, a tone command that could move the world, and tremble the land.  She even once called the Lady of the Sands herself.”

Katrisha’s eyes lit up.  “I’ve heard of her, she’s real?”

“Oh yes,” Varmun nodded.  “She comes like snakes whipping across the dune, and then rises ageless, beautiful, and naked as the day we are born.  No shame, and profound pride.  She gave a kiss to each of us three that night, and only I could not hold her gaze.  She made us a castle from the desert sands that stood for two days before it returned to dust.”

“How strange,” Katrisha said.

“Hmm, yes, the castle made the tribe whisper many things,” Varmun agreed.  “The kisses…” he shook his head, thinking better of his musings.

“What of them?” Katrisha pressed curiously.

“They showed me where ever my heart lay, it would have to lay elsewhere,” he answered, and resumed his playing thin lipped, and wove a mournful happy tune.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae stirred, and pulled her blankets more tightly around her.  As her eyes opened she was struck by the empty bed beside her.  It was not like Katrisha to wake before her, and most mornings, at least cool mornings such as it was, Kiannae would find her sister curled up to her.  She sat up groggily, looked around the room, and saw that Katrisha wasn’t in the room at all.

Kiannae walked over to the wardrobe, which had been left partly open.  She Pulled out her own robe, and slipped it on, before opening the door.  No one was around, though she thought she heard voices somewhere.  Taking a guess she walked towards the stairs, and down to a lower level of the tower where she found Laurel engrossed in conversation with Varmun.

“Will you truly not petition the Council on our behalf?” Varmun said a bit irritably.

“You misunderstand me,” Laurel said wincing in frustration.  “I will tell the Council all that you have told me.  Yet I am certain they have heard it all before – even from me they already have third hand reports that Osyrae had turned aggressive towards the north.”

Varmun looked like he wanted to protest further, but did not.

“Where’s Katrisha?” Kianane asked.

Laurel simply shrugged.  Varmun however looked to the little girl, and smiled.  “I believe your twin is in young Wren’s room.”

“Thank you,” Kiannae said, and turned towards the chamber doors.  She found however she wasn’t sure which room was Wren’s.  Mercu emerged from one, and Kiannae walked up to him.  “Which room is Wren’s?” she asked.

Mercu pointed to the room opposite his own, and rubbed his neck.  “Thank you,” Kiannae said again, walked across, and opened the door without knocking.  Katrisha, and Wren were both asleep, curled up together.

Kiannae had a twinge of jealousy.  Katrisha was her twin after all, and though some mornings extracting herself from her sister’s sleepy embrace was a bit of frustrating effort, it always felt nice to wake up to being held.  Kianane was also more than a little perplexed how they had wound up that way.

Kiannae walked over, nudged Katrisha who stirred only slightly.  This however woke Wren who was momentarily startled, and sat up with a start, which threw Katrisha’s arm off him, and rolled her onto her back.  This at least partially woke her.

Katrisha made an unintelligible murmur, and blinked up at her twin.  There was nothing particularly new about this to her at first, as Kiannae was often awake before her, and would wake her up.  She slowly realized that not only Kiannae was dressed, but she was as well.  Slowly she remembered having been too tired when Varmun had carried Wren back to bed, and rolled her head to the left where Wren was rubbing his eyes.

“Morning,” Katrisha half mumbled.

“Why are you down here?” Kiannae half demanded.

“Mmm, couldn’t sleep.”  Katrisha yawned.  “Heard music, and went down stairs, found Varmun playing, and Wren asleep on the balcony.  I think he put us both to bed up here.”

“Ok.” Kiannae frowned, there was still just a twinge of jealousy.  “I’m hungry,” she said putting it aside.  “I hope breakfast is soon.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Breakfast in the westward dining hall was much the same as dinner.  Though with fewer light shows, and far more disheveled children, particularly Katrisha, and Wren who had slept in their robes.  All three had failed to brush their hair by the point Kiannae had insisted she was too hungry, and so Mercu had fetched a brush which they had each been using in turn as food was served.  It not completely up to the best standards of decorum, but was passable for children.

Katrisha, and Kiannae had brushed their own hair in turn, and Katrisha was in the process of brushing Wren’s as their food was set in front of them.  Kiannae continued to having pangs of jealousy, but was feeling stupid, as she hadn’t offered to brush Katrisha’s hair either.

“I know you are not scheduled to stay long,” Meloria asked as her children began poking at their food.  “But what are your plans?”

“I have unexpected matters to attend to with Daven, if the Duke Regent has nothing of importance to report, and remains too unwell to speak with me,” Laurel answered.

“I do wish he would submit to healing, there is no cause to suffering through this cold he has,” Meloria said with some displeasure.

“He’s as devout with his convictions as his brother it seems,” Mercu said in an even, metered tone.

“Oh, I assure you,” Meloria smiled in a faintly disingenuous fashion, “no one is as devout as my husband.  Alas I fear the Duke Regent does not have his brother’s constitution.  No common ailment would dare challenge his noble form.”

“I do believe you are right,” Mercu remarked.  “I do not think I have seen Arlen sick a day in the past fifteen years.”

“I think I saw him sniffle once,” Katrisha offered.

“So not completely impervious,” Meloria laughed, “just insufferably close.”  She turned to Laurel, “What is your business with Daven?  If it is not too sensitive of course.”

“Not at all,” Laurel nodded.  “Just a small matter I was asked to see to personally.  I have enough apprentices of my own, and a gifted young man has manifested in Aldermor.”

“Oh,” Meloria said shrewdly, “you may not have luck there.  He’s two already, taken on just in the last three months.  Plus his own children, it’s slowed down his more complicated work.”

“Who were the parents?” Laurel asked more than a bit curious.  “Not a traveling mage I dare hope?”

“No, no.”  Meloria shook her head.  “Nothing so scandalous.  Stranger in fact, a blacksmith’s daughter on one hand, and a fishing captain’s son on the other.  Neither of them have linage, but each of their parents are contentedly married by all accounts.  It seems there is a rash of emergants.  Daven has expressed some consternation on the matter, he says they are quite strong too.”

“How peculiar,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “The mother of the young man I am to speak for confessed that while she did sleep with a traveling mage – she suspected the father was actually a local boy.  She blamed the mage for his sake.  Three strong emergents in one generation in Avrale.  That would be more than peculiar.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The inside of Daven’s flame was as curious a sight onto itself.  Most of the floors were open framework surrounded in tinted glass – with abstract arrangements of mirrors that helped it glimmer at dawn, and dusk.  It was no more stairs than Laurel was used to climbing back home, but still a tiresome endeavor to reach the study on the top floor.

“Ah Laurel,” an elderly man said as Laurel ascended the last step.  He began to walk over to his guest.  “Do forgive me for not coming down.  I do not trust these two alone for a minute.”  He gestured to a young man, and woman who sat opposite each other at a workbench, visibly glanced up at each other, and giggled.

“It’s most alright Daven, and I am glad you remember me.  We have only met the once when you visited Brokhal some years ago.  Are your new students troublemakers?” Laurel asked curiously.

“After a fashion,” Daven glared at the two, and any hint of giggling ceased.  “It’s no place of mine to judge, but I’ll not have their parents set upon me for them dallying under my roof.”  He offered a hand to Laurel.

“Ah the troubles of youth.”  Laurel nodded, and shook the older man’s hand.  “Initially my visit was to be on behalf of a young man from Aldermor, but on hearing the news of your two students – giving my word aside – curiosity insisted that I visit.  Is it true they are both emergent?”

“So it would seem,” Daven nodded.  “The fathers both trust their wives implicitly.  None the less…well let me show you.”  He walked over to a shelf, and picked up a rod, and a large instrument with two curved prongs.  “Strictly speaking this is all conjecture, but do you know what this is,” he raised the pronged object.

“I’ll wager it measures something,”  Laurel said with the tilt of his head.  “I don’t recall precisely what, it’s been years since I’ve dabbled in advanced enchantment.”

“Simply it measures strand density in magical effects,” Daven said absently.  “It’s not exactly a precise science, as it must be calibrated to ambient sources.  This here,” he indicated the rod, “is a calibration tool.  It’s an old one, but doing the math for decay I know precisely how strong it should be.  Now fluctuations happen all the time, we enchanters mostly ignore them, since they are hard to find a baseline to measure against.”

“And you think a fluctuation happened recently?” Laurel wagered a guess.

“Well, recently being a relative thing,” Daven nodded.  “You are aware of Vemdel’s law are  you not?’  Laurel searched his memory, but upon taking too long Daven simply sighed at him.  “Court mages, you always forget the basics.  Too caught up in politics, and flashy showmanship to really appreciate the academic.  Vemdel’s law says that the rate of decay of an enchantment is inversely proportional to the ambient strands available during infusion.”

“So the age of the rod is the key here?” Laurel wagered another guess.  It had been a long time since someone had lectured him on anything magical, and he had forgotten how much he did not like it.

“Yes, quite,” Daven placed the rod between the prongs, and a rune formed above it.  “Twice as strong as it should be, give or take.  That implies exceptional excess ambient strands at the time.  Now this rod, it’s old, usually I’d have thrown it out, but it was made by my daughter, her, first notable enchanting success.  As such I also know precisely when it was made, and that was within weeks of when these two,” he gestured at his clearly distracted students, “hypothetically would have been conceived.”  He stood up a bit straighter.  “Now, I’ve done some measurements against some of my own work at the time, under the guise of ‘checking in.’ All of it, within about a two month period has decayed about half as much as it should have.  With results to either end trailing off to within margins for error.”

“So there was a significant spike,” Laurel mused.  “You think that caused a rash of emergants?”

“The rash of emergents I can confirm,” Daven said firmly, “the rest remains speculative.  What is not speculation is the farther west, the more one can find.  Two here, fifteen on Carth.  That’s just counting the major ones, I think there are a lot extra minor gifts kicking around, that no one has, or will notice.”

“A third major one out east in Aldermor,” Laurel added.  “Assuming the mother is right, and the father wasn’t a passing caravan mage.”

“Is that so,” Daven mused.  “There is a bit more to my speculation.  You are a student of the sky are you not?  I seem to recall hearing you have quite the orrery built up in your tower at Broken Hill.”

“Yes,” Laurel admitted.  “A hobby of sorts.”

“You know then of the dark companion?” Daven pressed.

“The hypothesis, yes,” Laurel said curiously.  “There have been some theories put forth, mathematical proofs based on orbital anomalies that claim to predict the path, but no observation has been made to prove it’s existence.  That is in part why it is called ‘dark’ because if it is there, it cannot be seen.”

“There have been several major bursts of emergent gifts recorded since the dawn of the Empire, and a few implied by pre-imperial record,” Daven started again.  “Now the date ranges are all very fuzzy for most of these surges in gift, but checking against them, and the period of the observable spike, and conception of this latest batch of emergents – then checking it against several of the projected orbital paths, one matches up.  Or rather it matches up with approximately when Thaea would pass through the path of the ‘companion.’”

“Have you submitted your findings to the Council?” Laurel asked suddenly quite interested.

“Not yet,” Daven shook his head, “nor am I sure I will bother.  The council has been no fan of mine since I resigned, and further has taken a dim view on conjectures regarding the ‘dark companion’ for, truthfully as long as I was in their number.”

“Unfortunate,” Laurel said disappointedly.

“Yes,” Daven nodded.  “Perhaps I will get around to it.  I need to project the course forward a bit, and make some observational attempts.  I don’t expect to see anything, no one ever has.”  He paused for a moment.  “So the boy in Aldermor, what of him?  It seems he was the original reason for your visit?”

“I’m a obliged, as a matter of course to ask if you would take him on as an apprentice,” Laurel said with a shrug.  “Yet under the circumstances I have no illusions you will do so.”

“No,” Daven shook his head.  “Much too busy with those two,” he gestured at his students again.  “I saw that,” he raised his voice slightly.  The two pulled their hands apart quickly, and pretended to have been working the whole time.  “I will put the two of you in separate labs if you can’t stay on task.”

“I wish you the best of luck with that,” Laurel laughed reservedly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 9th, 644 E.R.

All were gathered in the courtyard at Wesrook Tower to bid goodbye to guests.  It was still early, and the twins were their usual sleepy selves.

“You are sure you can not stay longer?” Meloria implored more out of polite manner, than any real pressure.  She was actually quite aware of the schedules to be kept.

“Much as I would like to avoid South Rook entirely,” Laurel laughed, “I fear I must attend my appointments there.  At least by virtue of taking the western road I will have to stop there only once.”

“You must visit again,” Meloria said insistently.  “And bring these darlings with you again,” she added leaning a bit towards the twins, and Wren.  “And good Mercu as well,” she said with a smile.

“Wild horses could not keep me away my lady,” Mercu said with a nod of the head.

“Ah,” Meloria grinned, “but might they bring you?  I really must learn more of this breed from out east.”

“I will see you all at Broken Hill in a few weeks,” Charles said with a bow, seemingly directed particularly at Katrisha.

Millarae trotted up to Katrisha, and pulled slightly on her sleeve.  Confused Katrisha relented to lean closer.  Millarae got up on her toes, close to Katrisha’s ear, and failed entirely to whisper in spite of all other efforts to be conspiratorial, “My brother likes you.”

“I don…” Charles started defensively, and then cut himself off.  “I think you, and your sister are becoming fine ladies of the court.  Nothing more.”

“You like her,” Millarae said snootily, and stuck her tongue out at her brother.

Meloria covered her mouth to try and contain her laughter.  Katrisha narrowed her eyes at Charles – something seemed very fishy to her about the whole thing.  She was distracted however when Meloria spoke up.  “Should such a thing come to pass, it has my blessing.  Either of you girls would make darling additions to the family!”

“That might be a bit politically complicated,” Laurel offered, wary of Katrisha’s history with Charles, if not so many other issues.

“Ah but not strictly forbidden,” Meloria offered.  “If it is true love, ways can be found.”

“I assure you there is some distance to be walked along that road.”  Mercu cautioned, with humor.

“Ah, but that there is a road at all,” Meloria mused, “a lady can dream.”

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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 10

The twine once unwound,
shall again be re-bound,
and from the least of these,
shall come the greatest to be,
all things move both ways,
just as in those ancient days,
that which once has passed,
shall come again at last,
and order’s brightest day,
shall in deepest night decay.

– Book of Entropy, circa 30 B.E.

Shifting Threads

Rhaeus 40th, 641 E.R.

Wren glanced nervously around a large room as he entered.  He had never been inside one of the classrooms, and didn’t really know the nine older children that surrounded him.  There was a glimmer of mutual recognition with a girl sitting by the door.  After a moment the girl waved Wren over, and seemed to be searching for his name.  “Wren, isn’t it?” she finally asked.

“Yes,” Wren said awkwardly.

“Come sit by me,” the girl offered, sliding over on her bench to make room.

“Leave him be sister,” Andrew said, glancing back from the next row, “can’t you tell he’s in the wrong class.  No one that young is here.”

Wren hesitantly climbed up onto the bench, and continued to look around the class.

“I’m Audry,” the girl said after a moment, “I don’t know if you remember me.”

“I do,” Wren said quietly.  “You arrived last year with your mother, and brother.  You had been traveling with a caravan.”

A girl about a year older than Wren, but still clearly younger than the rest of the class entered, and looked around with an even more meek demeanor than Wren had entered with.

“What’s with all the lost kids today,”  Andrew grumbled.  “Where is Sister Charis to send them to the right room?”

“I’m supposed to be here,” the girl said defensively.  “I was just moved up a class yesterday.”

“Scoot over Wren,” Audry said quietly, sliding further down the bench herself.  “Come sit with us,” she said waving the girl over.

The girl climbed onto the bench next to Wren, and looked over at him.  “Hi, I’m Celia.  Have you been moved up a class too, I don’t remember seeing you…”

“No,” Wren said hesitantly, “I was just placed this morning.”

“Have you been traveling with your mother?” Celia asked.

“No,” Wren said uncomfortably, “…mother has just been teaching me.”

“Oh,” Celia said, “is your mother one of the instructors?”

“No,” Wren frowned, “my mother…” he paused, “is Rennae.”

“I had heard the Matron had an adopted son,” Audry said sizing up her new classmate again.

“So your real mother is…” Celia started to ask but thought better of it.

“Dead,” Wren said tersely, and looked away just as the instructor entered the class.

“Two younger students are joining us today,” the woman said.  “For their benefit I am Sister Charis,” the woman said looking about the class, and settling her gaze on Wren and Celia.  “Would you two stand and introduce yourselves?”

Celia looked to Wren, and then slowly stood first.  “I am Celia Adesia, daughter of Renoa,” she said nervously, looked around at the other students in the class, and then quickly sat back down.

Wren got up onto the bench he was sitting on, and looked around at all the faces already turned his way.  “I am Wren Ashton, son of Meliae,” he said with some determination, “it’s nice to meet you all.”  He looked around again, sat down quickly, and slowly sunk out of view.

Charis pulled a book out from under her arm, and set it between Wren and Celia.  “You two will be sharing, I assume you know your basics since you have been placed in this class.   Everyone, please turn to page three ten.”

There was a shuffling of pages, and as it slowly came to a stop Charis looked back and forth between her new students for a moment.  “Sister Celia, would you read the first line please?” she said in a very proper tone.

“Emp…eror Corin…th was not born to any of the royal lines, of the late age of Kings,” Celia started shakily, “but to a com…an woman often recor…ded as a…har…lot.”

“Very good,” Charis said, and turned to Wren.  “Brother Wren, please continue,” she said softly, mindful of the fact that the small boy had sunk all but completely out of view behind the table.

Wren slowly pushed himself up, and got into a position where he could see the book, and search for the next line.  “Though…” he started nervously, “though…” he repeated, “his lin…e…lineage is not known for cer…certain, his mo…ther even…tually married a prom…promi…promi..nent…” Wren gave up and sank back into his seat.

Charis sighed, and moved on, her gaze fixing on Andrew whose expression did not suit her.  “Brother Andrew,” she said firmly, “please continue for us, would you?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 19th, 641 E.R.

“Some mistakenly think it proper to attach ‘Protectorate of the Storm Queen’ to the name of the land Napir.  This however both ignorant, and incorrect.  Napir itself means Protected.  Properly Napir Ami, Protected [by] Storm would be the correct form,” Wren read aloud, and set the book aside with a sigh.

“I don’t see why you stutter so in class,” Audrey offered, her head leaned back against the window, listening to the rain.

“Is easier when it’s just you two,” Wren protested.

Celia reached over from her spot on the floor, and grabbed the book.  She flipped through the pages curiously till she found where Wren had left off.  She only read to herself though.

“Huh,” she said after a moment.  “Napir is one of very few lands that maintains its own language, though its use has begun to wain in larger cities.  It says here the suffixes that dragons take are words in Namin, the proper name for the language.  Except black dragons, who took the tradition as well, but use allusions to ancient Osyraen instead.  Hmm, what’s iron…y mean?”

“How is it used?” Wren asked.

“Etten, for instance, with some ’irony’ is derived from a word meaning ‘loyal.’”

“I think it means…contrary,” Wren offered.

“Oh I remember now,” Celia said with a spark of realization.  “The Green Matron’s mate, Mar’etten.  Yes, that would be contrary I suppose, and here it is in the footnote.  Yes.”

“You could have just read the whole bit aloud to practice you know,” Audrey chided.

“I think there will be plenty of time for that, it’s been raining for days,” Celia cut back.  “I will gladly have garden duty for a week just to be outside the cloister for five minutes without getting soaked.”

“The Court Mage says the high winds are shifting again,” Wren offered.  “He doesn’t think this position is sustainable, and perhaps it will finally snap back to its normal northern flow, ending the drought.”

“You always come back with the strangest things to say after you visit your sisters,” Audrey said, and gave Wren a funny look.

“I don’t think it’s strange at all,” Celia protested. “I’d rather be learning about,” she struggled for a moment trying to remember the right words, “atmospheric phenomena, than all this old, dry history.”

“If the north was half as dry as these text books, no amount of rain would ever end the drought,” Audrey offered with a smirk, and closed her eyes again.

Celia reached over, grabbed a pillow and threw it at Audrey who caught it without even opening her eyes, wedged it behind her neck, and settled in more comfortably against the window.  “You may continue reading, Sister Celia,” she said in officious tone that sounded nothing like Charis, but clearly was meant to.

“You are terrible,” Celia chided, but was noticeably trying not to laugh.

“Terribly bored,” Audrey corrected.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laeur 13th, 642 E.R.

“Assessment?” an older woman asked leaning over Wren.  His hands were just above the forearm of an older man.  He was so deeply wrinkled with age that if he had any appreciable gift he would have to be close to the end of his second century.  Giftless as he obviously was on examination, he was only likely about ninety.  He was also in a deep peaceful sleep.

It felt mostly like fire, tingly, uncomfortable, almost itchy.  The result of various inflammation, and irritation through the man’s arms.  “Arthritis, in most joints,” Wren said.  “Inflammation of the tendons in the right arm.  The nerves of the arm are sickly for some reason as well, Sister Seline.”

Selene did her own cursory pass.  “Very good,” she said.

“Wait,” Wren said.  He shifted down the man’s body, and hovered searchingly over his thigh.  “I’ve felt this before, at Broken Hill, when there was an accident.  My mother said to mention if I ever felt it again.”

Selene followed the boy, and focused a long moment.  “Oh dear,” she said.  “A a deep vein thrombosis, nasty little thing.  You felt that all the way up at his arms?”

“Yes,” Wren answered awkwardly.  “Or well, I felt something was wrong, anyway.”

“Everyone else gather around.”

The ten other students, including Audry, and Celia all gathered around Wren’s patient.  The mismatch of a six year old caring for the ancient man was all the more strange as the range of students gathered.  Wren and Celia were by far the smallest, and youngest.  Audry even was clearly a bit younger than most, nine, ten, even a twelve year old.

“Everyone, one at a time, very carefully, extend your senses in here, just behind the bone of the upper thigh,” Selene said, indicating the location.

The students did one at a time.

“This is a deep vein thrombosis, a clot in a major arterial vein.  They are very dangerous, because they can break loose, and wedge elsewhere in the circulatory system.  They are also hard to detect,” Selene lectured, as the last student finished their cursory examination.  “Now, pay close attention,” she said, and moved back into position herself.  “The clot must be carefully dissolved from the free edge, towards its attachment point.”

Everyone tried, at least at first to follow what she was doing.  Roughly half could not.  It was reduced to nothing more than a fine grain of platelets, until the vein surface itself could be soothed, and healed.  “This here,” she indicated, “while not the root cause, is part of the underlying problem.  This is where the clot began to form.  By smoothing, and making the vein more youthful we will reduce the chance of recurrence for many years.  You did very good finding this Wren,” Selene added encouragingly.

“What about the nerves in his arm,” Wren asked.

“Yes,” Selene nodded.  “Another reason I called everyone over.”  She moved back up the man’s body.  “The symptom if you would all care to examine, is largely here, here, and here.”  She indicated areas of the forearm, and elbow.  Everyone did a cursory pass, more than a few cringed slightly at what they felt.

“What’s wrong with him?” Audry asked uncomfortably.

“I’m sure he has mistaken it for more of his arthritis, but it’s not,” Selene nodded, and moved up to his shoulder.  “Here, under his clavicle, I want you to all examine it, and then someone tell me what they think they feel.”

Everyone took a turn, all with a mixture of expression on their face.  Wren saw it almost immediately, but when he saw Audry tilt her head, and seem thoughtful, he decided he would stay quiet when the instructor asked.

“Well, anyone?” Selene asked.

Audry glanced at Wren, and Wren justs nodded back at her.  She pursed her lips, uncomfortable being the first one to offer an observation.  She sighed.  “I think the nerve is pinched,” she said.

“Elaborate,” Selene pressed.

“Between the rib, and collarbone,” Audry said.

“Proper term,” Selene chided lightly.

“Clavicle,” Audry corrected herself.

“Very good,” Selene nodded.  “Very good indeed.  The problems here are two fold.  One is through repetitive use.  This man is a weaver by trade, poor posture from age, and bad habits hunched over his loom have contributed to the problem, also repeated motions.  This alone however was not the full cause.  Some of the problem is congenital, the bone is thicker here than it should be.  This was not a problem till the muscles that should be holding it up atrophied from posture.  Dealing with the bone will be a slow, detailed process, but we can begin restoring the atrophied muscle.”

“Observe,” she said, and began feeding energy into the muscle, encouraging it to pull the shoulder back, and the collarbone up.  “There, now to heal the underlying injury.”  She restored the long impinged nerve, and moved down the arm restoring life to the rest of it.  She then returned to the shoulder.  “Normally we try to avoid pain in those we heal,” she said, again lecturing.  “Pain however does serve a purpose, it encourages us not to do things that hurt us.  I will now grow a sensory nerve here,” she indicated the point of impingement.  “It will not hurt him much, but if he assumes a posture that exaggerates his condition it will give him a twinge of warning.  Since normally this part of the nerve has no sensation.”

A small cluster of nerve growth formed off the main nerve branch.  “This will also encourage him to return, and give us the time to properly adjust the bone, at which point this will no longer bother him.”  She rolled her soldiers, and her neck.  “Ah hypocrisy, I’ve been slouching myself.  Everyone, back to your own patients.  Wren, you may begin treating the arthritis.  Wait, Audry, may I speak with you.”

Audry returned to the instructor, worried she had done something wrong.

“Where is your broth?” Selene asked.

“I don’t know,” Audry said uncomfortably.  “He was being very cranky this morning.”

“Could you have your mother come talk to me, he’s making habit of this.”

“Of course,” Audry said, and with a nod from Selene returned to her own patient.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 27th, 642 E.R.

Sister Charis walked slowly down the aisle, looking back and forth at the students following along in their shared textbooks.  “Lady Adria, was crowned Queen of Lycia in the year two B.E,” she said stopping at the second to last row.  She leaned over the table, and knocked hard right next to Andrew who shot upright from having drifted off.  “If you please Brother Andrew, read the next line.”

Andrew looked at the page before him hesitantly, and started to sound it out “Lady Ad…ria, was, cr…owned…”

“That was the previous line,” Charis sighed, “If you ever wish to be assigned to something other than maintenance duties, I recommend you pay more attention.”

“What do we need this for, our gifts are what matter,” he said obstinately.

“And I have not heard particularly astounding things about your healing studies either,” Charis chided him.  “Very well, how about you Brother Wren?”

“Ye…yes,” Wren stammered, and found the line in the book he was sharing with Celia and Audry. “Corinth was granted the title of Imperator, supreme commander of Lycia’s armies, and struck back against his homeland.  The two year campaign ended with the legendary siege of Tar…sis, and saw Imperator Corinth installed as regent, after King Dar…mon’s defeat before the gates.”

“Very good,” Charis said with a smile, “six months ago when you joined our class I had my concerns that you had been misplaced, but your progress is exceptional.  I can only hope others,” she stressed with a sidelong glance, “take after you.”

Andrew shot Wren a dirty look as Charis slowly walked back towards the head of the class.  “Now seems as good a time as any to break for lunch, those who wish may read on.  Extra marks will be given for those who can read aloud an entire paragraph this afternoon without stuttering.”

Audry placed the ribbon on the page where the class had stopped, and closed the book as Wren and Celia got up to leave.  Audry moved to follow, but her brother stopped next to her.  “Have lunch with me, and Lena today,” he said in a demanding tone.

“I was going to eat with Wren and Celia in the courtyard,” Audry protested.

“You do that every day,” Andrew countered.

“It’s ok,” Celia said, “there’s always tomorrow.”

“Ok,” Audry said with a frown.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 31st, 642 E.R.

Wren considered the intricate web of string wrapped around Celia’s fingers.  “I don’t know which ones to take next,” he said with obvious frustration.

“Let’s start over,” Celia said untangling the string, “you go first this time, and then at this step I’ll show you.”

Wren turned as he saw Audry out of the corner of his eye.  She was at the far end of the court yard, arguing with her brother rather animatedly.  She suddenly pushed him, and stomped off towards where Wren and Celia sat.

“What was that about?” Wren asked curiously.

“Just my brother being stupid,” Audry growled.

“What about?” Celia asked.

“He…” Audry trailed off.  “No, nothing.  He’s just stupid.”

Andrew walked up on the three and sneered at Wren pointedly.  “Fine, stay close to the smart little soul eater,” he growled turning to his sister.  “Maybe he’ll eat your soul instead of mine.”

Wren cringed, and shrunk away from Andrew, and Celia rested a hand on his shoulder comfortingly..

“Shut up,” Audry yelled at her brother.  “Just because you have nightmares about being hurt by little boys doesn’t mean anything.  Wren is sweet, kind, and innocent.  You are just stupid.”

“Cassandra said to trust dreams, they are a warning,” Andrew muttered as he walked away.

“And mother said not to listen to Cassandra,” Audry yelled after her brother as he left.

“What did he mean soul eater?” Celia asked incredulously.

“Ever since Wren showed him up in class the other day, he’s been angry,” Audry sighed.  “Then he had a couple nightmares.  Heard some rumor from one of the other boys, and now he’s convinced Wren is evil.”  Wren looked away embarrassed, and obviously uncomfortable.  “He’s just stupid,” Audry said and hugged Wren, “you would never hurt a fly.”

“What rumors have they been spreading about Wren?” Celia asked angrily.

“It’s stupid, and not worth repeating,” Audry sighed.

“Tell me,” Celia said, “we all should know, so we can set them right.”

“Like anyone listens to any of us,” Audry frowned.  She gave Celia’s insistent expression a dubious look, but finally relented.  “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but they say he ate his mother’s soul.”

“That’s horrible,” Celia all but yelled, “who would believe such a thing?”

Wren pulled away from Audry, got up, took a step away from his friends, and dropped to his knees crying.

“I’m sorry,” Audry said moving behind him, and hugged him again.  “I shouldn’t have told you.  It’s so horrible, and stupid, and I hate him.”

Wren sobbed, and tried to pull away again, but Audry wouldn’t let him.

“It’s true,” he finally squeaked between sobs.  “I’ve always known, Renae never told me directly, but I’ve always known.”

“What?” Celia said in disbelief, “you can’t mean that…”

“She gave me everything, to let me live,” Wren whimpered.  “I remember it sometimes, like a bad dream…I can’t wake up from.”

“That’s horrible,” Audry said consolingly, “but that doesn’t make it your fault.”

“It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for me,” Wren cried.

“You don’t know that,” Celia said kneeling down in front of Wren and looking down at him sweetly.

“I…” Wren started, but looked away.  “I don’t know.”

“She loved you,” Audry said confidently.  “She loved you, and she wanted you to live, that doesn’t make you bad, it makes her good.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 5th, 642 E.R.

Kiannae looked curiously down a side street at the sign for The Grey Lamb as they passed.  Mercu had assured the girls that they would not be back.  It had been over a year since Laurel would allow the girls out of the castle following the events of their last visit.  And even were there any reason to go – which there was not – Mercu had no desire to be scolded at length.

It was a more peaceful day than their last visit.  No caravan in town causing commotion with fresh wares, and weary, wealthy travelers.  Still a fair number of citizens filled the streets of the village, and it was no surprise that a lone old woman along the road side did not catch anyone’s attention.

Katrisha gasped as a wrinkled hand clasped onto her arm.  She turned to face the old woman who held her firmly, and stared at her with vacant glassy eyes.  After a moment of silence the woman spoke in barely more than a hoarse whisper, “The second is born but the first to die, yet over the life and death of stars presides.”

Kiannae turned, noticing her sister was no longer beside her, and took a step back towards the woman who held Katrisha’s arm.  Before she could even demand an explanation the woman turned to her with fire in her eyes, and spoke wildly, “what then of the heir, the Sylvan first born, the one whom a crown shall one day adorn.”

Katrisha pulled her arm away, and backed up not sure what to make of the woman or her strange words.  Her presence was unnerving, it felt almost like a broken mirror reflecting back unidentifiable parts of one’s own impression.

Mercu had noticed the twins were no longer following him, and turned to the scene as the woman all but yelled, “Fear the schemes of the dragon who lies, and a coming age when men wail and cry, dread more the child at the eye of the storm, and for those from which all mortal is torn.”

“That’s enough Cassandra,” Mercu growled as he marched up to them.  “We have no need of your fortune telling, and you won’t be paid for spouting your nonsense in little girl’s ears.  Come girls, move away from the mad old woman.”

“I’ve no need of coin old bard, my days are short, head my words children, you will do great deeds, and meet uncommon ends,” Cassandra spat.

“What was that about?” Kiannae asked as the trio walked on through the square.  She glanced back at the woman still staring after them.

“Just the new resident fortune teller plying her nonsense.” Mercu sighed.  “Pay her no mind.”

“What did she say to you before I came up,” Kiannae asked Katrisha.

“Something about second born and first to die, and stars,” Katrisha said with a touch of nerves.

“Like I said,” Mercu grumbled, “ignore it, odds are it means nothing.   Simply having heard it will changed it, or at the very worst paying it any head will just lead to its fulfillment.“

“How does that work?” Kiannae said obstinately, “you seem to imply it is real, but that it’s also not to be listened to?”

Mercu sighed, and stopped to lean against a shop porch.  “There are a lot of layers to it.  The first of which is that people lie, and if they aren’t lying they are getting things wrong.  Precognition, and prophecy comes from so deep in the subconscious,” he said tapping his head, “that by the time it reaches the surface it’s a garbled mess tied up in preconceptions, fears, and obscured by past memories.”

“So it’s misleading then?” Katrisha asked irritably.

“Even assuming something useful can be wretched from the mess that is the very process, the result is unpredictable, and can either be self defeating, or self fulfilling,” Mercu said running his fingers through his hair.  “Happened to me once.  I was told of the woman I would marry, and that I would be my own undoing.  The first part might have come true, if I hadn’t known, hadn’t behaved too rashly, and so the second part came true…”

“That’s very sad,” Kiannae said soberly.

“It is what it is,” Mercu laughed, “I’m happy now.  I can’t say if I’d be any more happy with her, but I doubt it.  I probably would never have met the two of you, Laurel, or lived here at court.  I think the long and short of it is don’t trust prophecy, and unless it’s very dire, and very specific, ignore it, and certainly don’t dwell upon it.”

“Dyeing is pretty dire,” Katrisha muttered.

“Yes, but we all die, someday,” Mercu laughed uncomfortably, “did she say how?  Did she give you clues, things to watch for, and when to be careful?”

“No,” Katrisha sighed, “except maybe dragons…”

Mercu cracked a crooked smile, “Yes, well, dragons are always something to be careful of.  If you spend every day of your life – and it could be well over a century and a half – worrying about the words of a mad old woman who might be nothing more than that…mad.  What will you have gained?  And what will you have lost?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel sighed and looked at the two girls before him.  “Mercu has told me of your run in with the fortune teller that’s come to live in the village.  Does what she said still trouble you?”

“No,” Kiannae lied.

“Maybe a little,” Katrisha admitted.

“Maybe a little,” Kiannae recanted.

Laurel shook his head.  “Mercu told me what he told you of prophecy, precognition, and visions of the future in general.  He’s right, every bit of it, prophecy is real.  It is also remarkably useless.  At best it’s like a memory of a dream, a memory of the future, but no less distorted than any other memory in a dream.”

Laurel rubbed his eyes tiredly.  “That all said maybe it will give you all some comfort that I’ve heard that prophecy before, or well, a close enough variation.  It was ‘the child at the eye of the storm’ that caught my attention.”

“How is that supposed to make us feel better?” Katrisha laughed darkly, “doesn’t that make it more meaningful?”

“Well,” Laurel started, and picked up a black book with an elaborate S embossed on the cover.  “The line reads, ‘A woman with hair of purest silver, shall stand at the eye of the coming storm, and from all that is mortal be ever torn.’  I don’t think either of you are in any immediate danger of having silver hair.”  Laurel closed the book for emphasis.

“It only speaks of one at the eye of the storm, the other could be dead,” Katrisha said crossly.

“There are a lot more verses,” Laurel said drumming his fingers on the book, “and by most interpretations the woman at the eye of the storm is interpreted to also be the second born, who is said to be the first to die.  It also contradicts itself at times, some think that the first to die remark should not even be taken literally.  The prophecy most held to refer to the Avatar, referred to his ascension as death.  So as Mercu advised you, and as I have always done – save for the necessity of my early schooling – ignore prophecy, it’s rubbish.”

“Ok,” Katrisha said hesitantly, as Kiannae simply nodded.

Mercu entered behind them, and Laurel shot him a look.  “Please leave girls, I have things to take care of.  You have the rest of the afternoon to yourselves.”

As Katrisha and Kiannae closed the door behind them, Mercu gave Laurel a very shrewd look.  “What’s troubling you?”

“I feel guilty,” Laurel sighed.

“What for?” Mercu asked with some confusion.

“They needed to stop troubling themselves, so I left out a line from a prophecy,” Laurel admitted, “and if they ever chose to look into it, they will catch me in that lie.”

“What did you leave out?” Mercu asked with a worried expression.

“‘A woman with hair of purest silver,’” Laurel started, “that was what I told them, to reassure them, since their hair is black.  It’s probably nothing really, but the next line, the one I didn’t tell them, reads ‘and eyes of truest emerald green.’”

“You don’t think then?” Mercu asked with agitation.

“No, I don’t.  I’ve no interest in prophecy…it’s just,” Laurel trailed off for a moment.  “I’ve had the dream myself, the most prevalent of all supposed prophetic visions.  The woman at the eye of the storm.  I’ve seen her face, it could be either of them, older to be sure, but her hair isn’t grey from age, it’s something else, it shines like polished metal, but flows like satin.”

“Take your own advice dear Laurel,” Mercu laughed darkly, “forget it, ignore it, and move on.”

“If only,” Laurel sighed.  “There is one more thing, troubling enough in itself…” he trailed off.  “I have heard a report just today that a dragon was successfully captured in Osyrae, and is being force marched to the capital.”

“The fools did it?” Mercu said in disbelief.

“I still worry to what end,” Laurel muttered.  “Twice in one day I hear ill tidings pertaining to dragons…”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 8th, 642 E.R.

Jeoffrey pulled his hood tighter.  It was far too warm for his tastes to be wearing such apparel, but crowds had made him nervous since the festivities had begun.  There was a fire in the hearts of the people of the city since word had come.  It had been shouted from the rooftops, criers ran through the streets declaring the great victory.  A dragon, bound by mages, being marched fifty miles on foot from the northern steppes.  The reports he had received from scouts confirmed it, and the sudden lack of pressure on his people to leave the capital told him that the King wanted them to be there, and see.

It had been nearly two weeks since first word of the capture.  Enough time for a message to have reached Avrale discretely, not enough for word to have returned with the same caution.  Jeoffrey was anxious, even though he knew King John would have nothing helpful to offer him.  Still, just contact would have brought him some peace in such unsettling days.

A great silver cage stood a thousand feet beyond the city gates, past the outer slums that lay in the shadow of the capitals ancient walls.  The runes that bound the cage shone with fury that even ungifted eyes could see.  It was all a great show, with one obvious purpose; to inspire the people. It was working.  Shops and merchant stalls were everywhere, and word was that the dragon would arrive soon.

Jeoffrey moved aside as a squabble broke out between two drunks, and noticed a way out of the dense part of the crowd.  The gathered throngs thinned, and his eyes turned down the road.  It was lined with people all the way to the crest of a far rolling hill.  Two days the estimates had claimed the dragon would arrive.  It was then three, and there were whispers the delay had been due to a moment of carelessness, ending in one of the binding mages being bitten in half.

He felt the brush of something, and years on the streets of Osyrae had given him quick hands at that feeling.  He caught a wrist barely.  Small and quick, it almost slipped through his grasp before he could spin to face the wouldbe cutpurse.  His glance was already down, and even then his eyes almost slipped off her as she tried to pull away.  She was a bit smaller than he had even expected, and there was something hard about even getting a look at her.  The crowd bumping into him did not help.

He caught her other hand before she could stab him with the knife she had meant to slit his purse with.  She was very quick, but with both her wrists in his hands he was able to get a good look at her.  Her hair was blood red, purer than his had ever been.  Her eyes no longer evaded his but stared at him with fire, golden as the sunset.  She was about seven, dirty as any urchin, and a beautiful bronze like her countrymen, if just a shade paler.  The eyes froze Jeoffrey, they were eyes he felt like he knew.  Eyes that made him want to cry.

They were not the eyes of a sad waif ready to worm out of being caught.  They were the eyes of one proud, and determined, angry at having failed.  They were eyes that should not have been there, and then a bumbling fool stumbled into Jeoffery.  He lost his grip, and she was gone.  No amount of scanning the forest of legs before him could find her.  He tried to convince himself she had even been there at all, that she had been real.  He had to force himself to believe, even for a moment, what he wished to think he had seen.

There was movement in the crowd, and Jeoffery quickly got to his feet, and turned around towards the distant rolling hill.  He forced himself to look at what was urgent, rather than think of the girl.  She couldn’t have been, and the longer he tried to focus on the matter at hand, the more easily it seemed like she hadn’t – that it had all been a trick of the heart, and his foolish old head.

People at the crest of the far hill suddenly moved back down towards the throngs below, and a flash of black could barely be seen as a wing rose fleetingly, and then descended.  Jeoffrey watched transfixed as a head slowly came into view, then wings, and a body, all bound with bright blue runes that shimmered, and flashed.  The men about the dragon that held it were mere specks in the distance, but the great lumbering beast was clearly defined.

It was closer than Jeoffrey had ever been to a dragon.  He had seen a few in the past, in the distance, on a high hill, or up in the sky.  It was still closer than he really wished to be.  Those other dragons he had been told were greater dragons, intelligent, many times more deadly, but less likely to strike on a whim.  This beast being force marched to the capital was a wild animal, a furious monster bound only by the skill of a few dozen powerful mages.

The entire process was hard to fathom – the dragon was like a great marionette, that defied its puppeteers with every step.  The throngs along the road spread like a great wave, wisely moving from the dragon’s path, with only a few brave stragglers who let themselves get close.  It took over an hour for the dragon to be marched up the hill, and as it approached the cage it flailed, and roared more furiously before finally being forced in.

Jeoffrey struggled through the procession to maintain a vantage point from which he could see, but did not mind at all if that point was very far from the action.  As soon as the cage was closed upon the dragon, it was released from the bindings, and threw itself wildly against the enclosure, roaring, and shrieking in pain from the impacts.  Ten minutes of this persisted before the silent crowd, which backed ever farther from the enclosure.  Slowly as the dragon grew weary, the crowd’s murmur began to transcend the creatures groans and great labored breaths, until at last the massive beast collapsed in exhaustion, and the crowd burst into a thunderous roar.

A strange sympathy rose up in Jeoffrey for the deadliest of all creatures.  This wild beast, this monster that dwarfed any man had been subdued by the mages of Osyrae, and the message was as clear to him as to the people.  The dragon was the world, and the world would fall just the same, kicking, screaming, and groaning to the bitter end, but in the end defeated.  He almost forgot the girl, almost, but not quite.  Her eyes had made that impossible.

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