Slowly, the young girl turned to her door. There were streaks on her cheeks where her tears had fallen the night before, and as she stared at the door, she sighed, then gritted her teeth and closed her eyes tight.

“Please, Medeai,” she whispered, “please let me be wrong. Please let her still be here.”

Breathing deep, the young girl sat up, sniffling and wiping her face as she went, and with a sigh, she swung her feet to her shoes, slipped them on and headed for the door.

Stepping through, the young girl wandered on, her gaze forward as she marched forth, and though her destination was set, her steps were hesitant. But soon, she stood before the door to the Tower Kitchens.

Standing tall, the young girl breathed deep.

“Please be there,” she whispered, then stepped in.

The Kitchens was empty.

Frowning, the young girl leant upon the door’s frame and stared into the ether, her mind awhirl. Then, she turned to stare at the corridor behind her.

“Where’s Master Neytam?” she muttered, her brow furrowed deep.

Granted, much of the Tower would still be in their beds, but the Master of the Kitchens was known to be an early riser. Unless…

“She’s still here!” she gasped. “Yes!”

Turning her gaze back to the counter behind her, the young girl grinned and hurried towards it, a spring in her steps as she went.

As she reached the counter, she moved to clamber onto one its seats, but paused at the last moment as a most delicious thought wormed its way to the fore of her mind, and with her grin widening, the young girl spun about and scanned her surroundings, her gaze darting to the corners of the room till at last, she stared at a table deep in the shadows.

“Perfect!” she said, then hurried over.

Reaching the table, the young girl pulled the two chairs about it close together, with one resting against the wall, then sat on one before raising her legs onto the other and whispering words of arcane. Then, with her back to the wall, the young girl raised her knees to her chin, hugged her legs tight and waited, her gaze upon the door and a smile firm upon her lips.

How long she waited for, she neither knew nor cared, for her heart was at peace, and thus she waited, intent on surprising her tutor and her dear friend when they at last entered the Kitchens. But it wasn’t long before the young girl’s eyelid began to grow heavy and her mouth forced open by a great many yawns, till at last, the young girl’s head fell forward, her forehead resting upon her knees as sleep finally claimed her.

“… believe it’s almost over! Thank the gods!”

Stirring from her slumber, the young girl turned to the woman whose words had pulled her to waking.

“Yes!” added the man moving to sit at the counter beside the woman, his gaze upon the woman as she stood leaning upon the counter.

“All those long years,” the woman sighed, “all that suffering.”

“It’s not over yet,” added the mage behind the counter.

“I know, I know,” the woman replied, waving the mage’s words away, “but it’ll be noon soon enough, and there’s nothing that creature or that bitch Matriarch can do to stop us.”

At those words, the young girl sat tall, her blood boiling as she glared at the woman.

“Regardless,” added a third voice, drawing the girl’s gaze to the door and the mages gathered about it, “Netyam’s right. Best not to celebrate till it’s all done.”

“Ugh,” growled the woman, “men…”

The mage stared at the woman a spell, then smiled.

“You know,” he said, “perhaps, just this once, Fellspire might just have the right idea.” Then, he turned to the others as he pulled free a large carafe from beneath the counter. “Come!”

The young girl watched in silence as the mages at the door hurried to the counter, unsure what to make of all she’d heard. But she knew someone who would. And so, rising from her seat, she made her way to the door with the greatest of care before stepping into the corridor and racing forth, her mind awhirl.

*****

Stirring from slumber, the Patriarch turned to place a loving hand upon his wife, but all he felt was the soft sheets upon the bed. Rising to sitting he turned and cast his gaze about the room, then smiled as his eyes beheld his beloved seated across from him and staring into the ether, an arm wrapped about her with her chin resting upon the back of a the hand nestled upon her shoulder.

“How long have you been sitting there?” he asked.

Stirring to life, the Matriarch turned to him and smiled. “Not long.”

The Patriarch’s smile widened. “Truly?”

Rolling her eyes, the Matriarch rose. “Look, I’m not crying anymore. See?”

“Yes,” the Patriarch nodded, his smile now a grin, “I do see.”

“Good!”

Then, the Patriarch’s grin faded. “You’ve been to the Grove yet?”

The Matriarch shook her head in response. “Can’t risk being seen. Better to wait till after the letter’s been found.”

“What letter?” The Patriarch frowned.

Sighing, the Matriarch shoved her hands into the pocket of her robes before turning to the corner in which she’d last seen her dearest friend. “Amala’s left a letter in her room, addressed to me. It’s her farewell note.”

The Patriarch’s frown deepened. “You’re sure there is one? She made no mention of it last night.”

Smiling once more, the Matriarch turned to her beloved. “She didn’t need to. She and I planned this contingency ages ago, and the bloody cow grilled me on it every so often.”

“Ah,” the Patriarch grinned once more, “one of your private plots.”

The Matriarch nodded in response. “Something like that, yeah.” Then, her smile faded as she crossed her arms beneath her bosom and raised her chin at her husband. “And just when are you planning to get your lazy arse off that bed?”

“Ugh.” The Patriarch sighed  before lowering his head back onto his pillow.

“Don’t ugh me, you have work to do! Any moment now, we’ll…”

Just then, a loud knock came at the door. There was an urgency to it, one that called forth a deep frown upon the lips of the couple as they turned to the door.

“Mother!” came a child’s voice. “Father! Are you up? I need to speak to you! It’s urgent!”

The Matriarch turned to her beloved, her face drawn. Smiling in response, the Patriarch rose to sitting once more, then turned and undid the lock upon the door with but a thought.

“Come in,” he called out.

Almost at once, the door swung open as young Naeve bounded into the room, slamming the door behind her as she went.

“Mother, Father!” she cried. “Mistress Fellspire is planning something! Something big! And it’s happening at noon today!”

“Slow down, Naeve,” the Matriarch soothed, forcing a smile to her lips. “Take a breath. What do you mean, she’s planning something?”

Shaking her head, the young girl breathed deep and stood tall. “I…I overheard her and Master Netyam talking in the Kitchens and…”

As her words fell from her lips, however, young Naeve turned to the ether as her eyes grew wide.

“Oh, no,” she gasped.

The couples shared a glance before turning to their daughter once more.

“Oh, no!” Naeve repeated, turning to her mother with eyes filled with pain.

“No, no!” she cried before spinning on her heels and leaping for the door.

“Naeve!” the Matriarch cried, lunging for her daughter.

“Wait!” the woman added, grabbing hold of her daughter’s hand upon the door’s handle.

“Let me go!” the young girl shrieked. “I have to go find her!”

“Easy, Naeve,” the Patriarch soothed, rising from the bed and hurrying to his daughter.

“Find who?” the Matriarch added, her voice soft as she placed a tender hand upon her daughter’s cheek, turning the young girl round as she did so. “What’s going on?”

“Master Netyam and Mistress Fellspire are planning to hurt Amala!” Naeve cried. “They’re going to do something to her at noon today! And you too! I have to  go find Amala before it’s too late!”

The couple exchanged glances at those words before turning to their daughter once more.

“You’re sure of this?” the Patriarch asked.

“Yes!” Naeve nodded. “Heard them celebrating in the Kitchens earlier.”

Once again, the couple turned to each other, their gazes asking the same question of the other till at last, the Patriarch nodded.

“Go,” he said, “find her.”

“Right,” The Matriarch nodded, then breathed deep and turned to her daughter. “Let’s go.”

The Patriarch watched in silence as his wife and daughter hurried from the room, his lips unmoving till the door was closed. Then, breathing deep, he let out a ragged sigh.

“And so it begins,” he muttered, then turned and reached for his tunic.

*****

Stepping into the Tower Library, her mother by her side, Naeve stood with bated breath as she scanned the faces before her.

“Is all well, Matriarch?” came a voice from beside the young girl, pulling her gaze to the woman approaching them.

“Ah, Mistress Duskwhisper,” she heard her mother whisper. “Have you seen Amala today?”

The woman frowned before shaking her head. “Not today, no.”

“Hrm.” The Matriarch frowned.

“Is all well?” the Archmage pressed.

“We need to find her,” the Matriarch replied. “It’s urgent.”

“Well…” the Archmage began, “perhaps she’s in her room?”

Naeve shook her head at this. “There’s no-one there. We knocked, nobody answered. She’s not in the Gardens either. Or the Kitchens. Or the Pantry. Or the Infirmary!”

“Then…your guess is as good as mine, I fear.” Mistress Duskwhisper frowned.

Naeve stared at the woman a spell, her frustration plain.

“Are you sure you haven’t seen her?” she asked at last.

“My dear, I would remember if I’ve seen her today.”

The young girl gritted her teeth at those words, but held her peace.

“Thank you, Mistress Duskwhisper,” the Matriarch added. “That will be all.”

“Of course, Matriarch.” The Archmage bowed, then turned and left the pair be.

The pair watched her in silence, their minds awhirl.

“Where could she be?” Naeve hissed, turning to her mother.

The Matriarch shook her head, her eyes scanning the sea of faces still.

“I don’t know, Naeve,” she said. “This is so unlike her.”

“You think maybe she…” Naeve began, but fell silent and lowered her gaze.

Frowning, the Matriarch turned to her daughter. “She…what, Naeve?”

Shaking her head, Naeve turned to her mother once more. “She came to my room last night, said a friend of hers had died, and that she missed that friend a lot but…I think she was talking about me!”

The Matriarch turned to stare at her daughter square. “What do you mean, you?”

“Mother, I think she was saying goodbye.”

The Matriarch stared hard at her daughter, her fierce gaze held square by the frightened stare of the young girl before her, till at last, she slipped a hand into her daughter’s .

“Come,” the woman said, turning for the door and dragging her daughter behind her. “We’re going back to her room.”

“But we already checked!”

“This time we’re opening that door.”

“But you said you couldn’t open it!”

“I lied.”

“What?”

Pausing, the Matriarch turned to her daughter. “Amala shared the word of unsealing with me a long time ago, said I was to only use it in emergencies–”

“Mother, this is an emergency!”

“Yes, I know that now!” the Matriarch hissed. “That’s why we’re going back! Hurry!”

As one, the pair hurried through the Tower, their gazes forward and ignoring the curious stares from the many they passed till at last, they stood before Amala’s room once more.

Breathing deep, the Matriarch grasped hold of the door’s handle, and as she breathed out, she whispered a single word of arcane, then twisted the handle and swung the door open.

“Matriarch!” gasped a voice down the corridor. “You can’t just barge in someone’s quarters like that!”

The pair turned to the utterer.

“It’s an emergency,” replied before ushering her daughter in.

“But–” the blushing mage began.

“It’s an emergency!” the Matriarch cried as she entered, then slammed the door behind her.

“Well,” the woman continued as she took the room in, “her things are still…”

But her words died in her throat as her eyes fell upon the single note on the bed.

Tearing her gaze from the note, the Matriarch turned to her daughter. Her gaze was also upon the note, and as the Matriarch stared at her daughter, young Naeve turned at last and met her mother’s gaze, her eyes asking a question the Matriarch could not answer.

Slipping a hand into her daughter’s once more, the Matriarch smiled and squeezed, then stepped forth, her eyes upon the note, and as she reached the bed, she breathed deep, picked up the note and unfolded it, then began to read.

Naeve held her gaze firm upon her mother’s face as the woman read on, and as the blood began to drain from her mother’s face, Naeve felt an icy hand grip her heart tight and begin to squeeze.

“Mother, what is it?” she asked.

The Matriarch tore her gaze from the note and turned to her daughter with eyes filled with worry.

“I need you to go find your father,” the Matriarch said, reaching for her daughter and leading her to the door. “Tell him to meet me in the Central Hall as soon as he can. Don’t dawdle, don’t drag your feet. I need you to run, my dear. You hear me? Run.”

“Why, what is it?”

“Just hurry,” the Matriarch replied, reaching for the door.

“Mother!” Naeve cried, grabbing hold of her mother’s hand upon the door’s handle. “What is it?”

Stopping, the Matriarch turned to her daughter, the fear in her eyes sending the chill in Naeve’s heart coursing through her entire being.

“Amala’s gone to kill herself, Naeve,” the woman said at last.

“What? No! She can’t! How can she…!”

The Matriarch placed a soothing hand upon her daughter’s cheek before staring deep into her eyes.

“Naeve, find your father,” she said. “Bring him to the Central Hall. I’ll be calling an emergency meeting, and if we’re lucky, we’ll find her before it’s too late. Find him, yeah? Find him quickly. Yeah?”

The young girl nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good.” The Matriarch nodded, but as she moved to open the door, she stopped and turned to her daughter once more before throwing her arms about the young girl and hugging her tight.

“Have faith, okay?” she said as they parted. “Okay?”

“Okay.” Naeve nodded, though her eyes told a different tale.

“Okay,” the Matriarch replied, reaching for the door once more. “Hurry, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

With no words left to say, the Matriarch swung the door open and the pair burst forth, with the young girl breaking into a dead sprint.

*****

Groaning, the drunken woman slowly sat up before leaning forward and placing her head in her hands and her elbows upon the table before her

“Oh, gods,” she moaned. “What in the hells did you give us?”

“Nevermind that,” said the Archmage who’d shaken her awake. “A meeting’s been called.”

At those words, the woman turned to the man beside her, a wide grin upon her lips.

“What, it’s noon already?” she said as she turned, but as her gaze met her companion’s, her smile began to fade. “What is it?”

“It’s not noon yet,” the man said, “and we meet in the Central Hall.”

“The what?” The woman frowned.

“Mhm.” The man nodded, then offered the woman a goblet. “Here.”

The woman stared at the man for a spell before taking the goblet and draining its contents.

“Good,” the man said, then turned and headed for the door.

“Netyam!” the woman cried, rising to her feet.

The Archmage stopped and turned.

“Is it her?”

“What do you think?” the man growled, then turned and continued his march.

The woman stared at the man throughout, even as he fell from sight.

“Fellspire,” came a voice from within the Kitchens, drawing the woman’s gaze to the others within. “Don’t worry. Whatever she has planned, she won’t squirm out of this. Our plan is perfect.”

“Yeah,” the woman replied, though with more conviction than she felt. “Yeah.”

Then, turning to the door, she hurried forth, her gaze fierce and her steps sure.

*****

Standing atop her makeshift dais, the Matriarch watched the Central Hall fill as her heart beat loud in her ears.

“You’d better make them believe, girl,” she thought. “You hear me? Make them bloody believe!”

Raising her hands, she called for calm, her words drowned out at first, but soon, the Hall began to fall silent as those within turned to their Matriarch, and once all were silent, the elven woman stood tall and breathed deep.

“Now, I know you’re all wondering why I’ve called for a meeting in the Central Hall of all places, but time is short. There’s trouble, and we can’t waste even a single moment.”

A soft murmur carried through the crowd as the gathered mages glanced at one another before turning to  their Matriarch once again, their confusion plain.

The Matriarch held her peace till silence returned, then breathed deep once more.

“If I had the time to tell you everything right now, I would, but we just don’t have that luxury, so I’ll just share the important points. Amala is missing…”

“What?” came a cry from within the crowd.

“…and she’s trying to kill herself.”

“What?” cried a great many voices at once as a sharp jolt ran through the crowd.

“Yes,” the Matriarch nodded, her worry clear in her eyes, “you heard me right. That woman is trying to kill herself as we speak, and I need you all to comb the Tower grounds and find her before it’s too late.”

“Is this a joke?” came a voice from the crowd, and as the Matriarch turned to stare at the snarling face of the one who’d spoken, she bit her lip and held fast to the mask of worry she wore.

“No, Fellspire, this isn’t a joke” she said. “Amala is missing, and we need to find her.”

As the woman’s scoff filled the air, it took all the Matriarch had to keep her anger under heel, but even so, she was not prepared fro the words that followed.

“Anything for attention, I suppose.”

Those words were like a fire to the Matriarch’s soul, and as the red mist descended, the enraged woman made ready to tear the woman before her to shreds with naught but her tongue.

“Oh, for gods’ sake woman, have you no shame?” thundered another in the crowd before the Matriarch could speak. “Amala’s one of us! If you haven’t gotten the common decency to see past your petty bitterness for something so dire, then do us all a favour and remove yourself from this gathering!”

The Matriarch watched in glorious silence as the chastised woman’s face reddened greatly, then turned to the one who’d spoken.

“Thank you, Mistress Splintboard–” the Matriarch began, a smile upon her lips.

“Are you sure we’re not too late?” came another within the crowd.

“And are you even sure she’s on Tower grounds?” came a third.

“She’s alive,” the Matriarch replied, tuning to nod at the one who’d asked, “ but I don’t know for how much longer. I’ve just been to the Grove. Her birthing tree is still alive, but it’s sickly.”

Then, she turned to the one who’d last spoken. “And she’s still here, I’m sure of it. Nobody at the Gate has seen her today.”

The murmurs returned, this time with a keener edge to them. The Matriarch carried her gaze about the crowd for a spell, but soon raised her hands for calm.

“I need you all to form into groups. I don’t care how big, just form up and get out there. I want every single person not in the Infirmary out there searching for her. Spread the word, all activities are to be halted till we find her. No exceptions. Any bloody fool comes in here to tell any of you any nonsense about anything else, you send them to me. Alright?”

A great many heads nodded in response.

“Good.” The Matriarch nodded, then turned her gaze to the man standing beside Fellspire.

“Netyam!” she cried.

“Yes, Matriarch?” the man replied.

“You’re coming with me.”

“To where?”

“To the Grove, where else!”

“What?” cried young Naeve. “Why?

The Matriarch turned to the young girl beside her. “So we can strengthen Amala’s birthing tree. The more we strengthen it, the more we can prolong Amala’s life. It won’t be much, but I’ll take anything I can get right now.”

“I know, Mother,” Naeve replied, nodding at her mother, “but he hates Amala. He’ll hurt her tree!”

“You what?” The Matriarch frowned.

Naeve nodded at her mother, then turned to glare at the Archmage.

The Matriarch glanced at the Archmage, then at her daughter, before turning to Netyam once more.

Through it all, the Archmage stood in stoic silence, his face as if chiselled in stone.

“Fine,” the Matriarch said at last, shaking her head as she shrugged. “I’ll go alone.”

“I’ll come with you,” Naeve replied.

“No, Naeve,” the Matriarch replied. “You don’t know the incantations and now’s not the time to learn.”

“I’ll come with you,” the Patriarch offered.

“No, I’ll go,” Netyam said at last. “I still care, Matriarch, I’ll go with you. Her birthing tree won’t reject me.”

“No, Mother, no!” Naeve cried. “Don’t let him! He hates Amala! He’ll only–”

“Alright, fine, he won’t come!” the Matriarch gasped, then turned to her beloved. “You’ll do more searching for her, though.”

“Very well.” The Patriarch nodded, then turned to his daughter.

“You and I go together,” the Patriarch added, reaching for his daughter. “You lead.”

“Okay,” the little girl replied, stepping forth to slip a hand into her father’s, then threw one last withering glare at the Archmage named Netyam.

“Okay, then!” the Matriarch cried, turning to the crowd. “You have your orders! Go!”

As one, the mages hurried forth to begin their search.

*****

“You just had to open your mouth, didn’t you?” snarled the Archmage marching behind the elven woman named Fellspire.

“Oh, shut up, Farun!” the woman spat.

Both of you shut up!” the Archmage at the fore snarled. “I need to think.”

“No, you shut up!” Fellspire threw back. “How dare you walk with us when you still care for that whore?”

Spinning on his heels, the Archmage turned to face the elven woman square, his eyes ablaze and his anger straining on its leash.

“Sometimes, woman,” he seethed, “I forget how utterly stupid you truly are!”

“Don’t you speak to me–”

“Be silent!” the man thundered and stepped forth till the woman before him felt his breath upon her face. “Be! Silent! You insufferable–“

“Uh, Netyam,” began another of the group as he cast furtive glances at those who’d stopped to stare at them, “perhaps we should–”

“We should what? Hrm?” Netyam snapped, rounding on the man. “We should what?”

The mage swallowed hard, but held his peace.

Then, the Archmage named Netyam carried his gaze about his companions.

“Do you not see what they’re doing?” he said, his voice softer. “Do you not understand what just happened in there?”

“What just happened, then?”

Netyam turned to mage named Farun. “Amala isn’t dying–”

“We know that!” Fellspire snapped.

“Oh, you do, do you?” Netyam replied, rounding on the woman once more. “And I take it you also know that bitch Matriarch will declare her dead before the end of this farce, and claim we drove her to it with what we said to her yesterday?”

At those words, a chilling silence fell upon the group as they saw at last that which worried their companion.

“Precisely!” Netyam hissed. “They’re going to turn the whole Tower against us.”

“Bloody hells,” one of the mages gasped, his face ashen.

“I know,” Netyam replied, turning to the Tower behind them. “I know.”

“Well, what do we do?” Farun asked.

“I have an idea,” Netyam replied, then shook his head, “but it’s not overly great.”

“I don’t care,” Fellspire growled. “Let’s hear it.”

“Very well.” Netyam sighed, turning to his companions. “We find out just how they’ve been making that blasted tree seem like Amala’s, then expose their secret once and for all.”

“Oh, dear gods, man!” Fellspire cried. “How many times have we gone to that blasted Grove to do just that, hunh? How many? And you expect us to solve that conundrum now, just like that!”

“Now, you listen to me, woman–” Netyam began.

“She’s right, Netyam,” Farun interjected. “Everything we’ve tried has failed to pierce whatever spell they’ve woven on that thing, and you of all people know just how thorough we were in our efforts. If we haven’t–”

“The tree was healthy, then, Farun,” Netyam replied, “and now, it’s sickly.”

“So?”

“I’ve always believed whatever enchantment their using is in resonance with the birthing tree’s own magic–”

“What do you mean, you’ve always believed it?” Fellspire interjected. “I told you that. Only way to explain why our scrys can’t distinguish it from the magic of the tree itself.”

“Yes, well, I believe you. But more importantly, with the tree being sickly now, I wager those two are no longer in resonance. Meaning–”

“If we scry it now, we should be able to see it,” Fellspire gasped, “perhaps even undo it! Of course!”

“Unless if that woman’s recast the enchantment to be in resonance again,” another of the group muttered.

“Doubtful,” Fellspire sniffed. “In that state, the magic within a birthing tree is in flux. To cast an enchantment capable of remaining in complete and constant resonance is beyond someone of her skill.”

“Then our plan is set!” Neytam cried.

“Your plan is one big big conjecture, Netyam,” Farun said

“You have a better idea?”

“I think there’s merit to Netyam’s plan, Farun,” chimed another of the group. “There’s no plausible reason why the Matriarch wouldn’t know of what we said to Amala yesterday, and yet she asked Netyam to accompany her?”

“Meaning?” Farun frowned.

The mage shrugged. “Seems like a rather ingenious way to keep Netyam away from the birthing tree, don’t you think? Keep everyone’s eyes away while she alone strengthens that tree. Or so she claims.”

“Yes!” Netyam cried. “Precisely! She must’ve known that little brat of hers would speak up. It gave her the perfect means of ensuring she’s alone over there!”

“Or it could be she knew if she didn’t ask Netyam,” Farun replied, “people would begin to doubt her. After all, the whole Tower thought they were still together.”

“Ah,” the mage who’d spoken muttered. “True.”

“Regardless,” Netyam continued, “I say we head to the Grove, see the tree for our own eyes and scry it for ourselves.”

“And you think she’s just going to let us?” Farun asked.

“She can’t stop all six of us.”

The mage named Farun slowly stood tall. “Are you saying we fight her?”

Netyam held his peace, though his gaze spoke volumes.

“Gods, Netyam, listen to yourself!” Farun cried. “You’re saying we battle our Matriarch–”

“She’s not my Matriarch, Farun,” Netyam interjected.

“Nor mine,” Fellspire added.

“She’s the Matriarch of the Shimmering bloody Tower, damn it! And whether you two like it or not, we still answer to her!” Then, he took a step forth. “But if we raise a hand against her, win or lose, our days as Tower mages will end!”

“Wrong,” Netyam replied. “Lose, and our days as Tower mages end, but win, well…”

“Win?” Farun said, pointing to the others. “With what? Them? They’re not battle mages!”

“I beg your pardon!” Fellspire snapped.

“Farun,” Netyam said, “you, Fellspire and I are more than a match for her. The others will aid us as best they can.”

The Archmage stared hard at his companion a spell, his lips agape. Then, he crossed his arms before him.

“Alright, then,” he said. “Suppose we do battle her and win. What would happen should we scry the tree and find nothing? Just what would our win buy us then?”

“Listen, Farun–”

“Your plan is beyond foolish, Netyam,” the Archmage interjected. “You’ve made far too many assumptions. Better to hold fast to our old plan–”

“That plan is dead,” Netyam interjected. “Yes, we can still call an assembly and make our case, but do you think anyone will want to listen if they all think we drove one of our own to taking her own life?”

“They will listen if we can–” 

“Or say some do listen, and we have that child confirm Amala’s a vampire, can you not see it will only make her a martyr in everyone’s eyes? She didn’t run, she killed herself!”

“That doesn’t–”

“Do you truly think anyone will listen then, when we call for the Matriarch to be removed from office? Hunh? Do you?”

“Gods damn it, let me speak!”

“The time for speeches is over, Farun. Now, we must act.”

“Oh, spare me! I don’t know what madness has claimed you, but our people aren’t so forgetful, or so forgiving!”

“And I don’t know what madness has claimed you, Farun, but clearly, you underestimate the power of shame.”

“What in the hells are you talking about?” Farun cried, his frustration plain.

“She. Didn’t. Run, Farun. Vampires are meant to be selfish, self-serving, conniving and evil, and yet, this one is supposed to have chosen death over deserting the Tower. Can you truly stand there and claim there will be many here who will side with us after such a revelation? I mean, truly?”

The Archmage stared at his friend, his lips unmoving

“Precisely.” Netyam nodded. “The old plan is dead. Better we try our new plan.”

“Your new plan will cost us all that we have, Netyam.”

“And you think, should this all play out like they’ve planned, our lives will be worth living once every single person here treats us like our hands are stained with Tower blood?”

“Better than having nowhere to call home!”

“I’ve heard enough,” Netyam growled, turning to the others. “Choose. You side with me, or you side with Farun.”

“I’m with you on this one, Netyam,” Fellspire replied. “It’s worth the risk.”

The remaining three mages exchanged glances and turned to Farun, their gazes pained, then moved to stand beside Netyam.

“We’ve come too far, Farun,” said one.

“Yeah,” added another. “It’s worth the risk.”

“And besides,” said the third, “better to have no home than to be treated like criminals in the only home we’ve ever known.”

The Archmage named Farun stared at his companions in turn, utterly lost for words, till at last, he shook his head.

“I’m not doing this,” he said.

“Farun–” Fellspire began.

“No,” the Archmage interjected, shaking his head once more. “I hate that woman as much you all, but I will not spill Tower blood within the Birthing Grove, let alone my Matriarch’s. I will not sully my honour to that degree. No, you do this without me.”

Then, the Archmage spun on his heels and moved to march forth.

“Farun!” Netyam called.

The Archmage paused and stared over his shoulder.

“Where do your loyalties lie?”

The man breathed deep and stood tall.

“I will not sound the alarm, if that’s what you’re asking,” he answered, “but this is where we part ways.”

As silence fell upon the group, the remaining companions watched as their friend left them.

“You believe him?” Fellspire asked, her gaze upon the retreating mage.

“Yes,” Netyam replied, nodding. “His pride will keep his mouth shut. But there’s no telling when Amala will be pronounced dead.”

“Then, we’d best hurry.”

“Yeah,” Netyam nodded, “we’d best.”

And with that, the companions spun about and hurried forth, oblivious to the pair walking in the shadows behind them.

*****

With his gaze forward and his face set, Netyam marched on as his heart beat hard against his chest. In any other land, what he was about to do would be called treason, and Farun was right, were they to fail, they would lose everything. But to do nothing, to sit like Farun had wished and let this mad play run its course, how would life after such be any better?

“It won’t be,” he thought, gritting his teeth. “Either way, they’ll take everything from us. At least this way we have one chance to take it all back.”

Before long, an eerie light glimmered in the distance, and at last, the Archmage came to a halt. Turning, he smiled at his companions.

“Remember,” he whispered, “she is one, we are five. We don’t need to subdue her, we just need one of us to scry the truth and make good their escape. Alright?”

The others nodded in response, murmurs of assent flowing between them.

“So, who does what, then?” Fellspire asked.

Netyam turned to the woman. “You scry. Your scrys are the most piercing. Once you learn the truth, get free and spread the word as fast as you can.”

The elven woman nodded. “Very well.”

“Good.” Netyam nodded, then turned to the others. “We will keep her attention on us. Alright?”

Once more, the group nodded, whispering their agreement to his words.

Netyam carried his gaze about his companions, then smiled once more.

“Prepare, friends,” he whispered.

In response, the mages lowered their gazes and whispered words of arcane, calling forth their their barriers and protections as they readied for battle.

“Fellspire, you stay behind us,” Netyam added once done. “Wait till we have her full attention before making your way to the tree.”

“Of course.”

“Good,” Netyam replied, then turned and breathed deep.

“Let’s go,” he added, then marched forth once more, his gait unbroken till he stood before his Matriarch.

Stopping at last, the Archmage stared at the kneeling woman, her back to him and her head bowed as a soft light surrounded her and the sickly tree before her, and standing tall, he breathed deep as his companion stood on either side of him.

“Matriarch!” he thundered. “It’s time to end this farce!”

In response, the kneeling woman turned to stare over her shoulder at the gathered mages, her lips moving as arcane words poured from them.

“I said end it!” Netyam snapped.

The Matriarch’s incantations continued, her brow furrowed deep as she cocked her head to the side.

“End it! Or we will!”

At last, the light began to fade, and as a deep frown twisted her lips, the Matriarch rose and turned to face the mages square.

“What in the bloody hells do you think you’re doing?” she said.

Netyam held the woman in cold regard for a spell, then lifted his chin to her.

“We know Amala’s not dying…” he said.

“What?”

“…just as we know that is not her birthing tree.”

“What in the bloody–”

“Her birthing tree would’ve died the moment she was turned…”

“Are you bloody serious right now?”

“…so there is no way in all hells that can be her tree!”

“Netyam!”

“So, we shall give you this one chance to speak the truth. Whose tree is that, and how have you made it seem to be Amala’s?”

A deafening silence fell upon the gathered as the Matriarch stared open-mouthed at the mages before her.

“Are you deaf, woman?” Fellspire barked, stepping out from behind her companions. “Whose tree is it?”

“Do you realise what you’re doing?” the Matriarch asked at last, her gaze running over the group. “Do you? Do you really?”

“I’m not interested in–“ Netyam began.

“If this were a kingdom, your lives would be forfeit for this. Do you all realise that?”

Netyam sneered at this. “Well, this is not a kingdom, and we do not see you as our Matriarch. Now, you will answer our questions, or we’ll–”

“You’ll…what, Netyam?” came a voice from behind the friends.

Turning as one, they watched as the Patriarch of the Shimmering Tower approached, the air about him shimmering and his gaze speaking only of death. “You’ll what?”

The friends stood tall, holding the approaching mage with an unblinking gaze, though not all stood with their convictions unshaken.

“Where the hells did he come from?” hissed one of the gathered.

“Hold your nerve!” Netyam hissed in response. “We still outnumber them.”

“Yeah, but he’s a Summoner!” the mage threw back. “You truly wish us to face him and her, and his phoenix warriors?”

“Hold your nerve, you snivelling worm!” Fellspire snarled as the Patriarch made his way to his wife’s side. “We’re in the Birthing Grove, they won’t dare face us with their full strength lest they harm the trees about us!”

“And we have no such compunction,” Netyam added, a smirk upon his lips, “now, do we?”

“We don’t?”

“Stop being such a worm, damn it!” Fellspire snapped.

“But what my wife said is right,” the Patriarch continued, standing beside his beloved. “What you five are doing is nothing short of treason.”

Netyam sneered at the man. “I will not bandy words with you. If you get in our way, you’ll suffer the same fate as your wife.” Then, he rounded on the Matriarch.

“Whose tree is it?” he barked.

“You know, when Naeve told us about your little celebration this morning, I didn’t want to believe her,” the Patriarch said, drawing the seething Archmage’s gaze to him once more. “You had Amala’s heart. She loved you dearly, and you would do…this.”

“That creature was…” Netyam began, then frowned. “Hold, what do you mean, Naeve told you? She wasn’t there!”

“She was,” the Matriarch replied. “She was cloaked.”

“Yes.” The Patriarch nodded. “She was waiting to surprise Amala. Then you showed up.”

The Archmage stood in silence for a spell, a deep frown upon his lips, but soon, he shook his head. “That changes nothing. Your wife is the one whose crimes cannot be forgiven! It’s her responsibility to preserve the sanctity, and she pissed all over it!”

“Netyam–”

“No!” the Archmage snapped. “Enough talk! She answers our questions this instant, or we make her!”

“Make me?” the Matriarch said, a deep snarl upon her lips as the air about her began to shimmer. “The only thing you will make me do is pound your face into the dirt, Netyam. And you have no idea how much I’ll enjoy doing that.”

“No, darling,” the Patriarch said, placing a calming hand upon his wife’s shoulder as he stepped before her, “allow me. You tend to Amala’s tree.”

The Matriarch’s gaze moved from her beloved to Netyam, then, kissing her teeth, she turned about and knelt before the sickly tree once more.

“Now, then,” the Patriarch said, “shall we?”

The remaining companions stared from their Patriarch to Netyam and back, the air between the men charged and suffocating as the Patriarch’s deep smirk was held square by Netyam’s fiery stare.

“Men,” Fellspire growled at last, then raised a hand to her Patriarch, lightning dancing between her fingers.

The Patriarch turned to her, and as his smirk deepened, he raised a hand and snapped his fingers. In that instant, the wards he’d placed beneath their feet as they stood bandying words with his beloved came to life, filling the air with a thunderous blast and flinging the companions up into the air and far from the couple, the Patriarch’s mocking chuckle filling their ears as they were sent flying

Young Naeve’s lungs burned with an unquenching fire as she raced on, her father’s words echoing in her ears as she went.

“Find Mistress Dawnriver. Bring her and everyone you can back here as fast as you can. Hurry!”

And hurry she did, her legs aching as she ran through the orchard till at last, she caught sight of the woman she came to find.

“Mistress Dawnriver!” she gasped, stumbling forward as she hurried towards the elderly mage.

“Mistress…Dawnriver!” Naeve repeated, her voice louder than before, and as the woman and her companions stopped and turned, young Naeve felt her heart fill with joy.

“Naeve?” the elderly mage frowned. “What on earth are you doing…”

Just then, a loud explosion filled the air, silencing the woman and turning all eyes in the direction in which it came. As for Naeve, however, as she turned, the young girl felt her blood run cold. She was too late, it had already begun.

Coming to her senses, she hurried forth once more.

“Mistress Dawnriver!” she cried as she went. “Mistress Dawnriver, you need to come quickly!”

“Hunh?” the woman said, turning to Naeve. “What?”

Reaching the woman, Naeve grabbed hold of her hand and began to pull.

“Please!” she added. “Come quickly! They’re attacking Mother!”

“What? Who’s attacking whom?”

“Please, there’s no time!”

“Slow down, child!” the woman gasped, pulling her hand free of Naeve’s before placing the same hand upon the young girl’s shoulder. “What is it?”

Naeve shook her head and swallowed hard before breathing deep, and as the others within the elderly mage’s party began to gather round, the young girl parted her lips once more.

“Master Netyam and some others have gone to hurt Mother.”

“What?” The elderly mage frowned. “Why?”

“They think Mother’s lying about Amala’s tree dying”

“And that’s reason enough to attack their Matriarch?”

Naeve nodded in response.

“Please!” she added. “Father’s gone to stop them! He sent me to find you and bring you there!”

“The blast might’ve came from the Grove, Edna,” said one of the gathered. “If they’re battling in there…”

The elderly mage’s eyes went wide at this as the blood drained from her face. Standing tall, she turned her gaze to the direction of the blast then back to her companions.

“Fern, Adnus, Mara…”

The three mages stood tall.

“…scour the Tower grounds and send every Archmage you find to the Grove, and I mean Archmages only. We don’t need the others getting caught in any fighting, especially in there.”

The three nodded as one, then hurried forth.

The elderly mage turned to the others. “The rest of you, with me! Nobody starts a fight in my Grove, not while there’s still breath left in me!”

A wide grin parted Naeve lips as she watched the woman break into a dead sprint, her companions racing beside her, and breathing deep, the young girl dug deep and raced on after them.

*****

Panting, the Archmage Netyam rose on unsteady legs as he stared at the man before him before turning to cast an eye onto the warriors on either side of the man. Seven in all, born utterly of flames, their stance and weapons mirroring great warriors of old. He’d never much enjoyed facing such creatures, and these ones had thus far proven especially difficult to kill.

“Gods, he’s summoned more?” came a voice from behind the Archmage.

Netyam glanced over his shoulder at the woman behind him, her eyes wide as she stared at the phoenix warriors.

“It doesn’t matter,” the Archmage replied, returning his gaze to his Patriarch. “He’s wounded, and gravely so.” Then, he shook his head. “I don’t think he can summon anymore.”

“And how in the bloody hells is that comforting news?” the woman hissed. “Look how much it cost us killing those five, and now we have seven to face!”

At her words, the Archmage turned to his other companions. Or rather, the two that were barely moving, their wounds being tended by a third mage.

Gritting his teeth, Netyam turned to his Patriarch once more.

“We need to end this quickly, Netyam” the woman continued. “The commotion is sure to have caught someone’s notice by now.”

“I know,” the man growled. Then, he stood tall, his gaze upon his Patriarch still.

“This has gone far enough, don’t you think?” he said.

“You don’t want to know what I think,” the Patriarch snarled.

“How about you stand down and tend to your wounds? You have my word, we will not harm your wife. We just want answers, then we’ll leave.”

The Patriarch laughed at this. “Truly?”

Netyam nodded. “Fellspire’s ice lance clearly scored you badly. So why not stand down before you fall down?”

A deep sneer twisted the Patriarch’s lips. “I’ll stand down when you fall down.”

“Brilliantly done, Netyam,” Fellspire hissed. “Your powers of negotiations are second-to-none.”

“Can you face that bitch on your own?” Netyam whispered in response.

“What?”

“Can you face her on your own, woman? Yes or no?”

“Of course I can!”

“Good.” Netyam nodded. “When I charge, you break free and get to that tree. I don’t care how you do it, by scrying or beating it out of her with your bare hands, but get the truth. Do you understand? If you fail, it’s all for naught.”

“Hey! Don’t you dare blame–”

“Oh, shut up, woman!” the Archmage hissed, then stepped forth.

“If you wish to die here, so be it,” he called out. “First you, then that bitch of a wife.” Then, breathing deep, the Archmage recast his barriers and strengthened his shields as best he could, and with a roar, charged forth.

The elven woman watched the others rise and hobble after Netyam, and with her heart in her throat, she turned and raced deeper into the Grove.

“What? Fellspire! Come back!”

Ignoring the panicked cries of the others, she charged on, racing with reckless abandon till she reached the kneeling Matriarch once more.

“Now, it’s just you and I, bitch,” she gasped, then lunged forth, a hand outstretched as arcane might danced between her fingertips.

The Matriarch sprang to her feet to meet the woman’s charge square, her hand rising as she did so to call forth an emerald wall against which Fellspire’s ice lances shattered, only to hurl a lance of her own at the woman.

With a cry, the charging mage darted to the side, the lance impaling the earth as she dove for cover behind a nearby tree. Breathing deep, the elven mage fought for calm as she recast her enchantments.

“One way or the other, woman, you’re going to tell me the truth!” she barked once done.

“You already know the truth, woman,” the Matriarch spat, “you’re just too bloody stupid to accept it!”

Those words enraged the cowering mage, and with a snarl, she leapt from behind the tree and hurled a flurry of bolts at her Matriarch. But, as with her ice lances prior, the bolts all slammed against the woman’s emerald wall with nary a scratch on the Matriarch. Except they were a feint, meant to draw the Matriarch’s gaze away from her true attack, and as she landed onto the soft earth, the elven mage that was Fellspire dug her fingers into the earth and called forth an earthen spike to rise between her adversary’s feet and impale her where she stood.

Only, her adversary was a woman forged in the fires of battle, and though Fellspire’s attack was swift, it nonetheless scored nothing but air, for the moment the elven woman gripped the earth, the Matriarch leapt back, the spike springing forth from where she once stood.

Roaring, Fellspire gripped the earth with her other hand and made to recast her spell, but as she did so, the Matriarch struck back, hurling a lightning bolt between the prone woman’s eyes. It was a bolt meant to stun, not kill, thus whitening the prone mage’s vision as it slammed against her enchantments.

But Fellspire was not so easily cowed, and though her vision was lost to her, she cast her spell nonetheless, clawing the earth and channelling all of her arcane might into it. The shriek that followed sent waves of euphoric joy coursing through her.

“What have you done?” the Matriarch screamed. “You stupid bitch, what have you done?”

Rising to her knees, her joy unabated, the Archmage raised a hand to her forehead and whispered a single word of arcane, and as her vision returned, she lowered her hand to gaze into the beaten woman’s eyes in triumph. What she saw instead froze her blood in her veins.

“What have you done?” the Matriarch cried.

Slowly, the Archmage rose, the deep chill in her heart spreading to every fibre of her being as she stared with unblinking eyes at the birthing tree beside the Matriarch, one whose roots had been torn from the earth by her earthen spike and was already withering rapidly. For all her hatred of Amala, for all the rage she felt toward the woman before her, none of it could dampen the nausea that coursed through her.

“Oh, my dear gods,” came a voice behind the Archmage. “Child, what have you done?”

Turning, the Archmage swallowed hard as her gaze fell upon the mages arrayed behind her, her companions within their midst, and all bound with wind vines.

“I…” Fellspire began, then licked her lips and turned to the Matriarch.

“She made me do it!” she cried, pointing to her Matriarch. “If she hadn’t–”

“Be quiet!” the Archmage Dawnriver snapped.

“Mother!” Naeve cried, forcing her way to the fore, her father by her side.

But, as she reached the fore, the young girl gasped, her eyes wide and her lips agape. Then, she turned to the mage named Fellspire.

“What did you do?” she said.

The mage held the young girl’s gaze square.

“What did you do?” Naeve shrieked, lunging at the woman.

“Naeve, no!” the Patriarch cried, grasping hold of his daughter and pulling her tight.

“Let your mother handle this,” he added before heading toward his beloved, his daughter in his hands. “Come.”

Fellspire watched in silence as the young girl and her father hurried to the Matriarch’s side before hugging the broken woman.

“I’m telling you,” Fellspire began once more, her voice quivering as she spoke, “she gave me no choice. She chose–”

“I said be quiet, child!” Archmage Dawnriver barked.

“Don’t you tell me to be quiet!” Fellspire threw back, her anger building once more. “I’m an Archmage same as you, you can’t–”

“I am the Keeper of the Grove, child. In here, my word is law, and I say to you now. Be. Quiet!”

Fellspire swallowed hard, but held her peace, though her gaze remained fierce upon the elderly mage’s face.

“That you would attack our Matriarch is bad enough,” continued the elderly mage, “but that you would do it here, in the Grove… You claim to be an Archmage, but did you forget why battle spells are forbidden in here? Or did you simply not care?”

Fellspire sneered at the woman. “Convenient that you would chastise me, yet leave your beloved Patriarch free of harsh words, even though he summoned bloody phoenix warriors to run rampant in your precious Grove.”

“I placed flame wards over the area we fought, Fellspire,” the Patriarch replied. “Had you and your friends kept to fire spells, none of the trees there would’ve been harmed.”

The elven woman turned to glare at him, but said nary a word.

“Those other trees can be healed,” Archmage Dawnriver continued, “but Amala’s tree… Your hatred of that woman, did it truly extend so far as to seek her death so badly.”

“Oh, so you’re going to blame me for that now?”

“Blame…child, she was on the brink of death! The pain she would’ve suffered when you killed her tree, are you truly so stupid as to not realise that would have assured her death?”

Fellspire scoffed at this.” I’m not stupid, you’re just a fool. Amala isn’t dead, she was never trying to kill herself. This whole affair had been one  big farce! And if that bitch behind me hadn’t been so desperate to keep this ruse going, I would’ve proven it to all of you?”

“By what, scrying the tree?”

Now, you speak sense!”

“So, what, you think you’re the first to try? I have also voiced concerns over that girl, child, and as Keeper of the Grove, do you not think I would’ve inspected that tree in great detail?”

“Edna!” the Matriarch cried.

“Oh, don’t Edna me, alright?” the Archmage threw back. “I will not apologise for seeking to preserve the sanctity of the Tower!”

“So, why in the bloody hells are you on their side?” Fellspire thundered.

“Because that tree truly was bound to Amala!”

“They tricked you, you old fool!” Fellspire spat.”I wager all you did was inspect the tree’s bond, am I right? You took one look at its bond, saw what they wanted you to see and pressed no further, didn’t you? I wager it never occurred to you there might be enchantments woven into and about that damned tree to hide the bond’s true nature and make it seem like it was to Amala, did it?”

“What you say is impossible,” the elderly mage threw back, “a birthing tree’s bond cannot be made to look like another’s! What is wrong with you?”

Nothing is impossible when it comes to the arcane! Just admit you never considered it.”

“Child, I considered all possibilities.”

“You lie poorly, Dawnriver.”

“If she’s so obsessed with scrying the tree,” the Patriarch said, “I say we let her.”

“No!” the Matriarch cried with a vehement shake of her head. “I don’t want any of them near–”

“My darling, listen,” the Patriarch soothed, clasping his beloved’s hand, “she will only continue her rants should she leave here without her precious scrys. Let her have her fun. Let her see the futility of her actions for herself.”

The Matriarch stared at her beloved, her eyes pleading, but as the Patriarch smiled and raised a soft hand to her cheek, the Matriarch’s gaze softened, only to harden once more as she turned to the woman named Fellspire.

“Have your scrys, then,” she said.

At those words, the elven woman smiled, an air of triumph about her.

“Very well,” she said, sauntering over to the husk that was once a birthing tree, “if you insist…”

The Matriarch glared hard at the woman, but held her peace.

Clearing her throat, the elven woman reached out a hand, closed her eyes and began whispering words of arcane, but as she whispered, her demeanour changed till, gone was the triumph, gone was the confidence, all chased away by fear.

Opening her eyes with a gasp, she stared from the tree to her companions and back.

“That can’t be right,” she said.

“So, scry it again,” the Patriarch said.

“And this time,” Archmage Dawnriver said, her tone biting, “I suggest you scry for  enchantments woven into and about that tree to hide its true bond.”

Fellspire glared at the woman, but turned to the tree once more, and, stretching a hand forth, she closed her eyes and scryed the tree. After what seemed like an eternity, the elven mage opened her eyes and lowered her hand, her face ashen as she turned to stare open-mouthed at the Matriarch.

“How did you do that?” she said, her voice soft.

“You found the proof!” Netyam cried, his eyes as wide as a wide grin parted his lips.

But his grin swiftly faded as the elven mage shook her head and turned to him.

“There’s nothing there,” she said, turning to him with a stunned gaze. “Nothing at all.”

“That’s not possible,” Netyam replied. “There must be something there. You missed something. Try again.”

“I didn’t miss anything.”

“Yes, you did.”

“I’m telling you, I missed nothing!”

“Yes, you did! That’s not Amala’s tree! Amala is a vampire, she can’t possibly have a birthing tree!”

“Netyam! There is no enchantment on this thing! Or around it! Or in the bloody soil!”

“Then, they must’ve removed it!”

“If they removed it,” Archmage Dawnriver said, “then it should no longer show it was bonded to Amala. Who was it bonded to, Fellspire?”

The Archmage named Fellspire turned to the elderly mage with a haunted gaze.

Netyam glared at his companion for a spell, his teeth gritted hard. Then, he turned to the elderly mage.

“Untie me,” he demanded.

“Your scrys cannot compare to Fellspire’s, Netyam,” the Patriarch said. “If she can’t–”

“Untie me, gods damn it!” he barked. “Untie me this instant!”

The elderly mage turned to the Matriarch, who turned to her and nodded.

“Let him make a fool of himself,” she said, then turned to the man once more.

“Untie him,” the elderly mage ordered, and as his bonds faded, the snarling Archmage marched forth to the tree and began his scrys.

A charge silence fell upon the gathering as Netyam scryed and scryed, but at last, the man stood tall, an air of utter defeat about him as he turned to Fellspire.

“Told you,” she said.

“And I told you,” the elderly mage said, “did I not?”

Fellspire turned to glare at the mage, but could not speak.

Then, the elderly elf turned to her Matriarch.

“Matriarch,” she said, “my authority only extends to banishing people from the Grove, but for their crimes against you, against that poor child, and against this Grove, I ask that you take action on this.”

The Matriarch turned from the mage and carried her gaze about Fellspire and her companions.

“Kneel,” she said at last.

The remaining three companions were shoved forth, and as they stumbled, they glanced at each other, then went on their knees. In the silence that followed, all within the Grove turned to Netyam and Fellspire, who stood in defiance.

“Kneel,” the Matriarch repeated, her tone freezing the very air about them all.

“Do it,” the elderly Archmage added, “or I shall make you.”

At her words, green vines began to sprout about the two mages’ feet.

The pair exchanged glances, then slowly went on one knee.

“Matriarch, please,” began one of the other companions, “we just–”

“Shut. Up,” the Matriarch interjected, then stood tall.

“Matriarch, please, I beg you,” another whined. “We didn’t mean to, we just–”

“By your actions this day,” the Matriarch interjected, her gaze hardening with each passing moment, ”each of you is hereby stripped of all calls to the Shimmering Tower. Henceforth, you will no longer be welcome amongst us. No coin shall be yours save that which you make from this day forth, and no shelter or belonging shall be yours save that which you toil for from this day forth. Go now, and live your lives in exile.”

“As is just,” the other mages muttered.

Snarling, Fellspire turned to one of the mages in the crowd.

“I suppose now, you’ll be laughing at us,” she spat.

Frowning, the others turned to the mage.

“What does she mean, Farun?” the elderly mage asked.

“Yes, Farun,” Fellspire added, “what do I mean?”

“What’re you doing?” Netyam asked.

The mage named Farun glared hard at the kneeling woman, then turned to the others.

“We spoke earlier,” Farun said, “all of us. But when they told me their plans, I parted ways with them.”

“And yet, you told no-one, did you?” Fellspire sneered.

“Woman, be quiet!” Netyam hissed.

“You naughty boy.”

“Damn it, woman, shut up.”

“Don’t you know it’s wrong to be aware your Matriarch’s life is in danger and yet do nothing about it?”

“For gods’ sake, woman, shut your mouth!”

“I mean–”

“Enough,” the Matriarch barked, then turned to the mage. “Is it true? You told no-one? You did nothing?”

“I…” Farun began, but sighed and nodded. “It’s true.”

“You knew they were coming for me and you told no-one.”

Once more, the Archmage nodded.

“But in my defence,” he added, “I didn’t expect them to–”

“Stop talking.”

 The elven mage fell silent, lowering his gaze as he did so.

The Matriarch stared at him in silence for a spell before breathing deep.

“I won’t banish you, Farun…”

“What?” Fellspire cried.

“… but you’ve proven you don’t deserve to be called Archmage. You are hereby stripped of that rank, and will now return to being a High Mage. You’re going to have to prove you deserve that rank, Farun.”

The mage bowed low at his Matriarch. “I understand.”

“Are you bloody–” Fellspire began.

“And you!” the Matriarch spat, rounding on the kneeling woman. “Just how bitter are you? I mean, really? You wanted your own friend banished because…why? He had the good sense to not throw his life way over something so stupid?” Then, she shook her head. “I am so glad I never have to see your face again after today.”

Then, she turned to the Archmage Dawnriver. “Get these shites out of my Tower. I have a cleansing ritual to perform.”

“Of course, Matriarch,” the elderly mage said.

“Actually, no” the Matriarch added, “stay with me, Edna. If I do this alone, someone will whine that I was hiding something.”

A sheepish smile parted the elderly mage’s lips as she nodded. “Of course, Matriarch.” Then, she turned to the others. “Get rid of them.”

As the other mages moved to escort Fellspire and her companions from Tower grounds, the Matriarch turned to her beloved and her daughter. It was only then she noticed how hard her daughter wept.

“Hey!” she said, hurrying to her daughter and dropping to her knees. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay!”

“It’s not okay,” she mumbled, “It was me who made her like Master Netyam. If it wasn’t for me, she’d still be here.”

“Oh, my dear!” the Matriarch gasped, hugging her daughter tight. “Don’t say that! Don’t ever say that! You had no way of knowing. It was Netyam’s fault, not yours, okay?”

The young girl wept on.

“Okay?”

Still, the young girl wept, her gaze upon the dead tree.

“Tell you what, you go back with your father, I’ll come see you when this is over. Okay?”

“Come, Naeve,” the Patriarch said, grasping hold of the young girl’s hand.

The Matriarch watched in silence as her daughter was led away, then rose and turned to the only remaining person within the Grove.

“Let’s begin, then,” she said.

“Very well, Matriarch,” Archmage Dawnriver said..

And thus did they lay Amala’s birthing tree to rest once and for all.

*****

Sniffling, young Naeve stared into the ether as she lay on her bed and wiped her nose upon her sleeve, her eyes red and her knees tucked against her chest as she hugged her pillow tight. Then, there came a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” she asked, her back to the door.

“It’s me,” came her mother’s voice.

The young elf turned to stare at the door a spell, then rose and wandered to it before unlocking it, then headed for her bed once more. As she clambered on, the door slowly swung open. Pulling her pillow close, young Naeve hugged it tight and crossed her legs beneath her as she watched her mother enter.

“Hey,” the Matriarch said, a soft smile upon her lips as she closed the door behind her.

Naeve smiled in response, but could not speak.

“How’re you feeling?”

The young girl shrugged, but as she moved to speak, the pain in her heart grew once more, and instead, she bit her lip as her tears fell once again.

“Hey, hey,” the Matriarch said, hurrying to her daughter’s side and holding her tight.

“It’s alright,” she soothed, stroking her daughter’s hair. “It’s okay.”

As the Matriarch stroked her hair, young Naeve buried her head in her mother’s arms and wept, her wails filling the air as her pain tore her heart apart.

“It’s alright, Naeve,” the Matriarch repeated. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay,” the young girl said at last, her voice quivering. “Amala’s gone.”

The Matriarch fell silent a spell, her gaze upon her daughter. Then, breathing deep, she let out a ragged sigh and gritted her teeth.

“Yeah,” she said at last, her voice quivering. “Yeah, she is.”

“Why didn’t she tell me she was leaving? Why didn’t she say goodbye?”

The Matriarch smiled. “If she had, do you really think you’d have been able to spend the whole day pretending you didn’t know?”

Naeve stared at her mother a spell before pouting at the woman.

“That’s why.”

“Well, will I ever see her again?”

The Matriarch breathed deep once more, then nodded.

“Yeah,” she said. “When I’m gone.”

“Gone?” Naeve frowned. “Where are you going?”

The Matriarch smiled and held her daughter in a pointed stare.

“Oh…” young Naeve said at last, then winced at her mother. “Really?”

The Matriarch nodded. ”She can’t risk anyone remembering her when she returns.”

“What, she can’t risk you remembering her?” Naeve frowned once more.

The Matriarch’s smile returned. “It’s not me she’s worried about, it’s everyone else. Everyone my age and older needs to pass. At the very least.”

“Oh.” Naeve muttered. “I see.”

“There’s something else,” the Matriarch continued.

“What?”

The Matriarch’s smile widened, “I just want to say , I’m proud of you, Naeve.”

“For?” Naeve said, frowning once more.

“Your father told me how fast you ran to get Dawnriver and the others.”

“Oh, that.” Naeve smiled. “She wasn’t that far away.”

“Don’t be coy…”

The young girl’s smile grew at this.

“And then there’s how you screamed at Fellspire when you saw the dead tree. And those tears. Even I was beginning to think you really believed Amala was dead.”

“Eh.” The young elf shrugged once more, sniffling. “I’m a cry-baby. That part wasn’t that hard.”

The Matriarch smiled at her daughter. “It was more than that, my dear. I think your actions convinced everyone more than my words did.”

“Eh.” Naeve repeated, her cheeks reddening as she lowered her gaze.

Then, she raised her gaze to her mother once more. “How did you and Amala make that birthing tree seem like it was Amala’s?”

“Ah!” the Matriarch replied, a glimmer in her eye as she smiled at her daughter. “Well, the trick is, there was no trick.”

“What?”

“That really was Amala’s birthing tree.”

The young girl stared hard at her mother, who grinned in response.

“Sorry, Mother,” she said at last, “I’m going to need more.”

The Matriarch giggled at her daughter, then pulled her close.

“Well,” she said, “what if I told you everyone’s been asking the wrong question? Will that make it clearer?”

The young girl stared at her mother for a spell, her brow furrowed deep.

“Not in the slightest,” she said at last.

“Well…what’s the one thing you’d expect to happen if we’d had a Birthing Ceremony for Amala?”

“Well…” Naeve replied, “her tree would start dying the moment the Ceremony was over. She’s dead… Well, undead.”

“Right,” the Matriarch nodded. “And if we were to find a way to prevent it dying…?”

The young girl cast a slow sideways glance at her mother.

“Mother…?” she said at last.

“Yes, Naeve…”

“I may be young, but even I know what you’re saying isn’t possible. The moment the person a tree is bonded to dies, the magic from the bond will start killing the tree right away. The only way to stop it is to force the bond on someone else, but then it becomes that person’s birthing tree. That’s assuming you can pull it off before the bloody thing withers and dies, that it.”

“Language, Naeve.”

“Sorry, Mother.” Naeve grinned.

“But everything you just said is what made our plan so perfect. Well, Amala’s plan. Everyone who thinks she’s a vampire will assume there’s no way in all hells the birthing tree could possibly be hers.”

The young girl cocked her head to the side, her gaze intent on her mother.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” she said at last.

The Magister grinned. “In the words of our recently banished Fellspire: Nothing is impossible when it comes to the arcane.”

“So, how’d you two do it, then?” Naeve demanded.

“Well, the first challenge was how to get a birthing tree in the Grove without Dawnriver or anyone else knowing. I mean it’s not like we could sneak Amala into the next Birthing Ceremony, now could we?”

“True.” Naeve nodded.

Then, the Matriarch’s grin returned. “So, Amala and I had our very own Birthing Ceremony. Just the two of us.”

The young girl frowned once more. “And Mistress Dawnriver never saw you?”

“No.” The Matriarch shook her head. “We were in and gone before she was out of bed.”

“What do you mean out of…” Naeve began, but fell silent as her mother’s words sank deep.

“Wait!” she gasped. “Are you saying you had a whole Birthing Ceremony in one night?”

“Mhm!” The Matriarch nodded.

Naeve stared hard at her mother, her lips agape. “Mother it takes Mistress Dawnriver and her attendants four days to prepare the soil for the Ceremony! At least! Are you telling me the two of you did all that in just one night?”

The Matriarch nodded once more.

“Bollocks!”

“Language!”

“Well, sorry, but it is!”

“No! We did it!”

“Like hells you did!”

“No, listen!” the Matriarch said, reaching for her daughter’s hands. “Amala had this…sack thing, and–”

“Sack thing…?”

“Yes. Sack thing.”

The young elf rolled her eyes at her mother. “Mother, that’s not very descriptive.”

“What do you mean? It’s a thing that looked like a sack. A sack thing.”

“So, why not call it a sack?”

“Because it’s not called a sack! It’s called something else.”

“What?”

“I…uhm…I don’t remember.”

Naeve blinked hard at her mother.

“What?” the woman cried. “You think I’d call it a sack thing if I remembered?”

“Well, what’s so special about it, then?” The young girl sighed.

“Well, it’s suppose to be how the ancient trolls grew their crops. Back then, they could grow anything from anywhere, and these sack things are how they did it. Put soil of any kind in it and off you go. You never have to change the soil or water the plant, or anything.” Then, the woman sighed. “They’re rarer than ghost shite now, though. Still don’t know how she got a hold of one.”

Naeve stared at her mother a spell, her confusion plain, then gasped as her eyes went wide. “You put some Birthing Grove soil in it!”

“Yes!” The Matriarch nodded, grinning. “It wasn’t easy though, mind, the magic in the Birthing Grove soil starts fading the moment you scoop it off the ground, so even as we were scooping it into the sack thing, it was already losing its potency, so we had to be quick. Then, after that, we had to add Amala’s blood to the soil, a lot of it, actually.”

“Ew…”

“Yes.” The Matriarch winced.  “Ew.”

“Why do you need her blood?”

The Matriarch shrugged. “It was the only way to guarantee the bond would remain strong after the Birthing Ceremony. It’s like you say, the moment the Ceremony ends, the magic of the bond would start attacking the tree. But with Amala’s blood in the soil, and with the right enchantments, it should keep the magic of the bond tamed.”

“But her blood is dead though, isn’t it? How does having it in the soil make any difference?”

The Matriarch smiled. “My, aren’t you the smart one?”

Naeve couldn’t help but smile at this.

“You’re right, though,” the Matriarch continued. “Ordinary vampire blood would be useless as, like you say, the blood has no real life in it, or at least not the kind of life the magic we’re talking about will work with. But Amala’s a day-walker, her blood is slightly different. Not massively different, but different enough.”

“Oh!” Naeve gasped. “That’s why you needed a lot of it!”

“Yes!” Her mother nodded. “Precisely!”

“Ah! So simple!”

“Oh, it wasn’t. It really wasn’t.”

“Oh?” the young girl frowned.

The Matriarch nodded. “It was the enchantments that were the biggest pain. We needed them to hide everything we did from Dawnriver and anyone else who came by to scry the place, and also keep the magic of the soil from dissolving the sack, and make sure Amala’s blood doesn’t get destroyed by the magic of either, and make sure all three worked well enough together to get the bloody tree to grow.” Then, the Matriarch shook her head. “Trust me, that wasn’t easy.”

Then, the woman smiled. “But once we did, guess what that meant?”

Naeve grinned. She already knew. “It meant you could have the Birthing Ceremony in a day.  All you had to do was stick the Birthing seed in the sack and bury the whole lot!”

“Precisely!”

“Bloody hells, Mother!” Naeve cried. “That’s bloody brilliant!”

“Naeve…”

A sheepish smile parted the young girl’s lips.

“But you’re right,” the Matriarch continued, “it was rather brilliant.”

“I can’t believe no-one suspected,” the young girl added.

“I can,” the Matriarch replied. “We did what everyone thought was impossible, so nobody even considered it.”

“Yeah,” the young girl smiled, “I suppose.” Then, her smile faded. “How’d you pull the sack out without anyone seeing?”

“What do you mean?” The Matriarch frowned.

Naeve frowned in response “Well, with the way the tree died so fast, I thought you pulled the sack out.”

“Ah,” the Matriarch smiled, “no, I didn’t. The plan was to undo the enchantments, let the magic of the soil and the sack get rid of Amala’s blood, and when that’s all gone, let the soil in and around the sack get rid of that. Getting rid of Amala’s blood would kill the tree, and having the soil get rid of the sack would…well…get rid of all proof of what we did.”

“But something went wrong?”

“Mh, soft of.”

The young girl cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean, sort of?”

“Fellspire’s earth spike. The way it tore through the roots, it must’ve upset the balance of the enchantments somehow, and that just butchered everything.”

“No way!” Naeve cried. “So, by trying to prove Amala was a vampire, she instead helped you cover up what you did?”

“Pretty much,” the Matriarch said, nodding.

“Ha!”

“And there you have it,” the Matriarch sighed, “the truth.”

“Wow,” the young girl said. “That’s some clever thinking, Mother.”

“Yeah, it was.” The Matriarch smiled, her gaze drifting to the ether. “Clever and bold.”

“Like Amala?”

The Matriarch turned to her daughter, her smile growing as she nodded. “Like Amala.”

Then, the woman reached into her pocket.

“She wanted you to have this,” she said, pulling free a gem and offering it to her daughter.

Naeve lowered her gaze to the stone, but remained unmoving.

“Take it,” the Matriarch added after a spell. “She left something in it for you. It’ll only show when you’re alone, or with only your father or I.”

Naeve tore her gaze from the stone to stare at her mother. “What?”

“Her.”

“What?” the young girl frowned.

Breathing deep, the Matriarch reached for her daughter’s hand and placed the stone within before  closing her daughter’s hand and whispering a single word of arcane.

“She added her story to it, Naeve,” the Matriarch continued. “Where it belongs.”

The young girl’s frown deepened. “What do you mean, where it belongs?”

The elven woman held her daughter in a pointed stare, and as silence fell upon the pair, the young girl felt her heart climb up her throat as her throat dried.

“You mean…” she said at last, “she’s one of us?”

The Matriarch smiled and nodded. “Yes, my darling. She’s one of us.”

The young girl stared open-mouthed at the stone in her hand before returning her gaze to her mother.

“Really?” she said.

“Really,” the Matriarch replied, nodding.

“No way!”

“Yes way!”

“So, what, she’s my great-great-great-grandmother?”

“Well,” the Matriarch replied, smiling, “there are a few more greats in there, and it’s aunt, not grandmother.”

The young girl gasped as a smile parted her lips, then lowered her gaze to the stone once more.

“Go on, then,” the Matriarch said. “Bet you’d love to know her real name.”

Naeve stared at the stone for a spell longer, then breathed deep and turned to her mother once more.

“Am I definitely going to see her again?” she asked.

The Matriarch nodded. “She gave me her word, and she never breaks her word.”

“Then I’ll read it when she’s back.”

“Hunh?” The Matriarch frowned. “Why?”

“Because it’s our thing,” she replied, turning to the stone once more. Won’t be the same without her. And besides…I’m not sure I want to know her real name. She’s always been Amala to me, I don’t want her to be anyone else. ”

The Matriarch stared at her daughter, words lost to her till at last, shaking her head, she pulled her daughter close and hugged her tight, kissing the young girl’s head as tears filled her eyes.

“I think she might like that,” the woman said at last, sniffling as she kissed her daughter on the head once more.

Then, the pair parted, and as they did so, the young girl smiled and wiped her mother’s tears.

“Heh,” the Matriarch smiled, “I’m supposed to be the one wiping your tears away.”

“Yeah, well…” Naeve replied, but said nothing more.

“Well, I’d best leave you to get some sleep,” the Matriarch said, before breathing deep and rising.

“Mother?” Naeve began as her mother headed for the door.

“Yes?” the Matriarch replied, stopping and turning to her daughter.

“Have you read it?”

“No,” the Matriarch said, shaking her head. “I don’t need to. She told me who she really was a long time ago,”

“Oh,” Naeve replied. “You think I’d like who she was?”

The Matriarch smiled and nodded. “I think you’ve have liked the old her very much.”

Young Naeve breathed deep at this, a smile upon her lips.

“Good night, Naeve,” the Matriarch said. “Sweet dreams.”

“Good night, Mother,” the young girl said. “See you in the morning.”

The Matriarch stared at her daughter for a spell longer, then turned and left.

Naeve watched her mother leave, her gaze remaining on the door long after the woman was alone, till at last, breathing deep once more, she rose and headed for her table. Pulling free her chest of sacred treasures from beneath the table, she opened it and gently placed the gem within before closing it and pushing it back in place, then turned and clambered into bed.

Then, as her head touched her pillow, she sighed.

“Good night, Amala,” she whispered. “See you again some day.”

Then, with a smile, the young girl closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

*****

Sitting behind her desk, the elderly mage frowned as she skimmed the parchment in her hand, her eyes darting across the words within, searching for anything of note, but a knock at her door drew her gaze from the parchment.

“Enter!” she cried.

“Matriarch,” said the mage that entered, bowing as he spoke.

“Ah!” The Matriarch grinned. “You’re back! I trust the orcs gave you no trouble in the end?”

“Yes, well, uh…” the mage began before stepping forth, clearly searching for words.

As the Matriarch stared at him, her smile faded as she placed the parchment in her hand unto her desk and sat tall.

“What is it this time?” She sighed.

“It’s uh…It’s Efrim, Matriarch.”

“Ugh…” the Matriarch muttered as she closed her eyes and sighed.

“It saddens me to report he’s made another purchase.”

“Of course, he has,” the Matriarch growled, then opened her eyes and stared at the man before her. “Another baby lion?”

“No, Matriarch.” The mage shook his head.

“More geese?”

Once more, the mage shook his head.

“Then, what?”

“Uhm…he uhm…”

“Gods, spit it out, man!” the Matriarch cried. “What did he buy?”

“A slave, Matriarch. He bought you a slave.”

The Matriarch sat in utter silence, her lips agape.

“You what?”

“Matriarch, please don’t be angered!”

“Angered?” the woman thundered. “It’s too bloody late to be telling me to not be bloody angered! What in the bloody hells possessed him to buy a bloody slave! This is the Shimmering Tower, not some bloody palace!”

“Well, yes, Matriarch, but–”

“And what in the bloody hells were you looking at when he bought a bloody slave?”

“Upon my honour, Matriarch, I had no idea what he was up to. We were short on time so I had no choice but to send him to the markets with the list you’d given me while I finished negotiations. Next thing I know, he was standing before me with this slave in tow!”

Slowly, the Matriarch leant forward, her anger straining on its leash. “Are you telling me he spent Tower coin to buy this slave?”

“Uh…yes, Matriarch.”

The seated mage glared at the man before her, words lost to her.

“Where is he?” she asked at last.

“He’s at the Stables, Matriarch,” the mage said, “putting the slave to work.”

“Right!” the Matriarch replied, springing to her feet. “I should’ve done this a long time ago.”

“Matriarch?”

The Matriarch stopped and turned to the man, but when she saw the worry in his eyes, she forced a smile to his lips.

“Whatever his reasons, he can’t keep wasting coin like this,” the elderly mage said. “Especially Tower coin! He needs to get it into his head that nobody’s blaming him for what his great-grandmother did, least of all me, and before he spends all our money.”

The mage smiled and bowed.

“Of course, Matriarch,” he said, then turned and left.

The Matriarch watched the man leave, but as he closed the door, her smile faded, replaced by a deep scowl.

“A slave…” she growled. “What in the bloody hells am I supposed to do with a bloody slave? Gods give me strength.”

Then, breathing deep, the elderly mage headed for her door, her mind already composing the  words with which to make her views clear to the errant Mage Adept.

*****

Entering the Tower Stables, the Matriarch stopped and carried her gaze about all before her, her eyes coming to rest upon the Mage Adept Efrim Fellspire as he spoke to someone within one of the stalls.

“Fellspire!” she barked before marching forth, her eyes upon the mage as she ignored the startled gazes upon her as she went.

“M…Matriarch!” the man stammered, a nervous grin upon his lips as he pushed the person he was speaking with deeper into the stable and stepped forth.

“That better not be the slave you’re shunting around like a rag doll!” she barked.

“Ah, uhm…” the mage stuttered, turning to glance at the stall before turning to his Matriarch once more.

“What did I tell you about all these buys?” the Matriarch continued as she reached him. “Hm? What did I tell you?”

“W…well, Matriarch, I–”

“I already told you, a thousand times! You don’t owe me anything! There’s no bloody blood debt that needs to be repaid, okay? What happened back then happened back then! It was between your great-grandmother and my mother! Okay?”

The young Mage Adept moved to speak but no words came, and as his shoulders sagged and his eyes filled with pain, the Matriarch sighed.

“Listen to me, Efrim,” she said, placing a calming hand upon the elf’s shoulder. “I have never compared you to her. If I did, I would never have agreed for you to join us. You are your own man, making your own way though life. The blood that woman spilt is on her hands, not yours.”

“No, Matriarch,” the young elf replied, his voice soft as he shook his head. “Her sins tainted all of us. Because of her, our lives were harder than it should’ve been. The only reason I came to the Tower was to be rid of the stain on our honour.”

The Matriarch stared at the elf for a spell before shaking her head and breathing deep.

“Well,” she said, “you’re going to have to find another way to remove that stain. You are no longer allowed to spend Tower coin on anything ever again. You understand? If you disobey me on this, I will punish you. Don’t think I won’t.”

At last, the elf smiled. “Well, if you accept my newest gift, Matriarch, my family’s honour will be restored.”

“What, your slave?”

The elf nodded.

“Efrim, this is the Shimmering Tower. We don’t have slaves, we have servants. Do you understand the difference?”

Once more, the elf nodded.

“Then I can’t exactly accept a bloody slave, now can I?”

“Of course not, Matriarch, but she can be a servant of the Tower.”

The Matriarch stared hard at the elf. “You bought a slave so you could give her a job?”

“Yes.” The young elf nodded.

“Efrim,” the Matriarch sighed, “I understand your sentiment, but we don’t have nearly enough coin to free each and every slave out there.”

The Mage Adept’s smile grew. “Perhaps it’s best if you met her.” Then, he turned and headed for the stall.

The Matriarch watched the young elf for a spell, then, breathing deep, she followed, but as she entered the stall and laid eyes upon the slave, the elderly mage’s heart stopped as time stood still, a sharp gasp escaping her lips as the blood rushed from her face.

“You see it too, don’t you?” the Mage Adept said. “Great-grandmother’s diary wasn’t the most flattering when describing the woman Amala, but it was detailed enough that when I saw her in that cage,” the young mage gestured to the slave, “I knew I had to bring her home.”

“Amala…?” the slave said, her voice soft and her gaze at the Mage Adept’s feet. “Is that my new name, Master?”

“Oh, for gods’ sake!” the young elf cried, his cheeks reddening as he spoke, “I am not you master! You are no longer a slave! You’re free!” Then, catching himself, he turned to the Matriarch. “That is, with your permission, of course.”

The Matriarch turned from the slave to the Mage Adept and back.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Silver-eyes, Mistress,” the slave replied.

“I already told her that name won’t do here,” the young elf added

The Matriarch turned from the slave to the Mage Adept once more, then turned back.

“What name did your mother give you?” she asked

The young slave shook her head. “I don’t remember, Mistress.”

“What do you mean, you don’t remember?” The Matriarch frowned.

“My master told me to forget it, that Silver-eyes was my new name and…it’s been so long since I’ve used it I…”

The slave lowered her gaze further and fell silent.

The Matriarch stared at the slave in silence for a spell.

“So, what happened to your eyes?” she asked at last.

The slave raised her gaze to the Mage Adept’s feet once more, the light reflecting off her silvery pupils.

“When I was a child, my…my master then liked to…experiment on me. He pushed my head into a vat of something once and… I lost my hearing and my sight for a few days but I got them back, only, my hair and my eyes never changed back. He sold me not long after that.”

“That bastard!” Efrim breathed. “Did it hurt?”

The slave lowered her gaze to her feet and nodded.

“That bastard…” 

The Matriarch stared at the slave in silence for a spell, as if struggling to make sense of her words, then breathed deep and turned to the Mage Adept.

“You have my permission, Efrim,” she said, then turned to the slave.

“Thank you, Matriarch!” the Mage Adept cried, his grin wide as he too turned to the slave.

“Did you hear that?” he said. “You’re free now! You’re one of us!”

The young slave raised her gaze to the young elf. “I’m free?”

“Yes!” The young elf nodded. “You’re free!”

Lowering her gaze, the former slave pondered those words a spell, then turned to the Mage Adept once more. “Please, may I have a name?”

“Uhm…” the Mage Adept began, turning to the ether.

“Amala,” the Matriarch said. “Your name’s Amala.”

The slave turned to the elderly mage and smiled.

“Amala,” she said. “Thank you.”

The Matriarch nodded, then smiled, her gaze soft. “Welcome home, Amala.”

The slave smiled in response, but soon, her smile began to fade as she gritted her teeth hard, her brow furrowed deep, till at last, her eyes began to glisten.

“Oh, no, no,” the young Mage Adept said before stepping forth, pulling the young slave close and holding her tight.

The Matriarch watched in silence as the young slave wrapped her arms about the young elf and wept in his arms.

“It’s no easy thing, gaining your freedom,” she said, before gritting her teeth.

“I suppose not,” the Mage Adept replied.

“I leave her to you, then,” the Matriarch added. “Take good care of her.”

And then, before the Mage Adept could speak, the elderly mage spun on her heels and marched out of the Tower Stables, her gait twice as fast as before.

*****

Standing alone within the Tower Stables, the newly freed slave whispered words of comfort to the horse before her as she ran a soft brush down his shoulder, the horse’s snorts as soft as the elven woman’s words. So intent was she in her grooming that she seemed oblivious to the woman that had  wondered to the entrance of the stall, resting upon the stall’s frame with a smile upon her lips as she watched the former slave work, till at last, she coughed.

The former slave squealed as she spun about, her eyes wide and her face ashen.

The Matriarch stared at the former slave a spell, her smile unmoved.

“I’d forgotten how good you are at pretending, you know,” she said.

“Matriarch?” the former slave said, her brow furrowed deep.

“We’re alone, Amala,” the Matriarch said. “Nobody’s going to bother us for the rest of the night. I made sure of it.”

“I…I don’t–”

“That story from earlier,” the Matriarch interjected, “I told you that story. In the Library. You said you were bored, and told me to tell you a story. So I told you a story of a girl with unnatural powers who got them from having her head shoved in an bath of some icky stuff, to which you asked if the girl’s hair and eyes changed colour. Or did you think I’d forget?”

The former slave stared on in silence for a spell, but soon, she stood tall, her hands lowered as a soft smile parted her lips.

“It’s good to see you again, Naeve,” she said. “Gods, it’s good to see you again.”

“What took you so damned long?” the Matriarch replied.

The silver-haired woman shrugged. “I had to be sure I’d been forgotten.”

“It took you this long to be sure?”

Once more, the elven woman shrugged.

“You know, I was hoping to drag this out a bit longer,” she said instead. “I had a whole raft of subtle hints planned.”

The Matriarch grinned. “Heh, tough!”

The silver-haired woman giggled at those words, but her levity was not to last.

“Apologies for earlier,” she said, her smile gone. “The tears, I mean. They weren’t part of the plan. But the way you said Welcome home, I…”

“It’s okay,” the Matriarch replied, her smile returned. “I had a good cry myself.”

The silver-haired elf smiled once more. “I noticed from the way you hurried out earlier.”

“Heh, yeah,” the Matriarch replied, then breathed deep. “You know, Mother never stopped talking about you.”

As her smile faded, the elven woman sighed. “I miss her too. I was beside myself for days when I heard of her passing.”

“Yeah, it hurt,” the Matriarch replied, then breathed deep and turned her gaze to what lay about her. “Been trying to keep this place running the way she’d have liked it. Make her proud of me.”

“Oh, I know she is, my darling.”

The Matriarch turned to Amala once more, a smile upon her lips once again, but once again, that smile faded. “But seriously though, you didn’t need to wait so long, you know.”

“Yes, I did.”

“No,  you didn’t.” The Matriarch shook her head. “We found your bones a few decades after you were supposed to be dead. Or rather, the bones you left for us to find.”

“I heard.” The elven woman grinned, nodding. “Your mother made quite the show of being distraught.”

“Yeah, she did, didn’t she?” the Matriarch grinned, but soon frowned once more. “But if you heard, why wait so long to come back?”

The elven woman sighed. “Because I also heard some were questioning whether those bones were indeed mine. I had to wait till those people were silenced, or had passed on.”

“Hrm,” the Matriarch muttered, then shrugged. “Fair.”

The two woman stared at each other a spell, the silence upon then suffocating.

“You know what, this is silly,” the silver-haired elf said at last, tossing the brush in her hand to the side as she wandered toward the Matriarch. “Come here.”

Reaching the elderly mage, the silver-haired elf pulled the woman close and hugged her tight, and as the elderly woman hugged her in turn, silence fell anew, and with a calmness that brought peace to the hearts of both women.

“Gods, I’m glad to have you back,” the Matriarch said at last.

“I’m glad to be back, my darling,” the silver-haired woman replied. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“How long are you staying for?” the Matriarch asked as they parted.

The elven woman shrugged. “As long as I can. My tale with the vat should allow me explain why I do not age, and me being a servant this time, instead of a mage of the Tower, should mean I’m not in people’s minds so much.”

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” the Matriarch replied. “Not that many care much about the Stables. Most of this new bloody breed of mages want the fantastical over the practical.”

The elven woman grinned. “Lucky me, then!”

The Matriarch giggled at this, but as her laughter faded, she reached into her pocket.

“There’s something I need to ask you, though,” the said as she did so.

“Oh?”

“Hm.” The Matriarch nodded, then pulled free a gem.

At its sight, all joviality left the silver-haired woman’s face.

“Mother said you put your story on here,” the Matriarch said. “Did you?”

“What do you mean?” the elven woman frowned. “You’ve not read it?”

The Matriarch shook her head. “This is the first time I’m holding it since Mother gave it to me.”

“What?”

The Matriarch smiled. “Can you blame me?”

“Why?”

As her smile faded, the Matriarch shrugged. “Because the stories were our thing, and some of fondest memories I have. I watched Tirinel dance on the sea with Bess, Amala, and I watched Arinelle get her own back on that bitch that killed her children. I was there when Nerrol saved Dren and his sister from Dren’s mother, and I was right there with Adanus when he mourned Elizabeth’s passing. Every single one of those stories, I can see them if I closed my eyes and focused. Every single one of them. And do you know what else I see?”

The elven woman shook her head.

“You.”

“Naeve, I…”

“I see your face every single time. That smile you’d wear whenever I was reading, and that song you were always humming, I hear it every time. And if you think that’s weird, my head bloody itches as well. Those memories are of you, of us, and me reading anything on my own, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Smiling, the elven woman ran a gentle hand across the elderly mage’s cheek. “My dear little Naeve. I am honoured that you’d remember me like that.”

The Matriarch grinned, then lowered her gaze once more before turning to the woman once again. “So, can we read your story now?”

The silver-haired elf cocked her head to the side, her brow furrowed deep. “What? Here?”

The Matriarch nodded. “Yeah. But like we used to back then.”

Shaking her head, the elven woman cast a sideways glance at the mage before her. “Aren’t you a little old for that, Naeve?”

The Matriarch grinned. “A wise woman once told me you are as young as you feel…”

“Oh, dear gods.”

“…and I feel like a little girl again.”

“Using my own words against me now?”

“Eh, it’s good advice.”

The elven woman stared at the grinning mage before her, shaking her head as she did so, but did nothing to stop the mage taking her hand and leading her from their stall to the empty one opposite before gently pulling her down onto the hay.

Shaking her head still, the elven woman sighed, then shuffled back till she pressed against the wall as the elderly mage lay upon the hay and placed her head upon the elven woman’s lap. Then, gripping the gem tight, the mage called forth the tome bound within, and once formed, the she turned its pages till the last title within was shown, and as she stared at it, she smiled.

“Amala,” she said, then moved to turn the page, but caught herself and turned to the elven woman instead.

The seated elf met the mage’s gaze with a slight frown, her confusion plain, and as her smile grew, the mage picked up the woman’s hand and placed it upon her head.

Throwing her head back and roaring with laughter, the elven woman shook her head, then turned to the prone mage once more and began stroking her hair, a soft hum upon her lips.

Sighing, the mage turned to the tome and, nestling onto her beloved friend’s lap, she sighed, turned the page and began to read.