Darting across the corridor to the doorway opposite her, little Naeve stood flush against the door and waited.
No hurried footsteps, no raised voices.
Smiling, the little girl chanced a glance down at her wrist.
“Soon,” she whispered as she raised her gaze. “Soon.”
Shuffling to the corner, little Naeve stared down the corridor at the two mages standing before the door that was her destination. She knew she only had mere moments before she was discovered missing, so time was of the essence. She had to get past the mages, and quickly. Simply walking past them was out of the question, for her cloaking spell did nothing to hide her footsteps. And even if she somehow reached them without arousing suspicions, what then? Merely opening the door with them around was impossible. She needed those two gone, and she needed them gone quickly.
“So, bloody move, already!” she muttered through gritted teeth.
Then, she heard footsteps coming from the other end of the corridor, and as her heart climbed up her throat, she darted to the other side of the doorway and peered round. The sight she beheld froze her where she stood. It was Mistress Fellspire’s assistant. And this time he’d brought help.
“Damn it,” she seethed as her mind raced.
Watching the advancing mages, she knew it was only a matter of time before she was found, for each corridor, each room and each nook they passed was checked thoroughly before they moved on.
“You just had to have a different hiding spot today, didn’t you?” she growled. “You just had to change!”
“Benethorn,” she heard a voice from behind her call out. “What is it?”
“Naeve’s gone into hiding,” replied Mistress Fellspire’s assistant.
As the mages made their way carefully up the corridor, Naeve weighed her options. Retreating the way she came was impossible, there was no way past the approaching mages. Nor could she open the door behind her, the blasted thing was so loud and creaky she may as well start banging a pot and screaming at the top of her voice. But she had to do something.
“So, she hasn’t made her way past you, then?” called out Mistress Fellspire’s assistant, drawing Naeve from her thoughts and giving her an idea, one that drew a smile to her lips, and the more she pored over it, the wider her smile grew.
“This better work, girl,” she thought, then turned to the two mages further up the corridor and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she calmed herself and tensed for what was to come next.
“Are you sure she…” one of the searching mages began.
At that moment, Naeve darted out from the doorway, then raced up the corridor with all the strength she could muster, and as she reached the two mages, the little imp undid her cloaking spell, blew the pair a kiss and raced past them.
“Stop her!” came a cry from behind her.
But those words merely lent her strength, and as she reached the end of the corridor, little Naeve dove around its corner and redid her cloaking spell just a she came to a screeching halt, then threw herself against the wall and held her breath.
It was not long before the mages came racing round the corner, flying past her in unison as she held her hands to her lips to stifle her snickers. Then, when the last of the mages had raced past, the little girl snuck back the way she came, back to the door that had been her destination all along, and with the greatest of care, opened the door quietly before slipping in and closing it shut.
“Yes!” she hissed as the widest possible grin parted her lips.
Then, spinning round, the triumphant little mischief-maker headed toward the lines of shelves running across the entire length of the far end of the room. Climbing upon its centre, the little girl pulled back one of the tomes at its very top, then sighed with relief as the section she had clambered upon spun around fully. Hopping off the shelves just as the light within the hidden room flickered to life, little Naeve wandered over to the rug within the centre of the room, sat upon it with her legs crossed, then placed her hand upon her wrist and closed her eyes.
Opening them, she grinned once more as her eyes beheld the floating tome before her.
“Now,” she said, her eyes glistening as she began flicking through the tome’s pages, “which tale shall I read first?”
Just then, the shelf-covered door shuddered once more, this time spinning only half-way, and as little Naeve turned to the door, her heart sank as she stared into the steely eyes of the silver-haired young woman standing by the opening.
“How?” little Naeve cried.
“Out,” was Amala’s stern response.
Growling, Naeve rose and stomped out of the hidden room, and as she stood before Amala, she lowered her gaze to her feet and pouted.
“You gave me you word, Naeve,” Amala said once the silence between the pair became unbearable.
Naeve remained silent.
“You gave me your word,” Amala repeated. “No reading before lessons, and no skipping lessons to read. You gave me your word.”
“It’s just a stupid book,” Naeve muttered, her gaze still lowered.
“This has nothing to do with the tome, young lady. And it’s a tome, not a book.”
“Naeve, look at me.”
Naeve remained unmoving.
“Look. At. Me.”
Sighing, Naeve obliged, but as she stared into her dear friend’s eyes, the little girl’s guilt began to grow.
“Naeve, your actions today have made a mockery of your word,” Amala said, her tone much softer than before. “And it makes me seem a fool for believing you.”
“Oh, please, Amala!” Naeve gasped. “Don’t you think you’re being a little overly dramatic? It’s not like anyone died.”
“Your word is your bond, Naeve,” Amala replied. “And that holds especially true once you’re Matriarch!”
“Oh, spare me the whole Matriarch never breaks her word line, please!” Naeve shot back. “Nobody died! Nobody was going to die! It’s jut stupid tome with some stupid stories, what’s the harm?”
“It’s not that simple. Your promise to me may not have been life-and-death, but you should’ve kept it nonetheless.”
“Nobody was going to–”
“One day, you’re going to make a promise to someone, a promise that, on its own, isn’t life-and-death, but that person will make a promise of their own that is, and their promise will hinge on you keeping your word.”
“Well, that’s their problem, then, isn’t it?”
In the silence that followed, it would’ve been difficult to say which of the two was more stunned by the little girl’s words. Then, as the silence grew, Amala reached for the tome.
“What’re you doing?” Naeve asked, her brow furrowed deep.
In response, Amala flipped through the tome’s pages. Then, once satisfied, she turned to Naeve.
“You want to read?” she said. “Read that.”
Naeve turned to the tome, then returned her gaze to Amala.
“Go on,” Amala continued, gesturing to the hidden room.” I’ll return when you’re done.”
Staring once more at the tome, Naeve turned to the hidden room and, throwing one last glance at Amala, entered the room, and as Amala closed the door, Naeve sat upon the rug once more and stared at the page before her.
“Fern,” she muttered. “Hrm.…”
Then, she began to read.
With her face set and her gaze fierce, the young Matriarch-in-waiting marched down the corridor before her, her eyes unwavering upon the door at its far end.
“Fern, for the love of the gods, calm yourself first!” gasped the elven mage hurrying behind her. “She may be your mother, but she is still in charge of this place! You’ll get us both posted to some gods-forsaken little shite-hole!”
But Fern kept her peace, her pace unchanged.
“Gods damn it, woman!” the mage behind her snarled as he finally reached her, grasping hold of her arm and spinning her round as he did so. “Calm yourself!”
“I am calm!” Fern thundered.
“Truly?” the young mage replied, arching an eyebrow at his friend.
Gritting her teeth, Fern took a step forth. “Forgive me if I can’t bring myself to pretend all is nice and cheery, Marin…”
“Now, hold a moment, I didn’t mean–”
“…but you saw that camp same as I. You saw what the king’s soldiers did! I am not going to stand here and pretend to be happy about it!”
“I didn’t mean…”
Pulling her arm from her friend’s grip, the incandescent mage resumed her march, her friend’s deep sigh echoing in her ears as she went, and as she reached the door that was her destination, the she barged straight through it, her pace unrelenting.
“Oh, for heavens’ sake, learn how to knock!”
Coming to a halt, Fern turned to the utterer as she fought to bring her rage to heel.
“Mother…” she said, bowing stiffly at the elderly elf seated by the fireplace, the book in her hand now resting upon her lap.
“What is it this time, girl.” The Matriarch Alanis Earthchild sighed. “Did Marin steal your gelding again?”
“My…” Fern snarled as her eyes grew and her face reddened. Just as she was about to part her lips and unleash her rage upon her mother, however, a polite knock behind her drew her gaze.
“Pardon the interruption, Matriarch,” the Archmage Marin Shimmerglade said as he bowed and entered.
“Ah, Marin,” the Matriarch said as she leant deeper into her chair. “I was wondering where you were. You and my daughter seem to never be far from each other’s side.”
“Forgive us, Matriarch,” Marin continued, bowing once more, “but we were wondering–”
“Where’s the aid you promised the dark elves, Mother?” Fern snapped as she rounded on her mother.
A deathly silence fell upon the room, one whose chill stilled Marin tongue, but did little to temper Fern’s.
“I asked you a question!” she soon said, raising her hands to her sides. “They have need of that aid!”
“Hrm.” The Matriarch sighed before shaking her head at her daughter. Then, as the silence grew, the elderly mage rose, book in hand, and wandered towards the nearby shelves before placing the book upon a shelf and browsing the others upon it.
“Well?” Fern barked when the silence was unbearable.
“I shall answer your questions, my dear, when you remember where you left your manners.”
“Did I stutter?” the Matriarch replied as she pulled a new book from the shelf.
“Matriarch, if I may speak–“ Marin began.
“No.” Was the Matriarch’s firm replied, one that silenced young Marin in an instant.
“Mother–” Fern began.
“Have you found them, then?” the Matriarch said as she began thumbing through the volume in her hands.
Gritting her teeth, young Fern fell silent, and instead glared at her mother.
Taking a deep breath, Fern let it out slowly, then parted her lips once more.
“Forgive me, Mother,” she said, “but I truly must know what’s become of the aid you promised the dark elves.”
“Is that all?” the Matriarch said as she turned to her daughter.
“Yes,” the fuming Archmage said through gritted teeth.
“There won’t be any.”
“What in the hells–”
“King Meridan made me a most astonishing offer, my dear. We stay out of his little war with the dark elves, and he’ll reward us handsomely. You should’ve seen his terms, my dear, the woodland elves will be beholden to us for generations to come!”
“But…” Fern replied as the colour drained from her cheeks, “the dark elves are our allies!”
“Were, Fern. Things change.”
“But you gave me your word! I made Petrin a promise, based on your word!”
“Oh, my dear,” the Matriarch sighed, waving her daughter’s words away, “Petrin is no longer a child, he’ll understand.”
“Understand? His people are dying!”
“Fern, you’re beginning to bore me. If you have nothing else to say, you may go.”
“I will not–” the irate mage thundered as she took a step forward, but at that moment, Marin darted before her, his face stern and his gaze fierce.
“If you truly wish to aid Petrin,” he whispered, “I suggest you swallow your pride, shut your mouth, turn around, and walk away.”
Fern glared at her childhood friend with all she had.
“Now.” Marin snarled.
Glancing past Marin to her mother, Fern fought back a snarl, but even in her rage, she knew Marin was right. And thus did she spin about and march out of the room, slamming the door behind her with all her might.
Sitting upon a bench within the Tower’s garden, knife in hand, Fern whittled away as her blood boiled. It was not the first time her mother had reneged on a promise, but to have done so on something so dire was beyond forgivable, and the more she thought on it, the more her blood boiled.
“If you keep whittling that fast, you’ll slice your fingers off,” came a voice from behind her.
Stopping, Fern turned and scowled at Marin as he approached.
“What do you care?” she spat, and resumed her working of the wood in her hand.
“I care because it’s me your mother will blame me.”
“Leave me, Marin,” Fern growled. “I’m in no mood for your nonsense right now.”
Sighing, the Archmage sat beside his friend.
“You know, the whole Tower’s abuzz with gossip–”
“Leave, Marin. I will not warn you again.”
Sighing once more, Marin stared at his simmering friend, then rose and headed towards the Tower.
“How could she have done that?” Fern demanded, turning to Marin as he took his third step. “The dark elves have been our allies since the time of my great grand mother. How could she have thrown them away just like that?”
A sad smile parted Marin’s lips. “Because they’re not of the Tower, Fern.”
“What in the hells does that have to do with anything?”
With his smile warming, Marin made his way toward the bench, and as he sat, he spoke up once more.
“Fern,” he said, “believe it or not, your mother loves you…”
Fern scoffed at this.
“…and she loves every single person who calls this place home. Even a scoundrel like me!”
“What’s your point, Marin?”
“You see Petrin and his people as that, people. To you, it doesn’t matter who it is or where they’re from, you treat them the same. But for your mother, her duty is to us and us alone. Anyone not of the Tower is not under her care, and thus, their suffering is not her problem.”
“Even if she is the cause of that suffering?”
Marin shook her head. “To her, it’s King Meridan who’s causing Petrin’s suffering, not her. All she’s done is ensure the Tower benefits from it.”
Once more, Marin shook her head. “To someone with a heart like yours, definitely. But your mother sees thing in a much starker light. Petrin’s House is the smallest of the dark elves’s, and this alliance has benefited them more than us. Add to that their reluctance in aiding our approaching the other Houses, and you have an alliance that’s more a burden than anything, in your mother’s eyes. Hells, had it not been for the depth of their mithril mines and the purity of the ingots they produce, I doubt your mother would’ve kept it going this long in the first place.”
“We swore to the alliance nonetheless, Marin,” Fern countered. “We gave our word.”
Marin smiled. “Yes, we did. And I agree with you, this is a vile way to end an alliance. But, Fern, your mother sees things in a different light to us. Not her problem, remember?”
“But surely, she must see the stupidity of her actions!” Fern cried. “She’s just thrown away all the ingots we could possibly have gotten!”
Marin shook his head and sighed. “Fern…”
“Those mines are the reason Meridan had Petrin’s father assassinated in the first place. They’re the reason for this whole damned war!”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Fern shot back.
“Well, why ask such a question?”
“Because, you lummox, the mines will now fall into Meridan’s hands!”
“And just what do you think your mother meant when she said the woodland elves will be beholden to us for generations to come?”
“I…” Fern began, but as her face fell, so too did her gaze.
Sighing, Marin shook his head. “The only thing we can do for them now is to pray.”
“Pray?” Fern gasped. “Have you forgotten the state of those soldiers we saw in their camp? That was after their first skirmish with Meridan’s soldiers!”
“I know, Fern,” Marin soothed.
“They won’t last!”
“I know. But their only hope now rests with the other dark elves. With hope, the other Houses will find leaving the mines in Petrin’s hands a more acceptable outcome than leaving them in the hands of a woodland elf king.”
“The other…Marin, the other Houses have shunned Petrin’s people for years. Why in the world would they come to their aid now?”
“It’s either that or we pray they gain a quick death.”
“Gods damn it, Marin!” Fern thundered. “I will not sit idly by and do nothing!”
Marin smiled. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You’re far too old to be–”
With her gaze darkening, Fern pointed the knife in her hand at Marin’s gut. “If you’re intending to say what I think you intend to say, believe me when I say I shall be whittling your bones before the day is out if you do.”
“Very well,” Marin replied, biting back a smile. “I shall say this instead. You are not Matriarch, your mother is, and she’s decreed we do nothing. If you move against her, you will earn her wrath, and that woman can be unforgivably spiteful.”
“I don’t care! I will not sit–“
“Right now, she’s decreed we do nothing. Do not make her decree we aid Meridan.”
At those words, all colour drained from Fern’s cheeks.
“Yes.” Marin nodded. “If you do not wish to have the blood of Petrin’s people on your hands, do nothing. Save pray.”
Fern stared into the ether as the pain she felt twisted her features, and in the silence that followed, the Archmage Marin Shimmerglade stared at his friend, sighed and rose, the ache in his heart becoming unbearable.
Wandering the Tower’s halls in silence, Marin stared at the missive in his hands, his brow furrowed deep as he read its contents. The missive carried grave news indeed, of a kind to make the hairs on the back of his neck stand ramrod straight, and so engrossed was the Archmage in its contents, he was unaware he was no longer alone till he felt a hand upon his arm.
Startled, the Archmage spun about, a scowl upon his lips, but as he saw who it was that interrupted him, he stood tall.
“I fear I’ll make poor company at this moment, Fern,” the Archmage said, returning his gaze to the missive, “there is trouble brewing that I must attend to immediately.”
“I need to speak with you,” Fern said as Marin began walking away.
Marin nodded. “I’ll come find you when I’m done.”
“Not now, Fern,” the Archmage shook his head. “I must–“
“Marin!” Fern hissed. “I must speak with you. Please!”
Stopping, Marin turned to his friend, and it was only then he saw the terror in her eyes, the sight of which called forth a deep and unsettling knot in the pits of his stomach.
“What is it?” he asked.
In response, Fern cast her gaze about them, then hurried to a nearby doorway. Marin followed in silence, the knot within him climbing up his throat.
“Fern,” he said once he’d reached her, his voice hushed. “What is it?”
Reaching into her pocket, the Matriarch’s daughter pulled a parchment, folded and dog-eared, then handed it to Marin.
“Read it,” she said.
Staring from parchment to Fern, Marin paused a spell, but soon took the parchment, opened it and read, and as he read, the colour drained from his face. Finishing at last, he stared at Fern.
“Does your mother know about this?”
Fern shook her head.
Shaking his head, Marin returned his gaze to the parchment once more.
“Marin, they need our aid,” Fern said at last.
“Our aid?” Marin gasped. “Fern, have you any idea what it means for you, the daughter of a highly important ally of the woodland elves, to be receiving personal, and very detailed, messages from the leader of a dark-elven House the woodland elves have used every resource at their disposal to crush?”
“Marin, I don’t give a damn about any of that.”
“What in the hells is wrong with you?” Fern hissed. “Didn’t you read it all?”
“No, I didn’t read it all,” Marin replied. “I don’t need to. They’re losing. Meridan is about to crush them. But guess what, that outcome was more-or-less pre-ordained from the start!”
“So you do nothing?”
“No, Fern, we do nothing.”
With her mouth agape, Fern stared at her beloved friend for a spell, then snatched the parchment from his hand.
“See here,” she said, smoothing the parchment and pointing to a section that Marin had glossed over.
“Fern, I don’t–”
“Gods damn it, man, look at this!”
Sighing, Marin stared hard at his friend.
“Look at it!”
Shaking his head, he obliged.
“Petrin’s wife is with child.”
“What?” Marin gasped as he snatched the parchment from Fern and read it again.
Fern nodded. “Precisely. Do you truly think Meridan will let that child live?”
Shaking his head, Marin scanned the parchment once more. “I didn’t even know he’d wed.”
“Well, he had,” Fern replied. “Though you might not have met her. She’s the daughter of one of his royal guards.”
“I see…” Marin muttered. Then, as he raised his gaze, he sighed. “What do you need of me, then?”
Grinning, Fern nodded. “I knew you’d do the right thing.”
“Don’t start, Fern.” Marin sighed. “What do you need?”
“I need you to keep my mother distracted.”
Marin frowned. “But she’s not here. She’s touring the Crystal Isles.”
“Yes, but she’ll return before I do.”
Marin cast a slow sideways glance at his friend. “Fern, what’re you scheming now?”
Smiling, Fern shook her head. “Despite what you may think, I know the dangers my contact with Petrin poses for the Tower, and the fewer people I have embroiled in this, the better. It’ll make it easier for Mother to lay it all at my feet should I be found out.”
“I’m not sure I like where this is going.”
Fern’s smile widened. “You needn’t worry, I’m not riding out to my death just yet. I just merely plan to get Petrin and his wife to Fairhaven. If I can get them there, I think I can broker them a ship, get them far away from here.”
“You think they’ll go?”
“Do they have a choice? Nobody came to their aid, and, like you say, the war was lost before it began.”
Taking a deep breath, Marin let it out slowly, then smiled. “I must applaud the boy though, his first war, and he lasted far longer than anyone expected him to, myself included.”
Fern grinned. “He’s always been a wily one.”
“That he has.” Marin chuckled, but as his mirth faded, he stood tall. “When do you leave?”
Fern sighed. “I don’t have one.”
“Hrm,” Marin muttered, deep in thought.
“If your leaving here without me is to be believed,” he said after a spell, “then it must involve us having a fight of some sort.”
“How about…” Fern began, her cheeks reddening as she spoke.
“Hrm?” Marin frowned, his gaze still upon sights unseen.
“How about…I…told you I love you, and you rebuked me. Then, I left to clear my head.”
Silence fell upon the pair as Fern stared deep into Marin’s eyes as her cheeks reddened further and a smile danced on her lips. Marin, however, had his gaze deep in the ether.
“Hrm,” Marin said at last, breaking the silence. “A mite sentimental…but your mother does love sentimental tales like that. It’ll mean we’ll have to carry the tale for a spell upon your return…but it’ll also explain why nobody else knows you left. You’d rather not share your embarrassment.” Then, he nodded. “It just might work.”
“Right,” Fern said, her back stiff. “Of course.”
“Yes,” Marin nodded, staring at her. “It could work.”
“Good” Fern said as she snatched the parchment from him.
As Fern placed the parchment in her pocket, Marin stared at her, and soon their gazes met once more.
“You will be careful, won’t you?” Marin said, his face twisted with worry.
Fern stared stiffly at the man before her a spell, but soon, her gaze soften as she smiled.
“Of course,” she said at last. “Though, when I return, you and I must talk.”
“Oh?” Marin frowned.
“Yes.” Fern nodded, her smile growing, then she turned and left.
Marin watched his friend for a spell, his confusion growing, but then he remembered his missive, and pulling it out of his pocket, he began reading it once more as he turned and headed for his office.
Standing tall, Fern stood silent as she surveyed her surrounds. Throughout her journey, she’d often pondered in what state she’d find the dark elves, but, standing before their campsite, she knew nothing could’ve prepared her for what she saw
“Fern!” came a cry from behind her, pulling her free of her thoughts.
Turning, the young mage smiled, but her smile turned to a wince the moment her eyes befell the utterer.
“Petrin?” she said as the young dark elf approached. “What happened to you?”
“Oh.” Petrin smiled, touching the vivid scar running down one side of his face. “I hardly notice it these days.”
Fern could only stare.
“Oh, it’s good to see you again, my friend,” Petrin continued as he threw his arms about his dear friend, hugging her close.
As they parted, Fern smiled, but it did little to mask the pain in her eyes.
“How do you fare?” she asked at last.
At her words, the young dark elf lord’s smile faded.
“How do I fare?” he repeated, his voice soft. “I’m scuttling away in the dark, leaving my people to fight on without me. How do you think I fare?”
Shaking her head, Fern hugged her dear Petrin once more.
“You’re no coward, Petrin,” she said, her arms tight about the dark elf.
Petrin scoffed at this.
“I mean it,” Fern said as they parted. “You have led your people well, better than many would’ve though you could’ve.”
Lowering his gaze, the young dark elf lord held his peace.
“It’s no easy thing, what you do,” Fern continued, “but your bloodline must survive. Whatever victory Meridan gains, whatever claims he makes on your lands, it’s all hollow should you or your child survive. Your people know this, and so too, I’m sure, do you.”
“I should’ve stayed,” Petrin insisted, staring deep into Fern’s eyes. “Nirin would’ve done well enough without me.”
“Yes,” Fern nodded, “staying, and dying, protecting your lands would’ve been the noble thing to do.” Then, she smiled. “But you dark elves are far too practical a people for such airy nonsense. You serve your people better living by Nirin’s side than dying on some fetid battlefield. So long as you live, Meridan can never crush their spirit.”
Shaking his head, Petrin grinned. “I’d forgotten how charming a soothsayer you can be, Fern.”
“Thank you.” Fern grinned.
“When you’re not screaming at people, I mean.”
Chuckling, the young lord grabbed Fern’s hand. “Come, you must meet Nirin!”
Without pause, the grinning lord dragged Fern deeper into the campsite, their gait unrelenting till they stood before the largest of the tents within the camp.
“Here we are!” Petrin said as the guards before him parted the tent’s cover, and with Fern’s hand still in his, marched straight in.
“Nirin!” he cried as they entered. “She’s here!”
At his words, movement upon the large makeshift bed in the corner caught Fern’s eye, and as Fern stared, a dark elven woman arose upon the bed, her face drawn as if fending off sleep.
“Oh, did I wake you?” Petrin said as he hurried to Nirin’s side, his worry plain.
Smiling, the woman shook her head, slipping a hand into Petrin’s as he reached her.
“She’s here,” Petrin repeated, his smile returned. “Look!”
Smiling, Fern stared at the woman, but as their gazes met, Fern felt her smile fade, for as she stared deep into Nirin’s eyes, all she saw was hate, full and raw. Then, without warning, the young dark elf kissed her teeth at Fern and laid her head upon the bed once more.
“Nirin!” Petrin scolded as he threw an embarrassed glance at Fern. “We spoke about this.”
“No, you spoke about his, Petrin,” Nirin growled.
“Nirin!” barked a voice from beside Fern startling her for all she was worth. “Are you truly going to shame your husband before a stranger? I know I raised you better than that!”
“Where in the hells did you come from?” Fern gasped, undoing the lightning spell at her fingertips.
“Oh, she does that to everyone.” Petrin chuckled.
“Does she now?” Fern said as she glanced from Petrin to the woman and back again.
“Well, Nirin?” the woman demanded, her eyes firmly upon the sour-faced woman upon the bed.
Growling, Nirin rose, before holding Fern in a heartfelt glare.
“Welcome to our camp, friend Fern,” Nirin growled at last, then lowered her gaze as she sulked.
“Better,” the woman said, then turned to Petrin.
“Perhaps I should show our guest to her tent. She must be tired after her long journey.”
“Yes.” Petrin nodded, then turned to Fern. “You’re my guest, Fern, you may go where you please and see who you wish. None shall bar your way.”
Smiling, Fern nodded. “Generous as ever.”
Petrin grinned. “For you, always.”
Then, he turned to the dark-elven woman standing beside Fern.
“Show her to her tent please, Seleka,” Petrin said. “Then, have a bath drawn for her and a meal set.”
“Oh, you needn’t–“
“Please, Fern,” Petrin interjected. “You needn’t have come all this way to help us. It’s the least I can do.”
Taking a deep breath, Fern let it out slowly, then turned to Nirin.
“I wish everyone thought the same way you did.”
Nirin glared at the mage with such deep venom, just as Petrin grinned and turned to his beloved. But, as Nirin moved to speak, her gaze chanced upon Seleka’s, and she fell silent once more.
“This way, please,” Seleka said, then turned to leave.
As the pair left the tent, a heavy silence fell upon the pair, but it didn’t last.
“I take it you hate me too, then?” Fern asked.
“No,” Seleka replied. “Must I?”
Taking a deep breath, Fern shook her head and sighed.
“I don’t blame her though,” the mage added. “I’d hate me too. I made you all a promise. It could’ve stopped this, stopped your nightmare.”
“So, why didn’t you keep it?”
“I tried!” Fern cried. “You think I want to see you all here? You think I wanted to watch Petrin grow up so fast? You truly think I wanted any of this?”
Taking a deep breath, Seleka stood tall as she let it out slowly.
“I know you tried, child,” she said at last. “I know. And I know it was your mother who refused us aid, not you.”
Fern smiled. “Thank you. It does me good to hear not everyone here hates me.”
“Hrm.” Seleka smiled, then continued her pace.
“Here we are,” the dark-elven woman said as they stood before a smaller tent. “I shall be along when your bath is ready.”
“Thank you,” Fern replied, then moved to enter.
“Oh, by the bye,” Seleka added as Fern reached for the tent’s flap. “I know Petrin said you may go where you will. But don’t. At least not without me.”
“Why not?” Fern frowned.
“When we dark elves hate someone as much as my daughter hates you we tend to…take matters into our own hands.”
“Ah.” Fern sighed. “Of course you do. And she isn’t the only one, is she?”
“No.” The woman shook her head. Then, she smiled. “Do not fear. So long as I am with you, none shall harm you.”
Then, with a slight bow, the woman left.
“You still think this was a good idea, Fern?” Fern sighed, and shaking her head once more, turned and entered her tent.
Sitting at his desk, Marin rested his head back as he drew a deep breath upon the pipe between his teeth. It had been a long day, and it had been an age since he’d indulged, two very good reasons for indulging once more.
Just then, there came a knock at the door.
“Come,” he said, his gaze upon the ceiling still.
“Oh, gods,” came a voice from the door, “not that vile thing again.”
Choking, Marin sprang to his feet as his eyes fell upon his Matriarch.
“Matriarch,” he coughed. “I was unaware you’d returned.”
“Evidently,” she said as she fanned her face.
“Forgive me,” Marin said as his cheeks reddened, “it’s been a tiring day, and I thought–”
“Where’s my daughter, Marin?”
Stopping, Marin’s brow furrowed. “Matriarch?”
“My daughter,” Alanis replied as she wandered closer. “You do remember who my daughter is, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.” Marin smiled.
“Good. Nobody seems to know her whereabouts. I’m hoping you do.”
“Ah, yes, well…uhm…”
“I’m afraid we had a bit of a…fight a few weeks past.”
Rolling her eyes, the Matriarch sighed. “What did she do this time?”
“Well, uhm…there’s no easy way to say this, Matriarch–”
“Ah, of course. Uhm…Fern…professed her love for me and I–”
“She did what?”
“She professed her love for me and–”
“Ha!” the Matriarch cried, grinning from ear to ear. “About time that girl said something! Finally found her voice, did she?”
“Yes, precisely. It was…forgive me, what?”
With her grin firmly in place, the Matriarch stared at the Archmage, but as time wore on and Marin’s face slowly whitened, Alanis’s grin faded.
“You’re lying,” she said at last.
“I…” Marin began, but his mind was too muddled to form words.
Soon, it was the Matriarch’s turn for her blood to drain from her face.
“Oh, my dear gods,” she said at last, staring deep into the ether. “That bastard was right.”
“Matriarch?” Marin said.
“She’s gone to Fairhaven, hasn’t she?” the Matriarch replied, returning her gaze to the mage before her.
“Oh no, Matriarch, she–”
“Don’t lie to be, boy!” the Matriarch snapped.
Marin knew not what to say.
“Meridan sent word. His agents in Fairhaven saw a woman resembling Fern parleying with some merchants to hire their ship. The same agents saw a dark elf milling about not far from her, one who resembled one of Petrin’s royal guards.”
“Oh, gods,” Marin gasped, his eyes wide. “Will Meridan mobilise?”
“What in the hells kind of question is that!” the Matriarch thundered. “He already has!”
“Then, we must get her out of there!”
“Yes,” the Matriarch nodded as she reached for the door’s handle. “We are. But know this, Marin, I am greatly disappointed in you. Fern I can understand, she’s always been driven by her heart. But you, I expected more.”
Then, without waiting for a response, the seething Matriarch flung the door open and marched out.
“Oh my gods,” Marin said, his gaze lowered. “Fern…”
“Well, are you coming?” barked the Matriarch from outside.
“On my way, Matriarch!” Marin cried, then hurried after her.
Sitting upon a dockyard crate, Fern stared at the pair by the water. It was clear for all to see that the bond between them was strong indeed, and as Fern watched Nirin place her head upon her beloved’s shoulder, she felt once more an ache in her heart that had been her one constant companion since she read Petrin’s letter all those weeks ago at the Tower.
Taking a deep breath, she sighed as a soft smile parted her lips.
“What’s his name?”
Gasping, turned to stare behind her, a hand darting to her chest.
“Good gods, woman,” Fern sighed once Seleka’s face came into view, “must you do that?”
Smiling, Seleka shrugged, then turned her gaze where Fern’s once was.
“What’s his name?” she repeated as she stared at Fern once more.
Shaking her, head, Fern smiled at the dark elf. “That obvious, is it?”
Shrugging once more, Seleka wandered over to the mage and sat beside her, then turned her gaze to her daughter once more.
“You keep staring at my daughter with envy,” she said at last. “The kind of envy a woman would know.”
Then, she turned to Fern.
Sighing, Fern stared at the couple in the distance. “His name is Marin. And I’ve known him since childhood.”
“And he knows not how you feel.”
Chuckling, Fern turned to the woman seated beside her. “What am I, an open book?”
Fern sighed and shook her head. “No, he knows nothing.”
“And you’ve never told him.”
“No,” Fern replied, her gaze upon Nirin and her beloved once more. “I thought it wasn’t appropriate. My mother has been grooming him to be my Magister, when I become Matriarch.”
“He doesn’t deserve it?”
“Oh, he deserves it alright. He’s the reason I became Archmage.”
Fern grinned. “He schooled me in the arcane, even as he himself was learning. Our tutors weren’t the best, I struggled to understand anything they taught me, but him…he made the most complicated spell seem like you were simply drawing a breath. He’s a brilliant mind, Seleka, sharper than any I’ve ever known.”
“Sounds like you care for him deeply.”
Grinning still, Fern nodded. “I do.”
“So, is it forbidden to love your Magister?”
“No,” Fern shook her head, “not forbidden, just…it’s never quite turned out for the best.”
“I see…” Seleka said, then turned her gaze forward.
“But…?” she added after a spell.
“But…what?” Fern frowned as she turned to the woman.
Turning to her, the dark elf stared, a smile dancing on her lips.
“Dear gods, I am an open book, aren’t I?”
The dark elf shrugged once more, her gaze unwavering.
Sighing, Fern shook her head and turned to the couple once more. “But your daughter is not from any noble House, and yet there she is, sitting with the one who stole her heart.”
“So, you would do the same,” Seleka replied. “Throw caution to the wind.”
“Yes.” Fern nodded as she turned to the woman beside her once more. “Soon as I return, I intend to drag that thick-skulled lummox into a room, lock the door and not let him out till he hears all I have to say.”
Seleka laughed at this, a laughter that spread to Fern.
“You know, this is the first time I’ve ever heard you laugh,” Fern said at last.
“Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to…respect you.”
“Mhm.” Seleka nodded. “It took a lot to stay my hand from your throat when I first saw you. Not because I blame you for what happened, but because I wanted to hurt your mother for what she did.”
“What?” Fern cried.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that, can you blame me?”
Fern couldn’t, and it showed.
“But now,” Seleka sighed, “seeing how driven you’ve been in getting us to safety, I know I was wrong.”
“Uh,” Fern said as her cheeks reddened. “What does one say to something like that?”
Smiling, Fern nodded.
“Alright,” she said, then turned her gaze forward.
“Does this mean Nirin–” Fern began.
“Oh no, she still hates you,” Seleka replied. “Though possibly not as much as before.”
“I shall call that a win, then.” Fern grinned.
“Good idea,” Seleka replied, grinning herself.
Then, without warning, Seleka leapt to her feet as her hands flew to daggers unseen.
“Hunh?” Fern said as she turned to where the dark elf glared.
It was one of the merchants.
“Ah!” Fern grinned as she hopped to her feet. “All set, are we?”
The merchant grinned. “The shop is docked and provisions are aboard. If you’ll follow me.”
“Excellent!” Fern cried, then turned to Seleka.
“I’ll get the others,” Seleka said.
“Actually,” the merchant said, “there is an issue I need Mistress Fern to resolve first, then–”
“Oh, it’s alright,” Fern interjected. “The others can come.”
“But what?” Seleka frowned.
The merchant smiled. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
The two women glanced at each other, then stared at the merchant a spell.
“I’ll get the others,” Seleka repeated, then headed for her daughter and her lord.
It wasn’t long before they all set off behind the merchant, with Seleka as ever at the fore, Fern behind her and the loving pair behind the mage, with the few royal guards that came along arrayed about them all, and as the ship came into view, the party’s mood lifted no end.
“So, it’s almost over,” Nirin said, her hand within Petrin’s
“Yes,” Petrin replied, his smile wide, “and all thanks to Fern.”
“Yes, Fern,” Nirin growl.
“Nirin…” Seleka warned.
Laughing, Fern shook her head. “It’s quite alright. I’ve grown accustomed to Nirin hating the sight of me.”
Chuckling, Seleka shook her head. “You do say the damnedest things, sometimes.”
Then, they reached the pier, and the merchant ship that would carry the dark elves to safety.
“I suppose this is it, then,” Fern said, a deep sigh escaping her lips.
Turning to her, Seleka smiled and hugged the mage close.
“Live well, my young friend,” she said as they part.
“Live free, my terrifying friend,” Fern replied.
Giggling, Seleka shook her head and stepped aside, and as she did so, Fern turned to Petrin as her smile widened.
“So, I suppose this is it, then,” Petrin said.
“I suppose,” Fern replied.
“I’ll never see you again, will I?”
Fern smiled. “Not as a friend, no.”
Taking a deep breath, the young dark elf lord wandered forth and hugged Fern for all he was worth.
“You’re a better Matriarch than your mother,” he said, then parted and returned to Nirin’s side.
Taking a deep breath, Fern wiped a single tear from her eye, then turned to Nirin.
Nirin stared in silence, though the usual barb within her gaze was absent.
Shaking her head, Fern sighed. “I shall miss you, Nirin Derigurn of House Derigurn.”
Still, Nirin kept her peace.
“And she shall miss you too, Fern,” Seleka said. “Even if she’s too proud to admit it.”
Taking a deep breath, the mage let it out slowly as she stepped back.
“Well,” she said, “I’d best let you board.”
“Yes,” the merchant standing by the the boarding plank said. “Sooner we’re away the better.”
And so, with one last heartfelt wave, the young mage turned and left her friends as they began walking up the boarding plank.
As she reached the buildings by the pier, however, movement within the nearby shadows startled her, but as she turned to face this new threat square, the young mage stopped and stared, mouth agape as she saw who it was.
“Mother?” she said, her gaze upon her mother’s face.
Then, she saw Marin step out from the shadows too.
“What’re you…” she began. But then her eyes went wide as her mind screamed the true meaning of their presence to her.
“Fern, come here!” Marin hissed. “Quickly!”
“No…” Fern shook her head as she backed away. “What did you do?”
“Fern!” the Matriarch snapped. “Come here!”
“No…”Fern repeated, then spun about and raced forth.
“Fern!” Marin cried, and hurried after her.
“Get away from there!” Fern yelled as she ran.” It’s an ambush!”
But she was too late, for barely had the words left her lips than row after row of archers appeared upon the merchant ship, bows at the ready, and as the dark elves stopped, the archers raised their bows, pulled back their arrows, and released them.
It was Seleka who death came for first, for she was at the fore, the wizened warrior having just enough time to shield her lord and her daughter with her body. But the arrows kept coming, and as they rained upon the party, the dark elves fell one after another, some into the waters below, like Seleka before them, others crumpling onto the plank.
And through it all, Fern ran, her tears running free as she watched them all fall.
But Fern couldn’t. Even as Marin’s words echoed in her ears, even as she heard her dear friend’s footsteps behind her, Fern couldn’t stop, leaping onto the plank and racing up it towards the slaughter. Then, as she reached the slain dark elves, the young mage fell to her knees. None stirred.
“Fern!” came the Matriarch’s voice from behind her. “Get back here this instant!”
Fern moved not one inch. She couldn’t stop it. She’d failed them.
Just then, the bodies stirred, and as Petrin’s lifeless body rose and rolled into the waters, Fern’s eyes went wide as she watched Nirin, blood-drenched and wide-eyed, rise from the chaos and stare about her.
“Nirin,” Fern breathed as she rose.
But the dark elf heard nothing, her eyes upon her fallen comrades.
“Nirin,” Fern repeated, her voice louder.
“Fern, get away from her!” came the Matriarch’s voice.
Raising her gaze, Fern watched as the archers raised their bows once more.
“Nirin!” Fern cried.
Then, Nirin pulled free a blade. It was a wicked-looking dagger, one whose edge pulsed with vile magic.
“Nirin, no!” Fern yelled, then lunged for the woman.
But in that moment, the young dark elf spun about, placed a hand upon Fern’s shoulder, and drove the dragger deep into the mage’s chest.
“This was your doing,” Nirin seethed as she pushed the dagger deeper, the vile magic within its blade corrupting Fern’s body within moments.
“No!” Marin screamed, and as Fern fell to her knees, the Archmage raised his hands and flung spell after spell at the dark elf, tearing at her flesh as he channelled all the pain, hate and rage coursing through him into his spells.
Then, as silence fell upon the pier, the heartbroken Archmage sank to his knees and wept, his gaze frozen upon the kneeling, lifeless body of his childhood friend.
Through it all, the Matriarch had stood in stunned silence as she’d watched her daughter die. Then, as the silence grew, she wandered up the boarding plank till she reached her daughter.
Going on her knees, she placed a hand upon Fern’s body.
“Fern?” she said, her eyes glistening.
In response, Fern’s body fell backwards upon the Matriarch, and as Alanis stared down at her daughter, the grieving mother raised her gaze to the sky and screamed with all her might.
Little Naeve stared at the haunting image before her as tears streamed down her cheeks, the pain of the scene tearing into her till at last, pushing the tome away, she flung herself unto the carpet and sobbed into her arms. Just then, the door quivered once again, spinning half-way once more, and as Naeve rose, she stared into the sombre face of her friend, Amala. Silence fell upon the room as the pair stared at each other, and as the silence grew, the weight of little Naeve’s gaze grew till it became a heated glare.
“Now, do you understand?” Amala said at last.
“Why did you make me read that?” Naeve replied, her voice quivering.
“Now, do you understand?”
“Understand what? Hunh?” Naeve cried. “That I’m going to get my own daughter killed?”
“Do you think Alanis woke up one morning and decided to see her daughter dead in her arms? Well, do you?”
Naeve fell silent.
“Had she known what it was going to cost her, I’d wager Alanis would never in a million years even think of going against her word. But she didn’t, Naeve, and that’s the point. To her, nobody important was to die from her breaking her word, and that made it alright. But it’s never alright. Do you understand? It’s never alright.”
A charged silence fell upon the pair as the heat of little Naeve’s glare grew.
“Come,” Amala said, gesturing to the little girl. “Time for classes.”
“I’m nothing like Alanis,” little Naeve snarled.
“Then, keep your word.”
It was as if those words were like a fire in little Naeve’s heart, for upon hearing them, her face flushed with rage. Leaping to her feet, the little girl raced past Amala, her shoulder barging into the silver-haired woman as she passed.
“Hey!” Amala cried.
In response, little Naeve stopped and spun round, her face still flush and her gaze incandescent, and with a grunt, the little girl grasped hold of the bracelet upon her wrist and pulled it free before flinging it at Amala’s feet and racing from the room.
But Naeve was gone.
Sighing, Amala shook her head and knelt to pick up the bracelet.
“Well, that I wasn’t expecting,” she muttered as she rose.
Just then, the sound of hurried footsteps reached Amala’s ears, and turning, the silver-haired woman closed the hidden door behind her just as a familiar face appeared.
“What’re you doing here?” Amala frowned.
“What just happened here?” the woman at the door said as she entered. “I’ve not seen Naeve that livid since…I don’t even remember.”
“Matriarch, please,” came a voice from the corridor, “the delegates have already been kept waiting for quite some time as it is.”
“Naeve is fine,” Amala said just as the Matriarch spun to unleash a verbal torrent upon the utterer in the corridor.
“Amala, that girl is far from fine,” the woman replied as she turned to Amala, her worry plain. “What happened?”
Forcing a smile, Amala sighed. “She read about Fern.”
“Fern?” the Matriarch gasped. “So soon?”
“It’s alright,” Amala replied. “It’s all going according to plan.”
“Is that part of the plan too?” the Matriarch replied, pointing to the torn bracelet in Amala’s hand.
Amala moved to speak, but instead sighed as she smiled.
“Maybe I should go talk to her.”
“No,” Amala replied, her voice firm. “We had a deal, remember? You make the tome, I decide how it’s used.”
“No buts! We had a deal. Now, you go do your…matriarching…thing, and you let me worry about Naeve, alright?”
The Matriarch sighed.
“Fine,” she said at last, then turned to the door.
“You’d better not be bloody rolling your eyes at me behind that door, Nara,” the Matriarch barked as she marched toward the door, “or so help me I’ll…”
Shaking her head, Amala watched her friend leave, then lowered her gaze to the bracelet in her hand.
“Yeah,” she said at last. “She’ll be fine.”
Then, raising her gaze, she too headed for the door.