Slowly, Amala ran the grooming brush in her hand down the shoulder of the majestic stallion before her, her touch soft and her strokes gentle as the stallion’s soft snorts filled the air between strokes. It was simple tasks such as this that gave the elven woman her greatest pleasure, and as she worked her way down the stallion’s breast and back up to its back, her lips uttering hushed words in the ancient elven tongue, Amala glanced at the splintered stable door and upturned trough behind her and smiled.
“And they say you’re unruly,” she muttered, her gaze upon the stallion once more as her smile grew.
In response, the great beast snorted loudly and shook his head at Amala, and as her smile turned to a grin, Amala leant forward and resumed her whispers, her brush moving with a gentle rhythm across the stallion’s back, and before long, even the stallion’s gentle sorts were no more, his gaze in the ether as he savoured the attention Amala lavished upon him.
“You think he’d be mad if he realised you were telling him the recipe for lentil stew?” came a voice from the other side of the stallion.
“I was wondering when you’d say something,” she said. “And, it’s nice to see your Galiyen’s improving.”
“Eh,” the voice replied.
Stopping, Amala wandered over to the stallion’s head, and leaning past the beast, she smiled at the young girl seated upon the bales of hay on the other side.
“What?” Naeve demanded.
“You don’t have to be so modest, you know.”
“I wish I was,” Naeve sighed, “didn’t understand a lot of what you said.”
“And yet you knew it was lentil stew.”
Naeve shrugged. “When you’re using words like simmer, lentils, chop and stir, that sort of gives it away.”
Amala’s smile widened. “I suppose it does.” Then, she returned to her grooming task. “What brings you to the Tower Stables, anyhow?”
“Nothing,” the young girl replied.
The silver-haired woman’s hand froze as a soft frown twisted her lips. “Nothing?”
“Why, I need a reason to come here now?”
With her frown deepening, Amala stepped around the stallion, stopping once her gaze was upon the seated child.
“Naeve, you hate it here,” she said. “You’re always complaining of the smell.”
“Eh,” Naeve replied, shrugging once more, “the smell grows on you.”
Amala stared hard at the seated child, who smiled softly at her.
“Naeve, you’re not–” she began.
“Amala! Naeve!” came a cry from the Stable doors, drawing the gaze of the pair, and just about everyone else within the stables.
“Aeden?” Amala replied, her brow furrowed deep at the man. “What is it?”
“Come, quick!” the Archmage cried as he took a few steps forward, his eyes as wide as his grin. “There’s something you must see in the Central Hall! Hurry!”
“What is it?”
“Come! Come and see!”
Amala turned to her young friend, who turned to hold her gaze, the silver-haired woman’s confusion mirrored perfectly in the young girl’s eyes.
Turning as one, the pair hurried after the Archmage, who grinned and darted back the way he came.
“Wait!” Naeve cried.
“Come, Naeve,” Amala said, grasping the young girl’s hand as she spoke. “Let’s hurry.”
“What do you suppose it is?”
The silver-haired elf shook her head. “I have no idea, but if it’s enough to make Aeden this excited, I’m not sure whether to be elated or terrified.”
“Yeah,” Naeve muttered, nodding, “me neither.”
“Come,” Amala repeated, and as one, the pair hurried forth
Stepping free of the portal stone, young Naeve’s gaze swiftly fell upon the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower.
“Mother?” Naeve frowned as she made her way towards her mother. “What’s going on, why’s…”
As her gaze fell upon the tear stains upon her mother’s cheeks, young Naeve froze, her heart climbing up her throat.
“Mother, you’ve been crying,” she said. “What–”
Those two words brought a sharp gasp to the young elf’s lips, and standing tall, she slowly turned about, her heart pleading for that which her mind screamed at her to be true. Then, her eyes fell at last upon the elf behind her, one who stood with open arms and a beaming smile, and in that instant, before even her thoughts were formed, young Naeve lunged at the man, flinging her arms about him and burying her face in his coat just as her tears began to run free.
“Good gods!” Amala’s voice rang out in the Central Hall, drawing young Naeve’s gaze.
“Father’s home!” the young girl cried. “Amala, Father’s home!” Then, she hugged her father once more.
“Hello, Amala,” the Patriarch said, smiling at the elf.
“But how did…” Amala began, then turned to the Matriarch. “Did you know?”
“It was a surprise,” the Patriarch said before his beloved could draw breath.
“Too bloody right it was a surprise!” the Matriarch added, sniffling as she spoke. “Almost gave me a bloody heart attack!”
“Well, you almost broke my back with the way you jumped at me, so I’d say we’re even.”
“Wait, are you calling me fat?”
“What? I would never–”
“He’s calling you fat, Mother,” Naeve interjected, the beaming child wiping her tears as she grinned at her mother.
“Hey!” the Patriarch cried, poking his daughter. “I just returned! Can you not spare me your little terror side till tomorrow, at least? Please?”
Turning to her father, the young child giggled, shrugged and hugged him once more.
“Come, Naeve,” the Matriarch said, coming to her beloved’s rescue, “your father needs rest, and food…”
“Oh, food!” the Patriarch cried. “Yes, please!”
“…and a bath.”
“Come, girl,” the Matriarch continued, suppressing a smile as she gently pulled her daughter aside. “You can help him unpack.”
“Oh!” Naeve replied, raising her gaze to her father. “Did you bring me something?”
The Patriarch smiled and shrugged.
“Yes!” Naeve hissed, then sped towards the portal stone, and with but a word, was gone from sight.
“Oh, gods,” the Matriarch sighed, “she’s going to make a bloody mess up there.”
“In that case,” the Patriarch replied, slipping a hand into her beloved’s, “perhaps we should hurry after her.”
And then, with a grin, the pair headed over to the portal stone and after their daughter.
As they left, a collective sigh filled the air as the warmth of the smiles of those within the Central Hall filled the room. But Amala was not smiling, for her gaze was upon a face she’d wished she’d never see again, and as the elf that was the source of Amala’s rage slithered into the shadows, the snarling elf clenched her fists tight and fought to bring her ire to heel before turning at last and wandering over to the portal stone, and, with but a word, was gone from sight.
Rising up to her elbow upon her bed, Amala frowned as she turned to the door.
The knock came again.
“Who is it?” she called out.
“It’s me,” the Matriarch’s voice echoed.
The silver-haired woman sat tall, her frown deepened, then raised a hand and undid the enchantment holding the door locked.
“It’s open,” she soon added.
The door swung open in response as the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower wandered in.
“Mh!” the Matriarch gasped. “Jasmine?”
Amala smiled and nodded as she lowered her feet to the floor.
“I thought you hated having scents in here,” the Matriarch said as she closed the door behind her.
The seated woman shrugged, then gestured at the enchanted candle in the far corner.
“Aeden gifted it to me” she said. “The scent has grown on me.”
“Oh, did he?” the Matriarch replied, her tone unmistakable.
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Amala demanded. “And why are you here? I’d have expected you and that handsome man of yours to be too busy to leave your bed chamber.”
“Oh, don’t you worry, I fully intend for us to be too busy to leave our bed chamber for the rest of the night. And tomorrow morning…and maybe even all through tomorrow as well.”
Amala rolled her eyes at the woman before her, shaking her head as she lay down on her bed once more.
“So, why are you here, then?” she demanded.
The Matriarch’s smile began to fade as she breathed deep and sighed.
“You saw her, didn’t you?” the Matriarch said.
Once more, Amala rose from her bed, a frown upon her lips as she turned to her Matriarch.
“You truly didn’t know they were returning today?” she asked.
The Matriarch shook her head. “No. I was expecting them to be gone for at least another three months.”
“So how come they’re here?”
The Matriarch shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You think he caved to the barons?”
The Matriarch held the seated woman in a pointed stare, and before long, the silver-haired woman smiled.
“Yeah.” Amala nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. He’d rather slit his own throat than admit defeat.”
“And yet, he’s here.” The Matriarch sighed.
“Did he say what happened?”
“That’s the really troubling bit. He said Fellspire won the barons over last week. Convinced them to accept my terms, which they did. In full. With no grumbling or any more requests for changes.”
The Matriarch nodded. “I know. Bugger if I can explain it.”
Amala stared hard at her Matriarch, then turned her gaze to the ether.
“I don’t know what she did, or how she–” the Matriarch continued.
“What terms did they accept?” Amala interjected, turning to her Matriarch once more.
“The one you first drafted.”
Amala’s eyes went wide at this.
Once more, the Matriarch nodded.
“That version was all but asking for their souls! I only put it together so they’d be more agreeable to what you really wanted.”
“And they excepted it? All of it?”
Once again, the Matriarch nodded. “All of it.”
“Then, she must’ve promised them something,” Amala replied, shaking her head. “Something of great value. Nothing else makes sense.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” the Matriarch replied.
“And,” the Matriarch sighed, “I’m stumped.”
“Hrm,” Amala muttered, her gaze drifting to the ether once more.
The Matriarch stared at her friend in silence for a spell then spoke up once more.
“I’ve come to ask a favour, though, Amala,” she said at last
“Hrm?” Amala frowned, turning to her Matriarch.
“I’ve got another posting lined up for Fellspire, but it won’t start for another seven weeks or so.”
“Where are you sending her?”
The Matriarch smiled. “The Aden’ari orcs have kicked off their nonsense again.”
“Woah,” Amala gasped, “you’re sending her there?”
“Mhm.” The Matriarch nodded.
“She will not last a week over there.”
“Oh, I know that, and you know that, but she doesn’t.”
“Except she’ll turn tail and run home, and we’ll be right back where we started.”
The Matriarch’s smile grew at this. “You really think that woman’s pride will allow her come back here with her tail between her legs?”
Amala couldn’t help but smile at this.
“True,” she replied, nodding. Then, her smile dimmed. “Is it wise to send her so far away without knowing what she’s offered the barons, though?”
“Maybe, maybe not.” The Matriarch sighed. “But it’ll at least put a big enough dent in her plans to give us time to work out what the bloody hells she’s up to.”
Amala’s smile returned at this. “Hopefully.”
“How long is this posting for, then?”
The Matriarch’s smile returned at this. “Given how frequently they cause trouble, I’m going to need someone posted there permanently.”
“Oh, do you now…?” Amala replied, her smile growing.
“Mhm.” The Matriarch nodded
“A wise move.”
“Isn’t it just?”
“Heh.” Amala grinned. But then, her grin faded as she sat tall. “So, what’s the boon you need from me?”
At this, the Matriarch’s own smile faded, and as it did so, she sighed.
“You’ve already got a scheme going, haven’t you? To take care of her.”
Amala held her peace at this, choosing instead to hold her Matriarch with the calmest of stares.
The Matriarch nodded. “Of course you do. Please don’t.”
“I don’t intend to–”
“Right now everyone thinks it’s their Patriarch who made the Highland Barons bend over backwards for us, but once word gets out it’s Fellspire, she’ll become everyone’s new best friend. And if something were to happen to her then, well… There’ll be a lot of questions from a lot of people, some of which will lead to poking and prodding in places you and I really don’t want people poking and prodding in. So, please, leave her to me. Please.”
Amala stared at her Matriarch in silence for a spell longer, then sighed.
“Very well,” she said. “I’ll stay my hand.”
“Thank you.” The Matriarch smiled, then turned for the door.
“Oh!” she added as she clasped the door’s handle. “Would you mind looking after Naeve tomorrow?”
Amala frowned. “Why? Aeden isn’t tutoring her tomorrow?”
“Well, I might be giving him an order tomorrow to have a banquet prepared for day after, so…”
Amala stared hard at the woman before her, who winced in response.
“You want the Kitchens to prepare a banquet in a day.”
The Matriarch winced. “Yeah…”
“In one day.”
The Matriarch held peace, he gaze at her feet.
“Very well.” Amala sighed at last. “You are the Matriarch after all. But this one will cost you, though. Aeden and I had plans for tomorrow evening.”
The Matriarch grinned at her friend.
“Name your price,” she said as she opened the door, “but tell me tomorrow. As for right now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a certain man who has a lot of poking and prodding he needs to see to.”
“Hey!” Amala cried as the Matriarch left, shutting the door behind her.
“That woman…” The silver-haired woman sighed, then lay down once more.
As Amala made her way towards Naeve’s room, she couldn’t help but smile as the young girl’s voice drifted to her ears.
“Someone’s in a good mood,” she said as she hastened her steps.
But, as she reached the open door to her young friend’s room, the smiling elf paused and peered in, and what she witnessed widened her smile. Wandering in in silence, the silver-haired woman crept up to the wall opposite the open door, and, folding her arms, rested upon it and watched her dear little friend
There was clothing strewn all about the room, upon the bed, the table, the few chairs within, and even the floor, and in the midst of it all was young Naeve, humming and smiling as she danced between the clothes, picking each up in turn before turning to her mirror, holding the clothing to her frame and admiring herself, then discarding it and dancing over to another piece of clothing.
“Tirinel would be proud of you, you know,” Amala said at last.
With a sharp cry, Naeve spun about, her eyes wide as a hand flew to her chest.
“Amala!” she shrieked, flinging the clothing in her hand at the elf. “Don’t bloody do that!”
Amala giggled in response before closing the door and stepping forth to pick up the hurled clothing.
“Forgive me,” she said as she wandered over to the bed. “I couldn’t resist.”
“Ugh!” Naeve cried as Amala flung the clothing upon the bed.
“What’s all this anyhow?” Amala added, carrying her gaze about the strewn clothings once more.
“Well, if you must know,” Naeve replied, suppressing a smile as she wandered over to the bed, “I’m trying to find the perfect matching set for the banquet tomorrow.”
Amala frowned at the young girl. “You know about that?”
“How? The Tower’s only just awaking.”
The young girl grinned at her friend. “Mother told me last night.”
“Ah,” Amala replied, nodding. “Me too.”
“Yeah,” the young girl nodded, “she said she needed to talk to you about something.”
“And she did,” Amala sighed. Then, her gaze drifted to the strewn clothing once more. “You have an attire, then?”
“No,” Naeve replied, shaking her head as she sighed. “I have a few good ideas, but just can’t make up my mind.”
“Would you like mythoughts?”
“Oh, yes please!” Naeve replied with an eager nod.
“Very well, then,” Amala smiled as she made space upon the bed and sat. “Show me your ideas.”
“Right!” Naeve cried, then began rummaging through the clothes once more.
“Or, how about,” Amala said, pointing to the jacket in Naeve’s hand, “that jacket…”
Then, she turned and pointed to the dress lying across the back of Naeve’s reading chair “…with that dress…”
Then pointed to the shoes beneath Naeve’s reading table “…and those shoes?”
“Which ones?”Naeve asked, frowning. “The white ones?”
“No, white’s too bright, it’ll be at odds with the jacket. The gray ones will suit better.”
“Hrm…” Naeve muttered as her eyes darted from the shoes to the jacket and to the dress, then back again.
Then, she smiled and turned to Amala. “I like it.”
“Good.” Amala nodded, smiling.
The young girl giggled in response, then laid the jacket in her hand across the back of her reading chair before returning her gaze to her friend.
“So, what’re you wearing, then?” she asked.
Amala’s smile grew. “Oh, I have something truly special planned.”
“Mhm.” Amala nodded.
“What is it?”
The silver-haired woman shook her head. “You’ll have to wait till tomorrow.”
“Hey, that’s not fair! You know what I’m wearing!”
“I know, but still…”
“So rude,” Naeve growled before pulling a face at her friend, an act that earned her a chuckle from Amala.
Then, without warning, all mirth drained from the young girl’s face as a heart-rendering sadness filled her eyes.
“Did you know Mistress Fellspire’s back?” she asked.
Breathing deep, Amala nodded and sighed. “Yeah. I saw her in the Central Hall yesterday.”
The young girl nodded, then lowered her gaze.
“Did you know it was her who got the barons to agree to our terms?” Naeve soon added, staring at Amala once more.
Once more, Amala nodded. “You mother told me last night.”
Young Naeve nodded, then lowered her gaze once more.
“Naeve,” Amala said.
The young elf returned her gaze to her friend.
“What is it?”
The young girl fidgeted for a spell, but soon sighed. “I hate that woman, Amala, she’s a horrible person. But those barons were really trying to bleed us dry, and from what Father was saying, she really worked hard to turn them around, and I mean, really hard. So now I… A part of me thinks maybe I shouldn’t hate her. I mean, she’s a horrible person, yeah, but…if she can do what Father said she did, and all without him even asking her to, then maybe she’s not so rotten, you know?”
Then, the young girl shook her head and lowered her gaze once more. “I don’t know…”
Amala sat utterly still and stared in silence at her young friend as the Matriarch’s words from the night before echoed in her ears like a grave omen, till at last, breathing deep, she sat up and shoved the clothing near her further down the bed.
“Come,” Amala said, patting the cleared space beside her. “Sit.”
Naeve wandered over, a soft pout upon her lips. Then, as she sat, Amala pulled her close and hugged her tight.
“You, Naeve Earthchild, are a wonderfully warm-hearted person,” she soon said, resting her chin upon the young girl’s shoulder, her cheek against Naeve’s.
Naeve smiled in-spite of herself.
“To wish to care about someone even after they’ve treated you so horridly is an admirable trait, without a doubt.”
“You trying to make me blush?” The young girl giggled.
Raising her head, Naeve stared at her young friend, a smile upon her lips. “Is it working?”
“Mmh,” Naeve muttered, pondering the question. Then, she shook her head.
“Not yet,” she said, grinning, “but keep going.”
Amala’s smile grew at this.
“Well, what I was also going to say,” Amala began, but then her smile faded, “is, admirable though it is, it is a view that is fraught with pain.”
“What do you mean?” Naeve replied as her smile too began to fade.
“I mean, just because Fellspire would sacrifice so much for your father, that doesn’t mean she’ll do the same for you, me, or indeed anyone else in the Tower. Or even for the Tower itself.”
“Her desire to sacrifice so much for your father might be driven by a kindness in her neither of us knew she had, yes, but it might also have been driven by what she stood to gain.”
“What gain?” The young girl frowned. “The treaty benefits all of us, not just her.”
“Ah,” Naeve smiled, “but now, she’ll be lauded over as the one who made it all come to pass.”
“I see,” Naeve muttered. “Gods, why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you have a kind heart, my darling,” Amala replied.
“You mean I’m gullible, more like,” the young girl growled.
“No,” Amala said, her voice firm as she turned her young girl’s gaze to hers. “Not gullible, kind. But still, guard your heart, Naeve. There is much honour in seeing the good in people, yes, but guard your heart and never forget that not everyone will have the same noble heart as you.”
“Oh, don’t you worry,” the young girl snarled. “I’m never going to be that gullible again.”
“No,” Amala replied, shaking her head, “ don’t think like that.”
“Don’t let this woman sour your heart. There will be times when you meet people who do genuinely have some goodness in them that you’d overlooked. If you still choose to turn your back on them because this woman’s hardened your heart, that is far worse than anything she’s ever done to you. Be warm, be caring. Always look for the good in others, but don’t ever let that blind you. And guard your heart, always. Understand?”
The young girl stared at her friend in silence for a spell, but soon, a soft smile parted her lips.
“We haven’t done this in ages, you know,” she said.
“Sit and talk.”
“Yes we have! We talked yesterday, in the Stables.”
Naeve shook her head. “Not like this.”
“I don’t know, just sitting, talking. Neither of us rushing off somewhere to do something…”
Young Naeve giggled at this.
“And wasn’t Aeden your idea in the first place?”
The young girl smiled. “Oh, I’m not bitter, okay, just saying. I’ve missed this.”
Amala glared at her young friend for a spell, but soon sighed and smiled. “I’ve missed this too.”
In response, Naeve rested her head upon her dear friend, her smile growing as a comforting silence fell upon the pair.
“Did your mother tell you I’ll be looking after you for today?” Amala said at last.
“Yeah.” Naeve nodded as she raised her head.
So, what do you feel like doing?”
“Nothing,” Naeve replied before resting her head upon her friend once more.
Smiling, Amala shook her head and wrapped an arm about the young girl.
“Oh!” Naeve gasped, sitting up once more. “Can I read something? Haven’t done that in ages.”
Amala’s smile returned as she reached into her pocket. “I was wondering when you’d ask.”
Young Naeve giggled in response before staring at the seated woman’s hand as she pulled it free.
“So,” Amala said as the tome shimmered into view, “what do you feel like reading?”
“How about…a story about someone getting what they deserve?”
Amala stopped and held the young elf in a pointed stare.
Shaking her head, the silver-haired woman began turning the tome’s pages.
“How about,” she replied, “a tale about someone with a kindness in them that no-one else noticed?”
“Ugh!” Naeve cried, rolling her eyes as she did so. “Fine!”
Amala couldn’t help but smile. Then, she sat up as she reached the page she was after.
“Here we are!” she said, turning to Naeve.
“Hrm,” Naeve muttered, then shoved the clothings on the side of the bed they were on onto the other side before lying upon the bed and resting her head upon Amala’s lap, and as she reached for the tome, the seated elf placed a hand upon the young child’s head and began stroking her hair.
“Mezrah,” Naeve muttered, then turned the page and began to read.
As the wind blew through the trees, the elven mage stood stock still and closed her eyes as she opened her arms and opened her senses, and as she stood still, she marvelled at the wind’s soft caress of her cheeks, the gentle rustles from the trees about her, and the sharp smell of burnt wood and singed grass that stung her nostrils. Then, breathing deep, she let out a long sigh, opened her eyes and nodded once,
Within moments, a loud groan filled the air, the source, something large hurtling towards the mage from above. Falling to a crouch, the mage called forth a wind blade and flung it skyward at the large trunk bearing down upon her, slicing it clean in half before calling forth a second blade to slice through the trunk once more, the four quarters slamming into the earth about her as she slowly rose, before falling away from her. Then, the ground beneath her feet began to quiver.
Harnessing the power of the element wind, the mage leapt skywards as rows of wooden spike erupted from the earth beneath her, their sharpened tips gleaming in the sun, and with a smug smile, the mage cleared her mind and harnessed the power of the frozen element, calling forth a solid block of ice with which to smash the spikes into oblivion. But just as she was about to unleash her spell, another groan filled the air, this time coming from behind her.
In haste, the mage undid her spell, calling forth instead a shield of pure obsidian as she turned to face the new threat. But she was too slow, the trunk was already upon her, and gritting her teeth, she steeled herself for the blow that soon followed, and as the great trunk slammed against her, the mage’s shield shattered in an instant, the blow flinging the winded elf across the forest clearing and towards the trees on the other side. Then, the forest was filled once more with a new sound, this time that of a whip crack.
Gritting her teeth still, the mage turned her gaze to what lay behind her, her eyes going wide as she watched a wooden spear hurtle towards her, its girth larger than her head, and without pause for thought, she threw forth a wind vine at the spear, the vine latching upon the spear’s tip and sending it earthwards, and as she sailed past the grounded spear, the mage grasped it tight and pulled herself close before hugging it tight as she fought for breath. Then, the forest was filled once again with a new sound, a long stream of soft thuds.
But the mage knew what would come next, and letting go of the spear, she drew upon the might of the infernal element to call forth a flaming sphere about her, pouring all her arcane might into it as she fell to the ground, the sphere cushioning her fall as it reduced each and every wooden dart that flew at her to ash within moment of them touching the sphere’s edge. Then, with a roar, the mage unleashed the sphere, its edges rushing outwards and searing all it touched before engulfing the clearing’s surroundings in a wall of flames.
Rising, the mage smiled, breathed deep, raised her gaze skywards and a hand to the heavens, and breathing out slowly, she called forth a sphere of freezing mist, one that soon broke apart and spread to the flames, smothering them out of existence. Then, the clearing was filled once more with a new sound, that of an elf yelping and running as his robe burned, and as a smile parted the mage’s lips, she watched as her dear friend ran into the clearing, the back of his robe ablaze.
“Hold still, you big child,” she said, calling forth a freezing gust to douse the flames.
“You could’ve killed me, you know!” the elf cried.
“Yeah, well,” the mage shrugged, “I did warn you to stay back.”
“And how in the hells am I supposed to trigger the traps and stay back, hunh? You tell me that!”
The mage’ smile grew. “Apologies.”
“It’s not funny, Mezrah!”
At last, the mage forced the smile from her lips.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Huffing, the elf felt the back of his robe, but as he did so, his face fell.
“It’s ruined,” he said. “I only got this one last week, and already, you’ve ruined it.”
“I apologised, didn’t I?”
“Bah!” the mage growled, then trundled towards the edge of the clearing.
Shaking her head, the mage followed, walking on in silence till the pair reached a tree stump with a large bag upon it.
“So, how was it this time, then?” the elf asked as he opened the bag.
“Much better,” the mage replied, nodding.
“Yeah?” the elf asked as he pulled free a flask and threw it at the mage.
“Yeah,” the mage replied, plucking the flask from the air and opening it. “That second trunk especially. I wasn’t expecting that one.”
“Yeah?” the elf said, smiling.
“Yeah.” The mage nodded a she took gulp from the flask.
The elf’s smile grew for a spell, but it soon swiftly faded as his gaze darkened greatly.
“Well, you would’ve seen more surprises if you hadn’t burnt everything to the bloody ground!”
“That’s cheating, you know.”
“That is not cheating!”
“It’s not! It’s expediency!”
“Like hells it is!”
“Oh, hush, you!” the mage snapped before raising the flask to her lips once more.
The elf glowered for a spell, then returned his gaze to the bag.
“Cheating…” he growled as he pulled free a pouch and shook it. Then, his frown returned.
“What?” the mage said. “Running low?”
“Yeah.” The elf nodded, opening the pouch. “I think I have enough to replant the clearing… twice more. No more than that, I think.” Then, he turned to his friend. “Have you heard from your nephew?”
The mage shook her head as she offered the flask to her friend. “Not yet.”
The elf sighed. “What’s taking him so bloody long?”
“He’s a rogue, Belen, not a merchant. He simply can’t wander into a store and ask for this stuff, you know.”
“I know, I know,” the elf named Belen said, then sighed. “Though I do wish he’d hurry, I’m running out of things each day.”
“He’ll let me know when he has new stock, don’t worry,” the mage replied, then offered the flask once more.
“And I do wish you’d stop burning everything down,” the elf growled. “It takes forever to regrow that clearing.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll do well enough,” the mage replied, then offered the flask once again.
“Oh,” Belen replied, then took the offered flask before taking a swig himself.
“Well, then.” Mezrah sighed, pushing the bag to the side before sitting upon the stump.
The elf growled at his friend before dropping the flask into the bag and trundling off to the regrow the clearing and reset his traps.
“And make them more surprising this time!” the mage yelled at the receding elf, who responded with a string of curses that brought a smile to the seated mage’s lips.
Then, with a sigh, the seated mage rested against the bag, closed her eyes and opened her senses once more.
Walking through the grand doors of the Shimmering Tower, the Archmage Mezrah Earthchild sighed as she wandered down the corridor, her dear friend by her side. As they walked, the mage’s eyes were forward, oblivious to the sneers and silent jeers of those they passed. But as they neared the Central Hall, they slowed, for their way was blocked by a band of Archmages huddled together and giggling amongst themselves.
“You’re in our way,” Mezrah said, coming to a halt.
Hushed whispers drifted through the group. Then the one closest to Mezrah, whose back was to her, sniffed loudly.
Taking a deep breath, Mezrah sighed and stood tall.
“You are in our way,” she said, her voice echoing about them.
Once more the mage before Mezrah sniffed, then raised his gaze, a confused frown upon his lips.
“What’s that…?” he said, sniffing once more.
“Oh!” the elf gasped as his gaze fell at last on Mezrah. “Apologies, Archmage, I didn’t see you there.”
His words drew forth another ripple of giggles.
Mezrah held the smiling mage with a tired smile, then shook her head.
“Move,” she said.
The elf sniffed once more. “Pardon?”
His companions’ giggles range out once again.
“Are you deaf, Duran?” the mage beside Mezrah snarled. “She said move!”
“Watch your tone, Wood-Singer,” the mage snarled.
“Are you threatening him?” Mezrah asked, her tone calm and her smile soft.
The elf sniffed once more, a deep frown upon his lips.
“Forgive me, Archmage,” he said, “but there’s this unbearable stench that–”
“Allow me fix that for you,” Mezrah interjected, then leant forward and breathed into the elf’s face, uttering a single word of arcane as she did so.
Then, as she stepped back, the elf’s eyes went wide as his hands went to this throat and his lips began to turn blue.
“Duran, what is it?” one within the group said, her worry plain.
“Oh, I’ve fixed this smell issue of his,” Mezrah said. “He can’t smell anything right now. Though, sadly, he can’t breathe either”
“What?” the whole group cried.
“Mhm.” Mezrah nodded as the elf named Duran began clawing at his throat, his gaze filled with rage and terror in equal measure.
“You see,” Mezrah continued, “you fools aren’t the first to use that stupid half-elves stink to the high heavens insult, and you won’t be the last, but dear gods, you are by far and away the stupidest so far. I mean, are you truly so stupid as to think because you’re now appointed as Archmages, you’re somehow my equal? I may be half human, but you are still beneath me. You are all still beneath me, and if you think otherwise, by all means, challenge me. I will happily rend you a new arse hole whenever you wish. But don’t you ever, in your pathetic, miserable lives, speak poorly to Belen again. If you do, I will hurt you.”
Then, she turned to the elf writhing upon the floor and snapped her fingers.
In that instant, the elf named Duran gasped for breath, coughing and spluttering as his friends pulled him to his feet.
“That one simple spell, and none of you could undo it…” Mezrah muttered. “No wonder you were all bottom of your classes.” Then, she stood tall. “You are still in our way.”
As one, the group parted, and with a smug smile, the Archmage and her friend stepped forth.
“Look at them,” Belen said after a spell, his gaze behind him, “scurrying like rats.”
Mezrah smiled. “They always do.”
“They’re probably off to whine to their friends now.”
“No.” Mezrah shook her head. “More than likely, they’re off to whine to my sister.”
“Ah, yeah,” Belen replied, his face long as he turned his gaze forward, “you’re probably right.”
Mezrah smiled at this, turning to her friend as she did so. “You make it sound like it’s you she’ll be yelling at.”
“Well, I don’t like it when you two fight.”
“We don’t fight, Belen. She shouts, I ignore her, and when she’s done, I carry on.”
“Still, I don’t like it.”
Mezrah’s smile grew. “And that’s one of the many reasons I’m proud to call you friend.”
“What?” Belen frowned, turning to his friend. “That I don’t like seeing you and your sister fight?”
“Mhm.” Mezrah nodded. “That, and, even after all these many years, it still bothers you when I am insulted for what I am.”
“It doesn’t bother me that much,” Belen replied, his tone softer than before. “It’s just, well…it irks me when those freshly raised to Archmage behave as if their new rank gives them leave to behave like such morons, that’s all.”
“Well, be that as it may…” Mezrah began, but then a commotion from behind the pair silence the elf and as one, the pair turned, their brows furrowed deep.
“What’s happened?” Belen asked, his gaze upon the throng of mages rushing into the Central Hall.
“I don’t know,” Mezrah replied, shaking her head.
But then, the friends’ gazes fell upon the pair at the centre of the throng. A man and a woman, both with faces greatly whitened, both with gazes deeply haunted, and as the friends stared, they watched as the throng shepherded them down one of the Central Hall’s exits.
“Hold, isn’t that Anthil and Elegra?” Mezrah said, her brow furrowed deep as she turned to her companion.
“Yeah.” Belen nodded the confusion in his gaze mirroring Mezrah’s as he turned to her.
“Didn’t they renounce the Tower last year?”
“Yeah.” Belen nodded before turning to the throng.
“What in the world are they doing here, then?”
“I don’t know.”
With her frown growing, Mezrah turned to the throng as it worked its way down the corridor.
“Looks like they’re headed for one of the greeting rooms,” she muttered.
“More like the Ceremonial Hall,” Belen replied.
“Let’s go see,” Mezrah said, then hurried forth, her friend in tow.
Seated upon her customary seat within the Shimmering Tower’s Ceremonial Hall, the Matriarch Aelanna Earthchild watched the crowd pour into the Hall, her gaze carrying slowly about the faces.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this here!” the mage seated to her right growled beneath his breath. “That cowardly bastard turned his back on us for human coin!”
“I know, Eldar,” the Matriarch soothed as she forced a smile, her gaze upon the crowd still, “I know. But with so many pleading for this hearing, we don’t have much choice.”
“He’d better not be expecting us to allow him back into our midst after all this time.”
“Oh, but I hope he does,” the Matriarch replied, her smile widening and warming. “It would be such good fun to dash his hopes in public.”
“Yes, well, you might enjoy it, but I would like nothing more to do with him.”
“Yes, well…hold, here he comes.”
At those words, the pair sat tall as the sea of elves parted and an elven couple wandered forth to the centre of the Ceremonial Hall before going on one knee as one, their heads bowed before the Matriarch.
“Rise, friends,” the Matriarch said, her voice carrying far and silencing the crowd.
Then, as the pair rose, the Matriarch turned to the woman by Anthil’s side, and her smile returned.
“It’s good to see you again, Elegra,” she said.
The elven woman smiled, though it was clear her smile was forced. “It’s good to see you too.”
The Matriarch’s smile widened as she held the woman’s gaze for a spell, then she turned to the man beside her.
“It would appear you still have a great many friends here, Anthil,” the Matriarch continued. “So many voices rose in your favour when I received your request to be heard.”
The elf named Anthil smiled and bowed. “You’re too kind, Matriarch. And, to receive me in the Ceremonial Hall is an honour I do not deserve.”
“Oh, nonsense, Anthil! Your friends made it quite clear this was a matter of great import, and what better place to discuss such matters than in our grandest hall.”
“And what better place to make a bloody fool of you,” the elf name Eldar muttered.
Then, the man cleared his throat. “So, Anthil. What brings you back into our midst?”
The elf bowed once more.
“Magister,” he said, then breathed deep as he straightened. “I bring ill news. I…my family has suffered a great tragedy and…”
As the elf spoke, a great commotion erupted near the door, and as all eyes turned to the door, all watched as the Archmage Mezrah Earthchild elbowed her way to the fore, the Wood-Singer Belen Stormrider by her side. The Matriarch glared in silence at her sister for a spell, then forced a smile and turned to the Anthil once more.
“Pray, continue,” she said.
“I…yes,” Anthil said, then breathed deep and stood tall. “I bear ill news, Matriarch, the gravest a father an bear. My son, Taernum, he’s been taken.”
“Taken?” the Matriarch said, frowning as a wave of murmurs flowed through the crowd. “What do you mean, taken?”
“We were returning from a banquet, Matriarch,” the elven woman Elegra began, “Taernum and I. Anthil had stayed home to work. We were ambushed, and we…I… I don’t know how many they were, but…uhm…we fought back and…uhm. I…uhm…”
Slipping a hand into his wife’s as her eyes began to glisten, Anthil smiled at the woman and turned to the Matriarch once more.
“They were ambushed, Matriarch, and their ambushers took Taernum. They tried to take Elegra too, but she fought them off.”
“Who’s they?” Aelanna demanded.
“They call themselves The Red Hand. Bandits. One of the worst in Greyhurst.”
The Matriarch’s frowned at this. “If you know who they are, why not entreat your king to rescue you son?”
“Because they’ll kill him!” Elegra cried. “Every time they’ve tried to rescue someone from The Red Hand, The Red Hand’s killed them and disappeared into the night!”
The Matriarch frowned. “That’s what your king said?”
The woman nodded.
“So, what, you wish us to rescue him? I fear I cannot grant that, Elegra, we have no–”
“No, Matriarch,” Elegra interjected, shaking her head. “That is not what we ask.”
Elegra turned to her husband, her eyes pleading.
“We, uh…” Anthil began, staring deep into his wife’s eyes before turning to the Matriarch. “We’ve come to ask you for aid in paying the ransom.”
“How much?” Eldar asked.
“Five hundred thousand gold.”
Sharp gasps filled the air as a stunned silence filled the room.
“Human gold?” Aelanna asked at last, her lips agape.
“No,” Anthil shook his head, “elven.”
“Good gods,” Eldar breathed.
Then, the couple went on one knee once more.
“Please, Matriarch,” Anthil said, his voice pleading. “Ask whatever you wish of me. Anything! Even my life! But please. It’s my son.”
“Five hundred thousand gold for a bloody brat,” Eldar hissed, his words only for his Matriarch’s ears. “Have they gone mad?”
“There’s no way we can sanction this,” Aelanna whispered, “else every bandit and brigand will be attacking our nearest and dearest at every blasted turn.”
“Of course you can’t sanction…” the Magister whispered. Then, his eyes went wide. “The little shite! This was his play all along! He knew there’s no way you’d agree to this if he came straight to you to ask!”
“Yeah,” the Matriarch replied, her nod slight. “He’s trying to shame me into saying yes.”
“So, what’re you going to do? You can’t just say no, look at the bloody hall! You say no, we’ll have a damned insurrection on our hands.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” the Matriarch hissed.
“Matriarch, please!” Anthil continued as he and his wife rose. “We have nowhere else to go, no-one else to turn to. Whatever you ask of my wife and I is yours, just grant us this one request. Please.”
“You have nothing worth five hundred thousand gold, you treacherous little shite!” Eldar hissed.
“You know what,” Aelanna whispered, her gaze darkening with each word, “to the hells with it. If this conniving bastard thinks he can back me into a corner and bend me to his will, he’s a fool in more ways than one.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“He’s leaving empty-handed.”
“Aelanna! There’ll be an–” the Magister hissed.
“So what?” Aelanna threw back, then sat tall and smiled.
“Anthil,” Aelanna called out, her smile widening “what you and your family have endured is terrible in many ways. But, you must underst–”
“Are you truly going to give this contemptible bastard what he’s asking for?” Mezrah’s voice rang out.
“What did you say?” the elven woman named Elegra gasped as she and her husband turned to face the approaching mage square.
“You heard me,” Mezrah sneered, “bitch.”
“How dare you–”
“How dare I nothing. You left the Shimmering Tower. Both of you. Turned your backs on your vows and our tenets for gold. All that you were taught, all our knowledge, you pass on to that stupid king and his stupid Mage Council for coin. And now, here you are, bleating for Tower aid.”
“I will not stand her and–”
“Oh, shut up, woman!” Mezrah snapped, then turned to her husband. “And you. The Red Hand? Truly? Is that the best you can do?”
“What do you mean?” the elf frowned.
“I mean, you dolt, do they even exist?”
“You heard me. How do we know you’re not lying? How do we know this five hundred thousand is not to line your pockets? After all, we all know how much you love coin.”
“Mezrah!” the Matriarch gasped.
“What?” Mezrah replied. “Think upon it. What proof do we have that Taernum isn’t in some inn right now gorging his face like he always does? I mean, isn’t it the least bit suspect that Elegra, the must overbearing mother any of us here have ever crossed paths with would ever have allowed her son to be taken without battling to the death?”
“How dare you!” Elegra roared, her eyes ablaze and her voice quivering. “I nearly died in their ambush!”
“So you say.”
“You’re upset, Mezrah, I understand,” Anthil replied. “We weren’t exactly kind to you during our time here, but–”
“Oh, please,” Mezrah smiled, “you think I’m doing this because of how you two treated me while you were here? No, if our past held as much sway over me as you think, I wouldn’t be bandying words with you, I’d be spitting in your faces instead. No, I stand here because I find it rather pathetic you would use your son in such a vile manner.”
Then, Mezrah turned to the quivering woman by Anthil’s side. “Then again, I suppose that’s all you’re good for.”
The slap that followed echoed loudly within the room, Elegra’s hand hanging in the air as her whole frame quivered.
“Heh,” Mezrah said as she staggered back, her hand upon her cheek. “You stupid little bitch.”
The elven woman moved to strike again.
“No!” Anthil cried as he lunged as his wife. “No!”
“Oh, it’s too late for that, Anthil,” Mezrah said, grinning at the elf. Then, she turned to his wife.
“Tell me, Elegra,” she said. “You just struck an Archmage of the Shimmering Tower, right here within the Ceremonial Hall, in full view of the Matriarch, and with you no longer being of the Tower. What do you suppose that means?”
At those words, the elven woman’s eyes went wide as all blood drained from her face.
“Precisely.” Mezrah hissed as the most wicked of grins parted her lips.
Then, she spun on her heels and marched towards the door.
“Somebody throw these fools out!” she barked, then marched through the crowd and was gone.
“What just happened?” Eldar whispered to his Matriarch.
“I…I don’t…” Aelanna began, but as the pair before her turned to her, their eyes pleading, she breathed deep and rose.
“See them out,” she ordered.
“No!” Anthil cried as Elegra broke down by his side. “Matriarch, please! Elegra was provoked! She didn’t mean to insult–”
The Matriarch gritted her teeth and rose her chin at the pair, then watched in silence as they were escorted from the Ceremonial Hall.
“What in the bloody hells got into you?” Belen barked as he slammed the door behind him. “Their son was taken!”
“I heard, Belen, I’m not deaf,” Mezrah muttered as she knelt beside her bed and reached beneath it.
“Oh, you’re not deaf, are you?” Belen yelled. “Good! So, what in the hells is wrong with you?”
Turning on her knees, the Archmage glared at her friend a spell, then rose.
“I’m not deaf,” she said, “and neither am I stupid.”
“What does that–”
“Aelanna was going to refuse them, Belen.”
“Think upon it. Five hundred thousand gold? Elven gold? Our caravans and expeditions are already the target of a great many bandit, but should we aid them and word gets out, every brigand and cut-throat out there will be preying on us without fail and without pause. Aelanna would’ve known that. And besides, it’s Anthil we speak of. That weasel can’t help himself!”
“Help himself how?” Belen said, frowning as he cocked his head to the side.
“He’s backed Aelanna into a corner. Him and his stupid power plays. The bloody fool should’ve just come pleading like a normal person, but no, he had to go back to those damned power games.”
“He outmanoeuvred Aelanna, Belen,” Mezrah interjected, “and my sister is proud beyond belief. Even if the coin being asked for was just five hundred gold, she’d have denied him. Aelanna has a point beyond which she will not bend for love not coin, and Anthil just took a running leap past that point with his little power games. No, what I did was better for Taernum.”
“Better?” Belen cried. “Better how? You just had his parents thrown out!”
“Oh, come now, Belen, think!” said as she turned and fell to her knees once more. “Think it through.”
“Think what through?” Belen replied. But then, as Mezrah pulled forth her saddle bags, his eyes went wide. “You’re going after him?”
“Of course I’m bloody going after him!”
“Mezrah, you’re not making any sense. You just had his parents thrown out, and now you’re off to save him?”
Sighing, Mezrah rose once more and turned to her friend.
“Belen,” she said, “my sister was just asked by someone who renounced her, and the Tower, for more coin that some people see in their lifetimes. For Aelanna to agree to such would need an exceedingly strong reason. Anthil knows this, and rather than trying to find that reason, he instead tries to play Aelanna for a fool. If you were her, what would your response be.”
“Precisely. Had I waited even half a moment longer, those two would’ve been thrown out by Aelanna, and that would’ve been the end of it. Oh, sure, Anthil would play his little games, get his friends to cause a ruckus, but Aelanna would dig her heels in and refuse to budge. Running leap, remember? And guess what that would mean for Taernum.”
The Wood-Singer couldn’t.
Pausing at last, Mezrah stared deep into her friend’s eyes.
“You can’t see it, can you?” she said at last.
Smiling, the Archmage sighed. “Alright, let’s begin at the beginning. Does it not strike you as odd that this Red Hand always escapes? Always? Nobody’s fortune is that bounteous, Belen.”
The Wood-Singer frowned. “You mean they’re being aided?”
“For sure of it, and by someone high up in Greyhurst, possibly even in court.”
“High up…” Belen frowned. “You mean the king?”
Mezrah shrugged. “Perhaps, I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is Anthil’s too full of himself to have realised this. If he had, he’d have taken precautions to speak to Aelanna in secret, or through his friends.”
“Why would he need such precautions?”
“Because chances are good whoever’s supporting these Red Hand brigands will either know of the coin being asked, or, more likely, be the one getting them to ask. And with so much coin at stake, they will take steps to ensure its payment. Steps like having ears about those two, ensuring their pleas with the Tower are getting heard. Make no mistake, Belen, any decision we make on this will be fed back to this Red Hand and their protector.”
“But, if that’s true,” Belen said, his frown deepening, “you’ve just damned the boy.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Yes, you have. Word will reach this person soon of the Tower refusing Anthil and Elegra aid, and if they get word that there’s no coin coming, what reason do they have to keep the boy alive?”
Mezrah smiled. “That is precisely what would happen if Aelanna had been the one to say no.”
“And what you did brings a different outcome how?”
“Anthil,” Mezrah replied.
The Wood-Singer held his friend with a look of pure exasperation. “Mezrah, you’ve lost me utterly.”
“Belen, my outburst in there has given him the excuse he needs to force Aelanna to grant him another audience, and he’ll pounce on it. Oh, she’s resist for as long as she can, but sooner or later, she’ll cave. She’ll have to. Then, he’ll make his case again, and, knowing him, the bloody fool will resort to power plays yet again, and then, Aelanna will tell him no. It is at that point that Taernum’s life becomes forfeit. Or the bandits start sending pieces of him to his parents. Neither outcome is particularly pleasant.”
“Oh!” Belen cried at last. “Gods, I see! You’re buying time!”
“Yes!” Mezrah nodded, then sighed. “Though sadly, not much of it. I have till their second meeting to find the boy and free him.”
“True.” Belen nodded. “You’d best hurry, then.” Then, he frowned. “Why are you doing this, though? Those two were cruel to you.”
Mezrah shook her head. “They’re not the first horrible people I’ve aided.”
“True,” Belen nodded, “but the others had something of value to you or the Tower. What do these two have? They’ve turned their backs on us.”
Mezrah shook her head. “That’s no reason to let Taernum die.”
“Taernum was also rather cruel, Mezrah.”
Again, Mezrah shook his head. “He’s just a child, mirroring the antics of his parents. That’s no reason to let him die. And he will die, should I do nothing.”
Then, Mezrah spun about and reached for her bags once more, but as she did so, the door was swung open, and in that moment, the reaching mage straightened and turned, kicking her bag back beneath her bed as she did so.
“I have seen you do some shameful things in the past, Mezrah, but this must rank the absolute worst!” the Matriarch thundered as she marched in. “To show such disrespect to my seat? Right in my face? How dare you!”
The Archmage held her peace and stared in silence at her sister.
“What did Mother see in you? Tell me, what did she see in you? Everything you do insults our family. Your very existence insults our family! I wish she’d have just slit your throat at birth, save us all the heartache! You’re worthless and you’re stupid, and now, you’ve shown the entire Tower just how heartless you are! Begone from my Tower, Sister! I do not wish to see or hear from you till this whole sordid affair is resolved! Do you hear me? Begone! Now!”
The Archmage breathed deep at last, then turned to her friend. “You’d best get going, Belen. I must pack.”
The Wood-Singer stared from one sister to the other, but knew better than to speak, and holding his friend in one final heart-felt stare, he turned and left the room, closing the door gently behind him as went.
With her hood pulled high, the elven mage wandered into the tavern, her head bowed and her gaze darting about her as she made her way toward the tavern’s bar.
“Firewine,” she muttered at the barkeep as she reached the bar, and as the man nodded, Mezrah sat upon a nearby stool and hunched forward.
Then, she sat still till the tavern’s barkeep returned, a glass in one hand and a bottle in another. Mezrah watched in silence as the man placed the glass before her, but as he moved to fill it, she spoke.
“I lost my silver cockatrice,” she muttered, her words freezing the man’s hand. Then, she rose her gaze to his. “Do you have one around here?”
The barkeep stared hard at Mezrah in silence, then slowly placed the bottle upon the counter before raising his gaze and nodding at a group of men in the far corner, then returning his gaze to Mezrah.
“Follow me,” he said, then wandered round the bar.
Mezrah watched him a spell, then rose as he wandered past her and fell in step behind him, the men he’d nodded to falling in step behind her. But then, as they entered a back room, the barkeep stopped and turned, dagger in hand.
“I don’t know who you are, woman,” the barkeep growled just as the other men entered, one of whom closed the door behind them as they all pulled free their blades, “but nobody’s used those words since old man Durham was in charge. Now, I’m only going to ask you once, Who are you, and who do you work for?”
Smiling, Mezrah raised her hand to her lips and breathed upon her fingers, whispering words of arcane as she did so. Then, ever so gently, she reached for the barkeep’s dagger, pinched its blade, and slowly bent the steel towards the man.
“You really should know better than to threaten Durham’s daughter,” she said as she bent the dagger’s blade. “What would my father think of you?”
“Wait,” one of the men behind Mezrah said. “Mezrah?”
As her smile widened, Mezrah lowered her hood and turned to the man. “In the flesh.”
“Bugger me,” he gasped. “Dex wasn’t kidding when he said his aunt knew magic. Didn’t say anything about you looking younger than him though.”
“Or that you got pointy ears,” the barkeep growled.
“She’s a half-elf, you bloody shite, what’d you expect?”
Mezrah couldn’t help but smile at the man. “So, how is my nephew these days?”
“Cranky as an old bat!” The man grinned. “But he’ll be glad as all hells to see you! Come!”
Pushing past his companions, the rogue opened a hidden door and stepped in, gesturing to Mezrah to follow.
“Please excuse the boys,” the rogue said as Mezrah joined him. “Sheriff’s cracking down again. It’s got everyone on edge.”
Mezrah’s shrugged. “Oh, it’s quite alright. And you are…?”
“Brock,” the man said as he led Mezrah down the darkened corridor. “Been running with Dex since he and I were little.”
Mezrah smiled. “Dex never introduces me to his friends.”
The human laughed at this, his laughter widening the mage’s smile.
“But it’s good he has such loyal friends,” she added.
Brock grinned. “He treats his crew right, no reason for us to leave him.”
Then, as the pair reached the end of the corridor, the rogue leant forward and opened a second hidden door.
“Dex!” he yelled as he stepped through.
“What?” a booming voice snapped from the other end of the room.
“Got someone here to see you?”
“Who?” came the voice as a man no older than the rogue stepped into view, and as they caught sight of each other, both human and elf smiled.
“Aunt Mezrah!” Dex cried as he hurried forth, his arms wide.
“Hello, Dex,” Mezrah said, hugging her nephew as he reached her.
“You should’ve told me you were coming!” Dex cried as they parted. “I would’ve prepared something for you.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” Mezrah said. “Besides, I’m in a hurry.”
“Oh,” the rogue said, giving his aunt a knowing look. “So, this isn’t a social visit, is it?”
“Sadly not,” Mezrah replied, a sad smile upon his lips.
“Typical.” Dex sighed. “First time I’ve seen you in the flesh since dad’s burial, and it’s all business with you… Bloody typical.”
“Now, don’t you take that tone with me, young man!” Mezrah chided.
Chuckling, the young rogue wandered towards a nearby dining table, Mezrah falling in step beside him.
“So how’s Belen, then?” he asked.
“Oh, he’s well,” Mezrah replied. “Counting down the days till you send word of your new shipment.”
“Ah,” Dex winced, “about that. Been a bit of a hiccup–”
“Brock just told me,” Mezrah replied, nodding. “Sheriff’s cracking down again. Guessing you’ve had to scale back a bit.”
“Yeah.” Dex nodded and sighed. “Things should go back to normal next month though.”
“Yeah.” Dex nodded once more as he reached the dining table. “It’s the king’s birthday next month. Crackdown’s so the law can boast they’ve cleaned up the streets. Should all go back to normal after the festivities, though.”
Then, he sat, gesturing to the seat beside him. As Mezrah pulled the seat towards her, he turned to the other men in the room.
“Oi! One of you go get my aunt some mead. The good stuff, mind! She’s got expensive taste.”
“Oh, it’s quite alright, Dex, truly.”
“Nonsense, Aunt,” Dex replied. “We’re family, least I can do.”
Mezrah smiled at her nephew, then sat.
“So,” Dex said, turning to face his aunt square, “what brings you to my bolthole?”
The Archmage’s smile faded as she sat forward.
“You ever heard of The Red Hand?”
The rogue frowned. “I know three crews called Red Hand.”
“These aren’t rogues, they’re bandits.”
“Bandits?” Dex frowned as the rogue named Brock neared them.
“You mean the bandit crew over in Greyhurst?” Brock said as he set a gleaming stein before Mezrah.
“Yeah, them.” Mezrah nodded as she reached for the stein.
“Oh, yeah, forgot about them.” Dex nodded. “What’d you need from them?
“Wait,” he added just as Mezrah drew breath, “Is this about their last kidnapping?”
“You heard about that?” The mage frowned.
The seated rogue nodded. “Heard they lost over half their crew in the snatch. Some kid, it was.”
“Elven as well,” Brock added.
“Yeah.” Mezrah nodded. “I’m here about the kid.”
“So, what’d you need?” Dex asked.
“The kid,” Mezrah replied as she raised her stein to her lips.
“What?” the men said in unison.
“Is the kid yours?” Brock asked.
Grinning, Mezrah shook her head as she drank deep.
“No,” she said at last, “and thank the gods for that. The boy’s a spoilt little brat who was never taught any manners.”
“Parents friends of yours then?” Dex asked.
“Oh, gods, no!”
The men exchanged glances.
“Then, why’d you want the kid?” Dex asked.
Mezrah sighed. “The Red Hand wants five hundred thousand gold for him.”
“How much?” Brock cried.
“Bloody hells,” Dex added.
“Mh.” Mezrah nodded. “Elven.”
“Is he bloody royalty or something?” Brock asked.
“Oi, Brock. Go.” Dex said.
“Oh, sorry.” Brock grinned, then hurried off.
Dex watched his friend for a spell, then turned to his aunt.
“He’s a nosy git, but he means well,” Dex soon added.
Mezrah smiled at her nephew. “Oh, it’s alright.”
“But is the boy royalty though?”
The seated mage shook her head. “No. But his parents used to be of the Tower.”
“Ah,” Dex said, smiling as he sat back. “They figure if they squeeze the boy’s parents, his parents’ll get get the Tower to cough up.”
Mezrah nodded. “I believe so.”
“Bloody idiots,” Dex muttered. “Tower never pays.”
Mezrah cast a sideways glance at her nephew. “You speak like you’ve tried holding us to ransom before.”
The seated rogue grinned. “I know many who did. Dumb bastards all got killed for their efforts.” Then, he sat forward once more. “Wait, does this mean Tower’ll be sending people into Greyhurst after the boy.”
“No.” Mezrah shook her head. “We have no treaty agreement with Greyhurst. We go killing their denizens, bandit or no, and things will get…messy.”
“But you’re going, right?”
“Am I…?” Mezrah asked, suppressing a grin as she raised her stein to her lips.
“Ah.” Dex grinned. “I see.”
“But you’re right, we’re never going to pay that ransom, and the boy’s parents are too stupid and too arrogant to see that. They think they can bend the Tower to their will, and by the time they realise how stupid they’re being, the boy’ll be dead.”
“So you intend to free him before then.”
Mezrah nodded. “Yes. And I need your aid in that, Dex. I need hidden passage to Greyhurst, supplies, and a safe place to keep the boy in case things get messy.”
“You sure this is a good idea though, Aunt?” Dex said. “Those bandits got backing from inside Greyhurst court.”
The seated mage frowned. “You know where it’s coming from?”
The rogue shook his head. “I’ve got a few theories, but nothing solid. But either way, if you go blowing people up in there and they suss you’re Tower, it won’t end well.”
Mezrah smiled. “Then I’d best blow everyone up, then, hadn’t I?”
The young rogue’s smile dimmed. “You know I hate it when you talk like that.”
The Archmage’s smile widened at this, raising her stein to her lips as she kept her peace.
“Tell you what, though Aunt,” Dex continued, “I heard some of the people they nabbed settled round here. One of them even married one of the bandits. Give me a week–”
“I don’t have a week, Dex.”
“Then, give me a few days, see if I can rustle up a map of the place for you. Will get you your supplies too, if you have a list, and will see which of my crew’s up for following you–”
“No, Dex,” Mezrah shook her head, “no. This is Tower affair. I can’t risk your crew.”
“Aunt, my crew’s my family, and you’re my family. I can’t not send them. They’ll mutiny if I do.”
Mezrah moved to speak, but instead sighed.
“I suppose I could use the company,” she said instead.
“Good!” Dex cried, then moved to rise, but stopped and stared at his aunt once more.
“So, uhm,” he said, “you thought anymore of my offer?”
Mezrah smiled once more. “I was wondering when you’d bring that up?”
Young Dex smiled, but it was fleeting. “So you thought about it?”
“I have.” Mezrah nodded.
“And the answer is still no?”
“But why though?” Dex pleaded. “I don’t understand. Everytime we talk, you’re griping about something one of them did to you, but you still want to stay. Why?”
Sighing, Mezrah placed her stein upon the table.
“Dex,” she said, turning to her cousin. “Why are you a rogue?”
Young Dex shrugged. “Because it’s the life I know.”
Mezrah nodded. “And likewise, a Tower mage is the life I know.”
“But the people around me don’t treat me like shite!”
“True,” Mezrah nodded, “but it’s the life I know nonetheless.”
“Dex, I can’t leave this life, alright? Much as I would love to join you, the Tower is my home. My mother fought tooth and claw to ensure I have a place there, and yes, you’re right, there are many who would love nothing more than to see the back of me. But my mother sacrificed too much to secure my future there, and if I leave, well…it’ll be like I’m pissing on her hard work.”
The young rogue stared at his aunt in silence for a spell, but soon sighed and shook his head.
“Fine,” he said. “But I’m still going to keep asking.”
“And I’m still going to keep saying no.”
Grinning, the rogue rose. “You got a shopping list?”
“Oh, yeah,” Mezrah said as she reached into her pocket, then pulled out a rolled parchment and handed it to her cousin.
“Right.” Dex nodded as he took the parchment, then rose his gaze to his aunt. “You got a place to stay?”
“We got free bed and board here, though.”
Mezrah smiled at her nephew. “Now, how can I say no to that?”
Grinning, young Dex nodded and headed toward his crew.
“Brock!” he yelled as he went. “I’ve got a job for you!”
Wandering through the central marketplace, a headscarf about her head hiding her hair and ears, Mezrah walked on silence, her eyes upon the large warehouse beside them.
“So, that’s it, then?” she muttered.
“Mhm.” The rogue beside her nodded.
“Alright,” she said, then stopped and turned to the men accompanying her.
“Remember the plan. Should things go awry and the law get called, they’ll pass through this marketplace. Watch your assigned exits, and if they law shows up in force, bottle them here any which way you can. But be smart, please. Don’t get arrested, and don’t get killed.”
“Dex won’t be happy we let you go in there on your own,” the rogue who’d spoken piped up.
Smiling, Mezrah reached out a hand and gently caressed the rogue’s cheek.
“You’re a good man, Brock,” she said, “but I always work alone.”
Then, she turned to the men once more.
“Remember, once you hear a rooster call four times in quick succession, head to our meeting point, no matter what.”
The men nodded.
“Good.” Mezrah nodded, then smiled. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to raise all hells.”
Then, the Archmage bowed and hurried off. The men watched her swim through the crowd for a spell, then parted and headed to their assigned stations.
Sitting upon the crates behind the warehouse, the two bandit friends laughed as they regaled each other of their exploits from the night before, one hand upon their sword hilts and the other holding a mug with the mead in them half drunk. So engrossed in each other’s tales were they that they didn’t notice the figure in the shadows glide towards them, its whole frame as if swimming through the darkness, till at last, it crouched behind the crates, a shroud about it’s whole head with only its eyes free, and there, it waited.
“Bugger me,” one of the bandits growled after a spell, handing his mug to the other. “Need a piss.”
“Heh, don’t drink so much, then,” the second bandit replied, grinning.
“Yeah, yeah,” the first bandit mumbled, then moved to step around the crates.
The figure crouched lower and clenched its fists as ice daggers swam into being within its grasp. Then, as the sound of water hitting stone filled the air, the figure sprang up.
“What the–” the first bandit gasped, but was swiftly silenced by the ice dagger plunged deep into his skull.
“Dorick!” the second bandit cried as he let go of his companion’s mead and reached for his blade.
In that moment, the figure let her other dagger fly, burying the frozen blade deep into the bandit’s chest, and before the man could draw breath, she stepped forth and slammed her heel against the dagger, forcing its entire length into the man. Then, as the man fell, the figure scanned her surrounds.
“Perfect,” she whispered, then hurried back into the shadows, a soft wind billowing in her wake and lifting the dead men after her.
With the corpses were out of sight, the woman called forth a cloak about her, clambered upon the crates and raised her gaze up at the opened window high above.
“That should be the right one,” she whispered, then breathed deep, crouched low and leapt skyward, a brief gust propelling her upward as she leapt.
“You seen Dorick and Tharim?” came a voice from the open door before her.
Upon hearing it, the cloaked woman hurried to the door before leaning beside its frame as the sound of heavy footsteps filled her ears.
“They’re out back, probably,” replied another, “drinking and talking shite again.”
“Those two bloody idiots,” the first one growled.
“Don’t even know why the boss keeps them around,” a third intoned. “Bloody useless, they.”
“Anyhow, you two come with me,” the first voice said. “Need some more caskets from the storeroom taken downstairs.
At those words, the figure turned, her gaze falling upon the rows of caskets in the room she was in. Then, her eyes went wide as she noticed at last the wet foot falls leading from the window to where she stood.
“Damn it!” she hissed.
But it was too late, the men were at the door.
“Here, what’s this?” said the first man who’d spoken, his brow furrowed deep as he entered, and his gaze upon the foot falls as he crouched right beside the cloaked figure and moved to dip a finger into the wet foot fall right beneath her feet.
“What the…?” the man gasped, startled as his finger fell upon the cloaked woman’s boot.
“Damn it,” the woman spat, then undid her cloak, and as she shimmered into view, the three men gasped as one, the one closest to her stumbling back and scrambling to his feet.
With her teeth gritted, the woman leapt upon the scrambling man’s back, pinning him with the weight of her body before grasping hold of his head and twisting, hard.
“Sound the alarm!” the second man cried as he pulled free his blade and lunged at the woman.
Rolling off the dead man’s back the prone woman called forth a wind vine, wrapping it about the attacking bandit’s ankles and, with a sharp yank, pulled the bandit off his feet before springing to her feet as an ice lance shimmered into being. Then, grasping the ice lance with both hands, she plunged the lance deep into the fallen bandit, piercing his heart in one thrust before pulling it free and flinging it at his fleeing companion.
Except she missed his heart, the lance pinning him to a nearby wall, and as pain the likes of which the bandit had never felt before coursed through him, he reached for the lance, and screamed.
“Gods damn it!” the figure hissed and raised a hand at the screaming bandit.
But then, a second door swung open, across from the figure, and as it opened, she saw several bandits within the corridor beyond.
“Here, what’s all this…” began the bandit opening the door. But the man swiftly fell silent as his eyes fell upon the woman.
“Sound the alarm!” he cried, reaching for his blade.
Gritting her teeth, the woman darted forth and lunged at the men as a crimson bubble surrounded her. Then, as she barrelled into them, the bubble exploded, engulfing the men in a fiery inferno that burnt as hot as a dragon’s breath for a single moment.
Then, the woman rolled into a crouch and listened.
The only sound she could hear was the pitiful whimpers of the pinned bandit. But she knew it was not to last. Sooner or later, the smell of burnt flesh would permeate the building, and she had not the time to hide this many bodies. Perhaps she could simply pile the bodies in the corridor and barricade the doors. It’s not an ideal solution by any means, but it might just buy her what little time she needed.
“Worth a try, I suppose,” she muttered, then prepared herself for her grim task.
“Please,” the pinned bandit whined, pulling the woman from her thoughts. “Please let me go.”
Rolling her eyes, the woman rose and wandered over to him.
“Please,” he begged as she approached. “I won’t tell anyone, I swear, I’ll just–”
“Shut up,” the figure muttered as she reached him, then snapped his neck.
Sighing, the woman released the ice lance and hurried back to begin her grim task.
Rising to sitting, young Taernum wrinkled his nose at the smell assaulting his nostrils.
“Is someone cooking?” he asked, turning to his guards.
The men had smelt it too, their faces a mirror of the young boy’s.
“It’s not lunchtime yet, so…” one of the men began.
“Maybe he started early,” Taernum offered.
“What’s he cooking?” the second guard growled, “A herd of cows?”
The young boy shrugged and lowered his gaze.
Just then, there came a knock at the door. Then another, and then another.
“Who is it?” one of the guards barked.
The knock came again, and this time it didn’t stop.
“Who is it?” the guard yelled, raising his voice above the din.
The knock came still.
“Who the bloody–”
“Just go see who it is!” the second guard snapped.
Growling, the bandit rose and trundled over to the door. As he opened it, however, an ice lance plunged into him, flinging him across the room before pinning him against the far wall.
As one, both Taernum and the remaining bandit shrieked at the sight of it all, and as one, they turned to the door just in time to watch as a figure dart into the room, ice daggers clenched tight as she lunged at the remaining bandit.
Shrieking still, the bandit reached for his blade, but the figure plunged an ice dagger into his sword arm, pinning it to his side, before driving the second dagger upward through his chin. The bandit shuddered once, shuddered again, then collapsed to the floor as his eyes rolled inward.
The young boy took one look at what lay before him and screamed with all he had.
Releasing the ice lance and her ice daggers, the figure darted for the boy.
“No, please!” he shrieked. “Please! Please, no, I don’t–”
“Oh, shut up already!” the figure barked.
Young Taernum fell silent, his yes going wide as he stared at the figure by his side.
“Mistress Mezrah?” he gasped.
The figure glared at him, placed a hand upon his shoulder, and as one, the pair disappeared from view.
“Hurry, damn it!” Brock hissed.
“I’m hurrying, I’m hurrying!” one of the men behind Brock hissed as the group made their way towards the meeting point.
Ducking behind a nearby hospice, the men hurried down the alleyway, then began to slow as a familiar figure stepped out of the shadows, a young boy beside her.
“You made it!” Brock grinned, then turned to the boy.
“This him, then?”
“Yeah.” Mezrah nodded. “You have any trouble?”
“No.” Brock shook his head, turning to Mezrah, “though I think we may have trouble getting out of the city.”
“Yeah.” The man nodded.
“Seems the law’s been called,” one of the others said. “We saw them pouring out into the streets on our way over.”
“Oh, gods,” the young boy whispered.
“Hey, hey!” Brock said, turning to the boy. “You keep faith in your Aunt Mezrah here, okay? She got you out of that place safe. She’ll get you out of the city too, you’ll see.”
The boy’s face fell at those words, and as he glanced at the woman beside him, it fell further.
“What’s his problem?” another of the men muttered.
“Long story,” Mezrah replied, then waved the men over. “Gather round, I’m getting us out of the city.”
“Oh!” Brock gasped, the twinkle in his eyes unmistakable as he hurried over to Mezrah’s side. “You going to do that portal thing, are you?”
“Oh, no,” another of the men growled as the others joined Brock. “You’re not doing any magicking on me, thank you very much.”
“Then, how do you fancy your chances walking out of here alive?” Mezrah asked.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby Alrick,” Brock chided. “Come!”
Alrick remained where he was.
The other rogues turned to the man named Alrick, glaring at him as they smiled, till at last, sighing, he trundled over to Mezrah.
“Good,” Mezrah said. “Now, hold still.”
“Oh, and, boy,” Brock said, turning to the youth. “We were never here, understand?”
“Oh, don’t you worry, Brock,” Mezrah said, her eyes upon young Taernum and her gaze as steel, “we’ve had a good long chat on that. Taernum won’t be remembering anything about today. Ever.”
“Good.” Brock nodded.
Then, he spun and faced the Archmage. “Shall we?”
Mezrah smiled and nodded. “Yes, lets.”
And with that, Mezrah and her companions faded from view, taken far away from the city.
Standing before the grand gates of the Shimmering Tower, Mezrah breathed deep and smiled as it slowly opened.
“Home, sweet home,” she said, then slung the heavy back by her side over her shoulder and wandered forth.
“At long bloody last!” the Wood-Singer Belen cried as Mezrah trundled through the opened gates. “What took you so bloody long? Sent the note over a week ago!”
The Archmage grinned as she wandered over to him, the gate slamming shut behind her as she went. “What, did you miss me that much?”
“Not bloody likely.” Belen grinned as Mezrah reached him, then hugged his dear friend close.
“Ooh,” the Archmage sighed as they parted. “I must say, it’s good to be back.”
“Oh!” Mezrah cried, reaching for her back. “By the bye, I brought some–”
“Welcome home, Sister.”
At those words, Mezrah straightened as all mirth vanished from her face, and fighting back a snarl, she turned to where the voice had come from.
“What’re you doing here?” she said.
The Matriarch Aelanna Earthchild smiled at her sister and shrugged. “I came to welcome you.”
Mezrah stared hard at her sister as a deep frown twisted the her lips. Then, she turned to her friend, who shrugged in response.
“She ordered me to say nothing of her presence,” he muttered.
Shaking her head, Mezrah returned her gaze to her sister, then scanned their surroundings.
“You came alone?” she asked.
“Why, do I need protection from you?” the Matriarch replied.
Mezrah moved to speak, but bit back her words, and instead turned to her sister.
“Why are you truly here?” she asked.
“I told you, I came to–”
“Spare me the lies,” Mezrah interjected. “If you came to insult me, have done with it, but I’m not stupid. You’ve never welcomed me home before, and you never will.”
Taking a deep breath, the Matriarch let it out slowly, and as she did so, there was a flicker in the elven woman’s eyes, a glimmer of a stare that unnerved Mezrah for reasons the Archmage couldn’t quite fathom.
“Taernum’s freed,” the Matriarch said at last.
“I know.” Mezrah nodded. “Belen said so in his note.”
The Matriarch nodded. “I see.”
“He was here, you know,” the Matriarch continued. “He and his parents left yesterday. Never seen him so well behaved before.”
“So Anthil sourced the coin from elsewhere, did he?” the Archmage asked. “Or did you pay it?”
“Neither,” the Matriarch replied, shaking her head. “Someone freed Taernum.”
“Freed him?” Mezrah frowned.
“Mhm.” The Matriarch nodded.
“Did he say who?”
“Mh-mh.” The Matriarch shook her head. “Swears blind he has no recollection of what happened. One moment, he’s crawling into bed, the next, he’s waking up on the stone street leading to his front door.”
“Yes, very. You wish to know what else is interesting?”
The Archmage’s frown returned. “What?”
“He wishes to join the Tower.”
“What?” Mezrah gasped.
“Mhm.” The Matriarch nodded. “Though, from the way his parents reacted, I’d say neither knew of his intent till he voiced it to me.”
“What did you say?”
The Matriarch shrugged. “I told him it was up to his parents, to which he asked, if he ran away from home, would we take him?”
“What?” Mezrah grinned.
“Mhm.” The Matriarch nodded. “I think Elegra’s heart stopped at that moment, though I can’t say for certain. They’re probably doing all they can to change his mind right now, but I’d say it’s all made up at his point.”
“Imagine that,” the Archmage said, turning to her friend Belen as she shifted the weight of her bag.
“Belen, take my sister’s bag to her room, please,” the Matriarch said. “The rest of you, leave us.”
“Whatever you can say to me, you can say before Belen,” Mezrah growled.
The Matriarch turned from Archmage to Wood-Singer and back, then nodded.
“Very well,” she said, then turned to the gate attendants. “Leave us. Now.”
Before long, the three were alone.
“So, what is it this time?” Mezrah demanded, crossing her arms beneath her bosom as she spoke.
The stare returned, lingering longer than a glimmer, and as it linger, Mezrah felt the same unease return and grip her heart. Then, it was gone once more.
“Do you know why I hate you so much?” the Matriarch asked at last.
Mezrah shrugged. “I’m a half-breed. You’ve thrown it in my face often enough.”
“No.” The Matriarch shook her head. “That my excuse, not my reason.”
“Meaning?” The Archmage frowned.
“When we were growing up, I was always in your shadow. No matter what I did, or how well I did it, Mother seemed to only have eyes for you. At first, I thought it was because you were her first, and that I could live with. But then, when I learnt it was because you were only half of what I am, it…hurt.”
“Aelanna, if intend to speak of bygone–”
“Allow her speak, Mezrah,” Belen soothed, placing a soft hand upon his friend’s arm.
The Archmage frowned and turned to her friend. “You know what this is about?”
Belen nodded. “Broadly.”
The Archmage’s frown deepened, then she turned to her sister once more. “Go on, then. And to be clear, our mother cared for me in spite of what I am, not because of it.”
“Yes.” The Matriarch nodded, smiling as she did so. “She did. But everyone else hated you. They all wanted her to send you to your father.”
“Our father didn’t, though, did he?” Mezrah replied. “He didn’t care.”
Aelanna nodded. “Yes, he didn’t. But I did, I couldn’t help but care. I cared because Mother was always having to fight for you. I cared because she seemed to never have any time for me, and whenever she did, you’d do something, or have something done to you, that would take her attention from me and onto you.”
“You entitled little…she was there for the both of us! Her time was limited because she was Matriarch! You of all people should know how demanding that role is!”
The Matriarch shook her head. “I truly need you to just listen, Mezrah. Please. Just…listen. Please.”
The Archmage glared at her sister a spell, but soon sighed. “Very well.”
“Good.” Aelanna nodded, then breathed deep. “Do you remember the banquet Mother arranged to celebrate my Birthing?”
At this, Mezrah slowly straightened.
“Yeah,” she replied, her voice soft.
“You remember what happened?”
“How can I forget? Some of the others locked me in one of the warg pens and threw lightning bolt at the warg in there. Blasted thing mauled me half to death.”
The Matriarch nodded. “And you remember what Mother did?”
Once more, Mezrah nodded. “She missed your banquet, stayed by my side all through the day.”
“Yes,” Aelanna replied, smiling. Then, she took a step forth. “That’s what I mean, Mezrah. Our mother loved us both, yes, but when forced, she chose you over me. She always chose you over me.”
“Aelanna, my left arm was hanging limp by my side, my right cheek was gone and I’d lost vision in one eye. You can’t fault her for wishing to see her daughter safe after something like that.”
The Matriarch shook her head. “The healers had you mended long before the toasts, and still she refused to leave you side. She chose, Mezrah. She chose you.” Then, the Matriarch stood tall. “But that’s not why I hate you.”
Mezrah frowned at this. “Then, what?”
“I accosted her the day after, screamed at her, said some truly mean things. Then, I said something like…uhm…I think…I’m the one who’ll succeed you. Why do you even care so much about that filthy half-breed when you know she won’t ever lead the Tower? You know what she said?”
Mezrah shook her head.
“She said You’re right, she’ll never lead, but I wish she would. She’d make a better Matriarch than you ever will.”
“What?” Mezrah gasped.
The Matriarch smiled and nodded, her eyes glistening.
The Archmage stared at her sister in silence, not knowing what to say.
“And I’ve hated you since then,” the Matriarch continued, wiping her tears. “Every day. Every. Single. Day. But then, after our little…chat before you left, Eldar said something that stuck with me. He asked me why you spoke up at all. You never speak up unless someone tries to strike you, or they insult Belen, neither of which happened.”
“That is true,” Belen muttered, grinning.
“Yes.” The Matriarch nodded. “Then, Anthil returned with his son, an unruly and utter spoilt little brat who showed such self-control as to leave all of us rather speechless. Do you know what his last words were? Before they left, I mean.”
Once more, Mezrah shook her head.
“He asked Eldar where you were. When Eldar asked him why, he refused to answer. And when Eldar pressed, he simply ran back to his parents and they left. A boy who used to hold his nose whenever you walked by, asking politely, almost reverently, where you were, and being single-minded in his desire to return to us… You needn’t be a mind mage to fathom why.”
A soft smile parted Mezrah’s lips at last. “That little shite…”
“I know!” The Matriarch grinned. “Threaten them all you want, children always find some way to let slip that one secret they’re never supposed to share.” Then, her smile faded. “You knew I was going to let him die, didn’t you?”
Taking a deep breath Mezrah nodded. “I knew the moment his idiot father made his play.”
Breathing deep herself, Aelanna nodded. “Yes, I suppose it was obvious to those who truly knew me.” Then, the Matriarch took another step forward. “But you, you have greater cause than I to hate that whole family, and yet you went and did what I would not. You’re every bit as proud as I am, don’t tell me you’re not, but you saw past your pride, went to aid someone who desperately needed it, then you return and act like nothing happened. And this isn’t the first time either, is it?”
“Oh, don’t be silly, of course it’s–”
“Don’t bother denying it. Belen told me everything.”
“What?” Mezrah snapped, rounding on her friend.
“Not everything, everything!” Belen cried.
“You mean there’s more?” Aelanna growled.
At this, the poor Wood-Singer shrank where his stood, his gaze at his feet.
“My point is,” Aelanna continued, turning to her sister, “Mother was right. I’ve hated you all these years for no good reason, when I should be learning from you.”
Then, the Matriarch breathed deep and stood tall. “I came to ask for your forgiveness, Mezrah. Can you ever forgive me?”
The Archmage stared in stunned silence at her sister for what seemed like an eternity. Then, breathing deep, she let it out slowly and shook her head.
“That depends,” she said, her voice quivering.
“On how much food there is in the Kitchens.” Mezrah grinned. “I’m starving!”
The Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower burst into laughter as her sister grinned before her. Then, she shook her head at her sister.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, then reached for Mezrah’s hand.
The Archmage grasped her sister’s hand and squeezed tight.
“Welcome home, Sister,” the Matriarch said, then turned and headed towards the Tower.
“Well, well,” Belen said after a spell, his gaze upon the receding elf. “It would seem things are about to change around here.”
“Don’t be so sure, Belen,” the Archmage cautioned
“Oh?” The Wood-Singer frowned as he turned to his friend.
“Mh.” Mezrah nodded, her gaze upon her sister. “She sent everyone away, remember? However she may feel, feeling it is one thing, expressing it in the open is quite another.”
“Ugh,” Belen muttered, pulling a face as he spoke, “I suppose you’re right.”
Then, the Wood-Singer’s face lit up once more. “But at least she’s feeling it. That’s a good first step, right?”
“Yeah,” Mezrah said with a grudging nod, “I suppose.”
But as the words left her lips, the Archmage turned to her friend, her gaze darkened greatly. “So, what precisely did you tell her?”
The Wood-Singer’s eyes went wide as the blood rushed from his face.
“Oh, would you look at the time!” Belen gasped, hurrying away from his friend. “I’m late for that…thing I do. Shall we speak later, Mezrah?”
“Belen!” Mezrah barked at the escaping Wood-Singer. “Get back here!”
“We’ll speak later!” Belen threw back.
“Get back here, damn it!”
“Later, Mezrah! Later!”
“Bloody coward,” Mezrah growled. “I should just burn his presents from Dex right in front of him. That should show him”
Then, hefting her bag, the seething mage trundled forth, her stomach growling as she went.
Slowly, the young girl sat up as the tome before her faded from view. Then, she turned to Amala, a soft smile upon her lips.
“You and your bloody lessons,” she growled, her smile widening with each word.
Smiling herself, Amala bowed. “I thank you for such warm words.”
“Whatever,” Naeve muttered, then sighed as her gaze drifted to the ether. “I like how it end though. It’s nice that they made up.”
“Isn’t it just.”
“Yeah,” Naeve replied, sighing once more.
“So,” Amala soon added. “What do you wish to do now?”
“Hrm.” Naeve pouted as she pondered the question. Then, her smile returned. “How about we go help Master Netyam?”
Amala frowned at this. “What, with the preparations?”
“Naeve, Aeden has an army of attendants to aid him in the Kitchens. He doesn’t need us.”
“And when it comes to cooking, well, forgive me, but your cooking is absolutely nothing like Aeden’s.”
“Of course it bloody isn’t! If it was, I’d be head of the Kitchens! But that’s not the point, Amala!”
“Well, what is?”
“How many of his attendants put a smile on his face just by walking through the door?”
At this, Amala moved to speak, but words failed her.
“Hunh? Hunh?” The young girl grinned. “You can’t tell me he won’t want us around. Well, you at least.”
“Naeve, our presence will be a distraction. Aeden needs to focus, and–”
“No, it won’t, Amala. If anything, he’d love us being there!”
“Please!” the young child whined, holding her friend in her most piteous stare
Amala stared at the child for a spell, but she knew there could only be one answer.
“If he tells us to leave, we leave immediately. Agreed?”
“Yes,” Naeve grinned nodding eagerly, “agreed.”
The seated woman sighed, then shook her head and rose. “Come on, then.”
“Yes!” Naeve hissed, then leapt from her bed and raced for the door.
“I really hope he makes another sugarplum tower though,” the young girl said as she hurried along beside her dear friend.
“Why?” Amala asked. “So you can pull the sugarplums out from the bottom and make the whole tower fall apart?”
“Heh.” Naeve grinned. “It would be funny watching it the sugarplums roll all over the place.”
“Young lady, your idea of fun is often rather…”
Just then, Amala stopped, her brow furrowed deep as she stared at the shadows before them.
“What?” Naeve frowned, turning to where Amala stared. “What is it?”
“Come out of there,” Amala said, her gaze unmoving and her voice as steel. “Now.”
“I…” Naeve muttered, shaking her head. “I don’t see anyone.”
But then, as the young girl turned to face her friend once more, a woman stepped out into the light, a wooden smile upon her lips.
“Mistress Fellspire,” Naeve said, with no mirth of any kind in her voice.
“Naeve,” the woman said, bowing slightly as her smile widened. Then, she turned to Amala.
“Hello, Amala,” she said.
Amala ignored her a spell, choosing to stare instead into the shadows behind the woman.
“What’re you doing here?” Amala demanded, returning her gaze to the woman.
“Conferring with a colleague.”
“In the shadows?”
“I have my reasons.”
Amala stared hard at the woman a spell, then turned to the shadows once more. “Tell your colleague to step into the light.”
“There’s no-one else here,” Fellspire replied before holding aloft a smoothed stone. “I was using this.”
“You need to stand in the shadows to use it?”
Sighing, the Archmage stood tall. “If you must know I am planning a surprise. For you and our Matriarch.”
“For the Matriarch and I?”
The woman nodded.
Amala stared hard at the woman, the ensuing silence bearing heavily on her and draining the mirth from her smile.
“Amala, I know I’ve earned your wrath,” she said at last, her gaze one of utter seriousness, “and quite rightly so. I was that girl’s tutor, but I never truly got through to her. I blamed you for that, when I should’ve looked at myself, at my methods.”
“Hunh?” Naeve said, her gaze one of utter bemusement.
“Well, I have had time to reflect,” the Archmage continued, “to learn from my mistakes, and I wish to plan a surprise for you to make amends, and for our Matriarch for giving me the opportunity to learn and heal.”
“You bloody what?” the young girl gasped.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” Fellspire continued, her gaze upon Amala still, “and quite frankly, I won’t blame you if you simply laughed in my face. But there it is.”
Through it all, Amala’s gaze remained unwavering, her eyes boring into the woman before her, till at last, the Archmage began to fidget.
“Amala?” Naeve whispered, tugging on her friend’s arm.
“Hrm?” Amala said, turning to her friend.
Naeve held her friend’s gaze and gestured at the fidgeting mage. Breathing deep, Amala turned to the Archmage once more.
“I look forward to the surprise,” she said at last, and, with her lips drawn to a thin line, made her way down the corridor, her young friend in tow.
The Archmage watched them in silence till they fell from view.
“She knows,” whispered a voice from the shadows.
“Don’t be stupid,” the Archmage hissed. “Of course she doesn’t.”
“She knows, I tell you,” the voice replied as Master Netyam stepped out from the shadows.
“Oh, for goodness sake, man,” Fellspire snapped as she rounded on the man. “If she knows, she would’ve marched over here and dragged you out of the shadows by your ear. She. Knows. Nothing.”
Master Netyam stared at the Archmage in silence for a spell, then turned to stare down the corridor.
“Was it wise to warn her of your plans, though?” he soon added, turning to Fellspire once more.
Fellspire smiled, a smile with nary a trace of warmth within it. “Warn? Gods, Netyam, you can be stupid sometimes. I didn’t warn her of anything. She thinks I’m planning something nice and cheerful for her and that bitch Matriarch of ours. No, my dear, I didn’t warn her, I put her at ease. I played my hand too soon last time, and I will not make that same mistake again.”
“Whatever,” Netyam muttered, then moved to leave.
“We’re running out of time, Netyam,” Fellspire growled. “If I am to expose that harlot for the vampire that she is, I must know her secret, and quickly. How can she walk these damned halls without being turned to ash? And how in the hells can her birthing tree still live?”
“Patience,” Netyam replied. “We have a good plan in play, and it was going well, mostly. The child is no longer as close to Amala as she used to be, and in a few months, she’ll be close enough to me to confide in me all we need.”
“Yes, well, we don’t have a few months.”
“You mean, you don’t have a few months. No-one asked you to make that fool deal with the barons. You could simply have waited till I sent word that we had all we needed, but no, you had to make that stupid arrangement, didn’t you?”
The seething Archmage rounded on her companion but bit back her words at the very last moment, choosing instead to grit her teeth and fight to bring her ire to heel. Then, breathing deep, she let it out slowly before smiling at the calm elf before her.
“You’re bedding her, Netyam,” Fellspire said. “The plan also included you getting close to her to learn her secrets, did it not? Two-pronged attack, remember? What happened to that?”
Netyam stared at the Fellspire for a spell, but soon frowned as a short sigh escaped her lips.
“She’s too careful,” he said. “She won’t even fall asleep in my arms. No, if we’re to learn her secrets with her being oblivious to it all, that girl is the way.”
“I grow tired of this,” the elven man snapped and turned to leave. “I’ve been away too long as it is.”
“Netyam!” Fellspire hissed.
But the elf refused to turn, marching on in silence with his back straight and his steps unwavering.
“Bloody fool,” Fellspire spat, then spun about and marched off in the opposite direction.