With a contented sigh, the elven woman raised her gaze to the trees, a soft smile upon her lips as she watched the birds flitter overhead, their calming melodies warming her heart and widening her smile. Closing her eyes, she savoured the warmth of their songs, her thoughts filled with fond memories of ages past as her silvery mane shimmered in the morning sun. That was, till she caught an unmistakable scent in the air.
Sighing, the woman sat tall.
“Good morning, Naeve,” she called out.
“How do you bloody do that?” the skulking girl behind her seethed. “I made no sound!”
Smiling, the woman turned around, the sun’s rays giving her silvery pupils an ethereal shimmer.
“What’re you doing here?” she said.
“What’re you doing here?” young Naeve muttered.
“I asked you first.”
Sighing once more, the woman held her young companion in a pointed stare.
The young girl pouted, saying nary a word.
As the woman moved to speak, a thought struck her, and as she dwelt upon it, a slow smile parted her lips.
“You’re hiding from someone, aren’t you?” she said.
“No!” the young girl replied.
The woman held her young friend in a pointed stare once more., and as she did so, the young girl’s pout returned, till at last, rolling her eyes, she sighed.
“Alright, fine, so what if I am!” she said.
“What did you do this time?”
“Then, why hide?”
“Because…” the young girl began, but fell silent.
The elven woman frowned. “Naeve?”
The young girl pouted once more, but soon stood tall. “Promise you won’t send me away.”
The woman’s frown deepened as she cast a slow sideways glance at her young friend.
“Promise,” the girl repeated.
“Naeve, what did you do?”
“Then why demand such a promise?”
“Oh, for gods’ sake, Amala, why must everything be an inquisition with you? Just promise, okay?”
The elven woman stared in silence for a spell, her brow furrowed deep. Then, she sighed.
“Very well,” she said, sitting tall once more. “I promise. Now, what is it?”
Taking a deep breath, the young girl stood tall. “I have a new tutor.”
“Oh?” The elven woman began. Then, her eyes grew bright. “Oh! About bloody time! Who is it?”
“Netyam?” the woman gasped.
The young girl nodded.
“But…he’s a cook.”
“Yeah, well,” the young girl sighed as she made her way towards her friend, “he’s my tutor now.”
“Why would your mother ask him?” the woman replied, her gaze upon her young friend.
“Well, according to Mother,” the young girl replied as she sat beside the elven woman, “he volunteered.”
The silver-haired woman blinked hard at this. “Say that again.”
“He volunteered, Amala,” the young girl replied. “He volunteered.”
“This morning.” The young girl sighed. “Mother waited till right after breakfast to tell me. And with him right there staring at me.”
The woman smiled at last. “So you raced out here the moment both their backs were turned hoping to hide out here.”
With her lips pursed, the young girl turned to her friend and shrugged. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The elven woman shook her head at her young friend, a sigh escaping her lips.
“And just how long do you think it’ll be before they come looking for you here?”
“Well, I haven’t been here in weeks, so I’m hoping they’ll check all my other hiding spots first. Should keep me free till lunch, at least.”
“What?” the young girl yelled. “Do you know what it’s like to have had no tutor all this time? It was bliss, Amala! Pure bliss! I could get up whenever I wanted, do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted! It was–”
“What about the homework your mother’s been setting for you every day?”
The young girl scoffed. “Please! That stuff was so easy I could do with my eyes closed!”
“Is that right…?”
“Yeah! Wait, you’re not going to tell Mother, are you?”
Slowly, the elven woman stared down her nose at her young friend, and as she did so, all mirth faded from the young girl’s eyes.
“No, seriously, Amala,” the girl said, leaning forward as she spoke, a hand upon her elven friend’s thigh, “you can’t tell Mother, she’ll go mental. She thinks it takes me half the day to do that stuff.”
“Hrm,” the woman replied in as ominous a voice as she could muster.
“Amala, I’m serious.”
Smiling at last, the elven woman raised a hand to her young friend’s face. “When have I ever spilt any of your secrets?”
The young girl giggled in response.
“But if you are going to stay, you must remain silent, alright?”
“Okay.” The girl nodded.
“Alright then,” the woman replied, then returned her gaze to the book upon her lap.
“So, what’re you doing?”
Stopping, the elven woman turned to levy a slow, pointed stare at the young girl.
Sighing, the woman shook her head. “I’m reading, Naeve. What does it look like?”
“Yeah, but what are you reading, though?”
“Oh! Can I read it too?”
“What, no! This book isn’t for children!”
“Ew!” the young girl cried as she backed away from her friend.
“It’s not that sort of book!”
“Well, then, what sort of book is it?”
“It’s…nevermind. Just let me read in peace! Please!”
“But, what about me?”
“I already told you! This book isn’t for children!”
“Not that!” the young girl threw back, then pointed at the woman’s pocket.
“What?” The woman frowned, then glanced at her pocket. “Oh! Right!”
Grinning, the young girl rubbed her hands with glee as her elven friend reached her hand into her pocket and pulled it free.
“Now, let’s see,” the woman muttered as she called forth the tome, “is there one in here long enough to keep you quiet so I can read in peace?”
The elven woman grinned in response, her lips unmoving as she turned the pages of the tome. But then, without warning, she stopped and turned turned to her young friend, a sad pout on her lips.
“Doesn’t seem like it worked, I fear,” she said.
“Hunh?” the young girl frowned.
“Amala, really?” came a voice from behind the pair. “Really, though? You were just going to let her hide here?”
“Wha…” the young girl began as she turned to stare open-mouthed at the seething Matriarch by the clearing’s entrance. “How?”
“Because I wasn’t born yesterday, girl,” the Matriarch growled.
“You didn’t slip past me,” the Matriarch interjected, folding her arms beneath her bosom as she spoke, “which meant you must’ve gone outside, and this is one of your favourite outside hiding spot, isn’t it?”
The young girl moved to speak, but no words came.
“Come on.” The Matriarch sighed. “Netyam’s waiting.”
Sulking, the young girl turned to her friend.
The elven woman winced at her friend. “Better luck next time.”
“It’s not fair, though,” she mumbled.
“Tell you what?” the woman whispered. “I’ll come find you after supper, you can read then. Alright?”
“I guess,” the young girl muttered.
“Naeve…” the Matriarch called out.
Rolling her eyes, the young girl rose. “Coming, Mother.”
The woman smiled at her friend as she walked past, then turned to watch her shuffle over to her mother before biting back her smile as she caught sight of the Matriarch’s disapproving frown, and in the silence that followed, she watched as the pair turned and left.
“Netyam,” she said at last, shaking her head as she returned her gaze to her book. “I never would’ve guessed.”
Then, as silence returned, the elven woman picked up her book and began reading once more.
Sitting within the Tower Library, the silver-haired woman hummed softly as she leafed through the tome before her, a contented smile upon her lips as the silence within the Library held her in its comforting embrace.
“Ah, so the Endrema treatise came first,” she whispered as she scanned the page before her. “Good thing I chose to check.”
Just then, a familiar scent filled her nostrils, except it was sharper than usual, and that meant only one thing.
“Oh, dear,” the woman sighed and braced for the coming storm.
It wasn’t long before heavy footsteps drifted to her ears. Raising her gaze, she smiled at the seething ball of youthful fury headed toward her.
“Hello, Naeve,” she said as the young girl approached. “All finished for the day, then?”
The deep scowl upon the young girl’s lips spoke volumes, and it only served to widen the elven woman’s smile.
“It’s not funny,” the young girl growled as she reached the elven woman’s table before slumping into the chair before it.
“Oh, it can’t have been that bad,” the woman replied.
The young girl glared hard in response.
“Naeve, it’s Netyam. It can’t have been that bad.”
“That man’s a slave-driver, Amala,” the young girl hissed. “A bloody slave-driver! Do you know how much homework he gave me? I’m going to be stuck in here till bed time!”
“Is that so bad, though?”
It took all the elven woman had to hold back her laughter as she stared at the stunned expression on her young friend’s face.
“Do you have to be so heartless right now?” the young girl said at last.
“Forgive me,” the woman replied, “I’m just in one of my moods.”
“Clearly,” the young girl glowered.
Smiling once more, the elven woman closed the tome before her before resting her arms upon it.
“Anything I can do, then?” she asked.
The young girl pondered those words a spell.
“Can you make Master Netyam disappear?” she soon asked.
“No.” The elven woman shook her head.
“Well, can you change Mother’s mind?”
“Then, no, you can’t help me right now, Amala.”
“Not even with the homework?”
The young girl pulled a face. “He says I have to do it all myself. And Mother said if she so much as suspects I got anyone to help me, she’d make Master Netyam give me double homework tomorrow, and she’d sit with me till it was all done.”
The elven woman winced at this.
“Sounds like you are going to be here till bed time then…”
“Yeah,” the young girl muttered as she gazed into the ether, her voice soft.
Then, the young girl turned to the woman once more. “Can I read one story before I start, though?”
The elven woman smiled at her friend. “Isn’t that just delaying the inevitable?”
The young girl shrugged. “Maybe. But can I?”
“You can read after you’re done, Naeve.”
“The sooner you start, the sooner you finish, and the sooner you finish, the sooner you can relax.”
“Amala, please,” the young girl pleaded. “I just came out of lessons, my head is positively pounding right now, and I just want something…else…for a little while.”
The elven woman stared in silence at her friend a spell.
The woman sighed at last. “Very well.”
“But only one!”
The young girl nodded. “Of course!”
“And you can’t put your head in my lap.”
“Because, young lady, we’re in the Library!”
The young girl stopped and stared about her as if noticing her surroundings for the first time.
“Can I sit beside you at least?” she asked.
The elven woman sighed at this, and in response, the young girl raised her hands in supplication, grinning at her friend.
“Very well,” the woman said at last, reaching into her pocket, “but behave yourself, alright? You are in public after all.”
The young girl nodded. “I will.”
“Come, then,” the woman added, gesturing to the empty space beside her.
Giggling, the young girl rose and began dragging her chair about the table, oblivious to the tuts and sharp glares from the others in the Library at the din she made in the progress.
“What?” the young girl said once she was beside her friend and noticed at last the hard stare her friend held her in.
Shaking her head, the woman sighed. “Just sit down.”
The young girl did, and as she did so, a tome shimmered into being before her, floating just above the table.
“So,” the elven woman said, “what are you in the mood for?”
“Hrm,” the girl muttered as she pondered the question. “You have anything in there about the other races?
“Other races…” the woman muttered as she turned the pages of the tome. “There’s this one that has a human who–”
“Humans are boring.”
“Not this one.”
The young girl pouted in response.
“Very well, then…uhm …” the woman replied, turning the tome’s pages some more. “How about dwarves?”
The young girl shook her head. “Not today.”
“Hrm…” the woman muttered, turning the tome’s pages once again.
The young girl frowned. “You have irunai in there?”
“Mhm.” The woman nodded.
The young girl stared from the tome to her friend and back again. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why? Many of your forebears had dealings with irunai, and some of those dealings are worthy of record.”
“But–” she began, turning to he friend.
“Do you wish to read or not?”
The young girl’s gaze drifted from her friend to the tome once more, then back again.
“Okay, then,” she said at last, shrugging.
“Good,” The woman nodded and sat back. “Enjoy.”
As the woman removed her hand from the tome, however, the young girl grasped hold of it and placed it upon her thigh before resting her head against the arm the hand belonged to.
“Naeve, what’re you doing?” the woman demanded.
“Getting comfortable,” the young girl replied
“I need that hand.”
“You need a hand,” the young girl said, raising her gaze to her friend. “You have two. I’m keeping this one. Use the other one.”
The elven woman glared hard at the young girl beside her before at last returning her gaze to her tome, a deep sigh escaping her lips.
“Gods give me strength,” she muttered before thumbing through her tome once more.
Giggling in response, the young girl rested her head upon her friend’s arm before turning to the tome.
“Nadrea,” the young girl muttered, then nestled against her dear friend’s arm, sighed, and began to read.
Sitting behind her desk, the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower breathed deep as she lowered the parchment in her hand to her desk, a deep sigh escaping her lips. Shaking her head, the tired elf glared at the parchment for all she was worth.
“Everyone else writes simple missives,” she growled, “why can’t you? Why in the world must you use such a long hand? Who the bloody hells are you intending to impress for gods’ sake?”
Sighing once more, she rose, several choice curses falling from her lips as she made her way towards her drinks cabinet. As she reached it, however, the sound of heavy and rapid footsteps reached her ears, and pausing, she turned to the door with bated breath.
“Kaeri!” cried the elf who barged through. “Come quickly!”
“Tharlis?” The Matriarch frowned as she stared at her Magister. “What is it?”
“It’s Nadrea,” the elf gasped.
“What?” the Matriarch said, her eyes widening as she took a step forward. “What’s happened? Is she alright?”
“She’s been taken, Kaeri!”
“What?” the Matriarch roared. “What do you mean, taken? She can’t be taken, she’s my daughter! How can someone take the Matriarch’s bloody daughter? Where’s Athanae?”
“Athanae’s downstairs,” the Magister said, his voice soothing, “ she arrived a few moments ago, along with the others. I don’t quite know what’s happened, just that Nadrea and that Stables hand friend of hers she went with were both taken some time before dawn. I’ve called for a rescue party, and I’ll be leading it myself, but come, you must hear the rest with your own ears. Quickly!”
The Matriarch’s gaze went from her Magister to the open door beside him, and gritting her teeth, she raced forth through the door, her legs carrying her as fast as they could towards the portal stone beyond.
Kneeling with her head bowed low, the Archmage Athanae Dustglade stared into the ether, her eyes raw as fresh tears fell from them onto the floor, her occasional sniffle the only sound in the room as the other mages stared at her, some with a gaze of horror and sorrow, others with deep disgust and pure rage. Then at last, the air above the portal stone shimmered, and the Matriarch appeared upon it.
“Athanae!” the eleven woman barked, her eyes wide as she hurried towards the kneeling elf.
“Matriarch, I–“ the Archmage began as she scrambled to her feet.
“Where’s my daughter?”
“Matriarch, please, I can explain, I–”
“Where is she?” the Matriarch demanded, grasping hold of the woman before her.
“Matriarch, please, allow me explain! She–”
“Where’s my daughter?” the hysterical mother shrieked as she shook the Archmage with all her might.
“Kaeri, no!” the Magister cried as he appeared upon the portal stone, running towards the women and pulling his Matriarch back from the sobbing Archmage.
“No, please,” he added as he comforted his Matriarch. “This won’t aid us in finding her.”
If his Matriarch heard him, she showed no signs, for her gaze was upon the woman before her, her eyes wide and her hate raw.
The Magister turned to the others assembled.
“What in the hells happened out there?” he barked. “You’ve all made journeys in the past with Nadrea as your sole charge, and all with no issue. And yet, on a journey such as this, you let her be taken?”
“Answer me!” the Magister thundered.
“It happened before dawn, Magister–” one of the gathered began.
“Tell me something I don’t know, gods damn it!”
“We stopped at the Lakeshore Inn, Magister,” another replied. “Darkness approached and we stopped to rest. After everyone turned in for the night, we warded the inn’s surrounds and had one stand guard.”
“So, what happened?” the Magister demanded.
The one who’d spoken turned to the silent Archmage, her gaze filled with hate. “Athanae replaced me some time before dawn as watch, and a little while after I’d gone to bed, some of us were awoken by the sound of battle. Those of us who were awoken roused the others, and it was then we noticed Athanae and the girls were missing.”
At this, the Magister turned to the woman before him.
“Speak!” he demanded.
Slowly, the Archmage raised her gaze to her Magister.
“She just wanted to see the moon on the lake,” she said. “That was all. We were only meant to be gone a little while.”
The Magister frowned. “What do you mean?”
“It was a full moon last night, Magister,” the one who’d first spoken offered.
“Oh,” the Magister muttered. Then, he returned his gaze to the others. “How did you find her? What did you find?”
“By the time we’d roused everyone, the fighting was over,” one of the silent mages spoke up, “so we tracked them as fast as we could. We…found Athanae lying in a pool of her own blood, barely breathing. There were signs of a great battle all around her, and from the tracks, she must’ve killed at least a dozen of them, perhaps more.”
“Fat lot of good it did the girls,” the second who’d spoken growled.
“She fought back, Tressia, she showed her character at–“
“I don’t care if she showed her character or not, Barlus. She failed in her duty, and she lost–”
“Enough!” the Magister barked, silencing the pair.
“Barlus is the one speaking now, Tressia,” the Magister soon added. “Is that clear?”
“Yes, Magister,” the Archmage named Tressia said, bowing to her Magister.
“Good,” the Magister snarled, then turned to the one named Barlus. “You said tracks. You saw no dead.”
“No, Magister.” The Archmage shook his head. “They took their dead with them.”
Took them where?”
Once more, the Archmage shook his a head. “I don’t know. We followed their tracks as far as we could, but it all stopped abruptly. Likely, they opened a portal and made good their escape.”
“And the girls?”
The Archmage swallowed hard. “They were taken, Magister. The tracks made that plain.”
“Damn, “ the Magister breathed as he stared into the ether. Then, he turned to the mage named Barlus once more.
“There will be a rescue party, and you’re the best tracker we have. Get whatever rest you can, we leave shortly.”
“Of course, Magister.” The mage bowed, then spun about and hurried to the portal stone.
Nodding, the Magister turned to his Matriarch. Her gaze was till upon Athanae, her hatred undimmed.
“I’ll find her, Kaeri,” the elf soothed. “You hear me? I’ll find her!”
The Matriarch nodded, but her gaze remained unchanged.
“Look at me, Athanae,” she said at last.
The Archmage kept her gaze at her feet.
“Look at me!” the Matriarch shrieked.
At last, the Archmage rose her gaze.
“I want you gone from my sight, do you hear me? Depart this place, and stay away till Tharlis returns. And if he returns without my daughter, you are to never darken these halls again. Do you understand me, Athanae?”
Sniffling as fresh tears ran down her cheeks, the Archmage nodded.
“I understand, Matriarch. But you must believe that I–”
“Get out!” the Matriarch yelled. “Out!”
The grief-striken mage stood silent for a spell, but soon spun about and raced away, the sound of her crying filling the air.
“I shouldn’t have let her go,” the Matriarch said after a spell, her gaze still upon the path the banished Archmage had run.
“Don’t speak like that, Kaeri,” the Magister said.
“I should’ve been firmer, Tharlis! Gods help me, I should’ve said no!”
“And deny that girl a chance to relive some fond memories of her father? This was their special trip, Kaeri, to deny her this would’ve been to deny her a chance to grieve and heal. Do you truly think she’d have ever forgiven you if you had?”
“Then I should’ve gone with her, I should’ve been there! I should’ve–”
“Don’t do this to yourself,” Tharlis pleaded. “You are not a Seer, you have no way of knowing this would happen. Don’t do this.”
“But she’s gone! the Matriarch shrieked.
“And I will find here,” Tharlis replied. “Upon my honour. I will find your daughter and bring her home. Trust in me, as you have all these years.”
The Matriarch stared at her Magister, her eyes filled for once with hope, but soon, the pain returned to her gaze as she turned and stared deeper into the Tower.
“Gods, what am I going to tell Arlon?” she said. “How do I look him in the eye and tell him I failed his sister?”
“You haven’t failed yet,” Tharlis replied. “I’ll find her, you’ll see.”
The Matriarch turned to her Magister, but said nary a word. Then, as the silence grew, the broken Matriarch turned and made her way towards the portal stone.
Stepping upon it, she turned to her Magister once more.
“Find her, Tharlis,” she said. “Please.”
The Magister nodded. “Upon my honour.”
“Thank you,” the Matriarch said, then with but a word, she faded from view.
Taking a deep breath, the Magister of the Shimmering Tower let it out slowly before spinning on his heels and marching forth, determined to see his grim task done.
Terrified, the two friends shambled on, their hands locked in each other’s and their heads bowed low, the hoods over their heads killing their vision and the cord about their waists the only thing to direct their paths.
“Hold on,” the older girl muttered, tightening her grip on her younger friend’s hand. “Just hold on.”
The younger child said nary her word, for her terror had frozen her tongue.
They had been on the move for what seemed like an eternity, jumping from one portal to the next till neither child could safely say just where in the world they walked.
But then, after what seemed like an age, the children felt the end in sight at last, for once more, the group slowed, once more their cords slacked, only this time, there were no heavy hum of a portal. Instead, what they heard was the sound of a great door being opened.
“Inside,” a voice behind them barked as the cords about their waists grew taut.
The children obeyed, marching forth in silence till their cords slacked once more, and as they halted, the air was filled with the sound of a great door being slammed shut.
“Are you alright?” the older child whispered.
“I think so,” the younger one whispered in response.
“Good,” the older one whispered. “Whatever happens, stand behind me. Alright?”
“Alright.” The younger nodded.
“Muttering to each other again?” a voice rang out from beside the pair.
“They never shut up, those two,” came another.
“Just the older one,” came a third. “The small one just squeaks and whimpers.”
“Get their hoods off,” said a fourth voice.
“And let them see us?” snapped the third voice. “Are you mad?”
“What difference does it make?” came the first voice. “You know how this ends.”
“You will not speak to me in such a manner, worm,” the third voice sneered.
“And you will not speak to him in such a manner. Is that clear?”
A tense silence filled the air as the two girls stood with their hearts climbing up their throats, the hairs on the back of their necks standing ramrod straight.
“If their hoods come off,” the third voice growled at last, “and we do not get payment, what then?”
“How do you intend for them to eat?” the first voice replied. “And do you intend to clean the mess they’ll make when they go to empty their bowels?”
“Besides, I can’t see how we won’t get payment,” the second voice added. “Refusing payment hurts them more than us.”
“Precisely,” the fourth voice added.
“Very well, then,” the third voice muttered. “Get their damned hoods off.”
“I gave you that order,” said the fourth voice.
The tense silence returned, but it was soon banished by sharp footfalls, and as one, the girls felt their hoods wrenched from their heads before wincing in unison as their eyes adjusted to the light.
“Welcome to your new home, Nadrea Earthchild, and friend.”
Slowly, as their eyes adjusted, the two friends carried their gazes about the room, and the more they saw, the more their hearts froze. Seven full-grown men, all elves, their skins as dark as ash and their garbs embracing the shadows about them, and all with eyes as cold as death. Seven dark elves surrounding the pair, sneering at them in utter silence.
“Irunai,” the older friend whispered, her face greatly whitened. “Oh, gods.”
“I want to go home,” the younger one whimpered.
“Ah, I fear that will not be possible for the moment, my dear,” said the one who’d welcomed them as others chortled. “But have no fear, we–”
“I know not who you are or what you are planning,” said the older friend, her voice carrying a strength she did not feel, “but if you do not release us this instant, when my mother finds–”
“Your mother was a nobody, child,” the elf interjected, waving the young girl’s words away, “and you’d do well to shut your mouth.”
“If you think–”
“Nadrea is the one we care about, girl,” the elf continued, “and the only reason we kept you alive was because you seemed to be able to make her keep her self-control. But if you insist on this nonsense, I shall slit your throat here and now. Is that clear?”
The young girl swallowed hard and fell silent for a spell. But soon, her courage truly returned, and once more, she drew breath, ready to bark at the elves once again. As she did so, however, a sharp tug upon her hand stopped her, and turning, she stared into the wide eyes of her friend as the little girl shook her head vehemently.
“That is the first adult thing you’ve adult today, Nadrea,” the dark elf said. “Well done!”
“What do you want with us?” the other child demanded.
“From you,” the dark elf sneered, “silence.”
The young girl moved to speak, but no words came forth.
The irunai turned to the little child. “And from you, my dear? Nothing, for the moment. You will be our guest for a time, till we have received payment, then we shall release you.”
“Release us?” the older friend said, frowning.
“What did I just tell you, child?”
The young girl fell silent.
“You’ll truly release us?” little Nadrea said, her voice soft.
The dark elf smiled. “You have my word.”
But there was no mirth in his smile, and the more Nadrea held his gaze, the more she cowered from him.
“Now,” the irunai continued, turning to the elf standing beside them, “Thorn shall be your guide and guard. He shall show you to your quarters, and shall see to your needs. I fear they’re far removed from lodgings one such as you has come to expect, but I think they’ll suffice.”
As one, the pair turned to the elf.
In response, the elf stepped forth and began undoing the cords about the children’s waist and wrists.
“Oh,” continued the elf who’d addressed them, “ sooner or later, you’ll both scheme to escape. If, by some miracle, you do indeed escape, pray to whichever god you worship that we do not catch up with you. Pray fervently, children, for if we do, we shall take our time with you, and we shall make you both scream before the end. Do you understand?”
The two friends nodded.
“Good.” The elf nodded. “Thorn?”
“This way,” the elf named Thorn said, and led the children away, the gazes of the others following them throughout.
Standing still, the Magister of the Shimmering Tower carried his gaze slowly about the simple room he stood within, his eyes searching each nook and cranny as he went.
“Hrm…” he muttered, his lips pursed as he tapped his chin with a thumb. “Hrm…”
“They said I might find you here,” came a voice from behind him, drawing him from his thoughts. “Did I miss something?”
The Magister smiled. “That would be a first.”
The Archmage standing behind him smiled.
“No, Barlus,” the Magister continued, his smile fading, “I don’t think it’s something you missed, but…”
The Magister frowned. “How did they know Athanae and the girls would be at the lake? From Athane’s words, it was clearly an unplanned excursion.”
The Archmage named Barlus nodded. “I’d pondered that as well.”
Tharlis turned to his dear friend, his frown deepening. “And?”
“I have a bigger question. How did they know we’d be spending the night here?”
The Magister’s frown deepened. “What do you mean?”
The Archmage shrugged. “We were all set to ride further on, but only stopped because Nadrea was too tired to continue.”
“Hrm,” the Magister muttered. “Clearly, they were watching you.”
The Archmage nodded. “That is the most obvious conclusion, but none of us saw anything, none of us heard anything, and much of our journey was through open plains. We never had open fires going when we stopped, and we didn’t make all that much noise either.”
“They might’ve tracked you by arcane means.”
The Archmage shook his head. “We were warded, Tharlis. Whoever can see through those wards would have had the power and resources to face us directly, instead of skulking around waiting for a chance to steal Nadrea from us. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“And to your question, how did they know Athanae and the girls would be at the lake? I can’t answer that one either. I’ve wracked my memory over and over, and I cannot for the life of me recall anyone paying us undue attention, either inside the inn or outside it. But, somehow, they had eyes on us, they must’ve, that’s the only explanation that makes any form of sense. But hells if I know how.”
“Yes,” the Magister muttered, “that is the question, isn’t it? How?”
Sighing at last, the Magister shook his head. “We will find an answer in time, but first, did you see anything new at the lake?”
The Archmage shook his head. “We scanned with both eye and spell, nothing new. They were in haste, to be sure, could’ve done a much better job hiding their tracks. But there was still nothing to say who they were, or where they went.”
“And the portal?”
Once more the Archmage shook his head. “Its etheric remnants are too weak to say which school the caster was from.”
“So, we have nothing?”
The Archmage sighed. “We have nothing.”
Taking a deep breath, the Magister let it out slowly.
“Damn all this,” he muttered at last before marching toward the door, “I need a drink.”
“I’ll join you,” the Archmage said and fell in step behind his Magister.
In silence, the pair marched as one down the stairs and headed towards the inn’s front door.
“You all done upstairs, then?” said the inn-keeper.
Stopping, the pair turned and smiled in unison at the portly human walking towards them.
“Yes,” Tharlis nodded, “we are. And my thanks for your patience.”
“Oh, it’s no bother!” The man grinned, but his grin was fleeting. “Just a shame what happened to them two girls. Sweetest things to ever grace me inn in years!”
The Magister’s smile widened. “They are, aren’t they?”
“Aye.” The man nodded, then sighed. “And that poor woman, whasername, Athena…?”
“Athanae,” Barlus corrected.
“Aye, here,” the inn-keeper nodded. “She looked so broken when you lot brought her back. But even with them nasty wounds, you could tell it was her heart that taken the biggest hit.”
“Yes,” Tharlis nodded, “she was heartbroken indeed.” Then, he reached for the inn door’s handle. “But if you’ll excuse us, we must return to the others to continue our search.”
“Oh aye, aye.” The man nodded. “Just tell that Athena woman–”
“Athanae,” Barlus repeated.
“Aye her. You tell her from old Constance, don’t blame yourself for talking them girls into going to the lake. No way she’d know there’d be trouble brewing, and I know them girls would’ve loved it!”
At those words, both men froze and stared at each other as the blood slowly drained from their faces, and as one, they turned to the portly human.
“Repeat that,” Tharlis said.
“What?” The man frowned.
“You said Athanae suggested the girls follow her to the lake,” Barlus added.
“Aye.” The man nodded.
“She wished to show the lake to the girl,” Tharlis replied. “The girls didn’t ask her, she wished to show it to them.”
“Aye.” The man nodded once more, a slight frown upon his lips.
At this, the man’s brows furrowed deep as his cheeks reddened. “What, you bloody calling me a liar in me own inn?”
“No, sir,” Barlus replied, taking a step forward. “We just need you to be positive about this. Are you positive it was Athanae’s idea to go to the lake?”
“Well, begging your pardon, sir,” the man sneered, “but you wasn’t here, and me ears still hear good. Your Athena woman–”
“Yeah, well, your…your woman friend kept whispering to the little ‘un about how wonderful the lake is under a full moon till that little ‘un’s eyes shone real bright. Then the little ‘un went and spoke to the other one till that one wanted to go too, so all three of them started whispering and giggling, planning how they was going to get there and everything.”
The silence that followed was deafening as both men stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the inn-keeper.
“It was Athanae who told you Nadrea needed to rest,” Tharlis said at last, “wasn’t it?”
The Archmage beside him nodded. “She was their eyes. Right in our midst the whole time.”
“Gods damn that woman…” the Magister breathed.
“But the people she killed…!” Barlus gasped, turning to his Magister.
The Magister shook his head and turned to the door.
“We go to the lake,” he said, swinging the door open and marching through. “Let’s see if anything there seems staged.”
Not knowing what else to say, the Archmage named Barlus fell in step behind his Magister, his mind awhirl and his heart in turmoil.
“Kirin, are you awake?” little Nadrea whispered as she stared across their cell at her friend lying still upon her pallet.
There was no response.
The young girl named Kirin remained unmoving, her sides slowly rising and falling.
Sighing, the little girl lowered her gaze to her stomach, and after a spell, it growled once more.
Biting her lip, little Nadrea turned to the shadow across from their cell, to the spot where she’d seen the man named Thorn step into and fade from view, and as she stared, she once more willed her legs to take her closer to the cell bars so she could demand they be fed, but once more, her legs refused to obey her. Then, turning once again to her slumbering friend, she shuffled over and knelt beside her.
Her dear friend slept so soundly, and the thought of what she was about to do filled the little girl with shame, but she had not the strength to do what needed to be done, and she had waited for as long as she could. Truly. And so, biting her lip once more, little Nadrea reached out a hesitant hand and shook her friend gently.
“Mmh?” young Kirin mumbled as she stirred.
“Wha…?” she added as she turned to Nadrea.
“I’m hungry,” the little girl mumbled.
“Mh.” Kirin mumbled and lumbered to her feet.
“Where is he?” she said, scanning the front of their cell.
“In his usual place.”
“Mh.” Kirin nodded and wandered towards the cell’s bars, a grateful Nadrea close behind.
“Hey, Thorn!” she yelled. “We’re hungry!”
“Are you now?” came a voice from the shadows.
“Yes, we bloody are!” Kirin threw back. “And when will you bloody free us? We’ve been here for three bloody days!”
“Do you not realise asking the same question over and over, expecting a different answer each time, just makes you seem a fool?” the dark elf said as he stepped from the shadows.
“Whatever,” Kirin muttered, waving the elf’s words away. “Are you going to feed us or let us starve to death?”
The dark elf stared in silence at the defiant child for a spell, but soon turned his gaze to the silent one cowering behind her.
“One day, she won’t be there to fight your battles for you, Nadrea,” he said. “You do well to learn that lesson, and quickly.”
Before either could speak, the dark elf turned and headed for the door.
“Bloody bastard,” young Kirin seethed once the door closed. Then, she turned to her little friend.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Little Nadrea nodded, smiling.
“Are you cold?”
The little girl shook her head.
“Good.” Kirin nodded, smiling as she stood tall.
“Thank you,” little Nadrea added.
“Eh.” Kirn shrugged in response before turning to the door once more.
“Tell you what,” she soon added, returning her gaze to her friend. “When he returns, you can have my share. I’m not that hungry.”
Little Nadrea held her friend in a pointed stare. “I’m not that hungry either.”
“Very well, then,” Kirin grinned, “we share evenly.”
Then, she turned to their pallets. “Come, let’s sit and wait for him.”
“You truly think they’ll let us go?” little Nadrea asked as they sat.
“They have no choice now,” Kirin sighed as she sat, “their leader gave his word. I don’t know much about irunais, but I do know they love to keep their word. It’s so bloody important to them.”
“But we’ve seen their faces though.”
“I know.” Kirin nodded and turned to her friend. Then, she smiled. “But can you tell one irunai from another? I sure as hells can’t.”
“That’s just rude, Kirin…”
“Rude, but true.”
Biting back a smile, Nadrea did her level best to hold her friend in a disappointed stare.
“Nevermind.” Little Nadrea sighed.
“Oh, don’t you start,” Kirin growled as she gave her friend a playful shove, an act that drew forth a short giggle from the little girl.
“But truly though, I don’t think they’re stupid enough to kill you, you being the Matriarch-in-waiting and all that.”
“But if I’m so special, why did they take us in the first place?” little Nadrea mumbled.
“Hrm?” Nadrea frowned. “What coin?”
“Don’t you remember what they said when they brought us here? They’re waiting for payment.”
Nadrea nodded. “Yeah, I remember. So?”
“So, they’re ransoming you to your mother, obviously! But what those idiots don’t know is your mother’s never going to pay! She’s going to move heaven and earth to get you back and make them all pay for harming the hair on your head! You just watch!”
A soft smile parted little Nadrea’s lips, but there was an emptiness to it, a hollowness that young Kirin had seen before, and it unnerved her now as it did then. Forcing a smile of her own, young Kirin placed a calming hand upon her little friend’s back and rubbed gently.
“Your mother’ll find us,” she said. “You’ll see.”
“Yeah,” Nadrea said, her smile warming. “Yeah, they’ll find us.”
“Precisely! We just need to keep believing in them.”
Grinning, young Kirin nodded at her friend. “Yes.”
Just then, voices drifted through the door to the children, silencing the pair as they strained to listen. Neither could make out the words, but as they listened, little Nadrea soon realised something.
“Kirn,” she gasped, turning to her friend, her eyes wide. “That’s Athanae!”
“What?” young Kirin frowned.
“It’s Athanae!” Nadrea replied. “I know that voice! It’s Athanae! They’ve found us!”
“Hold, are you sure?” Kirin asked as her friend scrambled to her feet.
“Yeah!” she replied as she darted for the cell bars. “It’s her!”
“Athanae!” the little girl yelled with all her might. “We’re in here! Athanae!”
“Bloody hells,” young Kirin gasped before scrambling to her feet and darting for the cell bars.
Then, before long, both children screamed at the top of their longs, their hearts in their throats as they tasted salvation.
At last, the door swung open, and as the face of the Archmage Athanae Dustglade came into view, the joy that filled the children’s hearts was indescribable, moving the pair close to tears. But then, as silence fell upon the room, their joy began to fade. The Archmage was glaring at them, and made no move to open their cell door.
“Athanae?” Nadrea said at last, her voice soft and breaking.
Just then, movement behind the Archmage drew the children’s gazes.
“Behind you!” Kirin yelled as the dark elf named Thorn appeared from the shadows behind the Archmage, tray in hand.
In response, the glowering elf spun on her heels to face the dark elf square.
“Why are they not dead yet?” she barked.
“What?” the children said in unison.
“Our agreement was clear,” the mage continued, ignoring the children completely. “so why are they not dead yet?”
“You do not command here, woman,” the dark elf replied, “and they die after we’ve received payment.”
“So, my word is not good enough for you?”
“Athanae?” Nadrea repeated, her eyes glistening as she spoke.
“Oh, shut up, child!” the Archmage barked.
“You shut up!” Kirin yelled. “What sort of horrible person are you? You swore to protect her! You swore!”
“And what if I did?” the Archmage thundered, spinning to glare at the pair. “What if I did? What’re you going to do about it from in there?”
“Oh, don’t you worry,” Kirin snarled, “sooner or later, Nadrea’s mother will realise what you’ve done, and when she does, she’ll eat your liver!”
The elven woman laughed at this.
“Truly, girl, your stupidity astounds me sometimes. Who do you think arranged all this?”
“What?” Kirin gasped.
“What? Did you not find it odd that the Matriarch would agree for some idiot nobody to accompany her daughter on so personal a journey? Of course you didn’t! Nobody did! All of you just nodded and smiled like the idiots you all are!”
“You’re lying,” Kirin replied. “You’re lying! Nadrea, don’t listen, she’s trying to–”
“Oh, goodness, child, use your eyes!” the elven mage shot back. “Look at the little brat! She knows I speak the truth!”
In response, Kirin turned to her little friend, and the dejection she saw in little Nadrea’s eyes broke her heart.
“Now, you,” the elven woman said as she rounded on the dark elf behind her. “I came here for–”
“Why?” Kirin interjected as little Nadrea turned and wandered to her pallet.
“Hunh?” Athanae frowned, turning to the young girl once more.
“Why do something like this?”
“Because I hate the stupid brat, that’s why! Her cowardice is nauseating in the extreme! And I hate that damn place! I hate all the politicking and the posturing. I hate the endless assignments and postings. I’m sick of it all! Her mother offered me a way to never have to see the inside of the blasted Tower ever again, and have enough coin to see out the rest of my days in comfort. Why wouldn’t I take it? Now, shut up, alright? Your betters are speaking.”
Then, she returned her gaze to the dark elf. “I came here for proof of death, and I–”
“I care not why you’re here, woman,” the irunai named Thorn interjected, “but they live till payment has been confirmed.”
The seething elf glared in silence for a spell.
“How long? she asked at last.
“Depends on your people,” the dark elf replied. “They die when it’s confirmed.”
“I’ll return in six days,” Athanae said. “Have their heads ready for me by then.”
“I repeat, woman, you do not–”
“Six days!” the mage barked, then shoved past the irunai, knocking the contents of the tray in his hand to the floor as she went past.
The dark elf named Thorn stared at the doorway in silence for a spell, then turned to the pair
“It’s a cruel way for you to learn all this,” he said. “Left to me, you’d have gone to your deaths in blissful ignorance.”
“You gave us you word,” Kirin replied through gritted teeth, her eyes glistening as she spoke. “You promised to free us!”
“No, my dear, we promised to release you.”
“It’s the same thing!”
A sad smile parted the dark elf’s lips. “When one such as us promises you sweet release, you don’t thank him, you run.”
Then, he stared at the spilt food upon the floor and sighed.
“I’ll get you some more,” he said, then turned and left.
An awkward silence filled the room as the elf left, and not knowing what else to do, young Kirin wiped her tears and, forcing a smile to her lips, spun about and hurried over to her friend.
“Now, you listen to me,” she said, kneeling before her friend. “You don’t know she’s telling the truth, you hear me? You don’t! You mother would never do such a thing! She loves you!”
Tearing her gaze from the ether, her cheeks stained with tears and her eyes reddened, little Nadrea stared at her friend with a heavy heart and a broken soul.
“Stop,” the little girl said, her voice soft. “Just stop, Kirin, please.”
“Mother hates me, alright?” little Nadrea interjected. “She’s hated me since I was born. Arlon is her favourite, he’s always been her favourite. It’s him she wishes would succeed her, not me. It’s what everyone wishes, too. But, the thing is, I don’t want to succeed her! I know I’m a coward. I know I won’t make a good Matriarch, but I don’t want to be Matriarch! I never have! But nobody cares what I want! Everybody acts like it’s the only thing that’s giving my life meaning, but then they speak ill about me when I’m not around.”
“Hey, hey,” young Kirin soothed, hurrying to sit beside her friend and hold her close. “Stop talking like this, alright?”
“She was nicer when Father was alive, you know,” the little girl continued, her tears running free once more. “We were a true family then. I think she blames me for his death. I don’t know why. I wish I knew what I did, or said, or–”
“How in the hells can anyone blame you for that?” young Kirin cried, leaning back to stare deep into little Nadrea’s eyes. “He died in a bloody ambush! You weren’t even there!”
“I know! Gods, I know! But she does, she just does.”
Then, the little girl lowered her gaze and rested her head against her friend’s chest. “And now you’re going to die here because of me.”
“No!” Kirin replied, her voice firm as she raised her little friend’s gaze to hers. “You stop that, right this instant! I’m here because I chose to be here! You didn’t–”
“Would you have said yes if I hadn’t been crying so much?”
Young Kirin fell silent, her words lost to her.
Shaking her head, little Nadrea leant forward once more, this time wrapping her arms about her friend.
“Forgive me, Kirin,” she whimpered. “I never meant for this to be your end.”
“We’re not dead yet .”
“It doesn’t matter, we soon will be. No-one is coming to save us. No-one ever was.”
“Nadrea, stop, please!”
Shaking her head, the little girl hugged her friend tight and sobbed, her whole body quivering from the effort.
Breathing deep, young Kirin hugged her little friend close in turn, gritting her teeth hard against the pain in her heart. But the pain proved too much, and soon the young Stables hand closed her eyes, rested her cheek upon her little friend’s head, and silently wept as her will broke at last.
Sighing deep, the Magister Tharlis Windweave raised his goblet to his lips and sipped, the tired mage desperate to clear the fog in his thoughts. But more than that, he was desperate to ease the pain in his heart. One of his own, hand-picked by him to serve as the Matriarch-in-waiting’s personal guard, only to turn traitor… It was a thought that weighed heavy on the wizened mage, and a blight he was utterly desperate to be rid of.
“Magister!” came a voice above the din of the tavern.
Turning to the utterer the wizened mage raised his goblet as his gaze fell upon his dear friend, and he watched with bated breath as the Archmage Barlus Oakstone hurried to his table.
“Anything?” he asked as the man sat, the other mages within the tavern crowding about them.
“Some,” Barlus said, the twinkle in his eye unmistakable.
Barlus smiled. “There’s a tavern a little ways down from the lake, on the other side. Its owner remembers having a large band come in the night of the attack. She said she counted thirteen humans. Sellswords, probably.”
“How does that aid us?” Tharlis frowned.
Barlus smiled. “Well, she remembers them arguing amongst themselves about the rights and wrongs of taking a job that entailed grabbing two children from their mother.”
At this, the Magister sat tall as the others crowded closer.
Barlus nodded once more. “Yes. And there’s more.”
Barlus leant forward. “She said there were fifteen in all.”
“Fifteen?” Tharlis frowned.
“But you said there were thirteen earlier.”
Barlus shook his head. “I said thirteen humans.”
“And the other two?”
“Irunai. One of them had a satchel. She said he seemed to be keen to hide its existence from the others, including his irunai companion, but she caught a glimpse of it, along with the insignia upon it.”
“Did she describe the insignia?”
The Archmage nodded. “It was House Endermol’s.”
A deathly silence fell upon the group as all gathered stared hard at the Archmage.
“Of course,” the Magister muttered at last as he sat back into his chair. “We’re renegotiating our treaty with the irunai, aren’t we? And House Endermol is leading the negotiations on behalf of the dark elves. They must’ve taken Nadrea as leverage over us.”
Barlus nodded. “That’s the most logical answer.”
“But why?” Tharlis added. “The terms Kaeri’s offering is the most generous we’ve ever offered anyone! Why would they need more leverage?”
“Clearly, their greed knows no bounds,” one of the gathered growled.
“The bastards,” another seethed.
“Hrm, quite,” Tharlis growled, his gaze in the ether. Then, the Magister sat tall.
“Get some rest,” he said, “all of you. We head for that tavern at first light. The sooner we pick up their trail the better.”
“At once, Magister,” the mages intoned, then headed for the door.
“Not you, Barlus,” the Magister added as the mage seated across from him moved to rise.
“Here, you’ve earned this,” he said, pushing his goblet to the man.
“What is it?”
“Oh, thank gods,” the mage gasped, and, raising the goblet to his lips, downed its contents in one go.
The Magister smiled throughout.
“Good?” he asked as Barlus lowered the goblet.
“Hm.” The mage nodded, wiping his lips.
Then, the mage made to rise, but once more, he froze, this time with a puzzled look upon his face.
“What is it?”
Sitting in response, the Archmage reached into his tunic and pulled out a seeking stone, one that pulsed with a soft glow.
“It’s Athanae,” he said.
“What?” the mage gasped.
Nodding, the Archmage placed his hand upon the table, the stone nestled in his palm.
The Magister stared from his friend to the stone, then, gritting his teeth, clasped his hand about his friend’s and his palm upon the stone, then nodded to the man.
Nodding himself, the Archmage lowered his gaze and stared into the ether.
“Archmage?” echoed a voice in both men’s minds.
“Who’s this?” Barlus demanded.
“And how are you able to tune Athanae’s seeking stone?”
“Ah, Magister Windweave, you’re here too, excellent!” the voice said. “Who I am is of no importance, neither is how I am able to speak to you, just that I am. Are you two alone?”
“Who are you?” Tharlis demanded.
“You seek the children, do you not? If you wish to find them before it’s too late, save your questions and answer mine. Are you alone, yes or no?”
The two men exchanged glances.
“We’re alone,” Tharlis replied.
“Good. Your friend, Athanae, is a traitor, she–”
“We know,” Barlus interjected.
“Interesting… Seems she’s not as thorough as she believes. Either that, or you’re better than she gives you credit. What else do you know?”
Barlus stared at his Magister in silence. Tharlis nodded in response.
“We know the irunai are behind this. We know they hired thirteen sellswords to attack Athanae and make it seem like an ambush. They were slaughtered to throw us off her scent. And we know the irunai are doing this for leverage in the treaty negotiations.”
“Impressive, Archmage, I can see why Magister Windweave holds you in such high regard. All but one of what you said is true.”
“All but one…?” Tharlis frowned.
“We’re not using the children as leverage, Magister.”
“We?” Barlus frowned.
“Yes, Archmage, we.”
“So, what are you doing this for?” Tharlis demanded.
“We’re being paid to.”
“What?” the men said in unison.
“Think upon it. If they’re leverage, why have we not reached out to your Matriarch? And why now, when negotiations are close to completing?”
“So, who’s paying you, then?” Tharlis demanded.
“How about if I tell you how we’re being paid?”
Tharlis’s frown deepened. “Very well.”
“Did you ever stop to think why your Matriarch is offering such favourable terms after everything we irunai have done? I mean, we haven’t exactly been the most loyal of allies in the past, now have we?”
At those words, a cold hand gripped the men’s insides and began to squeeze.
“She’s doing it to bring you closer to–” the Archmage began after a spell.
“Are you intending to convince me with those words, Archmage, or yourself?”
“You lie, irunai!” Tharlis spat at last, his words carrying more venom than he felt. “Nadrea is Kaeri’s daughter, she would never–”
“She has, Magister, she has. Now, you can bury your head in the sand and let these two girls die, or you can stand for what your precious Tower champions and do something about this.”
Breathing deep, the Magister sat tall. “What are you proposing?”
“I expect the treaty to be signed in four days, five at most. Which means in four or five days, those two will die. That means you have three days to get to us.”
“And where are you?” Barlus demanded.
“Head back to the lake where the ambush happened. On the other side of it to the ambush, there’s path leading on from two gnarled trees, follow it–”
“Is this to get to the tavern you and the sellswords stayed at?” the Archmage interjected.
“That is the third time you’ve impressed me, Archmage. You are quite the truth-seeker, aren’t you. It is that tavern, yes. There is a maid there, human, brown hair, blue eyes, tall. Ask her for the thorny satchel. She will ask you for the pass phrase. Tell her there isn’t one.”
“What’s in this satchel?” Tharlis asked.
“Instructions on how to get to us.”
“You mean to tell me you were planning on betraying your own people from the beginning?” the Archmage growled.
The voice chuckled. “Oh, my dear Archmage, you know so little of who my people are. Now, shall I continue, or do you intend to waste what little time we have on worthless rants about my lack of honour and whatnot?”
Gritting his teeth, Barlus growled, then nodded. “Continue.”
“Excellent! You shall find two maps in there. Use the gilded one. Follow it to the spot marked. If you are not at that precise spot by this time in three days, those girls will die. Do you understand?”
The two men exchanged glances once more.
“We understand,” Tharlis said.
“Excellent! Oh, one more thing. I’d strongly advise against telling anyone about this. I highly doubt your Matriarch would allow you to leave the Tower without ensuring at least one of your number is advising her in secret on your progress. But that is just my thought. See you in three days.”
“One question from me,” the Magister said.
“Did the tavern owner truly just catch a glimpse of House Endermol’s insignia on your satchel, or did you let her see it?”
“Hrm…what do you think?”
The glow of the seeking stone began to fade, and as silence fell upon the pair, the two men stared at each other as Barlus shoved the stone back into his pocket.
“You think he’s right about someone in our midst feeding our progress to the Matriarch,” Barlus asked.
A bitter frown twisted the wizened Magister’s lips as he nodded. “I’d do the same too, if I’d arranged for my own daughter to meet her end and my Magister went on an expedition that could expose me.”
“So you think she planned this?”
Shaking his head, Tharlis sighed. “Right now, I don’t know what to think. But I do know this, we cannot risk being wrong. We leave in secret, we leave now. Once we have Nadrea, we can stop and ponder who or what is behind this.”
“And if they ambush us?”
The Magister’s gaze darkened greatly at this. “Let them try.”
Then, the mage rose.
“Come,” he said, then headed for the door.
Barlus watched his Magister for a spell.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Tharlis,” he muttered, then rose and hurried after the man.
Sitting in the shadows, the irunai that was Narlan Endermol fiddled with his daggers as he fought to contain his boredom. One more day, that was all. Just one more day, and he would no longer have to take orders from that insufferable arse of a cousin. Just one more day, and…
Just then, movement down the hall from him caught his eye, and rising, the irunai frowned and waited, his eyes straining.
Then, a head poked out from around the corner, scanned, and darted down the hall and into one of the storage rooms, a glowing stone in hand. It was the worm his cousin had allowed to join them.
“What are you doing up here, I wonder?” the irunai mused.
Rising, he hurried down the hall before stopping to rest beside the door of the room into which he’d seen the lowly dark elf enter, and resting upon the wall, he strained his ears and fell silent.
“Yes, I’m sure, damn it!” he heard the vile irunai hiss, “I’m alone! Now, what is it? I don’t know how long it’ll be before I’m missed.”
“What do you mean?” the irunai continued after a brief silence. “Why do I need to hold my temp–”
“Now, this could be interesting,” Narlan thought, a smile parting his lips.
“No, of course I’m not going to think ill of you, how can I?” the hiding irunai whispered.
“Netharn, please, get to the point, what is it?”
“You did what?”
“Of course I’m upset, what in the world were you thinking?”
“But what if your–”
“But didn’t you–”
“But if they–”
“Gods, damn it, man, shut up and let me speak!”
“What I was going to say was, what if your father finds out? Or Narlan!”
“What?” Narlan thought. “Find out what?”
“No, I’m not going to bloody tell him!” the irunai hissed. “Why would I?”
“But can you trust her though? After all, she already betrayed her people?”
“Betrayed her people…” Narlan thought. ”Athanae?”
“A ruse?” the hiding irunai continued. “You’re sure?”
“Are you sure she can pay?”
“Woah, already? All of it? Good lords…”
Then, silence fell upon the room, and as it grew, Narlan began to tense.
“No, no, I’m still here,” the irunai whispered at last, his words calming the eavesdropping dark elf.
“That’s too much, Netharn, I don’t need that much.”
“Heh, very well, you have my thanks. But are you sure you can get your father to delay the signing?”
“If you’re sure.”
“Alright, so, uhm, I wait till early morning, set the girls free…”
“What?” Narlan mouthed, his eyes wide.
“…and escort them out. Then, we meet you at the lake where it all started. The woman will be there as well. I hand over the girls, she hands us the coin and we split it and head back quickly. Understood.”
“Bastards…” Narlan whispered, his eyes ablaze. “You soulless bastards.”
“Good,” the whispering dark elf continued. “I’d better go, those two are going to be bleating for supper soon, best get to the kitchen and get them something. And Netharn, take care of yourself, alright?”
At this, the eavesdropping dark elf hurried away from the storeroom’s door, darting into a nearby door way just as the irunai known as Thorn came into view. Gritting his teeth, Narlan watched the deceitful scoundrel scan his surrounds, then head back down the hall, and as he left, the enraged dark elf noble rested upon the door behind him and pondered on what he’d just heard.
That his cousin was planning a betrayal was beyond question, the worthless snake had clearly sold his House for coin. And to that self-righteous cow no less. And by ruse, they must mean the whole endeavour was one big ruse. But to what end? Why go through all this bother? Why place those two brats in all this danger?
“It makes no sense!” Narlan muttered.
But sense or not, there was betrayal afoot, and one that would bring shame to his House. He couldn’t stand idly by and let it come to pass. He had to do something.
“But what?” he hissed. “It’s not like the others will believe me without some proof.”
Then a thought struck him, one as simple as it was grim. The betrayal hinged on the two girls leaving there alive. But if they didn’t, the betrayal would fail, and fail gloriously.
Standing tall, a dark smile upon his lips, the dark elf grasped hold of the hilt of the blade at his side.
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “They die and the Tower goes after him. And who knows, perhaps Father can use that to gain control of the House.”
Nodding once more, his smile widening, the scheming dark elf marched forth, oblivious to the face peaking round the corner and the smug smile upon it.
“Nadrea, wake up,” Kirin said as she shook her friend gently. “He’s coming back.”
“Hrm?” little Nadrea muttered as she rose to sitting before rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“I think Thorn’s coming back,” Kirin replied. “You’re still hungry, aren’t you?”
“Mh.” The little girl nodded and rose, but as she rose the door swung open and and a dark elf marched in.
As one, the girls frowned.
“You’re not Thorn,” Nadrea said.
“Perceptive.” The dark elf smirked.
“You’re the one who wanted to keep the hoods on our heads,” Kirin snarled.
The dark elf smiled and closed the door behind him.
“Where’s Thorn?” Kirin demanded. “Nadrea’s hungry, and…”
The young girl’s words soon died in her throat, however, for the irunai had spun about, and now had a dagger in his hand.
“Thorn is busy, children,” the irunai said as he sauntered over to where the key to their cell hung, “but when I’m done here, you needn’t worry about being hungry ever again.”
At those words, the girls rose as a gasp escaped their lips, and they watched in terror as the dark elf approached, their gazes darting from the dagger in his hand to the cold smile upon his lips.
As he reached the cell bars, however, the main door flew open as a figure flew in, leaping at the dark elf in a single bound. As it leapt, the irunai turned to face it square, but the figure was upon him before he’d even drawn breath, slamming him against the cell bars and pinning the hand with the dagger against it before calling forth a pained gasp from the irunai’s lips.
“I never understood how someone as arrogant and as gullible as you can be raised to such a high position in this House, Narlan,” the girls heard Thorn mutter, his voice quivering with excitement.
“Did you even stop to ponder what you’d heard? Did you stop to ask yourself Why now? Or even How can all this possibly be a ruse? Did you even once stop to ponder the incredulity of Netharn betraying us all for Athanaes’s coin after all that bitch has done? Of course not!”
The pinned irunai gasped and coughed as blood poured from his lips.
“Everything you heard was a lie, Narlan, every last bit of it, and while I’d love to tell you all about it, I fear I’m on a schedule so you’re just going to have to go to your grave pondering why. Now, die, you worm.”
Another pained gasp escaped the pinned irunai’s lips, and as the dark elf named Thorn stepped back, the girls saw at last the dagger in his hand, one that dripped with blood.
And then, with a cough and a splutter, the irunai named Narlan slowly sank to the floor and was still.
“You have no inkling how I’ve longed to do that,” Thorn said at last.
“What in the bloody hells…?” Kirin said at last.
Then, as the sound of rapid breathing filled the air, the young girl turned to her friend.
“Nadrea,” she gasped, stepping between the little girl and the corpse. “Look at me. Look at me!”
The little girl did as her friend asked.
“It’s over,” Kirin said. “Alright? It’s over now.”
Then, she turned to the dark elf. “Right?”
“Almost,” the irunai named Thorn said, then stepped forth and offered the bloodied blade to Kirin, hilt first.
“First, I need to you to grip the blade as hard as you can,” he said.
“What?” Kirin said.
“If you wish me to get you out of here, I need them to think you, not I, killed him.”
“We don’t have a lot of time, child,” Thorn interjected. “Grab the blade, grip it tight, then toss it.”
Kirin’s gaze went from the irunai to the blade. Then, gritting her teeth, she reached out through the cell’s bars, gripped the hilt as hard as she could, then flung it as far as she could.
“That’ll do,” Thorn said.
Turning to the fallen irunai, the dark elf pulled free the cell door’s key from the dead man’s grip.
“Step back,” he said as he slid the key into the lock.
The girls obeyed, then gasped in unison as the cell door was swung open.
“Come,” Thorn added. “Hurry.”
The pair raced out of the cell and hurried towards the open door.
“No, hold!” Thorn hissed.
The pair skidded to a halt.
The two girls frowned.
“What’re we waiting for?” Nadrea asked.
“We’re waiting for…” Thorn said as he raised a finger.
A brief silence fell upon the three, but as Kirin moved to repeat Nadrea’s question, a thunderous roar filled the air and shook the ground beneath their feet.
“That!” Thorn grinned.
The girls shared a glance before turning to their saviour, their confusion plain.
“Now, shall we?” the irunai added as he wandered over to the door.
“What in the hells was–“ Kirin began.
“Our diversion, child,” Thorn replied. “Now, stay close, move when I move, stop when I stop. Either of you delay, even for a moment, and you doom us all. Is that clear?”
The children nodded.
“Good. Shall we?”
Nodding once more, the children hurried to the dark elf, and as one, the three slipped out into the corridor, hurrying down it as fast as they could.
“This way!” the Archmage named Barlus yelled as he ran. “Hurry!”
“Are you sure?” said the Magister racing on behind him.
“Yes!” Barlus yelled. “It came from the valley, for sure of it!”
“What in the world are you two doing?” came a voice from ahead the pair, bringing the pair to a screeching halt as lighting danced between their fingers.
“Tharlis! Barlus!” Nadrea shrieked as she raced out from the darkness.
“Nadrea?” Tharlis gasped at the sound of the little girl’s voice.
“Nadrea!” he yelled the moment she came into view, racing forward then falling to his knees before the little girl and hugging her close.
“Well, isn’t this charming,” the voice continued as an irunai stepped into view, young Kirin by his side. “You go racing off to hug little Nadrea over there, and simply forget about dear Kirin here.”
“It’s alright,” Kirin said, forcing a smile as she shook her head. “I’m not that important.”
“Like hells you’re not!” the irunai shot back. “You’re the reason she didn’t cry herself to sleep every night. She is the Matriarch-in-waiting, yet you were the strong one. A child your age of common stock, doing what you did? That’s all but unheard of in this part of the world.”
“He’s right,” Nadrea added and reached out a hand to her friend, “you’re important too.”
Smiling, young Kirin made her way towards her friend, but as she went, her feelings proved overwhelming, and soon, the young girl was whimpering as she hugged Magister and friend.
“So, who do we owe all this to?” Archmage Oakstone asked, his gaze upon the irunai.
The irunai smiled.
“Nobody,” he said, then, turned to the children. “They freed themselves.”
“What?” the men cried as they turned to the children.
“We didn’t” Kirin shook her head. “We truly didn’t.”
“No, but that is the tale you must tell. You, Kirin, managed to pull free the dagger of the one who came to kill you two and killed him first…”
“Good gods,” Tharlis gasped, turning to the girl, “did you?”
“No!” Kirin shot back. “Of course not!”
“…then you and little Nadera here managed to sneak to within view of one of our store houses, and that sweet little child threw a fireball into our store of fire sand…”
“The explosion we heard,” the Archmage said, smiling as he spoke.
“…and in the ensuing chaos, made good your escape.”
“Who is Kirin supposed to have killed, then?” the Magister asked.
The dark elf smiled. “Narlan Endermol.”
At those words, both men’s eyes went wide as they stared hard at the dark elf.
“Isn’t his uncle the Lord of House Endermol?” Barlus soon asked.
The irunai nodded. “He is.”
“Oh, gods,” Nadrea breathed.
“Hold, who’s House Endermol?” Kirin asked, her gaze darting from friend to Magister
“And you killed him?” Tharlis asked, oblivious to the confused child beside him.
The irunai shook his head. “Kirin did.”
“Who did I bloody kill?” the little girl yelled.
“Kirin,” Tharlis said, turning to the girl, “you know how the Highland Barons have Houses?”
“Well, irunai have the same, and you’re supposed to have killed one of the heirs of the most powerful House.”
“Bloody hells,” the young girl gasped, then turned to her saviour. “Did I?”
The man smiled. “Yes.”
“But why?” the Magister said as he rose. “Why kill one of your nobles to spare them?”
The iruai breathed deep, his smile widening. “You will send word to your delegates of foul play afoot. Naturally, your Matriarch will object, but when you tell her you have her daughter, she will acquiesce to your demand to postpone the treaty discussions while you retreat to expose this dastardly deed in its entirety. Then, a month or two from now, someone from House Daruveil will call on you. They shall carry with them the condolences of all the irunai Houses, and will offer to lead the treaty negotiations in place of House Endermol. Also, as way of showing House Endermol acted alone in all this, and as a gesture of good faith, they will suggest you halve the benefits us irunai would’ve enjoyed under the terms of the treaty. You will accept their request in its entirety, but in the end, you will agree to the very terms that would’ve been signed tomorrow.”
“That makes no sense,” Kirin said, a deep frown upon her lips. “If you’re going to get the precise same thing two months from now that you’re going to get tomorrow, what’s the bloody point?”
“The point is, my dear,” the Magister replied, a smile upon his lips as he stared at the irunai, “House Daruveil will come out of this as heroes, and House Endermol will be greatly tarnished by this. I fear we have been caught in the middle of a power play between two of the great irunai Houses.”
“Yes.” Tharlis nodded.
“You would use children for this madness?” the Archmage spat.
“The madness is of our own doing, Barlus,” Tharlis corrected. “House Daruveil is merely…benefiting.”
The Archmage scoffed at this, an act that widened the smile of irunai and Magister alike.
“So, we have an accord?” the irunai said at last.
“Hrm,” Tharlis began, then turned to Nadrea.
“When the dust settles from this, you will be named Matriarch,” the said, words that wiped the smile from the little girl’s lips. “Best start practising. What say you to this? Do we have an accord?”
The little girl turned to her saviour and stared deep into his eyes.
“We have an accord,” she said at last.
“Excellent!” he cried, then turned to the Magister. “You still have my satchel?”
“Ah, yes, uhm…” the Magister said as he sought to remove the satchel slung about him.
“No, keep it,” the irunai said. “The second map leads to a safe place you can keep these two. It has no ties to your Tower, or to any House. A gift.”
Shaking his head, the Magister sighed. “Seems you’ve thought of everything.”
Grinning, the irunai bowed and turned to leave.
“What’s your name?” Nadrea called out.
Stopping, the dark elf turned and smiled. “It’s best you never know, my dear, for my sake.”
Little Nadrea couldn’t help but smile at the man.
“Oh, and uhm, you!” the irunai added, pointing to Kirin.
“Stay with her. There is much she can learn from you. Including how to seem strong even when you’re wracked with fear.”
Little Nadrea turned to her friend, her brow furrowed deep. “You were afraid?”
“All the bloody time!” Kirin cried. ”Do you think I wanted to die in there?”
The little girl stared wide-eyed at her friend, not knowing what to say.
“Now, I truly must take my leave before I am missed. With luck, we will never meet again.”
And with a bow, the dark elf turned and hurried on into the darkness.
“You know,” Nadrea said after a spell, holding her friend in a sideways glance, “if I’m going to be Matriarch, you should be my Magister.”
“Oh, don’t be silly!” Kirin threw back. “How in the world can I be a Magister! I work in the bloody Stables.”
“Well, you are a ward of the Tower,” the Magister said. “And after what you did for Nadrea, I don’t see anyone objecting to you beginning mage training, so…who knows.”
The young girl stared from mage to friend. “You’re sure?”
Grinning, Nadrea nodded.
“Oh, very well, then,” young Kirin sighed, a smile parting her lips.
“Good!” Tharlis cried. “Now, I think it’s time we left. We have a long journey ahead of us.”
And with that, the wizened mage clasped hold of a hand each of the girls, and together, the four headed back the way the men had come, their hearts as light as their footsteps.
Slowly, the young girl sat back as a deep sigh escaped her lips.
“Like it, then?”
The young girl nodded and turned to her friend, a smile upon her lips.
“Good,” the elven woman beside her replied. “Now, may I have my hand back?”
All at once, the young girl’s smile dissipated, chased away by a snarl as she let go of the woman’s hand.
“Thank you,” the elven woman said, then reached into her pocket.
“What was his name?” the young girl asked as the tome faded from view.
“Who, the irunai who saved them?”
The young girl nodded.
At this, the woman smiled. “I can’t tell you.”
“What?” the young girl frowned.
“Nadrea had his name confined to Matriarch’s eyes only. So, till you’re Matriarch, I’m afraid that question will remain unanswered.”
“But, why would she–”
“The name House Endermol knew him as was not his true name.”
The young girl rolled her eyes at this. “I’m not stupid, Amala. It was obvious Thorn wasn’t his true name.”
The woman’s smile grew. “That wasn’t the name House Endermol knew him as either. It was just a fake name given to him for the girls’ benefit.
“Yes…but anyway, Nadrea found out his true name, and when House Endermol began to suspect it was he, not Kirin, who killed Narlan, he fled, and to protect his life, Nadrea had his name sealed away.”
“Oh…” the young girl repeated. Then, a thought struck her, and it brought a smile to her face.
“You don’t know it, do you?” she said. “If it’s for Matriarch’s eyes only, only Mother knows it, and she would never tell you. So you don’t know it either, do you?”
Breathing deep, her smile now a grin, the elven woman sat tall and said nary a word.
The young girl’s smile slowly faded at this.
“Well, that’s enough reading for today,” the woman said at last. “Time for work.”
“Aww.” the young girl whined as she slumped in her chair.
“Work, child, work!”
The young girl turned to the books before her, but remained unmoving.
The young girl turned to her friend.
Holding her friend on one long heart-felt glare, the young girl sat up at last and, turning to her books, leant forwards and began to do as she’d been asked.
The silver-haired woman watched her young friend for a spell, a soft smile upon her lips, before she too turned to her tome, and soon, the only sound to be heard from their table is the soft turning of pages and the odd mutteringehind under breath.