It took every ounce of energy Amala had to step out of the carriage, her bags growing heavier with each passing moment.

“What in the hells did you pack in these things, woman?” she growled as she lumbered forward.

Stepping free at last, the exhausted elf placed her bags upon the ground and stood tall, and as her gaze drifted to the grand tower before her, she sighed and smiled. She was home at last, and it felt glorious. No longer did she need to breathe the harsh, thin air of the mountains, no longer did she have to sit quietly and listen to the incessant prattling of the highland barons, or deal with the constant posturing and courting of their idiot sons. She was home. Thank the gods, she was home.

“Welcome home, Mistress Amala!” came a voice from the grand doors of the Shimmering Tower, and as Amala’s gaze drifted to the doors, she watched as an elderly elf stepped through.

“It’s good to be home.” Amala grinned at the approaching mage. Then, she reached for her bags.

“No, no!” the elderly mage exclaimed as he hurried towards Amala. “Allow me!”

“Oh?” Amala straightened as a frown twisted her lips. “Since when did wood singers tend to bags?”

“Ah.” The elderly elf grinned as he reached Amala. “Yes, well, uhm…”

“Well…?”

The elderly mage sighed as his smile widened. “Naeve knew you were due to return today. She was up with the sun and has been rather…excitable all day.”

“Ah.” Amala nodded, her smile returned. “I see.”

“Yes…” The elderly wood singer nodded. “So, if you wouldn’t mind going to see her immediately…”

Amala shook her head at the elderly elf. “Where is she?”

“She should be with her mother in the Matriarch’s Lounge.”

“I see,” Amala replied, and as her smile widened, she turned from the elderly elf to the grand doors before her and marched forth.

Standing before the glass double-doors of the Matriarch’s Lounge, Amala stood in silence, a smile upon her lips as her gaze rested upon the Matriarch seated upon her favoured sofa, book in hand. Sighing at last, the silver-haired elf tore her gaze from her beloved friend and scanned the room. There was no precocious child in sight,

“Hrm,” Amala muttered, then swung a door open and stepped in.

“Ah, there you are!” the Matriarch cried, slamming the book in her hand shut and sitting tall. “What time do you bloody call this?”

“Nice to see you too!” Amala threw back, closing the door behind her before heading towards the drinks cabinet near the Matriarch.

“But no, seriously,” the Matriarch replied, “what took so bloody long? You were supposed to have been back in time for lunch! We just had supper!”

“Ugh!” Amala cried as she reached the drinks cabinet. “Don’t speak to me about food, please!”

“Why?” The Matriarch frowned.

“Just don’t, alright?” Amala pleaded. “Please. Not till I’ve had a drink. Or twenty.”

“Amala…”

Stopping mid-pour, Amala sighed and turned to her friend.

“What happened?”

Sighing, Amala rolled her eyes and lowered the goblet and decanter in her grasp. “Some fool idiot placed a crate of mithril ore upon my bags on my journey to the highlands.”

The Matriarch’s eyes went wide.

“By the time I noticed all the blood dripping, I could only salvage one box-worth of sustenance. Care to guess how long that lasted?”

“Yeesh.” The Matriarch winced. “So, rats again?”

Amala nodded, then shivered. “For five bloody months.”

The Matriarch grinned at this. “That must’ve been five very special months.”

“Ugh…”

“Though, I’m not sure which is more disturbing, the thought of you skulking around on your stomach hunting rats, or that the palace had enough rats to keep you fed for five whole months.”

“Not anymore, they don’t!” Amala quipped, then picked up her goblet.

The Matriarch laughed at this, but soon her laughter faded as her frown returned. “So, nobody noticed the blood, right? Leaking from your bags, I mean.”

Sighing, Amala turned to her friend before holding her in a pointed stare.

“What?”

“You’re being paranoid again.”

“Am not!”

“Yes, you are.”

“But just tell me though, did anyone notice the blood?”

Amala sighed once more. “Nobody noticed, alright?”

“You’re sure?”

“My dear, I am adept at water magic and illusions, you know, and I do know how to hide pools of blood. Nobody noticed, alright? Now, may I please have a drink?”

The Matriarch grinned once more. “Yes, you may.”

“Thank you!” Amala gasped and returned her gaze to her goblet once more before filling it to the brim, raising it to her lips and drinking deep.

“Oh, gods, I needed that,” she gasped after a spell before lowering her gaze to the now half-empty goblet.

As Amala raised her goblet to her lips once more, however, one of the glass door swung open and the room was filled with the shrillest cry she’d heard in months, startling her for all she was worth, and as the sound of pounding feet filled her ears, Amala spun about just in time to feel a soft bundle barrel into her and knock all the breath out of her before wrapping its arms about her and squeezing tight.

Wincing, Amala lowered her gaze to the bundle, but she couldn’t help but smile as her gaze fell upon the grinning face of her beloved Naeve.

“Do you have any idea how close you came to making me spill my drink?” she said.

The young girl giggled in response before resting her head upon her friend’s stomach and tightening her grip.

Sighing, Amala shook her head and ran a hand through Naeve’s hair. “I missed you too, my little demon-spawn.”

The young girl giggled once more, raising her head to stare into Amala’s eyes. But then, her laughter faded, and as it went, a most mischievous glimmer appeared in her eyes.

“So,” she said, resting her chin upon Amala, “how many people thought you were a child this time.”

Amala raised her gaze as a deep sigh escaped her lips, shaking her head as she did so.

“Come on,” Naeve pestered, “let’s hear it. How many?”

“I’m not in the mood, Naeve.” Amala muttered as she forced Naeve’s arms off her.

“But how many though,” the insistent child replied. “I know you were counting. You always count.”

“Naeve…” the girl’s mother warned.

“What?” Naeve replied, turning to her mother. “Don’t tell me you weren’t wondering yourself!”

The Matriarch moved to speak, but then turned to Amala. “Well, yeah, she’s right, I was wondering.”

“Would you–!” Amala began, but bit back her words before shaking her head and closing her eyes as a bitter sigh escaped her lips.

“Very well!” she barked instead. “Twenty-seven, alright?”

“Woah!” Naeve gasped.

“That’s not too bad, I suppose,” the Matriarch added.

“You suppose?” Amala snarled.

“Well, yeah.” The Matriarch shrugged. “That’s…what…seven less than the record?”

“Twelve,” Amala corrected.

“There, see? Not too bad.”

“Even one, is one too many,” Amala muttered.

“Well, in their defence,” Naeve offered, “you do look–”

“Do not finish that sentence, young lady.” Amala growled, her gaze darkening greatly.

Naeve stared in silence at her friend for a spell, but soon began to shuffle towards her mother.

Amala frowned as she watched the young girl. “What’re you doing?”

Young Naeve held per peace and shuffled on, biting her lips as she went.

“Naeve…?”

Reaching her mother at last, Naeve turned to her mother, then returned her gaze to Amala a smile dancing on her lips.

“What–“ Amala began.

“You do look really young, you know,” Naeve blurted, then leapt to her mother’s side as Amala glared at the petulant child.

Sighing, the Matriarch turned to the cowering child, her gaze a disproving one, but the smile upon her mother’s lips meant the gaze did little to wipe the giggle from young Naeve’s lips. Then, as one, the pair turned to Amala.

“Very well,” Amala said at last, placing her goblet upon the cabinet. “If you insist on acting like this, I shall go to my room and take my story with me.”

“Wait, what?” Naeve gasped as Amala turned to leave.

“No, no! Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait!” Naeve added, racing after Amala as she spoke.

“Hm,” Amala muttered, her chin raised and her pace unchanged.

“No! Wait!” Naeve replied, grabbing hold of her friend’s hand and pulling with all her might.

“No,” Amala replied with a sharp shake of her head.

“Mother!” Naeve cried, turning to her mother. “Tell her to wait!”

Amala reached the door and reached for the handle.

“Please!”

“Amala.” The Matriarch sighed.

Stopping at last, Amala turned to her young friend, her eyes narrowed to slits.

Naeve grinned in response.

“What do you have say…?” Amala said.

“What?” the precocious child replied.

Amala stood tall as she stared down her nose at her young friend.

“Sorry…?” Naeve offered at last.

“Sorry…what?”

“Sorry…I told the truth?”

“You really don’t want to read that story, do you?” the Matriarch muttered.

Naeve’s grin returned. “You know I don’t mean it, Amala! Right?”

Amala held her peace.

“Right…?” Naeve repeated, her grin widening.

Then, she began dragging Amala from the door towards one of the empty sofas.

Amala glared at the young girl, but let herself be dragged nonetheless, till at last, she was seated upon the sofa.

“Now,” Naeve sighed, “shall we?”

Amala held her peace still, her fiery gaze fixed upon young Naeve.

Huffing in response, young Naeve fell unto the sofa beside her friend, her gaze upon Amala pleading.

Tearing her gaze at last from the young girl, Amala turned to the Matriarch. “Was she this bad while I was away?”

“Worse,” the Matriarch growled.

“Not true!” Naeve cried. “I was very well behaved, even if I do say so myself.”

The Matriarch raised a regal eyebrow in response.

The young girl’s gaze went from one woman to the other, till at last, her grin faded and she slowly began to slouch.

“Just give her the bloody story so we can have some peace,” the Matriarch said, turning to Amala. “That’s all she’s bloody talked about all day.”

Amala turned to Naeve once more, but the little girl’s smile was gone, her shoulders sagged.

“Very well,” Amala sighed at last, words that breathed the life into young Naeve once more.

“Yay!” young Naeve cried before swinging her feet unto the couch and lowering her head to Amala’s lap.

“And what do you think you’re doing?” Amala growled.

“Getting comfortable, obviously,” young girl replied as she placed one of Amala’s hands upon her head.

Amala turned to the Matriarch, her gaze one of bewilderment.

The Matriarch stared from one to the other before biting back her smile, opening her book and raising it before her face.

“Truly?” Amala growled.

“Can’t talk, reading,” the Matriarch replied. “Sorry.”

“Gods, give me strength,” she muttered and pulled free a gem.

“Ah!” Naeve cried and rose as Amala willed the tome to life. “Nobody died, right?”

“Nobody died, no.”

“And it’s a happy story?”

Amala rolled her eyes. “Yes, it’s a happy tale. Now, do you wish to read or not?”

The young girl’s grin returned.

“Okay,” she replied, and rested her head upon Amala’s lap once again.

The silver-haired elf sighed once more, then began turning the pages of the tome.

“Nedina…” Naeve muttered once Amala stopped. Then, the young girl nestled closer to her friend and as Amala began stroking hair, Naeve sighed and began to read.

*

*

*

Resting upon her bed, a hand stretched upward, the young Matriarch-in-waiting smiled as she watched her little hippocamp foal frolic about her outstretched hand, the little familiar darting and weaving within the watery bubble her mistress had conjured for her. With a soft sigh, the young mage watched her little friend in silence, its carefree dance robbing her of all her woes and filling her heart with some much needed peace.

Then, there came a soft knock at the door.

“Nedina, are you awake?” called out a soft voice before Nedina’s panic could take hold.

Sighing once more, the young Matriarch-in-waiting undid the enchantment holding the door firm.

“It’s open,” she said.

In response, the door swung open and a young elf stepped in. Her flowing fiery hair glimmering in the low light of the room.

“I thought you told Mother you’d relinquished her to the Pens,” she said as she closed the door behind her and headed for the bed.

Nedina pulled a face in response, her eyes upon her familiar throughout.

I found her,” Nedina growled as her sister reached her bed. “I don’t care what Mother says, I’m keeping her.”

“And Eta?”

Nedina shrugged. “He understands.”

“Of course he does…” the young mage muttered.

Tearing her gaze from her familiar, Nedina turned to her sister. “Why are you here?”

The young mage shrugged. “To trouble you, why else?”

Shaking her head, Nedina returned her gaze to her familiar

“And to see if you’ve finished your studies,” she added.

Nedina held her peace.

“That is, assuming you’ve begun your studies…?”

The prone mage said nary a word.

“Oh, come now, Nedina.” The young mage sighed. “We leave in nine days! You must prepare! There is a lot at stake here, and–”

“I know all I need to know,” Nedina interjected.

“And what is that?”

Once again, the young Matriarch-in-waiting fell silent.

Sighing once more, the standing mage shook her head, then made to lay beside her sister.

“Move,” she said, as she lay upon the bed.

Growling, Nedina shuffled aside, making space for her sister.

Then, as the young mage lay beside her sister, she raised her hand and, bringing it close to the watery bubble surrounding Nedina’s hand, she whispered words of arcane and called forth a similar bubble, one that touched Nedina’s and as the words faded, a new hippocamp faded into view within the bubble, one with identical markings to Nedina’s. Then, as the two familiars caught sight of each other, they squealed and raced towards each other before frolicking together within the enlarged watery bubble.

“I thought you told Mother you’d relinquished him to the Pens,” Nedina said, holding her sister in a knowing stare.

“Eh.” The young mage shrugged, her gaze upon the familiars. “My sister gave him to me. I don’t see why I should part with him.”

“And Talus?”

The mage smiled and shrugged once more. “She understands.”

Chuckling, Nedina returned her gaze to the frolicking familiars, and as the pair stared at the little foals, a soothing silence filled the air, the sounds of bubbling water and tiny rapids adding to the calm.

Then, the door swung open.

“What in the hells are you two doing?”

Startled, the two mages made to spring up, but with their concentration broken, their watery bubbles burst, drenching the pair as their familiars fell upon their chests and knocked them back upon the bed, utterly winded.

“Well?” the woman by the door roared.

Gasping the pair scrambled off the bed, the familiars faded from view.

“Forgive us, Mother,” Nedina mumbled, “we were–”

“So you dared to lie to me about relinquishing those foals,” the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower growled.

“It’s not like that, Mother,” began the other mage, “it’s–”

“Be quiet!” the Matriarch barked, silencing Nedina’s sister in an instant, and as a heavy silence fill the room, the two young mages kept their eyes firmly at their feet as they felt the piercing gaze of their mother weigh heavy upon them.

“I can’t say I’m surprised at you, Nedina,” the Matriarch said at last, “this is just the sort of thing you would stoop to…”

The Matriarch-in-waiting gritted her teeth, but knew well enough to keep silent.

“…but you, Kara? You would lie to me like this?”

Young Kara Earthchild squirmed where she stood, her gaze upon her feet still.

“I have told you both once, I have told you both a thousand times, no mage of the Shimmering Tower is permitted to have more than one familiar. And no child of mine will bond to such a weak familiar as a hippocamp. You’re lucky I have guests, else I’d march you both to the Pens and sever your bonds with those foals myself. But, be that as it may, I shall give you both this one last chance to relinquish those foals freely. And believe me when I say I shall Compel the truth from you at supper tonight!”

“We’ll do as you ask, Mother,” the pair mumbled in unison.

“Good,” the Matriarch growled. Then, as she moved to leave, her eyes drifted to the neat pile of parchment and tomes upon Nedina’s reading desk.

“Gods, you still haven’t started studying the treaties?” she gasped, turning to her eldest once more.

Nedina cowered from her mother, her gaze unmoved.

“Do you not understand what’s at stake here? Well? Don’t you?”

The Matriarch-in-waiting nodded. “I understand, Mother. I won’t fail you.”

“See that you don’t!” the Matriarch snapped.

Then, as she straightened, the seething mage stared down her nose at her daughters, glaring at the pair for all she was worth before at last turning to leave.

“And relinquish those blasted foals!” she barked as she stepped through the doorway.

As calm returned, the two mages straightened and turned to each other.

“Why didn’t you lock the blasted door?” Nedina spat, rounding on her sister as she did so.

Me?” Kara cried. “It’s your room!”

Nedina moved to speak, but had no words to counter with.

“No sense arguing over it anyhow,” the younger sister mumbled. “Let’s just go get this over with.”

At those words, a slow smile parted Nedina’s lips, an act that sent the hairs on the back of Kara’s neck standing tall.

“Nedina…” the younger sister warned, “Mother’s going to Compel us at supper. Whatever you’re planning, no. We’ve had our fun with them, time to relinquish them.”

Nedina’s smile grew.

“I said no. Do you no longer know what no means?”

With her smile now a grin, young Nedina turned and headed for the door, her younger sister watching her till she stepped out of sight, and as the silence returned, young Kara slowly shook her head as her heart sank.

“She’s still not going to relinquish them, is she?” the young mage muttered at last.

“Well?” Nedina’s voice called out. “Are you coming?”

Young Kara Earthchild stared at the open doorway for a spell, then shook her head once more.

“Mother’s truly going to kill us this time,” the young mage muttered, then hurried after her sister.

*****

Stepping free of the carriage, the young lord stretched and yawned, his eyes shut tight as he stretched out the weariness in his limbs.

“Welcome home, my lord,” came a voice to his side.

Stopping, the young lord stood tall and turned to the servant at his side, a deep frown upon his lips.

“I trust the journey was a pleasant one?” the servant continued.

The young lord scowled. “What sort of fool question is that?”

“Forgive me, my lord,” the servant bowed, “I meant no–”

“Shut up, Marlun.” The young lord sighed.

The servant fell silent.

“Where’s my father?” the young lord asked.

“He’s in the main study,” the servant replied, his head bowed still. “He awaits your return.”

The young lord turned to the entrance of the keep before him, his frown returned.

“And my brother?” he said.

“He’s with your father,” the servant replied.

“Hrm,” the young lord muttered, his scowl deepening, and, turning his back to the servant beside him, highland noble headed for the grand doors of the keep.

With his stride unbroken, the young elf marched on, the doors before him swung open for him as he went, till at last, he stood within the main study of the keep.

“There you are,” came a bored voice from beside the fireplace, “I was starting to wonder if you’d forgotten the way home.”

As the young elf turned to the figure seated by the fireplace, a cold smile parted his lips.

“Miss me, did you, Brother?” he said.

“But, of course,” the young noble by the fireplace replied, his smile a perfect mirror of his younger brother’s.

“Hrm,” the young lord said, then made his way towards the drinks cabinet.

“Are you sure it’s safe for you to be drinking this early, Brother?” the lord’s brother said, the smirk upon his lips unmistakable. “We wouldn’t want a repeat of what happened at Baron Oxgrove’s, now, would we?”

The young lord’s hand froze as his scowl returned, a scowl that deepened when he turned to his brother and saw the smirk on the seated noble’s lips.

“You sound aggrieved, Brother,” the young lord said at last. “Did Father’s summons deprive you of some important task?”

The noble by the fireplace shrugged. “Nothing is more important than Father’s summons. You know that better than anyone.”

“Hrm,” the young lord smirked. “Pity you didn’t hold that view four months ago, then you would’ve been here instead of ravaging Baron Winterbite’s daughter.”

The seated lord’s smirk vanished as he slowly sat tall.

“Oh, don’t you worry, Brother,” the young lord continued as he returned his gaze to the cabinet, “your secret is safe. Hells, even Father doesn’t know it was you.”

“You speak as if I owe you a debt,” the seated noble growled.

“Don’t you?” the young lord said as he raised the decanter within his grip and began filling a goblet.

“You’re not the only one who knows how hide their passing, you know.”

“Hide their…” The young lord snickered and turned to his brother. “Brother, no less than four servants saw you make your escape. One saw your coat of arms clear as day, and another saw your face. Again, clear as day.”

“What?”

“Oh, but don’t worry, none are in a state to say what they saw.”

The seated noble moved to speak, but no words came, and as blissful silence descended upon the room, the young lord raised his goblet to his lips and drank deep.

Then, the study doors swung open.

“De’larn!” roared the Baron of the castle as he marched in. “You’ve returned!”

“Father!” The young lord grinned, placing the goblet in his hand upon the cabinet and turning to his father.

“Ha!” the Baron cried as he reached his son, hugging him close as he did so.

“So!” the Baron added as the parted, “what news have you for me?”

“Oh, nothing of interest, Father,” the young said, a smile dancing upon his lips, “except it seems our dear Baroness Mistvale has now begun to realise how much she stands to gain by reaffirming her allegiance to us.”

The Baron gasped. “Has she now?”

“Mhm.” The young lord nodded. “Expect a missive from her by winter.”

“Boy,” the Baron said, a slow smile parting his lips as he shook his head, “I know not how you do it, but once more you exceed my expectations. That girl is as stubborn as her father, and after what Arundel did to her brother, I’d given up all hope of ever having her house as a vassal again. And yet, here you are, telling me she will bend knee to me before the year is out.”

Young De’larn bowed. “I live to serve, Father.”

“And you serve me well, boy.” The Baron nodded. “That you do.”

“Shall we get on with why we’re here?” the seated noble said, his tone sharp.

“Oh, come now, Arundel,” the Baron chided, turning to his elder son, “allow your brother his moment.”

Arundel growled in response, but said nary a word.

Then, the Baron sighed and returned his gaze to his younger son. “But, he is right. Shall we?”

“Of course, Father,” De’larn replied, and as one, the pair made their way to a nearby sofa, the young lord picking up his goblet as he went.

“So, I take it you’ve heard?” the Baron said as he sat.

“Hm.” De’larn nodded as he sat. “The Tower has agreed to arbitrate the treaty summit.”

“I still can’t believe we’re parleying with those animals,” Arundel growled. “What must the other kingdoms think of us.”

“It can’t be helped,” the Baron replied. “The tide was turning against us.”

Arundel scoffed. “You keep saying that, but I tell you it was just a series of setbacks, nothing more.”

“Those trolls became organised overnight, Arundel,” De’larn added, “their arms and armaments much improved, and the spells of their shamans far more potent. We weren’t facing a few setbacks, we were facing an enemy with a kingdom or two behind them, aiding them.” Then, the elf shook his head. “No, the war was lost to us. A treaty while we had some semblance of strength was the better play.”

“Yes,” the Baron nodded, “and I have a theory or two about which kingdom was aiding them.”

De’larn shrugged. “I have only one. Which makes me wonder why we’d asked the Tower to mediate in the first place.”

The Baron’s gaze darkened at this. “Our glorious king decided to invite them, despite the pleas of his barons.”

The young lord frowned. “The barons’ hold on him is weakening?”

“No,” the Baron said, shaking his head as he spoke, “but he is the king, and every once in a while he gets it into his head to remind us of it.”

“Ugh,” De’larn growled, rolling his eyes as he spoke.

“Yes,” the Baron sighed. “Though, it does present us with an opportunity.”

“What opportunity?” Arundel said as he sat forward.

“And do you mean the barons or our House?” De’larn added.

“Our House, son.” The Baron grinned. “Nethriel is sending her daughters to arbitrate in her stead, and I have made it so they will be lodging with us.”

At those words, the young lord’s heart stopped, and it took all he had to keep his features calm.

“What, both of them?” Arundel cried, drawing his father’s gaze.

“Mhm.” The Baron nodded.

“How in the hells is that an opportunity?”

The Baron smiled. “Because, you, my boy,are going to woo Nedina. And when she is wrapped around your little finger, we can get her to agree to anything we wish.”

“But that’s…hrm….”

The Baron’s smile grew. “Precisely.”

“Hold, Father,” Delarn said, gritting his teeth against the wave of nausea threatening to drown, “if Kara is also in attendance, will Arundel wooing her sister not play against us? Kara is much better at the game of power than Nedina is, and Nedina knows it. She takes her sister’s counsel to heart above all other’s. It will not take Kara long to see through all that Arundel does and once she advises Nedina of this, the odds will be stacked against us even more.”

“Ah,” the Baron replied, “but, you forget, boy, Nedina is also stubborn. More-so than her mother. Not even Kara can change her mind once it’s been made.”

“But–”

“Nedina is Nethriel’s successor, boy, owning her is a boon like no other. We cannot afford to let this pass us by.”

De’larn moved to speak once more, but as he stared into his father’s eyes, the cold hand that had grasped his insides tightened its grip, and forcing a smile, he nodded instead.

“Of course, Father,” he said, warming his smile as best he could.

“Splendid!” the Baron smiled. “I trust Arundel can count on you to find out as much as you can about Nedina’s likes and whatnot?”

Him?” Arundel cried. “Since when did I need his aid in bedding someone!”

“Nedina Earthchild isn’t someone, boy,” the Baron replied, his tone as dark as his gaze, “and you would do well to see this as your most serious endeavour to date. Any hold you have on her will extend past this treaty. It’s a hold our House can profit from for years to come.”

“But I don’t need his aid, Father!”

“De’larn knows those two better than you, Arundel. His mother and Nethriel used to be close. He will aid you and you will accept his aid. Do you understand?”

Arundel gritted his teeth, but soon nodded. “Yes, Father.”

“Good,” the Baron growled, then turned to De’larn.

“You must be starving!” he cried. “Your quarters have been cleaned. What say you freshen up and go see Cook.”

The young lord smiled and bowed.

“Of course, Father,” he said, then rose and headed for the door.

“Oh, uhm,” De’larn said as he reached the door, turning to the others as he spoke, “the roads leading up here, they’re too well worn. We’d need to do something about them and quickly.”

“Arundel will see to it,” the Baron replied.

Me? But he’s–”

The young noble’s words were cut short by a simple wave of his father’s hand.

“Good.” De’larn smiled, then left.

The pair watched him leave in silence, but the moment the door closed, Arundel turned to his father.

Must you humiliate me in front of him?” he spat. “Do you not realise how that makes me feel?”

“Oh, shut up, boy,” the Baron shot back as he rose and headed for the drinks cabinet, “you sound like a woman.”

“But–”

“If you wish to ensure a dog’s loyalty, you must feed him his favoured scraps from time to time. And my praise is what your brother craves above all else.”

“But–”

“But what?” the Baron snapped as he filled a goblet. “Is it not enough that I have named you my successor? Are you so pitiful you cannot see past these little games I play? If you insist on being this churlish, leave me!”

The young noble glowered at his father a spell, but soon sprang to his feet and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him with all his might.

“That boy…” the Baron said as he shook his head. Then, the castle lord sighed, picked up his goblet and made his way toward the fireplace, sipping peacefully as he went.

*****

Standing before the keep’s grand doors, the young lord gritted his teeth and fought for calm as he watched the carriage before him approach.

“About bloody time,” growled Arundel, drawing the young lord’s gaze to the noble standing before him.

“Arundel,” the Baron at his brother’s side mumbled, “compose your self. Their first impressions of you matter more–”

“I have done this a thousand times, Father,” the young noble muttered as he turned to level a pointed stare at his father. “I know what I’m doing.”

“See that you do,” the Baron growled.

Just then, the carriage came to a halt before the three men, its side to them, and as the trio smiled, the door swung open and a face that the young lord had dreamt for years to see again, but had given up all hope of ever doing so, stepped forth, and as he gazed upon her, the young lord felt his heart climb up his throat, growing with each step and filling him with a passion that stole his very breath away.

“Ah, Nedina!” the young lord heard his father cry. “It does my heart good to see you again!”

Grinning, the Baron stepped forth, his elder son by his side as they approached the scowling mage, her sister stepping out beside her as they approached.

The young lord moved not one step.

“My lord,” whispered the servant at De’larn’s side.

De’larn remained as he was, his gaze transfixed and his lips ajar.

“My lord,” the servant whispered once more, her lips by the young lord’s ear.

But still the young lord remained unmoving.

Smiling, the young maid slipped a hand into her lord’s and squeezed tight.

“De’larn,” she whispered.

At last, the young lord sprang to life, turning to glare at the brazen servant.

The young servant smiled and nodded. “She’s here.”

“Of course she’s bloody here!” the young lord hissed, turning once more to the mage.

Then, De’larn cleared his throat, pulled his hand free of his servant’s and stood tall.

“Thank you,” he whispered, then stepped forth.

With a slight giggle, the young servant bowed and stepped back.

“So, how was the journey?” the young lord heard his father say as he approached.

“Journey?” Nedina spat. “More like passing through a manticore’s bowels! Did you all forget what a road looks like?”

“Ah forgive us,” the Baron said with a slight bow before throwing a withering glare at his elder, “we shall see to it immediately.”

“Welcome, Nedina,” De’larn said, a soft smile upon his lips. “It’s been a while.”

“Yes, it has,” Nedian replied, levying a cold stare upon the young lord, “hasn’t it.”

The young lord kept a firm grip upon his smile, matching the mage’s stare as best he could.

“It’s nice to see you again, De’larn,” Kara added.

Turning to the sister, the young lord’s smile warmed greatly. “Likewise, Kara. You haven’t changed a bit.”

The young mage laughed at this. “Well, you have.”

“Oh?”

“Yes! You seem far more–”

“You must both be tired,” Arundel interjected, his most winning smile firm upon his lips as he sauntered towards the sisters.

“Shall I show you to your quarters?” he continued, gliding beside Nedina and reaching for her elbow. “And when you’re rested, perhaps we can–”

“Touch me again,” Nedina snarled, “and I’ll burn your hand off.”

The silence that fell was as stifling as it was charged.

“De’larn,” Kara said at last, turning to the young lord, a smile upon her lips. “Perhaps you can show us to our quarters. We have a lot to catch up on after all.”

The young lord turned to his father. The Baron shrugged and nodded.

Turning back to the sisters, the young lord smiled. “I’d be delighted.”

“Excellent!” Kara cried. “Lead on!”

“This way,” De’larn replied, and led the pair towards the keep.

As they fell out of hearing the Baron spun about to glare at his eldest with all his might.

“What did your brother say about touching her?” the Baron hissed.

“Father, I–”

“What did he say about being too forward too soon?”

“But I–”

“If you fail me on this, boy… If you fail me on this, gods help me I’ll…”

Biting back his words, the seething Baron spun on his heels and marched towards the keep, a dejected Arundel shuffling on behind him.

“Gods, that was disgusting!” Nedina cried as she collapsed on her bed.

“Will you please keep your voice down?” Kara hissed as she glanced at the closed door.

“Oh, would you stop fretting?” Nedina growled. “The little shite is long gone!”

“But there maybe someone at the door!”

Rising to her elbow, Nedina held her sister in a pointed stare. “Kara, Sister, I have a dome of silence in place. Nobody’s hearing us.”

“Ah, yes, well…” Kara grinned. “But still, must you be so brash?”

“Eh,” Nedina muttered, waving her sister’s words away.

“This is serious, Nedina,” Kara continued, making her way towards her sister. “These barons will use every opportunity to squeeze every last drop of concession they can from these proceedings, the Suncrests especially. You truly must stop giving them a reason to claim we were set against them from the onset.”

“I can’t help it, alright?” Nedina growled as she lay down once more. “The thought of even coming here boils my blood. I mean, they started the blasted war, and then they have the temerity to bleat for a treaty? Left to me, there would be no summit till the trolls were standing within the king’s court with a blade as his blasted throat.”

Sighing, Kara shook her head and wandered over to her sister before stopping and staring at the prone mage, hands upon her lips.

“What?” Nedina barked.

Kara cocked her head to the side as she raised a royal eyebrow at her sister.

“Ugh!” Nedina replied as she rose. “Very well, I’ll behave.”

“That is all I ask,” Kara replied.

“It still boils my blood, though.”

“Mine too, Sister. I’ve never had much love for the barons, and the Suncrests least of all.”

Nedina grinned. “Couldn’t tell from the way you and De’larn were chatting and giggling on the way here.”

“Oh, gods,” Kara sighed, rolling her eyes as she spoke.

“What?”

“He and his mother are the only highlanders I’ve every taken a liking to, and you know it! It was good to see him again.”

“Even after all the reports we’ve had of his exploits?”

Kara shook his head. “With a father like his, he was never going to be a paragon of virtue. He’s not the same shy little boy from the old days, certainly, but he’s a far cry from his father.”

“Perhaps.” Nedina sighed, then frowned. “Though, I do wish he’d outgrown that blasted staring he used to do.”

“Yes,” Kara sighed as she fell beside her sister upon the bed, “I noticed it too.”

“So unnerving.”

“I know.” Kara sighed once more. “But one good thing did come of it.”

“Oh?”

“Did you see the servant by his side?”

“The girl who whispered to him?”

“Yes.” Kara nodded. “She has his ear, without a doubt. If we get close to her, we’ll have a good means of learning more of the inner goings-on around here.”

Nedina smiled. “And this is why Mother sent you over.”

“Oh, stop it, you,” Kara said, shoving a playful elbow into her sister’s side. “You would’ve wised up to it eventually.”

“Yes,” Nedina sighed, “when it’s too late to do anything about it.”

“Now, now, Sister,” Kara chided, “don’t start all that…”

Just then, Nedina sat up, her brow furrowed deep as she stared at the door.

“Someone comes?” Kara asked as she rose.

Nedina nodded, then shuffled off the bed, her sister close behind her.

Then, as the pair headed for the door, a knock came.

Reaching the door, Nedina opened it, a slight frown upon her lips as she undid her dome of silence.

“Forgive me, Mistress,” said the maid standing before her, a tray in her hand, “but my lord De’larn Suncrest hopes these tokens will go some way to smooth over what rancour may have built between you this House from your welcome.”

As one, the sisters lowered their gazes to the tray before them, and even Nedina couldn’t help but smile.

“I see De’larn never lost his love for wood sculpting,” Kara said as she reached for the small wooden statue that was her as a child.

“Seems so,” Nedina replied, picking up the statue of her.

“My lord De’larn is much advanced,” the maid beamed. “and he worked especially hard on these ones.”

“I can tell,” Kara replied, turning the statue slowly in her hand. “The finish is quite exquisite.”

“Shall I tell my lord you’re pleased?”

“You’re the maid that was standing beside him, weren’t you?” Nedina added. “Out in the courtyard I mean.”

The maid bowed. “Yes, Mistress.”

The sisters shared a glance.

“Perhaps you can shows us around the castle later?” Kara said. “De’larn said the troll delegates won’t be arriving for another six days or so.”

“It would be good to have a woman’s view of this place,” Nedina added.

The maid bowed once more. “If my lord allows it.”

“Oh, I’m sure he won’t mind you looking after his guests for him,” Nedina replied. “Perhaps you can take us to supper instead of De’larn?”

“As you wish, Mistress,” the maid said, and bowing once more, she turned and left.

Then, once she was out of sight, Kara turned to her sister.

“A woman’s view…?” she said, raising a regal eyebrow.

“Hey, it worked, didn’t it?” Nedina shot back.

Tutting, the young mage shook her head and went back inside.

“What?” Nedina demanded as she went after her sister, closing the door behind her as she went. “It worked!”

*****

Muttering, Nedina stormed forth, her eyes forward and her gaze fierce, the flames wreathing her clenched fists as clear an indication of her fury as any.

“Stupid, piss-swilling little shite…” she growled as she went. “Let him say that to me once more, just once more. Then, I’ll show him how simple a creature a woman is! The little snot-spit!”

But enraged though she was, it was not enough to blind her to the huddled figure in the shadows slowly lumbering on in the distance. Slowing to a halt, Nedina frowned and watched as the figure shuffle on. There was something amiss about the figure, something…wrong with the way it moved. Nedina couldn’t quite put her finger to it, but it put her ill at ease nonetheless.

Letting go of her wreathes, the young mage hurried forth towards the figure.

“Hold!” she called out as she went.

Her one word seemed to startle the figure, its stoop disappearing as it straightened.

Reaching the figure at last, Nedina smiled as she stepped out before it, but her smile soon dissipated as she beheld the figure’s face.

“It’s you,” she said, her brow furrowed deep as she stared at De’larn’s servant.

“Good evening to you, Mistress,” the young woman said, smiling as she bowed.

But Nedina’s frown merely deepened. The woman’s eyes were bloodshot, and as she stared at her, she finally realised what it was that had unnerved her. The young woman was cradling her left arm, the swell and deep reddening about it telling her all she needed to know.

“Who did this to you?” Nedina growled, her ire straining on its leash.

“Oh, it’s nothing, Mistress,” the woman said, sniffling as she forced a smile. “Slipped, that’s all. It’s just my own damned fault.”

Tearing her gaze from the young woman’s arm, Nedina stared into her eyes, and the shame she saw within merely fuelled her rage.

“Whoever did this to you does not have the right to treat you like this” Nedina said as she took a step forward. “Who did it?”

“It’s nothing, truly,” the young woman pleaded. “Truly, Mistress.”

Nedina moved to speak, to soothe the woman’s worries, but then a thought wormed its way to the fore of her mind, and as it formed, her rage climbed even more.

“Was it De’larn?” she snarled.

At those words, the young woman shook her head, her brow furrowed deep.

“No!” she gasped. “No, no! It wasn’t him! He’d never hit me! Never!”

But the shame remained.

“Please, Mistress, please!” the woman continued. “It’s nothing! Truly!”

“It was him, wasn’t it?”

“No, Mistress! As the gods bear me–”

“Where is he?” Nedina snapped.

The young woman’s eyes went wide as her face slowly turned ashen. “Why, what’re you going to do?”

“He likes hitting women, does he? Well, let’s see how much he likes it when one hits back.”

“Oh, gods, no! Mistress, no!”

It was clear the woman was too terrified to speak, so, taking a deep breath, Nedina forced a smile and placed as a calm a hand as she could upon the woman’s shoulder.

“It’s alright,” the mage said, warming her smile as she spoke. “You go see to your arm. Leave the rest to me.

“Why, where are you going?”

“Go see to your arm,” Nedina repeated, and tearing her gaze from the woman, Nedina turned and stormed forth.

“Mistress? Mistress!”

But Nedina ignored her.

“Let’s see how he likes it when one hits back,” Nedina muttered as she marched on, her gaze forward and her eyes ablaze.

Sitting up, De’larn stared at the door of his quarters as the heavy banging upon it rattled its hinges.

“What in the hells?” he muttered.

But the banging was relentless.

“Who is it?” De’larn barked at last.

“Open this door!”

Upon hearing those words, what few vestiges of sleep that remained abandoned the young lord.

“Nedina?” he breathed.

Then, the banging resumed.

“One moment!” he yelled as he sprung from his bed and hurried to the door.

Barely had he unlocked it, however, than the door was flung open as the wrathful fury of the mage behind it blew in, the incandescent woman grabbing the young lord by the collar and slamming him against the wall.

“What…?” the stunned lord began.

“No! Please!” shrieked a second voice. “Stop it!”

Staring past the raging inferno before him, De’larn turned to the young woman desperately trying to drag Nedina back.

“You know, I always knew you were scum, De’larn,” Nedina seethed, her hand now about the young lord’s throat, “but breaking a servant’s arm? Now that is low, even for scum like you.”

“Hold, what?” De’larn gasped.

“Don’t you dare play the fool!”

De’larn turned to the woman behind Nedina, one who was now cowering from him.

“Nedriel?” he said.

Nedriel cowered further from the young lord.

“Don’t look at her!” Nedina barked. “Look at me!”

“Was it Marlun?” De’larn said, ignoring Nedina completely.

“Who’s Marlun?” Nedina demanded.

“Her former master’s son,” De’larn replied, his gaze upon his servant still.

“Nedriel,” he repeated.

At last, his servant turned to him.

“Was it Marlun?”

Young Nedriel’s gaze darted from her lord to Nedina and back.

“It was, wasn’t it?” De’larn said, a deep snarl upon his lips. “Wasn’t it?”

“He didn’t mean to break it,” Nedriel replied at last. “He just went too far this time, that’s–”

“This time?” Nedina and De’larn said in unison.

The young servant fell silent once more, her gaze at her feet.

The young lord glared at his servant a spell as his rage slowly grew. Then, without warning, he pulled free of Nedina’s grip and marched towards is cabinet.

“What’re you doing?” Nedina demanded as De’larn knelt before it and opened the lowest drawer.

Ignoring the mage, the young lord grasped hold of the orb within, a perfect sphere made of solid obsidian, and rose, the orb held firm.

“What’re you going to do with that?” Nedina said.

The young lord stared hard at his servant with nary a word, then turned and stormed out.

With eyes wide, young Nedriel turned to Nedina, her gaze filled with terror, then hurried after her master.

Nedina watched the woman leave in silence as a coldness slowly gripped her heart.

“What have I done?” she whispered, then hurried after the pair.

Even with his destination in his sights, De’larn didn’t slow his gait, and as he reached the door of the servant’s quarters, the seething noble slammed his foot into the door with all his might, shattering its lock and slamming it against the wall behind it with enough force to send what was left of its lock clattering to the ground. But that did little to soothe his rage, and ignoring the startled stares, the young lord scanned the sea of faces till his gaze fell upon the object of his rage, and with his teeth bared, he marched forth, his grip upon his orb tightening.

“My lord, what an honour,” stammered the young servant whose face the young lord had his gaze locked onto.

De’larn kept his peace as he made his way towards the youth.

“Is all well, my lo–”

As he reached the servant, the young lord smashed an open palm into the youth’s face, crushing his nose and turning it into a bloody fountain, and as the youth staggered back shrieking, his hands darting to his nose, the young lord planted one foot before him, leant upon it and smashed the orb in his hand against the youth’s side, the sickening sound of breaking bone filling the air as the gasping youth crumpled to the floor, catching hold of a nearby table as he fell.

But De’larn was far from done, and as the servant fell, the seething lord turned his gaze to the outstretched hand before bringing the orb down hard upon it, crushing the elf’s fingers in a single blow.

Unable to scream, the servant that was Marlun squealed and gasped, pulling his hand close as he hugged his side.

Then, the young lord stretched out a hand.

“Your hand,” he said.

Slowly, Marlun raised his gaze to the noble before him, his eyes bloodshot and sweat pouring down his face.

“Your hand,” De’larn repeated.

Slowly, the kneeling servant raised his broken fingers to the noble.

With a cold gaze, De’larn stared deep into the kneeling servant’s eyes as he grasped hold of the offered hand by the wrist and raised it high.

“Do you remember what I said I’d do if you hurt her again?” he said.

“My lord, I–” the kneeling servant began.

In that moment, De’larn slammed the orb against the servant’s elbow, shattering it completely.

“De’larn, enough!” Nedina cried. “He’s beaten!”

“This doesn’t concern the Tower, Nedina,” De’larn replied, the coldness in his voice chilling even Nedina’s heart. “Please stay out of it.”

Then, the young lord let go of the servant’s hand and held out his hand once more.

“Your other hand,” he said.

The kneeling youth shook his head.

“Either that or I crush your skull.”

“De’larn!” Nedina yelled.

“Your choice, Marlun,” De’larn continued, his gaze unwavering and his voice unchanged.

“Please,” the kneeling servant pleaded. “Please! It won’t happen again!”

“Oh, I guarantee that,” De’larn said, the coldest of smiles upon his lips. “Now, hand or skull?”

Swallowing hard, the youth stared pleading at the noble before him.

“Very well.” De’larn said, then planted a foot before him once more.

“No, no!” the kneeling servant cried.

“Hrm?” De’larn replied.

Swallowing hard, the youth offered his other hand to the noble at last.

Smiling once more, De’larn took the offered hand and raised it high. Then, breathing deep, the young lord pulled back the hand within which rested the orb and waited, his gaze upon the wincing servant. But then, as the kneeling servant opened his eyes, he swung, smashing the orb into Marlun’s elbow and filling the air once more with the dull, sickening sound of breaking bone.

This time, Marlun couldn’t even squeal.

“Now,” De’larn said, squatting before the broken servant, “I need you to truly listen to the words I utter next.”

Quivering, Marlun glared at the noble before him.

“If you or any in your clan hurt Nedriel again, I’ll burn you alive. Do you hear me?”

The quivering youth licked his lips

“Do. You. Hear. Me?”

The servant nodded in response.

“Good,” De’larn said, then slowly rose.

The silence within the room was deafening.

Tearing his gaze from the kneeling servant, De’larn made his way towards the cowering elf within the doorway, and as he reached her, he smiled.

“Come,” he said, his voice soft, “I’ll take you to the menders.”

“Lord Arundel’s going to–” Nedriel began.

“You let me worry about Arundel,” De’larn soothed as he placed a gentle arm about his servant. “Come.”

Then, as the silence returned, Nedina could only watch as both master and servant made they way from the door, and, not knowing what else to do, she followed, the other servants finally hurrying to Marlun’s side.

*****

Sitting upon her bed, Nedina stared out of the window as her mind’s eye relived the events of the night before. To see De’larn so calm, so devoid of emotion, and watch him inflict such cruelty on another…she was not prepared for that. Granted, she’d read many a missive on his various acts of cruelty over the years, but reading about it and witnessing it are two different things entirely. The De’larn of her youth would never have hurt another to such a level, no matter the reason. Whoever this De’larn was, he was not the boy she once knew.

And yet, though cruel his actions, it was all for a lowly servant. Everything she’d read about him over the years had shown him to be one who would stop at nothing to further the cause of his House. But there he was, defending one with the nothing to offer in return. It was the sort of thing the De’larn of her youth would’ve done.

“Who are you, De’larn?” she whispered. “What have you become?”

Then, she saw once more the terror in the servant Nedriel’s eyes as she watched her lord hurt her tormentor. And once again, the mage felt puzzled. He was reducing her tormentor to a broken shell of a man, and yet she remained terrified.

“What in the hells were you afraid of, woman?” Nedina muttered.

There was more to this, Nedina knew, a great deal more, and it bothered her greatly that she couldn’t see it all.

Sighing at last, Nedina tore her gaze from the window.

“It’s not your business, woman,” she said as she rose. “You’re here for the treaty. Nothing more.”

But the thoughts gnawed at her still.

“Ugh!” she cried as she shook her head and tried to steer her thoughts to something else. She’d promised Kara she’d make it for breakfast this time, and she hadn’t long before it was served. And so, breathing deep, she began preparing for the day.

But the thoughts lingered, dulling her focus and slowing her limbs, till at last, the mage stopped and turned to the door. It was no use, she had to know.

“Kara’s going to kill me,” she mumbled at last, and with a sigh, the nosy mage turned and hurried to the wash bath, wriggling out of her night gown as she went.

Stepping back, Nedina cast a nervous eye about her, then checked her cloak once more. The spell held still.

“Come on, you stupid bastard,” she muttered, turning to the door once more. “I know you’re in there, open up!”

But the door remained unmoving.

Clearing her throat, Nedina learnt forward and knocked once more.

Nothing.

“Right, that’s it!” she snarled, and called forth a fist made of air, and with a wave of her hand, the fist floated towards the door, clenched tight, and began pounding on the door without pause.

“Alright!” came a cry from within after a spell. “Alright!”

“Then, open the bloody door!” Nedina seethed.

Without warning, the door swung open, and as De’larn stepped into the doorway, the fist began pounding on his skull.

“No, no!” Nedina cried, undoing her spell as a startled De’larn leapt back from the doorway, a pained gasp escaping his lips as a hand flew to his head.

Darting in, the wide-eyed mage swung the door shut as she undid her cloaking spell.

“What in the hells did you do that for?” De’larn roared as his gaze fell upon the mage.

Nedina winced. “My apologies.”

“Apologies?” De’larn barked. “You could’ve killed me!”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic!” Nedina shot back as she marched towards him. “Here, let’s see.”

“I don’t need your aid, woman,” De’larn snarled in response before turning and heading for his bed.

“Hey!” Nedina barked, reaching for the hand hanging by his side. “Don’t you walk away from–”

It wasn’t De’larn’s sharp cry that stilled her tongue, nor was it the way in which he darted back from her the moment her hand wrapped about his wrist, or even the way he cradled the hand and shielded it from her with this body. It was the softness of it, and as she stared at him, her eyes began to see at last the many bruises upon his face, back and arms.

“Who did this?” she said.

“Mind your own damned business,” De’larn growled as he limped towards his bed.

“Is it broken?”

“What do you care?”

“De’larn–”

“I don’t need your aid!” De’larn shot back.

“No, what you need is a good smack on the head.”

“What did you say?” the young lord growled as he turned to glare at the mage.

“I can heal, you idiot,” Nedina replied. “Well…mostly.”

“Mostly?”

Nedina shrugged. “I haven’t quite mastered setting bones yet, but I’m getting there.”

“Then, what blasted good are you?” the young lord snarled.

“Do you want healing or not?” Nedina barked.

“I don’t need your blasted healing, woman!” De’larn spat and turned to head to his bead once more. “Nedriel’s gone to get some poultices.”

Nedina frowned at this. “Poultices, not a mender?”

“I don’t need one, nothing’s broken,” De’larn replied as he finally reached his bed, groaning as he lay upon it

Nedina’s frown deepened as she stared at the young lord. “Are you trying to hide this?”

De’larn said nary a word.

Nedina stared at the young lord for a spell.

“This is what Nedriel was afraid of, isn’t it? This is what she said Arundel was going to do.”

“Gods, I’d forgotten how bloody stubborn you can be.”

Nedina smiled. “You’re calling me stubborn?”

“Hah!” De’larn laughed, but soon winced and closed his eyes as he sucked air through his teeth.

“He kicked your ribs?” Nedina asked, her voice soft.

“Just leave it be, Nedina,” he said at last, opening his eyes and turning his gaze to the mage once again. “Nedriel and I have done this before many time, I’ll be alright. You, on the other hand, will not be if you’re caught in my quarters. So, leave. Now. Please.”

The elven mage move to speak, but words failed her. He was right. She should leave. This wasn’t Tower affair.

But she couldn’t, could she?

Sighing at last, the mage wandered over to the bed, and, with the greatest of care, sat beside the wounded lord.

“Would you just–” De’larn began.

“Hold still,” Nedina interjected as she placed a hand upon the young lord’s cheek, upon the largest bruise on his face, and sighed.

“Nedina, you…” De’larn began, but soon fell silent as the healing magic in the mage’s hand spread across his face, its gentle breeze slowly clearing away his bruises.

Then, Nedina removed her hand, and as the silence grew, the young lord raised a hand to his face.

“You needn’t have done that, you know,” he said at last

“I know.” Nedina nodded, then turned and placed a gentle hand upon the lord’s chest.

“No, Nedina, stop,” De’larn said, reaching for her hand. “You’ve done enough. You need to–”

“Shut up, De’larn,” Nedina interjected as she placed her other hand upon the young lord’s swollen wrist. “I’m doing this.”

The silence returned as the same calming wave washed over the young lord once more, this time engulfing his entire body and filling him with a soothing warmth, and as it faded, the young lord felt his strength renewed.

“There,” Nedina said at last.

Slowly, De’larn sat tall before raising his once sprained wrist and turning his hand slowly.

“Your brother beat you this badly over a servant?”

De’larn moved to speak, but kept his peace.

“Are you both bedding her?”

“You watch your tongue!” the young lord barked.

“Well, then, why else would he do this to you?”

Once more, the young lord fell silent.

“In my experience,” Nedina said at last, “you highland barons only care about two things. Your loins…”

“If you call her a whore one more time…”

“…and your property. She is your servant, not his, and neither of you are bedding her. So, why would he care enough to do this to you?”

“Why do you care enough to ask?”

Nedina stared at the laying lord for a spell, but couldn’t answer, for it was a question she’d asked herself on the way over, but had yet to answer.

Then, at last, she shrugged. “Because I just do.”

The young lord scoffed at this. “A worthless answer if there ever was one.”

Biting back a snarl, Nedina glared at the young lord.

De’larn held the glaring mage’s gaze for a spell, but soon sighed.

“My brother and I have never seen see eye-to-eye. He takes every opportunity he can get to remind me he’s our father’s heir.”

“What has that–”

“Nedriel is mine, but Marlun and his clan are Arundel’s.”

“Ah.” Nedina nodded. “I see.”

“Yes.” De’larn nodded, then sighed. “Happy now?”

The seated mage smiled, but it was brief, chased away swiftly by a frown. “Hold, if Marlun and his clan belonged to Arundel, how can they have ever had servants of their own? You said Nedriel used to answer to Marlun’s father.”

“Ah.” De’larn smiled. “Yes, I can see how that can be confusing. Marlun’s clan used to be a minor House, and Nedriel was one of their slaves–”

“Oh!” Nedina gasped.

“Yes.” De’larn nodded. “His House fell on hard times, made too many promises to too many Houses in a stupid attempt to raise their status. Ended up owing everyone a lot of coin, so when the noose began to tighten, I bought Nedriel for next to nothing. And then, when they were reduced to a clan, Father paid off their debts and demanded their fealty and what little land they had left in payment. He kept the land and made them swear to Arundel.”

“I see.” Nedina nodded. Then, she remembered the orb, and the symbol etched upon it.

“And that thing you used to beat Marlun with,” she said, “you bought that from them too?”

De’larn smiled and shook his head. “No, Nedriel stole it the day I bought her. She offered it to me as a gift. Boils Marlun’s blood every time he sees it. It was his father’s, a gift from House Duskriver.”

“Ah,” Nedina replied, smiling once more, but once again, her smile was brief.

“Why do it, De’larn?” she asked.

“Do…what?”

“Why fight for her?”

The young lord stared hard at the woman seated before him.

“What sort of fool question is that?” he asked at last.

The elven mage stared at the young lord a spell, her gaze of one searching for words, but as the silence grew, the rose at last, folding her arms beneath her bosom and walking towards the door.

“Alright, ignore me, then,” De’larn growled after a spell.

Then, the mage spun about and held the laying lord in a piercing gaze.

“Do you remember Yellow Tail?”

De’larn frowned. “Who?”

“The kitten Kara found in your mother’s garden when we were little.”

“Oh!” De’larn gasped, grinning. “That little thing.”

“Yes,” Nedina replied as she nodded. “Him.”

“Yeah,” De’larn nodded, “I remember him.”

“You remember how nobody wanted to be near him?”

De’larn’s grin grew. “Hard to forget. Kara kept screeching whenever I brought it close to her. Even Mother didn’t want to go near it, the poor thing.”

“I can hardly blame them,” Nedina replied, “the little thing was mangy and sickly.”

“Yes,” De’larn sighed, “didn’t last long, did it?”

“No,” Nedina shook her head. “it didn’t.”

“Why bring it up though? That happened years ago.”

Nodding, Nedina neared the bed once more. “Do you remember what your father said when he first saw you with it?”

“How can I forget?” De’larn growled. “He demanded I throw it out with the garbage.”

“But you didn’t.”

“How the bloody hells could I? It was dying!”

“And you remember what he did when he found out you’d disobeyed him and nurtured it?“

“Why are you bringing this up now, Nedina?” the young lord repeated.

The frowning mage took a measured step forward, her gaze at her feet.

“Kara and I admired you when we were little, De’larn.” the mage said, then raised her gaze to the young lord.

“What?” De’larn giggled.

“I do not jest,” Nedina replied, words that wiped the smile from the young lord’s lips. “Your peers were all a bunch of bastard, even then. But you, you cared for everyone, peer and servant alike. Just like your mother.”

The young lord moved to speak as his cheeks reddened, but words failed him.

“But then, over the years, we’ve watched you turn into the same sort of monster they are.”

Slowly, the young lord sat tall, his gaze darkening with each passing moment. But Nedina held his gaze with a calm stare of her own.

“You know nothing of what I am,” De’larn snarled at last.

“Don’t I?” Nedina said at last. “I know of the listening stone you had hidden in that Mistvale woman’s bedchamber. I know you used what’s upon it it to force her to reaffirm her allegiance with your father.”

“You don’t–”

“I know how you had the Dawnrider’s vault raided, then bought their allegiance with the very gold you stole from them.”

De’larn turned his gaze forward, gritting his teeth as he did so.

“And I know you made those Winterbite servants disappear, knowing full well what your brother did.”

The young lord remained silent, his gaze now upon the bed.

“Are they alive?” Nedina asked, her voice soft.

De’larn held his peace.

“Are they alive, De’larn?”

The young noble nodded. “They’re alive.”

“Where?”

“In the king’s dungeon. I…had them arrested for treason.”

“Treason.” The young mage gasped. “Gods… They’ll die in there.”

The young lord turned to his childhood friend, but the weight of her gaze was too much to bear, and soon his eyes were upon his bed once more.

Taking a deep breath, Nedina let it out slowly and shook her head.

“There are many other vile things you’ve done,” she continued, “some of which turned my stomach when I first heard them.”

Then, she wandered to the bed and sat upon it. “But then yesterday, I watched you throw caution to the wind and march in the defence of a servant, knowing full well what it would cost you.”

The young lord shrugged, his gaze unmoving.

Stretching forth a hand, Nedina slowly turned the young lord’s gaze to her.

“Who are you, De’larn?” she asked as she lowered her hand. “Are you like every other baron’s son? Or are you the boy from my childhood?”

De’larn stared at her for a spell, then, breathing deep, he let it out slowly and smiled.

“Do you remember what Mother used to say?”

Nedina smiled and held the lord in a pointed stare. “Your mother had a great many sayings, De’larn.”

The young lord’s smile widened and nodded. “She did, yes. But there was one she used to say whenever we faced a challenge that was too great for us.”

“Oh!” Nedina gasped. “Yes! Uhm… If you… If you wish to survive in this world, you must…you must…uhm…”

“If you wish to survive in this world, you must learn to adapt to each challenge in turn,” De’larn said.

“Yes, that’s it!” Nedina grinned.

“Yes.” De’larn replied, his smile fading. “I am my father’s chief counsel. Me, the son of a baron, reduced to a lowly adviser.”

“De’larn, he–”

“Do you know what it’s like to come home from your mother’s funeral to find another woman in bed with your father? To find some strange boy in your bed?”

The young mage stared open-mouthed at the elf before her.

“I didn’t think so. I am what I am, Nedina, because my mother taught me to adapt.”

“But she wouldn’t–”

“What? She wouldn’t approve of what I’ve become? Do not be so naive. My mother always knew how little my father cared about me. Their marriage was one of convenience, nothing more. My mother’s House’s glory was fading, and House Suncrest was desperately short of coin back then. They needed each other. Except, Father got what he wanted eventually, and Mother never did. Only he couldn’t just leave, could he? He had a son now.”

Then, the young lord sneered. “Mother always knew how much he resented being trapped in their marriage She knew he would abandon me the moment she was gone, so she taught me to adapt. Adapt and survive. And I have. I will not apologise for that, Nedina. Do you hear me? I will never apologise for that.”

“You could’ve left.”

De’larn scoffed at this. “What did I just say about being naïve? I’m a highland baron’s son. No son of a baron has ever left his House and lived for more than a decade. I leave, I die. It’s that simple.”

“We could’ve given you sanctuary.”

“Could you? The Tower and the highland elves are allies. If my father demanded my return, would your mother truly forsake the treaty for me? Truly? Truly, Nedina?”

Nedina stared at her childhood friend with a gaze of supreme sadness, and as silence returned, the young lord sighed and reached for her hand.

“We all have our burdens to bear,” he said, “and this is mine.”

“It’s a cruel burden to bear.”

The young lord shrugged. “It’s mine nonetheless.” Then, he smiled. “But you needn’t worry about me, I don’t bear it alone. I have Nedriel.”

Nedina smiled at the young lord. “Yes, you do.” Then, she sat tall. “And you know what? I once called you friend. It’s high time I did that again.”

De’larn smiled at this. “You can’t call me friend, Nedina, you’re meant to be impartial here.”

The young mage frowned at her childhood friend. “Since when did you start telling me what to do?”

“Nedina…”

“You’re not my father, De’larn, you do not dictate who I can or cannot call friend. And I shall be calling you friend, whether you like it or not.”

The young lord sighed and shook his head. “Stubborn…”

“Well, I will not apologise for that!”

The young lord sighed once more. “Very well.”

“Good!” Nedina snarled. Then, her gaze changed. “There is one thing, though.”

“What?” De’larn said, frowning.

“It’s just…why do you stare at me so strangely?”

The young lord’s frown deepened. “Strangely…how?”

“Like you’re imagining how my liver would taste.”

“What?”

Nedina nodded. “You were doing it the day we arrived, standing at the back and staring.”

The young lord stared hard at his childhood friend, but then, as memories of that fateful day came flooding back, De’larn slowly sat tall as his cheeks reddened.

“You know of what I speak, don’t you?”

“Ah, yes, well,” De’larn muttered, “you see, I…uh…I mean I was–”

“I don’t care why, De’larn,” Nedina interjected. “Just stop doing it. It’s unnerving.”

The young lord forced a smile upon his lips and nodded. “Very well.”

“Good.” Nedina nodded, then rose and turned and headed for the door.

“Oh!” she added once by the door, spinning to face her childhood friend once more. “Are you hungry?”

“What?”

“I was supposed to join Kara for breakfast, but they would’ve stopped serving by now. I intend to go to the kitchens to see what I can scrounge. Care to join me?”

De’larn stared in silence at the elven woman.

“You’re staring again.”

“Oh,” De’larn grinned as his cheeks reddened once more. “Forgive me.”

“So, is that a yes or a no?”

“It’s a yes,” De’larn replied, nodding as he spoke. “I’d just…uh… I’d need some time to…uh…get dressed and uh…yeah.”

“Very well,” Nedina said. “But don’t take long.”

The young lord shook his head. “I won’t.”

“Meet you in front of the kitchens?”

“Sure.”

“Good,” Nedina replied, then faded from view.

The young lord sat in silence as his door opened seemingly of its own accord before shutting once more, and as the silence grew, he slowly fell upon his bed, the widest of grins upon his lips.

*****

With a smile dancing upon her lips, Kara rose her gaze from the parchment before her to sister, and in silence, she cocked her head to the side and waited.

Then, Nedina giggled once more, her infectious laugh calling forth her sister’s smile, and the silence returned, the young mage placed both her elbows upon the desk, clasped her hands together and rested her cheek upon the side of them, her gaze intent on her sister as she breathed deep and waited once more.

But, as she waited, Nedina glanced up from the parchment before her, and as her gaze met her sister’s she frowned.

“What?” she said. “Why are you staring at me like that?”

Kara shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

Nedina’s frown deepened. “It’s not nothing. What is it?” Then, she raised her hand to the silvery mane upon her head. “Do I have something in my hair again?”

The young mage shook her head. “No, your hair is fine, it’s…nothing.”

Dropping her hand, Nedina held her sister in a pointed gaze. “It’s not nothing. Either you tell me what it is, or I shall soak you again.”

“Oh!” Kara gasped as she sat tall. “You wouldn’t dare!”

“Won’t I…?” Nedina said as she slowly raised a hand.

“Very well!” Kara cried, raising her hands. “Very well!”

“Good! Now, out with it!”

Sighing, the young mage stared at her sister a spell, but soon sat forward, folding her arms upon the table.

“You were giggling to yourself again.”

“Oh, gods,” Nedina groaned, “not that again.”

Kara smiled and stared at her sister in silence.

“There is nothing wrong in having the odd giggle, Kara!” Nedina added. “Alright?”

“Well,” Kara replied, “ordinarily, I’d agree with you…”

Ordinarily?”

“…but we’ve been here nearly five months now, and by now I’d expect you to be almost impossible to live with.”

“Hey!”

“But it’s true though! By now, you should be stomping around the place cursing and scowling at everyone, constantly looking for something to set ablaze–“

“Or someone…” Nedina growled.

“There!” Kara cried. “See? That’s the Nedina I should be having to live with now! Instead I have…well…giggly Nedina.”

The Matriarch-in-waiting threw her hands up in disgust.

“There’s just no pleasing some people, is there?” she said. “You’ll complain if I scowl and stomp, but here you are, complaining that I’m not scowling and stomping so–”

“Now, hold a moment, I’m not complaining.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes!”

“Then what are you doing?”

“I’m just–”

“Just what?”

“Nothing, I’m just–“

“Just what?”

“Stop that!”

“Stop what?”

“Interrupting me.”

“I’m not interrupting you, you’re just not making any sense.”

Falling silent, Kara glared at her sister, who glared back with a smile dancing upon her lips.

“All I am saying,” Kara said at last, “is that it’s good to see you this happy, Sister.”

The Matriarch-in-waiting slowly sat tall as her smile blossomed.

“And let’s not forget the boon it’s giving us with our task!” Kara added.

“Oh, dear gods,” Nedina groaned, rolling her eyes as she spoke.

“What?”

“You can’t help yourself, can you?” Nedina interjected, her smile widening. “That mind of your is forever twirling, forever seeking out what boon you can claim.”

“Sister…” Kara sighed.

Then, Nedina’s smile faded “No wonder Mother wishes you were first.”

At those words, Kara’s own smile faded as she reached for her sister.

“Don’t start that again, Nedina,” she said, her voice firm as she placed a hand upon her sister’s. “You are the elder. Nobody wishes it any different. Not Mother, nor I, nor anyone in the Tower. You are Mother’s successor. Alright?”

Gripping her sister’s hand, Nedina squeezed and smiled. “Forgive me.”

Shaking her head, Kara smiled. “There’s nothing to forgive.” Then, her smile grew. “But now, you must tell me your secret.”

“Oh, give it a rest!” Nedina cried and pulled her hand free.

“Give it a rest, nothing!” Kara threw back. “You haven’t been this jolly since…since the party Mother threw for you upon becoming Archmage!”

“What?”

“Precisely! So tell! What is it, and can I have some?”

Nedina glared at her sister as she folded her arms beneath her bosom, her lips unmoving.

“You know I’m not going to let this rest,” Kara said after a spell, “so share!”

Nedina sighed at last, rolling her eyes as she sat tall. “If I tell you, you’ll make a fuss.”

“I won’t, I swear!”

Nedina shook her head. “You say that every time, but you make a fuss. You pull that silly little angry face of yours and just stop speaking to me.”

“What in the world…?”

Nedina held her sister in a pointed stare.

“Very well.,” Kara sighed. “You have my word, no fuss making this time. I swear!”

Nedina stared at her sister a spell, but soon, she sat forward, placing her elbows upon the table as her smile returned.

“Well, it’s De’larn.”

“De’larn?” Kara frowned.

Nedina nodded. “It’s like I’m speaking to De’larn of old again.”

Kara slowly sat tall as she cast a sideways glance at her sister.

“Oh, gods,” Nedina muttered. “You’re going to make a fuss aren’t you?”

“So, you’re saying your being cordial with him these last few months wasn’t to get him to aid us in keeping the barons in check.”

Nedina sighed. “No, Sister, I haven’t been doing that.”

“Then, how come he’s aiding us in keeping the barons in check?”

Nedina shrugged. “He offered to and I accepted.”

“Just like that?”

Nedina nodded .”Mhm.”

Kara stared hard at her sister, but soon Nedina held the gaze with a tired stare of her own.

“Weren’t you the one who said he couldn’t be trusted?” Kara said at last. “That the missives we’ve read show he’s irredeemable?”

“That was before he and I spoke.”

“You spoke?”

Nedina nodded. “Yes. His family hates him. His father especially. He’s simply doing what his mother taught him, adapting to survive.”

“By destroying people’s lives.”

Nedina sighed. “That part…I don’t agree with. But he’s been willing to make amends as much as he can.”

“How so?”

“Well…you remember those Winterbite servants?”

“Winter…oh yeah, I remember.”

“Well, he had them thrown into the king’s dungeon…”

“What?”

“…but after we spoke on it, he agreed to set them free, give them a chance to rebuild their lives away from the highlands.”

“Are you sure?”

“Am I sure, what?”

“Are you sure he set them free?”

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“How so?”

“Kara! He’s not the man portrayed in our missives! He’s still the same De’larn we used to cause mischief with!”

“You’re sure of this?”

“Am I… Listen, a few months ago, on my way back here, I chanced upon his servant, Nedriel, only she’d had her arm broken. It was her former owner’s son. Seems she used to be a slave, and De’larn bought her and gave her her freedom, only her former masters aren’t happy about how her life has improved and theirs have gone the other way, so they beat her from time to time. Only, that time, De’larn went after them! He went after them, Kara! Nedriel’s former masters answer to Arundel, but he risked his brother’s wrath for a servant! Does that not sound like the De’larn we used to know?”

Kara stared at her sister in silence, her lips agape.

“Well, say something!”

“Her former masters are servants,” Kara replied, “and she’s a servant.”

Nedina frowned. “Yes, so?”

“So the beating would likely have happened within either the servants quarters or their compound.”

“So?”

“Don’t you think it’s a little too fortuitous, you crossing paths with her like that?”

“Fortuitous how?”

“De’larn’s quarters aren’t on this side of the castle,” Kara replied. “Why would she come all the way here with a broken arm?”

Nedina’s frown deepened. “Why would she go to De’larn? She was trying to hide the beatings from him.”

“So, why would she come all the way here?”

“To see the menders, obviously! They’re on this side of the castle!”

Kara stared hard at her sister.

“Sister,” Kara said at last, “no servant can go to the menders without either their lord in tow, or their lord being informed of the visit. She would know that.”

At those words, Nedina slowly sat tall as the blood drained from her face.

“No,” Nedina said at last, shaking her head as she spoke. “No, she wouldn’t fake a broken arm. She couldn’t! I felt it!”

“That may be so, but can you swear her former owners are who broke it? Are you sure De’larn didn’t break her arm and send her out to wait for you?”

“Why in the world would he do something like that?” Nedina asked, though it was clear from her gaze the answer was already hers.

Kara held her peace, her gaze pained and her eyes upon her sister.

At last, Nedina smiled. There was no mirth in her smile.

“He’s using me, isn’t he?” she said at last.

“Sister…” Kara said, reaching for her sister.

Shaking her head, Nedina bit her lip and rose before turning and walking towards her bed.

Kara moved to rise, to hurry to her sister’s side, but as she did so, a knock came at the door.

“Damn it,” she spat, her gaze drifting to the door.

Staring at her sister once more, the mage sighed and rose, then headed for the door.

“Yes?” she said as she opened the door.

“Evening, Mistress,” beamed the servant Nedriel. “I have a message for Mistress Nedina.”

“Now is not a good–“ Kara began.

“Move!” Nedina barked as she pulled the door from her sister’s grip.

“Mistress?” Nedriel frowned as she turned her gaze to a glowering Nedina.

“You go tell your master,” Nedina seethed, “that he shall make a fool of me no longer. You tell him to keep himself as far from me as he can! You tell him this from me!”

“What the–”

“And you, woman!” Nedina thundered. “You! You never darken this door again! Do you hear me?”

The servant Nedriel stared at the pair, her confusion plain, but as she stared, the mage that was Nedina stepped back from the door, pulling her sister with her, then slammed the door in the servant’s face.

As a heavy silence fell upon the pair, Kara could only watch as her sister spun and marched towards her bed before sitting upon it, her back to her sister. Sighing at last, the young mage stepped forth, wandering over to her sister’s bed, and as she reached it, she sat behind Nedina and placed a hand upon her sister’s shoulder.

“Leave me,” Nedina said, her voice quivering. “Please.”

Not knowing what else to do, the young mage rose and headed for the table, her heart aching for her sister.

*****

“…mn it, boy, are you even listening?”

“Hunh?” De’larn muttered as he turned to his father, but as he beheld his father’s fierce visage, the young lord swallowed hard and sat tall.

“Am I burdening you with all this, son?” the Baron asked, his tone calm and his eyes anything but.

“No, Father,” the young lord replied, shaking his head as he spoke.

“Good,” the Baron replied, “for I would hate that matters such as these would be an inconvenience to you.”

The young lord forced a smile. “Forgive me Father, it’s just–”

“It’s just…what?”

Clearing his throat, De’larn widened his smile.

“Nothing,” he said. “Forgive me.”

The Baron stared at his son in response, his gaze undimmed.

“Your brother has thus far failed in his task…” the Baron said at last.

“I know,” De’larn said.

“…and, by extension, so have you.”

The young lord lowered his gaze at this.

“We have lost more ground this week than we have done since this damned gathering began.”

“I know, Father,” De’larn replied, raising his gaze.

“Oh, do you, now?”

The young lord said nary a word.

“Whatever you did to make the Tower woman more sympathetic to our view, do it again. I don’t care what it is. The highlands cannot come out of this in worse standing than those animals, do you hear me? Not after all that I have promised.”

De’larn nodded. “I understand, Father?”

“Do you?” the Baron asked. “Do you truly?”

“Yes,” the young lord replied, nodding once more. “I do.”

“Then, see it done.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Good.” The Baron sneered. “Now, leave me.”

Bowing, De’larn rose and hurried out the door, his pace undimmed. But, even as he hastened down the corridor, the young lord’s mind was elsewhere and his gaze in the ether, his thoughts turned to the only matter of any importance to him. So intent was he in his thoughts, that he was oblivious to the elven woman that hurried after him once he was out of sight of the Baron’s study, a young woman who stared at her lord with quite some worry as she fell in step beside him.

“My lord…?” the young woman said after a spell.

There was no answer.

Pursing her lips, the young woman placed a gentle hand upon her master’s arm.

Startled, the young lord spun at last to face the young woman.

“Is all well, my lord?” the woman asked.

“How long have you been there?”

The young woman shook her head. “Not long.”

The young lord rose his gaze to what lay behind him.

“De’larn?” the woman whispered.

The young lord returned his gaze to the woman.

“Did she say anything this time?” he asked instead.

Standing tall, the young woman shook her head, the pain in her gaze clear for all to see.

“They didn’t even open the door this time,” she said.

“Gods damn it all!”

“Forgive me, my lord,” the woman replied, “I tried everything.”

“But this doesn’t make any sense!” De’larn replied, staring into the ether once more. “How could she cut me off so completely without even a word?”

“I don’t know,” the woman replied.

De’larn turned to her once more. “Are you sure you didn’t say anything?”

The woman shook her head. “I didn’t say anything! I swear!”

“Think, Nedriel!” De’larn pressed, grabbing the woman’s arms. “Think! You must’ve said something!”

“My lord, I swear on my very soul,” the woman replied, “I said nothing!”

“But–”

“All I did was ask for Mistress Nedina, nothing more! From the moment she came to the door to the moment she slammed it in my face, I said nothing! I swear!”

“Then, why is she doing this?” De’larn hissed.

“I don’t know!”

De’larn stared at his servant with a haunted gaze before turning at last and shuffling to a nearby bench, and as he fell upon it, he leant forward with his elbows rested on his legs, and, placing his head upon his hands, he stared into the ether once more, his mind poring over every word and ever gesture of the last time he was with the Matriarch-in-waiting.

Nedriel watched her lord for a spell, and as a sigh escaped her lips, she hurried to his side. Sitting beside him, the saddened servant grasped hold of her lord’s hand, kissed it gently and held it tight upon her lap.

The young lord raised his head in response and stared at his servant.

“I’ve lost her, haven’t it I?” he said at last.

Nedriel knew not what to say.

The young lord turned his gaze forward. “Ever since childhood, I’ve dreamt of being with her. And now that I’ve come so close, I lose her, and I don’t even know why.”

“My lord,” Nedriel said, “ there will be others, and–”

“Others?” De’larn hissed as he rounded on his servant. “Nedriel, this hurts!”

“I…”

“It hurts here!” De’larn added, slamming a fist against his chest. “Not since mother’s death have I felt anything like this! How can there possibly be others?”

The young servant moved to speak, but no words came.

Shaking his head, De’larn turned his eyes forward as his gaze drifted into the ether once more.

“If only she could tell me what I did,” he muttered. “Just tell me and I shall fix it!”

“It’s…” Nedriel began, but as a thought warmed it’s way to the fore of her mind, the young servant sat tall, her eyes bright

“Why don’t you ask her?” she said instead.

The young lord turned to his servant once more, staring at her as if she’d just sprung a second head.

“And what in the hells have I been asking you to do?” he demanded.

“Not me!” Nedriel grinned. “You!”

“Nedriel,” De’larn replied, turning to stare at his servant square, “if she won’t even open the door for you, how in the holy hells am I supposed to ask her anything?”

“By waiting for her return and asking her before she can reach her quarters!”

“We’ve tried that! Remember? She keeps alighting at the blasted gate, and by the time we’re aware she’s back, she’s already in her quarters!”

“Yes,” Nedriel nodded, “but there’s a change of the guards tomorrow!”

“So?”

“So, if you can make it so that Thandur is the head guard tomorrow, he can feign an issue with the gate upon her return and dispatch one of the others to alert you, and by the time he fixes this phantom issue, you’ll just happen to be right there waiting for her to enter!”

Slowly, De’larn sat tall, his eyes bright and his smile wide.

“Days like this, I am glad I have you by my side.”

Smiling, the young servant bowed. “I live to serve.”

“Oh, you do more than serve, Nedriel,” De’larn said, springing to her feet. “You do far more! Go speak to Thandur. I’ll make the arrangements.”

Nodding, Nedriel rose. “Yes, my lord.”

And, with his smile growing, the young lord spun on his heels and hurried forth, his faithful Nedriel glad to see the spring back in her lord’s steps.

Sitting tall, Kara stared out of the carriage window as it made its way towards the Suncrest castle, but she saw nothing of what lay beyond the window. There was a stifling air within the carriage, a suffocating heaviness that had been her constant companion ever since that fateful night, and it was once again robbing her of all joy.

Sighing softly, she stared once more at her sister from the edge of her vision, and once again, her heart ached. From the stiffness of her sister’s back to the fierceness of her gaze, Kara knew her sister was once more plagued with the guilt of being so utterly deceived. And there was nothing Kara could do to ease her suffering.

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Kara thought for the thousandth time that day. “I should’ve just kept my damn mouth shut and confronted the bastard instead.”

But what was done could not be undone, and as the heaviness weighed on the mage, she sat in silence, staring at sights unseen as she wished for the impossible.

Then, the carriage slowed.

“We’re here,” she said, sitting tall.

“Hrm?” Nedina said, turning her gaze to her sister.

“We’ve returned.”

“Oh,” Nedina replied as her gaze drifted to the towering gate beside the carriage.

“Does Mistress wish to alight here again?” came the voice of the carriage man.

“Yes,” was Nedina’s tired response as she opened the carriage door.

As Kara watched her sister alight, the calm mask upon her face began to slip as her pain slowly became plain, but as Nedina turned to her, Kara smiled.

“Come, then,” Nedina muttered.

“Right!” Kara replied, and hurried out of the carriage.

As the sisters stood before the gate, they watched for a brief moment as the carriage pulled away, then headed for the gate.

“Open the gate!” Kara called as they neared.

“Who goes there?” came a voice on the other side.

“I’m not in the mood for this!” Nedina barked. “Just opened the damn gates!”

“Ah, Mistress Nedina,” replied the voice. “Forgive me, I didn’t recogn–”

“Well, now you have,” was Nedina’s curt reply. “Now, open the gate.”

“Forgive me, Mistress,” the voice replied, “but there is a problem with the lock. I’ve sent for the locksmith and he shall be here shortly.”

The sisters frowned and exchanged glances.

“What do you mean, there’s a problem with the lock?” Kara demanded.

“Forgive me, Mistress,” the voice replied. “It simply won’t open.”

“What?” the sisters cried in unison.

“The locksmith will soon be here, forgive me.”

Kara turned to her sister.

“How soon is soon?” she asked after a spell, turning to the gate once more.

“He should be on his way,” the voice replied. “He’ll be here any moment.”

Sighing, Kara turned to her sister. “I suppose we must wait.”

“We don’t have much choice, do we?” Nedina growled.

“Forgive me,” the voice pleaded.

“Whatever.” Nedina sighed, and in the silence that followed, both mages conjured seats of air and made themselves comfortable as they waited.

How long they waited for, neither knew, but soon, the sound of footsteps reached their ears, and as one, they leapt to their feet.

“Is that him?” Kara demanded.

“Yes, Mistress.”

“I hear two sets of footsteps,” Nedina added.

“He brought a companion,” the voice replied. “Should make the task go quicker.”

“Well, hurry up, then,” Nedina shot back.

Silence returned as the mages stared intently at the gate, till at last, the gate groaned and swung open.

“You…” Nedina snarled as the gate opened.

Frowning, Kara turned from her sister to the slowly opening gate, and as her gaze fell upon De’larn, the young mage felt her blood begin to boil.

“I should’ve known this would be your doing,” she growled.

“Nedina, please” the young lord said, his ever faithful servant standing behind him, “we must talk.”

“We have nothing to say,” Nedina replied, then marched forth.

“No, hold a moment,” the young lord began as he stood in Nedina’s way.

“Move,” the seething mage spat as she barrelled past the young lord.

“Please, just listen!” De’larn cried.

But then, as Kara neared him, she watched as the young lord reached out a hand and grasped her sister by the shoulder.

“Oh dear,” Kara said.

“Just–“ the young lord began, but his words were cut short by a sharp and shrill cry as Nedina grasped hold of his hand and twisted, sending the young lord to his knees.

“Don’t you ever, in your life, lay a finger on me again,” Nedina snarled, her voice quivering as she glared at the kneeling noble.

“Enough!” Nedriel cried. “You’ve made your point!”

Nedina raised her gaze to the woman, and the heat of her glare turned the glowering servant to stone.

Returning her gaze to the kneeling lord, Nedina sneered and let go of his hand.

“We have nothing to speak on,” she said, then turned and resumed her march.

“Nedina, please!” De’larn cried as he rose, cradling his hand. “Just a mere moment.”

Nedina’s pace remained unchanged.

“Nedina!” De’larn yelled as he raced after the Matriarch-in-waiting, Nedriel falling in step behind him.

“Stubborn little bastard,” Kara growled and hurried after them.

“Nedina!” De’larn barked as he neared the elven woman.

“Hold, damn you!” he added as he raced before her, holding his arm before him as he stood in her way.

“Get out of my way, De’larn,” the Matriarch-in-waiting growled.

“Not till you hear me out.”

“Like hells, I will,” Nedina spat, and made to march about him.

“Will you…” De’larn began as he reached for the elven woman’s arm, but the fierce glare Nedina held him in froze his hand and held him rigid.

“I won’t stop, you know,” De’larn said at last. “If you ignore me today, I shall lay in wait for you tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, till we speak.”

“And just what makes you think that will change anything?” Kara said as she wandered to her sister’s side.

“Well, she must listen to me at some point!” De’larn threw back.

“Does she?” Kara replied, her cold stare at De’larn a perfect match for her sister’s fierce glare upon the man before them. “And in what world, precisely, do you think haranguing my sister, of all people, to that degree will result in anything other than you having your face burnt off?”

“But–”

“You may be the son of a baron,” Kara interjected, “but your treatment of my sister thus far is a grave enough insult as it is. Do not add to that by harassing us.”

“But–”

“She is not interested in what you have to say, and, in truth, neither am I. Leave us be, De’larn, or you may find your kingdom’s standing in this treaty worsening with each passing day.”

The young lord stared at the women as his face fell and his shoulders sagged.

“Is that clear?” Kara added.

“We’re done here, Kara,” Nedina growled as she spun on her heels. “Let’s go.”

“Can you not just say what he did?” Nedriel said as Nedina marched forth.

“Just say what he did!” the seething servant yelled after a spell.

Kara stared at the servant a spell as she fought to contain her scowl, then, breathing deep, she turned and hurried after her sister.

“Gods curse you and your black heart!” Nedriel shrieked, her words stunning all who heard it. “Just say what he did!”

“Nedriel!” De’larn cried as the women stopped and turned.

“What did you say?” Nedina said, the red mist descending.

“Nedina…” Kara warned as she reached for her sister’s hand.

“What did you say?” Nedina replied as she marched towards the cowering servant.

“Now, hold a moment, Nedina,” De’larn added as he stepped between the fuming mage and his terrified servant.

“What did you say, woman?” Nedina repeated as her sister held her back.

Shaking her head, Nedriel hid behind her master, her face greatly whitened.

“You wish to know what he did?” Nedina added. “Hrm? You wish to know what you both did?”

“Let’s just go, Nedina,” Kara pleaded as she tugged on her sister’s arm. “Come.”

“You lied!” Nedina yelled as she rounded on the young lord. “You lied to me! All that talk, all that time! You were lying through your teeth! All you cared about was this blasted treaty! You’re no different of that bastard brother of yours! No, you’re worse! At least he had the common decency to be plain about what he wants!”

De’larn stared open-mouthed at the woman before him.

“So, there!” Nedina added. “Now you bloody know!”

Then, she spun about once more began to leave.

“I have never lied to you,” De’larn said.

“Oh, spare me!” Nedina barked as she rounded on him once more. “You may have fooled me, but Kara saw right through your ruse in a heartbeat!”

The young lord turned to Kara, who stared at him with the barest traces of a sneer upon her lips.

“Nedina,” he soon added as he returned his gaze to the Matriarch-in-waiting, “please. You must–”

“Oh, shut up, man! What other reason is there for you to do all you did, say all you said, if not to wrap me round your little finger!”

“But–”

“Well, what other reason is there?”

“Because he loves you, you stupid–”

“Nedriel!” De’larn screeched. “Shut up!”

A deafening silence fell upon the group as De’larn stared at the sisters, his eyes wide and his heart in this throat. Then, he realised something. Nedina hadn’t turned away from him. Better yet, she was no longer scowling. Dare he to hope?

But just as hope began to blossom in the young lord’s heart, it was swiftly chased away by a deep and mocking chuckle from the Matriarch-in-waiting.

“Oh, oh my dear gods, you two are beyond pathetic,” Nedina said, shaking her head as she spoke. “He loves me? Did you hear that, Kara?”

Kara did, and was far less amused.

“Unbelievable,” she said as she shook her head.

“And why is that?” De’larn demanded, raising his chin at her as he spoke.

“Because this is what you do, you demented fool,” Nedina replied. “You lie, you cheat, you do anything in your power to further the reach of your blasted House!”

“And that’s it, isn’t it? You think because I’m a Suncrest, I can’t possibly care for you?”

Nedina smiled and shook her head. “No, it’s because you’re the soulless dog out to get everything he can in any way he can.”

De’larn stood stunned as he stared at the elven woman before him but soon, his rage began to build, and as it grew, the young lord took a step forward, the intensity of his gaze growing with each passing moment.

“You once asked me why I used to stare at you like I did, remember?” he said. “Remember?”

Sneering, Nedina nodded. “I remember. Not that I care much what you have to say.”

“Would you like to know?”

“Oh, this should be good,” Nedina replied as she crossed her arms beneath her bosom..

“You’ve had a hold on me for as long as I’ve known you, Nedina. Every time I saw you, I felt terrified and elated at the same time. All I’ve ever wanted was hold you in my arms, and that’s the gods honest truth. Nedriel is right, I do care for you. I have always cared for you. And I will always care for you.”

The Matriarch-in-waiting moved to speak, but no words came.

“This is getting tiresome, De’larn,” Kara said, clasping a hand about her sister’s wrist. “You’re a liar and a user. We’re done speaking with you.”

“You know,” De’larn replied, rounding on the elven woman, “for someone so adept at the game of power, you are so unforgivably blind.”

“What did you say?”

“I am Chief Counsel of a House my father leads. Can you not see the shame of it? I serve my own brother! The blood of two noble houses flow through my veins, and yet I am forced to bend knee to the son of a peasant woman. Can you truly not see what that means?”

It was now Kara’s turn to be without words.

“I have no fealty for a man who hates my very existence, nor do I have any love for the House he has built. I do what I do to survive, nothing more.”

“My lord, perhaps we should stop,” Nedriel said as she cast furtive glances about them.

“Nedina told me of your adapt and survive nonsense,” Kara sneered, “and that is all it is, nonsense. Yes, you are Chief Counsel, and yes, your father elevated the son of a peasant woman above you, but that’s all the more reason for wishing to have my sister under thumb. What better way to show your father you should be his successor?”

De’larn laughed. “You truly think I wish to be Baron of this House?”

“My lord, please,” Nedriel pressed, “we are in the open. You don’t know who’s listening.”

But De’larn’s heart ruled him now, there was no reasoning with him.

“This House holds nothing but hateful memories, and my only wish in this life is to see it all burn to the ground.”

“De’larn!” Nedriel hissed, her gaze one of sheer terror. “They mustn’t hear you speak like this!”

Ignoring his servant, De’larn turned to Nedina.

“My whole life, I’ve only had one dream; to see my mother’s House rise from the ashes of my father’s. Everything I’ve ever done, every House I’ve ever broken, ever coin I’ve ever stolen or swindled, it’s all been done to weaken my brother’s future alliances and strengthen mine.”

“De’larn, please!” Nedriel cried.

“Then, you came into my life again,” the young lord continued, “and I remembered once more what it meant to be happy. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be with someone your heart sings for, to sit by them and think of nothing. No schemes, no plots, no…nothing. Being with you showed me a different life, Nedina, a better life, and I cherished every day we were together. You’re the only person who’s ever made me doubt my resolve, the only one who’s ever shaken my thirst for vengeance. I have never tried to use you, and I never will.”

The silence returned, its suffocating tendrils wrapping about the young lord’s throat. It was a silence that seemed to last for an eternity, the young lord staring with bated breath at the woman his heart yearned for. But then, as he stared, he watched as Nedina’s gaze grew cold and the elven mage slowly stood tall.

“Let’s go, Kara,” she said, then turned to leave.

De’larn watched the sisters leave, his heart in pieces.

“Come, my lord,” Nedriel said at last, putting an arm about her lord. “Come.”

As the silence returned once more, the faithful servant led the broken lord towards his quarters, oblivious to the figure within the shadows, its gaze upon the pair and its fists clenched tight.

With a loud huff, the elf Arundel of House Suncrest swung the door to his father’s private study wide, before leaning upon the doorway.

“You sent for me?” he growled at his father, the Baron standing by his drinks cabinet, his back to the door.

“Shut the door,” the Baron said.

At those words, the young noble slowly stood. There was an edge to his father’s voice, and it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand tall.

Without a word, the young noble obeyed.

“Sit down.”

The young noble hastened to a nearby seat.

The silence that followed was suffocating, the young noble fighting the urge to fidget where he sat as he watched his father slowly fill his goblet. Then, the Baron turned, and as Arundel stared into his father’s eyes, an icy hand gripped his heart and began to squeeze.

The Baron held his son’s gaze in silence for a spell as he sipped, and as the silence grew, it took all Arundel had to not look away.

“There have been times, over the years,” the Baron began, “that I’ve questioned my decision to name you my successor, Arundel, but–”

“Upon my honour, Father, “ the young noble interjected, stuttering his words as he sat forward, “that woman shall be mine! I just need a little more time, that’s all! She’s just being–”

“Shut. Up.”

The young noble fell silent, swallowing hard as he lowered his gaze to his father’s feet.

The heavy silence returned, the Baron taking another measured sip as his gaze bore deep into his son.

“I do not speak of the Tower whore, though your failure there shall cost us dearly.”

“Father, please!” Arundel began, raising his gaze once more. “I just need–”

“What did I just say?” the Baron interjected, his calm voice silencing the young noble in an instant.

“I do not speak of her, boy,” the Baron continued, “I speak of your brother.”

“De’larn?” Arundel frowned.

The Baron nodded. “I gave you a charge, an all-important one. Do you even remember what it is?”

“Uhm…” Arundel muttered as he stared into the ether and searched his thoughts.

Shaking his head, the Baron chuckled. “Why am I not surprised?”

The young noble knew not what to say, sitting in silence as he watched his father wander over and sit in the seat opposite him.

“When I named you my successor,” the Baron continued, “I warned you of your brother, did I not?”

Arundel nodded.

“I warned you to keep an eye on him. Your charge was to ensure he had no means of his own, no coin flowing to him, no House being drawn to him, and if ever there was, you were to inform me immediately. Did I not say this?”

Slowly, Arundel nodded.

“Did you ever understand why?”

Arundel shrugged. “To keep him under thumb?”

“And did you ever understand why it was necessary to keep him so tightly under thumb?”

Arundel shook his head.

The Baron smiled. “Of course you didn’t, fool of a child that you are.”

“But, Father–”

With a wave of his hand, the Baron silenced his son.

“There is a reason I have made no House or clan swear fealty to him, boy. There is a reason he has such a meagre stipend. And there is a reason that girl is the only servant he has. And that reason is simple, you.”

“Me?”

The Baron nodded. “De’larn is far better than you at the game we play, and you represent the greatest slight of his existence. Destroying you and all you hold dear is his one encompassing passion, boy. Your charge was to ensure he does not build up the coin or allies he would need to do so after I’m gone. And in that, you have failed me utterly.”

“But–”

“He has a war chest, boy. Some of your are his allies in secret. He is poised to destroy you, you and everything I have built, and you would’ve been powerless to stop him.”

Arundel swallowed hard at this.

The Baron sneered. “Words cannot describe my disappointment in you, Arundel. You’ve displeased me greatly.”

“Father, I–”

“Shut up.”

The young noble did.

Taking a deep breath, the Baron let it out slowly. “You will right this wrong tonight, boy. Take those you can trust, get your brother to your manor near the lake. When you get there, make him tell you where his war chest is and just who is poised to betray you. Do you understand?”

The young noble nodded.

“And once he’s told you all that, you will drown him in that lake.”

The young noble frowned. “But you said I couldn’t kill him till I’m Baron. You said it’ll cost us too much.”

“Your brother is a threat, boy,” the Baron replied. “You do not ignore threats. You either contain it or eliminate it, and it is clear he cannot be contained.”

Then, the Baron sighed. “No, letting him live will cost us more. Kill him, but make it seem like an accident. Do you understand?”

Arundel nodded.

The Baron leant forward. “I cannot stress this enough, Arundel. Your brother’s death must appear an accident. Any less, and the other Houses will have an excuse to move against us. Do you understand?”

“I understand, Father.”

“Then, why are you still seated here?”

The young noble moved to speak, but instead leapt to his feet and hurried out of the room. The elderly elf watched his son close the door, then breathed deep before letting it out slow.

“Fool of a child,” he muttered, then sat into his chair and drank deep from his goblet.

With his gaze towards the far wall, De’larn lay still upon his bed. There was a hole in him where his heart once was, and though he stared at the wall, all the young lord saw were the cold dead eyes of the elven woman he’d offered is heart to, but had rejected him utterly.

Then, there came a knock at the door.

De’larn ignored it.

“It’s me, my lord,” came a voice from the other side of the door.

De’larn remained unmoving

“My lord, please, open the door, the tray is heavy.”

The young lord blinked slowly, but remained as he was.

“My lord?”

The young lord lay still.

Before long, a loud rustle came from the other side of the door, and soon the door swung slowly open, and raising his head, De’larn turned and watched as his servant shuffled into the room, a tray balanced delicately on one hand while she swung the door open with the other. As their eyes met, however, the young lord turned to the wall once more and lay his head down once again.

Sighing, the elven woman entered the room and closed the door behind her.

“This is unbecoming of you, De’larn,” she said as she hurried to the table nearby. “You’ve suffered worse than this, and you’ve grown from it.”

De’larn blinked once again, but remained silent.

Shaking her head, the elven servant placed the tray upon the table and wandered over to her lord’s side before kneeling beside the bed.

“I brought your favourite tea,” she said.

The young lord remained unmoving.

“It’s still hot.”

De’larn blinked slowly, but remained as he was.

“Tell you what, I shall make you a cup, and you can sit up and drink it.”

Still no answer.

Sighing, Nedriel rose and headed to the tray.

“Oh, damn it!” she gasped. “Forgot the whisperwood.”

Then, she turned to her lord. “I’ll go get some, shall I?”

The young lord blinked once more, but said nary a word.

Not knowing what else to do, the forlorn servant turned and hurried from the room, closing the door softly behind her as she went.

Then, a little while later, the door swung open once more.

“I’m not drinking it,” De’larn muttered.

“We’ll see about that,” came a voice from the door.

Frowning, the young lord rose and turned. “Arundel?”

The young noble grinned and sauntered into the room. “Hello, Brother.”

De’larn moved to speak but instead frowned as others wandered in after his brother, but it was the last man who entered that made the young lord slowly sit tall.

“Marlun,” he sneered.

The young elf snarled at the seated lord.

Tearing his gaze from the hateful elf, De’larn turned to his brother.

“What is the meaning of this? Why did you bring that animal to my quarters.”

The men laughed.

“Oh, my dear brother,” Arundel replied, “you are not in a position to be hurling insults.”

“What’re you–”

“Father knows of your war chest.”

Those words were like a thunder bolt through the young lord’s heart, draining all blood from his face as his eyes grew wide.

“Oh yes.” Arundel nodded. “He knows of your war chest. And your pitiful alliances”

“So, what? He sent you to silence me? Or is there some other reason you bring that dog of yours with you.”

“You little…” Marlun snarled as he made to march to the seated lord.

“Marlun,” Arundel warned, “not here.”

“Then, where?” De’larn demanded.

“My manor,” Arundel replied.

“Your man… Ah, a drowning. An apt accident.”

Arundel nodded. “Isn’t it just?”

“And Lord Arundel has granted me the honour of being the one to do the deed,” Marlun said, a twisted smile upon his lips.

De’larn turned to the servant, a sneer upon his lips. “I’m sure you’re delighted.”

Marlun’s smile grew. “I am beyond delighted, De’larn. I still can’t bend my arms fully without feeling great pain, and the menders say I shall never be rid of that pain. You did this to me, and I fully intend to repay you for it.”

De’larn moved to speak, but fell silent, and instead turned to his brother.

“And I suppose Father told you to get the names of my allies from me.”

Arundel chuckled. “I truly will miss this, Brother. Yes, the names of your allies. And the location of your war chest.”

“Of course.”

Arundel nodded. “Of course.”

“But you’re going to keep some of it for yourself, aren’t you?”

Arundel’s smile widened, but he kept his peace.

“Of course,” De’larn sighed. “And if I refuse?”

“We pay Nedriel a visit,” Marlun replied.

The young lord turned to levy as cold a glare as he could at the elf, then turned to his brother.

“You leave her be,” he growled.

Arundel’s smile widened. “You are in no position to make demands either, Brother. Now, rise.”

The young lord remained as he was, his mind searching for a way out.

“Marlun, go fetch the girl,” Arundel said at last.

“Alright!” De’larn yelled. “Alright.” Then, he rose.

“Good!” Arundel grinned, then, spinning on his heels, he marched out, his brother behind him and the others following behind.

As they left, the young lord chanced a glance up the corridor. As he stared, he caught sight of a figure in the shadows, and soon his gaze fell upon the terrified face of his dear Nedriel.

“Run,” he mouthed, then turned and followed his bother down the corridor.

Startled, the sisters turned to the door as the serenity in their quarters was broken by the repeated slamming of a hand upon wood.

“Open the door!” shrieked a voice from the other side of the door. “Please! Please, open the door!”

The sisters shared a glance, their confusion evenly matched. Rising as one, they made their way to the door as the thumping became more frenzied.

“Please!”

Reaching it first, Nedina stared at the handle as a shimmer surrounded her and her sister. Then, taking a deep breath, the elven mage gritted her teeth and swung the door open.

“What in the hells are you doing here?” she demanded as she stared at a wide-eyed Nedriel.

“They’ve taken him!” the manic servant cried as she stared at each sister in turn. “Please! You must help him!”

“Taken who?” Kara asked.

“De’larn!” Nedriel replied. “They’ve taken De’larn! They’re going to kill him!”

“What?” the pair said in unison.

“Come!” Nedriel added as she grasped hold of Nedina’s hand and began to pull. “If you hurry, you can stop them!”

“I’m not going anywhere with you, woman!”Nedina spat, pulling her hand free and staggering the servant.

“But they’re going to kill him!” Nedriel screamed.

“Who’s going to kill him?” Kara demanded. “You’re not making se–”

“They know! They know everything! Please!”

Shaking her head, Kara stepped forth and clasped the mage’s face in her hands.

“Nedriel, if you wish for our aid, you must calm yourself and tell us what’s happened.”

Panting, the servant stared from one to the other as tears stung her eyes. But then, as her breathing calmed, she turned her gaze to Nedina.

“I heard them talking–”

“Heard who talking?” Kara asked.

“Arundel and Marlun,” Nedriel replied. “They’re taking De’larn to Arundel’s manor by the lake. They’re going to make him tell them about the coin he’s been hoarding, and the alliances he’s been forming in secret. They’re going make him tell them everything, then they’re going to…drown him and–”

“Oh, for the love of the gods, don’t you and your master ever stop?” Nedina rolled her eyes and returned inside.

“But…” Nedriel began, her eyes wide.

“Return to your quarters,” Kara added as she let go of your servant. “Your ruse has failed.”

Ruse?” Nedriel cried. “They’re going to kill him!”

“Oh, gods, please!” Nedina yelled as she spun about once and marched to the door. “Just shut up! We know you and your master are lying!”

“Lying?”

“Yes! Lying! The two of you have been leading us by the nose for long enough! So why don’t you take your latest ruse and run back to whatever hole you dragged yourself out of, eh? Go on, get lost!”

The servant Nedriel stood speechless as she stared at the mage, her lips agape.

“You’ll let him die,” she said at last.

Sneering, Nedina stepped forth and brought her face to within a hair’s breath of the woman’s.

“I. Don’t. Care,” she replied.

Trembling head to foot, Nedriel stared on as tears ran down her cheeks.

“Now,” Nedina continued, “I want you to take you worthless carcass and–”

It was difficult to say which of the two sisters was more surprised by the slap that followed, but as Nedina’s hand rose to her reddening cheek, the servant Nedriel sniffed and stood tall.

“You would dare–” Nedina growled.

“You’re a whore,” the servant replied, her voice calm and even.

“How dare you!” Nedina roared as she raised a hand, lightning dancing between her fingers.

“Nedina, no!” Kara cried as she grasped her sister’s hand.

Through it all, the servant Nedriel did not so much as flinch.

“He’s lost everything because of you,” she added, the disgust in her gaze plain to see, “and now he’s going to die. Because of you. I curse the day you were born, Nedina Earthchild, and I pray you never find peace for what you’ve done this day.”

Then, she turned to Kara, her sneer deepening. “You’re no better.”

And without another word, the seething servant spun on her heels and marched forth, wiping her tears as she went.

The sisters watched her leave in silence.

“Sister, I don’t think she’s lying,” Kara said at last.

“What?” Nedina said, turning her gaze to her sister

Kara turned meet her sister’s gaze before shaking her head. “I don’t think she’s lying.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you were to go to the Baron this instant and let him know she’d slapped you, she’d lose that hand at sunrise. Would you go that far for a ruse?”

Tearing her gaze from her sister, Nedina turned to the retreating servant and walked forth.

“Nedina!” Kara cried. Then, huffing, she stopped, closed the door of their quarters and locked it tight before hurrying after her sister.

“Nedriel!” Nedina yelled as she went.

“Get lost, whore,” Nedriel shot back.

“Stop calling me that!” Nedina snapped, quickening her pace.

As the mage reached Nedriel, she grabbed hold of the servant’s hand and spun her about. In response, Nedriel aimed another slap at the mage’s face, but Nedina slapped her hand away with ease.

“Do you wish for my aid?” Nedina said.

The servant stared at her wit h a gaze full of suspicion.

“Yes or no?” Nedina demanded.

“Sister, what are you doing?” Kara said as she reached the pair.

Nedina kept her gaze upon the servant. “I’m going to Compel her.”

“What?” Kara cried. “No!”

Nedina frowned. “I must know if she speaks the truth.”

“Then, find some other way! If the Baron finds out you Compelled one of his household under his roof, while we are his guests, it’ll gift him the one thing he’s been after since we got here. Leverage!”

“Kara, I–”

“Our treaty with them is clear. We can never, under any circumstance, Compel or torture any who have sworn fealty to the highlands in any way. To do so is a grave breach of that treaty, and you being Mother’s successor makes it even worse!”

Nedriel shook her head and neared the sisters. “I won’t tell anyone.”

Kara shook her head. “That means nothing. Anyone with decent enough arcane training will notice the signs.”

“Then, how do I know if she’s lying or not?” Nedina demanded.

“I’m not!” Nedriel cried.

Pursing her lips, Nedina stared at the servant before her a spell. Then, she stood tall.

“That night,” she said, “when that Marlun broke your wrist.”

“Yes?” Nedriel frowned.

“Where were you going when I cross paths with you?”

Nedriel’s cheeks reddened greatly at this, and she stepped back from the pair, her gaze greatly lowered.

“You will give me an answer, woman,” Nedina growled, her gaze darkening as she took a step forward, “and you will do so now.”

“I…” Nedriel began, her voice soft. “I was heading to the menders, and–“

“I thought you wanted to keep your injury from your lord,” Kara interjected.

Nedriel nodded. “Yes.”

“We’re not fools, woman. You cannot see a mender and expect De’larn not to–”

“I wasn’t going to see a mender, I was… They often throw away dried bandages and hardened poultices, and…when I was still a slave, I spent enough time with menders to know which type of bandage I would need to lace with what poultice to clear a bruise, heal a sprain or mend broken bone, and I… If you soak dried bandages long enough, they soften and you can use them again, and if you dampen a hardened poultice enough, you can scoop some of it out. The poultices aren’t as effective this way fresh ones, and the bandages will begin to fall apart once they dry up again, but they’ll still work. I was going to check the discarded pile behind the menders’ quarters to see if there was any I could use.”

The silence that fell upon the three was deafening.

“Oh, gods,” Kara said at last, her face almost as white as her sister’s. “That makes total sense.”

“What does?” Nedriel said, frowning at the mage.

In response, Kara turned to her sister, and as she did so, so too did Nedriel. As one, the pair watched the Matriarch-in-waiting stare wide-eyed at the servant, her breathing heavy. Then, without a word, she turned to stare down the corridor and broke into a dead sprint.

“Come on!” Kara cried as she raced after her sister.

“What?” Nedriel yelled, her confusion plain.

Screeching to a halt, Kara turned to the servant. “You wanted our aid, didn’t you?”

The young servant stared for a brief moment, her mind befuddled still, but soon, as she realised what was happening, she raced forth, a euphoric smile upon her lips and a grinning Kara by her side.

With the most bitter of smiles, De’larn stared at the manacles about his hands and feet.

“So, this is how it ends,” he thought as the coach rocked from side-to-side. “All that care, all that planning. And it ends over of a woman.”

Then, the tired lord sighed. “You fool, De’larn. You stupid, stupid fool.”

“Hrm?” Arundel said, turning to his brother, a smirk upon his lips. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of what could’ve been.”

De’larn glared at his brother with all the strength he could muster, but it only served to deepen the noble’s smirk.

“What was it you used to say to me?” he added. “Ah, yes. There’s no sense in wishing for…”

Just then, a deep and haunting howl pierced air, silencing the young noble and filling the hearts of all within the carriage with fear.

“Since when did wolves venture this high into the mountains?” Marlun asked, his face as white as the others.

“That didn’t sound like a wolf to me,” De’larn said, turning to stare out the carriage window.

“Then, what was…”

At that moment, a deep shadow fell upon the carriage, the sound of mighty wings beating above them filling their ears.

“What in the hells?” Arundel breathed.

“Farnum!” Marlun barked, sliding the driver’s slit open to stare at the driver’s back. “What’s going…”

But once more, Marlun’s words were cut short, this time by the screams of the driver Farnum as he was lifted upwards, his screams rising higher than the sound of the wings, but that too was cut short by the sharp cry that only a bird of prey could make.

The fear within the carriage was palpable as the carriage careened down the road, the horses neighing and racing on wildly.

“What the hells is going on?” Arundel shrieked, his eyes wide and his gaze upon Marlun.

“How in the hells should I know?” the elf cried.

“We don’t have a driver!”

“What in the hells do you wish me to do about…”

Then, for the third time that night, Marlun’s words were cut short once again, this time by the large wolf that raced beside the carriage, sparks darting between the bristles of its fur, it’s teeth bared as it’s yellowed eyes shimmered in the dark.

“Oh, gods,” Marlun breathed as all self-control left him.

Then, as the three men watched, the wolf disappeared, a ball of lightning taking its place, and as they watched, the ball flew forward before veering into the carriage, and as it crossed the carriage, a loud explosion rocked the carriage as the carriage’s shaft was reduced to splinters. Worse still, the blast terrified the horses even more, and with a scream, they veered as one to the side, galloping into the night and away from the rolling carriage.

“The horses!” Arundel cried.

“Damn the horses!” De’larn barked. “We have nothing to stop us now!”

And he was right, for the carriage was on its way down the mountain, and as it rolled on, it began to pick up speed.

“Oh, god,” Arundel gasped, grabbing on for dear life. “Oh, gods. Oh, gods. Oh, gods!”

As for De’larn, however, there was no longer any fear in his heart. He knew where they were, for he knew the road by heart, and he knew, soon, they would reach a sharp bend in the road, a bend they had no hope of keeping to. And that meant, soon, they will be flying off the road and down the mountainside.

Shaking his head, the young lord chuckled.

“You’re laughing?” Arundel shrieked. “We’re going to die!”

“Yes,” De’larn smiled, “we are.”

“What are you–”

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of watching Father’s House fall to ruin. I may not now get to see it happen, but with you dead, at least I know it’s assured.”

“You bastard,” Arundel seethed, his voice quivering as he glared at his brother. “You bastard! You–”

“Look!” Marlun said, pointing to the driver’s slit. “What is that?”

Frowning, the brothers peered out of the carriage windows and stared into the night.

“Is that…?” Arundel began.

“It’s a bird of some kind,” De’larn replied.

“That big?” Marlun asked.

Then, the bird began flapping its wings at them.

“What is it doing?” Arundel said.

As De’larn moved to speak, he realised something. They were beginning to slow. It was then he realised what the bird was. Or rather, whose.

“We’re slowing down!” Marlun cried. “We’re slowing down!”

Keeping the pair firmly at the edge of his vision, De’larn slowly lowered his hand to the door’s handle and, gripping it tight, breathed in and tensed.

“So, what do we do now?” Arundel asked.

“I don’t know!” Marlun shot back. “You’re the lord, aren’t…”

At that moment, De’larn flung the door open and leapt out.

“Stop him!” he heard Arundel cried.

“Get back here!” Marlun added as he scrambled after the lord.

As he reached for the young lord’s ankle, however, a flash in the corner of his eye stopped him short, and as he pulled his hand back, the wolf reappeared once more, this time by the carriage’s rear wheel, and as the roar of lightning filled the air, the ensuing blast from the wolf’s reappearance flung De’larn far from the carriage and reduced the carriage’s wheel to rubble, sending the carriage onto its side before sliding into a near by tree.

Scrambling to his feet, a wide grin upon his lips, De’larn sighed and shook his head and stared at the carriage as it lay broken. Then, sighing once more, he turned to the wolf by his side.

“You have my thanks,” he said.

The wolf growled at him, its yellow eyes shimmering in the low light. Then, without warning, it leant forward and licked De’larn’s face.

Giggling, the young lord quivered as the hair on his head stood tall.

“That tickles!” he gasped.

Panting, the wolf nudged him, then sat beside him.

“So,” he said, turning to the wolf square, “where’s you mistress?”

“Here,” came a voice behind the wolf.

“Hrm?” De’larn frowned, but as the stared past the wolf, three women shimmered into view, the sight of which warmed the young lord’s heart no end.

Shaking his head, the young lord turned to the woman at the fore. “I thought I told you to run.”

“I did!” Nedriel grinned, turning to the others. “To them!”

Shaking his head, De’larn turned to one of the women behind his servant.

“So,” he said.

“So…” Nedina said, her gaze strangely calm.

“So…” De’larn repeated.

“Ugh!” Kara cried, rolling her eyes as she marched towards the young lord.

“Wha–” De’larn began.

“Hold still,” Kara interjected as she clasped her hands about the chain linking the manacles about the young lord’s hands to the ones about his feet.

“What are you…” he began, but then fell silent as the manacles and chain began to glow.

“Ah! Ah! Ow!” he cried as the manacles melted off him.

“Oh, shut up, you big child,” Kara growled. “You’re alright!”

“Yeah,” Nedriel sighed, “he is rather spoilt.”

“Nedriel!”

Nedriel giggled at her lord, but said nothing more.

Just then, a most majestic roc flew down from the air, landing beside the broken carriage just as its occupants were attempting to silently climb out. Then, it growled and leant towards them.

“No, Talus!” Kara cried. “You’ve eaten today!”

“Hold, what?” De’larn cried as Arundel and Marlun’s screams filled the air.

“You two enjoy that jest a little too much, you know that?” Nedina muttered.

Kara smiled and shrugged. “It never stops being funny, though.”

Then, she turned to the men, her gaze darkening and her smile gone.

“The simplest thing would be to kill you both…” she began as she made her way towards the men.

The men whimpered at the approaching mage. But their whimpers grew into cries as vines grew from the grass at their feet and began enveloping them.

“…but I shall let you live,” Kara continued as she reached into her tunic. “In return, you shall admit to all that you intended to do this night, and who sent you. Do you understand?”

“Yes!” the men cried in unions. “Yes, yes!”

“Good,” Kara replied as she reached them.

Then, she held her hand forth and within it rested a listening stone.

“Speak,” she commanded.

The men did, and they left nothing out.

“Clever,” De’larn muttered as his brother and Marlun spilt their secrets. “Now you have leverage of us.”

“Yeah.” Nedina nodded, a proud smile upon her lips. “Kara’s always thinking of the future.”

The young lord turned to the mage beside him.

“What?” Nedina frowned.

“I can’t go back, you know,” De’larn said.

Taking a deep breath, Nedina nodded and sighed. “I know. But Mother can–”

“Your mother can’t afford to take me in.”

“Don’t be daft!” Nedina snapped. “The Tower offers sanctuary to all who–”

“He’s right, Nedina,” Kara replied as she returned to them.

“What’re you–”

“If I go to the Tower,” De’larn added, “my father will simply claim you colluded with me to fake all this, and so my brother’s confession cannot possibly hold any weight.”

“But that’s–”

“We need the treaty untouched, Sister,” Kara interjected. “If it fails, Mother will have no choice but to declare war upon the highlands on behalf of the trolls, and if she does that, we shall lose far too many lucrative alliances. Too many kingdoms would rather side with the civilised highlanders.”

“But–”

“Mother can’t afford to take him in, Sister,” Kara added, her face long. “She simply can’t.”

“But…” Nedina began, her gaze shifting from De’larn to Kara and back, “we can’t…I just… Gods!”

The young lord smiled, but kept his peace.

“So, I’ll never see you again?” Nedina asked at last.

The young lord pondered the question for a spell.

“You could come with me,” he replied.

“What?” the sisters said in unison.

“Come with me, Nedina,” De’larn said. “We can go far from his place, from this life! We can go where there are no schemes to undo, or plots to unravel. We can live the simple life! You and I. We can be free!”

The Matriarch-in-waiting stared hard at the elf standing before him.

“Come with me,” he pleaded.

“I can’t just leave everything!” she said at last.

“Why not?” De’larn pressed.

“Because…” Nedina said, but turned to her sister for strength.

Kara was smiling.

“What…?”

The younger sister shrugged. “Why not?”

“What?”

With her smile widening, Kara neared her sister and placed a loving hand against her cheek.

“You’re not happy, Sister,” she soothed. “You’ve never been happy since you became Archmage and Mother began preparing you for the seat.”

At those words, Nedina looked away, but her sister gently forced her gaze back to hers.

“But those few months you spent with him,” Kara continued, “that’s the happiest I have seen you in an age. He makes you happy, Sister, he truly does!” Then, Kara held her sister in a knowing stare. “And I know you care for him. You must do, given how fast you ran when you realised Nedriel wasn’t lying.”

“Yeah,” Nedriel grinned, “she did, didn’t she?”

“Yeah.” Kara chuckled, her gaze upon her sister still.

“Do you know what you’re asking?” Nedina said.

Kara nodded. “I’m asking you to be happy. You and I both know you’ll never be happy if you become Matriarch.”

“Neither will you.”

Taking a deep breath, Kara let it out slowly. “No, I won’t be. But it would be bearable knowing you’re out there being happy for the both of us.”

The young mage shook her head. “But…if I leave, Mother will…”

“Yes,” Kara grinned, “Mother will not take it lightly. Hells, I’d imagine she may even have your name stricken from our Records. But you are my sister, Nedina, and I swear to you, no matter what Mother does, once I am Matriarch, I shall make it so you and your children will be welcome in the Tower. In secret, or in the open, you and they shall walk the halls of our home.”

Nedina’s eyes glistened at this.

“Go with him,” Kara soothed. “Go and be happy.”

Shaking her head as her tears fell, Nedina threw her arms about her sister and hugged her tight. Then, as they parted, Nedina turned to the wolf that was now lying by the road.

“I guess this is farewell, Eta,” she said.

The wolf cocked its head to the side at his mistress.

“You seem to have forgotten what Master Menthril said,” Kara said, her smile returned. “If you bond with Eta, the bond is for life.”

“What, you mean take him with me?” Nedina gasped.

Kara shrugged, then nodded.

“But he’s the only one of his kind we’ve every found!”

Kara shrugged at her sister once more, her smile widening.

“I can’t take him!”

“If you send him back, he’ll end up living a long and miserable life. He won’t bond with anyone else while you draw breath.”

“Kara, Master Menthril will just recall him!”

Kara’s smile widened. “He can’t.”

“What do you mean, he can’t? He’s Master of the Pens! He can recall any familiar!”

“Nedina, Master Mentril can’t recall Eta, I have watched him try and fail, numerous times.”

“What?” Nedia gasped.

Kara nodded in response, her smile widening. “Master Mentril doesn’t know I know. He thinks nobody knows, but Eta can resist the Call, and he has tried for years to decipher how with no success.”

Shaking her head, a smile on her lips, Nedina turned to her familiar. “You are just full of surprises, aren’t you?”

The great wolf let out a playful growl before panting at his mistress.

“Oh, and, uh…” Kara continued as she held her hand aloft.

“Hunh?” Nedina replied as she turned to her sister.

“You’d best take him too,” Kara added as a watery sphere shimmered into being above the mage’s outstretched hand, a hippocamp foal swimming within it. “I’d hate to part him from his sister.”

“Oh!” Nedriel gasped. “He’s so adorable!”

The sisters shared a glance, and as one, they smiled.

“Would you like to have him?” Kara asked as she turned to Nedriel.

“Can I?” Nedriel said, her eyes bright.

“Mhm,” Kara nodded. “Hold out your hand and close your eyes.”

“Uh, alright,” Nedriel said and did as directed.

Then, silence fell upon the gathering as Kara forced a new bond between the foal and Nedriel.

“So…” De’larn began, “she gets that thing, you have a lightning wolf, and I have…what?”

“Me!” Nedina cried.

“Oh! Of course! Of course…”

Nedina held her beloved in a pointed stare for a spell, but soon sighed.

“Very well, I’ll bond you with his sister once we’re away from here. Happy?”

De’larn grinned.

“Well, if you’re leaving, you’d better hurry,” Kara sighed. “Those horses should’ve returned to the castle by now, and I’d imagine they’d be racing down this road any moment.”

“Hrm, true.” Nedina nodded. Then, she turned to De’larn. “Where to?”

“Hrm,” De’larn muttered as he pondered the question. Then, he turned to his beloved. “How about…”

Falling silent, De’larn glanced at his brother and Marlun, then leant towards Nedina and whispered in her ear.

“There?” Nedina frowned.

De’larn nodded.

“Very well.” The mage sighed, then turned to Nedriel. “Come closer, you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you! Or do you intend to go back?”

“No!”

“Well then, come closer!”

Grinning, Nedriel hurried over to Nedina’s side, the wolf Eta in tow.

Then, with her new family beside her, the former Matriarch-in-waiting turned to her sister once more.

“Till we meet again?” she said.

Kara nodded, smiling. “Till we meet again. Keep in touch.”

Nedina nodded. “I will.”

“You’d better!”

A warm smile parted Nedina’s lips, and with no more words to say, the former Matriarch-in-waiting and her new family began to fade.

“Oh!” Nedina cried, cancelling her spell. “Best if nobody knew you were here. Let them all think I did this on my own. Should make it easier for you to claim the Tower had no hand in this.”

Kara pondered her sister’s words a spell.

“That…actually makes sense.”

“Don’t sound too surprise!”

Kara grinned in response.

“Well,” Nedina said, as she and her family began to fade once more, “Take care, Sister. You go with all my love.”

“And you go with all of mine,” Kara replied.

And then, with a smile, the former Nedina and new family were gone.

Staring at the spot her sister once stood, Kara breathed deep and let it out slowly as her face fell and her gaze turned haggard, then turned to her prisoners.

“I was never here, understand? Nedina did this all by herself.”

Though Marlun nodded, Arundel glowered at the mage.

“If you speak the truth, Arundel, I shall be forced to share the listening stone with all our allies. If you don’t, only your family and mine shall know what truly transpired here.”

The young noble snarled at last. “Very well.”

“Good.” Kara nodded. Then, the new Matriarch-in-waiting turned to her familiar.

“Come, Talus,” she said. “Let’s return home. The sooner I tell Mother what’s happened, the better.”

And with that, the pair faded from view and all was silent

*

*

*

Slowly, Naeve rose as the tome faded from view, her gaze in the ether.

“Naeve?” Amala said, resting a soft hand upon the young girl’s shoulder.

The young girl turned to her friend, a deep frown upon her lips.

“What is it?”

Naeve’s frown deepened. “I remember her.”

Amala smiled at this, but kept her peace.

“Her Record says she ran away,” Naeve continued, “that she was a coward, or something.”

Amala took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Well, her mother felt wronged by what she did,” Amala began after a spell, “so she…well, she was more than a little harsh when she decreed what was to be her daughter’s Record.”

“Oh,” was all Naeve said, her gaze slipping into the ether once more

Then, she turned to Amala once again. “So he really did love her, then.”

Amala nodded and smiled, breathing deep as she did so.

“Yes,” the silver-haired elf said, sighing as she spoke. “He loved her more than life itself.”

“And they lived happily ever after?”

Amala nodded.

Naeve cast a slow sideways glance at her friend. “For how long.”

Amala’s smile grew. “Till old age, my dear. De’larn died an old man, surrounded by his children, his grand-children, and his great-grand-children.”

“And Nedina.”

Amala paused a spell, breathing deep as she gritted her teeth, her gaze upon her young friend.

“He…lost her some decades prior,” she said at last. “But he never stopped loving her.”

“Oh,” Naeve said, her voice soft as her gaze drifted to the ether once again.

Silence fell upon the pair as the air between them hung heavy, carrying with it a charge like no other.

“So, do you like it, then?” Amala asked after a spell.

Naeve turned to her friend, her brow furrowed deep. Then, without a word, she rose to her knees, shuffled closer to the silver-haired woman seated beside her and hugged her close.

“I loved it, Amala,” young Naeve whispered, her head buried in Amala’s shoulder. “I loved it a lot.”

Amala hugged the young girl close in response, a sharp gasp escaping her lips as she held her young friend tight. Then, they parted, and it was then they each saw the other’s tears.

“What, you’re crying?” Naeve demanded.

“And you’re not?” Amala threw back.

“I’m a crybaby, I’m allowed! What’s your excuse?”

“Oh, shut up, you!” Amala snapped, sniffling as she spoke.

Giggling, young Naeve wiped her tears and hopped to her feet.

“Going to get something to eat,” she said as he headed for the door. Then, she stopped and turned. “You want something?”

Amala shook her head. “Not now.”

“Okay.” Naeve nodded, then turned to her mother. “Mother?”

The Matriarch shook her head. “Maybe later.”

“Okay,” Naeve repeated, then headed for the door.

The two women watched her in silence as she left, and soon it was just the pair left.

“Go on, then,” Amala said the moment the door closed, “say it.”

“Say what?” The Matriarch frowned.

Amala turned to her friend, her gaze even. “Don’t pretend. I know you’ve been itching to speak the moment you heard Nedina’s name.”

A slow smile parted the Matriarch’s lips, and soon, she shrugged.

“Well, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t surprise me hearing that name,” she said. “I never thought I’d live to see the day you’d speak so openly about her.”

Amala shrugged. “I didn’t say a word.”

“You know what I mean.”

Smiling, Amala rose.

“Yes,” she sighed as she headed for her goblet, “I suppose I do”

The Matriarch grinned. “Good.” But her grin was brief. “But why do it?”

Amala grinned at her friend. “You’re not jealous, are you?”

“Don’t change the subject, Amala,” the Matriarch replied. “You know I hate it when you do that.”

Amala moved to speak, but bit back her words at the last moment.

“Well, you’re making this a bigger issue than it truly is, my dear,” she said instead.

“A bigger…Amala, you guard your secrets closer than most people guard their loved ones…”

“I do not!”

“…and yet you just shared a bloody big one with another living being without any prompting or prodding. That’s not like you.”

“Well, it’s not like she understood what she read, now is it?” Amala threw back.

“Still,” the Matriarch pressed, “it’s not like you to share so openly. So, why did you?”

Amala stared at her friend a spell, her lips unmoving.

“I need an answer, Amala,” the Matriarch said.

Amala stared on in silence for a spell, but soon sighed and leant upon the cabinet before turning to the door.

“I spent two months trying to think of a tale to write,” she said at last. “Two full months, and nothing. Then, one night, I get this thought. Write about Nedina! Just like that.”

Then, she turned to her friend. “Can you even begin imagine unsettling that was?”

The Matriarch shook her head.

“I mean…” Amala continued, turning to the door, “I hadn’t thought about all that in years, and here I was, thinking of writing it all down! What in the hells was I thinking!”

“So, why did you?”

“I…” Amala began, but words failed her.

Shaking her head at last, she turned to her friend once more. “Because that night was the first night I thought about Nedina without feeling any rage. Or shame.”

A slow smile parted the Matriarch’s lips. “Maybe you really have healed, then?”

“No,” Amala shook her head, “I haven’t.”

“But–”

“The thought of talking about her with you fills me with shame, still. This talking we’re doing right now, it’s filling me with shame.”

The Matriarch frowned. “But writing it all down for Naeve doesn’t?”

Amala shook her head. “Not one bit.” Then, she turned to the door. “I’m supposed to be wrapping that girl around finger, but then I go do…this!”

The Matriarch’s smile returned at this, but she held her peace.

“And you know what else?” Amala continued, turning to her friend once more.

“What?” the Matriarch replied.

“While she was reading, all I could think about was Will she like it? Not Will she tell anyone? It didn’t bother me one whit who she’d share that tale with so long as she like it. Can you imagine that?”

The Matriarch’s smile grew at this.

“You know,” the Matriarch said, “days like this, I think you might actually love that little ball of terror more than I do.”

Amala scoffed at her friend. “I can’t possibly love that girl more than you do.”

The Matriarch grinned. “I was joking, Amala.”

Amala smiled at her friend. “I wasn’t.”

The Matriarch moved to speak, but no words came, and as the silence grew, so too did Amala’s smile, till at last, draining her goblet, the silver-haired woman placed the goblet down, turned and headed for the door.