Making her way through the Tower halls, Amala walked on in silence as her heart hung heavy in her chest. There was fear within her, a deep worry that had plagued her heart all day and most of the night, and as she made her way through the Shimmering Tower, it had begun to blossom into deep and full dread.
“You’re being silly, girl,” she muttered as she rounded the corner that would take her to a portal stone nearby. “She’d never abandon you. Not ever.”
But the dread persisted, tightening its grip on her insides with each step. Stopping before the portal stone, Amala took a deep breath, stepped upon the stone and uttered a single word, and as she let out a slow ragged breath, the brooding elf made her way down the new corridor before her. It wasn’t long before she stood before the door of the Matriarch’s office.
Except, as she stood before the door, she paused, her eyes fixed upon its handle. The Matriarch wouldn’t betray her, she wouldn’t! They’d been through too much together. And yet, the dread remained, its soft whispers echoing in her ears. What if she was wrong? What if this was the end?
“Damn it, woman!” Amala snarled at last, shaking her head as she spoke. “If you get thrown out, you’ll survive! You always do!”
But, what if–
“You’ll survive!” Amala snapped, reaching for the door’s handle as she spoke. “Now, shut up!”
Swinging the door wide, Amala marched in and slammed the door behind her, then instantly regretted it as the woman within the room held her in a startled stare.
“Oh…” Amala winced, then forced a smile.
Shaking her head in response, the Matriarch smiled. “You look like you’re having the same kind of morning I am.”
Amala’s smile warmed at this. “I was wondering why you were in your office this early. It’s not like you.”
Pulling a face, the Matriarch sighed. “After what that demon-spawn of a child did this morning, I needed some work to help me unwind.”
“Work?” Amala frowned as she made her way towards her Matriarch. “It was that bad?”
“Worse.” The Matriarch sighed. “She poured a bowl full of hot broth all over Netyam at breakfast.”
“Ah!” The Matriarch shook her head and waved Amala’s words away. “She didn’t mean to scald him, even Icould see that. She just meant to push the bowl away and the whole bloody thing toppled over.” Then, the Matriarch sighed once more. “She just seemed so…cranky this morning.”
“Oh…” Amala said, slowly standing tall as she suppressed a grimace. “I see.”
“Yes.” The Matriarch nodded. “Only now, I’m actually more wound up than when I entered!”
Amala smiled. “Bad news?”
Nodding once more, the Matriarch offered a missive to Amala, and with a frown twisting her lips, Amala stepped forth and took the missive, then began reading.
“Hold what?” she gasped after a spell.
“Mhm,” the Matriarch muttered.
“He bloody did!”
With her eyes wide, Amala stared at her Matriarch. “What in the world possessed him to agree to all this?”
“I don’t think he bloody knew what he was agreeing to. His Galiyen is atrocious and it wouldn’t have have taken those highland bastards long to realise it. Gods, I should’ve known letting him go parleying there on his own was a bad idea.”
“Ah,” Amala said as she smiled and nodded, “you think the barons have been addressing him in Galiyen, made him swear to all this nonsense without him realising what he was saying.”
“Yes.” The Matriarch nodded and reached for the missive. “He drives me bloody mad sometimes, but at least I know he takes being Patriarch almost as serious as he takes being Naeve’s father. He’d never agree to any of that if he knew what he was bloody saying.”
“Well, to be fair, your Galiyen isn’t much better,” Amala replied as she handed her Matriarch the missive, “and I do recall you being caught in a similar quandary a year or two ago. Nothing as bad as this, but still.”
Snatching the missive, the seated elf glared at Amala, who in turn fought to suppress her smile.
“If you came to make me feel better, you’re going about it the wrong bloody way, Amala,” she growled at last.
Amala’s face fell at this, and as a sigh escaped her lips, the silver-haired elf slowly sat in the seat beside her.
“What?” the Matriarch said, a deep frown upon her lips.
“We have trouble,” Amala replied.
“I can bloody see that. What is it?”
“Oh, gods. What’s that cow done this time?”
“Cow?” Amala frowned.
The Matriarch shrugged. “Naeve told me what she did. Begged me not to rip the bloody woman’s head off.”
Amala grinned at this, but it was fleeting.
“It seems our many tussles have made her think me her mortal enemy,” she said. “Now, she seems to be after my destruction.”
The Matriarch smiled. “Amala, you’re not the first person that woman has called her mortal enemy. Or the fifth. Or even the tenth!”
“How many have false Records?” Amala replied.
The Matriarch sat tall, her eyes wide. “She knows?”
Taking a deep breath, Amala let it out slowly and shook her head. “No.”
“Gods,” the Matriarch breathed before staring hard at the woman seated across from her. “Don’t bloody do that!”
“But she suspects I’m not what I seem.”
“A lot of people have bloody suspected you’re not what you seem, Amala, we’ve been battling that for bloody years!”
“This is different.”
“Everyone else had set out to prove the entries in my Record never happened, but Fellspire’s setting out to show every proof that exists to corroborate my Record is itself a lie.”
The Matriarch shrugged. “How’s that any different?”
“She’s plans to sift through the past of everyone who’s ever claimed to know me, alright? Everyone who’s ever vouched for me, even in passing, she intends to dig deeper into their words. All of them.”
The Matriarch frowned. “But you said you buried the memories deep. Even a Compel wouldn’t shift it.”
Amala nodded. “I did, and I am confident neither Fellspire nor any of her lackeys can undo what I did.”
“So, what’s the issue?”
“The issue is they’re not confirming whether or not those who vouched for me speak the truth, they’re confirming why they vouched for me,, and why those who should’ve been able to but didn’t kept silent. ”
The Matriarch stared hard at Amala for a spell.
“You think she’ll learn the truth?” she asked.
Amala shook her head. “No. But for all her faults, Fellspire is clever, and I could only weave so deep a web. No, she won’t learn the truth, but she’ll uncover enough to have my Records formally renounced, I think. Given time.”
“Bloody hells,” the Matriarch whispered as she sat back into her chair.
“Yes,” Amala sighed, “bloody hells indeed.”
Shaking her head, the Matriarch stared into the ether, then turned to Amala once more.
“If she asks for leave for an expedition, I can’t deny her without looking like I’m hiding something, you know.”
Amala nodded. “I know.”
“Damn that bloody bitch…” The Matriarch growled as her drifted gaze into the ether once more.
“I’ve been thinking about it all night,” Amala continued, “and the only thing that makes is some permanent posting somewhere far from here, too far for her to be able to conduct any meaningful expedition, and with too many responsibilities to be able to maintain any form of discussion with her lackeys. But I can’t for the life of me think what that would be.”
“Hrm,” the Matriarch muttered. Then, without warning, the woman sat ramrod straight, her eyes wide as she stared at Amala.
“Of course!” she said.
“What?” Amala frowned.
“Of course!” the Matriarch repeated as she dropped her gaze to her desk.
“Wha…” Amala began, but her words died away as her Matriarch brandished the missive she’d read moments before.
“I don’t understand,” Amala said.
Grinning, the Matriarch sat forward. “Fellspire’s Galiyen is impeccable, right?”
“Yeah.” Amala nodded.
“And she’s been nattering in my ear for ages to allow her represent the Tower.”
Once more, the Matriarch brandished the missive.
“I don’t…” Amala began, her brows furrowed deep, but soon her own eyes shone bright as well.
“You mean to send her to parley with the barons.” Amala grinned.
The Matriarch nodded eagerly. “Everyoneis going to be talking about this. Fellspire’ll be salivating at the thought of riding to her Patriarch’s rescue–”
“And those barons are stubborn enough to mean this could go on for an age.”
“Precisely! It’s not perfect, sooner or later she’ll wear them down and get some concession from them, but at least it’ll buy us enough time to find something permanent for her.”
“And who knows,” Amala replied, a dark smile upon her lips, “perhaps she’ll fall down a mountainside and never be seen again.”
“We can only hope.” The Matriarch sighed.
Amala snickered at this, but soon her smile faded.
“What?” the Matriarch frowned.
“If you send her off to the highland barons the very next day after I spoke to her–”
“You spoke to her?”
Amala nodded. “Last night.”
“Ah,” the Matriarch sighed, “she’ll know you and I planned this.”
“Precisely.” Amala sighed as her face fell. But soon her eyes shone bright once more, and with a grin, she sat forward once more.
“Send me along,” she said.
“Send me along,” Amala repeated. “If we’re both sent, it’ll look like simple coincidence.”
The Matriarch stared hard at her friend. “Don’t you think she’s going to assume you and I are planning to send her off somewhere nice and far away so we can get rid of her without any prying eyes about? That woman is paranoid as all hells.”
“Oh come now, your husband will be there! She wouldn’t possibly…”
The Matriarch held her friend in a knowing stare.
Amala pulled a face. “Oh, yeah, it is Fellspire we speak of.”
“Yeah, it is,” the Matriarch muttered. Then, the woman grinned. “Unless…”
“Unless…?” Amala replied.
“There are some dealings I need done with the highland court. The Queen especially. What if you were to go handle that, and she take care of the barons?”
Amala frowned. “Why send me now?”
The Matriarch shrugged. “This new thing with the barons has me worried.”
“Hrm,” Amala muttered as she pondered her Matriarch’s words.
“It…could work,” she said at last.
“Good!” the Matriarch said. “Let’s do that, then!”
“In that case, I might as well go pack,” Amala said, a warm smile parting her lips as she spoke. Then, she rose.
“Oh, and, uhm,” the Matriarch added, “if you do find yourself alone with her near a cliff…well…you know.”
Amala rolled her eyes at her Matriarch and turned to head to the door.
“One of these days you’re going to say something like that to someone who doesn’t realise it was a jest,” Amala said as she went.
“You’re sure it was a jest?”
Stopping, Amala turned and glared at the grinning woman behind her. But then, the Matriarch’s grin faded as she sat tall once more.
“Don’t forget to tell Naeve though! The last thing I need is to have her moping around the bloody place, acting like I’m punishing you.”
Amala smiled at this. “I won’t.”
“And thank you.”
The Matriarch frowned. “What for?”
“For…” Amala began, but soon shook her head. “Nevermind.”
The Matriarch’s frown deepened. “Is everything alright?”
Amala’s smile widened. “It is now.”
Then, without another word, the contented elf spun about and left her Matriarch be.
Lying in her bed, young Naeve Earthchild glared into the ether as she hugged her knees. Her stomach growled and her head hurt, but she was determined to see out her sentence, even if it killed her. It was an accident, and she’d already apologised, but she’d be damned if she was going to beg.
Then, without warning, the door was tested, followed swiftly by a knock.
“Go away,” the little girl muttered.
The knock came again.
“Go away!” Naeve said, in a much louder voice.
The knock came one more.
“Just bloody go away!” Naeve yelled, flinging a pillow at the door.
“Naeve, stop this,” Amala’s voice called out. “Unlock the door.”
Little Naeve glared at the door a spell, but soon dragged herself off her bed and, trundling towards the door, picked up the flung pillow and unlocked the door before swinging it open.
“Yes?” the little girl hissed, glaring at her guest.
Amala held the little girl in her haughtiest gaze. “You still think reading after bed time was a good idea?”
Sighing, little Naeve rolled her eyes and moved to slam the door.
“Don’t you want to know what I’m holding behind my back?”
Naeve stopped and stared at the hand Amala held behind her. As she did so, a most delectable aroma wafted to her nostrils, and as it did so, the little girl’s stomach growled once more as her mouth watered.
“What is it?” she said.
With a warm smile, offered the wrapped loaf in her hand to Naeve.
“From Netyam,” she said. “He knows you didn’t mean to scald him.”
Little Naeve stared up at her friend as her face fell.
“How is he?” she said. “Is he alright?”
Amala’s smile grew. “Oh, he’s quite alright. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to make you this. Here.”
Returning her gaze to the offered meal, Naeve licked her lips and, tucking her pillow under her arm, she grasped hold of the loaf and began wolfing it down, pausing ever so often to lick the wondrous sauce oozing from the loaf and running down her fingers.
“So, may I come in?” Amala asked after a spell.
“Mmh,” Naeve mumbled as she nodded and made her way back to her bed.
Amala watched her in silence for a spell, her smile widening even further. Then at last, she entered her young friend’s room and closed the door behind her.
Keeping silent, Amala rested upon the door, her gaze upon little Naeve as she shuffled to her bed, and as the little girl sat and her gaze met Amala’s, the silver-haired woman shook her head.
“Wha?” Naeve mumbled, her mouth packed full and her jaw hard at work.
“Mmh,” Naeve replied, swallowing as she rolled her eyes as she clambered upon her bed. “Gods it’s so good! What did he put in this?”
Amala shrugged. “He wouldn’t say, but he said you’d love it.”
“Oh, I so do! He’s definitely making me this tomorrow!”
Amala laughed at this.
“But,” Naeve added, frowning, “how come you brought it?”
Amala’s smile saddened at this, and in silence, she made her way to the little girl’ side.
“Well,” she sighed as she sat, “I…I have some not-so-great news to share.”
Slowly, the little girl sat tall. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
“No,” Amala grinned, “not this time.”
“I’m…leaving on an errand. I’ll be gone for a time, how long I don’t know. I’m leaving today, after lunch, and I came to say farewell.”
A heavy silence hung about the pair as Naeve stared at her friend, her hands frozen where they hung. Then, the child slowly lowered her hands, and with them her gaze.
“Naeve?” Amala said.
The little girl raised her gaze to her friend.
Little Naeve lowered her gaze once more, her shoulders sagged.
“Oh, come now, Naeve, it’s not that–”
“Mother’s sending you away, isn’t she?”
“Oh, stop it, Naeve! She’s not–”
“Yes she is,” the little girl said softly. “You don’t have to pretend. She found out about last night and she’s punishing you for what I did, isn’t she?”
Shaking her head, Amala smiled. “My dear, firstly, your mother is nowhere near as heartless as to banish me simply because I let you read past your bed time…”
“…and secondly, like I told you, Neytam is fine. He bears you no ill-will. Truly.”
“But then, why is she sending you away?”
“Because your father, gods bless him, has promised certain things to the highland barons, things that, even thinking about them right now is freezing my very soul, and your mother is worried the accord she struck with the highland court two months ago will now be forsaken. So, she’s sending me to ensure that doesn’t happen, and she’s sending Fellspire to help your father dig himself out of this mess.”
“Yeah.” Amala nodded.
“Why the bloody hells send her?”
“Because her Galiyen is impeccable, my dear, and your mother believes–”
“Oh,” Naeve smiled, “she thinks they tricked Father using Galiyen.”
“Yes,” Amala nodded, “as do I.”
“Well,” the little girl said, “that kind of makes sense. Father’s Galiyen is rubbish, and the barons are heartless bastards.”
“Right on both accounts.” Amala sighed. “But in any case, I thought it fair to let you know before I disappear.”
“Hrm.” Naeve nodded, her smile widening, “Mother told you to tell me.”
“She most certainly did not!”
“Of course she didn’t,” Naeve replied as she tucked into her loaf once more. But then, she paused once more and stared at her friend, her brows furrowed deep.
“That means no more stories till you’re back?” she mumbled.
“Well, do wish to keep reading? I can fashion something to let you hold onto it if you wish.”
The little girl pondered her friend’s words for a spell, but soon shook her head.
“No, reading them is more fun when you’re around, I’ll wait.”
“Oh,” Amala said, her tone dry, “so you won’t miss me, you’ll just miss the stories.”
“Thank you, Naeve. Truly, thank you. Just what I wanted to hear.”
Snickering, the little girl raised the loaf in her hand to her lips, but once more, she stopped and turned to her friend, but this time with a grin upon her lips and a twinkle in her eye. “Can I read one now?”
Amala stared hard at the little girl, lowered her gaze to Naeve’s sauce covered fingers and then back to Naeve’s face one more.
“Uh, no,” she said. “Not with those hands you can’t.”
Naeve stared at her hands a spell, then without a word, offered her loaf to Amala.
“Hunh?” Amala muttered, staring in confusion at the child. “I don’t want it.”
“Mh!” Naeve cried, offering the loaf once more.
With a hesitant hand, Amala took the loaf, but the moment it left the little girl’s hands, Naeve’s grinned as she licked the sauce from her fingers before wiping her hands upon her bed, then held them forth, giggling.
Amala stared at the little girl, her lips agape.
“Well?” Naeve said after a spell.
Amala stared from loaf to child before sighing at last and reaching into her pocket. As she did so, little Naeve spun about and planted her head upon Amala’s lap.
“Hrm?” Naeve grinned.
Shaking her head and sighing once more, the silver-haired woman pulled her hand free.
“So,” she said, “let’s see …”
“Let’s have a happy one this time.”
Amala frowned. “What do you mean?”
“A happy one,” Naeve replied. “A happy story…”
“I understood that bit,” Amala snapped, “but what do you mean this time? Most of my takes are happy.”
Naeve stared hard at her friend. “Seriously?”
“Amala, people die in all your stories.”
“People die all the time! How does that make my tales sad?”
“Wha–” Naeve began as she sprang up.
“And people don’t die in all my tales! Nobody died in Tirinel’s.”
“The dancing girl died!”
“Ah, but not in the tale. She was already dead by its start.”
Naeve stared speechless at her friend.
“I don’t think you understand what a happy story is,” she said at last.
“No, I don’t think you understand what a happy story is, my dear,” Amala countered.
“Gods give me strength,” the little girl muttered, pinching the bridge of her nose as she spoke. Then, sitting tall, she drew breath.
“Let’s try this,” she said. “Do you have a story where nobody died inthe story, and nobody was already dead when the story started?”
Amala pondered the question for a spell.
“Do evil-doers count?”
“Would you…” Naeve began, but soon bit her tongue and gritted her teeth. “You know what, no. No, they don’t count. Happy?”
“Hrm,” Amala muttered as she pondered the question some more. “I have one–”
Amala glared at the little girl. “Do you wish to read or don’t you?”
Shaking her head, Naeve sighed and placed her head upon her friend’s lap once more, and as Amala conjured the tome, Naeve turned to it.
“Right…” Amala muttered as she turned the pages. “Ah, here we are!”
“Nerrol…” Naeve muttered, then nestled into her friends lap and turned the page just as Amala began running her fingers through her little friend’s hair.
Panting, the young boy darted through the crowds, his head lowered and his cowl raised. His lungs burned and his legs ached, but he dare not stop, for the cost of tardiness was far greater than anything he felt, and so, digging deep, the young boy dove and ducked, darting and weaving through the throng as he made his way to his destination.
Then, just as his breathing became ragged and his legs all but dead, he saw it, the gates of the royal palace, and as a wave of euphoria washed over him, he darted into the shadows to catch his breath and take stock of his surroundings. Only, as he sucked in breath, something hard and sharp was pressed against his back, and the young boy froze.
“This is your third trial, son,” came a sharp voice from the shadows behind him, a voice that pierced him far deeper than the dagger at his back possibly could. “Carelessness like this will mean more than just simple failure. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Father,” the boy mumbled.
“I don’t think you do, Dren,” the voice rumbled. “But I pray you do, and quickly.”
Lowering his gaze, the young boy sighed.
“Don’t!” the voice snapped. “Feel sorry for yourself later, you’re already late for your trial. Come!”
Spinning on his heels, the young boy scanned the shadows, ready to race after his father.
But there was no-one.
Then, in the corner of his eye, he saw him. Head lowered, cowl up, swimming through the crowd. Gritting his teeth, the young boy lowered his head and hurried after his father, and soon, father and son made their way through the crowds towards the royal palace, ducking down a side path upon reaching it.
“Gods, there you are!” growled the elderly man within, his gaze fierce as he glared at the approaching pair. “Is this what the Unseen Dagger call keeping time?”
“Cool your heels, old man,” Dren’s father growled as he tossed a purse at the old man. “You’re getting paid, are you not.”
“Bah!” the old man growled as he caught the purse. “I do not think you appreciate the risk I take with this venture. All it’ll take is one servant to come walking past and my part in this plot will be known!”
“And did any?” came a voice from behind the old man, startling him for all he was worth.
As he turned, a young woman swam out from the shadows, her gaze twice as fierce as the old man’s.
“Good gods, woman, don’t do that!” the old man gasped, a hand clutching his chest. “How long have you been there?”
“Long enough to ensure you didn’t betray us.”
“Betray the Unseen Dagger? Are you mad?”
Ignoring the old man, the woman turned to the pair. “You’re late.”
“Yes,” Dren’s father growled, turning to his son, “we are.”
“Did he see you?”
Turning to the woman, Dren’s father shook his head. “I saw him.”
“Dren,” the woman sighed as she made her way towards the pair.
“Forgive me, Mother,” Dren muttered, lowering his gaze as he spoke.
“This is your third trial, Dren,” the woman woman replied. “You cannot fail this one.”
“I won’t!” young Dren said, his eyes bright as he raised his gaze to his mother. “Upon my honour, I won’t fail this time!”
“It’s more than your honour at stake here, son.”
Young Dren swallowed hard at those words, the fear in his mother’s eyes boring deep into him.
“I won’t fail, Mother.”
Taking a deep breath, the young woman let it out slowly and nodded. “Very well.”
“Nel,” Dren’s father said, “is all ready?”
Nodding once more, Dren’s mother turned to her beloved. “All is ready, yes.”
“Good,” the man nodded. “What name is he to use?”
“Dren,” Dren’s mother replied.
Dren’s father frowned. “Is that wise?”
Nel shrugged. “He failed to remember his ruse name the last two times, so…”
Dren’s father sighed and turned to his son. “Very well.”
It took all Dren had to hold his father’s gaze.
Then, Dren’s father turned to the old man. “Did you bring the clothing?”
The old man nodded and pointed at a small bundle beside the palace wall. “In there.”
“Good. Step out. We shall call you when we’re ready.”
“Now, Fraelus,” Nel growled. “Unless you wish to hear things that’ll mean we end you before the day is done?”
The old man stared from one to the other, then hurried out of the alley, his face greatly whitened. All three watched him for a spell, but the instant he was out of hearing, Dren’s father turned to him once more.
“Who are you here for?” he said.
“Nerrol and Jesrine,” Dren intoned. “Brother and sister.”
“What are they to you?”
“How are you to meet them?”
“I will be their servant for the next two days.”
“What happens two nights from now?”
“I kill both in their sleep, and mark Nerrol as the killer.”
Dren patted his chest. “My amulet should hide my presence from them.”
“Two. Drumold and Terra. Both mages. Both beyond me.”
“The guards will ward my preys’ room each night.”
“Two nights from now, I will hide within their room before the wards are cast. Then, I’ll see the deed done and wait till the next day to leave, after the room has been cleared and cleaned.”
“Good.” Dren’s father nodded. “Good.”
“There is a change,” Dren’s mother said.
“What?” Dren’s father frowned.
“The client has yet to pay in full. She needs more time.”
“What?” Dren’s father hissed, his gaze darkening.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Tarn! I can’t very well force her, now can I?”
“Does she know what happens if she does not pay us?”
Nel held her beloved in a pointed stare. “What do you think?”
Tarn gritted his teeth for a spell, but soon sighed. “So how much time did you give her?”
“She says recent arrangements mean our quarry will remain in the palace for another five days.”
“Another five days?” Dren said. “But my amulet will only remain potent for three.”
“I know,” Nel replied, turning to her son, “which is why you’ll give that one to me before you leave here, and I shall give you another one when we’re paid in full.”
Then, she turned to her beloved once more. “She’s sworn she’ll pay in full by the morning of the fifth day at the latest.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“Her life is mine.”
“She knows this?”
“Oh yes,” Nel nodded, “without a doubt.”
Tarn smiled. “How dare I doubt you.”
At her beloved’s words, a warm smile parted Nel’s lips. “How dare you indeed.”
Then, the pair turned to their son.
“Do us proud, Dren,” Tarn said. “See it done.”
Dren smiled. “I will, Father.”
“And remember,” Nel said, placing a soft hand upon young Dren’s cheek, “I’ll be in there with you. Do not face anyone that is beyond you. Come find me instead.”
Dren nodded. “I will.”
“Good.” Nel nodded.
“Go get changed,” Tarn said. “I’ll go get the old man.”
“Yes, Father,” Dren replied, then headed for the bundle Fraelus had left behind.
Sitting beside the window, his head rested upon its pane, the young elf stared at the mist his breath upon the glass drew, watching as it grew with each breath and shrank right after as the enchantment on the glass cleaned it off.
“What’re you doing?” came a voice from behind the young boy.
“He’s playing with the enchantment on the glass,” replied another as the young boy turned.
Sighing, the young boy rolled his eyes at the little girl seated at the grand table behind him, licking the succulent jam smeared upon her lips.
“If you must know,” the young boy said in his haughtiest voice, “I’m merely testing the glass’s enchantment.”
“Yeah, he’s playing with the enchantment on the glass,” repeated the mage standing behind the little girl, words that elicited a giggle from the little girl.
Sighing once more, the young boy shook his head and returned his gaze to the glass.
“Are you sure you don’t any more, Nerrol,” said the other mage within the room. “It’ll all go to waste otherwise.”
Tearing his gaze from the glass once more, young Nerrol turned to the mouth-watering spread upon the grand table, and though he knew in his heart sooner or later his hunger would return, his heart ached too much to bear another bite.
“I’m alright, Drumold,” he said, smiling. “Truly.” Then, he turned to the sister.
“Besides,” he continued, a smug smile upon his lips, “after what Jesrine’s done to that pot of jam, I’m not sure I’d want any.”
“Hm?” the little girl said, smacking her lips as she shoved a spoon into the jam pot.
“Nothing.” Young Nerrol grinned as the others giggled.
Just then, the door swung open, and as one, all eyes turned to the door.
“You’re back!” little Jesrine cried as she scrambled out of her seat and raced toward the pair standing before the open doorway.
“Oh, my darl…what happened to your face?” cried the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower as her daughter neared.
“Nerrol!” the Matriarch barked as she spun to glare at her son. “What were you looking at while Jesrine did this to her face?”
“It was my idea, Matriarch,” the first mage said, bowing to her Matriarch. “I thought best to let her enjoy her meal, then we clean her afterwards.”
“It’s not your decision to make, Terra,” the Matriarch admonished. “He’s her brother, she is his responsibility.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Nedina,” the man standing beside him sighed, “just leave him be.”
“Leave him be?” the Matriarch snapped. “Leave him be? Look at her!”
“So? It’s jam! It comes off!”
“You’re always doing that, why are you always doing that?”
“Gods, what are you accusing me of this time?”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, Rougal, I’m just–”
“It’s alright!” young Nerrol yelled, silencing the pair.
“Forgive me, Mother,” the young boy added, scrambling off the table upon which he’d perched, “You are right, I should’ve watched Jesrine better, and I didn’t. I shall do better next time.”
“So you keep saying,” the seething Matriarch growled, then turned to the mage that was Terra. “Clean her up, please.”
“At once, Matriarch,” the Archmage said, then hurried towards Jesrine, the little girl’s face long as she stared at her brother.
A heavy silence fell upon the room as the Archmage cleaned little Jesrine’s face, and once done, the Matriarch spoke once more.
“Now, I know we said we’d be done in two days,” the Matriarch said, forcing a smile as she spoke, “but I fear that will no longer be possible. There are a few other ceremonies your father’s family is insisting we partake in…”
“Which wouldn’t be an issue now, had we visited after our wedding, like I’d suggested,” the Patriarch muttered.
“…so we shall be a bit busy for a time.”
“Aww,” the little girl whined. “Does that mean we can’t see the city?”
The Matriarch smiled. “You can, and you shall. Dren?”
At her words, a young boy stepped forth from behind the Matriarch.
“Children, this is Dren.”
Young Dren bowed.
“He shall be your guide and your aide while we’re here. He shall take you on a tour of the city, show you its sights and sounds. If there’s anything you desire, he shall see to it. Drumold and Terra shall be with you as well, and, as always, you must listen to them at all times. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Mother,” the pair intoned.
“Good.” The Matriarch nodded, then turned to the young boy standing before her. “Dren?”
Young Dren bowed at the Matriarch, then turned to the others and smiled.
“If you’ll follow me, I shall show you to your rooms.”
The children stared at each other a spell, but soon shrugged and turned to the young boy named Dren, and with a smile, young Dren spun about and the pair fell in step behind him as he left, the two mages following behind.
The five marched on in silence for a spell, but it was not too last, for soon, little Jesrine slipped a hand into her brother’s, pulling upon her brother’s hand as she pouted.
“You’re not angry with me are you?”
“Hrm?” Nerrol frowned, turning to his sister.
“I made Mother shout at you again.”
Nerrol smiled. “Oh, I’m more than angry, I’m furious!”
The little girl giggled.
“I suppose I should also apologise,” Terra muttered. “I should’ve listened to you when you said it wasn’t a good idea.”
Stopping, Nerrol turned to the woman behind him, his smile warming.
“It’s alright,” he said, “I’m used to it. Besides, even if you’d listened, Mother have found something else to shout at me about.”
A peculiar air hung about the group, one that remained even as Nerrol resumed pace, and one that only truly left when he broke the silence once more.
“So, Dren,” Nerrol said, “you are to be our guide, then?”
“Mhm,” young Dren nodded.
“For how long?” Jesrine asked.
“Well,” Dren replied, “I’ve been placed at your service for the next seven days, and–”
“Seven days?” young Jesrine cried.
“Seven days,” Nerrol gasped. “I have lessons!”
“Oh, the lessons will still be there, Nerrol.” Drumold grinned. “You’re in Aderelas! Jewel of the Highlands! I’m sure we can find something to keep us busy for seven days.”
“But still,” Jesrine said, “what in the world would they be doing for an extra five whole days?”
“Do you know what this is all about, Dren?” Nerrol asked.
“Oh, I’m the last person they’d tell anything,” Dren replied, smiling. “I’m merely a servant.”
“Bloody hells.” Little Jesrine sighed.
“Jesrine!” Nerrol scolded. “Mind your words!”
The little girl pulled a face in response, an act that drew forth a weary tut and a shake of the head from her older brother.
“But it’s not fair though,” Jesrine mumbled. “Mother and I were supposed to see the city together!”
“I shall be showing you the sights, young Mistress,” Dren said, smiling still.
“It’s not the same,” Jesrine muttered.
“Oh?” Dren frowned.
“Jesrine and Mother do everything together,” Nerrol said, “and ever since they told us we’d be accompanying them on this trip, they’ve been talking about all the things they’d do, the places they’d see. And given how detailed Father’s tales of the city are–”
“Your father’s been here before?” Dren interjected.
“He’s from here,” Jesrine muttered.
“Mh.” Nerrol nodded, grinning. “He’s been regaling us of tales of his childhood for as long as I can remember.”
“Mh.” Nerrol nodded once more, then turned to his sister.
“Tell you what,” he said, nudging the little girl as he spoke, “how about we make our own tales? You and I. And Dren. We go out every day and make sure we have a tale for each day. Then, we can share them with Mother and Father on our way home.”
“I suppose…” the little girl mumbled.
“Good!” Nerrol grinned, then turned to Dren once more. “Are our quarters far?”
“Oh, apologies,” the young boy said, picking up the pace, “they’re this way.”
The group hurried on in silence till they came to a corridor with three doors on one side and three windows on the other.
“Here we are,” Dren said, stopping at the middle door. Then, he turned to the children.
“Master Nerrol, Mistress Jesrine, the middle one is yours.”
The children turned their gazes from him to the ornate door behind him.
“Wait here, children,” Terra said as she stepped in.
A few moments later, she stepped out once more and nodded to Drumold.
“It’s safe,” she said to the children.
“Excellent,” Dren said. “The other two rooms are yours to pick from, Master Drumold, Mistress Terra. There is no difference between them.”
“I’ll take this one,” Drumold said, turning to the leftmost door.
“Very well, I’ll take that one,” Terra replied as she made her way towards the rightmost door.
“I’ll be back at lunch time,” Dren continued. “Till then, I hope you find your rooms to your liking.”
“Very well…” Jesrine muttered and headed inside.
Soon, it was just the two boys left, and as silence returned, Nerrol smiled.
“Do forgive my sister,” he said, “she was looking forward to this trip.”
Dren smiled and bowed. “I’m your humble servant, there is nothing to forgive.”
“And don’t do that,” Nerrol added, his voice soft.
“Do what?” Dren frowned.
“You’re not much older than I. It feels wrong to hear you call yourself my servant. You’re not my servant, alright?”
Dren nodded and bowed. “As you wish.”
The young boy’s smile widened. “You’re still doing it. Tell you what, how about I command you?”
“As you wish,” Dren repeated.
“I command you to be our friend for the next seven days, not our servant.”
“You heard. You’re not our servant, you’re our friend.”
Young Dren’s frown deepened. “But, the others–”
“I’ll speak to the others,” Nerrol interjected, reaching for the door behind him. “You just do as I command, alright?”
The young servant moved to speak, but could not find the words, and as the silence drew on, Nerrol nodded at young Dren and entered his room. Not knowing what else to say, Dren bowed at the door, then turned and left.
“Oh, what do we have here?” a voice cried out as Dren entered the servant’s dining hall. “Is that the fresh meat Fraelus brought in this morning?”
“What?” Dren frowned as he turned to the utterer.
“Come sit by me, lover,” the elderly elf yelled. “Let old Nestrelle take good care of you!”
Dren balked at this, staring wide-eyed at the elderly elf.
“Stop it, Nestrelle,” another called out, “you’re scaring him.”
“Ha!” old Nestelle cried as the others roared with laughter.
“Don’t mind Nestelle,” said the one who’d come to Dren’s rescue, “she does that to every newcomer. What’s your name?”
“Dren,” Dren replied.
“Well, greetings, Dren, and welcome! Is this your first day?”
“Yeah.” Dren nodded, smiling.
“Well, you’re in luck, son,” old Nestrelle called out. “Seems Adine’s taken a shine to you. You do right by her, and you’ll do well here. She’s not been here long herself, but she’s already ruling the kitchen.”
“Oh, stop it, Nestrelle,” Adine replied, “you’ll make me blush!”
“Ha!” the elderly elf cried, then returned her gaze to the garment she was mending.
“Come, boy,” Adine called out to Dren. “Sit by me. You look like you can use a friendly face.”
“My thanks,” Dren replied, and hurried to the empty table by which Adine sat.
As he neared the table, however, the young boy slowed and, ever so carefully, scanned his surroundings. Once sure there was none within earshot, he sat down, stared at his mother and smiled.
“Adine?” he whispered.
“What of it?” Nel replied, suppressing a smile.
“Isn’t that Grandfather’s pet name for Grandmother?”
“How in the hells do you know that?” Nel gasped.
Dren shrugged and grinned. “I hear things.”
“Why you little…nevermind. How fares it?”
At those words, Dren’s smile faded as he hunched forward.
“The boy’s mother loathes him,” he whispered, “why I do not know, but that much is clear.”
“Well done.” Nel grinned. “She does.”
Dren shrugged. “It wasn’t that difficult to decipher. She all but bit his head off earlier, over something the girl did.”
“And now you know why he must be marked as the killer,” Nel replied. “The mother is the one who rules. Any search for the girl’s killer will continue till she is satisfied. Hand her the boy, and things will go all the smoother.”
“But will the others believe it? He clearly cares for his sister.”
“It doesn’t matter what they believe. All that matters is what she believes.”
“Do not question the deed, Dren, there are aspects of this you do not see. Alright?”
Dren nodded. “Alright.”
“Good.” Nel nodded, then sighed. “And now comes the hard part. Do not forget they are prey, Dren. Please. That is why you failed your first trial.”
“I remember, Mother,” Dren muttered.
“Good. Nothing must stay your hand this time. And be especially careful of the boy. He’s kind-hearted, and will no doubt go out of his way to make you not feel like a servant. Guard your heart, son. Do not let the steel within it melt.”
“I won’t, Mother.”
“Good.” Nel nodded. “Good.”
Then, Nel rose. “Wait here, I’ll get you something to eat.”
Dren watched his mother leave in silence. Then, as he stared into the ether, he saw in his mind’s eye the smiling face of young Nerrol, and he gritted his teeth.
“They’re prey, Dren,” he growled, “nothing more. Nothing. More.”
Then, taking a deep breath, he rose his gaze and waited patiently for his mother’s return.
“…and that is why they’re called the Calming Verses,” Dren finished, beaming at an enraptured Jesrine.
“Woah!” the little girl said, her eyes as wide as her grin. “I never knew that was why!”
“You never knew what was why?” came a voice from behind Dren.
“Nerrol!” Jesrine cried as Dren spun about, and as the young boy turned, he watched as Nerrol and Terra neared their spot in the shade with five mugs carried between them.
“Dren was just telling me why the Calming Verses were called the Calming Verses,” Jesrine continued.
“Oh, that tale!” Nerrol replied as he and Terra placed their mugs upon the table they were all crowded about. “I love that one!”
“Oh,” Jesrine growled, “don’t tell me you know it already.”
“Mhm,” Nerrol said as he sat. “The lore is that it was first sung by–”
“I don’t need you to tell me, brother dearest,” Jesrine sighed, “Dren just did.”
Smiling, Nerrol shrugged and reached for a mug.
“Did anyone tell you you read too much?” Jesrine added as she grabbed a mug.
“Did anyone tell you you don’t read enough?” Nerrol shot back, his smile widening.
“Whatever,” Jesrine growled as she lifted her mug to her lips.
As Nerrol lifted his, however, the young boy stopped, frowned and lowered the mug, then reached into his pocket.
“What is it?” Jesrine asked, her worry plain.
“It’s Mother,” Nerrol replied, then stared forth.
“Hello, Mother,” he said, staring into the ether.
“In the courtyard.”
“No, just sitting in the shade enjoying some–”
“Yes, Jesrine is with me, she’s–”
“No, Mother, I–”
“Yes, Mother, we bought some yesterday and–”
“What? That can’t be right.”
“No, Mother, of course I’m not calling you a liar. I was merely–”
“No, Mother, I’m not interrupting–”
“Forgive me, Mother.”
“Of course, Mother. Right away.”
“What is it?” Jesrine repeated, her worry deepening.
Nerrol turned to his sister. “Did you take any of the savouries we bought yesterday to bed with you last night? Even after I told you not to?”
The little girl’s eyes went wide as all colour drained from her face.
“What’s happened?” Drumold asked.
Young Nerrol stared in silence at his sister for a spell, but soon tore his gaze from her to face the mage.
“The cleaning maid complained that Jesrine’s sheets are stuck together and ruined. Mother’s demanding I come clean them, and that I apologise to the King in person.”
“No, I’ll do it,” Jesrine whimpered.
“No,” Nerrol said, the steel in his word unmistakable.
The peculiar silence returned, and as Dren shifted awkwardly under its weight, he watched as young Jesrine’s face fell, the little girl’s gaze falling to her mug as her eyes glistened, a deep pout upon her lips.
“Jesrine,” Nerrol said, smiling.
Jesrine shrugged as her tears fell.
“Jesrine, look at me.”
Pouting still, the little girl did as her brother asked.
“Did you ruin your sheets on purpose?”
The little girl shook her head.
“Did you take the savouries to bed even after I asked you not to?”
The little girl nodded.
“Do you now know why I asked you not to?”
Sniffling, the little girl nodded as she wiped her tears away.
“Will you do it again?”
Once more, the little girl shook her head.
“That is all I ask,” Nerrol said, his smile widening as he rose. “Now, you stay here with Drumold and Terra. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“I’ll come with you,” Terra said, rising as well.
“No, please,” Nerrol said. “Stay. Enjoy the shade.”
“No,” Terra replied, shaking her head, “you’re my charge, I go where you go. Drumold will look after Jesrine.”
“Please,” Nerrol pressed, “I truly would like to be on my own for a spell.”
“You know I cannot do that,” Terra replied. “What if something happens to you?”
The young boy shrugged. “It’s not like I’d be missed.”
None at the table knew what to say.
“I shan’t be long,” Nerrol added, then left.
Dren watched in silence as Terra slowly sat back down, the look in her eyes mirrored across the table. Then, as the silence grew, he turned and watched Nerrol as he headed inside. As he stared, young Nerrol’s words echoed in his ears, the pain within them tearing at him. He knew that pain, he’d lived with that pain for much of his early childhood, and seeing it reflected in Nerrol’s eyes had filled him with an almost overwhelming desire to say something, do something, to ease his friend’s hurt.
As those final words echoed in young Dren’s mind, he slowly sat tall. Nerrol was his friend? What in the world was he thinking? Nerrol was prey! They both were!
“Don’t you dare soften, Dren,” he spat in his mind. “Don’t you dare!”
But the longing remained, and the more he stared at Nerrol’s back, the more it gnawed at him.
Shaking his head, Dren spun about and fixed his gaze upon the table, his eyes wide as he hunched over.
“Dren, is all well?” Terra asked.
“Hunh?” Dren replied as he raised his gaze to her.
“Is all well?” Terra repeated.
Shaking his head, he turned to Jesrine. She was crying once more, whimpering silently as she pouted at the table. A little girl whose heart was breaking for her brother. This was his prey.
“Dren?” Terra called.
Turning to her, Dren shook his head once more, and springing to his feet, he hurried from the table. He had to get away from them, he had to clear his head. He couldn’t be thinking like this.
Hurrying away from the table, Dren let his feet guide him as his mind wandered, his thoughts turning to each of his two trials, turning to his parents, turning to each and every choice he’d made that led him to where he now wandered. There was no comfort in any of it.
The young boy came to a halt, his heart climbing up his throat. The voice was unmistakable, but it was the steel within it that had stopped him. Slowly, he turned, and as he beheld the steely visage that was his mother, he sighed.
“Hello, Mother,” he whispered.
The young woman stared at him a spell, then cast a glance about her before returning her gaze to her son. Dren held his mother’s gaze as best he could, gritting his teeth as the dread within him grew, till at last, the woman before him spoke.
“Payment has been made,” she said. “The deed must be done tonight.”
Taking a deep breath, Dren stood tall, then nodded at his mother.
“But you’re having doubts,” Nel added.
“No, Mother, I’m–”
“Don’t lie to me, Dren,” Nel interjected, her voice softer than Dren had heard it in an age. “You’re having doubts.”
Dren lowered his gaze at this.
Nel sighed, shaking her head as she stared at her son.
“Would that I could free you from this,” she said, “but I can’t. Only you can. See this through, Dren, please. Find the strength. Do not force my hand on this. Not this.”
“I won’t, Mother,” Dren said, raising his gaze to his mother. “You have my word.”
Nel smiled and nodded. “Good.” Then, she stepped forth and, grasping hold of Dren’s hand, forced something into it before raising her son’s hand to her lips.
“It’s almost over, Dren,” she said, gently caressing his cheek. “Just one more night, then it’s done.” Then, with a sigh, she turned and left her son be.
Dren watched her leave in silence, then lowered his gaze to what lay in his hand.
It was an amulet.
Sighing, the young assassin clenched his fist about the amulet and placed it in his pocket, then turned and headed indoors, his heart sinking with each step.
Sitting in utter dark, Dren listened in silence at Nerrol’s soft snores and Jesrine’s dream mumbles. It had taken an age for the pair to fall asleep, what with the pair nattering on for much of the night, their excited words showing little of what had transpired in the courtyard earlier. But now, they were both deep in sleep. It was time. He could delay this no longer.
Taking a deep breath, Dren gently moved aside the covering of his hiding spot before crawling slowly out. Rising, the young boy made his way towards Nerrol’s belongings, his eyes scanning for the item with which he’d intended to see his dark deed done, till at last, his eyes fell upon the gold-coated ceremonial dagger hidden beneath some clothing. Nerrol had bought it as a gift for his father, something he’d picked up during one of their outing, picked up on suggestion from Dren, and as Dren pulled it free, a sad smile twisted his lips.
“I wish you hadn’t listened,” Dren thought as he drew the blade.
Turning, he tested the blade’s edge. Dull, much duller than he was expecting. Shaking his head, he tested the tip. That, he could work with.
Satisfied, he crept towards Jesrine’s bed. He had to do this, he had to see this through. One quick thrust, the little girl would feel no pain. He had to do this.
Reaching the sleeping child, Dren stared down at her. She was mumbling still, her words too faint for him to make out. Shaking his head, Dren drew breath and, letting it out slowly, he clasped the dagger in both hands, raised his hands high and gritted his teeth.
Then, he froze.
Try as he might, he couldn’t bring the blade down. Even as his eyes locked onto the sleeping child’s chest, above where her heart beat, even as his knuckles whitened as he gripped the blade tight, he couldn’t strike. Then, at last, he sighed, lowered his hands gently and stared up at the heavens.
“I can’t do this,” he whispered. “Gods forgive me, I can’t do this.”
As he returned his gaze to the sleeping child, however, it was only then he realised that Nerrol’s snores had stopped. Worse, an odd sound filled his ears, one he’d never heard before. Slowly, the youth turned, and as he stared at Nerrol seated upright in his bed, his gaze fierce as two ice daggers slowly revolved around an outstretched hand, Dren smiled.
“Magic,” he said, dropping the dagger onto the carpeted floor as he stepped away from Jesrine’s bed. “Of course.”
Nerrol did not speak, his gaze hardening as he slowly rose.
Dren sighed and shrugged. “I’m dead anyway. At least this way it’ll be quick, right?”
Still, Nerrol said nary a word, his hand remaining as it was.
“Right,” Dren said and nodded. Then, taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes, held his arms wide and waited for the blow that would end it all.
But it never came.
Opening his eyes at last, he stared at Nerrol. The boy was by his sister’s side now, his hand lowered and his gaze soft once more.
“What do you mean, you’re dead anyway?” Nerrol asked.
Dren smiled and shook his head. “I can’t tell you that.”
“Because they’ll kill you if I tell you.”
Nerrol frowned. “You mean they’re going to stop simply because you stopped?”
“Hrm.” Dren frowned. “Fair point. I suppose I can tell you, then.”
Nerrol nodded. “Good.”
“I’m of the–” Dren began.
“Hold,” Nerrol interjected, then leant forward and gently shook his sister.
“You wish her hear this?”
Nerrol’s frown returned. “Why not?”
“But she’s only…” Dren began, but it was too late, the little girl stirred and rose.
“Mmh?” Jesrine mumbled.
“We have trouble,” Nerrol replied and nodded at Dren.
“Wha…?” Jesrine began, and turned to where her brother had nodded.
“What’re you doing here?” she added.
“He’s an assassin,” Nerrol said.
“What?” Jesrine frowned.
“I am, yes.” Dren added.
“He came to kill us,” Nerrol said.
“What?” Jesrine cried, all traces of sleep now banished.
“I did, yes,” Dren added.
Little Jesrine turned to her brother.
Nerrol nodded at her. “He did.”
Then, the youth slowly stood tall as he stared into his sister’s eyes. “Now hold a moment, Jesrine, you must remain calm. You hear me?”
Ignoring her brother, little Jesrine returned her gaze to Dren, her eyes blazed bright as a deep snarl twisted her lips.
“You little bastard!” she spat, then swung her feet off the bed and made to lunge at Dren.
“No, no!” Nerrol cried as he leapt after her, grabbing hold of her arm just in time.
“Let me go!”Jesrine yelled, her teeth bared as she swung her free hand at Dren. “I’ll rip his bloody throat out!”
“Quiet!” Nerrol hissed. “You’ll wake Terra and Drumold.”
“Good!” Jesrine roared, fighting against her brother’s grip for all she was worth. “Now, let me go, damn it!”
“No, listen! He’s also–”
“Let me go!” Jesrine shrieked as she turned to attack her brother’s grip.
“Gods damn it, Jesrine, just listen!” Nerrol thundered, in a voice that finally drew the venom from his sister.
Turning to her brother, Jesrine huffed. “You needn’t shout, you know! I’m not deaf!”
Turning to Dren with a look of pure exasperation, Nerrol shook his head. Dren, however, was stunned to silence. Never in all his days would he have expected such a reaction from Jesrine of all people.
“Now,” Nerrol said as he sat upon Jesrine’s bed, “how about we sit…we sit!”
Little Jesrine glared at her brother a spell, but soon sat upon the bed, turning to levy a cold stare at Dren.
“Let’s hear what he has to say, shall we?”
“Like he’ll tell us the truth,” Jesrine growled.
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“Why would he?”
“Jesrine, the only reason you’re still alive is because he chose not to kill you. I only woke up after he’d made his choice.”
Jesrine turned to her brother, glaring at him for a spell, then turned to Dren once more.
“What’s your name, then?” Jesrine demanded.
“It’s Dren,” Dren replied.
“It’s Dren,” Dren repeated.
“You mean you’re using your true name instead of a ruse name?” Nerrol asked.
Dren smiled. “I can never remember my ruse name, so…yeah.”
“You’re useless at this aren’t you?” Jesrine muttered.
Dren’s smile widened. “I suppose I am, yes.”
Shaking his head, Nerrol sighed. “How about we let him start from the beginning.”
The little girl glared at her brother once more, but soon sighed.
“Very well,” the little girl said, turning back to Dren.
“Good,” Nerrol said, then turned to Dren. “So, you were saying?”
Dren stared from one to the other, but soon sighed and headed for the bed himself.
“Uhm,” Jesrine began, “what the bloody hells do you think you’re doing?”
“Jesrine…” Nerrol warned.
“But…” little Jesrine began, but turning back to Dren, she glared hard at him instead, folding her arms as she did so.
Staring from the little girl to the space beside her, Dren shook his head and shoved his hands into his pockets before wandering over and leaning upon the nearby wall, his back to it as he stared at Nerrol’s bed. Then, taking a deep breath, the young assassin let it out slowly, turned to face the pair square.
“I’m of the Unseen Dagger, and–”
“Oh, gods,” Nerrol said, the colour draining from his cheeks.
“What?” Jesrine frowned, turning to her brother. “Is that bad?”
“It is,” Dren replied. “Quite.”
“They are the best assassins guild there is,” Nerrol added. “They’re rumoured to have killed kings and warlords.”
“Yeah,” Dren nodded, “we have.”
“Kings?” Jesrine said, her frown deepening. “Then why in the hells are you bothering with us?”
“It’ll be because of Mother,” Nerrol said. “Must be.”
“Yes.” Nerrol nodded, then turned to Dren. “Continue, please.”
“Right.” Dren nodded, then drew breath and carried on. “We’ve been paid a lot of coin to end you both and mark Nerrol as the killer, then–”
“What?” the pair said in unison.
Dren nodded. “Come the morning, your mother’s meant to think Nerrol killed you, Jesrine, then killed himself. That dagger I suggested he buy for your father? I was going to use it on you, then on him.”
“Clever,” Nerrol said. “You use something everyone knows was in my possession to lend your ruse weight.”
“Precisely.” Dren nodded.
Dren shook his head and shrugged. “No idea. We were hired, that’s all there is.”
“Do you know who hired you?”
Again, Dren shook his head. “I don’t. I heard their voice once, though, Father took me to a meet so I know first-hand what it takes to barter on someone’s life.”
“Hold,” Jesrine said, her disgust plain, “you mean to say your father taught you to kill people?”
Dren grinned. “He’s not my birth father, he’s…it’s complicated.”
“Then explain,” Jesrine snarled.
Taking a deep breath, Dren wandered over to the bed and sat.
“My birth parents were important people. I don’t quite know what they did, but many people called on them, day and night. Most left happy, some left in tears. But the people kept coming, and every time we went out, everyone we passed seemed delighted to see them. Only problem was, they were also horrible people, and …they beat me. Often.”
“Oh,” was all Jesrine could say.
“I remember once, Father beat me so hard he broke my collar bone, and all because I sneezed too loud, interrupted his rest time.”
Smiling, Dren turned to the little girl.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Then, one night, I hear this…odd sound from downstairs. Gods only know why I got out of bed in the first place, but I went down to see what it was, and I saw…I saw a lot of blood, and my mother dead…”
“Good gods,” Nerrol cried.
“…but my father was still alive. He was crawling away from these two people, I’d never seen them before–”
“Your parents,” Jesrine said. “The ones now, I mean.”
Dren nodded, his smile returned. “Yeah, it was them. It was my father who saw me first, my birth father, and do you know what he said?”
The two children shook their heads.
“Don’t just stand there, help me!” Dren said, then laughed. “Imagine it, me! I wasn’t even as old as you back then, Jesrine! What could I have done?”
“What did you do?” Nerrol asked.
Staring at the young boy, Dren drew breath and sat tall.
“I…well, I looked up at my parents, the ones now, I mean, then I wandered over to my toy…I think it was a bear or something…picked it up, and wandered into the other room. Then, I sat in a chair and waited for my father’s cries to stop.”
Both children stared hard at Dren.
“I know.” Dren winced. “I know. But, in my defence, all I saw was, well, salvation.”
“Salvation?” Jesrine said.
“What happened then?” Nerrol asked before Dren could draw breath.
“Well,” Dren sighed, “when they were done, they came in after me. So, I wandered over to them, handed my toy to my mother, showed my father my neck, and closed my eyes.”
“You did what?” Jesrine gasped.
“Dying is salvation?”
Dren shrugged. “If you’re beaten and hurt every single day, with everyone around you seeing you suffer but doing nothing to stop it, sooner or later you start to think of death as…yeah, salvation.”
At those words, little Jesrine turned to her brother, the pain in her gaze plain for all to see. In response, the young boy smiled at his sister, grasped hold of her hand and squeezed gently.
“Is there any way to stop this?” little Jesrine said, turning to Dren once more.
Dren shook his head. “Payment has been made. If I don’t kill you, my mother will, and–”
“She’s here?” Jesrine frowned.
Dren nodded. “Working in the kitchens.”
“What, they don’t trust you?”
Dren smiled. “You’re my third trial. I failed the others.”
“Oh,” Jesrine said, smiling, “lucky us.”
“We may be able to stop this though,” Nerrol muttered, his brow furrowed deep and his gaze in the ether. “If I remember rightly, the Unseen Dagger prides itself on the knowledge that none of its kills can be proven to be by its members.”
Dren nodded. “That’s right.”
“And if you hire them, you can never speak of your dealings with them. Right?”
“And if you do?”
“What?” Dren said, his frown deepening.
“What happens if you speak of your dealings with the Unseen Dagger?”
“Well, you die, of course.”
“And if that happens before the deed is done? Does the Unseen Dagger still carry out the killing?”
“Hrm,” Nerrol muttered as he pondered on his own words.
“What difference does it make?” Jesrine said at last. “Dren never saw who hired them.”
“No,” Dren replied, “ but I did hear them, and I’m sure if I hear them again, I’ll recognise them.”
“It would have to be someone from the Tower itself,” Nerrol muttered, rising to pace slowly about the room. “Someone in Mother’s closest circle.”
“Why?” Dren asked.
“Because our coming was a spur of the moment!” Jesrine gasped, rising to her knees as she grinned at her brother. “Of course!”
“Precisely,” Nerrol muttered, biting down on a thumb as he paced. “Everyone else only knew we were coming on the very day we left, and I doubt whoever planned this would’ve had time to reach out to the Unseen Dagger and arrange all this if they didn’t know well beforehand.”
“Go on,” Jesrine urged.
“Well, it’s clearly not Mother.”
“Of course it’s not Mother!”
“I’m just saying…”
“Stop saying and keep thinking!”
Nerrol grinned at his sister, but soon returned his gaze to the ether.
“It’s not Father either. If Jesrine dies and Mother loses her seat, he loses everything.”
Jesrine rolled her eyes at her brother, but held her peace.
“Hrm,” Nerrol muttered, stopping at last as he shook his head. “The list is too long.”
“What list?” Dren asked.
“The list of those who it can be, of course!” Jesrine said.
“Oh,” Dren said, his smile returning. “Right.”
Then, Nerrol turned to Dren. “Is there anything else you can tell us? Anything.”
“Uhm,” Dren said, frowning as he searched his thoughts.
“There is something,” he said at last.
“The payment was made late.”
“Yes.” Dren nodded. “Mother had to make a new bargain with our employer, and…” Then, the young boy’s eyes shone bright.
“They knew you’d be here for an extra five days!” he added.
“What?” Jesrine said.
“You’re sure,” Nerrol said.
“Quite sure! They told Mother!”
“Hrm,” Nerrol muttered, resuming his pacing, but soon stopped once more.
“Ah, the list sit still too long,” he muttered.
“Well, perhaps you’re looking at this the wrong way,” Dren offered.
“Meaning?” Jesrine demanded.
“Who’s the one person to benefit the most from all of this?”
A brief silence fell upon the room, but then, the siblings turned to each other in unison, their eyes wide.
“Aunt Nezrine!” they cried.
“Who?” Dren asked.
“Of course!” Nerrol said, grinning at his sister. “If you die and Mother’s too heartbroken to lead well, Aunt Nezrine can challenge for the seat!”
“Plus, she was due to travel back with us!” Jesrine added.
“Precisely! Mother and Father would’ve had to have told her about the delay!”
“And she’s in Mother’s closest circle!”
“Precisely! Gods, why didn’t I think of that?”
“Yeah, why didn’t you think of that?”
“Who’s Aunt Nezrine?” Dren repeated.
“Our Aunt,” Nerrol replied, turning to the youth.
“On our Mother’s side,” Jesrine added.
“She’s next in line after Jesrine.”
“Yes! But if I die here, and Mother is overcome with grief, which she most likely would be, Aunt Nezrine can claim Mother’s no longer fit to lead and move to replace her!”
“And leading is one thing she’s been after for a truly long time!”
“Yeah! But she’s a horrible person.”
“Yeah, truly horrible.”
“Nobody likes her.”
“Yeah, we all hate her. Used to be nice though.”
“That was before I was born.”
“Yeah, she changed when Jesrine was born. Rather obvious why.”
“Naythe is nice though.”
“That’s her daughter. Everyone like Naythe.”
“Yeah, everyone. Including me.”
Dren stared at the pair as his head throbbed, his lips agape as his gaze went from one sibling to the other.
“What?” the pair said in unison.
“I…” he began, then shook his head. “Nevermind. So you think it’s your Aunt Nezrine–”
“No, we know it’s our Aunt Nezrine,” Jesrine corrected.
“Hrm,” Nerrol muttered, his gaze in the ether once more.
“We need Mother,” Nerrol said. “Or Father. We need to get one of them before Aunt Nezrine and make her confess.”
“How do we make her confess?”Jesrine asked.
Nerrol nodded at Dren. “Once Dren hears her voice and confirms it, she can’t hide.”
“True.” Jesrine nodded. Then, the little girl sighed. “But we don’t know where they are, though.”
“They’re not in their rooms?” Dren frowned.
“Not our parents, silly,” Jesrine replied, turning to the young assassin, “Aunt Nezrine and Naythe. They handled their own lodgings.”
“Wouldn’t your parents know?” Dren replied.
The siblings grinned.
“Aunt Nezrine hates telling Mother anything,” Jesrine said.
“It’s like pulling teeth with her,” Nerrol replied.
“Oh…” Dren said.
“They should be at the farewell banquet, though,” Nerrol said. “It’s today.”
“Oh, yeah!” Jesrine said.
“Then it’s settled. We go talk to our parents, explain what’s transpired and have them take us to the banquet with them.”
Dren frowned at this. “Will they believe you, though?”
“What?” the siblings said.
“You’ll be asking your mother to believe that her sister arranged to have her children killed, based solely on the word of a servant. Will she believe you?”
The siblings’ faces fell at this.
“She wouldn’t, would she?” Jesrine muttered.
“No.” Nerrol shook his head. “She’s more likely to have Dren thrown in the dungeons.”
“So, what do we do?”
“Well,” Nerrol replied, “we could go to the banquet ourselves, surprise everyone there and reveal the plot in public.”
Jesrine stared hard at her brother.
“Nerrol, we don’t even know where it is!”
“Oh, I think I do,” Nerrol replied.
“Oh?” the others said in unison.
“Hm.” Nerrol nodded. “Yesterday, when I…after I was done, I went to see Mother, and just before I knocked, I heard her say ‘Are you truly intending to wander around the draws of hairy men wearing that?’”
An odd silence filled the air.
“You heard what?” Jesrine said at last.
“Well,” Nerrol replied, shrugging, “it was sort of muffled.”
“But that makes no sense!”
“Did she mean the Halls of Merriment?” Dren asked.
“The what?” Jesrine asked.
“It’s Barethon’s temple.”
“Oh!” the little girl cried. “The happy god’s temple! You can hold banquets there, can’t you? ”
“Yeah.” Dren nodded. “The best banquets in Aderelas are held there.”
“Then, that must be the place.” Nerrol nodded. Then, he turned to his sister. “Get dressed. I’ll go wake Drumold and Terra, then we’ll–”
“Can you trust them?” Dren interjected.
“Of course we can bloody trust them!” Jesrine snapped. “Why wouldn’t we?”
“Well,” Dren replied, “if someone told you yesterday I was here to kill you, would you have believed them?”
The little girl couldn’t answer.
“Dren’s right,” Nerrol said. “Until we expose Aunt Nezrine, we must assume we can trust no-one.”
“Then, how do we get out?” Jesrine said. “The door’s warded. We so much as touch it, they’re awoken.”
“I know,” Nerrol muttered. “I know.”
Turning to the door, Dren clutched the amulet beneath his tunic.
“What’s the ward like?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Jesrine asked.
“Well, I have this amulet,” Dren replied, pulling the amulet out from beneath his tunic. “It’s supposed to hide me from any scrys. Do you think it’ll hide me from the ward?”
“I don’t know.” the little girl shrugged, then turned to her brother.
“Why’re you looking at me?” the young boy cried.
“Because you’re the one always reading!”
“Yes, books! Not spell scrolls!”
“Shall I try it?” Dren asked.
“Well, whatever we try, we’d best hurry,” Jesrine said, nodding at the door. “Dawn’s approaching.”
The two boys turned to the door, only for their hearts to sink as they saw slivers of the sun’s rays creep in under the door.
“Get dressed,” Nerrol said, turning to his sister.
“Right,” Jesrine replied, hopping off the bed.
“Dren?” Nerrol continued, turning to the young assassin.
“Right.” Dren nodded, then headed for the door.
“Right,” the young assassin repeated as he reached the door.
Removing the amulet completely, Dren held it by its chain, and taking a deep breath, he held it aloft and gently moved it towards the door, the amulet spinning upon its chain.
“Is it–” Nerrol began, but his words were cut short by a loud crack as the amulet flew skyward, dislodged from its chain, and as the startled three stared at it, they watched as it sailed through the air before falling flat unto the carpet, a smouldering hole at its centre.
“Good thing you weren’t wearing it,” Nerrol said.
“Yeah.” Dren nodded. “Good thing.”
“Did it do anything , though?” Jesrine pressed.
The boys looked at each other and, swallowing hard, Dren grasped hold of the door’s handle, and opened it a crack.
“Well,” Dren soon said, turning first to Nerrol, then to Jesrine as a smile parted his lips, “I don’t hear any screams.”
The siblings turned to each other and grinned.
“Hurry!” Nerrol said, diving for his tunic.
“Yeah!” Jesrine replied as she wormed out of her sleeping gown.
Dren watched the pair in silence, his heart at peace at last.
Peering round the corner, Dren scanned the main hallway for signs of life.
There were none.
“Clear,” he whispered, then slid into the hallway, the others in tow.
“How much further,” Nerrol whispered.
“Not far,” Dren whispered in response. “Down this hallway, down some stairs and we’re out.”
“Almost there, then!” Jesrine whispered, grinning.
“Yeah.” Dren smiled. “Almost there.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t even know this entrance existed,” Nerrol added.
“No reason for you to,” Dren replied. “Only the servants use it.”
“Well…where are they?”
Dren paused at this, the colour draining from his cheeks. But the dread in him multiplied a thousandfold the moment the sound of soft footsteps reached his ears. Standing tall, the young assassin turned around just in time to watch his mother step forth from the shadows. Gone was her servant’s robe, the weak light within the hallway reflecting off the blades in her hands.
“Hello, Mother,” he said, a deep sigh escaping his lips.
“Mother?” Jesrine said, her eyes wide.
“Get behind me!” Nerrol barked as he darted before his sister, a hand raised as ice daggers shimmered into being.
“You can’t hurt her with those,” Dren muttered, his gaze upon his mother. “She’s too fast.”
“Well, what do you suggest, then?” Nerrol growled.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t do this,” Nel said, staring at her son with a gaze full of pain and sorrow. “I prayed and prayed you wouldn’t come down here. But I suppose I knew all along this was what you would do.”
Backing away from his mother, Dren began scanning his surroundings once more.
“There’s nobody coming,” Nel said, then began nearing the children. “I made sure we’d be alone.”
“Stay back!” Nerrol barked, darting before Dren and pointing his ice daggers at the woman’s chest. “Back!”
Nel stopped, her gaze hardening for a moment. “Boy, I intend to give you a quick death, but if you fling those at me, I shall make you watch your sister suffer.”
Nerrol swallowed hard at this, but he did not lower his hand.
Sighing, the assassin turned to her son. “It’s not too late, Dren. Grab the girl. I’ll kill the boy, you snap her neck. We can still–”
“I can’t, Mother!” Dren yelled. “I can’t!”
“Do you want me to kill you?” Nel threw back. “Is that it? Is that what you want?”
Dren moved to speak, but words failed him.
“Say something,” Nel begged. “Please!”
“Mother, I…” Dren began, but fell silent once more.
“I…I didn’t mean to disappoint you, Mother. That’s the honest truth. Ever since you and Father freed me, all I’ve ever wanted was to thank you. But I had nothing, I was nothing…”
“…but then, when I realised how badly you wanted a son, when I saw how desperate you and Father were to have someone follow in your footsteps, I thought that was how I would thank you. I wanted to be that son for you, more than anything…”
With a sharp breath, the assassin that was Nel stood tall, gritting her teeth as she did so.
“…but I can’t be that boy, Mother, I never could. You and Father, you’re something I could never be, something I could never hope to be, and I think…I think we all knew that.”
“I don’t want to die, Mother,” Dren continued, “I truly don’t. And the thought that I’m forcing you to kill me, it hurts. I don’t want you to have my blood on your hands, you must believe that, but I think I’d hate living with blood on my hands even more.”
With her brow furrowed deep, the assassin that was Nel smiled at her son and gritted her teeth harder, but it was to no avail, for her tears fell nonetheless.
Then, the young assassin smiled. “Perhaps it would’ve been better if Father had let you kill me that night. But I’m glad he didn’t. And if I die here, I’m alright with that. I had a chance to know what a parent’s love feels like, so at least I die content.”
Smiling, Nel lowered her gaze and shook her head as her tears ran free, but soon she stared at her son once more.
“You can be such a bastard, you know that?” she said, her voice quivering.
Young Dren smiled as tears stung his eyes.
“Will you make it qui–” Dren began.
“Run,” Nel interjected. “All of you.”
“What?” Nerrol said.
“I’m giving you a headstart,” Nel replied. I won’t stay my hands if I catch you, so don’t waste it.”
“But, if Father hears this, he’ll–”
“He’s not here, I am. Run, Dren. Please.”
Dren smiled at his mother as his tears fell. “I love you, Mother.”
“I love you, Dren,” Nel replied. “Forever and always.”
“Forever and always,” Dren whispered, his voice breaking with each word.
“Run,” Nel repeated as she stepped back into the shadows. “Run.”
As one, the children turned and did just that.
Turning, the Patriarch of the Shimmering Tower glared hard at the glowing stone upon the bed. The blasted thing had refused to be silent, calling out to him for what seemed like an eternity, and now, with his patience at an ebb, the seething mage sprang to his feet and marched from his dresser to his bed before swiping the stone and holding it tight.
“This has better be important,” he growled.
“Forgive me, Patriarch,” came a voice in his mind, “but we have trouble.”
“Terra?” the Patriarch frowned.
“What is it?”
“The children are gone.”
“The children are gone, Patriarch.”
“What do you mean, they’re gone?”
“They’re gone! They’re not in their room! We’ve searched everywhere, and we can’t find them! Drumold keeps saying they’ve left the palace, and–”
“Forgive us, Patriarch, we’re searching as best we can, but if they’re no longer in the palace, we can’t find them on our own.”
“But how in the hells did anyone get past the wards? Did you not cast them?”
“We did, Patriarch!”
“All five of them?”
“The wards were corrupted, Partriarch. We found an Eye of Ethanir in their room, it’s core shattered.”
“A Eye of…how in the hells did that get inside their room?” the Patriarch barked. Then, he gasped. “Hold, you said they’ve left the palace. You mean to tell me my children chose to flee?”
“Forgive us, Patriarch, but Drumold says that’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“Makes sense?” the Patriarch snapped. “How in the hells can that make sense? Where in the holy hells are they supposed to get an Eye of Ethanir from, Terra? You tell me that!”
“Forgive me, Patriarch, I don’t know. I…I don’t know.”
Rougal stood rigid as he stared into the ether, his eyes wide and his lips agape. Then, he turned to a nearby window.
“When did they disappear?” he asked.
“We…uh…we think they slipped out about dawn.”
As the Patriarch stared at the bright sun-filled day outside, he felt the red mist descend almost at once.
“And you tell me this now?” he thundered.
“Forgive us, Patriarch,” Terra stammered, “we’ve been searching since we realised, and–”
“Meet me in the courtyard! Now!”
Wiling the stone to silence, the Patriarch of the Shimmering Tower glared at it as his whole body trembled. They were gone! His children! But where would they go? Nerrol would never leave without saying a word to anyone, so what could’ve caused this?
“Not now,” Rougal said at last, shaking his head. “Find them first. Ask why later.”
Dropping the stone back upon the bed, Rougal moved to grab his tunic, but then stopped and turned to the bathroom door. He had to tell his wife, they were her children too.
“Yes,” he muttered, his voice heavy, “I’d best.”
Then, standing tall, Rougal steeled himself and marched forth.
Walking in silence, Nerrol cast a sideways glance at his sister. Her gaze was forward, and her jaw set, but he could see she was in pain. They’d been walking forever, and by now, her feet were sure to ache. But Jesrine had always been a proud child, and Nerrol knew she’d bear the pain in silence no matter what, and if he dared even hint that she couldn’t keep up with them, he’d get an earful. Regardless, he knew he couldn’t let his sister suffer in silence. He had to do something.
“Here,” he said, stopping and turning to show his sister his back. “Hop on.”
“What?” Jesrine said, her eyes narrowed to slits
“I can manage just fine, Nerrol,” the little girl growled.
“I know that!” Nerrol snapped. “But if Mother found out I let you wear down those new boots with all this walking, she’ll bite my head off. Now, hop on!”
The little girl’s gaze went from her brother to her boots and back again.
“Very well,” little Jesrine sighed, but her relief was unmistakable, and as she hopped onto Nerrol’s back, the beaming youth rose and turned to Dren, then closed his eyes.
“You’re sure you can carry her all the way?” Dren said, frowning. “We still have–”
“Shush,” Jesrine said, waving him to silence. “He’s casting a spell.”
“Yeah.” Jesrine nodded. “One of the only ones he can actually cast.”
“Hey!” Nerrol cried as he straightened, Jesrine now the weight of a feather to him.
Chuckling, the little girl butted her head softly against her older brother’s back, then turned to Dren.
“So, how far, still?” she said.
“Oh, it’s not too far now,” Dren replied as he resumed pace. “I just hope there’s someone there when we get there.”
“There will be,” Nerrol replied, falling in step beside Dren. “It’s an all-day event.”
“I know,” Dren replied, “but still, that doesn’t guarantee your parents will be there when we get there. Or your Aunt Nezrine.”
“Hrm,” Nerrol muttered, his gaze drifting to what lay behind him. “You’re right, we should at least have seen…”
As the young boy fell silent, his steps slowed to nothing.
“What is it?” Dren said, coming to a halt and turning himself.
Nerrol wasn’t sure what it was, but something had caught his eye, something his mind was screaming at him to pay attention to. But as he stared at the people behind him, he saw nothing.
“Nerrol?” Jesrine said, poking her brother.
“I don’t…” Nerrol began.
Then he saw it. A cowled head, bowed, darting through the crowds. It was gaining quickly.
“Oh, gods,” Nerrol said, his eyes going wide as terror full and raw sprung forth deep within him.
“What?” Dren said as he and Jesrine scanned the crowds.
“Run,” Nerrol said, turning to Dren.
“Run!” he cried, then spun about and raced forth.
“Nerrol, hold!” Dren yelled as he raced after his friend.
“She’s coming, run!”
It did not take long for Dren to fall in step beside Nerrol, matching him pace for pace as they raced on for dear life.
Staring out of the carriage window, the Matriarch Nedina Earthchild seethed as she wiped the tears from her eyes.
“I can’t believe you,” she muttered, casting a caustic glance at the man seated across from her. “They are our children, and you’d rather we go to some gathering?”
“You’d rather the world knew the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower couldn’t keep her own children safe in Aderelas?” the Patriarch threw back. “You’d rather that instead?”
“I’d rather be out looking for my children!” Nedina barked. “I am their mother!”
“And how does you being their mother make you a better tracker than the fifty Archmages combing Aderelas for them, Nedina? How does you being their mother make you a better tracker than Drumold, a man who spent half his life finding people who don’t wish to be found?”
The Matriarch moved to speak, but no words came.
“Look, I know how you feel, alright?” Rougal said, his tone much softer. “They’re my children as well, but, remember, your sister is in attendance, as is my entire family. Do you truly wish to gift them this knowledge?”
Nedina stared at her husband as tears stung her eyes.
“If they don’t find them, Rougal,” she said through gritted teeth, “I will never forgive you.”
The Patriarch held his peace and turned his gaze to the window.
Nedina glared at her husband for a spell, but soon she too turned her gaze to the window, the pair riding on in a charged silence.
Panting, Nerrol raced on, willing himself forward as fire raged in his lungs and his legs filled with lead.
“There,” Dren gasped, pointing to the turning before them. “It’s down there!”
“Oh gods, I can see her!” Jesrine shrieked. “Nerrol, I can see her! Do something!”
The young boy’s mind raced, but he could think of no plan. From what little Dren had told him of his mother, they had no hope against her, so standing their ground was not an option. And now, it seems running would soon no longer be an option either, for he was near exhaustion, and from the look on Dren’s face, so was he. And yet, the woman was still.
Then, as they reached the turning, a thought entered in young Nerrol’s mind. It was brazen, but it just might work.
“Please, let it work,” he whispered.
“Come on!” Dren shouted as he made to take the turn.
“No!” Nerrol yelled as he blocked his friend’s path. “No, keep going!”
“Trust me!” Nerrol replied as he ran past the turning. “Keep going!”
“Are you sure about this?” Dren said, his eyes speaking volumes of his thoughts on his friend’s words.
“Just bloody trust him!” Jesrine cried. “He never makes any sense when he’s got one of his plans going, but they always work in the end!”
“Don’t you hey me, just bloody run!”
Ignoring his sister, Nerrol scanned his surroundings as they ran. There was still one more thing he needed for his plan to work, one more…there!
“She’s gaining!” Jesrine said once more. “Gods, she has a dagger out!”
“In here!” Nerrol barked as he darted into a nearby alley.
“Jesrine!” he cried once deep in the alley, spinning to his sister as he placed her upon the floor. “Cloak us, quickly!”
“What?” the little girl cried. “All three of us?”
“Are you mad? I’ve never done three!”
“Now’s a good time as any to try, don’t you think?”
“But I won’t be able to hold it for long!”
“You won’t have to, just long enough for her to look in here and go on!”
“Alright!” the little girl roared, then, grabbing the hands of the two boys, she squeezed tight, shut her eyes and began silently chanting words of arcane.
As his sister chanted, Nerrol could feel the spell take hold, the relief in him euphoric. But that vanished the moment a figure darted into the alleyway.
“Oh, g–” Dren began.
“Quiet,” Nerrol whispered. “She can’t see us, but she can still hear us.” Then, he stared briefly behind him.
“On my mark,” he whispered, “we will all move five paces back. Alright?”
“Alright,” Dren replied.
Jesrine nodded, her chanting uninterrupted.
They all stepped back.
Dren’s mother slowly wandered deeper into the alleyway, her eyes scanning each nook and cranny as she went.
The light glimmering on the dagger in her hand drew Nerrol’s gaze as a shiver raced up and down his spine.
The assassin before them neared them still, her frustration clear for them all to see.
Stopping, Nerrol stood tall as his back touched the cold stone behind him. Dren’s mother had stopped as well, her eyes scanning the alleyway still. Then, at last, she stood tall, a proud smile parting her lips as she shook her head and spun about.
“Nicely done, Dren,” she said as she marched towards the alley’s entrance. “Nicely done.”
Then, breaking into a sprint, the assassin turned and raced on out of sight.
“Oh, thank gods,” Nerrol breathed, then turned to his sister.
“You can stop now,” he said.
At his words, Jesrine’s chanting stopped and the little girl fell to her knees. Worried, Nerrol knelt by his sister.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Don’t…ever…ask me to do that again!” she panted. “That bloody hurt!”
Nerrol grinned. “Ah, but think of the look on Master Nenthil’s face when you tell him you can cloak three people now.”
Jesrine’s face lit up at this. “Oh yeah…!”
“Come on, then,” Nerrol added, picking his sister up once more, and as he rose, Jesrine nestled safely on his back, he turned to Dren.
“We’d best hurry,” he said. “She might retrace her steps at any moment.”
“Right.” Dren nodded,
Then, as one, the three headed out of the alley and back the way they came.
“We’re here,” Rougal muttered as the carriage rolled up before the entrance to the Halls of Merriment.
“I can see that,” Nedina growled.
Biting back a sigh, the Patriarch turned to his wife, but soon frowned.
“Your eyes,” he said.
“Damn it,” Nedina seethed and, turning to the window, she leant towards it and breathed softly upon it before uttering a single word of arcane.
“How about now?” she said soon after, turning to her husband.
The redness was gone, as was all traces of any tears having been shed.
“Better,” Rougal said just as the carriage came to a stop,
“Well, shall we?” he said, opening the door.
“Do I have a choice?” Nedina muttered.
Biting back his words, Rougal alighted as he called forth as warm a smile as he could, his eyes falling upon the crowd that had turned out to welcome them.
“Ah, Nezrine,” he chimed, his gaze falling upon the woman at the fore, “so wonderful of you to make it.”
“So wonderful of you to invite me!” the Archmage replied.
“Ah, Sister,” she continued, turning to the Matriarch as she stepped forth, “you look as ravishing as ever.”
“You’re too kind, Sister,” Nedina said, her smile wide. Then, she turned to the young woman standing behind her sister.
“Naythe!” Nedina cried as she hurried towards the crowd. “I didn’t think you’d want to join us old folk!”
“Oh, she insisted on coming, my dear,” Nezrine added, “wouldn’t stop talking about it.”
“Ah, Mother is right, Aunt Nedina,” the young mage said, a coy smile upon her lips. “It’s not everyday you get a chance to partake in a banquet within Aderelas’s Halls of Merriment.”
“That is true!” Rougal added, gliding to his wife’s side. “Why, were it not–”
“Mother! Father!” came a shrill cry, silencing the Patriarch, and while the words were unexpected, it was the voice that forced the couple to stare wide-eyed at each other and turn as one to the utterer.
“Jesrine?” Nedina gasped as she turned. Then, as her eyes fell upon her baby sprinting towards them, hair wild and eyes wide, the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower turned and raced towards her daughter, her husband, and indeed the entire gathering racing behind her.
“Jesrine!” she cried, scooping up her dear little girl in her arms, and hugging her tightly before raining kisses upon the giggling girl’s face.
“What are you doing here?” she asked at last, tears running down her face.
“Hello, Mother,” came another voice.
“Hunh…?” Nedina began, but as her eyes fell upon her son, her gaze darkened greatly.
“You did this!” she barked. “You brought her here! What in the hells were you thinking!”
“It’s not what you–”
“Don’t you dare lie to me boy!” Nedina thundered. “You have no idea how worried we were! What kind of evil child are you?”
“It’s not his fault though, Mother,” Jesrine said. “Truly!”
But the rage within the Matriarch would not be quelled, even as her eyes witnessed the supreme sadness upon her son’s face, even as her own daughter patted her on the shoulder, her rage at her son was implacable. But then, as she moved to bark once more at her son, a boy standing silently behind him hurried forth and knelt before her.
“It was I, Matriarch,” the boy said, “not Nerrol.”
“You?” Nedine frowned. “Who’re you?”
Raising his gaze, the boy rose. “I’m–”
“You’re Dren,” Rougal said as he stepped beside his wife, his brow furrowed deep. “The servant assigned to our children.”
“Yes,” Dren nodded, “I am.”
“What do you mean, this is your fault?” Nedina demanded.
Taking a deep breath, Dren stood tall. “I am no servant, Matriarch, I’m an assassin.”
A wave of gasps and murmurs drifted through the crowd.
“You’re a what?” Rougal said.
“An assassin. I’m of the Unseen Dagger.”
“What?” the Matriarch and Patriarch cried in unison.
Dren nodded. “We were hired to kill your children and mark Nerrol as the killer.”
“What the hells kind of nonsense is this?” Rougal thundered. “Who put you up to this? Do you think this is funny?”
As her husband raged, Nedina stared in stunned silence at the boy before her as a coldness numbed her insides. The mere thought of her having ushered her children’s killer into their midst was a terrifying one to be sure, but it was the boy’s final words that truly held the Matriarch rigid.
“What…what do you mean you were hired to kill my children?” she said, her face whitening with each word. “And mark Nerrol as the killer? Do you think…do you think I would believe such nonsense?”
Dren shrugged. “Everyone knows you hate your son, and–”
“You watch your mouth, boy!” Nedina barked. “I do not hate my son!”
“Ha!” Nezrine said.
Nedina spun to face her sister square, her eyes ablaze. “And what in the hells is that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, my dear, forgive me, but you’re not fooling anyone. We’ve all seen how you snap and snarl at the boy. It’s a wonder he hasn’t run away.”
“You watch your words, damn you!” Nedina barked. “I am not a bad mother!”
“You’re not,” Nezrine replied, “to Jesrine. To Nerrol, however…”
“I don’t hate my son!” Nedina yelled, turning from her sister to her son.
But, as Nedina stared deep into young Nerrol’s eyes, the proud Matriarch balked at what she saw.
“I don’t hate you,” she whispered, shaking her head vehemently as tears stung her eyes. “I don’t!”
Young Nerrol remained unmoving, his face blank and his eyes empty.
“You say you’re from the Unseen Dagger,” Rougal said, eager to change the subject as he turned to Dren. “Isn’t it a mite stupid of you to admit that openly? Surely that’s as good as slitting your own throat.”
Dren smiled and shrugged. “My life was forfeit the moment I chose to spare your children.”
“And why did you?”
Taking a deep breath, Dren turned to Nerrol as his smile widened. Then, he turned to the Patriarch once more. “Because I couldn’t see it done.”
“And we know who hired him,” young Jesrine said, her gaze upon her aunt.
“Oh?” Rougal said as he turned to his daughter.
“Who?” Nedina demanded.
Jesrine pointed at the object of her hate. “Aunt Nezrine!”
“What?” the crowd cried as one.
“What?” The mage laughed.
“Tell them, Dren!” Jesrine demanded, turning to young Dren. “Go on! Tell them!”
“But…” Dren said, his gaze going from the woman to Jesrine and back again, “it’s not her.”
“What?” Nerrol and Jesrine said in unison.
“It’s not her,” Dren repeated.
“Then, who in the bloody hells is it?” Jesrine demanded.
“How in the bloody hells am I supposed to know!”
“Children, language!” Rougal barked, then spun to face Nezrine. “Nezrine, my apologies.”
“Apologies?” the mage spat. “Your children just accused me of plotting to kill them! In public!”
“I know,” Rougal said. “But they were clearly mistaken, so let’s all remain calm and–”
“Calm? You would preach calm to me after they disgraced me like this? Gods, Rougal, you can be such an idiot at times!”
“You watch your mouth, Nezrine!” Nedina snapped.
“Oh, shut up, Sister!” Nezine threw back, then spun to her daughter.
“Come, Naythe,” she growled. “We’re leaving.”
“At once, Mother,” Naythe said, then turned to fall in step behind her departing mother.
“Hold, that’s her!” Dren cried, his eyes wide as he pointed at Naythe.
“What?” everyone cried.
“It’s her!” he said. “It was her voice I heard!”
“Are you sure?” Jesrine said.
“Yes!” Dren said. “It’s her!”
Jesrine turned to her brother, who was staring at Naythe, but as he turned to Jesrine, he shrugged.
“If Aunt Nezrine challenges for the seat and succeeds, it makes her heir.”
Then, he turned to Naythe once more. “Plus, she knew we were coming, we told her ourselves.”
“Yeah,” Jesrine said, turning to her cousin.
“You two are being silly,” Naythe said, her gaze darting between the pair. “Listen to yourselves!”
“I’ve heard enough,” Nezrine said as she spun about once more. “Come, Naythe.”
But she didn’t go any further, for as she took a step forward, the crowd blocked her path.
“Rougal hasn’t said you can go,” said one within the crowd.
“Why are you here, Naythe?” Rougal said as he wandered towards his niece.
“I already told you, Uncle,” Naythe said, forcing a smile. “It’s the Halls of Merriment! How can I possibly pass up a chance to–”
“And the coin you asked of me week before last, did you truly–”
“She asked you for coin?” Nedina said, drawing her husband’s gaze to her.
“Yeah.” Rougal nodded.
Tearing her gaze from her husband, Nedina turned to her niece. “She asked me too.”
“And me.” Nezrine said, her a slow frown twisting her lips.
“Did she ask any of you for it this week?” Dren asked.
“Why?” Rougal replied.
“Because the final payment was made this week.”
“Oh my gods,” Nezrine breathed. “Naythe, what did you do?”
The smile upon the young elf’s lips slowly faded as a hateful snarl took its place. “Don’t you dare look down at me, Mother, don’t you dare.”
“No,” Nezrine said, her voice quivering. “No. My child no! Tell me you didn’t! Tell me you–”
“Shut up!” Naythe yelled. “Just shut up! Gods, I am sick of your whining! That is all you do, whine, whine, whine! You keep telling everyone how you’re better suited to be Matriarch, but if only you knew how stupid that was. You? You’re a coward, Mother! A filthy, useless coward!”
The slap across the young mage’s cheek echoed far and wide, and as the startled mage stared at her mother, she held her cheek as she stepped back from the woman.
“You would dare…” Nezrine seethed, her eyes ablaze.
“Yes.” Naythe replied, her courage returning. “Yes, Mother, I would dare! And I did dare! You have no right to lead! I would make far better Matriarch than you ever would!”
“You stupid child, you wouldn’t have been Matriarch! I’m beforeyou!”
Naythe’s gaze darkened greatly as she rose her chin to her mother. “You are, yes, but you needn’t worry, Mother, I had the perfect solution for when you became Matriarch. You would’ve been proud of how well a bargain I struck with the Unseen Dagger. Your reign would’ve lasted no more than a month. Two at most.”
The mage that was Nezrine swallowed hard as she stared at her daughter.
The scheming young mage turned to Dren.
“Congratulations, Dren,” she said, a bitter smile upon her lips, “you’ve damned us both. I hope you’re happy.”
Then, with a sigh, she turned to the one within the crowd who’d spoke earlier. “Get me out of here.”
The man turned to Rougal, who nodded.
Nodding himself, he turned to Naythe. “Take her to the manor. Lock her in the basement.”
At his words three others stepped forth and led the mage away.
A heavy silence fell upon the gathering, and as it drew on, the Matriarch turned to her son once more. Before long, Nerrol turned to his mother, and as their gazes locked, Nedina bit her lip as she saw once more the emptiness in her son’s eyes.
“Here,” she said, offering Jesrine to her husband. Then, as Rougal took the little girl from her, Nedina smiled and wandered towards her son, offering him her hand as she reached him.
“Come, Nerrol,” she said. “You’ll sit by me today.”
Slowly, the light returned to Nerrol’s eyes as he stared from his mother’s face to her hand and back again, and as the warmest of smiles parted the young boy’s lips, he reached forth and grasped hold of his mother’s hand, squeezing tightly he did so.
“I’d like that,” he said, his smile worming its way to his mother’s lips.
Then, the young boy turned to Dren and offered him his hand.
“Come on, then,” he said.
“What?” Dren said.
“Son?” Rougal added, his brows furrowed deep.
“Nerrol turned to his father. “He saved our lives, Father, but now he’s hunted because of it. It’s only fair he come stay with us.”
“Hrm,” Rougal muttered, then turned to his wife.
Nedina shrugged in response, then turned to Dren.
“Welcome to the family!” the Matriarch said with a wide grin.
Grinning himself, Dren stared from his new mother to his new brother and, grabbing Nerrol’s hand, he and the Earthchilds turned and headed toward the Halls of Merriment, the crowd parting as they went before falling in step behind them.
Slowly, little Naeve sat up as the tome faded from view.
“Well?” Amala said. “Happy enough for you?”
“Two people died, Amala,” the little girl growled.
“Two evil-doers died,” Amala corrected. “They don’t count, remember.”
“Hrm,” Naeve muttered, then sighed. “Then, I supposed it’ll do.”
“Okay, okay,” Naeve grinned, “it was a good, happy story.”
“So what happened to Dren in the end?” Naeve said as Amala put the stone back in her pocket.
“Well, he came to live here, with Nerrol and Jesrine, and the three of them spent many wondrous days playing together.”
“Ah.” Naeve sighed as she stared into the ether, a wide grin upon her lips. “And I bet when they all grew up, they went on many fun-filled adventures together, and they all lived happily ever after!”
“Hrm, yes, well…” Amala began, then rose
Slowly, Naeve sat tall. “What?”
“Hrm?” Amala replied, turning to her little friend.
Naeve’s smile was now gone, her eyes narrowed to slits as she glared at her friend.
“What happened to Dren?” she said.
Amala shrugged. “I just told you, he came here and lived with Jesrine and Nerrol.”
“For how long?”
“For as long as he lived.”
“And how long was that?”
“Oh, I haven’t got time for this,” Amala muttered, then offered the loaf to Naeve. “Do you want this back?”
But Naeve was not one to be so easily swayed, and rising to her knees, her gaze darkening with each passing moment, the little girl placed her fists upon her hips and glared at her friend once more.
“What. Happened. To. Dren, Amala?” she demanded.
Amala stood in haughty silence for a spell, but soon sighed and rolled her eyes.
“He died, alright, killed by the Unseen Dagger a few decades later.”
“Ugh!” little Naeve cried, throwing her hands in the air as she fell back unto her bed.
“But Errol and Jesrine avenged him,” Amala hastily added, “all but wiped out the guild. So, there is that.”
“I knew it!” little Naeve cried. “I just knew it!”
“Now, hold a moment!” Amala shot back. “You said no death before, no death during! You said nothing about after!”
“You know what, nevermind ,” little Naeve growled, then rolled over onto her side, hugging her knees as she went. “Just forget it.”
“Oh, gods, Naeve,” Amala sighed as she raised her gaze to the heavens, “don’t start that again,”
“Forget it,” Naeve muttered. “Nevermind. It’s fine.”
“You can’t write a happy story,” Naeve mumbled. “It’s fine, I forgive you.”
“Naeve, would you…” Amala began, then sighed. “Just stop alright? Look, I wrote these tales to teach you things. That’s what they are, tools for learning, not stories to leave you all warm and fuzzy inside.”
“Look, I can write a happy story if I chose to, alright?”
“Then write one,” Naeve replied as she sat upright.
“What, now?” Amala replied. “I’m supposed to pack!”
“No! Write one while you’re there! I’ll read it when you get back.”
Amala frowned at her little friend. “Are you giving me work?”
Naeve shrugged. “Unless you think you can’t do it…”
The silver-haired woman held her young friend in a pointed glare, a heavy silence filling the air as Naeve stared sweetly back at her. But there could truly be only one outcome.
“Very well.” Amala sighed at last. “Very well! I’ll write you a happy story.”
“One for now, yes”
“For…” Amala began, then snarled at the giggling little girl before her.
Then, Naeve held forth her hand.
“Hunh?” Amala frowned as she carried her gaze to where Naeve’s was.
“Oh,” the silver-haired woman added, staring at the loaf in her hand. Then, with her growl returning, she handed it to her little friend.
“Thank you!” Naeve replied, then settled down once more to dine heartily on her meal.
Amala watched her young friend dine for a spell, the warmest of smiles upon her lips. Then, turning at last, she headed for the door.
“Make sure you come back,” Naeve mumbled as Amala grasped the door’s handle. “This place is boring without your stories.”
Turning to her friend, Amala’s smile grew.
“I’ll see you soon, my little darling,” she said, her voice soft. “Try not to miss me too much.”
Then, she left, closing the door softly behind her just in time to be spared the sight of the supreme sadness that overcame her little friend.
With no more reason to pretend, little Naeve placed the loaf in her hand upon the table by her bed, and shuffling towards her pillow, the little girl pulled it close, hugging it tight as she rolled over once more, and as she pulled her knees to her chest, the young Matriarch-in-waiting let out a long sigh, closed her eyes and was still.