Katrina yanked the quartz crystal out of her pocket, immediately silencing the high pitched whine that it had been emitting. Just small enough to fit into a container six inches along each side, its facets were irregular but highly polished, its edges unpredictable but sharp and well defined. Unlike most similar crystals, there were no internal flaws visible, and she could easily see her palm through it, refracted and bent into an impossible shape.
Holding the crystal so that she was looking through it to the fire beyond, Katrina saw the pattern of light within it shift and warp, finally taking the form of a face, wavering in time with the unsteady glow of the flames.
“My Lord,” she said briskly. “How may I serve?”
“How is the dragon?” Tiernach’s voice was distorted, as if he was speaking from the other side of a door, but easily recognisable as his eyes gleamed from the heart of the crystal.
“Alive,” Katrina shrugged dismissively, making it clear that the creature may have been Tiernach's top priority, but certainly wasn't hers. “Docile, as ever, though it does have a damned habit of scratching at its collar.”
Tiernach frowned. “I thought I told you to train it otherwise.”
“I would if I could!” Katrina looked exasperated. “But it’s remarkably hard to find anything that hurts it, and it’s about as intelligent as a brick!”
“It is quite certainly,” Tiernach smiled thinly. “More intelligent than you, and possibly myself. I am sure you will find out which if that collar comes loose. If that happens, then I assure you that in the unlikely event you survive that, you will not survive me.”
“As you wish, my Lord,” Katrina sounded resigned. “I will see if I can find a smith to make a goad of sufficient size. May I ask how you have been faring in the capital?” she asked, trying to redirect the conversation.
“Most things are according to plan. My father will be on his way to the front line as soon as he hears word that our real attack on Deepsby has been successful.”
Katrina’s eyebrows shot upwards. “I had not anticipated that...”
“Nor I, however I believe it will prove useful.”
“Useful, my Lord?”
“Exactly. It will be far easier to assume control of the kingdom in his absence.”
“Of course,” Katrina nodded slowly. “But how should I receive him here?”
“You won’t,” Tiernach stated simply.
“Of course not,” Tiernach snapped. “You are little use to me if you are constrained to obey the king's orders, and you will be if you remain in his proximity. Too many are loyal to him, even you cannot act with independence when under his gaze.”
“Very well,” Katrina nodded. “What would you have me do?”
“The fleet will arrive at Deepsby within two days. You’ll run every barbarian out of that city the moment their sails appear on the horizon. Immobilise the local militia in whatever way you see fit that won’t allow them to free themselves before the troops land. The army will walk into the city, and take it over with no resistance. All reports will tally up, and my father will assume that the barbarians fled in terror at the sight of his troops. Deepsby will genuinely be under my father’s control, and the Freelands will continue their campaign against him none the wiser.”
“And by the time anyone figures out what really happened...” Katrina said softly, sounding impressed. “It won’t matter.”
“Precisely,” Tiernach nodded. “Leave your instructions with the barbarian chiefs, and return here quickly. Bring the dragon, I do not wish the fleet to see it, even if we are using it for Lordenor, at the moment.”
“Very well, my Lord,” Katrina smiled, then suddenly giggled, her face contorting with laugher. Tiernach frowned at her. “I’m sorry, my Lord, it’s just that... Stop that!” she barked to the lupari kneeling by her feet. Hastily, he withdrew his left hand – the right being restrained by a sling – from working the scented oil between her toes, his gaze downcast.
“I trust you have found some amusement among the locals,” Tiernach said dryly, one eyebrow arching upwards.
“Yes, my Lord.” For some reason Katrina flushed, and she looked away angrily. How dare he make her feel embarrassed!
“Well, then I am sorry to break you away from your entertainment,” the prince went on flatly. “But return quickly.”
“Understood, my Lord. Should I make arrangements for an alternate commander in the meantime?”
Tiernach shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter. The barbarians only have to sit there for one or two days until the fleet arrives and then run away. Once the fleet arrives, the officer in command will see to things temporarily, then once my father arrives, he will lead an offensive deeper into the Freelands.”
“But, will he...”
“He will do exactly what I want him to. I will make certain he is only fed the right information. He’ll think he’s fighting the war his own way, and winning. At least he can have that satisfaction.”
“For now,” Katrina added.
“Yes...” Tiernach’s eyes narrowed. “For now.” Sooner or later, he knew he was going to have to officially end Maximilian’s reign. It was not a day he particularly looked forward to. His father was a competent and popular ruler who had brought much prosperity to the people. Dethroning him was perhaps the most regrettable act Tiernach was going to have to take in this whole affair, but it couldn't be helped.
“I will need a few hours to make arrangements here before I can leave,” Katrina interrupted his thoughts.
“That will be acceptable,” Tiernach nodded. “Now, I have matters to attend to. I shall expect to see you within two days.” With that, he draped a cloth over the crystal on the stand in front of him, terminating the communication. He sat back in his chair, glancing around his study while he thought.
One week, then. At the end of that time, Maximilian would leave the city to lead the army, and he must make his move. The most hateful, the most hurtful of the Eye's demands. It made his stomach clench to think about it, but it couldn’t be helped. Maximilian, Kaja, Aleana... none of them were going to be at all happy about what he would do, but it wouldn’t hurt any of them, he would make sure of that. In the end, it would be to their benefit as well. After all, one who knows the secret of immortality can give the gift of life itself...
They would forgive him, eventually. Even if it took a thousand years.
Tiernach knew this place.
This was Karan Fuur, the cave of silence, on the northern shore of the highlands. The dark cavern arched above him, the sound of the ocean muted to a hissing echo that rebounded between walls of grey basalt columns.
Desperate to find a way to tame the vengeful power of the dragons, in this cavern the magi had brought about the first of the victories that would swing the tides of the Dragon War. A message had been sent, requesting a representative from each of the four dragon clans, promising negotiations for peace.
And peace, of a kind, had been granted to those who arrived that fateful day. Although unable to truly defeat the dragons at that time, the magi had been able to contain them, to seal them, to lock them away from the passage of time. There, they stayed, unmoving, unknowing, unfeeling and ageless, while the war continued in the world above.
The discovery of this cave had caused great consternation within the Brotherhood. They knew that here, at last, lay the power they needed to accomplish their goals. Now, all they must do was seek out one with magical knowledge who would dare to work with them.
They had found Tiernach. Innately gifted in the art, yet having abandoned the teachings of his order, seeking a greater power to take him beyond the boundaries that the magi set around their research. Where once four dragons had been sealed in Karan Fuur, only two remained, their brethren now a part of the Brotherhood’s army.
The Dragon Staff. The greatest and most terrible weapon of ancient times. Broken and shattered in the last of the battles, only two fragments had thus far come into Tiernach’s possession – in fact, they had been in his possession since he was born. Gemstones, some thought them, perhaps a wondrous metal… but it mattered not. How ironic that such powerful artefacts should be deemed mere treasure, the centrepiece of the royal collection.
Creating fakes had not been overly taxing, and neither guards nor viewers knew that the fragments had been replaced. Now the originals resided quietly in Tiernach’s workshop, in a large cabinet, upon two small wooden stands. Rock? Metal? Wood? It was impossible to say. They were fragments of the Dragon Staff, and no other description fitted them.
On inspection, one might notice that each had a number of jagged edges, sharp and raw, but that both had one side that was smooth and even. Looking closer still, the observer might see that the smooth side of each seemed similar, a delicate writing visible as if from a considerable depth under the surface, though there was no portion of the stone that seemed remotely translucent. Holding the stone to the light, the observer might see how it ran like liquid luminance along the lettering and the cracks in the rough edges, as if the fragments themselves were drawing the light in, releasing it only when and how they saw fit.
Speaking the ritual words was simple, just rote repetition of what he had memorised. Grasping the stone however, was a shock he had not been expecting at all. It was like plunging his arm into ice water, a flare of numbing pain, a flash of light, and then chaos broke out around him. Every thought, every memory, everything that he was seemed to streak before him, whirl around him, being examined and analysed.
Falling to his knees, Tiernach grasped his head in his hands, feeling as if his sanity were to be torn from him by the terrible sensation of being so forcibly laid bare, a cold fire raging within his skull.
Somewhere from deep inside him, amidst the whirl of confusion that reigned around him and within him, a small voice called out. “No!” the sound almost lost in the chaotic jumble that filled his head, Tiernach barely recognised the voice as his own. “No! I will keep control!”
“You will not. You have not the strength,” the reply was a deafening whisper, echoing throughout every corner of his mind.
Gritting his teeth, his jaw locking firm, the leonin looked around him at the whirl that was his past and his present. He had come too far to be defeated by this. “I will prove my strength!” he shouted into the echoing void, his words swallowed by the maelstrom that was his life.
As if taking up the challenge, the chaos around him condensed, formed grasping coils that locked around his wrists and ankles. The magic pulled. Hard.
The pain was so intense that Tiernach’s scream was silent, his head thrown back in wordless agony even as he fought against the force that sought to rip him asunder. It is in my mind, the thoughts surfaced from deep within, bubbling to the surface of his pain filled world. This is not a fight of strength of body, but of spirit. That thought allowed him to force a calm, even as he felt his joints straining in their sockets, every bit of training he had received, everything he knew about how to control the flows of magic being put to the test as he struggled to find that relaxation of mind that is so necessary for magi.
“No,” he whispered, and pulled back against the magical force that bound him. “I will not be destroyed by you,” his limbs trembled with the strain as he poured every ounce of his will into pulling against the magic of the stone. “I will not!” Summoning his deepest reserves of strength, he had forbade the stone to do him harm, commanded it to obey his will.
With an inarticulate shout, Tiernach found himself sitting up. The room about him was dark, silent, empty.
No, a memory. The cave of dragons, the agonising battle for control over the broken piece of the staff. All had happened, the events seared into his memory forever.
He was sweating. Angrily he stood, locating a towel and drying the cold sweat from his body before sitting back on the edge of the bed. Stupid. What was done was done, why should he still dream about it with such anxiety? How pathetic.
But still… the power of the Dragon Staff had been something far beyond his expectations. While that one fragment now responded to him as its master, its partner had yet to be brought under control.
It had been the Brotherhood who had demanded that Tiernach do more than study the fragments. Eager to begin his plans, the First had pressured Tiernach daily about his progress. Tiernach had no choice, as the First well knew. He hated the Eye, hated what it contained, loathed it with every fibre of his being... but he must have the knowledge. No matter the cost, he must know! The shadow of death must no longer cast him into darkness, must not be allowed to threaten those he cared for, and the Eye was the only thing in the world that knew how – its mere existence proof of the fact. A dark and fearsome lifetime had gone into its creation, and it had become the great triumph of its maker, his last, most wondrous, and most terrible work.
The blood of one hundred people stained the glittering ruby. One hundred innocents whose lives had been taken in the great quest to create the Eye. One hundred minds taken and melded and corrupted to form a stable sanctuary for just one. One mind that would survive intact, long after its body had decayed and left this world, preserved for eternity within that terrible creation.
And now must begin a journey that would end with that soul being reborn. Tyrandius Tenebrae, most ancient and darkest of magi, tired of his entrapment within the Eye. And he knew a way out. The deal was simple – freedom, and an empire, in trade for the knowledge of immortality.
A small portion of that knowledge, Tiernach already had. He knew the sacrifice that would have to be made, and even if he did not yet understand the method, that need not stop him being prepared. For some time now the Brotherhood had been systematically locating and imprisoning suitable candidates. Those innocent in mind and body. Those who would not be missed. Children of the war. They were going to need them by the hundred.
Tiernach wished there was another way, but every day he spoke to his brother, shared a smile with his adopted sister he knew – it was worth it. He would walk the dark path for them, his hands would be stained that theirs might remain clean.
That was his sacrifice.
As for Tyrandius Tenebrae's' freedom... the freedom of a body to once again walk upon the earth, to breathe the air, to taste the wind... That was a body that no living mortal could provide. His essence bound up with those who had died to form the Eye, Tyrandius could no longer live as any of the eight races. Only one creature held the innate magical strength to contain his burning power.
And the Dragon Staff was the key.
Even with with a single fragment, a dragon could be subdued, brought under the will of the wielder, forced into actions not of its own volition. The body would be easy to obtain. But to unite a soul with a body that was not its own... to totally destroy the native mind, to merge the body with another... That would need the power of the complete staff.
And yet, Tiernach thought later that morning as he entered his workshop, there were still many fragments unaccounted for. These two – he opened the cabinet at the side of the room, his gaze lingering upon the glittering fragments inside – were all he had. The others must be tracked down if the plan was to be a success. And then he must face them. Each and every fragment, he felt certain, would retain enough of its magic to challenge him to prove he had the power.
It was not a process he looked forward to. Perhaps... yes, it could wait. Let the Brotherhood establish a power base using the dragons they had already. Let all other problems be resolved, and then perhaps Tiernach could turn his entire attention to the reassembly of the staff.
“What?” the leonin slammed the cabinet closed and turned, glaring at whoever had dared to approach him unannounced.
“I said hello,” Fellirion cocked his head to one side, smiling slightly in that disarmingly simple way he had.
“Yes…” Tiernach blinked, uncharacteristically flustered and struggling to work out an appropriate reaction to the old man’s unexpected appearance.
“Oh come, come,” Fellirion made his way towards the leonin, his staff tapping against the wooden floorboards. “I know you’ve been treated like royalty ever since I last saw you, but I should have thought you’d at least remember basic manners,” he smiled.
Tiernach sighed. “Hello, Fellirion.”
The man looked disappointed. “It used to be ‘Master Forester’.”
“A long time ago,” Tiernach returned, pacing to stand in front of the window, looking outwards across the courtyard of the palace. “You are not my teacher any more.”
“More’s the pity. You were a good student, could have done well with a little more time and patience…” the old man sighed, examining several glass jars on a shelf along one wall. “Could have done well,” he repeated absently.
“What are you doing here?” Tiernach asked bluntly, turning to face Fellirion, his arms folded, his brow drawn into a frown.
“Oh, just paying a visit, seeing how things are,” moving on to a stuffed eagle on the mantelpiece, the old man prodded it’s beak with a finger.
“I see…” the leonin sounded suspicious.
“Are you sure that’s quite dead?” Fellirion frowned at the eagle.
“It has been for the last two years,” Tiernach sighed. “I don’t see that changing.”
“Hmm,” Fellirion frowned a moment longer, then looked up. “What was I saying? Oh, yes,” he moved over to the rack of shelves on the other side of the fireplace. “After all, these are troubled times, and since they did make me the official representative of the Order, it seems to be my place to visit both sides and attempt to play peacemaker, so to speak.”
“So go speak with my father,” the leonin said caustically. “Any peace that’s to be made must be made with him.”
“Your father,” Fellirion said, leafing through a book he had taken off one of the shelves and raising an eyebrow. “Has made up his mind. I cannot change that.”
One side of Tiernach’s mouth curled upwards. “Yes you can.”
Fellirion glanced up at the leonin, one eyebrow twitching ever so slightly. “Perhaps,” he shrugged. “What is important is that I won’t change his mind.”
The man shrugged. “Not my style,” he said simply. “And it never lasts. Oh, I can trick a person into a decision against their nature, but sooner or later things resurface and then everything just slides back to where it was. Long term results require natural decisions. You know that.”
“You don’t even have to trick,” Tiernach pointed out. “The Order is quite strong enough to force choices on the world.”
“True,” Fellirion admitted. “But then things do start to get messy, and I seem to have misplaced my book of cleaning spells.”
In spite of himself, Tiernach smiled a little as the old man bent to peer at a small stuffed animal on one of the lower shelves. “What do you feed this on?” he asked.
The leonin fought to keep his eyes from rolling skywards. “Nothing,” he said calmly. “It’s dead.”
“Really?” Fellirion prodded the small animal with a finger, and it fell over. “Oh dear, I hope it wasn’t anything I did…” he glanced concernedly at Tiernach.
“I doubt it,” the leonin said dryly. “Unless you were here last year when the taxidermist was working on it.”
Fellirion looked around at the walls. “I don’t think so…” he said slowly. “I think I would remember this place.” He tottered over to the cabinet against the back wall. “Don’t you have anything decent to eat?” he asked, tugging on the door handles.
“Don’t!” Tiernach had crossed the room and slammed the door closed with one hand in less than a heartbeat. “Poke around in there, old man,” he narrowed his eyes. Had he seen?
Fellirion looked up at the leonin for a moment, looking rather surprised. Then he frowned. “Black doesn’t suit you,” he commented, shuffling away to look at the large picture hanging by the window.
“It suits my mood,” Tiernach said acidly, his ears lowering to a threatening half-mast.
“Well, I suppose this isn’t the finest hour for your family,” the man sighed. “War’s a dirty business. Are you sure you don’t have something to eat in one of these cupboards?” he started towards another cabinet on the other side of the room.
“Nothing at all,” intercepting him, Tiernach put himself between Fellirion and the cupboard. “This is, as you may have noticed, my study, not the kitchen.”
“Oh. Then why does it have knives in it?” the man looked around suspiciously.
“It doesn’t…” Tiernach forced his voice to calmness, feeling his tail stiffen in annoyance. “Have knives in it. There are no knives in the entire room.”
“What are those things then?” Fellirion pointed to the wall above the fireplace.
Tiernach took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before replying. “Those are swords. Old swords. Family treasures, in fact.”
“Really? Can’t see why, piddly little things…” the man muttered. “So no food?”
“No,” Tiernach gritted his teeth, and kept himself between the old man and the shelves as the old man seemed to be considering another inspection.
“And no knives?”
“No food, no knives, no forks, spoons, plates, platters, saucers, mugs, jugs, glasses, cups, or goblets,” the leonin growled.
“Not even a flagon of mead?”
Tiernach’s fists clenched. “No,” he said through gritted teeth. “And now, as much as I have enjoyed your visit,” he went on, forcing an icy calmness into his words. “I really have things I must be doing, as I’m sure, do you…”
“Oh, yes, of course, I quite understand,” the old man nodded obligingly as Tiernach steered him towards the door.
“You!” the leonin shouted urgently, opening the door and spotting a passing servant.
“ Highness?” the maid looked surprised to be addressed directly.
“Take,” Tiernach gritted his teeth, of which he was showing rather a lot. “Master Forester,” he ignored the old man's beaming smile. “To the kitchen. See that he is given a meal of whatever he would like,” Tiernach continued.
“Of course, your Highness,” the maid curtsied. “Sir?” she asked, looking up at Fellirion.
“Delighted, my dear young lady,” he smiled, following her lead along the corridor. “Goodbye, Tiernach,” he called over his shoulder. “Hope it all goes well with the war!”
“Indeed…” the leonin watched the retreating man until he and the maid had vanished around a corner. “And if I ever see you again…” he closed the door and paced over to the cabinet. “I will make my face the last thing you ever see,” he growled, opening the cupboard doors. Had the man seen the staff’s fragments, he wondered. What if… he caught the thought and mulled it over for a moment, and then laughed harshly. Once perhaps, Fellirion might have been a threat, but now… he could see why the order had decided to use him as their representative. It was, after all, the most harmless way to get him out of the way without upsetting him.
“Forester?” the aged lupari peered sleepily at the distorted image of the old man as it danced across the surface of the water. “That you?”
“Thaily, excellent, I was hoping you would still be awake.”
“I wasn’t,” Thaily replied testily, rubbing her eyes and shivering so that her tail trembled from base to tip. “But it seems you put the fear of god into that apprentice and he wouldn't leave me be until I came. Why are you so fuzzy?”
“My hair always goes like this when I’m tired. No, seriously, Thaily, that is exactly part of the problem I am contacting you about.”
“Communication crystal drained?” Thaily raised an eyebrow, rubbing the other eye.
“Not yet, but it soon will be, breaking through the interference around here will run it dry in a few minutes. Listen, Thaily, it’s important that you hear this before that happens: Tiernach has at least two fragments of the Dragon Staff.”
“Possibly more, but I definitely saw two.”
“Does this look like my joking face?” Fellirion's unusually terse reply lent emphasis to his statement. “Why do you think I’m having such a problem talking to you? Without the proper shielding in place, those things are putting out all kinds of interference.”
“And you think that’s what set the detectors off? That Tiernach...”
“I don’t know for sure,” Fellirion’s image wavered violently for a moment. “But possibly. Very probably, I feel. And I cannot help but wonder if he is connected with the hostilities between the Freelands and Lordenor either.”
“That is not our problem,” the lupari shrugged, her green dressing gown creasing around her shoulders. “Not a magical issue. You know the council won’t help you there.”
“It is our problem if he starts using, or already is using, those fragments!”
“Using them? Now you are joking! We've had two in Sanctuary for... well, I forget, but over a hundred years I'm sure. Do we use them? No, because we can't. The magic was too disrupted by the break. The spellpaths are shattered and twisted back on themselves, it’s complete chaos inside that thing. It was always designed to protect itself, and in the state those fragments are in... it’d be suicide! No sane person would even try!”
Fellirion looked strangely uncomfortable, clearing his throat in a way that made Thaily narrow her eyes at him suspiciously, which given her age, rendered her mostly blind. “Think about it,” he said quickly, before she could ask anything. “The disruptive range of the fragments is large, yes, but not large enough to account for the change we picked up, not sitting passively in a cupboard. If it were, the detectors would have been ringing for years. Instead, they've only just started going off, right as the politics between Lordenor and the Freelands takes a dive. As if someone were suddenly very, very confident,” his image flickered again, a ripple running across the surface of the pool, and the lupari had to resist the temptation to prod the water while she waited for clarity to return.
“Why don’t you take them off him then?” she asked as the old man’s visage became visible again.
Fellirion’s eyes closed sadly. “I can’t. He was always strong, and I can feel he’s become a lot stronger since he left us. There’s a real grit to him now, I guarantee he’ll not back down if I try to force him to hand them over. And then, the staff was designed to protect itself, and it's owner! Even one of those fragments, turned to his will, could grant him power far beyond mine.”
“Then I will tell the council,” the lupari said. “And we will…”
“Go up against dragons?” Fellirion asked.
For a moment, the wrinkled old lupari hesitated, then seemed to stoop. “I see,” she said quietly. “So it's come to that.”
“Sorry?” Fellirion cupped a hand behind his ear, but she shook her head.
“Nevermind. That youngster doesn't have the power to control dragons, surely?”
“But the Dragon Staff does! That is exactly what it was made to do, and what I believe it may well be doing again.”
Thaily remained silent. Examining her face, Fellirion felt a sudden pang of suspicion. “Thaily? Do you know something?”
“No,” the lupari said, just a fraction too quickly for comfort. “No of course not. What would I know? I have no idea where he found them – I can't even tell you where to find a half-dragon any more, and that was the most recent contact we had. Nice girl. But anyway, there haven’t been any pure-blood dragons seen for centuries! You must be wrong,” she insisted, her tone unexpectedly aggressive. “He cannot have dragons.”
Not without reason, Fellirion thought. Had he not seen and learned what he had, he would consider it a preposterous notion. However...
“Can we afford to be wrong?” Fellirion asked simply, his expression sad. “Can we really afford to be caught unawares because we didn’t believe it could happen? Remember what we are, it is our duty to explore the strange, unexplained and fantastical, because the rest of the world by and large does not want to deal with it. If we won’t believe, who will? And what will happen if we’re wrong?”
“Hmph,” Thaily grunted. “Very well. I'll go tell Firebrow, but he won't like it any more than I do.”
“He doesn't have to like it – he and the rest just have to believe it.”
“They probably won't do that either,” the lupari snapped. “But I will tell them what you've said and they can make up their own fool minds.”
“Thank you, Thaily. I will return as soon as I can.”
“You'll have to,” Thaily eyed him. “Because I don't imagine they'll do anything until you come and hit them with a big stick.”
“Big sticks are definitely your domain, my dear arbormage,” Fellirion favoured her with a smile. “I'm sorry, I have to go, thank you again,” Fellirion exchanged a smiling nod with his friend, and blew softly over the quartz crystal in the palm of his hand. Thaily's image faded as the quartz clouded over, opacifying as the last of its magic was depleted.
He looked up at the chestnut mare peering over his shoulder.
“Nothing more to see, I’m afraid,” he said quietly. “That’s the last use I’ll have out of that,” he said, dropping the now white quartz carelessly into a pocket. He looked thoughtfully down the hill to the Lordenor capital city of Seabreeze. Now over two miles distant, it was nonetheless a very noticeable change in the otherwise grassy landscape. Densely packed half timbered buildings around the palace and business district rose four, even five floors high, gradually falling to single levelled homes at the edge of town. Windows and doorways glowed warm colours in the night. Earlier in the day, Fellirion had been able to see a number of wagons rumbling in both directions along the three roads that lead into the city's heart, most arriving loaded and leaving empty. Along the river that wound through the city, several vessels had been making their way, either floating downstream, or struggling against it with sails and oars.
On the way out however, Fellirion had used none of these normal routes of passage, instead riding across country, over the ripening wheat fields and straight up the side of the ridge behind the city, not wishing to encounter any foot patrols, nor even a curious local. He wasn't entirely certain how suspicious Tiernach had actually been, and didn't care to find out.
“It’s just you and me now,” he went on quietly. “And we’ve a long road ahead. I need to get back to Sanctuary as soon as possible, I can tell you now that there are those who won’t listen as well as Thaily…”
Reaching into another pocket he withdrew the model ship he had shown to Aleana. He opened the hatch at the back and tipped the contents into his palm. One scroll of parchment, sealed with Aleana’s crest, and one loose note wrapped around it. He read the note aloud.
“Dear Master Forester, I do truly thank you for your efforts, and since I expect our meeting will have been both brief and public, I wish to put that in writing.” The old man smiled slightly. Returning the model ship had been an excusable reason to meet again, but to have spoken long would have seemed odder than strictly necessary, and it was attention they both could do without.
“The letter to Troyston Goldwood tells everything I have already told to you, and contains the list of the nobles you asked for, and which you will also find on the back of this note.” Fellirion turned the parchment over and scanned the names briefly, nodding to himself.
“I am however, uncertain how much more use I can be here. It is evident that the Freelands have already committed to an all out war, as has my father determined to respond in kind. Whatever may happen now, it is out of my power to prevent it. Nor can I accuse those nobles on the list of any action not sanctioned by my father, as I have no firm evidence. I must state again that there may be valid reasons why they have not been able to commit a greater number of troops to my father’s army. As I have no military standing, there is no reason I would have been informed about such matters.
“Although it is my understanding that the Council of Magi do not interfere in affairs of state, I would be grateful if you would relay any decision or information relating to the current crisis that you are privy to. It may be that you will have more insight into matters than I. Should you find information of use in bringing peace back to our nations, I stand ready to assist you in any way possible.
“I thank you again for your efforts, and I hope that we may have further contact in the future.
“Poor girl… she has no idea what she’s getting involved in. I rather wish I hadn’t encouraged her, but it’s too late for that now I suppose.”
“It is a little, but don’t worry too much, she’ll be fine.”
Fellirion blinked. Last time he checked, his horse couldn’t talk, which meant...
“Hi,” said the cheery faced woman as she flopped down beside him. Fellirion wasn't entirely sure whether he was more impressed by the vibrant orange hue of her hair, or that she had managed to sneak up on him without his having the slightest inkling of her approach. His chestnut mare pawed the ground cautiously, and Fellirion brought the words of a defensive spell to mind. Just in case.
“There now, girl, it's ok, only me.” Kneeling, the woman reached out a hand, and rather to Fellirion's surprise, the horse allowed herself to be stroked across the bridge of her long nose. “See, now, no harm here.” Reaching into a pocket, the woman produced several sugar lumps, which the mare chomped contentedly.
“Not from around here?” the woman asked, gazing at Fellirion with eyes as brilliantly orange as her hair. Whatever he might sense about her – outright oddity and a strange prickle of magical power notwithstanding – the one thing he was not getting was any feeling of hostility.
“Not really, no, though I have been on a few visits in the past,” he answered, deciding to keep her talking and see if she had anything interesting to say, in the way that unusual people often did.
“Good, then maybe you’ll be able to tell me where Chasmhold is? Big castle, somewhere in this kingdom, but my information’s a bit sketchy unfortunately, and I’m a bit wary of asking the locals. Not all on our side, you see,” she said, tapping the side of her nose conspiratorially.
“I see,” Fellirion nodded slowly. For what was possibly the first time in his life, he felt rather at a loss for words. He couldn't tell if she was exceedingly clever, very stupid, or simply knew something he didn't. “You do know nobody's used it for centuries?”
“Oh, yes, but I'm something of an history buff,” the orange haired woman answered. She sighed and looked towards the city, lights twinkling in the night. “Seabreeze, for example. Look at it! It was so much prettier when it was smaller. Now it's all,” she gestured, her hands wide apart. “And,” she held one hand high, and one low. “Horrible higgledy piggledy thing, full of smoke and noise, little dark alleys all through it, like some weird rabbit warren. I liked it when you could walk side to side and not get lost.”
“Mmm,” Fellirion agreed, looking at her shrewdly. “You’re very strange,” told her, bluntly, and she laughed loudly, a healthy whoop of genuine amusement.
“Oh, you don’t know the half of it, grandpa,” she chuckled, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with the hem of her sleeves.
“I never married,” Fellirion said.
“Doesn’t mean you can’t be a grandpa,” the woman told him. “But I’ll take your point, Master Mage.”
“Ah, you’ve been watching a while then,” Fellirion nodded.
“Goodness yes. Been following since I first saw you cantering across the fields back there. Had to investigate. You do kind of sparkle a bit don’t you?”
“Well, to my eyes, anyway,” she said, batting her eyelashes over those almost luminous irises of hers. “Love a strong magic user, specially a bright light like you, all glittery. No shadows on you, Master Mage, easy to know I can trust you. Even when I do talk too much,” she added as an afterthought. “I think I do that a lot.”
“You’re not entirely human, are you?” Fellirion asked, smiling without really knowing why.
“Me-ouch,” the woman rubbed the back of her head. “Am I that obvious? Better do something about that hadn't I. Well, fair cop. But don’t worry, doesn’t make me any the worse for it.”
“I trust you completely on that,” Fellirion reassured her. “You’re not the first child of mixed blood I’ve known.”
“Really? Excellent!” the woman brightened visibly. “I’m Jinx. Who was the other?” she asked, extending a hand.
“Fellirion Forester. My great nephew, Feral.”
For a moment, the woman froze, her tanned hand held in his paler grasp. “Unusual name,” she said, with a small and unconvincing laugh. “Anyway, I’d better let you be on your way.” She stood up rather hastily. “And I should really hurry along now. Poor old castle’s been falling apart since I was a girl, better go see it before it falls apart completely. Oh, uh...” she paused. “Which way did you say it was?”
“North, just follow the river. It's a fair way though, over fifteen leagues.”
“Oh, that's no matter, I walk pretty quick. Um... I'm not sure whether I should say this or not, I suppose it can't hurt – I know magi like to collect interesting stuff, but you have to let it go this time. That's important. And the Kittywake is the best ship in the dock.”
“Nice to meet you, Master Felli Forester, bye!”
Waving over her shoulder, the curious woman hurried away along the ridge, not looking back.
Behind Fellirion, the chestnut mare snorted.
“Yes,” he agreed. “She was very odd indeed. Nice girl though, don't think she means any harm.” He eyed the letter in his hand. “I fear delivery of this will have to wait. It can’t be a priority now, there are bigger things at stake… How do you feel about a night time walk?” he asked. The mare snorted again, a stubborn expression across her long face. “You do realise how important this is?” A rumble, but this one of acquiescence. Looking grumpy, she permitted the old man to climb into the saddle.
Two nights after Fellirion left Seabreeze, the crescent moon was at it's thinnest, the darkness hanging over Chasmhold deep and oppressive. Tiernach had made good his plans, and now the ancient fortress was once again manned, the great arching bridge of stone lit periodically by flickering torchlight as patrols passed from one side of the gorge to the other. Far below them, lost in the inky darkness, a narrow river rushed and burbled around the mountain rocks.
On the westward side, where the pass led back into the kingdom of Lordenor, one of the twin keeps of Chasmhold loomed above the surrounding rock, stone walls dropping a vast black shadow over a square portion of the starlit sky. Within the encircling outer wall, several buildings squatted in the darkness, candlelight flickering through slitted windows, casting moving shadows on the rocky ground outside. One building, larger than the rest, had two guards at the door, the only people venturing to be out in the courtyard on this dark and silent night. Leaning out of the window over their heads, a young blonde girl toyed with the idea of throwing an apple core at them, but withdrew her arm after several long seconds of thought. Looking sadly at the woody remnants of the fruit, she closed her eyes and bit into it, chewing up the tough centre, even forcing herself to crunch the seeds and swallow them.
The girl knew all too well that food wasn't in great supply in this place. Whatever it was the men outside needed her – and all the other children behind her – for, they only needed them alive, not well fed or healthy, just alive. You could get by on pretty little when that was the only goal.
The girl turned to her fellow captives, most lying on the floor or on the feebly padded mattresses that had been thrown haphazardly in with them. They were a sorry looking bunch, dirty, tired, hungry, and all young, most not even ten years of age. There was no pattern as to their collection, other than that all were orphans of the war. Some were from the Freelands, others from Lordenor. She paused in the thought as a noise at the door made her hurry to the edge of the mezzanine level, lying down and hanging her head and shoulders over the edge to peer into the room below.
A woman, and not dressed in the dark uniform of the men who usually brought food, but in a neatly tailored leather tunic of earthy browns and greens, with a fluffy ring of fur at the top of each boot. Most importantly, her clothing did not bear the red outline of an eye, the symbol that all the men around here seemed to wear.
The girl watched, upside down, as the woman moved around the shadowy room. None of the other children appeared afraid of her, even the ones that were awake, for she seemed to radiate a sense of well meaning and trustworthiness. As the woman moved closer, the blonde girl's eyes widened – she had incredibly orange hair and eyes. Really, shockingly, vibrantly orange, even in the candlelight. She seemed to be looking for someone specific, her gaze passing over each of the children in turn, skipping swiftly over a lupari, a muscai, an ursai, and a sciurel, hesitating over a human girl. She stooped, seeming to ask a quiet question, but the girl shook her head and the woman moved on with a sad looking ruffle of the child's hair.
The blonde girl above wasn't sure what to make of this behaviour, though she didn't feel threatened in any way, even when the woman began to ascend the wooden stairs to the upper level. Her expression was calm, gentle, her age difficult to guess, tanned features seeming neither particularly youthful, nor holding any sign of passing years. Again she paused at a human girl, exchanging a few words, but received a negative response and moved on.
The blonde girl watched as the orange haired woman stopped in front of her.
“Hello there. Is your name Shara?”
Eyes widening in surprise, the girl nodded.
“Hmm. Prove it,” the woman said.
Shara narrowed her eyes at her. “How?”
Raising a finger, the woman paused. Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed a number of the children around them were paying attention and winced. Clearly she hadn't wanted that. Thinking for a moment, she raised her hands, cupping them behind her ears, fingers pointing upwards.
“Feral?” Shara said on instinct.
“Oh good, it really is you!” the woman said happily. She reached out her hand, and Shara took it. The woman's fingers were warm and strong, and gripped hers with a gentle firmness. “Hello Shara, I'm Jinx.”
“M-miss...?” Turning, Jinx looked at the small lupari boy who had spoken. “Are you here to help us?”
Looking up at the orange haired woman, Shara saw her close her eyes, a flicker of pain crossing her face. Gently, she reached out, touching the boy's face with her fingertips, and he sat back against the wall, his head nodding forward in sleep. Wordlessly, Shara allowed herself to be towed gently down the stairs, the same scene repeating itself several times with other curious children, each ending up slumped on the floor, dozing peacefully. Eventually, they stood outside in the darkness. Shara noticed that the guards too, were asleep on the ground.
Jinx knelt in front of her, orange eyes glittering in the dim starlight.
“Shara, I need you to stay very quiet now,” she said softly.
Shara nodded, then hesitated. “We should help them,” she whispered, glancing meaningfully back into the doorway. Several children were still watching them.
“I can't. I'm very sorry, I do want to but it doesn't happen that way. Or didn't. Something like that.” The girl eyed her suspiciously and Jinx sighed. “I'm sorry, it's confusing sometimes. I'll try to explain later. For now, you should come with me.”
“Are we going to find Feral?” Shara whispered.
“Eventually, yes. Right now, we're going to walk out of here, just you and me.”
Shara shook her head and tugged Jinx's hand as she rose. “The men will see! There's guards on every gateway and all along the road!”
“I know. It's all right. I can make it so they don't think we're interesting, as long as we stay quiet and don't do anything strange.”
“Magic,” Jinx winked at her. “Walk normal, like you're one of them. Don't look too close, just move on by.” She tugged gently on Shara's hand. The girl hesitated a moment, looking back over her shoulder, then followed across the shadowy courtyard. True to her fears, there were guards at the gate – four of them, in fact. Shara tried to slow down, but the woman's hand tightened over hers, and she remembered what she had been told.
Walk normal. Walk normal... Right through the arching gateway with two guards at each side of it, looking bored and leaning back against the stone. One of them, a leonin, was smoking a pipe, the warm smell of the smoke drifting across their path. They passed so close Shara could have reached out and grabbed it from his hand. Suddenly, he yawned, displaying a fearsom array of teeth. Shara tried not to turn her head to look, resisting the urge to hold her breath in case she gasped when she started breathing again.
“Good girl,” the woman whispered as they moved away. “Well done, I think you're a natural. Might be a few more patrols, just keep it up and we'll be fine.”
They kept walking through the darkness, the woman's orange eyes apparently seeing the road clearly even when Shara was stumbling over rocks and into potholes. There was only one other patrol – or rather a camp, three uniformed men sitting around a fire, talking and laughing, apparently feeling more at ease than those who were posted closer to the castle. Jinx didn't even try to swerve her path to take the darker side of the road, just guided Shara straight down the middle. Watching from the corner of her eye, Shara felt her heart leap into her throat when one of the men looked right at her, but a moment later his gaze passed on.
Not interesting, Shara thought. Not interesting. Just like magic. She held the woman's hand tighter and wondered when they would see Feral.
It was the birdsong that first brought Shara to wakefulness. A loud cacophony of chirps, squeaks and whistles intruding upon her quiet sleep. That was odd, she thought groggily. There had never been birds in the courtyard at Chasmhold before... hang on?
“I wasn't dreaming?”
The orange haired woman, over whose shoulder Shara was currently draped, laughed. “I'll say not. Good morning!”
“Oh.” Craning her neck, the girl managed to look around them, at the rich green undergrowth, the thick tree trunks and the leafy canopy above as it cast dappled shade over the pair of them. Behind a curtain of bark and leaves, a small stream gurgled contentedly on its way. “This kinda hurts...”
“Oops, sorry!” With surprising strength, Jinx gently set the young girl on her feet to walk beside her. “There you go. What say we find us some breakfast in a little while?”
“Ok. How did I even fall asleep while we were walking, anyway?” Shara asked, eyeing the woman dubiously.
“Oh, that was me,” she replied lightly. “You were looking kind of stressed and tired, figured you'd be better with a rest.”
“Who are you?” Shara demanded, folding her arms across her small chest.
“Really,” the girl insisted, stopping.
Continuing on for several paces, the orange eyed woman finally realised the girl wasn't with her anymore, and turned. “I'm just trying to help.”
“When can I see Feral?”
“Soon. Ish,” Jinx amended.
“When?” angrily, Shara stamped her foot. It didn't achieve much physically, but she had found that for some reason adults were more likely to tell the truth after such a gesture.
“A few months.”
“What? Why so long?”
“Well for one he's about two hundred leagues away right now.”
“That doesn't take a few months! A horse can do a hundred leagues a week, easy!”
“I know,” Jinx told her calmly, “But when we do find him, we can't see him for a while.”
“Probably, yes, but that's how it needs to be I'm afraid.”
Shara seethed at her silently for a few moments, then turned off the path into the undergrowth, whacking a small sapling aside as she passed.
“Where are you going?” Jinx called after her.
“I'll find him myself!” Shara yelled.
You'll get lost is what you'll do! Jinx thought to herself, but managed not to say it. Instead, she took several rapid strides and managed to get her hand around the girl's arm. “Just wait a minute. Wait! Don't make me send you to sleep again!”
Shara stopped, looking warily up over her shoulder into those bright orange eyes.
“Now let's be honest, Shara. I know you're angry, and you're afraid, and heaven knows you've a right to be both. But you also know, really, that you're not going to be able to find Feral on your own, don't you?”
Looking up at her for several long seconds, the girl's lower lip started to tremble. Then she burst into tears.
“Oh, now then...” Jinx sighed, kneeling, putting her arms around Shara's thin body. “Now then, now then. I told you, I really am here to help. Feral didn't send me, but I will do my best to get you back together, and to do that I really do need you to trust me. Let's face it, I am a better bet than those men at Chasmhold, aren't I?”
Shara sniffed into Jinx's tunic, nodding against her shoulder.
“I'm sorry you'll have to wait so long, it's all very complex. I'll try to explain – over breakfast. You'll feel a lot better with some food in your tummy, eh?”
“But you'll take me to Feral in the end?” Shara was not to be distracted.
“Yes, of course I will,” Jinx patted the back of the girl's head softly. “I promise.”
“Cross your heart.”
Laughing gently, the woman nudged Shara back enough to make an appropriate gesture. “Cross my heart.”
For the space of several long breaths, Shara just looked at her, searching every corner of those bright orange eyes for signs of deceit, but they just twinkled at her, radiating a feeling of compassion and honesty.
“Ok,” she decided at last.
“Good girl. Now, I think this is quite a good little clearing for breakfast, actually. I'll get a fire going and set something cooking, and you can go take a wash.”
“Absolutely, you don't look like they've pushed you through a bath for weeks.”
Shara fidgeted slightly.
“Ah. Right, well, definitely then,” Jinx reached into a pocket. “Have some soap.”
“You carry soap in your pocket?” Shara looked at her with an expression that clearly said she thought Jinx was very odd.
“I carry lots of things in my pockets. Now go on, there's a lovely clear stream right over there.”
“What if somebody comes...”
“There's nobody for leagues around, it's fine.” The girl looked back at her dubiously. “Besides, I'm only, what, three and a half tree trunks away.” Shara giggled at the odd unit of measure. “Just shout if you want me.”
Nodding, Jinx watched the girl head towards the stream.
“It's cold!” came the shrill shout about half a minute later.
“Of course it's cold, it just came down from the mountains. It'll clean you up all the same, now get in there or I'll come and dunk you myself!” She tried not to smile at the girl's disappointed whimper.
By the time Shara poked her head around a tree at the edge of the clearing, Jinx had a fire going strongly. Which was quite impressive given the short interval. There also seemed to be a chicken roasting on a spit over it. Resisting the urge to ask whether the chicken – and possibly the fire – had also been in Jinx's pockets, she instead went for the more pressing question.
“Jinx? Where's my clothes?”
“That tatty old nighty? Burned it while you were washing, was horrible.”
“...” Shara commented. “You burned my clothes? We're miles from anywhere, and you burned my only clothes?”
“Who said that was your only clothing? Here,” standing, Jinx picked up a bundle from the leafy ground and held it out so Shara could reach an arm around the tree and take it. Cotton underwear, thick woolen tunic and skirt in a deep red, and a pair of sturdy leather boots. Just the right size, Shara discovered, trying them all on. She looked at Jinx with suspicion as she approached the fire again, sitting cross legged on a dry patch of ground.
“You don't have a bag,” she said.
“No,” Jinx agreed.
“But you've got all...” Shara gestured to her clothes.
“Deep like a well!”
“Now you're getting it!” Jinx's brilliantly hued eyes twinkled amusedly and she winked.
“What's going on?” Shara asked, but quietly. She was rapidly discovering that anger and demands were not the right way to go with this peculiar woman.
“How old are you, Shara?” Jinx asked.
“Eight, eh,” Jinx knelt by the fire, stirring it with a long stick. “Well, that's about how old I was when it all started to get weird. I guess you can handle it. I'll give you the short version, because the long one would take rather too long...
“There's kind of a few major events going on in the world right now. At least, between the kingdoms on this island, anyway. The Freelands and Lordenor – you know those?” Shara nodded. “Are at war, because they've been provoked by a group calling themselves the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood are collecting things, fragments, of an old magic weapon, something they want. It's very important they don't get them, and Feral is going to be trying to stop them. Though he doesn't really know it I think.”
“How can he not know it?” Shara frowned.
“Do you believe in destiny, Shara?”
“No,” the girl shook her head.
“Neither do I. Unfortunately this is a bit weirder than destiny. This is something that has to happen because it's what happened. We can tweak the fine details a bit, but we have to let the big events play out as they want to else I don't even want to guess what will happen. I did say it was complex,” she added, seeing Shara's expression.
“The important thing is, there's some things Feral has to do, and some things we have to do, and then once we've made the things that have to happen happen we can see what happens next.”
“I have absolutely no idea, that's why I said we'd have to see what it is.”
“Well between you and me, I'm rather clever, and I'm confused too, but I do know what we have to do for the moment.”
“Eat this chicken.”
“Chicken for breakfast?” Shara looked dubious.
“Is that wrong?”
“A bit. I think you were thinking of eggs.”
“Oh...” Jinx looked pensive. “Well, chickens come from eggs.”
“And eggs come from chickens.”
“And that,” Jinx said triumphantly spearing the air with a forefinger. “Is exactly the problem we're facing and why we have to help Feral without seeing him!”
“He's an egg?”
“And I'm a chicken. Or I'm the egg, he's a chicken, it doesn't really matter. Egg, chicken, egg, chicken, egg, chicken, egg!” She twirled her forefingers around each other as she spoke.
“You're very strange.”
“People say that a lot,” Jinx admitted. “But I like to think it's more a response to my environment than my natural state of being. Now, leg, wing, breast, or the squishy wriggly bits in the middle?”
Shara's disgusted squeak echoed off the surrounding trees.