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First Among Fools

By Renae

 

Chapter Five - No Good Deed...

 

Authors Note:

This is chapter five, its been a small age, and one humongous writer's block to get past. Do not expect a follow on chapter any time soon as I'm dealing with a lot of emotional crap due to things relating to http://www.backwoodsweb.com/dohatruth.html, http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/du_ii/du_ii_tabi.htm, http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/du_ii/, http://www.eaglehorse.org/3_home_station/doha/doha.htm . Maybe someday I'll write about that stuff or maybe not. So in the mean time enjoy the chapter below. Renae.

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I awoke only two times in the night, once from being uncomfortable and bloody, the other from nightmares where I was 'just' bloody. Well bloody, screaming, and trying to attack an enemy that refused to show itself. My nightmares were not exactly hard to interpret; as I was pretty much fighting in the dark against a real enemy that didn't show himself. So when dawn reared it's head and crawled into the window to awaken me I was mostly functional, and a bit relieved to see it. Convincing my stiff and sore muscles that they were happy it was morning was another thing altogether.

Groaning aloud, I forced myself out of the covers and managed to place my feet on the cool stone floor of the high tower room. The good Baron in his wisdom, decided that to keep me from 'just walking off' in the night, that I needed to be locked into the highest room available. Personally I thought it was a bit petty of him. I mean here I had just run a long distance race in what at best could be called challenging conditions, had delivered the bad news, and had managed to stay upright in the process. Needless to say I was sure the guards had dutifully and with no small amusement had memorized the litany of abuse I planned to recite in the Baron's presence in retribution for the long climb up the stairs after my bath. OK so the litany was more for my own motivation; you try climbing over one hundred steps after a hot soak... after you run what I had.

After my morning ablutions, I picked up my sword and dagger and started moving into what my weapons instructors had drilled into my head, the killing forms. The guards had been briefly tempted to try and keep my weapons, until I told them they were be-spelled, and that all manner of hurt would befall them if they tried to handle them. Though they didn't believe they were magickal until I had the lit the candles in the room with a wave of a finger near the candle wicks; since I did magick, and I since said the swords held magick, it must be true. Technically I had lied my ass off. So thus armed, I danced my forms slowly at first, so my body would warm, then faster and faster until I was panting with exertion, silently counting the cuts, thrusts and parries as I wound through them.

Rising up through a series of cuts, called 'Garroth Chack Se'lich' or 'Cockatrice slashes the horse while climbing to kill the rider' in the more common vernacular; I found myself staring into the impassive face of the Lord Marshal. In my shock and slightly breathless state, I finished the last cut with a loud angry hiss that would have done a pissed wild cat proud.

“Your sword does not seem to suit you,” he said after a lengthy pause that seemed to indicate he was examining my nude body briefly, “and it is customary to practice in suitable attire.”

“An enemy determined to kill you will not care if you are dressed or not, nor will they likely wait until you don armor,” I quoted back at him as I turned slightly away from him and into a defensive stance. “Are you going to attack or may I put my weapons up?”

“I will refrain from attack,” he said with a dry chuckle, “I also prefer a warm courtyard for my practice.”

“So what brings you to my durance vile?” I asked as I suited actions to words and took care of my blades.

“A summons to breakfast and my own curiosity,” he said with bland expression. “Though I do admit surprise to find you practicing and not abed.

“I don't sleep well enough of late to sleep in, especially when it is obvious I am not welcome.” I started to get dressed in clothes that were less than ideal for journey, but were clean. Caer had loaned me a few things, and the 'charity' of the staff had gotten me a loose gray shirt and a plain brown skirt, so I was at least presentable. I didn't relish putting my sweat dampened boots, but I was not going to be trapped into wearing dainty cloth shoes.

“It is not that you are unwelcome,” he seemed to pause and then he shrugged, “its that you have been... difficult.”

Scowling I turned to face him as I started to belt my weapons into place, “I started my Journey at the Goddess' prompting, on the very day she evidently issued her warning.” I pointed at the window, “The bloody Council from what I have seen; has not seen fit to act and may have bound the Baron's hands. My hands are unfettered, I took her instructions to heart, as did the Heir, which is why he's doing his bit and I am doing my bit.”

“Where is the Heir going?” asked the Marshall firmly.

“Where he was bid to go,” I stated just as firmly, “he's out there in the wilds, putting things the Gods would have him do into action.”

“That is not an answer,” he rebutted.

“Elder, it is not my place to say what his plan is,” yes I was cheerfully if not a bit sullenly adding to the mysterious path of the Heir.

“You do realize the Baron and the Council will not let you go until they have answers,” he said with a frown in my direction.

“What they want has no bearing on what the Gods and the Land needs of me,” I picked up my much depleted quiver and my bow. “Let them argue that case until they are elders, and they would still lose.”

“You seem so certain,” he shook his head. “Come, I am sure breakfast will be interesting.”

“A good breakfast is among my plans for this day,” I admitted with a shrug, “then much travel.”

“Travel might be difficult since we seem to be at siege,” was his seemingly amused reply.

Seating the horn into my belt I gave it a firm pat, “Well, I suppose that might make it interesting, maybe even difficult, but I am going.”

“We shall see.”

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In all actuality I was looking forwards to breakfast, as I was ravenous from the prior nights activities. That was until I entered the hall where it was being held, then I distinctly felt under dressed and slightly awkward for my attire. Evidently breakfast was to also be a 'High Court' one, with everyone excessively and extravagantly overdressed. However, it is not the place of the Royal Family to follow the trends of style but to set them, if this display of 'power' and their places authority was supposed to cow me, it failed. Though I did find the few twitters of 'disdain' at my attire that reached my ears to be grating, though it served only to sharpen my focus. One does not show anger at court, one waits for the moment where it is useful, that lesson I had learned over my father's knee... more than a few times.

Closing my eyes briefly, I felt from long habit my 'royal face' take residence in front of my eyes, “How quaint, on the morning of a siege we have a wasteful banquet.”

“There you are, becoming difficult again,” murmured the Marshal as we walked to a place in front of the High Table. Bowing he greeted the Baron, “I have fetched her, my Baron.”

“So I see,” he paused to scowl briefly in my direction.

Giving the Baron, his wife and the rest of the tables occupants a bare nod. I smiled tightly noting no place for myself there. “Baron, I so wanted to thank you for the loan of the room, and the many stairs to reach it... personally. However for the delicate ears of your court, I will refrain for the nonce.”

“That would be wise,” he replied with barest hint of anger in his voice, leading me to wonder if the guards actually reported my abuse of his personage in absentia.

“I am a bit puzzled however,” I said with a deliberate look around the hall, and the peoples with in it.

“At what?” asked the Baron as he tiredly looked down at me.

“I was not aware of any holy days being nigh, so is this a birth celebration, a holiday of your city or one of the Land's festival days that somehow slipped my mind?” I asked with a cool dry smile.

It may have been the odd tone in my voice that made him wince, though I noticed his eyes flick to the end of the table and a slight wave the people seated there. “No, there is no holiday or festival, but if I may present the August Members of the Council in attendance?

“No, you may not.” I said firmly as I spared a disgusted look to that end of the table.

“Jonne!” exclaimed the Marshal as he took a step away from me. “Be mindful of your station!”

I might have gave a small bark of frustrated laughter as I walked down the length of the high table, and faced deliberately away from the Council Members. “My station is what the Gods will it to be, and I'm fairly certain the Goddess is most unamused by the Council as of late; I know I certainly am.” At that time, civilized words escaped me, so I simply turned the ring to send me into invisibly and stalked out among the general uproar.

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My breakfast was taken among the Revered Mothers at 'her' temple in the city. The simple meal, the lack of politics and the sense of serenity and solidity that the Mother's provided, did much to soothe my temper. There was some gentle teasing as to finding me proper attire when speaking as her voice or serving as her hands, though the tone of it was largely humorous.

“So what am I to do with the Council?” I asked the Abbess as we sat around a short table sipping in my case, the Maiden's Balm.

“You have not exactly garnered many friends in the Council, as either of yourselves,” she replied with a faint smirk.

“Well, no.” I sighed and sipped my tea and explaining, “I never hit it off with any of the their kids, as they never seemed to step beyond scheming for power.”

“Today was a bit excessive perhaps?” she asked mildly causing me to think for a long moment as my face warmed slightly.

“Yes and no,” shaking my head I looked down into my cup, “they were looking to intimidate me, it didn't go over very well with me.”

She laughed brightly for a moment and then took a sip from her cup, “You know this from?”

I considered the question and then treated it as if it were a test question from one of my mentors. “While they sent a person of rank to bring me to the High Table, it was not to a seat at it. My attire was calculated to set me apart from any position, nor was proper attire afforded me, which could have been construed as an insult on several levels as well. Nor was any food offered to me... a shocking breach of etiquette I would think considering my actions of the prior night.”

“A rebellious hero, is still a hero after all,” said Tressik's voice from behind me.

“I see that you made it,” I said to him by way of greetings.

Sinking to the large cushion beside me he nodded, “As did you.”

“I hope your reception was more welcoming than mine,” I said with a pained chuckle.

“I didn't quite get skewered by an overly anxious guardsman when I reached the city's gates, but it was a near thing,” he said with a toss of his head. “Not that I faulted him for being anxious, not with an enemy army outside in the darkness.”

“The Enclave is safe then?” asked the Abbess into the break in conversation.

“The people there didn't need my warning as such,” he said with a relaxed smile, “unlike the Council they already had started patrols and began moving the children away to safety, at the Goddess' warning.”

“It is a relief, and I will offer prayers for their and our safety,” she said with a pleased nod. “So have you been sent to collect our younger sister here?”

For a moment Tressik looked uncomfortable, “Yes, I think the Marshal was impressed with Jonne's evident skill with blades and her odd nature.” He paused to look at me, “The Council wants you brought in in chains, the Baron isn't exactly happy with you, and you don't seem to be one to suffer captivity willingly.”

“The Baron isn't that foolish is he?” asked the Abbess with a faint smile.

“Well the Marshal pointedly pointed out that Jonne is gifted, blessed, beloved and skilled; and not to mention very angry, perhaps justifiably angry.” He stopped for a moment to look at me intently and then appeared to quote; “Jonne is trained in the High Families fighting style, according to the Marshall, though she lacks the decades of practice... yet.”

The Abbess gave me a bland smile, “Oh did he say anything else about our sister?”

“That there are only a handful of trainers that teach the Setch Wei, and that it is not commonly taught to the N'relv or Human, at her age.” He colored slightly, “I've only just started to learn a variation of that style and I'm past my third decade. Also I am awkward at it best, unlike Jonne here, according to the Marshall.”

“Wonderful,” I said with a shrug and explained a bit further at the Abbess' puzzled look, “he walked in when I was practicing this morning.”

She inclined her head with a smile of understanding, “Ah.”

“We should not keep the Baron and the Council waiting,” said Tressik with a sigh, “even if you are something special, there are limits to what the Baron will tolerate.”

“Funny, no one seems concerned as to what I will tolerate,” I said to the ceiling, feeling a bit of disgust color my mood.

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The council chambers were a bit gaudy and pretentious in my opinion, which was saying a lot considering I had lived in a castle for most of my life. The council members that were in presence, seemed to have changed clothes and were bedecked with even more jewelry, to the point where I wondered how they moved their necks or hands. To the far left of the council's bench, sat the Baroness who was looking rather plain in her Baronial colors and robes, her expression seemed to be almost mask-like though perhaps it seemed a bit predatory. To right of the council sat a Priest of the Truth and a scribe who looked a bit harried. The room also held a mixed audience who were kept behind a railing in pew like seating.

“... And further more you have have insulted the Council, how do you answer to these charges?” asked an over dressed page as he stood before me in front of the odd court.

I gave the Prior of The Truth who was off to the side of the Council a glance and then smirked deliberately at the overdressed boy. “'I” insulted... the Council... I have yet to truly insult them in a manner worthy of the insults their actions have offered me, that is how I answer.”

There was a moment of strained silence as the quartet of the Council glared at me, then the Prior spoke, “I have been tasked to verify the truth in this matter. However, from what I have learned and observed from this morning, insult was offered to her first. One negating the other I would think.”

Suppressing a victorious smile, I nodded to the Prior, “Well then since there are no charges that have any merit addressed to me, I will be on my way.”

“Such insolence,” said the portly man who seemed to outrank the others in the Council, if you associated rank with jewelry.

“What did you expect?” I countered with a glance to the other members, “Oh I'm supposed to be cowed by your rank? I think not.”

“I told you she would likely be difficult,” stated the Baroness over the shocked exclamations of the Council and with a mirthless smile to me she added, “and that she is quite unimpressed with rank and authority.”

I shrugged as her description of me was fairly spot on of late, “I've not been impressed with the actions of the Council of late or their lack of action for that matter.”

The Baroness studied me critically for a moment and then spoke, “Your body language bespeaks of more than a bit of ire with them. Would you explain why?”

Taking a breath to collect my thoughts I nodded, “I do have several complaints, on the date of the Prince's warning, and from what I am given to understand his own departure: the Council decided to link my proximity to the Prince's and thus his disappearance to me. This inference of wrong doing has made my Journey much harder than it needed to be, not to mention making the Prince's own tasks that much more difficult. ”

“Wouldn't you find such a coincidence suspect?” asked the Baroness as she studied me intently.

“No, for if I not mistaken; he most definitely told the Revered Mothers his plans and intent to lead the enemy a merry chase.” I paused to look at the Baron and then the Council, “I hardly drew him away from his intent or course of action.”

The Prior seemed irritated as he spoke, “While there are odd emotional shadings, she speaks what she understands to be the truth.”

“There are also reports that you and the Prince seem to be romantically linked, is there any truth to this?” asked the Baroness with a thoughtful glance at me.

“Well... we do share many interests,” I said trying to find an answer that would dance me gracefully though the question. “However, my year of service rather precludes anything more than 'just' friendship at the moment.”

The Prior seemed to blink oddly at me, “She understated the sharing of interests, and her second response is deliberately muddled.”

Scowling I looked at the Prior, “I think that was as sufficient an answer as I care to give.”

“That I can declare is a truthful response,” said the Prior with a bland smile.

“So is part of your anger with the Council on his behalf? Or is your anger with the Council solely your own?” asked the Baroness as she tapped the arm of her throne thoughtfully.

“I would be lying if I said my anger with them is but a reflection of his,” I said with a deliberate look to the Council. “However I can say with surety he is less than pleased with how his warning has been received. I expect he would declare the Council's actions as criminal, the actions of fools and quite likely he would also hint that they might even be traitorous.” The Prior didn't quite choke on his drink and as he spluttered and hacked as I had timed that pronouncement as he was in mid gulp.

The Baroness watched with faint amusement as the spokesman for the council looked indignant, “Prior your assessment?”

The Prior coughed and gave me a sour look, “Jonne has not lied, oddly enough.”

A portly man whose face was flushed stood up to glare down at me, “The Prince, is but a youth and if I may be so frank, he has not proven himself. Thus any warning from him has to be measured against that knowledge, that and he has not exactly garnered a reputation outside that of a spoiled child.”

“So a warning that is passed by the Revered Mothers, whose wisdom is guided by the Goddess, is discounted because of the giver?” I paused to suppress a dangerous wave of anger before I spoke again, “Perhaps the charge he should recommend against you is 'gross incompetence and stupidity,' rather than treason.”

“I will not debate the decisions of the Council with a youth,” he said angrily as he resumed his seat.

“The fact that a 'youth' can see the fallacy in the council's decision should make it obvious that the Council is in error,” I rebutted with a glare at him. “The fact that there is an army outside of this city is a glaring testimony as to how badly the council has mishandled the Prince's warning.”

“I think the Prince made an 'impression' on Jonne,” said the Baroness with a motherly smile in my direction “Speaking of which, Jonne is not your real name is it?”

“It's a name, I answer to it, there for it must be my name,“ I said with pained chuckle.

“Truth, truth and truth with a sophistic slant,” the Prior shook his head, “but not untruthful. In other words she is saying much but saying little.”

“Exactly,” I paused to beam at the Prior, “which is about as much I care to say about the matter.”

“The Marshal informs me that you are trained in weapons, far beyond what is considered normal for a youth outside of the High Families, what say you to this?” asked the Baroness with a glance to the council.

“That I have had good teachers,” I shrugged and then added, “I wouldn't say I am a great swords woman just yet though.”

“So you are counted among the High Families?” asked the Baroness critically.

I thought hard for an answer that was safe before answering and I could not find one that would be more trouble than the other, so I said. “There is no need for me to answer that question, so I refuse to answer it.”

“So you are highly ranked then?” asked the Baroness with a worried glance to her husband.

“My rank has no bearing on the council's erroneous actions,” I said with a glance to the Council then back to the Baroness, “I can say however, that if I ate at a low table it was of my own choosing, not because I was outranked by anyone.”

Her eyes widened slightly, though she was interrupted by the large man again, “If you have rank sufficient to ignore the questions of the council I would to know it.”

Turning I looked at him, “I am not bound by the whims of the Council, but by the Gods and Goddess' will.”

“So you say, I am not convinced,” he said as he lifted a heavy symbol on his chest as if to assure himself of his 'office.'

The Prior visibly rolled his eyes as he looked at me then back to the Council, “She speaks with truth and certainty.”

“The separation of the Clergy from the Council and the Ruling Houses was established in the seventh year King Hadlan the Wise, the second King of the Land;” I said with a smirk at the large man, “in order to provide a balance to the Ruling Houses, the Council and the King. While Clergy are encouraged to work with the other branches of government; their first duty is to the Gods, the People and the Land. This has not changed, though I see you think it has.”

“If you are a member of the Clergy, where are your marks of your office, where are your robes, the symbols of your holy nature?” he scoffed as he pointed a fat finger over at the Prior, “Him, I can plainly see and know as a Priest of the Truth.”

“If you must know, one is my bow,” I said lifting it to wave at him, “it is blessed by the Hand of the Huntress; and only her servants can wield such. A robe of the Revered Mothers is impractical to the task I have been set, though if I had need of one, it would be provided. I've no need for religious symbols in the task I have been set, and in that I am a servant of the Gods, Goddesses and the Land I would be over loaded with such. ”

“If I may?” said the Prior as he stood up and walked over to me and placed a hand upon my head gently. I watched for a moment as his eyes unfocused and then he glowed briefly white. There was a longish pause, then he opened his eyes and withdrew his hand a bit uncertainly, “She is tied to the Gods, the Goddesses and the Land, in more than one way.” He turned to look at the council, “She is outside of your ranks and authority.”

In a droll tone of voice I said, “I am so glad 'that' is cleared up.”

“Peace be still child,” said the Baroness, “that point has been won, there is no need to add fuel to a fire.”

Sighing I looked from the Baroness to the to the Council, “The council has wasted valuable time, and in suppressing an urgent warning, an enemy is on your doorstep. If the Land and its Peoples should survive your mistakes; then you might worry about your positions and rank.”

Abruptly as if the air spoke affirmation to my pronouncement, there was a long dim rumble as from distant thunder. For a moment the are was stilled as if to mark the coming of a storm, then the fortress seemed to nearly vibrate off of its foundations, eliciting screams of panic and terror. For what felt like ages the fortress creaked and groaned as things were sent crashing to the floor as the land trembled under us. When the shaking stopped and among the cries of the injured I looked up from the floor to those that were looking at me with a stunned expressions. Standing I walked over to the Baroness and then helped her to stand.

The Baroness looked at me for a long moment her eye's filled with worry, “Did you ask for a sign...?”

“No.” Shaking my head as tears started to drip from my eyes I said, “... No, that was the Mage King destroying the Capital City, and Land's Home of the N'relve, and my family.” How I knew for certain what it was, I attributed to the Goddess, though I felt distinctly fey as I placed my hand on hers. “The King is dead, his Queen is dead, and the Prince is an now bereft of any close kin.” I paused and took a shuddering breath, “You and the Baron now hold the Land in trust.”

“But what of the Prince?” asked the Baroness as I turned to walk away from the chamber.

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The Baroness watched the oddly flickering girl walk away with a sharp pang of trepidation, turning she found Tressik at her elbow. “You heard?”

“Yes, what is your will?” he asked with a glance to the council.

“We should move deeper into the fortress I think,” the Baroness said as she watched the council impassively, “this particular mess will have to wait for a more peaceful time.”

“And Jonne?” he asked as the Baroness walked quickly out of the council chambers.

As the dull sound of the alarm bells reverberated from across the city the Baroness sighed, “That one is in the God's and Goddess' hands, I suspect she will either be tucked away into a room of Temple or up on the parapets.”

“Why do you think she said you and the Barron hold the Land in trust?” asked Tressik as a handful of guards fell into place around them protectively.

“I fear the worst in truth,” she said after a moment while increasing her pace, “that the Royal Houses are sundered and that there will be little time to decide on an orderly succession.”

“Do you fear a civil war?” he asked warily.

“No but I have no doubt some will overstep their authority or try to,” she paused and turned to lead the way to wards a different corridor, “to the Library I think.”

“The Library?” he asked sounding puzzled.

“In all the hundreds of years of the Lands rule, I am sure there is a precedence for leadership in these kind of events.” Chuckling she added, “The Council is fond of precedence, and I think that we should prepare the Barron to apply it, firmly.”

Tressik laughed harshly, “I think he'd approve.”

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The Marshal moved quickly down the walls of the city to where the Baron watched as enemy units deliberately took station on the fields surrounding the city. In proximity were his commanders, and as he approached he heard the Baron quickly giving orders.

“I want the wells checked, and bucket brigades prepared for action,” he pointed to where a plain banner hung near a tent, “I want a watch at all times on that position, magickal and otherwise. Arm any man who is fit and willing to stand watch, advise the houses of healing to make sure their supplies are fresh.”

Barron, a word,” said the Marshal and motioned with his hand to a quiet place, “in private.”

“Momentarily,” the Barron turned to look at the other men, “Have the calvary stay ready, but we're not going out to meet the enemy until I can see a decisive gain. The army will stand to the walls, use half of the militia to augment the army, the other half move to the center to be ready to reinforce as needed. Dismissed.”

Stepping back to allow the commanders room to pass the Marshal waited for the Baron to join him before speaking. “Your wife sends her regards, and grave news.”

“Good, she's safe then?” asked the Baron as he looked over the wall at the enemy forces.

“She is unharmed, however from report of the Gods, both Lands Home and the Capital City are destroyed,” gravely he placed a hand on the Baron's shoulder to draw his full attention. “Baron, you and your wife are now the titular heads of the Land.”

Freezing in place momentarily the Baron waved a hand eastward, “I saw the fires rain down and race across the sky, but I did not suspect...”

“Baron you must come away from the walls to a place of security,” the Marshal's eyes were damp with unshed tears, “from what we are given to understand over two thirds of the ruling houses have been decimated in the attacks.”

Stunned the Baron looked to the east and then swallowed hard, “Is there any... of the royal house alive?”

“The Revered Mothers state that the Prince is well... but.” The Marshal lowered his voice, “The Revered Mother's also stated in private that the Prince has discovered a mage gift, with all that it implies.”

“Damnation, we need a ruling head of state, which the Prince can not be, by law.” The Baron sighed and glanced to the Marshal, “I suppose that I'm supposed to be that head of state?”

“By precedence and law, you are,” said the Marshal with a shake of his head, “until you are dead or if one who can by law can take the throne does so.”

“This is not going to sit well with the Council,” said the Baron with a harsh laugh, “though I might look forwards to putting that fat popinjay in his place.”

“Jonne did mention or so I am told, that she thought the Heir might offer charges of treason or gross incompetence along with abuse of power against the Council,” offered the Marshal in a dry tone.

“Marshal, I can't really say that I like the child Jonne,” said the Baron with a frown, “I can respect the fact that she has an inclination to do what is right, and that however abrasive she is; she has done right by this city and all of us. But I cannot say I like her.”

“She is brave, a bit over bold, undaunted by rank, charismatic, willful, headstrong, brash and a bit arrogant . If I might say so; she reminds me of a much younger version of yourself, one that is less tamed if you will,” the Marshal smiled tightly at the Baron's uncomfortable smile. “Frankly if she was male I would warn the gentry to lock up their daughters.”

Laughing the Baron nodded, “She doesn't seem to note that she is attractive, which might be a blessing.”

“The only thing we have really determined of Jonne is that she is highly placed among the high families,” said the Marshal as they walked down a ramp to the city streets. “By her own admission she says she only ate at low tables if she wanted to be there, not because of her rank.”

“Her features mark her as such,” the Baron stated to the Marshal's nod. “Is there anything else I should know of her?”

“The Revered Mother I spoke with said that Jonne is orphaned and now without close kin.” At the Baron's grunt he said, “Though when I pressed the Revered Mother for advice about Jonne; I was told that Jonne would endure and to hinder her would be a grave mistake.”

“What is the custom among of the N'relv for orphaned children?” asked the Barron cautiously.

“They are found a place, comforted, cherished, yet I think Jonne would be unwilling to take any place forced upon her,” said the Marshal reluctantly added, “the Revered Mother pointed told me to not force the issue; while she was glowing.”

The Baron sighed and looked upwards briefly, “To be beloved of the Gods and serve them, is to not expect an easy life.”

“Thus it is written in holy texts, as a cautionary verse for those seeking service with uncommitted hearts,” said the Marshal softly. “Though it also says: That to know honest service to the Gods is to know fulfillment.”

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In my not exactly sober wanderings, I had discovered a museum. It was quiet and for the most part no one bothered me about how much I was drinking, just that I be 'tidy' about it. In a rather moribund fugue of anger, depression and inebriation, I had wandered from exhibit to exhibit trying some some sort of focus that would guide me away from memories of home. I had steered away from the paintings of past royalty, past arts and statuary I might have admired had I not been in funk. So it was I found myself looking about in a room dedicated to past wars, and trophies of such, until I stopped in front of a wall bedecked with banners and streamers.

I stood there for the longest of times, staring at the bright colors that would guide people to them in the confusion of war. Walking back to a table I took another hefty swallow of the strong wine and sat the bottle down for a bit. When my eyes refocused from the burning rush of alcohol, I found myself staring as one that was marked with N'relv symbols for Land's Home. The vibrant yellows and greens, the swath of gold that bordered the edges, the sense of waiting as it hung there far from a field of battle.

“That's not right,” I heard myself say, “how can it rally the people if it is stuck here?” I left the bottle on the table as I walked towards it again, “I can at least get it to the battle where it might do some good.”

“That banner is over two hundred years old, what do you think you are going to do with it?” asked a harried man in academic robes as I moved the decorative barrier from in front of it.

“It's a War Banner, that of Land's Home, is it not?” I asked just to be sure.

“Yes, its rare and valuable,” he said as he tried to step between me and it. “It's not a toy.”

“Oh I have no intention of 'playing with it', I said as glared at him, “I plan on taking it to the walls of the city and waving it in defiance at the enemy, after which I plan on using lots and lots of arrows; we are at war you know.” I might have giggled oddly at that last bit, but I didn't care.

“Leave her be Titus, I think the idea has merit,” said the Caer as she studied me for a moment. “You've been drinking.”

“That's ok, I've had enough for the moment,” I said as I indicated a large and mostly empty bottle that was sitting on a table. “It got a bit frustrating, people kept trying to take it away from me, so I came here. Shouldn't you be on the wall somewhere?”

“I was sent to eat, and to discover where you were. Planned on drinking your grief away did you?” Caer asked in understanding.

“Planned, started and wound up here,” I stood on a chair and started to take the banner down from the wall it was attached to. “People kept trying to interrupt my drinking.”

“Titus you better be the one to take it down, I think Jonne here is a bit unsteady,” Caer with worried glance at me.

“I'm drunk, not unhinged,” I said with a frown, “I know my mind and I can say for certainty I am not unbalanced.”

“Exactly,” Caer with a roll of her eyes as she walked over to the table and lifted the bottle to sniff at it, and just as quickly set it back down with a wince. “Did you have any help with this bottle?”

“Well there was a cousin who had a few tilts with me, but he got his own bottle after a time,” I said with a shrug, “he said something about finding arrows after a bit, actually a bunch of them said that too.”

“I see,” she waited a moment and then signaled a guard, “you should inform the Barron that the N'relv may be on the walls doing things and that they may not be sober or reasonable.”

“Is that a bad thing?” I asked taking the banner from Titus, “Oh, I'll need something to wave it with.”

“No, it's not exactly a bad thing, just not the sanest of things,” said the Caer with worried frown, “I think we should take the Kingdom' War Banner there as well, what do you think?”

“I suppose it can't hurt,” I said with as I wrapped the banner around me so I could reclaim my bottle.

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“Jonne there is an orderly progression of events that typically occur in a siege,” stated the Marshal with a pained glance to the other N'relv, “as much as I admire your intentions, you have to let them approach when they are coming under a flag of truce.”

“Why? I can guess what they will say. Something like: Surrender, blah blah blah, open your gates, blah blah blah, or feel the wrath of the Mage King, blah blah blah.” I took another pull from the bottle and indicated the score of N'relv that were glaring at the enemy forces. “Do you really think we are in the mood to surrender?”

“Its not that I have any intention to surrender Jonne,” said the Baron with a dark chuckle, “however I would like to meet the enemy commander. It's traditional, and it gives me a chance to give the traditional “throw down your arms and depart our land” speech.” The Barron rolled his eyes and said, “I'd like to make it back to our lines after that chat, so quit shooting at the enemy until I say you can or I will find a large man to sit on you. I am in charge here after all. ”

Sighing I looked at him, “Fine, we'll try it your way; they keep moving back further and further anyways.”

“The enemy isn't likely to just stand there as you shoot them,” said the Barron with a chuckle and he looked out to the enemy forces then back to me and the N'relv, “I will say they seem to have learned to respect your cousins and your bows.”

“They are not out of range just yet,” I said with a chuckle, “more fools they.”

“Yes, well do try to restrain yourselves for a bit, while I go out and attempt to reason with them.” He smirked slightly and then said, “However if they do try to kill me, feel free to save my life or failing that, kill them.”

“I'd be embarrassing to let you get killed, so we'll try and keep an eye on you,” I said with a chuckle that was echoed by the other N'relv.

“Do that, my wife would be a mite upset if I ended up dead,” he drolly replied.

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Halting his horse at easy an talking distance, the Baron gave the rough cloth banner a pitying look before addressing the men around it, “Since your banner holds no heraldry and that I know you not; who are you, and why have you besieged us?”

A man in a steel breast plate moved his horse a half length forward, “I am Frontez, and my master has no need of banners and gaudy decorations to show his strength. “

“Hello Mister Frontez , you still haven't answered the second part of my questions,” the Baron gave him a measured look. “I might apologize for the rudeness of your welcome, however you do not seemed to be dressed for peace.”

“We are here under the bidding of my master,” started Frontez only to be interrupted by the Baron.

“Whose name you still have not mentioned, but carry on,” interjected the Baron coolly as he marked the start of a nervous tick in the other mans face.

“We are here to bid you to surrender to the might of my dread master,” Frontez paused as the Barron did his best to appear to not smile, “that you might live out the remainder of your days in peaceful subjection to his imperious might.”

The Barron sat there for a moment then he glanced to Caer, “What do you think?”

“Peace is boring, and well my Baron, and they look like common brigands to me, but of course I will bow to your discretion,” she said with a bright smile.

Shrugging jovially the Baron looked at the other men critically, “Please tell me, if you master is so powerful, how come I have not heard of his name? Also thus far you only seem to give the impression of cut-purses with pretensions; though I will give minor credence to the fact your men can stand in rows that you might have had training of some sort.”

“Our strength of arms is only secondary to the might of our dread master, it was he who sundered your capital cities,” Frontez boasted loudly. “It was he that rained fire down and consumed them expunging your royalty from the face of the land.”

“All of them?” asked the Baron, letting amused disbelief color his words. “I think you are gravely misinformed if you think the royal family is extinct.”

“Those that might remain alive will soon join the dead,” said Frontez with a shrug, “such is the way our master works.”

“I see,” said the Baron in a flat and unamused tone, “I suppose this is the point in time where I must respond as custom would dictate.”

“Yes, your surrender would be accepted at this point,” said Frontez confidently, “our master is only compassionate on the first offering of terms.”

“No, I'm not here to surrender to you,” said the Baron as his voice and timber changed, projecting loudly. “You are unwelcome on our lands, your presence is an affront to the gods and the next time we speak you will either be dead or enchained. You will quit this field, depart our lands or die there on!”

“I see,” said Frontez with a shrug as he smiled tightly, “you will speak in broken tones the next we meet, if that is your final answer?”

“It is,” said the Baron with a smirk, “try not to die too quickly Mr. Frontez, I know a girl who would love to have pointed words with you, that is if the other N'relv don't get to you first.”

“I'll have naught but her tears when she is chained to my bed and under me,” Frontez countered with a sneer.

“Well then, we should return to our lines,” replied the Baron with a frosty glare.

“Do that, I give you the span of an hour to make peace with your various gods,” said Frontez with a coarse laugh.

“I would suggest you do the same, but I doubt your gods would hear you in this land,” the Baron's face was a mask of solemness as he added, “I'd pray for you myself, so that you might have an easy death, but my cousin's and kin have other thoughts as to that; and I'd hate to not let them have their full measure of vengeance.”

“They may try,” said Frontez with a mocking laugh, “but I'll still be here long after they are dead.”

Shaking his head the Baron turned his horse and started back to the walls of the city, “I doubt that.”

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“They don't seem to be doing much,” I said after taking a long drink of water. My drinking 'just' water was one of the small concessions I granted under duress to the Baron, after he threatened to remove me from the wall physically, and personally. Truthfully my stomach had started to complain about the time he firmly suggested it, so it wasn't much of a sacrifice on my part.

“Such are sieges,” said the Marshal with a shrug. “I expect they are in the forest making ladders, battering rams and the like. Truthfully I think their numbers are a bit small for them to try a brute force attack.”

“Which means they are either going to attempt to weaken our defenses by magick or by treachery, “said Caer with a sigh, “I expect we'll only discover the treachery when it occurs.”

“You sound disappointed Caer,” I said with a belch.

“I'm not much of an archer,” she said with a nod to where a cousin paused to take a shot.

We watched for a moment as the arrow arced through the air and then sunk to the quills into the leg of a soldier causing him to fall over with a bellow of pain. “They seem to be at the limits of our range, at least on this wall,” said the Marshal with a faint smile, “I suppose now would be a good time to move to another wall.”

“Should we move the banner too?” I asked as I motioned to it.

“Only for one or two circuits of the walls,” the Marshal said as he motioned to a soldier standing near it to pick it up by the pole it was on, “after which it should remain in one position as you use horses to criss-cross the city. “That way you can briefly lull the enemy into thinking you have taken only one position, and thus tactically surprise them.”

“Any word from our cousins outside the walls?” I asked as I reclaimed my quiver.

“The enclave is moving, I am told that once pursuit is unlikely to be a problem, their fighters and B'radian's will use the forest to flank the enemy.” The Marshal smiled tightly, “So when the time comes, we'll want the enemy as close to the forest as possible.”

The group of N'relv near me chuckled as the Marshal said that, “I am sure we can do something to make that occur,” I said and grinned broadly.

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“Sieges are boring,” I complained aloud as I walked to where the Baron was looking at the enemy though a spy glass.

“Such is the nature of the beast,” he replied after a brief grunt then he handed the spy glass to me, “Look at the commander's tent then shift over to the right of it about ten yards and tell me what you see.”

Doing as he bid I focused on the tent then searched the area in question. It only took a moment to spot what he was referring to; at that spot a man in a dark cowled robe was anointing a mostly naked woman who was bound to a crude altar with what seemed to be blood. “Yeah I see it, human sacrifice?”

“So it would appear,” he said unhappily as he took back the glass, “I don't suppose you could discourage him?”

Taking an arrow from my quiver I lifted my bow which was glowing strongly, “Huntress willing, I can.”

“Then do so,” he said as he watched the distant scene with a scowl.

Leaning back into as I drew the bow back, I strained to line up the shot, and as my bow seemed to come alive; I loosed the shot. The air seemed to snap loudly as the arrow arched skyward at an incredibly steep angle, then for what felt for a long moment, it started back down. A scant heartbeat later I heard the Baron curse and then give a grunt of satisfaction as the figure in the distance fell over.

“Well done, a moment too late, but well done,” he said as he passed the glass over to me, “that was not your fault though.”

Noting his angry stare at the enemy forces, I took the glass and scanned the area where a pair of soldiers were warily watching the sky as they removed two bodies from atop the altar. “Well shit,” I said with a disgusted groan.

“He killed her just as you fired,” said the Barron with a sigh, “but with luck you disrupted what ever spell he was working.”

“Barron! The southern wall is signaling an attack!” shouted a man from a top a tower.

Turning the Baron lifted his glass to read the signal flags as they were raised, “We'll need half of the N'relve archers to shift to the southern wall, the others to spread to the other walls.” He directed as he fired off instructions to a waiting runner. Then he paused and handed me the spy glass, “I want you and your bow to stay here, if anything unpleasant appears to start, do try to stop it.”

“I'll do my best,” I said as the walls were being reinforced quickly.

“Oh and if the enemy commander should show his face, put an arrow into him,” the Baron said with a feral smile, “I've decided I'd rather him not survive the day if I can help it.”

“By your command,” I said with a slight bow.

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My afternoon had slowly crawled along, where as the other walls had been attacked a few times and repulsed the enemy and 'things.' I would idly shoot the occasional arrow when the enemy gave me opportunity, not that I hit every time; but I was pleased to note I hit much more than I had missed. Though I was beginning to wish I had gloves as I was developing a set of blisters from having shot nearly two hundred arrows in the day thus far.

As far as losses were concerned we were fortunate to have the Revered Mothers and the other healers at hand. So those that were not killed outright in the onslaughts were treated and given time to rest, those unable to return to the wall were comforted, and the dead were taken to a place where they could be mourned, then cremated. The cremations were a practical but regrettable necessity as we could not bury them properly with a hostile army outside the walls.

“How do you fare daughter?” asked the Abbess as she placed a hand on my shoulder, drawing my attention away from the enemy.

“I've a slight headache,” I admitted with a mildly chagrined smile.

“And emotionally?” she asked as she placed a soothing hand upon my brow.

“I have moments when all I can do is cry or rage outwards,” I said as the headache eased along with a bit of my muscular aches.

She nodded solemnly, “Honest grief is a balm to the soul, but do not hold over long to the anger child.”

“That may be difficult given the circumstances,” I said with a sigh as I checked my bowstring while trying to find words. “I feel a numbness at times to all of this, yet at night in my dreams, everything comes undone.”

“You have been thrust headlong into a war, and despite your education and training, you were not ready for it,” she said as she lifted my hands in hers. “Your hands attest to the fact you have had training, yet not hard use.”

As I watched my blisters hardened into callouses under her light touch I said, “There wasn't much call for it.”

“True.” She paused and cocked her head as if listening to something, “Several cities are besieged like ours. Also it seems 'The Prince' or someone pretending to be the Prince has won a small victory in a pitched battle somewhere in the south.”

Frowning I picked up the spy glass and looked at the enemy for a moment, “If someone is pretending to be Ari it is useful, but worrisome.”

“It is a risk, yet a certain scoundrel of a bard, spoke little and reveled certain things to a relentless tracker,” she chuckled as my evident irritation, “thus a plan was enacted.”

“I am going to strangle him.” I announced and then shook my head, “Bards are not among my favorite of people of late.”

“The songs of heroes holding no semblance to the effort involved in such?” asked the Abbess with a soft laugh.

With a grimace I nodded, “Tis my chief complaint with bards.”

“Understandable, though Kerlith sends her love, and reports that several places of sanctuary are in the process of preparation,” added the Abbess with a smile.

Smiling as a hint of a flush washed across my face I said, “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” He face hardened slightly, “Ari's warning my have been suppressed to some extent by the Council yet the various temples did spread the message to wiser heads.”

“Not that it seemed to have helped here in this city,” I said with a frown, “I think in the future that the Council's role should be reviewed in all of this.”

“The Baron is a solid leader,” said the Abbess with a nod, “and while he does bear some onus to events in this city, in truth he can only command the entirety of the city in a crisis.”

“Which we are in now,” I said with a wave outward from the wall.

“Rest assured child, the Baron will be a sturdy leader of the Land, provided there is a Land for him to lead,” she sighed and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Not that he was Fate's first choice in the matter, but events have reshaped Fate's weave.”

“Scant consolation that affords me,” I said as a tear escaped to trail down my face.

“We know child, all of the sisters know, your grief is her grief, and thus ours,” she gently used a bit of her sleeve to erase the tear from my face, “there will always be a place for you among us dearest Jonne.”

A polite cough distracted me from my words and we turned to see the Marshal regarding us with a frown, “What am I to do with you, having heard what I have?”

The Abbess gave me an abashed glance as she turned to address him, “Why nothing of course.”

Scowling he walked closer, “Nothing?” he asked in a soft but firm voice. “Royalty has no place on a wall or battlefield in a time of war.”

“She is but Jonne, a servant of the gods, nothing but and nothing more.” The Abbess gave a patient smile to the indignant frown of the Marshal as she added, “Thus it was decided by the Goddesses and the Gods.”

“But she is the Heir is she not?” he asked as he studied me intently.

“No and no,” I said as I picked out a target and sent an arrow unerringly at it, to then watch it crumple and fall.

Scowling he pointed at the two of us, “Do I need to bring a Priest of the Truth to force it from you?”

“Ah, if ever there was a fortuitous cue, I will not ever know one,” said the Prior from the Council's inquiry as he approached. “I am Prior Cassite, we didn't really have the chance to be formally introduced this morning.”

I gave him a polite nod, noting his green eyes among a weathered face, “Hi, I'm Jonne as you know.”

Laughing softly he nodded and then shook his head slightly, “Solipsisms aside, the truth can only be side stepped part of the time.”

“The truth? I have no issues with the truth, I have issues with what folks would make of the truth,” I said as I resumed my scanning of the enemy for a good target.

“There in lies the problem,” said the Prior with a slight bow to the Marshal. “Speaking as one who listens for the Truth, and occasionally speaking as such; I can say there are times a truth should not be spoken.”

“And which truth of my sister here should be spoken?” asked the Abbess with an amused smile.

“Her real name,” not quite suggested the Marshal as he glared at the two.

“Choose another truth,” I countered quickly.

With a bemused smile the Prior looked from the two of us to the Abbess, “And thus the crux of authority is laid before me.”

“Don't hang over long upon it then,” suggested the Abbess with a soft giggle.

“Word games,” observed the Marshal with a shake of his head. “Spare me the games please.”

“Is the hair of the head the same as the hair of the body or the hare as to the rabbit,” the Prior said with a glance to me, “or say the heir of a man or a title?”

Suppressing a nervous flutter in my stomach I quipped, “If it would be the case, I would be bald from worry.”

Giving the three of us a look of distaste, the Marshal turned on his heel and started walking away. In some ways it was funny to see his angry posture shift to one of surprise, though part of me was cringing as I quickly faced away to stare at the enemy. As he seemed to pace behind me in agitation, I searched the enemies lines.

“I understand and do not understand, why are you playing at this game when the Land has need of you?” the Marshal asked from directly behind me.

“I'm not playing at a game Marshal,” I said as I held up an arrow and caused to to spark into flame, and setting it to my bow I took aim at the enemy commander's tent. Half heartedly I loosed it and turned back to face the Marshal, “I am mage gifted what does the law demand of me should I be the Heir?”

Freezing the Marshal frowned in thought and after a moment he unhappily said, “You would have to abdicate, you would have divorce yourself from any ruling position, give up any and all claim to power.”

“And in all honor, turn my hands to the service of the Land,” I said as I turned back to face the enemy, taking scant joy at the fire in the distance. As tears dripped from my eyes I said softly, “My name is Jonne, I own no rank or authority save which I might earn in service to the Land, even if I might be highly born.”

“The child speaks truly,” said the Prior and he added, “witnessed before the Truth.”

“Witnessed before the Goddess,” said the Abbess with an unhappy sounding sigh.

“I suspect that would be my cue,” said the Baroness as she flickered into view, “I was bid to come here quietly.”

“Baroness, the wall is not a safe place for you,” chided the Marshal as he motioned from her to step away from the parapet.

“I'll go soon enough, since Fate decreed I should be here,” she approached and gave me a gentle hug. “And thus it is witnessed by one of the High Houses.”

Disentangling myself from the Baroness I turned back to face the enemy with unseeing tear filled eyes I asked bitterly, “Are you satisfied by my witnesses Elder?”

“As an Elder among the N'relv, I am satisfied,” the Marshal said formally after a longish moment of silence, “This in truth, is not what I was seeking from you. In my search for answers, if I have caused you pain, I am sorry... Jonne.”

“My pain knows no bounds Marshal, I am fair but cored unto my soul with it,” I said as I wiped the tears from my eyes, “but you are not the architect of my pain.”

“Come away from the wall child,” said the Abbess as she placed an hand upon my arm, “for a time let others keep watch.”

Half numbed by events or perhaps by the delayed stress of them I reluctantly and a bit unseeing, let the Abbess guide me down off of the wall. Truthfully I wasn't entirely sure which loss I was mourning at the time, but my heart ached of it and my eyes flowed freely with tears.

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Thunder crashed mightily, jarring me back into wakefulness, and for a timeless long moment I warred in my mind as I tried to remember where I was. A flash of lightning briefly illuminated the room I was in, and I vaguely recognized the chamber as a part of the temple. My head seemed sleep fogged and I suspected that part of my fogginess was due to a sleeping drought having been added to one of the cups of wine I drank with dinner. Sitting up only confirmed my suspicion as my head briefly swam, somewhat annoyed I pulled the blanket off of my mostly naked body and placed my feet onto the polished stone floor.

Uncertain of events I found a chamber pot and things to deal with my monthly visitor, and with luck the next day would put me past the worst of it. Heartened slightly, I found my clothes and quickly put them on against the cool air that was brought about by the downpour. Muddled slightly by the drug I decided against wearing my weapons and my boots, as both seemed like too much effort at the time. After a moment of thought I picked up my bow and unstrung it, not that the rain could get to it, but it didn't feel right to leave it strung, though I did leave the string looped around one of the notches just so I could find it quickly.

Cautiously I walked to the door, adjusting my stride slightly to counter the drunken feeling in my head. I should not have been drunk, as I only recalled the two cups of wine with dinner. Not that dinner was overly memorable, as it was a simple meal that I basically ate to appease the Abbess and the others. I didn't have much of an appetite due to feeling depressed about the days events, nor was I finding much joy in strong drink either. Truthfully I felt as if someone had ripped a goodly part of my soul out and then stomped all over it before putting it back inside of me, upside down and inside out.

Stepping out into a statue filled corridor, I weaved my way down the middle of it walking towards the dim light at the end of it. In the brief moments of illumination from the lightning, the normally patient and loving expressions that graced the faces of the statues; they seemed to be filled with anger or grief. Then abruptly cast back into darkness they stood in mute silence as I walked among them, ignoring the wetness of my face I briefly looked upon them, and then shaking my head at their silence, I kept walking.

Discovering a partially closed door at the end of the hallway, I hesitated at the entryway to one of the larger chambers of worship. Inhaling I could smell a mixture of candles, flowers and incense mixing with air wet from the rain, of it all overlaying a sharp tang of wood smoke. Entering the chamber I glanced about the darkness of it, and then proceeded to walk down to the front of it, past the rows of pews and down to the fire pit where a trio of thick logs burned. Occasionally a drip of water would drop down from the large opening of the chimney that gaped hungrily far up near the ceiling, causing the fire to hiss and spit angrily.

Walking around the circular fire pit I nearly tripped on the large cushions that the priests or priestesses would use to kneel upon before the altars. Oddly tired by the effort it took to walk from my bed to this place, I sank down to the cushion and then sat with my back against the warm stone basin that made up the fire pit. Sitting there alone, with my knees hugged up close against my chest, my arms hugging them tightly I bowed my head to them and cried. Mutely or nearly mutely I sobbed as my eyes reflected the pain of loss in my heart with tears that fell much like the pounding storm over the city. It wasn't until much later when it seemed that I had no tears left, among the painful, sweet memories of home and family that I finally fell asleep.

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“Bright the day,” said Tressik as he joined us at the breakfast table in the temple.

The Abbess nodded in greeting as he glanced to me, “Bright the day,” I answered him after a sip of water.Nibbling at a pastry I noticed he was more dressed for ceremony than for fighting, which seemed out of place with events. “You are oddly dressed for battle,” I said with a slight grimace as my words echoes my thoughts unbidden.

Tressik fidgeted briefly with the bright red and yellow silk tunic he was wearing before speaking, “Its for the coronation.”

Disbelievingly I looked back at him, “Coronation, whose coronation?”

“The Baron and his wife are being elevated to the Blood Royal, making the Baron into the Viceroy of the Land, officially that is, ” explained the Abbess quickly. “Should the 'Prince' provide heirs of the body or any of the Blood Royal surface to claim the throne... however unlikely, the Land would be cared for.”

In my mind I understood the reasoning behind the elevation, though to my heart it felt like another loss. Standing up I gave the Abbess a sigh, “Thus my slumber is explained, I'm going to the wall, at least I can be useful there.”

“Have patience a moment Jonne,” said the Abbess halting my stride to the door.

“I know all the reasonings behind it, I just do not have the heart to bear it witness,” I said without looking back at her.

“Were it that I could spare you of it child,” spoke a voice greater than the Abbess's. “By our own hands and events you are S'Aelph.”

Cringing I turned, “How can I be head of that clan, unless I am the last of it?” Shaking my head I tried to rationalize that mad seeming pronouncement. Sha'na Aelph, Supreme Leader of Clan Aelph, the clan other clans are descended from, of which was mingled with my families blood. I sat on the floor abruptly as my legs strength seemed to abandon me, “Surely this cannot be.”

Tressik seemingly spluttered his drink, and he didn't quite squeak as he said, “Her?!?”

Ignoring the interruption the Abbess continued, “You are not the last of it, just the eldest of it. There is a boy child of five years who was fostered far from Land's Home, his protectors have elected to hide the child rather than possibly expose him to greater risk.” Unhappily the Abbess said, “Where as you....”

“I'm already tasked greatly by their hands,” I waved an arm skyward as I laid back to stare up at the ceiling of the dinning room and said, “I win free of one problem to be thrust into another, am I to play brood mare now in my spare moments?”

“You are a bit young for that,” said the Abbess with a forced chuckle, “but you do have to attend the coronation as S'Aelph. There is talk about a potential division arising in the Land if the N'relv don't lend their weight to the Baron's position.”

“Talk in the city or beyond it?” I asked as I turned a tear dampened cheek to rest on the cool tile of the dining room.

“Both, there is a great anger with the Council and by second hand, the High Houses, many of the houses are in uproar,” stated the Abbess coolly, “the politics of fear, fed by power hungry people with their own agendas.”

“I can understand the first, I'm not pleased by the Council either.” I said as I sat up slowly, “I will do what is needful for the Land, though I shudder to think of the complications this will bring to my task.”

“There is that, and it may add enemies,” said the Abbess unhappily.

“What task is that?” asked Tressik in a somber tone.

“Solving mysteries and thus saving the Land,” I stood up slowly and rubbed the back of my neck, “the Goddess' and Gods set me upon my Journey, not an Elder or family member. I am not on a simple childhood testing that could be set aside at need, but one where everything hangs in the balance.”

“A princess among fools,” said Tressik after a moment of silence, at the Abbess's odd look he added, “one of the Tree Kin named her as such. She made light of it at the time though.”

“Guilty as charged,” I said with a sigh, “and now I have more foolishness to contend with as well.”

“If you think you are frazzled by events, think of Fate as she seems to be weaving desperately from broken threads,” said a voice that spoke of a pain and frustration greater than mine.

Turning I looked to see a wizened lady at the doorway, “I can only guess that it is worse than my own problems.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not, though you are bound in her weave,” she said with a shake of her head, “wild as it may be, untamed and knotted at points.”

“That fair describes my life,” I admitted with a soft groan of complaint, “dare I ask if my life should be come calmer anytime soon?”

“The odds are against it,” said the lady bluntly, “however I am here to see that you are dressed according to your station.”

“I am dressed for my station already,” I waved to my bow and said, “I am dressed to fight.”

“Dressed for the wrong fight of the moment,“ she countered and then she smiled tightly, “not that it doesn't suit you, but this battle requires you be fully S'Aelph in dress.”

Resigning myself to being uncomfortable I sighed, “As long as I can fight in the clothes, I will wear them... though I would like to be comfortable too.”

“It is a high court function, to be comfortable is to be scarcely properly attired,” she said with a bright laugh, “but we shall see what we can get away with.”

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Having taken my measurements, Mirabelle whose shop appeared to be part temple part factory and showroom, sent me to bathe 'properly.' So I was semi submerged in rose scented water while of her apprentices, a lady in her early twenties washed my hair and fairly babbled as to how exciting it was of late in the city. I was however mostly content to let her babble, though I didn't share her enthusiasm for how exciting it was.

“So I was telling my sister Mary that she would be wiser to pick a husband...,” Tricia seemingly stalled in mid sentence and then an ageless voice spoke from her. “It is all knotted in spots, as Mirabelle so aptly put it, and thus complicated.”

“Um, yeah,” I said as I glanced back to the girl who glowed with the color of roses. “You would be Fate?”

“That is one of my names,” she said with a faint giggle, “it's better than 'That Bitch' or various other curses assigned to me. I am greatly abused at times, one would think I was the one responsible for all that would happen to a person.”

Greatly abashed, I felt myself flush all the way down to my toes in embarrassment, “... I'm sorry, I didn't...”

With a decadent giggle she pushed me under water in the tub in mid apology, and as I surfaced sputteringand choking slightly she giggled again. “Apology accepted, my dear princess among fools.” With a sigh she poured a bit of shampoo into her hands and started working it into my hair, “Not that I am really angry with you, you're as much a victim as I am in all of this.”

“What happened if I might ask? All of this feels so abrupt and out of control,” I asked as she massaged my scalp.

“The World has several Lands, and on one of those lands a man found an artifact. This person being desperate and to some extent wrongly persecuted, found a dark power and made a rather unpleasant deal.” She paused and then her fingers found my neck and rested there for a moment before massaging it, “At first the dark power was content, but then as the man's influence grew so did both of their hungers, one feeding into the other.”

“Ok, then?” I prompted.

“Over time the man had seized all of one nation, and set his eyes upon other borders, nation by nation he conquered all of one Land.” Sighing she added, “Rousting out all other priests and priestesses, scattering temples and peoples to the wind, thus did the balance shift mightily. Allowing dark powers to rise up and monstrosities to walk those lands, not unlike the Near Ending of this Land.”

Shuddering I nodded, “So he held or holds the entirety of a Land, and I suppose his hunger or the dark powers hunger made him look further outward.”

“Such is the case with such powers, so while we, the powers of light contend for the entirety of the world we did lose a battlefield,” she sighed and then bid me submerge for a moment with a tap to my head. As I arose she continued, “That imbalance tore at the fabric of how things should be, and you know some of that. However, before the tears could be mended fully an equilibrium had to be made to close that hole.”

“The equilibrium being?” I asked partially knowing the answer already.

“Certain sacrifices were demanded of us,” her tone was decidedly angry as she continued to work at my hair. “Not that we had a real choice in the matter. However, rather than we surrender entirety the Land to the cost, and I would understand if you hated me; I gave up a large chunk of my weaving. A sacrifice is nothing if it is trivial, so I gave it out of the richest portion of the weave. Your family, the Blood Royal, and other other brilliantly blazing stars of destiny.”

“And that of the S'Aelph?” I asked as my eyes started to drip.

“The Blood Royal and the Aelph of the N'relve were so closely mixed as to be one and the same are they not?” she asked and then she sighed. “It was not something we wanted but what was forced upon us.”

“How can you force a Goddess or God to do anything?” I asked unhappily.

“Even we must answer to higher powers,” she chided me slightly with a poke to signal I should rinse, “there are layers and layers upon layers betwixt you and I, as there are layers above ours.”

“Yet here I am,” I said as I rose up out of the water to look at her.

“I am known to be capricious, cruel, harsh, fickle, vindictive, and to cheat, am I not?” she asked with an impudent smile.

“Yes,” I dryly replied.

“So as to my nature I knitted and weaved things back and forth, not that I didn't have help,” she rolled her eyes, “a few less than helpful snarls and knots that I had to work around and such we find you; not quite as you should be.”

“I am managing, I think,” I said with a resigned sigh of complaint.

“Admirably in fact,” she paused and reached a hand to my arm to seemingly draw forth a silver sparkling cloth from it. “Your pardon, I beg of you, but I have to make an adjustment to the weave that is your body.”

Frozen oddly in that position, I watched her pick at odd threads unknotting them and then she took a needle and wove what seemed to be a decorative strand into that cloth. “Some things may seem blurred to you, memories of family and some lessons, they won't be gone just blended with others.”

“Why?” I asked with a worried frown as things felt unsettled in my head.

“Some things are taught to an Clan Aelph child, which you would have learned had you the gifts you have now,” she explained with a shrug, “to avoid an issue of you being not entirely entitled to being S'Aelph I'm threading 'that' into you.”

“So I was not Aelph?” I asked as things 'vibrated' in my body.

“Lets just say it is complicated and leave it at that,” she smirked slightly, “truthfully though this cuts through a potentially disruptive weave in the Land. Though you may not thank me entirely for it now, you might see and understand the why of it in time.”

As she lowered the fabric back into my body, I saw my body seemingly ripple and shift as it washed across and through me. Uncertain I looked back at her, “Dare I ask what was done to me?”

“Ask what?” asked a faintly confused looking Trisha as she blinked a few times, “Did something just happen?”

Sighing, I submerged to the bottom of the tub and then scowled in disgust, evidently I was going to have to learn what was done on my own. Annoyed slightly I sat back up, “Nothing critical I think,” or so I hoped anyways. “I think I'm done though.”

“Oh, ok,” she said as she picked up a towel and handed it to me once I exited the tub. “I hope I didn't bore you to death.”

“No not at all, it was quite educational,” I said with a faint smile at her perplexed expression.

“So let us see you,” said Mirabelle as she walked into the room and then she walked around me taking the towel from my body after I had removed most of the water from my body. Evidently she didn't have a nudity taboo as she stopped and scowled slightly as she examined me critically, “Not overly large in the bosom, wiry, muscular and a bit skinny.”

“Lately I've been more at home in the wilds than lounging about,” I said in my own defense.

“A growing youth should not overly skimp on meals though,” she chided with a cluck of her tongue.

Shrugging I said, “I eat well enough.”

“Admittedly I am used to working with those who might due well to skimp on a meal or several,” she said as she walked over to a set of trunks and cabinets. “So I may have to add a few layers to give you more curves, we don't want you to appear too young do we?”

“Just as long as I and able to fight in them, should the need arise,” I quickly reiterated.

Shaking her head she looked at me for a moment, “Surely the events of a coronation would not need weapons.”

“I will be armed or I will not attend,” I said defiantly.

Shaking her head she glanced up to the ceiling and then chuckled, “I am sure we can find you decorative and yet functional weapons, though it might set a difficult trend.”

“It'll be the Baron's problem to deal with though,” I said with a devious giggle.

“Not to mention all the other clothiers who will have to find something to counter it with,” Mirabelle said with a thoughtful smile, “not that a change or three would hurt some folks.”

“It is not the place of royalty to follow trends but to set them,” I quoted absently at her, “even if tradition or necessity would dictate dress.”

Laughing brightly Mirabelle nodded, and rolled her eyes, “Evidently someone follows the thinking of the Prince, I shudder to think how outlandish court will be, should he appear.”

Slightly indignant I said, “But change is good.”

“Oh I'd not complain over loudly as it would put money in my coffers,” she said with a dismissing laugh. “Courtly clothing aside, not much else changes with the wind, so it is refreshing if not occasionally challenging to have something 'new' in court.”

“I guess the newest thing in court would be me,” I said with a disgusted sigh, “and its not where I should be either.”

“I suspect you are where you are needed,” she said with a nod to me, “Fate herself seems to think it is important, thus do not fight it over much.”

“In other words save my energy for where I can best use it?” I asked as she handed me underclothes.

“Exactly, now the question is should we go for subtle differences or be blatantly different,” she seemingly asked me.

“I've never been one to be subtle,” I said quickly.

“You should learn it, it can be a handy weapon,” she said firmly, “I think you will just have to trust my choices in this.”

Slumping slightly I reluctantly nodded, “I suppose.”

“No slouching,” she scolded and pointed to a row of mirrors, “wait there.”

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A resurgence of the prior nights storm necessitated my wearing a hooded green velvet robe to avoid being chilled. It was as darkly green as the deep forest, and it had been made for a temple offering at one point that never seemed to get delivered, Mirabelle had explained with a self depreciating laugh. I laughed as it seemed to be expected of me, but inwardly I was suspecting that it too had been fated for this day. Considering that it was embroidered with the Goddesses and the Huntresses symbols and that if fit me perfectly was entirely too much a coincidence for it to be otherwise.

My hair had been reworked into something rather artistic and it too was bound with the same symbols in the hair clips I had bought days prior. The rest of me was bound and tied into a dress that seemed to reveal much and yet hide things at the same time. It looked to me as if it were designed to come off with a mere tug in places, though I was assured that it was just a visual deception.

The foundation of it all was a leather harness that was belted on providing additional lift to my breasts, and then I was wound and wrapped with gold, yellow and green silk about my legs, arms and chest. Over that was a white half tunic that ties at my right hip, that tunic left half of my chest uncovered on the right hand side, and that was slitted and open along the sleeve that fastened at the cuff of my left hand. A second white cuff was tied to my right wrist leaving that arm bare, apart from the colored silk that was wound about it.

My under skirts were layer upon layer of silk, of those same colors as the ribbons, though they were slitted front and back and left loose, though the longest ones were slitted to my ankles as to allow me ease of movement. Over that was an over skirt made of that same dark green velvet of the cloak, it opened at the front, making the rest of the underskirts almost flower like in appearance. Dark green cloth slippers adorned my feet and I was seriously wishing I could have worn my boots under the skirts.

Reluctantly giving in to the concession that most my weapons were out of place with such attire, that they looked shabby compared to the rest of my outfit, I refrained from belting them on over the top of it all. Instead of the rough weapons I owned, I was wearing a pair decorative daggers, one of which that might have qualified as a short sword if it were a hand span longer. Stripping the protective canvas off of my bow, the wood of it was waxed and polished until the dark ironwood nearly glowed as brightly as the Huntresses mark. A token quiver was hastily made of that same dark velvet and braided ribbon, and a handful of arrows that were tipped to penetrate armor were place decoratively in it. Like wise the horn was stripped of its cover and quickly polished to rest at my belt.

Caer who was riding with me in the carriage to the Keep as was Kenneth. While Caer was chatty, Kenneth seemed to have difficulty speaking about every time he looked at me. Though his attention kept dropping from my face to my chest until I covered myself with the cloak. They were dressed in stiff collared decorative black uniforms that had way to many polished buttons and fit so snugly that I wondered how they breathed.

Having commiserated on our mutual clothing woes, Caer gave the rain a glance, “The storm last night pounded the snot out of the army outside of the walls.”

“It nearly pounded the snot out of me,” complained Kenneth as he rubbed his head gingery, “I had the displeasure of having to stand watch during the worst of it.”

“There was fist sized hail on the ground this morning outside the walls when I took over the watch from Kenneth,” explained Caer with a grin in his direction. “What Kenneth isn't saying that rather than having his men suffer, he was keeping storm watch with a few other volunteers along the walls last night. “

My estimation of Kenneth's leadership abilities rose a few notches, “Did they fair as badly as Kenneth?”

“A few were knocked briefly senseless, though they were set to rights, as was Kenneth, by the healers,” said Caer with a smile.

“The enemy faired much so much worse,” said Kenneth with a pleased smile, “so my small amount of suffering is amply rewarded.”

“So are they going to fade away and leave us be?” I asked hopefully.

“Sadly no, and their numbers have swelled slightly, though they are definitely working to stay out of the range of the archers,” said Caer with a wicked sounding chuckle, “your cousins seem frustrated by that.”

“I would be frustrated by it too, were I given the chance,” I complained unhappily, “but instead I am having to play dress up.”

“It is a bit more than that isn't it?” asked Kenneth with a motion to my attire.

“She's going as a representative personage,” said Caer with an odd look at me, “representative of what I was not told, just that she had to have an proper escort.”

Folding my arms over the front of the cloak I sighed, “Providing more trouble and extra complications that I really didn't need.”

“Rumor has it the Marshal and the Baroness brought you crying off the wall along with the Abbess,” semi-stated, semi-asked Caer, “news of your family or kin?”

“Yes, it was related to that,” I said unhappily and sunk deeper in the cowl of the cloak to hide my face.

“And it was important enough that the Baron and Baroness were closeted with almost every high priest and priestess in the city, not an hour afterwards? And then a Coronation?” Kenneth asked quickly.

“Yes, I suppose it was,” I said as a tear wound unseen down my face.

“Leave off Kenneth,” Caer quickly said, “I think were are distressing Jonne.”

“... I will live,” I said as I used the inner lining of the cowl to dry my face.

“I am sorry Jonne, I did not wish to cause you pain,” said Kenneth with an awkward seeming shift in his seat, “but all of the N'relv are closemouthed, angry or teary from the news yesterday.”

“I suspect so,” I mumbled aloud.

“I think what Kenneth is tip toeing about is that you seem more approachable, that they are, and curiosity is one of his besetting sins,” she stopped as I waved a dismissing hand briefly.

“More that I am overloud, brash and unafraid to speak my mind,” I said with a faint smile, “my own besetting sins coming back to haunt me.”

“And here you are not quite dressed as priestess or as befitting a princess, so we are wondering what has occurred,” she paused and then added, “and that all of the N'relv in the city are in attendance at the Keep; well it only adds to the confusion.”

I exhaled slowly and then said tiredly, “I suppose we'll all discover what is entirely afoot shortly.” Though I guessed at some of it, and I shuddered inwardly at the complications it would likely bring.

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Once the carriage stopped, Kenneth and Caer proceeded me out of the carriage, though Kenneth lent a gracious hand as I wrested with my skirts, the bow and quiver. The damp cobblestones of the Keeps interior courtyard wasted little time in dampening my feet through the thin leather sole of the cloth slippers. Reluctantly I handed my bow and quiver to Caer so that I could keep my skirts dry by lifting them higher.

“Don't worry, I am to give them back to you,” Caer said quickly, “and the floors inside will be drier.”

“Not that it will help these shoes,” I grumbled in mild annoyance.

“I would complain that my boots were to tight, if it didn't seem untoward of me,” said Kenneth with a slight grimace.

“I can relate,” said Caer though she shrugged, “our dress boots only get worn irregularly.”

“You don't have duty inside the keep all the time?” I asked with a smile as we entered the foyer of the keep.

“There is a household guard that is tasked with the inner security of the keep,” Kenneth shuddered theatrically, “spare me from such a fate.”

“The Baron keeps us busy enough with the security of the city and the outward security of the keep, when we are not sent out of the city after bandits,” Caer explained with a smile.

Taking my bow and the quiver back from Caer I nodded, “So it is not a bad life then?”

“It has its moments,” said Kenneth as he and Caer seemed to take up station a half pace behind me on either side.

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Rather than being lead to the Barron's court, I was guided to a side room that Caer explained was attached to a ballroom. We had a short wait there in, until a brightly dressed page summoned the three of us to enter the ballroom. In a fit of trepidation I covered my head with the cowl once and again and drew the cloak closer about me nervously. Feeling slightly safer for having done so, I took a deep breath and walked boldly after the page.

A hasty glance at the crowd and the decorations caused me to frown slightly as I was lead to a large throne like chair. Directly behind the chair was a war banner similar to the I had absconded with the day prior, as were a number of N'relv in lesser chairs. Behind and around them were, I presumed, all the N'relv with in the city.

At a minor dais, in chairs similar to mine were the few Council members I remembered, and a goodly number of unfamiliar people, dressed in similar colors. To my eyes most of them seemed disgruntled, if not openly hostile. Then to their left on a different dais were a number of priests and priestesses, all dressed in their ceremonial colors. Idly I noted I could easily be among them for my own attire though the page obliquely hinted I should take the seat before the N'relv.

Turning, I looked deeper into the small crowd behind that chair. Recognizing a kindred amount of pain within many of them, I paused at the chair. Removing the bow and quiver from my shoulder I placed them in the chair and then stepped past it, moving to the people beyond it. Silently I moved among them pausing to hug them or touch hands with them, as tears fairly poured down my face. In our shared pain we didn't need words, it was enough for us to see each others loss and to know it as our own.

Returning to the throne at their front, I was loath to sit in it, as to my mind I was ill suited to be sitting there. So with those feelings running rampant with in me, I removed the thick cushion, leaving my bow and quiver to occupy the throne. Turning back to the N'relv I placed the cushion before them, then kneeling deeply to them all respectfully, I sat upon it, placing myself lower than all of them.

Hiding within the depths of the cowl, I studied the rest of the crowd; finding that my presence and actions had caused a stir within the crowd and it seemingly traveled the length of the ballroom. Serious and yet curious expressions greeted my eyes from those of the Council, where as a few approving nod were given from the priest and priestesses. The High Houses it seemed, were a mixed bag of worry, hope and anger, not to mention some boredom. The Lesser Houses and likely the common folk seemed to be eager and hopeful.

Dejected by the prospective ceremony to come, I turned my face down to my lap and waited for several long minutes. Looking inward to my memories of home, I understood what Fate had meant by them being blurred, and rather than just being able to mourn my own loss familyand home; I had visions and memories of what my home would have been if I had lived as Aelph from birth. Rather than a diminished sense of loss, it was redoubled, and its pain bowed my body in a racking sob, such was the loss those memories represented.

A span of moments later I became aware of a hand upon my shoulder, and I looked up into the face of the Marshal. Silently he drew me briefly into a hug as he knelt there before me. Feeling slightly better from his concern I slowly drew apart from him.

Whispering he said, “If you have not the strength or will to stand when the Baron and Baroness are brought forth, they will understand.” At my nod of understanding he gently kissed my brow and stood up slowly.

Then there were three resounding heavy knocks that vibrated the floor, and then a triumphant sounding series of trumpet blasts rang out stilling the crowd. I heard rather than saw every head turn to the sound of opening doors, scant moments later a choir began and I heard them grow closer, followed audibly by a priest chant a melodious benediction that was echoed in counter point with the chiming of a bell and the rattling of chains as a censer was swung.

Looking up I watched as the Abbess and an elderly Prior of the Truth walked gravely to stand at an altar. Then the Marshal spoke as they took their stations, “On this day past, the highest among us has fallen, both children of the Land have lost parents, guiding hands and those that held wisdom. A conclave of the holiest among us with guidance from above have determined that among the surviving Heirs to the Land, there is none without the mage gift.”

The Marshal waited for the buzz of that pronouncement to die down before speaking again. “The Heir, following the custom and laws of the Land, in witness before the Land, has let it be known that his place is not to lead the Land, but to defend it.” Before the crowd could react, the Marshall loudly added, “Of the N'relv, of the Clan Aelph, only two remain,” stated the Marshal loudly, “the eldest of which is before us.”

Briefly I debated trying to hide via the ring, and escape from all the looks I knew were directed at me, but my fingers stubbornly refused to work. Rather they moved moved up and removed the cowl from my head, revealing my tear strewn face to the crowd. Then I felt rather than heard myself recite an ancient phrase that flowed with will and power, “Kein Kal Lat!” Closing my eyes against the outward flash of light that I knew to be echoed from every N'relv as their flesh would glow with their clans sigils. Standing I let the cloak fall from my shoulders and I turned to face the N'relv that were present, reluctantly letting my own sigil be seen by them.

Instinctively I knew that all across the land all of the sigils would be be evident for the remainder of the day, reminding them that they were among kin. As tears fell I turned and as the grips of compulsion faded and I quickly picked up the cloak and strove to hide myself within it again. As the tears fell, I became aware of a soft keening moan of pain that I only recognized as coming from myself as I choked back on a sob.

Drawing a wracking breath, I managed to say loud enough to be heard, “Continue, for the sake of the Land.”

Nodding gravely the Marshal, “Clan Aelph in such dire standing cannot care for the Land thus. Therefore as custom and precedence has made clear, custodians of the Land are raised up from those worthy.” Turning to face the far doors the Marshal called forth, “Before all the notables present, I call forth Barron B'an Jeroth and his wife Baroness C'an Clarice to take custody of the Land.”

Without the will to look, I ignored the strident trumpets that announced their entrance. Behind me I heard the N'relv stand in respect, though my own limbs failed me when I tried to do the same. Unable to stand I simply waited until they were before me and then I forced my body into a bow that let my tears drop wetly to the polished floor. There I remained until I felt a pair of hands take my shoulders and raise me up right to look up into the faces of the Baron and Baroness.

With a gentle hand the Baron softly traced the sigil I knew to be on my forehead, “S'Aelph, Jonne... I understand the cost of all of this. If there is anything...?”

Some how I found the strength of will to speak clearly among my tears, “I can only ask that you rule well and wisely, that you rule with justice tempered by compassion, that you guard well and protect the Land and its peoples that you are to be entrusted with.”

“Thus it is shown to me that you are indeed highly born Jonne,” nodding gravely he added, “I will strive to bring what you ask to fruition in all ways.”

“As will I,” quickly said the Baroness.

“For the Land's sake, you have my blessing, as poor as it is,” I said tiredly as I looked from them to the Marshal and the waiting priest and priestess, “go on now, the Land calls you forth.”

Resting his hand upon my head the Baron smiled gently, “I will not count your blessing as a small thing Sha'na Aelph.”

“Nor will I,” said the Baroness as she paused to dry my tears with a cloth before placing it into my hands, “I know its worth.”

Standing upright the Baron looked past me to the N'relv, “Your pain is the Land's pain, and our own. I will strive in all things to bring justice to those responsible, and to protect and defend the Land from those that mean it ill.”

“We ask no less,” I replied as if directed by some unseen force.

With a grave bow directed more to the N'relv than me, they turned and walked the short distance to the altar and knelt down on the cushions there. At a quiet word of instruction from the Abbess they removed their Baronial Coronets and surrendered them to a matching set of pages. Then there were three more heavy knocks on the floor, of which this time I saw were from the heavy staff of a senschal and another cascading crescendo of trumpet notes.

As the Marshal turned to lift a heavy book from a stand, I saw an odd distortion in the air, pass between him and myself. A shocking cold rush of fear from an old yet twisting memory spasmed up through me. Unbidden, seemingly familiar words of power fell from my lips in a soft chant, and on the last syllable a handful of armed men seemingly appeared out of thin air. Yet rather than the shocked protests I expected, everyone seemed to ignore their presence.

Cold anger filled me as I drew a blade from my belt, and rising up from the cushion I screamed, “Beware treachery! To arms!” and then hurled myself at the nearest enemie's legs.

Falling in a tangle around me, I finally heard the panicked screams begin as I slammed the dagger home into the man's back several times rapidly. As a madness seemed to grip me, I threw the dagger I had plunged into man's back at the one that menaced the Baroness. As it sunk into his shoulder a brightly dressed Ston'Kinder then assaulted him with his hammer smashing him down . Clutching at my belt I found the Huntress's hunting horn, and in one motion I drew breath and raised it to my lips; then as odd echoes of memory stirred me as I blew a quick call to arms, but not a call to the 'Hunt.'

Turning from his attack on the Barron, a man in dark leathers raised his bastard sword and stepped towards me. As I tried to stand and draw the longer of the two daggers, I stumbled backwards as the dress knotted up around my legs. In what felt like air made thick with molasses I tried to parry his descending blade with the dagger. Then gripped in horror, I watched as his heavier blade crashed onto the dagger shattering it, and as the shards of it stung my face I fell backwards trying to evade the worst of the coming blow.

Time seemingly resumed twice over, and with a sickening crunch I felt his blade throw me downwards to the marble floor. Unable to breath from the force of the blow, I felt my head snap back against the floor as I didn't quite bounce. Stunned and gasping I tried to raise the horn to ward off what I knew was my certain death, as the man took a step pinning me down with my skirts.

In mute horror I watched as the sword loomed over me, the wet blood on it dripping down the point as it arched downwards at my chest. In the instant I expected my death, I saw the man's cruel smile disappear into a cloud of blood as a large thrown hammer knocked him backwards. Lost in the moment, I barely registered the wildly spinning sword for what it was, as it crashed into my face a scant moment before darkness claimed me to the odd chiming of the horn as it clattered to the floor.

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Drawing his own sword, the Barron barely had time to come up into guard as the last attacker threw himself frantically at him. Stunned by the ferocity of the attack the Barron focused solely on defending himself from the blurring steel. Circling, he drew his attacker away from his wife and the horrified priestly pair at the altar. Then just as he set himself to go on the offensive, his attacker disappeared under a shrieking pile of N'relv. Surprised by the suddenly savage display of enraged N'relvs he took a step backwards, and then carefully looked around for more threats.

Freezing in place at the sight of a battered and bleeding Jonne being ripped from her clothing so that her wounds could be tended, he took a deep breath. Turning away from the sight of white bone visible beneath her savaged breast, he swallowed hard and forced himself to call for order.

“I want the Keep and the City searched for more intruders!” he bellowed allowing the surge of anger to fill his voice. Turning the to shocked masses he shouted, “Be still! All of you! We will not surrender ourselves to terror like little children!”

Running his hands through his hair he watched as Jonne was quickly carried to a side chamber by both the N'relv and several black robed Revered Mothers. A grave looking Ston'Kinder spat upon the pulped corpse of one on the attackers before recovering his gore encrusted hammer. Then after a grave bow the Ston'Kinder, he turned and bowed respectfully to the Baron before returning to an angry looking clump of his kin.

Then seeing the High Houses and the Council preparing to leave, he pointed an angry hand at them, then he shouted, “You will sit down! No one is going anywhere until answers are obtained.”

Glaring as they slowly took their places he became aware of a small N'relv girl tugging at his pants leg. Bighting back on his anger, he patted her on the head gently. “Yes child?” he asked as he forced his tone to be gentle.

“Are you king now?” she asked as she looked up at him with an intent expression.

“No, child,” he answered with a sigh. “Not yet, I am not to be king but viceroy first; I would hold the Land in trust for a time first.”

“Then you would be king?” she asked as she drew him by the and to the altar and his wife.

“Perhaps,” he said as the child walked to where two crowns sat on the altar.

“The S'Aelph fought for you,” said the child as she picked up the crown and studied it.

“Yes, yes she did,” said the Barron as the child looked at him through the crown.

“Then you must be a good man,” she said simply as she nodded to herself.

“I try to be,” he admitted with a soft laugh, “some times I succeed.”

She giggled softly, “Yeah me too, so you just put in on and you are Viceroy?”

“Well someone else has to put it on me,” sighing he added, “but first I have to promise to take care of the Land and its Peoples.”

“So...” her brow scrunched up in thought as she looked up at him, “do you promise?”

Feeling oddly compelled he nodded somberly, “I promise to take care of the Land and its Peoples, devoting my life to it's care.”

Looking from him to his wife the girl asked, “Do you, too promise?”

“Yes, I do,” said his wife as she took his hand.

Frowning the girl looked up at him with a faintly annoyed grimace, “I can't reach your head to put it on you.”

“Then I suppose I must kneel,” he said and he did on both knees, “like this?”

Smiling brilliantly the girl nodded, “Perfect,” she said and then placed it carefully on him. After a moment she blinked and said, “Are you just going to sit there? Don't you have something to do as well?”

Standing he reached to the altar and then took the companion crown and set it gently on his kneeling wife's head. Looking to the girl he asked, “Better?”

Grinning the girl briefly glowed with a hazy rose luminescence, “Outstanding, now get this mess sorted out A'na Jereth, and quickly.”

Blinking as the girl rushed off and into the gathered clump of N'relv, he took his wife by the hand and after a kiss, walked to where the N'relv seemingly waited. “Cousins are you satisfied?” he asked quietly.

An N'relv woman, elderly even for the N'relv Elder's glanced skyward and then smiled gently, “We do not argue the choices made by the Powers. Nor would we argue against a choice made by our Sha'na Aelph in such a fashion.” She paused to indicate the red smear of blood where Jonne had been struck down. “Just be worthy of it.”

“I will do my utmost to be worthy. She's not dead?” he asked cautiously as he glanced to the door where a trio of angry N'relv stood guard with naked blades at the ready.

“She was gravely wounded, but the Gods and Goddesses of the Land seem determined she live,” said the Elder with a faint smile. “I expect she will have scars but she will survive.”

“Good,” and with a respectful nod he walked with his wife and faced the Council and then the High Houses. Loudly he questioned the two groups, “Having the blessing of the Gods, Goddess and the N'relv, does anyone here care to make a claim of position to be recognized by my authority as Viceroy?”

The large council leader stood slowly and briefly glancing to his companions he loudly said, “We have no such claim.”

Nodding he walked to stand before the members of the High Houses in attendance, and after a longish paused he asked in a commanding tone, “Well?”

A lone figure dressed in crimson stood up, “I would lie if I did not say I had reservations concerning this days events. However while I do not lay claim against you, though I have but one complaint.”

“Which is Lord Marques?” A'na Jereth replied calmly as he identified the man.

“It is evident to many of us that the Council's authority in matters concerning the defense of the Land has run unchecked, and to the Land's detriment.” Lord Marques gestured to everyone present, then pointing to the blood on the floor in emphasis he then said, “And while some of the fault lies at all of our mutual feet, I must demand that until the Land is secured; that all matters concerning it's security be removed from the Council's purview.”

As the Council rose up in loud protest, A'na Jereth held up a hand to still them and then looked to where the representatives of the Powers sat. “What say you to this?”

“It is not our place to say how you should govern, Viceroy,” said a man's voice from among the seated priests and priestesses. “However as our sister, Jonne the Sha'na Aelph among the N'relv has made know to you and the Council, there is complaint.”

“And Jonne is hardly circumspect in her complaints,” A'na Jereth acknowledge with dry humor as he nodded his head. Looking to the people of the lower houses then to the masses behind them he turned back to Lord Marques. “I recognize that your complaint is valid before this court Lord Marques, and I will seek to address it properly. Yet this is not the time to discuss it in detail, as an enemy is at our gates. “

“Agreed,” said Lord Marques. “As such you have support of the High Houses, Viceroy A'na Jereth as does your wife.”

“Having no challenges and but one complaint, I Viceroy A'na Jereth, do declare this court closed,” shaking his head he added. “I trust you will pardon my absence from the reception, I must see to the continued security of us all.”

Signaling the senschal, A'na Jereth waited for the required three thumps of the staff and the trumpets to be blown before he shouted. “Officers report to my chamber directly!”

As he collected his officers, A'na Jereth turned to look at the reddish blackening stains on the ballroom floor and muttered, “Hell of damned way to do things.”

The Marshal gravely nodded, “I have to agree, Viceroy.”

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Watching as one of the Ston'Kinder stooped to recover the broken pieces of the blade that had shattered in Jonne's hand, the Vicereine froze as the Ston'Kinder barked a command at one of his kin. Seeing them quickly examine then sniff at the bastard sword's blade suspiciously she felt a worried pang tug at her heart. Hastily the Ston'Kinder approached the elderly N'relv and gesture from the sword to the room where Jonne was being tended excitedly. Skirting the blood stained floor and the bodies, she walked hurriedly to they discussed things urgently.

“... Yes I am certain that the blade is poisoned,” explained the stout Ston'Kinder, “it fairly reeks of it.”

With a snapping movement the elderly N'relv barked a series of orders to the guards, causing one to bolt inside that room with haste. Bowing in respect to the Ston'Kinder the elder turned and essayed a slightly deeper bow to her. “It would appear that Jonne and the healers will have to contend with poison as well as her wounds.”

“The assassins it would seem were taking no chances,” stated the Ston'Kinder unhappily. “I am T'al Krennoth. While I am not high in my clan, I think it would not be untoward of me to offer my congratulations, and condolences this day.”

“As B-, ah, Vicereine on behalf of the Viceroy, I accept them in the spirit in which they are given.” Shaking her head slightly she added, “I would commend the one who's hammer did preserve the S'Aelph Jonne.”

“As would we,” said the elderly N'relv lady as she nodded first to the Vicereine then the Ston'Kinder, “I am Cha'na Sereanne, and I have the distinction of being the second eldest of my clan, seconded by my husband, and the duty of being the second highest of rank among the N'relv present.“

“My youngest does have a stout arm,” said Krennoth with a pleased nod at one of the Ston'Kinder that were studying the horn Jonne had blown. “D'al Sart! Quit your study and return the horn to the N'relv.” Sighing he shook his head, “You must pardon the lad, his artistic nature does him credit to the clan, though it often worries me.”

Looking startled and then sheepish, the muscular Ston'Kinger approached and with a hasty bow to everyone he presented the horn to C'na Sereanne, “I beg your pardon, but the metal work of it is richly done.”

Lifting the horn up for closer examination C'na Sereanne, blinked once as her eyes widened in mild shock she looked back at them all, ”It is a horn of Kernunos ,the leader of the Wild Hunt. Carrying it and a bow of the Huntress, wearing robes of dedication to the Goddess and the Huntress this day, does the child not fairly drip with destiny?”

“So it would appear,” stated Krennoth with a somber nod, “or a hard life of service to the Land.“

“I fear both and the latter for her,” said the Vicereine with a troubled look back to where servants attempted to cleanse the signs of the brief battle.

“It is said at the forge, that one is shaped by the tools one would use there,” stated Sart firmly as he tapped his hammer deliberately, “such I have seen in my own body.”

“Shaped or wrecked by them?” asked the Vicereine with a worried glance back to the closed room.

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“We seem to have the last of them,” said Caer in report a few hours later to the Marshal. “And we think we know how they have gained entrance to the city.”

“Go on,” said A'na Jereth as he studied a map of the city and the outlying lands around it.

“According to the prisoners we managed to take, they were brought in by magick,” she paused as he focused on her, “and that the mages that cast the spell had been in the city for a few weeks. Also that the assassins and soldiers arrived just this last night and this morning in groups of five, but the prisoner also said he had seen entire platoons sent through the gateways, as he called it.”

“That sounds a bit far fetched, yet given we had nearly a platoon and a half of them in the city, undetected until the attack today, it must be possible,” said the Marshal with a frown of concern.

“Are the mages accounted for among the dead?” asked A'na Jereth as he tapped the map thoughtfully.

“Yes Viceroy, we were forced to kill them as they were attempting to summon something unpleasant into the city,” said a red robed priest with small shudder. “They seem to delight in sacrifice and suffering, as we found no few bodies among them. We suspect that they fueled their 'gateway' spells by those violent deaths, as trying to fuel such a spell using their own power might use up ones entire life force in an instant.”

“So a handful of these mages could move through about the Land relatively undetected, and deploy troops and or more mages to do the same?” asked A'na Jereth thoughtfully.

“We suspect it is the case,” said the priest firmly, “though it does seem to produce notable effects on the weather, as evinced by last nights storms.”

“Which would account for the swelling of numbers in the enemies ranks, despite significant losses,” said A'na Jereth in disgust, “evidently we need to make the elimination of their mages a priority.”

“Yes Viceroy,” said the Marshal with a nod, “before their numbers increase yet again.”

“While I am loathe to ask our own mages and priests to use their skills for destruction rather than defense, it seems I must.” With a worried look to the others A'na Jereth said, “We've seen the wastelands left over from the Near Ending, I've no desire to see the Land thus marred if we can avoid it. Therefore instruct the mages and priests to 'attempt' to use the least destructive means possible to remove the enemy mages from the battlefield.”

“I will relay those instructions,” said the Marshal with a grave nod.

“Also I want reports of any odd weather through out the Land brought to my attention as they come in.” Sighing A'na Jereth added, “It might be too late to stop the enemy from arriving but having an idea where they are amassing will help the army.

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The scent of flowers and grass tickled my nose, causing me to awaken slowly as a shadow crossed over my eyelids. The sun lay on the horizon as a great orange ball among red fired clouds, that promised a chance of rain. The soft cloth of a thick blanket lay under me, as the fading sun warmed my naked body, I could hear a series of soft giggles and I turned on my side to look for them.

“So Ari,” said one I recognized as the Goddess as she smiled at me, “I see you are, as ever, still one to act rather than sit idle.”

“As ever,” I said with a sigh and then a lazy smile, “I guess I am stubborn that way.”

“It has its merits, that stubbornness is one of the reasons we love you,” said the Huntress as she reached over and tousled my hair. “Though we could wish you would find yourself less battered.”

Laughing Fate poked at my foot, “Not that we can argue your effect upon the fabric of the Land and your results, much.”

Rolling my eyes at Fate I said, “It's not like I am exactly working with a script or sonnet you know.”

“Yes we know,” said Fate with a pained sigh, “there are whole sections of the cloth missing yet, and still I weave trying for the best result from the fragments.”

“Yes and we've come to understand that we've a problem,” said the Huntress with a nod to Fate.

Coughing in mild protest the Goddess gave a dramatic sigh, “It would have worked out well enough.”

“In maybe twenty years,” said the Huntress as she seemingly blushed.

“Should I panic now?” I asked as I looked that them as they studiously avoided looking at me and each other.

“Well... not exactly panic,” said Fate as she lifted a bit of cloth she was working with.

“We erred slightly on the side of caution,” said the Goddess as she ducked her head slightly, “I made you magically active, and female and N'relv.”

“Then I butted in and made you a bit keener in the wild, strengthening you in the process,” said the Huntress with a rueful smile, “not that it hasn't suited you.”

“Yes and then I fixed their mistakes, maybe compounding them slightly,” said Fate with an annoyed groan of disgust as she looked at the cloth again. “I should know better than to take shortcuts, but the weave is holding firm.”

“Funny I don't feel all that different,” I said as I tried to get a sense of where this was going.

“Its not you, exactly that is the problem,” said the Goddess with a shake of her head, “right now you are still battered, and bloody rather than healed and resting in a dream.”

“Oh, so I am dying?” I asked feeling a bit worried and oddly, slightly relieved.

“No, the blade that was used upon you was poisoned, so they are having to let your body fight off that before they can accelerate your healing,” explained the Huntress, “some of that strengthening I mentioned is related to that.”

“Oh, wonderful, I said as I lay back to look upwards.

“Which means,” said the Goddess with a worried look at me, “we have to decide how you are to be healed, and how fast.”

“What they are tiptoeing about is that no matter how they heal you, there are going to be circumstances and problems for you, and by second hand, the Land.” Fate said as she grabbed one of my toes adding, “Personally I would simply roll the dice and see how things shook out.”

“We can force your body to heal itself, getting you back on your feet in the day, but it would leave you scarred but functional,” said the Goddess with a wince. “Though you would have some small lingering pains until your body adjusted to them.”

“Or we let your body heal slowly or heal naturally so that your appearance is only minimally impacted, but you would be physically weaker for a much longer time,” said the Huntress with a worried frown. “Not that you would not recover your full strength

“Or we use a gift of your 'new found' clan and put you into a regeneration of sorts,” Fate said with a chuckle, “but that would likely make you appear to be nearly six years younger. Basically changing your stature, physical strength and your appearance slightly.”

For a time I lay there quietly, “Well none of those three sound like any kind of fun, I'm eighteen and considered a child by some, looking twelve would make things worse in that way.”

“While the scars would not be too disfiguring,” said the Goddess with a pause, “they would make you even more noticeable, until they faded naturally.”

“Which if I am trying to be circumspect, would make me stick out in a crowd,” I said with a nod to her.

“While the slow route of healing would diminish that, the binding problem is that it would take time for you to heal, then time for you to recover your strength,” said the Huntress with a frown. “Which causes more problems for the Land.”

“Ugh, so I take it we are on the horns of a dilemma?” I asked the three of them.

“Of a sort, we have an idea, a blending of the three healings, but the real issue is how much you are willing to bear?” asked Fate somberly as she looked at me, “Already a part of your spirit would welcome death, release from all of your pain.”

“Its not that I want to die,” I said as I looked at them, “but I would be lying if I didn't want it to end, and that I feel like pulling a blanket up over my head until it all passes.”

“Not that I blame you there,” said the Huntress with a pained look, “lesser people have broke under less strain.”

“Its not a good solution, its not even a great solution,” said the Goddess unhappily, “but it is a solution that would get you on your feet again.”

“Well I've come this far,” I said as I sat up slowly, “one of my old instructors used to tell me frequently: 'If it wasn't painful you wouldn't learn not to do it again.' He was a sadistic bastard though.”

Fate sat closer wrapping her arms around me briefly and then she looked me in the eyes, “Some times to be kind is to be cruel.” With that she stuck her hand into my chest and pulled out my heart, briefly showing it to me as it pulsed and I struggled to gasp out a protest beyond the pain. “This is going to hurt,” she said as she showed me a huge long knitting needle and shoved it deep into both of my eyes, “Try not to hate me too much.” Then she kissed me and there was blackness and I felt myself falling, and falling until I knew nothing.

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As A'na Jereth looked over the wall out at the enemy in the predawn light , the Marshal said, “Well if fighting mad and screaming though the pain, about how she's going to kick someones ass is a good sign, Jonne will live.”

Chuckling Jereth nodded, “She has a fighters spirit for certain, I shudder to think what she'll be like in a few days if she is that way when wounded.”

“I have no idea, though I suspect we shall hear of it,” the Marshal shook his head, “though I am glad she is alive.”

“As am I, though I am amazed that the Aelph would let her loose upon the world like that,” said Jereth with a thoughtful grumble, “without minders, and so on.”

With a grave chuckle the Marshal said, “I doubt she asked permission, though her parents might have sent her off for a bit of breathing space or peace.”

Snorting in amusement Jereth said, “That I can believe.”

“Shall I signal the mages to begin?” asked the Marshal quietly.

“Regretfully, yes it is time,” said Jereth with a frown, “with luck history will remember me gently for doing so.”

“History is often written by the victorious or by the survivors, Viceroy,” observed the Marshal with a faint nod.

“Then let us endeavor to win, not just survive. Order the attacks to begin,” said Jereth as he lifted his spyglass, “I want to have the enemy unable to call in reinforcements as the army should be in range to attack within the day.”

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Dimly I recalled waking up to pain a few times, and screaming at the mixture of pain, anger and horror from it all. Then I would get some sort of vile concoction to drink that sent me back into either unconsciousness or delirium. In the way too long moments of being conscious and aware of nothing but the pain I tried to grasp what was being done for me or done to me. Vaguely I recalled demanding or rather screaming through the pain, that the coronation continue, and of other times being told over and over that it had been.

So when I awoke to a burning pain that seemed to fill my chest, part of my face, and every single muscle in my body, I wasn't entirely surprised by it. No the surprising bit was that I was looking up into the face of what I was sure was an assassin, I could tell this by the way he was holding a knife to my throat. That and most of his body was covered in black cloth and black silk, including half of his face, though from his expression I could tell he was annoyed.

Oddly enough I wasn't frightened by him, but I was a bit angry about my predicament. “So are you going to kill me, now or just threaten me a bit and bore me to death, and then kill me?” I hissed as I tried to speak with a dry tongue.

“Perhaps you will die, perhaps you won't. I prefer that my kills be worth the effort and risk,” he gave me a deliberate look, “not mostly dead and tied down for me.”

“Great, so sorry to inconvenience you,” I muttered in disgust.

“Still in all fairness to my employer, I have to make some sort of effort,” he shrugged slightly, ”its nothing personal.”

“I can tell,” I said with every once of sarcasm I could muster.

“So rather than kill you out right, I have overdosed you with the same anti-venom you have been slowly treated with.” He paused briefly and then added, “The problem with things that cure a poison or venom from a person, is that they likely are just as toxic as the thing they are trying to cure.”

“The irony of the situation is not lost on me,” I muttered through thick lips.

“You do have a remote chance at survival,” he said with a chuckle, “you are young, and you already have poison in your system already for the anti-venom to work against. Sometimes a slow conservative treatment is wise, other times the all out treatment plan is best.”

“Won-der-ful,” I managed to utter.

“Regrettably I will be far from here while you suffer through it and live or just die if your body gives up from under the strain.” Shaking his head I could see him smile through the mask, “On the off chance you should survive, you will not have to worry about a second visit from me as I never revisit a target. Though I may check up on you out of curiosity.”

“So kind of you,” I said as I blinked a few times to clear the spots from my eyes.

“Should you be conscious and able to speak when your dead nurses are discovered, do tell them that you have been overdosed with anti-venom.” He chuckled slightly, “Small doses of poison every hour or so, should help you to survive; but you are going to know pain in very personal way.”

As my eyes swam oddly I managed to suck in enough air to scream or at least try to, as he then stuffed a thick wad of cloth into my mouth and then tied it in place. “Sorry, I can't have you screaming for help, but actually it will keep you from biting your tongue in half when the seizures or spasms start. Its one of the side effects of that particular anti-venom, which is why you are likely tied down in the first place.”

Unable to do much more than grunt, I did so.

“Sorry, I didn't get that, but then again I have to be going,” and with that he patted me on the head and walked out of sight. A scant moment later there was an brilliant flash of light, “And now as odd as it might seem of me to say so, goodbye and good luck.”

A second odd flash of light seemed to signal his departure, but by then I was too occupied trying to scream through the gag as every single muscle in my legs knotted up. Violently. Continuously.

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“I had gone out to get food for myself, and a broth for Jonne, only to discover two of my sisters slain and Jonne thus when I returned,” said the Abbess as she wrung out the rag and placed it on the semi-conscious girls head.

“It makes little sense,” said Lord Marques as he examined the empty vials of anti-venom, “if the goal was to kill the child there are far more certain ways to do so.”

“True,” said the Vicereine with a shake of her head, “if it was meant as a political statement thought, it might make a sick sort of sense.”

“Killing Jonne, as she is effectively in a clan of two members, would not elevate anyone to a position of power really,” said C'na Sereanne as she glanced to the others. “She's also not of an age to where she could guide the Clans either or give advice that would have a lasting impact. So if we discount any political power on her account, we only have murder for murder's sake.”

“Not exactly, and this goes no further than this room,” said the Abbess as she looked at the two for a moment, “Jonne was not born female, nor fully N'relv, though she technically was a part of Clan Aelph.”

“People blunder into change fields,” said Lord Marques dismissively, “there is no stigma attached to those that remain changed of their own will.”

“One of my grandsons was such,” said C'na Sereanne with a shake of her head, “her mother despaired for a time, but the lass is happily married.”

“It is a bit more complicated than that,” said the Abbess with a shake of her head, “considering she was born as D'haela'na'ne Ari.”

“The Fop Prince?” asked Lord Marquez with an incredulous shake of his head. “Though I had heard that he spent most of last year as a girl and in a temple, and in various beds.”

“The follies of the youth aside, Ari was transformed to be fully N'relv and female by the Goddess and a gift for magick awakened in her.” Pausing the Abbess said with a light touch on the girls head, “I think of the two changes, the gift for magick was more traumatic for her, than being made fully N'relv or female.”

“As having magick would remove her from being in line for the throne,” said the Vicereine with a nod, “which would explain why she sounds a bit bitter when rank or position was mentioned around her, before last night.”

At the confused looks of the others the Abbess said, “The night before last, the Marshal was the catalyst of the Prince's formal abdication, up until then only the Revered Mothers and a few others knew Jonne to be D'ne Ari.”

“Though there is report of the Prince being at two battles, recently,” stated Lord Marquez with a curious tone.

“One of which was Jonne's actions, the other by one of the few that know her for being the Prince.” Shaking her head the Abbess said, “The Bard in question, is playing at being the Prince to draw possible enemies away from Jonne.”

“Ah, which begs the question, why would she need attention drawn from her? Given that she is effectively disguised and with the changing of a name mostly anonymous?” Chuckling Lord Marquez added, “And her seemingly making a name for herself before a few courts, loudly and vigorously.”

“Jonne is tasked with recovering certain items that would allow one person to possibly defeat a Mage King,” said the Abbess as she paused to wipe sweat from the child's face. “As Jonne is so fond of saying; she is on Journey.”

“The Goddess set the Fop Prince upon a heroes quest, surely you jest?” asked Lord Marquez in evident disbelief.

“It is said that the Prince gives himself to harsh training with the sword without much complaint. As out of character it might seem, I have never held ill about him mentioned when he was fostered among the Aelph for a time,” C'na Sereanna observed thoughtfully. “Nor have I heard that he was a dullard, and I have heard of him having a nack for interpreting the Laws of the Land, to his own benefit at times. ”

“Ari did share with his father a strong sense of Justice,” said the Abbess quietly, “Goddess grant the King rest.”

“Indeed,” said C'na Serenanna quietly, and for a moment remained silent. “I don't think any of the Revered Mothers would have acknowledged Jonne as Ari under duress.” At the Abbesses nod she sighed, “Politically, her death during the coronation along with the Viceroy and Vicereine's death would seem logical and could be attributed as an enemy action. However, sending an assassin after a child with no real political power would gain the enemy nothing.”

“So you suggest that this attack on Jonne is not related to last night?” asked the Vicereine with a frown.

“Yes, for if the enemy was going to set an assassin after someone, the Vicereine or the Viceroy or any of the military commanders would make more sense. So who would gain satisfaction from Jonne's death or punishment?” asked C'na Sereanna as she stood up to walk to the window.

“The Council,” said Lord Marquez cooly, “as Jonne herself embarrassed them and she does seem to be outside of their legal jurisdiction to punish her or censure her; given she has broken no laws of the Land.”

The Abbess looked back to Lord Marquez, “Then you would likely be as much of a target as Jonne, such being the case.”

“Such it being the case, we won't know for certain until I am attacked,” Lord Marquez stood up and smiled tightly, “unlike Jonne, I am not injured and defenseless. If you ladies will pardon me, I must see about preparing a trap.” Standing up he glanced to the child and the Abbess, “Jonne is but Jonne in my mind, and I know her not otherwise.”

“Your silence is welcomed, Lord Marquez,” said the Abbess with a smile. “Goddess keep you from harm.”

“Lord Marquez tarry a moment,” said the Vicereine quickly as seemingly had sudden inspiration, then she removed a ring and held it up to him. “I as Vicereine do set you as Our investigator in this matter. Should you discover proof of the Council's perfidy, I authorize you to act as such to bring them to justice.”

Gravely Lord Marquez knelt to take the ring hold her hands cupped in his, “By my oath I swear only to act in the cause of Justice.”

“Witnessed before the Goddess,” said the Abbess as she glowed, “hunt well.”

“And by an Elder of the N'relv,“ said C'na Sereane quickly if a bit uncertainly.

“Then carry out your duties Lord Inquisitor,” said the Vicereine with a faint smile.

“By your command,” Lord Marquez said calmly as he stood up and placed the ring on a finger.

“The Viceroy and I will likely have to make some proclamation as some point concerning your position, however for the moment, let secrecy be your watch word, and caution your friend,” said the Vicereine with a pleased but thoughtful smile.

“You might make mention that such investigators are being sought and mention my name as a possible candidate,” Lord Marquez said with a thoughtful expression, “maybe asking for recommendations of the Council for such a position.”

“If the Council is indeed looking to use assassins to further their own power it might draw an attack to you,” said the C'na Sereanne with a please nod, “do try to remain whole.”

“I assure you I will so endeavor, as such I am going to prepare,” with that Lord Marquez essayed a bow and made his way out the door.

“Treachery among the High Court tis a dangerous game,” said C'na Sereanna as she turned back to the window, “should this city become the capital of the Land, the Council members that live here, could see their power grow as the city grew.”

“With luck it will turn out as much about nothing, but should it be that the Council is using murder to advance their power, it needs to be rooted out now.” Standing the Vicereine said calmly, “I welcome both of your councils and I would be pleased if you considered yourselves as part of my court.”

“An auspicious beginning,” said the Abbess as she briefly glowed and then seemingly woke up to smile, “as she seemingly approves, I will consider myself as such.”

“I am not used to the Power's attentions, yet I know that is they suggest that it has merit, that I should lend myself to it.” Chuckling C'na Sereanna said, “Though you may find that I am set in my ways and customs.”

“I have no doubt that it will be educational,” said the Vicereine with a smile.

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Panting, Caer shook off a shudder of revulsion as she stepped back from the monstrosity she had helped put down in this last attack. Stepping forward, a N'relv with an axe quickly separated the misshapen head from the unholy cross blending of a spider, man and lizard from the disturbing corpse. Then with little ceremony the N'relve, with the help of a few others pushed the remains of it back over the wall and then reclaimed his bow.

The wall itself had seen its own share of abuse in the odd exchange of attacks between the mages, clerics and enemy mages. The bit she now stood on having melted and sagged under the forces unleashed in the predawn attack. Though while it was successful for the most part, one of the enemy mages survived to plague the city. But it did not come without cost, as several mages and priests died alongside of the other defenders, then there were the others that were driven mad by the twisted energies.

“So Caer,” said the Marshal as he nodded to her, “anything unusual to report?”

Laughing oddly Caer shook her head, “Just the odd monstrosity yet again, though I think the enemy commander is fighting cautiously now.”

“Yes it would seem so, keeping his men back while the monsters attack, and then only committing to battle if it seems we are hard pressed,” noted the Marshal pointing out to were the enemy army stood out of bow shot. “Abrasive as Jonne is, I would give a small fortune to have a company of similarly skilled bowmen, attitudes and all.”

“How is Jonne?” asked Caer as she watched the enemy critically.

“Alive, but only just,” said the Marshal with an angry gesture in the direction of the enemy. “They think they can stop administering poison in the next few hours, then it only will be a matter of time before they can heal her.”

“So going to check on her would be a waste of time,” said Caer with an unhappy frown.

“If she were alert, she might welcome your company as a distraction from the pain. However, the few moments she is conscious she isn't entirely coherent, calling for her parents in both peoples tongues when she can speak,” sighing the Marshal looked down to the melted stone. “The Abbess at times seems greatly distraught or angered beyond words.”

“Such one would expect of a deeply spiritual person, tending to a child afflicted thus,” said the Viceroy as he approached. “Lord Marquez, should he approach you, for troops or assistance, should be granted such. My wife has created Lord Marquez as Inquisitor to investigate if the Council or others are responsible for the attack on Jonne, and possibly other matters.”

“Publicly or privately?” asked the Marshal quietly.

“Privately for the moment,” the Viceroy smiled tightly, “I am seeing if he is able before I commit to a public announcement.”

“Ah, so you are testing him?” asked Caer quickly.

“As I would test any of my officers Caer,” said the Viceroy with a nod to her, “I stopped a moment to see Kenneth at the healers. He insists he will be back on the wall this evening, despite his burns and loss of several fingers on his off hand.”

“Hopefully he will be healed before then,” said Caer with a frown.

“He is insisting that the healers tend to the more grievously injured among the men first,” shaking his head the Viscount added, “we will have to see about promoting the lad. However I did mention that he had to be fit for duty before retaking a place on the wall.”

“And your own wounds?” asked the Marshal in a chiding tone.

“Are sewn and not likely to keep me from bellowing orders, even if I won't be carrying a shield for a while,” said the Viceroy with a hearty chuckle. “Though I will make time for more of a healing when I take my meal, lest my wife take command of the wall.”

“After first knocking you out?” asked Caer with a smile.

“Something along those lines,” admitted the Viceroy with glance to the enemy. “Another day, maybe two and we should be free of this annoyance. Also, we've word from Land's Home and the Capital. There are survivors from the far outskirts of the two cities, but the cities are largely melted holes in the ground, covered with broken stone and ashes.”

“Any idea on how many are dead?” asked Caer as she stared at the Viceroy.

“Looking at last years census records for the two cities and a few maps, I can only estimate the death count as thousands upon hundred of thousands being dead,” said the Viceroy with a pained look at sky. “Of the wounded, we don't know yet.”

“Is there enough aid and relief for those survivors?” asked the Marshal quietly.

“The outlying communities have rushed in, and the bulk army that isn't embattled or on their way here, is moving to support them,” turning the Viceroy studied Caer for a moment, “I would like you to go be my eyes in those two areas, to act with my voice and hand should it be needed.”

“Once we are free of this?” asked Caer pointing a hand to the enemy.

“Yes, Kenneth should be able to manage the garrison force here, considering an army will be moving in and establishing a base within and out of the city.” The Viceroy added with a smile, “And I will have many generals and commanders to task with the defense of the Land, but I do not know them like l know you.”

Looking slightly embarrassed as she blushed slightly, Caer nodded, “I am honored by your faith in me.”

“Just do not end up dead before then or during,” said the Viceroy with a chuckle, “I'm not sure I could part with the Marshal for overlong.”

“And I despair of traveling,” said the Marshal dryly as he looked at the sky, “in my advanced years I find that having to spend hours upon hours astride a horse to be difficult.”

“I'll keep that in mind,” sighing Caer adjusted her helmet and unsheathed her sword using it to point at the enemy rushing towards the city, “now if you two will withdraw from the wall, it seems the enemy wishes to attack again.”

As he quickly glanced at the enemy and turned to go, the Viceroy jokingly said, “By your command, Commander.”

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“I trust you will forgive the lateness of the hour,” said the black covered man to Lord Marquez as he moved the other man upright to sit against the wall.

“If I were able to stand I would make your regret your actions,” said Lord Marquez with an annoyed grunt.

“Well yes I am sure you would try, however as much as it may come as a surprise to you, this is more of a social call,” said the man as he appeared to smile.

“Funny, I don't exactly feel the need to be social,” said Lord Marquez as his bloodshot green eyes focused on his assailant.

Laughing the man picked up an overturned chair and sat on it, after first placing a bag the bulged oddly in front of the chair between him and Lord Marquez. “And I even brought presents of a macabre yet informative nature.”

“I take it yelling for assistance would be counter productive?” asked Lord Marquez in evident annoyance.

“Your staff is mostly unharmed, yet unresponsive at this time, I was forced to bandage your manservant though, as he managed to actually engage me briefly. You should definitely keep him on your staff,” said the man with an approving nod.

“You seem to have my undivided attention then,” said Lord Marquez somberly.

Nodding the man said, “I am if you must know am called Raven, and you are Lord Marquez, recently made Lord Inquisitor... thus we negate the need for a trifling amount courtesy,” Raven said with a slight bow.

“Charmed I am sure,” said Lord Marquez sounding grumpy as he did so.

“Quite rightly. However, as you must have guessed I was privy to your elevation, and the interesting discussion preceding it,” said Raven with a soft chuckle. “The child yet lives, if you were wondering?”

“I am relieved, so Raven, not having heard of you, I trust you are an assassin of note?” asked Lord Marquez with a frown.

“Yes, and considering that you are evidently a moral man, its not unsurprising you would not know of me,” laughing Raven continued. “The identity of Jonne, if I must admit was a surprise, as I too shared a similar impression of the 'Fop Prince' as you so described him.”

“I can't exactly reconcile the two as being the same person, but given who said that she was the same person, I must accept it,” said Lord Marquez with a frown.

“Yes, I also made that conclusion.“ Raven nudged the bag with his foot, “Since I had overheard that conversation, and that my curiosity was piqued, I decided to investigate the Council and the person that hired me in depth.”

“I am all ears,” said Lord Marquez, “I take it the contents of the bag are important?”

“Yes,” Raven shrugged slightly, “I had just considered collecting their heads and depositing them in your room, once certain details became clear to me.”

“Thank you for not doing so, for my maids sake,” Lord Marquez said with a sigh.

“However I did kill several people, including if you must know, Heinrich the rotund,” with a seemingly uncomfortable movement Raven sighed, “though that was more of a mercy killing.”

“I doubt he would have shared that sentiment,” said Lord Marquez coldly.

“Possibly, and possibly not,” Raven said and opened the bag removing an odd jar, “Heinrich was if you wanted to know, was unknowingly addicted to Twist Dust.”

“Go on,” said Lord Marquez with a frown.

“If you didn't know, Twist Dust is a drug that induces a hypnotic state, while creating a sense of euphoria at the same time.” Raven paused as Lord Marquez blinked at him patiently, “His aide, of the past few years, was part of a plot from an external nation to subtly make changes to the government.”

“I see, I think,” said Lord Marquez with a sigh, “since the Council oversees the use of funds and so on, such control of the Council would be damaging.”

“Among other things, such as the suppression of warnings, and other tawdry details like funds for roads, emergency supplies and the like,” Raven seemed to pause, “you can guess the results.”

“Yes, an army at the city walls would bring that point home,” said Lord Marquez as he watched Raven remove several books from his the bag.

“Inside these books you will find an accounting of certain activities, payoffs, accomplices blackmail and so on,” said Raven with a nod, “Heinrich to his credit, even as addicted and controlled as he was, had tried to prevent some of his aides actions.”

“Small comfort that affords me,” said Lord Marquez with a sigh, “nor will it comfort his widow.”

“Heinrich would have died a death most gruesome after suffering in pain a few long months to a year,” shrugging Raven said, “his death will appear as natural and he did not suffer as he passed in his sleep.”

“A small kindness, I suppose,” said Lord Marquez unhappily. “And the others?”

“Well they died, probably not as painfully as their actions would have merited,” admitted Raven with a evident frown. “I have a few more of the Council to visit, but they reside in different cities and I did not want them to flee before I could deal with them.”

“Who appointed you as executioner?” asked Lord Marquez angrily.

“Fate, not so much the Divine Personage, but events guided me to act as such.” Chuckling Raven added, “I do however frequent a fortuneteller, before accepting my contracts. If the outcome seems too murky or against me, I deliberate and then decline or accept the contracts.”

“I would have thought Fate would have made this particular contract undesirable,” said Lord Marquez looking unconvinced.

“True, however rather that being the case, I was advised clearly to take the task,” Raven said then sighed shaking his head. “Also that if I allowed chance or fate to decide if the target should die, I might find myself tasked again for a greater cause... and thus I find myself discussing this matter with you.”

Silent for a moment Lord Marquez nodded, “I can not give you pardon, nor would I want to, for any of your past or future crimes.”

Laughing Raven nodded, “I'm not asking for such, eventually I will have to answer to the Higher Powers for my actions these past two thousand and fifty some odd years.” Removing a small box from the sack Raven smiled, ”Inside here, are two rare items, one that heals a body, another that renews the body. Of which I have more and have used upon myself a dozen or more times, prolonging my life, hiding from those that hunted me a bit too well and so on,”

“I see so what am I to do with such a bounty?” asked Lord Marquez suspiciously.

“Before I was an assassin, I was a bit of adventurer and hunter,” Raven said with a shrug, “one of my more vexing treasure hunts lead me to a ring, such as the child wears. One of a set of eleven that are scattered and lost or so the legends said.”

“And?” asked Lord Marquez with a glance at the box.

“I could not retrieve it, which is why it was vexing, though I did recover other bits,” said Raven with a pained sounding chuckle. “While the power in these particular stones is nearly at their end I think they will be sufficient to restore the child to her seemingly feisty self. There is some risk to them though.”

“Such as?” asked Lord Marquez with an annoyed grunt.

“While they don't reduce one to an infant, they can send a person back to an physical age where they are indeed a child physically or change their gender or both,” rueful Raven added in an annoyed tone, “such I have discovered for myself a many times.”

Dryly Lord Marquez chuckled, “Poor you.”

“Quite.” Rave shrugged and said, “While you might not think it, I am a bit of a patriot and quiet supporter of the Land in my own way. I hunt murders and worse individuals on occasion as well, mostly out of sport though, as they are the most dangerous of game.”

“Good, I suppose,“ said Lord Marquez sounding unconvinced.

“Lately though I did find myself unchallenged, though now I have an intrigue to unravel lending a new stimulating intellectual level to my hunts.” Apparently happy by the prospect, Raven said, “Since you might have an interest in my activities, I have come to suggest should you uncover things I should find interesting, that you leave a letter on the inside of this room's window.”

“Not everything should end in death,” muttered Lord Marquez darkly.

“I am not saying it should, sometimes there are innocents among the guilty, and sometimes a trial is more destructive than the seemingly odd death,” said Raven with certainty. “Not that I would care to look into trivial matters either, however I will likely use my own judgment in some cases.”

“I will have to consider this offer of yours, perhaps discussing it with the Virceroy and his wife,” said Lord Marquez disdainfully, “I have tried to avoid murky courts and the like.”

“If I thought your character was of question we would not be having this discussion,” said Raven as he stood up, “you can decide or the Viceroy can for you. But there are times when a quiet death gains more than a noisy battlefield.”

“I will think on the matter,” said Lord Marquez with a sigh.

“Don't get up, I'll see myself out,” said Raven with mocking bow. “The effects of the drug I used on you will likely wear off before you should accidentally soil yourself.”

“I could learn to hate you,” said Lord Marquez after a half hearted curse.

“Love me, hate me, it makes no difference, I am a necessary evil in the Land,” said Raven as he walked to the door.

“Regrettably I fear that you may be right,” said Lord Marquez after the door had been closed for a moment.

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“Thus I spent the rest of the night,” said Lord Marquez as he gingerly rubbed his neck, “my neck is still complaining.”

The Viceroy grunted and then tapped the books, “These are fairly damning,” then with a shake of his head said, “this Raven seems to be quite effective if not reprehensible.”

“That is a mild description of him, I assure you mine would fairly crack the plaster.” Shaking his head Lord Marquez said, “Once I could move I did review those, and then went straight to check on the newly deceased, on the oft chance Raven left anything undiscovered.”

“And you discovered?” asked the Marshal after a moments pause.

“A note saying I should investigate a hidden safe, and a room where there were false panels,” in disgust Lord Marquez added, “only to go there and see them helpfully marked with notes that said, 'look here.'”

Barely surpassing a laugh, the Vicereine covered her mouth and coughed decorously, “My apologies Lord Marquez, but the humor of it...”

Smiling sourly Lord Marquez nodded, “I did note his humor, though at the time I was more given to swearing at him and it.”

“Quite understandable,” said the Marshal with a nod to Lord Marquez.

“After opening the various nooks, and finding more helpful notes,” of which Lord Marquez looked upwards with a grimace, “I collected the rest of which is before you.”

“It would seem this Raven of yours has no shortage of ego, accompanied with no shortage of ability,” acknowledged the Viceroy with a frown, “not all of which are commendable.”

“I'd just as soon not claim him as mine,” said Lord Marquez with a pained look at everyone.

“Still he seems to have been useful, and seems to have attached himself to you,” said the Vicereine with a thoughtful glance at her husband.

“I despair of where this is going,” said Lord Marquez with a sigh.

“Its not like we can leave Raven to his own devices can we?” asked the Marshal with a grimace of sympathy towards Lord Marquez.

“I am sure you can find some use for your Raven, Lord Inquisitor Marquez,” said the Viceroy with a chuckle, “we have faith in you.”

Slumping in acknowledgement, Lord Marquez bowed deeper, “As you command, Viceroy.”

“Get some rest Lord Marquez, all of this might seem easier to contend with when you are not as tired,” said the Vicereine with a gentle smile.

“As it will take Jonne sometime to come out from the thralls of her healing, I will seek my bed for a time.” Bowing again Lord Marquez said, “May your day not be as interesting as my own thus far.”

“It would be hoped,“ said the Viceroy with a nod, “now go get some rest.”

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What I recalled of the last day and a half could be summed up as; very brief moments of coherent thought, pain, undefinable pain, pain that surpassed even that and cursing. The bits when I was with the Goddess, the Huntress and Fate, I can at least say were free of pain, well physical anyways. Emotionally I was feeling a mixture of things, rage, sadness, loss, and that I was being crushed by events. Personally I thought it was a wonder that I wasn't off my rocker, but then again I wasn't so sure that I was not nuts.

Towards the end of things I think I would have been happy to just die. Physically I never had felt that exhausted, even on the most grueling of bits of the Color Campus I had not felt this way. Moving a finger, much less opening my eyes seemed beyond my strength, and there was not a muscle in my body that did not feel like it had not been torn or cut from my bones.

My abused muscles didn't cramp any more, though they quivered and twitched without pattern. My bones ached and more than a few of them I suspected were cracked if not broken in truth; as they seemingly burned underneath my muscles and skin. In my mouth my tongue protested dully that I had bit it countless times. Several of my teeth radiated pain that carved sharply back into my skull as they indicated being broken, cracked or just complaining. Breathing was a task I did mostly because I had to, not that I wanted to as it seemed to aggravate many other things which hurt.

Exhausted as I was, I could not even protest them physically moving me to a mostly upright position, though I could hear the air escape my body in a hoarse tired moan. Nor could I protest them putting two odd things in my mouth, one at a time, and then forcing me to wash them down with water. The first seemed to burn with a cold fire as I some how choked it down, the second as I swallowed it, seemed to erase every sensation in my body. Then it felt like my heart and everything just stopped, no pain, no odd sensations... it just stopped. Dimly I thought I was dead, and I didn't seem to mind it as everything ceased in those scant seconds; I think if I would have had the strength for it I would have smiled. As the absence of pain and everything else was something I would have welcomed many, many long hours of pain ago.

For a brief time there was nothing, then I heard a bright cheerful voice ask, “There, that wasn't so bad was it?”

Recognizing the voice as Fate's I sighed and said, “If I'm not dead, that wasn't funny, and if I am dead, it still isn't funny.”

“Oh, oh well,” Fate said dismissively as she gave me a kiss on the forehead before pulling me into a deep hug, “I've been told my sense of humor is a bit odd.”

“So am I dead or not?” I asked as I gave into the hug and hugged back.

“So close to being dead and yet so far from living that it matters not,” said Fate with a shrug. Then she took me by the hand and lead me along a series of hallways that seemingly stretched and grew without reason. “Regrettably all of that pain was necessary to bring you physically to the point where those items would work on you.”

“Which were?” I asked as we entered what seemed like a mausoleum.

“A life stone and a renewal stone, they have more complex names, though those that spoke that language are long dead,” said Fate with a sigh, “not that the world isn't much better off without them.”

“Then why did you sigh?” I asked as she walked up and dais to a pair of thrones,

“I did like some of them, the others, well I don't have suitably pleasant words or even kind words for,” she took a seat in one of the thrones indicating I should sit in the other. “From them did arise the Mage Kings, which if you can appreciate the irony, that was their death.”

“Mage Kings? More than one?” I asked with a frown, “I always thought there was just one.”

Gravely nodding she looked at me, “For a time there was, though no one can recall them. Considering that most of those that supported them, died around them and with them. There were no histories that survived that time period. What histories you know from after the Near Ending, really didn't start as histories but as tales passed from elder to child and to elder again.” Shaking her head Fate looked down into the empty court, “You have to have civilization before you can have a written history.”

“That makes sense, I suppose,” I said as a tear escaped her eyes.

“It is a sad thing to watch your children die killing each other,” said Fate as she seemed to be looking distantly at unseen things. “The Tree-kin, the N'relv, the Humans and the Ston'Kinder are but a few of the major races, those that survived. There were once eight great races that flourished in the Land, three ceased entirely. One race, and only one escaped with less than an thousand living members to a far and distant land on the far side of the world, where in time they flourished.”

“The Hafaan not being great?' I asked cautiously.

“They are great in their own way,” said Fate with a laugh, “but in truth, they are happy accidents. Their ancestors like several others, had been animals that had strayed into a change field. Many upon countless many died when they passed into the fields, those that lived, bred, passing on special bits of themselves. Eventually they developed thought, and mimicry, leading to more growth as they picked up things from the major races, including worship of the Goddesses and Gods.”

“So they are happy accidents?” I asked as she nodded.

“New and wonderful lives, albeit short ones,” Fate smirked and laughed softly, “they came as a bit of a surprise for many of the Powers. But ones we accepted with pleasure, even though they are very childlike in many ways.”

“So out of something bad came something good,” I stated rather than asked.

“You've perceived the lesson I think,” Fate said with a chuckle. “In a few thousand years they may become wise, more than childlike, and take their place along the great. Though if we see a Near Ending again it may not be.”

“So the Eleven, how did they defeat the Mage King?” I asked cautiously.

“The Mage King wasn't unloved by his own people, not that the Powers had any love for him or them,” said Fate unhappily as she paused to dry her eyes. “But he didn't trust all of them, of them he had eleven people of whom he thought he could trust.”

“The eleven betrayed him?” I asked making a guess as to things.

“Sadly no, but they had items that would let them come to the Mage King at his call,” shaking her head she said, “think of them as hounds to be set upon the Mage King's enemies or perceived enemies to destroy them.”

“Oh, then the Eleven killed the hounds?” I asked quietly.

“Well they didn't start out as the Eleven, there were ten times that many that went after the Hounds,” proudly Fate smiled, “such warriors, mages and priests they were. But no, the Eleven were chosen from those that survived. It was their task then to take the keys into the Mage King's fortress, past all of his defenses, and kill him.”

“The keys being the rings?” I asked quickly with a glance to my own hand.

“No, the rings came later,” Fate said with a smirk, “the rings are a map Ari, they lead to where the weapons the Eleven used to defeat the Mage King are hidden. The keys were just keys nothing more, nothing less. Once the Mage King was killed, the keys were scattered and lost so that no one could learn anything from what the Mage King left hidden and undiscovered.”

“So the rings are not special?” I asked feeling slightly dismayed.

“Oh they were crafted with spells in them. Some but not all, are needed to access other rings,” said Fate with a mysterious whisper. “Others like the invisibly of the first ring you found can be activated. The rest, well they have their secrets and you may or may not learn of them.”

Sensing that was all she was going to say about the rings I nodded, “So the final ring will show me where the weapons are?”

“Yes,” Fate said simply.

“So I go there, pick a weapon or get all the weapons, and go kill this new Mage King?” I asked trying to make sure of my role in all of it.

“Its not as easy as that, but in essence you have it,” Fate said as she stood up with a smile.

“Oh good, just as long as it isn't too easy for me,” I muttered half under my breath at her.

Laughing Fate took me by the hand, “Oh Ari would I make things difficult for you, just for fun?”

“I don't know, would you?” I asked as she swept me into her arms hugging me tightly to where I could not breath.

She paused to look into my eyes in that airless embrace and smiling deviously she said brightly, “Of course I would!”

Finding myself unable to get enough air to speak I just hung there in her arms, then as things started to go black, she laughed wickedly. “It's time, try not to curse me too much when you do wake up Ari,” Fate said as she lifted me up off my feet and spun me around dizzily, “I didn't do it... honest!” Then as she laughed I passed once more into darkness.

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Jolting upright, I inhaled sharply and then I fell backwards in the bed again as I was too tired to hold myself upright. For the first time in what seemed like a small eternity I was pain free, the being tired I could deal with, as I figured food and real sleep would likely return me to my normal self. I did make the effort needed to slide one hand up to my face and then down my body checking for surprises. The damp diaper was not so much a rude surprise as I pretty much didn't have any bladder or bowel control thanks to the cramps, nor was finding that I was still female a surprise.

No the big surprise from my point of view, was that my breasts seemed much smaller than I remembered them to be. True I wasn't overly endowed, but I was endowed before the coronation, and peeking under the blanket that covered me, did not so much show me has having breasts. In fact you could say I was not so much flat but gently rounded and a bit muscular seeming. Not that I had seen many young N'relv girls topless, but then the N'relv didn't much bother with clothing when swimming, and I vaguely remembered some girls being as flat as I was. Admittedly my tastes were more toward mature ladies and not girls, young girls that is.

Turning my head, I glanced at the Abbess who was snoring softly in a chair next to the bed, and debated waking her for the minor assistance I likely needed to get rid of the diaper. To my eyes she seemed tired and to glow softly, her normally tidy robe was wrinkled and seemed to reflect that she had not taken time to change recently. Seeing how tired she was evidently was, and from the dim memories of her being there every time I was aware, I elected to not disturb her.

With little aplomb and some effort I managed to get out of the bed without dampening the blankets. Getting out of the diaper was child's play, and while the damp rag I found was cold, it did the job of making me seem cleaner. Not seeing anything to change into, I gave slight shrug that that mostly mirrored the mental one I had, and ignored the issue.

Noting a mirror with some trepidation, I weaved tiredly to it to discover what had been done to me. Scowling slightly, the tired girl in the mirror looked back at me as I studied my reflection. My hair which may have started of as artistic for the coronation was now an artistic mess, of which rested in the middle of my back. The color of it had seemed to have changed as well, having turned from the usual coppery auburn, to a bright coppery blonde, more coppery than say a strawberry blonde.

My face mostly seemed to be me, though my eyebrows seemed both sharper and darker. Though my skin tone seemed to have turned a darker bronze, making me look like I had never wore clothing; much less never lived indoors. Turning I gave my profile a look of disgust, wiry, muscular and skinny, and if it were not from having muscles; I would have not even a suggestion of breasts. I had bumps with nipples, and that was being generous about describing them.

I did give myself some credit, I probably was cute, in the rough tom-boy sense of the word. Cute, I tasted the word in my mind a time or two as I sat slowly down in front of the mirror. Cute, cute is not a word that you would associate with a woman you might want to go to bed with. Attractive, desirable, sexy, those were the kind of words you would associate with a lady you might want to sleep with. Not cute. Cute was reserved for, well... kids.

I knew I was eighteen, and I had had the curves of being eighteen, had, past tense. Shaking my head, I gave the girl in the mirror a rude unhappy grimace, which only made her look pouty and cute. Sighing I tried to picture what Kerlith would make of me now, sure I might hold some of her affection as I was now, though I had no doubt it would be more sisterly. Which likely was the source of my complete disgust with my appearance.

To say I had not been fantasizing about having sex with Kerlith would have been a lie. She, and some of the other cousins I had encountered did fairly wander through my mind when I did take the time to masturbate. Just because I had to be celibate, didn't mean I had to give up all pleasure, and while self pleasure is good, all out sweaty sex is better. Much better.

A rustle of cloth made me look up to see the Abbess walking over to where I sat in front of the mirror, so I asked feeling slightly guilty about possibly waking, “Hopefully I did not disturb you?”

Sitting down behind me, she yawned and then hugged me gently from behind, “I had hoped to have been awake when you did awaken.”

Slumping slightly I turned to face her, putting the mirror to my back, “How old do I look, really?” I asked looking into her eyes.

“The N'relv age slower than humans,” the Abbess stated with a soft sigh, “were you human I might say you were thirteen, maybe fourteen years old.”

“So as a N'relv you would say?” I asked looking down at my legs.

“Slightly older perhaps, but still a young child in their eyes,” she said simply after a longish pause.

Frowning I looked at her, “But I'm eighteen, I've had sex as a male and female, and now....”

“And now you think it will be many, many long years before you can find someone who might desire you and want to have sex with you?” the Abbess said as I nodded and winced that I was that easy to read.

“I don't want to be always alone. Maybe with Kerlith it was all hope and wishful dreaming on my part,” I said reluctantly and looked up at her, “even if it was just to be a dance in the night, I had hoped....”

Pulling me into her arms and her lap she held me for a time before speaking, “Jonne, in time I am sure you will find a person or several to be in love with, in that way.” Unable to speak from the lump in throat, I just sat there, and in time I registered that she was working on my hair. “I think the pain you are really feeling, is the loss of those that liked and loved you, ones you liked and loved too.”

As my eyes dripped silently I said, “Yes, maybe, its like every time I make a turn I lose something, someone.”

“You've been alone a long time haven't you?” she asked as her fingers worked.

I considered that question a while, partially admitting it to myself I said, “I've had scant few real friends, few scarcely longer than a season.”

I felt her pause and then she said, “How much was the royal clown act of yours was you trying to hide your loneliness?”

“Some of it, all of it,” I said among my tears, “not that I was all alone, alone. I had some teachers, and some of the staff I liked, but well.” I lifted a hand to the mirror and made a pouring motion, “I really envied my N'relv cousins for their friendships with other children, of their families.”

“You were loved by your parents yes?” she asked gently.

“Yes, though well, the needs of the Land.” I sighed and added, “I could understand that the Land was important and I know at times it did have more importance than me, but.”

“As a child you could not know why it seemed so, you just knew you were alone because of it, maybe even angered by it. As you grew older you resented it slightly but you were used to it, came to expect it perhaps.” The Abbess said with a sigh, “The people who took care of you when your parents always seemed to be too busy, likely did love you, but they were not family.”

“No they were not family, and now they are gone too, well anyone who was at the Capital or Land's Home is as well,” I said around a sob. “It's like I have been orphaned twice over with the threads of memories Fate wove into me, that I feel like I have lost two families not just one.”

“You are loved by the Goddesses and the Gods of the Land, this I can feel from then when they speak through me,” she said as she stroked my head and hair with her fingers. “Even now I can feel them watching you, loving you; and there is much about you that is worthy of that love.”

“Part of me knows that their love should be enough, but,” I trailed off looking down at the floor unseeingly.

“You want your mother, your father, that surety of family, that kind of love.” She said and wrapped her arms around me as I nodded and cried softly, “They understand Jonne... Ari, they understand.”

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“Thank you for the loan of your bath,” said the Abbess with a light bow to the Vicereine and a nod to C'na Sereanna, as she joined the other two women at an early dinner.

“I had wondered if I should have sent a maid to keep you company, as tired as you seemed,” said the Vicereine with a pleased nod, “though you seem refreshed now.”

“And the child Jonne?” asked C'na Sereanna after she took a sip from her cup.

Seating herself across from the two ladies, the Abbess winced slighly and then sighed, “Jonne is whole physically, mentally I would say she's enduring all which has been thrust upon her fairly well. Better I dare say than most would.”

Glancing at C'na Sereanna, the Vicereine looked questioningly back to the Abbess, “Which would beg the question, how is she emotionally?”

“She is aggrieved as one might expect from the death of her parents, kin, her friends, and distraught about her physical appearance,” said the Abbess truthfully, as she served herself from the trays of meat and vegetables.

“I'm not sure that the last is a valid complaint from the child,” said C'na Sereanna after a moment.

Nodding slightly, the Vicereine said, “I might agree.”

“The Prince was hardly celibate, perhaps desperately not,” said the Abbess as she sliced into her meal with a knife. “Consider living as a child, where the needs of the Land always seemed to have more importance than you did, always stealing from you, your Father or Mother's attentions. How alone you might be. Discovering perhaps that the children you associated with, carried the agendas of their parents or sought their own gain. What few real friends you made would come and go within a season, not to return. That to win any sense of your parents love you had to mirror their own interests or perhaps excel beyond what a normal child might strive.”

“Creating perhaps the need for the 'Fop Prince' as a way of coping” said Lord Marquez as he approached the table, taking a seat after a bow he added, “pardon my tardiness ladies.”

“Freely pardoned,” said the Vicereine with a nod of greeting. “We're discussing Jonne, if you have not gathered.”

“I had to some extent,” said Lord Marquez with a tight smile, “I gather the stones did a bit more than just heal her?”

“They stole a measure of years making her appear younger, and some largely cosmetic changes in her appearance,” said the Abbess after a sip of wine. “Much to Jonne's dismay.”

“She's resting then?” asked Lord Marquez as he started to serve himself.

“Yes, after a small meal,” said the Abbess with a faint smile, “she is more exhausted then anything else.”

“Understandable given what she has endured,” Lord Marquez said with a grave nod, “so what becomes her, after her rest restores her?”

With a wave of her fork the Abbess indicated she needed a moment before she could speak, then after a sip of her cup she said, “Regrettably she needs to continue on her task, but her physical appearance of youth, flies in the face of what is acceptable.”

“She seemed young for Journey, maybe too young, and even younger for the heroes task we now know she is undertaking,” said C'na Sereanna as she looked at the others. “Also, now that she is A'na Aelph, well culturally the issue is compounded.”

“To the point where others would attempt to force her from her task?” asked the Vicereine with a frown.

“Having witnessed her defiance and departure from a certain court, while being a mass of bruises. Then learning of her reappearance in a physical state of wear, suggesting that she not only ran a great distance to warn the city; that and evidently also fought along the way to do so,” Lord Marques said then smiled oddly as he took a sip of his drink. “That alone gives me the impression that you would have to keep her in chains and locked in a place where there was no hope of her escaping, to keep her from doing something she set her mind to.”

“Jonne being quite the opposite of what the 'Fop Prince' was, wouldn't you agree?” asked the Abbess with a nod of agreement.

“The Marshal had commented to my husband, were Jonne male he would advise the gentry to lock up their daughters,” said the Vicereine with a light laugh. “In truth I had to agree, and seeing more of Jonne's nature, I think keeping the sons away might be advisable too. If only to keep from them having their hearts and hopes dashed to bits. Jonne I dare say, would devour and spit out the less strong willed or spirited of boys and men, and with ease.”

Laughing loudly Lord Marquez said, “Of that I have no doubt.”

“We could send people with her but it likely creates a problem,” said C'na Sereanna after a moment, “the problem being; Jonne seems driven to act, to do what is needful, even if it could bring her harm.”

“Such as her leaping to defend the Viceroy and Vicereine during the coronation,” said Lord Marquez somberly as he nodded. “Commendable in many respects, frightful from the aspect of her being who she is, and what she is evidently tasked with.”

“Exactly,” said C'na Sereanna with a pained sigh, “its not of our natures, Human or N'relv to put children at risk or at the head of groups that might see conflict. It's quite conceivable that at the first instance of trouble, she'd place herself at risk to protect her protectors. Or that she would flee from her protectors in order to do what she perceived need doing.”

“That would fair describe Jonne,” said the Abbess with a nod.

“Jonne is not unskilled either,” said the Vicereine as she lifted her cup to look into it, “both the Marshal and Tressik have remarked such. Though Tressik did say it appeared she wasn't comfortable with heights, and also that it didn't stop her from climbing high to scout the enemy with him.”

“Exactly. So do we make it seem like we'd try to keep her safe, and force her to flee us. Or do we give her what she needs and suggest that she go with a few people?” asked C'na Sereanna casually, “Or just send capable people to follow her, shadowing her?”

“Tressik tried to follow her when she didn't want to be kept safe; to catch up with her and failed,” said the Vicereine with a faint frown, “he also admitted that he didn't find her, but that she found him.”

“As one might expect, considering the Huntress does favor her,” said the Abbess with a chuckle. “Reluctantly we all may as well admit that Jonne, should she decide to go on her own, she won't be stopped short of chains and violence.”

“Making her flee from us would be wrong on many levels,” said C'na Sereanna as she nodded, “she needs to know she can approach her kin, not just the temples for help.”

“Not just that but others as well,” said the Vicereine firmly, “I think she viewed the Council's actions towards her as a form of betrayal. Not to mention her stating they were traitorous....”

Not quite reluctantly Lord Marquez said, “Technically she was right, though I do not think she knew the scope of it then. However, until the enemy outside the walls are gone, and until she feels fit to leave...”

The Abbess quickly interjected, “Which might be sooner that we might think, considering that she left in a bruised state once already.”

“... Meaning she would go before it was wise,” said the Vicereine with a grimace.

“We have a day, maybe two before the enemy is driven off, another day or so after that before we could open our gates wide,” said Lord Marquez with a thoughtful nod, “for commerce to commence, and the like. Which would allow her to escape from us if we pressed the issue with her over much.”

“So we have that long to either convince Jonne to go with an escort or to see that she has what she needs,” C'na Sereanna said and then she added, “and then try to have her shadowed when she does go.”

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Caer walked along the wall carrying Jonne's bow with a thoughtful look on her face until she approached Tressik and thrust it at him, “Here Tressik, I do hope you understand she may likely break you if you damage it.”

Wincing slightly Tressik nodded, “I am sure she would, though I am surprised she's not here herself to tell me that.”

“Oh I got an earful about how they were not giving her clothes or weapons nor telling her where here bow was,” Caer said with a slight smile, “then she nearly fell asleep in her soup.”

Laughing softly Tressik smiled and said, “Oh so she's not going to storm the battlefield and lead a charge then is she?”

“No, but she did say, and I quote. 'If you were smarter, you would gone to a temple and have asked the Huntress to bless your bow, and then you would not need to borrow mine.' Then she went on to say, as she glowed a dim green; 'You idiots could just ask, and did you really think I'd not give such to those who defend the Land?'”

Cringing at the tone in which Caer delivered that message, Tressik flushed in evident embarrassment, “I think I find myself rebuked.”

“Yes, so you should,” Caer said with a shake of her head. “Jonne looks younger, as if she was before puberty.”

“That could be problematic,” said Tressik absently as he tested the bows draw to its fullest, “as I thought, the Huntress would allow this.”

“I would hit you, but I think the Viceroy wants you able to use the bow,” said Caer sounding slightly exasperated. “Seriously, tell any of the other louts who haven't figured it out, the Huntress wants the Land to be defended. As long as the the bows blessed such are used in good cause there should not be a problem.”

“Message delivered Caer,” Tressik said distantly, as he set an arrow to knock, “I will pass that along to the other archers.”

Caer paused as he quickly sighted and with a draw that seemed to make the bow creek, and then loosed his shot. “Don't break it!” she warned quickly if not a bit late.

“It's ironwood Caer, the bowstring would snap before it would come close to breaking,” turning he smiled with evident satisfaction as a distant body fell. “You may tell the Viceroy that the enemy's mage is dead, if it will make you feel better.”

Blinking Caer watched as the enemy's lines shrank backwards quickly further out of range of the archers, “I'm sure he'll be happy about that. Hey! Where are you going!?!” she exclaimed to his back as he ran along the wall a short distance.

Laughing, Tressik shot her a smile as he quickly traveled down the stairs, “The enemy commander is on the far side of the city, so I am going to see if I can kill him too. Thanks for the loan of your horse!”

“Fine! Just you be careful with her bow and my horse damn it!” Caer shouted shaking her fist at him as he vaulted onto her horse.

“Wish me luck Caer!” Tressik shouted as he turned her horse and raced away.

“Good luck!” she shouted and then muttered. “Idiot.”

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Being dead asleep in the keep, I found myself jarred from sleep by discordant washes of magick that were accompanied with severe vibrations that shook the keep. As my heart seemed to leap up in my throat as the echoes of memory from the few days prior. The sounds and feelings when Lands Home and the Capital perished revisited me, as I envisioned such a fate come to rest here. So it was with some small dread I crept from my bed to the window, hoping against hope that such thoughts and fears were not the reality I might find beyond it.

Tense with worry, I looked from the window trying to see what was happening, and while I wasn't high enough to see much of what was occurring. What I did see did nothing to quell the fears in my heart, as scarlet and black balls of energy crashed against a wall of rainbow energies. Against that light, I could see brilliantly glowing men and women as they seemingly stood there amidst that assault, and others that moved in acts of violence.

Torn between the need to act, and the uncertainty of not knowing what I should be doing, I found myself looking up at the sky above the walls and asking desperately, “What am I supposed to?” For a long moment I stood there hoping for some guidance, then another magickal attack caused a massive concussive sound wave which rocked the city. Frustrated by a lack of guidance I briefly paced back and forth in front of the window, and then I went to the door only to find it locked from the opposite side.

Angered by the discovery, I pounded and shouted for someone to open the door, paused briefly and did it some more. After it became obvious that I had been locked in and that I was either being deliberately ignored or abandoned, I stalked back to the window. Angered at being so treated, the fear of the attack was pushed down and out of my mind.

Cursing softly I reviewed my assets an lack there of. I was naked, unarmed nor armored, without weapons and I did not even know where my horn was, what could I do to change any of those things? Such were the problems I had, on the positive side of the equation, I did not hurt and apart from feeling slightly drained and tired, I was whole. That and I had magick, which apart from being able to light a fire, and disintegrate sticks wasn't too useful. Or was it?

Looking at the door, I wracked my memory, trying to find a hint of direction. One of the dry and occasionally baffling books from Rixthat, that I had tried to make sense a while back, kept repeating one key premise. It being, that magick is the application of intent, focus and will, though it frequently and annoyingly had interchanged the word 'command' for the word 'will.' Part of me insisted that it made an odd sort of sense, as I had commanded or willed things to burn with various levels of success before.

Still angry I stalked to the door and pounded upon it, “If you don't open the door you better not be in front of it!” I shouted a few times getting madder and madder as I did so. “So be it,” I muttered and placed my hands flat on the door. Grumbling inwardly I closed my eyes and pictured the door popping open, and then in annoyance pushed at it and said loudly if not angrily, “Open!”

Under my hands, the door briefly seemed to vibrate, and I felt the odd surge that I came to expect when making things start to burn. Heartened by it, I checked the door and tried to open it, to still find it locked. Fine if it wanted to be stubborn, I could be stubborn. Once more placing my hands on the door, I screwed my eyes shut and imagined the door flying outward off of its hinges. Then taking a deep breath, I paused and then reaching back with one hand to pound at the door I thudded at it and screamed, “Open, open, open damn you open!”

Then on the fourth strike of my hand, several things happened at once. The first thing was that the door did indeed open, it did so in fragments of flying wood. The second thing was that I suddenly discovered that my legs and my sense of balance were at odds with each other as I discovered myself falling. The last bit I noticed before blacking out from the strange twist of magick I unloosed, was that I also had caused every cabinet and dresser drawer in the room and outside of it to spring open. Dimly I thought that it was oddly funny, but just after that thought, I was unconscious.

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The Viceroy sighed and pointed down from the watch tower at the young girl who was dressed in nothing but a dark robe that was too large for her, as she moved along the battlements. “Someone please tell me that isn't Jonne?” This he asked as the girl in question knelt down by an injured priest, placed her hands on them and then started to glow softly.

Caer turned and looked, only to shake her head slightly, “Didn't you order her locked in her room, with instructions to keep her there?”

Viceroy nodded as his face twisted into a wan grimace saying, “Yes,” then he turned and descended into the watchtower. “Part of me says I should not be surprised, the other part wants to curse.”

“She does seem to have that effect on you,” Caer said with a neutral expression on her face.

“Honestly I had thought she'd be too tired to do anything, given your report and from what my wife had told me,” said the Viceroy with a frustrated grunt of annoyance as they walked out onto the wall.

“I'll admit to some surprise myself,” said Caer as she followed the Viceroy as he semi-jogged along the wall. “But then I half expected her to be on the wall sooner today.”

Dryly the Viceroy said, “Wonderful.”

Reaching Jonne just as she helped the fully healed priest to stand, the Viceroy stood there as the priest seemed to be scolded by her slightly. Then as the two separated he moved to place himself directly in Jonne's path. “And just were do you think you are going young lady?” he asked her in an angry tone.

“Your pardon Viceroy, but that isn't Jonne you are addressing currently,” said the priest with a soft smile, “but the Goddess.”

“As much as it might surprise you A'na Jerreth,” said the other worldly voice, “I somewhat agree that this isn't the place for a child.”

“Since we agree on that point, why are you here?” the Viceroy asked as he frowned down at her.

“There was need,” then she indicated an expanse of the wall, “our son here wore himself out healing those along this wall, ignoring his own wounds.”

“It is easier for me to heal others than to heal myself,” the Priest said frankly, “such often is the case among healers.”

“I cannot begrudge you healing someone, however,” the Viceroy sighed loudly, “it was my intent to keep Jonne abed and resting or failing that, at least safe.”

“Jonne is spirited,” said the voice with a soft laugh, “but had she a better grasp of her gift, she would have been here an hour ago in the worst of the fighting. However, she had over done things in her frustration at her being locked in, among other things, and rendered herself unconscious. When it was safe, I decided another healer would be welcomed and thus I am here.”

“Dare I ask what she did?” asked the Viceroy cautiously.

“She discovered her door barred shut from the outside, and then after some angered thought, she rather strenuously willed it to be open,” the voice laughed and then said, “and it opened with such force that it can now be used as kindling. She made rather a mess with all those splinters.”

“I see,” said Caer as the Viceroy theatrically placed a hand on his face and groaned.

“Jonne is untrained in her gift, for the most part,” said the voice sounding slightly pleased.

“Wonderful, I'll bet she is overjoyed,” said the Viceroy as he looked outward from the wall at the enemy.

“Of the things we have forced upon her, Jonne is not thankful for the Mage Gift,” said the voice in a regretful tone, “but it is needful.”

“I expect not,” said the Viceroy with a sigh and he waved outwards, “we managed to rid ourselves of one commander and his mages, only to find the enemy reinforced an hour later. I rather preferred the prior one as he was cautious.”

“The tide of battle will change soon enough A'na Jerreth, the enemy spends his mages now unknowing that the morrow will bring a harder battlefield,” said the voice with an evident shake of the child's head. “Now I must find the child some clothes and place Jonne where she will be safe to rest.”

“Ah, good,” said the Viceroy and he nodded to the child, “thank you.”

“Take your rest as you can A'na Jerreth, twill be a long night as the enemy throws itself at the city,” said the voice with a worried sounding sigh, “expect the enemy to attack shortly.”

“Then please depart the wall,” said the Viceroy with a nod, “we shall do our best to bleed them.”

“Tis to be hoped,” said the voice from the child as it turned and hastened away.

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Mentally I had to admit to some confusion when I woke up in the morning, as I was fairly sure the last place I had been 'awake' was in the Keep. Truthfully, I had expected to have been awoken to loud complaints about the state of the door or back in the bed. So the only conclusion I could make was that the Goddess had decided to take me for a 'walk,' among other bits. Considering that I appeared to be in the temple again, only added to that theory.

Fortunately the fogginess of my head that I had experienced most of the prior day was gone, though physically while I didn't hurt, my muscles seemed stiff and tight. I spied a set of clothing as I sat up, along with a brush and comb resting on a stool not far from the bed I was in, which I though was a wonderful change. Finally I didn't have to threaten to walk nude into the city to get clothing, which may have been a bit of over acting on my part as at the time I was exhausted at the time; but I really had planned to have clothing 'today.'

Immeasurably pleased by the prospect of clothing, I hastened to take care of my morning abolutions, then examined the clothing. While the bandeau was scarcely needed to support my pathetic breasts, it did help emotionally somewhat, as I wrapped it around my chest and tied it in place. Finding a dark green tunic and back undress of better than good quality, wasn't a good sign from my perspective as it was hardly clothing I would consider fighting in. Grimacing at the implications of the clothing I was left, I resigned myself to wearing them, at least until I found where my money pouch got to and bought others. At least there was a ring belt where I could carry a blade or sword, and keep the damned dress off the ground when I walked, if I had a blade.

By the time I had braided my hair and tied it out of my face, my stomach had declared that food was required, so I followed my nose to where breakfast was being served. In the din of the communal breakfast I heard my name and looked to see the Abbess motioning me to join her table, so after carefully working my way around a small clump of novitiates that were guiding children to their own tables.

Reaching the safety at the Abbess's table I sat in an empty chair and smiled, saying, “Bright and loud the day.”

“Yes it does start that way frequently,” she replied with a smile, “and often much earlier than I would want. They often say there is no rest for the wicked, but sometimes I suspect that truism is likely slanted that way to keep the pure motivated.”

“If the wicked are getting abused more than I am, then it would be the truth,” I said with a mild sigh, “however I suspect you are right.”

“What? Not feeling fulfilled lately?” the Abbess jokingly asked and at my groan of dismay said, “Give it time Jonne, it'll come.”

“Before or after I am reduced by either old age or made an infant?” I asked as a heaping plate of food was set before me.

“One would hope,” said the Abbess as she gave me a bland look. “You seemed to have escaped a locked room, and then got walked about as the living embodiment of the Goddess.”

“Yes,” I said after a mouthful of eggs. “I would be more upset about that, the locked room that is, if I had not passed out after doing it.”

“That is a fairly common thing for people learning how to use a mage gift,” said the Abbess as she rolled her eyes, “frankly I am amazed you felt ambitious enough to get out of bed.”

“So far magick is not all that handy, well a part from the not needing a flint and steel to make a fire, or disintegrate doors that is,” I said with a pained shrug of annoyance. “My being ambitious though, was more due to feeling the need to do something, anything, rather than lay in bed. Especially when the city was under attack, I could not ignore that.”

“Commendable in many regards, unwise in so many,” I heard Caer say from behind me.

Turning slightly in my chair I looked up at her and asked, “And locking me in a room like a child is so much wiser? I am eighteen, not twelve.”

Taking a seat at the table she shook her head, “Don't blame me for that, I've been on the wall or in the various watchtowers catching naps as the attacks allowed.”

“What happened with killing the mage and the commander? I though the whole idea behind loaning my bow to Tressik was to slow the attacks?” I asked after a moment.

“It was, and it worked, until they got reinforced with mages, troops, along with a more aggressive commander an hour later,” Caer said as she gratefully accepted a plate of food. “Not that we didn't need you as a healer or having the Goddess work through you as a healer last night as well.”

“Was it that bad? I don't recall anything between blowing up a door and this morning,” I asked and explained.

“It got close to being a near thing,” she paused and shuddered slightly, “I now know why they say; 'Do not to drive a healer to where they will kill.' Picture a person disintegrated like the door you blasted open, only it being nearly two score of people all at once.”

Recalling what it was like to burn a person to death with magick, I paused to look down at my plate and then I asked, “How is the healer handling that?”

“He was distressed about it, after the fact,” Caer said with a sigh, “the leader of his temple is making sure he rests and has time away from the wall; among living things and children.”

“That is a good thing,” said the Abbess with a relieved smile, “I take it the Viceroy sent you away from the wall for the much the same reason?”

“That and a bath,” Caer admitted tiredly as she looked over at me, “while you 'might' be able see over the battlements to shoot a bow, I don't think you can handle your old one, given your new stature.”

Sighing I looked over to her, “I suspected that, somewhat.”

“There are bows in the armory, they may not be as good as your other one,” Caer said with a partial frown, “though I am not sure you could find one its equal outside of an enclave.”

“I will look, but I suspect you are right,” I said with a thought to getting blades from the armory as well as a bow.

“Such a calculating expression she has,” said the Abbess with a slightly worried looking smile, “one would think that she is planning something.”

“I've not forgotten my task, among all of this,” I said with a shrug as I chased the last of my meal around on my plate with a fork. “If anything I am more aggravated by the need to be doing it, and being stuck here waiting for the gates to open hasn't made that need go away.”

“If they will let you go,” said Caer with a shrug, “where would you go?”

“Where the journey takes me,” I said cryptically with a smile.

“That's rather vague,” said Caer with a glance to the Abbess.

“I think Jonne fears that people would interfere with her task,” said the Abbess with a nod to me, “rightly so to some extent.”

“Looking like I do, I am sure people will try to prevent me from doing what I have to do or they would try to give me protectors.” Watching the Abbess's face I saw faint traces emotion that seemed to indicate my suspicions were right, so I said, “And so I see such discussions have already occurred.”

“Yes, they have to some extent,” admitted the Abbess with a resigned glance at Caer.

“Well you are S'na Aelph,” said Caer with a shrug, “small clan or no, I don't think folks would let you just walk off into the darkness.”

“A clan of two is hardly a clan,” I said with a shake of my head, “what am I supposed to do, marry some child I have never known, take on consorts? I mean seriously, even if I started in a few years, I could only have so many children, and frankly living 'only' to have children is no life I would care for.”

“Put that baldly, I would not care for such a life either,” said Caer with a sympathetic nod.

“Given that they already tried to lock me away for my own protection, how long do I have before they try other things?” I asked suspiciously of the Abbess.

“A long while,” said a voice prompting me to turn in my chair. With a slightly amused smile the Vicereine added, “Not at all if we can persuade you to have a bit of faith and trust in us.”

“Bright the day,” said C'na Sereanna standing besides her, “I trust you all are well?”

“My head is not fogged from exhaustion, though my muscles feel more tight than worn out,” I said with a small shrug and explained. “I felt much worse after my run back to the city.”

With a suspicious seeming glance at the others, the Vicereine nodded, “That is a comfort.”

After the others exchanged greetings I said sounding annoyed even to my ears, “So I 'am' being conspired against?”

“You make it sound so malevolent,” said C'na Sereanna with a dismissing wave of a hand. “We realized that you likely could flee the city as soon as the gates open, and having seen the results of trying to keep you safe in a room. I honestly can say that we'd likely have only limited success of keeping you in more secure holdings, undrugged that is.”

“You likely would be right, so now do I have to be suspect of what I eat and drink now?” I asked with a suspicious glance at my empty plate.

“No, well not yet anyways,” admitted the Vicereine with a chuckle, “we hope to discuss things with you first, hoping you might see our concerns.”

“I already know most of your 'concerns.' I look like a child when in fact I am eighteen. I am by the Power's intervention S'na Aleph, of a clan of two, something I never sought nor expected,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “Not to mention there is an enemy army out in the Land. Add in the various turns that took from me a birth right and add past appearances of not being 'mature;' among other eccentricities which largely I might point out, stem from a life in high court.” I paused and took a breath before sarcastically adding, “Have I missed a concern?”

“Just one,” admitted the Vicereine, “that you might fail being physically unready or ill equipped.”

“I am mostly rested and recovered from the attack and poisonings. Also, most if not all of my lack of supplies are directly the result of people thinking I am not fit to attempt the task set me,” I protested with an annoyed wave at them saying, “or from people hiding my things away from me.”

“Mostly?' asked Caer with a look at me.

“I did say that I was stiff,” I countered with a disgusted and slightly melancholy sigh, “and my being sad or depressed by my loss of family won't go away anytime soon. So lingering on it as an excuse to sit idle and wallow in my misery is impractical, and would be excessively selfish; if you consider the task I am set.”

“Are you always so bluntly honest,” asked C'na Sereanna as she looked at me.

“No,” I said simply, “as there are times when the truth only gets in the way of getting things done or creates more problems.”

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After Caer had returned to her duties, the Abbess, C'na Sereanna and I were whisked briskly back into the confines of the Keep by carriage, for more 'discussion.' Of which I suspected they would go into laborious detail about how much they were concerned for me, that I should have an escort, if they even allowed me to go at all. Personally I was expecting to have to nod in all the right places, let them make plans, appear to go along with their plans, and then flee at first opportunity. So like a good little puppet I trailed along with them as we walked through the Keep to a guarded room.

With a glance to me the Abbess said, “I see you are wearing your calculating face again.”

As we entered the busy seeming room, I schooled my face into what I called my 'vapid court face,' and said, “Oh?”

The Vicereine shook her head slightly as she looked at me, “I think I have that mask on a wall some place, next to one of tragedy.”

Smirking I shrugged and let the face smile vanish, saying, “Perhaps I should wear that one then, as everyone expects me to be one.”

“Ah, sarcasm,” said an unfamiliar man as he bowed to the Vicereine, and then looked at me, “if I might introduce myself; I am Lord Marquez, the appointed Inquisitor tasked with examining the Council's actions and other sundry tasks.”

“Bright the day,” I said graciously with a nod to him and added in a despondent sounding voice, “I'm Jonne, the greatly abused, maligned and ignored.”

“Jonne is of the opinion that our concerns amount to much noise, carrying little merit as to what needs to be done,” said the Vicereine with an extravagant wave of her arms accompanied by the rolling of her eyes. Then looking back to me she asked, “Have I summed up your feelings and thoughts on the matter satisfactorily?”

“You forgot to make some mention as how that my equipment woes largely stem from everyone thinking I am not fit to do the tasks set me,” I drolly replied to her.

“Do tell,” said Lord Marquez as he looked at me curiously.

So I did so with great detail. I started with the start of it all, with the Proctor of the Color Campus, the rape there, my wounding and trial of the rapists; and how he high handedly decided I wasn't going to do what the Powers tasked me with. Then I added my escapades with the guards and searchers at the rivers, and how the Council had impaired my just going to a human town and buying things. Taking care to mention how I had discovered a town under attack and had helped them, and then the bits of my time burying the dead and then helping the Fort. The fun bit of stopping a Devil's thorn, and the rescue of one of the villages people and Kerlith.

Then I added how the searchers of the Council forced me to depart from the scene of a battlefield with just what I was carrying at the time. Adding in how Kerlith and Serin helped to both give me shelter and the muddle my trail, and that she was finding shelter for the peoples. Finally I added the events from Court, the events after Court and the need to repurchase my gear at cost, only to be forced to abandon it on my embattled way back to the city... and how the remainder of my gear walked away after I had been stuck down defending the Viceroy and Vicereine.

“Truth, truth and facts leading to perceived truths,” said Prior Cassite said with a slight bow to me as I turned to discover him seated in a chair behind me, “it is refreshing to hear such from Jonne. However her paths were not without the need for evasions and clouded truths at the time, as she has so aptly told of her travels.”

Briefly I debated giving him a dirty look, but instead I nodded and said, “And now I wonder if the time for such clouds is once more before me.”

“Gracious Goddess,” said the Abbess as she handed me a glass of water, “no wonder you had little patience with the Council.”

“That would be an understatement I think,” said Lord Marquez looking up from the notes he had been taking. “You should know that traitors in the Council have been discovered and dealt with, well those here in this city anyways. When our agents can deal with the others in the other cities, the Council should once again be a body that is trustworthy.”

Slightly surprised I blinked and then nodded considering the lack of references to trials, “The need for expediency in a time of war or crisis was one of the lessons my father made sure I understood.”

“There is one thing your tale lacks in revealing,” said Cassite with a slight cough to draw my attention to him, “just what is it the Powers have tasked you with?”

I paused briefly and settled on a lesser truth, “I am charged with recovering certain items that will assist me to defeat the new Mage King that threatens the land.”

“Which are?” asked Lord Marquez sounding thoughtful.

“Parts of a map,” I answered with a shrug, “Fate herself said they would lead me to weapons that helped to kill the Mage King of the Near Ending.”

“Have you managed to find any parts of this map?” asked Lord Marques with a glance behind me.

Turning I glanced at the Prior with a grimace, “Yes.”

“I see,” said Lord Marquez as he drummed his fingers on the desk he sat behind, “how many?”

“Two, I was on my way to finding the third one when my journey was 'interrupted,'” I said with a glance at everyone present.

“Do you know how many parts of this map exist?” Lord Marquez asked as he looked at me.

“Yes,” I said simply.

Giving me an annoyed frown, Lord Marques sighed, “Must we drag every answer out of you?”

“I am not convinced of your intentions,” I said looking back at him, “for all I know you all plan to wrest the location of the map pieces from me, and then set your own people to the task.”

Blinking he sat back in his chair, “You do not trust us?”

“Why should I? You all evidently have considered locking me away in drugged stupor against my will to hinder my departure.” Pausing I gave everyone a foul look, “Tell me I am wrong.”

“I cannot,” said Lord Marquez with a rueful look towards the Prior.

“Jonne, why can't you just trust us?” asked the Vicereine quietly.

“Because you all are bound and determined to interfere and that you already have conspired against me,” I replied coolly if not with a bit of anger. “Why the blazes should I trust you given that?”

“Child,” interjected C'na Sereanna into the silence that followed, “is wanting to see that you succeed, truly interference?”

“It can be, especially when it impedes me from doing what is needful,” I briefly debated saying that I wasn't a child and mentally shrugged that point of annoyance off as it seemed immature. “Look, do you really think I want to be traipsing all over the Land alone, facing unknown enemies and hardship with a Mage King's army in the Land? I can assure you that I would love more than anything to hide and be safe, but who pays that price if I do?”

“And who pays the price if we let some willful child try and fail?” asked Lord Marquez as he stood up and walked around his table to stand in front of me. “Frankly I find your behavior in all of this irresponsible, reckless beyond measure and to some extent that it boarders on being rebellious or even traitorous.”

A flash of white hot anger gripped me fully I took a step closer to him and then lifting the front of my skirt up, I kicked him firmly between the legs. As he sunk to the floor gasping I met him on his descent with a punch that had everything I had behind it, sending him toppling to the floor unconscious. As the others gave vent to shock and other bits of dismay I glared at them. “Is there anyone else here wishing to label my actions as rebellious or traitorous?”

Prior Cassite seemed to cough, then he dryly said, “I do think Lord Marquez misspoke, of which I am sure he will surely realize when he awakens.”

“I have no doubt,” said the Vicereine a displeased tone of voice.

Bending down by Lord Marquez I relieved him of his purse and his fancy looking dagger before standing. Angrily I said, “He can have both his purse and his dagger back when I have my belongings returned to me at the temple. However, since I can't expect to eat a meal among you all and not be worried of drugging, his purse may be emptier by the cost of a few meals.”

“Jonne wait,” said the Abbess quickly, “this is mishandled, please let us help you.”

Stalking angrily towards the door I said, “I am wroth with the lot of you, as such I am going to take a walk to clear my head. Do not seek to detain me by force.”

“Sha'na Aelph Jonne, this behavior is not befitting any of your stations, past and present,” stated C'na Sereanne sharply, briefly halting me.

Turning I faced her directly and I let the heat of my anger fill my words, “My loyalty to the Land and faith in the powers above is what is driving my behavior, that and the pain of the loss of my family. Along in all of that, a hope for revenge for things lost me, spurs me on harshly. Accept that I am driven by those things, understand that I will do what I believe is needful to succeed, and do not presume to think my age or physical appearance matters in any of it!”

Hastily taking a step back C'na Sereanne made calming motions with her hands and I heard Prior Cassite say, “Jonne you are mage gifted and sparking of it, you need to calm down lest you unwittingly cause others harm.”

“Fine, I am going for a walk and I expect all my belongs returned to me at the temple, excepting the bow, as it is being used in defense of the city and the Land,” scowling darkly I looked at them said, “if you want to gain my trust, prove yourselves trustworthy.” With that I turned the ring and sent myself into invisibility, “Also, if you think I would not depart the city without equipment or even proper attire, think again.”

“That is one of the things that they fear,” said the Abbess quickly.

“Then we understand each other perfectly,” I said as I stalked out the door wishing I had boots so I could stomp loudly.

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“She did what?” asked the Viceroy of the Abbess as if his ears deceived him.

“She broke his jaw for him implying that she was rebellious and traitorous in her behavior,” said the Abbess as she shook her head. “Once he was healed enough to speak, he said that he regretted his choice of words, painfully regretted them.”

“Of that I have no doubt. Rebellious, I can agree that she may be, traitorous no.” The Viceroy shook his head and looked at the table where red and black markers were placed upon it, and said, “The army is an hour away, and the N'relv outside the city have eliminated any scouts to warn them of their coming. I have ordered the all archers in the city to see if they can thin the enemy's mages and troops significantly before they get here.”

“You don't seem happy about that,” said the Abbess as she studied him critically.

“It is going to be bloody,” said the Viceroy unhappily, “I am just hoping to force the enemy commander to spend his mages against us some more, so that our army can roll over them.”

“I see, you know you have our support Viceroy,” said the Abbess gravely.

“Yes, and I am grateful of it,” sighing he moved a group of markers slightly, “with luck the Marshal will be able to soothe Jonne's ruffled feathers. They did move her belongings to the Temple of the Goddess, correct?”

“Yes, though she has not turned up to reclaim them, such as they are,” said the Abbess with a frown, “the contents of her pack were interesting.”

“In what way?” he asked as he walked to look out of the guard tower window.

“She had a letter of thanksgiving from a small village that is a few days away from the Color Campus, “ said the Abbess with a faint smile, “even the children had signed it.”

“Did it say why she had it?” the Viceroy asked as he turned back from the window.

“She evidently singlehandedly saved them from raiders,” said the Abbess with a faint grimace, “though she had understated her role in that when she discussed her adventures with us.”

“She is not lacking in courage,” said the Viceroy with a faint nod, “was there anything else?”

“A letter from a fort she 'assisted' in the defense of,” at a look from the Viceroy she added, “commending her bravery, skill with the bow, and establishing her of having 'good character.'”

“I'll bet they said nothing of her being a pain in the ass either,” said the Viceroy with an amused laugh.

“You would be correct,” said the Abbess mirthlessly.

“I beg your pardon,” said the Viceroy apologetically, “my sense of humor tends to be off kilter when I am tired.”

“Quite understandable,” said the Abbess with a nod, “I will welcome restful days when they come.”

“Indeed, so I take it Jonne is off some place sulking?” asked the Viceroy with a frown.

“Yes, though we do have people watching for her, which may be a waste of effort considering that she can make herself invisible at whim.” The Abbess frowned and let her shoulders slump slightly, “I am afraid we have made a horrible showing in our attempting to gain her trust, I also doubt she will be likely begin to trust us, given events.”

“So you think she will bolt out the gates, the first chance she gets?” asked the Viceroy with a sour frown.

“I fear so, with or without our support,” the Abbess said with a worried gesture, “C'na Sereanna fears that Jonne will hide herself from the clans much less the rest of us when she goes.”

“Is her pride so great that she will not accept help?” asked the Viceroy with a groan as he ran his hand through his hair in agitation.

“I am not sure that it is pride. Jonne did say she was driven by her loyalty to the Land, faith in the powers above, the loss of her parents and a need for revenge for things lost to her.” The Abbess shook her head saying, “Those are not the words of a prideful child.”

“No, no they are not,” said the Viceroy after long moment of thought. “I think Jonne is more afraid that we will take away the sole reason for her existence, this task set to her by the powers above, than of her dying.”

“We would never...” said the Abbess as she stalled out at his upraised hand.

“What we would not do, is not the point,” said the Viceroy gently, “look at everything Jonne has done or admitted. She was forced by her duty to the Land to give up her birthright. Her choice of gender, if I read her correctly was taken, from her too. Then she loses her family, and what few friends she had as well, then she loses the dignity of her few years.... The only thing she knows as 'her own,' is the task or duty that the Goddesses and Gods have set her to.”

“That paints a painful, but likely picture of Jonne,” admitted the Abbess quietly, “and it explains a good deal as to how she reacts when folks seem to be cross purposes to that task.”

Gravely nodding the Viceroy said, “A person frightened of loosing that which gives their life purpose, will fight to the end of their life to keep it, and they will not always be rational about how they do it. And that fair describes Jonne's actions and temperament does it not?”

“Goddess we have erred greatly then,” said the Abbess mournfully as she wrung her hands.

“It would seem so, though I do not think you can own all the blame in this, the signs of her nature were there for us all to see,” said the Viceroy with a regretful looking frown. “At best we have a night and a day before the gates will have to be opened fully.”

“Won't she try to escape the city before then?” asked the Abbess, “Given what you say being true of her?”

“She might try to escape in the heat of battle, though it would place what she sees has 'her' task at grave risk,” said the Viceroy with a humorless smile, “she won't risk getting senselessly killed in the fog of war.”

“But she acted in the Coronation... no, wait I know, she was doing her duty to the Land protecting the rightful rulers of the land.” Shaking her head the Abbess sighed, “She puts her duty to the Land above herself.”

“Her father likely bears the fault there though. I can imagine that 'Duty to the Land' was taught to her from childhood,” said the Viceroy with a grave wave of his hand. “Duty for breakfast, duty for lunch and duty for dinner, such a diet I have and not an ounce of freedom from it.”

“I see you are familiar with that complaint,” said the Abbess with a faint smile.

“All of the High Houses or Blood Royal know it in one form or another, some more so than others.” The Viceroy said with a pained sounding laugh, “To readily do I see the cost of it in Jonne, I can only hope that when my children come in time that I am mindful of how it can affect them.”

“Do you think her father knew what that diet would do to Jonne?” asked the Abbess softly.

“No, though I suspect if he could see her now, he would likely be both pleased and dismayed by how well she knows it,” seemingly reluctant, the Viceroy added, “I think I can admire that in her, but I fear the cost of it for her.”

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Shrubbery mazes really needed more amenities established in the making of them. I decided that after only 'just' making it to an outhouse, I also decided that it would be nice if they would be properly stocked. Though I suppose the broad leafed plants that were decoratively hiding it were intended as such, which I hastily obtained while my bum was exposed, after the fact. To my relief no one was in proximity or even ear shot, as I used words better left unsaid to describe the unknown idiot that had failed to make sure it was 'stocked for use.' Also I was sure that somewhere Fate was rolling around in laughter as to my 'predicaments.'

A half dozen or so turns later I managed to find a gazebo. I suppose it was nice, and the decoratively carved pillars and railings of it were artistically done, I just was not in the mood to enjoy it. However, it did have the one criteria I did like in such a place, it was quiet and quite empty. When one goes to brood or sulk, it helps to have such a location, especially if you are mad at 'everyone' in general. The fact that I could lay back and not have the sun in my face was a minor consolation, besides if you are going to sulk, the last thing you want to do is suffer physically while doing so. At least that is my take on the subject.

Sulking also tends to lead to boredom, and occasionally naps there after, so I was not surprised to find that I had dozed off. Nor was I terribly surprised by the resumption of the fight around the walls or by the odd washes of magick. The surprising bit was that I found an odd parcel laying next to me, with my old name on it, when I did awake.

The parcel was oddly shaped and seemed to be gleefully adorned with green and black ribbons. Poking it, I could discern a few things about it, one it was slightly heavy, two it was hiding several items inside of it. The other odd bit about it, was that it seemed to have a hint of magick somewhere inside of it as well. Since damned few people should know me by my name Ari, I concluded that it was likely a peace offering or something similar from the Abbess, Vicereine, C'na Sereanna or Lord Marquez. With a sigh I pulled the odd package onto my lap, and examined the envelope attached to it.

Opening the letter, I read it cautiously.

Dear D'ne Ari,

I can't but feel some measure of fault for your current condition, namely your being younger in appearance. Having experienced no few annoying returns to preadolescence myself, you have my complete sympathies. Sadly as I have often discovered, only time will correct such a physical change. Try not to get too distraught at how you will be treated due to your seeming age, the people you are dealing with only have several centuries of cultural conditioning to wade through.

To my eye, you look to be only just at the cusp of puberty, for a N'relv; which means you have another six years at the minimum, to where they might see you as a young adult and or after that another ten actually be considered one. The sooner you accept that fact, the more comfortable you will be. Scant comfort I know it to be, but you no doubt will out live them all, if you don't get killed stupidly.

Sometimes you may have to decide which duty is more important, and then chose not to act, if only to ensure you can carry out your primary duty later on. Also after hearing an interesting discussion about you, I want you to know that no one can take a duty from a person if the Gods and Goddesses truly give it to them. While I don't personally have much need to trouble myself with the worship of them, I do find myself serving fate or Fate if you will. While you might find it odd that an assassin would be a patriot, I am in that I try to work to keep the Land safe in my own odd way.

Having kept close eye upon you and the others, mostly for my own amusement, you should know that they are not complete idiots. However, as you likely suspect, they have no intentions of just letting you go off alone without some sort of tabs being kept upon you. Frankly I expect you will just have to endure them attempting to do so, and then go into the woods and lose them there. I have no doubt that the Huntress would be inclined to let them chase deer or wander in circles for a few days.

You should know that there are many small units of the enemy's forces patrolling the land looking for a weakness to exploit. To help you avoid them I have scribed a small map showing the known positions of enemy forces that the Viceroy knows of, for you. More than likely the enemy forces will avoid traveling in forested regions unless there is a city or town sheltered by them, plan your travels carefully. Since you likely have no need to fear 'change fields,' you may find it possible to cut days of travel off of your travels or shake pursuers by heading deep into one. Also, if you did not know this bit of old lore you should know it now.

To Whit:

One change field will likely undo the effects of another. However the same change field will not counteract itself, if you go out and reenter it. So if you should run into a really potent one and gain scales or what not, you have a way to fix it. Should you think the changes awkward or unbearable.

As one might expect, as an assassin I have had to flee for my life no few times, as such I have placed catches of goods and established a few safe houses though out the land. In the small note book inside the bundle, you will find several locations where they might be found. I can't guaranty they will be there, as Fate does occasionally allow someone in need to discover them. However, the odds are better than good that a days journey from an empty cache, you would find an intact one. I would avoid using any safe house in a city though, as you being perceived as too young to be alone,would draw attention to it and yourself.

One last bit, mage gifted people can only safely use ordinary swords and knives if they can keep their emotions in check while doing so. The dagger that shattered at the coronation being a prime example of such instances that might result from panic or desperation. If you have noticed a tendency for blades breaking and or shattering when you would likely think it not likely to have happened; you should consider yourself overly lucky to have survived thus far. Since I too have a mage gift, any weapon you should discover in a cache should serve you well as they have been specially tempered for a mages hands. Even so you should inspect such blades frequently for flaws or an odd pitch when struck. Discard and replace any blade that feels 'off' or sounds odd, as they will likely break or shatter if you are stressed while in combat.

Lastly, do not grow attached to your belongings. Know that it is better to be cold and wet for a day or so, than to be overburdened and dead for having them. Or trapped for that matter.

Your humble assassin,

Raven

PS: I rather enjoyed watching you deck Lord Marquez, he's not a bad sort, but at times he can grate on a persons nerves.

PPS: Trying to wade through two armies to escape to your duty is just stupid. I know from experience that when armies meet they tend to forget to look out for noncombatants. Also that anyone not in 'their' armies colors in the heat of battle, is an enemy.

PPPS Oh bother it all, just read the notebook. Oh, and I'm sorry for your losses, and all the pain I put you through. I had rather liked you as the 'Fop Prince,' and I had such high hopes for your reign to be an interesting one; as the past six kings had been so 'dull.' But well, things are interesting for now....

R.

Curious beyond words, I opened his package to discover a small pack. Digging in it I found it to be containing a pair of books, the small notebook and map, a sewing kit, a few bits of jewelry, a compass, a small folding shovel, an empty water skin, a small pouch of coins, and a tightly rolled tarp. Along with the pack was a new looking pair of boots with a note saying they should fit, a plain looking short sword and scabbard, of which the note said, 'The sharp parts go into your enemy.' Lastly there was a second oddly shaped bundle which read, 'Collapsible bow, adequate for hunting food, not so great for killing men. Get a better one when you can.' A last note suggested that I keep the cloth wrapping and the ribbon, 'As while a dress can be shortened, if one is split and sewn or tied like trews it would protect your legs a bit in a pinch.'

Heartened by the fact that at least one person was on my side, I smiled and belted on the sword on, then I drew it, testing its weight and balance. A few easy lunges and quick parries quickly spoke of its craftsmanship and its dark watermarks that were barely visible on the blued steel, told of expensive and exotic tempering. The blade was impressive enough though its hilt and protective bell and cross guard were plain and unremarkable looking, as was the scabbard; which made sense considering Raven was a self admitted assassin.

After putting the boots on, I returned the odd assortment of items to the pack. Then discovering that the bundle of the collapsed bow would fasten to it, I stowed it and the other loose bits away. Placing the pack on my back I decided I was hungry and since sulking was hard work, that I needed food, and likely some desert as well to buoy my spirits. Maybe some sort of wine or something potently alcoholic as well, if I could convince someone to let me purchase some. Slightly dispirited at the possible inability to purchase strong spirits, I made my way out of the shrubbery maze.

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At a small tavern and well into my meal, I found myself confronted by an irritated Lord Marquez, I could tell he was irritated by the way he kept yelling at me. That and the occasional use of invective, Ok so he used it more like it was punctuation, to my ears it was simply loud noise mixed with posturing. He also seemed to be fond of the word irresponsible, so much so I was tempted to take a drink every time he said it. I figured I would if I managed to get drunk before he ran down I wouldn't feel the urge to deck him again.

“... Are you even paying attention to me!?!” he asked as he put both of his hands on the table I was seated at.

“No,” I said as I took another sip of wine. “And before you go off on another tirade, I've heard better ass chewings from my nannies.”

He actually paused to consider that statement before giving me a disgusted look, “Of that I have no doubt.”

“So is this a social call or did you 'just' come to vent your spleen at me?” I asked pointing to a chair opposite the table from mine.

“A bit of both, your decking me was a cheap shot, you do know that?” he asked as he sat down.

“Call me a traitor again and I will do more to you than knock you out,” I semi-growled out at him.

“I must admit that was a grievous error on my part, one of which I did truly regret when I woke up.” He paused and seemingly reluctantly added, “Of which I do apologize for.”

A hundred flip responses wafted through my mind before I said, “Apology accepted.”

“I had an interesting discussion with the Viceroy, well it was more that he spoke and I listened,” dryly he added, “not that he had much time.”

“I did notice it has been active up on the wall, magically and otherwise,” I said with a pained sigh, “also I was told I would be carried away from if I attempted to help.”

“I do not doubt it,” said Lord Marquez with a nod, “I was informed that I was under armored to be on the wall, and ill equipped.”

Taking his dagger from my belt I slid it across the table to him, “Here, this might not be too helpful in that sort of fight though.”

“Thank you,” he said as he returned it to his own belt, “my pouch?”

Sighing I passed it to him, “Here, minus lunch.”

Rolling his eyes at me, he took it and then toyed with it briefly before tying it at his belt. “I was told rather pointedly by the Viceroy, that we were trying to take the one last thing from you that you could call your own. He also pointed out that people that held something precious or dear to them, like a loved one or a possession, will act dangerously, recklessly or die to protect it or keep it.”

Frowning I nodded at him, as Raven's note about duty made a bit more sense, so I asked, “And?”

“He also said of anyone likely to have been fed duty until it came out their ears, it would have been you,” unhappily Lord Marquez added, “I always hated that myself.”

Refilling my cup from the wine bottle I took a hefty swallow before saying, “Its expected, its a responsibility, one day you will have to, and so on. You try to escape it when you can, and the irony of it all is that it can end up your only reason for living.”


"I see, you are a lot of trouble, did you know that?" asked Lord Marquez after filling a cup from my bottle of wine and taking a cautious sip.

I gave him a mirthless smile saying, "I didn't ask for your interference or your acceptance."

No, I suppose you did not," he admitted with a shake of his head, "though I can't for the life of me understand why you don't want help."

"I would take help, if it was really offered. However, you lot do not want to help, you want to control things, to say what I would do or not do." Shaking my finger at him I said, "Not once have you all asked to help, all you have done is try to order me about or force me to do things contrary to what I understand needs being done."

"You have to understand our position Jonne, we find our Land under attack, the rulers of it killed, and ourselves under siege. Only to discover that our continued prosperity likely lies in the hands of an inexperienced young person." He took a healthy sip from his cup saying, "Who just happens to have been next in line to rule, and now you and another are all that remains of a N'relv clan. Not to mention your physical appearance leads us to protect you."

"And just who is experienced in saving the Land?" I asked with a rude snort of disbelief. "I mean seriously, which person am I just supposed to let take over for me? Do you really think that if there was such a person that I would be tasked such by the Goddesses and Gods of the Land? Do you think they would be so stupid as to pick someone who could not do the job?"

"No, but I do question their judgment in that they chose you of all people," he said bluntly.

"Is it jealousy that makes you such an ass? Or is it that I am young?" I held up a finger to forestall his response and said, "If you must know I have had plenty of time to try and think why me? Why not someone else? Of it all, I decided that there was no feel good, happy sort of answer to that question save one. Basically it boiled down to; I was there in the right spot, at the right time and I was willing to obey their instructions.”

“I am amazed that you follow anyones instructions,” he said with a shake of his head.

Pointing a finger at him I somberly asked, “Who outranks me in the kingdom? Before the Goddesses and Gods picked me, it was my father and mother. After they died no one did. So just who is there that could command me legally, much less order me to do something?”

He actually seemed to think hard for a minute before he reluctantly said, “No one. However, there is a Viceroy and Vicereine now.”

“Of which they cannot legally order legitimate priestesses or priests to go against the mandates of the Gods or Goddesses.” I paused and gave him a direct look, “There is no law saying I have to obey anyone when it comes to my task. I do have to follow the Laws of the Land though, as much as any other priestess or priest. However, there is no law or custom that determines who or who is not allowed to save the Land, is there?”

“No, there is not, and I presume you can justify take my pouch and dagger?” he asked critically.

“It falls under the 'Needs of the Land,'” I replied with a smirk, “of which after the end of hostilities in the Land, you would legally be able to request just compensation. Which would net you,” I paused and quickly added up the cost of the meal, “five silver coins.”

“I'll pass,” Lord Marques said with a roll of his eyes, “though I think we could lock you away legally, under the pretenses that you were a danger to yourself and others.”

“I am sure you could try that, but at what cost?” I asked after I finished my last bite of lunch.

Unsurprisingly he didn't bother to answer that question. “So do you have an answer for everything that would get in your way?” he asked disbelievingly of me.

“No, I still have no idea what to do about that rabble outside of the wall. Other than wait for them to be defeated, go away or to make a large enough hole in the wall I can wander through,” I said with a shrug. “Beyond me going up on the wall and shooting arrows at them until my arms gave out or discovering some way to kill them in mass quantities, there isn't much I can do at the moment.”

“Not to mention folks trying to carry you off the wall should you attempt to help,” pointed out Lord Marquez unhelpfully.

“Well yes there is that problem too,” I conceded with a small shrug.

“So what are you going to do now?” he asked as I stood up.

“I am going to see if my belongs are in the temple, then likely I will decide what to do then, that is if my belongings are indeed there,” I said then added. “Afterwards I suppose I may try to go buy clothing suitable for hard use, as it would be annoying to try and walk many leagues in a dress.”

“Why not ride a horse? Rather than walking that is?” he asked as he got up to follow me.

“Oh I would ride one, but with the enemy out and around the Land, I plan to stay in the woods as much as possible,” I said with a small shrug as we left the tavern. “Traveling in the woods isn't a hardship for me, and there is abundant food there as well, well if I am wasteful in my hunting that is.”

“Wasteful?” he asked quizzically.

“Taking just enough to eat for a meal or two, say from a deer for instance and then leaving the rest to rot or be eaten.” Shaking my head I said, “I would do it if I had to, but I would regret it.”

“I see,” he said with a nod of understanding.

We had only walked a few more steps before there was a massive magickal surge that washed through me, followed shortly by what sounded like an avalanche. Turning we looked to see a cloud of dust and smoke rising up from the northern wall, then alarm bells started to toll frantically. After a brief moment I could distantly hear frantic shouts and men yelling as if they were charging ahead to battle.

“Damnation!” I half growled as he tried to grab my arm. “Stop that! I'm not going to run to fight an army by myself, what do you think I am stupid?”

“Fine, but why are you going towards them then?” he asked as he jogged after me.

“I'm going to the temple, there are children in the school there and no real defenses other than a few doors they can shut,” I explained on the run.

“What happens if the enemy's soldiers go there, what do you plan to do then?” he asked trying to grab my arm again.

“I'll do what the Goddess and the Gods decree needs doing!” I shouted as I dodged his grabbing hands and drawing my sword I pointed it at him said, “Do not make me cut you. I already broke your jaw once for being stupid, if I have to hamstring you or worse for the same thing I will do it.”

Visibly alarmed he pulled up short drawing his hands back in a placatory manner, “You would, wouldn't you.”

With evident exasperation I shouted at him, “I don't have time for your crap, I am going to the temple to help protect the kids there, you can either help me do that or go away!”

“Fine! Get yourself killed!” he shouted back at me.

“Fine! You go hide and be safe someplace. You! You coward!” I shouted angrily as I turned and ran towards the temple. Turning a corner, I glanced back to see him following me, though he seemed to be cursing all the while as he did so.

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The temple courtyard was a scene of chaos as the various priest, priestesses and novitiates tried to herd children and were trying allay the fears of parents and others at the same time; as they swarmed to the various temples attached to the courtyard. Worming past the children being moved into the various quarters of the holy for protection, I lunged into the room where my belongings should have been brought. Discovering them on the bed, I stripped off the small pack I was wearing to get at the bundle with the collapsed bow in it.

Opening it, to my relief, I found it color marked showing what bit went where and with much fumbling and swearing, I set to assembling it. The two curved metal ribs that vaguely looked like they were for a large cross bow evidently fitted into a center piece, as each had a long tang that slid into a bit that looked like someone had taken a real bow and cut the top and bottom thirds off of it. Several wooden pegs went into the wood and into holes in the metal ribs to hold it all together, though it seemed to me that once it was strung, the bowstring it would likely hold it together.

I heard Lord Marquez shouting for me, as I managed to get the bow strung, so I called out, “In here!”

Panting slightly he rushed into the room, “The enemy is only blocks away, and there are a lot of them.”

“Can you use a sword?” I asked him pointing to my old one on the bed.

Grabbing it up he said “Yes,” then he quickly shoved the scabbard of it through his belt, “I see you have a bow.”

“Yes,” I said simply as I took the arrows from the mostly decorative quiver and returned them to my real one. Gratefully, I noted that someone had nearly overfilled that one with arrows that might pierce armor, making me suspect Fate was up to her tricks. Quickly donning the quiver I waited a moment as he added the daggers from the bed to his belt. “I'm going to be invisible and shoot any soldiers that decide to attack a temple.”

“Wonderful,” he muttered sourly, “what do you expect me to do?”

“I expect you to go where the kids are and place yourself between them and the enemy, think you can handle that?” I asked sarcastically.

“What good will that do if a horde of them come at me?” he asked sarcastically back to me.

I put my finger in his face and asked harshly, “We're in a temple, you dolt, do you really think the Goddesses and Gods would let you down when you are protecting kids?”

Giving me a foul look he brusquely passed me, “You really are annoying, did you know that?”

“I'm right and I don't have a lack of faith like you do,” I countered as I followed him out.

“It's not a lack of faith, it's that there are more of them than there is of us that has me concerned,” he replied as he glanced back at me.

Getting out through the throngs of people took a bit of doing, but we finally got outside, only to hear the yelling and sounds of fighting drawing closer. Looking at him and seeing his worry and fear I said, “Look, just stay near a door, I'll try to dissuade them from entering the temple grounds.”

“Don't get yourself killed in the process,” he said quickly.

Using the ring to turn myself invisible, I scoffed and said, “I have no intention of getting that close to them, and I'm mage gifted.”

“A mage gift does not grant invulnerability!” he shouted after me as I jogged towards the entrance of the courtyard.

Ignoring his rejoinder, I walked out into the street to see the soldiers were less than a hundred yards away. Taking an arrow from my quiver, I quickly set it to knock and sent it at one of the front most soldiers. I quickly understood why Raven thought the collapsible bow wasn't that good for killing men, as it was vastly under powered compared to my older bow; as the arrow I shot didn't hit the mans torso but instead struck just above that soldier's left knee.

As I put another arrow to knock, the oddness of how the other soldiers and the one I wounded didn't react like I expected them to. Sure the guy fell down and tried to do remove my arrow and while he seemed in great pain, he wasn't screaming, though his mouth looked like he wanted to. The other's behavior struck me as out of place too, as they didn't try to take cover, but instead reformed their ranks and continued walking, ignoring their fallen comrade. Uncertain, I aimed higher and took a second shot, and while I dropped the soldier, the same behavior occurred.

I had at least twenty more arrows, and a quick estimation of their numbers told me that I needed at least ten times that many to stop them all. Even if they just let me kill them one at a time, and that seemed too much like murder for me to stomach it; considering they were just walking and not trying to hide behind shields or even defend themselves by taking cover. Disconcerted by their actions and my own feelings about them, I eased into an alley way across from the temple entrance and studied them as they marched past.

As they marched slowly by me, they briefly looked into the temple courtyard, then the alley I was in, and marched onwards. In perfect step, and with simultaneous coordinated turns of their heads and bodies, they would pause, look, and then move on. Studying their faces, I noted they were all blank and emotionless though their eyes seemed either relieved or haunted. A sullen green flare from the neck of one of the soldiers, made me take a few steps from out of my alley to look closer at them.

When the green flare winked again, I discovered it was from the metal collar around the soldier's neck. “Goddess,” I whispered, “help me to see.” Abruptly my vision was filled with a spiderweb of lines and green blobs that covered their heads and connected them to each other and a thicker strand of green in the ranks far behind them.

'They are enslaved! Child, what would you do about it?' asked the Goddess as if noticing it for herself.

“Killing them would be wrong, can we free them?” I whispered eased back into my alley.

'It usually takes one of our servants to act before we can aid them,' said the Goddess warmly as she explained, 'otherwise you would be slave to our whims.'

“Though there are exceptions,” I murmured softly trying to figure out where to start, much less how.

'Well we do have our handmaidens or notable ones that are more closely connected to us,' she explained with a faint laugh. 'But even then we largely do not make them into puppets, so they do not resent us for the times we borrow them.'

“Ah,” I acknowledged as I saw the soldiers step around the ones I had killed and wounded, “the collars?”

'Try, and should you falter I can borrow your body to complete the task,' the Goddess advised saying, 'only at the limits of your own power or strength, can we act fully.'

“I thought you were all powerful,” I whispered as I quickly sprinted to where the wounded man drug himself.

'We are, inside our own bailiwick, when we interact upon the deeds of men, there are guiding rules we have to follow. It ties into your free will and how you interact with us,' explained the Goddess. 'You worship and follow us because you want to, not because we force you to... unlike the Mage King, it seems.'

Kneeling down behind the man, I focused on his collar. Then taking a deep breath I closed my eyes and pictured the collar cracking and then breaking to fall off of him. Feeling the rush of power from inside me start to spill onto the collar, I quickly reached out and grabbed his collar at just behind his neck. Then letting all the frustration and anger at his condition fill me I screamed out my intentions willing them to happen with all my might, “Be freed!”

As the man jerked abruptly, I fought to hold onto the collar and my focus as the world swam around me oddly, “Be freed damn it all!”

When it seemed like my world was turning inside out from the outward flow of magick and that I was fading out from it, I heard all the Goddesses and all the Gods speak as one through my voice. “Be freed of your vile servitude to choose your own destinies, knowing all are created equal in the sight of the High Powers of this Land!” Then I knew nothing more as a wave of power beyond my comprehension rolled through my body and out into the spells binding the soldiers.

linebreak shadow

“What the blazes?” asked the Viceroy as he watched a good two thirds enemy's army abruptly turn upon the other third with animalistic screams of rage and defiance. “Did they all just go mad?”

“I think so, either that or we just got handed a victory by the Powers or someone,” stated Caer as she tiredly leaned against wall. “I'll take either at this point,” she added as she tried to wipe her bloody arms clean against the wall, “I'm bloody tired.”

Turning to yell up to the watch tower, the Viceroy shouted, “Signal our forces to let the enemy sort itself out! Do not attack the two forces unless they turn on us!”

“If they all had attacked us like that,” said Caer pointing out the ferocity of the larger group working to eliminate the smaller one, “we'd have been finished when they broke through the wall.”

“Viceroy! The Calvary in the city streets report that the forces inside the city just quit attacking, threw down their weapons and started weeping or celebrating like mad men!” yelled down a man from the watchtower. “They want instructions!”

“Tell them to collect up all the loose weapons, and just watch them, do not provoke them!” shouted the Viceroy quickly. Looking to Caer he added, “If they are suddenly on our side, we don't want them to change their minds, and as tired as you are, go try and find out what happened.”

“Oh dear Goddess that was brutal, they just encircled what was left of the smaller force, and swarmed onto them, like ants...” she pointed to where a small mountain of men where fighting. “No tactics, they are just killing them.”

“Caer,” said the Viceroy as he nodded adding in a slightly firmer tone of voice, “as fascinating as it is... I need you to go and find out what is going on in my city.”

Blinking she turned to him and pulled herself tiredly up to attention, “By your command Viceroy, but I suspect I'll only discover it was all Jonne's fault.”

Tiredly the Viceroy nodded and said, “At least she made trouble for the enemy, and not us if she indeed did do so.”

“For a change,” said Caer with a weak laugh, “I'll go find out if it's going to bite us in the ass.”

Once Caer had quickly ran to the steps leading down from the wall the Viceroy watched as the mound of men collapsed into a celebratory, if not joyous seeming riot. Looking skyward the Viceroy said prayerfully, “Goddesses, Gods, would you think poorly of me if I wanted Jonne to leave my city, just so it'd be more peaceful, and mostly boring again? Not that I hate her, but she's such a willful and wild person, and the things that happen around her are disquieting, even if she's not directly responsible for them. I know that sounded childish of me, and I thank you for saving my city and people... I'm just tired of unpleasant surprises.”

Abruptly turning to the watchtower he shouted, “Send someone out with a white flag to ask that mob to surrender or at least peaceably disarm themselves!”

“I'll go,” said the Marshall with a chuckle, “I suspect they don't want to fight us, they seem to be celebrating a bit too much for that.”

“If it is indeed a victory for us, I would say let everyone celebrate, but I want to be certain first,” said the Viceroy with a nod to the Marshal.

“Then by your command, I will go and see that it becomes a celebration,” said the Marshal with a smile he pointed to a smaller group moving out onto the battlefield, “though I suspect it is a victory, as it seems like the priests and priestesses are going out among them.”

Sighing the Viceroy turned and shouted to the tower, “Order the men to rest, but to keep a watch up.” Then looking back to the Marshal he said, “I suspect we may have peace on our doorstep but not the all across the Land.”

“Take one battle at a time Viceroy, take a rest, I'll discover their intentions and report back to you,” said the Marshal with a smile, “rest, you've earned it.”

Nodding the Viceroy said with a joking smile, “By your command my friend.”

And the story continues... later.

Comments   

+1 # Horrid 2016-02-26 17:07
Dear Renae:

I have not yet read this story. I clicked on the hypertext links you provided and they were all down. You said you didn't want to talk about what was making you unhappy so I am not asking you for any information. I just want you to know that when I hear that you are sad it makes me sad, too. You have given me so much thru your stories. I just hope it makes you feel a little less blue to know that someone is commiserating with you. :(
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0 # ficfac12345 2016-03-10 05:03
Try these for parts 1-3 & 4:
http://www.sapphireplace.com/stories/renae.html
http://www.stardustr.us/first_among_fools_4
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0 # Amy_Amethyst 2016-10-10 00:38
The Stardust link isn't working. Does the Stardust site still exist? If not, does anybody know another place where part 4 is posted?
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+1 # Nora 2016-10-24 01:10
Hi, I saw your post so I went over to Stardust's site and found the part 4 to Renae's story. Like you I would LOVE to see this story finished along with her superb "After The Ashes" tale! There are only 3 chapters to it but it's a gripping story.

http://www.stardustr.us/first_among_fools_4
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+1 # alisa28 2016-12-18 16:06
This ranks up with the greatness of Tolkin and Jordan!!!
Though Renae's tale is no longer current. All other TG tale pale in comparison.
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