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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ardwen Page 26 Book 4

Manuel looked down at the young woman who had just walked out of nowhere and asked for a beer. The forlorn hope squinted for a second, the thought that this girl looked familiar scratched at the back of his brain. Manuel pushed the idea aside, there was no way, he reasoned after looking her up and down, that he would ever forget something so pleasing to the eyes. “One beer coming up , miss.” Manuel said with a nod. The human soldier took a swing at the cask below him with the crow’s beak he had kept on hand, making sure that there were others ready to tap the keg and mugs on hand. With a single, swift crack the pick-like weapon normally used to puncture plate armor bit into the front of the wooden cask and lager so dark that it appeared black oozed out.

With practiced efficiency the men helping Manuel distribute the drinks had jammed a tap into the cask. It was a sloppy way of breaking keystone, and beer dribbled out onto the ground, a whack with a mallet drove the tap in further and the leaking stopped. An elderly man with thinning hair at the back of his head and streaks of grey everywhere else swiftly poured the dark lager into a large stein with a lid and thumblift. Manuel eyed the beer stein appreciatively. Much like the rest of the evening, the men the Westgale soldier had assigned to hand out drinks were simply dispensing the alcohol in whatever container was nearest at hand – which resulted in an odd mix of cups and mugs that ranged from humbled fired clay to gilded and embossed masterpieces of pewter and silver.

Manuel smiled at the stunning lady and said jokingly, “You’ve got some luck, miss, that’s a cup fit for a queen.” The people who heard Manuel’s jest guffawed laughter at the flippant comment, one even going so far as to slap Mavigan good-naturedly on the shoulder. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” Manuel said, “I’ve got a few other things that need tending. Enjoy the party, and feel free to thump Jaob on the shoulder in turn – especially if he’s as slow at serving you drink as he was with that last glass.” With a flourish and a mock bow, Manuel spun around and hopped off the side of the cart, landing on the cobblestone street with a slight thump of thick-soled boots. The forlorn hope took one look at the young lass as she moved through the crowd. Manuel let out a sigh, he had forgotten how long he’d been without seeing a woman who wasn’t starved, being beaten, or weeping as someone she loved was. “Aye, that’s just like cool water.” Manuel said to the late evening air as he walked off.

“Hey boys!” Manuel said with a wave as he rounded the corner of the street. The forlorn hope knew the greeting was technically incorrect. The knot of children that sat on the steps leading down to the city street had a few girls in it too, and they crossed their arms and pointed their noses to the air at being lumped in together with the loathed other gender. Well, Manuel thought, that would all change one day – for now he had an important question to ask the assorted group of children. Each of them had volunteered earlier to watch the sky for their little winged friend, and as Manuel was quick to remind them, for the “big angel” or the “angry angel” as the children were quickly labeling Ardwen. “Seen anything?” The forlorn hope finished casually while leaning against the cool stone of a nearby building.

“Sir!” One of the older boys, Manuel thought his name was Davin, responded. The child snapped an aptly childish salute, along with just about every other child there. Manuel winced inwardly; he had thought it best not to break their spirits and play their game when he “recruited” them to help him keep watch, but the children had apparently taken it to heart. “Me and Tor have even been up on the roofs so we could see the whole sky. Christoff and Renn are up there now.”

“Aye, good work.” Manuel said, and then figuring there was no harm in playing along he snapped out like an expert drill sergeant. “Militas Davin and his squad are to be commended for their observation of duty!” Manuel gave his best had-a-few-but-not-showing-it salute he had mastered back in his younger days as a raw recruit. The children practically popped with excitement, several of them bouncing up and down a little as they turned to smile or chatter with friends. Davin puffed his chest out and gave another salute, with the wrong hand, but at least he bothered to stand first this time. “Should your men – or ladies – see anything, report to me.”

A chorus of enthusiastic “sirs” followed Manuel as he walked back to the party. Despite how ridiculous the situation made him feel, he was honestly grateful for the children. With the majority of Westgales army either dead, securing the city, or helping oversee the party, Manuel doubted he had very many eyes he could spare to keep sweeping the sky. The forlorn hope rubbed his arms as a chill breeze from the sea made him shudder slightly. The sun was dipping low into the sky, the horizon cutting into it like a knife through an apple. “I pray, All-Father,” Manuel whispered to himself, “that they only ever have to play at being soldiers.”

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm surveyed the harbor, now empty of ironskane vessels with the Royal Arms flying from the Harbormaster's watch tower, with considerable satisfaction.

*Now if only Mavigan had finished matters with her uncle before getting distracted by Teran.* he thought. *Ah well, at least she came through alive and unharmed, the city is free again, Mavigan has Saint Ariana Trueblood returned as her Great Great Grandmother to help her, and I have the Abbess to at least hold the tile of head of the Church. All in all, a very satisfactory day.*

Just then the Raven came up with a crowd of folks, both militant and civilian, and said,

"From what you told me about meeting Saint Ariana, amazing as that seems, and the reports I am getting, it seems that the Saint and two winged elves liberated all of the townfolk held prisoner to be sacrificed and wiped out half of Beridane's army. I would think it fanciful except for the flash and shaking we saw and felt when we were fighting in the palace and the retreat of Beridane's forces already in effect when Beridane escaped and fled.

While I would like to meet this Saint returned from the dead, it seems that she emerged from the Manor House with Mavigan to rejoin a crowd of folks, and then went back inside. Mavigan and the crowd, led by this Manuel you mentioned, are just across the harbor in the warehouse district throwing a big celebration. I though we should go join the festivities, especially since I have a number of folks here who had family members locked in that dungeon."

At this a chorus arose of folks confirming that their loved ones were there and they wanted to see them. Wilhelm clapped the raven on the shoulder and then looking over the crowd, said,

"Well then, shall we go join the party?"

Cheers erupted. Wilhelm then said,

"But we don't want to show up empty handed. Run back to your homes or go to the local taverns or markets to spread the word and bring things to contribute to the party. Meet back here in an hour and we will go there together. Let's make this a grand celebration of the liberation of Port Westgale from the Ironskane scum, the first act of Queen Mavigan. Long live the Queen!"

"Long live the Queen!" shouted the crowd. They dispersed in several directions there, except for those who lived or worked at the harbor who offered what they had here. Hearing a baker offer his bakery, Wilhelm left the rest to the Raven and went off with the baker.

An hour later a much larger crowd assembled with carts drawn by horses, mules, oxen and even people. The carts were full of children oldsters, and food and supplies for the great celebration. Some innkeeper had wagons piled with serving tables and serving ware.

Wilhelm and the Raven then led the crowd across the harbor, the crowd breaking into the royal anthem first and then moving on to drinking songs. Up ahead Wilhelm's tracking sense located Mavigan's heartfire and he winced at the raw wide open divine channels he sensed in her.

*Mavigan would not accept My Sister's invitation nor her pleas, so Nagarren had to do it the hard fast way. She said something about getting a mule's attention by hitting it over the head with a board. I think you will find your charge a changed woman. Our Ariana even taught Mavigan her first healing spell, which she was rather badly in need of. Go easy with your charge. She has been through a lot today.*

Wilhelm sent his agreement. Homing in on Mavigan's heartfire, he brought his crowd to join the other. A sizable portion of the city's remaining population was now gathering. Taking a basket with him, he came up behind Mavigan and said,

"Would you like some hot cheese biscuits with that beer?"

Written by - Ardwen

“If we want to get back to Westgale before it gets too dark, I suggest we leave now.” Elerus said. The little elf stood at the edge of the cliff, the sinking sun silhouetting him as a dark outline against a brilliant splash of saturated oranges, purples, and reds. Ardwen said nothing, the ancient elf stood from beneath the venerable tree where Elerus and he had spent the last several hours simply talking of people long dead and empires buried by time. Every now and then, they had even spoke of the future, but such talk almost invariably caused them to both slip into awkward silence.

The truth was neither elf was certain if they had a future in this new world, but they each had hopes and dreams, so they shared those instead. Ardwen stood next to his friend, looking down at him, Ardwen still found it so strange to think of the boy as Elerus, yet Ardwen had set aside thoughts of future vengeance for his comrade. If Elerus was happy, then so was he, and if Elerus was not bothered by his state, then he resolved to not be troubled by it either. With a silent nod, the two winged elves leapt off the cliff, freefalling before allowing themselves to level out and shoot through the air. Ardwen stayed slightly above Elerus, and just a little behind. The former Hand was so lost in thought as they made their way back to Westgale that he did not notice the beauty of the land sprawled beneath him.

Trees displayed vibrant autumnal colors that, when viewed from above, resembled a vibrant quilt sown by the hand of a caring god. The stitches of the quilt were formed by streams of water that twisted and churned their way through narrow beds, sparkling like gemstones in the fading sunlight. Elerus dipped down lower to the ground, intent on taking in the vistas of their new world, and Ardwen followed suit. The young elf flapped his single white wing just above the tree tops, and then he suddenly peeled left. Ardwen paused in mid-flight, hovering in the air, his pinions outstretched like some angel in a miracle play come to pronounce the All-Father’s judgment. “El?” Ardwen shouted out as he watched his friend dip down into the tree line.

A few seconds later a flock of birds burst from the trees, the sound of their wings beating against the air mixed with the rustle of branches and their complaining squawks. At first Ardwen saw nothing, but as the flock began to wheel in the air like a winged column of brown and grey feathers, Ardwen caught sight of Elerus keeping pace in the middle of them. The young elf let the birds go, and like his companion he simply hovered in the air, the slow drumbeat of his wing the counterpart to Ardwen’s. “Don’t deny, Ardwen,” Elerus began, “what we spoke of. This world is magnificent, full of potential, filled with the magic of a planet and people that yearn for life and do not linger on in pale facades of living.”

Ardwen moved closer to the winged child and tossed his head back to look at the darkening of the twilight sky overhead. “You believe our world was doomed, then?”

“It was fading Ardwen, not doomed, but already dead. I can only imagine that the All-Father brought us here to give us a second chance, to make things right this time around.” Elerus said.

“You might,” Ardwen said, “have asked him to be a little less literal on the second-chance thing in your case.”

Elerus crossed his arms and shot Ardwen a defiant look. Suddenly though his arms dropped to his side and his head slumped. “That’s harsh, Ardwen,” he said softly, “I think part of your problem is you’ve forgotten what you were like when you were a child.”

Ardwen rolled his eyes and slapped a hand to his chest, bringing it out open-palmed in front of him as if he were about to deliver a stunning oration on a theatre stage. “Absurd, why would that matter at all?” He said simply.

“Because,” Elerus said, his voice rising again, “the Ardwen I knew, would have thought this world a great chance to prove he was a hero.”

Ardwen’s face flushed crimson at the mention of an old, and as he now thought it, rather stupid memory. “I didn’t know any better.” He muttered sullenly. “Foolish dreams that were better abandoned.”

Elerus shook his head vehemently, “The day we put aside our dreams, even the unobtainable ones, is the day we start to lose who we are.”

Ardwen looked around him as if checking to make sure the sky was still above him. “We’d best hurry back to Westgale.” He muttered, changing the topic quickly. “It’s been thousands of years since I’ve taken wing, and I don’t relish the thought of flying into a city when it’s as black as the void outside.”

Despite Ardwen’s tacit misgiving about flying by night, the two elves had spent more time speaking along the way and looking at the earth around them. By the time they were over Westgale, the stars were wane motes in a deep blue sky, and the last rays of sunlight had vanished over the horizon. The first thing Ardwen noticed when he looked down upon the city were the dots of bright orange. There were a few spaced at random throughout the streets, but the vast majority seemed to be clustered north of the city’s center. “I smell smoke.” Elerus said, and Ardwen moved his head up and down in agreement.

The tiny dots of orange turned out to be roaring fires to ward off the night’s chill and provide light for music and dancing. The two airborne elves drifted closer to the city, and to their surprise the crowd looked up and let loose an echoing cheer at their sight. Elerus’s keen elven hearing caught snippets from the roar about angels and saint, amongst other less intelligible noise that sounded nothing so much as chairs scrapping across the floor. “Ariana has to be in that central building.” Ardwen said to his friend. “See how they’re all gathered about it in a circle? Hear their chants about the ‘Living Saint’? One would think we were expected.”

“Perhaps.” Elerus said. “But there’s something about the building . . . why would they huddle about it instead of going inside?”

“That’s of no concern.” Ardwen said. “Ariana probably ordered them to stay away so she wouldn’t have to deal with an entire city at once. She must have spent a great deal of energy to do . . . this,” Ardwen’s mouth twisted around the word before he continued, “to me. I imagine she must be resting by now. Intriguing, but we should come back later and-“

“Nice try, Ardwen.” Elerus said with a wicked grin.

Ardwen gave a derisive “hmph” in response, but he began to move closer to the Manor House all the same. Before he got too close, however, the warrior stopped as a familiar voice rose from the crowd.

“Stop!” Manuel shouted at the top of his lungs. “It’s warded!” Ardwen glanced over his left shoulder to be greeted by the sight of an eyeful of black feathers. With a sigh the elf looked over his right shoulder and saw Manuel frantically waving his arms up and down as if he was trying to flap his arms and join Ardwen and Elerus in the air. The elven bladeweaver spared the human the effort, and within a few seconds he had landed with barely a stirring of dust on the stone pavers next to the forlorn hope. “Thank the gods,” Manuel said in between sucking down gulps of air. His voice was slightly raspy from all the shouting, but he kept an even tone as he said, “there’s a shield that goes all around the Manor House. Ariana had to formally invite Brother Wilhelm and I.”

Ardwen frowned. He had worked his courage up to quickly confront Ariana and then be off. Like removing dressing from a wound, the elf had thought a quick tear would be the least painful. Now, with this unexpected delay, the twilight elf found his determination and courage waning, doubts gnawing at his mind. The sable-winged warrior looked at the crowd around him and spoke in a firm, commanding tone, “Manuel and I have some business to discuss, leave us be.”

A whine of disappointment shot through the crowd, but those who had seen what Ardwen had done earlier outside the prison grabbed their companions’ sleeves and cautioned them not to press the issue further. If the Saint and her angel had important and weighty matters to discuss, let them. There was time for weighty matters tomorrow, and rounds still to be downed tonight. As the press of bodies lessened and the noise died down around them, Manuel continued his explanation. “I’m betting you want to see the Abbess, I know. But I can’t get you inside, I’m sorry Ardwen.”

“Elerus! Hey! Hey!” Ardwen nearly leapt out of his skin, only keeping his outward calm by sheer force of will, as a small gang of children brazenly ignored his earlier warning and leapt about them. The children were all looking at the Manor House, or slightly above it, and waving as energetically as Manuel had done earlier. Ardwen traced their eyes to the point of fascination, and with a resigned shake of his head, he saw Elerus had not only discovered the aforementioned shield, but he was resting on top of it like a vast playground dome. Elerus stood up on what appeared to be nothing more than solid air and waved at his friends below. With a leap and a few flaps of his wing, the young elf was amongst the other children talking and sharing stories.

Ardwen let out an annoyed grunt and said, “Why can’t you?”

Manuel cleared his throat; Ardwen could smell alcohol on the man’s breath. “Well,” he started, “I don’t know how much faith to put in the story, but I’ve heard said that only members of the Hands of Providence, those of the royal bloodline, and those invited by name were the only ones who could enter.”

“I see.” Ardwen said curtly. The elf spun on his heels so quickly that Manuel saw a few black feathers drift into the air. At first the ancient bladweaver walked toward the Manor House with confident strides that ate the distance, but as he got closer he slowed. Hesitantly, cautiously, the elf reached a hand out. For a brief instance it looked as if Ardwen had his hand pressed against an invisible wall, then the warrior recoiled as if he had placed his fingers on a stove. Manuel saw the former Avari look at his gloved hand and move the fingers, one by one, but he did not try his fortune against the ward again. The elf’s shoulders slumped, and the forlorn hope had never seen the elf look so dejected, his former aura of confidence all but vanished against the unyielding energy of the protective shield. Suddenly, the warrior’s posture straightened, as if he were under inspection from his peers. However, when Ardwen spoke his voice was a deep snarl of frustration. “Just where,” he said, “am I supposed to find a member of a dead order or the last of a royal line?”

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan gratefully accepted the stein and promptly chugged the contents. When she stuck out her now empty cup, the keepers of the alcohol readily filled it, again, and again. After the horrible day, Mavigan wanted nothing less than total intoxication. By the time Wilhelm came up behind her, she was feeling pleasantly warm and loose, and inexplicably happy.

As she munched on a cheese biscuit under Wilhelm’s watchful eye, the firelight glinted off his red hair. She suddenly had a flash of inspiration that had her grinning from ear to ear.

“Sir Sly Willy,” she said, her words slurred, “have you seen my Nana? She’s nuttin’ but skin and bones… and more bonez! She needz fattenin’.” She leaned closer to Wilhelm as if about to tell him a secret. “So Red, if’n you fill that there basket with treats fer my Nana, I’ll protect youse from the Big Bad Wolf.” She promptly dissolved into laughter at her witticism, slapped Wilhelm on the back with perhaps more force than was absolutely required, and then polished off her cheese biscuit with a long draught from her mug.

Removing the mug from her lips with a satisfied sigh, she caught a hint of movement from the corner of her eyes. Looking over, her mouth dropped open and eyes grew wide. There, seemingly walking on air was a small winged boy. Astonished eyes followed his progress as he descended and landed amongst a small knot of people.

It was then that she saw him. Her feet started moving before her brain could send the command.

“Ardwen?” she asked. “Dude, whaz happened to you?” She kept walking until she was nearly nose to chest with the tall elf. “I dunno if you noticed,” she said in a whisper that could be heard for miles, “but theres a big bird on yer back. Want I should git it?”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus saw Ardwen’s condescending frown before even the ancient elf was aware it was on his face. He excused himself from the small knot of children, who by now we’re eager to be off through the city resuming their games. Elerus promised he would join them later, but he had to take care of his best friend right now. The little elf left the sentence intentionally ambiguous enough so that it wasn’t technically a lie, but he seriously doubted any of the kids would have guessed he was talking about the black-winged warrior staring down his nose at the drunken human girl.

As Elerus walked closer he only then realized how drunk the lady was as she slurred words and nearly stumbled into Ardwen’s chest. The young boy quickly guessed as to who she was: unashamedly flaunting her insouciant attitude, and with a knight behind her in fine panoply who looked like one of the Half-Giants from home. Elerus’s thoughts stopped at that part. Looking at the red-haired man again, the winged child reassessed his estimate and realized he was a bit too short to be one touched directly by Jotun blood. But then, Elerus conceded with a mental sigh as he stood next to Ardwen and realized the top of his head barely reached the twilight elf’s elbow, who was he to call anyone short?

The silver-haired boy looked up at Ardwen and said, “Is she Mavigan?” Ardwen’s mouth remained in a dismissive line as he nodded his affirmation.

“Elerus,” Ardwen finally said slowly, “turn around.”

“Huh?” Elerus said with a tilt of his head.

“There are not birds on our shoulders. “Ardwen continued without an explanation for his order, hoping Elerus would catch on. Thankfully, as Ardwen showed his back to Mavigan, he saw his small friend do the same. “See?” Ardwen said as he fanned the wing out and brought it back in. Elerus did the same, but being so small the span of his wing was shorter, though the ends of the primary flight feathers dipped down further than Ardwen’s. The two winged elves turned back around and Ardwen continued. “As for what happened, that’s just the question I want to ask Ariana. So you see it’s vital that both of us see her. However, there’s a shielding spell over the Manor House, and Manuel tells me that we need you to step inside of it and extend us invitations-”

“By name!” Manuel slid in edgewise. The human soldier gave Ardwen a nod and returned to leaning against a nearby stack of boxes that had until recently held a large amount of very expensive white wines.

“By name, then.” Ardwen said, echoing Manuel’s earlier instruction. Ardwen heard Elerus give a faked cough, and the ancient bladeweaver looked down at the child. He could see the question on the boy’s face, but Ardwen said nothing, waiting for Elerus to speak.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your tall friend?” Elerus blurted out.

“If we’re going from your perspective,” Ardwen said, “you’ll have to narrow that list down from ‘everyone in this city’.” The bladeweaver had intended for the jest to be a light ribbing, but he had to admit that part of it was to relieve some of the mixed feelings of frustration and dread he felt. He both dearly wanted and deeply feared to be near Ariana again. As Ardwen watched however, Elerus’s ears dropped and his mouth turned down, his wing dipped as if he no longer had the care or energy to hold it next to him.

“That’s mean!” The little elf said again, this time even faster than his last outbreak. “I’m telling Ariana!”

Ardwen blinked in surprise, taken aback by Elerus’s response, unsure if it was sadly childish or shrewdly clever. The twilight elf finally managed to mutter, “Wilhelm, this is Elerus; Elerus, Wilhelm. Now could we please return to the issue at hand?” Ardwen moved a gloved hand to his face and rested the fingertips on his forehead as if trying to pinpoint the area where his sudden headache had started.

Written by - Ariana

Her eyes popped wide as both Ardwen and Elerus showed her the wings on their backs. “Thaz… so…. COOL!” she shouted. Reaching out with one hand, she lightly stroked on black feather proving to herself it was real.

The smile she gave them was nearly blinding. “I want one! Whaz I gots do to get one?” she asked in all seriousness. After a moment of contemplation, she added, “And one fer Red, too!”

She stuck a hand out behind her and rooted around in Wil’s basket, finding another cheese biscuit to cram into her mouth. “Um!” she said while chewing emphatically. After swallowing, she leaned in towards Elerus and said, “Dunna worry. Hesh alwaysh mean. But how youse know my Nana?”

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm was somewhat amused to see that Mavigan was rapidly getting drunk on the strong drinks being passed around, especially on an empty stomach. The cheese biscuits he had brought were the first food she had had since they entered the city, and she had likely already had several drinks before he arrived. The city now being secure, and given what Mavigan had just gone through with the goddess, Wilhelm allowed to himself that Mavigan had earned a party.

*Of course, if she keeps on drinking like that she will need to learn how to heal a hangover tomorrow morning.*

Then Wilhelm saw the unusual sight of two flying winged figures, made particularly unusual by the fact that each only had one wing instead of the usual pair. As they came closer he saw with a start that the taller of the two was the elven warrior Ardwen. He did not recognize the other, who landed on top of the invisible shield and seemed to stand in mid air. Then the pair landed near them.

Wilhelm overheard their conversation with Manuel, and realized that Ariana had something to do with Ardwen's new wing. When Ardwen made his terse introduction, Wilhelm bowed to Elerus.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Elerus. Ardwen has been of great assistance to us, and I welcome any friend of his. I would also be interested to know how the two of you come to have one wing each, but first let me more formally introduce you to Mavigan, rightful Queen of Westgale, and welcome you to the celebration of our liberation of Port Westgale from the Ironskaners. May I offer you two some fresh cheese biscuits? They are made from the original Hands of Providence recipe."

Wilhelm held out the aromatic basket of cheese biscuits.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus took a step back as he noted uncomfortably that there were several sets of eyes on him. For some reason, he felt shy. It was not that he minded the attention, so much as he felt unsure of what to say or do, as if he had to make a good impression upon these two, and it was imperative that he get it right the first time. Elerus swallowed hard and looked up and Mavigan and Wilhelm, and smiled at each in turn. “Well Mavigan,” Elerus said. “Ariana is . . .” Elerus fumbled for the right words before deciding what he was going to say. The little elf decided on keeping his story simple, yet true. “Is taking care of me right now, my parents are both gone.” The winged child then turned to Wilhelm and returned his bow with elegance that belied his apparent few years. “Thank you, sir knight.” Elerus said. “Westgale is a wonderful city, and her people already have a special place in my heart. As for the story, it would take me the rest of the night to tell it.”

“We don’t have the rest of the night for these games, if—“ Ardwen growled.

“If I might repeat Ardwen’s request,” Elerus cut in, raising his voice over Ardwen’s. “We really would like to see Ariana right now.” Elerus finished with another bow, and then stood up on his toes as Wilhelm lowered the basket of cheese biscuits for him. He snatched one out and took a small bit, opening his mouth and making a small “ahhh” sound as the warm bread singed his mouth. As the young child swallowed, however, his eyes grew wide and he took a large bite out of the biscuit, quickly cramming and devouring the rest of it without paying any mind to how piping hot the food was. As he polished off the last bite, Elerus muttered something in elven as he had a mouthful of dough, making in unintelligible even to Ardwen, but the contented tone of his voice left no doubt to the meaning.

Ardwen moved his hands to his side and turned to face the Manor House. “Very well, Mavigan. I’ll make you a deal. You invite Elerus and me into the Manor House, and I shall tell you how to get a wing just like the ones we have. Not a bad deal, is it? In fact, consider it your first taste of politics – a favor for a favor.”

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan’s face fell as she listened to Elerus. “Yesh,” she added with a dejected sigh, “My parentsh are alsho gone.”

Suddenly, the party no longer seemed festive, and she looked at her hands as if surprised to see they contained a tankard. She no longer felt like drinking, and shoved the half full mug into the nearest set of hands, which happened to belong to Elerus.

Whipping around she peered into the depths of Wilhelm’s basket, scrutinizing the contents as Ardwen attempted to make a deal. Satisfied the foodstuffs contained therein would satisfactorily feed her Nana, she took the basket from Wilhelm and crossed the barrier, letting Ardwen know exactly what she thought of politics, and his deal. “Politiksh shucks!”

“Red Rover, Red Rover, shend Elerus right over!” she shouted with a forced lightness in her tone she no longer felt. Elerus dutifully crossed the barrier to come stand by her side, still clutching the mug of strong brew.

A wicked gleam entered her eyes as she looked at Ardwen standing expectantly outside the barrier. She stuck out her tongue and blew a big raspberry at him.

Her ridicule was cut short, however, by a tug on her tunic. Swallowing hard, she saw Elerus gazing up at her, pleading with her with his puppy dog eyes.

Mavigan huffed. “Oh, alright,” she muttered. “Red Rover, Red Rover, shend Ardwen Grumpypants right over!”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief as Mavigan recited his name. The little elf was confused, however, by her chant about a “red rover” at the beginning. Was it some kind of incantation, a formula needed to allow a person to cross the shielding? Determined to found out if Mavigan’s chant worked, the winged child walked to her side. He felt a brief prickling across his skin as he crossed the suddenly permeable barrier, but other than that the previously impassable barrier was as yielding as a gentle breeze. As soon as Elerus was across, he became conscious of the fact that he was holding the same brew that Mavigan had handed him earlier. The young elf had not even thought of it when Mavigan handed it to him, accepting it by rote and instead watching intensely as she walked across the barrier that kept Ardwen and him from Ariana.

Looking down in the mug now, Elerus saw nothing but blackness, the only evidence that there was a liquid inside was the brief highlights that shone from the dark lager as he swished it around. Suddenly uncomfortable, Elerus shifted from foot to foot, and his stomach growled again. The cheese biscuit earlier had been nice, but he had not eaten since the breakfast before coming to Westgale, an eternity ago. The small elf couldn’t help but heed his hunger; surely a sip wouldn’t hurt? Elerus raised the stein and tilted it back. The first thing he noticed was the pungent smell of alcohol as the drink inside spilled forward, the second thing he noticed was the bitter taste that filled his mouth as soon as the lager entered. By instinct, Elerus tossed the drink from his hands as if a snake had leapt from the cup, his tiny fists balled up and he puckered his face. “Gross!” He said, spitting to remove the taste from his mouth. The sturdy stein hit the ground and rolled until its handle stopped it, unharmed by the child’s rough treatment.

Elerus shook his head and flicked his tongue between his lips, trying to banish the tart taste from his mouth. As he looked around, he noticed Mavigan had her tongue out as well. Confused at first, the silver-haired child saw Ardwen still standing on the other side of the barrier – Mavigan was taunting him. “Oh no.” Elerus gasped, wondering if he was too late to get Mavigan to stop before Ardwen tried to rip the barrier open with a hailstorm of blades. Reacting quickly, Elerus tugged on Mavigan’s tunic, ignoring how childish it must have made him look, and put on his best “I want something” face. It worked. Mavigan recited Ardwen’s name, with a slight addition, and his friend had soon crossed the boundary that separated the Manor House from everything else.

Ardwen did not pause as his brisk pace carried him past. It wasn’t until he was a few steps away that he halted and said, “A wise decision, princess, learn it well. My offer was hollow, a trick. Do not play the politics of the damned.” Not caring if Mavigan was listening, Ardwen continued his walk to the door of the great house. Taking a second to admire it, Ardwen had to admit that the house was spacious and well designed. A slight push on the door sent it sailing open without a squeak, despite the fact that the house could not have seen much use with the barrier, it seemed impeccably maintained.

Stepping inside, Ardwen was again awed by its plush interior, even the antechamber to the house showed a great attention to detail. The walls on both sides were covered with simple frescoes, the triskellion rings of the All-Father. The floor was a simple yet pleasing tile pattern consisting of a terracotta brown edged with blue. The ancient elf could appreciate fine workmanship, and to him it was obvious that the house was either constructed by masons from his world, or heavily influenced by them. Pushing open the second set of thick oak doors, Ardwen finally found himself within the house proper. A large, high-roofed welcoming room was his first sight of the true interior of the Manor House. A fireplace with generous seating all around took up most of one side of the room, and the rest was lined with bookshelves overflowing with manuscripts, the places where the walls were visible either had rich tapestries or stands with memorabilia, pottery, and even a few paintings.

Walking further, Ardwen turned a corner and entered a chamber that gave him pause. If the first room had a considerable number of books in them, it was obvious that they were there to entertain guest or for comfortable reading by the fire. The room the ancient elf now stood in was a true library, albeit one in miniature. The shelves stretched from wall to wall with only tiny breaks, and books were crammed into every square inch of them. Slowing his pace, the elf allowed himself to leisurely wander the room. The warrior’s eyes flitted over the titles, and he was bewildered by the variety of documents: monographs, biographies, hagiographies, books on theology and theodicy, texts on the culinary arts, texts on the visual arts – from acting to the finest of paintings. Ardwen stopped himself, realizing that he could spend all night in this room just skimming and not coming away with anything important. No, he had to find Ariana and get this over with; he was simply stalling right now.

The bladweaver turned around and came face to face with his Abbess. Ardwen slid into a bladedance stance and his hand shot to his right hip where he would have kept his swords before he managed to regain his composure. Embarrassed, but thankfully alone, Ardwen regained his relaxed posture with but a slight air of rigidness to hide his shame. He had been terrified by his Abbess’s sudden appearance, and had reacted out of long practice. Shaking his head, Ardwen walked over to the painting and examined it closely. Unlike Elerus, who loved art for art’s sake and had taken up the brush and easel long ago, Ardwen had never given over to any of his creative impulses. For the elf, a painting was a frail and worthless thing in comparison to the craftsmanship and utility in a good blade – he could appreciate the painting, but he felt nothing while looking at it, as Elerus so often claimed to do.

A slight grunt of annoyance escaped the elf’s mouth and he continued to walk through the house. Turning down a small hallway, Ardwen came across a door that was open by just a crack. Gently pushing it the rest of the way, the elf saw the prostrate form of Ariana, soundly asleep on a massive bed that dominated the room. Ardwen’s breath caught in his throat, and his wing moved forward to arch over him like some vast bird of prey. Suddenly all the elf’s plans to barge in and demand an answer, and then to quickly be off and bury the hurt with running back to the Citadel and throwing himself into the war there sounded implicitly stupid. In the face of the woman who had raised him from the scum of Aerynth and the flames of a broken empire, his courage melted like ice in the summer sun.

A small form brushed past Ardwen’s legs, and with a slight shock the elven warrior realized that Elerus had been shadowing him as he walked through the Manor House. Ardwen took a step forward, the thud of his boot on the wooden floor sounding like a peel of thunder to his nerve wracked senses, and then the elf stopped again. His face flushed crimson and he turned to hide his features in the collar of his overcoat. He had taken a step into a lady’s room without invitation. Turning an about face as if Turin himself was there, Ardwen stared in horror as Elerus simply stood in the room looking around as if he were not violating a stringent social protocol.

Elerus at last seemed to notice Ardwen was standing out in the hallway again, and with a raised eyebrow he whispered, “Come on Ardwen, aren’t you going to at least say hello?”

Ardwen frowned and shook his head no again and again, but a small mocking voice in his head told him he was simply stalling once more. “No,” Ardwen hissed, “you enter a lady’s chambers without invitation?”

Elerus rolled his eyes and shrugged, “I don’t think she’d care.”

“That’s not the point!”

“So, what are you going to do?” Elerus said. “Wait until she wakes up?”

“Of course.” Ardwen shot back. “Although the library down the hallway had some texts I could use to pass the time. Since you don’t seem to mind acting like a barbarian, keep watch and inform me if she wakes early.”

“Right.” Elerus said with a note. “Since I’ve got the guts I’ll do it, don’t worry.” The little elf watched with amusement as Ardwen just shook his head and took off down the hallway with a huff. Elerus had to suppress a giggle of laughter. It wasn’t so much that Ardwen did not know courtly mannerisms, indeed he knew his friend had them beat into him since childhood. It was simply the fact that it had been many years since he had seen Ardwen exercise his noble upbringing. With a slight “hmm”, Elerus turned over the occurrence in his mind before a yawn interrupted his thoughts.

The young elf stretched one arm into the air, fanning his wing out behind him. Now that the excitement of the party was over, the calm and dark confines of the house were inviting him to sleep. Elerus tossed his head from side to side, white hair flowing behind each movement. All his action achieved was another yawn. Now that he was alone, Elerus hated how tiny the yawns sounded, he frowned and looked across the room and stared at a copy of himself. The little boy titled his head, and the child in the mirror mimicked the motion exactly. The winged boy knew, of course, that it was a full length mirror he was gazing into. The snowy-haired youth walked to it and looked at himself, and sighed. It was no wonder Mavigan had taken pity on him earlier, to her he probably looked like nothing more than a child who had seen seven winters at most. The little elf placed one hand on the glass, the reflection miming him. Elerus looked at himself again, the only thing he could spot that had not changed about his physical appearance were his eyes. They were the same slightly sad pools they had been throughout his life, and even in the gloom of Ariana’s room they seemed to shine sky blue.

Elerus spun around from the mirror, unable to look at his own reflection any longer. The little boy chewed absently on the inside of his mouth and began pacing back and forth across the hardwood floor. Thoughts raced through his head, but all the winged child wanted was a moment of quiet now, a bit of peace. He heard something in the room, and focused in on it, a steady and tranquil rhythm. Elerus ceased his pacing and trained his ear at the noise, recognizing it as the sound of Ariana drawing breath. The elven child decided that he could at least sit down and wait for her awakening, his endless pacing was only serving to further aggravate his mind. Elerus slumped at the foot of the bed, tucking his legs in close. He waited. He was not sure if the walls of the Manor House were exceptionally thick, or if the warding had something to do with it, but even straining his ears he could not hear the party that he had left only moments before.

Elerus yawned again; he placed his hands behind his head and stretched his torso outward. His body seemed to rubber band from the motion, and he slumped further down on the floor. The boy squirmed on the uncomfortable hardwood, feet shuffling over its surface as he tried to get comfortable. It was no use, the floor was not only as soft as a slab of granite it was also chilly to the touch. Elerus stood up again and looked at the bed; he tilted his head side to side in a worried metronome. Surely, he could sit or lay on the edge? Elerus nodded to himself, the idea seemed wise and he reasoned that his small frame would hardly take any room. He could also keep a better eye on Ariana there; he had made a promise to Ardwen after all.

With a final, reassuring nod, Elerus climbed up on the bed, hoisting one leg above him and using it as leverage for the rest of his body. True to his word, Elerus sat on the very edge of the bed, facing away from Ariana. Elerus placed one finger on his chin and titled his eyes upward. With his other hand the boy poked the mattress - it was surprisingly soft and yielding. Elerus sighed again, which quickly turned into another yawn. The child’s eyes started to slide close, but Elerus fought the urge to sleep, his head jerking up and slowly sinking back down as he engaged in a mental tug-of-war.

After a few minutes of this, the silver-haired child reasoned that he could at least lie down for a moment and catch some sleep. He would wake up before Ariana surely, and he could keep his promise still. Elerus flopped down at the very edge of the mattress, the soft material seeming to mold to even his light weight. It took only moments before Elerus’s thoughts grew foggy and distant. The next thing Elerus knew he was on the floor. The boy’s heart raced in his chest and his eyes were open wide, his palms stung from the slapping impact on the floor. Looking up at the top of the bed above him, Elerus’s face flushed crimson as he realized what had happened – he had rolled out of the bed.

Within seconds he had resumed his perch on the mattress, this time further away from the edge. Glancing over at Ariana, the little elf noticed that she clutched something in her hands. Crawling closer with inching movements so as not to disturb her, Elerus reached out a trembling hand and gently removed the letter. The child’s elven eyesight granted him superior vision even in the dim lighting, and within moments he had looked over the letter’s contents. He choked back a sob, his stomach felt as if he had swallowed a lead weight. Elerus looked down at Ariana and mouthed a silent prayer to the All-Father for her. He felt guilty for reading the note, but he reassured himself that he had done the right thing. For one, it was far better that he discover it than Ardwen should he return to check on his Abbess. Like all of his kind, Ardwen shared the same low-light vision, and if he had bothered to notice the soft white of the paper would have stood out like a flame in her hand. Elerus shook his head and bit his lower lip. No, he would at least secret the letter away for now.

With slow and deliberate movement, Elerus reached over Ariana to place the note on her other side, where Ardwen would not be able to see it from the door. He had to lean over Ariana, but with practiced grace honed from years of far more difficult action than leaning, Elerus accomplished his task with ease. As he prepared to resume his vigil, Ariana suddenly rolled onto her side, an unexpected motion that caused Elerus to recoil and land on his back. With another motion, Ariana had pulled him close to her as easily as he might a stuffed animal or pillow. Finally, he heard her breathing resume its slow and regular pattern. He then felt his heart start beating again. Utterly embarrassed and afraid to so much as blink should he break Ariana’s slumber, Elerus tried to distract himself by paying attention to his surroundings. At first, it worked, but his mind quickly grew bored, and his child’s body won out. He could feel Ariana breathing behind him, the warmth in her embrace, and the soft, patient rhythm as she drew breath. Within minutes, Elerus joined her in sleep.

Ardwen paced back and forth along the floor, chewing the inside of his mouth. He stopped and looked up from the book entitled “Historia de Westgale”. Ardwen furrowed his brows, wondering why he was chewing the inside of his mouth and pacing out of nerves. Shaking his head and attributing it to his irritated state at having to delay the inevitable questions with Ariana, Ardwen returned to the chair on the far wall and leafed through a few more pages. However, the elf found the book poorly written, the historian in question having not witnessed the events he portrayed and often writing down what could only be hearsay or legend as fact. Closing the book, Ardwen walked along the walls and looked at the paintings again. This time he stopped in front of Mavigan, the first Mavigan. Ardwen’s eyes skimmed her full title “Regina Mavigan Ancora, Regnvm ton Westgale.” Ardwen’s mouth tugged down in a frown, they had even imitated the naming style of Deathless Court for the regnal styling. “So obviously an Amazon, what were they thinking?” Ardwen questioned as his eyes roved over the shock of red hair that spilled from Mavigan’s head, bright and vibrant as fire.

Nevertheless, if the history books were to be believed, this Mavigan was the first adopted by Ariana, and thus her daughter. Ardwen shook his head in bewilderment and distaste, adoption? What was she thinking? Amongst the Firstborn such a practice was heavily frowned upon, seen as nothing more than a way to unjustly extend a failing line. Moving on to the next picture, that of a much younger Mavigan with Ariana in the background in a flowing dress, her hands on her young daughter’s shoulders, and a smile on both of their faces. Ardwen paused, simply staring at the portrait in mute silence. It was Ariana’s smile that captivated his attention. The elf did not know if the artist had simply done a skillful job in painting a smile on her face, or if the joyful expression was genuine, either way it painfully reminded Ardwen of how scarce that look was on her face now. Ardwen carelessly tossed the history book in his hands on a nearby table, it landed next to a copy of the Book of Staves. “He should have reported something by now.” Ardwen muttered to the ghosts in the room before setting off back to Ariana’s chambers.

The ancient elf carefully slid open the door again, and the air in his lungs caught in his throat. Elerus had not only failed to keep watch, he had even managed to fall asleep in Ariana’s presence – in her embrace! Ardwen felt his bile rising and his mouth twisted into a bitter, sardonic scowl. He was the one who shed his blood and tore his flesh for her. He was the one whose strength had earned them entrance into Westgale. What reward did he receive? Nothing but her scorn and continual distance, and yet here was Elerus – who Ariana barely knew – the apple of her eye. Ardwen felt like spitting on the floor, his hand clenched on the doorframe and he heard the wood creak. Pulling his hand back, Ardwen took in a deep breath of air and let it out in a long shuddering gasp. He turned to go, then suddenly cast one last look into the room.

It was blackened by night, but to his eyes it seemed as lit as if the midday sun was outside, though the colors appeared washed out and muted in tones of blue and grey. Ardwen sighed, his anger spent, and couldn’t help but think that at least she was getting some much needed rest now. “Damn you, woman.” Ardwen whispered without heat. “And damn you for betraying me, Elerus. If you two were anyone else in this entire world I would eat your black hearts.” Ardwen blinked and looked around, the room was dark still, and the situation brought to mind all the times Ariana had worked to avoid darkness: her travel to the hidden chamber under the cathedral, her descent into the prison. Ardwen briefly wondered what would happen if she really had woken up early in a night-blackened room? The elven warrior quickly decided he did not want to find out.

A quick search of a nearby cabinet revealed some plain white candles inside, and a box of flint and tender to light them. Within seconds the elf had several candles lit, and he carefully placed them around the room, making sure they were far from any cloth or fabric. As Ardwen set the last candle in place, the flickering light shone across Elerus’s face. The boy gave a soft “mmm” and turned his face toward Ariana, he did not wake. Ardwen shook his head and left the room, returning to the library to pace and read.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan followed Ardwen and Elerus into the manor house, her steps weaving unsteadily more than they should. While Ardwen and Elerus immediately set out to find Ariana, Mavigan headed towards kitchen. Dominated by a large hearth and a wood-burning stove, the kitchen was located on the first floor at the very back of the house.

Most large estates in Westgale housed their kitchens and smokehouses in smaller buildings completely separate from the main house. It was a sound idea; the most fire-prone areas of the house were cut off from the main living quarters. Should one burn to the ground, all was not lost. But nights spent with her family at the dinner table had revealed to Mavigan that her Nana was unique in many ways. It was always said that Ariana felt the kitchen to be the heart of any home, and insisted that it be a part of the house. So it had been at her abbey, and so it had been here.

The insistence of the Abbess about the importance of the kitchen to any family translated to a room that was both functional and inviting. Warm colors coated the walls, bundles of dried herbs hung from the rafters within easy reach, paintings obviously done by generations of Ancoran children were displayed proudly on the walls, and there was plenty of workspace and eating space. There was a formal dining room in the house, Mavigan remembered, but she had never eaten there. All family meals were taken here, in her Nana’s kitchen.

Mavigan crossed the room and set her basket down on a table. Pausing, she inhaled deeply. The air carried the faint scent of dried herbs, but that was all, and the lack of comforting scents she remembered from her childhood gave her a moment of melancholy. Scolding herself, she shook her head to clear it of the sad thoughts. Her Nana had returned. The kitchen would be filled with the scents of home soon enough.

Resolute, she peered into the depths of the basket. She was not sure when Wil had snuck off to gather the assortment of foodstuffs that greeted her, but admittedly she had been drinking and her mind was rather fuzzy. There were the biscuits, of course, but down towards the bottom she also found some eggs, and a few wrapped packages. She did not take the time to assess what was in the carefully wrapped bundles; instead, she hefted the basket and walked over to a large chest. The lid opened with a creak and gust of wispy cold air escaped.

Mavigan smiled. The enchanted cold chest her Great Grandma had ordered still worked. She didn’t fully understand how it worked, but she and Etewen had always been fascinated by it. No matter what the temperature outside, it was always cold inside the box. It had been very expensive to commission, but both the woodcrafters and the mages had been very happy for the work.

Leaning over the edge, Mavigan placed the basket on one of the half shelves amid several other wrapped parcels. Curious, she peeled back a corner of an oblong shape and stuck her finger inside. Withdrawing it, she saw she clasped a small bit of meat between her fingers. Surprised, she sniffed it. It smelled OK. Shrugging, she popped it into her mouth and chewed. It proved to be roasted lamb, and it certainly tasted alright.

Mavigan straightened and looked hard into the depths of the cold box. No one had lived here for many months, so how was food still fresh? She knew that the first Mavigan had left standing orders that the manor house always be prepared for Ariana Trueblood’s return. A host of servants spent their days cleaning and cooking and ensuring the pantry was freshly stocked just in case the missing Saint returned. Each day, the unconsumed leftovers were distributed to the poor, and the process began again.

But with the barrier, no one had been in here for months, and yet there was no dust, things still smelled fresh, the larder was still stocked with fresh food, and the cold box was stocked with freshly cooked meat. Was it possible that the barrier stopped time for the manor house as well as protected it?

The question made her fuggy mind hurt. She closed the lid of the cold box and walked out of the kitchen towards the stairs that led to the second floor and the bed chambers. She would sort things out later. While Etewen had inherited all the spiritual gifts of the family, Mavigan was skilled at numbers. It made her good at organizing and running households, though she hated every minute of it. But as she trooped up the stairs, she decided that she would do her best to take care of as much as she could so her Nana didn’t have to. Maybe if Ariana didn’t have to work so hard, she would be less inclined to leave.

Her boots echoed on the hard floor as she walked down the hallway to her Nana’s room. The door was cracked open, and Mavigan pushed her way in. Someone had lighted candles throughout the chamber, and they filled the room with a soft light.

The light revealed a small figure curled up on the bed, sleeping deeply with her Nana. “Hmpf,” muttered Mavigan. She strode to the bed and then shoved Elerus over making room for herself. After all, it was wholly unfair that he should get to sleep here and she didn’t.

After ensuring there was a space large enough for her own body, she lay down on the soft mattress and quickly fell into the deep sleep of the intoxicated – mouth open and snoring loudly.

Written by - Ariana

As Ariana slowly began to surface from sleep, she became aware of two annoyances. First, a sound resembling that of a bear was rumbling quite loudly near her ear. Second, something was tickling her nose. An empty hand rose to rub her nose, and one eye popped open to be greeted by a field of white.

Slowly disentangling herself, she sat up, yawned widely and stretched, both arms extended over her head. After a satisfying pop, she looked to her side to see Elerus and Mavigan stretched out on her bed. She couldn’t fault their intrusion. Ariana had been alone for countless years, and could understand the very human need for closeness. Still, they would each need their own bedroom, as would…

Her gaze swept the room, but there was no brooding dark elf to greet her, a fact that disappointed, but did not surprise her. She suspected he was very angry, but Ariana had never shied from anyone’s displeasure before, and she didn’t intend to start now.

Instead of a tall elf in her chambers, she noted several guttered candles strategically placed around the room. She did not know who her mysterious benefactor was, but she was grateful. As her mind began to catch up to her body, she realized there was no note clutched in her hand. Frantic hands began patting the covers near her, checking beneath her own body and those of her bedmates.

Nearly panicked, a glimpse of something white caught her eye from her bedside table. There, neatly folded, sat the note from her daughter. Someone had moved it, and she eyed her two companions in the early morning light. She could detect no guilt in their guileless, sleep washed faces that were starting to show signs of wakefulness.

Sighing, she picked the letter up and placed it in the drawer in her nightstand, there to remain until she decided on a permanent home for the precious document. Swinging her feet off the bed, she stood, and gazed out the window at the morning light. It was a new day in more ways than one. Smiling, she stood next to the bed and said in a very loud voice designed to wake a deaf person, “Good morning!”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus was dimly aware of something shoving him. The little elf gave a soft, protesting groan at the treatment before it stopped, his eyes never opened. In the dim, sleep-fogged corridors of his mind he still felt Ariana nearby, comforted, he promptly fell back into dreamless slumber. The next time the winged child returned to consciousness, it was again movement that stirred his mind. However, this time the movement was slow and deliberate; he felt hands move him softly to the side and then he heard a deep yawn. A sigh, and then the sensation of the mattress shifting as someone removed their weight from it were the next things Elerus were aware of. There was a brief pause and then a loud, “Good morning!” echoed in the semiconscious chambers of his mind.

Elerus looked over his left shoulder, a single eye opened to a narrow slit, a pool of blue rimmed by thick eyelashes. “Cuiv ilmern.” Elerus said, his speech slurred with sleep and his barely awake mind rendering his words in elven by instinct. Without another word the little boy curled up further so that his eyes were covered by the sheets of the bed, blocking out the offending morning sun.

“Whereupon the Abbeff of the Hands adopted one gerle who took the regnal name of Mavigan Ancora, in deference to her modor, Ariana Trueblood. To wit all the citizens of Weftgale cried out in one voice glorifying god, ‘All hail the Trueblood, modor of the kingdom.’” Ardwen read aloud as he scanned the book in front of him. He was nearly finished with the document, finding interestingly enough that the book that supposedly detailed the history of Westgale did just that, going back to the times before the founding of the kingdom into the uncertain mists of legend and myth. Ardwen lowered the book away from his face and used his free hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. He had a splitting headache.

The ancient elf was not certain if his aching temples derived from the fact that he had been reading all night, and now the wane light of a new day shone through the curtains at the end of the room, or if his mind was protesting the historiography of the book in his hand. In any case, the author had relied on secondary sources and hearsay in many instances, and in others he had skated over the surface of events in an unflinchingly unacademic manner. Ardwen tossed the book on a nearby table, where it landed next to an open copy of the Book of Staves that he had perused at various points during the night. The Book of Staves was the holy text for the Church of the All-Father, and Ardwen swallowed bitterly at the thought that just leafing through it showed how desperate he was for answers. It had, despite his almost mocking approach to it, given him several things to think about.

The elven bladeweaver clasped his hands behind his back and plodded over to the portrait of Ariana and the young Mavigan the First. His eyes locked on Ariana’s smile, and the elf sighed at the thought that he had seen more of her happy face in this painting than he had in the entire time since their reunion. “Ariana,” Ardwen said to himself, “what dream were you chasing? What infinite mystery can you not share with your servant?” With a “hmph” of self-derision Ardwen spun around and returned to the Book of Staves. The twilight elf rolled his eyes and unfurled his newly healed wing, the black feathers catching the morning light and returning highlights of blue to his eyes. “What the hell.” Ardwen said with a shrug as he slammed the holy book shut and placed his fingers at a random point in the text.

While it was a practice officially frowned upon by the church, many of the faithful held an obstinate belief that one could answer questions by praying and opening the good book at random. The first passage that the seeker’s eyes alighted upon would, having been guided by divine providence, be the answer that heaven had sent. With a final sigh Ardwen closed his eyes and sent his prayer winging to whatever god cared to listen, he opened the book and dutifully scanned the first section he saw.

“Talk to her, ask her, she is not made of heartless lead. You are her 'good servant' not her 'good slave'. Good luck, Ardwen.”

Ardwen nearly dropped the book. The elf blinked his eyes furiously and raised one hand to rub the sleep from them. When he next looked at the book he saw a passage that ran on about how the Father’s love and mercy were infinite and that those who held faith in Him would not perish from the earth—Ardwen stopped reading. The elf closed the book, this time with a bit more reverence and caution. The warrior scrunched his face up and brought one hand up to his forehead, gloved fingers resting against his skin. He heard Ariana shout good morning, his keen elven hearing picking out the sound as if she stood next to him. Ardwen made a decision.

The warrior walked out into the hallway and tossed a nervous glance in the direction of Ariana’s room. She might be awake, but that was no reason to barge in and begin asking difficult questions. Recalling her thin frame in comparison to the paintings of her in health and comfort in the library, Ardwen concluded there was one thing he could do for her before she threw him out. Picking his way carefully through the house so as to avoid making noise, Ardwen eventually found the kitchen – a relatively easy task given its size and the placement of a formal dining room nearby. The ancient warrior frowned, he had not expected such an elaborate enclosure, in fact he was more hoping toward a fire pit with a kettle on top of it. Still, after a brief look around, Ardwen found an ingenious ice box that Elerus would most likely love to study (along with all the paintings that, so far as Ardwen’s critical eyes could tell, had been done by those with far less skill than his friend) and parcels of fresh food inside.

Pausing briefly to consider, Ardwen decided that what Ariana needed most was red meat. The blood and strength of raw and honest victuals were, in Ardwen’s experience, always enough to revive a warrior during a hard campaign. If Ariana were to be without his services, she would at least need her strength. Pulling out the packages of meat indiscriminately, Ardwen stopped just long enough to trace several sharp knives. Another ting of light replicated a dagger that Ardwen thrust into a pile of wood in the hearth that had it roaring with flames in seconds.

In short order Ardwen had speared slices of meat on the other daggers and had roasted them, only pulling them out when he smelled a wisp of charcoal. Trying to keep several things going at once, Ardwen sliced open a couple of cheese biscuits and placed the crisped meat in them. With a final flourish the elf cracked an egg onto each cheese biscuit and fried the entire concoction wholesale. Looking at his culinary creation critically, Ardwen grimaced as he noted the burnt edges of the cheese biscuits and the still runny egg. Pulling out a few plates from the cabinet, Ardwen set the meat, egg, and cheese biscuit blend on the plates and sat down on a nearby chair, one leg’s ankle crossed over the knee of the other. As Ardwen waited for Ariana and the others to arrive, the warrior absent mindedly nibbled at the edge of one of his biscuits. The bladeweaver clasped a hand over his mouth as it worked into an expression of distaste; he placed the biscuit onto his plate and decided that he would be content to skip breakfast for now.

Written by - Ariana

The loud sound of an overly cheery ‘Good morning’ shot through Mavigan’s skull like an arrow. She gave a grunt of pain and brought both hands up to clasp her throbbing head. She felt positively awful; her eyes felt dry as sand, her mouth felt full of bitter tasting cotton, and judging from the unhappy lurch from her stomach, it wouldn’t take much for all the beer she had chugged last night to make a return appearance.

A distinctly amused voice said, “I believe that divine healing helps with hangovers, dear.”

“Shit,” was the reply. However, Mavigan wasted little time in working through the prayer Ariana had taught her the night previous. She was getting better at it; Ariana only had to correct her twice. It was with a gasp of relief that she greeted the icy sensation of healing, and when it was over, the headache was gone, though it still tasted as if something had crawled into her mouth and died.

Mavigan sat up on the bed and opened her still bleary eyes, noting the lump at her hip. Well, damn. If she had to be up, so did Elerus. “Oi, runt!” she said, reaching over and shaking the little elf, “get your ass out of bed.”

There was much grumbling and shoving from both parties, but eventually, Elerus, too, was sitting up on the bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Mavigan, not content with her victory, said, “Runt, you are filthy!”

“Yes, well,” started Ariana, “I hardly think any of us could be considered clean.” She gestured towards the pants she wore, still caked with a reddish-brown stain. “I’m still covered in Ardwen’s blood, Elerus looks as if he rolled around in the dirt and you Mavigan dear, well, you smell like a distillery.”

Mavigan let loose with a huge, foul-smelling yawn and smacked her lips. “We’ve got two baths here, so…”

“Two?” Ariana interrupted.

“Well, yeah. When Gramps got older, he liked soaking in warm water. Said it helped his rheumatism. Everyone else got tired of waiting, so they added on another bathroom.” Mavigan snickered. “Once Gramps started holding state meetings with other dignitaries in the baths, Etewen and I declared that one of those baths was for girls only.”

“State meetings?” echoed a disbelieving Ariana, “in the baths?!”

“Oh yeah,” added Mavigan with a chuckle. “Gramps went a little odd towards the end.”

Mavigan pushed herself to her feet and stretched. “Come on, Runt,” she said, “let’s go scrounge you and Ardwen some clothes.”

“Ardwen?” Ariana said sharply.

Surprised, Mavigan looked at Ariana. “Well, yeah. He came in with the rest of us. I’m sure he’s downstairs playing with the weapons collection or murdering someone or something.”

“I see,” Ariana replied, in a tone that clearly stated she didn’t see at all.

Mavigan ignored her Nana’s strange reaction, instead herding Elerus out of the room. “We will stop by Great Grandma’s room and grab some clothes for me, and then I’ll take you to my Dad’s old room. I’m sure you can find something to wear in there. I’ll run to Gramps’s room and grab something for Ardwen.” A wicked gleam entered her eye. “You know, Gramps really liked bright colors as he got older.”

****

Ariana listened to Mavigan’s banter as the two left the room, shutting the door behind them. Her mind raced with speculation. Ardwen was here, but why had he returned? Was she in for a tongue lashing over breakfast? Was this just a pit stop before he ran off again?

She heaved a sigh and strode over to the wardrobe, pulling open the doors and peering inside. True to Mavigan’s word, the closet was filled with new outfits, and every last piece of her old clothing was gone.

Curious, Ariana reached in and pulled out one of the tops of her new attire. It was white, with a Mandarin collar. On one side of the collar was stitched the triskellion in golden thread. On the opposite side was stitched the symbol of the Hands. Ariana held the garment up to her body and noted that it extended to just below her knees. There were two tapered side slits that extended to above the hip.

Further examination of the contents of the wardrobe revealed that all the tops were white; in fact, they were only distinguished by the colored edging along the seams of the side slits and across the bottom. The colors were designed to coordinate with the pants, which had ties at the waist and at each ankle. There was a wide assortment of colors to choose from ranging from the traditional blue to a yellowish green that was so bright Ariana felt her eyes water.

The shoes were stacked at the bottom of the wardrobe. As Ariana examined them, she noted that they, too, were color coordinated to match each outfit, but she wasn’t sure they were very sturdy. They appeared to be little more than slippers.

Shrugging, she automatically reached for the blue, but then paused. After a slight hesitation, she reached for the crimson instead. Gathering her clothes together, she exited her room and made her way to the bath.

She knew she had reached the right place by the crude sign on the door. A piece of paper had been tacked onto it and written in a child’s script was the word, “GIRLZ”. Ariana idly hoped that Mavigan’s spelling had improved through the years.

Pushing her way into the bath, she was greeted by a wisp of warm steam. Ariana did not know how the large tub was already filled and the water warm without the aid of fire, but her lack of understanding did not preclude her enjoyment. She stripped quickly behind the privacy screen, tossing the soiled clothes into the corner. They were unsalvageable and would have to be burned later.

Once in the water, she set herself to scrubbing. The warm water felt good, but Ariana had other concerns and took as little time at her ablutions as possible. She was again behind the screen getting dressed in her new clothes, when she heard the door open.

“Hey,” said Mavigan, her arms full of clothing Ariana recognized as once belonging to her daughter. “I got Elerus situated. He said he would take his bath and then take clothes to Ardwen.” Ariana came out from behind the screen just as Mavigan stepped behind it. “I also told him you would check him over and if he didn’t do a good job scrubbing, you’d take him back to the tub and wash him down yourself.” Mavigan laughed. “His eyes got all big and round. I’m sure he will be squeaky when you see him next.”

“Mavigan,” Ariana scolded, “you shouldn’t tease him like that.”

“Oh, gimme a break,” Mavigan replied. “I was the butt of my elder sister’s humor when I was young. Now,” she popped out from behind the screen and flashed Ariana a smile, “I get to dish it out!”

Ariana moved to the door as Mavigan eased herself into the tub. The sound of Mavigan’s voice brought her up short. “Do you think,” Mavigan said in an uncertain tone, “they will stay?”

Ariana heaved a sigh. “I don’t know. Would it be alright with you if they decided to stay?”

Mavigan squatted down in the water until it reached her nose, her brow furrowed. When she popped back up she responded with a soft, “Yeah.” There was an awkward pause before Mavigan adopted the forced lightness of before. “You better go check on Ardwen,” she said. “I thought I smelled something burning. He’s probably trying to burn the place down around us or something.”

Ariana gave a mirthless chuckle. “Yeah. Or something.”

She exited the baths and sniffed the air. Mavigan had not lied. There was the acrid smell of something burning in the air. Ariana followed the smell to the kitchen, where she found Ardwen seated expectantly in a chair.

Unsure of the reception she would receive, she fell easily into formality. She gave a bow and then said, “Good morning Ardwen. I am pleased to see you hale and healthy.”

Written by - Ardwen

There were hands shaking him again. Elerus groaned softly and crawled slowly to his knees; his eyes opened briefly as he saw Mavigan sitting next to him in the bed. Apparently not content for him to be sitting up, Mavigan gave him another jostle and called him a “runt”. Elerus’s faced formed into a decided pout, and the little elf shoved back with determined effort. Mavigan did not even shift. With an almost dismissive gesture, she took one hand and pushed against his chest. Elerus fell backwards onto his back with an “umph”; the young boy sat up again and budged away from the girl. The little boy heard her comment about his appearance, but Elerus decidedly ignored it. He tucked his knees under his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs, the same position he had adopted while resting in his search for Ardwen.

The silver-haired youth allowed Mavigan to lead him from the room to her father’s childhood chambers. As they walked, Elerus kept his head down, his face fixed decidedly on the floor. He tried to ignore Mavigan, reasoning that the comments of some mortal girl shouldn’t matter to him, but intended or not the young lady had struck a nerve. The winged child found himself wondering of what use he would be in the coming fights. The earlier conflict above the rooftop had been a wakeup call for him, he had been beaten by a mere human that he should have dispatched with all the ease and grace that Ardwen had exhibited. Instead, Elerus had fallen with a single slash, left moaning and bleeding. Were it not for Ariana, his grave would have been an unnamed, insignificant rooftop in the middle of nowhere. Elerus shuddered at the thought, shuddered at the implications of not only what it meant for him, but Ardwen as well.

The little elf realized that he was probably the only person alive that had seen Ardwen fall into his blackest of rages. He did not doubt that, had he died there, Ardwen would have fulfilled his earlier promise and started to kill indiscriminately – in his old friend’s mind if fate and reality were cruel enough to slay what he loved, then fate and reality had to suffer. Indeed, Ardwen would strike the sun if it offended him. So, what could he do? What good was he to Ariana and his old battle brother if he could not fight? Had the All-Father brought him here solely for the purpose of reigning in Ardwen, of reconciling him to Ariana, and now that his task was done he was to be cast aside like a used tissue? The little boy barely heeded Mavigan as she pushed him forward to pick out some clothes, without really looking Elerus gestured at a white garment that at least caught his eye during his brief glance. As Mavigan pulled it forward from the rack of clothes though, his heart sank.

The piece of clothing was a simple white tunic that opened at the front along the top. The front of the garment was pulled together at various points by cords of cloth, which gave the whole ensemble a light and airy feel. Embarrassingly, as Mavigan held it against him Elerus noted two things: the first was that the clothing was undoubtedly for a child, the panolpy meant to accentuate a young boy’s light and small frame and thus sown without sleeves, the second was Mavigan’s comment of, “Oi, you’re small, runt. This is a little large for you, but it’ll work.” Elerus fidgeted uncomfortably until she took the clothing away from him – he didn’t consider himself small for his age. Except, of course, that as he thought about Mavigan’s remark further he realized it was true, even if he took the meaning differently.

Mavigan laid the tunic on top of a large chest located at the foot of one of the three small beds in the room. Without a word she left the room, Elerus presumed to go and select some suitable clothing for Ardwen. Alone, Elerus sighed and absently fingered the material of the outfit, at least it felt soft. Curious, Elerus pushed up on the lip of the trunk, he hopped back as it slid open as smoothly as if it had just been oiled. Standing up on his tiptoes, Elerus looked down into the chest to see an ocean of toys, from fake soldiers to carved wooden horses. The little boy knucked his upper lip and reached out a tentative hand before he heard Mavigan shout, “No toys yet, runt, you’ve got to take a bath. Come on, and make sure you wash up, or I’ll send in Ariana to check behind your ears!” Shutting the chest, Mavigan lead Elerus by the hand to a bathing room with a sign that proclaimed in faded blue lettering, “Boiz, gros!” Elerus titled his head at the sign, writing it off as some ancient alternative spelling that had fallen out of vogue as the fashions changed around Westgale – either that or a young kid who had not paid attention in writing class had scribed it.

The last thing Mavigan did before leaving the room was instruct Elerus to get behind the changing screen and toss his dirty clothes to the side. That they were filthy was an understatement, the garments that the Citadel had sown for their small guest had held up well under abuse, but they were none the cleaner for their superior workmanship. Elerus’s own blood adorned a spot in the right where he had been cut in the earlier fight, and dirt, dust, and other less identifiable stains and smudges coated it from a day or flying, fighting, and running around in a dungeon tending to the ill and wounded. The white-haired boy heard Mavigan give a “tsk” of disgust as she picked up the clothing; she saw her drape Ardwen and his garments on the arm of a chair next to the door before she herself exited, closing the door with a slam that seemed to echo in the room.

Elerus spent several minutes behind the screen before he peeked around the edges; there was not another soul in the room. Sighing, he walked over to the tub that, unlike the beds in the previous room, had not been designed with convenience for a child in mind. Pulling himself up to the lip, Elerus balanced on the edge before he slipped into the water, sending small waves splashing over the edge and onto the tile flooring below. A mop of dripping white broke the surface of the water and Elerus sucked in a breath of air. His long hair hung down into his face and eyes, and the rest clung to his back and shoulders like grasping arms. Elerus slinked over to the side of the tub, placing one hand on the rim. He quickly found that the old bathtub was deeper than the one at the priestess’s house they had visited in the woods, if he sat down the water came up to the bottom of his nose and made breathing difficult. Parting his drenched hair as best he could, Elerus looked around the room. There were all the usual accruements of a bathing chamber, another full length mirror on the far wall, several chairs spaced around the room, a high stone sink that hand a waist-length mirror ringed by drawers and with two wooden cabinets cunningly worked into the base.

The winged elf let out a small, sad, sigh. He didn’t want to admit it, but he was lonely already. Even Mavigan’s earlier ribbing seemed preferable to the silence that gnawed at him now, that turned his mind’s eye inward. Elerus tried to fight it, but the more he thought about how useless he felt the more he spiraled into a chain of self-doubt. Even Ariana would have no need of him now, he had done his part and returned her valiant warrior. Mavigan would soon be pulled into the politics of the realm, which meant the politics of war at current, what good was a child there? Even if he were allowed to provide military advice, the young child could already hear the laughing of proud, tall, generals as the “runt” tried to help their campaign strategies.

Elerus looked up, his gaze falling on the mirror on the opposite wall. The little kid that looked back at him seemed on the verge of tears. Elerus shook his head, and with a slight sob sucked in his runny nose. He tried to wipe his eyes, but seeing as how he was drenched from head to foot it was a useless gesture. Elerus climbed to the edge of the tub and this time managed to get out without falling. Setting one tentative foot down on the floor he paced over to his clothing. The little elf wrung his long hair out like a towel, and tossed his head and shoulders to at least keep it from sticking to him as badly. Elerus reached for the towel, but then paused, his heart sank from his chest to his stomach at the tunic again and he muttered, “Oh no.” With haste born of fear he grabbed the tunic and turned it around, his eyes bore a hole into the back of it, or at least he wished they could have.

Elerus let out such a long sigh that anyone listening might have thought he would pass out from all the air leaving his body. There was no hole in the back, nothing too accommodate the wing that sprouted from his right shoulder. Elerus searched the room carefully, but there was no knife or sword he could use to slice open the fabric, and Mavigan had not thought to leave one behind – why would she give a sharp object to a young boy, after all? In desperation, Elerus tried to rip the cloth with his bare hands, but the material was as sturdy as the work the Citadel has produced. A whimper escaped Elerus’s lips as he threw the tunic on the floor with such force that it sent a crisp slap bouncing off the walls of the room. Sinking to a sitting position, Elerus adopted the earlier pose he had assumed when Mavigan was picking on him. This time though, he placed his forehead on his knees and sobbed. The worst part was he could picture Ariana now, a hand on her hips and the other pointed accusingly at him, she would be upset. Elerus could not blame her, the belittling scowl said all that it needed to in his mind – he was too helpless to even dress him. He was useless.

Ardwen stood up with such force that the seat screeched against the floor. “Don’t ever bow before a monster, take your eyes off a beast for a second and they know you’re afraid.” He said. His voice was low and heated, but not angry. There was an air of resigned acceptance about it, like he had foreseen what was about to happen, and while he did not want it, he had nonetheless come to terms with it. Ardwen turned to face the window, the sunlight casting sharp highlights on his hair and feathers. The elven warrior flexed his wing behind him and gestured to it with his hand, “I suppose Elerus has told you everything by now.” Ardwen said in a tone that made it obvious he was not asking a question. “I don’t know why you’re bothering with formalities – you must think I’m a monster, a freak – you’re right.”

Ardwen spun around, placing his hands on the table he leaned forward, “Elerus and I should have never been born, we are mistakes, aberrations whose fates have played out long ago. I thought I could find refuge with you, and I did for a time, but the gods abhor their aborted sons – they will never let us rest for long. If you want me to go, I understand, there’s a war to the south and the commander of the Elven Citadel is probably wondering where I’m at right now.” Ardwen could see Ariana’s eyes widen, and he mistook the expression for surprise, “Don’t bother asking about what he told you, I killed him for a reason, a good one.” Ardwen caught Ariana’s expression shift to one of mild confusion, as if the words which should be perfectly clear somehow seemed disjointed and unrelated to his Abbess. With a grunt Ardwen fell to one knee, he spread his arms our to the side and extended his single sable wing. Whereas Elerus’s wing seemed angelic, white and trimmed with down and soft, yielding feathers, Ardwen’s wing was the opposite. The angles of the bones were sharper, giving it a swift and predatory look, like the pinion of some vast raven. The most startling difference was the color, the feathers on Ardwen’s flight appendage were so dark as to look blue. Ardwen bowed his head and muttered, “We’ll do this formally then, if it pleases my lady. Turn me aside for being a liar and a monster. I would make any promise to stay at your call, but this one would not stain your honor with his bleating.”

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