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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ariana Page 27 Book 4

Mavigan completed her ablutions and hurriedly dried off and dressed in her Great Grandma’s clothing. She was pleased to note that it was similar to garments she would have chosen to wear herself.

Exiting the bath, she strode down the hallway and knocked gently on the door to the boys bath.

“Elerus?” she called. Receiving no answer, she put her ear to the door. Inside, she thought she could hear the soft sound of sobbing. “Elerus?” she repeated, “I’m coming in.”

She found him huddled against the wall, crying, looking for all the world as if he had just lost his best friend. “Oi, Runt,” she called softly, “what’s the matter?”

Keen eyes scanned the bathroom, searching for anything that could have caused his distress. Her gaze alighted on the tunic which lay wadded up on the floor near him. “What-?” she started confusedly, but then the pieces clicked and she sighed. Her booted feet echoed on the tiles as she walked over and picked up the tunic. One quick motion of her hand and she suddenly wielded a dagger. She cast him a wink and added, “I never go anywhere without my blades.” Creating a hole in the back for his wing was the work of a less than a minute.

She held the garment out to him with a sheepish smile. “Sorry ‘bout that, Runt. Totally my fault. We will get a tailor in here today to make you whatever clothes you want.”

When Elerus reached out to take the garment, she turned her back on him to give him some privacy as he got dressed.

“Look Runt,” she said as she heard the faint rustlings of cloth, “I know you don’t know me from Adam, but it seems to me I ought to set some things straight from the get go.” Mavigan heaved a deep sigh. “The way I see it, if my Nana is taking care of you that makes me the big sister.”

She shifted uncomfortably, her boots scraping against the tile. “It is only fair that you know that I am a complete screw-up unfit to wear the crown. I was a crappy little sister, and I suspect I will be a crappy big sister, too. I don’t know how to do much of anything but swear and fight, but I do have contacts, so if you need anything, you only have to ask. If I can’t get it, we will see if Wilhelm can help. And if he can’t get it, then I have a friend who has a friend who has a cousin who can lift it for us for a price.”

Mavigan paused again, her hands clenching uselessly at her side. “So, if you need something, just ask.”

The sound of rustling cloth and sobs ceased before she continued. “Nana said we each had to have our own bedroom. If you liked the room with the toys, which is probably the coolest room in the house, then I suggest we take a piece of paper and tack your name to the door.” She twisted round and looked at Elerus with a mischievous smirk. “We both know Ardwen has the maturity of a five year old, and if you don’t claim the cool room first, he might try and fight you for it.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana felt like banging her head against the wall. Really, sometimes talking to Ardwen was like talking to a post – he was so rigid in his own convictions that he never heard anything she said. She had been trying since she first met him to build a bridge over the yawning chasm between them – in age, in culture, in experience, in belief – but it was becoming clear that whatever progress she had made before the fall of Ancora had been completely undone.

He spoke as if she knew the ending of a story she had only recently discovered had a beginning. And as he continued to speak, it became clear to her that there were still tales untold between them – his and hers. But for now something else was needed.

Settling for a deep sigh instead of physical violence, she said softly, “Oh Ardwen, sometimes I wonder if you know me at all.” She crossed the space between them to stand close to his kneeling form. Reaching forward, she drew her hand along the edge of his wing, feeling the softness of feathers beneath her palm. “I’ve never thought of you as a monster. The idea that I would is patently ridiculous.”

Removing her hand, she knelt down in front of him and put both arms around him. “You and Elerus can both stay,” she said gently, rubbing her hands up and down his back as if trying to calm a distressed child. “Though I would be grateful if you would stop running off whenever you get uncomfortable. I’m always happy to listen to what troubles you.”

She patted him on the back and then planted a kiss on his cheek before releasing him and rising to her feet, thinking the issue closed. A glance at the table showed her Ardwen’s attempt at making breakfast. While the gesture was appreciated, she couldn’t help but see the results and crinkle her nose. “Of course, since you are staying, it might be nice if you learned to cook.”

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus cringed as the door opened, but he could not still his sobs or dry his tears. He was utterly embarrassed that Mavigan saw him like this, but once again there was nothing he could do about it – she was already in the room, and hiding would not have accomplished much good anyhow. As Mavigan asked him what was bothering him, Elerus did nothing but keep his head bowed and shake his head side to side slightly, as if he was unable to answer with words. He heard Mavigan’s footfalls as she moved a little ways from him, but once again Elerus did not say anything or look up. It wasn’t until the young queen produced a dagger in her hands and sliced a hole in the back of the tunic he had tossed on the floor that Elerus raised his head at the sound of tearing fabric.

As Mavigan lowered the tunic to him and Elerus reached out to take it, he watched as the young lady spun around to give him some privacy, an act which Elerus was grateful enough for – his self image had already dropped pretty low. As the little elf struggled to find which hole in the tunic went where, he had to take the entire thing off at least once as he managed to put his left arm through the hole Mavigan had slashed, he split his attention between getting dressed and listening to the woman’s words. The winged boy was glad Mavigan had her back turned, as he could feel his face flush hot as she mentioned that she reckoned herself his older sister. Elerus felt like letting out a bitter, small, laugh. He was a fake. But then, Elerus thought, did that matter?

There were many in life that got by on lying to themselves, most without even realizing it. Elerus recalled a treatise he had read long ago in the fabled Library of Aerynth – before it had been burned to the ground – that stated that all sentient beings in the face of a universe devoid of meaning had to fool themselves and construct their own meaning. Elerus had scoffed at the time and personally spoke with the scholar and said his theory smacked of solipsism. Now, looking up at Mavigan’s face as she spoke of her lack of merits but her willingness to provide what help she could, Elerus didn’t think the concept so ridiculous. The white haired child didn’t answer at first once Mavigan had finished outlining her plan to grant him a room, instead Elerus answered without words. A thin smile crossed his face and the little elf nodded so vigorously that it sent his long hair whipping around his head. Without thinking about it he slipped his hand inside Mavigan’s and followed a few paces behind as she lead him to the room she had selected for him.

As soon as the two reached the room Elerus had to suppress the urge to laugh. Perhaps Mavigan thought her comment on Ardwen’s behavior perceptive, but Elerus knew better. The white-feathered child knew that even if Ardwen were five, he would have never accepted such quarters. No, Elerus’s earliest memory of Ardwen was of meeting him at the academy for the young children of the nobility – where he had been picked on and ridiculed for his lack of natural talent in just about everything except mundane swordplay. So Ardwen had done what he did best, leapt to an extreme and trained with a blade till his hands were an angry raw red and wept crimson from the grip rubbing against them. Elerus pressed a finger to his lips as he tried to recall how many times he had seen Ardwen with a toy instead of a sword. He decided he could count the number on a single hand missing most of its fingers.

No, this was not a room for Ardwen, whatever Mavigan thought he acted like. It was a room for a child, something he and Ardwen both had never really gotten to be. Elerus looked at the three beds and cocked his head to the side, he briefly wondered why there were three in the room, but he pushed it aside as the thought caused a painful memory to surface. At one time, long ago, there might have been a use for three, but not now. The little elf wondered if he would miss Ariana’s embrace if he slept in here, the thought caused him to blush deeply and fidget at the floor with his toes, his boots were with the rest of his former outfit. While Elerus realized he had slept the best he ever had since his change next to the kind Abbess, he felt awkward as if he would be abusing that kindness. Elerus nodded his head and trundled next to Mavigan. He looked up at the ruler of this realm and said with heart, “I love it!” That, at least, was no lie or deception. Regardless of everything else, it was a roof over his head, and by the standards of a wizard’s cage it was a veritable palace.

Mavigan grinned as she told him to wait and dashed out of the room. She didn’t go far, Elerus could hear her footsteps the entire time, and she returned in short order with a piece of parchment, a brush, and a palette with several daubs of color on it. “Knock yourself out, runt.” She said with a flourish as she set the painting utensils on the floor next to the kid. Elerus fell to the project of writing his own name with more relish than he had any right to. It wasn’t the fact that scribing his own name to claim his own little place thrilled him, which it did on some level, it was the feel of a brush in his hands again. It all seemed so familiar, so relaxing, the smell of the paints, the feel of the bristles as they eased across the makeshift easel. It was something solid and real and unchanging that he could grasp on to.

However, as Elerus painstakingly rendered the letters of his name across the sheet, he became aware that it just wasn’t matching up to the image in his mind. Cognizant of the fact that Mavigan hardly wanted to stand there all day, he had decided to do a simple outline of his name using opposites on the color wheel – in this case purple with a yellow border, which would saturate to an orange with some blue hatching as he could manage it to give the blank sheet some balance and texture. The end result, however, was a terracotta border as the pigments ran together and shaky, slightly slanted letters as Elerus found he was unable to keep his writing straight in any meaningful sense of the word. The little boy looked at it and frowned, it had some vibrancy and energy to it,that was true. Artistically he would deem the work passable if it came from the hands of a young child. Technically it was shit. Elerus sighed and passed a hand along the bottom of his chin, smearing some blue he had gotten on his fingertips there.

He heard Mavigan make a clicking noise with her tongue, and before he could say anything she had picked up the piece and tacked it to the door with pride. Elerus sat the brush down on the palette and stood beside his big sister, eyeing his work with much more disapproval.

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen remained on the floor, kneeling. He was so still that a passerby might have thought that Ariana had been working on an incredibly lifelike statue of a kneeling elf with a single wing, and was just now standing up from the final finishing details. Ardwen what seemed like hours Ardwen finally stood on his feet, the ancient elf swallowed hard. His face felt so heated and flushed with blood he was certain that at any minute the sanguine fluid would start pouring out of his ears. His mind ran by almost as fast as he could swing a sword, and in the confusing hurricane of thoughts a few thoughts kept swooping by again and again, like debris twirled around in the eye of the storm.

Ariana was going to let him stay, she wanted him to stay! Ardwen felt like falling to his knees and clasping Ariana’s hand, placing his lips to it and bubbling his thanks. He felt certain though, that if he did something like that he would simply receive an eye roll, and he was not certain he could keep himself from crying. Tears of joy and relief, perhaps, but it would be crying nonetheless. No, he had to steel his emotions and thoughts, not appear the fool before the lady who had once again proved why she had been sainted even as she still breathed. He was, no, he still is, her warrior – and that demanded he act like it and not some child Elerus’s age that had expected a scolding and instead received a hug.

“Ardwen?” The ancient elf heard Ariana say with a touch of amusement.

The twilight elf wondered what had caused her a touch of mirth before he realized it. Unwittingly, he had clasped his hands in front of him, his face had colored red, and he was working at the corner of a tile furiously with the toe of one of his boots. “Ahem!” Ardwen said half as a distraction and half as a cough that gave him the excuse and second he needed to compose himself. “Yes,” He said, his words flowing out in a jumble, “the repast is rather pedestrian, I’ll admit to that. The prosaic culinary arts were never my strongpoint. None of the arts are, really. Ask long enough in any squad and you might meet a person who admits to know how to whittle, but when was the last time you saw a regiment of interior decorators?”

Ardwen blinked hard as if the light in the kitchen stung his eyes. Without preamble the elven bladeweaver slumped down hard into a nearby seat. “I promise, upon my life, that I will not . . . run off anymore.” Ardwen said the words as if they were coming from another mouth, they seemed hard to form and the vowels foreign, but he said them with sincerity. The warrior brushed a hand along his cheek where Ariana had kissed him. He realized that she had practically treated him like an upset child, but he didn’t care. Ariana did not think he was a monster. What the rest of the world thought didn’t matter, the rest of the world could go and gargle a mouthful of sewage.

“I can also,” Ardwen said after the brief pause, but as he spoke his wing gathered close to him as if he was embarrassed by the saying, “try and learn some recipes. It would be unfair of me to place the burden of keeping this house into order on you. I’m sure in the coming weeks you’ll have important matters of state and religion to attend to, and if Elerus’s tongue is as young as the rest of him, then you may find he can be a picky eater.”

Ardwen felt himself blushing again; he lowered his eyes and starred at the triskellion design on Ariana’s clothing. It may have been slightly rude, but he felt entirely too shy to look at her face right now. “Of course,” he continued, his words now slow and measured again, “I accept and hear your offer. But my burden is light now. You’ve no need to worry about me.” Ardwen regained some of his old gusto as he barreled on, his confidence apparently returning, he even managed to look at Ariana’s face, gazing into her eyes, “You on the other hand, I am worried about. I guess Elerus didn’t tell you everything, but he did tell me something. He told me the story about a girl dedicated to the All-Father from birth. If you want to tell me anything I will do my utmost to help and listen. Remember . . . .”

The swordsman licked his lips to wet them before saying, “Whatever you do, wherever you go, it is your blood that makes our fate. Abbess or Ariana, queen or beggar, saint or sinner – I don’t care. I . . . I will be your angel.” Ardwen’s mouth closed sharply, and he returned to staring at the table. He could have kicked himself, he wanted to. The words that had seemed so brilliant and charismatic in his head had gotten ripped to shreds in the tornado inside his skull, and he had spouted the first bit of poetic drivel that came to mind. Perhaps in between cooking lessons, he tried to console himself, he could brush up on his rhetorical skills.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan reached over and patted Elerus on the shoulder. “Good job, runt. It is clear you have an eye for art.” She leaned down and gave him a smile. “I might get you to make one for me later.”

She extended a hand to him, and when he took it, began leading him towards the kitchen. “Let’s get something to eat. Don’t know ‘bout you, but I’m starving!” Descending the stairs, Mavigan was brought up short by a knock at the door. Puzzled, she pressed Ardwen’s clothes into Elerus’s hands and shooed him in the direction of the kitchen before striding to the front door and throwing it open.

Wilhelm stood there, arms full, with the man she fuzzily remembered from the night before. She heaved a sigh. “Damn. Nana invited you in, didn’t she?” After a moment of contemplation, she threw the door open all the way and stepped back, allowing the men entrance. “I guess its good you’re here. I’m thinking we’ve got decisions to make.”

****

Ariana looked at Ardwen and gave him a sad smile. As he watched, her eyes faded from vibrant blue to gray. “I have no need of angels,” she said softly. “You do not need to be anything or anyone but Ardwen.”

It appeared she might have said more, but was interrupted by the sound of small feet. The sadness disappeared as if a mask had suddenly appeared on her face, though the color of her eyes remained muted. She turned towards the door and called a greeting, “Morning Elerus.”

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the slight sadness in Ariana’s eyes. Was it something he had said? “My apologies,” Ardwen muttered, “I did not mean to offend.” Once again, Ardwen wanted to slap himself on the forehead for how stiff and formal he sounded; the warrior swallowed a sigh and tried again. “I have but one desire, and that’s to be at your side and in your service, Ariana.” Ardwen paused again before adding with a slow flap of his wing, “I’ve always admired the angels and archons of the All-Father. I used to see them, long ago when He still walked the world. It’s strange, I know, given how often I’ve felt driven away from Him, but I still enjoyed seeing His messengers.” The venerable swordsman turned his face toward one of the windows in the kitchen and stared outside, though his thoughts remained entirely focused on things inside his Abbess’s domicile.

Elerus squinted as he looked at the sign again, he still found it decidedly lacking, but he felt an odd swell of pride when Mavigan said she liked it. Perhaps all he needed was some more practice? “Sure, I’d like that.” Elerus said in response to her question about making her one – he decided to leave off the bit where he fully intended to have several study sessions beforehand. He took Mavigan’s head again, and only briefly paused in confusion when she stopped at a knock from the front door to the Manor House. In a flash, Elerus found himself with his arms full of Ardwen’s clothing, and he felt Mavigan give him a tiny push toward the kitchen. At first the little elf did not go, but as he remembered the warded property of the estate, he smiled and walked to the kitchen in full confidence. The only way to pass the warding was by personal invite of the royal line, so whoever it was outside was obviously someone Mavigan wanted to see.

Passing into the kitchen, Elerus saw Ardwen and Ariana were already there. Ardwen said nothing, seemingly lost in private thoughts, but Ariana greeted him with a light tone that the winged child responsed to with a smile and bob of his head. Recalling his mission from Mavigan, Elerus handed the clothes Mavigan had selected to Ardwen.

The ancient elf looked first at Elerus, then at the clothes he held up, and then at Ariana. The warrior gave a soft scoff and said, “There’s no reason to coddle him, Ariana, even if he chooses to dress like a child.”

Elerus’s ears and winged dipped, but then a wicked grin came over his face. “Ardwen,” he said with mock hurt, “first you tell me it’s not polite to step into a lady’s room without asking, but now you insult your host by mocking their presents? What a sad age we live in . . . .”

Ardwen’s eyes shot open wide and he hastily yanked the garments from Elerus’s hands, “Of course,” he added with a hiss, “the accommodations are without reproach and we are grateful for what you provide. Forgive my earlier slip, I was . . . surprised.”

Elerus put his hands behind his back and swung back and forth on the soles of his feet, “There’s a bathroom for males, it’ll have a sign on it. I suggest you go and wash, I had trouble telling it was you. At first, I thought barbarians had raided the house.”

The twilight elf visibly blanched at Elerus’s words, but then his eyes narrowed, “Well, be that as it may.” Ardwen said. “But, at least I can recall how to bathe properly. Blue, though?” Ardwen said while running a finger along the bottom of his jaw in mockery of the smudge of paint Elerus had on his face. “Green would have been far more artistic.” Without another word, and with a small bow to Ariana, Ardwen practically flew out of the room in search of the tub.

With another smile, Elerus looked at Ariana and said, “Good morning to you too, Ariana.” Looking up at her, he noticed the slight grey tint to her eyes, like a distant raincloud in an otherwise perfect day. The silver-haired boy studied the tile at Ariana’s feet intensely. Alone, he felt suddenly shy, but he was determined to do what he could to cheer the lady who had helped him so much up. “Um,” Elerus began with a verbal pause, “I like the clothes, they look really pretty.” Elerus swept the top of his left foot along the stone and then spoke again, “And, sorry about last night. I uh . . . I didn’t mean to wake you up or anything. I . . . I was just tired and . . . .”

The fair-feathered boy trailed off and didn’t finish his sentence. He looked up at Ariana again, unsure if he had done any good, but proud that he had at least tried.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm and Manuel entered, their arms full of packages and containers. Setting them down on a bench, they turned to Mavigan and Wilhelm said,

"Good morning Mavigan. You look well today. I hope you are recovered from the festivities last night.

Manuel and I have been busy putting the city to right. The last of the Ironskane forces, and the mercenaries they hired, have been driven from Port Westgale. The harbor and the city walls are now manned with loyal guards, and work crews are cleaning up the damage caused by the Ironskane occupation.

I commend Manuel here for his skill in motivating and organizing the people. You would do well to consider him for Mayor of the city."

Manuel looked embarrassed and bowed to Mavigan. Wilhelm continued,

"We managed to round up a good number of loyal staff who used to work for the royal family in the palace. You should remember most of them. You will want to meet them outside and invite them in so the Manor House can once again have proper staff. In particular there is your former chambermaid, Sally, and Francis, a cook from the palace kitchen. I believe you were particularly fond of his cinnamon nut rolls.

Manuel and I have brought you folks some breakfast from the Soaring Gull Inn here at the harbor and some clothing and other supplies. There are more supplies outside on carts."

Written by - Ariana

She smiled at Elerus, then grabbed a rag and advanced on him with purpose. “Thank you for complimenting my clothes, dear,” she said kneeling before him and rubbing at the blue smudge. “My daughter had them made for me. They are certainly different from what I’m used to, but I like them.”

Ariana sat back on heels and surveyed her handiwork. “Elerus dear,” she said with a slight reproof, “next time I tell you to take a bath, please remember to use soap.” Standing, she cast the rag onto a nearby counter. “And don’t worry about last night. I don’t mind.”

She paused as if contemplating how much to say. After a moment, she nodded to herself and continued. “I know you are older than you appear, Elerus, but it is still OK. I’ve been alone for a very long time, and it is nice to have someone nearby to help keep the nightmares and the darkness at bay. In fact,” she winked at him, “you might find me sneaking into your room some nights.” She suddenly looked around as if attempting to detect eavesdroppers and then leaned over to whisper in his ear, “It will be our little secret.”

Written by - Ariana

At the mention of her old partners-in-crime, Mavigan hopped from one foot to the other, anxious to go and greet her old friends. “Great! Kitchen is that-a-way,” she said pointing towards the rear of the house. “I hope you also brought a tailor, ‘cause two of our number will likely need alterations.”

Bristling with excited energy, she whipped around the two men and out onto the front stoop. Her arrival was accompanied by a large cheer from the crowd outside; the noise surprised her and made her pause. That was when she recalled the other bit of information Wilhelm had offered. Popping her head back inside, she hollered, “Oh yeah, Manuel. If’n you want the job, it’s yours.”

The royal guard had come to immediate attention as soon as she had arrived at the porch, but seemed to get even more straight and tall once she crossed the demarcation of the barrier. Mavigan went down the line, receiving bows and good wishes, inviting each of the guard and the servants into the house. Sally and Francis, however, each received a hug and promises of long late night gossip sessions.

Mavigan handled the whole thing with surprising good grace, accepting the adoration of the people without one curse word, and she even promised to deliver the message to Elerus that his friends were waiting outside. Soon there was a veritable battalion of people, carrying items off carts and inside the house much like a line of ants. Satisfied that the house would be well kept, Mavigan tossed a wave to the cheering crowd and closed the front door behind her.

Her nose guided her to the kitchen, where breakfast had been laid out and people were happily eating. Mavigan pointedly stared at Ariana and was pleased to see her eating, though she was not eating nearly as much as Elerus. With a chuckle, she grabbed the chair next to Elerus who was shoveling in the food as fast as Francis put it on his plate, and allowed Francis to fill her own plate. “Oi runt, your fan club is waiting for you outside.”

Written by - Ardwen

The winged child returned Ariana’s smile, glad to just see the expression of joy on the Abbess of the Hand’s face. Ariana then grabbed a cloth and took a few steps forward, for a moment Elerus had a flashback of Creda’s house where the overzealous woman had rubbed his face raw with a cloth. The little elf did not back away however; he remembered too that it was Ariana that had saved him from the ministrations of the priestess. Surely enough, the Lady of Ancora’s touch was far gentler, and the only physical reaction Elerus gave was a slight blush that was covered by the rag as Ariana reminded him to use soap next time. The white-haired child thought to mention that he had some problem with the bath due to his clothing, but he opted not to – undoubtedly Ariana had far weightier concerns, and he did not want to make it seem like Mavigan had not taken care of the situation. The young queen had, after all, and she had done so with care and discretion.

Elerus’s thoughts came to an abrupt halt when Ariana told him she knew. The young elf lowered his head as she spoke, his hair brushed forward to cover his face from the side. He felt guilty that Ariana had to find out through her own intuition or knowledge, and that he had not told her directly. What had he been trying to prove? As Ardwen’s Abbess finished speaking, however, and leaned down to whisper it would be something she kept between them, Elerus threw a hug around her neck, which after a softly whispered, “thank you” he released. Still, something did not make sense to the winged boy. If Ariana had known all along that, despite his physical form, he was another twilight elf – then why had she played along? Elerus sighed and passed a hand over his face. Mavigan had granted him a room at the Manor House, he had a place to stay, but what would happen to him once her attention was turned to rebuilding her wounded kingdom? He didn’t want to be separated from Ariana or Mavigan, he had already come to regard them as the closest thing he had to family in nearly five millennia. The thought was a depressing one, the fear of losing what little he had left, but something kept Elerus from despair.

Guests started pouring into the Manor House, and a breakfast actually fit for human consumption was arrayed on the table, Elerus kept casting furtive glances at Ariana. As the little elf climbed onto a seat next to the Abbess, and Mavigan took one next to him, he came to a conclusion. He felt, with all the conviction of a faith he could not prove, that Ariana would not let it come to that. She was something special, and his comment of that very nature to Ardwen had not been an offhanded quip, it had been an exacting moment of insight. Exactly what Ariana would do, Elerus had no idea, but he believed in her, and the little elf decided he could be perfectly content placing his uncertain future in her hands – whatever she decided. Letting a smile cover his face, the young elf did not care that his feet did not touch the floor; he simply let his legs swing back and forth.

As the white-winged elf began to eat breakfast, at a pace that belied his small frame, Mavigan informed him that he had friends waiting for him outside. The boy’s eyes rounded as he opened them wide, he had forgotten about Davin and the others he had played tag with. Had they really been waiting for him all this time? Feeling guilty at his neglect, Elerus swallowed a chunk of biscuit and looked at Ariana, with a grin he asked, “Can I go outside after breakfast? Please?”

****

Ardwen sat in the warm water with his eyes closed. He had already finished scrubbing the filth of combat and the dirt of a hard day’s toil from his skin; he now simply wanted to enjoy the hot water. With a grunt the bladweaver opened a single eye and looked at the clothes Elerus had handed him. He had no doubt that Mavigan, who he secretly blamed for not only his clothing but his friend’s as well, had selected the most flamboyant vestments she could put her hands on. The shirt was a bleached white, yet the sleeves were a deep blue. The pants would have been acceptable, had it not been for the fact that they were flecked with a warm brownish orange color that seemed to be interwoven in the material. Ardwen had no idea what it was supposed to be, but it gave the cloth a bewildering mixed grey and brown town that somehow managed to look like a warm summer garment. In fact, Ardwen had complaints with the whole ensemble except for one piece: the scarf. Perhaps Mavigan had been afraid that, with fall underway and the troop used to the warmer climes near the Citadel, Ardwen would succumb to illness and chill without it.

The ancient elf let out another grunt and rolled his eyes at the thought, it sounded unlikely even to him. With a shake of his head to show his further disapproval, Ardwen opened both of his eyes and looked at the scarf. It was a light pink, almost white, or perhaps with threads of white laced into it, but the fact that remained that it looked pink. Undoubtedly Mavigan thought the whole thing a clever jest, but Ardwen did not care. What the girl did not know was that such a design had, at various points, been popular in the Deathless Empire. Indeed, with the emphasis on rebirth and renewal that the second Ellestor had placed on his reign – signifying that was breathing “new life” into his beleaguered realm – scarves, overcoats, cloaks, anything that could hold the pattern and flow were all the rage. Despite the fact that the empire had been hunting him at the time, Ardwen had admired the coloration. It reminded him of spring and the cherry trees that he and Elerus loved to watch bloom each year, something that he had already come to miss by that point.

With a final resigned shake of his head, Ardwen rose from the bath and dried himself off. He tried to keep his eyes off his body, but he couldn’t help but glance at his chest. The three large scars that should have been there were not. While it was true that scars could be removed, it took such a skilled and powerful healer that only the vainest ever tried to erase all but the most disfiguring of them. The elves had perfected the practice, personal beauty coming at a premium in the courts, but Ardwen had scoffed at the whole concept. He did not wear the wounds like badges of honor, but the three slashes on his chest had served as personal reminder of the time he had slain a griffin and thwarted one of his father’s more twisted schemes to have him killed in a gladiatorial match. It had been a tidy deal, his little adopted mistake eradicated and a handy sum of money from the spectacle to go along with it, Ardwen’s teeth were set on edge by just the memory. Still, despite all the sentiment he had attached to them, the scars were gone like he had never taken a blow to the chest as a child that should have dismembered him.

It had to be Ariana's handiwork. The twilight elf had no clue why she had healed the scars, but she was the only cleric powerful enough to have mended him recently that could have done it. Pushing the thought aside, Ardwen quickly donned the clothes Mavigan had picked out for him – taking the extra time to rip a whole for his wing on the left-hand side of the shirt. With a quick flourish the warrior wrapped the scarf around his neck, let Mavigan have her laugh, he would not give her the satisfaction of thinking she had him cornered. With a final glance in the mirror, and a few passes of a hand through his hair, Ardwen walked to the kitchen and found breakfast waiting for him. Without preamble or invitation, the elven soldier took the seat on Ariana’s right and filled his plate. He noted more of the horrible grits that Creda had seemed so fond of on the table, but Ardwen decidedly ignored them and started with a biscuit he split open and drenched in gravy.

Written by - Wilhelm

Wilhelm and Manuel ate heartily, hungry after their long work the day before, and complimented Francis for the quality of the meal. Wilhelm took a couple of cinnamon buns as dessert and passed the basket to Mavigan. He then filled in everyone on the status of the city, concluding with,

"The last of the Ironskane invaders annd their hired mercenaries have been driven from Port Westgale. The walls and port defenses are now manned by loyal forces. We will still have to liberate the countryside, but the city is free now

.

Those unfairly imprisoned by Beridane have been released and reunited with their families. Work crews are now cleaning up the city and distributing the supplies impounded by Beridane in the port warehouses. The surviving members of the various temples are starting to report to the temples and those are being cleaned up to be rededicated so services can resume.

Ariana, the Church of the All Father should be cleared for basic functions in two days, although it will take time to repair all of the damage. Mavigan, the same is true of the Temple of Nagarren. There are some priestesses outside who request audience with you about temple matters.

The Raven has the palace back in order and is now arranging for loyal staff. He and Keeryn have Teran under guard in the dungeons, as you requested. So far Teran has made no effort to escape.

Word has been sent to the loyal fleet and to your forces in the Citadel concerning the liberation of the city and requesting aid once the Elves have driven the Orcish invaders out of their lands.

And there are some seamstresses, tailors, leatherworkers and armorers outside offering their services to you all to provide suitable clothing and equipment. Your patronage would be welcome to many."

With that Wilhelm refilled his stein and ate his cinnamon buns.

Written by - Ariana

Mavigan hid a smile behind a large bite of cheese biscuit as Elerus asked Ariana for permission to go outside and play. Ariana responded with a smile and a nod.

She set herself to her breakfast, suddenly finding herself ravenous, listening to Wilhelm prattle on with only half an ear. She grimaced at the idea of confronting a gaggle of priestesses, and practically scowled when he had the audacity to refer to that betrayer by anything but the epithet ‘rat bastard’.

So caught up was she in the mental exercise of crafting unique and creatively insulting nicknames for the rat bastard that she missed her Nana’s strange reaction. Ariana had suddenly stiffened, a bite of food poised halfway to her mouth, a distant look in her eyes. After a moment, she put down her food and rose to her feet, her chair screeching across the tiles.

The sound pulled Mavigan from her reverie, and she stared at Ariana. “I have something to do,” declared Ariana hurriedly, backing away from the table and moving towards the door. “Ardwen, be sure Elerus and yourself see the people outside and get yourselves properly outfitted. Mavigan, find yourself a tutor. I’ll be back.”

And before anyone around the table could blink, she was gone.

Mavigan looked round at the equally puzzled faces of her breakfast companions. “What the hell was that all about?”

****

Ariana moved so fast, she was nearly running. Out the front door, through the collected throng of people, the sound of their welcomes and cries of joy at getting a glimpse of the ‘Living Saint’ reverberated in her wake. Her responses were automatic, honed through many years of dealing with such attentions, but her mind was only on one thing: Was this Teran, her Teran?

The thought occupied her as she entered the palace and made her way to the dungeons, nodding at saluting guards along the way. Arriving in the dungeons, her single-minded progress was stopped abruptly by a strange creature with a tail and a man who exuded authority. If the dagger at his side was any indication, he was in service to the Ancoran royal family.

Ariana drew herself up to her full height and stared at the man blocking her way. “I wish to see the prisoner,” she said in a tone that clearly indicated she would not allow anything to stand in her way.

Written by - Wilhelm

Keeryn and the Raven were trading life stories outside the locked cell door. A pair of Royal Guard stood at the door itself. Sabbatine had gone inside bearing a breakfast tray for Teran, having belittled the cook for ruining the meat by cooking it.

A woman came rushing up, dressed in crimson pants and a white blouse with crimson collar. The triskelion symbol embroidered on the collar and the triskelion medallion she wore showed her to be a priestess of the All Father. The Raven thought she looked familiar, but couldn't place her immediately.

She came to a stop and declared,

"I wish to see the prisoner."

The Raven bowed and replied,

"Good morning, Priestess. The prisoner has been placed here in accordance with the orders issued by Queen Mavigan."

"Not exactly in accordance." remarked Keeryn with a sniff.

"What can I say. There aren't any 'dark, dank cells' in the palace. At least this waiting room can be locked. Even a condemned prisoner is entitled to reasonable accomodations, if we are to avoid becoming like Beridane."

Turning back to the priestess, the Raven said,

"The Queen's Champion, Wilhelm, has left the palace and this prisoner in my care. I am known as the Raven, Guildmaster of the Guild of Shadows. This is Keeryn, the Queen's Bodyguard. To whom do I have the honor of speaking and do you have Queen Mavigan's permission to speak to the assassin who slew her entire family? So far he has made no trouble, but even unarmed he is likely quite dangerous."

Written by - Ariana

Ariana did not answer The Raven immediately. Instead, she gazed hard at the locked and guarded door, as if wooden walls presented no impediment to her sight.

Long ago, on a far away world, Ariana had learned to identify people not by sight, but by feel. This skill was especially useful when one of her companions regularly changed his appearance as often as other people changed clothes.

She employed that ability now, extending her senses past the guards and into the room. First encountering the auras of two people on either side of the door, she swept over them quickly, neither evoking any sense of familiarity. Next, she discovered the dark aura of a thing undead, and her brow furrowed in confusion. But then, she felt the last aura in the room and an uncertain smile crossed her mouth. Her suspicion had proved correct.

"I am Ariana Trueblood," she said finally, her eyes retreating from the door to focus on the man in front of her. "Mavigan and Wilhelm are finishing their breakfast and discussing the rebuilding of the city. As for your prisoner," she added, nodding her head towards the door, "he will not harm me."

Written by - Wilhelm

The usually imperturbable Raven rocked back in shock.

*No wonder she looks familiar! I've seen her statues and portrait since I was a boy. Imagine that, meeting a living Saint!* he thought.

The Royal Guardsmen first looked startled and then in unison they rendered to her the Royal Salute and stepped to either side of the door. While Keeryn looked puzzled, the Raven performed an intricate and deep court bow and then replied,

"Your Holiness, I am deeply honored to meet Saint Ariana Trueblood in the flesh. Your return has been foretold and is most welcome in these dire times. All praise to the All Father for your return.

You may indeed enter. I doubt that Teran would or could offer you harm, but call upon us if there is any need."

With that he strode to the door and turned the key and opened the door. He nodded to the two guards inside and then spoke to Teran,

"You have a visitor."

The Raven held the door open for Ariana to pass through.

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