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Book Four Pt 2 - The Eastern Pass

Written by - Ardwen Page 29 Book 4

Ardwen shifted his position, elevating his other knee and propping his right arm on it. The black-winged warrior was then as motionless as the stone upon which he sat. He was trying to remain patient, mindful of Ariana’s order, but it grated on him. Every second that went by was another opportunity for this assassin she had gone to visit to open her throat. It was absurd to think that simply because he had been captured he was helpless. If this really was the Teran he knew from his service in the Hands then the man could kill with living shadow, and the gods only knew what other vile tricks he had picked up in his bloody career.

No, Ariana had walked willingly, almost gleefully, into a lion’s den. Just as she had done earlier with the regiment guarding the prisoners, as she would doubtless do again in the future. It was a pattern Ardwen decided he had to arrest immediately. He had traveled too far, sacrificed too much, simply to lose his Abbess to her lingering sentiments about the Hands or Westgale. If the Saint did not feel worthy of life was one thing, that did not mean she was free to die as she chose. No, Ardwen thought, she is mine.

Then the Elven warrior saw her, walking slowly with her head down, lost in the directionless oblivion of troubled thoughts. She looked dejected, defeated. It was obvious that her meeting with her beloved assassin did not go as anticipated. As Ardwen expected, Teran had changed, Teran had failed her. To him, it was obvious from the start that this was the outcome, the mudman had murdered members of Ariana’s family, and it was absurd to think that he had not fallen. No, Teran was a remorseless killer, and while Ardwen did not hate the man for that, he hated him for killing the wrong people. Teran was simply on the wrong side of history, caught up in a game in which he no longer held the winning cards, and the realization of the gamble the assassin had made obviously burdened their Abbess.

Good, Ardwen thought. Without a second thought the sable-feathered elf landed right in front of Ariana just as she was about to reach the door to the Manor House. Lost in grief, Ariana had not heard his descent, and as Ardwen straightened from the crouch he had assumed to absorb the shock of the barely cushioned fall, he saw her eyes flutter open wide. The two looked at each other for a brief second.

Ardwen spoke first saying, “Did your meeting with the little death-dealer not go as planned? The man is a murderer Ariana, and while we all might be guilty of sins, his is the most unforgivable of all: stupidity. Teran attempted to sway events to his designs, even at the cost of his own life – under any other circumstance that might have won him grudging admiration. But like most of his mayfly kind, the man could not fathom the long-term consequences of his actions. The people of this city will cry out for his blood, they will want a scapegoat. If Mavigan is wise she can still use him to further rally the people against the times to come.” Ardwen paused and narrowed his eyes. The warrior fanned a hand open in a gesture as if pointing to Ariana with all five fingers at once. “As for you,” he continued, “this has to stop. Scurrying off to meetings with assassins unguarded, running to the frontline . . . you need to be protected. There is too much resting on you to trust to chance and fate. I will not follow an order which I feel is antipathetic to your survival, so don’t try and leave me behind again. I trust we have reached an accord.” Ardwen ended in a tone that was clearly not a question.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana was angry and glared at Ardwen through narrowed eyes. She had difficulty pin-pointing which of the many offenses Ardwen had just committed ticked her off the most – the sheer arrogance, the lack of compassion, the presumption, the high-handedness, or the audacity?

She decided, in the end, that it didn’t matter.

“No,” she said flatly, “we do not have an accord. I may be many things, Ardwen, including foolish, but I am not, nor have I ever been, helpless.”

“Damn straight!” said a voice from the front door. Turning, Ariana saw Mavigan poised in the doorway, Wilhelm and Manuel behind. Mavigan strode forward and positioned herself next to Ariana.

“Ancoran women have always been strong,” said Mavigan, glaring at Ardwen. “But,” she tentatively added to Ariana, “someone once told me that there is no weakness in asking for help when it is needed.”

Ariana gave her a wry smile. “Point taken. But in this situation, I did not need help.” The words were clearly enunciated and obviously directed at Ardwen.

“Did you,” Mavigan started nervously, “find the answers you sought?”

“Yes,” said Ariana with a sigh, “and no.” She reached forward and clasped Mavigan on the shoulder. “Come find me later and we will talk.”

Surprisingly, Mavigan took the hint. “OK. I’ve got to see the priestesses anyway.” She cut her eyes over at Ardwen. “Don’t let the asshole bully you.”

“I won’t.”

“OK then,” Mavigan said uncertainly. Casting one last suspicious glance at Ardwen, and moved off.

Ariana looked at Ardwen, turned on her heel and pushed her way into the manor house. She left the door open in her wake, a mute invitation for him to follow.

****

It wasn’t hard for Mavigan to locate the priestesses of Nagarren. Their characteristic white and pink robes fluttered in the breeze like the plumage of exotic birds. Mavigan took a deep breath and marched towards them.

Though she would never admit it, she was terrified. She remembered Korella as the hard task mistress that had schooled Etewen and herself in the mysteries of the religion. The woman had a small head and a sharp beak of a nose, and Mavigan could not think of a time she had ever seen the woman smile.

Of course, her lack of a smile might have had something to do with Mavigan’s inability to learn even the simplest of lessons. Mavigan had been a difficult student, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

And there, as if stepping out of a childhood nightmare, came the acting High Priestess. The only difference Mavigan could discern was streaks of grey in her dark hair that had not been there before.

Bracing herself, Mavigan prepared for the inevitable encounter.

Written by - Ardwen

The elven warrior stared at the open door, the empty space between the frame seemed to mock him. Ariana had shrugged off his opinion and blatantly disregarded his advice, the only advice which, Ardwen reminded himself, might keep her alive. His Abbess would continue now, throwing herself headlong into battle after battle, danger after danger, until at last death claimed her from him again. A rictus sneer, cold and distant, crept across the large elf’s features. Ardwen placed one hand on the door handle and shoved with such force that the door struck the wall and shuddered.

The elf’s heavy footfalls echoed through the small antechamber as he shoved open a second set of doors with both hands, the doors slammed open and a sharp crunch snapped through the air from the door on the right. Ardwen could see the back of Ariana’s retreating form ahead, but as the raven-winged warrior stamped closer she spun around. Ardwen saw her open her mouth, probably to launch into some sermon or lecture. He did not give her the opportunity.

“If you think that I am going to let you walk into death again you are a fool.” Ardwen snarled. “No god, no cause, not even your own will can move me on this. I lost you, and now you’ve returned beyond fire and time and death. For what?” Ardwen took a step closer. “The All-Father returned you to die on a splat of mud and rot in an unmarked grave? To hell with that! Why won’t you tell me what you want? Why can’t you just look me in the eye and tell me what burdens your heart and stirs your soul?”

Ardwen saw Ariana’s eyes harden and the elf cocked his head to one side and narrowed his eyes in response. “No more avoiding this, Ariana. I won’t help you kill yourself.” Ardwen smirked and fanned his left hand out, the air shimmered and blades appeared behind the warrior, and behind the Lady of the Hands. “No more gods here, no Hands. Elerus told me about your past as an oblate, and now . . . now I will hear Ariana speak. Iloio au’Ariana, Iloio.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana looked behind her at the multitude of blades seeming suspended in air. Curious, she reached out with a finger, aiming to touch the tip of a nearby sword. The gleaming metal darted away from her finger like a startled fish in a pond. Ariana smiled wryly.

“I had intended for us to adjourn to my office, where we could discuss things like civilized people and away from the curious throngs. However,” she poked at another blade and watched as it darted away, “this barbaric display changes things.”

Turning abruptly, Ariana put her back against one wall of the hallway and slid down the floor. Crossing her legs beneath her, her head tilted upward and her eyes focused on the ceiling. “I cannot tell you what I do not know myself,” she said finally. “What do I know of wants and wishes?”

Ariana sighed and shifted on the floor. “The Father preserved me from death for some purpose as of yet unknown. Until He reveals it, I can only follow my heart. My heart tells me to remain with Mavigan for so long as she needs me. After that, if my Hands are still here, I will do everything I can to reclaim them. I will find them, hug them, and apologize for my abandonment.” Her head tilted and she looked at Ardwen. “My conscience will not allow anything less.”

Her head rolled back and her gaze focused on the ceiling once again. “Whatever my purpose here, it will be dangerous. It always is. If it makes you feel better to hover”, she sneered with distaste at the word, “then do so, but you will abide by the limits I set. I’ll not have you intimidating everyone who wants to talk to me, and if I say I don’t require your presence, then you will trust me enough to respect my directive.” Ariana looked at Ardwen once again. “Understood?”

Written by - Ardwen

Ardwen retracted the blades from Ariana’s reach. Has she lost her mind? Ardwen thought. Many of the swords that surrounded them would slice through armor, bone, and flesh alike with equal ease. Laying a finger on one was a good way to lose that digit. The large elf frowned as Ariana spoke, he clenched his fists and as she sat on the floor he dispelled all of the blades save one which hovered lonely in the air above both of them. Ariana protested she had no answers, she did not know her own heart or mind – it was all protest that Ardwen had heard before, but not from his Abbess.

Once Ariana had finished speaking, Ardwen said nothing. Tense moments slipped by in total silence, total stillness. Then the blade descended next to Ardwen’s face. It rotated slowly around the warrior’s head, slivers of light and motes of radiance sparked from it, drifting like dust in a shaft of sunlight. Still, the black-winged elf said nothing. The single remaining blade stopped a few handspans from the right side of his face, casting his face in sharp relief, one side in light and the other in shadow like a mummer’s mask. Something glinted on the shadowed side of his face, starting near his eye and moving down, catching the light like a small crystal. Ardwen spun around.

“So be it.” He muttered. The bladweaver quickly walked out of the hallway, leaving Ariana alone. The blade remained for a second longer, and then quickly faded as its light was swallowed by shadow.

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus barely avoided the fingers splayed out to touch him. The boy who had spotted him atop the stacked barrels and boxes in the alleyway had put up a determined chase, but even in a body he was not yet used to Elerus had far more experience dodging. Though, the little elf reflected, it was usually swords and arrows and not hands. The two children stopped and stared at each other, the white-winged child noticed his pursuer was breathing hard, but there was an eager smile on his face as if he relished the challenge and the bragging rights that would come with outing the winged youngster who was quickly building a reputation as one of the best tag players in all of Westgale.

Elerus smiled inwardly, he decided he would let the kid chase him a little further, and then allow him to tag him. After all, he had no real stake in these games. They were, at best, a childish distraction he should feel some shame for indulging in. He nodded to himself, but the other kid took it as a signal to continue and rushed in. The small elf dodged and weaved easily, keeping on his toes, always just out of reach. Then Elerus stopped. Flat-footed and staring off into the distance in an instant, the other boy barreled into them and they both fell onto the dusty street.

The human child got to his feet first. "Sorry El, I didn't mean to do that. You stopped, are you OK?"

Elerus rose to a sitting position and looked up at the boy, with a nod and a slight smile he said, "Yeah, don't worry Torean it was my fault." Secretly, Elerus hopped he had the boy's name right. Whereas Elerus found out his name was exotic, and could be shortened to sound just like a letter from the human's alphabet, he was confounded by how alike human names sounded. The knot of children that had gathered earlier had others join in as the sounds of the game seemed to attract the city's youth. It wasn't surprising really, after so long under the Tyrant's heel, the children were some of the first to rebound and try and make the best of things.

Torean dusted himself off. "You can call me Tor you know, we're friends now." Elerus didn't think that would help, but he gave another smile at the child's hospitality. The young human offered him a hand to help him up and he accepted.

"Tor," Elerus said, careful to mimic the boy's pronunciation, "I think I need to head home for a bit. Tor's mouth twitched and the child started laughing. "Hey!" Elerus cut in. "What's so funny?"

Torean kept laughing for a few seconds before leaning up against the nearby alley wall and scuffing the soil with his shoe. "It's-it's just the way you said my name. You say your r's weird. Torrrr." He mimiced, attempting to trill his r in a way that sounded far to guttural to Elerus's elven ears. Elerus closed one eye and raised an eyebrow. "Alright, alright - I'll tell the others you went home. 'Sides, we've been playing forever."

Elerus blinked hard before saying, "We have?"

The human youth nodded and kicked a clod of dirt from the street corner. "Yeah," he confirmed, "I don't want to go home, though."

Elerus walked closer to the boy and touched him on the shoulder. "Why?"

Tor rolled his eyes as if the answer were written on his forehead. "Because the streets are dirty and we've been playing in them. They used to be clean before Beridane," here he scrunched his face and stuck out his tongue, "took over the city. Mom's going to make me take a shower, your's will too."

Elerus grimaced, and noticed a similar look on Torean's face. With a blush, the little elf schooled his features. Elerus shrugged nonchalantly to help support the conviction that he really did not care. Turning down the street the white-winged elf stopped at the corner for a second to wave to his friend before vanishing around the corner.

The tiny elf found the Manor House with little difficulty, there was still a large group camped around it hoping to see more of the enigmatic residents inside, and as Elerus moved through the pack of elbows and stomachs he looked up to see more than a few faces regarding him with a smile or turning to a companion to whisper a hushed stream of gossip. Thankfully, the crowd made way for him, and he did not have take wing simply to reach the front door. As soon as Elerus opened the outer door he knew something was wrong. The inner doors to the antechamber stood wide open, but on the other side the right door handle was dented, and turned with a screech of protest.

The little boy looked around at the silent interior of the house, twisting his torso as if something might leap out behind him at any moment. There was nothing. No sound of Ariana cooking or cleaning in the kitchen, or Mavigan making another joke about how small her new little brother is. He had expected Ariana to return from her meeting with the assassin by now, could something have gone wrong? "Ariana? Ardwen?" He called out, his soft voice swallowed by the oppresive silence around him. Elerus fidgeted, he would have settled for even an "Oi, runt" by now.

Then he did hear something. A sound twanged in the air around him, a few chords and then it stopped. Almost as soon as the music faded, it started again, this time slower. Elerus sucked in a deep breath. He recognized the tune.

Tracking the sound through the house, Elerus ascended a flight of steps as fast as his legs could carry him, and then turned into a room to his left. The door was open, and he found Ardwen with his back turned and an instrument in hand. The large elf's wing seemed to fold and unfurl with the pitch and tone, as if Ardwen was keeping rythmn subconciously. Suddenly, his friend's sable feathers ceased their movement, and in a brief flash of luck or rusted skill Ardwen managed about thirty seconds of the song before it ended in a high-pitch squeak as he moved his right hand across the instrument.

Elerus watched as Ardwen shook his head in disgust and set the instrument down. He turned around and regarded Elerus for a second before saying, "How did you manage to get black tar and dirt on you? Ariana will be furious, but at least that will be something."

"Ardwen--" Elerus began, but Ardwen cut him off.

"I haven't played that song since Shleana died." Ardwen placed his back against a wall and slid to the floor, elbows on his knees. "Really though, after Selinar passed away I stopped practicing, just didn't have it in me afterwards."

Elerus walked over to the warrior and looked into his face. Ardwen's eyes looked back listlessly. "What happened?"

"She's another Shleana, Elerus. Doesn't know what she wants, thinks she has to coddle and protect those under her even at the cost of her own happiness. A martyr waiting to happen. I might have seen it sooner, I suppose you already have."

Elerus shook his head so hard his white hair flowed behind it like a comet tail. "That's not true Ardwen, she can't . . . want to die."

Ardwen raised his head with a weary smile and replied, "Really? You don't sound so certain."

Elerus sat down on the floor with his legs crossed and put his head in his hands. "You still haven't told me what happened."

Ardwen shrugged. "There's really nothing to tell. She went to see Teran and took her time in doing so. Unguarded, alone, an assassin that has already murdered those related to her. I told her when she returned that she needs protection, she's important. Of course she saw things differently, and when I confronted her, asking her what she wanted, she gave me the line that she had no wants or dreams other than to apologize to the Hands."

"Then that flair of mana . . . ."

Ardwen shrugged again, "That was me, I didn't want her running away and dodging the question as she had done before."

Elerus pried his head from his hands and stared at Ardwen. "What now?"

"Now? Now I do nothing. I tried, failed, this won't make the first time. When the day comes when she dies, by the blade of a traitor or the arrow of an asssassin, I'll leave this world behind me. Maybe I'll try and kill the All-Father, or as many of the gods as I can for making us dance to their tune a second time. This world is nothing new, Elerus, you were wrong. She's another Shleana and this is another Aerynth."

Elerus sighed. It looked as if Ariana's actions had stirred bitter memories from the warrior's past, no, from their past. Elerus let his mind wander into the distant past, when they had both been children running from the Deathless court, hunted and branded xeno horribilitas. They had fled to a large swamp as far away as they could make it, dogged by hunters each step of the way. Shleana had found them then, a young human girl - though at the time she looked older than either of them - fleeing with a company of followers to a series of mountains and hills at the edges of the marsh.

They were the escaped slaves and remains of the first human kingdom, crushed by the might of the Empire. There they scrapped out an existence on land too remote and poor for even the elves to care. However, once word that the three refuges had settled there the Empire sent an entire legion lead by Ardwen's father. It had been a bloody mess, and Elerus refused to dwell on the events for any longer. Ardwen had lost his wing, and Selinar had lost his life in the final tally.

"Ardwen." Elerus said, his voice cracked with sorrow. "Please, please, don't give up on her. Don't give up on me."

Ardwen sighed deeply and looked at the window on the far wall. "Our fates will come full circle again, we are leaves caught in a river larger than we can see. My only regret is that I love her, but my heart has always cried for the impossible. Let the currents take us where they will, to the last syllable of time."

Elerus stood up. He bit his lower lip and placed a hand on Ardwen's knee, his friend gave no response, did not even turn to look at him. Elerus walked to the door's threshold and said over his shoulder, "I'm going to look for Ariana. Be strong Ardwen, please." The little elf exited the room to do just as he said, the last sound Ardwen heard from him was the slap of his bare feet against the floor.

Written by - Ariana

Ariana heaved another sigh as she watched Ardwen disappear into the depths of the mansion. His gait and body were rigid with disapproval. She fought against an irrational desire to call him back, instead allowing him to leave in silence.

Once alone, she pushed herself to her feet and made her way down the hallway to her office. The sight stretched before her was familiar; the bookshelves packed with important documents and papers, the art on the walls which were renditions of a world and time gone by, a large conference table surrounded by uncomfortable chairs. It was obvious, though, that things had not been left exactly as she had left them – her desk was clean and free of the detritus of her everyday labors.

Ariana inhaled deeply and strode forward, bypassing the desk and walking straight towards the large painting depicting an idealized version of Ancora. Standing beneath it, she pushed on a square of paneling. The wood gave way with a quiet snick, and she pushed it out of the way. Inside of the compartment was a large sheaf of papers. Ariana grabbed the whole bundle into her arms and deposited them on the desk. Unbalanced, the stack toppled, and documents scattered haphazardly across the surface.

She gave a small smile at the mess, now things were as she remembered them. Settling herself into her chair, she began to scan each of the papers, looking for Teran’s name.

Written by - Ardwen

He opened another door and called Ariana’s name again, an empty room was all that greeted Elerus. The little elf bit the inside of his mouth and stomped his feet in frustration. He had walked back down the stairs in a hunch to begin his search on the first level of the house; he had suspected that Ardwen would want to be as far away as possible from the Saint while still being inside the same house. However, as this was the third silent and abandoned room he had entered, Elerus considered that his intuition might have been mistaken. Elerus moved to the next room down and knocked on the door, to his surprise it swung open from the inside. The woman who greeted him was not Ariana. Elerus knitted his brow in confusion before he remembered the serving staff and attendants that Mavigan had invited in earlier. The young lady had a cloth in her hands that she kept folding and unfolding, and as the winged child regarded her face he noticed the tightness around her mouth and her bloodshot eyes.

That she had been weeping was obvious enough, but the maiden put on a brave face and with a slight bow said, “Can I help you, little one?”

Elerus bobbed his head and replied, “I’m looking for Ariana, do you know where she is?”

The lady’s mouth twitched slightly and she blurted out in a voice near to tears, “Yes, yes! She went down the hallway to the last room because . . . because that monster in elf’s skin! He did it; I could hear him growling at her from here. I didn’t know . . . what to do, I just . . . please go.” The young woman dabbed at her eyes with the cloth and put her hands on Elerus’s shoulders. She turned him around and pointed down the hallway, indicating with a gesture the correct chamber, with that she closed the door. Elerus decided to leave her alone and continued down the corridor.

The door to Ariana’s office stood open, and the little boy found the Abbess poring over documents scattered haphazardly across a large wooden desk. She looked distracted, grabbing a few leaves of paper and muttering as her eyes darted across them. Elerus took a few hesitant steps into the room. He took the time to regard the woman who had made him feel more at home and safe than he had in many years. After all that had happened to him, his strength and very status stripped away, his identity and place uncertain, it had been Ariana who gave him real hope. He had put on a stoic act for Ardwen, smiled and joked about being trapped in child’s body.

It was Ariana who had made him feel as if he was not trapped at all. Man or child, elf or orphaned offspring of a dead empire, he had felt Ariana’s compassion. More than that, it was love, unconditional love, the kind that Elerus had only read about in storybooks and legends about the gods. He had never seen it before, and now Ardwen had said that she wanted to die, to leave to a place he could not follow. “Ari-ana.” Elerus stammered. The winged child felt cool blue eyes look at him. Elerus swallowed and said in one jumbled breath, “Ai, laurie lantar lassi surinen! Yeni aradonel—“ The white-haired boy stopped in midsentence as he realized he had blurted everything out in elven. Elerus reached his hand to his mouth and bit his thumbnail, he was not certain what to say now, and his mind kept putting everything into elven.

Elerus let out a small whimper of irritation as he thought how simple this should be. He didn’t want to say anything complex or give a great speech; he just wanted Ariana to stay, to be near her. The small elf decided to go with his instincts. Elerus ran forward and wrapped his arms around Ariana’s legs in a tight hug, burying his face in the cloth, taking in the simple pleasure of her presence. “Tell me he’s lying.” He muttered. “Promise me you won’t go.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana patted the sobbing boy on the back as he clung to her middle in an utter panic, even as her face scrunched in confusion. It was fairly obvious who 'he' was, but as for the aforementioned destination, she could not fathom what Ardwen might have told him to put him into such a state.

"Elerus," she said comfortingly, "where am I supposed to be going, hmmm? All I told Ardwen was that I wanted to hunt down the other Hands at some point, but it wouldn't be for a long while because Mavigan needs me here. Of course, when I do go, I'd invite you and Ardwen to come with me. Did Ardwen tell you I would leave you behind?"

Written by - Ardwen

Elerus didn’t reply to Ariana immediately. For a moment he just stood there in silence, Ariana’s voice was soft and comforting, a tone that spoke directly his senses and promised never to lie or harm. A slight smile crept along the boy’s face, Ardwen had been wrong, and yet . . . there was something missing from Ariana’s reply. The ancient bladeweaver had been incorrect, but Elerus decided that he could banish all doubt with but one more question – after all it had been the thought of Ariana’s demise that had so undone Ardwen. Elerus folded his wing along with his arms around Ariana and looked directly up.

He still clung in a needy hug to the Abbess, his chin resting on the soft fabric of her tunic. He looked at the Lady of the Hands with vibrant blue eyes that seemed to shimmer. “Ardwen,” Elerus began slowly, “said . . . he said you didn’t want to live anymore . . . that you wanted . . . gurth. Elerus squeezed a little harder on Ariana before he spat out the word in common. “Die.” The white-haired youth could practically feel the word as it left his lips, it seemed to hang heavy in the air and hover like wheeling carrion fowl. Elerus looked right into Ariana’s eyes and whispered, “But you said you wouldn’t leave us, right?”

Written by - Ariana

The hand that was gently stroking his hair stopped at the utterance of his question. Ariana’s eyes crinkled with pain, and she was silent for several moments. When she finally spoke, the words were rough with emotion.

“I will not lie to you, Elerus. There are times…” Ariana stopped abruptly and signaled to Elerus he should straighten. She stood and grabbed his hand, leading them both to the large painting of the idealized Ancora. Fastening her eyes upon it, she continued.

“Humanity was never meant to have immortality, Elerus. The Father in His wisdom did not build us for it. I see this picture of what was and the knowledge that it has all turned to dust hurts my soul. It reminds me that I am so very tired.”

She squeezed his hand gently. “And it is too cruel for any parent to outlive her children. Sometimes I wonder why I am still here. Why am I not dust?”

Ariana turned from the painting and knelt on the floor ensuring she and the little elf were eye-to-eye. “But when those thoughts creep in I look at Mavigan, and you, and even Ardwen and I am reassured that I still have a purpose. I am not alone. And that will keep me fighting.”

She pulled Elerus into a tight hug. “My soul was dead for a very long time, Elerus. It will take awhile for me to remember how to live again. Each morning I remind myself what I have to live for, and as time passes, it will get easier. Having you here helps more than you can possibly know.”

She released Elerus and sat full on the floor, propping her back on the wall behind. Ariana then gently pulled Elerus into her lap and held him close. “Ardwen hears what he wishes and rarely listens. He says he wants to protect me and I do not doubt that, but I remember what protection meant in the olden days. I was nearly a prisoner in my own city because my well-meaning flock wanted to keep me safe.” Images of a dark and different type of prison flitted through her mind and she swallowed hard. “And while the sentiment is appreciated, I am done being a bird in a gilded cage.”

“I cannot give Ardwen carte blanche to protect me as he sees fit, so he is no doubt sulking. You know as well as I do he would hover constantly. Even well-meaning individuals could do naught but be cowed by his constant glaring presence over my shoulder. That kind of protection would only make my diplomatic duties more difficult. Do you understand?”

Written by - Ardwen

“I understand.” Elerus said as soon as Ariana had finished speaking. The little elf turned his face up toward Ariana’s and simply stared at her. He honestly did understand, perhaps better than she could know. Humanity was not meant for immortality, but the Highborn were ageless – at least those born before time were. Elerus sighed. “I know I don’t seem it, but you somehow saw that I am older than I look; Ardwen and I have both seen whole ages of the world join the ash of time. I do understand how you feel.” The pale child lowered his eyes again. “But I also understand how Ardwen feels. You helped him fight off his own ennui, he found something in you, something rare. He would take that and save it. I would too.”

The young elf paused here and placed a hand on Ariana’s, he couldn’t help but notice the difference in size. “But I would rather you be happy than preserved.” The small elf snuggled deeper into the Abbess’s embrace. “Ardwen complained that you had no answers for what you want, but I think he’s wrong. With some time and healing I know you’ll hear the dreams in your heart, and when you do maybe we can even seek them together.” The winged child rested his head on Ariana’s arm and looked back up. “I’m sorry about your dress.” Elerus paused and his eyes darted around before they settled back on Ariana, the boy’s cheeks had flushed a shy red. “Um, but it does feel nice to be held.” He stifled a yawn born out of comfort and contentment and then added with a slight shrug, “You’re warm.”

Written by - Ariana

Ariana smiled. "Warm I may be, but we both have work to do, so UP!" With gentle hands she pushed Elerus onto his feet, rising to her own feet behind him. "I have a meeting to prepare for, and you have a grumpy elf to console."

Ariana gave Elerus a hug. "If you can, explain to him the difference between protection and suffocation. Mayhaps you will have more luck than I did."

She shooed him out of the room. "And when you are finished with Ardwen, you can get yourself cleaned up. The tailors put a rush job on your everyday clothes, so you will find some new garments in your room."

"And Elerus," she added with a twinkle in her eye, "use soap this time, ok?"

Written by - Ardwen

"Of course, soap. I hope they have my clothes from the Citadel back too." Elerus whispered, his eyes fixed on the ground. Elerus blew out a long breath of air and looked up at the ceiling. "As for Ardwen, I'll do what I can, but I'll not lie to you: this is something he will have to come to terms with on his own as well. It won't be easy, you remind him so much of Shleana, he loved her too after his own fashion." The little elf paused here and a soft smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Thank you, Ariana." Elerus said. "If there's anything I can do in return, just let me know." With an exaggerated bow and then a much more informal wave he turned around and ran down the hallway.

It wasn't difficult to locate Ardwen, Elerus found the venerable warrior in the same room that he had left him. Indeed, the only thing which had changed was Ardwen's position, instead of slumping against the wall he stood facing the room's lone window with his back to the door. Elerus entered the room, Ardwen did not bother to greet him. "Done waisting your time?" Were the first words out of Ardwen's mouth.

Elerus did not reply at first, instead he let silence stretch on. Eventually Ardwen twisted his torso around and regarded his friend with a veiled glance. "It's a shame when we're deprived of freedom, isn't it Ardwen?" Elerus opened.

"Don't ply your sophistry against me Elerus." Ardwen growled.

"Humor me." The winged child remained quiet, the sable-winged warrior did likewise. Elerus continued, "We decided at one point that our freedom was worth more than our lives. When your father tossed us into the gladiator pits, we might have kept winning, and thus we might have kept living - so long as we continued to bring in a profit and score him political influence. We were chips, pawns - hated and detested - but not without value."

"That was different, El, that was a choice between life and death."

"No, it wasn't. A slave does not have life, he has nothing which is not slipped from his master's palm. We had no way of knowing we would live, whatever the costs. Ardwen, we chose death, and you know it."

Ardwen clasped his hands behind his back and cleard his throat. Elerus pressed on, "We were three children challenging the Empire, three ignorant brats mocking the thrones of gods. If we had accepted Procopius's whims we might have crawled by for as long as he found us useful." Elerus walked and stood next to his old friend. "It cost you your wing, and Selinar did pay with his existence. Yet not once did we relent. We could have kept running, we could have never escaped, we could have done any number of things other than fighting. Think about why we did that Ardwen."

"If you're hinting that Ariana views her condition as vile as being thrown into a pit of gryphons and then being hunted by an entire legion, then she is still as insane as she was before coming to Westgale." Ardwen said with a grunt.

"Chains of silk or chains of iron, they're fetters all the same. She must be free to find her dream, Ardwen. Ariana will do that if you want it or not, your only option would be to cage or kill her. Even if the morrow moon rides by day and the sun by night, I know you won't do that. So the only real question is: will you help or hinder?" Elerus spun around and walked to the threshold of the small room. Before leaving he said one final thing to his battle brother. "Take your time and consider this well, Ardwen. For all that it's worth, I think the answer was obvious from the second you confessed that love was involved, love can only choose one thing." The white-haired boy left the room and his brooding companion behind. Recalling his promise to the Lady of Ancora he set course to the bathing room, though he couldn't help but wonder if he might not talk his way out of taking a full bath again.

Written by - Wilhelm

As Mavigan approached the line of Queen's Guards holding back the crowd, Wilhelm saw her cringe for a moment and then brace herself as she caught sight of Acting High Priestess Korella leading the delegation from the Temple of Nagarren.

*I think it is time to give her a hand and to set the stage.* he thought.

"Queen's Guard Report!" he bellowed in a command tone.

The eight guard's spun about and clashed their spears against their shields and bowed to Mavigan as one, slowly followed by the crowd. The squad leader then saluted Wilhelm and reported,

"Sir! Squad Leader Landon reports Queen's Guard Company Able, Squad Three present and ready to protect and defend the Queen. Long Live the Queen!"

The Guardsmans raised their spears and shields and led the crowd in the cheer.

LONG LIVE THE QUEEN! replied the crowd with gusto, followed by cheers. The delegation from the Temple halted and joined in after a pause, there being no clear path to approach Mavigan.

"Queen's Guard, attend your Queen for court!" Wilhelm ordered. The Guards formed a V with Mavigan and Wilhelm at the point and the squad leader out in front to act as court bailiff. Mavigan looked started but drew herself up in what she hoped was a royal manner, emulating the way her mother had stood. Wilhelm then addressed the crowd.

"Queen Mavigan greets Her loyal populace on this, the first day of Her return. The Ironskane invaders have been driven out and Westgale is free!"

More cheers arose. Wilhelm waited and then continued.

"Many took part in driving out the invaders, and you are all to be commended, but one man stood out for his admirable leadership in a time of chaos. Queen Mavigan calls forth Manuel of Westgale to continue his efforts and bring new hope to the people as Mayor of Port Westgale."

Manuel, Forlorn Hope no longer, had been standing a few steps back. As new cherring arose, he strode forth, turned, and bowed to Wilhelm and then kneeled before Mavigan.

"Manuel, will you accept the post of Mayor of Port Westgale and swear fealty to the Queen and pledge to carry out the duties of this office to the best of your abilities?"

"I will" replied Manuel in a firm voice. Wilhelm leaned over to Mavigan and whispered to her to draw her dagger, pointing out the royal arms upon it. Mavigan nodded slightly in sudden understanding and drew it forth, holding its hilt out to show the royal arms and then placing it level between her two palms. Manuel placed his hands over Mavigan's hands, the dagger between their hands. Wilhelm then intoned,

"Do you, Manuel, now swear fealty by mouth and hands, before these witnesses, to your undoubted Queen, to serve her as Mayor of Port Westgale to the best of your ability, to obey her orders and to preserve and defend this city, until she releases you from this oath or departs the throne or death take you or the world end?"

Manuel repeated back the oath in a clear voice and withdrew his hands. Following whispered advice from Wilhelm, Mavigan then touched the tip of her dagger lightly to Manuel's head and said,

"Rise Lord Manuel, Lord Mayor of Port Westgale."

As Manuel stood up Wilhelm reached into his pouch and withdrew a heavy gold chain with a medallion of the arms of the city and presented it to Mavigan with further whispered instruction. Mavigan placed it about Manuel's neck and said,

"Wear this chain of office as a sign of your oath and office and of Our favor."

"Lord Mayor, attend your Queen!" stated Wilhelm, gesturing Lord Manuel to stand on Mavigan's other side. Cheers broke out again from the crowd. Wilhelm waited, and then called out,

"Her Majesty will now hold a brief court to grant audience to petitioners. First, and foremost in her favor, She calls forward the delegation from the Temple of Nagarren."

The Acting High Priestess, who had been fuming in silence while having to wait, now looked a bit started at the respect shown, but gathered her flock and started forward. As they came forward, Wilhelm whispered to Mavigan,

"Now you are on a better footing. Remember that you are no longer the lowly acolyte to her Priestess, but rather the Queen granting audience to the Acting High Priestess of the Temple. You do need the Temple's help and training, but remember that you are now the Queen, and Manuel and I and your Queen's Guard are here to support you."

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