By Jon Catron
13th of Frostbringing CY: -694, YR6336, Winter Synaad, Year of Woe; Moonrise.
“For pacts made with the Enemy of the Ylldyr, for the Sanction of Murder, Torture, Perversion and Betrayal, for these and other Crimes against the Ylldyr and All Life on this planet, the Synaad Banishes you; House Criaan, House Moiryr, House Hetarae, House Yrbrouygh, and House Fhyllyin, from this land and this Synaad. We Banish and Brand you, as cast from the Light of the Ylldyr and into the Dark which you so readily served. We cast you from this Synaad and the Light of the Ylldyr.” (Elven Speaker, Quarion Amastacia)
13th of Frostbringing CY: -694, YR6336, 7,000 leagues Northwest, Year of Woe; Mid-Moon
Alannin Hetarae was alone when it happened. He had the buck in his sight. For two days the Old Buck had eluded him, but now he would claim it. This would make room for the new bucks to lead the herd, and the Old Buck would make a fitting feast for Midwinter’s Day. He pulled back the arrow, the string drew taught and then… the world left him. Alannin tumbled from his makeshift “nest” in the trees. His arrow shot forth and shattered on the bark of an old ash. The Old Buck bolted off into the forest, insuring a lean feast at Midwinter. And Alannin quivered on the snow frosted forest floor. In agony, he writhed in the snow and underbrush as the seconds dragged along like minuets, and minuets hung like hours. Not by the pain of the fall was he so tortured, no this was a wholly other type of pain, that of separation. Alannin dug his fingers into the snow and mulch and dirt. Slapped his hand against the age old bark. Pressed his forehead to the ground even, but could not feel the earth any longer. The pulse of the earth, the slow crooning hymn of the trees, the babbling mirth of the stream, they were *lost* to him. He was separated from the earth, nay cast out from it. His spirit was gone, shattered and torn from him, and now, in so many ways, he was Alone.
Midwinter 13th CY: 1371, 2am. Northeastern Telamvor near the Symbian Border.
Ugh, midwinter… . It’s dark and cold outside. Hell, it’s dark and cold here in this tent, but at least it’s dry I suppose. Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy fucking birthday to me. It’s after moon up and I’m wide awake again. No surprise there, as usual I can’t sleep. Not that I want to that badly, close my eyes and the dreams will come again. No, that’s not right, I wish I *could* dream. No wonder the Elves are such assholes, never dreaming, always going back over and over their own self-important little lives. The elves seem to like it, but it’s more of a curse in my book. It’s the memories that wake me in the dark of the night. Memories like that day 8 years ago, when “father” came to visit….
Amber opened the door of the small homely cottage without pause, midwinter’s icy chill still clinging to her breath, and called out into the house.
“Mother, I’m home!” Amber smiled as she looked in on the warm, inviting room. It was filled with soft, inviting tones cast from the roaring fireplace. With the heat from the fire, and the soft, comfortable chair, Amber muses that she could easily curl up and simply nap the chilly months ahead away… with the right company of course.
Amber’s mother, a surprisingly beautiful woman well into her 50’s, slowly ambled in from the kitchen with a slight limp favoring her right hip, and raised a graying red eyebrow at Amber. “What happened this time?”
Amber smiled sheepishly under a split lip and a rapidly growing black eye. “Lucinda Derwood.”
“Again?” Serenna asked. “Aren’t you and that girl ever going to get along?” *sigh*
Amber’s mouth pursed in a pout. “She called me a whore, and a Witch.” Amber paused and turned her head slightly. “So I said she was just jealous… of her boyfriend.” Amber smirked slightly, though the lip hurt terribly.
Serenna chuckled slightly. “That mouth of yours is going to get you into *real* trouble someday, child. You really *must* learn to control yourself, Amber.” She said as she grabbed a jar of ointment from a nearby shelf. “You can’t always look to someone to get you out of this sort of thing.” She stated, and began applying the salve to Amber’s mouth and eye.
“OW!” Amber hissed, but did not flinch from her mother’s ginger touch. “So who got me out of this one? You should see Lucinda. She won’t be going anywhere until those ribs of hers heal.”
Again Amber smirked, remembering holding Lucinda’s bloodied face up from the floor by her matted hair and then tossing her to the side. Even Olaf, the giant of a bouncer, hadn’t interfered in that fight. No, everyone knew that this had been brewing for some time. But now Lucinda was out of the way and Owen would be hers, if she wanted him.
“That’s not the point and you know it, young woman.” Serenna sighed. “It’s your birthday dear. It’s time to put away such childish attitudes. Besides, what are you going to do when you bite off more than you can chew next time, hmm? You can’t fight your way through everything you know…”
Mother began scolding Amber as she finished dressing the wound, continuing on even though she knew her daughter wasn’t particularly listening. Amber, meanwhile, was starting to wonder how much she truly wanted the oafish Owen. Her reverie was broken by the sudden realization that mother was no longer speaking, but staring oddly at the door at Amber’s back. As if on cue, the realization brought with it to Amber a sudden deep chill, as if winter had crept into this cozy nest. Amber turned to view the intruders and narrowed her eyes suddenly.
Standing in the doorway were three figures, two male and one female, dressed in fine silks, rich black and white furs, and carrying long curved blades. For a split second, Amber thought they might have larcenous intent, but then she saw the long tapered ears, and facial features she had seen so many times in the looking glass. “You.” She nearly hissed.
“What do *you* want?” She nearly spat to the lead elf. The venom in her words seemed to make him pause, and nearly withdraw. “Good!” She thought and began slowly seething with her distaste for the interlopers.
“Whatever it is, you won’t find it here.” She started, warming up the hate she held for this, this Elf, until restrained by a soft but firm hand placed on her shoulder from behind.
“Amber, that’s enough.” Serenna said softly. “Why *are* you here, Enialis?” She posed to the newcomers.
The three stepped into the home, closing the door behind. The lead elf seemed to want to speak, but was unable to complete this desire before the woman stepped forward and into the room. “You know why we are here, Sorcere…sorry, Serenna.” She stated bluntly. “She has come of age. It is time.”
Amber took a step forward, becoming incensed at being spoken down to. Her temper was flaring and her bravado was less than subtle suddenly.
“Yeah, well, ‘She’ doesn’t want you here, at this time or any other. So leave before I…” She stopped as suddenly as she started. The second male had been standing nonchalantly behind her ‘father’, and then in a single fluid motion, was between her and the other elves. It was like watching water pouring into a basin and then freezing solid in the same simple motion. She thought to herself that if he had intended to strike her, she might not have even seen it coming.
“Anberanna will not accept this. She is too willful, too... ” Enialis quietly spoke to his companions in elven.
“That’s not my name. But you’re right, whatever it is, I don’t want it. ” Amber coolly interrupted, still glaring at Enialis. “And, yes, I know your tongue. Mother was quite persistent in my education.”
“Amber” The elven woman started. “We are not here to bring conflict to you. We simply wish to give you what is yours by right.”
“And just who are *you*?” Amber demanded. “And why would I want *anything* that you have to offer?”
“Amber, dear, be calm.” Serenna said gently as she stepped closer to the group. She looked intently at Enialis and the female then back up to Amber with concern. “Let them speak their peace.”
“But,….” Amber started, and was gracefully interrupted by the woman.
“I am your father’s sister, Amber.” She stated quietly. “I’m your Aunt. My name is Antinua. I would be friends with you, if you wish.” Antinua extended her hand as she spoke, offering it palm upward to Amber.
Amber narrowed her eyes at the woman, and then turned her glare towards her ersatz ‘father’. “That man is my father in only the basest fashion. And I’ve told you once, Mother and I want *nothing* from you but your absence.” Amber almost sneers the words as she glances down at Antinua’s hand.
“Amber!” Serenna calls out in a chiding tone. “That will be quite enough.”
She turns to face her mother, but before she can speak, Enialis steps forward to speak to her.
“Amber, please, I just want to talk with you. I want to get to know you .I want us...” Enialis sighs as if frustrated slightly “You are of the age of inheritance, and it is time to accept your place as my daughter.”
Amber fumes at his words and almost stutters as her anger erupts forth. “You have NO right to call me daughter. *You* of all people have the nerve to come here today. After what you have done to Mother you are lucky to….”
“Amber!” Her mother interjected. “Now you listen to me young woman, and you listen well.” Serenna pulled Amber about to look her straight in the eye. “What happened in *my* past is in the past. And I will be the one to say if this matter is forgiven and forgotten. It is in *no* way your place to tell these people that they are unwelcome here and I will not have it said that Serenna Wycrofft’s house is an un-homely one.”
“Amber, we are here to offer you your Birthright. It is yours; there is none other to accept this. It is yours and yours alone.” Enialis motions and the other male turns to pick up a large box that he must have been carrying earlier. The box itself is of masterful quality, all luscious darkwood, and delicate looking gold. Hanging from an ingenious holster on the front is an ancient Elven blade in its scabbard. If the intricately engraved Ivory hilt was any indication of the swords worth, the blade must have been amazing indeed. The elf places it gingerly upon a table near Amber.
Amber looks at the items, then looks deep into Enialis’ eyes, the anger turning into a smolder. “I told you. I want nothing from you. Every ‘gift’ you give brings just more pain. Everything you touch turns to Shit. What I expect from you is just more anguish, and I want none of it.”
“Amber,” Her mother starts. “listen to your father. What he has to say is important. Please, do this for me.”
Amber turns to look at her mother, a mask of shock on her face.
“My father???... You… you can’t be… Mother, how… how can you be on *his* side like this?”
“Amber, this is for *you*.” Enialis says quietly. “You can choose not to accept the fate that comes with this. But you must make the choice.”
She stares coolly at Enialis for a moment, then to her Mother, then back to Enialis.
“Fine, then here is my ‘choice’.” She walks brusquely out of the cottage and into the cold dead of the night, where she feels her mood will be more at home.
“Let her be,” Serenna spoke softly, “She’ll be back. This is home, after all….”
!!!GODS!!! What was that? Oh, hells, lightning and thunder…. Tonight is going to be a bad one. Head… swimming. My heart is racing. And I can’t see for shit. !!!! Another lightning strike! Close too…. What was that shadow? Urugk the half-ork, on patrol, I hope. He’s a good fighter. Good drinker too. His wine tastes like horse piss though. Oh fuck, it’s hard to think, head hurts and I’m so tired. Don’t want to sleep though. Don’t want to think about Mother tonight. Don’t want to…. Don’t want….
Amber raced into town. It had been snowing in Weatherdowns for three days straight, but she still rode Domino through the town like the flames of hell were at her heels. When Amber got to the door of her mothers cottage she dismounted so fast she was nearly thrown. Instead, she landed in a large drift with a most ungraceful flop. Before the older gentleman exiting Serenna’s cottage could offer assistance, Amber was up and nearly to the door. The old man stepped squarely into Amber’s path.
“Amber, I can’t allow you to go in there. Your mother needs to rest to gain some strength.” He stated in a very no-nonsense tone. “As her physician, I’m asking you to let her rest. And as a friend, I’m not going to let you in until she gets that rest.”
Amber stopped and regarded him narrowly as she dusted the snow from herself.
“Jonah Argyle,” She said dryly. “you are standing between me and my dying mother. Move out of the way before you make me do something one of us will regret later.”
The two stood there and exchanged some cool words and rather heated words as well. After a particularly heated quip from Jonah, and a ‘love-tap’ right cross, the healer found himself settled into a snow drift, and Amber marching into the home.
Amber opened the door and quickly but quietly closed it behind her. The room was dark except for a slow burning fire in the fireplace, a sole inhabitant sat in a high-backed chair facing the warmth of the fire. The woman in the chair had softly peaceful expression on her face as she slept. Age had begun to overtake the woman, as her full head of silvery hair attested. Serenna looked up and smiled, as if greeted with a great surprise.
“Amber dear!” She exclaimed softly. “I knew you would come. Come, sit down dear.” Serenna motions to a nearby chair while trying to suppress a cough.
Amber tries not to frown. The cough was deep, and sounded like a death rattle. She’d heard that kind of cough before in the colds of Weatherdowns, but never in one so young, never in her Mother.
“Come closer dear, let me take a look at you now.” Serenna continued. “My you look splendid. How has the Academy been? You must tell me everything, don’t leave out a single thing!”
Amber pulled a chair up next to her mother and began telling her mother about her training as a warrior. The two talked long through the night, chatting about anything that came to mind. Finally, Amber stops and looks to Serenna.
“Mother,” she starts quietly. “I… I wanted to apologize for how I walked out on you, last time. You were right; I… shouldn’t have acted the way I did to you. I… I didn’t want that to be the last talk we had together.”
Serenna smiles and leans over slowly to kiss Amber on the forehead. “I know dear, I love you too.” She whispers softly. “And you know I can’t stay angry at you. I can’t entirely blame you for being upset that day either. It had been so long since he had seen you, you probably didn’t even remember it. I know it must be hard to accept your connection to him, knowing what you do. All the same, that connection is there dear; you cannot deny it forever. Those gifts are part of your heritage, dearest. Accept them…for me.”
Amber sighs softly and then nods, smiling slightly to her mother. Serenna pats her daughter’s cheek tenderly, and notices a shock of stark white hair in Amber’s firey bangs for the first time.
“Amber?” She asked quizzically. “How did this happen?”
Amber blushes slightly and shrugs. “I…I’m not sure, really. I was at practice one day and a wandering adventure was there practicing as well. He told me I was too ‘dainty’ to fight a ‘real’ man, so I challenged him. He, well he was winning, easily. I fought hard momma, don’t get me wrong. But he was just too strong, too good. He started getting cocky. He taunted me, told me he was going to take me when we were done. He talked like I was a piece of meat just for the taking. I… I lost my temper, completely. He knocked me down at one point. I was furious. He made me look so incompetent. So instead of standing up, I just sat there and hated him. I swore out loud that he would die, on his own sword, against someone he thought he was better than.” Amber swallows and sighs softly. “He… laughed and started to turn away. I guess he didn’t see the hole he stepped back into. … He spun around as he fell…the blade pierced his neck and sprouted out the top of his spine. I felt relieved, and shocked, and sickened, and… exhausted, drained almost.”
Amber shudders and shakes her head, as if clearing the memory from her mind. She looks to Serenna and sees the concern in her mother’s eyes.
“So, do they know what is causing… this?” Amber asks.
Serenna sighs and purses her lips in a frown. “I… no. No they don’t. Jonah guesses that it might be some lingering effect from the Skaven, but I can hear the doubt in his voice. And that was such a long time ago.” Serenna sighs and rests her head on her daughter’s shoulder.
“You don’t have much time do you mom?” Amber asks. Her answer is a soft shake of Serena’s head.
Amber leans into her mother and promises herself that she will not cry…
Amber was crying. She had wanted to be stronger than this, for mother, but the tears rolled hotly down her cheek anyway, stinging her cheeks in the bitter midwinter morning. Her mother’s friends were congregating here and there amongst the graves old and new, but Amber stood alone under a huge cedar, watching the crew slowly replacing the dirt. Light footsteps tread through the snow toward her from behind, but Amber could not bring herself to care.
“Amber?” A lone elf stepped closer to Amber. “It looks good on you.”
“The sword, that is, you wear it well.”
Amber turns and nods to the elf, her father. “Enialis, right?”
Enialis smiles slightly and nods, then steps up closer. “It makes me glad to see you wearing it. I know that this is not for me, but I am glad all the same.”
“You’re right; I’m not wearing it for you. And I’m a warrior; of course I wear it well.” She replies and then seems to re-think her words almost immediately.
“Look,” She continued. “I’m sorry about the attitude, but I don’t really know you at all. And maybe that’s part of the issue, but I don’t really feel like I want to know you or anything about you. Mother may have been able to forgive you for raping her and then leaving her and Me to rot, but I’m not nearly as generous as she was. So, if you don’t mind, get out of my way, and get out of My Life.”
Amber walks brusquely past Enialis and continues out of the graveyard, a smile of bitter satisfaction on her ruby red lips. She mounts up on Domino and rides hard into town without looking back.
Under the tree, Enialis flips the hood of his cloak back over his head as he is joined by several other elves dressed in similarly fine furs and silks. Quietly, they converse, first appearing to argue vehemently, then finally nodding in cold agreement. They turn to watch as Amber rides off under the steel grey skies, exchanging knowing looks before departing as a group.
AH! Gods, I’m shaking, sweating, What’s going on? I feel… uk, sick. What was that noise? Something’s out there. Can’t concentrate… . why… I… . Poison, Has to be. But… how? I…
No… Urugk! Get out! No… no… .
“No! “ Lihanna cursed softly as her adversary stepped from the shadows of the records room. Lihanna had been so careful, disabling the other guards with sleep pellets or paralysis darts. Normally, they wouldn’t have been left alive, but this is the House of Hetarae, she would not spill her kinsmen’s blood without need. But now, there was her cousin Adrianna to deal with.
“Yes, Lihanna, and you have answers to give for your actions here tonight.”
Adrianna proclaimed as she drew her sword and took a challenging stance.“Such as, why you have to slip in unnoticed, to a room that someone of your Esteem should have access to as she should wish.”
Lihanna brought up her defenses a split second before Adrianna pressed forth with a deft, but ritualistic attack. Her actions served a twofold purpose, demonstrate her determination and loyalty to her charge, and force Lihanna to confirm that she was truly one of the Dancing Blades. Surely, Adrianna had advanced well in the time since leaving the temple, but Lihanna did not possess the Honor Sword of Hetarae for nothing, and played her part with practiced grace. For several long seconds, the sound of metal on metal was like the breath of a hummingbird, quiet, but relentless. The women were even more breathlessly silent, concentrating fully upon their blades. Finally, the two withdrew a step.“Because; dear cousin, those that watch these records would not allow me to take that which I need.” Lihanna answered with a smirk.
Adrianna’s eyes widened with realization, then narrowed as steely determination gripped her nerves. “Then you are a spy. Funny, I never would have guessed a Celebrant of The Maiden to be filthy human collaborator.”
“Don’t be a fool, Adrianna.” Lihanna retorted. “My loyalty to our Honor is impeachable. The Dance means as much to me as anyone, if not more. The Ma’yae is more than head of the House, she is our Queen.” Lihanna paused as if in regret.
“But some things must supercede even that.”
Adrianna puzzled over Lihanna’s words, until finally the answer presented itself, as if Lihanna were trying to lead her to the conclusion of....
“The Synaad? But… Why?”
“Surely you’ve heard the rumors;” Lihanna answered. “torture, depravity, heresy, madness, betrayal. Grandmother’s grief has driven her mad. And that madness has made her blind to the manipulations of Talayren and his perverse House. If what I’ve heard is true, Adri, we have to stop this. The Synaad must be made aware. They must be forced to recognize it, for all of our sakes.”
Adrianna eased her guard and looked softly at her cousin. “Lihanna, do you feel no grief for your own mother. First the death of the Maiden, and then… And then Aunt Aileen’s betrayal at the human’s hands. Can you blame her for wanting blood for blood?”
Lihanna’s face flushed with rage “Of course I grieve! And rage! And thirst for the dirtbloods’ severed heads at my feet!” Then as quickly as she lost control, Lihanna seemed to regain her composure. “But, then, as I said before, some things are more important than even Vendetta Vitas.” Lihanna paused and looked at Adrianna squarely. “Adri, there has been talk of the Ritae Callistae. We can’t let that happen. If I am wrong, and there is no betrayal here. Then I must be able to prove it to the Synaad. But if I am right, I must root it out and prove that our House is pure. And that proof, one way or another, is in this room.”
Adrianna shuddered at the thought. The Ritual of the Outcast, driven from ones ancestral home, stripped of House and kinship, cast from the Synaad and forced to beg for life and livelihood from the low clans. Then ice crept back into her veins. She knew her true adversary now.
“No.” Adrianna said flatly as she brought her blade back up to the ready. “I can’t let you do this cousin. Though I love you as a sister and would trust you as I do my own mother, I cannot let you expose our weaknesses to our enemies in the Synaad. They are using you. Using you to strip us of our titles, take our lands, and claim our control over the Dance. They envy us, cousin. They call our temples lost, and our warriors debauched. But what they want is to take what we have birthed and raised and claim it as their own. That I cannot allow to happen. Now leave in peace, or stay and be judged.”
Lihanna also raised her ancient Sword to a ready stance “I see you have reached your verdict, Adjutant. Now let us see you Enforce it.”
With a flash, gone was the ritual and finesse of the earlier clash. This was not just a fight, but a fight to the death, each side convinced that they are in the right, each warrior ready to die for what they knew in their hearts.
Lihanna knew this was wrong from the start. Her blood sang in her veins for the thrill of battle, but looking at her cousin locked with her in deadly combat made her gut sink as if made of base stone. No, she knew she couldn’t kill Adrianna, not with a clear heart. She had to convince her. And she knew just the trick, if she could just pull it off. The Dance of the Penitent Blade might do it, *if* Adrianna could recognize it in time. If not, then Lihanna could hope Arvandor was ready for her.
Lihanna dove over scribe desks and drew Adrianna out into a wide open area. Certainly, Adrianna was skillful, Lihanna knew as she dodged and countered and parried, that anyone else would have been felled by now. But she could not give up. She allowed herself a momentary indulgence and wondered if Adrianna had the same misgivings about this fight. But it mattered not, for neither woman would give in without a fight. At that moment, Lihanna went into a sudden and vicious offensive maneuver, forgoing all defenses for a series of brutal attacks and counterattacks.
Adrianna was taken completely aback by the ferocity of it all, but would not falter. Then she saw the break in Lihanna’s attack. She countered suddenly, throwing her cousin off the attack and forcing her back into a defensive posture. Adrianna pressed the attack forcing Lihanna to completely abandon her attack for a pure defensive strategy. Forcing her cousin to one knee, Adrianna saw the chance for her checkmate, a fast thrust upward to the hilt of the Honor Sword of Hetarae, and up it flew in graceful circles into the air.
Lihanna saw her sword being wrenched from her grasp. The blade cut a graceful arc in the moonlight above them. She fell to her knees and spread her hands at her side. Lihanna closed her eyes and tilted back her lithe skull, exposing the muscled and flushed skin of her neck to Adrianna’s eminent attack. She secretly hoped for a moment that the tales of the Maiden’s death had been lies. And that the Mistress of Blades would be awaiting her arrival in the Halls of Arvandor. Lihanna could almost see the Sword come down into Adrianna’s outstretched hand. With a graceful ease, Adrianna spun about and thrust it toward Lihanna’s breast bone.
Lihanna opened her eyes and let the moonlight dance in her vision. She felt the cold iron of the blade clenched deftly between her hands. And at the valley of her breasts, just in front of her heart, the very tip of her blade pressed gently at her skin. She knelt, palms clasped together upon the blade as if in hopeful prayer, her cousin standing over her as if a stern angel of vengeance. She sighed slightly and locked her gaze with that of her cousin.
“The Dance of the Penitent Blade” Adrianna mused. “Very risky.”
“I had hoped you would remember it.” Lihanna replied without moving from her position. “It was such a rare ritual.”
“I very nearly did not” Adrianna quipped back. “But the Dance is not yet complete. There is still the Oath.”
“Swear that you will not let them accuse innocent members of our clan. Nor remove us totally from the Council of Blades.” Was Adrianna’s demand.
Lihanna held Adri’s gaze and nodded.
“By my Blade, my oath is Justice.” She answered, and then began to grip the blade of her sword tightly with both hands, ancient steel biting into tender flesh. The blood brought forth flowed over both steel and skin alike. “By my Blood, my word is Truth.”
And in the moonlight the blood on the blade quietly vanished.
Adrianna nodded at the words and visibly relaxed, a relieved smile playing at her lips as she held the Honor Sword out hilt first toward Lihanna.
Lihanna took the blade and sheathed it quietly. The two embraced for several long moments and then stepped back, looking intently at each other.
“I’m so glad you understand, Adri.” Lihanna said quietly. “I couldn’t have killed you. I couldn’t continue with this if your blood was on my hands. Now then, let’s get this done before any of those guards wake.”
Adrianna nodded and the two began methodically searching for information regarding the recent pacts made with House Moiryr.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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