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Tag: Fantasy

Marches – Chapter 05 (Second Draft)

Author’s Note – So, I wanted to show the second draft of this chapter. I hated the original version of the chapter, but love the character of Romi. I wanted to bring it closer to how I hoped to change the story in the next drafts, and while I’m now working on a third. I really enjoy seeing the evolution of stories, and thought it might be worth a look for anyone watching along. I hope you enjoy this rewritten and revised version of my least favorite chapter.

The Fox’s Bastard

Mirabelle had found herself at home in the village faster than she had expected. The people of Milae were incredibly cordial to her, with an excitement to have her that she never saw in any of the people who visited her old home. She never knew the people of the villages outside of Towers at the Temple, but here – she was already getting to know people. Only a few weeks had passed before she had found a few she could genuinely rely on to help her with many things. Ervig, specifically, had been essential in helping bring her information about the region.

She had been lucky that the Astier owned two manors, as well. They had a fortified home atop a nearby hill, which was built across a river tributary and was where the family actively lived. But Chateau Ronic, where she currently lived, was the home of one of the middle Astier ancestors. From what she gathered, the eponymous Ronic was a leader of the village but otherwise detached from the family affairs. However, while the others were off at war, she was able to defend the village from an opportunistic attack. The villagers held it up as one of the pillars of their relationship with the family.  It seemed the family mostly used the manor as a place to stay when visiting the village now, but for the time being, it was hers to do with as she pleased.

She kept herself busy learning about the region and its people but made time for meals with Tienette. While she did not connect much further with Valamir, she did spend quite some time with Sarus’ younger sister, Cynewise – though she always went by Cyne. The two did not enough together for Mirabelle to consider her a close friend, of course, but she could easily see her becoming one in the future. Still, this isolation made her feel rather lonely. One day, that feeling began to gnaw at her more than usual, and she decided that she needed to leave the residence and go about in town, in hopes of clearing that fog from her mind.

So, with Coralie and Bastien behind her, she ventured out into the village once again. It was a day like any other in the town. A few traders had come into town that morning, as they did every few weeks. It was a time when she could get a few items she didn’t normally have access to – mostly dried goods from the coast, in this case. Still, she enjoyed looking. Every once in a while she would find something from home that helped her feel a bit more grounded. It was a challenge for her to avoid simply buying up more than she needed too, but luckily Coralie was always nearby with a reminder about her stipend.

Today was not unlike any other. The sun peeked through the leaves of the trees scattered throughout the village giving a little bit of warmth on an otherwise blustery day as the summer season faded into autumn. The people were happy though, the sun and early stages of harvest beginning keeping spirits high, despite the colder day. She spent some time chatting with some local villagers as she passed through, still impressed that she was greeted well nearly every time. Of course, there were outliers. A few villagers had let it slip that they’d prefer an outsider not be joining their ruling family – but she had expected that sentiment to be the most common.

Instead, even only a few months into her stay, she found herself walking the streets of the village with the same confidence she might have strolled the temple. While speaking to the baker, though, her ear caught a warning.

“Look out!” A villager’s voice pierced the otherwise peaceful day. There was a distinct, sharp screech of someone in trouble, then the sound of a scared or wounded horse.

Mirabelle felt a heavy hand on her back, the gauntlet edges pressing into her spine and forcing her back. Bastien may have said something, but it was impossible to tell. There was the distinct sound of steel leaving scabbard. On her other side, Coralie and falling back against her as well, both pushing her back and into the merchant’s stall. She barely had a chance to look to see the trouble. A pair of large draft horses had been startled, or maybe injured. She couldn’t tell. Their drivers tried desperately to get them back under control. Then there was a distinctive snap, the leather of their reins giving way under the stress. One of the drivers fell back at the change in force, losing his footing and smashing to the ground with a scream. His partner was startled, and the second horse’s reins were lost. Both horses tore forward. The cracking of wood followed as they stripped free of the cart.

Then the animals rushed forward down the street, panicked. Little was more dangerous than a frightened animal, and a massive draft horse on a busy street was a genuine threat. When they rushed down the street, people scattered. Mirabelle saw the creatures rush at a villager, one raring up and striking out with its front hooves. Luckily, the villager had been able to dart out of the way, but they moved fast towards the other villagers. One villager fell near one of the horses, who kicked back. “Bastien!” Mirabelle’s voice broke through the noise.

The old templar didn’t hesitate. When her voice called, he pushed off from her and rushed towards the villager. He raised his sword, both hands firmly gripping the hilt of the old weathered blade and raising it as a spear. With a yell, he met his mark – the blade sinking into the draft horse as it raised with a sickening sound. The templar followed through, pushing his entire weight into the beast. He was not a small man, but the beast was enormous. He pushed with everything he had and tilted the thing just enough to knock it back and away from the villager crawling to their feet. The villager let out a scream as the horse hit the ground next to it, with the templar now atop it.

That was all the opening that Mirabelle needed. She pushed past Coralie and rushed out to the villager on the ground. She gripped the villager’s hand and helped him up. Her handmaiden was right behind her, though. As soon as the villager had started to climb to his feet, she felt Coralie hit her in the back – hard. She and the villager stumbled forward, and she turned to see the handmaiden rolling out of the way of the other angered horse.

“Coralie!” Mirabelle yelled back to her as her eyes caught a glimpse of Bastien pulling his sword out of the creature and stepping away. Then she realized her mistake. One of the draft horses, the one still standing, had rounded back around to face down the small foreign handmaiden armed with nothing but a dagger. And the other rolled back to its feet, despite the blood pumping out of the sword wound in its chest.

She saw it then, the bright white bone at the center of each horse’s skull.

“They’re licorne.” Mirabelle almost laughed with a mix of excitement and fear. They were not just frightened and scared animals. They were unicorns, their horns carved off their skulls and forced into service as draft animals. They were bred for war, fighters from the day they stood to their deaths. She felt a hand on her shoulder, then another, the villagers pulling her back and off the street and to a nearby building.

Bastien let out a yell and hit the pommel of his blade against his shield. The loud noise drew the attention of the wounded beasts, and as they prepared to strike again, one of the villagers yelled as well, hitting a hammer against the wood wall of the building next to him. It drew their attention, and as the wounded licorne rose to its feet, the other huffed and beat on the dirt road with a hoof. There was another yell, another burst of cacophonous sound. The poor beasts seemed confused, and it was clear they were frightened. They wavered, and shortly after darted down the street and away from the noisy crowd, and twisted hard to move towards the woodlands around the village.

The few minutes after felt like a much longer time, but soon enough, Ervig and his men had reached the scene and were helping people get things back to normal. At first, Bastien and Coralie were reluctant to let Mirabelle help, but once they did, she found herself calmed by the tedious tasks of cleaning up a market stall alongside one of the village artisans. She had helped pick up some of the smaller items that had been knocked aside in the rush of folk trying to find a safe place to stand, but her eyes would drift away to Ervig from time to time.

The man questioned the merchants whose cart the beasts had broken away from, took count of their things and seemed exacerbated by the time he stepped back over towards the stall where Mirabelle and company still stood. Bastien stepped out to greet him, still standing with his blade out and a watchful eye on any around his Lady.

“What did you find out, Sir Ervig?” She heard Bastien say.

“Not much. They bought the licorne from a merchant traveling through Rane. What information they had would be useless in finding out anything. My instinct is that they had no idea what they purchased.” Ervig let out a long sigh, “I’ll be getting some hunters together to try to track them down.”

“Any skilled enough to bring down a frightened licorne?” Bastien asked.

“We’ve got good hunters. I’ll put up a bounty for them, and we’ll get them down quick,” He took a deep breath, lingering a moment. “A bounty should help speed things along.”

“Bastien,” Mirabelle spoke under her breath, quietly joining the conversation and drawing looks from the two men. “Get him the coin needed for a bounty from our stipend.”

“My lady, this isn’t a d’Argent issue. The Astier will handle the coin,” Ervig protested, though only half-heartedly.

“It will be faster if I do it. If you insist, you can have the Astier repay me…” She spoke as she brushed off her robes and smiled over at the shopkeep she was working to aid. “Besides, I saw the danger. I want to assist.”

“Of course, my lady. And we thank you for that. You are too kind…”

Mirabelle just smirked and shook her head. “I will offer double the amount if the beasts are brought back safely. I would like to think they could be reformed.” She stretched. “Coralie and I will walk through the village again. Bastien, go with Ervig, and get what he needs.”

“Yes, Lady d’Argent,” Bastien agreed, “If Coralie is comfortable protecting you on the return to the manor.”

“I am,” The handmaiden gave a single nod.

“And my men are about if you were to get uncomfortable,” Ervig added. “And I will have Bastien back to you quickly.”

“Good,” Was all Mirabelle thought to say before smiling to the merchant and going back to working for a few moments, as Bastien and Ervig moved off to handle setting up the bounty. She wondered if she had made the right choice, but didn’t dwell. As the shop was cleaned up, she said her farewells and returned to the manor for a time.

Two days passed before she heard any word on what had come of the Licorne hunt. The autumn weather continued to push colder, and with a seasonal rainstorm hitting the area shortly after, she found her spirits down. The lands here were beautiful in their way, and from the manor house, she could watch over the small village to the west and enjoy wonderful views of the forest and rivulets to the east. Unfortunately, the turning color of the leaves had been cut short by the pounding rainstorms of the previous two days. What had looked like a beautiful array of colorful leaves had been stolen from their branches, with only a scant few leaves remaining on the branches.

She had expected that their hunt for the Licornes had been cut short as well, made impossible by the rains and fallen leaves. She had little hope they would find it and resolved to keep a vigil for the beasts.

A beating on the manor door near dusk on that second day was answered by one of her servants, who returned to the commons room where she sat reading as Coralie played lightly on her old viol. Bastien, as always, was nearby but left the lady to her own devices and busied himself with other tasks.

“My lady, Sir Ervig is here to see you,” The servant spoke with a bow.

“Very well. Show him in.”

“Yes, my lady,” The servant said before stepping back out of the room.

Ervig stepped in a moment later, his normally thin frame looking even frailer when soaked through by the rains he had walked through to get here. He spoke up quickly, “I am sorry to bother you, lady d’Argent, but I wanted to update you on the hunt.”

“Calling it off?” Bastien spoke coldly from the corner.

“Yes,” Ervig responded with a shrug, “But not for the rain.”

“Why, then?” Mirabelle asked as she pushed up from the seat.

“A young woman brought me the Licorne this evening.” He spoke. “The remaining one. She found the wounded one had succumbed to its wounds, and ended it.”

“But she was able…” Mirabelle turned and set her book aside, trailing off as she turned to speak to the man.

“Trap it, and bring it to us, yes,” Ervig gave a low laugh, “In the pouring rain, deep in the forest, with a fresh layer of leaves. I’ll admit, I am surprised.”

“And who was this lady?”

“That would depend on who you ask, my lady.” The militia captain’s lips twisted a bit uncomfortably, a sort of wince on his face.

“What exactly are you implying, Ervig?” Bastien spoke up, more curious at the tone than most of the others.

“It was the Fox’s Bastard.” He replied.

“And should that mean anything to us, sir Ervig?”

“Right,” Ervig brushed some rainwater off his arms and took a deep breath. “She’s the daughter of Luc Cedolin du Rane. He was a marquis, across the border from Milae.” Ervig explained. “He was called le Renard, the Fox. Not because he was particularly cunning or quick, but rather because he had orange and red hair.” The militiaman pointed towards his head or the hair on it – which bore no resemblance of similar colors. “He never married. His lover died in childbirth, and he raised Romi alone.”

“Her father never granted her status as a full member of his family?” Mirabelle asked calmly, but quietly as they still stood in the midst of the room. She didn’t want to be too loud, to speak to openly and say something uncouth about the huntress who had just accomplished something she had frankly thought a nigh impossible dream.

“Unsure. When her father died,” The captain took a breath and crossed his arms. “She was only fourteen. Her cousin took regency of his estate, and she was officially named a bastard by the Duc du Rane.” He glanced down to the small puddle below him. “There are rumors that her cousin orchestrated it. But, in the end, she is illegitimate. By law, she is just Romi. Her cousin did grant her a small piece of land on the edge of our territory. But she mostly subsists by hunting and has a small contingent of loyal servants.”

“How many?”

“Significantly less than you brought to the village, my lady,” Ervig said quickly. “She is a kind girl, but of little concern.”

Mirabelle made a noise somewhere between a huff and growl. It made the others around her take notice, though primarily those servants that had traveled with her to Milae. She took a deep breath and then gave a little bit of a shake of her head. “I’d like to know more about what happened to her and her family.” Her fingers tapped along the side of her robes, and after a moment, her voice called out an order, “Coralie, have the servants find what they can from the village over the next few days.”

“Of course, my lady.” The handmaiden gave a quiet bow, her music fading as she began to stand up, “We will find what information we can.”

“And I still want to have a meal with her.” Mirabelle clarified. “Bastard or not, she is of noble blood.” She spoke with a quick nod. “And I look forward to it.” She seemed to have decided as she dusted off her clothes and looked to Ervig. “Thank you, Ervig. Please bring me a report after you’ve sent one to the Astier. And given it is Astier land, they may keep the Licorne if they would like, but if not, I would like it brought here.”

“Lady d’Argent,” Bastien started to protest, but a hand raised by the young woman cut him off.

“Yes, my lady,” Ervig said after a moment. His head twitched to one side for a second and he gave a smile, “My lady, you do recall you are just a guest here, correct? There is no need for you to worry about the day to day.” He smirked, poking at the young girl, “Or are you considering staying?”

Mirabelle frowned at him. “You forget yourself.”

“My apologies, my lady,” He replied with his hands raised for a moment. “I meant it mostly in jest.” He admitted with a smile to her, and then he gave her a bow. “By your leave, ma’am.”

She gave him a dismissive wave, and then looked over to the others, before returning to her seat and taking back up her book – though the pages rarely turned. Her mind was elsewhere.

Once the day of the meal arrived, Mirabelle set it upon her servants to prepare a traditional Cote d’Argent meal – light fish, sweet fruits and vegetables, and a stout bread. She gave them their orders and went back to her quarters to bathe and clean herself up. Then, once she had dressed in a nice enough dinner dress, she set about waiting for her guest to arrive. As the night began to fall, clouds began to fill the sky, blotting out the stars, though the rain did not return — only the chill of the Autumnal air.

It made for a dark night, and as the dinner hour passed, her servants began to mill about and see if she would decide to eat without her guest. She did not. Instead, she sat and waited. After an hour or two, she relented and allowed her servants to eat – but she waited. Night fell darker, and the deeper the time went the more she listened to her servants speak about how she was wasting time, that the girl wasn’t coming.

With the darkness engulfing the home, she had her servants light a lantern outside, and one for her to read by, and she continued to wait. As she read, she listened. Bastien’s snores from his place nearby her were perhaps the loudest sounds, but Coralie’s insistence on busying herself around the lady came in a close second. It was not as late as each seemed to feel it was that night. Only an hour or two had passed since darkness fell, but they were impatient.

When there was a knock at the door, Mirabelle stood and moved over to see who it was. Coralie rushed to stop her and to open the door herself, but the lady would not have it. She opened the door to greet the archer and her guard with a smile. She had expected someone more imposing on both counts. The Huntress was a small woman, with a rounded face and bright red hair toned with just enough light browns to give it the tawny or orange color for which her father was known. She only met her eyes for a second before the woman looked away, nervousness extending from every motion and twist of her body. Her guard was not much more impressive, a tall, lanky man with only basic armor of tanned hide and a simple spear. The only impact he made on Mirabelle when she saw him was the odd thought that he looked uneven.

“I apologize for the late hour, my lady,” Romi spoke with a deep bow. “Please forgive,”

“Not at all,” Mirabelle replied swiftly, cutting her off. “Hunter’s rarely come home until the end of the day, Lady Cedolin.”

Romi smiled and lowered her head. “Thank you,” She said quietly.

“Come in and have a meal with me. Your man is welcome to rest and eat as well, of course.”

“You are too kind.”

The two walked into the manor and found themselves in the dining room. The sat to eat and for the next few minutes, they found themselves merely exchanging more pleasantries, which irked Mirabelle – though her face never showed anything but kindness. As the conversation seemed to go nowhere, she opted to push the archer, to see what she could discover about her. After a drink of wine, she spoke plainly.

“Ervig says you are the daughter of Marquis Luc Cedolin – but a bastard.” Lady d’Argent put a hint of emphasis on the last word. “He is wary of you.”

“Ervig is…” Romi’s grip tightened on her cup, and she sighed, “Cautious, but correct. They call me…”

“I know,” Mirabelle spoke softly. “You don’t have to say it.”

Romi nodded and continued. “I live in a small home in the forests on the Rane border with Nid de Vouivre. It is a meager hunting lodge my father built. Something my cousin didn’t care enough to take.”

“You don’t seem to harbor much ill will…”

“My cousin is a fox. He is cunning and always a few steps ahead of anyone who faces him in a political arena. He doesn’t join conflicts he will lose. His case against my inheritance is ironclad in regards to the law. He has contacts at every level of the court of Rane and he can bend them with a few choice words.” She spoke with a clear bit of sadness. “Had he put his skill to something great, he would likely be one of the best of us – but he is driven by power and wealth.”

“Perhaps one day, you can secure your lands again,” Mirabelle spoke with a succinct nod.

“No. My father’s lands are rightfully his. As long as he leaves the lodge and forests to me, I have no reason to test him.” The archer shrugged. “One day, I hope to be able to sway him back to something more important than power and wealth. His potential as a courtier and leader is astonishing. His mastery of debate and the sincerity to which he puts his mind to the research behind arguments is inspiring – if currently misplaced.”

Mirabelle didn’t say anything. She was a little surprised. That was rather high praise for a thief and con-artist, but moreover, she was astonished at her sizing up of the man. “Tell me, what do you think of Ervig’s abilities.”

“Hm?” Romi raised a brow and paused between a bite of her dinner. “I…” She thought a moment. “As a military leader, he is talented, but his domestic abilities leave much to be desired. He tends to want to handle things himself and lacks the education required to adjuvate village projects properly. It drags him down as a domestic steward, but his skills with a spear are quite good. His understanding of bandit tactics and small conflicts makes him very skilled at defending a village such as this. He also has a knack for connecting with his subordinates.”

Lady d’Argent gave a little nod. She thought that maybe there was more to the archer than she let on, but this all but proved it. “Do you know this much about every noble in the region?”

“What?” She shook her head for a moment, and then sighed, “Well, yes. I have had to. Otherwise, how would I hope to keep my quaint holdings?”

“So, you know about the Astier family?”

“Yes, of course. As a regional power, and the nobles of the closest town to me, I have too.” Romi spoke softly.

“What can you tell me about Valamir?” Mirabelle asked, before shaking her head. “Actually, no. I know the Marquis and Marquise…” She pondered for a moment, “Romi, what can you tell me about Sarus?”

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Short Story – The First Magi

Author’s Notes – This is my second Short Story of the year. However, I think I failed completely at the idea of a short story this time. This feels much more like a prologue. The story here is only hinted at, and I don’t feel like it is a complete story. That all being said, I wanted to post it anyway. Maybe if people enjoy it, I might make it into a full fledged long form. I think there are some fun ideas to play with here, and it is always fun to explore magic systems. Take a look. I hope you enjoy. And next week, I hope to have a story that works much better for actually being a ‘Short Story’.

The First Magi

There was little age on his hands, few wrinkles marking the passage of time, but the tremor in his hand as he gripped a feathered pen was clear. This was a man who had seen time pass into memory for ages uncounted. It was the tiredness in his grip and the weight in his eyes that showed the wearing on his soul much more than anything about his body indicated. He took a long breath. His shoulders rolled to find a more comfortable seated position. His joints cracked just a bit as he sat up a bit straighter.

Those tired eyes drifted across the length of the library he sat within. A crackling fire in an old stone fireplace shone light across the large room, with shadows dancing across the countless tomes and scrolls that lay stacked in endless corridors of bookcases. This was not a flowery description or overly inflated assumptions of the size of the place, it was the truth – or as close to it as a Magi could ever get. The corridors of books twisted in impossible fashions, bending through space and wrapping around one another with no semblance of reliance on the bounds of physics. A corridor may have spiraled over one of the others, disappearing into one of the open spaces in a distant bookcase, and exiting through the back of another on the opposite side of the room.

His eyes caught his apprentice as she approached from a distance. If you had asked him a few years prior, he never would have considered taking an apprentice – but as she searched for a scroll or tome, angled as if she was standing on the wall from his perspective here, he couldn’t imagine having left her behind. The thought let his breath escape for a moment, a sigh. He tapped the pen on his desk and leaned back in his chair.

The tapping seemed to awaken a nearby piece of paper. It perked up like a curious, sleeping cat. With a small flitter, it lifted off the floor near the desk, and it was picked up by some unseen wind and brought up to the desk. It floated softly to rest just next to the man’s hand. He twisted his hand to place the nib against the parchment, and with a swipe of his fingers, the first trail of ink followed behind.

To the Council of Magi, he wrote.

When we last spoke, I submitted that I would not take another apprentice of the Arts in the future. I found myself unwilling to consider such an event would again present itself to me, but I write to you today to say that I have changed my mind and will be taking an apprentice. His eyes drifted up to the distant girl, who struggled to pull a scroll from its base just out of her reach. He shook his head softly and turned back to his writing, I have found an assistant who exhibits exceptional power in the use of magic. 

There as a clattering which caused him to raise his head. In the distance he could see her standing with a hand outstretched, a single scroll levitating under a silver sparkling wind as a mess of books settled around her on the pathway that spiraled above him. He shook his head.

“Alejandra!” His old voice bellowed out.

“I’m okay,” She squeaked out a startled response, leaning back to look down at him – though it was up from her perspective, and her neck was stretched back as far as possible to look at him.

“The books, Alejandra,” He looked away from her for a moment and to the letter. He rarely second-guessed himself, but this was one of those times.

“Right,” She called back. His eyes returned to watch her for a moment – and that hesitation was gone. She stretched out her hands and her a swirling silver mist raised up around her. Her clothes billowed as if she was in the wind, or perhaps falling a short distance, and all the while, the books rose from their resting points. They rose gently, twisting harmless in the shimmering gray winds summoned by the young woman.

He turned back to his writing shortly, his wrist twisting with the letters as he wrote. Despite everything the Council has ever done, despite everything they have said, her very existence has called me to question our leadership. In the thousands of years we have existed, they have spoken of one single truth. Humans are not able to weave the threads of fate. And yet, here I sit, He paused and glanced back up to view his assistant. A handful of books floated back to their spots in the bookcases as she floated just a few inches above the ground, her clothes and hair tossed around by the mystic winds that followed her hands and the direction they gave to return the books. He continued, watching as she uses magic for the mundane tasks I set upon her, having learned from little more than observing me as I work. 

Her potential is there and yet her existence is threatened by the very people who should be embracing her skills. He took a breath and glanced up again. He couldn’t spot her immediately. She had wandered deeper into the stacks on his task for her. For a moment, he hesitated. You. He wrote finally. He tapped his pen against the parchment for a moment before his resolve returned. He sat up straighter, his mind was made up. This facade ended here. Alejandra is my apprentice, let it be known from this moment forward. She will be the first magi of her kind. 

There was a reason he had steeled himself. Again, hesitation reached him. The line he was about to cross was worth it though. My duty to the threads comes first, and I will fulfill it to the best of my ability. Wrongfully holding back an entire people will not stand. You may hunt her and seek to stop me, but know that I will protect her with every ounce of my power. Any attack on her or her kind on her behalf will be known to me.

So it is written, so shall I take my new apprentice, and when her training is complete, she will stand before the Council.

“Sir,” Her voice broke through the silence of his mind as he wrote. He glanced up from his writing to see the young girl with a hand full of scroll cases, standing a few steps distant from his desk. She was shadowed by the flickering light of the fireplace. She gave him a weak smile. “I’ve gathered the scrolls you asked for.”

He started to speak. He stopped, though, and he nodded to her. “Good,” He said with a trailing of the word as his next question came to the air. “Do you want to be a Magistrix, Alejandra?”

She seemed to draw a blank for a moment, before her head hastily bobbed up and down, “Yes, yes, I would.”

“It won’t be easy. It won’t be safe. The art of magic itself is dangerous, and because of what you are people will try to stop you from succeeding.”

“I understand,” She said sternly. There was a confidence there. “So was life before,”

“This is different than people treating you like a mutt,” He spoke coldly, “Or living on the street. Those things are dangerous to this body,” He reached out a finger and pressed hard into her shoulder. “The dangers I speak of will tear at your soul. A mistake in magic, a lowering of your guard, and the very fabric of the universe will seek to erase you to repair the mistake. Even in success, you may find yourself at odds with powers most of your kind only consider to be mythological. You have seen some of the dangers I have faced.” He raised a finger, “There is no shame in choosing a life away from these dangers. Are you sure you are ready?”

She paused for a moment. There wasn’t an answer for a time, but her shoulders shrugged after a moment, “Of course not,” She nodded to herself, “But you said that you hadn’t seen a magi like me before. Humans weren’t seen as capable of using magic, right. So,” She glanced at him, her hands rubbing and wringing nervously, “It would be wrong not to take advantage of that. I think. So I don’t really have a choice.” She shrugged, again, a nervous tick. “I mean, I want to learn. It’s amazing…”

“Alejandra…”

His voice shook her to a bit of a truer decision. “Yes, I’m ready to learn,” She nodded her head hardily. “I accept the dangers.”

He nodded to her and lifted a finger to point to the scrolls and tomes she collected. “Good,” He smiled, “Those will be your first proper lessons,” He gave a dismissive wave, “Take those with you. Return home, and rest. We’ll begin tomorrow.”

“Are you sure? I don’t feel like I’ve done much today.”

He nodded, “I need to finish up some things here. So, you’ll learn nothing more today,” He looked past her to the entrance to the library, “Besides, some relaxation will make you a better student tomorrow.”

“Okay. Is there anything else you need?”

“No,” Was the only response. Neither said anything else. She stood silently for a moment, but then gave a quick nod and took the scrolls and tomes with her as she headed out. She hesitated from time to time, but eventually, she moved behind him and stepped beyond the threshold marked by large oaken doors. When the doors closed behind her he turned back to his letter. The pen in his hands tapped on the paper again, leaving some errant droplets of ink to stain the parchment. He finally put the nib to the end of the letter.

Justiciar, Magister of the Watch. He signed off. A small flicker of silver flame fell from the pen and onto the ink. It spread across the page and in mere seconds the document had turned to ash. He looked off to the distance, and for a moment there was silence and stillness within the room.

Moments passed before there was a flash of light, a blue flame appearing where the letter had been, and leaving a smoldering remnant that formed into another letter. This letter was different.

Justiciar, It said, You have made your choice. You are hereby relinquished of your council seat, and exiled from Magister society. You have chosen the enemy. We will not suffer a traitor, especially one who has fallen as far as you. Then, signed at the bottom was a simple, So it is written by the Council of Magisters.

He turned his eyes up again looking out to the libraries beyond. One by one the stacks began to spark with that same blue flame. Roaring fires soon engulfed the countless tomes and pathways beyond, riding through until they reached the points where the stacks met the library. There was no heat, there was no sound, only the visual representation of the magic tearing through the cases of books and tomes. Once they had all reached the library where he sat, the fires relented and faded. They left nothing. Unadulterated void stretched beyond, with no sign of the knowledge that had been within moments earlier.

Still. He was happy with his choice. She deserved to have one soul believe in her. He was proud it was him. It was a familiar feeling to be so alone from one’s own kind, and only fitting that she would take his place. She would become the next Justiciar, with or without the Council’s resources. With that thought, he stood and took a breath. He reached out towards the fireplace and slowly closed his fist. The flickering fire was snuffed by a silvered wind, and he turned to head towards those oaken doors.

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Marches – Chapter 08

Author’s Notes: So, this chapter builds up to the wedding. It introduces more family who may or may not become important later on. It feels a bit sudden and abrupt to me now, but I think part of that is good. Weddings often have people showing up in big numbers, and it is overwhelming. I should concentrate on that a bit more, I think. On that note, I’m re-writing the whole story, so it is hard to see exactly what will stick around. I plan on concentrating on the wedding much more, and parts of this will likely survive. Most likely, I’ll expand on aspects and cut others. Overall, I’d like the wedding to take up more of the story in the next iteration, and parts of this deserve to live on in that version.

Arrivals

When she came in from the snow, that night she found herself more welcomed than expected. She had barely made it back into the manor before she was surrounded by the people she had just left. From a quick embrace from Romi and Cyne to a lecture from Bastien to Ervig showing up a few minutes late with a small search party, everyone had been worried. So, she asked to have paper and ink brought to her, and that night she penned letters to her family. Tienette had only watched for a time, and as the letters were written, the two talked about the decision. She assured the woman that it wasn’t the knife that sealed her decision. She had decided she would go through with it long before – but his actions had made her realize that she felt safer in Milae than she ever had on the Coast. It was decided while working on those letters that the wedding would be on the first full moon of Spring, as was common for the followers of Lune.

She hadn’t been able to pen the letter to her father, though. So, Tienette wrote a letter for him, and the basilisk was as cruel in the letter as her reputation suggested, though she didn’t let Mirabelle read the crueler rebukes of his behavior. She even decided that it would be the messenger that carried his gift who would return her letter to him.

The next morning, the date was announced to the villagers by Ervig and his men, and just like that the village was a buzz. This was something that astonished Mirabelle. In her home, weddings were small affairs, with family and priests. The Astier had invited every single member of their hold, and riders rode out on that first day to all nearby holds as well. The event was a celebration, not just for the nobles, but for the entire hold. It gave the people of the village something to work towards through the winter, and it made it even more challenging for Mirabelle to travel the town – as she often spent time getting well wishes from the townsfolk, and that would inevitably lead to a small crowd of others joining in.

Work in earnest began during the darkest part of winter after the Solstice festivals ended. Tienette and Cyne brought in tailors and got to work on a formal wedding dress for her, and jewelers followed getting her feeling on countless styles of jewels to adorn her. It was overwhelming in a lot of ways and took much more time than she would have expected but it passed the winter quickly. Before she had realized it, the weather began to warm, and the days began to feel longer again.

As spring seemed to be in reach, a messenger arrived with a letter from her sister Roheis. She had happily agreed to come to the village and spend the weeks leading up to the marriage with her sister. She had sent the messenger ahead of her, but it was only a day or two later that a militiaman showed up at the door of the manor, explaining that banners and a small cadre of mounted soldiers had been seen coming down the road.

He described the banner as a blue shield with a gold bend, with a centered white alerion above three crossed spearheads. It was one she recognized immediately.

“Alerion?” Cyne asked as an excited Mirabelle waved for Coralie to bring her a coat and boots.

“It’s a beakless bird, footless bird.” Tienette explained with a slight smile, “Forever cursed to fly, with no hope of rest.”

“Oh,” Cyne spoke with a little bit of disappointment in her voice.

“It isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s a symbol of the Girardine family, a sign of their eternal vigil over the walls of the Tirmont.” Mirabelle spoke from nearby as Coralie helped her wrap a coat around her form and worked to prepare her boots for her.

“Tirmont being the fortress on the border of Ava proper and the Banner lords territories.” Tienette added quietly, “And the sight of a hundred battles. A few fought against Vouivre.”

“So, they were our enemy.”

“Yes, but that was a long time ago. The last skirmish between us was before you were born.” Tienette corrected her daughter thoughtfully.

“Before Sarus was born?” Cyne asked quickly.

“No. We clashed swords against them about fifteen years ago, but it was not a pitched battle. Only a few hundred men.” Tienette admitted with a sigh.

“Any of ours?”

“No, your father wouldn’t commit troops if he didn’t know he could win.”

Mirabelle shook her head and moved finally finished lacing up her boots. Coralie through a quick cloak around her shoulders and stepped up behind her mistress. Bastien busied himself attaching his sword to his belt, but seemed ready to join them as they left. The Lady d’Argent gave a little nod. “I’m going out to meet them.”

“I’d like to come.” Tienette admitted, “But I need to find my face.” She gave a little smile and shook her head. “You go ahead.”

“May I?” Cyne asked. The girl was still young and hadn’t yet received her mask for the masquerade, but in truth, she was only a few years younger than Mirabelle.

Her mother nodded towards Mirabelle, who gave a quick nod without speaking. So, Cyne fell in line with them.

“I’ll watch over her, my lady,” Bastien added quickly. “No need to call in extra guards. I’m sure the Marquis de Tirmont will have more than enough men to keep her safe.”

“Very well,” Tienette spoke softly. “I will meet with you all soon. Enjoy the reunion.”

The small group headed out of the manor and to the streets. Aside from lingering snow in a few shady spots, it did look as if it would soon be spring. Mirabelle almost jogged towards the edge of the village, with the others just trying to keep up with her. When they arrived at those Willow Gates, she found that Ervig and his men had already arrived.

The Captain of the Guard turned towards her and gave a nod, “I see my man found you, my lady.” Ervig added with a quick bow to her. “Oh,” He stammered as he saw Cyne with her, “And I did not expect to see you as well my lady Astier.”

“He did,” Mirabelle answered back, as Cyne gave a soft bow towards the man. D’Argent stepped through the militia to the forefront, crossing to the very front of the village. Cyne joined her, but Bastien and Coralie stood with the militia.

Ervig stepped forward. “Scouts caught their banner about an hour ago. They’re in no rush, but I don’t believe Marquis de Tirmont spared much expense on this trip. It makes my men feel a bit underequipped.”

“Perhaps once I’m your Marquise officially, I can open up trade with them.” She glanced back at the militia, who were dressed in ramshackle chain mail and boiled leather plates, and armed with simple iron spears, daggers, and hunting bows in some cases. They were not professional soldiers, but rather the conscripted or volunteer peasants of the village. She wondered if they were an efficient fighting force in the least, knowing they had none of the training of someone like Bastien. They didn’t speak much more for a time though, just watching the banners grow closer.

Finally, when they were well in view, it took Mirabelle’s breath away. She saw her sister for the first time in nearly a year. Roheis and her Husband were both in ceremonial armor. Shining plates of steel atop blue lamellar. On their hips, long swords and daggers of exquisite craftsmanship stored it well-maintained leather scabbards. His steel spear rose above them both, a personal banderol attached just below the blade and fluttering in the wind. On her horse, she also had a new, fine longbow attached to the saddle – but it was her guard that carried her banderol, the white stag replacing the alerion in the Tirmont arms.

Behind them were arrayed, forty knights or servants. The knights wore fine, shining plate. Each was armed with fine blades and wore long blue capes. Their horses likewise were all masterfully outfitted, with each wearing banded plates of mail over soft leather barding. Even the servants wore armor, though it was mostly shined chain atop leather. It was a display to be sure.

As they got close enough to see Mirabelle, Roheis lost her patience and spurred her horse forward.  It was only a minute before she reached the line, and she quickly swung her leg over her horse’s saddle and dismounted, and then she rushed around to her sister. She locked her in a tight embrace, which while Mirabelle returned, it was clearly one-sided. “You look well, little Belle,”

“Roheis, you look…” Mirabelle finally broke the embrace and pushed away just a bit. “Knightly.”

“I am knightly. It turns out the people of Tirmont need a Marquise who can stand by her husband in a fight. And I always wanted to learn the bow.” She glanced to the side and smiled. “Sir Bastien, Dame Coralie.”

Both gave small bows to her, and to her husband as he caught up to her.

“It is good to see you again, Lady Mirabelle,” Ghislain spoke loudly, his voice carrying over the militia as he sat atop his horse a moment. He let the horse settle. “And to all of you, I am Ghislain Girardine, Marquis de Tirmont.” He announced before he dismounted as well and walked towards the sisters d’Argent.

“And you, Marquis.”

“Please, my lady. To you, I am just Ghislain.” He spoke with a smile.

“Belle, you’re being rude.” Roheis pressed her, physically pushing on her shoulder as she nodded back to the others. “Introduce us.”

“Oh,” Mirabelle turned and found Cyne first. She motioned to her, “This is Lady Cynewise Astier, daughter of Marquis Valamir Astier and Marquise Tienette Astier. Du Nid de Vouivre.” She added.

“Ah, I had heard Lord Sarus had a sister,” Ghislain spoke with a low bow to her. “It is an honor to meet you my lady Cynewise.”

“Cyne is fine.” The young girl added nervously but returned the bow.

“And this,” She motioned to Ervig, “Is Captain Ervig de Milae, who was steward of the village until my arrival, and still acts as Captain of her Guard and leader of the military forces of the city. He also still acts as Steward but likes to claim I am in charge.”

“Belle – don’t editorialize.” Roheis corrected. “You know this is a Wyvern wedding. You will have to introduce every family member and every guest that has not met when they approach you.”

Ghislain shook his head and gave his wife a pat on the back. “Forgive her, Captain Ervig. She is worried her little sister is not prepared for the ceremony.”

“No forgiveness needed, my Lord Tirmont. We hope we have helped prepare her as well.” Ervig spoke with a bow. “To that point, the people of Milae have been blessed to have Lady d’Argent with use. It is an honor to get to greet her family.”

From there, the sisters and their entourage would enter the village. They chatted on all sorts of the minutia of their day to day lives, catching up on mostly small events. IT was nice to catch up. For the past year, both had been settling into new lifestyles, so they had more than enough to talk about for weeks. Tienette greeted them when they returned, speaking on behalf of the family from behind her basilisk mask. She promised that her husband would return soon after but was away collecting his brothers.

Of course, once they were back to the manor they rested for a couple of days, and then again began work on the wedding. Most importantly, perhaps, she had a supportive family member there – but she wished more would come. A few days after they arrived, Romi had ventured into town and was introduced to them, though she had trouble even speaking to Ghislain without turning into a stuttering mess of a girl, with cheeks as red as any flower. But she was an important piece of the puzzle in preparing Mirabelle for the ceremony.

Vouivre weddings were complex. They were parties, with every noble far and wide invited alongside many of the villagers under the care of the families being joined. It was expected that during the wedding, the guests would be greeted by both the Bride and Groom, as their first act as a married couple. Knowing the men and women that were in attendance was paramount, and generally, each offered a gift. So, poor Mirabelle had to learn the names and banners of any that might attend, as well as anything that could help her remember.

“This is impossible.” Mirabelle lamented after she.

“Each guest is going to be wearing their masks. As it is considered a court event, the masquerade must be upheld. But, the Vouivre believes that the bride and groom must prove they can see beyond that. Correctly addressing each guest in attendance will show that you are a true Vouivre bride and can hold your own in their courts.” Roheis rattled off the words as if she had said them more than enough over the past few days. “Every bride does it here.”

“But not every bride is a d’Argent. People are coming from all over the Kingdom.” Mirabelle groaned and laid her head on the table around which they sat.

Roheis sighed and nodded. “We have to keep going. The Vouivre and Ava you have down, and it won’t be a problem.”

“And you’re doing okay with Rane,” Romi said with a little smile.

“You are not doing well with the Banner Lords or Danelan though,” Cynewise added from nearby, flipping through a large tome that listed the banners of the kingdoms.

“Not helping.” Romi scolded quickly.

“We need to know where to concentrate.”

“Girls.” Mirabelle shook her head. “All of you are helping, and none of you are helping so let’s just do the next one.” She said as she sat up and stretched.

“Okay.” Roheis waved at Cyne, who raised the book up and pointed to one of the banners. Her eyes narrowed. “Green shield, black bars.  With a slain manticore in the top right-hand corner. Steel colored manticore, red blade stabbed into it.” She sat back. “That’s a little violent.”

“Wait, manticore. That’s Dunelan. So,” Mirabelle took a breath, “The sword means they kill Danelans. Black bars, green shield…” She shook her head for a moment, “Marquise,” Her face distorted a bit, as she closed one eye and seemed to think, “Marquise Maccul de Rigani?”

“You can’t just guess an entire province for a Marquise, Belle.” Roheis sighed.

“I don’t know where Maccul is from, Ile de Morr?”

“Yes! Ile de Morr…”

“Marquise Maccul de l’ile de Morr a Rigani,” Mirabelle raised an eye as if she was done, but held on to the last vowel since she wasn’t sure.

Romi leaned over towards her after a minute and pushed, “The…”

“The…” Mirabelle softly waved a hand, “Hint?”

“No hint. You know this.”

“My lady, they did visit the temple once when you were young.” Bastien spoke up, “You were smitten with their mounts.”

“Bastien!” Roheis raised her hands and barked at him, “How is that not a hint?”

“Marquise de l’Ile de Morr a Rigani, chevalier commandant de l’ordre du pegase!” Mirabelle said with a clap of her hands.

“You are pushing her hard, she needed a hint.” Bastien defended himself, from Roheis who was giving him a disappointed look.

“She could have gotten there,” Roheis spoke softly.

“Wait, you got to see a Pegasus?” Cyne asked quickly.

“Pegasi,” Mirabelle clapped and squirmed happily at the answer and question. “She rode in with twenty knights of the order after some battle, seeking healing and,”

“My lady, just skip to the best part,” Bastien said quickly with a wave of his hand.

“One bit Roheis.”

“You brat!” Roheis kicked at her sister under the table.

“No.” Bastien shook his head and ran a hand across his forehead.

“They let them ride the creatures,” Coralie added from nearby. “When I was brought on, it was all lady Mirabelle would talk about.”

She hadn’t quite finished the sentence when the manor door was pushed open quickly and Ghislain rushed in, warranting a small startled noise from Romi. The group turned to look at him, as he seemed in a bit of a rush. “My ladies, pardon the intrusion.” He gave a bow, “Lady Mirabelle. There are other arrivals. Lady Tienette asks…”

“What banner, Ghis?” Roheis asked.

He looked confused, “It’s the banner…”

“No, describe it.” She interrupted her husband

That only seemed to deepen the confusion on the man’s face. “A gray shield with red orle and a black wyvern holding a knot of willow branches.”

“I know that one,” Mirabelle spoke with a large smirk.

“Me too.” Cynewise teased closing the book and standing up. She seemed a little excited to see her family again.

“Is Sarus with them?” Mirabelle asked quietly.

“No, my Lady. He was sent on to their home, with a couple of the younger children. The rest of the family has come to meet you.” Ghislain nodded. “They should be here in a few minutes.”

“Then we should get ready. We’ll continue this later.” Roheis said softly.

The girls all stood and moved to change into more courtly attire. Then Mirabelle’s eyes turned towards Romi, who stood nervously in her hunter’s cloak. She knew she didn’t have anything more to wear. She glanced at her friend. “Romi, would you like to join us?” She asked quietly.

“I’m unprepared, my lady. I can just take my leave.” She responded quietly, with her head held low.

“Nonsense.” Lady d’Argent said with a smile. “You can borrow one of my dresses if you like.”

It only took a few minutes to change into their attire, with Mirabelle and Roheis in more exquisite wear than the others thanks to their father’s station – and Romi awkwardly pulling at the fancy clothes draped on her, clearly out of her comfort area. Cyne’s dark-colored dress was a stark contrast against the royal blues in the other two women’s choices. Cyne gave a little bow to the others, and she took her leave to join her family before they were formally introduced.

More importantly, given it was a court event, in a way, they all donned their masks. Mirabelle had not worn her mask around the Astier ever, but this was a sort of official event. Coralie handed it over to her – a simple silver cloth mask with steel wire hardening it to hold its most important aspect, the two small stag antlers that rose from the sides. She took a breath and slipped the mask on. She glanced over to her sister, who wore an almost identical mask. Then she glanced at Romi, who had a full-face mask styled after the face of a fox.

After a moment, the door opened again in the main room where they waited, and Ghislain joined them. His mask was more militaristic, befitting his role, with a horsehair flare rolling back across his natural hair, dyed white now in honor of his wife. He gave a smile, “Ladies, are you ready to receive guests?” He asked quickly.

“Yes,” Roheis stated bluntly, pushing Mirabelle to the forefront. She gave her a nudge. “You can do this, consider it a dry run.”

Ghislain stepped back out, and his muffled speech followed. Then the doors opened again, with Marquise Tienette stepping through first, followed by her husband, then three men she didn’t recognize, and another woman. Cyne stepped back in with her family, sticking close to her mother and father.

Mirabelle felt her mind race. She didn’t know who these people were, but they came under the Astier banner. She took a breath and gave a bow, “Marquis and Marquise Astier, welcome back.” She said with a long low bow. She raised back up slowly, giving herself time to look across the other men and women in attendance. Then she smiled. “It is an honor to get to meet more of your family finally. If you will, allow me to introduce my sister,” She waved a hand to her, “Marquise Roheis Girardine de Tirmont.” Her hand then moved over to Romi, “And my closest friend, Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane.”

Romi blushed at the words.

“Lady Cedolin?” One of the men’s voices broke the silence. Mirabelle had expected Valamir to speak, but he hadn’t. Instead, this man spoke. He was an overweight man, a rolling double chin, and the look of sweat on his marred skin. He stood a few inches shorter than Valamir but stepped forward as he spoke. His mask was red wyvern feathers but laced with gold threads. “There is no Lady Cedolin, only Romi Batard.”

“With all due respect,” Mirabelle spoke harshly, raising up and standing defiant, “Lord Vithimiris Astier. I recognize her rightful parentage. You will do the same in my presence.”

There was an uncomfortable pause for a moment in the room. The man stared at her for a moment, a scowl of anger on his lips as he watched her eyes. She didn’t turn away from him, staring. The pause was long enough that she thought to demand an answer, but before she could his scowl disappeared, and his mouth opened to release a belly laugh. “Well done!” He reached up and pulled off his mask and tossed it aside. He opened his arms wide and stepped away from his family and towards her. His demeanor completely changed. Without his mask, his eyes were bright, wide. His smile was as big as any she’d ever seen. The laugh-lines on his eyes and with flushed cheeks were simply disarming. “I am sorry, Lady Romi,” He said walking towards the girl and clapping his hands together. “I want you to know that I believe your claim, and always have. Your cousin should be ashamed. And he is a fool to cast aside such a talented woman.”

Romi didn’t know how to respond. She was bright red, a nervous fire in her cheeks. She may have mouthed something quickly, but her voice simply did not fall on anyone’s ears.

“Vithimir, you couldn’t last even until at least one more?” Valamir shook his head. “Why do I let you stay in Ereleiva?”

“Hush, brother. You knew to let me go first was a poor plan.” Vithimiris laughed and looked towards Mirabelle, who was a bit confused. Her eyes showed it. It was much less so than Roheis’, though. She turned to Vithimir who opened his arms to her again. “Welcome to the family. Come come. Give your uncle Vithimir a hug.” He motioned to her.

Though confused, Mirabelle relented and offered an embrace. Before she knew it, she was in a crushing hug.

“We are excited to have you.” He finally released her and slipped around her with one last pat on her shoulders. “Now, Marquise Roheis, the lady who tamed Ghislain.” He spoke as he moved on to his next prey.

Mirabelle had hardly gotten her breath back when the next two approached her. She gave a smile, still sort of collecting herself.

“Forgive him, my lady.” This man was more like Valamir. He was tall, a bit scruffy, with long unkempt hair held back by a ceramic and carved marked mask, sealed with red and stylized to match the others’ feathers.

She nodded at him and responded. “Lord Arimir…” She said with a smile, “There is nothing to forgive.”

“Damn right there isn’t.” Vithimiris broke from his conversation to interject, before falling back into a conversation with Roheis and Ghislain.

“And that would mean that you,” She nodded back to one of the women, also in a ceramic mask, “Are Lady Sunilda.”

“Correct,” The lady said quietly, stepping out from the crowd. She was a petite woman, with short-cropped black hair, and at that moment was clearly pregnant. “You’ll forgive me for not being more involved.”

“Have you enjoyed your stay in Milae so far?” Arimir asked her with a slight bow. “I hope we were able to get the manor to your liking before your arrival.”

“Everything has been wonderful, thank you.” Mirabelle nodded.

“Sunilda and I will be at the top of the hill mostly until the wedding. I hope you understand.”

“I do.”

“After your wedding, we want to get to know you better, though.” He smiled and pulled a small trinket from his jacket. “For you. We were in Cote d’Argent about six months ago. I wanted to make sure to get you something from home.” He offered it over to her.

She smiled and took the small box when offered, bringing it to her. “I’m honored. You didn’t need to.”

“I like to bring my nieces and nephews things from my travels.” He gave a smile and stepped back.

Then the final person stepped forward. He didn’t say anything, though. Mirabelle knew she was out of easy marks. There were only three Astier brothers now. He was an older man, wrinkled skin on the back of his hands and neck giving that away – but he wore a blank mask, just a thin gray cloth. The cloak he wore was as noble as any in attendance but was clearly just a traveling cloak. He was being careful to not show anything under the cloak either. She wasn’t sure who this was. Then she saw it though. Beads peaked out from his cloak, a necklace. She recognized them. Her father wore the same things. “I’m sorry, your reverence. I’ll admit I can’t see your face…”

“Ah, yes…” He said softly, raising a hand to pull off the mask. The voice, though, she recognized, and before he could even reach to the mask the young woman had broken any semblance of courtly ideas and rushed over to him with a tight hug. Roheis likewise had dropped what she had done and rushed over.

“Pepere! I didn’t expect you.” Mirabelle said quickly

“Lady Tienette invited me,” The old man laughed a bit, before wrapping his arms around her for a second, and then offering one over to Roheis, “It is good to see you both well.”

“It is a long trip, you didn’t need to come all of this way for me.” The Lady d’Argent protested with a tighter hug.

“It was a hard trip, yes. But you are worth a thousand.” He was a small man, and age had stolen much of his form and replaced it with a thin wrinkled man, and yet he commanded the room when he spoke. Perhaps it was just the scene, but all eyes were on him. He gave a small nod to his granddaughters and sighed. He gave a quick kiss to the woman’s forehead. “I hear you might need someone to walk with you that day as well. And nothing would make me happier.”

“Of course.” She gave a quick nod, before finally pulling back a bit, and waving to Romi. “Romi, this is Duc Leufroy d’Argent.”

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Marches – Chapter 07

For this week, I am posting Chapter 07 of Marches. This chapter was the one that hooked me and made me, though I’ll admit I am not one hundred percent sure on the why. You might see as you read. This chapter will need a lot of cleaning up and clarification in the rewrites, but the soul of this chapter will remain the same. Little things such as changes to the reasoning she ends up in the snow, the introduction to the chapter, and similar will all be readjusted. But, I do like this chapter, even as it is, flaws and all. So, with that in mind, I hope you enjoy it. And let me know what you think!

Fair winds,

Muselessbard.

A Meeting in the Snow

After Romi’s story and some additional meetings with the Astier family members, Mirabelle’s mind had fallen heavily on the upcoming decisions. She knew that winter was coming and soon enough she would have to make her choice, to pick whether she wanted to go through with this marriage or return home. She felt she didn’t have much of a clue on which direction she truly wished to go. As winter fell upon the village, and the weather turned bitterly cold, she found herself still enjoying her life here. The villagers were incredibly supportive of her, and as the first cold nights fell a great number of them would come to her manor with gifts of warm soups or drinks, freshly woven blankets, or even just simple supplies like firewood. She was incredibly well taken care of, but she felt like a member of the town. That was something she hadn’t felt on the Coast. She had always felt distant as if the people watched her from afar. Here people seemed to genuinely care for her safety. It made her like the idea of staying, at least with the people of the village.

On the night of the first real snow in the region, she found herself entertaining a few guests. She had invited Romi back a few times, and the two had become close rather quickly. The young noblewomen had few things in common in their background, but they were both visitors in this land and that gave them connection beyond the time they had known one another. Tienette and Cynewise had also come to the home and decided to stay after the snow began to set in. The four chatted about nothing. The three youngest carried the conversation, with Tienette often just listening to them chat. They shared warm teas and shared stories of everything they could think of.

The snowstorm had been come on quickly and laid down inches of snow without much warning. It was cold, but the roaring fire stoked by the servants of the manor kept the four comfortable. They expected to be stuck there at least until the sun was high in the sky the next day. So, they would make the best of it. It was hard to think of much better than the warm room, friendly chats and laughter, and safety they enjoyed. Coralie softly played her vielle, giving a light tune to back up the conversation.  All in all, it was a nice night.

As the night began to stretch, though, there came a knock at the door. As late as it was, it was impossible to consider who it may have been. It was Tienette’s guardsman who went to the door and soon returned with a half-frozen rider. Crystals of snow and ice clung to the man’s furred cloak, but the blue colors gave him away immediately. As soon as his eyes fell on Mirabelle, he fell to one knee and lowered his head.

“Lady d’Argent, forgive this messenger his tardiness.” He spoke with a hoarse voice, his throat clearly as dry and frozen as his skin. “Your father bid me bring a message and a gift.” He spoke softly. “He asked I say but one thing. His words, if I may, my lady?” The man stretched out his arms and waited for a response.

Mirabelle was a bit flustered by the sudden entrance, a bit worried as to what it could mean. With the gift, though, it was clearly in relation to her marriage. “Of course, you’ve come all this way.”

“Your father says, he hopes that your choice is clear and that he knows you’ve will have made the right choice for the honor of your family.” He did not raise up or move at all from his lowered position.

“That’s all?” Cynewise spoke quietly, likely meant to go only to her mother, but it was heard by everyone.

Mirabelle just nodded and moved over to the messenger. “And the gift?” She asked.

The messenger pulled a small ash box from one of the satchels hanging from his hip, and without looking to her, he held aloft the gift. She took it and took a breath fighting back a bit of excitement.

She looked down at him and finally let a smile cross her lips, “Thank you, messenger. Coralie will see that you have a warm place to rest, and food and drink.”

“Right this way, sir,” Coralie spoke from the back of the room, having set aside the vielle in the seat she had been sitting in.

The messenger bowed lower, and then raised up. He nodded to Mirabelle, “Mercy, my lady.” He spoke quickly, before stepping away from the girl with a lowered head and moving back and into the home to follow her servant. As he walked, the strange phrasing caught everyone off guard and a few now watched him like hawks, eyes glued to his actions as he moved off towards the dining room with the handmaiden.

Then there was a clattering nearby. All eyes were back on Mirabelle, but she had dropped the gift and without a word darted out of the manor. Most were surprised, and all called after her. She looked like she had seen a ghost, her face pale and a clearly visible quiver in her lips as she fought to get out of the room before anyone could truly see her reaction.

Bastien was up and after her first, racing to the door to follow his ward. He likely would have caught her if a voice had not called for him.

“Sir Bastien,” Marquise Tienette spoke swiftly, “Let her go,”

“No, my lady, I need to…” He had paused to turn, to speak to the Marquise directly, when he saw her.

Tienette stood over the gift that had been dropped to the floor. The box had broken, letting its contents spill to the floor in the center of the room.

Bastien stood with his mouth agape, stunned silence his only response. Tienette just nodded and took a deep breath. She didn’t say anything for a moment, before finally letting out a sighing, “Oh, Mirabelle. I am sorry.” She said as she knelt next to the box and pulled the gift away from it. It was a small black stiletto, only a few inches long. She touched the blade, and her lips twisted to a disappointed snarl.

It had been a blur, but as he followed the path of footprints in the snow and dark, he heard a faint sound – sobbing. He moved towards it, following the path that had been taken by the other as best he could without stumbling. He walked through the brush and snow, and as he came to the edge of a hill he saw her. From the disturbed snow, it looked as if she likely slid down the side of the hill, at least halfway. With no light, she was lucky she wasn’t terribly injured.

“Mademoiselle, are you alright? Are you injured?” Sarus called down to her.

She turned her face up to see who was speaking, but the two had never met. Neither Mirabelle nor Sarus could have recognized one another. She responded, with a bit of a laugh at herself, “I am uninjured.”

Sarus took a breath and nodded. He waved a hand at his bodyguard, who stood down and waited just behind the top of the hill. “I’m coming down anyway.” He said, stepping over onto the slope and slowly but surely sliding down the hill with a torch in hand. As soon as he reached the bottom he moved over to where she sat, nestled near a frozen creek bed and under a young willow tree struggling under the weight of the snow. He knelt next to her, and for the first time, the light fell on her face.

The light fell on pale skin and silver hair, now damp due to the snow that had fallen on her during her hasty escape. He took a breath and offered the torch over to her. “Here, my lady, take the torch. It will help warm you if just a bit.”

“Thank you,” She said softly taking the offered torch and pulling it into her little willow hovel. She felt the fool as she looked at him. “And you are?”

“If I tell you, my lady, you will be upset.” He admitted as he smiled over to her, a nervous smile and one that was clearly unsure how to proceed.

“I am already upset, sir.” She shook her head.

“Fair.” He spoke, “My name is Sarus Astier,”

“No,” She spoke as fast as she moved, trying to back away from him and covering her face. “You can’t see me for another few months, my lord.”

“Lady d’Argent. I will absolutely leave if that is your request.” He said with a nod. “But, I can’t leave you out here in the cold.”

“You’ve already given me a torch, that would be enough.” She protested, still hiding her face.

“At least my cloak as well.”

She didn’t say anything in response for a moment. But she was cold. Freezing, even. It was stupid to run out here alone. She relented and gave a quiet nod.

“Very well,” He felt a bit odd not speaking to her, something easy enough to see from yards away as he fidgeted and almost struggled with the clasp of his cloak. “Is there a reason you ran out here into the dark and snow, my lady?”

“A message from my father.” She spoke, trying to keep her eyes off of him for the time being.

“I suppose the wedding is still on then,” He attempted a joke as he finally reached the clasp and pulled it off. She gave no response. “I’m sorry, that was crass of me. I try to joke when I’m nervous, you see.”

She shook her head. “No, it was fine. I just…” She let her eyes drift over to him for a moment. In the flickering light, she finally saw him for the first time. After years of his name in her head, she had a face. It wasn’t what she expected in the least. His father was somewhat scruffy, a traditional vagabond, his mother was the basilisk. She assumed he would have the same look to him. But he didn’t. He had a surprisingly strong jawline, that same dark hair as his parents but it was cut short and well maintained. His eyes were smaller than she expected, but that may have been from the squinting due to the torchlight. He did have some scruff, but she wasn’t disgusted. She shook her head. “I was still deciding.”

“Ah, yes. Mother said she gave you the option to decide whether or not you wanted to go through with it.” He nodded and offered over his cloak. “Here, wrap up.”  She took the cloak and struggled to wrap it around her shoulders with the torch in hand. He reached over and pulled one side over her shoulder.

“Thank you,” She spoke softly.

“It is my honor, Lady d’Argent.” He replied with a succinct nod. “Once you’re warm, I’ll help you up the hill and we can get you back to the manor.” He paused a moment, “Can I ask which way you are leaning?”

“No.” She said sternly, looking away from him for a moment. She sighed, “I do love Milae, though.”

“They are loveable. But you miss the villages of the Coast and the people there. It must be com-“

“No, there isn’t a village at the Temple,” She interrupted.

“Wait, so just you and your family and servants?”

“Yes. Magi don’t administer to people in social matters. Not like the Astier do.” She said softly. “I’ve enjoyed walking with the people. Days and nights with just parishioners are a bit less engaging.” She paused for a moment, “This isn’t what I imagined as a girl.”

“Yeah. I know the feeling.” Sarus spoke with a nod.

She looked to him for a moment and then paused. “My father sent me a gift.” Her eyes welled up at the words, a little crack of her voice and quiver of her lip as she fought back another wave of sobbing.

“What gift drove you to the woods in the snow?”

“A black stiletto.”

Sarus swallowed and shook his head. He clearly didn’t know how to respond. “So, he said go through with it, or kill yourself?”

She whimpered out a small, “Yes.”

There was a moment they sat in the snow silently before Sarus spoke up again. “I’ll break it off, then, if you want. It saves you from either, and I doubt a little dishonor will sink my standing at this point.” He reached out a hand, “I don’t know you, but you don’t deserve to be forced into a life you hate just to fit the whims of our father’s.”

She didn’t say anything for a moment again before her hand reached up and took his. She shook her head. “No…” She spoke with a little choke, “I think I’ve made my decision. I think I had before tonight…” She said with a nod.

“I guess I’ll find out soon enough on that.” He spoke and stood, “Are you ready to head home?”

She gave a nod and stood with him, stepping back out from under the willow. “I am.” She shook her head a bit. “You weren’t supposed to see me until the wedding.” She added again as they moved towards the hillside and began the trek back up.

“I know. I won’t tell anyone.” He said as a joke.

“I’m sure they’ll find out one way or the next.” She responded, “You wyverns do have a knack for it.”

“True.” He paused to help press her up and over the edge of the hill, letting most of her weight press down onto his arms as she stepped up and across the bank. Then he was surprised as her hand was offered down to him. He gave a small smile and took the offer, and they reached the top. Then, joined by Sarus’ guardsman, they began the walk back to the village.

They didn’t say a word until they almost reached the outskirts when Sarus did finally speak up again. “My lady d’Argent,” He started, quietly and close to her. “I am serious. What your father did, I will never understand. But, if you feel that this is not the path for you, send word to me. I will end it.”

She paused, stopping both in the falling snow. “You are serious aren’t you?” She asked quietly. “I know the culture of the Wyverns, my lord. Do you?”

“I do,”

“So, you’d be willing to dishonor your family, never be allowed to marry, and have to repay my dowry… just to keep me alive.” She spoke plainly.

He never answered verbally. He just nodded. It was enough for her at that moment.

They had stood long enough. “We should get you in soon. I’m afraid this is where we need to part ways though.” Sarus spoke softly. “We can’t be seen together yet.”

“Of course.” She spoke with a smile and a nod, removing his cloak and offering it back to him. “Thank you for finding me, and making sure I was able to return safely.”

He took the cloak and nodded, “It is my honor, Lady d’Argent.” He gave her a low bow and stepped aside.

She then walked back to the manor alone, through the town of Milae. She hadn’t moved more than a hundred meters before one of the townsfolk rushed out of their home to her, with a warm cloak in hand. They draped it over her shoulders and walked with her. Soon enough, a militiaman had met up with them as well – and before she reached the manor it was a small cadre of citizens making sure she reached her home safely.

Before her father had sent her a message, before that hideous gift, if she was honest with herself, she had already made up her mind. Meeting Sarus didn’t change that. This was her duty to her family and his duty to his. If he was a brute she would still have her own name to fall back upon. Her father wanted to force her hand, but in truth, she had always wanted to be away from him. She was just lucky that this village was where she would end up. Milae had become like her home, her people driving her to want nothing more than to stay in the village. As she thought, she realized that wasn’t true. This place had become her home long ago.

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Marches – Chapter 06

Author’s notes – This is another Chapter in Marches that I am not particuarly proud of. Luckily, it isn’t from Mirabelle’s perspective, so it was going to get cut. When it was originally written, I did not have a good grip on who Sarus was, and as the writing went on his character shifted to something a bit different. He is still a wyvern, but his reputation became less of a violent one. The story isn’t necessary to the plot, and I don’t think it added that much. I tried later on to bring this plot back, but am not happy with how that turned out.

That said, I think Mirabelle learning about Sarus before meeting him is very important. This will be rewritten, but more of her finding out about him from the people of the village and the legends, rather than an actual story about him. I think that’ll make the introduction of Sarus more impactful in the following chapters. There isn’t much else to say about this chapter though. Pieces will survive, but it will be better to switch the perspective and change the style of learning about her future husband.

This chapter won’t be in the next draft, but as always I thought it might be a waste to just have it forgotten. I hope you enjoy.

Sarus Astier

Sarus Astier was not the usually young noble in many ways. His father began training him early to help take on court life, and before he was fifteen winters, he was already appearing in court. He had a knack for the art, it seemed. He was not unlike his father in that regard. He had a knack for finding weak points in others. However, he was hot-headed and tended to run his mouth before he had secured his win.

This gave him a bit of a reputation as having quite the bark, but he was often derided as not having much of a bite to his words. He was not a large and imposing man, and despite having raised quite a few objections and argued his points in court with his father, but he was rarely taken seriously. Still, he had become a very common feature of the courts in Vouivre. While at first, he was often alongside his father, he became more and more often seen on his own. His quick objections and unflinching and often open rebukes and arguments earned him a nickname quickly. He was soon known as le Chien, the Hound.

This seemed to bother him at first, and after a few years of court life, it did reach a boiling point. In one instance, another noble of the province goaded the young man into a confrontation. His constant pressing of an issue caused Sarus to lash out – despite the objections of his father. The act was particularly egregious as he had been in court with the Grand Duc de Vouivre, the highest-ranking noble of the province, and a member of the royal family by marriage. He was swiftly humiliated, in such a way that it took his father quite a bit of political capital to even get him safely out of the meeting.

Since then, Sarus had been relegated to local affairs, but he was not content with such things. He studied the man that had humiliated him. As his future wife arrived in Milae, he discovered the man was going to be in court again with the Grand Duc, and Sarus would not miss such an opportunity. And so, he traveled to the city of Iacessa, deep in the mountains of his homeland, with a single goal in mind. It was not a political move, nor something that would gain him any true benefit, but the Hound was on the hunt. The name would stick after this display.

Sarus reached the city of Iacessa early in the morning, just as the sun rose above the horizon. He wore a new mask at this time, a motif of the hound. He traveled with only two attendants, leaving his guards and servants back at his home. The message was clear when the first noblemen spotted him walking the dew-covered streets. He was here for himself.

Shortly after the first-morning meal, the young noble had arrived at the hold of the Comte de Iacessa, where the nobles of the region were meeting. The hold was only accessible by a large carven staircase laid into the mountainside. A large palatial manor was built on a small plateau, which is where the nobles met today. The guards held any who approached at the base of those great stairs. Sarus paused a few paces before reaching that final path. He did not come in under the banner of his house but declared himself as confidently as if he had a thousand men behind him.

“I am Lord Sarus Astier de Nid du Vouivre, known as le Chien by the men of the court. I am a servant of Grand Duc Marcomir Alaric de Nid du Vouivre, and of her Majesty.” He called out to the guards. “I am here to speak with Marquis Teias Valia de Precis.” He stood firm in his location, settling in for a long while. “I will await him here.”

Of course, the guards sent the message, but returned with the simple message of, “His honor Marquis Valia respects your bravery, but asks that you return home.”

To which, Sarus would bark a reply. “The Marquis must face me. By rights, I deserve to meet and speak with him. Should he not, I will remain here throughout the noble’s meet.”

The guards again took the message and returned with yet another reply. “Our master says, then you will wait. It will be a lesson in patience.”

“Please send the following message. So it shall be.” Sarus adjusted, “But I believe the lesson will be for others.”

“You have a lot to learn still, boy.” Was the response the guards brought after that.

“Sir, I humbly request that you refer to me in my official parlance.” The guards were growing tired of this as they jogged back up the stairs to give yet another message to the Marquis.

“Don’t be so quick to judge, little lord, after all, you are but a boy.”

“A boy who understands how to properly address his peers, marquis,” Sarus responded.

Every response, Sarus sent the guards to reply to him. Time and time again, they were bound to interrupt the noble meet to give the message to the Marquis. The other nobles would chuckle as the Marquis was flustered with each and worked to come back with a witty response. Still, it clearly wore on his demeanor. As other nobles argued points on defense and trade, he was distracted and every more and more frustrated. Finally, the Marquis had enough and asked to be excused.

This caused the Grand Duc to become annoyed with the situation himself. He agreed, but due to the situation, he told the Marquis he wanted to see him handle the young noble. So, the nobles took a recess and moved to the stairs.

“I see your patience reached its tipping point, Marquis.” Sarus barked from the bottom of the stairs. “Perhaps a refresher is in order?”

“Listen here, boy. You’ve had enough fun. You are interfering with royal business.” The Marquis shouted back at him.

“I merely meant to respond in a timely fashion to each of your requests. Our last meeting was unfortunate, and I’d like to be sure that we stay on the right foot moving forward.” Sarus smiled, though no one could see it. “Did the guardsmen disturb the meeting unduly?”

“Yes, of course, they did. At your order.”

“I made no such order. Guard’s, did I ask you to interrupt?” The young noble shouted. They shook their heads. He shook his head and motioned towards them.

“Implicit orders are still orders.”

“Yes, you know that very well, Marquis.”

There was a pause as the Marquis seemed a bit bothered by that response.

“While I have you here, I’d like to speak with you at your earliest convenience, Marquis. I will be in town if you would like.” Sarus raised his hands with a quiet bow.

The Marquis said nothing.

“About what?” Another noble asked, “Trying to get your honor back, little hound?”

Sarus shook his head, “No, my lord. I freely admit my mistakes. One of my villagers trades with a small hamlet known as Rianoll. It is in the Marquis’ territory.”

The Marquis’ eyes widened at the name, but he did not respond. Unfortunately, the response did not go without notice by some of the others.

The Grand Duc waved to a nearby attendant and said something, quietly with a displeased scowl crossing his lips.

“I have never heard of such a place.” The noble responded with a little smirk, “Why come all this way for a merchant?”

“In a town as small as Milae, every trade connection matters,” Sarus spoke softly. “I see the Marquis cannot speak about it now. Nothing will change if he takes his time. I can wait for answers. Rianoll isn’t going anywhere.”

“Surely the hound doesn’t come all this way without a purpose. You don’t have a banner with you.” One of the nobles seemed to realize. “You smelled blood, didn’t you? What is it about Rianoll that brings you here.”

“I wouldn’t dare. It is the Marquis’ territory.”

“There is nothing to tell. It is a small hamlet, not even on the maps or on any roads.” The Marquis finally spoke. “I can barely remember it is in my holds. What does it trade? I doubt you need timber.”

“They crafted the most wonderful glass. There was a man there of great talent. My man would bring fresh sands for his art.” Sarus responded.

The Marquis steadied himself and nodded, “Ah yes. I seem to remember some glass trinkets being traded in the towns. Some were sent as tax collection, I believe.”

“Kind of you to accept,” One of the nobles said as he adjusted out of the way of the returning attendant, who handed off a piece of parchment and a pen dripping ink to the Grand Duc, who wrote something down and returned the document down.

“Of course, they hardly grew enough food to support themselves.” The Marquis said softly, brushing a hand along his neck.

Sarus smiled a bit wider. Some of the nobles too had picked up on that particular word. The Grand Duc shook his head and handed the paperback.

“Sarus,” The Duc shouted. “Whatever you needed, wouldn’t have been easier to go to the village?”

“Yes, your grace. Except there were no maps I could find with adequate directions.” He responded. “So, I had the merchant take me.”

The Marquis stumbled back for a moment, his façade shifting quickly as he realized what was about to happen. He quickly interrupted. “Fine, Sarus, I’ll speak to you – let’s not waste any more of the meet’s time.”

“So, you don’t want them to know the village was a smoldering ruin?” Sarus barked up at him. “That the people tried to claw their way out of the shrine you boarded up?”

The Marquis stood as still as stone.

“Or maybe that it was over a stupid mistake. What exactly happened? Did she rebuff your advances? Maybe the glassmaker messed up a project?”

“None of this is true. This is just a thinly veiled attempt to damage my honor because I humiliated you. Admit it, boy.”

“No. This is because men under your house banner burned women and children alive.” Sarus shouted up at him. “I’ll admit, I stumbled on it because I wanted to find your dark little secret. I assumed you would have some hidden thing. Some pathetic perversion I could press you on that would make you snap, and everyone could see the petulant coward that was left when you broke.” He gave a nod. “I thought my father’s tactics would be more than enough. And let’s face it, you would have given me anything to have your little secret stay secret wouldn’t you?”

The nobles stepped away from the man, as he looked around for some semblance of support.

“I did keep one thing from my father’s teaching, though.” Sarus stepped forward. “I know the real secret. I know why you burned those people alive – why their screams haunt your every night’s sleep.” The hound pulled a scroll from his cloak and held it. He took a long breath. “And while these men are disgusted with your actions. You know what is in here – written for the Grand Duc to bring down your punishment.”

“You have nothing. This is all a farce.” The Marquis shouted, throwing his arms down quickly. “You besmirch my honor and try to bring ruin to my name. You accuse me of heresy and stand there like some savior. I will cut you down where you stand and bring an end to this charade.”

“I accept,” Sarus spoke simply, offering the parchment to one of his. “Swords – and if you want me silenced, I suggest you choose now as the time.”

“Then now it shall be.” The Marquis turned towards a guard. “Your sword.”

As the guard unhooked and handed over a sword, another noble spoke up to the Grand Duc, begging. “Stop them. There is no point to this bloodshed.”

“There is a point.” The Grand Duc said quickly. “Our people are bound by honor, and one of these men speaks the truth, and that will only be revealed as one of them lays bloodied on the ground. The duel has been called. We cannot stop it. To the death, with swords. As was spoken by the duelists.”

“Yes, but if…”

The nobles stopped speaking as the Grand Duc just raised a hand, “Just witness.”

The Marquis stepped down the stairs and drew the guardsman’s blade, tossing aside the scabbard as Sarus’ bodyguard offered over his own drawn blade to his master. The young noble just stood calmly waiting though, the broadsword held lightly in his left hand.

The Marquis reached the bottom of the stairs and shook his head. He raised the blade and gripped to the hilt tight with both hands. Sarus took a breath but didn’t seem to enter any sort of duelist’s stance. For a moment they just stared at one another before the Marquis rushed at the young noble. The young man was quick, though, and he ducked out of the way of the first swing. He brought the sword up to block the Marquis’ next strike, and then it was over. The hound’s blade slid along the Marquis’, and a finely timed twist pierced the long sword blade deep into his shoulder.

The Marquis screamed and dropped his blade as the arm went limp, and blood began to seep through his clothes and down the arm. He fell to his knees, and he shook his head. “How did you…?”

“You think everyone is lower than you. You attack from a high point, and when you miss, you strike low.” Sarus answered. “Your debates mirror your swordsmanship. Just like your pathetic little plots.”

“You don’t have anything.”

“Actually,” Sarus smiled, “You are right. I don’t.” He wanted to laugh for a moment and then shook his head. “You see, I sent my evidence ahead of me, but not just to the Grand Duc.” He whispered. “You’ve made more enemies than you know.”

“Sarus, the duel was to the death.” The Grand Duc bellowed. “Finish him.”

“With all due respect, your grace, I cannot do that,” Sarus replied, slashing his blade through the air to fling the blood from the tip. “While it brings me no great pleasure to let him live, I am to be married in a few months.”

“And why would that stop you?” The Grand Duc barked, an impressive and powerful voice for such a shriveled old man.

“I am marrying a daughter of Lune. While the Seas and Moon have no strict rules about honorable killings, they do have a ritual peace during the lunar year leading up to a union.” Sarus spoke with a slight bow. “I ask that you let him live, and face the pain brought to him by his action in a hamlet who believed him their protector.”

The Grand Duc was visibly displeased with that answer and shook his head wide. “Fine. I know who it is you marry, and I’d rather not order you to do something that may upset her father.” He waved at a guard, “Take the marquis, throw him in the dungeons. We’ll let him die there or string him up like the common bandit he is.” The guards snapped to the job given them, and the Grand Duc turned to the nobles. “We have a meet to finish. Back to the work.” The old man turned and gave a wave of his hand. He paused for a moment and turned back to Sarus. “Astier, do not let yourself forget where your loyalties lie. I’ll deal with Precis, but you press my patience and I will deal with you as well. Do you understand.”

“I will remember, your grace.” Sarus ended with a quiet bow.

Then the Marquis was dragged away, and Sarus gathered his things and left it at that. There was a change from the name le Chien after this event. He was no longer about his bark, but about the hunt and from then on he’d be known as Le Limier, the bloodhound. Now, it spoke to his hunt and the man’s unyielding drive to finish whatever had been started. His humiliation due to his quick actions was rapidly forgotten, and the rumors spread even before he was able to return home from that expedition. Most importantly, there was a distinction between the man and his father now.

For a long time, he was just a shadow of his father – and everyone expected him to work in much the same way. He had turned his father’s talent into something else though. Valamir had learned how to find weaknesses and exploit them. He had inherited that, for sure, but with much more of his mother’s aggressive stance. His father was an opportunist, but Sarus was a hunter – and once the hound smelled blood, he would seek it until he had the source squarely in his sights.

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Marches – Chapter 05

Author’s Notes – I am reluctant to post this chapter. I hate how this chapter turned out in its first draft. I would have preferred it lay forgotten. But, there is an importance in showing mistakes. Or, I guess more importantly for me, I need to be willing to show those mistakes. This chapter is very important though. Romi becomes Mirabelle’s closest friend in her new home, and gives her a bit of a sense of normalcy. Despite the fact that Romi is not a Noble in the eyes of many. She becomes her confidant, and appears again throughout many of the future stories.

For this chapter, I did a lot of removing. The fight in this chapter was confusing and unnessecary, so in my first rewrite of this chapter removed it. It changed it to a simpler style where our Fox hunts down the Licorn off screen, and meets Mirabelle after finding them. In addition, I decided against killing both off. They were never mentioned again after this chapter in the first draft, and that felt like a waste. So, I’ve changed that. Other changes include pulling characters a little closer to their later characterizations, since I have a better grip on them, and detailing some sections to fit better with the story’s thematics.

I may add the second version of this chapter to the website, but I haven’t decided yet. For now, I am just posting this version. I do not like this version, and I am not proud of it. But, it was a first draft. And that is the building block of any part of a story. I hope you enjoy some elements of this part of Marches.

Fair Winds,

Museless Bard

The Fox’s Bastard

Mirabelle had found herself at home in the village faster than she had expected. The people of Milae were incredibly cordial to her, with an excitement to have her that she never saw in any of the people who visited her old home. She never knew the people of the villages outside of Towers at the Temple, but here – she was already getting to know people. Only a few weeks had passed before she had found a few she could genuinely rely on to help her with a great deal of her required tasks in this new life. Ervig, specifically, had been essential in helping bring her information about the region.

She had been lucky that the Astier owned two manors, as well. They had a fortified home atop a nearby hill, which was built across a river tributary and was where the family actively lived. But Chateau Ronic, where she currently lived, was the home of one of the middle Astier ancestors. From what she gathered, the eponymous Ronic was a leader of the village but otherwise detached from the family affairs. However, while the others were off at war, she was able to defend the village from an opportunistic attack. The villagers held it up as one of the pillars of their relationship with the family.  It seemed the family mostly used the manor as a place to stay when visiting the village now, but for the time being, it was hers to do with as she pleased.

She kept herself busy learning about the region and its people but made time for meals with Tienette. While she did not connect much further with Valamir, she did spend quite some time with Sarus’ younger sister, Cynewise – though she always went by Cyne. The two did not enough together for Mirabelle to consider her a close friend, of course, but she could easily see her becoming one in the future. Still, this isolation made her feel rather lonely. One day, that feeling began to gnaw at her more than usual, and she decided that she needed to leave the residence and go about in town, in hopes of clearing that fog from her mind.

So, with Coralie and Bastien behind her, she ventured out into the village once again. It was a day like any other in the town. A few traders had come into town that morning, as they did every few weeks. It was a time when she could get a few items she didn’t normally have access to – mostly dried goods from the coast, in this case. Still, she enjoyed looking. Every once in a while she would find something from home that helped her feel a bit more grounded. It was a challenge for her to avoid simply buying up more than she needed too, but luckily Coralie was always nearby with a reminder about her stipend.

Today was not unlike any other. The sun peeked through the leaves of the trees scattered throughout the village giving a little bit of warmth on an otherwise blustery day, as the summer season faded into autumn. The people were happy though, the sun and early stages of harvest beginning keeping spirits high, despite the colder day. She spent some time chatting with some local villagers as she passed through, still impressed that she was greeted well nearly every time. Of course, there were outliers. A few villagers had let it slip that they’d prefer an outsider not be joining their ruling family – but she had expected that sentiment to be the most common.

Instead, even only a few months in. She found herself walking the streets of the village with the same confidence she might have strolled the temple. While speaking to the baker, though, her ear caught a warning.

“Look out!” A villager’s voice pierced the otherwise peaceful day. There was a distinct, sharp screech of someone in trouble, then the sound of a scared or wounded horse.

Mirabelle felt a heavy hand on her back, the gauntlet edges pressing into her spine and forcing her back. Bastien may have said something, but it was impossible to tell. There was the distinct sound of steel leaving scabbard. On her other side, Coralie and falling back against her as well, both pushing her back and into the merchant’s stall. She barely had a chance to look to see the trouble. A pair of large draft horses had been startled, or maybe injured. She couldn’t tell. Their drivers tried desperately to get them back under control. Then there was a distinctive snap, the leather of their reins giving way under the stress. One of the drivers fell back at the change in force, losing his footing and smashing to the ground with a scream. His partner was startled, and the second horse’s reins were lost. Both horses tore forward. The cracking of wood followed as they stripped free of the cart.

Then the animals rushed forward down the street, panicked. Little was more dangerous than a frightened animal, and a massive draft horse on a busy street was a genuine threat. When they rushed down the street, people scattered. Mirabelle saw the creatures rush at a villager, one raring up and striking out with its front hooves. Luckily, the villager had been able to dart out of the way, but they moved fast towards the other villagers. One villager fell near one of the horses, who kicked back. “Bastien!” Mirabelle’s voice broke through the noise.

The old templar didn’t hesitate. When her voice called, he pushed off from her and rushed towards the villager. He raised his sword, both hands firmly gripping the hilt of the old weathered blade and raising it as a spear. With a yell, he met his mark – the blade sinking into the draft horse as it raised up with a sickening sound. The templar followed through, pushing his entire weight into the beast. He was not a small man, but the beast was enormous. He pushed with everything he had and tilted the thing just enough to knock it back and away from the villager crawling to their feet. The villager let out a scream as the horse hit the ground next to it, with the templar now atop it.

That was all the opening that Mirabelle needed. She pushed past Coralie and rushed out to the villager on the ground. She gripped the villager’s hand and helped him up. Her handmaiden was right behind her, though. As soon as the villager had started to climb to his feet, she felt Coralie hit her in the back – hard. She and the villager stumbled forward, and she turned to see the handmaiden rolling out of the way of the other angered horse.

“Coralie!” Mirabelle yelled back to her as her eyes caught a glimpse of Bastien pulling his sword out of the creature and stepping away. Then she realized her mistake. One of the draft horses, the one still standing, had rounded back around to face down the small foreign handmaiden armed with nothing but a dagger. And the other rolled back to its feet, despite the blood pumping out of the sword wound in its chest.

She saw it then, the bright white bone at the center of each horse’s skull.

“They’re licorn.” Mirabelle almost laughed with a mix of excitement and fear. They were not just frightened and scared animals. They were unicorns, their horns carved off their skulls and forced into service as draft animals. They were bred for war, fighters from the day they stood to their deaths. She felt a hand on her shoulder, then another, the villagers pulling her back and off the street and to a nearby building.

Bastien steadied himself and took a few steps back. His stance changed, his center set and ready for the oncoming charge. “Coralie, can you get to safety?”

“I’ll try.”

“Go left.” He ordered as the two unicorns charged at them. Both dodged to the left. Bastien’s blade swung up as he was passed by the creature. Coralie had rolled away, taking a swipe but her blade didn’t seem enough to cut through the creatures hide without getting closer, and her goal now was to run and protect her lady. As soon as she was clear, she did just that. Leaving the Templar alone.

The Licorne did not hesitate to rush at him, recognizing he was the only threat against them at the moment. The templar swung at the first to rush him, ducked away from the second, and resettled just before they rushed again. It was the only strategy that would work here, but these creatures were smart. After only the second rush, the one he dodged past stopped short and kicked with its hind legs. The powerful hooves hit the man’s armored back and sent him crashing forward. The wind was clearly knocked out of him, and the second creature turned about to make another run. Then there was a whistle and another. Two arrows struck the creature in its wound, sinking deep, and causing it to stagger.

An archer at the end of the street stood, another arrow knocked into the simple bow. A man stood a few steps ahead of the archer, with a wooden spear readied and waiting. The archer didn’t slow down for a second. As soon as that arrow was knocked, it loosed and a whistle followed. The target had changed, striking the uninjured licorn square in the flank. It let out a pained noise and then turned to the new target, rushing down the street towards its new threat.

Bastien was able to pull himself to his knees as it started its charge and brought his sword around with everything he had left in him. The blade found its mark, cleaving the back leg off the creature. The severed limb toppled harmlessly to the ground, and the Licorn itself lost is balance and stumble, crashing to the ground. Another arrow struck it as it fell, this time square in the head. The spearman rushed for and quickly finished the job with a powerful thrust into the creature’s chest. The other unicorn fell to the ground and struggled to keep itself up. After another minute it gave up and collapsed, its breathing slowing and fading.

Mirabelle rushed out to Bastien, who was climbing to his feet slowly but surely. Coralie stayed close but kept her blade drawn and her body between the archer and her lady.

“Bastien, are you alright?” Mirabelle asked as she helped him steady himself.

“I’ll live to fight another day.” He said with a bit of a panting breath, “You stay put next time.”

“Announce yourself,” Coralie’s usually soft voice barked out at the archer as she approached.

“This is Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane.” The spearman barked back. “I am her guardsman, Alain.”

Mirabelle glanced up, but what she saw was not what she expected.

Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane carried a simple bow, ashen in color with a frayed bowstring. She wore clothes more suited to a hunter than a noble. She had a simple hide and fur cloak and worn and somewhat ragged clothes. The only mark of nobility on her was the pendant necklace she wore. Moreover, the woman was unimpressive, and if she was honest, a bit odd. Her face was round, with puffy cheeks and a small chin. In a way, it looked as if the bottom half of her face ended a little bit earlier than it should have. With thick, bright lips and large eyes, it just made that even more the case. Her form otherwise was thin, more so than it needed to be, and she was not particularly tall, and would not have been tall enough to draw back a longbow well.

“Thank you for your assistance, Lady Cedolin,” Bastien said with a bow of his head. “I fear it might not have gone well without you.”

“I’m just happy I was able to help.” She spoke with a mousey voice, high pitched and quiet, but quickly spoken. She gave a little bow of her own as she handed her bow over to Alain. “And you are?”

“I am Sir Avent Bastien, templar of Lune and protector of Lady Mirabelle d’Argent.” He said motioning to her. “And our protective handmaiden here is Coralie.”

“d’Argent?” Romi’s eyes went wide, much wider than normal. She visibly swallowed and then quickly knelt before them, her voice barely a whisper. “My lady, my sincerest apologies. I did not recognize the Fille de Lune.”

“No, no, no,” Mirabelle said pushing past Bastien and Coralie to put a hand on the archer’s shoulder. “You saved my guard and helped protect Milae. You don’t need to bow or apologize for anything.” She gave a smile and a shake of her head. “I should be apologizing to you. I do not recognize your name. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with all of the noble houses in the region yet.” She didn’t wait for any sort of answer though, “But, I insist you and your man dine with us tonight, and if you need a place to stay, the Manor has more than enough visitor space.”

“I wouldn’t dare intrude.”

“I insist. It isn’t an intrusion. It is our honor, and I’d like to repay you, even in a small way such as this.”

While Romi was very reluctant to accept at first, she finally relented saying that she would be honored to share a meal that evening, but that they had already arranged for a stay at the local inn in the village. They thanked her again and allowed her to head off to finish her business in the village, and they stayed behind to deal with the aftermath. Soon enough, Ervig arrived with militiamen to handle the cleanup.

As his men began the cleanup in earnest, he had the story relayed to him by a few different people. He clearly took Bastien’s version as gospel, only adding the others’ details as he needed too. A few villagers had given him wildly exaggerated claims, but he was glad to find out it was little more than scared beasts. He was clearly concerned that they were Licorns, but he was more curious about another fact.

“She was introduced as Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane?” Ervig spoke up softly with a slight shake of his head. “Romi, le batard de Renard?”

“What exactly are you implying, Ervig?” Bastien spoke quickly, a bit defensively.

“The Fox’s Bastard.”

“She’s the daughter of Luc Cedolin du Rane. He was a marquis, across the border from Milae.” Ervig explained. “He was called le Renard, the Fox. Not because he was particularly cunning or quick, but rather because he had orange and red hair.” The militiaman pointed towards his own head or the hair on it – which bore no resemblance of similar colors. “He never married. His lover died in childbirth, and he raised Romi alone.”

“So, her father never granted her status as a full member of his family?” Mirabelle asked calmly, but quietly as they still stood in the village streets. She didn’t want to be too loud, to speak to openly and say something uncouth about the archer who had saved them.

“Unsure. When her father died,” The captain took a breath and crossed his arms. “She was only fourteen. Her cousin took regency of his estate, she has officially declared a bastard by the Duc du Rane.” He glanced down to the path below him. “There are rumors that her cousin orchestrated it. But, in the end, she is illegitimate. By law, she is just Romi. Her cousin did grant her a small piece of land on the edge of our territory. But she mostly subsists by hunting and has a small contingent of loyal servants.”

“How many?”

“Less than you brought to the village, my lady,” Ervig said quickly. “She is a kind girl, but of little concern.”

Mirabelle made a noise, somewhere between a huff and growl. It made the others around her step back and away for a moment. She took a deep breath and then gave a little bit of a shake of her head. “I’d like to know more about what happened to her and her family.” She ordered after a moment. “Coralie, have the servants find what they can from the village over the next few days.”

“Of course, my lady.” The handmaiden gave a quiet bow. “We’ll find what information we can.”

“And I still want to have a meal with her.” Mirabelle clarified. “Bastard or not, she is of noble blood.” She spoke with a quick nod. “And I look forward to it.” She seemed to have decided as she dusted off her clothes and looked to Ervig. “Make sure the people are safe and this is cleaned up. Please bring me a report after you’ve sent one to the Astier.”

“Yes, my lady,” Ervig said after a moment. His head twitched to one side for a second and he gave a smile, “My lady, you do recall you are just a guest here, correct? There is no need for you to worry about the day-to-day.” He gave a smirk, poking at the young girl, “Or are you considering staying?”

Mirabelle frowned at him. “You forget yourself.”

“My apologies, my lady,” He replied with his hands raised for a moment. “I meant it mostly in jest.” He admitted with a smile to her, and then a gave her a bow. “By your leave, ma’am.”

She gave him a dismissive wave, and then looked over to the others. “I’d like to return to the manor now.”

She took her time returning to the manor, lingering on the streets for a time and working slowly but surely to return. Once back, she set it upon her servants to prepare a traditional Cote d’Argent meal – light fish, sweet fruits and vegetables, and a stout bread. She gave them their orders and went back to her quarters to bathe and clean herself up. Then, once she had dressed in a nice enough dinner dress, she set about waiting for her guest to arrive. As the night began to fall, clouds began to fill the sky blotting out the stars.

It made for a dark night, and as the dinner hour passed her servants began to mill about and see if she would decide to eat without her guest. She did not. Instead, she simply sat and waited. After an hour or two, she relented and allowed her servants to eat – but she waited. Night fell darker, and the deeper the time went the more she listened to her servants speak about how she was wasting time. That the girl wasn’t coming.

With the darkness engulfing the home, she had her servants light a lantern outside, and one for her to read by, and she continued to wait. As she read, she listened. Bastien’s snores from his place nearby her were perhaps the loudest of the sounds, but Coralie’s insistence on busying herself around the lady came in a close second. It was not as late as everyone seemed to feel it was that night. Only an hour or two had passed since darkness fell, but they were impatient.

When there was a knock at the door, Mirabelle stood and moved over to see who it was. Coralie rushed to stop her and to open the door herself, but the lady would not have it. She opened the door to greet the archer and her guard with a smile.

“I apologize for the late hour, my lady,” Romi spoke with a deep bow. “Please forgive,”

“Not at all,” Mirabelle replied swiftly, cutting her off. “Hunter’s rarely come home until the end of the day, Lady Cedolin.”

Romi smiled and lowered her head. “Thank you,” She said quietly.

“Come in and have a meal with me. Your man is welcome to rest and eat as well, of course.”

“You are too kind.”

The two walked into the manor and found themselves in the dining room. The sat to eat and for the next few minutes, they found themselves merely exchanging more pleasantries, which irked Mirabelle – though her face never showed anything but kindness. As the conversation seemed to go nowhere, she opted to push the archer, to see what she could discover about her. After a drink of wine, she spoke plainly.

“Ervig says you are the daughter of Marquis Luc Cedolin – but a bastard.” Lady d’Argent put a hint of emphasis on the last word. “He is wary of you.”

“Ervig is…” Romi’s grip tightened on her cup and she sighed, “Cautious, but correct. They call me…”

“I know,” Mirabelle spoke softly. “You don’t have to say it.”

Romi nodded and continued. “I live in a small home in the forests on the Rane border with Nid de Vouivre. It is a meager hunting lodge my father built. Something my cousin didn’t care enough to take.”

“You don’t seem to harbor much ill will…”

“My cousin is a fox. He is cunning and always a few steps ahead of anyone who faces him in a political arena. He doesn’t join conflicts he will lose. His case against my inheritance is ironclad in regards to the law. He has contacts at every level of the court of Rane and he can bend them with a few choice words.” She spoke with a clear bit of sadness. “Had he put his skill to something great, he would likely be one of the best of us – but he is driven by power and wealth.”

“Perhaps one day you can secure your lands again,” Mirabelle spoke with a succinct nod.

“No. My father’s lands are rightfully his. As long as he leaves the lodge and forests to me, I have no reason to test him.” The archer shrugged. “One day I hope to be able to sway him back to something more important than power and wealth. His potential as a courtier and leader is astonishing. His mastery of debate and the sincerity to which he puts his mind to the research behind arguments is inspiring – if currently misplaced.”

Mirabelle didn’t say anything. She was a little surprised. That was rather high praise for a thief and con-artist, but moreover, she was astonished at her sizing up of the man. “Tell me, what do you think of Ervig’s abilities.”

“Hm?” Romi raised a brow and paused between a bite of her dinner. “I…” She thought a moment. “As a military leader he is talented, but his domestic abilities leave much to be desired. He tends to want to handle things himself and lacks the education required to properly adjuvate village projects. It drags him down as a domestic steward, but his skill with a spear is quite good. His understanding of bandit tactics and small conflicts makes him very skilled at defending a village such as this. He also has a knack for connecting with his subordinates.”

Lady d’Argent gave a little nod. She thought that maybe there was more to the archer than she let on, but this all but proved it. “Do you know this much about every noble in the region?”

“What?” She shook her head for a moment, and then gave a sigh, “Well, yes. I had too to keep my holdings.”

“So you know about the Astier?”

“Yes, of course. As the regional power, and the nobles of the closest town to me, I have too.” Romi spoke softly.

“What can you tell me about Valamir?” Mirabelle asked, before shaking her head. “Actually, no. I know the Marquis and Marquise…” She pondered for a moment, “Romi, what can you tell me about Sarus?”

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Marches – Chapter 04 Notes

For today I am posting up the fourth chapter of my novel in progress, Marches. This chapter, for those of you reading along, was meant to be a short transition from the Silver Coast to the land of the Wyverns. It was originally just a chapter I wanted to use to introduce some concepts, places, and characters. Looking back, and it did that passably. It was important to see Mirabelle’s first look at her new home, and the surprise she has that people would be excited.

 

This original draft ended up being more of a means to an end though. Some of the characters introduced here are more important than others and likely deserved more focus. Many of the concepts are only touched on and would be better served if they were explored in depth. The biggest one that jumped out at me when editing this chapter was Roheis’ wedding. Now, Roheis doesn’t make a big impact before this point, but her wedding would be the perfect opportunity to show just how vast the differences are between the lands the d’Argent inhabit and those of the Astier. I think that is missed in the actual wedding chapter, and it would be something that gave a little bit more insight into how the world works in this setting.

 

In addition, I think showing the two as close sisters will clarify their relationship more before Roheis’ later appearances. Ghislain, her husband, would likewise be a good person to introduce. He plays more major roles in important sections and seeing him earlier on and in more detail would do the story well.

 

This chapter is also the first chapter with Bastien and Ervig in it. These two become Mirabelle’s closest advisors in her new home. Bastien, as I mentioned in another set of notes, needs to have been introduced earlier. Why did I wait four chapters originally? Because I didn’t come up with the character until chapter four. But he should appear in the earliest chapter if he is to be believed in his backstory in this one. Ervig, on the other hand, was planned to start when Mirabelle arrived. He was not intended to be a pivotal character at this point, but I grew to like him as time went on and it only made sense that he would be in many of the later stories. Expanding on him, and bringing him more in line with his character as portrayed later would be essential.

 

One last note on essential changes. I originally called the village in the Astier territory Mileo, but soon changed it to Milae. This is a little thing, I know. But in my printed edit copy it was still Mileo here. Just a fun note. I like Milae better, so that’s the name I’ll be sticking with throughout.

 

As for changes coming to this chapter, it will be one of the first major rewrites for the introduction. I’d like to focus on Roheis’ wedding. It is the final chance to show the differences for a while and will give a little more time to expand on their characters. Bastien will be introduced earlier, so he will mostly stay the same, but be brought closer in line with later appearances. The ideas of this chapter will still serve as the breakpoint from her life as she knew it to her new life, but I think they’d do well to be expanded upon.

 

As always, I hope you enjoy this look into one of my first draft chapters.

 

Fair Winds,

 

Museless Bard

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Marches – Chapter 04

Mirabelle comes to the Vouivre

Mirabelle had dwelled on the thoughts for some time since Tienette left. After about six seasons, the time for her sister’s wedding came. It was decided that after the wedding, she and her entourage would leave for Vouivre. There would be no returning home for her. She knew that going in, and she had been able to collect a few things to take with her. Most importantly, she had decided it was for the best. A few weeks with her sister, and then a year in the province of her ancestor’s enemy to see if she could even go through with her own wedding.

For those few weeks, she concentrated on Roheis, though. She traveled with her, spoke to her, watched her as her nerves ran rampant. The journey was long, but as soon as they were free of their father’s eyes, the girls were quick to be themselves.

Roheis had grown up into a tall, slender woman. She was like her siblings in that she had her stark white hair, and her eyes were a pale clouded gray. It gave a strange look to her face, one that had a certain etherealness to it, but a deep and sometimes disturbing look of distance. Her eyesight, however, was not poor or diminished. Quite the opposite. She had been blessed with an astonishing sight. Unlike Mirabelle, she had not shown an aptitude for courtly intrigue, and after much convincing her father relented to allow her to train with more martial affairs.

It worked out well, though. Her martial prowess caught the eye of a nearby family who had a son seeking a bride. With old ties between the two families, it was fortuitous, to say the least. Roheis had even been lucky enough to meet him a few times before the arrangement was finalized.  They even had started a sort of friendly relationship. Though, thanks to tradition, that ended when their marriage was announced. She felt an entirely different sort of anxiety from her sister as they prepared for her wedding. She looked forward to her arrangement.

 Her husband to be was Marquis Ghislain Girardin de Tirmont. He was the only son of the Girardin family and inherited his father’s lands and rank young. There was no way around describing him as perhaps the best of men. He was kind, generous, selfless, and the epitome of chivalric. He was powerfully built, and handsome – with bright golden hair and deep green eyes. He was an experienced and renowned knight, a champion jouster. The list could go on, and on. To his credit, one would never have guessed he would have had that many accomplishments under his belt by talking to him. He was humble, and genuinely more interested in others than himself. Still, for Mirabelle, it was hard not to dislike him a little bit because of it. Or maybe she was just upset that she was betrothed to some vagabond, and her sister was bound to the epitome of Republic chivalric thought.

Envy did not particularly suit her, though, and she would chase away the thoughts as soon as she could. Instead, concentrating on the excitement her sister showed. The wedding was small, and a relatively private affair, however. It took place in the Tirmont Castle, overlooking their small province. A priest, some family, and a few friends of the bride and groom, and that was it. Then it was over, and everyone went their separate ways. Including Mirabelle.

 She spent the next few weeks on the road, with a mere handful of attendants. Coralie came with her, as did her long-time personal bodyguard, a templar by the name of Sir Avent Bastien. Bastien was not the largest or most powerfully built man. He was not a young man. He had served as her bodyguard from the time she was born, his sole duty to protect the children of the house of Lune. He was getting older now, his hair graying and face beginning to show the wrinkles and marks of age. His skill with a sword had not been needed for a long time, and she hoped it would stay that way. She had a handful of other servants and guards with her as well.

Much of the journey was pleasant, as it was still late spring. They passed through Ava and into the great fields of the Licorn banner lords. Their lands were untamed, but the Licorn respected the Ava, and by association the people of Cote d’Argent – so for a young noble on her way to wed, they were sure to keep the way clear and safe. It was an uneventful journey. They rarely even saw the Licorn riders, a fact that Mirabelle was a bit disappointed with, by the time they reached Vouivre territories.

As they crossed the border into the territories of Vouivre, she felt that the very plants and sky changed. Everything seemed darker and colder. The looming mountains in the distance likely didn’t help things either. It was sparsely populated along the roads. They rarely passed by peasants or traders, and when they stopped in various villages, it was quiet and often people treated them with suspicion or distrust. It was a long journey still for them, as the Astier were a border family. She spent much of her time there in the carriage, partly due to the anxiety of the event, but partly due to her view of the countryside around her.

After weeks of journeying, they finally arrived in the evening, just as dusk was beginning to set in and she was called by Bastien.

“My lady d’Argent. We’ve arrived at the frontier village of Mileo.” His gruff voice bellowed back towards her.

It almost startled her, but she didn’t say anything back for a moment. Coralie, on the other hand, was quick to sit up and move about the carriage, collecting items for her lady. For a moment, she watched and finally nodded, “Thank you, Bastien. Let us know when we reach the manor.”

“With all due respect, Lady Mirabelle, you may want to see this.” The old man’s voice. “You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

She sighed and shook her head. She moved to the carriage door and pushed it open, the mounted templar catching it as it opened. Their group continued moving, and she glanced out to him. With a gauntlet covered hand, he pointed out towards the village that they approached. She turned, and for the first time her eyes fell on the place, and it took her breath away.

Along the road, there were two great willows marking the border of the town. They were enormous trees, who’s branches reached out over the road and created an almost natural arch. Dangling willow branches were scattered throughout the arch and hanging from some of the branches were small lanterns, flickering lightly in the wind. As she looked about, the lanterns were everywhere in the village that she could see. They hung from the eaves of houses and shops, from the trees and paths, illuminating the way for weary travelers.

Below the trees though, were the banners of her house – the silver crescent on a blue shield supported by white stags on either side. The full coat of arms of her house hung under the willows’ branches, with small versions hanging from countless buildings. The people of the village had gathered to see her arrive as well. Not the nobility, the people. As the first spotted her out of her carriage she heard a cheer. The cheer grew, and people shouted. She could barely hear them, but it was impossible for her to miss the words Fille de Lune. They were certainly waiting for her.

She glanced at Bastien, who merely smirked at her. “I think they’re excited to have you, my lady.”

“Why?” She asked, but she never got an answer. A horse rode to meet them and Bastien spurred his own on to meet the rider.

“Hail, travelers! Welcome to Milae.” The chain mail-clad rider spoke, putting a fist to his chest in salute, as the other hand held tight the reins of his steed.

“Hail, rider,” Bastien called back as he road to meet him. “I am Sir Bastien, templar of Lune, and protector of Lady Mirabelle d’Argent. We are here at the invitation of Marquis and Marquise Astier.” He spoke.

“Wonderful! We’ve been expecting you and hope your travels have been pleasant and uneventful. I am Ervig de Milae, the Astier family has allowed me to act as the steward of this village, and I am honored to serve as Captain of her militia.” He spoke proudly, waving back to the village. “Our people wished to welcome the lady themselves. I hope that isn’t a problem. They don’t grasp the security problems that presents.”

“No, I think it is a good sign.” Bastien spoke frankly, “Though, it has taken my lady aback, it seems.”

“I feared it may be a bit -,” Ervig was surprised when he saw Mirabelle wave a hand.

“It is a bit much,” Mirabelle called out from the carriage. “I want to walk from here.” She was not asking, she was doing. She stepped out of the carriage and onto the dirt path below. Coralie jumped out after her and fell into line.

“My lady, we’re honored. But for your security,” Ervig spoke swiftly, noticing the templar shaking his head and starting to dismount.

“Is it unsafe?” She asked as she approached the front of the line and began to pass the horses.

“Yes, any situation with this many people can be dangerous.” Ervig watched as she passed by him, and then he seemed to panic a bit. Her templar had not even caught up with her yet, and she was walking down the road towards the mass of villagers. He swallowed and quickly dismounted, barely getting off the horse before the old man had stepped past him as well. “In addition, you are a daughter of the Duc du Cote d’Argent… we are on the border.”

She was not listening, instead, she set her pace faster. Coralie and Bastien kept pace with her, with the rest of her guards following suit with the horses and carriage. Ervig rushed to catch up with her. She didn’t know what to do, but she had decided she wanted to know why these people came to meet her, why they were excited. It was, perhaps, dangerous. If they were to be her people though, she wanted to start off right. Or at least, what she thought of as right.

As she approached, the crowd seemed to grow a bit less boisterous if only out of surprise. She slowed a bit at that but then moved forward to the first of the villagers that met her eye and stepped forward. It was a young mother holding a child. She gave a warm smile, and the mother gave as low a bow as she could.

“My lady, you honor us.”

“No, no,” Mirabelle said softly. “You honor me. I didn’t expect any fanfare or welcome – much less to see your home lit up with my colors.”

“We want you to feel at home, my lady,” The mother said with a little bit of a crack in her voice as nerves caught up to her. Around her, others tried to but into the conversation, and Mirabelle seemed to adjust and respond to as many as she could.

“We brought in foods from your homeland,” A local cook called out.

“Our minstrels have learned your songs,” Another person added.

“We even planted flowers from the Coast in gardens around town,” There were so many more words cast to her though.

Mirabelle gave a smile and finally replied. “Thank you all.” She raised her hands, “I don’t know how to repay you.” She admitted, “But, I also want to know your culture. Your foods, your songs, your flowers.” She gave a warm bow. “After I’ve settled in, I hope you’ll allow me to get to know those things with you. For now, this will…” She nodded, “This will help me feel at home.”

“We’re glad, my lady.” The mother spoke to her quickly.

“We hope it will be your home,” Ervig admitted from behind. “Someday.”

“Ervig, Bastien,” Mirabelle turned back towards them. “I’d like to walk to the manor. Can you order the carriage to follow at a distance? And Ervig, please introduce your people as you can.”

They did as ordered, and for the next few hours, the lady and her entourage made slow progress through the village. They met and spoke with so many villagers. She never lost her spirit and spoke to so many guests her voice threatened to fail her. Eventually, though, the end of the crowd was reached. While many still played music and cheered behind her, they did seem to stop following at the gates of the manor house.

Valamir and Tienette were standing at the doors of the manor when she arrived, flanked by their personal guards and a few manor guards. They were still masked, but they seemed different. Maybe it was the conversations she had during all those nights with Tienette. Neither were dark unknown figures. They were like her, and like the people of the village, they were excited to see her.

Tienette spread her arms and stepped out to greet her, foregoing the normal noble greeting of a bow, and offering a more familial expression. “Mirabelle, it is good to see you well,” For whatever reason, Mirabelle was excited to see her, and fell into her arms – and the two embraced like family.

“It is good to see you as well, Tienette,” Mirabelle replied hoarsely.

“My lady, please,” Bastien spoke swiftly, before bowing to the lord of province. “Forgive her familiarity, my lord. She has had a long day.”

Valamir laughed at the templar, “No, no. She has earned it.” He offered a hand out to the man, “We are genuinely glad to have her, and her attendants with us. You are?”

“Sir Avent Bastien,” Bastien spoke as he took the hand and stood.

“A templar. Vedast was worried about dark magic?” Valamir spoke quietly.

“No, sir. Not that I am aware of. When I was a young squire, I had visions of a white stag. One night, it led me to the Temple. It was the night Lady Mirabelle was born. I saw the stag again for nights after. It was never far from her.”

“Gods. That’s a clear sign.” Valamir smiled as he put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I am not a devout follower of Lune, but even I can understand that one. Bessus doesn’t have as good a story for me.”

“I do not, sir.” The Marquis personal guard said from nearby.

Tienette and Mirabelle had been talking for a few moments when the Marquise started to guide her into the manor. Mirabelle stopped her though, “Marquis, I did not mean to leave you out of the greeting. I am glad to see you as well.”

“No need to worry, my lady,” Valamir said with a dismissive wave. “I’m elated that you were excited to see Tienette. I know I still have a long while to earn that sort of greeting from you.”

 

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Day Shift – Chapter 14

Black Friday

               Black Friday came the next day. As far as Mattias could tell, this and the following few days were the real Holiday as far as most people were concerned. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday; this trifecta was a period of holy days set aside for the almighty dollar. Everything seemed to revolve around this particular weekend in the business world, and where business circled civilization was drawn. That thought was not meant as a judgment, though he did feel that the idea of Thanksgiving got a little overshadowed in the modern era.

               An odd thought, he could admit, for someone that spent their entire holiday alone normally. Really, the day before had just reminded him of how important it was to have that connection to someone else as the genuine holidays approached. It made him rethink his plans for Christmas itself. He had planned on doing something unsurprisingly similar to his Thanksgiving if he was being honest with himself. It didn’t sound as nice after the day spent with Ashley. He was getting sentimental in his old age. Or at least he felt more sentimental than he normally did.

               Part of him wondered if it was the Sun that did it. If there was something about being in the sunlight more often again had reminded him of his humanity, and his need for other souls to be around to really feel like himself. Though, he doubted that. Really, it was likely just the situation. He felt like he may have genuinely helped her out, and that helping another person was what made him feel more human. He was sure that was the case if he actually thought about the situation for more than a few seconds.

               It was odd what one’s mind would do while sitting alone.

               He had come to the office for the first shift for Black Friday. That meant he was in before the sun came up. While he wasn’t the only person in the office, he was one of less than ten, when normally a couple hundred people would be in the office. It was quiet, and the lights were dim. He was essentially alone in his little part of the massive cubicle farm. He didn’t even have the luck of needing to work early in the morning. He was essentially just sitting quietly and waiting for the hell to start.

               It was the calm before the storm. The truth was, they were an entertainment company. Most people who were up at this point were out doing shopping, snatching up deals and fighting over doorbusters and the like. Once that first wave got home, then things would start. The many people that wanted to go ahead and set up their services, or maybe more realistically the people buying for themselves, would be running into problems and talking to their locations throughout the country. So then, he would hear the other poor saps here early start taking calls and typing away and know that his job was about to begin. As problems started cropping up at the locations and with the team here, then he would start taking calls.

               For now, though, it was a wonderful mix of dimly lit lighting and quiet clicking on keyboards as people worked. Well, ‘worked’ may have been code for sitting around on whatever social media or streaming site the worker preferred. There was nothing to do for the moment. In his case, Mattias was being boring. He was reading the news and sipping on his usual drink. The red bottle was about half empty, encouraging him to swirl it about in his hand as he sat in the quiet. It was strangely enjoyable to him, despite the nature of the news. It was all rough, except the occasional hidden gem of good news. Still, it was a decent way to start the morning.

               As the morning pushed ever towards dawn, he began to hear others beginning to receive calls. Light murmurs of talking from other teams began in earnest and once one started, it seemed like the floodgates fully opened. Within minutes of that wave beginning, his station was lighting up as well. He set aside the half-finished drink and went to work.

               Now, it was hard to describe this particular work if you had not done it before. The calls began and they did not slow down for hours. It was a genuine blur of activity. The conversations were all forgettable. The job was simple. Answer the call, fix the problem if possible, and then move on to the next. There was no pause between the calls, though. There was not a wait. You had time to hang up and take a breath. Maybe take a drink. Then another one was rolling through. Everyone on every side was dealing with the same thing. Workers that called just needed whatever it was fixed, and then they went back to the front.

               The only saving grace of this sort of shift was just that. You were too busy to think. No single guest became memorable in a way that would stick with you until the next. You didn’t have time to hold grudges or feel offended. There was someone else who needed help, someone next in a never-ending queue of folks that thought their issue was the biggest one you needed to address. And for that few minutes, it was. Then you’d move on. In a sick sort of way, he preferred this route to the normal job. He loathed taking it home, but he’d be too tired to care by the end of the day.  

               This year. He was lucky. He wouldn’t have a lot of stories to share with anyone. His worst one was from a manager just opening the store. A line had been waiting out front for the new hot release, stacked in a long line in freezing weather all in service to hope to be at the store before supplies ran out. The manager was calm and collected, though. She had just reached the store and gone in to get ready and realized something was off. A couple of things, really. And that made her unique.

               “Hey, GEC, store one oh nine two here. I have a couple problems if you have a minute,” She said clearly. There wasn’t a waver or a bit of nerve in her voice.

               “Sure, shoot. What’s the problem? S. Problems.” Mattias corrected himself.

               “Okay, first one is easy enough,” She spoke, a little sound of a crunch as she nibbled on something. It sounded like nougat. He only knew that because nougat and coffee was a good way to start, and one he used to do a lot. One of those things that he sometimes missed too. “Lady’s water broke in my line. EMTs are en-route, but it kinda made a hazard. Can I use the employee entrance for folks until I can clean that up?”

               Mattias blinked as his computer screen for a moment. The technical answer was no. Employee entrance was too close to stock to let guests through at their normal locations. “That’s a good one. Normally, no.” He said with a nod to himself, “If you don’t have something to block it off, I guess. But… try to find a way to block it off first.”

               She sighed loudly, speaking with her mouth full after that, “Okay,” She took a second to chew and then continued, “Second. New stock isn’t here.”

               “I’m sorry, can you say that again.”

               “New stock isn’t here.” She repeated, in an almost identical tone.

               “That should have been in before yesterday.”

               “Yup.”

               “And did you file an incident report?”

               “Yup.”

               “And still nothing.”

               “Nope.”

               He paused. The whole short conversation he had been pulling up their internal files. Once there, he saw that she was being truthful. She had filed one the day the delivery should have been made, and one every six hours after that trying to get some traction. No one had sent her anything beyond a simple ‘looking into it’ sort of response. He had access to every team’s responses and looking through he found the logistics reports.

               “Okay,” He said as he read across the logistics report. “Good news or bad news first,”

               “Good news,” She requested.

               “The driver that caused the problem no longer works for us. Also he’s in jail,” Mattias said, “Apparently he stopped to rest that first night, got in a fistfight over a lady,” He omitted the actual word, “And then fought the police when they showed up. Gave a fake name when dragged in. So the company found the truck yesterday, but it had been impounded and they can’t get the supplies back until after the paperwork is all wrapped up.”

               “So not tonight.”

               “Yup.”

               “That was the good news?”

               “Well, you figured out the bad news. Sorry. No way to get you any supplies today,”

               “Any suggestions on what to do with the fifty plus people already kind of on edge because of the baby?” Again, her calm demeanor was far from refreshing. It seemed almost callous. He worried she was just going to give up and leave. Of course, he didn’t really have any skin in the game there, so, she could have and it would not have affected him one way or the next.

               “What do you think is best?”

               “Give them free stuff.”

               “You could. Prepared to explain that to your regional?”

               She didn’t say anything for a second. “Yeah. Lady’s havin’ a baby and my driver got himself pinched.”

               “Yeah. What about an IOU guarantee for the expected supply? And a discount one what they pay for it when they do?” Mattias offered. He really didn’t want her to end up fired. Not over something this far out of her control at least.

               “Okay, that might work. I’ll think about it.”

               “Good, anything else?”

               “No, just thanks,”

               “All part of the job. Call back if you need anything,” He replied and hung up. Normally, he would have given more niceties, but he could see another call waiting. He had to move on. And that was his only interesting call. He kept working, and while there were plenty of calls, none of them past that one could be described as interesting. The call had made him wonder if he sounded as distant on the job as she had if he sounded as ready to be fired and to give up. Today, he didn’t think so, but on a normal day, maybe he would have.

               He finished up his shift about noon when Ashley arrived to take over for the rest of the day. They talked for a minute, but then she was on the phones and he was headed out and home after an exhausting stretch of hours. He’d have the weekend to recover though.

               When he got to the parking lot, he felt the sun hit his skin, and he felt a strong wave of nausea building, so he made it to his car as quick as he could. It had been a tiring day, but something made him feel a bit worse than he expected he would. Even reaching the car, he felt his fatigue build up enough to make him take a second of laying against the steering wheel before finally starting the car and heading out.

               The drive was not bad though. With the Holiday, it wasn’t like there were a ton of people working, and for the most part, he felt it was an easy drive. It felt long, though. He wasn’t sure why. When he pulled into his apartment he found himself at the door with a deep sickening feeling in his stomach. He pressed the door in and found himself in the outer hall. Each footstep felt surprisingly heavy. He didn’t know why at first. Then there was a sense of vertigo. The hall moved with him, twisting about and fighting him as he tried to reach his apartment. This feeling made him uncomfortable, a little agitated. It was frustrating and painful. He wanted to move forward, to get to his apartment and find himself able to rest. He just wanted rest.

               Until something caught his senses. It was a scent. The scent of blood. There was suddenly a taste in his mouth, a great hunger for something salty – something fresh. He needed it. He realized that, though, and pushed open the door to his apartment and quickly slammed the door shut behind. He locked the door behind him. He hadn’t felt this in a long while. He was losing control. He rushed to his fridge, which he opened and searched desperately for one of the red bottles he always had on him. He didn’t see any. The sudden remembrance of the night before came back to mind. He had an extra one or two to eat with Ashley. He only had one left.

               He only half-finished it. The rest sat on his desk at work.

               He felt his face twitch.

               He could smell that blood and it was causing him to lose control quicker and quicker. His vision was blurring, his senses heightening. He felt his teeth itching, a pain in his stomach. There was a coldness overcoming him. The blood was no longer flowing within him, and he would need to eat soon. He didn’t know how long he could hold it off.

               He pulled his phone from his pocket and typed out two words.

               Losing control

               He sent it to Rory and then to Olivia. He wasn’t sure how long he had. There were innocent people at the complex though.

               He threw open his cabinets and began searching like a madman, mumbling to himself and asking again and again where he put it. When he found ‘it’, he pulled it out. The vampire tore the lid off a small plastic jar and moved back to his front door. He poured it in a line along the edge of the door, the smell of garlic taking over the home as he pushed back over to the bedroom and shut that door. He poured another line out there and dropped the empty bottle. He took a deep breath, coughing and hissing through the smells for a second. His eyes darkened and for the first time in a long time, the sun from his kitchen window burned to the touch.

               Control was gone at that point. He knew there was blood nearby, and he needed it.

               He wanted it. Once it was dark… he would have it.

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Marches – Chapter 03

Mirabelle

Ten years had passed since that fateful night when the Astier had come to her home, and despite her father’s attempts, the proposal was officially accepted and a plan for marriage put underway. Before that, though, there was one more meeting required between the two families – excepting the bride and groom would not be allowed to meet. As the weeks before their second visit to her home came and went, she found herself unable to do much but continue her studies. She poured over information about the Wyverns, specifically the Astier. She was not bashful about hoping that she would be able to find some way to refuse them, something to excuse her from this duty.

In truth, she was terrified. Her parents had spent much of her life explaining the horrors of the people of Nid de Vouivre. They were descended from barbarians and bandits and gave no weight to the honor that the rest of the nations so firmly stood by. Nothing she found changed her mind, but she could not square that away with the fact that her Majesty would call on them often as advisors and members of her court. A lady of virtue and honor, who trusted a veritable band of thieves.

Mirabelle had grown well, her looks straying away from her mother a bit as she aged. While her pale eyes and snow-white hair were as striking, she had grown thin and tall for a woman of her kin. Most importantly though, she was intelligent – much more so than her sister, or perhaps even besting her older brother. She learned quickly and was incredibly well-read and observant in all things, but especially with those actions of the people around her. She had become a natural in court and was even trained alongside other future ladies of her Majesty’s Court. Her mastery of the Masquerade grew from her people’s natural grace and the strict codes they followed to ensure their path was a pure one.

A waste, now that she would be cast with devils.

One morning after they had returned, when the sun was still low, Mirabelle sat in her room watching the wisps of snow tossed about by the wind. It was still warm enough that the snow would not amount to much, at least not for some time – but it had begun to freeze to the stone windowsills and shaded patches of earth around her home. Her handmaiden entered her chambers after a small knock. She was a timid young thing, from some distant foreign part of the kingdoms.

“My lady,” She said in a whisper, bowing and holding herself low to keep from drawing her mistress’ ire. “Marquise Tienette Astier is here and she asks if you would like to join her for a walk along the seashore.”

“Tell her no.” Mirabelle said with a shake of her head. “Give her whatever excuse you like.”

“Yes, madam.” The handmaiden spoke, backing out of the room.

This scene was growing old for the young woman. She wondered at the Marquise persistence and willingness to be rejected at every turn. She had no intention of spending time with them and hoped it would drive a wedge between them early. Despite her father’s demands and threats, she would not be moved to give them an inch.

Then something odd happened. Sitting in her room, she spotted a woman walking along the shore. She was alone, with one hand held out before her pausing to catch and examine snowflakes as they fell around her. Mirabelle was a bit confused. She had thought, like everything else, that it was an attempt to speak to her and put a dent in her resolve. The Wyverns’ were all tricksters, all working some scheme to get their way. She shook her head. “Coralie, come in here please?” She asked loud enough for her handmaiden to hear.

“Yes, madam?” The timid girl spoke as she pushed the oaken door open.

“Did the Marquise take her walk?”

“She is still on it. Yes.” The handmaiden spoke as she gave a quick bow.

“And yesterday, when she asked if I would join her for dinner?”

“I don’t understand the question, my lady. I’m sorry.” Coralie nervously replied.

“Did she adjust her plans?”

“No, my lady. She ate alone when you declined.”

“And the did she walk the gardens?”

“Yes, madam. I believe she even picked a few of the winter bloom flowers.” The handmaiden gave a nervous shrug, “She did ask for a weight to press them, though I believe that is the only change from the invitation she gave to you.”

Mirabelle turned to her handmaiden. “Has she spent the entire time she has been here alone?”

“Yes, madam. When not with your mother or father, or at another function required of her, she has reliably asked me to give you an invitation to join her and then carried on as invited.”

“Why?”

“I’m sorry, madam, she hasn’t shared that with me,” Coralie said softly.

“Coralie, bring me a coat – and get one for yourself,” Mirabelle ordered, standing from her position. She quickly moved to find her boots, and her handmaiden soon returned with a warm furred coat. She was quick to wrap it about her shoulders and headed out of her room and into the complex.

Coralie struggled to keep up, walking fast behind the young lady. As they passed through the corridors, she spoke to no one and eventually turned out of the main complex and followed the paths out to the beach.

Soon enough, she found herself a few lengths away from the Marquise, who stood just at the waterline watching the snowfall over the cold gray waters of winter. Mirabelle couldn’t think of anything to say at first. The woman she saw was so different than what she was used too. She didn’t wear the silken gowns she was used too, instead a blouse and pants. While they were nicer than many, they were practical and well worn – and at her hip she wore a blade. Then there was the mask. That basilisk mask hid her eyes and much of her face. Even the dark colors gave a foreboding look to her, but here she seemed different.

“My lady, you honor me.” Tienette’s voice broke the silence, but she didn’t turn to greet the young woman. “I didn’t expect you to join me today. Your girl said it was too cold.”

“What are you doing?” Mirabelle asked with little empathy in her voice.

“Enjoying the snow on the beach.” The woman responded softly.

“You are Tienette au Basilic. But you are walking the beach alone?”

 The woman laughed softly, “Yes, I am. I thought it might be something we both enjoyed. There is little prettier than light snow over the sea, is there not?”

“Why did you eat alone last night?”

“Because you did not join me.” Tienette paused and turned to the young lady finally.

“You could have eaten with another or your husband.”

The woman sighed. “I suppose. But to be honest, I was in no place to go see eat with another.”

“Why?”

“Honestly, because my husband does not like to see me cry.”

There was a long pause. Mirabelle was silent. “Why would the Basilisk cry?”

There was a moment when she caught a glimpse under that mask. Flushed cheeks, an awkward twist of her lips. It was bittersweet, the only way to describe it. It was a sad look. “I…” She shook her head, and then there was a small smile that crept across her lips. “I had this fantasy on my way here.” She took a breath, “I knew you would be resistant. I was when my marriage was decided. But I thought maybe I could find something we both enjoyed, some way to bond and find some common ground to stand upon.” She let out a chuckle at herself, “The fantasy was that you and I would actually be fast friends. When you were a girl, you were not scared of anything. Or at least your curiosity overruled your fear. Something we shared.”

She paused for a moment, before giving a shake of her head. “Truthfully, in the stories I hear, I see myself a lot. I hoped we would be close.” She let out a long breath, “Unrealistic, even in the best situations. I hope you’ll forgive me – it isn’t something to put on you.”

Mirabelle was a bit confused by the display. It seemed genuine. More than genuine even. She glanced at Coralie with an inquisitive look, and the girl simply gave back a quick nod. It hastily confirmed the sincerity of the woman’s admittance. It was something she didn’t understand, that she couldn’t understand.

“Why?” Mirabelle asked. “Why did you hope?”

“Because, my mother in law is a challenge, but we did connect over dueling.” Tienette gave a soft shake of her head and then looked away to the sea one more time. “It made the transition to a wife much easier for me.” She took a long breath of the sea air and gave a sideways glance across to the young woman. “You don’t believe me.”

“I,” Mirabelle started to say something, but she realized she had been blindsided a bit. “I don’t know.”

“My lady, if I may…” Tienette spoke quietly, “Wyverns have a reputation, often well deserved, but just as often one they cultivate. But we are her Majesty’s subjects, just like you. Our worlds are not so different.”

“You are monsters.”

Tienette laughed at the term and gave a nod. “I see you remember our first meeting. My husband loves nothing more than to play into the stories.” She stepped towards the sea. “Why am I called Basilisk?”

Mirabelle didn’t say anything.

“You studied us, did you not?”

The girl gave a nod and finally answered. “You are Tienette au Basilic,” She swallowed, “You kill with a single glance, more poisonous than the deadliest viper.” She paused a moment, glancing across the woman and letting her eyes fall to the blades at her hip. “And you are never without your Fangs.”

Tienette nodded and spoke softly. “When you face the Basilisk, you are already dead. To turn towards her is to invite death, as even a single gaze will steal the life from your blood. The only way to win against such a creature is to look away.” She took a breath, “Exaggerations, I assure you. I am a competent duelist and have been lucky. I simply never denied the other stories and they grew from there. Do you know what I spend most of my time doing?”

Mirabelle shook her head.

“I handle our estate’s books. I make sure that everything run’s smoothly. My husband is often dealing with our province’s court dealings, so that leaves the day to day things to me. So, I spend a lot of time working with the villages under our care.” She smiled to herself. “It is not as glamorous as the claims that I am some great assassin.”

Mirabelle just stared for a moment more, saying nothing. With the wind coming in along the coast, she took a breath of the cold sea air and finally relented. “I’m sorry.” She said quietly. “I misread your intentions.”

“No, you were cautious.” Tienette corrected. “A bit prejudiced, yes, but all the same. That is something our people hold higher than most of the other kingdoms. Still, I only want to get to know you. I hope to find some common ground, of course, but perhaps more importantly, I am still a mother. I want to know I’ve made the right decision for my son.”

Mirabelle nodded, speaking softly. “Then, a small dinner tonight? To make up for the others missed.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Tienette admitted with a little bit of excitement in her tone. “Thank you, lady d’Argent.”

The young lady was not sure what to say, and merely let the words lie there with a bow before she turned and headed back to the towers. She looked back after some time, with Coralie following behind her as close as she could. The air was chilling more as the day pressed on, and she knew that meant more snow would come. Coralie’s breath was already beginning to show with each exhalation. It was the sign of a storm, the air continuing to cool despite the day wearing on. She noticed that Tienette had not moved much, though. Instead, she took a seat there on the sand, watching the sea.

The Basilisk would stay there for nearly another hour, before finally heading inside to prepare for their meal, and the young silver lady would return to her quarters to do the same. She began to read a bit more, calling on Coralie to fetch everything they could about the province that Tienette and Valamir oversaw. There were the legends she had always heard of the Wyverns’ Nest, but now she needed to know more.

In the stories, the place was under the shadow of the Great Mountains, hidden away and well protected, but with dangers around every turn – from bandits and raiders to monsters and worse. It was described as a scary place, but in looking through the books and scrolls she had been brought, she found the province of her prospective family to be anything but that. Located in the foothills of the Great Mountains, it was a lightly forested region known for crags and rock formations in the hills, but with a lot of fertile valleys thanks to the abundance of streams. To the north, it was bordered by the Great River, and to the south the dense forests of the Rane province.

When she looked up the holdings of the Astier family, she was surprised to find they were on the borders of the Rane province and the Wylds to the East. The couple hamlets and single village in their domain were small. They had a few farms that kept the populous fed and happy, but really it was just a small region with little of import. That was, except for may the road. It was the only Kingdom rode between Rane and Vouivre, and in turn, was the only way to get from the outer provinces and kingdoms to places like Ava by foot. But even then, it was rarely visited, as it was generally faster to travel up the river or by sea.  It was just a small, poor, corner of the Republic.

There was a bit of curiosity that climbed into her thoughts as she flipped through the tomes that she had collected, all spread out across the room and opened to their appropriate location. She was used to having to find answers herself, and this was no different. As she searched, she found herself almost disappointed that there was nothing more groundbreaking. For the rest of the day though, she would study up on as much as she could, knowing that nothing would really prepare her in a day, but knowledge of the region would make her meal a little bit easier if nothing else.

As the evening approached, Mirabelle changed into simple dinner attire and went to meet with Tienette. The dinner that night was surprisingly pleasant, if mostly uneventful. The cooks prepared a few light courses for the two, and they sat in a small antechamber and talked.  Before the young girl had realized it though, hours had passed and they were still talking. It was mostly of little things, soft conversation designed to be more or less unimportant. It gave some great insights for both though, she found that Tienette was a fan of dry wit, that she painted when she had the spare time, and that she enjoyed snow so long as she was able to just watch it. Apparently, their manor was surrounded by willows, and with light snow, there was little the Marquise found more beautiful. Mirabelle was similar in a lot of ways, though she still was not willing to admit it. More importantly, both women were straightforward and a bit brash.

For the first time, that night, she saw the Marquise as just another woman, though. Despite the fact that she still wore the basilisk mask, she wasn’t a monster. She was bound by the same sort of honor rules. They were odd, in ways, but they did pique her curiosity. So, for the next few days, they would have a meal together and chat. The snows came, and they laid heavy upon the island. Mirabelle was astonished to watch the Marquise walk along the paths of snow so happily each day, and they would trade stories over meals at night. Finally, after a couple of weeks, though. This came to an end. They met again, and while she knew they would leave soon, she found herself not looking forward to that day.

Tienette joined her for a meal that last night, as she had for many days, but seemed quiet at first. Then, as questions bounced back between the two, one question was hung in the air that all of her training and etiquette could not find a polite answer for.

“Do you want to marry my son, Mirabelle?”

There was a long pause. Neither moved or spoke and for that pause neither woman would move or adjust. It was as if time froze with the question.

Finally, “No.” was the word that slipped from the young woman’s lips. She shook her head. “I’m not ready to marry yet, and while I know these things are arranged for me, I…” She sighed. “I don’t know him, or your culture or people.” She shook her head quickly, “I’m sorry.”

“No, that’s the right answer. You’ve never met him.” Tienette spoke softly. She let a lingering sigh escape her lips and then turned away from the young woman. “Would you consider coming and living in our old manor for a year?”

“What? I’m not sure I understand…”

“Traditionally, a woman of marrying age will come live near her husband for a few months.” The Basilisk’s words were calm, “I thought, maybe, if you came early and lived among our people you might not find everything so daunting.” Her head shook softly, and she reached up to adjust her mask for a moment. “You’d be allowed your own support. Your girl, some guards, whoever you like really, could come with you and stay with us for the time. I could keep having meals with you. You could meet my daughter and youngest son. And maybe,” She huffed, “Get to know my fool of a husband when he isn’t living up to his reputation.” She turned back to Mirabelle.

For a moment Mirabelle started to speak, but then her eyes landed on the woman’s fingers. They gently pressed against the bottom of her mask, pressing up and raising it softly. For the first time, she saw the woman’s face. She was, well, normal. There were no monstrous scars, no ethereal or wicked beauty, no disfigured face – she was just a woman. She was, actually, disarming. Her face was rounded softly, with lower cheekbones than most. Her eyes seemed bright and were a striking blue that differentiated her well from the other men and women of her province, but the mask cast shadows and kept such things well hidden. She had a slightly crooked nose too, once you got to where the mask normally rested. She smiled and tilted her head softly to one side before she removed the mask fully and sat it down on the table.

“And if after half a year, still three months out from your marriage, you can let me know if you want to stay or go.” She spoke quietly, “No tricks, no cost to you. Just a promise from one woman to another.” She offered her hands over to her, crossing the table with a warm if nervous smile on her lips.

Mirabelle was astonished. This wasn’t something that she had expected, or even really considered. She saw the offered hand, turned up towards her and laying on the table waiting. Her eyes drifted to the mask, and then back to Tienette. She didn’t know what to say. “How will you get permission from my father?”

“I’ll ask.” Was the only reply.

For a moment Mirabelle was terrified about the prospect. She didn’t know what to say or what to do. She was scared, and it showed on her face for a time. She didn’t know how her father would react, or even if it was something she should do or that she wanted to do. But as she dwelt on the topic for a few more minutes, she finally showed her decision with a slow nod.

“I think I will agree.” She said, resting her hands atop Tienette’s. “I’d like to see your home. But it will need to wait until after my sister’s wedding.”

“Of course. Family first.” Tienette said giving a quick squeeze to the girl’s hand. “Leave everything to me.”

 

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