Last of the Longwinter’s Year (on or about Kaldmont 28, 997AC)
I awoke from dreams of flame to the sound of Sera’s quiet weeping. The ghost of woodsmoke clung to my nostrils, my eyes feeling of gritpaper though the night was cool and clear. My heartbeat began to slow, as the earth beneath my fingers told me of no sign or trace of the roaring inferno that awakened me.
I sat up, saw Seraphina huddled in a ball on the other side of the great tree’s root that separated us. Her face was pressed to her knees, lost further in the fall of her hair, but there was no need to see her face to know she wept. Her body shuddered with each breath.
“Sera?” I called, softly.
My arm stung at the surprise that surged from the bracelet. For a moment, my mouth tasted of ash and acrid smoke and… another scent clung to the memory pressed upon me, and my stomach turned, partly from the smell but mostly from the wave of revulsion that coursed through the bracelet along with the memory.
Like the tidewaters of Marilenev Gulf, the feelings rushed away, leaving me with only a distant notion of the weaver’s presence in the back of my mind.
With the ghostly flames gone from my mind’s eye, I could see Sera peering at me from behind her knees, her eyes wide, red rimmed, as if I were some wolf come to devour her.
“I am worse than possessed,” she said, her voice still thick with tears. “No demon compelled me to burn my whole village to the ground.”
“No,” I told her. “The demon that compelled you was on the other end of that collar.”
“I have done terrible things,” she whispered. “Fire and stone… Men and the things of their making cannot stand against it. I have used the two most sacred things to you druids to take lives. So many lives.” She turned away. “I do not know how you can even bear to look at me.” The ashen taste crept into my mouth again, my stomach roiling in sympathy with Sera’s.
I concentrated, and pushed those feelings back through the connection. Then I rose, and walked around the niche in the roots where the young woman huddled, kneeling down to take her hands in mine. I knew that my feelings would flow to her through the strange bond she’d forged in giving me the bracelet, but… I am a druid. To have something, to hold it, to feel it gives us certainty.
“The fact that you can still feel what you feel, after the burden of years, tells me you are in a far, far different place than demons, be they ethereal or tethered to you through this… device.
“You were there, when I wrestled control of the ceremony away from the demons of winter. They know nothing of remorse, or regret. The only tears they are interested are those they can coax from others. They have none of their own, not for their own kind, not for men or weavers, be they guilty or innocent of any crimes.”
Heat welled up, in a spot just above my stomach. “I did not always do just because my bughael willed it. It was not always done under orders.”
Again, ghostly flames chased across my thoughts, and images danced in the play of the shadows: darkened tents; figures, lit from behind by smoky red-tinged light; the bracelet, left amidst the mats and pillows; a calloused finger diverting her eyes from the gleaming metallic band…
I felt my stomach turn, and this time, the sensation was entirely my own.
The flames and images disappeared, as if made of smoke and shredded by a sharp gust of wind. The warmth seeped into my stomach, settling it.
“You are not at all like them,” Sera said. She looked up, over my shoulder, wiping at her eyes. “We have company.”
Ana stood at the edge of the clearing, Aurora at her side, glowering up at the priestess.
“Can we go now?” she asked. “Every moment we wait—“
“It cannot be done without Thorn,” Ana said. She looked over to me. “I, at least, was worried we would awaken you, but I see that is not the case.”
“Trouble?” I asked, helping Sara to her feet.
“Aurora seems to think so,” Ana said.
“I know. Now, quickly.”
Aurora led us down one of the paths, towards the lean-to where she and her sister were quartered.
Silva tossed, kicking at the blankets of her bedroll, crying out as she scratched at the ground.
Ana knelt by the girl’s head, wrestling as she struggled against the cleric’s grip.
“It is no use. She will not awaken,” Aurora said.
Ana peeled back one of Silva’s tightly-shut eyelids. A sickly purplish-silver light shone, swirling, from her eye. Aurora sucked in a sharp breath. The swirling light grew faster, even as we watched.
“Cover your ears!” the shrike called.
Silva’s back arched, and she let out a shriek. The sound hit like a hammer, and had we not clutched our hands over our ears, I have no doubt the sound would have hurt much more than it did.
And as it was, the pain was enough to drive Sera and I to our knees, bright lights bursting behind our closed eyes.
The terrible sound continued, far longer than I thought possible, and then a ringing, deafening silence dropped over the sound.
I squinted, saw that Silva still thrashed, her mouth open. But Ana’s arrowhead-shaped symbol of her faith gleamed brightly against her breast, her fingers clasped between a prayer and a gesture towards the wailing siren. A dark bead of blood clung to her upper lip, her face drawn.
“What was that?” Sera asked. I could barely hear her through the throbbing ring in my ears.
Aurora motioned us away, pulling Ana after her.
“Now you see why we could not wait?”
“What is happening to her?” Ana asked. Her voice was raw, scratchy.
“The darkness burns in her blood. It is growing to become more than she can control. If we cannot awaken her, she will begin to fade. Her screams will become more powerful. The demons would harness her voice, and make a weapon of it.”
“Is that… even possible?” Sera asked.
“You have heard of the banshee?” Aurora asked.
“The weeping spirit?”
“Druidic legends tell of the groaning spirits,” I said, thinking back on the lore and lessons from some of my earliest days of training. “They are said to roam the borders of Alfheim. The ghostly remains of elven mothers who have lost their children to some tragedy or another.”
Aurora shook her head, glancing over to Ana, but the cleric merely shrugged. “I have heard the word, but only since I have come to these shores. If these exist on Alphatia, then we have not encountered them.”
“Then you are lucky,” the shrike said. “Your lore is wrong, as is to be expected.” She sighed. “So much lost.”
She straightened, suddenly, and the begemmed knife was in her hand as if by magic. Her golden eyes flicked from shadow to shadow in the trees around us.
Dozens of long green cloaks materialized, what I’d thought to be branches actually the sharp points of antlers adorning bark-skinned helms. Swords were held at the ready.
“You dare to bare weapons— iron weapons— in our presence?” The dragonstones smoldered to life on Aurora’s wrists, and her fingers spread, hooked, by her side.
“Be at ease, Daughter of Gold.” The Hierarch strode from a pool of deeper shadows. A gesture of his hand sent the swords back into scabbards beneath the green cloaks. “If they did not act to protect me, I would not have raised them up to Greenwardens.”
Aurora’s posture relaxed, but only slightly. The stones did not go dark.
“My sister is in no condition to tame these dragonstones,” the shrike warned.
“Precisely why I have come,” the Hierarch said. “I bring you my three most potent treatments. Have her drink these, and she will have perhaps another week.”
Aurora frowned. “You said she had more time.”
“Your sister, it seems, is a special case. I performed the Balancing twice. It was not in error.”
“And the Soulstone?”
“I have my swiftest messengers afoot, but even they will take three days.”
“We cannot wait another cycle, if all you can buy her is a sevendain.”
Silva’s fit was nearly another hour in passing, leaving the girl exhausted, drenched in sweat. The Hierarch left, taking the Greenwardens with him. They were replaced with the Dyrmak Eldress’ Diaphanous Guard, a contingent of dark-eyed dryads, and I was quickly escorted away as they made preparations for Silva’s bath.
Sera and I were led to the common clearing, where several of the lay druids worked over the cook fires, stirring at rows of clay pots, or turning rounded flatbreads over on the great cooking stones.
There were no trestle tables, no benches, just a long stretch of dew-wet grass dotted with reed mats. As we passed, a young druid passed us a clay bowl of porridge and a leaf-wrapped bundle containing several wedges of bread. It was no great problem finding Gilliam and Varis, who’s armored figures stood out against the robed and hooded druids.
“Morning greet you,” Gilliam said, pouring cups of cool water for Sera and I.
“And you as well, I said, pouring out a trickle of water into the grass before I sat.
“Ylari custom,” Gilliam said, seeing Sera’s puzzled look. “Greetings, partings, any type of thanks is always begun or ended with an offering back to the land, in the hopes that the Garden will bloom all the quicker.”
She folded her gown about her legs as she sat. “Do you really think that will come to pass?”
The warrior shrugged. “It can’t hurt to try, can it?”
“How is she?” Varis asked.
“I would not give you the hope of saying she is better. The Hierarch’s elixirs need time to work.”
“Do you think it’s true? That she is truly the First?” Gilliam asked.
“It would answer quite a few questions, make sense of several puzzles.” I held up my fingers. “She does not speak a known, living language, as does her sister. She knows customs long faded from memory, as the Baron Halaran pointed out. She can use magics unheard of in the modern age.”
“It is certainly not the magic I know,” Sera said.
“First or not, she is hunted and alone. In need of aid,” Varis said. “Imperial Princess or beggar, we cannot simply leave her to fend for herself.”
“I would not want to get on her bad side, seeing what she’s done to her enemies,” Gilliam said. “And if she is an Imperial Princess…” He grinned. “Just think of the rewards.”
“Don’t go counting your crowns before they’ve crossed your palm,” Varis said.
“Count them? I’ve already spent them!”