First New Moon (on or about Nuwmont 1, 998AC)
I cannot go into the specifics of the Greensinger’s ritual. Some would equate it to the Naming ceremony of the Ylaruam. Certainly there was water involved— cold snowmelt from the Black Peaks. Much to Aurora’s irritation, her sister had to shed a few drops of blood, as did I. Vows were spoken in the Druid’s tongue. Offerings were made to several different Immortals.
Sollux was well on its way over the horizon by the time the ceremony was done, the incenses mingling with the morning fogs of the grove. Silva ate the offered bowl of fruits and cream. I had no stomach for breaking my fast from the night before. How could she stand the curdling, sinuous writhe of the magic’s taint? It throbbed, like a second heartbeat, lingering in my bones and joints like some scabrous fever, a sickly heat against the back of my eyes. Much like when Seraphina wove her magics, filaments drifted through my vision, but these were the color of Ylari inks, or blood left too long in the sun. Unlike the impressions of the threads of the Spheres, these did not entirely clear, but merely drifted in the fringes of my vision. Small wonder those suffering from the madness always leapt at shadows, the way they crept about the periphery of my vision.
My throat was dry, my voice slightly hoarse from the chanting. I’d tried to sing, but the sound came out like something broken and ragged, unfit for presenting Silva’s petitions to the Immortals.
The Hierarch did not see us off. He arrived to anoint Silva and myself, and present her with the Soul Gem, and then retreated, once he saw that I had the ceremony under control.
Gilliam handed me my pack, once I’d donned my skins and leathers and woolen cloak.
“What? No ring? Did she at least kiss you?”
He laughed at the look I must have given him.
“From what I’d seen of the ceremony, it’s the next thing to marriage.” He glanced at me sideways. “Let me tell you, Thorn, if that demon-touched copy of hers is any indication—“
Seraphina was at my elbow, glancing up into the depths of my hood. She wore the lead wrapped about her left arm, the bracelet dangling. It caught the morning light, gold mixing with the odd silver sheen of the thing.
She held up a waterskin, and I drank reluctantly.
“My strength is yours,” she said, as we worked our way along the western trail. The others were several long strides ahead. “Aurora has taught me something of the magic that she works to push away the… the influence. It is actually quite a simple working of Entropy.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. The sips of water, even, would not sit quietly.
Aurora glanced back at us, hand on the hilt of her knife. She did not speak, not to Sera or I, but leant her head close to Silva’s. The Princess shook her head, shoulders giving a mirthful shake.
“She will not thank you, Thorn. At least, she will not speak those words to you. But I think she is relieved.”
As was I. I had not seen the girl laugh in weeks.
Aurora led the group through the northern new growth, conferring with Silva every now and then when the trails we were using would split. They argued more often than not, but somehow always came to agree on which direction to go.
After one particularly loud disagreement, they actually stomped off down each fork in the path. The warriors looked back to me, as did Ana, and I could only shrug and follow my charge. Sera departed after Aurora, and Gilliam and Varis played a round of odds and evens. They both loosened blades in their scabbards, Varis following me, Gilliam loping down the trail after the other two. Ana shook her head and fell into line behind Varis.
Silva set a quick pace, and only knowing she was a few moments ahead kept me following the trail, which showed no sign whatsoever of her passing.
“Your Highness, even though these woods are the domain of several circles of druids, it is still very dangerous.”
She rounded on me, hands balled into fists. “Niamat. Stop, please, calling me that. I am still your Silva.”
“Very well,” I said, resisting the urge to bow. “Your sister seems to think the western fork a better choice.”
“My sister seeks to use the three waters as a guide, rather than keeping to the shadows of the bones of the world.” Silva frowned as I puzzled over her statement. “I make the wrong words again,” she sighed.
“I can see Aurora’s point,” Varis said. “The foothills of the Cruth are crawling with humanoid tribes. Gnolls and bugbears. Orcs the closer you get to the mountains. The forested outskirts of the woods are tame by comparison.”
“But the haunted keep lies at the edge of the woods, does it not?” Ana asked. “That would mean skirting the ruins. Your sister plays a very close game of Vasta.”
“The pale walkers would make for simpler foes,” Varis mused.
“Simpler foes in greater numbers,” Ana pointed out. “You can only cut down so many before your sword arm tires.”
“The winter will have made the tribes desperate. They’d be just as likely to eat us as the walkers in the mists.”
“Following the bones— the mountains,” Silva corrected herself, “takes us to where we need to be with more haste than my sister’s route. She cannot place my… being safe… over stopping them. I am not so easy to make broken as she believes. We cannot let the yoghini and her servant become more ahead.
“No,” she said, taking hold of my cloak as I turned to go back the way we’d come. “We continue.” She let go, and began making her way along the trail again, more north than west.
We hadn’t made more than another mile’s progress before we heard familiar voices amidst the snapping of underbrush.
“You see?” Gilliam said. “I told you she was all right. You owe me a Royal. And I want one of those thick Blackmoor coins.”
Aurora stomped up to her sister, who hadn’t even turned, nor slowed her pace as the other group approached from the woods.
“It would serve you right if I let some orc tribe carve you up for their stewpot,” the shrike said. “Let all of Father’s work be for nothing because you are too stubborn—“
“Tell me please who it is that keeps the Banishment?” Silva asked.
Aurora clamped her mouth shut. It was a dozen steps before she muttered “You do.”
“Just so,” Silva said. “And who is it to make safe those who keep the Banishment?”
“The shrikes are your honor guard. We are your sword and shield. As we defend you, so do we defend the realm.” Aurora’s answer came as if a reflex, as one would invoke Chardastes’ blessing when a stranger sneezes.
“So if orcs eat first me and then you which of us has failed?”
“The memory pool must be degrading,” Aurora grumbled. “You are even more infuriating than the others remember.”