The Goddess War

Prologue-The Gryphons

Kaylie was pulled out of her uneasy sleep by the early morning sounds of the manor farm. On the barn floor, far below her refuge in the hay loft, teamsters’ voices made a low chatter among the sounds of horses being led out and hitched into their team. Horses whickered and chuffed, turning her initial panic into a deep aching homesickness.

She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling hot tears making tracks over her dirty face. Another day on the run, another day of constantly gnawing hunger, another day of the terror and loneliness of being hunted down in a strange kingdom, far from home. Angry, she wiped her arm over her face, getting rid of the tears. Crying like a child with a lost sweet wouldn’t help her. She was beyond the law, a deserter from her Laird’s army and trapped in enemy lands.

Kaylie had been born as Moibeal Brìde-Ceilidh ap Dòmhnallach to the Clannad MacMhiadhchain, although the village cleric had been probably the only person to use her full name when she’d been dedicated to the Goddess at their little chapel. Every child was taken, soon after birth and presented to the sigil of their Holy Protector, the Green Lady, in hopes of a long and fruitful life.

And for the first nineteen years of her existence, the Goddess had seen her through the mix of good and bad that marked every life in the little village.

And then, the cavalry of Mad Gregor, the Laird’s War-Chief and Heir, arrived at their village. She’d been out in the fields, far from the secret places the villagers maintained for these kind of events. Gregor’s outriders had caught her in the open with nowhere to hide. They ignored her pleading, not even letting her say goodbye to her family. Kaylie had been conscripted, like so many others, into the latest expedition against the Elvish settlements, far to the east.

She was given an iron cap and a plate with straps to wear over her chest, both ill-fitting. Instead of a sword or bow, she struggled to carry an unwieldy 12-foot pike with the other conscripted soldiers. Shackled and guarded at night, they marched at the rear of the column, in the dust raised by thousands of boots that led the army.

Week after week, they trudged on. Days bled into each other, an monotonous cycle of dust, heat, and stink. She’d tried to keep the calendar straight in her head, but soon Kaylie had no idea how long they’d spent staggering through the dust clouds. It had felt like forever.

Then, one morning, her world changed again.

The night before, Gregor’s army camped beside a broad and shallow river, noisy in its rocky bed. In the setting sun, Kaylie saw that the meadows on the opposite side of the water were invisible beneath the camp of the defenders, their white tents and pavilions glowing golden in the setting sun. It was a stark contrast with the human camp. Of course, the nobles had their own pavilions. Their favored rank leaders even had tents, but the majority of the rank and file huddled out in the open to sleep. Kaylie collected her evening meal and managed to get it down before she fell asleep where she sat.

She opened her eyes again in the pre-dawn half-light, woken by some unknown sound. Yawning, she peered through the early-morning ground fog. There were a series of thumps, and then a high, burbling shriek from her left. A low thrumming sound came from the direction of the river and she got up, confused. She went toward the noise, finding a knot of conscripts gathered around a man who lay kicking weakly in the dirt. A long shaft protruded from the chest of the man, nailing him to the soil. As he went still, Kaylie’s eyes focused on the silver and gray fletching.

A hissing whisper grew in the sky above them and the conscripts looked up, just as the second flight of arrows struck. Another gray fletched arrow hammered through the face of the man next to her, emerging from the back of his head. He dropped to the ground without a sound.

In contrast, there were screams and shouting all around her. Another whispered thrumming from the river sent Kaylie running. Her helmet chest plate felt like anvils, and she pulled them off, leaving them behind as she took cover in a stand of trees.

She stayed hidden through the rest of the day, hearing the noise of the fighting. The thunder of hoofbeats mixed with unearthly bird-screams above them. Once she caught sight of gryphon sky-calvary, wheeling and diving as they harried the humans from above. Kaylie had no idea how long battles were supposed to last but the noise of fighting died away long before the sun had reached its peak overhead.

Still, she stayed hidden, waiting. They’d been told over and over that desertion was a death-sentence. If the humans won, (unlikely), she’d be hung from a tree-branch and left for the ravens to pick clean.

And if the Elves had won…she had no idea what they’d do to a human survivor, but it probably wouldn’t be pleasant. She stayed on the leafy floor of the little copse until well after dark. Then she got up and began to run.

Three days later, she’d come across this large manor and had climbed into the empty hay loft of a horse barn. It was the most comfortable place she’d slept since she’d been dragged away from home.

Once the barn was quiet again, Kaylie crept down the ladder and stole a couple of handfuls of oats from the feed bin. She’d have to eat it raw, but it would quiet her noisy stomach. She’d keep heading west today, looking for anything she might have remembered from the march here.

Kaylie kept to the forest, skirting clearings and any signs of habitation. She hoped that the gryphon-borne elf scouts couldn’t see her under the trees. Otherwise, her doom would be announced with the arrival of an arrow in the back. Or maybe they’d just have a gryphon bite her head from her shoulders. It didn’t matter that she didn’t want to be here, never wanted to be a soldier, never wanted to take part in a battle. An sky rider wouldn’t know that and probably couldn’t care less if he had. All her life, she’d heard stories about the elves and their cold hatred of humans. It was best to stay hidden from the sky, as much as she could.

A few hours after midday, Kaylie came to the end of the forest. There was a long grassy slope leading down to another river she didn’t recognize, and more stony forest beyond that. She knew she had to stay under the trees until darkness, but the oats had made her thirsty and the light glinting off the water was too much for her dry mouth to bear for long.

This stretch of river seemed to be empty. Boulders were strewn across the land here, probably making the idea of farming this side too daunting a prospect. Kaylie lay on her stomach on the bank, drinking until her insides sloshed. Then she left her clothes on the back and used river sand to scrub herself as best she could. It would have been nice to clean her clothes as well, but she’d already been in the open too long. She’d have to be content with whatever dirt the river would wash out as she waded across.

The canvas armor she had was even heavier when she reached the other side. Kaylie began the long process of darting from one boulder to another as she headed for the treeline. As she dashed from a large scatter of boulders, there was a faint whistling rustle from above that turned into a triumphant scream from just over her head.

Before she could find a better place to hide, Kaylie felt a thud through her boots. She spun and saw one of the creatures examining her with intelligent eyes. It had no rider but as the Gryphon folded his wings, she saw that he wore some kind of harness made of green leather. It didn’t matter, whether wild or elf-trained, her fate was the same. The majestic beast’s beak could easily clip the head right off her shoulders. Or, from the look of the massive claws on its feet, disemboweling her wouldn’t be much of a bother either.

She was weaponless, not even a stone or stick in sight. Kaylie breathed a prayer to the Goddess and stood her ground, tired of running. It watched her for a moment then paced to her left. She turned to watch as it circled her. The gryphon made a chattering noise, reminding her of ravens croaking at each other. It paced back in the opposite direction, keeping her pinned against a large boulder. Kaylie clambered up on top of the boulder and it froze, gaze locked on her. Kaylie closed her eyes, face to the sky. Her blood would run down over the rock and into the grass. Her end would bring life to the grass and tiny things, who would pass that life on themselves. It was not a bad death, just sooner than she’d hoped.

“Receive my soul, Green Lady,” she whispered and the massive gryphon struck.

Instead removing her head or entrails, Kaylie’s legs were buffeted, knocking them from under her. Before she had time to fall, Kaylie was seized by the gryphon’s talons. Still, nothing pierced her skin and she opened her eyes again as her body was laid on the top of the boulder, face down on the sun-warmed stone.

The gryphon above her shifted and Kaylie felt a thick talon sliding up her back, from the base of her neck, to the backs of her heels. There was a feeling of coolness and she knew it had to be her blood running out over the rock. The pain was too great to feel and she was grateful. Next, it’s cruel curved beak would begin snapping and tearing, ripping her apart…except none of that had happened. Her heavy canvas trousers and jacket had been sliced away, falling down her sides. She was confused and risked picking her head up to look back at it. The raptor’s head regarding her didn’t show any emotion that she could see. It stood on the ground beside the rock, one paw on her back as it sniffed the air.

A cry echoed down to her and she froze as another gryphon circled low and thumped to the ground. Her captor greeted the newcomer with squawks and chattering as the second twitched its wings into folds and paced closer. Kaylie watched, amazed. She didn’t know much about gryphons, no human did but they were believed to be larger versions of hawks and falcons, vicious predators who killed without a moment’s hesitation.

Kaylie jumped when the beast holding her down made a sort of muted trumpet noise that seemed to have a questioning note. The newcomer replied, making a complex set of noises that sounded much like language to her. Were gryphons actually intelligent enough to speak? The second gryphon paced closer, studying her with obvious intelligence.

The heavy weight was removed from her back and Kaylie scrambled to her knees, kicking the remains of her pants away. With her feet free, she might be able to escape, given half a chance. But the first gryphon squawked angrily, knocking her flat onto her stomach again. Kaylie squeezed her eyes closed, waiting.

Again, a deathblow failed to land. Kaylie jumped as something brushed the skin of her back. She risked a look behind her and saw the gryphon behind her, paws on the stone to either side of her body. Something was emerging from its belly and Kaylie’s eyes widened as she realized the gryphon’s penis had emerged. There was a pointed tip that curved slightly. The shaft was shaped oddly as well, ending in a wide, bulging base that thickened as she watched.

“You’ve got to be joking,” Kaylie muttered as the beast crouched lower.

She was hardly a blushing maiden, Kaylie had grown up on the farm and was familiar with all kinds of animal and their mating habits. Later, she’d imitated them with a special friend. But it had been her life as a conscript that showed her even broader horizons.

Two of the senior file leaders had chosen her as their tent warmer that first week. They were as impatient as any of the other sergeants and hadn’t bothered to wait their turns. Every night for weeks, they’d taken her at once, one at either end. But this was another order of strangeness by far.

Kaylie felt the tip of his cock rub against her hip. It was very warm and the clear fluid it was coated with was slippery. The gryphon grumbled in frustration as it shuffled slightly. The penis flopped over, sliding up the inside of one leg. Her captor made more of the complicated grumbling sounds. She looked back over her shoulder and met its intelligent gaze. No matter how strange it might be, he was indeed trying to get inside of her.

Even though she’d been prepared for death, Kaylie still had a strong desire to survive. She mumbled a quick thanks to the Goddess, grateful for any kind of choice at all. With luck, she’d survive a little longer. They couldn’t hold her down forever, there might be a chance to escape later.

“Great Lady, grant your mercies,” she whispered before spreading her legs wider and edging back, further beneath the gryphon’s belly. His grumbles took on a different note and he thrust again. The head of his cock slid along her inner thigh and pushed hard against her sex.

Kaylie gasped as she reached back and spread herself open, as gryphon pushed again. This time she moaned as the head pushed between the lips of her sex. The gryphon made a triumphant noise and thrust again. Instead of filling her, the slippery head instead slipped upwards and lodged against her rear hole. Kaylie tried to grab the cock and move it back between her legs, but the gryphon didn’t give her a chance. He pushed harder and Kaylie grunted as he pushed into her ass.

She took deep breaths as his cock pressed deeper, straining to relax around him. She done this many times as a girl, it was a sure way keep a child out of her belly. It was usually uncomfortable at first, but her young body had instinctively known how to find pleasure in all kinds of ways. Often, Kaylie had been driven to multiple spasms of pleasure, shoving her bottom back against the intrusion, wanting more.

Kaylie closed her eyes and concentrated on those memories, feeling her back-hole stretch. The gryphon pulled its penis slowly back and she took a deep breath and spread her ass cheeks wide to lessen the discomfort from the strange shape and size. The beast pushed forward, burying about half of his cock in her. It wasn’t burning as much as she had thought, but she felt incredibly full.

He pulled back and pushed forward again, a little slower now that his prick had found a target. As he moved in and out of her, Kaylie was pushed and pulled across the stone below her. The rough surface teased her nipples and her cunt began to moisten. There was the feeling of slippery warmth, melting in her lower stomach as her body began its first climb into the realms of pleasure.

Not bothering to wonder, or fear, or even think, she braced her arms, wanting more of him inside of her guts. Hot tears wet her cheeks again. Kaylie wasn’t sure if it was grief or the shame of enjoying this violation. Kaylie began to pant, grunting as the gryphon forced more of himself up her backside.

There was another scrabble as the second gryphon got his claws on the rock in front of her. The rock was scored with lines as it pulled itself up, presenting her with another erect cock. This one was a bit more graceful than the first and his cock bumped her face on the first attempt. She simply opened her mouth and ran her tongue over the head, before she could pause and think about it. The second gryphon pushed forward slowly, starting to pump her mouth in the same sort of rhythm as the one behind her. The cock in her ass and the depravity of the act filled Kaylie with growing lust and she reached under herself and began to rub at her clit as she was shoved back and forth.

Kaylie began to cum and pushed back against the gryphon, forcing as much as she could into her ass. The gryphon roared and she felt the cock expand in her ass, cum flowing into her, hotter than she would have imagined. There was more than she would have imagined as well, and Kaylie grunted as she felt stream after stream dousing her insides. She’d begun to moan around the gryphon in her mouth but her voice turned into animalistic grunts as Kaylie abandoned herself to the pleasure of another orgasm. Behind her, the cock in her ass was withdrawn as it continued to spasm and she felt the hot cum splatter and run down the back of her legs.

She could sense the pace of the one in her mouth quickening as well and without warning he exploded in her mouth. Kaylie swallowed all she could, but it wasn’t long before it was running out of her mouth. The second gryphon pushed forward as it came and she felt the head slip into her throat, the cum being fired into her belly. She had the sudden thought of the hot cum in her stomach meeting the flood in her ass and she came again, gurgling and gagging on the clock down her throat. It withdrew after a moment and Kaylie coughed and tried to recover as the two gryphons groomed themselves.

Then there were voices from the trees behind her. She sat up on the rock and saw two slim figures wearing forest green emerge from the forest’s edge. As they came closer, she saw that their heads were covered by gray-green cowls and cloth masks covered their faces from the bottom of the throat to the bottom of the eyes. Her heart sank and Kaylie realized that she hadn’t had a chance after all. These were Cloud Ghosts and she was lost.

These Elves were legends, used to terrify children in stories for generations. Every account included the danger of encountering them. Even being in the same county where one had been sighted was considered to be deadly peril. And here were two of them, watching her as they approached. They were speaking quietly to each other in musical tones but their voices fell silent when they came closer. One came to the rock she was sprawled on and the other approached the gryphons, who had retreated a little.

The Elf in front of her unfastened the cowl and mask, letting the cloth fall around her shoulders and throat. It was an Elf woman, unnaturally beautiful, like the rest of her kind. Her eyes were what drew Kaylie’s gaze though, they were a deep indigo and not nearly as cruel as she’d imagined them.

“They both mounted you?” she asked in perfect Common, albeit with a lilting accent.

Kaylie just nodded and those dark eyes studied her closely. The other Ghost made the same kind of grumbling noises at the gryphons. Kaylie wasn’t too surprised to hear them answer her.

She called to Dark-eyes, saying something that sounded more like a brook in summertime than any language Kaylie had ever heard. The dark-eyed Elf laughed and replied in kind. The other stepped closer and lowered her mask, revealing another beautiful Elvish woman, this one with the greenest eyes Kaylie had ever seen. Green-eyes nodded at her and made a complicated gesture between her breasts. Dark-eyes nodded and made a graceful motion that Kaylie took as being told to stay where she was.

Then they both turned to the gryphons, going over and speaking with them for several minutes. Dark-eyes took something from the back of one gryphon and came back to the stone where Kaylie waited.

She put the bundle on the edge of the rock and stepped back. Kaylie opened it and found gray-green pants and tunic. There was a small twisted metal broach there as well as soft leather shoes. She looked up at the elf, confused. Dark-eyes nodded at her.

“Aren’t you going to kill me?”

“Kill you!” Dark-eyes laughed. “We wouldn’t presume to question the wishes of the Great Mistress and she has most definitely chosen you through her servants over there. We have all been chosen this way. When you are dressed, we will journey back to our camp. It is a long walk but we’ve seen you make longer treks since you fled the battle.”

“I’m sorry, Lady Elf, but I don’t understand”

Dark-eyes smiled at that, for just an instant, and it lit her face. “I’m no noble lady. We’ve watched you from the sky since you fled the river. We wouldn’t have harmed an unarmed traveler simply trying to return home. Perhaps your stories would have convinced your Lord to stop sending his subjects to their doom.”

Kaylie shook her head. “I’m from a small place and my family is not important. If the Laird or any of his nobles knew I’d returned, they’d hang me up and twist out my guts before listening to anything I had to say.”

The beautiful elf’s face twisted in disgust. “Humans. Then it is well that our friends here stopped you when they did. Two was unusual though, the Great Mistress must be watching you closely.”

“But I worship the Green Lady and…”

The Elf shrugged. “Great Mistress, Green Lady, Mother of Trees, these are all the same. She saw something in your heart and sent her servants so that we might know you as a worthy soul full of passion and courage.”

“I don’t know what any of this means,” Kaylie said, pulling on the new clothes.

The Elf took the braided metal sigil and put it over her head. “This will show you to be one of us. And you have only to follow the path She’s chosen for you to find all your answers.”

Kaylie’s eyes widened as she realized what the elven woman had been saying before. “You mean, you’ve…” and her glance went to the gryphons pacing around the other stones.

The elf smiled again, as fast as heat lightning. “Been mounted? Eagerly, and often. All of our company is thus. We are mostly female, but a few men have had the spirit to be chosen as well.”

Kaylie closed her eyes as an unbidden image of a beautiful Elf Lord being mounted. Her nipples tightened and there was a liquid warmth between her legs. There was a quiet chuckle as Dark-eyes placed a gentle hand on Kaylie’s shoulder.

“She speaks to you still. When you are composed, we will go and meet your new siblings. There will be a great joy that another rider has been found.”

“Even if I’m human?”

“Especially that you are a Human. Finally, our Mistress has found one of your race who carries Her divine spark. Perhaps the rest of your race is not yet beyond hope.”

Kaylie jumped when one of the Gryphons trumpeted loudly, as if agreed. Dark-eyes took Kaylie’s hand, helping her to the ground.

“Now, let us return to camp in haste,” Green-eyes said in heavily accented Common. “Now that you’ve excited their passions, our own will follow, but this bed of yours isn’t much to my liking.”

“Agreed, it’s far too rough,” Dark-eyes chuckled. “And there’s only room for one up there.”

Both Elves laughed and even the gryphons made a chuckling sound. Kaylie tightened her shoes and followed the two elves, and their mounts, back in nearly the same direction she’d come from. One life had indeed ended on that rock. Now she would begin again, changed beyond recognition. For the first time, thoughts of her future soared and wheeled in her mind, like a gryphon dancing across the sky.

Chapter 1: The Emissary

All of her names and titles took the elderly herald three full minutes to get through. She’d counted the time herself.

The prince on her right leaned closer. “How did he do?” he whispered.

She smiled. “It was a valiant effort but well wide of the mark, I’m afraid. You’ve discovered why we only use our full names when we’re at court. My familiar name is Bemere.”

“Alas, that would make me Purvis,” the prince said.

“Which is completely impossible to with a straight face,” his princess, seated on her other side, added.

The prince leaned forward slightly to look at his wife, a look of fondness and more than a little amusement. In return, the princess gave him a rather saucy wink and pursed her lips in a kiss.

“She’s correct, of course. There hasn’t been any actual laughter, but I do wonder what grudge my father had against me at such a young age. I go by Cal when no one is around to notice.”

“Your Highness, I couldn’t possibly be so familiar,” Bemere protested.

It was the princess’s turn to lean closer. “You are as gracious as you are beautiful,” she said quietly. “But neither of us have any illusions about who, or what we are; my father was a commoner knighted on the battlefield, by the old prince in fact. Our little hold is barely the size of a county, let alone a duchy and beyond our House Guards, our army is non-existent. We are little more than simple fishermen.”

Bemere smiled. “Simple fisher folk with a fleet that is the envy of All-World. And I’d have to say that the Ten Thousand Islands must lend some extra territory.”

“Does it? Sadly, statecraft is beyond a simple wife like myself.”

The princess smiled at her, not fooling Bemere for a moment. Whatever her parentage, this human woman had a head for tactics and economics that compared favorably with any of the admiralty from Bemere’s homeland. She was a worthy mate for her husband, a man titled as Prince of Waves, if one was inclined to diplomacy. The Prince of Pirates was his usual title, especially in naval circles of the surrounding empires.

“Highness, if I may be so bold, how many ships did your ‘commoner’ father command?”

The princess laughed, putting a hand on her arm. “You are as astute as you are beautiful. Please do me the honor of using my name, Bemere.”

The elf smiled at her. “It’s my honor, Madeline.”

The princess smiled and turned to answer a question from the noble to her left. She left her hand on Bemere’s arm however and the visiting elf was very aware of the warmth through her sleeve. As her husband began the ritual of his court, Madeline’s hand stayed where is was, caressing Bemere’s arm occasionally.

~~~~

Adelobermerlyn Mayarind had arrived in the Human lands bearing the signet and proofs of an emissary of the Selenic Court. She was a Plenilune, a tribe of Fae known as the Night-Elves or Moon Folk by outsiders.

The Plenilune were the least numerous of the Fae as well as the most secretive. Encountering a Night Elf was uncommon in other Fae holdings, and they took care to remain rumors and legends in the territories of other races.

But, for all of their reclusiveness, the Plenilune were counted among the wealthiest and most influential of the Fae. Secret emissaries like Bemere kept the Selenic Court insulated but very well informed about happenings on the other territories of All World. That’s why she had arrived here in the principality of Brynjudalr Sands.

These humans were a bit like the Plenilune, although their elusiveness had more to do with their penchant for “salvaging” merchant vessels from other Human kingdoms, often prior to any actual damage occurring. Their discretion in all other matters made their harbors and towns the most popular places to enter Human territory.

For their part, the noble families of the Sands were delighted with the arrangements. For the occasional cost of supplies or transportation, the nobles were rewarded with the secrets and plans of their competition gathered by the Plenilune agents. So, as other kingdoms grew and declined over the centuries, Brynjudalr Sands remained a stable, prosperous enclave. Bemere was very fond of the Sands and its Human denizens, this was her fourth visit in as many centuries.

On this visit, she noticed that prince’s court was far shorter than it had been in the past. It was looking like a very warm summer, so Bermere fully approved. It was far too easy to fall asleep in the smoky and stuffy throne halls Humans preferred. She’d been surprised when the court was ended as well, instead of the usual tedious feast afterward, the Nobles and Commoners alike had simply gotten up and left.

Another, more interesting, observation was that the Princess of Waves had kept her warm hand on Bemere’s arm the entire time, occasionally caressing her to emphasize some point or another. These two were turning out to be far more interesting than any of the other Human rulers she’d met over the years.

When the court had emptied of visitors, the Prince stretched and yawned.

“Pardon the delay,” he said. “The only problem with a monthly court is that you cannot easily cancel it when other duties arise.”

“Duty?” Madeline laughed. “Your manners are somewhat lacking, Cal.”

He smiled. “Perhaps I meant duty as a treasured obligation, dearest.”

Madeline laughed harder. “Cal, you should stop speaking now.”

“By your command,” he grinned at her. “Bemere, please excuse all this unseemliness.”

“You cannot be unseemly in your own Hall, Highness,” Bemere said with a small smile.

“He certainly tries at times. And now I must really insist that you use our names. Or else you shall be styled Her Plenilunic Ladyship and that’s far too stuffy in private.”

“Of course, Madeline.”

“That’s far better. Now, let us retreat to less drafty surroundings so that we may speak in confidence.”

~~~~

Bemere followed them into the quiet library and into the dimly lit stacks. In one of the dead-end aisles, the prince triggered some hidden mechanism and a door appeared, all traces of it hidden among the details of the ornate paneled wall.

“One of my forebears thoughtfully created a way to get to our quarters without traipsing through the rest of the keep,” Cal said.

“Very clever,” Bemere said, not mentioning that the passage had been constructed during her second visit, or the fact that one of her extended family had been there to teach the crafters the necessary engineering skills. That kind of thing tended to make Humans uneasy.

After climbing several sets of stairs and navigating narrow corridors, they emerged into a richly appointed sitting room. Cal and Madeline immediately took off their crowns and put them in a cabinet that looked to be elvish manufacture. They sealed the doors with a spoken incantation. Cal went to a sideboard and poured wine while Madeline opened the large doors, letting a cool breeze into the room.

“How long will we have the pleasure of your company?” Madeline asked.

“Not long, I’m heading up into the highlands,” Bemere said, smiling and nodding in thanks as Cal handed her a glass of dark red wine. “The Laird of Stone’s Edge sent his son against the High Elves last season. The Goldens refuse to acknowledge the incursion, so I’ll go find the story from the other side.”

Madeline sipped her own wine, moving over as Cal joined her on the divan.

“We know a little of the story,” she said. “Mostly that Mad Gregor, the son, lost yet another army. That’s the third one, if anyone is keeping tally.”

Bemere sighed. “How many did he lose this time?”

“All of them,” Cal said. “Gregor lives on but he left nearly a hundred heavy cavalry dead on the field, along with couple of thousand foot pikes.”

“Who gave him that many soldiers?” Bemere asked, surprised.

“No one. He made his own and conscripted peasants and freeholders to carry them.”

Before harvest was in,” Madeline sighed. “So famine will stalk the northern slopes this winter. Bemere, I know I have no right to ask, but it would be best if he was removed…”

“Sadly, I am here to only observe. But trust that the High Elves will take decisive action very soon. They have finally learned that they must pay some attention to the world outside their borders.”

“We can but hope,” Cal said. “When we realized that Gregor had cost their kingdom that many lives, and even more innocents to come, I became quite angry. I even considered sending my own delegation to express my grave concern.”

“There is less satisfaction in letting the High Ones have the honors, but far fewer repercussions for your people in the Sands.”

“That is precisely what Madeline had counselled,” Cal said, smiling at his wife.

“And now that we’re in perfect agreement on at least one thing, I am going to find something cooler to wear while you two talk.”

Cal and Bemere both stood up when she did. Madeline kissed her husband’s cheek and disappeared through a door.

“You are a formidable pair,” Bemere said, as the door closed behind the princess. “Most royal pairs are nowhere as well matched.”

“She has made me a fortunate man,” Cal said. “My maps are in the study and there is a large table to spread them out.”

“Lead on,” Bemere said, making sure she had her wine glass.

~~~~

For the next two turns of the hour glass, they went over the maps as well as the notes from Cal’s merchant-spies on the state of roads and conflicts across the human kingdoms. Finally, Bemere sat back and rubbed her eyes.

“It seems like things are becoming…over-lively across the Human kingdoms.”

The Prince nodded somberly. “I fear that we’re falling into another round of war. And, truthfully, I am not happy about letting you out there without a full set of guards.”

“That’s very kind, my prince, but the less attention I bring to myself, the better.”

“That’s what Madeline said as well.”

“Did I hear my name?” the princess called and opened the door to Cal’s study. She had changed in a diaphanous looking gown and her feet were bare.

“Why didn’t you join us?” Cal asked. “These chairs are far more comfortable than pressing an ear to the keyhole.”

“A princess in a privy council? Scandalous!” she said, grinning at him. “However, eavesdropping is a long and revered tradition. Now, milord, you will remove your court finery before something stains it. While you do, I will show our guest around the terrace. There’s a lovely onshore breeze tonight.”

“I will join you shortly,” he said.

They traded kisses as he passed and Bemere followed Madeline out another set of doors, onto a terrace crowded with all kinds of plants. Taking her hand, the princess led her to an area secluded among potted ferns and small trees. There were several divans and a large stack of cushions. Bemere’s baggage had been neatly stacked here as well.

“Is this acceptable?” Madeline asked. “I read that the Plenilune prefer to sleep under the open sky.”

“It’s perfectly lovely,” Bemere said.

“This little haven is a wonderful place to sleep when the heat is too much inside and it has a fine view of the stars. Please, make yourself comfortable.”

Bemere thanked her and immediately sat to remove her long boots. She wasn’t quite surprised when Madeline insisted on helping her pull them off. She also had, somewhat unnecessary assistance removing her her long waistcoat. The elf sighed happily, glad to be rid of the over-warm formal clothes, left in just her thin shirt and breeches.

When the Madeline went to hang Bemere’s waistcoat over a chair, the elf saw that the diaphanous gown the princess had chosen became all but transparent when backlit. She admired the lean body of the other woman but had no idea about the current social protocols, so Bermere did nothing more than appreciate the sight as the noblewoman went and reclined on the divan next to her.

“And now I’d like your advice,” Madeline said. “Within a ten-day of receiving word of your arrival, there was another message from the Selenic Court. The sender was titled as ‘Maestra of Leaf and Fountain, Third Mistress of Sky,’ but there wasn’t a legible proper name. It was about your needs while you’re traveling.”

Bemere laughed. “Those titles belong to my mother. Obviously, I would like to review her list carefully. She has always erred on the side of overprotection.”

“Don’t they all? I promise, her recommendations were minimal. One thing I wasn’t sure of; she mentioned you have begun your journey into summer.”

Bemere laughed. “That’s an overly polite way of saying that I’m a bitch coming into heat.”

Madeline’s eyes initially widened at Bemere’s crudity but when their eyes met, both burst out laughing.

“I didn’t know that your people had specific seasons.”

“We’re different than Humans in that, yes. From what I’ve heard of your ‘monthlies’ I think I prefer our way.”

“I can imagine. Could you help me here? I am not astute enough to interpret her reason for including that information.”

“Of course. She spends too much time at court, and I fear it’s affected her communication skills with the real world.”

Madeline shook her head, grinning. “I will not include that in my reply, thank you.”

“What she is ever-so-delicately asking is for you to assign a…companion for my time here. When our bodies are ready for children, there is a strong desire for physical pleasure.”

“Have you had many children?”

“Thank the Lady, no. Pregnancy is exceeding rare for us although fucking is not, if you’ll pardon the word.”

“No need to pardon, the Prince and I adore crude language, in the right place and time. I am curious but do not wish to pry.”

“Ask away,” Bemere said, loosening the tight collar on her shirt.

“Your lives are so long, does this condition last longer than we’d expect as well?”

“Yes, I will be receptive for the next couple of years. You do not need to trouble yourself over this however, I have the means to alleviate my urges in my baggage. If I am vigilant, it really is nothing to fret over.”

“That sounds wonderfully naughty but why must you be vigilant? The urges are that strong?”

Bemere nodded. “They can become overwhelming. There is a small part of us called the Seat of Life. It is found on the canal of my sex and most of the time it is indistinguishable from its surroundings. During our receptive time, it swells to the size of a large bean, generating the humor that drives our need to mate. If not addressed daily, it grows larger and secretes more of this substance. Too much of it in my body and I become obsessed with fucking until it is empty again.”

“Astounding. And how does one address something like that?”

“I’ll show you.”

Bemere went over to her luggage and took out a plain leather box with no visible hinge or lock. Instead, Bemere traced a pattern on the side and a lid appeared. She sat back down beside Madeline and lifted the hinged cover.

“How lovely,” the princess said, seeing the ornate objects inside. “They are some kind of imbued wand?”

Bemere grinned at her. “In a manner of speaking. I put them inside of me, this angled part is made to press against the Seat of Life, forcing the accumulated substance into my blood. It does not have the time to overgrow if I take care to empty it every day.”

Madeline chuckled. “Yes, they greatly resemble pegos but one doesn’t like to assume. There’s no effect from that small bit of humor then.”

“Oh, there’s an effect. It usually takes an hour or so to work it out of my system after I milk myself. That’s where a close companion would come into the story. But these are pleasurable enough and far easier to carry.”

“Before my monthlies, I am often a woman obsessed with one thing; getting a prick up inside me as hard and often as possible. I can’t imagine being that way for years.”

“Plenilunes are a pretty lusty bunch, most of the Fae are actually. It really only becomes a bother if you need to travel, like now.”

“Have you…’milked’ yourself today?”

Bemere smiled at Madeline’s directness. “Not yet. I prefer the evening, it makes for a very sound sleep.”

Cal chose that moment to call to them. Both women stood up and he waded through the garden vegetation toward them. He was dressed in the same type of clothes as Bemere, dark breeches with a lightweight shirt than hung open at the neck. His exposed chest looked very good to Bemere and she wondered what his skin would taste like. She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. She hadn’t had the privacy on the small inter island ship here to get herself off, it had been two full days since she’d managed to empty the gland. Too long, she had to control herself carefully until she had a few private moments.

“Darling husband,” Madeline said, wrapping Cal in her arms.

“Beloved wife,” he said.

The kiss they shared was not the decorous act they would show the public. Bemere’s breath quickened as Madeline took her husbands hand and put it inside of her gown. From both of their sighs, it sounded like her other hand had found his prick. She was about to sneak off and find the nearest privy when they broke apart, grinning at each other like lovers in their teens. Madeline smiled at her and stepped back.

“I am being terribly rude to our guest,” she said to Cal, her eyes on Bemere. “She requires a soothing touch and instead we are making her life more difficult. Come and rest with us.”

Bemere took another deep breath, pressing the lust out of her mind as best she could. It wouldn’t do to slight her Human hosts, but if she didn’t find some kind of relief soon, she’d end up fucking herself silly in the middle of polite conversation.

Madeline led to Cal to a divan and sat him down. She turned back to Bemere and did something to the translucent gown that made it fall from her shoulders. Her body was lean and muscular and her hair and eyes were the same raven-black locks as the Prince and most other Humans from the Sands. Madeline’s hair had been left longer than usual, tumbling past her shoulders and down her back.

Cal watched his wife undress herself, loosening his shirt. Madeline helped him out of it and then dragged his breeches off. Both of them were quite attractive; their skin was a little darker than her own, matching their raven-black hair and eyes. Madeline’s breasts were smaller than Bemere’s, with dark nipples that stood proudly in the cool evening air.

“Isn’t she perfect?” the prince murmured to himself.

“You are too kind, milord,” Madeline said, coming over to take Bemere’s hand.

She led her to the space among the couches and cushions and began to loosen her shirt.

“Lady be praised,” Bemere said in a shaky voice. “I was about to run off and find a closet for myself.”

“I think we can do much better than that,” Madeline whispered.

She unbuckled Bemere’s breeches and let them fall to the floor. The long shirt was next, pulled over her head to leave her as naked as the two humans.

Her skin was pale compared to theirs and she didn’t appear as muscular but their eyes devoured her larger breasts and the pink nipples standing as proudly as Madeline’s. Bemere’s hips were a bit wider, framing her hairless sex and leading to the long legs that looked as though Bemere had stolen them from some love goddess in the distant past.

“You are utterly stunning,” Cal said as Madeline led Bemere to the couch opposite his.

“Isn’t she?” Madeline murmured. “Darling Lady Elf, may I help you with your evening task?”

“I’d like that very much. The blue one with gold inlay would work best just now,” Bemere gasped.

Madeline fetched it from the box, but instead of handing it to Bemere, she knelt between the elf’s spread thighs.

“Cal, she’s got a beautiful cunny,” Madeline said, leaning closer.

Bemere gasped as the other woman’s fingers caressed and opened her sex.

“I’m not hurting you?” Madeline asked.

“Goddess no! Would you hurry up and get that inside of me? I can’t take much more.”

“I’ll wait to lick you then,” the princess said. “Let’s find this Seat of Love and then I’ll give you a good fucking to empty it out again.”

Bemere had her first orgasm as Madeline’s fingers slid into her sex, teasing and caressing. When the princess’s rubbed against the hard little bump, a second orgasm hit her like a thunderbolt.

“Is that it?” Madeline asked, looking up at her.

Bemere nodded, breathlessly. “Your fingers feel so nice, just push against it firmly.”

Madeline kept her eyes on Bemere’s face as two fingertips found the right spot again. Then Bemere’s eyes rolled back in her head as Madeline pinched the bud firmly. The elf cried out in a series of almost musical moans and her body shivered as though she was sitting on snowbank rather than embroidered pillows. The heat of the intense arousal spread through her body, bringing a flush to her chest and face.

“Let’s make sure we’ve gotten it all,” she heard Madeline say.

Then Bemere’s back arched and she groaned at the feeling of fingers deep inside her, finding the bud again. She rubbed it firmly and there was an explosion behind Bemere’s eyes as she lost herself in the wave of pleasure drowning her mind.

When she came to her senses again, Bemere found Madeline sprawled beside her on the low couch. The princess’s legs were spread wide, one of her legs on top of Bemere’s. Cal knelt in front of her, his mouth busily sucking and working her sex.

Bemere turned and found Madeline’s lips with her own. The women shared deep, tongue caressing kisses as the princess repeatedly came on her husband’s face.

Cal finished his task between his wife’s legs and stood up. His rigid prick looked wonderful and Bemere really hoped she’d be allowed to try it out.

“I hope you’re not finished,” Madeline murmured, hand caressing Bemere’s inner thigh.

“And I hope you can keep up,” the elf teased her.

Chapter 2- Traveler

The next morning, Bemere was in the royal household’s stables looking over the horses on offer. The stable master had begun with the largest of the war horses, but after a single glance at the massive hot-bloods, she asked to see something a little less…interesting. She described the journey she needed to make to the stable master, stressing that she didn’t want to attract more attention than necessary. He tapped his chin for a moment and then led her to another stable.

This line of stalls was full of much quieter animals and he explained that these were the horses normally reserved for the principality’s messengers. After some discussion about saddles and the like, she ended up with a pair of mares, one roan, and the other grey, both familiar with the climb over the landward pass. He’d wanted her to look at the pack horses as well, but Bemere’s luggage wasn’t nearly extensive enough. Thanking the man with a three coin tip, Bemere took her leave and climbed the flights of stairs, up to the keep’s highest tower.

There were always watchers stationed there; a recruit and an older veteran, judging by the scars and missing arm. The older man was evidently accustomed to, or unimpressed by, high ranking visitors and welcomed her with a simple nod. The youth leaped from his chair and stood at quivering attention. The older guard chuckled and told him to sit back down.

She chatted for a moment before climbing the ladder to the large reflector mounted at the very top. She was just as impressed with the view as she’d been back when she’d helped design the signaling system. That had been for the previous prince, Cal’s great uncle.

The clouds rushing in from seaward looked to be slowing down as they were blown over the Thunder Haven mountains. Far inland, at the top of the pass, the Gateman’s Notch was still hidden by haze. She stared at the clouds for a long time, seeing hints of the otherwise unseen torrents of wind in their constantly shifting patterns.

Bemere frowned and took an oddly twisted piece of glass with a rainbow sheened fluid from the bag on her shoulder. She placed it carefully on a flat spot on the reflector, before removing two small stoppers. The colorful liquid swirled chaotically for a few moments, then slowly separated into complex bands of color. She studied the patterns carefully before replacing the stoppers.

“Anything to worry about?” the older of the pair asked, as Bemere packed the apparatus away again.

“The skies will clear tonight,” she said. “A day or two of warm sun before the next cycle of storms arrive.”

He thanked her and Bemere headed back down, pretending not to notice the stare of the younger guard. She really tried not to, but she had probably just added another rumor about the uncanny fae. When he got to the barracks, he’d probably be saying she’d talked to the wind, or something equally silly.

Even a few few weather glasses would have helped the humans immensely, avoiding disastrous crop losses from various tragedies brought on by weather. But, since they employed magic, the weather glasses were forbidden to trade, or even gift, to a human. That was yet another raft of High Elf nonsense because, other than the unbreakable glass, all the magic the instrument contained was in the informational fluid that even most fae were baffled by. It didn’t have any purpose beyond harmless weather prediction and every trip she made to the human lands increased the temptation to “lose” a weatherglass, leaving it behind with trusted friends.

But her Plenilune were the smallest kingdom of the fae and hadn’t achieved the respect they had by defying the wishes of their more numerous kin. Instead, Bemere employed another trait of her people, patient and subtle countermining. She wasn’t the sole rebel in Allworld and their cabal would eventually find the right levers to raise the race of humans away from their half-civilized turmoil.

~~~

Princess Madeline was in the study, reading letters aloud, when Bemere snuck past to return the weatherglass to her baggage. Several of her ladies-in-waiting were gathered around her, writing on tablets as she spoke. As she began to sneak back out, Madeline saw her and waved for Bemere to join them. The elf waited as the princess finished reading the letter, before adding her own commentary. When she was done, Bemere gave her an abbreviated bow.

“Good morning, your highness,” Bemere said.

With a glint in her eye, the princess stood up from her chair, and after a moment, the other women got up as well.

“May the blessed light of the selenic kingdom shine on your path, Your Plenilunic Ladyship,” the princess said, dipping in a curtsy.

Bemere saw the other ladies trying to hide grins as they followed Madeline’s example.

“I beg your pardon and stand corrected. Good morning, Madeline.”

“Ah, much better! Good morning, Bemere,” the princess replied. “Sit down with us. I’d like to introduce Halcyon and Jera to my left. On my right, the redheaded trollop is Lanette, and the very pretty blonde next to her is Constance. She’s the one plotting against my shiny metal hat.”

“Hello, Bemere,” Constance said, leaning forward to touch her fingertips to Bemere’s. “She’s as full of crap as she ever was about the circlet. Now, her husband on the other hand….”

The rest of the women, Madeline included, laughed and the other women touched fingers to Bemere’s, welcoming her to the Brynjarl Sands.

“What did the sky tell you?” Madeline asked.

“There’s a gap between the storms coming. If I ride out tomorrow morning, I’ll be able to be through the notch before the winds return.”

The princess frowned, looking adorable. “I do not love the fact that you are going over the north pass. If you were my subject, you’d be taking a safer route or staying put until the skies are clear again.”

“Madeline, this isn’t my first trip across,” Bemere reminded her gently. “And the safer routes take six or seven tendays longer than going through the Slope Counties.”

“And, if we’re honest, Maddy, if she was your subject, you’d have her tied to a bed somewhere,” the redhead added. “At least, that’s what I would do.”

“Hussy!” the princess exclaimed, laughing as hard as the other women. “Darling Bemere, before you get too scandalized, these ladies-in-waiting are very old friends and even less inhibited libertines than I am.”

“That’s true, Maddy has always been the most proper of us,” Constance said. “That’s why we decided that she should be the princess. Even if it meant I had to give up Cal.”

“Give him up?” Madeline laughed. “As often as we catch you two sneaking around, I don’t think you can claim that you’ve ever given him up. Enough about my poor, abused prince. Bemere, the Goddess sent a gift of inspiration in my dreams last night.”

Bemere raised her eyebrows. “When were you asleep last night?”

“Ooh, I like her,” Jera told the others.

Madeline put an arm around Bemere’s shoulders. “Don’t be overly analytical, my elvish love. I have two things worrying me. First, you know that I’m loath to offer any offense to our oldest and dearest friends in the Selenic Court. Your mother requested a traveling companion and I would very much appreciate the opportunity to return her letter with one of my own, reassuring her that I’ve taken every precaution with her lovely daughter.”

“Would it help if I included a note to say ‘I’m fine, mom’?”

“Shh, you. There’s a princess talking.”

Bemere smiled. “Apologies. Please continue.”

“My second problem is another guest we’ve had under our roof for quite a while. She’s not nearly as entertaining, a new maestra daos that’s here searching through our archives. She’s been here for the last two seasons, per their request. Oddly, the Pale College seems to have completely forgotten about her presence here.”

“But there have been signs that Osh Caernon has recently suffered through another succession,” Jera said. “I have cousins who do business there and they wrote of new faces abruptly replacing the mages they’ve always dealt with. All of them clueless about previous agreements, and supposedly their predecessors.”

“The current Prior would be quite old, so it makes sense,” Constance added. “Some newly made maestra, and her research, would quickly be forgotten in the chaos of a succession battle.”

Madeline sighed. “And, of course, our guest has chosen now as the best time to return to her college. She arrived by ship, but nothing will be sailing until the end of season storms end. She mentioned the overland route, over the pass and down through the counties. From Grand Locks, I’ve arranged for a private room on whatever canal boat is bound for Osh Caernon, so you wouldn’t have to babysit her for very long.”

“I would be glad of the company, although maestiri do not always enjoy the company of the fae,” Bemere said.

“Let’s introduce you and see how she reacts,” Madeline said. “You four, remember the rule; no bouncing on the bed.”

“If Cal shows up, can we bounce on him?” Jera asked, a wicked smile on her face.

“If Constance allows it,” Madeline said as she led Bemere out.

Behind them, there was renewed laughter. But as Bemere glanced back, the women were already returning to their notes.

“I am ever more impressed with your rule here,” Bemere said. “You have excellent friends in addition to a formidable prince.”

Madeline smiled at her, opening the hidden door they had arrived by last night. “Thank you, Bemere, that’s quite a compliment. The four of us grew up together and began to learn that, eventually, one of us would be the next princess. The idea of being cooped up in the keep, not to mention being forced to deal with a boy, caused all four of us to swear off the idea. Of course, a few years later, boys became rather fascinating and we decided that having our own prince was an okay thing in theory, but no one wanted to be the old woman we hardly ever saw. She seemed very lonely and we were careful to maintain our friendships so that whoever of us took the circlet wouldn’t suffer the same fate.”

“It was a sound plan,” Bemere agreed.

“Truth be told, we try hard to rule as little as possible, it’s like riding a fast horse with threads for the reins. But I am blessed by the Goddess with my friendships, and my marriage. That makes a difficult task more enjoyable anyway.”

“Tell me more about this maestra,” Bemere said, as they set off down the narrow passage.

“You’ve heard the title ‘daos’ before? They are the actual scholars in that pestilential madhouse of a college. As opposed to the Tiras Maestri, who are the ones they let loose to blow up the landscape and themselves.”

“That’s new. I suppose the Priory became weary of everyone’s terror at encountering their mages?”

“Just so,” Madeline agreed.

When the pair reached the bottom of a long flight of narrow stairs, Madeline opened an unmarked doorway and they turned down a passage that Bemere wasn’t familiar with.

“We tried to make her comfortable here,” Madeline continued. ” Visits, invitations to dinner, that kind of thing. Finally, I told Cal that we were just terrorizing the poor little mouse and we let her be. I check in every few days, but she seems quite happy to be left wandering around the archives alone. I know that she is nothing at all like your mother had in mind, but as you so excitingly proved last night, you can deal with your urges on your own.”

Bemere simply smiled. A heat began to spread from her belly as the elf considered the fun they’d had last night.

Madeline stopped outside of an unmarked door. “We’re there. You know how the college mages are with protocol and precedence. Do you carry titles of your own?”

“Madeline, I’ve been a member of the court for the last seven or eight human generations and you know how we get with that same kind of nonsense. How many would you like?”

“As many as will impress a maestra, of course. But our little mouse is the backside type, two or three would be fine.”

Bemere chuckled. “I thought you said she was shy?”

Madeline grinned back at her. “I meant backside as the backside of the curtain or a public house. Not her bottom, perverted lovely.”

“Oh, I stand corrected. I thought the trip might get interesting after all.”

Madeline laughed. “Now I’m beginning to wonder if my grand scheme is really as good as I thought it was.”

“I promise to be the soul of discretion then.”

After Bemere had explained a few titles, they went through the heavy door and emerged in the royal library, a massive space that had been the throne hall when the Sands keep had first been built. Shelves full of books and scrolls took most of the space, and since Bemere had been here last, a wooden floor had been added, adding a second floor of storage.

The center of the archive was a slightly wider aisle with tables set in a line. Most were covered with more books and scroll cases, but the one furthest into the stacks was occupied. There was a woman, much younger than Bemere had expected, in the middle of an island of blue-white light cast by her earthlamp on the table. Her hair was ash-blonde and when she looked up with a startled gasp, Bemere saw that her eyes were a deep green.

“I’m sorry to startle you, maestra,” Madeline said. “If you have a moment, I would like to introduce a close friend of mine.”

The woman hurriedly stood up and tugged her scholar’s robes into place. “Yes, of course, your highness.”

“Maestra Twylillian ap Tur, may I present Her Plenilunic Grace, Knight-Commander of the Silver Leaf, and Dame Emissary of the Selenic Court, Adda Bemere Gwynnestra Abchenel”

Twyla nodded deeply, just short of a bow. “Your Grace, I am delighted to make your acquaintance.”

“And I am honored to be in the presence of a maestra daos of the Pale College. If you would prefer, my friends call me Bemere.”

The woman smiled nervously. “Thank you. I’m not really…I mean Maestra isn’t…I just go by Twyla.”

“Then I will insist that you both call me Madeline. Twyla, you may be able help me with a frustrating problem. If so, I would be eternally grateful.”

“What? Yes, of course. I mean, I’m at your service, your majesty.”

Bemere noted the inadvertent promotion the maestra had given Madeline and wondered how she could possibly make the woman any more anxious than the princess already was.

“That’s so kind of you, maestra,” the princess said. “Bemere is bound for the northern kingdoms by way of the slopes and you had asked about the overland route. I thought a maestra would be a fitting travel companion for her.”

The maestra looked at the elf with something like terror. Bemere took pity on her and studied the book that she’d been reading. But she immediately looked back up in surprise.

“You’re studying the valour cycles?”

The woman was startled out of her paralysis. “Oh! Yes, that’s why I am here. All of the references in the Caernon library are poor copies of copies that were made here. You’ve seen this book before?”

“I’m very familiar with it. I don’t mean to pry, but how are you finding it?”

Twyla flushed. “It’s been heavy going. For the last several days I’ve been racking my brain for a reason I can’t follow the author’s main thesis.”

“That’s probably because he is a lunatic drunkard,” Bemere said. “One of my father’s uncles, in fact. If I were to offer advice, it would be to enjoy a pot of nightclover tea, or even chewing a bit of waxleaf before you attempt to read this nonsense. It won’t aid in your comprehension, but at least you’ll be more entertained by old Cejum Orpharides and his mad fantasies.”

“More than a cup or two of nightclover and I’m entertained by my own toes,” Madeline said. “Twyla, I must warn you that Lady Bemere can have an odd sense of humor at times.”

“Who’s making jokes? That’s how we got through this nonsense every time someone made us read it. Which was a lot, since he was family and all.”

Twyla relaxed enough for an actual laugh. “I had the same idea yesterday but dismissed it as irreverent. If we were to travel together, could you perhaps explain where Cejum Orpharides has gone astray?”

Bemere grinned at her. “It would be simpler to point out where he spoke accurately. But it would be my pleasure to answer whatever questions you have,” Bemere said.

“That would be amazing! When do you plan on leaving?”

“There’s a break in the high-up weather coming soon, to get through the pass I will have to ride at dawn tomorrow.”

“That soon…of course. I’d best start packing.” Twyla said.

“I’ll send someone to wake you before dawn,” Madeline assured the woman.

The maestra got up and closed the book, knocking her inkwell over in the process. The black pool spread out across the table, headed for the mage’s notes, as well as the ancient book. The mage made a sound of dismay but before she could do more, Bemere’s hands moved as though she was shaping something unseen. A small current of air swept past them and whirled the ink off the table. Both women were staring as Bemere reached over and righted the inkwell. The black blob then poured itself back into the clay jar and the eddy of air vanished.

“You’re a mage?” Twyla breathed.

“No, nothing like that,” Bemere said firmly. “I’ve just picked up a few stage tricks over the years. Tomorrow morning then?”

They left her frantically rolling up scrolls as they stepped back into the private corridors.

“What do you think?” Bemere asked, once they were back in the passage that led to the stairs.

“She was coherent when I asked about her research. I think she’ll calm down. In any event, getting a single baby maestra to Grand Locks still isn’t too much of a challenge.”

“Are you certain?” Madeline asked, doubt obvious in her voice.

Bemere touched her arm. “Seriously, she won’t be a problem.”

“Then thank you, I will send my reply to the Selenic Court with a clear conscience.” Madeline said, stepping close. “What are your plans for the rest of the day?”

“Obviously I am at your service, Madeline.”

“And I am at yours. So, I propose we return to the apartments and find some novel ways to service each other. If the rest of them are still there, they can watch. Or perhaps even help us.”

Bemere grinned. “You’re quite insatiable, my lady. Are you perhaps half elf?”

Madeline chuckled. “Didn’t anyone tell you, lovely one? Lust and perversion are human inventions.”

As an answer, Bemere pulled on the sash that held up Madeline’s pants, untying the knot. The light silk fluttered to the floor and underneath, the princess was bare. Bemere put a hand on the princess’s warm hip, making her shudder as the elf gently, but firmly, turned her to face the wall.

“If you’ll bend forward and put your hands against the wall there, your highness, I’ll begin my rebuttal to your obviously flawed theory.”

Madeline sighed as she leaned forward against the wall. “I’m eagerly waiting to be taught the truth then.”

Bemere knelt behind her and Madeline moaned softly as the elf’s hands tightened on her hips. A moment later, her tongue ran along Madeline’s sex, pushing the princess into an immediate orgasm. After another minute of the elf’s lips and tongue on her cunt, Madeline shuddered and pulled away.

“If you make me scream in here, there will be rumors of a specter in the castle,” the princess gasped.

Bemere smiled, lifting Madeline’s trousers back up her legs. “And it would probably be bad manners to leave your keep full of ghosts. Your apartments then?”

“Goddess, yes. I’m eager for the rest of your lesson.”

~~~~

Early the next morning, the prince and princess walked Bemere down to a door into the stables. Cal unlocked it and then took her hand.

“I do hope you’ll pass this way again soon,” he said, kissing the soft flesh of the inside of her wrist.

Bemere squirmed at little at the sensation of his stubble on her skin. “No more than a year, your highness. If I can stay away for that long.”

“Then here you are always welcome, whenever you come,” Cal intoned, voice falling into an archaic form of song-chant. “Beggar or ruler, you are always called friend and kinswoman at my hearth.”

“Here stands my arm, blade, and fortune, to keep your fires warm and bright,” she answered, completing the ancient exchange of blessings.

Madeline put her arms around Bemere and held her closely. “You are a delightful surprise, my newest sister and friend. Travel swiftly back to us.”

“Like I was the darkdays wind,” Bemere promised, kissing them both once more before disappearing through the door into the gray half-light of early dawn.

The maestra didn’t look like she’d slept much, if at all. Her notes and supplies took up three entire packhorses and even then, the large leather cases were double stacked.

“They’re just scroll cases,” Twyla said, seeing the look on Bemere’s face. “They’re very light, I don’t want all of my hard work crushed and smudged.”

“Chests are light as feathers,” the royal hostler confirmed. “Them ‘uns not carrying half the usual weight.”

“Then we’re on our way,” Bemere said, beginning to check the saddle the hostlers had put on the gray that she’d be riding first.

Minutes later, the travelers rode through the castle gate and down into the twisting city streets. They were narrow, the upper stories overhung the street, making it seem like more of a tunnel. But the houses and streets were clean and free from stink. A few early risers even waved in silent greeting as the horses clopped past.

The city gates were just opening as they arrived, and the night guard was marching away to their barracks. The day watch waved them through the archway and Bemere’s practiced eye took in the well-maintained masonry, the relaxed, but professional postures of the guards, and the bolt-throwers that looked new. The Sands were fortunate to have custodians that understood wealth. Now, if the rest of the human kingdoms could become as enlightened.

Their horses slowed a bit as they began the long climb up the towering mountain ridge that sheltered the city from the landward side. Bemere glanced at her companion. Twyla had added a blanket to her long coat, huddling inside as they rode through the morning mists. Bemere half closed her eyes and entered the moment’s valour, a complex contemplative state the fae used as sleep.

When she felt the horse slow again, Bemere stretched her arms and sighed contentedly. She looked around, realizing that they’d made much better time than she’d expected. They had arrived at the last wayhouse before Gateman’s Notch, but it was only a little past suns-height. Far above, the wind called Breath of the World, roared over the mountains.

Bemere shuddered at the sound and dismounted, leading her horse into a kind of courtyard in the middle of the low stone huts. Twyla did the same, looking mystified at the buildings. The tops of them were no higher than her waist.

“Is this for Understone folk?”

Bemere smiled. “This is a caravan wayhouse. These are built half-underground to make them stronger and warmer.”

Twyla looked back down the steep track they’d come up. “There are actual caravans using this road?”

“There has always been a lot of trade between the Sands and the Downslope Counties. Right now, the canal takes most of the cargo. Cheap, but very slow. For smaller items or things required in a rush, this is still the best way.”

“And are we stopping for the night? It’s barely past midday.”

“Yes, this is the last stop before we come to the pass. It’s not a climb to risk at night, even when the weather is good.”

Twyla began unloading her horses as Bemere led her pair down the wide stone ramp, down into the stable. She unloaded her gear and went back outside to help Twyla. The boxes were as light as she’d promised, and it didn’t take long to get them stacked inside one of the sleeping shelters and the rest of the horses into the stables. After another hour, the horses had been curried and their hooves checked. Then the pair carried their own gear down into another shelter. The walls were massive stone blocks and a slab of stone provided the roof over their heads.

“The wind up here must be terrific,” Twyla said.

“You will live a fortunate life if you never find out,” Bemere said, getting her weather glass out of its case. The fluid inside bubbled and sloshed itself around, disturbed by the jostling of the ride. “I’ll be outside for a bit.”

Twyla followed, watching curiously as Bemere put the device on a stone bench. Then she realized what she was looking at.

“That’s a real weatherglass!”

“You’ve seen them before? This one is a little grumpy, but the sunlight will help some. It’ll take a while before it can manage a coherent prediction,” Bemere said, settling onto the thick grass on the ground.

“Is it possible for the weather to change so much in a single day?” Twyla asked.

Bemere shrugged. “It’s not likely, but possible. I will not chance another meeting with the Breath of the World.”

“How bad is it?”

Bemere didn’t answer at first, just leaned back against the sun-warmed stone wall. She sighed, as though she was falling asleep, although her eyes remained open. Twyla was embarrassed, wondering if she’d asked too much. She contented herself with the view down the mountain and out over the island-strewn sea far below.

“My first visit to these lands was during Straum’s Rebellion,” Bemere said quietly. “I was a horse-archer for the Companions of the Leaf. We fought in the highlands, keeping the Veracti clans penned within their own borders.”

Twyla found herself staring at the elf again. The Companions were half-mythical, and she’d heard scholars argue if they’d ever existed. But here she was, sitting beside one of those Companions, who casually mentioned taking part in a war more than five-hundred years in the past. Then she realized her staring was rude and looked away again. Thankfully, Bemere hadn’t noticed. Her eyes were lost in the sky as she relived her memories.

“We rejoiced when the pretender finally abandoned his claim. My company had been in Tulamere, the human lands, long enough for our hearts to ache for the woodlands and steppes of our home. Word finally came that ships were waiting at Brynjarl Sands to carry us home. I don’t know if the human kingdoms have created the like, but elfish archers take great pride in their speed. Even more so for the mounted archers, our bows kept the rest of the legion safe. Our company had been given the vanguard because our captain, Utsil, had gotten word that his wife was near the end of her pregnancy. It was well understood that he was in a hurry to be with her. Children are exceeding rare for us and we all rejoiced with him, pressing forward as quickly as we could, wanting him to be there for the birth of his child.”

Twyla looked at the elf curiously but didn’t ask any of the questions that crowded her mind. After a few more minutes, Bemere continued her memory.

“We left during darkdays in the highlands. It is a long, harsh season there, full of violent weather. But as we came down, signs of the darkday’s retreat began to appear. By the time we’d reached the borders of the Slope Counties, the sunwake was well underway. The vivid green and pale colors of emerging treeflower were bandages for our memories of the bitter cold and dark…”

Bemere paused again, thinking back.

“It sounds beautiful,” Twyla said quietly.

The elf smiled. “It was indeed beautiful, and I know that my affection for these lands began there. We knew we were close to the Sands and abandoned all pretense of riding vanguard and raced upslope, full of pride and urgency to take our captain home. Along the way, we were warned about the winds in Gateman’s Notch repeatedly. Darkdays still lingered in the Thunder Havens and the winds were said to be violent and unpredictable. To my shame, we made jokes about those who tried to warn us, saying among ourselves that only a human could fear the very air around them. We continued to ignore all their warnings, climbing into the colder air. I convinced myself that darkdays had gone from those heights, we were simply seeing an earlier time in the sunwake season.”

Bemere shook her head sadly. “What fools we were. Near the top of the slope, Utsil saw that bad weather was coming and challenged us to move even faster. The sunwake storms could last a week or more and while they blow, ships do not stir from anywhere within the Brynjarl Sands. He could not stomach the idea of waiting that long, so we climbed even faster, eating and contemplating valour in our saddles, stopping only long enough to change mounts.”

Bemere sat up and checked the weatherglass. The liquid inside had calmed a little, but still bubbled and frothed in its reservoir.

“There was wind in our faces when we arrived at the beginning of the notch. It was as much as we’d guessed, about the same as a storm at sea. Unpleasant but bearable. We rode ahead, and about halfway across the first of the Breath came. It was strong, nearly beyond comprehension, and the bitter cold made my head pound. One of the horses spun and tried to flee. The unfortunate beast only went a couple of spans before being swept off its feet and tumbled along like a leaf. Mercifully, it was soon killed and its screaming was silenced. Then the Breath faded away.

“We rode hard for the far end of the notch until the Breath returned. We stopped where the stone had split into a large crack in the cliff wall. It was enough of a shelter from the wind that we could hear each other if we screamed. The captain and his lieutenants were certain that our only hope was to race forward when the gale lessened. Me, and a few others, were just as sure that our only hope was staying put until the storm had subsided. None of us could convince the others, so we said farewell. When it became eerily silent again, most of the company rode hard for the exit. We loosed our horses and they fled in the opposite direction. It didn’t take long for the wind to return this time, not nearly enough time for Utsil and the others to make it out of the notch. It blew for three days and two nights like that, a pause long enough to make you think it was over, followed by the screaming roar enveloping us again.”

Bemere stirred and checked the weatherglass. “I heard that sound five-hundred and sixty-three human years past. And I swear that I can still hear the sound like it was yesterday. That is the strength of World’s Breath.”

~~~

The next morning, Bemere was moving around before the sun. After washing her face, the weatherglass was next to occupy her attention. She watched a wide aquamarine band twitch and spin for half a minute before nodding to herself. Picking up the complicated glass shape, she returned to the hut she’d shared with the mage last night. And at the moment, Twyla was a mess of ash-blonde hair at one end of a roll of blankets.

“On your feet, maestra,” Bemere called. “We’ve a long way to travel and the sun is shining.”

Twyla managed to sit up. “Ooh, I haven’t ridden a horse since I left Osh Caernon.”

Bemere grinned. “Only one way to fix that, maestra.”

“Don’t remind me,” she groaned.

A few hours later, the horses were picking their way through the low, twisted pines that made up the high forests. The sun beat down on them, heating the gap between trees to a temperature closer to longdays instead of sunwake and Bemere was grateful whenever they crossed the open breaks between the trees. The wind was stronger out here and Twyla began to fidget. When Bemere called a stop to break their overnight fast, the mage worried more about the weather than eating.

“Perhaps we should press on?” she asked as the elf swung down out of the saddle.

Bemere seemed amused at her worry and motioned Twyla to dismount. “I promise, the skies are clear, and the sun is warm. We will be through the notch two hours from now and it’s still a half day to the first wayhouse on the Slopes. Also, I am hungry.”

Twyla ate some bread and cheese, watching as Bemere took flat bread and smeared some sort of paste on it. She added two large pickled peppers and rolled it up and took a large bite. Even a few paces away, the scent of the peppers made Twyla’s eyes water and a moment later she sneezed. Bemere swallowed and moved to the mage’s other side.

“I forget that lady peppers don’t agree with very many people. My apologies.”

“I didn’t realize that elf stomachs were made of cast iron,” Twyla laughed.

“Until we eat flesh at least,” Bemere agreed. “I was tempted by the smell of cooking bacon once. As soon as I began to chew, my stomach…a rebellion is the least uncouth description. And it maintained its insurrection for the rest of the day. As wonderful as bacon smells, I am no longer tempted to sample it.”

Twyla’s stomach rumbled loudly at the mention of bacon and they both laughed.

“Why is it called a lady pepper?” Twyla asked, flushing slightly.

“Have you ever seen a fresh one?”

When Twyla shook her head, Bemere went to her horse. It whinnied and backed away from her, eyes wide. The elf sighed and walked back to carefully put her meal on a flat rock. She tried again, and although it huffed, the mare allowed Bemere to take a leather-bound book from a saddlebag.

Opening the clasps, the elf sat beside Twyla and opened the thick book. She paged through it until she found the illustration she was looking for. Twyla looked closer and then blushed. Bemere noticed her discomfit and wondered why.

“What volume of botany is that?” Twyla asked, noticing the other plants recorded on the opposite pages. “The illustrations are very well executed.”

Bemere smiled. “Thank you, that is my handiwork. But these are my travel notes. Since the things I like to eat can be called different names, it’s often easier to show a sketch.”

“Your skill is admirable,” Twyla said. “I’m envious of your drawings and clear writing hand.”

“I’ve had a long time in which to practice,” Bemere said. She went to put her notes back and retrieved her breakfast. It disappeared after a few bites and she sat on the ground and began to stretch.

“This would help your sore muscles,” she explained.

Twyla tried to copy Bemere, but the unfamiliar exercises made her clumsy. Bemere watched, trying to describe the movements but saw that she was just making the confusion worse and finally asked permission to touch the maestra. Twyla nodded and the elf gently pushed her arms and legs into the proper positions. The human woman sighed in relief and discomfort at the same time.

“That’s the way,” Bemere said. “It’s part of a larger sequence of movements that stretch and exercise your body. I’ll teach you, if you like. Doing them every day will keep you fit and strong, and if you ever bear children, the exercises will help your birthing pains.”

Twyla laughed. “I’d very much like to learn that. But I won’t be giving birth to anyone in this life.”

Bemere gave her another curious look but didn’t ask. “We’ll start this evening then. And it will likely aid your studies of valour. Both practices come from the same greater knowledge.”

“Humans can actually learn the valour?”

“Of course. Learning the proper contemplation of valour is a life-long process but they are simple enough to understand. I judge that you are more than intelligent enough to understand the principles.”

Half an hour later, they emerged from the last of the high forest. This high, the evergreens were twisted into fantastic shapes by the constant wind. Both travelers sighed in relief as they emerged out of the growth and into an open moss and stone covered expanse. A cool breeze quickly blew the sweat and discomfort away. Above them, a slope made up of the stones and gravel led up to solid gray-yellow stone. Twyla was uncomfortable in the open air and glanced up at the sky often enough the Bemere noticed.

“We’re safe, Twyla. There are always clouds when the Breath comes. And we’re close enough that we’d hear the sound it makes blowing through the notch.”

After a short time, they had arrived at a path that consisted of wide stairs carved into the living rock. Bemere dismounted.

“We’ll lead them from here. Horse folk dislike these heights even more than we do and there is less air for their lungs here.”

Twyla followed her example and the pair checked to make sure all of the leads to the spare mounts were secure. When that was finished, they began climbing the steps. Looking above and ahead, Twyla could see where the ridgeline had a large bite out of it. Her horse whickered as she stumbled over a stair and Twyla focused all of her attention on the stairs. So, she was surprised when the climb was abruptly ended, and they emerged onto the floor of the notch. Tall cliffs fenced in the cut to either side, bare stone sculpted into weird shapes by the force of the wind. Thankfully, the floor was just as bare and, despite their complaints, the horses pranced a bit, knowing they’d passed the hardest part of the journey. Bemere’s face was drawn and anxious and, without saying anything, she began leading her horses toward the distant opening.

Twyla followed her and the scuff of their feet on the stone echoed as loudly as the horses’ hooves. After half an hour, Bemere paused beside a crack in the cliff wall. She dropped her reins and climbed into the space. Twyla went and stuck her head in but saw that the elf was speaking quietly, touching the stone walls. It wasn’t much more than a shallow alcove and Twyla shuddered as she imagined being jammed in there for days. Quietly, she left the elf to her remembrances and returned to the horses. When she emerged again, Bemere looked sad but was composed. She took the reins of her horse and they led them toward the eastern end of the cut.

“How many of you stayed behind?” Twyla asked quietly.

“Fourteen to start. Beryn and Chloe disappeared at some point, but no one could say when. I like to think that they succumbed to the cold rather than being plucked away by the wind. It would have been a far kinder death. Twelve of us walked down to the waiting ships from here.”

“What of Utsil’s child?”

Bemere smiled. “That’s a far happier post-script to the tale; he had a daughter. She was named Herron, and all twelve of us have adopted her in our own ways. She lives nearby and I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Herron grow into the strength of her father, tempered by the gentle humor of her mother.”

“Do you have any children?” Twyla asked.

“Thankfully, no. Among the fae, I am not considered much older than you are. I am in the stage of life for travel and learning, I would make a terrible mother just now.”

When they reached the eastern end of Gateman’s Notch, the view was of a seemingly endless slope falling away, green with grass and nothing like the western end. To the south, they could see the beginnings of the northern plains. At the eastern extent of their view, a smudge marked the town of Grand Locks. And to the north, the land climbed into the first of the craggy ridges that were so common a feature in the highlands.

“I’ve always wanted to go out and see the world,” Twyla said. “I didn’t imagine there were places you could see it all at once.”

“What places do you most want to visit?”

“I don’t know, this has been my first journey away from Osh Caernon. Probably my last as well, but at least I have seen this.”

Bemere looked concerned. “Why won’t you be able to leave again?”

“My family name is ap Tur. Are you aware of what that means?”

“I’m familiar with the word ap, or I used to be. It means of, or from, if I recall correctly?”

Twyla nodded, looking away from her. “That’s correct. And tur is an old highland word for tower. From the tower means that I’m a foundling. I was left beside the scullery door when I was only a few months old. The Pale College is my home, and, unfortunately, my family. I do not know what my teacher has planned next, but I’m certain it won’t be further travels.”

There was a deep sadness in her voice that pulled at Bemere.

“Well, my learned maestra, you’re here now, seeing great swaths of the Allworld. At least this part of it.”

Twyla did smile then. “That was amazing, yes.”

“There is something here, a sadness, that I do not fully understand,” Bemere said.

The mage shook her head. “It’s not important.”

“We have different interpretations of relative importance then. If the topic distresses you, we can speak of other things. But this is the first time I’ve seen you truly happy.”

“You didn’t see me in the archives then,” Twyla said. “Not really, I mean. All of that knowledge in a single place! I was very happy during my visit, in spite of being sent there as a punishment.”

“Punishment?”

Twyla flushed and sighed. “Maestro Johann finally decided that I had taxed his patience with my constant questions. Somehow, he had me named a full maestra daos, without the exams or trials, and then sent me off to the Brynjarl Sands. He said that it was to give him some time to study, free of my constant pestering.”

Bemere went through her memories of human relationships and the Pale College. “Was he an impatient teacher?”

Twyla shook her head. “We had become something like friends, talking for hours about the history of Allworld, or geomancy, or any other number of research ideas that we pursued. Until I finally pushed him too far.”

“Hmm. Princess Madeline mentioned a rumor she’d heard recently; there was some unrest among the senior mathmagicians?”

“There’s no way to be sure, but that’s a very common rumor,” Twyla said. “Maestro Johann isn’t part of the Priory, so it’s not as much of a concern for us. It’s odd to visit Brynjarl Sands where everything is done so efficiently, so I don’t see why there has to be a big upset every time the Prior gets too old.”

“That’s true for most kingdoms as well,” Bemere said. “And you’re right, there is no need for it. Ready to move on?”

They arrived at the first wayhouse an hour before night. Here, the shelters were more conventional, although the walls and doors were thicker than normal. After the horses had been attended to, Twyla cooked her dinner, Bemere got her own food out, chanting silent blessings on stewards who understood her stomach. They ate, feeling the fatigue of the day settle on their shoulders.

“I am going to work my muscles,” Bemere said. “If you would like to join me, we could discuss the valour.”

After shedding her heavy scholar’s robes, Twyla was ready and soon the pair were laying on the grass outside. Bemere led Twyla through several different poses, adjusting the mage’s posture and limbs as they went.

“The word valour comes from old elfish and it simply indicates the fullness of a cycle of time,” Bemere explained as they stretched out. “The practice is made up of five parts and we’ll begin with two of the most familiar, gwiddha and kyickmur.

“Gwiddha is the contemplation that provides the opportunity to rest and compose the mind. Its closest human counterpart is sleep, but we do not completely lose consciousness.”

“You never dream?” Twyla asked.

“Not the same way that you might. The idea of a nightmare is terrifying, and we won’t even go into the horror that a loss of consciousness would be. So, after gwiddha there is kyickmur. That is what we are doing right now, strengthening the body and spirit.”

“That’s far simpler than Cejum already.”

Bemere chuckled. “I know. There are fifteen mental states that the practice moves through, at the individual’s own pace. However, once the valour cycle is entered, all of it must be completed, eventually. To stop, or skip, any of the fifteen states is a very wrong thing, only excusable by the death of the practitioner….”

As she spoke, Bemere kept an eye on Twyla’s stretching. Under the heavy, shapeless robes, the mage wore the same style of long shirt that Bemere wore, although it was a light linen opposed the elf’s cobweb-light silk. But even through the thicker shirt, she saw the bumps of Twyla’s nipples, standing up in the cool early evening air. She tried to ignore the feelings the sight was stirring up, concentrating on her lecture.

When they’d finished the kyickmur, Twyla was breathing hard and there was sweat on her face.

“How can something so graceful be such hard work?” the mage asked as they got up.

“I used to think the same thing,” Bemere admitted. “You are doing very well though.”

They went back inside the bunkhouse and Twyla picked at her sweat-damp shirt. “This is going to be clammy if I leave it on,” she decided.

Bemere picked out one of the bunks and put her bedroll on the frame. As she turned, she saw Twyla pull her linen shirt over her head, half turned away. Mouth suddenly dry, she watched the other woman roll up her shirt and toss it on top of her pack. The mage’s skin was pale and smooth and as she bent down to find a replacement to wear, Bemere even caught a glimpse of her nipples. She made herself look away, not wanting to panic the mage, or, more importantly, stir up her own desires to the point where she’d do, or say, something foolish. Thankfully unaware of the scrutiny, Twyla unrolled her blankets on one of the shelf-like bunks near the hearth.

“Do we need to keep watch?” she asked.

“We’re too far up for casual banditry and these doors have bars. It doesn’t matter though. Remember that my sleep is very different than yours, I will know if anyone comes close.”

“The large boxes are full of copies and notes from the archives, if you become bored,” Twyla yawned.

“That is a kind offer, thank you. I have enough to keep me occupied while you rest.”

Twyla nodded and then yawned again, hugely. “Apologies! I’ve been sitting idle, exercising only my mind for the last three months.”

“Sleep well, maestra.”

Bemere tried to submerge herself in the valour but couldn’t get past the distraction provided by her own body. She’d been able to skip yesterday’s milking without much problem since she’d exhausted herself with Madeline and the others the night before.

But, the gland had been slowly swelling since then, pushing the elf’s mind and body into a state of desire and fierce arousal. And seeing Twyla’s body hadn’t helped at all. She’d thought the woman was stout but under her outer robes, she’d been revealed as breathtakingly curved, so enticingly different than Bemere’s own smaller breasts and lithe frame.

It had been so hard to look away from her body, and she wanted to do so much more than looking. Her body so soft and warm that Bemere could imagine it against her lips. Or, better yet, her tongue. The maestra was sure to appreciate how good Bemere would make her feel…

With a sigh, she realized that she wouldn’t get a moments peace without draining the arousal gland. As she sat up in the bunk, Bemere’s overly sensitive skin sang to her of the tight breeches pressing between her legs and across her backside. She kept her eyes firmly away from where Twyla lay sleeping, and padded across the floor instead, going to her bags and retrieving the case with her necessaries. She’d use one of the other bunkhouses, there was no way she’d be able to keep quiet when the waves of pleasure started. Picking up her lantern, the elf slipped noiselessly out into the night.

The door of the furthest wayhouse was reassuringly tight in its frame. Inside, it smelled of long-ago fires, but it was free of everything else. Bemere turned her tiny lantern down to a point of light the size of a firefly and unrolled her blanket on the bare boards of bunk. Opening the leather case, she regarded the implements inside. Though they’d been carefully cleaned, her sensitive nose still caught a hint of Madeline’s sex.

That last night, the princess had begged to explore herself with several different pegos. Bemere’s nostrils flared, hungrily inhaling the scent. She hurriedly pulled her boots and breeches off and stretched out on the wool covered boards, only her long shirt between her maddeningly sensitive skin and the faintly scratchy fabric.

The princess had turned her self-pleasure into a performance for Bemere and Cal, along with Constance and Jera, and their spouses. Not surprising Bemere in the least, the dark-haired and plump Jera had taken charge of the taller blonde as they had watched.

And after Madeline had sated her lust, she’d languorously beckoned for Bemere to join her. That had been what the rest of them had been waiting for, and as Bemere stripped off her clothes, Jera already had Constance on her knees in front of the prince. The blonde had effortlessly taken him down her throat.

Breathing harder at the memory, Bemere slowly pulled at the ties of her silken shirt, one by one, teasing herself. She moaned quietly as the fabric rustled against her aching nipples. After she had fingered Bemere’s sex, the princess had claimed Cal’s cock. She’d led him to the bed where Bemere was laying sprawled out and guided his prick between the elf’s legs. Then, the rest of them watched as the prince fucked Bemere with powerful thrusts. Cal was a very nice size, her cunt gripped his length perfectly. His eyes had widened, cock getting even harder as she met every thrust with her own inner caresses.

Shirt open to her waist, Bemere twisted to let the silk slide down over her sides, whimpering again as it slid over her nipples. She fumbled for the long pego, the one with the curve perfect for shoving against her yehni, the Seat of Life gland, and the source of all her exquisite tortures. She rubbed the pego against the wet lips of her sex, moaning. Her legs spread wide and Bemere’s pelvis rose, searching for the prick that would give her release. The first orgasm erupted as the hardness slid into her wet heat.

The shirt had been pushed up high enough that the blanket scratched the sensitive skin of her buttocks as Bemere spread her legs even wider. The pego pushed deeper in and she whimpered as it pressed her seed of life. Taking a deep breath, the elf shoved the curved end against the engorged gland, forcing the buildup of the last two days into her body.

Her large dark eyes rolled back in her head as she cried out, muscles tight and back arched. With her other hand, Bemere fumbled for the rings that pierced her nipples, twisting until they were bright spikes of pain-pleasure against the thunderclaps of agonizing pleasure coursing through her body.

Finally, she flopped back against the blanket, gasping but also knowing that she hadn’t managed to squeeze out quite all of the lust humor. Instead of a long hard push, she began thrusting the pego in and out of her sex, hammering it against the gland. The repeated shoves drove her into a haze of continual orgasms. It was only when she’d gotten too sensitive that she’d let the pego fall to the blanket. Her hands pulled at her nipples, coaxing out one more orgasm.

Then there was a scuff in the direction of the heavy door. Startled, Bemere froze for several seconds, trying to see into the heavy shadows pressing around her tiny light.

“Twyla?” she finally asked.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “I heard you cry out and thought you might be hurt….”

“I really tried to stay quiet. I’m sorry,” Bemere said. “My body is in a fertility cycle, so I need to occasionally sneak off and get some relief.”

“Those are real? I’ve read…excuse me. I didn’t mean to intrude on your privacy. I apologize.”

“And I apologize for intruding on your rest. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Twyla stammered an apology and Bemere heard the mage thump against the door as she tried to rush out. “I’m okay,” she yelped, and the door scraped shut a moment later.

Bemere grinned up at the ceiling, wondering how the woman had ever managed to sneak up on her. Then it dawned on her that it had to have been during that first screaming release. Twyla hadn’t just come in, she’d been standing there for at least a few minutes. Watching.

“If I’d know that’s what she liked, I wouldn’t have had to leave the warm wayhouse,” Bemere chuckled, sitting up. She was a little embarrassed, she hadn’t paid any attention to the pleas and fucktalk that she’d been babbling and had no idea if it had included the mage’s name. Still, the idea of performing for an audience was making her wet again.

“I am never traveling during this nonsense again,” Bemere vowed, taking a different pego from the case and spreading her legs again.

Chapter 3- Witness

The morning after Twyla had surprised Bemere, the mage was even shyer than usual. Bemere hadn’t had the patience to try drawing her out, so she, in fairly blunt terms, described what was going on with her body. Twyla, predictably, had blushed furiously, until her boundless curiosity had gotten the better of her. Bemere answered her questions about fae physiology as they rode down the slope, occasionally asking questions of her own. Bemere wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Twyla hadn’t ever dallied with a lover. What did surprise her was the maestra’s ignorance of all but the most basic facts about her own body.

“You’ve never touched yourself intimately?” the elf asked, shocked.

The mage looked away, already turning red. “The college requires that we devote all of our energy to the contemplation of the mathmagick. It’s common knowledge that the upper maestiri have lovers, of course, but they are from wealthy families. I am a no one and the Pale College is my only kin. I know all to well that it neither loving nor forgiving. Were I to get pregnant from some dalliance, I’d be forced to abandon another child, my child, to their rough care. I would rather die than do that. As for the self-love, I’m quite aware of it. It is easier that I keep it an unknown pleasure, rather than a nagging temptation.”

“That’s an impressive show of determination. Now I see why you’ve taken to the kyickmur so easily.”

Twyla flushed again, this time with pride. “I’ve always been a good student at least. I was curious, why are these called the counties? There’s no one here.”

Bemere pretended not to notice the change of subject. “Already this morning, we’ve crossed the territory of five different counts. Back when the high king ruled the clans, this land was divvied up and titles given to the high king’s children, or as rewards in court. Since the land was mostly empty, it was just a formality. There are twenty-three different counties here, and for whatever reason, the titles have been carefully handed down, and have outlasted the high kings that created them. Now it’s tradition and no one would dream of changing it.”

As they headed down the slope, trees began to appear, and then larger woodlands. Twyla couldn’t help herself from asking Bemere more questions as they rode that afternoon. The first questions were fairly typical, about fae kinship and their long lives. Bemere began to actually enjoy answering the mage, curious at the reflection of herself, and the fae, in the young woman’s questions. She had always been curious how they were viewed by these people with their all too short lives.

“Who would you say are the most intelligent beings across the Allworld?”

“I can only answer for the lands I’ve seen or read about,” Bemere said. “Even with our long lives and wanderlust, the Plenilune have only visited a fraction of the Allworld. How should we reckon intelligence? Each race has their own gifts.”

“Hmm. Let’s start with the arcane.”

“What you would call mathmagicka? The Stonekin, of course.”

Twyla stared at her. “Trolls?”

Bemere laughed. “You seem surprised?”

“I’ve only seen a troll once, but it behaved like all of the descriptions I’ve read, the movements slow and lumpen, without fine coordination. They speak slowly, and poorly, if they can speak at all. They are recounted as ignorant of the world around them, without any interest in what’s going on around them.”

“Where did you see a Stonekin?” Bemere asked. “I’ve never heard of them frequenting Osh Caernon.”

Twyla smiled at the memory. “Someone had built a storehouse where it was sitting. They didn’t realize that the rock in their way was a troll, so it was included in the building foundation. There was quite a panic when it stood up one day. It began to walk away, but the pace was so slow that Master Johann and I were able to walk out to see it for ourselves. That was two full days after it had woken up, but it had only staggered a couple of leagues.”

“I saw Stonekin move quickly once,” Bemere said. “It is terrifying. Their story is veiled in mystery, and not even the wisest of the fae comprehend them. Yes, their movement seems strange to us, but I’ve read that what our eyes see is only a fraction of their full existence. I’ve never understood what that means but maybe that is why they are content to remain still for so long. I’m curious, were you taught where the arts of mathmagicka originated?”

The maestra shrugged. “Not really. It’s assumed to be a natural ability gifted to some.”

“That’s mostly true, except it’s not natural for us. The spells the geomancers use are simply the fragments of Stonekin language that humans manage to pronounce. The ritual with all the stones and ribbons? It is likely a coarse representation of some parallel action of the Stonekin, like you might gesture with your hands as you speak. I often wonder if anyone in the Pale College has the slightest clue about the powers they are constantly fussing with. So far, only you Humans have been mad enough to use it. For whatever reason, a Stonekin must have decided it was a good idea to teach Humans long ago.”

Twyla shrugged. “Maybe someone just asked.”

“That is both possible, and terrifying. You look very pleased with yourself just now.”

The mage grinned. “Because I know something that no one else in the Pale College does. Not even Maestro Johann. Thank you, Bemere. I am immensely pleased with our conversations.”

It was Bemere’s turn to laugh. “You scholars are just as mad in your own ways.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” Twyla assured her.

The rest of the morning passed pleasantly, neither of the women were in any particular hurry and the sun was warm on their shoulders. When they stopped for a meal, Twyla first performed the stretching and bending exercises of the kyickmur. The maestra was a diligent student, impressing Bemere with her mind as well as her willingness to accept discomfort. The elf woman was already feeling her libidinous urges growing and had to force herself to avoid looking at the other woman’s body for longer than necessary.

Later that afternoon, they were beginning to look for the last wayhouse before Grand Locks. It finally appeared in the distance, but instead of the lonely cluster of buildings they’d expected, they found a large encampment crowded around it. She took a cylinder from a saddlebag and peered through it, studying the encampment.

“What is that?” Twyla asked.

“Military, looks like a small army,” Bemere said. “But I don’t recognize those banners, and where could they even be headed, this far off the plains? This is an interesting surprise.”

She leaned back and retrieved her journal from a saddlebag and used a bit of lead to make notes.

Twyla was nervous. “Do you think they’re attacking the locks?”

Bemere looked away from her spyglass long enough to give Twyla a comforting smile. “Not a chance. There is an Imperial detachment with them. The emperor’s treasuries depend on canal tolls and he takes a dim view of anything that would upset the boat traffic.”

“That’s a relief then,” Twyla said.

Bemere lowered the spyglass and looked to make sure Twyla was paying attention. “Battles aren’t the only danger around an army. Please, stay close and keep your eyes sharp.”

Twyla swallowed and nodded. Bemere leaned back to replace the journal and returned the spyglass to whatever pocket it had appeared from.

“Let’s ride ahead, it would be best if we were well away before evening comes.”

“Why do you think the imperials are here?”

“Armies on the move have the unfortunate habit of devastating everything in their path. In return, those that they brutalize, create milita to harass and ambush armies. That’s destructive enough, but often than not, they become bandits, adding even more misery, and so things spiral out into chaos. So, even before the canal was here, Imperial legions hired out their veterans to keep the soldiers and locals from each other’s throats. They’re strictly neutral about the fight and expect everyone to honor their neutrality.”

“Or they get the stuffing knocked out of them by the legions?”

Bemere laughed. “Exactly right. Thankfully, that hasn’t been necessary very often.”

“That must look odd, soldiers just watching other soldiers battle it out.”

“A few years back, I actually saw two opposing armies escorted to the battleground by Imperials from the same legion. The escort all camped together while the armies fought, then split up to escort each side back home.”

Twyla chuckled. “That is a very civilized way to run a war.”

Bemere smiled oddly. “I agree. Add enough civilization and, with luck, someone will finally realize there are better ways to get what you need.”

“And then?”

The elf looked at her. “I’m sorry?”

Twyla smiled. “From your tone, I was expecting you to say ‘…and then we can finally get to work’ or some such.”

“Ah, it sounds as if you’ve reached the chapters on politics in Cejum Orpharides,” Bemere said.

Twyla flushed slightly, but less than the elf had expected. “I was curious why you were called Moon Fae. You don’t stay up all night and you don’t seem to watch any of the moons except when you worry about weather.”

“It doesn’t sound like my warning to keep a sharp eye was necessary,” Bemere said. “You are correct, we don’t have anything to do with the whirling celestials up there. The name has more to do with the fact that we are the Silver, as the High Elves are known as the Golden.”

“I read something about the seasons but I had trouble with some of the symbols. It looks like he says the Silver were moons, and then it got really arcane with number glyphs I haven’t seen before.”

Bemere sighed and shook her head. “I do wish Madeline hadn’t gifted you that twaddle. You’re aware that the moons control the seasons?”

“I read about the idea a long time ago. Something about different amounts of light?”

“Right. Cejum wasn’t happy with the interest the court had with the politics of other races. In those passages, he’s accusing the court of meddling in affairs of others, like moons changing the seasons. It’s a terrible analogy, Cejum’s political discourse was even worse, if possible, than his pontifications on the valour. Inaccurate, oversimplified and overblown throughout.”

Twyla frowned. “I thought that’s why you were here, as a spy.”

“Twyla, you would be an astounding diplomat. Yes, I am here as an Eye, which is a far more polite way to say it. There are dozens of envoys, all across the known lands. We watch and document what’s happening outside of our borders. Those reports create a picture of the Allworld that the Selene, our queen, uses to guide the course of our civilization.”

“Where does the meddling come into it?”

Bemere sighed. “There are have been certain adjustments made in the past. But you see? He’s oversimplified his inaccuracy. It was not for our benefit alone, it has helped Humankind as well.”

“I’m confused again.”

“The Pretender’s succession war was a disaster for everyone, but for the Plenilune elves it was nearly a death blow. We sent troops to our allies, not fully understanding how long that war could last, or how many of us would never return. We don’t have children as quickly as humans, so the Plenilune are diminished and our lands will suffer for a very long time.”

“That’s awful,” Twyla said.

“The Selene knew that Human wars would be the doom of us all. There were very few paths forward from those dark days. We could have withdrawn within our borders, but even if we’d been willing to abandon our allies, that path is just another type of death. So, to protect ourselves, She ruled that we should know everything we could about all of our neighbors. Sometimes there are situations that require…adjustments, to ensure as much stability as possible, for everyone.”

“I feel as though I’m seeing behind the curtain at a theatre. How long ago did your queen make this decision?”

“I don’t remember exactly, less than a Human generation after the last of the companies returned home. Maybe fifty years after the Pretender was defeated.”

Twyla was silent for a dozen rods, thinking about that. “What about now? It doesn’t seem like things are very peaceful,” she finally said.

Bemere glanced at her, a slight smile on her face. “When was last major war?”

“Like the succession wars There hasn’t been…oh, I see. But there’s an army right in front of us. There’s fighting, every warm season.”

The elf shrugged. “Humans are a rowdy bunch and no plan is perfect. Instead of the seasonal formal battles, imagine constant fighting everywhere, season after season, year after year.”

“That makes sense, I guess. I would have thought that you’d make us more like the Fae.”

“Since you are Humans, that would be quite difficult. We don’t want to control you, just keep your constant mayhem and destruction to a minimum. You must be your own people, with your own glories and horrors.”

“Have I mentioned how much I enjoy our conversations?” Twyla asked and Bemere laughed.

As they approached the camp, a few of the soldiers noticed them but no one seemed to care. The path had widened and was almost a road now and one side, the buildings of the wayhouse were almost lost in the middle of a large tents. On the other side of the road, the forest was thick and wild looking. Here and there, soldiers were gathering dead wood for their fires, but they were too intent on their tasks to pay much attention to the riders.

Ahead of them, a group emerged from the tree line. They were struggling to hold a small figure that was putting up a terrific struggle.

“What are they doing?” Twyla exclaimed.

Bemere had already spurred her horse into a gallop, its thudding hooves threw up gouts of grass and dirt. Heart in her throat, Twyla spurred her horse after the elf.

As she neared the group, Bemere seemed to fall from her saddle and Twyla gasped, thinking her companion had fallen. Instead, Bemere twisted her body and rolled, somehow landing on her feet. She sprinted at the knot of people, the toes of her boots digging into the turf just as her horse’s hooves had. Somehow, she now had a sword in one hand, held trailing behind her.

Then she was in the group of men, her blade flashing up once before she had a grip on the prisoner’s spindly arm. She pulled the captive around as she spun and stopped, putting herself between the small form and the group of shocked soldiers. One of them screamed, gripping his forearm before falling to his knees, staring at his hand laying on the ground. It still gripped the length of knotted rope he’d been hitting the child with.

Twyla managed to maneuver her horse around the knot of shocked soldiers and jumped to the ground behind Bemere. She was horrified to see how small the rescued captive was. Who would attack a child?

In front of Bemere, the soldiers were hurriedly drawing curved short swords and Twyla heard shouting from the camp. More men appeared from the woods, but Bemere’s eyes were locked on the soldiers in front of her.

“Who leads here?” she demanded.

Twyla knelt beside the child and as it looked at her, she froze in surprise. This was no child, nor even a human.

“I will ask once more,” Bemere demanded, her voice impossibly cold and hard. “Which of you is the leader?”

“Up yers, ye pointy-eared cunt!” the newly handless soldier screamed. “Now we gots two extra helpin’ of gash tonight, and I’ll be chopping your tits off! Take ’em!”

Without a sound, Bemere charged them again. Her sword came up as she dashed through the group again. There was a black blur of her blade and a ringing sound as the elf as spun past the handless man. All of them gaped as Bemere came to a another statue-like stance on the other side of them. In their midst, the handless one made a gargling noise. His head fell backwards and his body slumped to the ground, his neck three-quarters cut though.

“I am Serah Adda Bemere,” she said loudly. “If any of you whoresons were so blessed to catch a glimpse of my cunt, you’d find that it doesn’t have ears, pointy or otherwise. Now, who is the next senior?”

“Uh, that would be me, ser,” a skinny woman with ropy arms said. She dropped her knife, slowly raising her hands. “We’re city watch. Rest of you throw ’em down.”

The rest of the blades thumped to the ground and Bemere waved them away from them, in the direction of the camp. There was the sound of riders hurriedly mounting up. Still staying between the group and their blades, Bemere went to where Twyla was carefully bandaging a deep gash in the gnome’s calf. Bemere sat on her heels and whistled a greeting in gnomish.

The female gnome whistled a reply, gesturing at Twyla.

Bemere smiled slightly and patted the air as the sound of galloping horses drew nearer. More of the soldiers were coming out of the woods, their chatting falling silent as they saw the scene in front of them. Twyla glanced up from her bandaging and saw them drawing close, looking uncertain, but their hands on their knives.

She stood up and threw the gray traveling coat off her shoulders, revealing her maestra’s robes.

“Take another step and I will blow your heads straight out your asses!” the maestra snarled.

The soldiers, who had already been advancing as slowly as they could, were more than happy to stop a safe distance away. Twyla glared in the other direction, but they were already staying a safe distance away from Bemere’s blade. Grumbling to herself, she knelt back down and wet another cloth from her canteen to clean the dirt smudged on the gnome’s face.

The riders galloping from the camp weren’t as bashful. Four of them slowed to a trot but didn’t rein in until they had surrounded the Bemere and the others. Two of them dismounted, one of them was a middle-aged imperial cavalryman. Several scars crossed his face, badly healed enough that they twisted his expression into an evil looking sneer. The other rider was a rangy woman who stayed near him, her hand near a knife hilt.

“I am Sergeant Sestian Atious, Imperial Cavalry,” the man announced in a gravely voice. “Put up your sword.”

After a long moment, Bemere knelt, produced a cloth and laid the sword on it. She rose to her feet gracefully. “Sergeant, I am Serah Bemere Gwynnestra, Knight of the Silver.”

“The Silver?” he asked, not believing what he had heard.

Bemere pulled an ornament from the collar of her shirt and held it out to the man.

He took it and examined it closely.

“Well met then, Serah,” he said, handing it back. “I am a sergeant of the Tenth Cavalry, and this camp’s provost.”

“It’s wine, not glory, for the weary and immortal Tenth,” Bemere replied.

The man’s eyebrows went up but he merely nodded. “What happened here, serah?”

“This group was abusing this gnomish woman. Seeing her peril, I attacked them immediately. I judged the one I saw beating her would forfeit his hand.”

The sergeant glanced at the nearly headless body. “And you missed?” he asked dryly.

“No. After I took his hand, I identified myself. In return, he ordered his companions to capture myself and the maestra.”

“Your sword was out?” the sergeant asked.

“It was but they didn’t seem impressed until I used it again.”

“You say they were abusing the little one there.”

Bemere squatted down and whistled to the gnome and she held out her arms. Twyla was just finishing the bandage on her leg, but the rest of her limbs were badly bruised and scraped. Sounding very much like an indignant sparrow, she gestured to more bruises forming on her face.

“Do you need a translation?” Bemere asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” the sergeant said, voice grim. He stood up and went to the little group of disarmed soldiers. “What’s your side of this?”

“Willum caught it spyin’ on us,” a man said, voice sullen. “We ‘ins bringing her to the cap’n is all. Then the pointy-ear murdered Willum for talkin’. Jes’ talkin’!

“Hold your tongue there,” Twyla snapped, on her feet. “Were you taking her to your captain before or after the ‘extra helpin’ of gash tonight’?”

The imperial sergeant looked back at the angry soldier, eyebrow raised.

“Them’s rights of conquest, we did nowt wrong!” the man insisted. “It ain’t even a person! You imperials is bein’ in bed wit’ all dese pointy eared devils! Nod take all o’ ye!”

“Who is here from their company?” the sergeant called.

Most of the crowd was from the same company and the sergeant instructed them to take Willum’s body and the knives back to the imperial camp. As the small group was rounded up by the other imperial guards, the sergeant turned to face Bemere.

“Serah, and Maestra, I do not see any fault of yours here. However, rape and murder are serious matters. There will be judgement and I’d ask that you come and give testimony.”

Twyla had a sinking sensation in her stomach but Bemere nodded as though it was fair request. Bemere sat back on her heels and spoke with the gnome woman for several seconds, explaining what was going on. She shrugged and replied and Bemere called her horse back. The gnome struggled to get to its feet and Twyla immediately scooped her up in her arms. Bemere wanted to laugh at the look on the gnome’s face but didn’t say anything. When they’d got her settled on Bemere’s saddle, the pair led their horses toward the army’s camp. The sergeant walked nearby them, his aide following, leading their mounts. Behind them, the prisoners, their thumbs bound together, walked in a sullen little knot, between two imperial horsemen.

It was hard for Twyla not to ask what was going on, or if they were in trouble, but the sergeant was close, barely two rods away, and she managed to stay quiet. The adrenaline from earlier had disappeared, leaving a heavy core of worry behind. But Bemere walked sedately, like they were invited guests.

There was a smaller camp separated from the main force by a few rods. It was far neater than the collection of tents and lean-tos, consisting of wedge-shaped tents set neatly in a long row, making something like a street. There were a dozen or so imperial cavalry troopers, some making adjustments to the camp, and others taking care of the horses hobbled near the tents.

At one end of the camp there was an oval pavilion, much larger than any of the wedges. Beside the entrance to the pavilion was a banner pole set into the ground. The banner was the seal of the empire over a stylized prancing horse. At the bottom, several Old Empire glyphs were arranged in an arc.

The pair hitched their horses to a rail while the sergeant went to the closed door of the pavilion and slapped the fabric twice. Someone called for him to enter and he disappeared inside.

The gnome slid out of the saddle before Twyla could pick her up again. She whistled at Bemere who finally did smile.

“She is grateful for your kindness,” Bemere told Twyla. “But it is not their way to show weakness, especially in the middle of a Human army.”

Twyla flushed and nodded. The gnome limped over to her, and patted her arm, twittering something. Together, the trio walked to stand in front of the pavilion. The sergeant was just emerging, followed by a dark-haired imperial officer. His tanned skin, black hair pulled tightly back into a queue, and the meticulously groomed beard marked him as a southerner. When he saw Bemere, his eyes widened.

“I will be damned,” he said. “I was sure we’d be far enough north to be safe from elfish plots and intrigues.”

Bemere bowed slightly, not looking too surprised. “You wound me, dear captain.”

He laughed as he walked quickly to embrace her. “Adda Bemere, it is an unexpected pleasure.”

Behind him, another man emerged. He was older than the first, with as much silver on his head as black. Out of the corner of her eye, Twyla noticed all the imperial troopers stiffen.

“By the gods, Lews! You said this was far enough north!” he thundered.

Bemere did look surprised then and she let go of the first man to bow deeply, hand over her heart. “Lord Marshal Vercingetorix. I cannot express my delight in finding you here.”

Like the first man, he went to embrace her tightly, even adding a kiss on Bemere’s lips. Twyla glanced at the sergeant, and from the look on his face, she decided that she didn’t have to worry about being in trouble.

“My lord, allow me to present my traveling companion, Maestra Twyllian ap Tur. Twyla, this is Lord-Marshal Egan Vercingetorix of the Imperial Senate, and Captain-Serah Lews Trelawney of the Tenth Legion’s cavalry.”

Both men bowed to Twyla, hands over their hearts and she returned the bow, feeling clumsy.

“A maestra? Don’t tell me the Fae and Osh Caernon have finally kissed and made nice,” the Lord Marshall said.

Bemere smiled at Twyla. “Sadly, no. The maestra was researching at the Brynjarl Sands and kindly agreed to accompany me over Gateman’s Notch. We are on the path to Grand Locks. I had no idea anyone was moving an army this early in the season.”

“Indeed. These northerners have ice water instead of warm blood. But Sestian says there’s trouble with Understone folk. What happened?”

As Bemere explained what she’d seen and done, soldiers from the main camp began to arrive, gathering around the open area in front of the pavilion. Finally, several well dressed men appeared, shoving their way through the crowd. At the same time, corpse of the man Bemere had slain was brought and put on the ground. Twyla felt her mouth fill with spit as the head flopped back and she saw daylight through the gaping mouth. The Gnome woman said something in a low voice and Bemere took the mage’s arm.

“It’ll be over soon enough. Look at the horizon and ponder kyickmur forms,” Bemere said softly.

Twyla nodded, swallowing against her rebellious stomach.

Lord Vercingetorix introduced them to the three captains of the army companies. Then he had Bemere recount her story for them. As they looked at her in surprise, it was obvious that the captains didn’t quite believe what they were hearing.

Then the Lord Marshall sat on his heels in front of the gnome and asked something in a language that Twyla didn’t understand. The gnome did however, and the two of them spoke for several minutes. Finally, he bowed as best he could, hand over heart. She stomped twice in reply and he stood back up.

“I will have our conversation translated and sent to your tent,” Lord Vercingetorix said to one of the men, a man with blonde hair and long waxed moustaches.

He nodded back, still paying more attention to Bemere. Next, the Lord Marshal went to the prisoners and asked for their side of it. There were equal parts anger, pleading and indignance, but the Lord Marshal heard them out. Finally, he turned to the blonde man.

“Captain Gwyllam, do you have anything to add?”

“The dead one’s a trouble maker,” he said with a surprisingly squeaky voice. “Nowt else to say, yer justice is beyond reproach, Lord-Marshal.”

The older man bowed briefly before marching to the open space in front of the tents.

“Every morning, and every evening, you have had the laws read to you to keep them fresh in your mind,” he said loudly, gaze sweeping over the crowd of soldiers. “The utter idiocy of this unprovoked violence, and abduction, against an innocent person, marks each of you with the stain of barbarism and banditry. Not only have you put your own comrades-in-arms in peril, this stupidity has endangered the peace that exists between the Imperial Consul and the Understone Principalities. Hear my judgement!

“The two of you had no part in this, you are free to go. Tonight, reflect closely upon your gods and the pleasure they take in defending innocence and punishing wrongs. You four that laid hands on this person in the commission of this crime, six lashes each.”

The four soldiers were led away, and the Lord-Marshal went to stand directly in front of the last man.

“As for you Jors Hansfulder, you are guilty of assault, kidnapping, attempted rape, and acting in direct disobedience to the laws of this expedition. Is there anything further to be said in your defense?”

“Them’s crimes against people,” the man spat. “Them rocksuckers ain’t no kind of person, they be stupid beasts.”

“Your intended victim has requested trial by arms. Do you accept?”

The lone man looked surprised and then grinned nastily. “Oh, aye. You turn me loose with a blade and this’ll end right quick-like.”

The Lord-Marshall nodded to the man’s guards and one of them cut him free. The other took one of the knives they’d collected and handed it to the man. The gnome twittered and chirped to Bemere and she handed the gnome a broad bladed knife. Then Bemere guided Twyla out of the cleared area.

“She’s wounded!” Twyla hissed. “And that bastard is three times as big!”

Bemere squeezed her shoulder. “Watch and learn why the Lord-Marshal is so deeply concerned with keeping peace with the Understone.”

Twyla glared at her but turned to watch. The rat-faced man leered at the Gnome, crouching into a knife-fighter’s crouch. She stood and watched him, bandages very white against her gray-brown skin, looking ridiculously small and alone. Jors Hansfulder faked a charge but she stood her ground, watching him. He sneered, holding his blade low and stepped forward.

The Gnome launched herself in a blur. As she sprinted past the man, he screamed and had to balance on one leg. The Gnome’s blade was bloody and they could see bright blood flowing from the back of his leg. dons. Jors Hansfulder regained his balance and hopped around to face his opponent. She waited for him to finish before charging again, breathtakingly fast.

The human swung his blade but the gnome easily dodged the clumsy attack, grabbing his belt and using it to flip herself onto his back. Jors Hansfulder made a noise between a grunt and a scream as the gnome landed on his shoulders and yanked his hair back, baring his throat. Her blade a blur, she sliced across his neck three times. The condemned man gurgled, dropping to his knees, and the Gnome drove the knife into the top of his skull, burying it to the hilt. There was a sound from the watching crowd, something between a groan and a sigh.

Eyes rolling back, Hansfulder collapsed to the ground. The gnome withdrew the knife and cleaned it carefully before limping over to return it to Bemere.

“I am the Lord-Marshall Vercingetorix,” he said loudly. “Return to your camps and remember this. You will follow the law!”

Twyla stared in horror at the man’s skull, unable to look away. Along with the blood, a part of the brain oozed out and plopped to the ground. She clapped a hand to her mouth, feeling her stomach clench.

“Bring her over here,” a man’s voice said.

Hands took her arms and guided her around the pavilion. Twyla barely made it before bending over and heaving up everything she’d eaten.

“Keep an eye on her?” she heard Bemere said. “I’ve got to deal with the gnome and Lord-Marshall.”

“You go ahead,” a gruff voice said, but Twyla was too busy vomiting again to worry about it.

“I assume your companion is not a battle mage,” Vercingetorix said when Bemere rejoined him.

“Nothing like it, she’s one of their scholars,” Bemere said.

The gnome woman asked Bemere if she was free to return to the forest. Bemere translated the request and the Lord-Marshall knelt in front of her and made a long and flowery apology. Bemere saw just a hint of a smile on the gnome’s face as she made an equally flowery speech, declaring his justice fair and swift, emphasizing her words with a hard stomp of each foot.

Bemere climbed aboard her horse and the gnome used her leg and hip as a ladder to settle into the saddle in front of her. The gnome nodded to the two imperials and Bemere nudged her horse into a trot.

“Maestra,” someone said and a water bottle was held out.

Twyla mumbled her thanks and washed out her mouth several times. When she straightened up, she saw the sergeant with the evil looking face.

“Sestian Atious,” he reminded her.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know the proper title for a sergeant, but thank you.”

“You’re welcome, and any title given to me likely shouldn’t be repeated in polite company. I’d be honored if you’d use my name, Sestian.”

“And I’m just Twyla. May I borrow a shovel to clean this up?”

“I thought a fearsome geomancer would just open the earth underneath it,” he said.

Twyla couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. “I wouldn’t have a clue how, I’m a Maestra Daos, fearsome only to dusty books and ancient scrolls.”

His thin smile was awful to see. “Well then. It happens that some of my little lambs are reflecting on their particular sins. They’ll be along in just a moment to clean up.”

Twyla smiled shakily. “Far be it from me to disturb a penitent.”

His lip twitched again. “Well put. If you’ll follow me, the captain has a place for you to rest. Ser Bemere took the gnomish woman back into the forest and will return soon.”

“Thank you for the water, and the kindness.”

“You are welcome to both.”

They walked around the tent and he showed her through the door. The captain and Lord Vercingetorix were sitting at a table covered with papers but both stood up when she came in.

“Maestra, these chairs are comfortable unless you’d rather lie down,” Captain Trelawney said. “In which case, the Marshal General’s cot looks quite comfortable.”

“You’re quite free with my baggage,” the general grumbled good-naturedly. “Come sit with us, Lady ap Tur.”

“Please, Lord Vercingetorix. I’m barely a maestra, let alone a lady,” she protested.

The older man winked at her. “Well, if you’re part of common rabble, then it’s an order to sit down with us.”

“My Lord!” the captain protested. “Your manners would embarrass an ox!”

“Don’t fret, I’m common as grass,” the Lord Marshall said cheerfully, ignoring the captain. “I was a barracks brat, left outside the door one night.”

She smiled. “I’m a foundling of the Tower myself.”

“Ha! Feast on that, noble lout,” Lord Vercingetorix said to the captain. “Maestra, from your reaction, this was the first death you’ve seen?”

“I’m afraid you’d think me sheltered, my lord,” Twyla said. “My duties are in the archives and libraries.”

Vercingetorix waved a hand. “Don’t fret over it, it’s a hell of a shock. I pissed myself in terror at my first skirmish.”

“Now he simply enjoys it,” the captain interjected, grinning.

Vercingetorix gave Twyla a weary look. “My wife’s sister’s son. I should have followed my better instincts and had him drowned at birth. As for the ‘my lord’ nonsense, my name is simply Egan. Do me the honor.”

Twyla bowed her head, hating that she was blushing. “Thank you, Egan. I am Twyla.”

“And I am Lews,” the captain said. “I hear you’ve come down from Gatesman’s Notch. Would you tell me of the place? I’ve always wanted to see it.”

When Bemere entered the tent, she found the captain and marshal entertaining Twyla laugh with stories of Lew’s childhood. She sat down with them and the Marshal General quickly ended the story of some long-ago fishing trip.

“All is well?” he asked her.

Bemere nodded. “She’s safely away and asked me to relay her thanks once again.”

“The day would have gone very badly without your appearance,” Egan said. “A pox on city militia. I shudder to think what the Gnomish response would have been.”

“They’re all as fearsome as she was?” Twyla asked.

“Easily, and with all their traps and devices none of us would be seeing home again,” Egan said. “So, I owe you yet another debt of gratitude, Serah Bemere.”

“May I trade on that gratitude, Marshal General? I have a question.”

“I’d wager you have more than just one but ask away.”

“One at a time then. Egan, what’s going on here?”

He sighed. “Unusual stupidity. This is the militia from Cyannous, it’s an independent city fifty leagues or so downslope. They lost a trade caravan that was headed into the highlands. The few survivors that made it back claim it was a band of bandits, all Understone types. So they are marching back to claim their vengeance.”

Bemere frowned. “I have never heard of one of the Understone folk turning outlaw.”

“Neither have I. In fact, the story smells strongly of so much horse crap. However, they hired us as escort, not adjudicators. Per the treaties, all we can do is keep their stupidity away from the locals the best we can.”

“My Lord, that is the worst and shabbiest of excuses!” Bemere snapped, her expression furious.

Twyla was amazed to see Egan look down, like a student ashamed of not completing an assignment. “I know that, Your Grace. In fact, I have made the same point to the agents who arranged the contract.”

“I can attest that Lord Vercingetorix argued loudly against this contract,” Lews added. “In fact, most of the legion’s encampment heard him discussing the particulars. You also know that the imperial agents have their peculiar deafness when it comes to coin.”

Bemere bowed her head for a moment. “I well remember. Surprise stole my tongue away, forgive me.”

“I accept your apology, if you’ll stop glaring at me and share some wine,” Egan said. “I’ll even send word of your valiant intervention to the emperor himself.”

Bemere cocked an eyebrow at him and after a pause, all three of them laughed in a shared joke. Twyla did not ask, merely enjoyed their amusement. Bemere asked more questions, but they immediately went beyond the limits of Twyla’s comprehension, or interest. Mostly it was rumors and politics in places she’d never heard of. The fatigue of the day was quickly settling on her shoulders and the mage had to keep from yawning. She heard Bemere ask permission to ride with the imperial escort and some amusement of their hosts as they gave her their blessing. Lulled by the comfort of the chair, Twyla leaned back and soon fell asleep.

When they finally emerged from the pavilion, it was already dark. Bemere pointed Twyla toward a wedge-shaped tent that had been set up nearby. When Twyla pulled back the door, she was surprised how silky and light it was. It seemed like the tent had been made of gossamer and cobwebs but, despite appearances, it seemed sturdy enough.

“Where did this come from?” she asked quietly.

Bemere lit a small candle lantern. “The bundle behind my saddle.”

Twyla looked around, seeing her bedroll laid out next to the neatly folded blankets of Bemere’s. “But you don’t have a bundle behind your saddle.”

The elf chuckled. “Then where could this have come from?”

“You’re teasing me.”

Bemere sat on her heels, still smiling. “Yes, because I like you. You probably didn’t notice that I carried a sword either.”

“That’s true. Did you conjure it?”

“No, it’s right there.”

Twyla looked in the direction she pointed but didn’t see a sword. There was a strange sensation as her eyes noted something hanging from the ridge pole of the tent. She squinted and made out a bundle wrapped in leather straps, but somehow, she forgot what it looked like as soon as she looked away.

“It’s a minor glamour,” Bemere said. “Your eyes are distracted away, and it is difficult to remember what you’ve seen if you manage to catch a glimpse Look at it now.”

Twyla immediately saw the black scabbard with silvery runes faintly traced in what looked like glints of moonlight, although it there was no moon tonight.

“That’s amazing,” she said, grinning.

“And much easier than making something invisible. I don’t know if you heard or not, but I’ve decided that I am going to accompany Lews and his men in the morning. Grand Locks is half a day from here and he’s offered to provide a pair of guards to take you the rest of the way to Grand Locks.”

Twyla sat down on her blankets, frowning. “I’d hoped to stay with you. I haven’t mastered the kyickmur forms yet, and we haven’t discussed the valour at all. And I’m curious about what’s going on as well. I can make myself useful to you and with all these soldiers around you’ll need…”

“Twyla.”

She sighed sadly and looked up at Bemere, who looked ready to laugh.

“I thought your boundless curiosity might lead you to that decision, but you need to know that you have a choice here.”

Twyla grinned, the weight falling from her heart. “My thanks.”

The black-haired elf smiled back. “I’m glad you’re coming along. I’m going to take a walk with Lews. You get some rest, we’ve another long ride tomorrow.”

“Are you going to…”

Bemere stopped at the door of the tent, looking back over her shoulder. “Hmm?”

Face suddenly hot, Twyla waved her hand. “Oh, uhm…the kyickmur,” she said quickly.

“We’ll begin the next form tomorrow morning, if that’s acceptable.”

“Yes, of course, I didn’t…apologies.”

Bemere raised an eyebrow. “What’s troubling you, Twyla?”

“Nothing! It’s just all these people so suddenly, I didn’t…just be careful.”

Twyla’s face got even warmer as Bemere’s smile grew a little wider. “Don’t fret, the legions guard their camps closely. You’re as safe here as can be.”

Twyla nodded quickly, wondering if her cheeks were actually glowing at this point. “Thank you for letting me come along.”

Bemere chuckled. “Sleep well, Twyla.”

She pushed through the door and it closed behind her. Twyla got up to make sure it was tied shut, but the door had somehow sealed itself closed. The mage pulled off her outer robes and folded them up. Sighing, she began the nightly stretching exercises. It would be difficult to act any more like an addle-brained child than she already had and now she was worried about an elf who had centuries of experience before Twyla had even been born.

When she’d finished, Twyla rolled up in her blankets. She’d emptied her mind the way Bemere had taught her but she found that it was filling again with strange feelings, protective and anxious about the elf. Her heart was beating faster and there was an odd hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. The mage lay awake in her blankets, hearing the occasional footsteps of a guard, hoping each time that her companion was returning. It took her a long time to fall asleep.

The next morning<, Twyla and Bemere were awake before dawn. The rest of the imperial cavalry was ready before they were, but it didn’t matter. The Cyannous militia were just beginning to stir while the pair was saddling their horses.

They were leaving the pack animals here and Twyla fretted about all of her work being out of her sight. Bemere had her stack the leather cases in their tent and then instructed her to walk three times around the imperial’s camp. Twyla was mystified but did as Bemere said. When she returned, Bemere handed her a small case, surprisingly heavy for its size.

“What is it?”

Bemere smiled and motioned for her to open it. Inside were small leather cubes.

“I shrunk them. You can carry them with you, or leave them here with Egan. He’ll be here until Lews is back with his troop.”

“He’s not going?” Twyla asked, surprised.

“Because of his rank, he’s not permitted anywhere near the borders. He’s too valuable to the empire to risk. And if the Understone found out there was a high ranking commander near their territory, things would become too tense for mistakes not to happen. So he’ll stay here and sulk until Lews has returned.”

“I have to admit, I have no idea what a Lord Marshal even does. I figured he was in charge of Lews.”

“He is, in a sense. Officially, the Lord Marshal merely relays the words of the emperor to the imperial army and navy. The reality is that the emperor depends on Egan for military advice.”

Twyla was astounded at the thought of the balding, blunt cavalryman being a member of the imperial inner-circle. “He talks to the emperor?”

“Routinely. He is only here because he was in the north inspecting the army. He heard what was going on and snuck away with Lews so he could pretend he was still a cavalryman for a little while.”

“He’s so…ordinary! Not that it’s a bad thing, I’m quite fond of him but…”

Bemere’s smile turned into a chuckle. “Were it up to him, Egan would be a sergeant in the southern empire, chasing his horse nomad cousins around the steppes. Alas, his talents were noted and now the only steps he sees are those of the imperial senate.”

Twyla rolled her eyes. “That was a terrible joke. But thank you for magicking my boxes! Can I ask how you did it?”

“It’s a technique that only the fae can use, I’m afraid. When you need them back to their original sizes, put them in a quiet area, surrounded by water. I usually use soaked cloth.”

Bemere glanced at the Cyannous camp. The only improvement seemed to be that more half dressed people were now moving about and she shook her head.

“I see why Lews is so eager to be finished with them.”

It was just past midday of their second day of riding when the army descended into a shallow valley with a river meandering through it. The Cyannous militia immediately broke ranks, most of them flopping down to rest. At the head of the column, Lews and the militia captains were conferring over some maps. Like their escort, Bemere and Twyla stayed in the saddle. Finally, Lews traded bows with his militia counterparts and climbed back on his horse. He circled his left arm and pointed to some high ground, well back from the river.

“That’s for the day then,” Sestian called to Twyla as he trotted past. The scarred sergeant had taken an interest in her over the last three days, chatting with her in the evenings and riding near her throughout the day. Twyla had been wary of the attention at first, ready to fend off any amorous advance. He’d been describing the Tenth Legion’s castra, one of the many semi-permanent forts and towns that his legion garrisoned, when he’d mentioned his wife and daughters who lived there with him, and she’d seen Sestian’s love for them in his eyes. She’d been able to relax after that and enjoy his company.

As she’d helped Bemere set up their tent, Twyla asked why the entire company of cavalry was in a single camp. Usually they formed five small camps surrounding the militia camp.

“That river marks the frontier of human lands,” Bemere said. “Lews is staying well back, to make it clear to any watchers that they are not involved. He’ll have a bright noisy camp tonight as well, to make it clear that his cavalry is not trying to hide.”

The company’s hunters had had a good hunt and there were two deer, a dozen rabbits, along with fresh fish caught in the river. With time to cook, an improvised oven had been made and the smells of baking filled the camp as well.

A pair of ale kegs had also appeared mysteriously. Lews tried to find out how they’d gotten there, storage space in the few company wagons was highly valuable. As she sat down beside Sestian, she was surprised that he wasn’t helping. Usually the sergeant was the captain’s shadow. Lews gave up fairly quickly and Sestian grinned at Twyla.

“If the captain figured out where these ‘uns smuggled beer, he’d be the first to succeed.”

“Maybe they hid them with the militia.”

Sestian shook his head. “We give them nothing, and we take nothing,” he said firmly. “Even the youngest rider here knows to never come near that law.”

“Do you know where it was?” she asked, starting to smile.

“Maestra, I’m surprised at you. How could a man of my stature be plotting with this miserable band of villains?”

“Because yesterday you told Anna that when a horse even farted, you knew about it.”

Sestian laughed. “Just like my girls; listening to everything I say so they can use it against me later.”

Lews came and sat under the fly with them. “You think I’ve looked long enough?” he asked Sestian.

“Just be sure to glower a little, while you have your mug of fresh, delicious water,” Sestian said.

Lews took the leather mug the sergeant handed him and smelled it. He sighed happily and took a long swallow.

“That’s how you know your sergeant likes you,” Lews said to Twyla. “Otherwise I’d have to try and sneak a mug of beer on my own.”

“Life and Service,” Sestian said, toasting the captain and taking a long drink from his own leather jack.

They ate just after sundown that evening. For the first time, Twyla saw the stern and wary attitudes of the cavalry company relax. They called jokes and taunts to each other that she mostly didn’t understand but enjoyed all the same. When the food had been cleared away, Twyla accepted a mug of ale from the sergeant and sat with him as the troopers began a strange contest.

They began wrestling, something she’d seen before, but instead of struggling silently, they sang or recited poetry, trading verses back and forth. There was laughter from the onlookers every time a verse was flubbed or forgotten, and they even managed to occasionally make the wrestlers laugh in the middle of their match. Sestian judged each match, and while the winner wasn’t always clear to Twyla, she enjoyed herself immensely.

As usual, Bemere had disappeared with Lews after dinner, and near the end of the contest, they reappeared, faces flushed and grinning. Sestian rolled his eyes at Twyla, and they both laughed.

The troopers had noted their absence and return and began to call Sestian to judge the pair’s “wrestling” and declare a victor. Sestian tried to declare it a tie but no one would accept his ruling. Then in the middle of the laughter, Twyla, tongue loosened by ale and happiness called for a rematch in front of the company. Her face went crimson as the rest of the soldiers shouted their approval. Lews laughed with the rest, finally pulling off his tunic and and facing Bemere.

The elf shook her head sadly. “Your stamina has already failed you once tonight, my captain.”

Lews tried to protest but it was drowned by a roar of laughter. Sestian declared Bemere the winner and the captain had to wrestle a wiry woman who was leading the tournament. They locked arms and she sang something in a language Twyla hadn’t heard before. It was a strange melody and the words seemed to be completely alliterative. The captain gaped and as he called a protest, she easily threw him over her hip and to the ground. He jumped up, laughing, and held up the woman’s arm, declaring her the champion.

As the laughter and congratulations echoed off the trees, Bemere sat next to Twyla. She was grinning and winked at the still-embarrassed mage.

Twyla swallowed against the lump in her throat as she went to find Sestian Atious. She hadn’t realized how much she’d liked the man until it had come time to say goodbye.

“Saddled and ready for more adventures, Mage of Sneezing and Searching?” he greeted with the scarred smile that she’d come to look forward to.

The mage knew that she’d burst into tears if she tried to speak, so, surprising them both, she hugged the man tightly. “Thank you, Sestian.”

He hugged her back, almost gingerly. “You’ve been a bright spot for us all, Twyla. You keep your wits about you, and when trouble comes, you pay close heed to her elfish Ladyship. For all her beauty and manners, she’s deadlier than any five of us.”

“I promise,” Twyla said, letting go of him and wiping her eyes.

“And if you come south to Heliacarnum’s castra, ask the guards for me. My girls would be lucky to meet a woman such as yourself, teach ’em they can get ahead on their brains alone.”

“And Lews keeps telling me tales of your wife’s pastries.”

He grinned. “He’s eaten enough of them to know. Until you arrive, fair skies and warm winds, Twyla.”

She nodded and turned away quickly before he could see her tears. Bemere waited with their horses and Twyla fumbled her way into the saddle. When they rode out, she looked back to see Sestian Atious’ arm lifted in a wave of farewell. She waved back and lost sight of him as they descended the hill toward the river.

“You have found a true friend there,” Bemere said gently.

Twyla quickly wiped her eyes. “If the Fates had been kinder, I would have been fortunate to have such a father.”

“Maybe the Fates are making amends, even friendship from the likes of Sergeant Sestian Atious is a rare and priceless gift.”

“I thought he wanted to bed me at first.”

“I wondered that myself at first,” Bemere admitted. “But it was obvious that his feelings toward you were fatherly rather than lustful.”

“Where are we headed?” Twyla asked, after wiping her eyes once more.

“Yesterday, I met with the militia captains and they described the route they will take, along with their destination. It’s not far, maybe half a day’s ride.”

“Bah. As slow as they are, it’ll be a wonder if they get across that river before nightfall,” Twyla grumbled.

Bemere laughed. “Not even a week ago, I had to pull a sleepy mage from her blankets. Now she’s become a cavalry sergeant!”

Twyla grinned. “And they’d all better watch out when I get back to Osh Caernon!”

The pair rode along the river for a short way, before following a faint path that led them out into the barren wastes dominated by sand and bedrock outcrops. Nearly all of the vegetation disappeared, leaving only scattered clumps of sparse thorny scrub. To either side of their path, bluffs became stony walls, and a wide valley began to appear around them. Even partially shaded by several moons, the heat of the sun was noticeable.

“I begin to see why the militia didn’t attempt this attack during Sun’s Height,” Bemere said. “This valley would be hotter than Hartur’s Anvil.”

“Why would anyone send a caravan this way?” Twyla asked.

“That’s a question I’ve been asking myself as well. Anyone with the sense the Goddess gave geese could see there are no signs of life here.”

Twyla wiped her forehead on her sleeve. “Did the militia captain send you the wrong way?”

Bemere snorted. “As besotted as he was? Doubtful.”

Twyla had an unpleasant thought as she considered Captain Gwyllm, loud-mouthed and coarse, with greasy hair and long mustachios. “You didn’t…”

The elf laughed merrily. “Ride him? Not even I would be that desperate. A simple glamour was all it took.”

“Thank the Goddess for small mercies.”

“I am curious. What would have been your reaction if I had?”

“After vomiting? I’d be dragging you back to the river for a thorough scrubbing!”

“Sergeant Twyla indeed!”

The mage shrugged. “There would likely be an unpleasant odor. You are too beautiful for stench and it is far too warm for the smell of onions and sweaty feet.”

Bemere laughed harder, holding her sides.

As they rode, the slopes of the valley continued to grow until they’d been replaced with walls of stone. The valley narrowed as the thin soil disappeared, and they rode across naked bedrock until they reached a place the deep ravine split into three sections.

Twyla looked around doubtfully. “Was your glamour strong enough?”

Bemere chuckled and heeled her horse close to Twyla. She cleared her throat and Twyla looked at her curiously. Bemere mentally threw an invisible net over the mage. Twyla’s eyes widened and she swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. Bemere raised her eyebrows and let her mental net dissolve.

Twyla shook her head to clear it and gave the elf a wry smile. “I respectfully withdraw my question and will not doubt you again.”

“But would you have told me the truth?”

“I would have gladly shared my darkest secrets to please you.”

“I’m not very good at glamours, truth be told,” Bemere said. “My casting lacks any subtlety. That’s why you were so aware of being influenced.”

“That’s a frightening ability.”

Bemere looked at her notes. “I agree. When we are young, we put glamours on each other for amusement. Children being who they are, it’s an unpleasant experience that stays in one’s memory for our entire lives and limits our willingness to use such a talent.”

“Surely there are some that enjoy the power?”

Bemere nodded, closing her book. “There were a few, yes. We will follow this central ravine for a few more leagues.”

Twyla persisted. “What stops those few from using more subtle glamours to control everyone?”

“Even the strongest casters could only affect two or three minds at once. Any fae can feel the presence of a glamour and it is understood that to use the talent maliciously is an immediate death sentence.”

“What if it’s humans that are influenced?”

“The victim does not define the crime, the use of glamour is the crime. Were I to glamour spiders and scorpions to battle for my amusement, the stink would surround me, and my life would be forfeit. There were two in my generation that secretly continued developing their control of the glamour and they created just such a situation.”

“Were they punished?”

Bemere looked at her, expressionless. “No. When we sensed the evil, they were executed on the spot.”

“Bu they were just children!” Twyla gasped.

“They were old enough to understand the penalties of what they were doing.”

“Did that frighten the rest of you?”

“I was only frightened when I first sensed their perversion. Then I was filled with fury at their choices. Finally, there was sadness for their families when we returned with their bodies.”

“They were killed by other children?”

The elf held up her hands. “Remember that childhood for the fae moves at a very different pace than humans. When I refer to a child, I do not mean a babe in arms, or a youngling. We were fully grown but not yet adults.”

“You must be very nervous to use a glamour then.”

Bemere shrugged. “If I am diligent, I don’t need that kind of lever. However, this situation has developed too quickly to be properly observed. The militia captain was left unharmed. In fact, he’s convinced I did lay with him, even if he’s hazy on the details.”

Eventually, the ravine they followed ended in a wide box-canyon with pitted walls. At their base were long slopes of stone and gravel. Bemere rode a wide circuit of the area and picked a spot on a small hill that overlooked the area. They rode to the top and dismounted. After watering the horses, Bemere produced a shade fly from her horse and they rigged it between several gnarled trees.

“That’s very pretty,” Twyla said, looking up at the deep blue and silver chevron pattern.

“Those are the colors of the Plenilune fae,” Bemere said and went on to explain that the Selenic Court took pains to maintain cordial relationships with the other peoples and kingdoms of the Allworld, including the various polities of the Understone races. Those that wore the chevron-patterned colors were neutral observers in service to the Silver and were not to be molested. The elf produced another bundle from somewhere and unrolled it to reveal silver and deep blue caparisons for both of their horses.

After they’d dressed the horses, the pair sat beneath the fly and chatted as they ate a simple lunch.

“How did you come to meet Lord Vercingetorix and Captain Trelawney?” Twyla asked.

“I first met Egan when he was younger than Lews is now. I was accompanying his cavalry troop when we were ambushed by steppe nomads. Egan had been sorely wounded and I saw him knocked out of his saddle. I went back and kept the nomads from killing him on the spot. Then I managed to keep him alive long enough to bring him back to their camp. He healed and we’ve been friends ever since.”

“I think there’s much more to that story,” Twyla said.

Bemere smiled. “Indeed there is. And I’ve known Lews since he came to his uncle’s household as a page. Before I forget, there’s one more thing we need to do before the fighting starts.”

Bemere rose gracefully to her feet and took another bundle of cloth from her saddlebag. She unrolled it, revealing a pair of surcoats checkered with deep blue and silver.

“These should keep us from too much trouble if things become interesting,” Bemere said, handing one to Twyla.

Twyla nodded and pulled her maestra’s robes off. Underneath she wore only a light-weight chemise that was nearly translucent. Bemere quickly looked away, her pulse quickening at the sight of the mage’s half-revealed body. She busied herself with getting her own surcoat on, fighting the urge to take a closer look.

“Am I so horrid to your eyes?” Twyla asked, once they were settled again.

“I think you look rather fetching,” Bemere said, confused a little. “The blue sets your yellow hair off well.”

Twyla shook her head, blushing. “If I am not wearing my outer clothes, you always look quickly away. Even when we practice stretching and the kyickmur, you cannot stand to see me any longer than to correct movements and can barely utter my name.”

Bemere blinked in surprise. “Maestra…Twyla, your frame and countenance are pleasing to the eye. Very much so in fact. Due to my present circumstances, I do not want to offer offense or disquiet with an overly admiring gaze. And I need to keep the embers of my lust hidden and your loveliness presents a constant temptation to let them flare brightly.”

“Oh.” Twyla’s face was even hotter, but she didn’t look away. “You think I’m lovely?”

The elf smiled. “Twyla, I know that you are beautiful. I also know that we should continue this conversation another time, in the very near future. Sadly, we need all of our concentration on these other matters first.”

“Of course, forgive me.”

“As if there were anything to forgive. Now, before I completely lose myself, how should I best describe our little hill?”

“It’s not really a hill,” Twyla said. “Look up there.”

Bemere looked up in the direction the mage pointed. At the top, it looked very much like some gargantuan creature had taken a large bite out of the cliff.

“We’re standing on all that rock, plus whatever else was gouged out as it fell. There are traces of the path it took if you look closely.”

Bemere nodded, impressed. “Thank you. I would not have seen that.”

The mage didn’t know if she was being humored or not but Bemere took the large journal from her bags and quickly sketched a diagram of the area. After she’d added notes about the landslide, she held it up for Twyla’s inspection.

“Just so,” the woman agreed, admiring Bemere’s drawing talent all over again. “It’s a small enough detail.”

“One never knows what uses knowledge will find in time. I do not understand the ways of stone well enough to see such subtlety in the details.”

“If you’re not sick to death of answering questions, I have another,” Twyla said. “Is sitting here in plain view a breach of your neutrality? Our presence is enough to give away the fact that something is happening. If there were anyone to pay attention.”

Bemere actually flushed but laughed. “You have a sharp mind, Twyla. Yes, that would be something to consider and normally I would follow a bit behind the advancing army to observe. If the survivors are to be believed and there is an entrance to the Understone nearby, their sentries have already spread the news of all this commotion over their heads. And don’t forget Inzya, our gnome friend. I would be very surprised if she didn’t send word in all directions that a human army was in the area. She was extremely annoyed.”

“I do hope she’s healing cleanly.”

Bemere chuckled. “I wouldn’t worry. The Hurzgrafn, the people we call gnomes are among the hardiest people the Allworld has ever carried.”

Despite Twyla’s predictions, it was only mid-afternoon when they saw the first of the Cyannous militia coming up the ravine behind them. As they got closer Twyla saw that all of the riders had donned matching surcoats, and caparisoned their horses in a similar pattern. The left side of the outfit was a bright scarlet, and the right half was jet black. The neck and shoulders were covered by a white collar that was blinding in the sun light. There were several banners in the same colors, some of them with a silver tower emblem, the mark of Cyannous.

“They’re looking rather festive,” Twyla said dryly.

Bemere nodded, still writing. “That might have intimidated a Human foe, but I don’t think the denizens of the Understone will care much. Especially if they’re bandits.”

They watched as the resplendent cavalry rode past, six abreast. Ten ranks of six riders passed their hilltop and some of the riders saluted as they passed. Bemere acted as though she hadn’t seen them, and Twyla was happy to follow her example.

Then, as they approached the slopes of scree, large humanoid shapes began to emerge from behind the large boulders. They were broad shouldered with long white hair and a grayish-brown skin that put Twyla in mind of the gnome she had bandaged. They were heavily muscled with dark patterns covering large parts of their bodies.

“Giants!” Twyla exclaimed quietly. “I thought they were just a children’s story.”

“Those are Plaflakhi,” Bemere said, scribbling furiously. “They inhabit the deep-down caverns and caves. Their presence here gives lie to that story of Understone bandits. Plaflakhi do not leave the Understone lightly, and their cherished laws forbid theft.”

Directly below their perch, trumpet signals rang out. The cavalry slowed, spreading to block off the box canyon. The first three ranks brandished spears and saber as they began to trot forward. But the horses became increasingly restive, prancing side to side. The ripple of unease soon spread to the rest of the cavalry formation and the riders’ attention was increasingly on calming their mounts.

Then one of the horses near the front reared, its whinny almost a scream. The rider managed to stay on, and he would have gotten his mount back under control, but the panic immediately spread to the surrounding horses. The ripple became a wave of panic that convulsed the entire company of humans. Most of the riders were sent flying from their fear-maddened steeds, and the few that managed to stay in the saddle were quickly carried off, as the animals’ panic became a stampede away from the Plaflakhi warriors.

“What is this?” Bemere muttered, taking rapid notes.

Behind them, there were trumpet calls followed by shouting. They looked back to see the infantry advancing at a quick march. They were far less organized than the cavalry had been, but there were many more of them.

“Do you smell that?” Twyla asked, wrinkling her nose.

The elf looked up at her in surprise and sniffed the air. It was an earthy scent with a bitter undertone. It reminded Bemere of something and she closed her eyes, concentrating. Twyla looked back at the unseated cavalry. Most of them were staggering to their feet, but few of them weren’t moving. Bemere considered the possibility that this was some kind of magical working, their own horses were starting to stamp and chuff.

Bemere’s eyes widened as she placed the smell wafting past. “Twyla! Ride from here, take both horses and ride hard. Find Lews, go back the way we came. Now!”

“What about you?” Twyla called over her shoulder, going to her horse.

“I’ll meet you at Grand Locks in a few days.”

Twyla pulled the hobbles off her horse but Bemere drew a knife and cut the ones off her own mount and then threw herself out of the way as the horse reared. Twyla struggled to stay on her own as it reared as well, whickering loudly.

“What is it? Lews will…”

“That smell is Spiderkin, I believe there are a lot of them coming. They hunt by scent and they’re after the humans. I doubt they’re looking for fae. Understand?”

Twyla’s eyes widened. “May She guide your path!” she called, whirling her mount to gallop down the side of the hill. Bemere’s mount didn’t hesitate to follow and quickly passed Twyla as she galloped away.

Bemere made sure the bindings that held her saber in the sheath were untied before picking up her journal and finding her page. The Plaflakhi warriors were already on top of the cavalry but most of the riders had lost their weapons when they were unhorsed. If they threw up their hands, the giants ignored them. Those with weapons in their hands were swatted to the ground. More of the giants emerged and began trussing up their prisoners.

There were more trumpet calls as the infantry commanders took in the scene in front of them. The infantry began to jog forward, towards the Plaflakhi half a league distant. The Understone giants ignored them, grabbing the cowering cavalry riders, often one in each hand, passing them to others that appeared from the hidden entrances. Bemere watched them, still trying to understand what was going on. She wasn’t an expert on the Plaflakhi, but she knew enough to see that they were behaving very oddly here.

Several more of the white-haired giants replaced those who were carrying their prisoners off. They all carried clubs, waving them and roaring at the oncoming troops. There was another trumpet signal and the infantry began to move faster.

Another wave of scent rolled over Bemere, the damp earth and bitterness so strong she nearly gagged.

It was then that the Spiderkin emerged from hidden burrows in all three canyon walls. She saw that these were Lesser Spiderkin, about the size of wolves. They were not related to true spiders, they ran on six legs instead of eight, with the remaining pair of smaller limbs arranged so that they could be used to grab and manipulate objects. Lesser referred to their stature alone, they were much smarter than their insectile cousins, intelligent enough to communicate and be trained.

A wail went up from the foot soldiers as they realized they had blundered into a trap. The inexorable wave of Spiderkin hit the infantry formation on all four sides. The usual counter to this kind of enveloping threat was to form a hollow square. But even if the hapless militia had known the drill, the Spiderkin were in among them far too quickly. The humans went down in a wave, knocked off their feet by the wolf-sized spiders. A few of them struggled to their feet before being knocked down again. Bemere grabbed her spyglass and looked closer. The Humans weren’t being killed, just kept on the ground.

More Plaflakhi emerged from the rocks, gathering up the infantry and passing them underground in the same manner as the cavalry. A lone group of horsemen rode hard for the open end of the canyon, leaving their bright banners to fall to the ground behind them. Bemere recognized several of them, including the militia captain she’d spoken too yesterday.

Before they could make their escape, more Plaflakhi and Spiderkin cut them off and the commanders were unceremoniously knocked off their horses and taken prisoner. Bemere had to admire the efficiency of the ambush, not even an hour after the cavalry had arrived, the battle was decisively over. However, she was left without a good route to make her own retreat out of the canyon. The Plaflakhi had noticed her as well and began to approach her position, whistling and calling to the Spiderkin, as a shepherd might whistle to his dogs. Bemere drew her saber and watched them closely, hoping that the smell of her body was different enough to dissuade them.

But, as the Plaflakhi whistled their pets into a charge, she realized they hadn’t noticed, or they simply didn’t care. The fastest of the Spiderkin reached her ahead of its fellows, leaping into the air to hurtle toward her. Bemere took a step out of his path and struck once, almost casually. The black blade sung in a high keening note as it easily struck off its head. The body fell to the ground in a tangle of limbs and was still.

Seeing their companion so easily dispatched, the rest of the Spiderkin slowed their charge. The rest of them slowed their charge and, perhaps responding to the shouts and whistles of the Plaflakhi, spread out to encircle her hilltop. Bemere turned slowly, watching the growing mob of Lessers surrounding her.

There was a skittering scrape from behind her and Bemere whirled out of the path of another opportunistic individual. Her blade thrust through this one’s body from the side, and she flung the screaming creature into the middle of its fellows. She kicked a piece its leg out of the way, as the screams were cut short by the tangle of Lessers pouncing on it. The Spiderkin closest to her began to edge back and Bemere saw their Plaflakhi masters advancing through the crowd of Lessers, brandishing their clubs.

“You put down the blade, Human!” one of them shouted in broken Common. “Throw it away or you meet doom!”

Seeing more of the white-haired giants approaching, Bemere knew she wouldn’t be able to fight her way to an escape. With her free hand, the elf drew her long knife and flipped it in her hand, leaving the tip at her elbow. It was a poor shield, but better than a bare arm. Despite her vulnerability, the Spiderkin that had gathered around her, began to crowd back, chittering loudly.

“No sword! You pay now, slave or blood!” another Plaflakhi yelled.

“You are invader here,” the first Plaflakhi yelled. “Help Humans, pay Human price!”

Bemere smiled tightly and began to sing a warsong in the language of the fae; {Come and hear the song of my blade. Come and meet the fury of the Silver! Come to me and together we will dance into the next life!}

The Plaflakhi stopped in their tracks, looking at each other uncertainly. The Spiderkin had deserted her and were gathering around their Plaflakhi masters. Their chittering softer now, almost as if they were seeking to be comforted.

Something flashed above Bemere’s head, moving too fast to even register. A gust of wind nearly knocked her down, and even flipped a few of the Spiderkin onto their backs. Immediately there was another blast of air and she was startled by a voice speaking the language of the fae, right behind her.

{Put up your blade, Wanderer of Night. These are not your enemies, I give you my word and offer my protection}

Bemere turned to see two figures standing back to back with her, facing the large figures as well. Both wore the hoods and cowls with the gray and gold device of the Cloud Riders, the sky cavalry of the Golden. Their hands were empty, but the giants and their spiders had already begun to withdraw. Down in the canyon, other Plaflakhi were leading their Spiderkin packs back underground. A glance to the sky showed her two gryphons circling close overhead.

Flipping her off-hand knife around, Bemere let it fall into the sheath. The Cloud Ghosts waited as she wiped her sword free of gore before returning it to its scabbard. She folded her hands and bowed slightly to her High Fae rescuers.

“I am Serah Adda Bemere, Eye of the Selenic. Your aid is timely and most welcome. All praise and glory to the Phoebean Appaline.”

The newcomer pulled back her hood and let the cowl fall away from her face. Her eyes were light amber and her skin was a golden brown. She bowed in return and Bemere saw the woman’s hair, bleached nearly white, braided tight to her scalp

“Well met, cousin. I am Serah Gwyenth Hyrale, Cloud Rider. I sing the honor and glory to Her Selenic Radiance. My apologies for your reception, we were not told an Eye of the Plenilune would attend this fight.”

“Apologies are unnecessary,” Bemere said. “I found this expedition while I was traveling through the Counties. Their imperial escorts were kind enough to allow me to accompany them so that I could include this battle in my letters home.”

The High elf visibly relaxed. “Ah, now I see clearly. I had feared that you and I were the first sparks of intrigues between our respective courts.”

“Perish the thought!” Bemere said. “I am an Eye and nothing more. My mother despairs of my manners in courtly affairs.”

“And I can think of no higher recommendation of your character,” Gwyenth said. “If one could ask, what do you know about these events?”

Bemere shrugged. “I was told that the Cyannous militia was seeking word of a disappeared merchant caravan. That explanation seemed thin, unless the Plaflakhi have suddenly taken up banditry.”

“I pray that you do not utter such a thing within their hearing!” Gwyenth said, softening her words with a smile. “Unless you enjoy endless discourse about matters of law and ethics, of course.”

“Green Lady forbid!” Bemere said with a grin of her own. “Is one permitted to ask the story about this…I hesitate to call it a battle. It appeared to be more akin to thief-taking.”

“That’s closer than you might think,” Gwyenth said. “We are here as impartial witnesses, summoned by Khivu Ataphalis, Broodmother of these burrows. She would likely welcome another observer from the fae. Will you come and meet her?”

Despite the disquieting thought that she might not be allowed to refuse, Bemere didn’t hesitate to agree before asking after Twyla; “I had a companion with me, she rode back down the valley with our mounts.”

“And will she return?” Gwyenth asked.

“No. I told her to ride for the Imperial camp. Will the denizens of the burrows be chasing down stragglers?”

“The Brood Mother has forbidden the taking of prisoners beyond these walls,” Gwyenth said. She gestured at Bemere’s surcoat. “Doubly so, if she is wearing the Plenilune colors. The Plaflakhi war-chiefs are well aware of their meaning. I will ride ahead and inform the Brood Mother of your presence here and my comrade will guide you, if that’s acceptable?”

Bemere glanced around. The shade fly had been reduced to tatters by the Lesser Spiderkin and her journal was safely in its satchel. “I’m grateful for your courtesy.”

The other rider unmasked and Bemere was astounded to see a Human face. The High Elves had little enough love for their Silver cousins, but they absolutely despised Humans.

“I get that look a lot,” the woman said, a highlander’s accent adding a burr to her words. “But the Green Mother chooses her own champions. Who are we to doubt her decision?”

“Blessed is the countenance of Her regard,” Bemere agreed. “Lady Rider, no offense was intended. I was startled.”

The copper haired woman smiled. “No offense taken, Lady Serah. I’ve never met a Plenilune either.”

“My name is Bemere if you’d do me the honor.”

The copper-haired woman grinned. “I’m Kaylie. We should go on foot from here, our winged brothers would find it difficult to lift two riders from here.”

“Lead the way,” Bemere said.

The High Elf whistled loudly in a complicated pattern. There was an answering cry from above and Bemere looked up to see one of the circling gryphons descend in a spiral.

“They are magnificent,” Bemere said, settling her satchel on her shoulder.

“You know that they are intelligent?” Kaylie asked.

Bemere nodded. “I’ve never met a gryphon on the flesh but a member of my family was fortunate enough to have a close friend who was Gryphonfolk.”

“A lord or a lady?” Kaylie asked.

“My mother’s sister,” Bemere said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because she is an impertinent youth,” Gwyenth said, her fond smile once again taking the sting from her words.

“I hear that a lot myself,” Bemere told Kaylie, and both Cloud Riders chuckled.

Gwyenth’s Gryphon swooped just overhead and his claws smoothly plucked the High Elf from the ground. As he climbed back into the sky, Bemere saw the rider spring from the gryphon’s claws, flipping in mid-air to land in her saddle.

“Amazing,” Bemere murmured as they walked down toward the floor of the box canyon.

Chapter 4- The Burrow

Bemere and Kaylie worked their way to the bottom of the valley. There was a trumpeting from above them and Bemere looked up to see a large shape circling high above them.

“He’s laughing at me,” Kaylie said.

“Because you’re walking?”

The human woman snorted as the trumpeting laughter echoed again. “It’s a long story.”

“I understand completely,” Bemere assured her.

The gryphon soared ahead of them, disappearing behind one of the ridges.

“Part of my reading lately has been the tales of the ancient serah,” Kaylie said. “May I ask which of the immortal lineages you belong to? If you are willing to discuss it, of course.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the Plenilune don’t have any. Rather, our serah are elected by their peers. It’s not a very interesting story, I’m afraid. When did you become a Cloud Ghost?”

“At the end of this past Short-Sun. At first, I was a crofter’s daughter, then an unwilling recruit for my laird’s recent expedition. He’s the one they call Mad MacGregor.”

Bemere glanced at her. “I recently heard tales of an army…”

“If these tales ended very badly, that was probably us,” Kaylie said, her tone oddly cheerful. “But that’s not a very interesting story, I’m afraid.”

Bemere’s laughter caught the attention of a pair of Plaflakhi. They had been studying the armor of one of the fallen but straightened up and moved to meet them. As they approached, Bemere saw that it was a male and female. They were close to twice her size, with bodies that looked far bulkier and muscular. Instead of the armored plates of the earlier warriors, these two were wearing only the padded gambesons worn under such armor. And instead of weapons, there were what looked like armored books on their belts.

“I see you, Cloud Ghost Witness,” the bluish skinned man rumbled.

“I see you, Champion of Law” Kaylie answered. “Shall I bare my neck?”

“While I would view it with appreciation, there is no need,” he chuckled with a sound like stones falling into a barrel. “We were there when you swore the Witness oath.

“You wear the patterns of an envoy,” the other Plaflakhi said to Bemere. “I would bid you a proper welcome, but your colors are unfamiliar.”

She bowed slightly to the imposing woman towering over her. “I am an envoy of the Selenic Court and the Eye of our Lady of Grace.”

Both giants studied her, fascinated.

“An actual Plenilune Fae,” the male said. “Your presence here is a surprise and is most welcome. If you’d allow us the honor, we will accompany you.”

“Thank you,” Kaylie said, relief in her voice. “Being an armed human woman is likely to be…complicated just now.”

There were more deep chuckles and the four of them walked toward the mouth of a cave. A stone archway had been carved into the rock and several more Plaflakhi were standing watch around the captured humans. Their packs of Lesser Spiderkin prowled between the clusters of prisoners and Bemere noticed that the female soldiers had been separated out into their own group.

“As you see, the dross can only bring greater glory to the shining gem,” the male said as they passed under the arch.

Kaylie gave him an odd look and the female Plaflakhi laughed.

“Donag and I are both quite taken with your flame-color hair,” she told Kaylie. “I am named Gruni and we serve the mother as knowledge finders.”

“It is Gruni that is taken with the coppery perfection of your hair,” Donag said. “As I said, I admire the curve of your neck and shoulder.”

Bemere kept her face blank, but she hadn’t been expecting this kind of familiarity. Everything she’d read and heard of the Plaflakhi had painted them as somber denizens of the far deeps, cheerless and cold. But these two sounded almost…flirtatious.

The cave was a large chamber, roughly oblong. There were three tunnels leading in different directions and a group of prisoners was just disappearing down the largest passage as they entered. In the middle of the chamber, a plinth of the living rock had been carved smooth and a figure was sitting cross-legged on a large cushion, wax tablets scattered around him.

He looked up and Bemere was briefly surprised. First she had the thought that she’d somehow run into one of her own people, although she’d never met anyone with pale eyes like his. In return, his eyes first widened in surprise and then narrowed. He stood, and his hair, the same Raven-black as her own, and captured in a multitude of ornamented braids, jingled faintly as fanned out over his shoulders. It revealed ears as pointed as her own, but he looked less Plenilune now, taller and thinner with skin far lighter than her own.

“And what is this?” he hissed. “A follower of the whore queen?”

“I am Plenilune,” Bemere said, realizing what he was.

“I am not surprised. Are there more of you Moon sluts coming, or were you the only camp follower?”

Beside her, Kaylie looked worried. Above them, the large pair of Plafakhi stared at enraged figure in amazement. Even a group of Plaflakhi warriors that was emerging from below stopped and gaped at the furious elf in astonishment as he shrieked and raved.

“Reader, have you gone mad?” Gruni asked. “Or are you blinded? That is the coat of a royal envoy!”

“Royal? Royal? They have no queen, just a succession of slatternly gashes. Yes, yes, I see the pattern but that is only a Plenilune spy. They are so in love with that human filth, ask it how many of them it spread its legs for! She can answer on her way to the cells!”

“I fear your diagnosis is correct, Gruni,” one of the warriors rumbled. “An unfortunate time for one of the Reader’s fits. You are taking the Witness and this envoy to the matriarch?”

“Indeed,” the Plaflakhi woman said.

“Donag, can you spare a moment to explain all of this excitement?”

“I’ll meet you back here,” Donag said to Gruni and she thumped his shoulder before leading them to large tunnel. Behind them, they could hear the angry elf sputtering. Kaylie stayed at Bemere’s side as they started down the gently sloping passage. Gruni led the way down in embarrassed silence.

Bemere looked around curiously as they descended lower. The floor, walls, and ceiling were a light grey, formed out of a seamless whole that had a slight sheen, resembling fired clay more than anything else. The ceiling arched high overhead, allowing the Plaflakhi to walk comfortably upright. It was brighter than she’d imagined it would be, and a slight breeze blew against their faces with hints of a scent she’d never encountered before, spicy and sweet.

“He is the Reader of Law, and an advisor for the old queen,” Gruni finally said. “I beg your forgiveness. His grief has made him rather erratic lately.”

“Please don’t worry over it,” Bemere said. “I’ve never met one of the Aphostic Fae before, I didn’t realize they were still so upset about the shared history between our people.”

“War?” Kaylie asked.

Bemere chuckled. “Quite the opposite. The Selenic Grace of the time was discovered to be having an affair with her lord’s cousin, if I remember correctly. He had supporters in the court that protested the betrayal, protests turned to anger, and they abandoned the homelands soon after.”

“It was that much of a scandal?” Kaylie asked.

Bemere shrugged. “I don’t see why it would be. Neither her lord, nor his cousin, were part of the protests and as I remember, both remained in her court after the departure. Though, now that I am recalling the story, it may have been a cousin of the Selenic Grace. Even among the fae, this is the distant past and would probably have been forgotten long ago, if the incident hadn’t been the creation of the Aphostic.”

“He has an oddly…passionate view of history,” Kaylie said.

“Indeed. Imagine if you were angry about Halia Ghan’s choice of mistresses.”

“I don’t even know who Halia Ghan is,” Kaylie said and Gruni chuckled.

“You illustrate my point perfectly,” Bemere said. “He was the first ruler of what became the Grassland Empire.”

The tunnel ended, opening out into a larger space and Bemere gaped in wonder as she saw the Understone for the first time. They had emerged into an immense space carved out beneath the mountains. The stone glowed with a dim reddish light, revealing that the far side wall was at least a bowshot wide away. One either side, the gallery stretched further than she could see and in the dim red glow above them, splashes of brighter lights marked terraces and balconies carved into the walls. They stretched as far as she could see, almost like the night sky, somewhere far above.

Finally, Bemere noticed that Gruni and Kaylie had stopped and were waiting for her.

“Apologies,” she said, catching up. “That is an amazing sight.”

Gruni looked around as they walked. “It is my home and quite beautiful, but I will say that it is modest compared to the great burrows to our north.”

“If you are ever able, go to see the Night Father’s Portal,” Kaylie said.

“That is truly stupendous,” Gruni agreed.

There was movement on the walls around them and Bemere looked closer to see collections of Gnomes working at some task or another. As they walked along, there were whistles of greeting that Gruni answered with a deep thrumming sound. There was high pitched laughter in reply.

Beside them, a constant flow of wide wagons rolled along, pulled by Lesser Spiderkin, under the close eyes of gnomish teamsters. Through the long procession, Greater Spiderkin moved quickly around and through the rumbling carts, chittering back and forth with the Gnomish teamsters.

The Greater Spiderkin only superficially resembled their Lesser cousins. These were two or three times as large, and where the Lessers somewhat resembled a six-legged wolf, the form of the Greater Spiderkin was closer to an actual spider. Their wide lower bodies were propelled by eight muscular limbs and where a true spider’s mouthparts would have been, a torso with head and shoulders, as well as two more arms, emerged. There were myths of centaurs, people who were half horse, half human and the Greater Spiderkin reminded her of those storybook pictures, albeit with more limbs and far more menacing.

They turned down another passage, leaving the busy throng behind them. In the sudden quiet, Bemere heard a faint susurration from all around her and looked around again.

“That’s the burrow’s Think,” Kaylie said. “All the sounds and voices from the rooms and passages all around us, mixed together as it echoes through all the passages.”

“That is the oddest thing about the bright lands,” Gruni said. “I cannot imagine life without the Think. How else can life be guided properly?”

They walked along until they reached a canal. A richly appointed barge was waiting for them, Aphostic elves were in the bow and stern, holding it in place with long poles. They stepped aboard and sat on low couches. The poles pushed the barge away from the pier and into the current. Once they had entered the flow, the bargemen had little to do, beyond occasionally nudging the craft one way or another to keep it on course.

After roughly half an hour, the barge was poled out of the current and came to rest against another dock with barely a thump. The arch in front of them was much grander than anything else Bemere had seen, figures and scenes carved into the stone from floor to peak and back down again.

Waiting for them was another Aphostic elf. Like the one in the entry portal, she could have been a cousin of Bemere’s, although the color of her eyes would have been considered uncanny in the homelands. Her enticing beauty was made even stronger by her clothing; a gauzy white bandeau skirt wrapped around her waist with a strip of the same translucent cloth wrapped around her breasts. She didn’t wear jewelry but had an intricate tattoo that curled around her left collarbone before disappearing under the gauze wrapped around her chest.

“Mistress Anniak, I’m glad we’re not too late,” the Plaflakhi woman said. “I am bringing you a surprise from the roof. Do please notice that she’s an envoy before you speak.”

“Am I now a barbarian?” the raven-haired beauty teased. “I can read heraldry you know.”

Gruni’s voice stayed serious. “And you’ll remember our honored Witness, from the Cloud Ghosts?”

“I only cast the glyphs at the swearing ceremony, sweetest. What has gone wrong, that you are asking these things?”

“Then you weren’t aware that the Reader was at the Hawseward gate? He was the one to greet our Plenilune guest and his behavior was…alarming.”

“Great Father of Darkness,” the woman murmured. She turned to face Bemere and bowed gracefully, nearly touching her forehead to her knees. “Honored guest, I beg you, on behalf of my Lady, to allow me a chance to redress for whatever offense was offered. He serves as the Reader of Law and should not have been the one to greet you.”

“I wouldn’t dream of holding either of you responsible,” Bemere said, trying hard to keep a flirtatious tone out of her voice. Since the excitement of battle had been fading, her lust had been steadily building and the courtier made it sing even more strongly. Bemere dug her fingernails into her palms, struggling to push it back down so she could concentrate.

The woman straightened, smiling slightly. “You are most gracious, serah. Do you carry a sigil?”

Bemere offered the silver brooch from her collar and the other elf took it and examined it. Her eyebrows went up for a moment as she interacted with the latent magic within the identity jewel. Finally, she handed it back and then moved her hands as though she was braiding invisible cords. There was a brief warmth and a glowing glyph formed above Bemere’s head.

“Serah Bemere Abchenel, beloved of the Great Silver Lady, honored one of the Selenic Court, as both honored guest and the physical manifestation of her Selenic Grace, I grant you the right and benefice of our burrow, the protection of our gates, bound only by the respect of the joyfully welcomed guest.”

Bemere bowed slightly in return and the glyph broke into glowing embers that fell around her shoulders as they faded away.

“Gruni, you have my gratitude for escorting the serah. Are you joining us?”

“Not yet. Donag stayed above with the Reader.”

“Then I’ll see you this evening.”

“Yes, you will.” Gruni turned and bowed to Bemere and Kaylie. “Small friends, I enjoyed your company and wish you the festival’s blessing of golden times.”

Kylie and Bemere returned her bow and the Plaflakhi woman went back the direction they’d come.

“Serah Gwyenth was just arriving inside,” Anniak said to Kaylie. “Mistress Kaylie, she asked that you join her before I present Serah Bemere to the matriarch.”

“I’ll leave you in Mistress Anniak’s capable hands then,” Kaylie said. “This passage leads to the chambers?”

“The passage on your left will be a shorter path, Honored Witness. I’ll take the longer route with the serah and we will walk slowly.”

Kaylie nodded to Bemere before hurrying down the indicated hallway. Anniak motioned to Bemere and they continued down the ornate passage. As she followed the Aphostic elf, Bemere had to force her attention away from the graceful sway of the woman’s hips. It was both relief and regret when the passage widened enough to allow them to walk side-by-side. As she rehearsed the flowery words of greeting in her mind, there was a loud clatter and the sound of thumping feet ahead of them. Anniak stopped and stepped into one of the small alcoves carved into the stone.

“The guards are changing shifts,” she explained. “We’ll be out their way here.”

In the close confines of the alcove Bemere could smell the woman’s perfume and the spicy scent was maddening. She dug her nails into her palms again, forcing down the urge to take the other woman in her arms. As the noise of the marching clatter got louder, Bemere saw a group of Greater Spiderkin, bristling with armor and weapons march past their alcove. Trying to speak was impossible but the noise quickly faded away as they entered one of the passages. She looked back and saw that Anniak was looking closely at her. Bemere didn’t know if it was just her licentious, traitorous imagination, but it appeared that the Aphostic’s nipples had hardened under her chest wrap. With some effort, Bemere locked her gaze on the woman’s face.

“I believe we can proceed,” Anniak said, stepping back into the passage. “You have come at a joyous time as our matriarch will implant her chikkur soon, the ones you call Greater Spiderkin. Creating the seed of new life is a sacred task and our matriarch is closely surrounded by very protective courtiers. Therefore, when I present you, I ask that you stay beside me rather than going forward to make your manners as you might do normally.”

“I understand, thank you. And I regret that my intrusion has interrupted such an important event. If she is indisposed…”

Anniak smiled. “You are most gracious, but she is eager to speak with you.”

The Matriarchs’ Chamber was at the terminus of the passage. The carved surfaces became more pronounced, and for Bemere, it became uncomfortably suggestive somehow. The ruddy stone had been carved and polished so smooth that it nearly begged to be touched. The surface felt like warm silk under her fingertips. Rounded protrusions that encircled the tunnel had been carved at regular intervals. It gave the feeling of being inside the throat of a great animal. She felt her lower stomach warmly tense at the thought that it might represent a different, far more interesting passage. She caught herself dragging her fingertips over the silky stone and pulled her hand back.

Oh, for…how can architecture possibly be erotic? I will never travel when I’m in season again.

A circular ring of reddish light appeared at the end of the curving tunnel and Anniak led her into an oval chamber shaped into a low dome. Like the walls of the passageways, arches and ribs had been carved into the stone and the entire space shone, as though it were ceramic instead of the reddish stone. In the center, there was a large heap of cushions with a large figure seated in the middle. Spiderkin and Aphostic Fae were gathered around a large figure and she saw Gwyenth and Kaylie there. Bemere saw the High elf say something to the matriarch. Khivu’s courtiers looked curiously at her for a moment before their attention shifted back grooming their matriarch.

Khivu Ataphalis rose to feet, stretching luxuriously. She was larger than any of the other Spiderkin that Bemere had seen so far, almost as large as one of the Plaflakhi. The rear of her body called to mind a sleek hunting arachnid, rather than a one of the more bulbous web spinners. The forepart of her body resembled a bipedal person, from the hips up. The muscular torso was covered by a hauberk made up of fine silver links arranged in circular patterns. It ended at her elbows and Bemere saw that her skin was somewhat darker than the other Spiderkin she’d seen so far. Khivu’s face was dominated by her large eyes, almond shaped and completely black. Her hair was completely white and long, as evidenced by the thick braid hung over her shoulder. Bemere thought she was quite beautiful, if somewhat intimidating.

“Beloved mother, I come with a guest,” Anniak said. “Allow to present Her Grace, Adelobermerlyn Mayarind Abchenel, Eye of Her Selenic Grace, Serah and Champion of the Silver, Addenhai ‘na Terres of the Plenilune lands…”

As she waited for the ridiculous recitations of titles to end, Bemere had to admit that Anniak was better at this than Cal and Madeline’s herald had been. She shied away from the memories of their last night together and forced herself to pay attention.

“Welcome to my burrow, Your Grace,” Khivu Ataphalis said, bowing as gracefully as if it had been a dance.

Bemere bowed in return. “I am deeply honored by your hospitality, Khivu Ataphalis…”

Bemere went through the protracted process of offering the greetings of the Selene, the declarations of eternal good-will and all the rest.

“I must admit that I do not know most your titles, beyond Serah and Addenhai. But that is enough to know it our deepest honor to meet one the great heroes of legend.”

Bemere bowed low again. “I am only privileged enough to call those companies distant kin, Matriarch. I am familiarly known as Bemere and beg you to do me the honor.”

“That is most kind,” Khivu said, settling back onto her cushions. “Unless you are weary, I would ask you to sit with me for a time. We are not accustomed to such luminaries, and I am not normally so formal. Please call me Khivu and find your comfort.”

Anniak appeared with a large cushion and placed it in front of the matriarch.

“This is my first glimpse of the Understone,” Bemere said. “Your home is spectacular.”

“You are very kind, Serah Bemere. This is the gift of the mothers before me and I will make my own small improvements for my eventual heir. Serah Gwyenth tells me that you observed today’s battle.”

“Yes, I encountered the militia on my journey from Gateman’s Notch and followed them here.”

“This is also what Witness Gwyenth has told me, “the matriarch nodded, settling back to her pile of cushions. The attendants around her returned to what they’d been doing before.

“I requested Witnesses from the High Elves because my interpretation of Law may anger some. I was not aware of the interest of the Moon Elves, no insult was intended.”

“In fact, my presence here is by chance alone…” Bemere went on to explain how she had found the escort and followed the expedition.

“…and I was forced to kill several of your lesser subjects,” she finished. “I deeply regret the harm that I have done.”

Khivu Ataphalis cast a complicated glyph and Bemere felt it form above her before fading away. “This thing is forgiven. We will grieve their loss, but they are creatures of hasty instinct instead of calm consideration, and they were there to do battle. They will be missed but replaced in time.”

Bemere bowed her head. “You are most gracious.”

“I am curious about your story. I understand you to say that the imperial riders accompanied these soldiers, but they were not part of this army?”

“That’s correct. By agreement, imperial troops are hired by traveling armies as neutral peacekeepers between soldiers and citizenry. That is why they were beyond their own borders, and why they were very careful to remain inside of the land claimed by humans.”

“All the same, I find their presence worrisome. What action will they take now that their charges have been taken?”

“Once they hear of the defeat, the company will escort the followers, and whatever remains of the army back to the imperial garrison they set out from.”

“Are you certain?” Khivu asked doubtfully. “I’ve received dire warnings about the emperor’s expansionist intentions.”

“Truly? Allow me to set your mind at ease. I have spent much time in the south and know that Justinus Flavius, the current emperor, has forbid any expansion of his borders on pain of death. In fact, he’s been heard to bemoan the fact his predecessors expanded the empire to the current borders.”

“His borders are so vast? Is this why he was not aware that his vassals invaded my land?”

Bemere hid her surprise. “Matriarch, I admit, and apologize for, my ignorance. I am told they came from a city called Cyannous.”

“You have no ignorance to apologize for, that is correct. Is Cyannous not a city belonging to the Grassland Empire?”

Bemere’s eyes flicked to Gwyenth for a moment but the Golden fae was expressionless. Bemere wanted to sigh; her mother, had always warned her that curiosity would lead her nose into a hornet’s hole one day. The woman must have been feeling a mysterious vindication just then because she’d followed her curiosity, and now she had to correct a queen in her own throne room. A hornet’s nest if ever there was one.

“Khivu Ataphalis, I swear upon both Her Selenic Grace, and upon my Green Mother that the city-state of Cyannous is not a member of the Grassland Empire. The city is at least two days travel outside of the imperial borders.”

There was a subtle shift in the atmosphere of the room as the matriarch stirred, legs growing tense. The sense of idle relaxation in the chamber had been replaced with a pregnant tension.

“What’s this?” There was a definite note of steel underneath her velvet tone now.

“The northern border of the Grassland Empire is ten rods past the furthest edge of the Royal Canal,” Bemere said, choosing her words carefully. “It has been agreed on by all of the all of those who share that border. Unless something has changed drastically, Cyannous is at least two day’s travel beyond that point.”

“And how far away is this canal?”

“I have maps in my baggage but…” Bemere started to explain.

Khivu raised a hand to stop her. “An estimate would suffice. How many days did you travel between the imperial border and my gate?”

“On horseback, at least four days,” Bemere said. “On foot it would easily be double that.”

Khivu Ataphalis turned to look at Gwyenth for confirmation.

“I have never been that far south for myself, matriarch,” the High Elf said. “I can attest that their border is a good distance away however.”

Khivu looked back to Bemere and the tension left her legs. Around her, the quiet whispers of the Aphostic courtiers began again.

“Did anyone from Cyannous ever reveal the reason their army was coming north?”

“I was not there, but I am told that agents claimed the expedition was to recover or avenge a merchant caravan that was lost nearby.”

“Merchants?” Khivu spat. “These Humans are without honor and do not follow Law. I will tell you the fate of these monsters and produce a witness to the truth. Mistress Anniak, fetch one of them for us.”

Anniak bowed and disappeared through a doorway.

“They came here hunting for shiny trinkets and stones,” Khivu said bitterly. “My watchers and listeners reported them even before they entered my domain and I was counselled to attack immediately. However, I saw it simply as a new chapter in an old story. Humans have tried to come across my border before. They were always defeated by the land and sun. But I was wrong, and I should have heeded the advice. Somehow the Humans found a hidden entrance to my burrow. We knew immediately but it took time to gather our forces together. In the meantime, the Human filth had bashed their way into my nursery chambers and found the nest of my younglings there.”

“Oh, no,” Bemere whispered.

“Ah, you do understand them. The so-called merchants brought only death to trade. They murdered every single one of my chikkur, what you would call Greater Spiderkin. They were small and helpless and could not have harmed those monsters.”

Bemere’s stomach twisted. “This…evil thing…I have no words…” she whispered.

“What words could there be? I found my slaughtered younglings in piles in the corners and niches of their nursery where these Humans had taught my children their last lesson, terror, and death. The Hurzgrafn and my guards were quick to capture the intruders, both those inside the burrow, as well as the ones who waited outside. Until a few days ago, I was considering how the Law would balance this horror. Then I received word that more of the Humans were coming. Now that they have been taken, I have decided my justice.”

Anniak came back into the chamber and bowed low. “Matriarch, your prisoner.”

“Bring it in,” Khivu called.

A hulking Spiderkin warrior appeared in the archway, pushing a Human man along who wore a tattered pair of pants and the remains of a shirt that he clutched around his pale body. The warrior shoved the man to his knees and the man bent low, pressing his face into the stone.

“There are questions you would do well to answer,” Anniak told the human.

He said something, his voice muffled against the floor. The Aphostic Fae sighed and nudged him with the toe of her shoe.

“Sit up, we have no patience for your mumbling.”

“I obey,” the man said, lifting his face from the ground. He sat back on his heels, keeping his arms clutched around him. “I swear to speak nothing but truth.”

Anniak bowed slightly to Bemere, gesturing for her to approach the man.

“What’s your name?” Bemere asked, keeping her tone neutral.

“My name is Aasvid Ronar. I am… I was a sell-sword.”

Bemere raised her eyebrow. From the subservient behavior, the whining tone in his voice, she was surprised that the man had ever managed to face danger.

“You were enlisted where?”

“One of the Tulliver’s companies, Lady. The Hornets.”

“I know of your master and I doubt he would allow any company of his to go adventuring, especially beyond the Human lands. So how did you come to be here?”

“It began when we was hired by the Lords’ Privy Council.”

“And who is that?” Bemere asked, her voice growing colder.

“Them merchants what rule the city,” Ronar said, keeping his eyes on the floor.

“And why did they seek a contract?”

“First we was told it were an easy bandit chase, up in the Slope Counties. The imperials would be there to guide us once we came to the Counties. Only there wasn’t nobody waiting. That’s when they told the sergeants there weren’t no legion hired, we was to disguise ourselves as traders.”

“And even though they’d made a false contract, your sergeants agreed to continue on?”

“They told us there was a lot of coin in it, maybe even some god-artifacts up in the hills. They was gonna pay us extra to be keeping our lips tight.”

Bemere stepped closer to the man, resisting the urge to plant the toe of her boot in his ribs. “And you stayed with them, knowing you were breaking Soldier’s Law?”

He glared at her, finally showing a little spirt. “And what would you have done in my place, your Elfish Ladyship?”

“Every soldier has the right to walk away from a broken contract.”

“And them that does is gonna have a short life, walking out into the Grassland alone. More than a couple go off and the sergeants will take you for inciting mutiny. They pull their guts out in front of the whole company, I seen it done.”

“Tell me how you found your way in here.”

“There was a Pointy… begging pardon. There was an elf scout what knew about a hidden entrance. He took us there.”

“What was his name?”

The man shrugged. “Went around in a hooded cloak. Never spoke to me but I saw he was Forest Fae.”

“Was he captured?”

The man shook his head. “He weren’t with us when we broke in.”

“Why did you massacre the younglings?”

He bowed his head, hiding his face from her glare. “I know now, it woulda been better to go die clean, out in the long grass, but none of us knew that yet. We was confused, there weren’t no gold to be found. When they broke down that door, someone screamed out that we should kill everything and then…well, it was like a madness come over all of us then. I didn’t even know what we done till them gnomish told me. I ain’t never been that type before.”

Bemere was surprised when he pressed his face to the stone floor and began to weep quietly.

“Serah Bemere?” Anniak asked quietly.

She nodded. “I’ve heard enough.”

Anniak gestured to the large guard and the former mercenary was pulled to his feet. He was half carried from the chamber, head still down and crying. His tears left splatters of moisture that slowly disappeared into the stone.

“I’ve never seen that reaction from a prisoner before,” Bemere said quietly.

“We have not harmed them,” Anniak said. “However, three of them went mad when they were shown the result of their barbarism and many of them react in similarly when they are reminded of the murders.”

Bemere frowned, feeling something wrong with her words but Khivu was waiting.

“You see the truth of it here, Bemere. While you are free to leave at any time, I wonder if you would consider witnessing the justice the law has set forth? I would like the truth of it to be spread far and wide, if only for our own defense.”

Bemere noticed that Gwyenth looked like she was about to say something, but the High elf stayed quiet.

“On behalf of the Selenic Lady, I thank you for this honor,” Bemere said, bowing low.

“Serah, the honor is ours,” Khivu said, smiling. “Anniak will give you a mark that will allow to go anywhere within the burrow. I will hold the burrow’s court soon, I will look forward to your company then.”

Bemere bowed low and got up from her cushion. Anniak guided her back through the door, followed by Kaylie and Gwyenth. Behind them, the susurration grew louder again. Bemere thought she detected an erotic tone and knew that her body was betraying her once more. She dug her nails into her palms again, putting the discomfort between her mind and the temptation to linger.

The vow of the Witness was simple enough; to relay the whole truth as she saw it. It was rather reminiscent of the vow she’d taken as an Eye. When she’d finished, Anniak cast another glyph over her head.

“There is just one more thing. Down here, eyes are often not enough for the surroundings and I will mark you with a scent that allows you passage anywhere in our burrow. Do you consent?”

Gwyenth was standing nearby and nodded slightly when Bemere glanced at her.

“Just over here, serah,” Anniak said. “It will only take a moment or two.”

Bemere went and sat on a stool that the woman indicated.

“I will use a quill to mark a sigil on your skin,” Anniak said, taking a stone jar from an alcove. “The smell is quite bitter, I recommend placing it on the back of your neck so it does not bother you.”

Bemere nodded and started to pull her hair out of the way but Anniak put her hand on Bemere’s shoulder.

“Allow me,” she murmured. The courtier gently gathered Bemere’s heavy, raven-black hair aside and laid it on her shoulder. “And your collar?”

Bemere nodded again, untying the top of her shirt. The Dark elf rolled it down carefully, her fingers lightly grazing Bemere’s skin.

“My nose tells me that you are ready for life’s gift,” Anniak said quietly. “You smell wonderful.”

“Uhm…my thanks,” Bemere said, her mind full of the sensation of the light touches on her skin. The light scratch of the quill was almost ticklish, making it difficult to sit still. She felt a complicated pattern being drawn and then the coolness of Anniak blowing across the sigil to help it dry. Bemere managed to keep still, but couldn’t stop her breathing from quickening. She was nearly panting.

Anniak caressed her neck as she folded the collar back up and Bemere barely held in a moan of pure pleasure.

Great Mother, lend me strength to withstand the temptation to lay this one upon the floor and have my way with her.

Anniak came around and stood in front of her to tie her shirt again. Bemere saw that the woman’s nipples had hardened under her bandeau again and she dug her nails into her abused palms again. She wanted nothing more than to feel them between her fingers, to take the tender points of flesh between her lips until the woman screamed with pleasure…

“Serah Gwyenth has mentioned the Plenilune preference for the kyickmur under the open sky,” Anniak said, stepping back.

Bemere blinked and forced the fantasy away. “Yes, that’s correct.”

“There is another option,” Anniak said, her voice dropping an octave. “There is an empty chamber near my own…”

Gwyenth cleared her throat. “Perhaps I should show the serah our camp before she decides,” the High elf said quietly.

Bemere was grateful, but slightly annoyed. She really wanted to hear the moans the beautiful Aphostic made as she was pleasured. She also knew that she needed to be away from this beacon of temptation.

“If you change your mind, ask for me,” Anniak said. She turned and walked back to the inner chamber, her hips swaying softly.

“She didn’t offer us an inside room,” Kaylie whispered as they left Khivu’s chambers.

Gwyenth shook her head as they walked down the passage but Bemere saw her smiling. They followed a twisted path through tunnels that led upwards. Finally, the passage ended at a flight of stone steps. Bemere could feel the wetness on her thighs as she climbed. She was starting to get frantic, she had to find some privacy soon.

At the top of the steps was an ancient looking wooden door, bound in black iron. It was propped open and Bemere followed Gwyenth through. They were standing on a sort of terrace cut into the cliff face. Above them was open sky and the feeling of cool air.

Gwyenth took her arm and led Bemere further onto the terrace. “The breeze is stronger here. Take deep breaths, your head will clear.”

Bemere nodded gratefully as she took deep breaths of the cool evening air. “You could tell?”

Gwyenth snorted. “I wasn’t the only one, obviously. I once made the identical mistake, visiting a burrow during the chikkur ceremony. Feeling better? Come and meet the others.”

Bemere followed her over to where their large gryphons were stretched out on the warm stone. When the gryphons saw them, both made sounds like muffled trumpets.

“Listen to you complain, lazybones!” Kaylie said, laughing. “You could be out there chasing away the stragglers instead.”

“Serah, first let me introduce our partners,” Gwyenth said. “Serah Bemere, this is Ouranos. We’ve been together for many years now. Boreas is next to him. He’s a bit younger and was bonded with Kaylie at the end of last Sun’s Height.”

“It is an honor to meet you both,” Bemere said, bowing her head to each of them.

Both of the gryphons raised their fearsome heads and inhaled deeply. Ouranos chatter-grumbled to Gwyenth.

“He recognizes a familiar part of your scent,” Gwyenth said. “You said you had an aunt who knew Gryphonfolk?”

“Yes, she was close friends with one of your brethren called Jocasta.”

Ouranos grumbled again, stretching.

“He is something like a cousin to Jocasta,” Gwyenth translated. “Now that the social niceties have been observed, let us speak plainly.”

“I agree.”

“You need to realize that you’ve stepped into a more perilous moment than you probably than you realize. What were you thinking, coming here during your fertility? Have you never met Spiderkin before?”

“No, I spoke the truth at our meeting,” Bemere said, embarrassment taking over as the burning lust faded to the too-familiar undertone of constant arousal. “I happened on the Cyannous expedition and followed them here. And no, I’ve never met Spiderkin before. Why was I so affected in there?”

“Green Mother, why do you continue my persecution?” Gwyenth said to the sky.

Both of the gryphons clacked their beaks and puffed out their feathers. Kaylie smothered a laugh as Ouranos grumbled loudly at his rider.

“No, that was an expression, not a prayer,” Gwyenth replied.

They slowly laid down again, although the huffs and ruffled feathers were obvious signs of disapproval.

“They are somewhat literal minded,” Kaylie said, bringing cushions that she laid out between the pair.

“That is one way to put it,” Gwyenth said. “Sit with us, there is much to say and not much time to say it.”

Bemere sat down between the two Gryphons, facing Gwyenth. “As I said, I am an envoy of the Selene, specifically an Eye. I have often visited the southern reaches of the Grassland Empire, but this is my first trip to the north side of the empire in many years. The Lady is growing uneasy with rumors of war preparations in the highlands. She has bid me to go there to tease out the rumors from fact.”

“It was so urgent that you came during your fertile season?”

Bemere felt her face grow warm with a blush. “I kept that fact to myself. Since I have no interest in children, I can better serve her out in the world instead of trapped at home. Is it so obvious?”

“To anyone with a sharp nose and the knowledge of the scent. Mistress Anniak certainly noticed.”

Bemere shuddered slightly, remembering the pale gray eyes and those gentle fingers on her neck. “But I’ve been dealing with it without a problem, until just now. I do not understand why the feeling was so strong.”

Gwyenth sighed. “I am reassured that you were not sent here intentionally, but the problem remains. It isn’t well known, but the Great Spiderkin, the chikkur, descend from the same bloodline as we fae do, just as the humans and the Plaflakhi share a common ancestor.”

“I had heard the stories, but never paid much attention.”

“Perhaps if you had, you’d be safely elsewhere. You have come to this burrow just as Khivu Ataphalis begins a new generation of chikkur. Because of our shared ancestry with the Spiderkin, you are affected in the same way as any other burrow dweller.”

Bemere sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Some kind of magic?”

“No, it is a purely physical process created by the scent the matriarch produces. They call it Matriarch’s Herald. Normally we can ignore all but the strongest scent, but during the fertile time, your Seed-of-Life responds just as strongly as any of the chikkur. I don’t know how the Aphostic can function in there, perhaps they use their damned potions. Anyway, the Herald scent grows stronger as the celebration approaches and it must be near the peak now.”

“What does this Herald do, exactly?”

It was the High Elf’s turn to rub her eyes. “At its peak, the Herald drives the entire burrow into an unbridled orgy for several days. This creates a surge of life energy for the unborn Spiderkin, and the stronger the better.”

Bemere looked at Kaylie. “That pair of Plaflakhi! That’s why they were so attentive.”

Kaylie chuckled. “Yes. I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or terrified.”

“And this Herald has to do with the battle today?

“Yes,” Gwyenth said. “The Spiderkin do not carry their young inside their bodies. The eggs are fertilized by the mother, then placed inside a host. They stay there, protected, until they are born. The Lesser Spiderkin are the result of eggs implanted in lesser creatures. The Greater, called the chikkur, are the result of an egg implanted within a thinking and speaking host.”

Bemere shuddered. “I’ve read of certain wasps…”

“I know of what you speak, but this is not a death sentence for the host. You are within the burrow and there is the Law, which always demands its balance. A new life cannot be balanced by a cost of death. The chikkur hosts are left alive after the birth of the young. By all accounts, they even enjoy the experience. It’s not uncommon for hosts to join the chikkur clan they are a host for.”

“I didn’t understand why the defenders were being so gentle,” Bemere said. “I see it now. They didn’t want to damage their incubators.”

“Exactly. There were not enough in the first expedition to host the number of children that they destroyed and Khivu was considering Law and Think when word of this second group came. Now she has more than enough, and she finds balance.”

Bemere nodded and thought for a few seconds. “But I do not see my peril here.”

“My earlier experience? I was coming into fertility and visited a burrow just before a breeding frenzy. It was very difficult to control, and I was not close to that matriarch. Even then, well, I nearly exhausted poor Ouranos before I regained my mental faculties.”

The gryphon she was leaning on grumbled an annoyed response that didn’t need translation. Kaylie was laughing and Boreas growled something that sounded amused. But Bemere hardly noticed, stunned by the implication.

“I…forgive my ignorance. I had always assumed that was just salacious slander.”

“It’s marvelously salacious,” Gwyenth chuckled. “But not slander. That is how we are called to the Green Mother’s service. I see that you are truly speechless.”

“Can you imagine my surprise?” Kaylie asked, giggling again.

“Our Lady is mysterious and subtle,” Gwyenth added, smiling for a moment. “Back to the moment. The prisoners will be implanted until there are replacements for the murdered younglings. The balance of the prisoners will be kept here to work off their debt for the other damage they caused, until the chikkur are born.”

“And then?”

“Then they’ll be taken to the border and released. They will have returned the lives they stole and repaired the damage they did. Thus, balance is restored.”

“They’re given a powerful motive for revenge,” Bemere said.

“They won’t feel it,” Gwyenth said. “Remember that they worship Law. Even if it’s not apparent to outsider, there must always be balance. All of them are being given some kind of ichor that will bind their hearts to the Spiderkin and the burrow.”

“How is that even possible?”

Gwyenth sighed. “I am told it is taken from a secretion created by the eggs to bind the youngling and host together. Somehow it can be created and distilled. It will be given to them every day, until they are set free.”

Bemere blinked. “And the effect is permanent?”

“So they claim. As ever, the Aphostic spread their mischief through their damnable alchemy.”

“So you’ve come to Witness.”

Gwyenth looked at her for a long moment. “Yes, because something like this has never been done before,” she said quietly. “There are also hints of something large and ugly coming to life in the furthest burrows. But we have wandered from the point. These things combined; your fertility season, Khivu’s herald, and whatever miasma the Aphostic have created, I fear that your spirit may be taken over by the urge to carry chikkur young. I do not wish to face my conscience, or our Great Mother, if your long life is wasted as a breeding host.”

Bemere took a deep breath. “And you know I can’t back out of Witnessing, I swore in my Lady’s name.”

“Yes, you did, and no you can’t.”

Ouranos rumbled his agreement.

Bemere made a face. “I know of only one way to interrupt the feelings. I don’t suppose you Golden ones have some better method?”

“Yes, we stay at home when our seasons come,” Gwyenth said wryly. “Your body must become too ill to spend its attention on anything else. How strong are your urges?”

“Strong enough,” Bemere sighed. “Kaylie, is there any meat in your provisions?”

“No, I can’t take the smell,” Gwyenth said. “Do the Plenilune have the same sort of silly feats in their youthful foolishness as we do?”

Bemere’s stomach tightened at the memory. “I think we must, but it was a dare instead of a feat. You have clover with you?”

Gwyenth nodded, a sympathetic smile on her face. “I truly am sorry. My pipe case is in the saddle pack.” She got up and went to rummage in the pile of luggage, returning with a flat case. “Kaylie?”

“No, thank you all the same. I’ve learned my own lessons.”

“She didn’t believe that the clover grown by fae would be any stronger than strains grown in the highlands. She slept for an entire day and night.”

“And she didn’t know what whyskey was,” Kaylie said to Bemere.

“Nor was I charmed by the introduction,” Gwyenth said, sitting back down.

Bemere shuddered. “I tried liquor when I first came to Brynjarl Sands. My head spun for the entire day followed by a terrible headache the next morning.”

Gwyenth opened the case and took out a pair of wooden pipes. She offered one to Bemere who took it with a small bow.

Kaylie watched as Gwyenth and Bemere lit long stemmed pipes with tiny bowls. They inhaled deeply but after only a couple of draws, the dried clover was gone, leaving a pinch of tan colored ash in its place. They carefully tapped it out into a small cup and refilled the pipes and lit them.

“You two aren’t going to be fit to walk yourselves to the privy,” Kaylie said.

“It doesn’t affect us as badly,” Gwyenth said. “It’s like that fermented bog water you love so much.”

Kaylie watched as the two elves repeated the emptying and refilling of the pipes.

After several more repetitions, Gwyenth peered into the small cup.

“A bit more I think.”

Bemere looked at the tan dust shuddered. “Next time I’ll listen to my mother about not sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Gwyenth stretched and leaned back on Ouranos’ flank. “With all solemn glory and respect to your illustrious mother, I am starting to see that another of the fae suzerainties being here is a good thing. The Golden have far too much history with political intrigues to be quickly taken at our word. If the unpleasant rumors turn into truth, we may need to move quickly.”

“Things are as unsettled as that?” Bemere asked.

Gwyenth sighed. “We don’t know for sure. Ekih, who was Khivu’s predecessor, died without warning not long ago. She was not young, and I know of no proof her death was planned, but the Spiderkin are very hardy and her demise was very sudden. Her chosen heir was Khivu. She is barely of age and did not complete her learning with Ekih, but she must lead the burrow.”

“Matricide?” Bemere asked very quietly.

“That was my assumption at first,” Gwyenth said. “But the sudden murder of Khivu’s generation of chikkur…those younglings were to be Khivu’s advisors and courtiers later in life. Without them, she is dependent on her predecessor’s court for far too long. Intentionally or unintentionally, they will cripple her with Ekih’s views and beliefs, not her own. And what’s worse, Ekih preferred the Aphostic ones and the Father of Night alone knows the twisting paths of their devious minds.”

“They’re not all evil,” Kaylie told her. “But, yes, if there is a plot, the court would be the most logical place to start. Burrows are linked as much as any other settlement, though the roads are hidden from view. To the north, there are factions that itch to expand the web of burrows. They dare not push against the Golden’s borders to their east, and the sea blocks the north. To the south, the humans are said to be weak and disorganized.”

“If one were to look at the lands from the Grassland Empire’s borders to the north, I could see how they’d come to that conclusion,” Bemere said. “But Flavius, and the emperor before him have followed the advice of the counsellors. They are neither weak, nor disorganized. Even if the Legions could be overcome, they would buy more than enough time for the kingdoms to the south more than enough time to assemble their own military. There would be no question of alliances in the face of non-human invaders. And that is without taking the imperial canal into account. Is this why Khivu asked where the empire’s borders began?”

Gwyenth frowned. “I do not understand that. She has, or perhaps had, accurate maps, I presented them to Ekih myself. I asked for access to her library to search for them. But I am told this is a time of celebration and perhaps afterward. None of this dispels the rumors of intrigue and worse swirling around this burrow. That is why my first thought was that you had been here directly.”

“That prisoner, have you spoke to him before?” Bemere asked.

“No, though I have spoken to several others,” Gwyenth said. “But their stories are roughly the same. I am very curious about this fae scout that comes up in the retelling, and whether he was truly Sylvan fae. It would be very unusual for them to be involved with anything beyond their forests.”

“There’s something else,” Bemere said, lowering her voice. “The invaders’ actions, then compared to now. I would expect defiance or hate from the prisoners. Not sorrow.”

“You suspect a glamour?” Gwyenth asked Bemere.

“I’ve come to know Humans well, and the madness the prisoner describes, and their reactions after the fact, does not sound normal. Even more damning, the fact that all of them claim to share in the killing, without an attempt to shift blame or provide explanation. While they can be brutal and warlike, it is nowhere as common as the bards sing it to be. I have no proof, but something does feel wrong here.”

“I noticed the same thing,” Kaylie said quietly.

Gwyenth grimaced. “And I ignored your advice, for which I beg your pardon. If there is a fae practiced and powerful enough to glamour an entire troop into slaughter, our trouble here is real and far blacker than I had guessed.”

Both gryphons fluffed their fur and feathers, growling phrases that sounded both angry and alarmed.

“We will wait until there is some kind of proof,” Gwyenth told them. “Bemere, if you don’t mind, our colleagues are uncomfortable with this idea.”

Bemere chuckled. “They are not alone. What shall we speak of instead?”

“You mentioned earlier that your branch of the Fae does not use the lineage method to grant the title of serah. How were you elevated?” Kaylie asked.

`”That was a long time ago,” Bemere said, studying the curls of smoke coming from the tiny bowl of the pipe. “It happened during the rebellions at home. I rode with a Juror company.”

Gwyenth nodded her head slightly. “A loyalist then.”

Bemere accepted the compliment with a slight blush. “There was only my life’s honor to think of.”

Kaylie frowned at them. “If you two are going to sit there and be arcane at each other, I’m taking Boreas flying.”

The gryphon behind her lifted his head and growled a string of liquid syllables. Gwyenth bit her lip to keep from laughing. There was an answering growl from Ouranos that sounded half-amused, half-angry.

“And it’s a good thing our guest doesn’t understand you!” Kaylie snapped, blushing. “Mind your mouth!”

Gwyenth grinned at Bemere. “Worse than newlyweds.”

“Bemere, you said you were a Juror,” Kaylie said, ignoring her. “Is that the same sort of Jurors that humans use?”

“Technically, yes but I never sat in legal proceedings. The nobles that were to be prosecuted always attacked before we ever were close enough to read their indictment. It was during one of our civil wars. Her Selenic Majesty of the time was…unwell. After the insurrection was put down, I decided that the Human lands were more conducive to my peace of mind, even with the bitter memories from the Pretender’s War.”

“I don’t remember that name from the histories I’ve read so far,” Kaylie said.

“It was called Straum’s Rebellion in the highlands, I think,” Gwyenth said. “Does that sound familiar?”

Kaylie was at least as surprised as Bemere had when she’d first seen the human reveal her face. “Yes…and pardon my surprise, it’s easy to forget the difference in our ages. You don’t look any older than I do.”

“No apologies are necessary,” Bemere said. “We’re roughly at the same point in our lives if that makes you feel any better.”

“We fought for the same cause,” Gwyenth said. “You rode with the Human loyalists there as well?”

Bemere smiled. “No, I was barely an adult and my first trip away from the homelands. So, I barely knew a Human from a handsaw. I was a mounted archer, our regiment was the Silver Leaf.”

“One of the Companions!” Gwyenth said. “You are a constant wonder Bemere. The Companions were on our right flank, I rode with the Border Sentries back in those days and your lot kept those blue stained lunatics from our throats. Where did you ride?”

Bemere was uncomfortable but didn’t see a way to avoid the question. “The vanguard.”

Sudden sadness washed across Gwyenth’s face. “Then you were there when…?”

“Yes,” Bemere said quietly. “And, returning to the present, I’m on my way up into the highlands once again.”

“The imbecilic warlord? Took you all long enough.”

Bemere blinked. “No, that’s not what I…I’m an Eye, not an assassin!”

“Oh, I ask your pardon. The clover is muddling my wit. But you’re too late. He was at one of those barbaric tournament things, carousing and managed to get himself kicked in the head by a horse in some rustic prank.”

“I can’t say it’s a complete surprise,” Bemere said. “He’s been a thorn in the side of the Golden for a long time.”

Gwyenth sat up, looking comically offended. “A moment please! We would not be involved, not like that!”

Bemere laughed. “Then perhaps it really was an accident. I’ve heard that he was a clumsy sort.”

From there, by unspoken agreement, their conversation moved away from secret machinations in favor of silly gossip gathered from the Human kingdoms and Shared Lands alike. Finally, they had collected enough of the ash and Gwyenth gave Bemere a cup of water.

“Again, my apologies. If there were any other way…”

“After I swallow this, I will force myself into a deep kyickmur.”

Gwyenth nodded. “Nothing will happen until the sun is up tomorrow.”

Bemere nodded and dumped the pile of taupe colored ash on her tongue. She immediately drained the water and her entire body convulsed in a long shudder.

“It’s even worse…” she gagged before her eyes closed and her face relaxed.

Bemere’s higher mind took its leave from her physical body, and its treacherous sense of taste, and gone into a meditative contemplation that would occupy her thoughts elsewhere. Kaylie took the elf’s pipe from nerveless fingers and handed it back to Gwyenth.

“That bad?” she asked.

The High elf grimaced. “Worse than you can imagine. Let’s make her comfortable at least, I’ve got extra blankets.”

“If you’re going to be that particular, you can do it yourself.”

The whisper was harsh and loud in Bemere’s ears and she was certain she could hear an echo bouncing around the cold cave in her head. The whisper was followed by a chuffing exhalation that shook stalactites of misery loose in the echoing dark. She struggled up in consciousness and the little darts of sickness congealed into a gagging retch.

“Serah, there is a jar of tea to your left,” Kaylie said. “Gwyenth made it for you.”

Bemere fumbled for the ceramic beaker before her eyes were fully open, desperate for any relief at all. The peppery smell had barely reached her nose before she was draining the entire thing. The sharp taste was strong and likely would have dissolved her teeth, but it provided a little distraction from the hideous taste in her mouth and the roiling protests of her gut.

She squinted to see Kaylie leaning against Boreas, braiding the hair on the end of his tail. The gryphon was curled almost in a circle around her, watching closely. Her stomach abruptly rejected the tea and Bemere clapped a hand over her mouth and stumbled to the edge of the rock to vomit over the side.

“There is a jug of cold water…”

“Yes, I saw it,” Bemere rasped.

She reached down and took the pitcher and washed her mouth out before drinking deeply. Kaylie had a sympathetic expression as the elf’s expression wavered between relief and deep disgust.

“Gwyenth left a packet of tea, I’ll heat some water for you…”

“Not necessary.”

Bemere took the sachet from Kaylie and poured the entire thing into her mouth. She coughed slightly, sending up a small plume of ground tea. This brought a surprised chuff from Boreas that Bemere ignored as she drained the rest of the pitcher to deal with the searingly hot peppers in the raw tea.

“Pardon my rudeness,” Bemere said and then stifled a belch. “That may have been rash, but it was preferable to licking embers in the fire.”

Kaylie looked sympathetic. “Then it’s working, I guess? Gwyenth got called away for some question about the law and Ouranos is out hunting. Both will be back soon.”

Bemere nodded slightly, not wanting to antagonize her stomach. “Where could I find more water?”

“Just on the other side of that rock.”

Bemere nodded her thanks, still trying not to move her head. She found a large bowl carved into the stone, fed by a spring in its base. Bemere took a deep breath and submerged her head into the clear icy water.

The Silver Elf eventually got over the worst of the immediate effect and was even able to stretch, albeit a little gingerly, until there was the sound of a staccato slap from the portal into the burrow. Bemere looked up to see a familiar gnomish woman standing in the doorway.

“I hear your trouble beat,” Kaylie said, going over and sitting on her heels in front of the gnome.

“Be not just trouble, be war-trouble besides,” the gnome said. Her voice was high-pitched with a whistling accent, but her Collective Tongue was perfectly understandable. “Raist sent some out in secret. They took that Moon elf’s insane yellow-hair Human. She was wearing envoy colors. They have come back here, seeking to hide the envoy coat to keep their deed a secret.”

“Roll me in shit,” Kaylie breathed.

She went to Boreas as he got up with a low, liquid growl. Kaylie patted his neck as she took her sword from the saddle and began wrapping the belt around her waist. The gnome went to Bemere.

“You recognize this face?” she asked Bemere, who nodded. “I am Inzya and I swore life-debt to you and the crazy yellow-hair, but that is not for this moment. Now comes war-trouble and Knife-in-the-Darkness stalks the passages. Arm yourself.”

Bemere clenched her teeth against the nausea as she went to get her saber and shorter parrying dagger.

“I’m going with her to retrieve the other envoy.” Kaylie said to Boreas once they were ready.

His rolling liquid growl swelled into a half-roar and the gryphon threw himself into open air, wings spreading wide as he fell. A moment later, he was rising in a thermal, circling past. He snarled and barked something at them as they followed Inzya inside.

“He says he’ll find Ouranos and they’ll use the main gate,” Kaylie translated.

“And he be talkin’ dirty to you,” Inzya chortled.

Kaylie flushed deep red. “Pardon, he is rather young and full of himself.”

Bemere noticed that Kaylie had a small smile on her face as they followed the gnome into the burrow.

“Wait, does it matter that Twyla isn’t actually an envoy?” Bemere asked. “I just wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be harmed.”

“Doesn’t matter what she is underneath,” Inzya said. “The no-touch patterns mean Emissary and Envoy. Nobody touch, ever. Now we are going quickly.”

“How do know Inzya?” Kaylie asked, as they jogged down the passageway after the gnome.

“We met a few days ago,” Bemere said. “I suppose it’s the Trickster’s work that she really was spying on the Cyannous militia.”

Kaylie had no idea what Bemere was talking about, but the gnome was running faster now, and she needed her breath.

The passages of the burrow were much less crowded than they’d been yesterday. Several of the chambers they passed were brightly lit and there was music and laughter coming from inside. They came to a branch in the tunnel where several more gnomes waited. Inzya had a brief conversation with them and Bemere realized they were all female.

“Who are our guides?” Bemere murmured.

“Friends. They are…the word translates to something like law-wife,” Kaylie answered quietly.

They’d been whispering but Inzya and the others were looking at her and nodding. They were chirps and slaps against the stone walls as the others turned and dashed up another passage.

“Wives to the Law is near enough to it,” Inzya said to Bemere. “Me and my sisters love Law above anything else, defend it with our life, like a gnome defend spouse tooth and claw. Now we gonna run again, gonna be a long haul. Keep up.”

A moment later the three of them were running full tilt down another dark passageway. The occasional pools of light they dashed through came more often and several times they ran through the middle of what looked like traveling parties, possibly impromptu orgies, spilling out into the passage. The darkness of the passage was punctuated with the occasional glare of light and images, laughs and moans. Taken alongside the sickness in Bemere’s gut, the journey took on the feel of a particularly surreal fever dream. Then, as they ran through the darkness there was hissing from all around them.

“Apostate!” someone screamed, and a handful of dust was flung into Bemere’s face.

A white light was tossed up and it stuck on the tunnel overhead. Bemere was wiping red dust from her eyes and spitting it out.

“What is that?” Kaylie asked.

Inzya looked closer and groaned. “That be dust from Khivu’s chmaber, be full of the Herald. She will be out of her head now, crazy for fucking.”

“Except not today,” Bemere growled, wiping at her eyes with her cuffs. “This really stings my eyes.”

Inzy actually looked impressed. “But that one still has her wits! Your spirit is strong, Silver Walker.”

“My stomach is not and I am tasting feet and dirt,” Bemere said and bent over to retch again.

“You’re able to continue?” Kaylie asked, wetting a cloth.

“Yes, and I am not having a pleasant day.”

“It’ll get better, or something comforting like that,” Kaylie muttered, wiping the reddish grit from Bemere’s face.

“I’m old enough to know better,” Bemere said, nodding her thanks.

“They gonna try it again,” Inzya warned.

Kaylie wet another cloth and handed it to Bemere who tied it over her mouth and nose. Kaylie pulled her hood up and arranged the cowl over her face.

“Almost there, let’s go,” Inzya said and they jogged after her.

The gnome finally stopped at a chamber entrance. It was lit but there were no sounds of revelry. Inside, there were dozens of bodies slumped on the floor. Here and there, a few of the Aphostic elves moved around the still forms carrying large stone bottles with cloth pads over the end. Occasionally they would stop and dab the face of a restive prisoners. As they watched, a large Spiderkin from the warrior caste came in from another tunnel. He gently picked up a comatose prisoner and carried her back up the tunnel.

“They’re dosing them for the implanting,” Kaylie said quietly.

When the dark elves had moved further away, Inzya led them inside to a woman sprawled out and half covered with a blanket. Kneeling beside her, Bemere didn’t know if she would have recognized Twyla’s face under the layer of dirt. Her blonde hair had been caked in mud and the thin undertunic that she’d been wearing under the missing surcoat was torn and liberally stained with mud.

“She was in a fight,” Kaylie said. She lifted Twyla’s hand to show Bemere the scraped and bruised knuckles.

“That does not surprise me in the least,” Bemere said, brushing dirt off Twyla’s face.

“Met Aphostics,” Inzya said, digging in a pouch. “She’d just be shoutin’ them Humans down like before. Yellow-hair is crazy, I see it, I like it.”

As she spoke, gnome produced a glowing stone that looked like an ember and wrapped it in a twist of moss. A moment later there was an acrid wisp of smoke and Inzya waved it toward Twyla’s nose. The woman rubbed at her nose, mumbling a complaint until Inzya wafted more bitter smoke under her nose. Twyla sneezed and squinted at them.

“What are you villains about now?” she grumbled.

“If you’re finally finished napping, we’ll be on our way, maestra.”

“Bemere? Is that you?” Twyla slurred, struggling to sit up.

The elf put an arm around her shoulders to help Twyla sit up. “Yes, it’s me. Are you hurt?”

Twyla managed to move with a slight groan. “Just got bounced around a bit. I’ll be fine…no, you came for me! They said you would come…thank you and I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to lure you back…”

“Don’t think she’s up for runnin,’ Inzya warned.

Twyla’s tearful face abruptly turned into a beaming smile as she recognized Inzya. “You’re my gnome friend! You look so much better, and you can talk!”

“No worries, let’s get her on her feet,” Kaylie said.

Twyla looked at Kaylie in confusion as they lifted her to her feet. Inzya hurried them back into the passage and they half-carried, half-guided Twyla’s stumbling feet up the tunnel.

“Where to?” Bemere asked when they were safely away.

“To Khivu Ataphalis, why I can’t repay life-debt,” Inzya said. “You cannot leave before we confront that one. Law is broken, bad broken, and she is the matriarch at the breaking. Broken Law is already spreading, new matriarch, Human prisoners, a kidnapped envoy. The Think is dark and bitter, wants to spread. Has to be fixed now, or war-trouble in all directions.”

“It would be a very nice job if the matriarch didn’t plan this,” Kaylie said. “High Elf diplomats are a major presence in the burrows. Harming one would start the mother of all storms. Humans will be blamed for it, of course.”

“What if she wants envoy prisoners?” Twyla slurred.

“Then we simply fight our way to the surface and escape,” Kaylie reassured her.

“Oh, that’s all right then. Who are you?”

“Hi, I’m Kaylie. It’s a pleasure.”

“Yes, likewise,” Twyla said automatically. Then she turned and looked owlishly at Bemere.

“So d’you collect humans? I was hardly gone, not even a whole day and night! And look at you. Already!”

Kaylie laughed delightedly and even through the roiling in her gut, Bemere smiled at Twyla’s affront.

“I was collected by completely different Fae, maestra,” Kaylie assured her.

Twyla turned and tried to focus on Kaylie as they went back to half-walking, half-dragging her along.

“Is your elf as pretty as mine?” she finally asked.

Kaylie laughed. “Twyla, I think we’re going to be very good friends.”

“Well good! Wait until I see Bemmy. I can tell her I have a new friend.”

“I’m right here,” Bemere said. “And I think someone might need to finish their nap.”

“Oh, me too, please.” Twyla sighed. “It’s been a very strange day.”

The four of them stopped where the passage widened into a quiet darkness. A pair of law-wives emerged from the darkness and chattered back and forth with Inzya. After a moment, several more gnomes appeared, carrying a human sized litter. Twyla was guided down onto it.

“Serah Gwyenth comes here but the courtier named Raist is already moving,” Inzya told them. “Khivu Atalaphis has called the burrow to sit in judgement of you, Silver Walker.”

“The crazed Law Reader again? Please tell me this it isn’t over his ancient grudge?”

“Hardly. Khivu’s Reader of Law says you brought the maestra here to destroy the burrow.”

“Still not that kind of maestra,” a voice protested sleepily from the litter.

“If you’ll pardon me,” a new voice said from the darkness.

Bemere knew what was coming and squeezed her eyes shut just as the patter of dust hit her face. Twyla and Kaylie were both convulsed with coughing and sneezing. Several gnomes immediately chased off after whoever had thrown the herald dust.

“Is there any way we can stop that from happening?” Bemere said, wiping her face. “I can taste foot sweat.”

“And this really does sting,” Kaylie said, wiping her eyes.

“I feel funny all of a sudden,” Twyla said. “Kind of warm and gooey.”

“Already been dosed for the implanting,” one of the gnomes said, peering at her. “Gonna be out of her head soon.”

“I think they might have gotten me with the same thing,” Kaylie said slowly. “The mask caught most of it, but I’m definitely getting a bit tingly in the nethers.”

“Now I want to be naked!” Twyla announced.

Inzya knelt beside her and repeated the smoke making process with a leaf. After a little sweet smoke, Twyla’s eyes drooped closed.

“Light sleep, help keep her clothes on,” the gnome chuckled.

Minutes later, Gwyenth appeared from a side passage, guided by another Law-Wife. Above her mask, Bemere could see a look of absolute fury in the High elf’s eyes but her hands were gentle as she quickly examined Twyla.

“How bad is she?” the High Elf asked.

“They dosed her with the same philter as the other prisoners,” Kaylie said. “They’ve been throwing herald dust at us, it’s getting to me now.”

“Outrage upon outrage,” Gwyenth said grimly. “Take my thrower, you’re better with it than I am.”

The elf produced an elven clockwork-powered bolt thrower from inside her robe and gave it to Kaylie who made sure the heavy bolt was snug in the cradle. Guarded by Law-Wives ahead and behind, they moved quickly down the passage. There was laughter from above them at one point and more dust rained down. Kaylie spun and there was a whirring thump from the thrower as the thick bolt streaked upward. It hit the ceiling and there was a flash of bright light, turning the laughter into surprised yells and screams. It got louder as several gnomes ran up the walls to attack the ambushers.

“The bolts are made to splinter and wound, not kill,” Gwyenth said with a grim smile as they left the sound of the fight behind them. Not long after that, they were near the entrance to the council chamber of Khivu Ataphalis.

Gwyenth stepped close to Bemere. “Burrow politics are as twisty and confusing as their tunnels and their method of justice will seem very strange. Raist will likely try to confuse all the issues together, it’s a favorite trick of Law Readers. However, his precedence of complaint is behind ours, no matter what comes from his mouth. Therefore, he will wait until we’ve had our say. Goddess willing, Khivu will end the matter there.”

They stepped through and the large chamber was intensely bright after the dark of the passages. Gwyenth took the lead with Kaylie a step behind her left arm. Bemere walked a few paces behind them, with the Law-Wives that carried Twyla on her litter. Her saber and parrying dagger were unbound and loose in their scabbards. If this was to be her end, Bemere was determined to bring a few souls along for the journey into the next world.

Chapter 5- The Matriarch

Bemere waited a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the dark of the burrow’s passages to the sudden blaze of light. The Think here was no longer a background murmur. Individual voices could be made out, though the words themselves were stripped of meaning, blurred by resonance, and they swirled around her, almost a physical presence. When her eyes had adjusted, Bemere saw that they had come to a most extraordinary space.

They stood at one end of a long, spiraling hall filled with a golden glow coming from the stone itself. The parabola of the walls soared overhead with ridges and folds in the stone that made it look more like the artifact of something living rather than a construction of stone. Along the walls were gathered the various races that made up the world of the Understone. There were small Hulzgrafn gnomes, mingling with the huge Plafakhi, the Greater Spiderkin, and the Aphostic elves. The sound of the multitude of voices was caught by the fantastic whorls, vaults and passages surrounding them. The resulting sound was not especially loud, but it filled the space completely and Bemere could imagine it testing their ears, wanting to fill the space in her mind as well.

“This is the source of the burrow’s Think,” Kaylie said quietly, lips nearly touching Bemere’s ear to be heard.

“This be a large part, but not be the whole Think,” Inzya said, watching as the other Law Wives carefully brought Twyla’s litter through the door. <i>“All</i> voices make up the Think, large and small. Being hard to hear them now, but if listening hard enough….”

“Bemere, we have come to the Matriarch’s Chamber,” Gwyenth said. “This hall curves in on itself and in the center waits Khivu Ataphalis, along with her advisors and your accuser. It’s very unusual for her to hold court here, a matriarch normally waits until she holds the allegiance of the entire burrow. That takes seasons, even years.”

“And be naught normal about that one,” Inzya grumbled. “Wish to Darkness that yellow hair’s colors were already found. Be too late now.”  

“Bemere, we will walk along the center, with confidence,” Gwyenth said in her ear. “No one will lay a finger on you here. But remember, Law is not something you would expect in the world above. It’s more fluid, ritual mixed with debate and a sort of theatre as well.” 

“Hah!” Inzya said. “Not being anything like. Law is alive, being different to Think. Law <i> is.”</i> She shifted into her native tongue for several sentences before her voice trailed off and she shrugged.

“To describe Think is work of many lifetimes. For now, we will go and help Law, make Think not be spreading the war-trouble.”

Gwyenth and Kaylie in the lead, the little group walked into the hall proper. Bemere was next, walking beside the Hulzgrafn Law Wives that carried Twyla’s sleeping form. As they were noticed, there was a ripple of silence followed by the hissing whispers of quiet exclamations and excitement. The reverberating echoes filled the chamber and tugged at Bemere’s ears as the Think tried to fill her mind again. Looking over her shoulder, Bemere saw that the crowd had closed behind them, a mass of eager eyes, but none of them approached their circuitous path deeper into the spiral.

After a walk that felt much longer than was possible, they entered the presence of Khivu Ataphalis. She sat on a dais slightly taller than they were, surrounded by courtiers from every race in the Understone. Between them and the steps of the dais were a rank of hulking Spiderkin, bristling with various weapons.

When they were close, Raist emerged from the crowd of courtiers and came down the steps. He stepped through the guards, raising his arms in triumph.

“They are caught!” he crowed. “Yes! Caught and now held fast by Wives of Law, aided by our most noble Witnesses! This moon worshipping <i>whore</i> and her filthy mage now face the justice of our burrow. Brothers and sisters…”

“Be silent,” Gwyenth said loudly. Her voice was calm for all its volume and pushed back the hissing whisper of the Think. “You intrude on the precedents of diplomats and envoys.”

“Precedent? Precedent?” the Dark Elf shrieked. “Spying and murder, and intrigue have no precedent! Have the kingdoms of the noble Golden and rebellious Silver joined together in this outrage? Or has that debased slut entangled you in her murderous plots? Offered you her body, like any common…”

“Do you lack the means to control your tongue?” Gwyenth asked. “Allow me to assist you by nailing it to yonder wall with my blade. Or would you prefer that I remove it completely?”

There was a swelling of voices around them, angry protests, bloodthirsty excitement, a few hints of laughter. The Think surged back around them as the crowd of Understone folk crowded closer.

Khivu rose to her feet with a sudden shout that shocked everything into a moment of silence.

“It comes to me plain, we stand in <i>Khivu’s</i> chamber!” she shouted, front arms slapping her chest. “If you are lawless vermin, then Think has finally driven away Law! Let the dance begin now and I shall gather such necklaces of your ears. We shall bring Law back to <i>my burrow.”</i>  

Whatever was going on, Bemere saw moment of complete shock on Kaylie’s face. Gwyenth control betrayed no certain emotion but she was decidedly paler than normal. The sudden menace made Khivu’s already whip-like voice into a scourge. The crowd around them was immediately quiet, broken only by scattered whispers.

<i>Wherever she is, my mother is nearly ill with a mysterious paroxysm of laughter</i> Bemere thought.

“Serah Gwyenth, does your oath as our Witness bind you still?” Khivu asked, voice abruptly pleasant once more.

Gwyenth bowed low. “It does, matriarch.”

“How is it then that you bring a threat of violence to my chamber, in my very presence?”

Gwyenth stepped forward. “Matriarch, the true threat comes from your own burrow. An envoy, duly marked, is ambushed and taken by force, brought back to <i>your</i> burrow in chains. If the Ancient Treaties are so imperiled, I ask you to allow us to join your battle against this deadly barbarism.”

“No, no, no!” Raist screeched, interrupting whatever the matriarch had been about to say. “Not an envoy, a secret weapon! It is sent here to destroy and kill, draped like an honored visitor. Raist alone saw through this! It was Raist who…”

“Your offer of assistance is most gracious, serah,” Khivu said, talking over the elf. “And, as ever, this burrow accepts the friendship and cooperation of our neighbor races. So, allow me to satisfy your precedence with the promise of the inquiry I will conduct in due course. Your diplomatic precedence satisfied, we shall look into the plot that Master Raist has discovered among us.” 

“Matriarch, that is not an acceptable means to…”

Khivu’s voice was like a whip “As you said, Witness; <i>my</i> burrow. You and Mistress Kaylie will join me as Witnesses to this matter as well.”

Gwyenth glanced at Bemere for a moment. She could see the surprise and uncertainty in the High Elf’s eyes but simply nodded once. The pair of Cloud Ghosts joined the group on the dais and the gnomish litter bearers, along with Inzya, withdrew.

“Serah Bemere, if you have sworn me a false oath, your diplomatic status will not protect you,” Khivu warned.

“As it should be,” Bemere agreed.  

“Then you may proceed, Master Raist,” Khivu said, still staring at Bemere.

“Firstly, whore, you will surrender your arms,” Raist snarled.

He smiled as a small laugh ran through the crowd. He bowed slightly toward them and the laughter grew, quickly redoubling until it the mocking laughter was nearly a hand around Bemere’s throat. Her fists clenched against another wave of nausea rising up.

<i>Fuck diplomacy, I don’t know the rules here.</i>

After she had swallowed against her rebellious stomach, she managed a scornful look at Raist. “Firstly, <i>houseboy,</i> I am an Emissary of the Selenic Court, and am reckoned as a Serah by your betters. But I invite you to come and take my arms from me. Or is your sole talent the expertise of forgotten and meaningless grudges?”

Raist’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head and he sputtered, full of fury. However, he stayed in his place. The Think swirled around them, jeering and mocking laughter mixed with the outraged yells. Raist looked up, ignoring the building tumult. He seemed to be smiling slightly and Bemere felt a pang of unease. She laughed at him all the same.

“Shall I take your silence as my answer then? Matriarch, I am here to answer an absurd accusation. Was I summoned to listen to screeches and insults instead?”

“These accusations that include your companion, serah,” she replied. “But your Human appears rather…well used.”

Bemere didn’t see the humor in her words, but Khivu’s laughter joined the jeering merriment that filled the chamber.

“Khivu Ataphalis, what you see is the work of your burrow. Whatever further insult this court seeks to this victim only brings your court shame and dishonor.”

Bemere could see the sudden anger on Khivu’s face. An angry mutter grew and surrounded her, but Bemere ignored everything, eyes locked on the matriarch.

“You are forfeit!” Raist screeched through the ugly sound. “Guilty, guilty, guilty!”

On the dais, Gwyenth said something to Khivu. She nodded and held up her arm. The laughter and cheers died away.

“The whore cannot answer, Matriarch,” Raist laughed as he danced from foot to foot. “She has forfeited her defense! The slut proclaims her own guilt!”

“I am reminded that not every visitor here knows our Law,” Khivu replied. “Therefore, she is not responsible for our covenants with Law. She is responsible for whatever crimes we may find here. Serah Bemere, you offer an accusation of your own, but your companion was taken during the rout of the Human invaders. Criminals have no honor.”

<Now, my mother has likely died of merriment,</i> Bemere thought. “Khivu Ataphalis, she was <i>not</i> taken with the rest of the invaders. I ordered her to retire as your judgment fell upon the Human army. She was fully clothed in the same colors and patterns that I wear right now. Instead of allowing her to pass, she was ambushed, beaten and drugged, chained, and taken. She was brought here and hidden from sight to keep this craven act a secret. While it is true that I do not know the intricacies and rituals of your Law, does it condone ambush of the innocent, and acts of war?”

“Great Mistress, the tongues of the whore elves are incapable of speaking truth,” Raist declared, eyes bright. “Let us now sentence this filth to eternal darkness!”

“Master Raist, you will allow her the space to speak. Serah, is your companion wounded then?”

“Yes, matriarch, although not grievously. She was dosed with the same breeding potion as the other prisoners. As we returned to your summons, we were repeatedly bombarded by yet <i>more</i> ambushes that used your own Herald as a weapon. Inzya Law Wife deemed it better that she be sent into sleep rather than risk her mind.”

“Raist, is this true?” Khivu asked.

“My matriarch, the Moon Whores are known as despicable liars,” the dark elf replied. “Where is this Inzya? Unless this filth presents <i> proof</i>, it is all just falsehood.”

There was an ugly undercurrent of whispers among the audience, the echoes building and filling the space.  

“Enough,” Khivu said after a few moments. “Mistress Anniak, she was affected by your concoctions. Can you undo the effects? And I would compel truth.” 

Anniak stepped out from the courtesans and bowed low. “I can wake her, but the physical effects of the breeding philter can only be slowed for a short while. I will administer a philter for truth-talking at the same time.”

“Give it to them both!” Raist demanded and the titters and grumbled agreement filled the space again. 

“Wake the Human,” Khivu commanded. “Before we compel truth from the Selenic Fae, we will hear what this one has to say for herself.”

The beautiful Aphostic elf bowed low and came down the stairs toward them. Bemere stepped between her and Twyla’s litter, putting a hand on her short-blade. Anniak stopped and from around them came a stir as the warriors tensed.

“Stand aside, serah,” Khivu said. “She will not be harmed.”  

Bemere did not look away from Anniak and after a moment, the Aphostic elf stepped around her.

“Knife-in-the-Dark is not among us,” she murmured in passing.

Confused, Bemere watched the Aphostic elf as she produced a vial and removed the stopper. It was waved under Twyla’s nose. The mage coughed and after another breath of Anniak’s potion Twyla sneezed and her eyes slowly opened.

“Why do people keep putting things up my nose?” she grumbled.

“Apologies,” Anniak said, holding a vial to Twyla’s lips. “Drink this, it will help a bit,”

After she had swallowed it, Twyla slowly sat up and looked around.  

“What is your name?” Anniak asked Twyla.

” I am Twyla ap Tur. What’s <i>your</i> name?”

 The Dark elf was amused. “Pardon my rudeness. You may call me Mistress Anniak. Do you know where you are?”

Twyla frowned. “Bemere is here, we must be in the Understone.”

Anniak motioned to Bemere and they both helped the woman to her feet.

“That’s correct, Twyla ap Tur,” Anniak said. “Matriarch, I would expect there to be far more confusion, but my knowledge of the philter’s effects on Humans is incomplete. Her memory seems to be intact.”

“I’m feeling better,” Twyla whispered as Anniak returned to the dais. “Where are we now?”

 “Twyla ap Tur, I present you to Khivu Ataphalis,” Bemere said, half-turning her to face the dais. “She is the matriarch of this burrow.”

Raist threw up his hands and paced around grimacing and making faces but Twyla didn’t notice. She smiled uncertainly at Khivu and managed a wobbly curtesy before Bemere had to steady her.

“It is my very great honor…uhm, Bemere, do I call her majesty or highness or…”

“Khivu is enough, little one,” the matriarch said, not unkindly. “Tell me of your home. Are you indeed a mage from the Pale College?”

“I’m no mage, but I was raised by the College. I am reckoned maestra daos because I never had the ability to call stone even though I understand the words. You see, I study the stone calling words, well, not really <i>all</i> of them though. I’ve been tracing the ancestral root of a certain class of words, it’s called a dendriditic plotting, and there’s this really interesting history of a subclass of a branch that…”

“Maestra!” Khivu interrupted, before Twyla’s avalanche of words could completely take over. “You were given a philter to compel you to speak truth. Too much tends to make one overtalkative.” The matriarch tapped her lips for emphasis.

Twyla nodded, hand going up to her own mouth.

“Don’t fret, little one, it is not your fault. Now, if you could tell me how you journeyed here with your friend? Just the bare facts.”  

“Well, I was in Brynjarl Sands because their library is so incredibly old and has the oldest books in Tulamere. When I was done, it was time for me to go back to the Tower and Princess Madeline asked me to travel with Bemere to Grand Locks. But then Bemere met her cavalry friends and let me come along too. But then she was so angry that her friends were letting the militia come up here. It was a good trip, I met new friends, you see I’ve never been away from the Tower, so everything is new, and…”

Bemere nudged her and Twyla put the hand back over her mouth and then glared at her. Bemere gave her a tiny shrug in return. 

“Mistress Anniak, if you’d note this for the philter’s future dosages,” Khivu said and Anniak bowed her head in response. “Twyla ap Tur, please continue.”

“I was going back, like Bemere told me to. Then they were waving for me to stop and then someone knocked me off my horse! They were so <i>mean!</i> When I got up, one of them punched my stomach. I think I broke his nose before they knocked me down again. I hope so.”

“You broke a <i>Plafkhaki’s</i> nose?” Khivu asked and a titter ran through the audience.

Twyla giggled as well. “A <i>giant?</i> Oh, no. They were my size and looked like they were related to Bemere. That’s why I was so surprised.”

“Tell me about the battle yesterday. Why were you fleeing?”

“Bemere told me to,” Twyla said. “She said that Spiderkin were coming and they’d smell me. I let our horses run until they calmed down and tried to get back to my friends. I was nearly to the river when I was attacked.”

“Her wits are addled!” Raist screeched “This filth was taken with the other prisoners in the canyon. Where we found <i>this!”</i>

The Aphostic elf brandished Twyla’s medallion and an ugly sound began to swirl around them, cursing, promises of pain, promises of death.

“Hey, that’s mine! Your Maj…Khivu, that was torn off me in the attack. Look, you can see the mark right here on my neck. My maestro awarded it to me himself, and I want it back.”

There was a moment of stunned silence.

<i>”Guilty!”</i> Raist screamed, throwing his hands over his head as bloodthirsty cheers filled the chamber. Khivu did not move or speak, just stared across the chamber. The cheering slowly died away. The matriarch spoke in a low voice to a courtier and a moment later, someone handed her a long black knife, wickedly curved.

“You are my children and I would never threaten you,” Khivu said into the silence. “Rather, I <i>promise.</i> That includes you, Law Reader. I dislike your constant interruptions. Now, Twyla ap Tur, do you remember being given a philter, some kind potion when you were captured?”

“Yes, I started feeling confused. So, I entered a kyickmur before it could get worse.”

There was an explosion of laughter and jeering, but genuine amusement as well.

Raist yelled over the top of it; “Lies and lies on top of falsehood! Do these misbegotten intruders even understand truth? Is the entire filthy race living in fantasies of their own choosing? They are as deluded as they are guilty! Shall we go up and teach them the way of the world?”

“You’re the one lying!” Twyla’s yell was impressive and pushed back the laughter. “I withdrew into the kyickmur named Anamnesis! That is the aspect of the ethereal perfume and gathered spirits, from the season of Waking Sun to the arrival of Red Moon!”

The Aphostic fae had stopped laughing and their counterparts fell quiet as they noticed. Twyla looked around the large room nervously.

“I thought it might help,” she said into the silence.

“Didn’t your college teach you that it’s impossible for all of you simple minded Humans to even comprehend the valour?” Khivu sounded very amused now. “That exalted state is for the fae alone and closely guarded by their Divines.”  

“Well, no one told <i>me</i> that,” Twyla said. “Anyway, whoever thinks that never met Bemere. She’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

On the dais, one of the Aphostic courtesans whispered to Khivu. After a moment, the matriarch motioned her forward.

“Here is an initiate of the valour, Twyla ap Tur,” Khivu said. “Please grant her the polite candor you have shown me.”

Twyla bowed slightly to the female elf facing her.

“Human, what are the ruling aspects of Anamnesis?” the elf asked, not returning the bow.

“The Light of Unity from Righteous Thought to Sacred Purpose,” Twyla said immediately. “Guided by blessed remembrance of the path before. I guess that’s why I thought of that one.”

The elf of the dais narrowed her eyes. “And when you began your instruction you started with the current cycle?”  

“No, that’s not possible,” Twyla said, confused.

A triumphant look on his face, Raist started to say something but his mouth snapped shut as Khivu pointed the knife at him. Twyla didn’t notice and kept talking.

“…and we were nowhere near the coast, let alone a consecrated temple so it wasn’t even a choice. So, I must follow the full path from the beginning. We’ve gotten as far as the Gwiddha of the Blood Moon Passing into Sun’s Contemplation of Quiet Water when the Goat’s Moon occludes the top third of the Northern Hawse. You know, there is this commentary written by Cejum Orpharides. He uses the birth of that very moment as allegorical construct, a metaphor if you will, to discuss the organization of courtly affairs…”

The courtier’s eyes were becoming glassy as Twyla kept talking. “Yes, that’s enough,” she interrupted when Twyla paused for breath. “As for that commentator, reliance upon the conclusions of Cejum Orpharides is unwise. He is not well regarded.”

Twyla smiled, sensing another scholar. “Oh, I know! Bemere <i>despises</i> him and she’s his niece!”

Bemere had only been half-paying attention, but as Gwyenth’s face froze again, she realized what Twyla had just said. A sick heaviness in her chest joined the other unpleasantness in her gut as whispers of her family’s ancestral name echoed and repeated through the chamber. She vowed to someday paddle Madeline’s ass for giving Twyla that book of nonsense, after she somehow paddled her own for mentioning anything about the old drunk or that thrice-damned book to the knowledge-hungry maestra.

On the dais, the Dark Elf nodded at Khivu and stepped back into the group. Mercifully, Khivu hadn’t caught what she’d said, or more likely, saw it as garrulous chatter from an overactive Human mouth.

“Thank you, Twyla ap Tur,” Khivu said. “War-Chief Ulan, are you present?”

An imposing Plaflakhi strode from the crowd immediately. “I am, matriarch. How may I serve?

“Are the records of our captured prizes complete? Do they reveal a medallion from the Pale College?”

“They are complete, Khivu and no such medallion was recorded. It would have been brought to your attention immediately.”   

“Was this Human taken captive by your soldiers?”

“This requires some study to answer as fact, but I think that she is not. Word was given that least harm be inflicted, and we serve Law joyfully.” The large man looked at Raist for a moment. “Even the worst of my soldiers would not attack from ambush, nor treat our captives so badly. That is <i>not</i> Law.”

Raist cleared his throat. “War-Chief, have you ever missed an item in your records? That is to say, even the tiniest sequin?”

The giant looked down at him, expressionless. “Mistakes rarely happen.”

Raist nodded, trying to appear sympathetic rather than condescending. “But they do happen. “

He turned his back on the Plafalkhi, stalking back to the middle of the cleared area, shaking his head like a weary school-master. “There is Law. Law requires proof. Proof requires exact records. There can be no proof here.”

“And how did you come by that medallion, Law Reader?” Khivu asked.

With a wide manic grin, Raist spread his arms wide. “Matriarch, I admit that I do not quite remember. I was in the portal observing the prisoners, it may have been left on the table for me, it may have been placed in my hand, I simply do not recall. Even the Champions of Law have lapses as we have just heard!”

He clapped his hands together when there was no answer. “Dearest Matriarch, as your Law Reader I must point out that in spite of its unknown provenance, the Human has already admitted that it belongs to her. A mage of the Pale College, a destroyer of stone!”

<i>”Still</i> not that kind of maestra,” Twyla grumbled under her breath.

“Matriarch, is there any question here? The destroyer reveals what it is and has named its accomplice. And history shows us well the Silver moon-sluts and their arrogance and depravity. Now they dare to bring this blathering weapon to <i>this very chamber!</i>

“Matriarch, my deepest respect, but this is no longer a matter that requires your judgement. We will make the weapon silent and imprison the whore. Both may serve as your hosts for many generations of noble chikkur!”

“You brought this matter before me,” Khivu said flatly. “I will <i>not</i> be dismissed when you decide that I am no longer needed, <i>advisor.</i> Twyla ap Tur, shall we recognize you as Maestra?”

Twyla was startled by the question. “No, I do not represent the college here, no matter what the angry man says. Anyway, I’m barely a maestra.”

“They are guilty!” Raist shrieked, the sound clawing at Bemere’s ears as it spread. “Do you understand the <i>word?</i> This judgement is a poor echo of the wisdom of Eikh! You may not…”

“You have begun to repeat yourself, Law Reader,” Khivu said, her voice easily overcoming his shrieks. “Others may speak.” 

The Aphostic elf threw up his hands and left the center, grimacing and shaking his head at the crowd. Khivu waited until the sound of the crowd began to soften before she spoke.

“Twyla ap Tur, thank you for your patience and candor. I have only one question more; where is the border with the Grassland Empire?”

Twyla looked blank. “Which direction? I’m sorry, I don’t have a clue without the Hawses to guide me.”

“No matter. Tell me instead about this river where you left your friends. Is that the border of their empire?”

“No, I think that’s the edge of the northern highlands. But when I asked the sergeant, he said that the land is mostly empty. Anyway, the Grassland Empire starts at the Grand Canal and that is a long way toward the South Hawse. We were already north of the canal when we set out and it took several days to ride this far north.”

“I see. Thank you for your counsel, maestra.”

There was a stir from the crowd and Bemere looked over her shoulder to see Inzya emerge, followed by other Law Wives, all of them carrying packages.

“What is all this?” Khivu asked brightly. “No, not a word from you, Raist. I am quite curious to see what the Law Wives have brought for us.” 

Without a word, Inzya produced a battered surcoat in the grey and silver Plenilune colors. One of her sisters unfolded a cloth and Inzya laid the surcoat on it carefully, almost reverentially. The others unwrapped the rest of what they had found, remains of the horse caparisons, and finally the baggage. The chamber had become completely silent.

“I am shaken,” Khivu said as they withdrew. “The burrow our mothers have built has become a hole full of degenerate vermin and Law has abandoned us.”

“Matriarch!” the War-Chief exclaimed. “Where my people are, there too comes Law. We have never abandoned our vows!”

Raist made a show of inspecting all of the evidence and waved his hand in dismissal.

“Matriarch, these are easily detected fakeries,” he sneered. “But, at your word, I will tirelessly root out…”

The Dark elf was interrupted by more of the Law Wives shoving through the crowd, this time leading two Dark elves whose thumbs were bound together behind them. Raist opened his mouth twice without any words coming out. Then, he screamed a curse, drawing a blade to charge at Bemere.

Bemere stepped in front of Twyla again, grabbing for her blade. From the corner of her eye, she saw Anniak leap from the top of the dais, hands flashing out, before she landed in a predatory crouch shielding Bemere. Raist’s shriek had trailed off and he stumbled to a halt, looking at a pair of feathered darts jabbing into his side. He snarled incoherently at Anniak as he collapsed, almost at her feet. The silence in the chamber began to echo with tense whispering.

“Nothing to fret about, brothers and sisters,” Anniak said cheerfully, facing the chamber. “My brother here is prone to his little fits. Ease your worry, he’s been like this since we were children. He’ll be fine after a little rest.”

One of the guards stepped forward to pick up Raist. The Dark elf’s head lolled like he was asleep, although his eyes were open and blazing with hatred. Anniak turned and retrieved the medallion from where Raist had dropped it. She walked back to stand in front of Raist before examining it closely. After too long of a pause, she looked up at Raist.   

<i>”Thief,”</i> she said, putting more contempt into the word than Bemere thought possible. Then she went to Twyla and bowed deeply before offering it to her.

“Our deepest apologies, Twyla ap Tur.”   

“Why are you all so pretty?” Twyla whispered as she took it.

Anniak smiled and winked before turning and prostrating herself at the base of the dais.

“Khivu Ataphalis, my beloved matriarch, I have committed violence in your chamber.”

“Your actions were rash, and violence within this place must be harshly punished,” Khivu agreed, voice pleasant again.

“I freely place myself at your mercy without reservation,” Anniak replied, face still hidden.

“To offend Law is a serious offense. Let your punishment fit your crime; you shall listen carefully to Law and Think alike under my supervision. You are charged to listen well and bring me the wisdom they whisper. And you will swear your loyalty to your matriarch.”

“Khivu Ataphalis, I swear that my life will be spent in service to Law and Think as they bless your household and burrow,” Anniak said. “I call to Pera Sonbro, Father of Darkness and ask him to witness my allegiance. May my Lord cast me into the fires should I ever break my vow.” 

“Take your place beside me,” Khivu said.

“You are most benevolent.” Anniak rose gracefully to her feet and took her place beside the matriarch.

Khivu gestured and Raist was held up in front of her, head still lolling.

“Mercy must have limits,” Khivu’s voice echoed through the chamber, drowning everything else out as she stood. “Raist, for too long you have attempted to set a fire in my burrow. Fire that would spread flames across Allworld, even as it consumed your own kin and kind, those that sheltered and fed you.

“Understone, hear my judgement! This one’s name, property, and titles are forfeit, never to be restored. I rename you Thief and a traitor to Law. In time, I can only hope that your sick hatred will disappear as you serve my <i>personal</i> household.”

Raist’s eyes had just enough time to go wide before the guard dragged him behind the dais to a collective sigh of relief. The rest of Khivu’s guard immediately followed them and Bemere realized who they’d been protecting the matriarch from.

“Serah Bemere, and Maestra Twyla ap Tur, I deeply regret all of this unseemly behavior. You have my gratitude, and the gratitude of my burrow, for revealing the sickness that lurked among us. We are in your debt.”  

“I hope he feels better,” Twyla said.

“We’ll do our very best to keep him amused and occupied, maestra,” Khivu assured her. “Now, the rest of you, my beloved and treasured family, you now see that there are thieves and traitors in our midst. With that knowledge, where do you stand? If your heart has any reservations about allegiance to this burrow, leave now and depart peacefully from our halls. We are no longer your kin, and this is <i>not</i> your home.”

The entire audience began to crowd closer to the dais, laying face down. As they began the oath, Bemere and Twyla stood out of the way and Gwyenth and Kaylie joined them. The golden-haired elf put an arm around Bemere’s shoulders, surprising her.

“The Mother of Trees showed me great favor when she sent you here.”

“If only she had shown such favor to my innards,” Bemere replied quietly. “Do you think that the new, very dangerous, Reader of Law has anything up her sleeve for my stomach?”

“I’ll go ask her,” Kaylie said.

A few hours later, her stomach much closer to normal, and a borrowed mask covering her nose and mouth, Bemere stood with the other Witnesses and several courtiers in a small side chamber. There was silence as Raist was half led, half carried by a soldier. Two of the courtiers took charge of him, putting him face down over a large cushion. He examined the cushion idly as Khivu Ataphalis entered the chamber. She had removed the chainmail and ornaments and Bemere could see that her torso went to where her own hips were. She did not seem to have breasts, but her body was undeniably feminine all the same.

Anniak entered the chamber behind Khivu, carrying a small tray that she handed to one of the courtiers. She took a stone bottle from it and gracefully knelt below the matriarch. A thick member slid out of the bottom of the spiderlike portion of her body and Anniak poured oil in her hands before sliding them from base to tip, drawing a quiet moan from Khivu. Anniak stood and walked in front of her brother, her look of tenderness gone from her face.

“Prepare yourself, Thief,” she said.

Raist looked up at her and smiled placidly. Khivu moved to stand over him, holding him tightly with her forelegs. She lowered herself slowly, folding her legs, pair by pair, to lower herself on top of him. Her organ seemed to be able to move on its own, but two courtiers appeared on either side of the prisoner and guided it between the cheeks of Raist’s bottom. The matriarch eased her body forward and Raist clutched the cushion, groaning as the thick tube entered his anus. Khivu’s ovipositor flexed as an egg was deposited deep inside Raist. Judging from the sounds he was making, the former Law Reader approved.

As soon as the egg was placed, Khivu immediately rose to her feet. “Take this one away. He is filth, I do not wish to see him again.”

Raist was helped to his feet, and despite the matriarch’s tone, they were gentle enough handing him off to another pair of courtiers that took him through a doorway.

Khivu beckoned Anniak close and bent over to speak quietly to her. Anniak nodded and took a cloth from somewhere and gently, but thoroughly cleaned Khivu’s member. She reapplied the oil and kissed the tip before standing again. Khivu caressed her in return as she waited for the next host.  

The woman, a tough looking redhead, was led in. Several tattoos adorned scars of different ages all over her body.

“Thank you for this, Lady,” the woman said to Khivu, tears streaming down her face. “I don’t know what happened…thank you for your gift of atonement.”

Khivu put a hand on her head for a moment and Bemere sensed a glyph being cast. The woman looked relieved as they arranged her on the cushion and as Khivu lowered herself, the scarred redhead spread her legs wide and lifted her hips. The attendant guided the member against the woman’s anus. She grunted softly as Khivu pushed inside. Unlike Raist, Khivu took her time and seemed to take pleasure from the implanting. The woman beneath her squirmed, hands pushing her body back against Khivu’s. Again, they saw the bulge as an egg was delivered and the woman orgasmed loudly as it passed inside her. Khivu withdrew and the woman bowed deeply once more before she was led away.

“Atonement comes in many forms,” Kaylie murmured.

The next host was a younger brunette without the pallor of the other woman. Bemere noticed that she didn’t show any grief, just eagerness as the attendants put her in position. She was very vocal about her approval as Khivu seeded her. Bemere saw that her thighs were wet as she was helped up and led away.

“That one was rather enthusiastic in her atonement,” Gwyenth said.

“A lover of justice without a doubt,” Kaylie added. “Is the mask working, Bemere? You’re breathing a little fast.”

“The mask is most welcome, my thanks again,” Bemere muttered. “And yes, I’m panting like a bitch in heat. I did not expect this to be remotely arousing.” 

The other two laughed as there was more applause for the next participant. Anniak met her eyes as she stood next to Khivu. There was a small smile on her face and Bemere knew the Aphostic elf was thinking about her situation. It was a little annoying but Bemere figured that she could appreciate all their amusement once she had been reunited with her pegos. For now, however, she had to stand and watch this carnal exhibition, helplessly getting wetter and wetter as she watched.

Once the implantation of the new chikkur was finally completed, Anniak led Bemere and the Witnesses to the chambers where Twyla had been taken to sleep off the effects of the various potions.

As she entered the chamber, Bemere’s breath was taken away by the beauty of the space. The main chamber was an oval with several large pools connected by small waterfalls. The warm water steamed gently as it cascaded from pool to pool. It was comfortably warm and lit by a golden glow provided by luminescent mosses on the walls and ceiling.   

Following the sound of deep laughter, Bemere and Anniak stepped down one of the side passages that ended in an alcove lined with springy moss. Inside, Gruni, the Plafakhi woman that had guided Bemere earlier, was sitting against the wall while Twyla sprawled out on cushions opposite her.

“Then may I rearrange the pillows, gentle giant?” Twyla asked.

“Hmm, I think not, tiny woman. I have the suspicion that you are plotting to get away from my sight.”

Twyla laughed. “What if I tied the pillows to my feet?”

“Little one, how is this any different than making a path with the cushions?”

“Well, less work for one,” Twyla laughed. “Tell me your task again.”

“Mistress Anniak charged me to watch over you and ensure that you remained here on your pile of cushions.”

“But there’s an obvious way for me to leave.”

“Indeed.”

Anniak smiled at Bemere and they stepped through the archway.

Twyla smiled happily at them. “I have not figured out how to move from these pillows as of yet. My guardian is adamant.”

“But I am no longer adamant,” Gruni said. “Mistress Anniak has returned and my duty is ended. I did enjoy your pillow rearranging idea though.”

<i>”That’s</i> the obvious route?” Twyla laughed. “You win, but I very much enjoyed our game.”

“As did I,” the Plafahki woman said, standing up to crouch in the small alcove. “Anniak, I am off to find my Donag. We will see you during the festivities?”

“Of course! Thank you for lending me your time here.”

“Until then,” Gruni said, straightening up once she’d stepped into the larger chamber.

“How are you feeling?” Bemere asked Twyla.

“A little shaky, but I am myself once more. My memory though… I remember a lot of people sleeping, and then running through the dark. But mostly I remember the warm melty feeling I had. I liked it.”

“Mistress Anniak would like to examine you for a moment, to make sure the potion’s effects are gone.”

Anniak knelt beside Twyla and looked in her eyes for several moments before nodding. “The worst of it has passed, though you may feel some effects of the Herald for a short time. Maestra, I would like your permission to cast a small glyph over you. It marks you as a welcome guest in our burrow.”

Twyla nodded and Anniak made a series of fluid gestures with her hand and a small glow grew around Twyla for a moment and then disappeared. “There we are. Now you may move about freely within our burrow. In the meantime, Serah Bemere, all of your luggage and belongings are being cleaned and put right. I will have it brought here when it is restored.”

“Thank you, that would be perfect. And my name is Bemere, not ‘serah’, if you’d do me the honor.”

“And I’m Twyla, hardly a maestra at all.”

The courtier smiled and bowed slightly. “Bemere and Twyla it is then. I must go and supervise some things, but I will return. If you have any needs, any at all, send word and we will happily assist.”

After a nod to Gwyenth and Kaylie, Anniak left the chamber. Bemere watched her hips sway gracefully beneath the thin cloth around her waist. Embarrassed suddenly, she turned away in time to see that Gwyenth and Kaylie were watching as well.

“Nothing but trouble, those Dark Ones,” they heard Gwyenth say after Anniak had gone.

“And you sound absolutely <i>fascinated</i>,” Kaylie teased.

“What now?” Twyla asked as the two outside continued to poke fun at each other.

“Would you like a bath?” Bemere asked.

Twyla sighed. “More than anything. Is there somewhere I can wash?”

Bemere smiled. “If you’ll follow me, I think we can find something.”

Gwyenth was buckling a sword belt around her waist as they emerged. After introductions, Gwyenth explained that she wanted to have a look around. She left soon after.

“Maestra, I have an undertunic that should fit you. That one looks about done in.”

Twyla looked down. “I have to agree. But I think if we’re going to share clothing, you should just call me Twyla,” she said, pulling off the shredded undertunic.

Bemere tried not to pay too close attention, but her pulse quickened as Twyla’s body was revealed. Even bruised and spattered with mud, she was just as beautiful as Bemere’s occasional glimpses had promised, breasts larger than her own, standing proud on her chest with red nipples, growing hard in their freedom. Her stomach was flat, her hips wonderfully curved and between them…

“One of the washrooms is right through there,” Kaylie said, getting out of her clothes.

“What is this place?” Twyla asked, marveling at the moving water and glowing walls.

“This is part of the matriarch’s chambers,” Kaylie said. “Khivu met us here when we arrived. The Understone folk socialize in places like this. Bathing is a large part of their society.”

“While everyone is <i>naked?”</i> Twyla asked.

“It’s hard to get clean otherwise,” Kaylie said. “Nudity here is far less remarkable than the world above us.”

Bemere had begun to perspire and gratefully took off the Envoy’s surcoat while the two women found a tunic that would fit Twyla. The rest of her clothes followed but she quickly wrapped a towel around her hips. Her cunt had been drooling since the Witnessing, and the two nude women fueled even more lust. Kaylie wouldn’t be bothered, but she wasn’t sure of Twyla. Bemere did not want to have to explain why her thighs were damp with her own arousal.

“Now, to the baths,” Kaylie said, leading them to another alcove carved into the stone wall.

Inside, a wide pool took up the entire room with only a narrow ledge around the edges. The water was stirred by jets of hot water bubbling up from the floor and a small channel directed the pool’s overflow back into the larger cavern.

Twyla sighed happily as she tested the water. “This is lovely, being rolled in mud was an acceptable price of admission.”  

Kaylie laughed as she went to a shelved recess. She took a stone bottle and a stack of toweling. Twyla slipped into the pool, submerging her body up to her neck.

“Would you prefer privacy?” Bemere asked.

“I don’t think so,” Twyla said, eyes closed as she luxuriated in the water. “You really need to try this.”

“Here, I’ll help you get that mud out of your hair,” Kaylie said, walking down into the pool, followed by Bemere.

“Duck under for half a moment,” Kaylie said cheerfully.

Once Twyla’s hair was wet, Kaylie turned her around and began to massage soap into her scalp. Bemere took a cloth from the stack and added more of the soap before she sat facing Twyla.  

“Close your eyes,” Bemere said, then began to carefully wipe the mud from her face.

“I think I understand what decadent really means now,” Twyla finally said, as Kaylie rinsed her hair for the third time.

“Not quite yet, you don’t,” Kaylie said with a smile. “Now that you look more like a human than a mud golem, we’ll ply you with wine and treats and you’ll see what decadent really means. I’ll go get you a cup.”

Twyla smiled as the lithe, red-headed woman pulled herself out of the water.

“You know, I’m starting to really enjoy traveling with you, Bemere,” she sighed, twisting her long blonde hair and squeezing the water out.

The elf wiped away the last bit of mud and examined her face. “Are you sure of that? You have a blackened eye, your jaw is bruised, on top of all the other scrapes and cuts.”

“Do I look that bad?” Twyla asked as Bemere studied her face intently.

“No, you’re as lovely as ever. Twyla, your injuries are my fault and I most humbly beg for your pardon for everything. If I had any idea what was going on here, we never would have…”

Twyla interrupted her by leaning close to press her lips against Bemere’s. The elf was surprised but returned her kiss gently. She was even more surprised when Twyla took one of her hands and placed it on her breast. Bemere could feel Twyla’s hard nipple against her palm and squeezed Twyla’s breast gently.

Twyla took a long shuddering breath as their lips parted. “This has been the greatest adventure of my life,” she whispered. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“I disagree,” Bemere said, nearly panting with need.

Twyla smiled shakily. “If you really feel atonement is needed, <i>please</i> keep touching me. I’ve wanted you since that night I came looking for you in that wayhouse. I didn’t know how to…”

Her voice trailed off into a quiet moan as Bemere pulled her close and kissed a line from her neck to Twyla’s jaw. Her free hand went to Twyla’s other breast and the human woman began to breathe harder as Bemere gently pinched and teased her nipples.

“My stomach feels like it did in the tunnels,” Twyla whispered. “Warm and runny.”

Bemere ran the tip of her tongue around the edge of Twyla’s ear. “Do you like it?” she whispered.

Twyla nodded, shivering at the feel of the elf’s warm breath in her ear. “But I’m not sure how it… I mean, what to do…” she whispered, wondering if Kaylie would hear them over the bubbling water.

“That’s why I’m teaching you, silly.” Bemere pulled Twyla closer, wrapping her legs around the woman’s waist as they continued kissing.

When they parted again, lips swollen and breathing hard, Twyla saw Kaylie sitting and watching them. The red head smiled at Twyla and handed her a cup.

“Here is your wine. I’ll be in the big pool if you two need <i>anything</i> else.” She bowed slightly and left them alone.

“She’s not going to be upset that we’re in here together?” Twyla fretted.

“She would probably like an invitation to join us,” Bemere said, wrapping her arms around Twyla again.

“Really?”

“Really. But I am keeping you for myself this first time.”

They looked into each other’s eyes and Twyla’s hands found Bemere’s aching nipples.

“You must be really excited,” she whispered.

Bemere kissed her, tasting traces of the berry-mint wine. Twyla dropped the cup in the water and kissed her back, putting a gentle hand on either side of her face. The woman’s hips were thrusting up, bouncing Bemere slightly.

“And how does this feel?” Bemere asked, reaching down to caress Twyla’s sex.

The woman’s eyes rolled back in her head and her thighs clamped around Bemere’s hand as Twyla thrust her hips up hard, her muscles clenched tight. Bemere whispered encouragement into Twyla’s ear as her finger slowly entered the other woman.

Twyla’s face flushed as her body went as taut as a bowstring as Bemere’s fingers brought her to climax. After several seconds, she opened her eyes and looked at Bemere, eyes wide.  

“That’s why you were so noisy at the way house.”

“I think you’ll enjoy this,” Bemere chuckled and she slid one of her legs under Twyla, pressing their cunts together. Twyla groaned, grinding the lips of her sex against Bemere’s. The elf slowed her friend’s frantic movements, showing her how to move in a slower rhythm.

When Gwyenth returned she found Kaylie was floating in the larger pool, hands teasing her nipples as she listened to the moaning from the other chamber.

“Were you banished for coarse language?” Gwyenth asked, unwrapping the long belt from around her hips. “I can’t say that I’m surprised.” 

Kaylie smiled, standing up in the water. “I thought you liked my coarse language. And it’s Twyla’s first time, so I gave them some privacy. As you can see, I’m diplomatic.”

“Help me get this damned surcoat off. Her first time for what?”

Kaylie stepped out of the tub and helped Gwyenth get the heavy surcoat off. “She’s never had sex before.”

Gwyenth looked at her, eyebrow raised. “And you believe that? Please note that she is a traveling companion of a Plenilune fae, one firmly in the grip of her fertile season.”   

Kaylie stuck out her tongue. “Perhaps Bemere has more restraint than some <i>other</i> elves I could mention. Anyway, Twyla was raised by the Pale College. They are taught that to be a scholar one had to be chaste. She desperately wanted to be a scholar, so….”

“Divines preserve us, celibacy? What perversity won’t you Humans imagine next?”

Kaylie raised her eyebrows, lightly pinching one of Gwyenth’s nipples. “I’m never sure. Shall we use our imaginations together?”

Gwyenth shuddered slightly. “As much as that feels good, stewards will be along soon bearing gifts from the matriarch.”

“Later then,” Kaylie said, getting a towel. “What kind of gifts?”

“Suitable clothes for the chikkur festival,” Gwyenth said. “A roundabout way of telling us that we will be meeting with members of Khivu’s court.”

The muffled moans from the alcove rose, culminating in strangled cries.

“It sounds like our friends have a moment,” Kaylie said. “I’ll go warn them before they start bathing again.”

“But where is the rest?”

“The burrow is warm enough that clothes are more for decoration than protection,” Kaylie said, adjusting the long skirt wrapped around her hips.

“Can I see myself in a mirror at least?” Twyla asked, tugging at her bandeau

“Gwyenth has one over here,”

Kaylie and Twyla joined the other two in another semi-private alcove. There was an oblong shimmer on one wall.

“See Twyla? You look <i>amazing,”</i> Kaylie said.

She blushed, examining her reflection. “How do you keep your nipples from showing through this top?”

“Yours are darker than mine, see?” Kaylie said, pulling a breast from her halter.

Twyla looked at their reflections again. All four of them wore the same type of loincloths as Anniak and the other courtiers; the hem of the front and back pieces fell a bit above their ankles but left their hips and legs bare. Their tops consisted of a long roll of the same translucent cloth wrapped several times around their chests. Twyla’s nipples, dark red on her pale skin, were just visible. Bemere had helped dry her long hair, plaiting it into a heavy braid that hung over her shoulder.

“Yes, I’ll admit that I do look good, I’m just not sure about wearing this outside.”

“We’re not going outside,” Bemere pointed out. “And everyone is wearing something like that for the festival.”

“No one will notice me?”

“Anyone who doesn’t notice you is either blind or simple,” Kaylie said. “Let’s have a drink or two, it’ll help you relax.”

When the humans had mugs of wine, and the elfish women had lit pipes of clover, they sat together on the edge of a warm pool, feet in the water.

“What is everyone celebrating?” Twyla asked.

“The matriarch has begun her first generation of the ones you call Greater Spiderkin,” Gwyenth explained. “These children will be trained from birth to be her closest advisors and confidants. Because they are so important to the future of the burrow, all the people here will spend the next three days in a celebration welcoming them to the Allworld.”

“Does that work?” Twyla asked, fascinated.

Gwyenth shrugged and smiled. “I cannot say for sure, but the first generation has always been welcomed this way since the very beginnings of the Understone and the burrows thrive.”  

“Even if it was only tradition, I very much like the idea,” Twyla said. “But the matriarch must be having a very busy week.”

Kaylie chuckled. “More than you know.”

“Khivu Ataphalis has rather turned things upside down,” Gwyenth agreed. “Now that I know she isn’t trying to spark a war, I find myself admiring her political machinations; rather than fight the traitors in her midst, she has used the crisis to solidify her claim as matriarch, something that usually takes seasons, if not years. The urgency of a possible plot against the burrow itself removed much of the courtly maneuvering and posturing, leaving her undeniably in charge of the burrow. She showed mercy with the traitors, likely to soften the resolve of any remaining conspirators. Khivu will be a formidable matriarch for this burrow. I fear that she will need to be, there is a larger darkness out there waiting.”

“The plot goes beyond this burrow,” Bemere said.

Gwyenth grimaced. “Far beyond. I’ve been speaking with Thief while the rest of you wallowed in luxury. Once he began talking, he was delighted to relate how clever his faction had been. At least until Khivu refused to execute the original invaders.”

“How many took part in his plot?” Kaylie asked.

“Only a few here,” Gwyenth said. “Thief did not plan this alone, there have been hints that someone is pushing for a war against the Humans. Khivu’s interpretation of Law will be a larger thorn than anyone yet realizes. After the chikkur are born, all the surviving invaders will be returned to Human lands unharmed, with a new respect, even affection, for the Understone.”

“I am certain that this won’t be the last time I hear about the Cyannous expedition,” Bemere said. “I just hope Emperor Flavius doesn’t ask if I was involved.”

<i>”That</i> sounds like the beginning of a fascinating story,” Twyla said.

“You’ve heard enough tales for one day,” Bemere laughed.

“Hello, my lovelies,” Anniak called as she appeared in the passage. She was wearing the same style loincloth and bandeau as she had before, but the material was even more translucent than their own and seemed to sparkle. “May I join you?”

They made space for her in the pool and Anniak settled in with them.

“Khivu will join us in a little while,” she said. “She is looking forward to meeting you in friendlier circumstance.”

“During her own chikkur celebration? That is a singular honor.” Gwyenth said. “May I offer you a pipe?”

“That’s very kind,” Anniak said.

Bemere handed her the pipe she had just refilled. Anniak snapped her fingers and a small spark glowed in the bowl. She inhaled deeply and held her breath for a moment before exhaling with a happy sigh.

“I’d offer you wine as well, but I’m finding that’s mostly a human vice,” Kaylie said.

“As well as our larger friends, but it does not agree with me. I appreciate your kindness.”

They sat and chatted about nothing very much for a few minutes, until Gruni ducked under the doorway to enter the chambers. Behind her came Khivu Ataphalis and Donag, Gruni’s mate. Lastly, a Greater Spiderkin followed them. His size and bearing marked him as a warrior caste male, but for all his size, he was still a third smaller than the matriarch.

“Well met, honored friends,” Khivu said, bowing gracefully. “May you always be safe and cherished in my home.”

The four visitors were already on their feet and returned her bow.

“Beloved matriarch, your beneficence encompasses us and we are content,” Gwyenth said in a formal tone.

“My heart is gladdened,” Khivu said. She pulled the mail shirt over her head and Gruni took it from her. “Serah Gwyenth, and Serah Bemere, before we truly begin our festivities, I would like to have a quiet conversation.”

“The side chambers are prepared, matriarch,” Anniak said.

“My thanks. Axit, Donag, join us,” Khivu said over her shoulder before disappearing into another alcove.

Gwyenth glanced at Kaylie as she got out of the pool, but the younger woman shook her head. “I’ll stay here and keep Twyla out of trouble.”

“I’m not sure you are the best choice for that task,” Gwyenth said, a rare smile on her face. “We will speak later.”

Inside, Khivu had settled herself at one end of the little chamber, Axit on one side of her, Donag on the other.

“I regret separating you from your companions,” Khivu said. “However, it is the Humans I would speak of and I would not offer either of them offense.”

“Neither would likely take offense,” Gwyenth said, as the two fae settled to the floor. “But a kind precaution all the same.”  

“Thank you,” Khivu said. “Allow me to introduce Axit. He will serve as my…what is the title, Donag?”

“That one is ‘foreign minister,'” the giant rumbled.  

Khivu nodded her thanks. “Axit will be this burrow’s first foreign minister, advising me in our dealings with the world above. He is also the father of my chikkur, and most of all, an old and trusted friend.”

“It is my honor,” Axit said, bowing at the waist.

“That is rather unexpected,” Gwyenth said. “You will reach out to the world above?”

“Ignorance and hate came close to destroying my burrow today. Closer than I would like to admit. Think is not enough, even Law is not enough. We must look more closely at the world above us. Serah Bemere, you have my deepest thanks and affection for your deportment in horrid circumstances, not to mention your willingness to serve as Witness. I have no right to ask more of you, but….”

“You are worried about the Humans to your south,” Bemere finished. “As before, I am at your service, Khivu.”  

“And again, I am in your debt. I cannot understand them as a people. Even within my own burrow, they baffle me. Out there are two Humans, the first serves the Great Lady as no human ever has. The other is not only a trusted companion of a Selenic Envoy, but a woman with arcane knowledge no one even thought possible. Perhaps I could regard the males as the uncivilized brutes, except that I have twenty-eight female hosts who were just as eager as the males to raid and murder my burrow. Are these two somehow daughters of renown, or the result of especially noble families?”

“These two display the best traits of their folk, and their path here has been unique,” Bemere said. “I do not believe they come from any special lineage. Twyla is a foundling, given to the Pale College to raise.”

“While Kaylie was a shareholder’s daughter,” Gwyenth said. “Wholly unremarkable until she caught the attention of the Mother of Trees.” 

“What sets them apart from the ones who came here looking for loot and violence? What should I make of this? Can you tell me what guides the path of a Human? Obviously, it is not an allegiance to Law. I have asked them, but none of them had two answers alike.”

“Humans seem to be pulled by two spirits, light and darkness, good and evil, or chaos and order,” Bemere said. “But very few manage to attain purity of either. The Humans that I know well choose some middle ground, constantly pulled back and forth at every step.”

“They follow no gods or heroes?” Khivu asked.

“They follow the same deities as anyone else, but do not seem especially bound to any single Divine. Instead, their leaders come from conquest, not wisdom. Their governance is flawed from the start. Humans are spurred toward progress and improvement but rarely agree on what course their betterment should follow.”  

“It is a wonder that they’ve managed to organize anything at all. Or has that all been the work of their Selenic friends?” Khivu asked.

“No, matriarch. Our envoys and emissaries could not lead them, they are their own folk and not some sort of misbegotten fae for us to correct. Were they as long-lived as other folk, our task would be much easier, but life is rarely as one might wish. So, our efforts have been to provide their kingdoms and empires a measure of stability so that their drive to become more may be guided by a measure of wisdom. It seems like an endless task at times, and all too often, a heart-breaking burden that must be repeated again and again.”

“You paint an alarming portrait,” Khivu said.

“They can be an alarming folk,” Bemere agreed. “But our dismay at their behavior does not make Human actions inevitably evil.”

Khivu smiled. “Spoken as a true diplomat. Give me your advice then; were you the matriarch here and now, how would you proceed?”

“Khivu Ataphalis, I do not think you will like my answer,” Bemere said, after some thought.

The matriarch smiled. “Ekih taught me that those are the answers I must consider most closely.”

“A wise teacher. My advice is to create an alliance with the Humans.”

“You were correct, serah; I don’t like your answer. Tell me why I would join those that attacked my children?”

“Not Cyannous of course. Humanity cannot be treated as a single thing, any more than your burrow is identical to any other. But I think you would find the Brynjarl Sands very welcoming. They are nearby and their rulers tend toward wisdom. The current prince and princess are friends and I judge they would be delighted to find a new trading partner and friend.”

“How would I trust that their wise leadership will continue? As you have explained, Human lives are short, and one may never be sure of their intentions.”

“The Brynjarl Sands are a unique example. Our nations have been close allies and friends for nearly a hundred human generations. We have always found them to be honorable allies, and I have counted many of them as trusted friends.”

Khivu cocked her head slightly. “Then would you be willing to act as the first messenger between this burrow and Brynjarl Sands?”

“It would be my honor,” Bemere said, bowing. “I trust that my queen would agree that this matter is far more important than my earlier tasks.”

“I find that I need advice for Humans, and I get a watcher of Humans. Your Green Mother, or our Father Darkness have shown great favor to our burrow in bringing you here.”

“Perhaps it is both,” Gwyenth said. “I know of no enmity between the Father of Darkness and the Green Mother.”

Khivu inclined her head. “This is truth. Pera Sonbro bids that we love the Goddess as She loves all life, whether Understone or in the Lands of the Sky. Tell me, Gwyenth; how would the High fae respond to…”

An hour and a half later, after they had finished their counsel, they rejoined the others in the main chamber. Bemere had worried how well Twyla was dealing with such a novel situation and was relieved to see that she was sitting next to Kaylie and the pair was in an animated conversation with Anniak and Gruni.

 Khivu sighed happily as she slipped into the water of the largest pool. Anniak looked up and smiled when she saw Bemere. She stood up, her skirt and bandeau shedding the water and went to retrieve a familiar looking case.

“The rest of your belongings will follow soon, but I thought you might have need for this sooner than the rest,” she said, presenting it to Bemere.

“You have my deepest gratitude,” Bemere said, taking the box of pegos.

“I made sure everything was completely clean and ordered,” Anniak said quietly. “There are some <i>very</i> interesting shapes there. I found myself quite curious how some of them were used.”

Despite the time spent with Twyla, the close presence of the matriarch had quickly restored Bemere’s need, hotter and more urgent than before. After a glance to make sure her human companion was settled, she smiled at the Aphostic elf.

“I’d be happy to explain if you’d like.”

Anniak reached out, running a fingertip over Bemere’s arm. “Your self-control is quite extraordinary. As my own fertile time is coming soon, I would be most grateful if you would share any techniques.”

“It would be my pleasure,” Bemere said, a little thickly. “Is there a spot a little out of the way?”

~~~

Sitting together on the edge of the pool, Kaylie and Twyla watched as Bemere and Anniak embraced tightly, hands already pulling at each other’s clothing. Twyla’s nipples hardened as she saw Anniak’s thigh press between Bemere’s, knowing how wonderful that pressure felt.

“I see that you are not afflicted with some terrible jealousy,” Kaylie teased, brushing a finger over the dimple Twyla’s hard nipple made in her bandeau.

“Not at all,” Twyla chuckled. “Unless you had some plan to distract me.”

Kaylie moved closer until their legs and hips were touching as her fingers continued to tease Twyla’s nipple. “I’m very accomplished in the arts of distraction.”

Twyla began to breathe harder, putting her arm around Kaylie. “I see that, maybe pinch just a little harder?”

“Let’s just get this out of the way,” Kaylie murmured in her ear, loosening the cloth around Twyla’s breasts.

~~~

“It’s heartening to see our guests so enthusiastically taking part,” Gruni said to Khivu. “Do you think that you’ll have to order my mate to join us?”

Khivu turned to where Donag had settled, back to the wall and facing the door.

“There are a dozen warriors outside of that door,” Khivu called. “Come and join us. Here, tonight, your matriarch requests that you remember our old friendship more than the recent changes.”

Donag thought for a moment. “Can I pretend to forget?”

“Come to me and you can pretend whatever you like,” Khivu said, running her hands down her sides.

Donag came to join them but the woebegone look on his face made Gruni laugh. “This is hardly torture, oh-so-serious one!”

“No, bathing with you two is never torture,” he agreed, disrobing. “But you know that I vowed to protect her.”

“The closer you are, the more potent your care becomes,” Khivu said. “Anyway, we were children when you swore me that.”

“The Law has no age, it was a true vow and…” Donag’s sonorous voice was cut off as Khivu kissed him, wiggling onto his lap. Four of her legs wrapped around him, pulling them tightly together.

After kissing Donag, Khivu turned to Gruni and pulled her close. “I’ve been thinking of you both all day,” the matriarch said.

~~~

Anniak guided Bemere down to one of the many piles of pillows scattered around the bathing chamber. Bemere, her lust fully reawakened and growing stronger by the moment, bit her lip to keep from screaming out as Anniak ran her sharp fingernails up Bemere’s thigh.

“Your scent is so strong,” the Dark elf murmured in her ear. “You’ve gone too long without relief.” 

“Your teasing is not helping.” Bemere groaned as Anniak’s deft fingers loosened the sash around her waist.

“Apologies,” the Aphostic elf said, the smile on her face giving lie to the sentiment. “This may help.”

Bemere gasped as the other woman’s fingers traced her lower lips, opening them gently. Her stomach clenched repeatedly in minor orgasms as fingers slid inside of her sex. A much stronger orgasm followed as Anniak found the small gland deep inside.

“Your Seed of Life is over-engorged,” Anniak said quietly. “You’ve had far too much stimulation and not enough relief.”

“As I said, a condition that you are not helping,” Bemere panted.

Anniak smiled and sat back, tasting the fingers she’d had inside. “I’m sure you’d agree that an accurate diagnosis must be made before treatment. Yes, I can taste the humor in your wetness.” 

Bemere sat up slightly to see Anniak opening the pego case. She selected one of the longer phalli and looked down at Bemere.

“In all seriousness, emptying it all at once will be…intense,” Anniak said. “Are you ready?”

“My moans and wet cunt haven’t given it away?”

Anniak kissed Bemere’s lips lightly and pressed the head of the pego between Bemere’s lips. The orgasms were stronger this time, her sex finally having something to squeeze. The curve of the pego slid a little deeper and Bemere shuddered as it brushed over her Seed of Life, releasing more of the lust humor into her blood.

“There we are,” Anniak said to herself.

A moment later, there was an agonizing pleasure-pain as the other elf firmly pressed the pego against the gland. Bemere’s body went rigid and she groaned deeply. After several seconds she fell back against the cushions, eyes opening.

“That is a huge relief,” she panted. “You have my thanks….”

Bemere’s eyes went wide as the flood of lustful humors surged into her mind. Anniak smiled down at her.

“Yes, it will take some time for the effects of all that ichor to dissipate.”

Bemere grabbed Anniak’s hand, making her shove the pego deeper. The Dark elf laughed and began fucking her harder. The orgasms washed over Bemere, one after another, pushing her deep into a blissful, erotic haze.

As Bemere finally returned to her mind, she realized that there were several hands stroking her body while two mouths nibbled and teased her from neck to nipples. Between her legs, someone’s tongue. She saw Twyla and Kaylie pressed close on either side and Anniak’s raven-dark hair spread across her thighs.

“Welcome back,” Twyla said quietly.

Kaylie looked up at Bemere, a wicked smile on her face. “That was most impressive.”

Anniak looked up at Bemere, face wet. “You should not have waited so long.”

There were moans and gasps echoing around her as well and Bemere lifted her head to look around. She saw Gwyenth first, held over Gruni’s mouth. The Plaflakhi’s tongue was pressed deep inside the High elf’s sex. Gwyenth eyes were shut and there was a euphoric expression on her face.

Near them was another tangle of limbs. After a moment, Bemere saw Donag, Khivu, and Axit writhing slowly together, all of them moaning and gasping.

Anniak took another pego from the case, a replica of a thick fae-shaped cock, and held it up for Bemere to see.

“This one next, I think.”

Bemere’s eyes closed, her back slowly arching as the heavy mass filled her. They shifted around her, but Bemere barely noticed as the sensation of pego was joined by a new, eager tongue.

~~~

“How is she doing?” Kaylie asked Twyla as the pair sat breast deep in the warm water.

“Mistress Anniak said that her mind has gone to commune with a kyickmur and that she’ll return soon. I’d imagine that the poor dear is exhausted.”

“With good reason,” Kaylie said. “I never thought I’d see anyone cum for three straight hours.”

“Mistress Anniak is going to show me the best way to drain her each evening,” Twyla said. “I’m supposed to insist.”

Kaylie’s hand drifted to Twyla’s thigh, stroking it gently. “With respect, she’s a fool if she makes you insist. May I join the lesson? Maybe I’ll be able to surprise Gwyenth with something new.”

Twyla spread her legs as Kaylie’s fingers slid closer. “I’d like that very much. Are the two of you…I’m not sure the term to use. Married?”

Kaylie grinned. “No, and I hope that I’m never deranged enough to consider it. We keep each other warm as necessary. Boreas is my one true love and partner, but their cycles of arousal are complicated and don’t match others needs as well.”

“You haven’t mentioned him before,” Twyla said. “Is he waiting for you somewhere?”

“It’s been hectic. You know that we ride gryphons?”

The blonde woman stared at her. “Those are real?”

Kaylie laughed. “I’ll take you up and introduce you in a bit. They’re likely out hunting.”

“And you….”

Kaylie nodded. “Oh yes. Would you like to hear about it?”

Twyla nodded, starting to breathe harder as Kaylie’s fingers found their mark.

The four them took a much needed break from the revelry of the burrow and withdrew to the little camp perched on the high terrace. Twyla and Kaylie had fallen asleep as soon as they’d laid down. Bemere and Gwyenth packed their pipes and smoked quietly, leaning against Ouranos’ warm flank as they talked.

“Back to the Sands then,” Gwyenth said.

“After a short detour back to Grand Locks. Twyla is supposed to return to the Pale College on a canal boat, and I’ll venture over Gateman’s Notch to return to Brynjarl Sands on Khivu’s mission and send a long letter back to my own court.”

“I know that you cannot admit your true task,” Gwyenth said, going slightly cross-eyed as she studied the embers in her pipe. “That being said, Ouranos heard news that Mad Gregor has finally met his fate. He was at one of those barbaric tournament things, carousing and managed to get himself kicked in the head performing some rustic prank. Dead where he fell.”

Bemere raised an eyebrow but Gwyenth shook her head. “It wasn’t us.” 

“Nor us. That is to say, the Selenic court.”

Gwyenth raised her own skeptical eyebrow. “Would you know if it was?”

“Definitely, the Executors employ subtle poisons, difficult to detect. This sounds more like low comedy.”

“Maybe it wasn’t a mortal’s doing then.”

“One of the Divines?” Bemere said doubtfully. “If they decided to act, why didn’t they move sooner? There was no need to allow that fool to raise a single army, let alone three. Now the land goes untended, bringing famine and yet more pointless death. Even the Blood Drinker is not so ruthless.”

Gwyenth immediately made a warding gesture. “Let’s not start questioning actions of the Divines, hmm? No good ever comes of it.”

“I’m sure that my Mother of Trees already knows of my sorrow, as an echo of her own,” Bemere said. “I have spent much time considering the situation, and whatever killed him, the life of the Mad MacGregor is a rebuke for the policies of my court. Had the Selenic Lady reacted even a bit sooner, a simple adjustment of the matter would have spared thousands of lives.”

Gwyenth shook her head, amused. “Not content with questioning the actions of the Divines, now you criticize the Selene herself? Perhaps you’ve had enough clover.”

“I am permitted to have my own thoughts.”

The Golden elf looked at her. “Those were words, not thoughts, my friend. Among most of the Golden, that would be enough. And I think you are correct in that our Green Mother deeply grieves those lives, may She ever take her children along smooth paths and quiet waters.”

“On and ever on,” Bemere replied surprised. Still, her fingers moved almost automatically, casting the Green Mother’s glyph. 

“You look surprised,” Gwyenth said. “Did they tell you that all the Goldens follow Blood-Drinker or Knife-in-the-Darkness?”

“It’s not that bad, but I never considered the Golden as particular lovers of lives beyond their own. I’m happy to be proven wrong.”

“Her worship is not widespread, but She is respected, and I am one of Her faithful. Another strange coincidence in our improbable meeting. I swear that this is the last time I will ask; is your presence here purely accidental?”

Bemere snorted. “I would think that my constant ignorance and mistakes would be enough to put your mind at rest about secret plans.”  

“Daughter, I must correct you,” Twyla said, sitting up. “You both follow My plans.”

Their chuckles died in their throats as she stood and faced them. Bemere’s pipe fell from her nerveless fingers. Twyla’s blue eyes had been replaced by a emerald green orbs that glowed brightly. Ouranos and Boreas woke with startled snorts as they leapt to their feet. Then both gryphons lowered their heads to the stone, soft growls of adoration coming from deep in their throats.

“Hello, my dearest ones,” Twyla said, putting a hand on each of their heads. “As ever, your folk are a pleasure to delight My eyes but I have come to speak to your smaller companions and must not blight my herald’s mind.”

Despite Her words, the gryphons stayed close on either side, keeping their heads under Her hands. Smiling down at them, She went to where Bemere and Gwyenth knelt, faces to the ground.   

“That will not do. Meet Me on your feet, champions.”

Gwyenth and Bemere glanced at each other as they climbed to their feet.

“Each of you has found your way along a torturous path to this moment and I am most pleased. You have seen the monstrous burdens and miseries that are visited upon the Humans. I have watched and waited, hoping that their siblings would show them the way forward, side by side. Instead, I find My elder children heaping misery and death on the youngers. I was patient, but that has come to an end.”

Behind them, there was another startled gasp and then muffled thrashing as Kaylie threw her blankets off and jumped to her feet. Surrounded by the power and emotions of the Green Lady, Bemere felt the bubbling amusement as Kaylie saw them and dropped to her knees.

“Thus comes the beginning of My war, as you are My beloved champions, even through your darkest moments. Journey with My love and regard and we will speak further, in time.” 

 The green light in Twyla’s eyes disappeared as they closed, and she began to collapse. They both grabbed her, joined a moment later by Kaylie. Twyla opened her eyes and blearily squinted at them.

“All three of you? At once?” she muttered. “No, that’s just ridiculous, wait until morning.”

Still giddy from the power that had swirled around them, the elves held back laughter as they half-carried Twyla back to her blankets.

“I’ll stay with her,” Kaylie said. “The Mother of Trees spoke in my dream; she bids me to say two words; Asterlith and Hawthorne.”

Yawning, she laid down next to Twyla, cuddled close and fell into a deep sleep again. The gryphons grumble-chattered at Gwyenth before they stretched out on either side of the humans.  The two elves found a place to sit back down and were silent for time.

“I’ve been trading letters with a small group of trusted friends,” Bemere finally said. “We share views on…forbidden subjects.”

“I wonder at what the Plenilune could possibly consider forbidden,” Gwyenth said. “With that in mind, you must trust your friends deeply.”

“Not so deeply as to reveal our names,” Bemere said.

Gwyenth smiled. “Truly. I’ve always wondered what ‘Asterlith’ was.”

Bemere laughed. “It’s a kind of grass in the Plenilune lands. Very tough and nearly impossible to eradicate.”

“An excellent name. I assume that you’ve encountered Hawthorne trees in your travels.” 

“Of course, a beautiful tree and wonderfully thorny. I don’t think I could ever have guessed that you were High fae, let alone a Cloud Ghost. Your treatise on shadow diplomacy was fascinating.”

Gwyenth stared at the sky long enough that Bemere wondered if she’d invoked a valour, but she eventually looked at Bemere.

“In our own ways, we’ve spent our lives preventing war,” Gwyenth said quietly. “How do we break faith with all those lost friends? Has it all been a waste?”

“I’m reminded of my father saying that the bearer of a message is as important as the message itself. Chali Blood-Drinker did not visit us, it was the Green Lady, Mother of Trees. I doubt there will be the armies like those we remember.”

“A visit from Knife-in-the-Darkness is just as fatal as some archer’s bolt,” Gwyenth warned.

Bemere laughed. “We have another saying; best to not sleep alone.”

Gwyenth rolled her eyes. “Is that the Plenilune answer to everything?”

“It’s a solution that works far more often than you’d think,” Bemere said, pulling her closer.

This ends the first adventure of Bemere and Twyla, champion and herald of the Mother of Trees


1 thought on “The Goddess War”

  1. JUST, WOW!!!!!!!!
    I am speechless after reading this new story. What an amazing world you have created. I have no abilities to write and am in awe of your work.
    Thank you for your obvious efforts and sharing with me.

    Liked by 1 person

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