“Crossing Swords” – The Order: Book 8

“Crossing Swords” – The Order: Book 8

Chapter 1

Home Again

As soon as the ship was moored at the pier in the Royal City of Anyueel and the gangplank put in place, King Folrin disembarked without any ceremony but with considerable and visible anger lending a certain energy to his steps and more than a touch of darkness to his mien.

Queen Del’na’bened, now clad in more regal clothes than her travel attire of only an hour ago, followed him hurriedly.

Vern, Junar, little Téa and Temina watched in surprise as the Royal couple walked towards the waiting coach without sparing their surroundings so much as a glance.

“Folrin, she did not mean to,” they overheard the Queen, attempting to placate her companion.

It had no discernible effect on him. His lips pinched into a thin line, he merely stepped aside to let his companion board the vehicle first. Then he beamed Eryn, who was just setting foot on the pier, a last devastating look before – without waiting for the coachman to do so – determinedly shutting the door behind him and letting himself be taken away from her and to his palace.

Eryn exhaled and held on to Vedric’s hand to make sure he couldn’t rush towards the group waiting for them. He wasn’t allowed to run when there was danger of slipping or stumbling and landing himself in the river, but that was something he tended to forget every time he beheld people he was so eager to greet.

Enric and Orrin followed behind her. Orrin’s entire bearing changed with every step he made to reduce the distance between him and the family he hadn’t seen in months. Yet he didn’t fail to be the role model everyone expected him to be and therefore refrained from running towards them as he would have preferred. No, he merely walked briskly, demonstrating to the two children nearby that running on a pier was not to be done, while keeping his eyes on Junar and the girl at her side.

Eryn felt that she could breathe a little easier now that the King had gone and she was spared his antics for now. He had been almost impossible to be around this last day. How could a man who was supposed to be leading an entire country at times be quite that squeamish?

She watched as Orrin finally reached the waiting group, pulling Junar towards him to envelop her in a stormy embrace. Her own arms closed around his neck, pressing him close while burying her face at his throat. They had only a few seconds of enjoying their reunion without interruption, before the girl next to them tugged at her father’s shirt, feeling left out. Orrin swooped her up with one arm, and the embrace continued in a threesome.

Vern smiled at the scene, then turned to watch as Eryn, Enric and Vedric walked towards them.

“Welcome back, you,” he greeted them, then with a slightly resigned expression nodded his head towards the ship’s hull. “Would you care to elaborate why there is a gaping hole in the hull of that ship? That wouldn’t have anything to do with why the King is quite that peeved, would it?”

Eryn turned to look in the direction he indicated, taking in the massive gap covered by the faint blue shimmering of a magical shield. It afforded a direct view into the ship’s hold. Not an everyday sight. Which was also the reason why more and more passers-by stopped to goggle.

Temina grinned and nodded at her aunt. “That was you, wasn’t it? The Queen said something like that, I believe.”

Vedric’s face turned into a grimace of pretend horror, but the gleam in his eyes betrayed him. “It was terrible! I was sleeping, and then there was this really, really loud boom! And then there was water everywhere! Everything was wet and cold and everyone was screaming and running around!”

Eryn grimaced. “There might have been a tiny mishap.” That was not at all how she had imagined her welcome here. Justifying her latest act of destruction.

Vern snorted and looked back at the damage. “Tiny? That hole is easily as tall as me! I’m not sure whether to be glad that I wasn’t on the ship to fear for my life or to regret that I missed what was no doubt an unparalleled spectacle.” Finally, he stepped towards her. “But first let me greet you properly.” Hugging her, he continued, “No matter what you did, I’m glad to have you back.”

Temina was in the meantime greeting her uncle. Her eyes took in his face, her brow furrowed in confusion. “Enric. You look… different,” she ended her sentence somewhat helplessly, not really able to put a finger on the change.

Vern let go of Eryn and gave Enric a once-over. “You lost a little weight. And the lines around your eyes and on your forehead are slightly deeper than I remember,” he analysed with the quickness of a trained healer. “What’s happened to you?” He nodded towards the ship. “I assume this was caused by more than what she calls her tiny mishap?”

Eryn sighed. So Enric’s abduction in Pirinkar had not yet spread widely enough to become common knowledge in Anyueel. But that was only a matter of time – too many people in Takhan knew of it, and there were numerous formal and informal contacts among citizens of both countries, which meant it wouldn’t remain a secret for long.

“Let’s talk about that later, shall we?” she suggested, just as Orrin disengaged from his companion and his daughter. His expression was softer, as though the reunion with his family had lifted a great burden from him.

Eryn smiled at Junar and was about to step towards her to hug her, when the other woman’s words made her freeze in mid-step.

“You return again – with the ship in pieces, the King angry and three countries at war,” the seamstress threw at her without any warning whatsoever, her voice trembling with… something. “I suppose I should be grateful that at least my companion is back in one piece.”

“Junar, that’s not fair,” Enric replied calmly. He resisted the impulse to put an arm around Eryn’s shoulders and make it look as though Eryn needed him to defend her. Well, at least more than his words already made it appear. “But this is hardly the time to discuss whatever causes you so much grief. We have only just arrived and would very much like to return home, unpack and get some rest.”

“It’s not fair to say such a thing to my mother!” Vedric sprung in, but fell silent upon his father’s warning look. It seemed as though this was another one of these situations where it was only alright if a grown-up said it, but not him.

Orrin also looked as though he wanted to say something, but he thought the better of it. He didn’t have it in him to reprimand his companion for her harsh and hardly justified words after only just reuniting with her.

“I think we will also return home,” the warrior announced and took Junar and Téa by one hand each.

The little family walked towards a waiting coach and was gone little later.

“What’s her problem?” Temina asked, incredulous, pointing with her thumb over her shoulder to where Junar had been walking only a few moments ago. “I mean, you just got off the ship! And it’s not your fault that Orrin was stuck in Takhan! I thought she was supposed to be your friend!”

Vern raked a hand through his hair and took it upon him to answer. “The time without father was hard for her. She missed him a lot. And she was afraid for his life, particularly after she heard about the attack at Malriel’s home. And that Téa became more difficult to handle didn’t help either. Her behaviour improved a lot after father started the training with her, and when he was no longer there to set her boundaries and spend time with her, she reverted to several of her earlier, less amiable manners.”

Eryn sighed as understanding dawned on her. “And she blames me for it all. Because it was my mother who requested for Orrin to be sent to protect my son.”

Vern looked pained, torn between protecting his father’s companion and acknowledging how irrational her attack on Eryn had been.

“She might. To a certain degree. Although she knows that you are not really the one to blame – you never asked to be sent to Pirinkar, and looking at how things turned out, it was a good thing father was there to protect Vedric. She wasn’t really thinking when she said that. It’s just all the frustration needing to get out somehow.” He cleared his throat and pointed back towards the mangled ship, eager to change the topic. “I’d really like to know how that happened. Why did you blow a hole into the side of the ship?”

“Actually, it was Enric who did it,” she replied wearily. “But I kind of triggered it. Why don’t you two come along and have a drink with us?”

*  *  *

Enric exhaled and enjoyed the act of closing the door to his home, locking out the outside world, just admitting inside his private space the people he actually wanted there. For now, there were no demands he had to bow to – no orders issued by the King, no summons by Tyront. They were just a regular family returning from a rather exhausting journey. With the King and Queen. On a ship which had almost been blown to pieces. Well, maybe they were not quite such a regular family, after all.

Vern and Temina entered right behind them, both of them releasing a contented sigh as if they, too, had just returned home after a few months.

Enric exchanged an amused look with his companion.

Vedric fumbled with his laces, then kicked the shoes from his feet, dropping his cloak where he stood, before dashing towards the stairs and up to his room.

His mother shook her head, while his father picked up the mess the boy had left behind.

Unbidden, yet confident enough that this here was something like a third home to him – in addition to his own place and his father’s – Vern dropped on a sofa, patting the place next to him for Temina.

Eryn noted with interest how the girl walked over and followed the invitation without the slightest hesitation. Those two young people were comfortable around each other – a lot more than only a few months ago – and she wondered what the nature of their relationship might be. Friends? Lovers? Something in-between? That was the disadvantage of having to leave for such extended time periods – one missed so much of what was going on, but which was not spectacular enough to be mentioned in any message. It was a little as though she had to become re-acquainted with the people in her life.

Which was certainly more than appropriate when she thought back to her short but quaking encounter with Junar.

“What would you like to drink?” Enric asked while stepping towards the drinks cabinet, seamlessly re-assuming the role of generous host.

Vern asked for a glass of wine, as did Temina, though with a slightly exaggerated nonchalance which suggested she was waiting to see whether her request would be granted.

Enric pursed his lips. “Does your grandmother know you are drinking alcohol?”

His niece sighed, her shoulder slumping slightly. “No.”

Eryn felt his amusement through the mind bond. Even though there was no trace of it on his face.

“I see,” he nodded. “And would she approve of it?”

“That you even have to ask shows very clearly that she was not the one to raise you when you became old enough to start drinking alcohol,” Temina growled.

Enric pretended to think for a moment. “I suppose I can grant you some leniency on account of your honesty.”

“Where is Plia, by the way?” Eryn asked, while Enric was pouring four glasses of red wine. “She usually welcomes us at the pier.”

“At work,” Vern replied. “Where else would she be? I think she is teaching the new apothecaries today.”

“Still as assiduous as ever, then. How about yourself? Now that you are back to healing, I hope you haven’t discovered that cleaning horse stables and floors is more to your liking than your old profession.”

The young man snorted and accepted the glass Enric handed him. “Certainly not! Though Lord Poron didn’t make things easy for me upon returning. I got more than my share of the less popular shifts. But I’m not complaining,” he added hurriedly.

They lifted their glasses.

“To family,” Enric said and lifted his.

The other three smiled and repeated his words.

“So,” Vern began after his first sip, “you promised to reveal the secret behind the smashed up ship.”

“Smashed up,” Eryn repeated derisively and waved him off. “That’s but a dent.”

“I was able to look inside!” Temina cried out. “That ship is ruined! What happened? You weren’t attacked or anything, were you?”

Eryn rubbed her forehead and took a seat on one of the chairs. “No, not really. It was an accident.” She exhaled as she wondered where to start her narrative. “You know that we were sent to Pirinkar.”

Both of them nodded.

“Enric and I were… separated for a time. This led to the discovery that it seems to be possible to transfer magic through our mind bond,” she continued, carefully omitting what she really didn’t want to talk about right now. “Though neither of us can tell how exactly this works. So, when we were on the ship without anything to do but to stare at the waves for three days…”

Vern’s brow rose. “You thought you could just as well use the time for some experimentation? Even though the King and Queen were on board?”

“Well, yes. I didn’t really expect quite such a dramatic outcome,” she defended her ill-fated decision.

The young man looked at Enric. “And there was nothing you had to say about that?”

“I wasn’t consulted,” he replied with a tense sideways glance at his companion.

“What does the hole in the ship mean, then?” their niece enquired. “Did it work or not?”

“Let’s say we learned something new, though not quite as much as we were hoping to,” Eryn tried to phrase it in neutral terms.

“Come on now, how did this happen? This is like pulling teeth!” Vern complained, showing first signs of impatience.

“It was late at night,” Eryn began, “and apart from the crew I was the only one still awake. I’d spent some time looking out at the sea, thinking. It must have been around midnight when I started pondering whether I could reproduce what had happened up in Pirinkar. On a smaller scale. So I closed my eyes and concentrated. I thought that I would know whether it had worked because Enric would no doubt awake if it did. After several failed attempts my thoughts began to wander to… things which had happened up in Kar. Harrowing things. My guess is that I drifted off a little, and that my thoughts somehow continued on that line of reason, spinning rather unpleasant dreams from my earlier deliberations. I was jolted awake when somebody tripped over my legs, and this unexpected incident in combination with what was going on in my brain while I was dozing must have accomplished what I couldn’t while awake.”

“Meaning you somehow sent magic to Enric?” Vern asked, his expression incredulous. “I wasn’t even aware your mind bond can do that! So it worked?”

“Let’s rather say there was an unmissable effect,” Enric cut in. “To say it worked would be a bit much since it was no conscious effort which can be repeated at will. And let’s not forget that there was a gigantic hole in the ship’s hull. Not exactly my understanding of success.”

“Enric did receive my magic,” Eryn went on, “though he was asleep at that time and therefore not really able to control it. It just… went out of him.” She accompanied that last sentence with a motion of her hands which was supposed to indicate an explosion.

“In the form of a bolt which hit the ship,” he added for completeness’ sake.

Vern flinched as he imagined it. “That must have been quite an awakening. Good thing you merely hit the ship’s hull instead of a person.”

“Vedric was sleeping on the cot opposite mine. But the bolt wouldn’t have harmed him. Much. It was strong enough to break through wood, but would merely have knocked him out. The human body can deal fairly well with magical attacks.”

“I know,” Vern sighed. “A good deal of it disperses across the skin. You do remember that I’m both a magician and a healer, yes?”

Eryn smirked, pleased that for a change someone else than herself called his attention to his tendency to over-explain things.

Temina leaned forward, fascinated. “So there must have been a lot of water coming in, judging from the position of the hole,” she deducted.

“There was,” Enric confirmed, reliving the horrid seconds after waking to what started as a hefty torrent of water into his face a moment after the magic breaking free from him had jolted him out of his dreams. “I needed a moment to realise what was happening, and in that time the water in the cabin was knee-deep, and the hull had started to crack and break up, plank by plank. When I erected the shield, the damage had spread quite a lot. The crew had noticed that something was wrong after the boom of my bolt and the way the ship had begun to list.” He rubbed both hands over his face. “Everybody had started running around and shouting. It was mayhem.”

“So you see – it was a mishap,” Eryn emphasised once again. “It didn’t even happen when I was consciously experimenting with it, but only afterwards. So I don’t see how the King can blame me for it.”

“You don’t?” Vern asked. “Magic doesn’t usually flow to and fro between the two of you when you are asleep, so you must have done something.”

“I don’t know! I have no idea how that happened. I spent the last day aboard the ship thinking about it.” Her expression darkened. “I had a lot of time for that – neither the King nor the crew were particularly eager to talk to me after the incident. The Queen was trying to placate him, but I saw that she, too, was shaken.”

“Incredible,” Vern marvelled, “how you always manage to destroy things in the most spectacular manner. First the Senate Hall, now that ship with the King and Queen aboard…”

“And a mountain fortress hewn into solid rock, while she was at it…” Enric murmured and took a large sip from his glass.

Temina and Vern both looked at him as if to determine whether he was joking.

“That’s nonsense,” the young man finally decided, “no-one can destroy something like that.”

Enric smiled faintly. “Want to bet?”

*  *  *

“You destroyed a mountain fortress,” Vern muttered, even after a day still stunned by what Enric had shown him with the aid of this nifty little trick he had learned in Pirinkar. “You completely reduced it to rubble. How? I mean… how?”

Eryn, walking beside him for the last few steps before they would arrive at the Clinic, shrugged. “It was kind of an afflatus. I just… communicated with the rock underneath me, dived into it with my magic, and it virtually showed me how to do it.”

Vern flashed her a sceptical look as though she had lost her mind completely now. “You talked to the stones? And they talked back?”

She stopped at the front door. “It sounds crazy when you say it like that. I’m not cracked. It was like feeling what was lying underneath me, the different layers on top of each other, the way they stretched and curved around me… What looks so impressive when Enric shows his memories is not an act of force or brute strength. It’s a small nudge with an incredibly powerful impact. I merely sent magic along one of the layers and let it resurface where I needed it – changing the structure of the stone just slightly so it would extend. The rock became malleable and no longer served as a stable underground foundation. And suddenly that monstrosity of a keep was gone in a cloud of grey dust.”

The young man shook his head in wonder. “How do you always discover such things? Nobody but you would think of examining layers of rock to destroy something. Anyone else would just throw a lot of magic in the form of bolts at it.”

“That’s how warriors would do it. And it would have been stupid. Apart from the fact that I was too far away for that anyway, smashing a structure like that made out of solid rock would have taken ages, even for a strong magician. You would have to peel away bit by bit from the outside, split off chunks with every bolt. Even if Enric and Lord Tyront did that together, they would be spent after little more than an hour.”

“And that thing with the mind bond now… You said you were separated in Pirinkar – why? Does it have something to do with this change about Enric?”

Eryn forced herself to cover her discomfort with a smile. There was so much she couldn’t tell him, things she knew she had to ask Tyront whether anyone else was allowed to know about. Such as Enric’s abduction, the fact that they were at war, or even the secret of the Bendan Ederbren’s fighting technique she had stumbled upon.

She had been more than surprised that Enric had not only demonstrated to Vern his new skill of projecting images onto a magical shield, but also shown him how to go about it – without consulting the Order first.

That was unusual for a man who had most of his life kept certain skills to himself to secure an advantage in this swamp of magicians, politicians and spies. It seemed as though her own approach to treating knowledge – as something which grew upon being shared – had begun to rub off on him.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you about any of this yet,” she said, her tone apologetic as she returned to the conversation at hand.

As Eryn was about to push open the door to the Clinic, he stayed her hand and turned his head to check whether anyone was close, before whispering, “There are rumours that we are supposed to be at war. I assume you can’t tell me anything about that, either?”

“I’m afraid I cannot,” she confirmed, but gave him an almost imperceptible nod.

He understood and gulped, his eyes slightly widened. Having this suspicion confirmed clearly perturbed him.

They entered the building, and it was a matter of no more than two minutes until the news of Eryn’s return had spread through the entire Clinic. She was welcomed back, hugged, asked about the goings-on in the west and managed to extract herself only after half an hour.

Work came before pleasure, so she would see Lord Poron before knocking at Plia’s door. Amidst all the other colleagues they’d had hardly more than a few seconds to talk to each other.

She lifted her fist to knock at the study door, but then waited for a few moments to collect herself. This was the day where she would make her withdrawal from healing official. No matter how great the temptation to put off this unpleasant business for another day or two, she knew that this wouldn’t make things easier. She needed to get this behind her, and Lord Poron ought to know of it before any plans to include her in the shifts were made.

Strictly speaking she had already informed the Head of the Clinic in Takhan of it, but since he happened to be her father and the occasion as well as the location had been private, she didn’t really count it. This here would have to be done officially.

The room behind this door was the very one she had occupied several years ago before the Order had decided that someone else than her was to be in charge of her Clinic. They had chosen well enough with Lord Poron, as she would be the first to admit, but there was still a tiny bit of resentment remaining, which insisted that it had not been their choice to make but hers alone. But the Order didn’t do well with individual choices. At least not unless the individual making them was in charge of the entire institution.

When she finally did knock, the door opened almost immediately, and before her stood Lord Poron, looking considerable less elderly than he ought to thanks to rejuvenating healing magic.

“Eryn!” he said warmly, pulling her into an embrace before inviting her to enter. “Do come in. I was hoping you would drop by this morning. Even though I’m aware that you ought to be seeing Tyront first.” He smiled. “But you always try to stall that visit after your return from Takhan.” Once he had closed the door behind her and both were seated, his expression turned serious. “I’m glad you and Enric returned safely from up north. How is he doing? I hear he was abducted and even tortured.”

Eryn wasn’t surprised that he knew about that. With her and Enric gone, Lord Poron was the highest-ranking Order magician after Tyront.

“He is doing well enough and has sought Iklan’s help after our return to Takhan. I saw a considerable improvement after that, but I assume that overcoming such an experience entirely may still take some time.”

Lord Poron smiled faintly. “I’m glad to hear that he consulted Iklan. Ever since I dedicated myself to healing, I have begun to understand that the Order didn’t exactly teach young magicians a healthy attitude when it comes to facing one’s own weaknesses. We teach them to face and overcome them – or if they cannot, to make them disappear by paying no heed to them. The option of accepting help – or worse, even asking for it – was never encouraged since it would mean making yourself vulnerable to someone else. Which contradicts political strategy.”

Eryn sighed deep within but didn’t reply to that. Political strategy. Her least favourite subject, discipline or however else one wanted to categorise it. Wasn’t it marvellous to be back…

“It’s important to have Enric at his full strength now that we have entered into a war,” the Head of Healers proceeded. “The two of you are not only high up in the Order, but also possess important knowledge about the enemy.”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” Eryn grimaced. “I can’t help the feeling that there is a lot more that we don’t know about them.”

The enemy. It was easy for him to use that term for the people north of the Western Territories. To him they were nothing but an anonymous mass without faces. For Eryn, they had not only faces but a culture, their own language, temples, amazing technology and – above all – were individual people with names, professions, needs and wishes. The enemy was not a people; as far as she was concerned, it was a single man.

“The Bendan Ederbren are surely inclined to share their insights with us,” Lord Poron, ever the optimist, replied.

“I have no doubt that they are willing to, yet I wonder how much of an insight they are able to provide considering that they were forced to spend all of their life behind temple walls,” Eryn countered.

“True,” the old man nodded, “yet there is another group which is being questioned, and has been for several days now, as I understand: those who attacked the Bendan Ederbren’s camp. At least the few the desert tribe was able to detain.”

“The Loman Ergen?” Eryn asked, only now remembering the captives.

“We received word from Takhan about them while you were on your way here. They were a group of about fifteen, yet only two of them truly are Loman Ergen. The rest of them are merely soldiers dressed to look the part.” He frowned. “Which surprises me somewhat. Had the entire group consisted of magicians trained in scouting, they would without a doubt have inflicted more damage or even managed to kill all of the Bendan Ederbren. Why would Etor Gart send only two of them along?”

Eryn ground her teeth. “I only met one small group of the Loman Ergen, yet I did not get the impression that any are particularly keen on being made to assassinate fellow magicians – if in fact anyone is. Maybe he couldn’t find enough of them who were willing to go on that grisly mission.”

Lord Poron nodded slowly. “I assume Etor Gart will have to make concessions now that he lost a temple full of warriors. I suppose his means of replacing them are somewhat limited considering that magicians weren’t generally allowed to train combat skills. But let’s talk no more of this. I am certain there will be more than enough opportunity to discuss the war at the Council meetings.” He gave Eryn a sympathetic smile as her face fell at the mention of her least favourite group of people.

“If that isn’t something to look forward to…” she growled.

“Your father wrote to me,” he changed the topic. “He mentioned that you are trying to prove that magical healing has detrimental long-term effects on patients.”

Eryn pressed her index finger and thumb against the bridge of her nose. “My aim is not trying to prove that – I want to find out whether the proposition is true or not. I’d be happy with either result; I merely want to be certain that healers aren’t accidentally mistreating their patients. He isn’t particularly happy about my determination to do research on this question. I basically forced him to tolerate it by calling upon the Triarchy.”

The healer shook his head. “I suppose nobody could ever accuse you of unduly favouring your family. You are failing to consider his point of view, Eryn. He is worried about diminishing his healers’ reputation, of devaluing the work they are doing.”

“I know. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find out the truth.”

“It certainly doesn’t,” he agreed. “Yet it might warrant a less… unforgiving approach. I assume you intend to have a look at patient files to determine recurring illnesses as a first step?”

She nodded.

“If you think that the few years of recording we have done so far might aid you in your endeavour, you may of course make use of our files for that purpose. They do not go back as many years as those in Takhan, as you know, but it might be a start.”

Eryn smiled at him, the feeling of her affection for him blooming inside her chest. He had never let her down, and she was grateful and relieved that he wasn’t now.

“Thank you so much. I think that’s an excellent place to start.”

“It’s good to have you back,” he told her. “And also Vern, though I’m still trying to impress on him that we might have forgiven his lapse, though certainly not forgotten it.”

She gulped. This was what she had been dreading – telling him that he hadn’t really got her back. At least not the way he expected.

“I think Vern understood that well enough. At least that’s the impression I got when he told me about the shift rotation. Listen, there is something further I need to tell you.”

Lord Poron raised his brow when she hesitated. “You know you can tell me anything.”

She exhaled and forced herself to utter the words. “I will no longer be working as a healer.”

Her conversation partner’s brow furrowed. “Pardon?”

“I have decided that I can no longer pursue this line of work. It is connected to what happened in Pirinkar. I… I did something I swore never to do again.”

The other magician regarded her for a time, then nodded slowly. “I will of course respect your decision, no matter how much I regret it. Will you tell me what induced you to give up healing? I want to try and understand.”

Eryn tussled with herself for a moment, then finally nodded. Somehow telling him was so much easier than disclosing this particular fact to her family. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her father to stand by her despite her despicable deed – her breaking of the oath she had given. He would. The problem was rather what it might cost him. What she had done went against everything he stood for; it violated everything he had upheld for decades.

Lord Poron was equally dedicated to the field of healing, even though he had not worked in it for quite that long. But he had also been trained by the Order, having been prepared to go to war at an early age. He knew that sometimes there was no way around reverting to certain disagreeable and at times unethical measures.

Valrad knew that, too, but only on a non-violent basis in connection with political issues or tough decisions a Head of House needed to make.

 She took a deep breath. “When Enric was taken, I used my magic and my healing knowledge to torture a man whom I suspected knew about his whereabouts. It was…” She closed her eyes. “…easier than it should have been.”

“I see,” Lord Poron said softly, not the slightest hint of judgement in his voice. “Well, I’m sure another path lies awaiting for you, my dear Eryn. And considering your position in the Order and your regular journeys to Takhan, having you here as nothing more than a humble healer has been a great luxury anyway. Still, you will be greatly missed. You are not only the first healer we ever had here, but also the founder of this Clinic.”

She was infinitely grateful that he didn’t make any attempts to change her mind, but merely accepted both her decision and what she had done to that priest as an unpleasant but probably unavoidable – or at least excusable – thing.

“Malriel asked me to take over House Aren,” the words tumbled out of her, unbidden. It was as though she wanted to assure him that there would be a task waiting for her if she so wished, that he needn’t worry that she would be lost and without a purpose in life.

Now he looked worried. “And you accepted? Are you intending to leave us for good?”

“I haven’t decided yet. It is a big decision and I don’t want to rush it.”

Lord Poron let go of his breath and closed his eyes for a moment. “I suppose I should have expected that. Yet it was so much easier to rely on your tense relationship with Malriel and presume that it would not allow you two to take a step towards each other – at least not to a degree where she might entrust you with her House and you would actually consider it. Does Tyront know about it yet?”

She shrugged. “With Tyront it’s always hard to tell what he knows. If he doesn’t know, he might suspect. I think the King does. At least since he heard that I haven’t annulled Vedric’s adoption into House Aren for the time being.”

“Your son is in House Aren?” Then he tapped against his temple with one index finger. “Ah. A precaution when you went to Pirinkar to ensure for him the protection of House Aren. A shrewd move. And not reversing it is a rather tell-tale signal. I would agree that Tyront will guess the relevance behind that. I recommend that you officially inform him of the offer. And soon. It is a sign of respect and goodwill. And it won’t be news for him, anyway, merely a confirmation of a suspicion he has been harbouring.”

Eryn nodded hesitantly. She wasn’t particularly keen on telling Tyront about it since she could imagine his point of view on the entire issue. And how he would react to hearing her put in words what he had suspected anyway. If she was lucky, there would merely be forced politeness.

Yet Lord Poron was right – talking to Tyront about it all would at least convey the illusion of forthrightness.

A sharp knock sounded on the door which connected Lord Poron’s study with his Head of Administration’s, and a moment later it opened without awaiting permission.

There was a hardly perceptible sniff when Loft’s gaze landed on Eryn.

“Ah yes, the commotion indicated that you must have returned,” he muttered. “The disruption of all order and discipline usually is a sure indicator of your arrival.”

Eryn beamed him a cool look. “And the atmosphere being cleared of any joy in a matter of moments is an indicator of yours,” she retorted.

“I assume I am to rewrite the duty roster for the next month now that you graced us with your presence,” Loft grumbled. “Any new requirements this time? I do so enjoy working around your arbitrary priorities.”

“Too kind,” she deadpanned. “But that will not be necessary. I will not disrupt your carefully planned roster. Never again.”

That had him blink. Twice. “Does this mean you will no longer be working here as a healer?”

“Well deduced. Now go and play with your papers so the adults can talk, alright?”

Loft was actually perplexed enough to obey that less than polite order, on his face a wondrous smile as he closed the door.

“Isn’t that nice?” she said tiredly. “At least someone is happy about it.”

*  *  *

“Why exactly is there a gaping hole in the ship that brought you here from Takhan?” was the first issue Tyront wanted to know, once Enric had taken a seat in his study.

“I suppose they just don’t build them as well as they used to,” Enric’s mouth uttered, before his brain could rein it in. He cleared his throat as Tyront’s gaze darkened. “What did your informants say happened? I refuse to believe that there isn’t at least one report about that somewhere in that monstrosity of a desk of yours.”

That was not much better as replies to already slightly annoyed superiors went, he thought belatedly. Damn – Eryn’s insolence really was rubbing off on him. He considered whether he should give it another try, but decided against it. Self-confident disrespect was still better than being clumsy and attempting to make it right again. At least in the Order. Accepting punishment with one’s head held high was considered something like virtue, yet trying to avoid it was generally met with impassive disdain. The Order was all for punishing people for their mistakes and not so much for realising them in time. Learning from mistakes was important, so dodging punishment by avoiding them at the last moment was as though one was unwilling to improve oneself.

Tyront braced his elbows on his massive desk and steepled his fingertips in the way that was so typical for him. And continued staring at Enric.

“Shall we try this again, Enric?” Underneath a layer of benevolent indulgence, there was also a certain… coolness in Tyront’s voice now.

“It was a…” Mishap was the first word which came to his mind, but Eryn’s favourite belittling term for what could easily have sunk the entire ship including the Kingdom’s ruling couple would not amuse Tyront in the least. “…an accident,” he finished.

“A few more details would be appreciated,” Tyront replied flatly when nothing more came.

His superior was impatient, Enric noted. That had to mean that the reports he had received so far had been anything but to his satisfaction.

“I’m not certain myself how that happened. Eryn says she engaged in some experimenting with the mind bond.” Did Tyront even know of the particulars of how Enric had very likely escaped his incarceration? That Eryn must somehow have managed to send the magic she had lost control over to him through the mind bond – and thereby reducing the golden band around his neck to a black, half-melted chunk of metal? Enric himself had not given any particulars in his messages, yet the Triarchy or the King might.

“How would that blow a hole the size of a horse cart into your ship?”

Very well, that question showed that he was not aware of the details. Which meant that some explaining had to be done first. Explaining which required that he talked about what had happened to him during his captivity. Preferably in a manner which wouldn’t show Tyront how hard this still was for him. He needed to sound casual, but not to a degree that would indicate to Tyront that he was trying to hide something. He would try to keep things short, only mention the bare minimum required for explaining the incident on the ship.

Enric took a sip from the cup in front of him and mentally prepared himself. “I wrote in my report that I was locked up in some sort of cell within a mountain fortress for about two weeks. With a golden band around my neck to deprive me of my magic. It works the same way our golden manacles or the belts in the Western Territories do.”

Tyront sighed. “Thank you; I made that rather obvious connection.”

For a brief moment, Enric wondered whether his companion was right – did he really have a tendency to over-explain things?

Pushing aside that thought, he continued, “I managed to escape one day because the collar fell off when I sat up on my bed after waking. At that time I thought it was another of the delusions I was being tormented with, so I wasn’t aware that I was walking out of my actual prison for real.”

“I was wondering about that part,” Tyront frowned. “Why would your restraint fall off just like that? Did you ever find an explanation for it?”

“There is a theory Eryn and I favour. Eryn had a breakdown in the city, at the Temple of the Bendan Ederbren. She was overcome by her emotions, her fear and anguish, not able to hold them in.”

“She lost control?” The Order’s leader looked worried. “In the middle of a densely populated area?”

“Yes. She passed out, and when she awoke noticed that no damage was visible around her. We later found out that this breakdown must have occurred at the time when my collar fell off. So we suspect that…”

“You suspect that the power released by her loss of control was somehow transferred to you through the mind bond and freed you from the golden neckband,” Tyront completed the sentence, leaning back and looking up at the ceiling with narrowed eyes.


“And then she started playing around with that power on the ship and accidentally blew a hole into it,” he concluded.

“More or less, but not quite. I was the one to release the bolt in my sleep,” Enric corrected him. “Though at that time she had already given up her attempts. She had fallen asleep on deck, and when a crew member stumbled over her outstretched legs, he startled her awake and obviously triggered some unconscious transfer of magic to me – which I couldn’t hold in since I was asleep.” He shrugged. “Though I have no idea whether being awake would have enabled me to control it any better, to be honest.”

“Another one of your little discoveries,” Tyront grumbled, “and another dangerous one, too. One which you need to learn to conquer so you don’t pose a danger to everyone around you. The question is whether this breakdown of hers only triggered this ability to share your magic with each other somehow, or if it would have been possible all along. If the first option is true, then she might have…” He took a few seconds to look for the right word. “She might have activated something inside you which can be triggered unconsciously. Or she was sending her magic to you all along, and only startling her caused her to accidentally do it with a higher intensity than before.”

Enric hid a smile at the change in his old friend. Within minutes he had morphed from strict superior to curious researcher.

Tyront turned serious. “This is a rather dangerous thing, as you must be aware. It means there is no restraining either of you without also binding the other in gold. And it means you might break free from the hold of a stronger magician if you manage to work out how to consciously use that connection to your advantage.”

“That has crossed my mind, yes,” he replied calmly, refraining from asking who was the one doing the over-explaining and stating of the obvious now.

“You also mentioned in your report another ability. Three, actually. Impressive ones, too, if I am to believe your words. There is tricking the memory block, which I assume we need a third person for. But for now you may show me the one with the memories. Golir wrote that you demonstrated it to the Senate by remembering how Eryn destroyed that fortress.”

Enric nodded and once again conjured up the images as he remembered them. Tyront watched, unable to hide his fascination both with the skill and the pictures themselves.

A few minutes later he shook his head and folded his arms. “Incredible. How much effort is it to acquire that skill?”

“It’s fairly simple, actually. Eryn learned it in no more than a few minutes, as did I.”

“Then it will be your pleasure to teach me once we are done talking.”

Enric nodded. “Certainly. I could teach you right away, if you like.”

“There is something else I wish to hear about first. That other skill you wrote to me about. The one used in non-magical combat. Though we might have to redefine that term since there is magic involved, just not in the form of bolts being hurled. The Bendan Ederbren taught you that, from what I understood.”

Pride made Enric smile, when he shook his head. “They didn’t need to. Eryn discovered it on her own. Accidentally, just as is usual when it comes to combat skills.”

Tyront shook his head. “That woman is driving me insane. I don’t know which irks me more – that she keeps stumbling upon these things despite not showing any interest whatsoever in the discipline, or that she can’t be bothered to put that talent to proper use.”

Enric didn’t reply to that. He knew that his companion had a very different idea of what the proper use of her talents was. Certainly not what Tyront meant by that term.

“I could demonstrate it to you in the arena, if you like,” he offered casually.

“Thank you, no,” Tyront growled. “I remember the day I wished to test my mastery of the double shield she devised – only to find out rather painfully that she had in the meantime made another lucky discovery – how to overcome it. I know better than to let myself in for another public demonstration. No, you’ll show me here.”

Enric looked around in the study, which was spacious, yet certainly not extensive enough to not suffer any damage if two strong magicians tested their skills in combat.

“Are you sure?” he asked, his voice full of doubt. “You might have to have some repairs done in here afterwards.”

Tyront got up from his chair. “Then let’s go to the parlour. If we accidentally smashed that monstrous red vase in the corner next to the entrance door which Vyril recently bought, I wouldn’t mind that in the least. I would even go so far as to grant you a favour if you took on the sole blame for it.”

“I feel I am being used,” Enric mumbled in pretended indignation, glad that since his arrival the mood had lightened enough for jokes.

“That’s alright – I can live with it, and you’ll get over it. Eventually.”

*  *  *

Plia all but dropped her – fortunately not breakable – tools as Eryn walked into her laboratory. A moment later the two women hugged.

“I am with child!” the younger woman beamed once they had moved apart again.

Eryn smiled. It was not exactly unexpected news, since Plia had her protection removed shortly before her commitment, but news it still was.

“I’m so happy for you. How far along are you?”

“It’s my fourth month, and I have never felt better!”

Eryn remembered her own pregnancy. It had been… alright. Slight stomach problems at the beginning and a craving for sweet, baked articles, but nothing too uncomfortable. Junar had not been quite as lucky. But Plia was positively radiating energy and life. Something which might also be attributable to her age. At twenty-one years of age she was quite a few years younger than Junar and Eryn herself had been.

She pushed aside the thought of Junar and the unpleasant welcome, not willing to let it taint her reunion with Plia.

“So no morning sickness or anything of that kind?”

“Nothing whatsoever – just an increased sensitivity for odours, but that’s actually helpful in my line of work,” the young woman laughed.

“How is Rhys dealing with the prospect of becoming a father soon?”

“He is switching between phases of frenzied activity to prepare everything and others where he worries whether he will be able to live up to the challenge. He is currently building a cradle since his own was given to his older brother for his children. I think he’s started the job all over again three times by now, always dissatisfied. He speaks of passing it on to his grandchildren one day.” She shook her head in wonder. “We haven’t even seen our child yet, and he is already speaking of grandchildren!”

Eryn thought back to how she herself had regularly checked on her unborn son with magic, looking inside her belly to make sure everything was fine. And what a pity it was that non-magicians didn’t have that opportunity.

Then a thought occurred to her.

“May I have a look inside?” she asked, nodding towards Plia’s belly.

“Sure, go ahead.”

Eryn placed a hand on the already slightly bulging abdomen under the baggy clothes and closed her eyes before releasing a weak surge of exploratory magic. She immediately found the foetus, once again marvelling how far a human being was already developed after only a few weeks. The body and limbs had already taken shape, only the proportions would still be changing. Even the facial features were already discernible. And the baby’s sex, of course.

“Do you already know what it is?” she asked, her eyes still closed.

“Yes. They said it’s a boy.”

Eryn nodded and opened her eyes again, her hand still on Plia’s belly. “Would you like to see him?”

“What? How? Yes!”

“Alright. I can’t promise anything, though. When I look inside you, it’s the magic in combination with the brain doing the seeing, not my eyes. So I’m not entirely certain whether I can remember and then reproduce this in a way that your eyes can recognise anything. Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work. This is an experiment.”

The magician created a barrier in the air before them, concentrating on visualising the information which was conveyed to her brain without the detour through the eyes. First, there were faint black and red blotches, then those images began to take on forms.

Plia gasped as details filled in, forming before her eyes a more or less exact picture of her child. She covered her mouth with one hand, while the other moved upwards with the need to touch, her fingers hovering in front of the tiny face, causing a slight discharge of the weak magical barrier.

“This is incredible! He already looks like a real person, with hands and legs and everything! He has my nose,” she breathed, her eyes wide and her voice awestruck. Without taking her eyes off the image, she added, “I had no idea you can do such a thing!”

Eryn shrugged. “Neither did I. As I said – it was an experiment. The projection of pictures is something I learned in Pirinkar, but I didn’t know that it is possible to actually use it to make visible what is going on inside the body…” Her voice trailed off as she thought of how this could be utilised in training new healers – particularly non-magicians, who had no way of just looking inside a body the way their magician colleagues were able to.

“Could you teach that to the other healers?” Plia asked. “Imagine how great it would be for parents to have a look at their unborn children!”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, provided Lord Poron agrees. But I don’t see why he wouldn’t.”

There were tears shimmering in the younger woman’s eyes as she kept marvelling at the image floating in front of her. “He is beautiful. I can hardly believe that he is growing inside me. Thank you – thank you so much! This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen!”

Eryn, always slightly awkward around gratitude, particularly when it was so intense and had required so little effort to earn, just acknowledged the words with a nod and kept the image afloat so Plia could delight in it a little longer.

A sudden sadness took possession of Eryn as she thought about the impending war and that this little boy and all the other children born to either of the conflict parties would somehow be affected by it. They might lose a family member to it or grow up in a country ransacked by what would commonly be referred to as the enemy. People would get killed, and those lucky enough to survive would very likely be traumatised by the events or be suffering from dwelling in a post-war environment where food was scarce and bitterness reigned.

She would do her best in somehow helping to avoid this outcome. Though she was aware that people in Anyueel and the Western Territories would rather be focused on protecting their side only, while Eryn was determined to stand up for them all – including those who were being manipulated, used and sacrificed to cement the claim to power of a single ambitious man who didn’t even shy from incarcerating his only brother.

She let herself breath more freely again, pushing these gloomy thoughts aside, not willing to let them poison this private moment of carefree engagement with Plia, who looked so charming as she was standing there, one hand resting on her belly, the other still lifted towards the likeness of her son. She was determined to remember this and show it to Vern so he could draw it one day, maybe as a gift to her son when he was older. That way he could see with his own eyes how much joy he was giving his mother, the love he was inspiring in her even before he was born.

A knock at the door interrupted them, and Eryn removed her hand from her friend’s tummy and went to see who it was.

Onil stood in front of the door, his eyes widened, his face pale. Eryn gulped. If bad news had a face, it was this very one. She slipped out the door and motioned for Onil to follow her into an empty teaching room.

“What happened?” she demanded, her voice sounding harsher than she had intended.

“Something terrible. An accident. A building caved in and buried him under an avalanche of bricks… there was nothing we were able to do but to excavate his body… I’m so sorry. He was a good man.” The last sentence was but a whisper.

Eryn’s stomach turned into a solid block of ice from one moment to the next. Enric. No…

Her knees gave in and she had to brace herself on one of the many desks, her movements sluggish as though the air had suddenly thickened into water and was slowing everything down. This couldn’t possibly be true – they hadn’t gone through all that only for him to die in such a way. Her breathing became heavy and her vision began to blur.

“I… I can’t tell her,” Onil all but sobbed. “Please, I know it’s not fair of me to ask this of you after you just came back here, but… could you do it? Please?”

Eryn’s head spun. What?

Remainders of her drowning mind insisted that this didn’t make any sense.

“Tell who?” she somehow managed to ask, though more out of a lifelong habit of clearing up whatever was unintelligible than out of real interest. The world and everything in it had stopped mattering.

Exasperated, Onil stared at her, as though this entire situation weren’t dire enough already without her lack of understanding making it even more exhausting.

“Plia! You need to tell her that Rhys is dead!” he pronounced overly clearly as if he were fearing that she had lost her mind. “Do you even understand what I am telling you? Plia’s companion has died!”

Eryn began shaking under the forceful wave of relief washing over her as she realised that it wasn’t Enric who had simply ceased to exist from one moment to the next, but someone else.

Then her mind caught up, and she closed her eyes as tears began running down her cheeks. Tears of heartfelt sorrow for her young friend and her unborn son who had just lost a companion and a father. And tears of relief about the fact that Enric was alive. Painful tears which felt treacherous and selfish, and yet they wouldn’t stop coming.

Chapter 2

First Preparations

The memory of Plia, passing out and lying on the floor after hearing of her beloved’s fate, haunted Eryn while she sat at the table, behind her the unpleasantly hard backrest of a chair, which had never been intended for comfort.

Eryn had made sure that the young woman hadn’t obtained any injuries from falling to the floor and that her unborn baby was alright, then she had lifted her up and carried her to Lord Poron’s study, where they had prepared a make-shift bed for her to rest on.

Onil had then taken her to the room where they had laid out the remains of Rhys’ battered body. Eryn had seen her share of grizzly injuries and also empty human shells in the many years of her work as healer, yet this one threatened to turn her stomach.

It was not that the sight was particularly disturbing on account of things hanging out which ought to be inside or a pose or a frozen facial expression which indicated how much he must have suffered in his moment of death. It was the contrast of having known him as a vital, healthy young man who had been so very much in love and who had only so recently set the course for what should have been bliss and happiness for decades. And now he was reduced to this… chunk of lifeless flesh deprived of all that had made him who he was.

She was glad that his eyes were closed, no matter whether he had died that way or whether someone had shown the presence of mind to push his lids closed after digging him out. Being forced to look at dead eyes staring up at the ceiling would have been too much for that day.

“Would it be too bold to ask for your undivided attention considering that we are discussing something as severe as an impending war, Lady Eryn?” a slightly miffed voice took her back to where her body if not her mind was stuck. Lord Woldarn.

Eryn straightened slightly, wondering whether it had been her empty gaze which had given her away or some failure to respond to someone’s enquiry.

“A close friend of Lady Eryn’s lost her companion only yesterday, so I would suggest we may exercise leniency for a little temporary inattention at this point,” came some unexpected support from Lord Seagon. Wasn’t it nice that people kept themselves informed about the goings on in her life…

She was glad that not Enric had been the one to defend her. It would have looked as though she needed protection from her companion. Having Lord Seagon, a known critic of basically every move of hers, do it, made it less personal and more unemotional. It was now rather a point of view dictated by common decency than the wish to protect a beloved person. Which made her look less like a delicate flower in need of protection and more like a person entitled to having her needs respected at his very moment.

She gave him a brief nod of thanks, then cleared her throat.

“Since you don’t seem to be able to do without my attention for even a minute, Lord Woldarn, I am very interested in hearing what you think that only I can contribute at this very moment,” she addressed him calmly with only a hint of impatience discernible.

How was it possible, that this man was Onil’s father? One of her best healers was truly from the same family as this man. Well, maybe at times it really was a blessing that most rich people delegated the upbringing of their offspring to servants. At least this way there was a chance for the children to acquire some common sense from worthier role models.

Lord Woldarn struggled for a moment. Which meant she hadn’t failed to respond to an enquiry. He merely wanted to expose her. Good to know. She would treat him with an equal lack of kindness should an occasion present itself.

He cleared his throat, obviously having come up with some kind of pretence. “I have no doubt that all of us would be very interested in a demonstration of the new skills you mentioned having obtained only recently.”

Dead silence followed that. As if nobody at the round table was feeling any particular desire to be included in all of us at this precise moment.

Eryn made her weary sigh a little more audible than she would have otherwise. “My Lord,” she began, her voice as patronising as she was able to make it sound, “Firstly, I should think that the strategic considerations in connection with the situation in the Western Territories and Pirinkar about which you were just informed certainly take precedence over your personal curiosity. And secondly, since a higher-ranking Order magician is present, who is in possession of the exact same skills and information as I, it would be disrespectful of me to simply start showing off my skills during a Council meeting without being instructed by my superiors. I am somewhat surprised if not to say bewildered by your lack of adherence to Order principles, Lord Woldarn.”

The man’s gaze had turned from smug to hostile, but he wisely decided to keep quiet for the time being.

Eryn felt a trace of Enric’s amusement through the mind bond, though his face didn’t display even the slightest hint of it.

“If the two of you are done exchanging pleasantries,” Tyront cut in, “I would suggest we proceed with the most recent developments as reported to me directly from Takhan only this morning.” He consulted his notes. “By now, all known mountain passes have been made impassable by our magicians – apart from the main one, of course. This one will remain the only open route to Pirinkar and is being fortified as we speak. At the same time the mountains are being searched for hitherto undiscovered routes which allow entering the Western Territories. Malriel of House Aren maintains good connections with the mountain tribes up north and has asked them to aid in this endeavour since their knowledge of the area is invaluable. A remarkable accomplishment as I am given to understand, since the mountain tribes are even more reluctant to interact with Takhan than the desert nomads.” He cleared his throat. “There is something else. A captive from the Loman Ergen, a woman who was part of the attacking party to kill off the Bendan Ederbren, revealed some truly disturbing news of a geographical nature. News which require action from our side, and quickly. Pirinkar has always kept its maps a secret from outsiders, and after talking to the Bendan Ederbren, we know that priests were also not educated as to where the borders of their country run. The Loman Ergen, however, have been roaming their country for many generations and therefore gained detailed knowledge of it.”

Eryn suppressed a sigh, wishing he would finally get to the point and not focus so much on where the information came from.

“It turns out that Pirinkar’s dimensions far exceed those of the Kingdom and therefore also the Western Territories’. The country stretches so far as to cover the entire width of the Western Territories, the sea separating them from us – and continues beyond the mountains which form the northern border of our own country. This means we are sharing a border with a country which we are now at war with.”

He let the news sink in, waiting for the Council members’ reactions.

Orrin was the first to put his thoughts into words. “Do they know that?”

“For caution’s sake I would recommend we operate under that assumption,” Tyront replied.

The warrior pinched the bridge of his nose, visibly anything but thrilled with the news. “That means we will have to once again test whether the northern mountains are as impenetrable as we always assumed. Chances are that Etor Gart is at this very moment trying to find out just that. He must be aware that we are what stands between him and a reasonable likelihood of victory.”

“Chances are that the reason why the mountains can’t be crossed is the barrier at sea continuing through them,” Eryn pondered, deep inside her grateful that there was a problem serious enough to force her thoughts away from Rhys for now. “Which would mean that it might at certain spots be as frayed as it is in the sea, permitting individuals to slip through even if they don’t know how to use their magic to overcome it.”

“How do you suggest we test this, then?” Lord Remdel addressed Orrin. “Throwing magic at sheer rock, blasting it away to see what’s behind? If it were quite that easy, our forebears would have done it long ago. Even if we succeeded, we would risk opening up an entry for the enemy – creating one where there was none before,” he pointed out. “And even if we decided in favour of this – do you have any idea how many magicians and how much time it would take to blast through an entire mountain?”

Enric pursed lips as a thought occurred to him. Maybe he would fulfil Lord Woldarn’s wish for a demonstration of newly acquired skills sooner than planned.

He cleared his throat to indicate his intention to speak, noting with satisfaction how everyone fell silent and looked at him. “That might actually be less of an issue than you expect. Lady Eryn has a certain way with rocks.”

“What is that supposed to mean – she has a way with rocks? Do they move out of her way when she approaches, eager to be spared the insolence she is known for near and far?” Lord Woldarn threw in with a sneer.

Eryn’s eyes narrowed, and when it became quiet once again and several of the Council members – Tyront and Enric included – were giving her expectant looks, she knew she had to act and set him boundaries.

Slowly, she pushed back her chair to stand up, making sure the chair legs produced a clearly audible scraping on the smooth stone floor. She wasn’t even sure what to do now. Lift him by his collar and shake some sense into him, aiming to scare him with her superior magical powers? Grab him by the neck, take control of his muscles and force him to dance like a puppet on a string to rob him of his dignity? Deal him a straightforward punch in the face to call to his mind that this still was an institution where strength was the key to power and that she was stronger than him by far?

Neither of these options would do for her, she realised. They were little more than physical means to release her frustration by subduing him with her power. But what she had to accomplish instead, she knew, was to tame him with her position, her rank.

“Lord Woldarn,” she uttered calmly, bracing both her palms on the smooth surface of the extensive table before her, “your insults have progressed enough to reach far beyond the respectful, objective criticism towards a superior we value in these halls. I have arrived at the end of my leniency. For each of the next three days, before sunrise, you will report to the man in charge of the Order’s stables and lend him a helping hand for three hours apiece.”

“You can’t do that!” Lord Woldarn fumed, jumping up from his chair, then looked at Tyront. “She can’t do that!”

The Order’s leader leaned back. “I rather think she can. You are subordinated to Lady Eryn, and if she perceives your behaviour towards her as an insult she is entitled – no, even duty-bound – to act accordingly in order to maintain discipline among our ranks. Particularly since we are about to enter into a war and need to depend on every single Order magician to adhere to the existing chain of command. However, it is within your rights to file an official complaint and have the disciplinary sanction you are being subjected to evaluated for its suitability.”

“Then I am herewith doing that!”

Tyront shook his head. “The complaint must be given in writing in order to be effective, Lord Woldarn. There still are certain procedures in place. This particular one aims to make sure that everything is properly documented.”

“Then you will receive my written complaint shortly after the conclusion of this meeting!” Lord Woldarn promised hotly.

“Good. I shall get back to you within a week.”

“But… by then the sentence will already have been fulfilled and can no longer be objected to! I will certainly not shovel horse manure for three days!”

“Lord Woldarn,” Tyront sighed, his voice all benevolent patience, “you are aware that we are in the middle of discussing war, are you not? Even though this may at this precise point in time not be convenient to you, it takes precedence over the disciplinary measures you have been subjected to.” He motioned for the indignant Lord and Eryn to sit down again, then looked at Enric. “You were about to make a suggestion about how to go about inspecting the northern mountains, unless I am mistaken. Please proceed.”

Enric nodded. “There is something I wish to show you. Lady Eryn has found a way to manipulate rock from within to achieve with a mere nudge of magic more than several hours of heavy attacks from outside would have managed. I imagine that this very technique may serve us well if we truly are to explore the hitherto impenetrable mountains. Allow me to show you something.”

Eryn closed her eyes. Not again the crumbling fortress. It seemed as though he was using every opportunity to create for her a reputation as the destroyer of mountains. Who would have thought that she would ever arrive at a point where people would shrug off the crumbling Senate Hall roof in Takhan as a mere triviality in comparison to her other acts of demolition? Well, maybe it would overwhelm Lord Woldarn with its potency, causing him to stay out of her hair from now on. That thought made her smile and she leaned back to observe the Council’s reaction to Enric’s little showing.

*  *  *

Enric knocked at his mother’s entrance door, Eryn behind him rubbing her upper arms in an unconscious attempt to comfort herself. He wished he could do something for her, alleviate her pain somehow, but there was very little he could do – apart from artificially dulling her feelings with magic. Which was not a healthy thing to do, since it meant suppressing what instead needed to be dealt with.

Enric knew he wasn’t good with pain. Not with his own and not with other people’s. He could deal well enough with frustration, fear, anger and other powerful emotions. They could to a certain degree be met with reason, be looked at from another perspective and therefore be robbed of some of their power. Pain, however, was a different challenge entirely. One couldn’t simply decide to count to ten while doing some deep breathing. Pain meant that something on the inside was damaged, something only time could heal. There were things one could do to help a grieving person such as providing a safe environment and emotional support, but the ultimate healing had to be accomplished by the suffering person.

He felt Eryn’s anguish through their bond. She hadn’t been particularly close to Rhys. To Enric’s knowledge, she had valued the young man’s expertise in woodwork and even more than that how happy he had made Plia. It was mainly for Plia’s sake she was feeling grief.

Eryn had told him how she had heard of Rhys’ demise, how she had for several excruciating moments believed Enric was the one dead. He remembered what he had received through the bond at that time. It had been heart-wrenching – the more since he’d had not the slightest inkling about the cause.

The door in front of him opened, and his niece stepped aside to let them enter.

“Grandmother is upstairs with Plia,” she informed them.

“How is Plia doing?” Enric asked, not really certain what kind of answer he was actually expecting. She had to be devastated. Yet what else was one to ask in a situation like this?

“As good as can be expected under the circumstances,” Temina sighed. “She hasn’t left the room grandmother prepared for her. And every time I go in to bring her food I know she won’t touch anyway, I see her either crying or staring at the ceiling with a strangely vacant gaze. The first time I thought she might also have expired and shook her…” She grimaced, obviously not particularly proud of how that had gone.

They looked down as a large and lithe dark brown mountain cat trotted towards them from the parlour, its tail high up in the air as a sign of elation.

Enric crouched and greeted Urban by scratching her cheeks and rubbing her belly as she flopped down in front of him.

“She must have heard my voice,” he deducted, glad for the pleasant interruption of this sombre conversation.

Eryn took Temina by one shoulder. “You say she isn’t eating? Nothing at all?”

“Effectively nothing. She forces down a few bites to just get grandmother off her back, but that’s it. Vern was here. He told her he’d make her eat and drink if she didn’t take proper care of her baby.” She grimaced. “That was the first time I saw cute, proper little Plia really lose it. She began throwing things after him, screaming at him that this was what he had wanted all along. Rhys’ death, I mean. But he just stood there, raised a shield and let the things she hurled at him bounce off it. He was perfect. When she calmed down again, he explained to her that he could easily take control of her muscles and make her eat and drink if it became necessary to sustain her body and the child’s, but that he would very much prefer not having to do it. She screamed some more after that, but then she ate – at least as long as he was watching. He promised to drop by every day to ensure she eats.”

Eryn nodded, glad that after all that had happened between them, Vern still cared enough for her to look after Plia. Many people would have rejoiced in a stroke of fate dealt to someone who had rejected them. Particularly, when this rejection had come together with a suspension from his profession for half a year as a consequence of trying to win her over.

But not Vern. He would never let his own injured pride and broken heart – or whatever had in actual fact been broken, since he hadn’t really been ready to commit to Plia anyway – stand in the way of doing what was right. And at this moment, the right thing was to take care of Plia, no matter whether she valued that care or not.

Gerit had, without consulting her former housemate, arranged for Plia’s things to be taken from her and Rhys’ quarters back to her house. Eryn’s impression had been that Plia hadn’t even been connected with the outside world enough to realise what was going on. Therefore there had been no objection on her part; she had merely let everyone do with her as they pleased as long as she’d had a quiet place to weep freely.

Enric straightened again after petting the mountain cat and nodded towards the staircase. “Can we go upstairs or is it a bad time?”

Temina shrugged. “I’d say it’s a time as bad as any. But she isn’t currently taking a bath or anything, if you are worried about that.”

“Maybe I should go in there without you,” Eryn suggested. “It might hurt her even more if she sees the two of us together.”

Enric would have loved to accept this proposal, since it offered him a way out of having to face a weeping woman without any idea how to alleviate her pain. He was usually good at facing problems, yet not when he knew from the start that there was no solution; that the issue would at one point resolve itself, but not through anything he could do, but simply owing to the passage of time. He hated being helpless, and watching another person suffer was the worst form of it he knew.

“No, I think there is little sense in that,” he forced himself to say what reason dictated. “We can’t protect her from the fact that there are still couples around. At least not without isolating her and confining her to the house. And we shouldn’t give in to the temptation to treat her like a victim if we want her to gather strength.”

When Eryn smiled at him and pressed a kiss into his palm, he knew that she had just wanted to offer him an easy way out without losing face. And that she was proud that he had decided against taking it, even though she would have accepted it if he had.

They walked up the quietly creaking stairs and turned towards the room Plia had inhabited before her commitment.

*  *  *

Eryn took a deep, calming breath before knocking at Plia’s door. She was at the same time eager to see Plia and make sure she was as alright as the circumstances permitted, and also dreaded what she knew would at best be heart wrenching to behold.

When there was no reply or invitation from inside for several seconds, she pushed down the door handle and entered, Enric only a step behind her.

Their eyes needed a few seconds to adapt to the dim light conditions in the room. The curtains were drawn closely, so that the tiny amount of sunlight managing to filter through the sturdy fabric cast the comfortably furnished room into a slightly purplish glow.

The room didn’t look as if anyone lived in it. Plia had returned to it only recently, but obviously not found the energy or the will to make it her own again. An empty chest with an open lid standing against one wall suggested that Gerit had taken care of the young woman’s clothes and moved them into the nearby closet.

Eryn’s eyes wandered to the immobile figure on the bed along one wall. Plia’s head was resting on a pillow, while her arms hugged another one tightly as if she were trying to hang on to the illusion that she still had someone in her life to cling to when in need of comfort.

There were no sounds, her breathing too quiet to produce any. After Eryn’s vision had adapted, she observed her friend for a few moments. The young woman’s chest was not rising evenly and deeply enough to suggest she was asleep. So Plia had either not noticed that anyone had entered, or she simply didn’t care.

“Plia?” she tried softly, and stepped closer to take a seat on the edge of the bed, gently laying her hand on the arm that clutched the cushion. From the corner of her eye she saw how Enric quietly took a seat on a comfortable chair nearby.

She felt how the body under her hand tensed slightly at the touch and noticed how the young woman pressed her face into the cushion, her eyes squeezed shut in an attempt to keep the harsh world and the cruel blows it dealt outside.

At a loss for words in the face of such desolation, Eryn feverishly tried to think of something suitable, meaningful or comforting to say. What would she in Plia’s place want to hear? Would she even want anyone to talk to her? Were Plia’s wishes even to be given priority for now? Wasn’t it more important what she needed? But whose place was it to determine what the young woman needed right now? If Plia wanted solitude, was it permissible to impose company on her?

Memories of how she herself had been pregnant returned to her. At that time she was devastated after she had learnt that Valrad was her natural father. Enric had decided that she needed to face her anger, worry and desperation instead of retreating and keeping away from everyone, and she had hated it. No matter whether her companion was right at that particular point in time or not, she still had found it unbearable that he had taken that decision away from her and tried to impose on her what he thought was necessary instead of respecting that she needed to come to terms with the new circumstances.

Looking back, her own troubles had not been nearly as grave as Plia’s were right now, no matter how dire they had seemed to Eryn back then. While she had questioned everything in her life, even her own identity, Plia must be feeling as though her own existence had suddenly lost all that made it meaningful. The one person to whom she had meant the world, and who had been the most important human being in hers, was gone – without warning, in the passage of one moment to the next.

She cast a helpless look at Enric, who watched from his chair. He got up from his seat and came closer. Awkwardly, he took a seat at the lower end of the bed, not sure what to do with his hands. Finally, he rested one of them on the shape of Plia’s foot which was outlined under the blanket, squeezing it lightly.

“How is the baby doing?” he asked, looking as though he didn’t really count on receiving a reply.

A few quiet seconds passed, then Plia turned her head enough to look at the tall man touching her foot. Her gaze was empty, as was her voice as she replied, “The baby is good. Will you next ask me how I am doing?” A certain bitterness accompanied her last few words.

Enric shook his head. “I don’t need to. I can see that you are miserable. I don’t think putting words to it would help you.” For a moment he looked uncertain. “Or would it?”

To Eryn’s immense surprise, Plia sat up and crawled over to where Enric was sitting. Tears had started to run down her cheeks as she slung her arms around Enric’s midriff and leaned her cheek against his chest, her shoulders shaking silently.

Enric was just as staggered, but recovered quickly and began rubbing her back, not minding the dampness that began to grow on his dark shirt.

Eryn sat there, somewhat lost and feeling superfluous. She tried not to mind that her friend preferred the contact with Enric right now. She had just lost a man and sought – consciously or unconsciously – the warmth and comfort of male arms.

Enric had no trouble consoling the damsel in distress, Eryn couldn’t help but notice. She wondered whether this was a role he secretly would have enjoyed playing more frequently but was deprived of the pleasure on account of having a companion who wasn’t exactly the kind to weep and seek solace in anyone’s arms. Pushing the thought aside, she forced herself to concentrate on the person whose grief had led them here.

She was glad Plia allowed herself to be held, even though the man she was clinging to was a rather unlikely candidate for this kind of thing. At least in this country. Lord Enric, strong shoulder to women mired in woe…

Eryn leaned back against the bed’s headboard, watching how Plia’s sobs at first grew more and more violent before they began abating bit by bit after a while. Several minutes later, she became more quiet, her shoulders no longer heaving every two seconds, but only occasionally. At one point the tears came silently from behind closed eyelids, and Enric felt her body growing heavier and less rigid as she dozed off.

She studied Enric’s face. The expression matched the feeling of sadness she received through the mind bond. Absentmindedly, his hand caressed the young woman’s back. Feeling his companion’s gaze, he looked at her as if to ask, What now?

Eryn shrugged, not knowing either. Plia appeared to be in a state of borrowed peace while enjoying the comfort of Enric’s physical closeness. After the constant pain she had been in since receiving the message of her companion’s death, she and the baby could surely use the break.

She rose and stepped closer, leaning down to his ear as she whispered, “Would you mind staying with her for a bit?”

He sighed. “No. Just open the curtains a little and bring me something to read, will you?”

A wave of affection for him washed through her, and she kissed the top of his head before turning around to do what he’d asked. She would bring him a book and then sit with Temina for a while.

*  *  *

Enric took a seat in Tyront’s study once Eryn had claimed a chair. A message from the Order’s leader had awaited him and Eryn at home when they had returned from their visit to Plia at his mother’s home.

He would have preferred to spend the evening with his family instead of responding to his superior’s summons, but there wasn’t much of a choice. They had sent for Temina, asking her to mind Vedric for an hour or two as long as his parents were at the Palace. His niece had been more than happy to accommodate them and had also brought the mountain cat along. They hadn’t yet discussed how to proceed with regard to Urban, whether she was to stay with Temina or return to them. That was something they would talk about once things had quieted down a little. They also had to consider the option that Eryn might decide to relocate to Takhan permanently as Head of House Aren, meaning the cat would either come along and suffer under the constant heat or stay behind with Temina.

Eryn’s face also showed clearly how little she valued the evening appointment with Tyront. Enric was certain that the war would lead to an increased frequency of meetings with the King, the Magic Council and Tyront, but he hadn’t mentioned that so far. She would find out soon enough.

Tyront took a seat behind his monstrous desk – a sure sign that Order business was about to follow.

Eryn stifled a yawn and waited patiently for what was important enough to drag them here in the evening.

Their superior cleared his throat and looked at Eryn. “I have been thinking about Enric’s demonstration of displaying memories with the aid of a shield. An immensely interesting skill. Yet what was even more intriguing than his means of sharing his thoughts, was the incident he selected for his demonstration.”

Enric began to understand. Of course. They all had watched Eryn destroying a mighty rock fortress without so much as shooting a bolt or moving a finger. Considering that they were on the verge of aiding their allies in a war, this was a skill the Order’s magicians – first and foremost their warriors – ought to possess.

Eryn had obviously arrived at the same conclusion. She smiled faintly. “I assume I am to show you how to make big bad enemy fortifications crumble?”

“That’s not quite how I would have phrased it, but in essence I think we can agree that this is the skill I would ask you to teach your colleagues in the Order.” Tyront watched her, waiting for her answer.

She shrugged, obviously not exactly surprised by his request, demand or whatever this constituted. Probably a demand disguised as a polite enquiry. “Of course. Though you are aware that we need to leave the city for this and get some distance away from it. I don’t necessarily need mountains – any terrain far enough from settlements will do. I can teach the basic principle on a smaller scale. It’s done in no more than a few minutes. The travelling will take longer. I recommend at least a three hour ride. That way any mishaps should not lead to buildings caving in here in the city.”

“Yes, for that we would be immensely grateful,” Tyront replied, his tone a touch brittle. Nevertheless, his expression showed that he was satisfied with Eryn’s immediate willingness to pass on her latest discovery. His gaze shifted to Enric.

“Have you learned how to do it yet or will you be among the party?”

“I haven’t so far, no. On our journey back from Pirinkar we were eager to remain inconspicuous, which included not collapsing any landscapes on the way.”

Tyront nodded. “Good. Then your presence and mine on this trip shall serve to demonstrate to the others how important we consider acquisition of this skill. I will send word to our outposts so they can send along a few people. With a three-hour ride in either direction and no more than an hour of instruction, a day should be more than enough time for this.”

“Will the Magic Council be accompanying us?” Eryn asked, aiming for casualness. And failing to hide her dread at the thought of being stuck with them for an entire day.

“Not all of them. There will be Orrin, Enric and I, and then I would suggest another two so that at least half of the Council possesses the skill. Orrin can then take care of teaching it to others.”

Enric saw his companion’s relief at the fact that she would have to deal with no more than two tiresome Council members if one didn’t want to count Tyront. He switched his look back to his superior when he was addressed.

“How about this whole unpleasant business up in Pirinkar, Enric? Have you been able to deal with it to a degree where it does not keep you from reassuming your duties in the Order?”

“Of course,” Enric replied without missing a beat.

Tyront’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Under different circumstances I would be less adamant about pointing out that we cannot afford a distracted Second in Command of the Order. But with things being as they are, I need to make sure that I can count on you to keep a clear head in a war.”

“I will,” Enric assured him once again.

Tyront’s gaze found Eryn as though he was trying to read in her face whether her companion was speaking the truth. But she merely returned his look with one of polite interest.

After a few seconds he nodded. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Yet Enric couldn’t shake off the feeling that his superior still harboured certain doubts.

*  *  *

Satisfied, Enric watched as a few of his colleagues projected their thoughts onto shimmering shields while on horseback. He had used the idle time on their way to the training location, where Eryn taught them about manipulating layers of rock, to instruct those group members who were willing to acquire the skill on how to go about using images to share memories, ideas or whatever else their brains came up with.

They had spent the entire day in the hills south of the capital city, or rather half of it, and the rest of the time on horseback travelling there and back.

Eryn had been surprised at how long it had taken the magicians to grasp and successfully apply what she herself had worked out within mere seconds when, back in Pirinkar, she had simply been following her instincts. Four hours was required before every single one of the thirty-seven magicians accompanying her and Enric had finally mastered the skill of manipulating the ground to a degree where they would be able to cause considerable damage if they so wished. Not a particularly focused kind of damage, however – at least not from all of them. A select few had grasped the principle of detecting veins within the layers of stone underneath their feet and using low doses of magic to carefully manipulate them. Surprisingly enough, Lord Seagon was among them. As was Enric. Which was less of a surprise.

After an early evening meal at a tavern, whose owner had looked slightly panicked after beholding so large a party which he was expected to seat in addition to his regular customers, they had continued on their way about half an hour ago. Night was already closing in, on the horizon the last remainders of daylight fading with every passing minute. Another hour would bring them within sight of the city.

All in all, the mood among the travelling group was relaxed and amiable. Enric knew that many of them hadn’t had the chance to leave the city for many years – or had simply seen no use in doing so. He was willing to bet that a few of them had last been outside city bounds when they were still in training and instructed to search the woods for edible plants. Therefore, this was somewhat of an adventure for several of his colleagues.

“I am not sure I agree with your having such vast powers of destruction at your disposal,” Lord Woldarn, riding beside Eryn, grumbled. Enric wondered whether the man had intentionally steered his horse next to her to pick a fight. “You were prone to collapsing buildings even before you were able to inflict even more damage with considerably less effort using this technique here. This kind of power requires a degree of control far above the one you have been displaying these last years.”

Eryn turned her head, sending him a cool look. “One building. And not even an entire one, but merely a roof. Which I had repaired afterwards. And you may consider the fact that no building has yet collapsed on top of you proof of my continuous and considerable self-control, my Lord.”

“Are you threatening me, Lady Eryn?” he huffed indignantly, his voice rising in volume as he tried to attract an audience.

Enric sighed, deciding not to intervene for now. If he reprimanded his subordinate for his disrespectful behaviour, the man would just seek another opportunity without Enric present to provoke Eryn. She needed to set him boundaries, just as she had done before at the Council Hall. And she had to do it on her own without having her valiant companion hurry to her side to protect her.

“Certainly not, Lord Woldarn!” Eryn exclaimed with mock consternation at such an outrageous insinuation. “Were I threatening you, then you wouldn’t be in any doubt about it. Though I shall be more considerate of your delicate constitution knowing how easily you feel unbalanced.”

Enric saw how some of the magicians around them rolled their eyes at yet another verbal bout between those two, while others found it enjoyable and sniggered quietly. The first group were mostly Council members who experienced it regularly during their meetings, the latter magicians who either held a certain regard for Eryn or disliked Lord Woldarn.

“This impertinence of yours towards high-ranking Council members so much more advanced in age than yourself is inconceivable! I was already serving in the Council before you were even born! Nearly forty years of experience, only to be treated like…”

Eryn interrupted him sharply. “Forty years of Council experience? Hardly! You have merely hung on to the same outdated notions since then, disguising them as adherence to tradition while in truth it was nothing more than fear of change and lack of foresight. You certainly don’t have forty years of experience, you merely repeated the first year over and over again without managing to broaden your horizon or understanding.” It had become completely silent around them as the magicians were listening intently. She let a small, condescending smile form on her lips as she continued, “And my setting you boundaries, Lord Woldarn, can hardly be termed impertinence. Since I am your superior and you are bound to follow my orders, you ought to consider it benevolent guidance. We don’t want you to end like Aldon, do we?” she concluded sweetly.

The mention of the disgraced former Lord and Council member silenced Lord Woldarn. The man had tried to hold on to his ideas of tradition and force everyone else to do so as well by attempting to incriminate young magicians who had stood up to fight for changes. Lord Woldarn’s son had been among them.

Eryn was glad that he had decided to shut up for now. She didn’t relish public altercations – at least not in her role as a leader – and hated it whenever she was made to participate in one. She couldn’t afford to lose on account of forfeiting the credibility her rank depended on. So if all else failed, she had to resort to less amiable methods to keep the upper hand. At least in case of the kind of attacks Lord Woldarn liked to launch. They didn’t aim at making her understand a specific problem or trying to make her see a point; there were nothing but a power game because the man had after all these years not yet managed to accept being led by a person much younger than himself – and by a woman, of all people.

She understood that he found it hard to come to terms with his situation, particularly with everything the Order had so adamantly impressed on its members over the last few centuries. Yet other Council members as old as or even older than Lord Woldarn had also managed to deal with the more recent developments. Lord Poron had lost his rank as third in command to a woman who was young enough to be his granddaughter. Yet in contrast to Lord Woldarn, he had not reacted with resentment and dug his heels every step of the way. He had welcomed what was to the Kingdom a rapidly paced progress and even embraced the new discipline of healing by not only letting himself be trained in it, but also assuming responsibility over it as its Head.

Lord Woldarn, by comparison, had proven to be utterly resilient to anything which refuted what he had been taught was proper and right, no matter that many of those things had turned out to be obsolete and in desperate need of improvement. Even Lord Seagon, quite a traditionalist and not exactly a great friend of Eryn’s, had managed to adapt to a certain degree.

Eryn knew that sending Lord Woldarn off to stable duty had not made things easier. His attempt to once again subdue her in public was more than ample proof of the fact that he was unwilling or unable to consider her his superior. He was certainly not someone to accept boundaries easily. Which didn’t mean she could afford to stop setting them, just because he might never learn. That would aid his purposes since it would harm her own reputation.

If she accepted her mother’s offer, she would no longer have to struggle with this stubborn old coot. Exhaling, she forced her thoughts away from what felt like such an easy way out. Leading House Aren, becoming a Senator in Takhan and living in a country which was led by her mother held its own dangers and disadvantages. Of that she was certain.

Enric steered his horse close enough to hers so that he could murmur, “Takhan with House Aren and the Senate must seem like the lesser evil right now. Apart from the fact that they are about to be attacked,” he conceded.

The fact that her companion had guessed her thoughts so accurately made her smile. “Yes, apart from that minor inconvenience.”

The war, she thought. One they would expect she participate in, wielding her sword and magic with the intent to kill. That was something to either come to terms with or refuse once the time came. And as if this weren’t enough to keep her busy, the accursed Lord Woldarn kept picking fights with her. If he wasn’t very careful, his dignity would be the first casualty in this war.

Chapter 3

An Example

Plia’s hand shook slightly as she stirred the herbal powder into the cup with hot water on the kitchen table at the Clinic.

Eryn was torn, not entirely sure what to make of the young woman’s decision to return to work after only three weeks since her beloved’s unexpected demise. On the one hand, work was without a doubt a welcome diversion from her sorrow, something she could bury herself in, a chance to take a break from being devastated without anything to keep her mind busy. Yet on the other hand she was supposed to mix herbs together to produce medicine. Some of the substances she worked with were potent enough to send a patient to an early grave or at least sharpen the illness or pain considerably if there was even the slightest error in measurement.

As much as Eryn would have loved to give her young friend an opportunity to escape her mourning for at least a short while, she still knew that the patients’ wellbeing and safety had to come first. This was something which hadn’t changed just because she had decided to no longer actively pursue the healing profession.

Just as she was about to clear her throat to gain Plia’s attention, Onil entered the kitchen and smiled broadly as he spotted Eryn.

“Hi there! Does your presence here mean that you have changed your mind about abandoning us?” he enquired, his tone playful, yet his request anything but a joke.

She cringed inwardly. Abandoning us, she thought, and forced her lips to stretch into a tense smile. Couldn’t Lord Poron have waited a little longer before spreading that bit of information? “No, I’m afraid I am standing by my decision. I just accompanied Plia. She wishes to resume her work.”

Only then the healer noticed the herbalist standing behind Eryn. His brow drew together in a frown as he took in her pale, almost translucent skin, the eyes underlined by dark bags and the general frail and fragile impression the young woman made. “I know, this is technically none of my business as long as Lord Poron has no objections, but is that wise? Some of the powders we give to the patients leave little to no room for miscalculation. We wouldn’t want to risk accidentally killing someone, would we?”

His words were blunt, yet his tone was gentle and full of regret. He, too, would have loved to welcome her back among friends who could be there for her for at least several hours every day.

Eryn breathed a silent sigh of relief. Onil had just taken a rather unpleasant duty off her shoulders. And seeing that he shared her concerns was for her also a confirmation that this was a real danger to consider and that she was not being overly cautious.

Plia was done stirring her drink and took a careful sip from the still steaming mug before giving him a tired smile. “I know. I won’t be doing anything too involved today. I shall limit myself to caring for the plants in the greenhouse on the roof and harvesting some leaves and blossoms which need to be dried. There is nothing dangerous about that.”

That was not entirely true, Eryn knew. There were a few herbs which certainly should not be touched without protection or tools. The fact that no patient was in imminent danger of being poisoned didn’t mean that nothing bad could happen.

“You will be wearing your gloves, won’t you?” she enquired carefully. “Some of the plants are anything but harmless, you know.”

Plia beamed her a none too friendly look. “Yes, actually I do know – since I am a medical herbalist. And no, I am not thinking of doing anything stupid with the plants in my sorrow,” she accurately guessed in which direction Eryn’s thoughts had been wandering. “I have a baby to take care of and would never hurt him – neither consciously nor through carelessness.”

Eryn nodded awkwardly, partly glad about the assurance and also a tiny bit ashamed.

The young woman nodded to both of them and then left the kitchen, mug in one hand, to walk towards her laboratory.

Once she was out of earshot, Onil sighed and leaned against the table. “I hate to see her like that. What a cruel misfortune to befall so young a person. And in her condition, too. I don’t even want to imagine how she must be feeling right now.”

Eryn just nodded. That sentiment she shared. She remembered that brief moment when she had thought Enric was the one who had died. It had been utter desperation, followed by a strange kind of numbness as though the floor had been ripped from under her feet, leaving her floating in emptiness. Carrying that sensation around with her for days before her mind finally started getting used to the changed reality…

She shivered slightly and rubbed her palms over her forearms.

The healer turned his head to look at her. “Are you certain I can’t persuade you to change your mind about returning to the Clinic? The thought of all this here without you, even though it was only for a few months each time, is strange. Disturbing. Depressing. What induced you to withdraw from healing, anyway? Lord Poron just informed us that there are some personal reasons behind it without giving any particulars. Will you tell me more?”

Eryn smiled sadly and shook her head. “No. To both. I won’t be returning to healing, and I find it more prudent not to give my reasons for the time being. Maybe not ever. Let me assure you, though, that I didn’t make that decision lightly.”

Onil nodded slowly, clearly anything but satisfied with how this conversation was going. “You are not thinking of relocating to Takhan for good once this dreadful business with the war is over, I hope?” he asked suspiciously.

Feverishly she tried to think of something to divert his line of thought. She couldn’t tell him that this was indeed something she was pondering right now, yet she also didn’t want to lie to him.

She looked out the window instead of in his face. “Well, even if I were, there is no saying when the war will be over. If things go really wrong, it could stretch out to years.”

With gladness she saw how Onil nodded, clearly giving this disagreeable scenario some thought – and leaving alone the issue she wanted to avoid.

“That would be unfortunate. But a quick defeat might not be much better when we consider what kind of society Pirinkar would aim to establish in the Western Territories judging from what you told us about them.”

He looked grave and worried, and Eryn felt guilty about putting him in that mood so he would stop trying to uncover her dark secrets.

“Well,” she replied with forced cheerfulness, “this is why the King has agreed to send the Order – so we may avoid either of those gloomy options.”

Both of them looked towards the door as a messenger cleared his throat. Eryn gulped. Palace livery. Either the King or Tyront. Messengers looking for her instead of just leaving whatever letter they brought at home with her servants were a sure sign of a short-notice summons. Which meant she very likely had to follow him to the Palace without delay. At least he didn’t look to be in a hurry that exceeded general eagerness to do his work well; so there didn’t seem to be any emergency at hand.

“His Majesty or Lord Tyront?” she asked flatly, considering not even for a second that in theory the messenger might also have been here for Onil.

“His Majesty, King Folrin asks for the pleasure of seeing you at your earliest convenience,” the man replied with a bow. When he straightened, he gave her an apologetic look. “His Majesty instructed me to explicitly point out to you that this is merely a figure of speech and should not mislead you into thinking that he would be inclined tolerate any delay at all.”

Eryn huffed. “Then why bother with the fancy wording? Why not just tell me to get under way and see him at once?”

The messenger looked appalled. “I can only assume, my Lady, that His Majesty would not consider such mundane wording as befitting his position.”

Onil suppressed a chuckle and winked at her. After the messenger had turned around to lead the way, he mouthed towards Eryn, “Try not to be too mundane, you hear me?”

She grinned and then followed the man, onto whom the grandeur of Palace life had clearly rubbed off, wondering what the King might be in such a hurry to talk about. It would be their first meeting after he had disembarked from the ship in such an ill temper. She only hoped he had got over that incident by now. But then instant summonses generally were unpleasant, no matter if he was harbouring any prior resentment or not.

Resigned to her fate, she continued on her way.

*  *  *

Enric turned his head while walking along Kingsway, following the messenger who had been sent to fetch him, when he heard hasty steps coming after him as though someone was trying to catch up with him. Eryn. He stopped to wait until she had reached him. Just like him, she was also accompanied by a man easily identifiable as a Palace messenger.

A little out of breath, she fell into step with him. “He sent for you, too, then,” she remarked on what was fairly obvious. “Any idea what this might be about?”

“No, not the slightest inkling,” he replied.

The two men in identical liveries gave each other a curt nod and then walked ahead as if Lord Enric and Lady Eryn hadn’t walked this way more often than either of them could count. But an assignment was an assignment. It didn’t really matter that they wouldn’t have even the slightest chance of forcing the magicians to come with them, should they decide that they were not inclined to see their King right now.

They continued on their way without talking since their guides with their stiff demeanour would hear every word.

Only upon reaching the tall double doors to the throne room several minutes later did they bow and disappear to whence they had come from, passing on their delivery to the door guards like parcels, as though they were now someone else’s problem.

The guards opened the doors for them without taking the trouble to announce them. They had surely been instructed to admit nobody but these very two persons the King had desired to see.

Enric’s look first fell on the throne on top of the dais. To his surprise, it was empty. Usually the King preferred to receive them standing in front of his official seat when he summoned them to the throne room. His gaze wandered to the opposite side of the room, towards the windows which almost reached up all the way towards the high ceiling.

This was where he found the monarch. Together with his spouse. They were standing in front of the long stone table King Folrin sometimes had brought there when he had something important to discuss and required more space than his comparatively small study afforded. It was considerably smaller than Enric’s own for some reason. He imagined how the servants were cursing the King or whoever he was meeting while they were hauling this monstrosity of a table in here only to very likely remove it again a little later. He hoped they had some kind of cart at their disposal so they would merely have to lift it on and off instead of hefting it all they way from wherever it was usually stored when not in use.

He felt a faint trace of Eryn’s nervousness through their bond. There had been no interaction, message or other means of contact between her and the King since their arrival at the port more than three weeks ago. Her chin was lifted slightly so as to demonstrate she felt, as far as she was concerned, that there was nothing to apologise for from her side. Yet not high enough to indicate that she considered herself to hold the moral high ground. She very carefully aimed for a neutral expression. One of polite interest and reserve, just as was appropriate for a subject encountering her King upon his behest. No matter that he had stormed off indignantly because of the hole in the ship’s hull when she had seen him last.

A little to one side of her companion stood Queen Del’na’bened, dressed in a garment which appeared almost modest in its simple elegance and lack of elaborate embellishment. Almost. It still was costly, as the trained eye noticed immediately. She didn’t seem entirely satisfied for some reason. There was the hint of a frown above her nose.

The King’s face didn’t betray any emotion whatsoever. Which was in Enric’s experience a sign that something was afoot. Something nasty. Something the Queen was not comfortable with or even was dreading. She was not nearly as good as her companion when it came to holding her facial features in an inexpressive mask. At least not yet. It was probably a skill she would seek to acquire sooner rather than later for her own good.

They came to a standstill a few paces in front of the Royal couple and bowed as one.

“Lord Enric,” King Folrin began, nodding at Enric, then repeating the gesture as he said, “Lady Eryn.” He lifted his left hand to indicate the chairs around that monstrosity of a table next to him. “Do take a seat. There is a rather delicate matter I am forced to address at a time which is highly inopportune for more than one reason. Yet I fear it cannot be helped.”

Enric’s eyes found a bulky leather file lying on the table. It was filled to the limit of its capacity with sheets of paper, held together only by a leather string wrapped around it. There was no label visible on it to enable the casual observer to guess its content. Which was hardly a coincidence.

Next to the file lay a well-used leather-bound tome with a bookmark in it. Property Ordinances Enric read in the embossed letters, which had at one point been golden, upside down.

The King took a seat at the head end of the table, the Queen right next to him on his right side. That left the King’s left side for Eryn and Enric. They, too, pulled out the heavy chairs made of dark wood with curly patterns carved into the straight and uncomfortable backrest.

The King gave them a moment to settle, then indicated with a nod of his head the book on the table. Enric reached out and pulled it towards him, opening it at the page which was marked. His gaze skimmed over the paragraphs of the left page, then continued on the right side, stopping when his eyes locked on one particular paragraph he had always kept mind and waited whether the King would at some point turn it into an issue. It had even become a kind of game for him to see how far he could exceed this particular limitation before someone would be sent to him to address it, how long the King would grant him this little act of disobedience in exchange for his continued usefulness.

That time seemed to have come now.

“I see,” he uttered quietly. Then he looked at the bulging leather file in front of the King. “I assume this is a detailed documentation of all my holdings, land and businesses?”

“It is,” the monarch confirmed calmly.

“Would somebody care to let me in on what exactly is going on here?” came Eryn’s tense voice. “Is there a problem with Enric’s property?”

King Folrin leaned back. “There is a regulation stating that one single man or business cannot hold more than five percent of the Kingdom’s territory as land property. The reason being that a property owner has to a certain degree the right to establish his own rules as long as they do not contradict governing Royal law. Land ownership of five percent and more a is considered a danger to the enforcement of the King’s will and law. Such extensive property, particularly if the land is interconnected, constitutes the risk of comprising what I will call a state within the Kingdom.”

Eryn stared at him and gulped. Then her eyes fell on the file. “I assume Enric has reached the five percent or is about to do so?”

King Folrin’s smile was brittle as he replied, “Seven percent even. And those he has reached already. Seventeen months ago, to be precise.”

This revelation was followed by silence.

Before Enric could speak up, Eryn did. Her voice was tense with barely suppressed anger.

“Seventeen months ago. And you choose this particular point in time – after Enric and I just returned from a harrowing experience up in Pirinkar, and before we are supposed to go to war for you – to bring up a…” For a moment she looked for an adequately belittling term. “…a mere administrative offence? After everything we did, the unpleasant orders of yours we have had to bow to in these past years, no matter at what personal cost?” She wanted to jump up, but Enric quickly reached out for her hand and squeezed it to signal to her that she needed to keep her countenance.

With interest he noticed that Queen Del’na’bened’s head was performing a barely noticeable and probably unconscious nod. That meant she was very likely sharing Eryn’s sentiment. He wanted to file it away as promising, yet since he had no idea how great the Queen’s influence on her companion was, any optimism in this regard might be premature.

“Maintaining the integrity of the state by ensuring that no single individual with delusions of grandeur tries to establish his own government is surely more than a mere matter of administration,” replied King Folrin with a measured look at Eryn.

Enric cleared his throat. No matter how the King justified bringing the matter up, the timing certainly was an interesting one that warranted closer inspection. His property had exceeded the legal maximum for several years now, and he was wiling to bet anything he owned that the King had known of it for at least that long, had kept an eye on him before his holdings had ventured even close to that limitation. Why bring it up now? Eryn was right – this was the most unfitting point in time imaginable to bring it up, and the King himself had said so as well right after greeting them. A thought tried to catch his attention, giving rise to a growing suspicion. This was a city densely populated by agents and purveyors of other clandestine services for the simple reason that the demand was high. It would be absurd to assume that the King was the only person who collected information on Lord Enric’s property and business activities. Though the King’s collection of information was probably rather more extensive than anyone else’s.

“You mentioned you were forced to bring this up, even though the time is not ideal,” Enric mentioned casually.

Eryn next to him exhaled deeply and ground out from between clenched teeth, “Lord Woldarn, that nasty piece of work, am I right?” She didn’t wait for a confirmation, but just went on, “So he came to you and complained? Or did he send you a message, pretending he was nothing but a worried citizen eager to serve the Crown by pointing out that possible danger?”

“You will understand that I can hardly reveal the originator of the message whose existence you correctly guessed,” the King responded, his manner composed. There was, however, a tiny smile indicating that he was pleased that Eryn had put her powers of deduction to work so successfully. Ever the tutor in political strategy…

“So you were watching Enric and keeping track of how much land he bought, deciding not to interfere as long as he continued to be exceptionally useful to you,” Eryn further concluded. “And now such a simple thing as an inconvenient message sent by a man who wants to inflict damage on Enric to get back at me forces your hand.” She snorted derisively. “That would almost be funny if it weren’t so ridiculous.”

For a short moment, a muscle in King Folrin’s jaw tensed slightly. It was gone again in the blink of an eye. “Yes. It does not occur too often, but at times even my plans are thwarted by certain unforeseen events. I am hardly able to protect you for all eternity from the consequences from your own tendency to provoke certain Council members instead of seeking to coexist in a peaceful manner.”

Eryn leaned back and squeezed her lips together. Enric waited to see whether she would fold her arms. It would have completed the picture of sulkiness to perfection.

“Let my assure you, Lady Eryn, that I am no more pleased about this situation than you,” the King continued as she didn’t reply. “Right now you and Lord Enric are pondering whether to relocate to Takhan for good once the war has run its course. At least, provided we arise from it victorious. Approaching you with the matter at hand will serve to let you consider leaving Anyueel an even more desirable option.”

Eryn schooled her face into a neutral expression, secretly delighted when the King looked at her to seek some confirmation of his words in her features. As though he, reader of minds, architect of all that was to come, were not quite certain whether his assumption were true. Or he might hope for some kind of denial from her side, an assurance, that she was not seriously considering any such thing.

Enric decided that this was a good time to re-enter the conversation. Things were starting to get tense between his companion and the King, something which might lead to disagreeable consequences if it was allowed to run its course.

“How do you wish to proceed now, Your Majesty? Follow in the footsteps of your predecessors and either disown or execute me for some confected crime?” he asked, his tone not unfriendly, but still making it obvious that he way anything but happy about this situation.

“My dear Lord Enric,” the King began. In his voice there was a hint of condescension. “You will no doubt be immensely relieved to hear that for now I have no plans to end your life by accusing you of high treason or similar. Neither am I in favour of forcefully taking away what you have over the years amassed with such admirable skill.” A fine smile played around his lips. “As your companion pointed out so passionately, I still expect you to go to war for me. I would very much like to avoid a scenario where you switch sides at a critical point in time.”

Enric just beamed him a cold stare at the insinuation that he would betray both his countries just because the King was being stupid. And waited.

The King sighed when his little joke failed to produce amusement but instead triggered a certain resentment. “Look,” he resumed, “you know as well as I do that I cannot ignore what has been pointed out to me over official channels. That the land in your possession has exceeded the permitted area by almost half is a fact which can easily be proved by anyone able and willing to pay agents. We are not talking about false accusations here. Ignoring it would demonstrate a blatant favouritism towards you, which would in the long run be detrimental to myself. The only option I see to bring this to an amiable conclusion is for us to negotiate terms under which you will give up ownership of the land you are not supposed to own without compromising your loyalty towards the Crown.”

Eryn pursed her lips and pointed at the book which still lay open in front of Enric. “May I?” she asked, and pulled it towards her when the King nodded.

She searched for the paragraph which stated the offence Enric had been committing for a few years now and studied it carefully. “How old is that book? Or rather the law itself?”

“About two-hundred and thirty years, I should think,” the King replied after a moment’s thought and waited for her share what had caught her attention.

“A time when women were not yet legally permitted to own land?” she guessed and smiled. “Because this paragraph clearly stipulates that no man is entitled to more than what is considered a generous, fair and reasonable share of the Kingdom to rule wisely and in accordance with the King’s law. Women are not included in this limitation.”

Enric grinned. It was a spirited attempt which certainly managed to lift his mood, yet there was little to no hope that the King would make it quite that easy for them.

Queen Del’na’bened smiled as well and spoke up for the first time since their arrival. “This would be a most lovely loophole to utilise, my dear, yet I fear that by the time Enric has transferred all his holdings to your name, Folrin will have prepared and proclaimed an amendment to this very law to include women, which would render your efforts a waste of time.”

Eryn nodded. She hadn’t really expected for this to be an acceptable solution anyway. “How about splitting the land between Enric and me? That way either of us would hold less than five percent.”

This time it was the King who discarded her proposal. “I fear this would make little difference. Since you are joined by a commitment, all your individual assets are treated as your joint wealth. And even if I were in a position to permit this, the same problem would arise once your only child inherited everything.”

Once again Eryn perused the legal text. “This only applies to land, not to gold or businesses, correct?”

“That is true,” the King confirmed, leaning back in what counted for him as a relaxed manner while he was waiting for her next foray.

“That means Enric could sell the land to you, or rather to the Crown. The increase of his monetary assets would not be a problem.”

“In theory, that is possible,” the monarch replied hesitantly, seeming almost sorry that he had to thwart another one of her ideas. “Yet I cannot be seen to reward Lord Enric with large amounts of gold for his breach of the law by treating this as nothing other than an ordinary business transaction.”

Eryn refused to give up. “So he could sell it to someone else. That should solve the problem.”

Enric took her hand and squeezed it. “The idea is not only to relieve me of my surplus land, but also to publicly punish me, Eryn. Even if I weren’t aware of how much land I owned or of the limitation, ignorance is no excuse in law.”

She lifted one sceptical eyebrow. “So we are here to discuss – or rather negotiate – the terms of our punishment?” That sounded somewhat strange. But then it was not a punishment the King wished to impose, but one he was forced to deal out. Therefore he was eager to make it as moderate as was possible without losing face.

Enric leaned forward. “Would you be open to discussing tax abatements in exchange for a… generous donation of land to the Crown?”

“I’m listening,” the King smiled.

“No!” The world exploded from two female mouths at the same time. Puzzled silence followed as surprised looks were exchanged.

Eryn was surprised to have found an ally in Del’na’bened. The Queen in turn was surprised to find one in Eryn. And King Folrin and Enric glanced with a frown at their respective companions as though they were wondering on which side they actually stood.

Del’na’bened lifted her head and broke the silence. “Wealthy members of society are to serve as a role model in all respects of public life. Paying taxes is one such aspect.”

“I absolutely agree,” Eryn piped in. “If those of us who can easily afford paying their taxes try to wriggle out of it, who can we expect to pay? Even with losing half of the land, Enric is still filthy rich.” She nodded towards the file on Enric’s holdings. “As you certainly know, Enric’s wealth is mainly generated by his business interests. Whatever his tenure based ventures yield is but a small part of his income.”

Enric lifted his hand and pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a moment. Why again had the King decided to summon both of them…? A quick glance at the King showed him that he was very likely asking himself that very same question.

King Folrin steepled his fingers. His smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Then I would suggest the both of you take some time and compile a list of suggestions to be discussed among yourselves. The Queen and I shall be doing the very same thing. Let us reconvene in due time. You are dismissed.”

Enric rose and bowed to the Royal couple before walking towards the door to the throne room, Eryn following suit.

Once they had stepped out into the corridor and the door was closed behind them, Eryn murmured, “You know what? I like Tleta.”

Enric sighed. “You don’t say.”

*  *  *

Eryn woke with a start, reaching up to her throat where something seemed to constrict her breathing. Some of the moisture on her cold forehead formed into a bead of sweat and ran down her temple and cheek.

With every deep breath the feeling of confinement abated a fraction, and she consciously began to take in her surroundings. It was almost completely dark in the bedroom. Underneath her she felt the firm mattress, her fingers ran over the thinly woven sheet that whispered softly when touched. A slightly chilly sensation on her legs told her that she must have kicked off her blanket. Blindly she let her hands grope for it. Only when she tried the floor, she found it in a heap at the far end.

She tried to remember what the nightmare had been about, but couldn’t really recall any pictures. The only thing that remained was the memory of emotions… Which might be an indicator that she had not really been the one experiencing the dream, that Enric might have been projecting.

When her own breathing had slowed down again, she listen for Enric’s. It came in quiet but stuttering gasps. She gulped. His nightmares had become less frequent than at the beginning, and every time he was tormented by another she dearly hoped it might be the last one. So far her hopes had been in vain.

She needed to wake him. But that was not an endeavour without danger. It was risky enough to startle awake a person with superior physical strength. In case of a magician there might be considerable damage or injuries. Yet at the same time she couldn’t let him continue his suffering. It didn’t often happen that she woke before him when the time of his incarceration caught up with him, at night when he was powerless to resist.

She took a deep breath and felt in the dark for his hand, sending in a stream of warm magic to slow down his muscles, make them heavier. Then she whispered his name, told him to wake up.

Despite her efforts with his muscles, his hand abruptly snatched hers while he returned to consciousness.

“Eryn?” he quietly asked, his voice without any trace of the turmoil she felt through the mind bond.

“Yes,” she replied softly. “I’m here.” She didn’t tell him that he’d had a nightmare, that all was good and that he was safe. That he knew. She just held his hand, waiting for his breathing to return to normal.

“I’m sorry I woke you,” he apologised after a minute.

“You didn’t. I was already awake,” she stated, knowing he wouldn’t believe her.

She could hear the tired smile in his voice when he replied, “That’s a lie.”

“I know.”

“A rather transparent one.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll try harder next time. Though after only just waking I’m glad enough that I managed to string a coherent sentence together. So you ought to show some lenience here,” she teased him.

In the ensuing silence she felt that he was preparing to speak of something serious. She waited.

“Speaking of lenience…” he began. “There is something we must talk about. Something important.”

Eryn sighed. She had been hoping to cuddle up to her companion and enjoy another few hours of sleep, but if talking about whatever helped him to recover and take his mind off his nightmare, she would of course indulge him.

“You need to do something against Lord Woldarn, provided he really was the one to write to the King.”

She grimaced, which of course he couldn’t see. “Me? Why me? Your rank exceeds mine, and it was your property he came after, not mine.”

“He used me as a means to cause you grief. And legally speaking it is your property as much as mine. How many more years will it take for you to wrap your mind around that?” Why was he even bothering anymore, seriously?

His companion let her head sink back and dropped against the pillow in her back. “What else am I to do to set him limits? He keeps proving resistant to any attempts – be it stable duty or exposing him in front of the Council. He is a profoundly stupid man, and I refuse to let him waste my time or patience.”

“Eryn,” he implored her, “this is not about showing the world that you are the bigger person and he nothing but an insect you chose to ignore. Stupid people can be dangerous, particularly if they harbour resentment. Being ignored will only make him more determined to continue, since it shows him that there is little he has to fear because there never are any serious consequences for him.”

“What do you propose then I should do to him?” she sighed. “Place him under house arrest for a month? Or a year?” She huffed. “I can just imagine what Tyront would say about that. And how would I justify it, anyway? Because he had the audacity to point out to the King that we were technically breaking the King’s law – no matter that the King was more than aware of it anyway but had chosen not to act?”

“The King had very good reasons for stretching the rules in my favour. Political reasons,” Enric explained patiently. “You remember the times when our relationship with him was tense, to say the least. Granting us the odd favour here and there is a proof of the high esteem he holds us in. Occasionally they might also have served as an unofficial apology when an official one was not an option. He was trying to give back, counterbalance what we’ve had to endure and at times give up because he decreed it. The dissolution of my parent’s commitment was such a thing. Lord Woldarn’s deed is a nuisance for me, yet it won’t bankrupt me. You were right when you pointed out that I hardly depend on my land holdings to generate an income. Still, my profits would be diminished considerably. Many of my businesses depend on land ownership. There are the mines which yield ores. And the forests which I need for the timber business. That has grown considerably since we began exporting to the Western Territories, and I also need the wood for my shipyards. The fabrics I produce also require land to grow the raw material. Then there are the vineyards and stud farms which make comparatively little money, but still show profit. For the King this is quite an issue since he is now forced into somehow disowning me to a degree where the records show that my holdings do not exceed the legal maximum – and beyond it to punish me. That is something he definitely doesn’t want to do. Particularly since I have always been careful to pay my taxes in full so as to avoid provoking him. And what’s more important, he knows well enough that we might be off to Takhan at some point in the future, and depriving us of our property – and with that a considerable part of our income – is something which might make us even more inclined to go.”

“Then why not let the King exact his revenge on Lord Woldarn?”

“Because it was an attack on you, not on the King. The King was merely a tool. As was I. You were the target, and you must be seen to respond accordingly. This is no longer about concealed or open insults or unfavourable talk behind your back. He has upped his ante and will continue to do so if you don’t put an end to it somehow. We can’t wait for him to come up with something that would really hurt us.” He paused for effect, knowing his last point would bring home his argument. “Or Vedric.”

Eryn closed her eyes. “He wouldn’t dare. He is stupid. But not that stupid.”

“How certain are you of this? If you want to gauge his intelligence, consider that Lord Woldarn is unlikely to be the only person who knows that the land in our possession exceeds the legal maximum. Yet no-one else has ever brought it up, let alone approached the King with it. Everyone else knows that the King has very likely the most extensive network of agents in Anyueel, so if they are aware of this fact, then there is next to no chance that King Folrin is not. Forcing him to act on something where he has for quite some time now decided he doesn’t wish to do so, is an incredibly foolish thing to do. The King will punish him for it, that I can promise you. But only if you fail to do so yourself. He will give you some time to take care of this before he makes a move. He knows as well as I do that you are the one who ought to do it.”

She gave his arguments some thought. Finally she nodded, remembering only then that he couldn’t see her. “Alright. Then I shall reprimand him. Again. Harder than ever. Without making it seem like the punishment it actually is, since he told the King we owned too much land is not much of an adequate justification before the Council.”

Enric felt relieved that she had seen reason. “I think I can help you here. I have an idea for a punishment, one he has little to no chance of arguing against without making himself look very bad indeed. First, however, there are two things to be taken care of. You need to make sure beyond any doubt that Lord Woldarn truly was the one sending the message. And if so, you need to inform Tyront of the punishment you see fit and have him agree to it. You needn’t tell him about the issue with the land and our meeting with the King. He’ll know about that already.”

*  *  *

Eryn stretched out on the sofa in Vern’s parlour. She had just spent nearly an hour talking with Vern about what had happened in Pirinkar that had induced her to leave the profession of healing forever behind her. He had known about her decision, of course, since Lord Poron had informed the healers about it a few days ago. Yet since he was so much more than just a colleague, he was adamant about having a right to hear about her reasons even though she had told hardly anyone else. And he was right. He had been one of very few close friends for several years now and deserved that she confided in him. He had earned it. So she had explained to him in great detail what had happened shortly before she had discovered Enric in the woods.

The young man had listened with an intent expression, motioning for her to go on whenever she made a break to give him room for comments or questions. He wanted to hear everything before asking his questions. And questions he had. One question, however, he did not ask – whether she was really sure that she wanted to give up healing for good after all her efforts in learning the profession and setting up the Clinic in Anyueel. For that she was grateful. He didn’t even for a second give her the feeling that he didn’t think her capable of properly considering the gravity of her decision before making it. Interesting enough, Enric had had a harder time accepting her choice.

Vern was not usually one to hold back when it came to criticising her, particularly when there were no witnesses to observe this seeming lack of respect towards a superior magician. That meant he truly understood her decision, even though he was visibly saddened by the prospect of no longer working with her in that capacity.

“We still can set up the healing academy together, can’t we?” he asked, full of hope.

She nodded. “Yes, that we can do. Though I suppose that we will be told to dedicate our resources instead to the impending war than a project which is more suitable for peaceful times.”

He gave her a pained smile. “You might not be here anymore by the time this is all over. I fear you might be accepting Malriel’s offer and take over House Aren.”

Eryn didn’t really know what to reply. She could tell him that she wasn’t seriously considering that, yet it wouldn’t be entirely true. Or she could remind him that she had promised him to do everything in her power to help him relocate to Takhan if this was still his wish in a year and a half. But he seemed to have re-adapted fairly well to his home, so moving back might not really be quite that interesting a choice for him anymore.

Which was good, of course. Good for the Clinic. And therefore for the other healers and the people in Anyueel. He was the only resident healer who had received training in both countries and was willing and able to pass on what he had learned.

At the same time she would have loved to take him to Takhan with her – provided she really decided to stay there – for entirely selfish reasons. But this was not about her. If Vern decided to stay in Anyueel because this would make him happy, which would at the same time benefit everyone else but her, she not only had to accept this but even encourage him.

She tilted her head back and swallowed the last of the tea he had made her. It was time to leave now, anyway.

“Thank you very much for making a little time for me,” she said and got up from her seat. “I need to leave now. There is something at the Palace I need to take care of.”

The knock at the door made them both look up.

“Are you expecting anyone?” she asked. Vern hardly ever received guests in his quarters. He preferred to visit others.

Vern shook his head. “No, not really.” He stood up as well to answer the door.

Eryn tensed when she saw Junar and Téa standing in the doorframe. Téa, without paying any attention to her surroundings, only saw Vern and began chattering at him excitedly. Her mother, however, spotted Eryn immediately. And the smile which wanted to spread on her face upon seeing her companion’s son froze before it had a chance to fully blossom. Her face was now stuck in an odd in-between expression in the middle of joy and consternation, wavering in whichever direction it ought to give preference to.

Eryn felt a surge of anger. This was the first time they had happened upon each other since that unpleasant time at the docks, and all they managed was beholding each other as though they had stumbled into some kind of nightmare. This was ridiculous! They were grown women – and friends! Well, in theory. Right now they were both acting as though they were children – and enemies.

The seamstress got a grip on herself, and her lips stretched into a polite smile. “Eryn. What a… pleasant surprise.” Then she focused on Vern, who was still the target of her daughter’s barrage of excited babble. “I was on my way home from picking Téa up from school and just wanted to invite you to have dinner with us tomorrow. Your father mentioned that he hasn’t seen you in a while.” Her gaze flickered towards Eryn for a fraction of a second as if to say that he didn’t seem to have time for his own father, but obviously for Eryn.

Eryn ground her teeth.

“Would you like to come in? I have some tea ready,” he offered, certainly aware of the tension but unwilling to let his manners suffer from it.

“No, no, actually we are in a hurry,” Junar mumbled. Just as she reached out for her daughter’s hand, Téa pulled away sulkily.

In that wonderful, ill-timed honesty she pouted. “But you said I could show Vern all the new things in my exercise booklet!” Ignoring her mother’s wish to leave, she turned back towards her older brother and beamed at him. “I can write down very long and difficult words now! And…”

“You can show him tomorrow evening when he visits us,” Junar insisted, her tone none too gentle. Belatedly she realised that Vern hadn’t actually accepted the invitation yet. “Provided you agree, of course.”

“Sure, I’ll be there.”

Eryn decided to put an end to this stupidity. “Don’t be ridiculous, Junar. Come in and sit down the way you obviously promised Téa. I was about to leave anyway. So you don’t have to spend a single minute in the same room with me since that seems to be quite an imposition.” Her tone was frosty, challenging.

Junar seemed slightly embarrassed about having been caught lying, and being called ridiculous obviously also didn’t sit well with her. She tried to mask her discomfort, but didn’t manage it particularly well.

“This has nothing to do with you,” she desperately held on to her fib. “I need to finish a dress tonight and can’t dawdle.”

Eryn smiled coolly. “So my presence makes no difference at all to you? I’m immensely relieved to hear that.” Additional anger was kindled by Junar’s behaviour. That woman had no right to pretend it wasn’t her own fault that this was such an awkward situation right now! She should be apologising for the hateful things she had say at the pier! That was not how one treated a good friend!

Another voice inside her pointed out that being friends also meant that apologies shouldn’t be necessary. Anyway, an apology wasn’t something to be demanded or claimed, since it would hardly be sincere in such case. Maybe Junar wasn’t even sorry. Or perhaps she was too embarrassed about her own behaviour and feared a rejection in case she approached Eryn?

But where did that leave her and Junar? Well, the answer to that was fairly obvious. One of them had to make a first step, and since Junar was either unwilling or unable to do so, it would fall to Eryn to conquer her pride and reach out.

She cleared her throat. “Junar, why don’t we meet and have a drink one evening when you are not busy? How about the day after tomorrow? Or the day after that?”

The other woman appeared to freeze for a moment, on her face an expression of surprise and then uneasiness. Eryn saw how even Vern held his breath for a moment in expectation of whatever was to come, while his little sister had not noticed anything amiss and kept chattering to him, completely oblivious to the strained situation.

Then Junar lifted her chin, her tone formal, as she replied, “What a lovely suggestion. Unfortunately I have prior engagements for the evenings to come, but why don’t I contact you?”

Even if Eryn had been in doubt whether to consider this a rebuff or not, Vern’s expression would have told her everything she needed to know. Junar was brushing her off. She had no interest whatsoever in talking to Eryn.

Eryn smiled faintly. “Sure. Why not. Vern, thank you for the charming afternoon.” With a nod to Junar and a pat on the head for Téa she squeezed past his visitors, who were still standing in the doorway.

Hurriedly she descended the stairs, eager to get away. She pushed aside the gloomy thoughts about whether this really was the end of her friendship with Junar now. There was something important she had to take care of, something she couldn’t afford to let herself be diverted from.

*  *  *

On her way to the Palace, Eryn banished the thoughts about Junar and the mix of regret and anger they triggered. Instead she deliberately pondered her discussion with Enric the night before. About their income. Enric had merely listed the businesses which required rather extensive land to run properly. He had told her that the loss of greater parts thereof would diminish their income. She was rather doubtful about that. There still was the shipping business Enric had founded once trade with the Western Territories had been established. And the trading with goods he produced himself and such he procured from others. Plus pay they both received from the Order. And these were just their sources of earnings which were based on this side of the sea. She didn’t really have an overview of whatever Enric had invested in over in Takhan, yet she knew that he was participating in several ventures in which also Houses Aren, Arbil or Vel’kim were involved.

All in all, they were still far away from struggling. Even if there were no more income from one day to the next, Enric had probably enough gold stored away to live off very comfortably for the rest of their lives.

So why exactly was she quite that peeved about this attempt at taking away from Enric what he didn’t really depend on anyway? Particularly, since losing part of it was basically his own fault for playing his little games with the King and probing like a teenage boy to determine how far he could go?

The answer came swiftly. Because she wouldn’t lose to Lord Woldarn of all people. If Enric had to give up something, then she would be sure Lord Woldarn had to give up significantly more. Enric had told her of his idea of dealing with the man – provided he truly was the one trying to get Enric disowned. It was brilliant in its cruelty. Enric had a certain knack for this kind of thing. Everyone would know that it was a punishment, though only few – Lord Woldarn’s confidantes – would know what for. But it would look like nothing more than a simple deployment. Provided Tyront agreed and didn’t foil the plan.

She nodded at the gate guards in front of the Palace and entered the large hall with the many columns holding the ceiling high above. Thanks to Enric’s spies she knew that the King and Queen were currently meeting the Kingdom’s treasurers and would therefore be busy for some time. Making use of information gathered in a way she despised so very much was not usually something she agreed to. But in this case there was next to no other way to obtain it. Marrin, who was in charge of the Royal couple’s itinerary, was too experienced and careful to let himself be tricked into revealing what was not meant to be spread.

Which was why she had to catch him off-guard. This required that the King wasn’t around to be asked for confirmation of Eryn’s claim.

She stopped in front of the King’s study door. Or rather Marrin’s, since the King’s study could only be reached upon passing through his advisor’s room first. She needed to appear calm and relaxed, not at all as though she were up to something and nervous as to whether it would work out.

Knocking, she waited for the permission to enter. It came promptly.

At the last moment Eryn changed her smile to an expression that displayed the usual hint of displeasure whenever she was on her way to the King. An unusually merry mood might make him suspicious.

“Good afternoon, Marrin. Is he here?”

As always, the older man smiled upon laying eyes on her. “Lady Eryn, what an unexpected pleasure. No, I am afraid he is currently not available, nor will he be in the next few hours.”

She released a disappointed sigh. “That’s unfortunate. He promised to show me the message urging him to do something about Enric’s land holdings. I see I should have made an appointment first to make sure he is here and has time for me. Well, it seems that can’t be helped now.” She let herself fall into a chair next to Marrin’s desk. “How are you faring, Marrin?”

He leaned back, signalling that he was willing to chat a little. “Busy, as you may imagine. Preparations for the impending war. The big decisions are of course made by His Majesty and the Order, yet somebody has to make sure they are really happening by planning and authorising payment.”

Eryn laughed. “Ah, yes, the magic happening in the background, all the things nobody sees and which are therefore aren’t appreciated as essential.”

Marrin shrugged. “His Majesty sees them.”

“And I am certain he appreciates you the way he should. He is quite smart.”

The older man raised an eyebrow. “Some would even call him a genius.”

She waved him off. “I wouldn’t. You know how much I hate complementing him.”

“I do. Yet the fact that you do not wish to articulate some things does not make them any less true.”

“That may be the case, yet other things are constructs of our imagination and only become true by articulating them.”

With a chuckle and a shake of his head, Marrin braided his fingers above his belly. “I see we are venturing into highly philosophical territory here.”

Eryn sighed and rose again. “I would love to continue this discussion with you, but unfortunately I have to pick up Vedric from school now. I suppose there isn’t any chance that you can let me have a look at the letter without asking His Majesty for confirmation?” she asked, letting defeat enter her voice as though she had next to no hope that he would grant her this tiny, modest favour.

The King’s advisor seemed uncertain for a moment. After several seconds of thinking, he looked at her again. “His Majesty explicitly promised you to show you the message?”

Careful not to agree to emphatically or give herself away by providing too many details, she just nodded.

“What was it about again?” he asked, pretending he didn’t know exactly which message it was. He obviously wanted to test whether she truly knew of the message or was just fishing in the dark.

“The message informs King Folrin that Enric’s land holdings exceed the legal scope. It was sent by…” She paused for a moment. Right now she had nothing more than a strong suspicion who the sender was, meaning she could be wrong. She needed to give a hint without focusing on a single person. Since the letter was the result of information received from spies, they were talking about someone rich. And that it was aimed at Enric and her very likely meant it was a Council member. “… a certain Lord I will not name since the walls tend to have ears,” she finished vaguely.

Marrin nodded slowly. “Yes, I know of that one.” He pursed his lips. “And His Majesty wanted you to see it?”

She shrugged. “Well, not of his own accord. I wanted to see it. He merely granted me permission to have a quick look at it.”

The man sighed heavily and bent down to pull a file out of a low shelf behind him. Placing it on his desk, he opened the lid.

Eryn’s eyes greedily found the neat piece of expensive, creamy paper that lay on top.

“I shall be minding my own business over here to the count of ten,” Marrin announced and pretended to busy himself with putting away some books.

She eagerly stepped closer to the desk and bent over the sheet without touching it. The very first thing she took in was the name at the bottom. Lord Woldarn. It hadn’t been hard to guess, he being their most likely suspect. Yet taking measures such as the one Enric had proposed required absolute certainty when it came to the man’s identity. And that certainty she had now. Her eyes flickered over the few lines. In verbose sentences the Council member expressed his worries about Lord Enric’s utter and blatant disregard of the Kingdom’s and therefore the King’s laws. He wrote that he considered it his civic duty to point out what might be nothing more than an oversight by a colleague who spent so much time abroad that he had lost track of how much he owned, but also wanted to make aware of the risks if it was more than a mere oversight but instead an impertinent attempt to challenge the King.

Eryn ground her teeth. Lord Woldarn’s skills in manipulation were about as subtle as wielding a sledgehammer.

She stepped back just as Marrin was done pretending to be busy. He closed the file’s lid again and returned it to where he had pulled it out.

With a relieved nod she smiled at the man, grateful for his help – and at the same time feeling bad for tricking him like that. The King wouldn’t blame him for it, would he?

With a parting wave she stepped towards the door, then hesitated. She really did feel guilty. Slowly turning around, she decided to at least warn him by letting him know that he had let himself be deceived.

“You know,” she said slowly, “you used to be harder to fool.”

To her surprise, Marrin didn’t experience any kind of revealing moment followed by utter shock, but merely grinned. “Oh, I generally am. Today, however, I was explicitly instructed to be particularly gullible. Enough so that even such a clumsy liar as yourself might have a chance.”

Eryn blinked and stared at him for a moment, then she released her breath. “He knew I would come. Damn him! Is he even really gone?” she asked with a nod towards his door.

Marrin shrugged, amused at her dismay at finding out that she was not quite as cunning as she had thought. “He might be. Off you go then, Lady Eryn, to pick up your son. Interesting thing, though, because according to my information today’s lessons of the first years ended about two hours ago.”

Eryn ground her teeth and slipped out into the corridor. Now he was just rubbing it in.

*  *  *

Enric tried to ignore the sense of dread he received from Eryn through the mind bond. The Council meeting had been going on for two hours now, and they had agreed with Tyront that it would conclude with Eryn’s announcement as to Lord Woldarn’s immediate future.

Tyront hadn’t needed much convincing to agree to the course of action Enric had proposed. He saw the need for decisive action as clearly as his second-in-command did. To a certain degree also Eryn knew it was necessary, though merely on an intellectual level, certainly not on an emotional one. She still considered the punishment a lot harsher than the man’s deeds warranted.

All in all it had been a productive assembly today, Enric mused. They had made decisions on how to proceed with several essential issues pertaining to the preparation for the war. A group of magicians was to be sent off the very next day, up north towards the mountains forming the natural border between Anyueel and Pirinkar. With their newly acquired skills in manipulating rock seams they should be able to find out how penetrable the mountains really were – particularly with the prospect that the magical barrier through the sea might continue through the rock somehow.

“We need to post watchers in any case,” Orrin insisted. “Should a magical barrier truly be the reason why the mountains have hitherto proven to be quite that resistant to any attempt at crossing them, this would pose a whole new problem. We have not the slightest inkling how well-versed the Loman Ergen are when it comes to dealing with magical barriers. They might not have seen any reason to manipulate the barrier so far if indeed they are aware how to go about it, but Etor Gart certainly would know how to put that skill to good use.”

“Yet if we cannot find any trace of a magical barrier, outposts would surely be unnecessary,” Lord Seagon threw in. “The mountains would then be just as much of a natural obstacle to them as they are to us. I strongly believe that otherwise we would already have had visitors from Pirinkar on our side of the mountains a long time ago.”

“Search parties from the Western Territories have roamed our lands for several years, as they were trying to find Lady Eryn without ever having been discovered,” Enric contradicted. “Meaning we might have been equally unable to spot any well-disguised visitors from the other side of the mountains.”

Orrin nodded and added, “Plus we don’t know whether any of the Loman Ergen possess the skill Lady Eryn has taught most of us only recently. They might be just as able to manipulate layers of rock and therefore have massive rock formations crumble and give way as we are now capable of doing.”

Eryn cleared her throat. “I would actually suggest our operating under that very assumption. Hoping that none of them is in possession of a skill I discovered that easily would be gross negligence. I agree with Lord Orrin – we should establish enough lookouts to keep the mountains under observation.”

Lord Seagon frowned. “That would require a large amount of men, since we cannot merely limit ourselves to watching a few passes but need to keep an eye on the entire length of the mountain range. They could create a doorway practically anywhere. We have just dispatched a respectable number of our magicians to the Western Territories, so we are stretched rather thinly already.”

“Agreed,” Enric assented, “which is why I would send mostly non-magician soldiers up north on observation duty. In addition, I would suggest to His Majesty to conscript as many hunters into the army and pair them with the solders. They are trained in the art of stealth, are able trackers and know their way around the woods.”

“I shall advise His Majesty accordingly once we are done here,” Tyront promised and made a short note on the paper in front of him. He looked directly at Eryn, without a word calling on her to speak up.

She gulped and cleared her throat. “There is another matter. We have stationed a couple of Order magicians and a few soldiers from Takhan up at the mountain pass between the Western Territories and Pirinkar. As far as I am aware, there is no experienced senior magician among them to provide moral support and be a beacon of strength and composure should there truly be an attack.”

Save for the select few who were in the know of what was about to come, the present Council members either frowned or raised their brows. Orrin among them. He hadn’t been informed of what was about to be decreed.

“You are not suggesting one of us go up there and stand guard by the border, are you?” came a sceptical voice. “Every single one of us is certainly of more use here in a position to aid in making strategic decisions than somewhere up in the middle of nowhere.”

“I disagree,” Eryn contradicted just as she had prepared to. “These people in the middle of nowhere, as you call it, are directly on the frontier and will very likely be the first to know once the enemy decides to attack. They need to be in a frame of mind to do what is needed of them – namely releasing the birds to Takhan. Should they panic and fail to do so or be overwhelmed before they manage to get to the cages, Takhan would be in even more serious danger of falling.”

“I see,” Lord Woldarn replied, “so you are volunteering to go there? You think you would be able to make all the difference, avert disaster, be an inspiration to the soldiers and return a heroine? Granted, your magic may be unusually powerful, but this is hardly a guarantee for being able to remain level-headed or makes you a suitable role model. Particularly with your lack of experience in anything but personal conflicts. You are certainly not the leader you seem to think you are.”

Eryn sighed. He made it much too easy for her. “Oh, I would never unduly claim such merits for myself. And I am very glad you and I are in agreement that a person with personal traits other than my own and of course a lot more experienced would be a more ideal choice for this noble assignment.” She paused, took a deep breath and announced, “I propose to send Lord Woldarn, who is obviously more than aware of the challenge and certainly possesses all the required qualifications.”

Silence fell.

Enric waited for several heartbeats, letting the statement sink in. Then he nodded. “I agree. Sending a senior Council member to make sure this important outpost is in capable hands will be a powerful sign of our dedication. It will strengthen our allies’ trust in us. And I can think of none who would be more suitable for this assignment than Lord Woldarn. Unless anyone else would prefer to volunteer for it?” Just as he had expected, not a single hand was raised. Nobody wanted to be sent to the desert, watch a mountain pass and very likely be the first target the enemy would attack.

He ignored Orrin’s piercing look. The warrior was clearly suspecting that something more was going on.

Lord Woldarn had gone completely white. His mouth opened and closed several times, but before he managed to utter a single word, Tyront spoke up.

“Then we shall consider this matter settled. Lord Woldarn, you will prepare yourself to embark on the journey to the northernmost outpost in the Western Territories in three days. The Council will of course be at your disposal should you require any assistance in putting your things in order. I know this is short notice, but as you will agree, we have no time to lose. Ambassador Ram’kel will surely be more than happy to advise you with regard to suitable clothes to wear underneath your robes in that unfamiliar climate.” He returned his attention to the others in the room. Most of them were shocked, but several of them looked from Eryn to Lord Woldarn and clearly suspected that he was being penalised for something – and severely so. There was no objection from anyone, nobody wished to come between the three highest ranking Order magicians and the target of their joint wrath.

“This concludes today’s meeting,” the Order’s leader finally announced when Lord Woldarn had failed to react in any other manner but stare at Lord Tyront with utter disbelief.

The other magicians quickly left the Council hall. Orrin looked as though he would much rather have stayed behind and demanded a few answers, but one look at Enric’s face told him to be patient for a little longer and leave.

Enric, Eryn and Tyront stayed behind with Lord Woldarn, whose breathing was now coming in short little gasps. They waited.

After several minutes, Lord Woldarn lifted a shaking hand and pointed his index finger at Eryn. First his voice was weak, then it gained strength with every word he uttered. “You! That was you! You want to have me slaughtered in the desert! You are afraid of me! Which is what the other Council members are thinking whenever I point out that you are wrong! You know they don’t respect you, and instead of earning their respect, you are trying to get rid of the one person brave enough to constantly remind them that you don’t deserve a place among us, that you are nothing more than an upstart…”

“Enough,” Enric interrupted sternly. That poor, deluded fool. He truly thought that his snide remarks and sly attempts to harm her had anything to with bravery? And how was it possible that he hadn’t noticed that even Lord Seagon, who had been more than sceptical of Eryn, was now showing her the respect her rank and especially her skills merited? Sure, Lord Seagon still did challenge her arguments, but in a professional manner without trying to destroy her reputation or credibility.

Eryn had just been standing there, silently listening to the accusations. She just looked at the man, who had a few seconds ago been pale as milk. Now his face was flushing red.

Lord Woldarn turned towards Enric. “Of course you are standing at her heel, barking at anyone who dares raise his voice at her like the pathetic dog that you are!”

Tyront slowly rose from his seat, his palms braced on the oval table in front of him. His mien reflected a deadly kind of calm.

“And I, my Lord? What is it you have to say to me about supporting the idea of sending you off?”

Lord Woldarn opened his mouth, but his superior’s quietly threatening stance and icy look seemed to make him reconsider spewing his poison in that particular direction.

When no reply came, Tyront continued, “You know why you are the one being sent there, Lord Woldarn. You have been playing with fire for a long time now. Insulting your superiors, caballing behind their backs… What did you think the ultimate outcome of this would be? Lady Eryn being removed from the Council, since you claim that no-one in it respects her? You have been openly undermining her authority, and this assignment is the price you are going to pay for it. The idea is not to have you killed, my Lord. The Order does not deliberately send people to their certain deaths. Not even those who practice insubordination to the extent you have been. This is supposed to be a major inconvenience for you – but at the same time a chance to earn back some respect. Contrary to what you seem to believe, Lord Woldarn, it wasn’t Lady Eryn who has lost your colleagues’ respect, but yourself. Quite the opposite – her restraint was either admired or considered undue.” He straightened to signal that the next words would conclude this business. “You are of course free to file a protest. Yet I can promise you that it will merely be acknowledged but won’t lead to retraction of the orders you have received. A good day to you, Lord Woldarn. I trust you will honour your oath to the King and do your duty by defending his Kingdom.”

Tyront turned away from the table at which Lord Woldarn sat as if struck by lightning. He motioned for his number two and three to follow him out of the Council hall. They could at least grant their colleague some privacy when coming to terms with his desperation.

»End of extract«

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