The Shadow Shrouded Path
When Shadows Fall
Location: Sanctuary, Harkania March, Cymeria
Timeline: October 3550
As promised, Renestrae was escorted respectfully from Stormholm. Her horse, Kairavi, was brought to her, well tended-to, and prepared for the road. Her personal effects had been returned to her, although her cittern had been damaged, and seeing it so ignited her unhappiness toward Hawke. Still, she was grateful for the additional things she was granted -- two changes of comfortable riding clothes, a warm cloak, a small coin purse, and the papers that were claim to her tale. She leafed through them, feeling her heart sinking at the lack of the other half of the song. They’d hardly had time to look; perhaps she should have remained there until she at least had that, but it was much too late for that now.
Throughout the night, she had awakened in spurts and starts, troubled by the new knowledge Stormholm had brought her. She had been raised to believe that the Stormdanovich family were not trustworthy, but she had first-hand witnessed the honour they were praised for. Magic was a terrible thing, but she possessed some ability over it herself, as much as she did not want to believe such. She had been accepted as kin, but what was kin, truly? More than blood, surely. The Mar’kathi people were kin, bonded through long years together, but she could not return to them now. If they knew she was of the arcane, they would surely kill her on-sight. She had left without warning, so they would be suspicious of her if she were to return.
It was not a thought she could entertain. Not with what she knew, now. What to do with her life, then? Her cittern was broken, an heirloom lost. While she, at first, was repelled by the thought of being gifted coin out of what she perceived to be pity, she appropriated some of the funds towards acquiring a new instrument. While it lacked the same soul as her own, it would serve for now. She felt strange, clad in clothing that was not extravagant but of high quality, the most comfortable trappings she’d ever had to her name.
Was she being too harsh on them? Her judgement was clouded with suspicion of them. They had been nothing short of courteous, even generous. Nobody had asked the High Lord to accept her as kindred, and yet he had. What if he had only done so, having decided she was to be a prisoner to the end of her days? Lying upon the pillow, surrounded by grand furnishings, her thoughts were turbulent. Then she thought: Brán seemed to trust them, did he not? She felt an ache for the one individual who seemed to be her sole friend in all of the world. So, she told herself: she would go to Sanctuary, and...decide what to do from there.
She reached under her bracer to touch the wristband he had forged for her. That morning, she had returned to Duskhallow to ask as to Sanctuary’s location. She drew comfort from the freedom the saddle seemed to give her, free to make her own choices, free to walk her own path. The thought that she had little say in whether or not she was of the Stormdanovich blood was irksome, as childish as the thought was, so she sought control in other ways. The future was shrouded in shadow, but she was determined to meet it on her own terms.
Brán had retreated into one of the farthest niche’s of the library, as he was working his way through the manuscript he had salvaged from the ruins of the scholar’s house. It could not exactly be called a book, more an assembly of notes, excerpts, letters and copies from older works that the scholar had assembled in this peculiar fashion. Right now, Brán was carefully documenting the exact sequence of texts, their topics, or what they were copies of. It was an obscure collection, interrupted by occasional deviations into either prophecy or gardening.
Some passages quoted prophecies and then followed references, interpretations, sometimes signs, or comparisons with other prophecies. The scholar’s writing style had not exactly been to the point and Brán was sure that it would take time for him to get used to the rambling, wordy style, that returned to his second-favourite subject - the cultivation of the cauliflower - at the most impossible points.
“Brán, how is your latest find?” A low familiar voice interrupted his thoughts. Mage Eoghan stood beside him, the tall, greying Cymry had been one of his most patient mentors, when he had arrived here long ago and he understood Bráns fascination with learning.
“I am not sure yet, Eoghan. Half of it is a treatise on the cultivation of the cauliflower, half is bad math and half is prophecy.” He replied, leaning back against the stone wall behind the bench he was sitting on.
“That makes three halves,” Eoghan’s grey eyes sparkled amused at him, like so often, when he caught Brán at an illogical statement.
“As I said: bad math.” Brán replied with a smile. He had enjoyed many hours of scholarly discussion with Eoghan and learned much from him. “He definitely was trying to compare different sets of prophecies, if for their similarity in pattern or validity, I cannot say yet.”
Eoghan leaned one hand on the table and gently looked over the pages strewn there. In spite of his powerful hands he handled the ancient parchment like it was made of glass. He turned one around and frowned. “And it shall come to pass that the fallen one will seek the lost book in the House of the horned moon. In shadow steeped and marked by blood he brings the irrevocable words. Thus speaks the the Lord of Foxes and thus it is written.”, Eoghan read the passage out loud. “Very creative, and very vague.”
The words caused Brán to frown as well and read the page himself. “Not vague… written in symbols and taken out of context.” he said thoughtfully. He knew that style of prophecy, he had not long ago heard it, and he knew it either belonged in the Book of the Hunt or another similar document from the same timeframe if not the same seer. What would a Cymry have read into it?
Eoghan cleared his throat, about to ask a question, when they were approached by a young Novice. “Gyfrin Brán?” The young man said.
“Erin.” Brán turned to him. “Did something go wrong with the runes lessons?”
“No. But the guards sent me, as there is a stranger woman who is asking for you, she says she knows you.”
Now Brán was confused. The dwarves who now and then brought letters from Varidan certainly were not so clumsy, usually hiding their carrying of letters behind other errands. Eoghan had arched an eyebrow as well. “If you allow, I will indulge a look into these notes while you see who is looking for you so insistently.” he said. Brán answered with a grateful nod and hastened to go down to the gates of the Sanctuary.
Had this path been wise to tread? Renestrae had been given warnings of Sanctuary. One simply did not walk into Sanctuary; it was a place of learning, and thus only scholars and mentors were permitted, aside from the guards who kept watch there. The guards had eyed her with equal measures of amusement and apprehension, but she had refused to leave. A flutter of nervousness made its presence within her belly known. She remained steadfast all the same, going so far as to sit herself stubbornly upon a rock near the entrance. In the oldest tradition, she made her plea by song. They eventually conceded, and summoned a Novice to fetch the scholar.
Kai grazed happily nearby. The bard fiddled with the sleeves of her new clothing, and wondered whether the guards might have refused further had she not been so well-dressed. Indeed, she had to admit that while practical, her leathers hardly spoke of anything but hard living. Fidgeting, she brought her hair-braid to the fore, draping it over her shoulder and toying absentmindedly with the little bumps and fissures of the knots. Surely he would come? Or would she be turned aside once more?
Brán strode up to the yard, it was easy to see the familiar, if somewhat insecure figure standing there. He could understand that she was nervous, her people feared magic and she had walked into the lair of witchcraft. He smiled, he had been just like that years ago. What might have happened in her search for her father? There was no one of the name in the Sanctuary that Brán knew of, but some scholars had changed their names when they entered the Theurgy.
Walking up to Renesetrae he bowed slightly. “And thusly came the brave bard to the Towers of Midnight, where the Witch of the Morning was residing in the Elder Days…” he quoted a famous saga with a warm smile. “Renestrae, it is wonderful to meet you again.”
She laughed airily, as though an iron cage fitted about her ribs had fallen away with just a word. It was a combination of relief and delight, which told her that she had been more worried than she had believed. Her steps swiftly closed the distance between them, and she reached out to clasp at his arms in warm greeting.
“You flatter me, my friend,” she told him, head tipped upward so that she could look upon his face, a welcome sight indeed. “I am hardly the same bard of which you speak, but I shall say that it is with relief that I have found you.” She dropped her gaze to his wrist, seeking out the bracelet she had gifted him. “I am gladdened to see this,” she said, as she brushed her thumb over the leather strap. She lifted her gaze to meet his once more. “As I am to see you, and that you appear to be in good health. I must confess, I feared I would not find you, nor would you wish to see me.” She released his wrists, lowering her hands and allowing a more respectable distance between them. She did not wish to impose upon him; they had but a single meeting, after all, and she did not know if this Brán would be the same that she met along the road.
Before she could step back, Brán had turned his hands to gently clasp her hands between his. It was a gesture from his homeland, one of greeting and of fondness. He too still wore the token she had given him at his right wrist. “Had you come a few days earlier, you might have missed me,” he replied. “I only came back the day before yesterday. All the more I am happy to see you again.” He wondered why she thought he might not want to see her, but then, who knew what her search for her father had brought up.
Stepping back as she did, he turned to politely ask one of the guards to take care of her horse. “I think there are better places to talk than the yard,” he said to Ren. There were places at the Sanctuary where visitors were freely welcome, and parts that were limited to the Theurgy and trusted people. “As the sun seems to grace us for one of the last days of the dying year we might go up to the walls, the view is magnificent.” And they’d be able to talk there in peace, and with as much privacy as in any closed room.
“A sound plan,” she agreed wholeheartedly. A glimmer of doubt had said, she would not be allowed inside the walls. That Brán would not show. That the High Lord, in spite of his cordial conduct, would have sent words to all of his men to bar her from entering places she would be troublesome. Is that not what Lords did? Remove threats to their power? And she, a bastard, would be an embarrassment should word slip that she was of the House.
Together they left the yard and Brán led Renestrae to the upper walls. It was a place he had discovered early after his arrival and he loved the view across the mountains and down to the land below. There were stone benches here and there, to sit and rest, or maybe meditate on the wind, if so inclined. Yet, they could not conceal that the walls were defensive in nature, built to break or slow an attack. Today Brán led Ren towards the spot that allowed for a wide view down into the land.
“Small wonder that they have named this place so,” she said, breathlessly. “Sanctuary. A true title. There are no words for what I see before me now.” She pushed her long fingers against the tops of the battlements. She welcomed the feel of the smoothed, sun-warmed stone against her skin; they felt old, and full of stories. She wrenched her gaze away from the magnificent view and set her eyes upon him; another welcome view, to be sure. “How fares your kin?”
The question was polite, if utterly useless in Brán’s case. “Well, I would hope. The Light may watch over them.” he replied, ere turning his attention back to her. “How about you? How did your search fare?”
“Ah,” she said softly, distractedly nudging a finger against a little bump on the stone. “Well. The answers I sought were not the answers I expected.” She moistened her dry lips, turning them inward briefly. She seemed hesitant to speak, as though the words were lodged in her throat. She turned her head slightly toward him, not quite meeting his gaze. “Do you know the name Lorcan up Gwenchellian?”
Lorcan up Gwenchillian… Brán turned that name over in his mind, it did not ring familiar, nor did it spark any immediate recognition with him. Still, that did not mean anything. Closing his eyes he focused inward, letting the name in its parts flow through his mind again. Gwenchillian, the white flood, also the white light or the lightened path, was a name typical for Cymry, though sometimes Cymeri who were culturally close to the Cymry might ch0ose it as well. It also signified a father of that name… but nothing to pin to a region, a city or a specific family. Lorcan on the other hand was a Cymeri name in origin, signifying the strength of the mountain, or the strength of the land. It also was a name that probably had crossed the cultural border to the Cymry as well, so the name might either be Cymry or Celtic in origin, though the ...up Gwenchillian was the Cymeri form of naming. Both cultures had become so intertwined though, that it might well signify a family of mixed ancestry. Which was in itself a hint.
“No, I cannot say I know the name,” Brán replied eventually. “it sounds Celtic in structure, as it is more of a Cymeri tradition to name the son and the father, Lorcan up Gwenchillian, Lorcan, son of Gwenchillian. Though the latter name, is also in use by the Cymry… so a family of mixed heritage might be likely.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, looking at her. “Did he give you trouble on your search?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Renestrae replied, allowing herself a wry smile. Did she know many who would approach such a question so analytically? Brán, ever the illustrious scholar, thought of the weight behind a name, its meaning, its origins. It was a quality that she found both surprising and intriguing. “To the common man or woman who knows of him, he was a member of the Lord Kimber’s High Guard.” She took in a sharp breath, and ploughed onward. “To only a select few...the illegitimate son of Lord Mathias Stormdanovich and half-brother to the Lord Kimber. He died at the Battle of D’Hassa.” With an apparent intense interest in the horizon, she added quietly, “and also a man who travelled to my village some years ago, and fell in love with my mother.”
She allowed her gaze to meet his then, and just as she did so, the light fully caught the striking blue of her eyes. She had to tell him about her people’s teachings, about his true purpose there.
A member of Lord Kimber’s High Guard… those words set Brán’s thoughts spinning, he had heard many stories about the Battle of D’hassa and often sat quietly when others spoke of the events that transpired eleven years ago. At the time Brán had not truly appreciated the events, his heart too much worried for his far-off homeland and his brother, whom he had known to be fighting in the sieges. Only later, when he had become much more at home in Cymeria, he had truly begun to appreciate those events. Lord Kimber’s High Guard had been gutted in D’hassa, decimated, only a few surviving, among them their commander, if he recalled that right. But right now Renestrae’s words indicated something else, something much more far-reaching.
She had been searching for her father, for that bard who had come and gone from her village. Lorcan up Gwenchillian, Thane of the High Guard, fallen in D’hassa. Illegitimate brother to the man he had died to protect. Suddenly a song leaped into Brán’s mind, one about the fallen High Guard, that made such a point of the death of a man named Lorcan. Whoever had written that song, might have known more than the song said.
“He was your father.” Brán stepped closer to Renestrae, clasping her shoulders with his hands. This could not have been the end she had hoped for on her search. Yet… there was truth in what she found, and maybe the truth could give her some peace. Right now, Brán believed that comfort, maybe someone to listen, was what Ren might need. “WIth him having been a Thane, people in Dinas Ulchedir would have remembered his name.”, he met her eyes. “Though I sense a story, behind all you said about his own ancestry.”
She could only hold his gaze for a moment, before it dropped to his chest, so that she was not looking directly at him-- not with what she was about to say. Was it shame she felt? Guilt? How could she feel guilty for what she had been raised to think, by people who worked hard, and were kind to one another?
“He was,” she confirmed softly. “I thought -- I thought I might ask him why he never returned my mother’s letters. They penned a song together, and he had the other half…” She swallowed nervously, and continued, “Brán, my father was not visiting my village for any idle purpose. He was there to -- to seek out Cymeria’s enemies. Those who would abhor magic…” She licked her dry lips again. “I was raised as such, a little mountain village by the name of Haradar. I knew I was different, but I was led to believe that those of House Stormdanovich were tyrants. As my mother was dying, she confessed all to me, and begged me to go to the Gathering so that I could properly understand the untruths I had been taught. She hoped that I might also find someone to help me harness my own abilities. After she passed, I left without a word. They would surely have slain me had they known.” She fought down the knot forming in her chest. She wanted to weep, to scream -- but she would not. “I am sorry that I deceived you by hiding that from you. I came here seeking your counsel, but I am undeserving of your friendship.”
There was so much confusion in her, so much in these short words. Brán knew it must hurt, he understood in a way, having been there long ago and maybe under luckier circumstances. Gently he took her hand and led her over to one of the stone benches that stood on the wall, so she could sit. Squatting down beside her, he still held onto her hand. “You did not deceive me, Renestrae,” he said gently, honestly. “You may not have told me that you had the talent… but that does not mean you deceived me. You still are that brave woman who helped the wounded in D’hassa… who was there when I almost died… who had enough courage to help, even when you were in over your head. Nothing of that has changed.”
Strange things may happen here. It came back to that line. Brán knew no one who had witnessed that crazed moment in D’hassa would have understood why he had used those words, what they truly meant. The rules do not always apply. He sought her gaze, trying to hold it. “You still are that brave bard and you still are my friend.”, he repeated firmly. “And if you want my help - with your search, with finding your parents’ song… with the talent, you’ll have it.”
She stared back at him -- bewildered, overwhelmed, moved. There was nothing but honesty in his dark blue-grey eyes, and she found herself unable to look away. My friend. And it would always be so, she was sure of that. The Mar’kathi, in spite of having raised her, would have slain her had they known of her gifts. This man, whom she had met just once on the road, with whom she had shared so much in a narrow space of time -- his kindness could move mountains.
“I know not what spirit sent you, Brán, but I feel unworthy,” she replied, but there was the suggestion of a smile to her mouth. She earnestly laid her other hand atop of his. “I am humbled by you; I would be honoured to have your help.” She filled her lungs, slowly, and held the swirling sorrow and fears there for just a moment. When she exhaled, a sigh, she felt a weight gently lifted from her soul. She did smile then, the first, open smile she’d had since the incidents at the tavern. “Mayhap he kept the letters, somewhere. It is a hope…” A little sheepishly, she continued, “I neglected to mention that I have met the High Lord. The circumstances were not...particularly cheery. His watcher, Hawke, I think? He found me in a tavern, asking questions, and when he took me aside and saw the colour of my eyes, he struck me, and I saw no more. I awoke in the dungeons.”
In a dungeon? Brán frowned, he knew that Cymeria had a just and fair law, and that usually people ended up much less in dungeons than they did in other lands. Which meant someone had recognized Renestrae at a glance and felt threatened. Which was not good, it was never good to be seen as a threat, but doubly so as a lone stranger. Hawke… that name rang a bell for Brán. “Ryndar Hawke?” he asked, knowing that she probably had meant the leader of the High Guard. “He is the Ryndar to the High Lord, the Captain of the High Guard so to speak…”
Suddenly a comparison, a connection came to his mind. “Renestrae…” Brán’s eyes sparkled. “I think I know whom you could see - about letters and other things your father may have left, maybe about help too, for it sounds like someone believed you to be a danger.”
A frown creased her brow. Her forehead softened shortly thereafter, and she stared intently back at him.
“A threat? I…” Her eyes. How many years did the High Lord have to him? Once I was face to face with the young woman I saw her eyes...so I reacted out of concern for the High Lord and his family. “Oh,” she added, in a small voice. “I understand, now. They must have thought that I --” She covered her mouth at the thought. “Well. Little wonder he struck me so.” In a voice distant with recollection, she continued, “Mayhap that is why they took me to the Chatelaine. The Ryndar seemed...sheepish.” She smiled impishly, before her expression grew grave once more, just tinged with fierce pride. “She asked the High Lord whether he accepted me as kin, and he did so. I cannot imagine why he would, without proof. She was courteous, but did not approve of my leavetaking when I asked to go. There was an...expectation that I would heartily embrace my new-found heritage, but how can I when it is something I have never known?” Her voice took a stumble as she said the words, her hands involuntarily gripping Brán’s tighter. Perhaps there was a little despair there, bewilderment.
“So I sought you,” she added, a crackle marring the usually smooth rise and fall of her cadence. “What should I do? Surely they would keep me there to stifle whatever scandal may arise should others come to know I am Lorcan’s bastard?”
Brán’s thoughts were racing, trying to absorb all the knowledge she gave him, trying to understand what had happened. “The way he reacted to you - to recognizing you might have been an overreaction. He might have been aware that there were cadet branches of the House, or maybe he even knew about Lorcan’s legacy. As for scandal… I am not sure how much of a scandal it really would be. For all the propriety the Cymry do certainly have, they do embrace life and certainly would not expect a bachelor lord to be entirely chaste.” Again, he considered what he knew, what he had experienced here. “I do not think they want to stifle you, or lock you away. Imagine, Renestrae, Highlord Mikhael was in D’hassa eleven years ago, he took charge when his father went down on the field and led Cymeria’s forces to victory. His father died that day… and so did his uncle. An uncle that may have officially worn a different name, but an uncle that he knew, that was around for most of the time of his life. Losing two close family members in one day... marks a man. Changes him. And now, suddenly you come along. Lorcan’s daughter, and maybe a little bit that remained of him, after he gave his life in D’hassa. If it were you, wouldn’t you want that person with your family? Wouldn’t you want to try and heal what is left of the family?” It was a question that had only one answer for Brán, but then, he reminded himself, he was back with what his brother had taught him about family.
“As I said before, Ren, I have an idea.” he went on, finally. “Lord Kimber’s Ryndar survived the Battle of D’hassa. He was one of the very few of the High Guard who made it through. I saw him at the Gathering… so he is still alive and around, and certainly he did not look like he was in his dotage. If anyone could tell you more about your father - and about your other family - it would be him.”
She should have expected his words. She felt a coldness enter her all the same, swirling in the pit of her stomach. She knew it to be fear: fear of their reputation, that the kinship would not have the same weight as she desired. To have gone from understanding the Mar’kathi as everything she had known to no longer living in their shadow. Did she truly know what it was to know kindredship? She had not trusted them to accept her with her abilities, in spite of knowing them her entire life. The only one she dared to trust was her mother, and that was at the very end of her days. Those who shared blood had also waged wars with one another, so what was its meaning?
She studied Brán’s expressions, watching for the little nuances that were shaped by his words. His words were a plea for her not to discard them so easily. She did not know the heart of Lord Mikhail Stormdanovich, but Brán trusted it. That was enough, perhaps.
“What is the name of his Ryndar?” She asked, after a few ponderous moments had lapsed. Then, in barely a whisper: “Brán, I am afraid.” It was a difficult admission. It pained her to say it. She had always prided herself on facing the things that she feared, but she had discovered so much more to fearful of in just the span of two days. It was beyond her comprehension, her experience. It could not be resolved by either blade or bow. It was not the simple matter of knowing there was enough to eat throughout cold winter months. It was not a lost lamb nor a snow-trapped villager.
The soft words sounded so lost… so hurt. Again Brán took her hand. “You are standing in the middle of a journey, Ren. You left all behind that you know and you have yet to find where your journey ends. Moments of Transition always bring Change, Fear is the companion of change, overcoming fear is the key to unlocking the gifts change brings. For what it is worth: you are not alone with what lies ahead. We will go together.” He knew what it was to be a stranger in a strange land, though in fourteen years of living in Cymeria he had become at home in this land and grown to love it.
He waited another moment, not expecting an answer right at once. “The Rytsar’s name is Gero Dawnrunner… no, that’s wrong, he is of the Wyr, so he’d use his clan name. Gero of Dawnrunner Clan.” He had drawn that name from what he had heard in D’hassa, mostly from other people talking. The only time he had heard the tall warrior addressed directly had been in the crazed moments after the glass blade had been used. Brán had been witness in the crowd, unable to see any chance to stop the Wyr. The name the High Lord had used in that tense fight had sounded strange enough to Brán’s ears. Ewythr Hen Gath - Uncle Old Cat. The name indicated that the Rytsar must have been very close to his Lord’s family, maybe he still was.
Was accepting his help a weakness? No. He would not steal her pride from her. And, gods, Renestrae knew that the Mar’kathi were haughty, quietly proud. They asked for no help, and they did not bargain on their principles. Her mother had the same ferocity. It was not arrogance or hubris; it was self-assuredness and self-reliance. Brán was not leading her along the road, like some errant pony. He was walking alongside her while she dictated where they should walk.
“Gero of Dawnrunner Clan,” she echoed, thoughtfully. “Where might I find him?” She looked crestfallen, for a moment. “I-- if I return to the stronghold…”
...With her tail between her legs, would she look like some foolish girl who had stormed off in rashness? The words were unspoken. Pride. It was a terrible thing, her strength and her downfall.
“Caer Draenar,” Brán replied at once. “That’s where his people live, not all that far from Stormholm, high up in the mountains. Should he not be there, his people will know where we can find him.” Her mien, the way she sat told him that she was not comfortable at all, that there was a struggle going on inside her. He was not sure what it was about, but he held back, to allow her to come to her own decision.
High up in the mountains…
She felt the way opening to her. A crossroads. One day, answers lay therein; the other, she could walk in ignorance for the rest of her days, not knowing what might have happened had she tried. Her faraway gaze had flickered in thought, her head turned away from him again. Finally, she met his eyes once more. There was a glint of hope within-- of hope, and quiet fear, and determination.
“Will you come with me? To Caer Draenar?”
Brán rose and extended a hand towards her. “Of course. We will go there together.”