Dawn of Tomorrow
The Thinning Veil
Location: Stormholm Caer, Harkania March, Cymeria
Timeline: October 3550
:: Lady Oksana's Apartments ::
Late day sun filtered into the room via great floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the mountains and valleys in the far distance. From inside, one could glimpse the cascading waters of the great Thunder River and see out into a private courtyard that was accessed by a discreet door set between the windows. The smooth stone walls had been washed in a pale cream color which leant the room a light yet warm atmosphere. The furnishings were worn but well made, a sign that the room was made for living in and not just being in. No fire stood in the great fireplace, and the windows stood open allowing a gentle breeze to waft through the room.
From the courtyard, children’s voices could be heard, raised in excitement and interspersed by a man’s deeper voice and laughter. Oksana Stormdanovich D’Corwyn occasionally raised her head from her embroidery to gaze out the window and smile. Her husband, Gareth, so enjoyed his playtime with the children. She always loathed having to call them in to clean up for dinner. So, what if dinner was delayed this once? After all, she was also expecting a guest.
Almost as if someone had read her mind, there was a rap on the door, and it opened to reveal one of the family’s attendants, “Renestrae tyr-Vashti, Lady,” the servant said before stepping back to allow another to enter.
It felt as though eons had passed since Renestrae had set foot in Stormholm. This time, there was a renewed sense of purpose. Her conversation with Gero had convinced her to return to the grand keep, to at the very least, consider her ties to House Stormdanovich. They had traveled together until Brán had to part ways to return to the Theurgy. She had thanked him profusely, and there were promises of seeing one another again. While she would feel his absence, she was also not without his friendship, and that was enough.
Still clad in her traveling garments -- which were, truly, the only trappings she had ever known -- the bard was sent to seek an audience with Oksana at Gero’s direction, while he would seek out the High Lord to appraise him of the new circumstances. Renestrae swallowed the lump that had gathered there in her throat; she and the Keeper of the Hearth had not parted on the warmest of terms.
She stepped within, tucking her right leg behind her so that she could bow in the performer’s fashion, with the left leg bent and the right bent so that the bridge of her foot was pressed into the stone floor. When she straightened, with her chin held high, she waited for the lady to either cast her out or welcome her.
Oksana lay her embroidery aside and rose to her feet, her dark green eyes regarding the much younger woman consideringly albeit not unkindly. “Welcome back to Stormholm Caer, Colli tyr-Vashti. May I offer you some refreshment? I am afraid dinner will be delayed, besides which, I believe my brother expects you to dine privately with him.”
She was to dine with him? The small voice, yet unstifled, the voice that had been shaped and raised by y Carthu, it sneered at the notion. She smothered it. In spite of her distrust of the nobility, she had seen much in their conduct to suggest that the teachings of her youth were wrong. It was a difficult thing, to pit truth against pride, but there it was. Her assumptions had already been greatly undone as she came to know more of her father’s deeds. Many would be honoured to dine with Lord Mikhael Stormdanovich. Equally, the stubbornness in her refused to feel so. He was, after all, just a man.
...A man who was the High Lord.
“I would welcome that, my lady,” she replied with honest graciousness, feeling grubby and out-of-place in the face of the chamber’s grandeur.
Oksana gestured toward a chair set at an angle to where she had been seated on the sofa, “Please, be seated. Pardon the clutter. Picking up before the children have retired is rarely productive.” She bent to retrieve a small wooden ball off the sofa before walking to a large sideboard and pouring them both a glass of chilled fruit juice, a mixture of wild berries and the exotic mango lending it both a tart flavor and smooth texture. Handing Renestrae one of the glasses, Oksana resumed her seat, negligently arranging her split skirt comfortably.
Renestrae had felt much more at home in the Valley of the Wyr, where it had felt earthier, closer to nature. Taking the glass, she momentarily was caught off-guard by the finery of it, before she remembered to sit. It was but her second time, experiencing such finery.
“My thanks,” she said, admiring the drink’s hue. In her village, berries were often harvested to be dried, or the tarter sort was condemned to become wine and the like. She did not detect the tinge of alcohol, for she had assumed the drink to be some sort of distilled brew. She had only experienced the alternative during her past visit.
“I…” She began hesitantly. “I seek forgiveness if I seemed rude when I parted ways before,” she finally said, wrestling internally with stubborn pride. “My mother taught me to be better mannered than that.”
“Think nothing of it, my dear,” Oksana said allowing a bit of warmth to seep into her voice. “We all have good and bad days in that regard. No doubt getting clouted in the face by the Ryndar would be enough to put one’s manners off.”
Taking a drink of the juice, Oksana let herself enjoy the crisp flavor and coolness before continuing, “I find formality tiresome when I am not playing my brother’s hostess. Please, kinswoman, make yourself at home. You may call me Oksana, or as the family names me, Sanya. Do you have a preferred form of address?”
The bard took a delicate sip of the concoction and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of an alcoholic burn, as well as the sheer thick sweetness of it, complemented by an underlying sourness. She unconsciously tucked in her lower lip to catch the last of the droplets.
“It comes not easily to me,” she replied, lowering the glass. Her fingers nudged over the crystal surface nervously. “Begging your pardon, my lady, but not altogether long ago, you were but figures of distant legend. Now I sit with the Lady of the Hearth, of House Stormdanovich.” She paused, and gingerly pressed onward: “My...people did not consider the Cymry favorably, users of magic less so. The irony of that is not lost on me.” She added, quietly, stormy blue eyes glittering, “But, if it is a start we are seeking, Ren will do.”
“Well, we do have to start somewhere,” Oksana replied with a gentle laugh and humor in her voice. “Lady of the Hearth or not, as my brother would say, I still put my breeches on one leg at a time...or in my case, my skirt.” She gestured at the comfortably worn split skirt which fell to mid-calf length and soft flat soled boots. “This is a working keep, and our circumstances would be the same whether we ruled the land or not. My children are not keen on their chores, but like myself and my siblings were required to do as children, they are assigned to work with the household’s attendants and learn each person’s job. It makes it very hard to look down on anyone when you have had to do their work.”
“I did not think of the nobility as working,” Renestrae admitted, as she subtly glanced at Oksana’s split skirt. The design was practical, far from the impractical, fussy, and heavy skirts she had envisioned the royalty wearing. “But, it would seem that I have much to learn, as much as I have already learned.” She thought of her clothing: much-worn but well-cared-for leathers, layered over woolen garments, all coloured in dull shades. My gods, she thought: I must reek of the road! “It is a little much to consider, the discovery that there is family that I could not envision having ties to,” she continued, shifting uncomfortably on the seat as self-conscious thoughts harangued her.
“The Land gives back threefold as much as we are willing to put into it.” This belief was genuine. To the Cymry, the Threefold Law encompassed far more than just the use of magic. It was very much a way of life. “But tell me, Ren, did you find any of the answers you came seeking?”
“Not all,” Renestrae said plainly, there being a break in words as she took a draught of the glass once more. “But, Rytsar Gero’s offer of assistance has been most welcome. It is by his words that I have returned here.”
“And there may be answers that cannot be had through words or things,” Oksana said quietly, “especially when we are not sure of the questions.” Humor lit her deep green eyes, “Be that as it is for the time. You are welcome in this House for as long as you choose to remain and seek to harm none.” This time Oksana did laugh, one that invited others to join in. “I have to add the ‘and seek to harm none’ part as it is part and parcel of being the formal Lady of the Hearth. Would you care to rest a bit before joining my brother?”
The younger woman drew her free fingers over the bumps of her braid, which was draped over the front of her her shoulder. It was, she did not doubt, showered with the dust of the road. She had laughed, for the Lady of the Hearth’s laughter was infectious in its way.
“I...a bath would be welcome,” she said, cheeks warming with embarrassment. Being of the mountains was all well and good, but her sense of dignity was being overwhelmed by the realization that felt as though she very much needed a wash. The Mar’kathi, in spite of what some thought of mountain folk, were particular about their cleanliness. Oh, they could be covered in blood and mud and all sorts, but there was nothing like bathing in the hot springs to banish it all away. “I have done little but travel, of late.”
“And leave it to a man to not consider the need to bathe and feel presentable before sending you hence,” Oksana said, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial tone. “We can…” Just as she started to stand and call an attendant to show Renestrae to her rooms, the door from the courtyard flew open, and her oldest children plunged into the room.
“Mama! Mama! Arwyn is whacking me with a stick,” a tall, willowy girl of some ten years of age stated.
“Alwena whacked me first!” The boy was the same height and feature for feature matched the girl.
“Arwyn, do not whack your sister with sticks. Alwena, do not whack your brother with anything. And both of you say hello to your cousin, Renestrae. She is new to the House so please do not frighten her away.” Oksana voice was once again laced with amusement as she admonished her offspring. “My eldest,” she said to Ren, “the twins, Alwena and Arwyn.”
The twins regarded their mother’s guest with expressions of curiosity, but both politely bowed their heads and said, almost in unison, “It is good to meet you, Renestrae. Welcome to the House.”
“Well met, Alwena and Arwyn,” Renestrae greeted them, dipping in her stylistic bow. It felt surreal, hearing them introduced as cousins. She had gone from being an only child of an only child to having a whole slew of relatives she was only just meeting. Did they age strangely, as she did? Yet another assumption had been derailed, and a stupid one, at that -- children were children everywhere, and where there were sticks available, so there would be whacking. She smiled nervously, fighting back against the overwhelming feeling of being consumed by the newness of it all. She had often been off by herself, in Haradar. The others knew something was not altogether right about her, and she knew so, too. She would sneak away when her...gifts would flare up. Gifts! She called her attunement with the storm a curse, one that effectively isolated her from her own people.
To, she reflected silently, what would appear to be her benefit. These people were not the monsters, as y Carthu teachings painted them. They were kind, hardworking, and mindful. They welcomed her in spite of barely knowing whom she was. With the exception of Hawke landing a blow on her face, they had not harmed her. They surely knew, too, that she had been raised to hate them, and yet did not turn her away. She was not obligated to them, but she would see that she would treat them with all the fairness they surely deserved, and more.
“Back outside, both of you!” Oksana ordered her offspring. “And if I hear any more complaints everyone gets whacked!”
Both children regarded their mother curiously, “Even Papa?” Arwyn asked.
“Especially Papa,” Oksana affirmed.
“Even Renestrae?” Alwena then asked.
“Renestrae is new come to the House. She is exempt from whacking...for now.” Oksana frowned at the twins and said with mock severity, “Out!” The twins bolted from the room, and the Lady of the Hearth sighed and then turned back to Renestrae. “Now...I was about to show you to your apartments. No doubt you would like your clothing laundered? I have asked that some garments be left for you to wear until you can shop or request some be made.”
The bard, straight-faced, quipped: “I am most grateful for your consideration, Lady of the Hearth.” When the children had fled, she looked to Oksana, who was proposing the unthinkable: that she, Renestrae, should wear anything more than the comfortable wool and leathers to which she was accustomed. Her expression was one of mild horror.
“Garments, my lady? As you might wear?” She asked, in a diminished voice. Her mind, forgetting Oksana’s own comfortable split-skirt, was conjuring images of heavy velvet and cloth-of-gold over which she would surely trip.
Oksana ushered Renestrae toward the door, “Yes, Ren, garments. You know tunics, blouses, skirts, leggings, breeches...garments. Even if the High Lord shows up smelling of horses, it is not done for us to go to dinner clad in nothing.”
“But, begging your grace’s pardon,” Renestrae floundered, “I-- I am unaccustomed to...to trappings of such finery.” For all of her coolness, there was a note of panic in her voice. It had just occurred to her, did being of House Stormdanovich mean that she would also have to act like nobility? Attend-- what did they attend, gatherings? Not the sort of gatherings of her sort of people, but the sort where there were at least three roast oxen and structured dancing.
“Then you should be in good company with Mikhael. He is unaccustomed to trappings of finery as well. In fact, he downright detests state dinners.” Oksana led Renestrae along a corridor and through a set of doors that opened into the wing of the keep set aside for the quarters and apartments of the single women that lived within its environs. Stopping outside a set of double doors, she opened them and then dropped the key in Renestrae’s hands. “Your quarters. When you have the time, see me with any requests for redecorating or household items you need if they are not things that the attendants can find for you.”
The raven-haired woman felt dwarfed in the chambers. She was certain that she and her mother’s home could surely fit within, perhaps an exaggeration, but the thought still stood. They were far bigger than the room they had housed her in before her trip to the Valley.
She thought to argue but realized that while there could be war leaders and ferocious hunters, none had Oksana’s mettle. Little wonder she was the Lady of the Hearth; she surely outmatched the High Lord in wits and iron. She had the heart and might of a lioness.
“Redecorating?” She echoed feebly, staring at the key in her hand. She was a deer caught in the maw of a wolf, unable to free herself. She resigned herself to her fate. “I...will be sure to do so. My thanks for your most generous hospitality.”
Oksana led Renestrae into the main area that was split into a comfortable living area and small dining area. She pointed at the great windows with the door set between, “If these rooms do not suit, we can find others, but this was the only one ready that also has a private balcony-courtyard area.” Continuing the tour, she led her through another set of doors, “Bedchamber and to the left is a dressing chamber...small but plenty of storage for...garments.” Sanya’s raised brows invited Renestrae to enjoy the gentle teasing. “Through here,” she led on to another set of doors, “a bathing chamber and privy.” Pointing to a chain with a pretty crystal handle, “A bell for summoning your attendants. And please, ask them for help when you need it otherwise, they may feel as if they are not doing their jobs well…”
“These are mine?” She asked in a very small voice. She missed Oksana’s teasing, as it was truly dawning on her what it meant to be related to the House. “Oh…” She paused in the doorway to the bedchamber. Her bow, weapons, and other assorted belongings had been arranged neatly for her, as well as the case that housed her poor smashed cittern. She turned, drawing her fingers anxiously over her braid. She had marveled at the running water of Stormholm before, and it still mystified her. It would likely mystify her for as long as she remained there.
“Attendants?” She parroted, as though her ears were finally catching up. “I-- I need not attendants,” she stammered. “I’ve always done for myself,” she added, a little haughtily.
Oksana raised her eyebrows, “I assure you that the young ladies and gentlemen that work here will not appreciate such snobbery.” Again her tone was teasing rather than derisive or cruel. “Someone will come for you when my brother is ready to dine. Is there anything you need before I go to see my urchins bathed and fed?”
She shook her head numbly, schooled into silence by Oksana’s sensibility.
“Well then… indulge in a long hot bath and rest a bit. You will find clothing and toiletries in the dressing chamber.” Oksana paused and in a kindlier tone added, “You are welcome here, Renestrae. This can be your home if you allow it to be.” Turning, Oksana exited, leaving the girl time to herself.
:: Renestrae's Apartments, Same Day ::
Renestrae had never permitted anyone but herself to service her armour before, as was her people’s custom. She did reluctantly allow her clothing to be laundered, leaving her with the choice of what she considered too luxurious garments, courtesy of Stormholm Caer. She opted for subdued tones, and a tunic with a split skirt much like Oksana’s. She was mindful enough to clean off her supple yet enduring boots. She had experienced mirrors before, they being a rarity in Haradar, but nothing quite like the sort that matched her in height. Contrary to what some thought, mountain folk did care well for themselves, and so her hair had been combed through neatly after her bath before being returned to its usual braid again.
If she was truly fair, it was not nearly as extravagant as her mind’s eye had envisioned. The Stormdanovich family were earthy, in their way, using fine materials without being opulent. All of the clothing had been fashioned with riding or movement in mind; all of the furniture, enduring but simplistically elegant. The beds were not gilded and decorated with manic fretwork. The bathing chamber and privy were certainly luxurious, but not altogether beyond there being running, hot water. She begrudgingly admired the practicality of it all.
She had heard that the nobility patted their faces with white dust, and painted their eyes and lips with dangerous things. Her people used a stick of carbon and herbal paste for the eyes, and a gelled mixture dyed with berries for the lips. They would say, we are superior, for we use what comes of the earth; those with magic, they use it to mask their faces, and terrible concoctions to seduce and draw, all while poisoning themselves to madness. How outlandish those claims seemed now! Her mother had not believed a word of it but had always held her tongue.
The first time she had seen Oksana, and other members of Stormholm Caer, they seemed not altogether different than she.
Did one wear a weapon to an audience with the High Lord? Well, if she wasn’t too, they could tell her so. She wore her sword and her dagger. She felt exposed without her armour, but it wanted cleaning. She might have made an attempt were it not for the knock on the door, an attendant informing her that it was time and that they would wait to escort her to the dining chamber. Giving up on her leathers, she opened the door and followed the attendant.
:: High Lord's Apartments, Dinner Hour ::
Mikhael put the finishing touch on the roast chicken being served for dinner and set it on the table. He had chosen the smaller of the two dining chambers in his apartments and to prepare the meal himself. It was not an effort to impress his new cousin, but simply for the sake of privacy and comfort. The meal itself was also simple and even plain by the standards of most Houses. It consisted of roast chicken rubbed with oil and rosemary, boiled potatoes that had cream and cheese stirred in and a fresh salad of mixed greens and vegetables. There was also fresh bread and cut cheese along with a cold spiced tea and fresh water. A simple repast but well within the High Lord’s culinary skills to prepare well.
The dining chamber was pleasant with the walls washed in a dark forest green and hung with beautiful tapestries illustrating the landscapes of the Highlands of Harkania. They were old, the colors muted with age, but the images were still clear, and they were clean and well-maintained. The table was round with a pedestal support and four clawed legs extending from that. The pedestal, legs, and tabletop were a polished dark wood while the tabletop was covered by a single piece of polished cream, deep green, and gold granite. Flecks of gold in the stone top caught the light of a large low hanging moonglobe. Four deep chairs were arranged around the table while a matching sideboard held extra meal items and condiments. Light troughs had been built into the room’s corners that contained an oil that wafted scents reminiscent of the forest throughout the room and added another level of warmth to the atmosphere. The overall ambiance of the room was pleasant and denoted strength without extreme opulence. In many ways, it was another reflection of the man that dwelled there.
He had also chosen to dress casually for the evening and was clad in comfortable breeches and a loose, lace-up shirt. Still tired from his sojourn to the Tegwyn farm and the wyvern hunt, Mikhael had simply not been able to face dressing formally for the evening. Besides, his goal was to get to know the newest member of the House, not to intimidate or present an imposing presence to her. He grinned as he poured himself a serving of the cold tea. For once, he was taking Oksana’s well-meant advice.
Just as he took the first sip of his tea, he heard one of his attendants announcing the arrival of Colli tyr-Vashti. Stepping outside the dining chamber and crossing to the apartment’s antechamber, Mikhael offered the girl a slight bow of respect. The Cymry were not inclined toward bowing and scraping for themselves or for those they employed. “Cousin,” Mikhael greeted her, “I am pleased you decided to return to Stormholm. Please come in.”
He bowed to her? Renestrae was taken aback by the gesture but bowed in her manner. Being addressed as “cousin” was unnerving enough.
“Your Grace,” she answered, her expression one of cautious neutrality. “I am grateful that you have welcomed me so,” she added. She was so used to speaking her mind as she pleased, but she had also been raised to be well-mannered. He had hardly done anything to wound her, after all. If he acted out of turn, she would say as much, but for now, she would be at least cordial.
“Your attendants are skilled cooks indeed if the scent of the meal is anything to judge by,” she added, the tell-tale twinkle in her eye hinting that the deadpan tone belied the humor.
Mikhael chuckled lightly and gestured to the dining area, “Let us see if that is still the opinion once you have tasted the meal. I did the preparation myself.” He stood back so she could pass into the dining chamber. “I apologize for rudely rushing us to sit down for our meal, but I am still tired from my journey.”
She arched an eyebrow. The High Lord, cooking? Sports hunting was the realm of lordly sorts, but she had been proven wrong time and again under Stormholm’s vast roof.
“That would make the two of us,” she replied, a little more lackadaisically than she had before. She paused and turned to face him. Gods, he was tall! “Your Lordship, perhaps I am bold to speak so, but I oft mind my manners long enough that it is passable, but I am less mindful if I am in anyone’s company overly long. I thus offer my apologies in advance, for I am not well versed in the manners of your home and hearth.”
Mikhael literally blinked as he stopped just short of trodding on the girl and looked down at her, “Apologies for what exactly? Do you plan to murder me in my sleep or just respond to Hawke’s previous...transgression with his fist?” A decided sparkle of humor now played in the depths of his cold blue eyes. “Wait, you do not throw food, do you?”
“Why, that would be wasteful, my Lord,” she said easily, one corner of her mouth quirking in a wry smile. “A good bard hurls insults instead, disguised as compliments.”
“I see,” Mikhael responded, somewhat laconically as he showed her to a seat. “Would you object to us serving for ourselves? I would prefer a night in a relaxed company rather than hedged about with attendants.”
With a glitter of her eyes -- so very similar to his own, although not entirely alike -- she replied, “I would not know, my Lord. I am unaccustomed to attendants.” She paused by her seat. Was she supposed to sit before him? Or were they to sit together, at once?
Mikhael chose not to respond to her comment. Anything he could say would sound condescending or patronizing. It would be superfluous to ask if she had never been served by an employee of an inn or a barkeep. Besides, he had had no agenda in asking her to dine with him beyond getting to know her better and had even less of a desire to set out an adversarial relationship going forward. Instead, he gestured to one of the chairs, “Please, be seated,” he said as he took his own seat. “Would you prefer spiced tea or water?”
“Spiced tea, if you please,” she said, as she sat. She watched him curiously; had her words been too biting? He had not replied with a light barb of his own, and his expression had not so much as flickered. She tipped her head slightly to one side. “Did I offend, my Lord? If I was too bold, may it be said.”
Lifting the heavy pewter pitcher, Mikhael poured the fragrant chilled beverage into a matching stemmed pewter goblet. For himself, he chose the water. He needed more hydration than the tea provided. Reaching for the carving knife and fork, he began to work on the roast chicken, slicing through the crispy skin and noting with pleasure that he had judged the roasting time correctly. It was done but not dry. Glancing at Renestrae, he offered her the first slices of meat as he addressed her comments, “I find being offended tedious and not productive, cousin.”
Had she been hungrier than she realized? Her stomach emitted an involuntary little growl. She instinctively drew her hand over it, smiling a little sheepishly.
“Then I may like you all the more...cousin,” she said, exploring the use of the title with the caution of a child wading into a supposedly shallow pool. “Forgive my rude stomach; it knows not manners, and as much as I school it, it refuses to be silent in polite company.”
Mikhael grinned affably, “Nothing to forgive. I am encouraged that you have an appetite since I tend to not be able to fix food for only two people. It is probably fortunate that I do not often take on the task.” Once he had served the food, he gave Renestrae a long, level look. “Tell me of your life.”
She met his gaze startled. He had spoken so frankly, was it of any wonder that he did so now? His eyes, so similar to her own, were not judgemental. His question was genuine. She was mid-jab of roast chicken, and carefully set her fork down before offering a reply.
“ ‘Twas a simple life enough,” she began, folding her hands in her lap. “I know not what you know of Haradar, but it is home to the Mar’kathi people. ‘Tis a place nestled in a jewel of the world, where the sun meets the mountains, so that the snow may be so brilliant that it is blinding. My people did not believe in uselessness, nor did they discard those who were less able. All of us worked from childhood and were all expected to carry one another unto death. We sought to take only what we needed from the land, in a respectful fashion.” She hesitated, and continued: “My Lord, in spite of their...y Carthu leanings, the Mar’kathi are a hardworking lot. We took care of our own, and our lives were made rich with song and dance and storytelling. While it bothers my heart much, I know that in spite of their detestation of magic and those of magical blood, they thought they were good folk and were good to one another.”
Mikhael regarded the young woman steadily, the cold glitter of his eyes ameliorated by the soft light from the moonglobes and candles. He might be wrongly perceiving a concern regarding his what his policy might be toward the Mar’kathi but felt it should be addressed, so they started their blood relationship knowing exactly where one another stood. He allowed a trace of a sigh to escape his lips, but it was of sorrow not exasperation as memories crowded his mind. Memories of y Carthu atrocities.
Leaning forward slightly, he spoke quietly, his deep voice rippling with sincerity, “Renestrae, trust me when I say that I have no desire to forward hostilities with an entire population of Cymerians that do not merit it. But, trust me as well when I say that y Carthu will lead them into darkness. I have witnessed The Purge’s atrocities first hand, and in one such event, they even employed the foulest of magics against the innocent...people who farmed the land and cared for one another as you say the Mar’kathi do, whose only crime was their birthright. I would be lying if I stated that I did not find anyone that supports y Carthu suspect.”
Mikhael leaned back in his seat and picked up his water goblet. His long fingers gently toyed with its stem, feeling the coolness of the pewter underneath their tips, “But, I have never taken hostile action against any person or persons simply for their beliefs even when they condemn others’ for nothing more than the situation of their birth. I sincerely hope that I never have to do so in the future.”
She was quiet for long moments. Her gaze sought the wall away from the table, a wall hanging drifting into fuzzy focus as she weighed his words. He was not one to waste words, the High Lord. He spoke candidly but directly. He did not shield his thoughts altogether much but was no ruffian in his speak. It was a difficult thing to consider. On the road, she had come to discover that y Carthu were hardly respected as an entity. For all they spoke ill of the High Lord and his allies, it was as though they attributed their own horrors to others. Had any of the men and womenfolk who had traveled and returned done any of those things? Had they lied? It was a chilling thought, one that she had not entirely faced with courage. She wanted to believe that they were good. Perhaps they were. Perhaps they were only good to y Carthu.
“I have...heard things, my Lord,” she said, as her eyes found his own again. Blue and grey and silver, like the storm, like her own. Always, she was drawn to the eyes; so familiar, yet not at all. Her tongue felt like lead as she forced the words from herself. She found that she had to do so, those days: with Brán, with Gero, with her cousin. “I have always believed that it is far better to know the truth than to favour lies, but I never imagined anything such as this. I do not ask for pity, but I confess that the learning of all of these things has been...arduous. I should like to think that my people did not participate in such terrible things, but also must consider that they may have done. There were those of us who left, with knowledge of their reasons confined only to the elders.”
Feeling a sudden dryness in her mouth, she reached for her tea, taking just enough to banish the sensation. “I cannot accept my heritage in wholeness without acknowledging that my mother’s thoughts on y Carthu were changed by my father. I also cannot accept my heritage willingly without equally knowing that they...would never have accepted what strange powers I possess. They were always kind to me, but I was always different. Perhaps they knew, and if I were to reveal myself, they might have turned on me. I cannot say for certain.”
“y Carthu is a beast of many faces and layers, Renestrae. Many who support them and their cause only give it lip service as a sort of defiance against the status quo. But, there is a heart of pure evil at their core. It is vile and dark. It seeks nothing less than the extermination of every man, woman, and child of arcane descent. I have witnessed it.”
“Many years ago, not long after I took service with the Guard, our unit was dispatched on a routine patrol to High Hallack, a valley not many leagues distant. It was historically a stronghold of several Cymry Houses, but many Celts dwelt there as well...some worked Cymry lands, some held their own holds and farms. We found them all, every single one of them, dead. And, theirs were not easy deaths...but brutal and tortuous and many of their corpses had been horrifically mutilated. Even worse, I could sense that the Chalon...the spirits of the slain...were still trapped in their dead and decaying bodies. Someone had used the vilest form of magic that I know of...spirit-binding.”
Mikhael stopped speaking and let out an explosive breath as his mind replayed the anguished cries of the dead in High Hallack. Shaking off the memories, “I was able to find a Cymry archadept who could release the binding, and we later found those responsible for the slayings and the ordering of the binding. Of the one who actually did their bidding, there has been no trace. It is my belief that once he or she served their purpose, they were slain as well. The murderers were y Carthu.”
Her hands, which were folded in her lap once more, curled fingers tightly into fists, nails digging into the flesh of her palms. y Carthu spoke of magic as though it were a deplorable thing, and yet, they used the very thing they declared wretched? More than that, they used magic as they saw fit, for abominable deeds. Her cheeks lost a shade of colour as the thought went on to further knock down mental walls.
“All they spoke were lies,” she said quietly, hoarsely. “Lies they believed. They would do the very thing that they cursed your family for. I might have remained resistant, that your words were to ensnare me, but I witnessed your actions at the Gathering. I saw what all did in your service, and it is not as they say. My people…”
Though his expression was still bleak, Mikhael’s smile was gentle, “If any Mar’kathi had been amongst their number, they would have revealed it to me. I have never had evidence of any of Haradar having actually participated in such acts. But, Ychydig’dryw, Little Wren,” Mikhael used a play on the shortened form of her name, “you are Cymry. You should learn about that aspect of yourself. Even should you choose to not pursue the higher training, it is advisable to learn to control your gifts and to shield and protect yourself from others that would seek to use them against you or others.”
The warmth returned to her face, and her shoulders sank a fraction as the tension left them. Ychydig’dryw. Little Wren. He said it as though he had always said it. She drew the name about her as though it were a mantle against the cold.
“I...yes, I suppose I should,” she conceded. “It is part of why I came here, to begin with. To uncover the truth, and to seek aid. I was able to hide it, for a while, but it is beyond my means to properly control it. I must be wary of my temper, for the wind will respond.” She smiled a little conscientiously at that; he must have been aware of it when she was held in the jail.
“Let us change the course of the conversation. I do not want it to be said that I invited my cousin to dinner only to interrogate her. What would you ask of me?” Mikhael easily shifted the topic. Time to ease the tension. There was time to learn more of her story but allowing a flow, a natural give and take regarding the topics of conversation would, hopefully, establish more of a connection.
Her expression was one of startlement. She blinked once, twice, both hard, owlish. It took her a few moments to chew through her mouthful, and it wasn’t until she had washed it down with tea that she spoke.
“I cannot rightly say, cousin,” she answered honestly. “I do not know what my path is, from here. I had certainly, and now, I no longer do. Lord Gero is seeing to it that my father’s belongings are retrieved on my behalf, but after that…” She fiddled with the stem of her goblet absentmindedly. “Perhaps...perhaps I may make myself useful, somehow. I wish to familiarize myself with whom my father was. He sounds as though he were a man of honour. Both of my parents made mistakes, it would seem. I cannot say what his thoughts were, but I hope to be a daughter worthy of his legacy and sacrifice.” The words had begun falteringly but flowed more easily in short time. She was, truly, stumbling in the dark, and there was a glimmer that was either daylight or just torchlight, just another marker on a shrouded road.
Mikhael had intended that she ask him about his life or even questions about the family or the Cymry. She had misread his question, or he had phrased it badly. Either way, it had served to move the conversation in slightly different direction, easing it away from the potentially confrontational territory. “Lorcan was valued as a warrior, friend, and brother by my father. I was absent from Stormholm for many years so did not know him well, but have never heard ill of him.” He paused to consider his next words.
“What was your grandfather like?” Renestrae asked instead, cautiously edging them toward the man who united them by blood. “Our,” she corrected herself, after a moment’s thought. “You seem a man of just principles and honour. It is not...as I was told.” She allowed herself another uneasy smile.
“I am afraid I cannot tell you much of Mathias Stormdanovich from personal experience. He crossed long before I was born.” A sparkle appeared in his eyes, “If it helps at all, Kerowyn says I am more like Mathias than my father was. Others say I am a throwback to the bad old days when the Cymry were obsessed with the arcane and advancing their powers. I know from his journals and what Kerowyn has told me, as well as stories Gero shared, that Mathias was opposed to the Cymry entirely abandoning their connection to the arcane as it was also our sustenance, our connection to the land. He was generally regarded as a good and honorable man.”
She felt a flutter of unease at the mention of the ill thoughts some had for the High Lord. She had been raised with such beliefs, but the man she had envisioned as not the one she had come to meet. She took another swallow of tea to wash down the mouthwatering chicken, mulling her words over in her mind before answering.
“What of the rest of your kin?” She asked. “I am unfamiliar as to...well. I should know the number of my cousins, and whom they are, and so on. I ought to know whom they are, lest we cross ways.”
Mikhael grinned, eyes dancing. This would be a short conversation since beyond his sisters’ names and husbands’ names, for those that were married, he was rather clueless. He had made an effort to attend dinners to get to know them better when they visited, but in most cases, he still did not know any of them well. In fact, he had already agreed to attend a family gathering before the Yule feast. So, he began delving into his memory to tell Renestrae about her cousins. Surprisingly, he found that he remembered more anecdotes regarding them, particularly Oksana and Anastasiya than he expected. From stories they had told, he was able to tell Ren a few things about the others. He was also able to relay a story or two from Laryn’s encounters with other heads of state.
From there, they adjourned from the dinner table, and Mikhael continued to regale Renestrae with stories of various misadventures...his, Hawke’s, other members of the household. So the evening ended on a pleasant note of warmth and laughter.