Shadows on the Trail
The old wizard crept behind the free-standing shelf stealthily. He knew what that woman could and would do if she caught him in her shop again… He upbraided himself mentally for the dire circumstances that had made this trip absolutely necessary.
Once again he caught himself muttering softly and shut his mouth with an almost audible snap. Like walking into the spider’s den itself, he thought. Rolling his eyes heavenward, he said a silent prayer to Orethyn and clutched his patchy hat to his chest like a talisman. He veritably tip-toed toward where the object of his quest rested in the dingiest, darkest, dustiest corner in the whole shop; all the while he honed his ears to the slightest disturbance.
A Man, he thought to himself contemptuously, a Grown, Dignified, Scholarly Man- and here I am TIP-TOEING! The thought was just too insulting. For a brief moment he straightened his aching spine. Throwing back his shoulders at the imagined offense, he thrust out his snow-bearded chin stubbornly.
His fool pride nearly got him killed. Or worse.
Quickly and unabashedly he ducked back down so fast that he clipped his prideful chin on his knobby knees as he caught sight of the notoriously large and braided brown head of Madam Yibi coming in the back door.
It’s not that he wasn’t perfectly willing to pay for this item. He just knew Yibi would never sell it to him once she found out he needed it. It just so happened, that dear misses Madam Yibi had had a ‘thing’ for Treedon from the moment she’d laid eyes on him fifty years ago. Women had such an unfortunate and inconvenient habit of never forgetting a man who’s broken their heart!
He allowed himself what he considered a brief moment to whine in his thoughts.
How do I get myself into these predicaments? It’s not my fault I’m such a devilishly handsome and irresistible gentleman!
His more than generous bushy white brows started to quiver… Such an unfortunate side-effect, that, he whined silently. He couldn’t even think thoughts that were ever so slightly untruthful or exaggerated without them setting off like that…
Again his brows began twitching like furry ancient caterpillars doing a strange dance. The curse was a token from the very woman he now intended to steal from.
Well… moderately handsome, he amended to himself stubbornly. I am Moderately handsome! He argued silently while his eyes rolled up in his head in an effort to glare at his own elusive eyebrows. His brows quivered once more, indignant, before settling into a quiet- but attentive- slumber. He was completely hopeless at poker.
Treedon crouched low, creeping along as quietly as he could, making steady but nerve-wracking progress. He imagined he looked comparable to a great, hairy gray spider at the moment.
When he heard the customer bell ring as a new patron entered, he let out a small sigh of relief. The very inquisitive and noisy customer more than drowned out any incidental noise he might make as he covered the last few spans to the back shelf in a hurried scurry. Now where was that darned carrion-eater when you needed him?
It was as if his friend had read his mind, wherever he was; the suddenly distressed customer started screaming. As if on cue, Treedon stood up quickly, grabbed the object of all this bother and made a mad and creaky beeline for the back door while the thus distracted Madam Yibi tried to calm her horrified client. The old man briefly wondered what commotion it was that the old pixie had caused this time; but one fleeting and haphazard glance as he ducked out the door informed him strictly that he did not want to know. He sent a fervent prayer of thanks to Orethyn for Yibi’s obliviousness to the thievery.
Once outside, he took a quick peek at the object of all this trouble. It really didn’t look so remarkable; just your typical-looking flower bulb. But Treedon knew better.
He ever-so-carefully tucked the jar- and more importantly its precious contents- into his tattered old hat and made it disappear before straightening stiffly and walking on…
Leaf and Temy had made a point to leave first thing that morning so as to reach Ganolly Castle at a decent morning hour. Jenna had performed some secret miracle on the little boy’s shoes; and the result was a clean, dry, and blissfully un-fragrant walk home. Their walk was also quiet and uneventful, seeming to take only half the time.
Leaf was deeply immersed in her own thoughts, contemplating her curious conversation with Jenna the previous night. She was keen to ask Maron about Wey- whatever it was- the first chance she got. Thus preoccupied, she was startled out of her reverie by a sudden current of energy surging across her exposed skin. Leaf looked up to study the sky; however, she didn’t need the tell-tale darkness on the distant horizon to confirm that a storm was coming. She couldn’t stop the smile that came to her lips. Storms were magick for her; she never felt more alive than the hour before a storm hit.
Once back, she delivered Temy back into the kind care of Jonah with murmured well wishes. Leaf kept on toward the castle’s back walk, still carrying the empty basket. The bruise that had been developing the previous day had at some point vanished completely. Leaf wondered about that, making and discarding theories one by one. Jenna was the prime suspect on that one, though.
She arrived promptly through the back door, and skid to a halt with one glance at Nora’s face. Instead of the welcome she was expecting, Leaf was shocked to see a very worried and frantic grimace. As soon as Nora spotted her however, she adopted the impatient expression Leaf had come to know and dread. Suddenly curious, Leaf flashed her best smile.
“Is everything alright, Mistress Nora?”
The large cook began to shout with renewed vigor. “Of course not, girl! We’ve an important guest that’s awaiting his breakfast. So snap to it!” At mention of this mystery guest, there was a fleeting look of worry. Leaf snapped-to, however; and talked while she helped prepare his meal.
“We have a guest? When did he get here? Who is he?”
Nora barked, “None of your business, girl. He arrived late last night and now is waiting to be fed; that’s all you need know!” The old woman began muttering under her breath while Leaf listened closely.
“Shan’t pretend I understand the manners of nobility; him arriving in the middle of the night and demanding room and roof! Shady if you ask me, but they won’t! Sleeping in all morning and then up and demanding breakfast as if we’d kept him waiting…” She looked up and caught Leaf hanging on every word. As she gathered her considerable temper, Leaf noted the tell-tale signs of danger and hurried to head her off.
“Shall I go shut all the windows, then? The storm will be here soon enough.”
Nora swallowed what she’d been going to say, looking relieved. “Yes! Go do that! Just stay away from the guest wing!” The last statement she emphasized with a meaningful tap of her formidable stirring spoon before stabbing her finger towards the door.
Shortly thereafter, breakfast being delivered by Nora herself, Leaf decided to tag along… in secret of course. Nora had given her a sharp reprimand to stay out of the guest wing; but surely there were windows there that needed to be shut as well. So, naturally, being eaten alive with curiosity had nothing to do with it. Leaf decided she needed to get a peek at this alleged ‘Guest’. In case there were open windows, of course.
Was it just her imagination, or did many of the servants seem to be particularly on edge today?
Taking hidden shortcuts, Leaf got to the hall of the guest wing just ahead of Nora and hid behind a large suit of armor. She was slightly less familiar with this part of the castle, simply because it was on the opposite end from where her own room was… that and it happened to be the most boring and unremarkable portion there was.
Nora came bustling by, tray in hand and muttering crossly. To Leaf’s delight, the door Nora stopped at was directly across the hall from where she hid. Leaf observed carefully through the hole made by the bent metal elbow. Nora straightened her shoulders and patted her bun into place before knocking timidly on the door. At a soft call from within, she opened the door and entered. She was in luck! Nora had left the door open just a crack and Leaf dashed across the hall to get her quick peek.
Ignoring the falsely cheerful chatter coming from inside, Leaf peered carefully around the edge of the door, taking care not to be seen. To her dismay, Nora was keeping her plump figure between her and the mysterious visitor. Just as Nora began to turn around however, Leaf caught a brief glimpse of a pale-haired and handsome man. Realizing her time was out; Leaf dashed back across the hall and slid behind the armor just as Nora bustled out.
Shutting the door firmly behind her, Nora suddenly slumped with a great sigh. Straightening herself out, the old cook walked casually across the hall and stopped to study the large suit of armor Leaf hid behind. Leaf held her breath and stood stock-still.
“My goodness this armor seems to collect dust faster than lightning.” Whipping her hand out she caught Leaf deftly by her ear and yanked her out faster than you could say ‘Got ya!’.
Leaf had nothing but a guilty and sheepish grin to offer, but the smile slid right off into a nervous gulp at the thunderous expression on Nora’s face just before she was rushed back down the hall like a prisoner.
Leaf squirmed on the stool uncomfortably; wincing as yet another sliver stabbed her tender backside. Leave it to Nora to find the one chair in the entire castle that was just shy of scrap wood for Leaf to sit on.
She was elbow deep in crusty, snotty potato starch, still twenty potatoes to go and only a dull knife to take her there. So much for her curiosity… ugh! She hadn’t realized an inquisitive mind could be so unhealthy. Someone snickered and she jerked her head up, looking around for the culprit.
Of all the people Leaf knew, Japo Wacabee was the very last person she wanted to see right now. He smirked from the doorway of the Outer kitchen, looking entirely too smug! He was small for his age too, which meant at thirteen he was only about a foot taller than Leaf. Shaking his curly-red head in mock disappointment, he swaggered in. She pointedly ignored him as a blush of anger set fire to her face. Surely Orethyn himself was taking a hand in her humiliation now.
“My my my…” came his snide little voice. Leaf thought she would rather shove the dull potato knife in her foot than hear him say another word. “Someone’s been a sneaky little leaf, I hear.” …Better yet, his foot.
Leaf was suddenly and swiftly reminded of her visit to the orphanage, and of the promise she’d made to herself concerning this twerp. She looked up then as he made his gloating way across the Inner kitchen to her condemned corner, and gave him a vicious smile. He stopped in his tracks, suddenly unsure. She was about to invite him over so she could make good on her promise when he turned abruptly around, apparently remembering somewhere else he needed to be. “What? Oh! Coming father!”
Something in her expression must have given her intentions away. Drat. Leaf frowned in disappointment; she would’ve dearly loved to get some of her frustration out just then.
“LEAF!” she jumped in her seat, and winced. “Where are my potatoes?! Everyone is waiting to be fed, you lag-along!” afraid her rear-end was in further imminent danger, Leaf hurried furiously.
As Leaf’s spoon scraped the bottom of her second bowl of potato soup, she looked up to study those gathered around the table. She licked the slopped soup-remnants off of her fingers, just grateful she still had all of them intact after the day’s work.
The sky made good on its earlier promise of rain. The wind howled something fierce outside, trying to find any and every nook, crack, and cranny to get inside the castle. Oh it was a fantastic storm this time! It made the atmosphere inside all the more comfortable and exciting by contrast.
Leaf loved this time of night, especially nights like this. She loved having everyone gathered together for a good meal, loved the conversation and laughter, the warmth of camaraderie, the sympathetic exchanges of the day’s work… Rylan and Sarah sat close, doe-eyes locked like they were the only two people in all the world. Leaf grinned and shook her head.
She loved her adoptive aunt and uncle, who would forego all protocol and formality to come down to the kitchens and eat with their servants; like one big happy family. The only absentee was their son Martin Jr., who was currently visiting the port city of Davren to further his training as the heir-lord of Ganolly. These were all good people, and she felt lucky to be counted among them.
Well, except for Japo anyway. But his good-natured father Jep couldn’t help having had an anomaly like that born to him.
Upon occasion, everyone would take turns lumping Leaf next to that rotter. Saying how cute they were, with their matching red hair… Leaf seethed, glaring at him from across the table. The red of her hair was nothing like his carrot-mop! She tried futilely to nurse her wounded pride.
The imp in question was careful to avoid looking in her direction. She would never forgive him for making such a fool out of her about the orphanage!
She was startled to hear the deep bass of Lord Martin say her name.
“…huh?” she looked to the head of the packed, warped table. Sure enough, his serious grey eyes were boring into hers. “Yes sir?” her voice did not just squeak! Did it?
“I asked how your studies were coming along.”
The elegant, strawberry-blonde Lady Elizabeth Ganolly was now staring at her, too; a kind smile lit her face. Leaf swallowed. She adored the Lord and Lady Ganolly, but they rarely gave her any sort of personal attention; they were very good people, but far too busy. Leaf wasn’t exactly on even footing and was unsure how to talk to them properly.
“Um… W-well. They’re going well,” She swallowed. “Thank you.” She added hastily.
Boy that was lame; couldn’t she think of something more interesting to say? He nodded politely and, just as she feared, turned away to more engaging topics of conversation. Lady Ganolly smiled warmly and winked before turning away as well.
What can I say? I’m a regular bore. Ugh! She was disappointed in herself.
After a few minutes of sulking, Leaf quite forgot all about Japo when she overheard someone saying, “Our guest. Pah!”
Finally she spotted the speaker; Rylan’s father, Olyn; the sheepherder. She suddenly realized she hadn’t seen him in a month, and he was looking decidedly worse for wear; clothes and beard unkempt and bedraggled.
Everyone knew Olyn doubled as Lord Ganolly’s tracker. However, it was Ganolly’s worst-kept secret that he also tracked far more than just beasts for his lord. He was supposed to keep an eye out for bandits, cutthroats, assassins, and the like. Normally the surly sheepherder was sharing a meal with the rest of the staff every seven-day. Though admittedly, it’d been more often these last few months, until recently. Leaf wondered what had kept him away for so long. She hadn’t remembered until he spoke that Rylan had been coming from the fields alone lately. Leaf berated herself for not paying more attention and leaned forward to better hear.
“It’s too much to be coincidence, I tell ye!” he was saying to those around him; particularly Martin Ganolly. “I’d been finding the strangest signs in the forest around here. Not footprints, mind, whoever’s been makin’ these signs knew well what they were doing. They led me on a right goose chase through my own woods and hills! Then all of a sudden they stop. Gone without a trace you might say. And just last night some stranger shows up, acting all high and mighty and demanding room and board! It’s shady, is all I'm sayin'! This blaggert is up to no good! I don’t trust him,” he ended with finality, leaning back and crossing his arms. Lord Martin’s eyes tightened and Leaf had to lean forward to catch the soft words he uttered in reply.
“You know my policy, Olyn. I’ll not turn any man, woman, or child away who comes in peace asking for food and rest,” he said frowning with firm authority. Instantly Olyn was ducking his head apologetically and touching his forehead as a token of respect.
His next words to Olyn were gentler, “I will have a few of my guards keep a close eye on him, however.” Olyn appeared mollified as Lord Martin motioned one of his guards over to confer in a low voice.
Out of the corner of her eye, Leaf saw someone stand up and move away. She looked to see who it was, surprised to find Maron joining her sister in the Inner kitchen. Leaf looked around to see if anyone else had noticed; but apparently no one was paying any mind to the sisters. Trying to remain inconspicuous, Leaf picked up her dishes- intending to bring them to the sinks in the Inner kitchen.
To her rotten luck, people did start to notice her; many of them handing her their empty dishes to take back as well. It was a good thing Leaf had such a knack for balance, because she suddenly found herself trying to watch her step through a tower of plates and bowls.
Gabolee-dunks and goose-hooks! she thought, irritated. Why was it that everyone felt fine imposing on her? Just because she was a child?! She growled as she stalked awkwardly toward the Inner kitchen, and one of the servants frowned at her disapprovingly. Leaf ducked behind her tower, blushing, only to catch Jonah smiling at her from the other side. He winked conspiratorially and she grinned back. Temy was at his side, helping himself to what appeared to be his third bowl. She shook her head as she continued to the kitchen. As she neared the entry she slowed, listening.
“Have you been keeping an eye on him?”
“As best as I can! I need to get back up there. …Nora, there‘s just something disturbing about that fellow. I think Olyn is right.”
Leaf could hear Nora snort impatiently. “Of course he’s ruddy-well right! Why else would we be keeping such a close eye on our ‘guest’?”
Someone sighed, Leaf thought it was Maron. “Alright, sister. No need to get short with me, I’m not one of your help to bully around- as you’re so fond of doing.” This was said with a condescending tone. Leaf’s mouth dropped. Only Maron could get away with saying something like that to Nora. Part of her still waited for an explosion that never came. She was shocked when Nora spoke in a tone completely foreign to the woman: she actually sounded deferential!
“You’re right, of course. Sorry Maron, it’s just that—
RAP! CLANG! Whoo woo-woo woo-woo…
Leaf stood stock mortified staring at one of the top bowls that had clattered loudly to the ground and rolled into the kitchen ahead of her. She quickly recovered, making a point to not hide her steps as she clumped into the kitchen, adopting a frazzled expression. Thanks to the tower of dishes she was trying to balance, it wasn’t much of a stretch.
“Oh!” she squeaked as she spotted the sisters. “Can someone please give me a hand?!” the note of panic that entered her voice was not at all feigned, now. She just tried to play it off as something to do with her burden rather than the twin glacial glares she was receiving. They did, gratefully, help her get the dishes to the sink without further incident. But before either of them could question Leaf, someone screamed from beyond the outer kitchen. They all exchanged looks before running out to see what happened.
“THERE! It went under those shelves! Get it! PLEASE?!”
“FOR THE LOVE OF ORETHYN WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE KILL THAT RAT?!”
Leaf laughed, and she wasn’t the only one. The contortions many of the servants were in… They ranged from terrified stool-standers to would-be heroes holding various make-shift weapons. The rest, like her, merely observed the show with great humor. The scene was comical beyond belief.
Martin Ganolly himself stood at the head of the table, feet apart, shoulders squared, and laughing heartily as he held his squealing wife the Lady in his arms. The best part of it all was the sight of Japo Wacabee shrieking like a girl from the table, half a salad stuck to his backside.
Leaf grinned, knowing this memory went straight to her happy heart.
The storm showed no signs of letting up any time soon, which was perfect for Leaf. She never slept better than during a storm.
She was sitting on her bed in a shift, toweling her hair dry while Maron, the Head of Household, finished the day’s lessons. Unlike her sister Nora, she was rail thin, but with the same silver-gray hair and crystal blue eyes. They both wielded their stern expressions like a whip, but anyone who knew them also knew it was mostly just for show. In truth, they both carried big hearts in their chests, and had the affection and respect of all who knew them.
Maron was walking slowly around the room at the moment, inspecting Leaf’s cleanliness, or in this case the lack thereof, while finishing up her lessons. Leaf was completely distracted by earlier events. Questions about this upsetting and mysterious guest gnawed at her brain and she could think of nothing else at the moment.
She winced, squirming around painfully, trying without success to get comfortable. Well, almost nothing else. Nora had been quiet furious with her earlier; Leaf had never seen her so angry. Her tender bottom would attest to that.
“So,” The thin, straight-backed woman said as she glanced over at Leaf with a beady eye. She frowned disapprovingly at the girl. Leaf sat still, not taking it too personal. She’d learned early on that it was something Maron often did unconsciously.
“What have you learned today?” Leaf caught the double meaning and flushed with shame. Of course Nora told her what she’d done. Maron lifted an object off the small table and wiped a finger under it, checking for dust. She shook her head at the results, ‘tsk tsk’-ing all the while.
She sat up straight when Maron looked at her. Unable to help herself, she pulled a face the second her mentor turned her back and began reciting from memory.
“There are three greater continents, and thirty-three lesser; the three greater are Fera, Ceda, and Idra. Our continent, Fera, is the smallest; but because of our greatly valued University of Manna we are considered a real power in Feymera. There are five provinces in Fera: Dragon’s Head, Aura, High Wing, Low Wing, and Dragon’s Tail. The Traelian Royal Family rules Fera, and Karmamaen is their capital… which is located in The Heart of Aura Province and is often referred to as the sixth unofficial province…”
Leaf plowed on for several minutes, eyes scrunched up trying to remember each and every name of the thirty-three lesser continents. She always mixed them up. Her thoughts wandered back to the visitor. What was he doing down there, anyway?
“Ahem.” Maron prompted her to continue.
Leaf sighed before continuing, but jerked straighter when Maron gave her a sharp look.
Her voice took on an involuntary drone. “The city of Ganolly was founded in twelve-hundred O.C. by Riorden Ganolly. Ganolly Castle was built in thirteen-hundred O.C. as a means to support Ganolly city, which in turn supplies the capital with most of their needs… thanks to our great river. Ganolly is considered the gate city of the capital and may even be called a first line of defense from northern invasion, which is why the Queen holds a royal garrison not far from our city…” Leaf wasn’t paying any attention now to what she was saying, so she missed the incredulous stare Maron was giving her.
“When did I teach you that?!”
Leaf blushed. “Um… I guess it must have been in one of those novels I read in the library… Honestly, I don’t see why they would bother. Who would want to attack Karmamaen? We’re at peace with everyone, right?”
Maron sized her up with her eyes, as if seeing her clearly for the first time. “Indeed. Who would attack? Did your novel happen to mention any possibilities?”
The red-head shrugged. “Yeah I believe it mentioned everything from the Great Troel Uprising to the secret conspiracy cult of the Idra Warriors.”
Her mentor quirked an eyebrow. “And you still don’t see why the Queen bothers?”
Now Leaf blushed again. “I guess I thought it was just a good story… you know, not real? If all those things printed in it are true, then how did they get away with printing it? I mean, wouldn’t someone have tried to stop it? Wouldn’t we have tried to stop some of the things those other people are up to?”
Maron just looked at her. Finally she whispered, a bit melodramatically Leaf thought, “What makes you so sure that we haven’t? Or that they didn’t try to stop the printing of Deeper Waters, for that matter?”
“You know the book! But I thought…” This time Leaf really didn’t know what to say. As tiresome as the overload of knowledge could sometimes be, she admitted to herself that she really did find it all very interesting. But as for this topic, she would obviously need to do a little more homework before continuing any sort of debate.
“You’ll find many unexpected treasures in the library of Ganolly, Leaf. That’s part of its charm.”
She caught Maron smiling at her before the woman turned back to fiddling with Leaf’s things in a neat-freak sort of way. “Why don’t we go back to today’s lesson for now, child?”
Nodding uselessly at her turned back, Leaf tried to remember the point at which the deviation in her recitation began. “Right… so, um. Orethyn!”
Maron jumped, startled, turning a questioning glare on her pupil. Before she had a chance to scold her, Leaf explained her outburst. “I was just remembering what the rest of your lessons were about… sorry.” Maron just shook her head with a wry smile, and waited for her to continue.
“Well, you were telling me about how the Order of Orethyn has their largest Abbey in the capital. And something about… how they used to have a place on university campus but no longer do? I don’t really understand that. Anyway, I guess everyone still goes to Karmamaen when they want to get an Orethynian Tattoo.” Leaf grew thoughtful.
“The Orethynian Tattoo is like a foretelling concerning the future of that individual who receives it. It is in the form of an intricate picture on the skin. However, very few but the High Orethynian Priest can interpret the tattoo. It’s usually placed on the right, upper forearm…” Distracted, she looked at Maron.
“Mistress Maron, do you have an Orethynian Tattoo?”
Maron jumped like she’d been bitten on her backside and pulled at the long sleeves of her right arm. She scolded Leaf. “What a silly question! What would a mere servant do with such nonsense, I ask you?”
Leaf sounded surprised. “But I thought the Orethynian Tattoos were for whoever wants one?” She paused. “I think I might like one someday.”
Maron seemed to regain her composure. “Of course they are, and of course you will, but that’s neither here nor there. And not everyone gets their tattoos in Karmamaen... Well I think that’s quite enough of lessons for the day.”
“What is it, dear?” she murmured distractedly as she tidied up one of Leaf’s drawers.
“Can you tell me more about the fabled Tree of Fey?”
Maron paused in her folding. “Dear child, who ever told you it was a fable?” she asked sternly. “Because I’m sure it wasn’t I.”
Leaf blushed in confusion. “I guess no one really, I just thought maybe it was… you know. Like a fairytale or something.”
Maron looked down her angular nose irritably. “Nonsense. Why are you so convinced that everything is just a story? Didn’t I teach you any better than that?! You’re a smart girl now, so shape up!”
At Leaf’s responding wince she softened her tone. “Oh there now, never mind this old witch’s bark- you had no way of knowing.” Leaf smiled hesitantly, grateful for the apology. It’s not as if she was trying to be difficult. It just happened… a lot.
“So what is it you’d like to know? I've already taught you the geography as best as it’s known. Ah! You wish to hear the legend behind the tale, right?”
Leaf nodded eagerly. “Oh yes! Please do tell!”
Maron smiled, indulging her favorite girl. She cleared her throat and took on her ‘enchanting storytelling voice’ for dramatic effect. As prickly as she could often be, Maron had a lovely story voice. Perhaps it had had some influence on Leaf’s difficulty telling fact from fiction; who knew?
“Very well then, child. But prepare your soft young heart for cold and chilling facts.”
Leaf grabbed her pillow and settled in as comfortably as she could under the circumstances. Maron began by reciting some kind of poem.
“The Land of Fey is the life of all,
Over all the earth hangs her motherly shawl.
‘Tis the shore of all life and its mirror twin
Holds all thereby that holds within.
The land of Fey knew not good or ill,
No worries or fears, only Orethyn’s Will.
But there was one who began the Changes.
Seeking the source of forbidden knowledge,
He hid in the shadows and the darkest places,
He corrupt, harbored many faces.
With time, he gained in power
And by the Roots’ Pain
Fey willing or unwilling to follow,
Sin forced began the Demon’s Reign.”
Leaf sat there enthralled. “I think I've heard that somewhere before! But I never knew what it was about. What does it mean? Who’s this ‘Demon’?”
Her silver-haired friend met her eyes with a solemn gaze.
“His name is Murandis. And he corrupted the roots of Fey, imperiling us all.”
Leaf stared at her dumbfounded. “Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Maron just sighed with exasperation. “Oh forget about it for now. I shouldn’t have gotten started on this. Perhaps when you’re a little older we’ll try again.”
Leaf’s eyes dropped to her lap in disappointment. “I’m sorry I don’t understand Mistress Maron…”
The older lady just shook her head. “Don’t worry about it Leaf. There’s no need to rush things; ‘all things in their rightful season.’”
Leaf looked up and adopted her most innocent expression. “So… who is this mystery guest and why can’t I meet him?”
Maron gave her a sharp look, not fooled for a minute. “That is hardly any of your business, young lady. It is only for you to stay out of sight.”
Leaf fidgeted nervously. “But I’ve seen you and Mistress Nora whispering all day…”
Maron turned very icy. “I see. I thought eavesdropping was beneath you, Leaf. I’m very disappointed. And what exactly have you heard?”
The abashed girl was quick to defend. “Almost nothing! Just that neither of you trust him…” Leaf, looking very ashamed added, “I’m sorry… I just really wanted to know who he was and why I…”
“Why you what?”
“It’s nothing Mistress Maron. Only a silly feeling I’ve had.” Leaf suddenly found herself the object of great scrutiny.
“And what feeling is this? You may as well tell me while we’re talking about it child.”
Finding a sudden surge of courage Leaf looked Maron in the eye and spoke evenly. “There’s a sort of… wrongness here.”
Maron met her gaze thoughtfully, and Leaf was surprised when the expected ridicule never came. “Indeed, child. This is something both Nora and I have felt as well.”
A faint scream echoed from somewhere in the castle and they both jumped. Maron paused, frowning.
“That’s probably Nora’s help finding another rat in the kitchens, no doubt.” Her worried eyes betrayed her thoughts. “I better go check on her Highness of the Meals. I expect you to be all ready and in bed by the time I get back, Little Leaf-lee.” Her voice was stern, but softened by a fond smile when she used her pet name. “And stop worrying yourself over things that don’t concern you.”
It was a gentle reprimand, but Leaf could’ve sworn the woman almost added: yet.
“Yes, Maron.” Leaf watched curiously as Maron left, and began to run a quick brush through her damp, short hair. Returning the brush to her nightstand she climbed thoughtfully under the warm blankets to await Maron’s return.
Maron left the room and made her way down the hall toward the main stair when she heard another faint scream, and then another. Frowning with worry, she started to run toward the stair when out of nowhere an eerie sound, more felt than heard, floated up the wide steps. A chill settled over her; Maron stopped dead. She noticed an unnatural flicker in the shadows cast by the lamps that lined the flight ahead.
After a brief hesitation she paced back a few yards to a large tapestry on the wall. With a quick flick she darted behind it to a well-lit hidden stair that traveled directly to the kitchens below. It’s a good thing Nora and I took precautions tonight! She shuddered to think what would happen to her if she went within the unnatural shadows now.
Upon reaching the bottom of the staircase, Maron slowed, trying to listen. There were still the occasional faint screams coming from somewhere in the large castle, but there seemed to be nothing but deathly silence ahead of her. She stopped abruptly and pulled a single silver hair from her head. She began to wrap it in an intricate pattern around her left index finger- all the while whispering words in the musical language of Orethyn.
As she whispered, the silver hair started to glow- at first faintly and then brighter until the hair shone a silvery light brighter than that of a lamp. She lifted the latch that secured the hinged cabinet to the wall and eased it open. Holding her hand out in front of her, Maron inched slowly and cautiously into the dimly lit kitchens. An all but invisible motion behind her sent her spinning around suddenly to find Nora standing directly beside her.
Maron sagged with relief. “For a while there- when I heard all the screams…” She hugged her sister. “I was wondering when you’d show yourself. How many of the Cursed are there?”
Nora swore under her breath. “As far as I know just the bloody one. But you know Fey Wraiths. It only takes one. Damn! We should have realized what he was, sister. We invited evil in and I served him breakfast! Now it may be too late. As you’ve certainly guessed from all the screaming he has already summoned the Shadows!”
Maron scolded her gently. “Do not blame yourself, sister. The Cursed have powerful ways of disguising themselves. We must salvage what we can and save as many as possible.”
Nora turned suddenly pale. “Where is Leaf?”
“Calm yourself, I have concealed her room, remember? She is safe for the moment. Have you already taken steps?”
“Yes sister. I gathered as many of the young help I could find and sent them out to the Haven. I summoned those things you’ll be needing to give the girl.” At this she warily handed Maron a heavy rucksack.
“Well done. Is it all here?”
“I’m certain. Are you sure they won’t be able to trace my spell?”
Maron nodded impatiently. “We’ve already tested that theory, remember?”
Nora hesitated a moment. “Remind me why we can’t just send her the same as the others? At least she would be safe!” Nora watched the struggle in her sister’s face before she replied decisively.
“You read the oracle, the same as I. We know what she has to do. Tampering at this point may certainly unravel the whole thing.” It was clear to see she wished it were otherwise.
Nora opened her mouth as if to argue the well-worn topic but closed it once again, nodding. “It’s already been set in motion.”
Firmly resigned, Maron turned away.
“Maron, wait. I can’t find the lad Temy.”
“I’m sure Jonah has taken him to the Haven by now. Jonah’s a competent Scholar, Nora. Have faith in him.” Maron gave her sister a quick embrace. “Now, hurry out and take any others with you that you come across. But don’t take any unnecessary risks sister! It was a foregone conclusion that many would die this night. You did get the Lord and Lady out, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did. I’m no fool, Maron. Now go take care of her, and be safe. We’ll meet at the Haven when all of this is over.”
Maron gave her sister a brave smile and a pat on the arm before turning away and hurrying up the stairs.
Leaf listened to the steady ticking of the mantle clock resting on her wardrobe, tapping her fingers in a counter rhythm as she waited impatiently. There was still no sign of Maron.
After what seemed an hour had passed by, Leaf sat up. Worry lining her face, she slid her feet into some slippers while donning a warm robe. There had been more screaming after Maron left. Leaf assumed there was more than one serving girl trying to catch the supposed rat… But something felt terribly wrong. She tried to write it off as her overactive imagination, but she just couldn’t shake the chill that kept creeping up her spine. She knew she would be in very deep trouble if she left her rooms now, but…
“She’s never taken so long before. I better have a look.” Just as she reached her door, a very anxious Maron bustled through and closed the door quickly and quietly behind her. Thinking to give her a tease, she said,
“Afraid the rats will get inside, Mistress Maron?” She cut off abruptly as she got a good look at Maron’s frightened face; all of her carefully suppressed fears came to the surface in an instant.
“Come, girl, there isn’t much time.” Maron tore a blanket off the recently vacated bed and spread it out on the floor, tossing a rucksack on it that she’d brought with her into the room. Leaf opened her mouth to ask a question but Maron cut her off.
“No time for questions child, just listen!” She started muttering under her breath. “I thought I’d have more time!” She continued adding a variety of objects to the pile from her room- most of it being clothing- and spoke in a rushed whisper.
“Your parents may still be alive, Leaf, I’m not certain; but if they are, you may find a clue as to their whereabouts in the old cottage where you were born.” She paused as Leaf gasped and caught the stricken look on the girl’s face.
“How could they be alive—?!”
Maron paused what she was doing with sympathy bright and clear in her piercing blue stare. She tsk-ed herself, muttering. “Probably wasn’t the best way to tell her…”
Speaking up she said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner, Leaf, but there just wasn’t enough time! It simply wouldn’t have done to have you running off in search of them while so young and unprepared. Truth is, I don’t know that you’re ready even now, but there really isn’t any choice… now. There’s so much I haven’t told you yet!” Maron folded the corners of the blanket over the pile and started tying the bundle with one of Leaf’s belt cords.
Leaf stammered over the questions bursting inside her, but all she managed was, “But I don’t even know where the cottage is!”
“Don’t fret, girl. In a way, I will be guiding you tonight.” She opened the girl’s wardrobe and pressed some unseen switch. There was a click, and the back opened up; she turned to study Leaf’s expression.
Leaf squeaked. “How did you know about that?!”
Maron gave a satisfied nod. “I thought you were a bright girl. Did you think I didn’t know you were sneaking out of your room to explore the castle every spare moment you had? What you might not realize is that this passage also leads to a tunnel that takes you well out of the castle grounds.”
Something in Leaf’s expression made her smile briefly. “Good girl! So you did know that, eh? Well, use it tonight. Head south through Faryen forest, where you will meet your guide. Don’t worry. They’ll find you. They will show you the way to your parents’ cottage in Faery Glen.” She pushed the large bundle into Leaf’s arms.
Leaf was more than frightened. Quickly she asked, “But- what’s happening Maron?”
“I’ll find you later and explain everything.” Maron began to help her up through the wardrobe doors. “Oh wait! There’s one more thing- well, three actually.” She removed two books and something small and shimmery from her apron pockets. “This”, she indicated the first book which looked very heavy and intriguing, “is for you. A gift from Nora and I.” As Leaf reached out to take it, she thought she imagined a tingling vibration where it touched her skin.
“This, you’ll find out later.” Here she handed Leaf the second book after having tucked the first one securely into Leaf’s bundle. She was sure the second book was the same soft blue leather volume she’d been looking at just the day before while dusting the library! Sure enough, as she turned it over familiar silvery letters gleamed back at her spelling out the mysterious title, Dawn Lorealyn de Floreyn.
“And this,” The shimmery thing seemed to flow out of her fingers and catch at the delicate silver chain. Maron hurriedly put the necklace around Leaf’s neck and fastened it. Leaf was in awe as she held the intricate pendant up to her face and studied it lovingly.
“This was always yours, but was left in my safe-keeping until it was time to pass it on. You must never lose it, Leaf! Never take it off! Promise me.”
Leaf clutched the necklace in one hand and nodded firmly. “I promise Maron.” She paused a moment, now studying what looked like an amazingly life-like detailed image of a tree.
“It was my mother’s, wasn’t it?”
At Maron’s surprised smile Leaf nodded once, now sure. It seemed to give her courage… or it at least built a temporary barrier around her pervasive cowardice. “I will do everything you ask, Maron.” Why wasn’t her voice quivering? It felt like she should be screaming by now.
Maron gave her a proud smile and a swift hug. “That will do, girl. That will do.” She gently pushed her into the wardrobe. “Be swift, my little Leaf. Be safe.” And with that she closed the doors of the wardrobe. Leaf swallowed in the darkness.
A moment later, as Maron turned away from the wardrobe she found the Fey Wraith standing directly behind her. It grinned evilly and reached for her. She sucked in her breath, vanishing before he was able to touch her.
His red and black slit-pupil eyes flashed angrily.