Excerpt for Flower Among the Ashes (The Tales of Remnas Book 1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Tales of Remnas

Flower Among the Ashes


By Genevieve St-Yves

Copyright 2016 by C.L. Lewis writing as Genevieve St-Yves

Distributed by Smashwords


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, business establishments or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations or phrases used in articles or reviews.


Cover art by Subbotina Anna

Images used under license from Shutterstock.com

Cover design by Jerri Lyn Bunting


To Mom, for being my first fan

Chapter One


Rivendown Keep, the Summerlands of Remnas

Sometime during the Twenty-second Century of the Third Age


It was a disconcerting experience to come face to face with one’s reflection when she was not standing in front of a mirror. The girl called Lenarsh faced forward, eyes downcast, kneeling in supplication before the dais in the great hall of Rivendown. She was intensely aware of the stranger also on her knees not one foot away from her. Their voluminous skirts pooled around them, only a hair shy of touching silk to fine silk. She desperately wanted to take one glance to the side, to confirm that the figure next to her in fact wore the same face she did, but the discipline ruthlessly drilled into her overpowered the urge. As decorum dictated, she would look down until her liege lord gave her permission to raise her head.

Her sister’s existence had been no secret during the years of her upbringing. In fact, Nanavall, her nanny, tutor and closest thing she had known to a mother, mentioned her twin whenever Lenarsh fell short of expectation during the grueling lessons in comportment, the arts and academics. However, she knew little about her mysterious double, as Nanavall always brusquely responded, “She is your mortal enemy. That is all you need know,” the few times she had dared ask.

She had only caught a glimpse of her sister’s face as they were escorted before the Court to greet the Lord and Lady of the province. It was still a shock to realize that she was looking at living, breathing flesh and not an image of herself in the looking glass. No words passed between them and probably never would.

The dais creaked slightly as the Lord of Rivendown rose from his throne. Verdelung Talrun’s voice boomed above her and Lenarsh flinched despite her resolve to stay perfectly still. “My most loyal retainers,” he intoned, “I have gathered you here to welcome my daughter, Lenarsh, long absent from Rivendown, back into the loving embrace of the Talrun family. The task at hand will serve only to strengthen the bonds of trust and loyalty between Talrun and you, my dearest vassals.

“This is more than a homecoming. You all have been entrusted with the Talrun family’s greatest secret and the decisions that will be made before the moon reaches the end of its next cycle will greatly affect the future of this province, if not the entirety of the Elven Kingdom.”

A low rumble of agreement rippled through the gathered crowd, about two hundred people that included various retainers, courtiers, their adolescent children and lady wives. This select group represented the inner circle of the Talrun Court. For a family of its standing, as one of the Great Families and Five Pillars of Kingdom, its full retinue was massive. However for this delicate situation, discretion not size was required. Lord Verdelung finally commanded, “Lift your head, my child.”

Lenarsh looked up and beheld the two figures on the raised platform. Dark-haired with sun-browned skin and a massive frame for one of the Elvenfolk, Verdelung towered before her like a warrior from legend. His broad, handsome features and large body were the distinctive hallmarks of the men of the Talrun line. The giant sword belted at his side provided a rugged contrast to his finely tailored regalia and mantle. He was a man who belonged in battle-scarred armor. At least that was how Lenarsh had seen him depicted in the oil paintings at Berrinridge Manor.

Behind him, Lady Lemirh remained seated on her much smaller throne. She was dainty, golden and regal. A silver coronet circled her head and heavily jeweled earrings dripped from her delicately pointed ears. Nanavall had commented to Lenarsh on more than one occasion that she looked just like Lemirh had as a girl.

So these were her parents, distant figures she had known only from the servants’ stories and the massive paintings hanging in the gloomy portrait gallery at the manor house. Unsmiling then, unsmiling now. More myth than reality until this moment.

Her Lord and Lady, no her mother and father, assessed the sisters. The members of the Court standing at their backs judged them. Lenarsh felt the weight of their gazes on her slim shoulders as sweat dampened her skin. What judgments did they make? Her mouth went dry and her head swam. Berrinridge, the far away Talrun estate, was an isolated minor holding. Nanavall and a handful of servants had been her only companions. Before this moment, Lenarsh never imaged that so many people could gather in one spot.

“Lenarsh,” Verdelung continued his introduction “has been raised in genteel isolation these last sixteen years. She is unaccustomed to court life. Take her under your wing and make her feel welcome. Extend her every courtesy for she is my precious daughter and it’s with great joy that we end our long, unfortunate separation.”

Even though they were two, Lord Talrun referred to the girls as if there was only one person kneeling in supplication at his feet. Nanavall had told her to expect this. Left unsaid, of course, was the dual purpose of this month-long gathering as it was already well known to the vassals in attendance.

Sixteen years ago, Lemirh had given birth, her first pregnancy in two hundred years. It had been marked in the family register and proclaimed throughout the Summerlands that Lady Talrun had safely birthed a healthy baby girl named Lenarsh, meaning “treasured flower” in High Elvish. Known only to a select few servants and vassals, a second baby had been born that day, an unnatural child that had worn the same face as the first. Lady Lemirh had birthed twins and the parents’ joy turned to panic.

The Elvenfolk believed that when twins were born, only one child truly entered the world. That child was accompanied into life by a Lesser Twin, a replica of the baby that was the living incarnation of ill luck and misfortune that the child would suffer during its lifetime. If left to its own devices, the Lesser Twin had a way of calling ruin upon those around it.

That a Lesser Twin had to be dealt with was of no doubt. The only question was how to tell it apart from the true child.

The Talrun’s solution had been to raise the girls apart from each other and from the rest of the world at two of their holdings far from Rivendown, thus hiding their scandalous secret away from the gentry. Surely, they had decided, in time they could discern which child was the Lesser Twin. Each girl was entrusted to a separate caretaker whose loyalty and discretion could be counted on. They were educated and raised with the purpose of returning to Rivendown for final judgment once they reached the age of sixteen years.

Exile awaited the Lesser Twin.

Her nursemaid, Nanavall, never let her forget that. When her harp struck a sour note or she made a misstep during a dancing lesson, the old woman would remark, “Your sister wouldn’t have to exert much effort to outstrip these meager efforts.” When she cried after feeling the sting of a switch against her tender legs for a lapse in manners, Nanavall scolded, “I will mold you into a lady that matches our Lord’s ideal. Mark this well, child, you will forget the sting of this lash by the end of the night, but exile from the Elven Kingdom is a pain that will never end for you.”

“Daughter,” Verdelung bade the girls, “come forward and offer your greeting.”

Lenarsh was frozen to the ground. She would have to speak before all these people watching her for the tiniest flaw, the tiniest sign that she was the Lesser Twin. All the words she had rehearsed over and over silently in her head on the long journey to the keep evaporated like morning dew under the noon sun.

Skirts rustled as the Other Lenarsh rose gracefully. Her long golden hair glittered like a newly minted coin in the sunlight pouring in through the window. It hung in a straight fall down her back. Her skin was marked with a delicate flush of excitement, and the white gown she wore highlighted how pale and unblemished she was. This stranger was a creature of light and air. She glided toward the dais without the slightest hitch in her steps, radiating self-assurance and no sign of the distress that Lenarsh felt.

The Other Lenarsh dipped into a deep curtsy. “Greetings my honored parents and liege lords.” Her voice was crisp and clear as a bell ringing at dawn. “I am deeply gladdened to come before you and your Court to end our time apart. I shall endeavor to never fail you or fall short of your expectations. Even though we have been separated since I was still in swaddling cloth, every day I have felt your love through the teachers in whose care you so graciously placed me. Now that I am back where I belong, I shall be able to return your affection with all the love and obedience in my heart.”

The courtiers applauded. Verdelung nodded and Lemirh smiled with approval at her daughter’s confident, loquacious words. The Other Lenarsh knelt once again before the dais.

Now it was Lenarsh’s turn. Expectancy hung in the air like thick smoke.

She rose slowly. Her delicate blue gown felt so heavy, like a milestone was fastened around her waist instead of a thin bejeweled belt. Her clothing was more finely detailed than her twin’s simple gown and her blond hair arranged atop her head in an intricate series of braids. Lenarsh moved stiffly and haltingly, drawing out the moment in a desperate attempt to come up with words.

Her curtsy was like a puppet on a string she thought dimly, made as if someone else was controlling her body. She noticed the faults immediately. Not low enough to convey the proper respect and held too briefly. Silence dragged on as her heart thumped wildly against her breastbone.

“Honored Lord and Lady,” she started. Her voice sounded small and thin. In a panic now, she tried to speak louder. “I-I-I am pleased and h-humbled to be welcomed into your Court. I pledge to you my eternal obedience and loyalty.” She curtsied again for good measure.

Awkward silence filled the hall for the space of four heartbeats, as if they waited for her to say more. Polite applause resounded as Lenarsh made her retreat, but there was no doubt who had won this round.

Verdelung returned to his throne. A heavy purple banner hung behind him. The silver lily, emblem of the Talrun family, was stitched in metallic thread on the material. The Lord absently twisted his signet ring, also embossed with the same crest. “This is a glad day,” he finally pronounced. “Let the festivities begin!”

Chapter Two


The next few days were a whirlwind of activity. During the feasts, the sisters sat at separate ends of the banquet table, but they were the focal point of those seated around them. The courtiers were curious about the girls and peppered them with questions and immersed them in the latest court gossip.

Lenarsh decided by the second night that her lessons had been inadequate for this. Nanavall had drilled her ruthlessly on proper speech as she had on manners and comportment. Mispronounced words were punished with a swift rap to the knuckles or a switch to the back of the calves, but she hadn’t been taught the fine art of conversation and now found she was unable to freely summon the right words.

Her responses to basic questions were simple and to the point, offering no more than was necessary to answer the query. She felt adrift in the conversations, as they were about people and places she had no knowledge of. She more often than not listened politely but couldn’t offer a response. Her companions spoke to her in High Elvish, but by the subject of their conversations, they might have as well been speaking in a foreign Ironblood tongue.

As she listened stonily to the past faux pas of Lord and Lady So-and-So, she felt very alone despite being surrounded by dozens of people. Wandering into this world was like trying to read a book with its first half torn out, leaving her struggling to identify the characters’ roles and discern the plot.

Nanavall always said that the less a lady spoke the better, as it gave one less opportunity to string one’s words into a noose, but Lenarsh started to suspect that this advice was not sound. By the fifth night, less mealtime chatter included her. If it had been difficult to converse before, it was impossible now, not to mention rude, to barge unbidden into a conversation.

The Other Lenarsh experienced no such problems. Whenever Lenarsh glanced at the Other Lenarsh’s end of the table, her sister was always engaged in animated chatter with the people around her. Smiling and merry, she looked like she belonged.

Lenarsh reached for her wine goblet and sipped at the ruby liquid in boredom. The number of people seeking her out during the day also steadily dwindled while her sister remained in high demand. She began to fear that having all eyes upon her was perhaps not as frightening as was isolation.

Portly Lord Simenith, a jolly, talkative man sat to her right. He had a tendency to bellow with hearty laughter at his own stories and would occasionally turn to her with a smile and say something like “Isn’t that amusing, Lady Lenarsh?” To which she would nod in agreement or utter a “Yes, milord.”

A gaudily dressed woman several guests down from her caught her attention. Lady Wilhelmina, wife of one of Lord Talrun’s most trusted vassals, she recalled. Silver rings inlaid with glittering gemstones adorned her fingers and the jewels flashed when they caught the candlelight. A white linen bandage wrapped around her index finger.

When the first stirring of foresight came upon her, Lenarsh almost mistook it for the effects of too much wine. The world blurred so that there were two Lady Wilhelminas, one overlaid slightly askew on the other. The second one was too translucent to be mistaken for solid flesh. The bandaged finger on the phantom Wilhelmina began to pulse and swell. It quickly grew so big that it split the protective cloth covering. Lenarsh knew then that she was experiencing what Nanavall had dubbed her double vision, the future overlaying the present.

The swollen, reddened digit throbbed painfully as pus seeped from beneath the nail and the skin suddenly darkened. It started as a dappling of bruised skin that blackened and spread. Then the finger disappeared entirely from the phantom Wilhelmina’s hand, leaving only a bloody stub above her knuckle.

Lenarsh must have looked visibly stricken because Lord Simenith turned to ask her, “Are you well, my dear? Your face is positively ashen.”

“It’s the wine,” she insisted. “Nothing more than too much drink.”

Simenith guffawed merrily, “This is the most talkative I have heard you all evening. I shall call for more wine and we shall have a proper conversation yet.”

Lenarsh affected a chuckle. It sounded hollow.

She hated the visions. When she started having them three years ago, Nanavall punished her severely for being overly fanciful until the things she claimed to see came to pass within days without fail. Her stern teacher then began scrupulously recording the predictions and the length of time before they were realized. All the while she fervently insisted they keep the visions a secret between them.

Her tutor opened correspondence with an expert on auguries at the Library of Fragoris in the Ironblood lands, at least until the scholar requested a face-to-face examination. Once she determined to her satisfaction that Lenarsh’s foresight was genuine, she cut off communications with him and dutifully reported back to Talrun in one of the frequent progress reports sent by sparrow.

In all the peoples of Remnas, foresight was rarest amongst the Elvenfolk. Nanavall believed at the time that evidence of foresight would raise Lenarsh’s standing, at least until the Talruns had replied back that foresight had also been claimed in their other daughter.

Lenarsh always wondered if Nanavall had come clean to her Lord and Lady about the true nature of her charge’s ability. The detailed records of all the visions revealed a disturbing pattern. Everything she predicted was always a misfortune. Every single time the visions came over her, she saw nothing but pain and disaster.


***


The next morning, Lady Lemirh summoned her daughters to the gardens. Lemirh was famed for her love of flowers, having doubled the size of the Rivendown gardens since her marriage to Lord Talrun five centuries ago. The Rivendown gardens were envied throughout the Summerlands for the variety of its blooms and topiaries as well as its labyrinthine design. The estate maintained a small army of servants solely dedicated to the upkeep of the beautiful grounds.

The gods blessed the Summerlands with rich pockets of silver ore beneath the ground and in its rocks. So rich did they make the Elvenfolk in the gift of the Sacred Silvers that small granules inundated the soil and absorbed into the grass and plant life. Everything within the Elven Kingdom bloomed with a silvery sheen that reflected sunlight and moonlight in equal turns.

A servant escorted the girls to the center of the famed Maze of Blooms. Lemirh sat at a table with a silver tea service in the middle. Steam curled from the teapot’s spout. Four ladies were already seated with two chairs, one on each side of Lady Talrun, empty.

Lemirh motioned for them to sit. “How good of you to join us, Lenarsh,” she intoned, again addressing the two as one.

The girls took their seats.

Lemirh continued, “I know that the last few days have been overwhelming with so many new faces presented to you all at once. I would like to take this opportunity to get to know you in a more private, less formal setting and introduce you to some of my dearest friends.” The Lady of Rivendown went around the table introducing the ladies, close friends and therefore women not without influence. Wilhelmina was in attendance, again bedecked in jewels and finger swathed in a bandage.

Next was Merillela whose stark white hair marked her as nearing the end of her life even though her face remained unlined. Plump Bronwynne was Simenith’s wife and quickly revealed herself to be as jolly as her husband. Lafiel, a woman so unremarkably plain in appearance and dress that Lenarsh did not recall seeing her at Court before, rounded out the group.

After the group murmured their polite hellos, Lemirh set out small slices of sugar cake and poured tea into cups engraved with an intricate, sprawling floral pattern. The conversation began as idle gossip.

Lafiel it turned out had an acid tongue. “You should have heard that girl bray like livestock receiving a branding,” she noted tartly of the daughter of a lady well known to the group. “If she sounded that ghastly after years of lessons, we would have all been deafened on the spot if she hadn’t gotten that vocal training. Although, why Isabeau thought it was a good idea to subject her daughter to the humiliation of a recital when her voice is that awful is beyond me.”

“Speaking of music,” Lemirh interjected. “Her tutor informs me that Lenarsh is quite the accomplished harpist. I do so love the harp and have been dying to hear your music. Would you be so good as to give us a demonstration of your skills?”

“Yes,” Lenarsh responded sensing a chance to distinguish herself.

Lemirh clapped her hands and a servant stepped forward to give Lenarsh a small harp. She plucked at the strings experimentally to get a feel for the way the notes resonated before deftly transitioning into a complex melody. When she struck the final chord, the group applauded politely.

“You are a talented musician,” Bronwynne offered by way of praise, chubby cheeks flushed with merriment.

“I can play as well,” the Other Lenarsh said.

Lemirh took the harp from Lenarsh and passed it to her other daughter. The Other Lenarsh started to play a much simpler melody. Her sister recognized it as a basic song that she had mastered while still a small child. Despite the simplicity of the score, the Other Lenarsh still struck several sour notes that jarred Lenarsh down to the bone. Although the blunder wasn’t hers, she felt the phantom sting of Nanavall’s switch against her knuckles just as she had when she erred in her childhood.

Amazingly though the Other Lenarsh soldiered on through the melody, humming a little as if to help remember the tune, when any normal maiden would have quit out of sheer mortification several discordant twangs ago. A taut string suddenly snapped.

The Other Lenarsh chuckled. “Butterfingers. I guess I must have pulled too hard.”

How could she laugh at herself as if it were nothing? She assaulted their ears and damaged the instrument and yet she acted as if it was all of no consequence.

“I can sing it a little better than I can play,” she said. With a deep breath, she launched into the lyrics with a sweet clear voice. It was a wistful ballad recounting the sorrow of a young maiden who fell in love only to lose her lovers’ affection over time. “The balm of summer in these lands is eternal, but the feelings of men and women as fickle as the tides,” she sang to bring the tale to a close.

Lenarsh applauded politely when her twin finished. Lemirh beamed with delight and even Lafiel seemed to soften with approval. Bronwynne overflowed with enthusiastic praise.

What sort of power did this creature possess to gain their favor with such ease? Lenarsh’s performance was technically flawless, but her sister clearly had won this match. Lemirh hadn’t asked to be entertained by song so surely this must be some breach of the rules.

Chatter recommenced as Lemirh refilled her guests’ teacups. Wilhelmina eyed both girls curiously and interjected, “Lemirh says that you may possess the gift of foresight.”

Lafiel scoffed, “I should hope that her Ladyship is not seriously entertaining any of that nonsense. All that I have heard of the various augurs and prophetesses sound positively barbaric. That they are given to fits and seizures or that they split open the entrails of beasts and try to read the future through patterns in the gore. It sounds like madness to me, although I can’t tell who is madder, the miserable creatures that believe they have such power or the gaggling fools that pay good coin for their ranting.”

Wilhelmina said, “Don’t discount out of hand, you sour old girl. Perhaps we should put them to the test as Lenarsh seems quite sane.”

“My late husband,” Merillela added, “once invited a traveling seer to our hall. She was from some Ironblood mage clan on her way for an audience with the late king and we were hosting her for the evening. She claimed that she could read the destiny of men in the stars so she gave us a demonstration. It seemed like something took her over and there was a lot of babbling about the movements of the heavens and some things that did not make sense. But she clearly said that my husband would father two children before the year was out. When I realized later that I was with child, it gave us pause that we might-”

Merillela halted suddenly. She cleared her throat and continued, skipping over what she had been about to say. “Needless to say, I gave birth to my fourth child and as it came to light later, one of the scullery maids also birthed a baby boy that same month that resembled my husband more strongly than hers.”

“A lucky guess is all,” Lafiel insisted. “What good is it, I say, if you can only determine if the seer spoke true after everything has come to pass?”

Lemirh laughed softly, but it was tinged with slight annoyance. “Lenarsh is a gently reared girl. I did not realize you were such skeptics. I am hesitant to open her up to such rigorous questioning.”

Bronwynne replied, “I am sure the girl has a touch of the foresight and wouldn’t mind giving Lafiel a demonstration.”

“Indeed,” agreed the Other Lenarsh. All eyes were upon her, including her sister’s. “My gifts are attuned to marriages, good harvests and births. I am known throughout the hamlets around Delheim and often consulted by the peasants. If I can accept inquiries from common crofters, I would be more than happy to do the same for my dear mother’s closest associates.”

Lenarsh’s heart sank. Perhaps this explained her mysterious way with people. She had obviously been raised with an indulgent hand. Nanavall, in contrast, never allowed her leave of the confines of the estate’s grounds lest anyone discover the secret of the Talrun twins. A shame so great that it wouldn’t only besmirch the family name but blight all who swore fealty to it. Even if Nanavall had permitted her freedom to leave the estate, she certainly wouldn’t have let her associate with common farmers.

“I do have some restrictions,” the Other Lenarsh continued. “I must be acquainted with one of the people involved in the match to foresee their union. It’s better if both of them are known to me because otherwise, I will only be able to see a symbol that represents the partner so I can no longer guarantee perfect accuracy. I can also only see one year out. Whenever people consult me, they sometimes have a tendency to think they are condemned to a life of barren misery if I see nothing for them when the truth is their blessings will simply not visit them that year.”

Her heart sank further. The gift was stronger in her sister. She covertly eyed Wilhelmina’s finger. The grisly vision her foresight revealed at dinner was the only hint to future events she had seen since her arrival in Rivendown.

The Other Lenarsh casually sipped at her tea. “Let me see. I may reveal some information at this table that is not widely known. Do you still wish me to continue?”

The ladies nodded their assent.

“Lady Bronwynne,” she began. “I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with your youngest daughter, Shelaine, over the past few days. A bridal veil has been laid over her. I know not the name of the groom, but I can see a shield with his emblem.”

Lafiel interrupted, “What nonsense. It‘s widely known that the girl was promised since birth to Eddain Verjilles. Hardly proof of anything that she knows what the rest of the kingdom does.”

The Other Lenarsh was unruffled. “The shield bore the insignia of the silver fur branch. That is the crest of the Galanth family. I am afraid I know not of Verjilles.”

Bronwynne gaped in astonishment at this pronouncement. Her mouth worked before she could speak again. “It’s true. Eddain is deep in debt from his panache for gambling and whoring. His father is planning to send him to join the garrison to defend our borders in the hopes that strict military discipline will build a worthy character. Our families mutually decided to call off the engagement. Shelaine is now to wed Lord Fallon Galanth in three lunar cycles.”

“Fallon?” Wilhelmina said in disbelief. “He is as white as Merillela. What would that old stag want with a girl in the flower of her youth?”

“Same thing that all men want with young girls,” Lafiel replied. “A tight fit and a fertile womb. I hear he tires of his sickly heir and with his lady wife now long passed, it seems he is serious about creating a viable replacement to head his line and inherit his holdings.” She waved her hand in the air. “Still it proves nothing. Lenarsh could have heard it straight from the girl’s own mouth.”

“Shelaine does not yet know,” Bronwynne insisted. “She idealizes Eddain as she knows nothing of his flaws, just that he is young and vital. Even though Lord Galanth has greater standing and wealth, my husband and I fear she may balk at his age.”

Like Talrun, Galanth was one of the five Great Families, along with Magvell, Alveith and Rithen. Together they were known as the Pillars of the Kingdom. The only line that stood greater in honor was the royal family, House Feavion, who had ruled the Elvenfolk since law was established in the Summerlands during the First Age of Remnas.

As kings, princes, chiefs and warlords rose and fell in the Ironblood lands beyond the Elven Kingdom borders, the five Great Families had supported and defended the Feavion Kings throughout the generations. The elven kings were sometimes boastfully called the Unbroken Line to emphasize the orderly, stable nature of their government.

The Other Lenarsh smiled knowingly at Lafiel. “Lady Lafiel, I have seen a blessing for you as well. Your season has recently ended, has it not?”

Lafiel frowned. “It has.”

“Your husband’s seed has taken root. Are you aware you are with child?”

Lafiel went white. “I have said not a word to anyone. How could you have known?” she asked quietly. “I conceived several times during the long season of my youth.” She referred to the two year long fertile period an elvish woman entered upon reaching full maturity in her second decade. “But I lost all the babes. Will this one draw breath?” After the long season, the womb went dormant, awakening to accept seed for a brief period every century.

“Yes,” Other Lenarsh insisted. “This will be a healthy birth.”

Tears dripped from Lafiel’s eyes. “By the Gods and the Sacred Silver,” she whimpered. “It has happened at last.”

Congratulations were exchanged. The Other Lenarsh had removed all doubt that her foresight was genuine. Once Lafiel had gotten her weeping under control, Bronwynne quizzically asked, “What of you?”

“My foresight is not as strong,” Lenarsh said weakly. “I can only make predictions a few days out.”

Like a predator scenting blood, Lafiel zeroed in on the tentative quaver in her voice. “And what do you foresee?”

“I see things that tend to be…life altering,” she answered after she found a word that was suitably evasive.

“Such as?” Wilhelmina prompted.

Lenarsh searched again for a word that was truthful but concealing. “Changes in one’s health.”

“Do you too foretell of my babe?” Lafiel asked.

“No.”

The table was silent for a moment. Lenarsh knew she was losing them. She weighed the odds. Was it worse to be thought a fraud or reveal the terrible nature of her visions? She had to offer them something so she decided to describe what it was like to experience foresight in the hopes it would placate them.

“People and places must be known to me before I can see anything. In fact, I must be looking at them for a vision to take hold. It’s like my eyes temporarily gain the power to see present and future at the same time, one laying just over the other. A bit like when the vision blurs after too much wine. The future self looks like I imagine a ghost would.” She bit her lip when she realized that the last comparison to wine fueled hallucinations did her no favors.

“Predict something then for one of us,” Bronwynne requested, clearly growing a little impatient.

“I-I am afraid my gift is not so impressive. I can’t do it on command. The visions come when they come. It’s erratic.”

“Well,” Lemirh interjected clearly sensing the tide turning against her daughter, “Lenarsh was not prepared to give a demonstration today. Perhaps in time, she will have something to foretell.”

Lenarsh took a deep breath and plunged forward. “I have seen one thing. Lady Wilhelmina, does your finger pain you?”

Wilhelmina flexed her bandaged digit. “It’s a little tender today. Clumsy fool that I am, I pricked it at my needlework. Managed to stab myself nice and deep. It hurt terribly at first, but the pain is subsiding.”

“The wound is festering and the rot setting in. You feel less pain because it’s dying. Before the week is over, you will lose that finger.”

All present looked utterly horrified.

Chapter Three


The whispers began shortly after her disastrous showing at Lemirh’s tea party. The ladies present had talked and now people were giving her a wide berth. Conversations halted when she passed by. Chairs moved just an inch further away from hers at court functions.

Lady Wilhelmina was noticeably absent from social events. One evening, a servant delivered a letter to Lenarsh just before bed. The wax seal bore the silver lily. Once she slit open the envelope, the feminine scrawl marked the sender as Lemirh. The missive was brief.


What you predicted has come to pass.


That the infection took its toll on Wilhelmina’s finger was common knowledge the following morning. The mood toward Lenarsh grew notably colder, the looks much more wary. The whispers were bolder and less discreet. “Boorish girl. What a gloomy churl.”

Her sister’s reputation, by contrast, was buoyed by recent events. Courtiers eagerly sought her out to hear her pronouncements.

Lenarsh was falling behind. Dread was her constant companion, first a seed and then a flower deep in her stomach. She started spending more time alone, in the gardens, in the library, any place where the strain of dealing with others might not be so deeply felt. When she couldn’t avoid them, usually during the communal meals, she drank more heavily than was her custom and ate more heartily, as if shoveling in food provided sufficient reason to excuse her from conversing with others.

All day, the servants busily cleaned the great hall, preparing for the night’s entertainment. Some travelers had been admitted into the bailey during the morning. One of the visitors, a pale skinned man with sable hair, was easily identifiable as a musician by the lute strapped across his back.

Two women burdened with heavy looking packs accompanied him. They were dark haired like him, but otherwise unlike any of the elves she had ever seen. Their ears were longer, the points more exaggerated and their skin darker. Not tanned like the field hands and crofters that toiled the land, but more the hue of the brown nut. Gloves covered their hands even though it was the hottest season of the year.

Lenarsh had no intention of attending the event and planned to spend the night out in the garden enjoying the balmy breeze. The Maze of Blooms was always at its most beautiful when the soft, fragrant petals reflected the moonlight. Thanks to the silvery hue on all plant life, so long as the moon shone and stars twinkled, it was never truly dark in the Summerlands. The gardens of Rivendown were so bright that the path through the twisting topiaries required no torches.

She gently stroked the stem of a bellflower and watched the hanging blossoms sway.

“There you are,” a feminine voice said behind her. “We’ve been looking for you.”

With a start, Lenarsh looked at the two women approaching her. One was a tall blond woman holding a folded up lace fan. The other was a short, daintily featured girl close to her own age with shining black hair. It was the younger one that had called out. She glanced over her shoulder hoping to see the person they addressed but found no one.

“We thought we saw you come this way,” the taller, older woman said. Her voice had a sultry, mature timbre. “The performance is about to begin and we were afraid you might miss it.” She snapped her fan open and fluttered it in front of her face. “This wretched heat,” she complained.

“Yes,” the younger one added. “We noticed that you haven’t been around much, Lenarsh. Country girl that you are, we can’t allow you to miss Master Edelbert’s performance. I doubt you’ve ever seen anything like it.”

“Don’t insult her ladyship, Sarabelle,” the older woman scolded. “Excuse her manners, Lady Lenarsh. This one is Sarabelle, my young overly indulged cousin. It’s her first time off her parents’ estate and, since everything she has ever said has been treated like molten silver, she sometimes speaks without thinking. I am Gwendyth Saradon, the wife of Lord Iswaine.”

Lenarsh curtsied. “How pleased I am to make your acquaintance, Lady Sarabelle and Lady Gwendyth. I am Lenarsh Talrun.”

Sarabelle grasped her hand and led Lenarsh to the entrance of the maze. Gwendyth followed behind, giving Lenarsh no room to attempt escape. The girl chattered as she guided them back to the keep. “This is the first time that Gwendyth and I have been to Talrun Court, and we are both slightly out of sorts. All these people have known each other for centuries and it’s so hard for newcomers to break into these tightknit social circles. My dear mother judged me mature enough this year to make the journey with her and Father.”

Gwendyth added, “So we thought that we could form a circle of friendship ourselves. This is the first time that I have accompanied my husband. We’ve only been wed a few years, you see, and you might also say that I married above my station. This is rather more exalted company than I am used to, as I was born the daughter of a low ranking knight.”

The trio reached the great hall to find the Lord’s dais converted to a stage for this special occasion. The curtains were drawn and Master Edelbert sat on the edge of the stage, testing his lute strings. The members of the Court took their places in the rows of seats in front of the stage. Even the servants were allowed to watch from the shadowed alcoves. The pair escorted Lenarsh to a seat.

“The performance will begin soon,” Sarabelle said with relish.

“Is he a troubadour?” Lenarsh asked.

She explained, “Yes, but more than that. He is a master of puppetry, but, of course, it’s his thralls that will be pulling the strings.”

“You mean the dark skinned women?” Lenarsh asked.

Sarabelle giggled, “She has never seen a dark elf before.”

“Of course not,” Gwendyth said. “They work in the mines digging out our precious silver, or handle the heavy labor to build our castle walls. Little more than beasts of burden really. Barely worth the notice of any finely bred woman.”

“They’ve been detoxified,” Sarabelle explained. “They would never be allowed near us if they posed any kind of threat. The gloves mean the tips of their fingers have been removed.”

“I’ve heard of them,” Lenarsh said. “I’ve just never seen one before. I thought they’d look bigger since they built most of the border forts.”

The dark elves were the unfortunate result of taboo cross-breeding between Elvenfolk and Ironbloods. The resulting children were dark skinned in appearance and born with deadly venom sacks under their nails. Impervious to their own poison, no other race of Remnas was immune to the incurable toxin. Universally hated even amongst the Ironbloods, the dark elves were only tolerated in the Summerlands because they were a slave race assigned the most grueling and undignified labor unfit for free men.

Master Edelbert played three chords. All talk ceased. He launched into a short tune and before ceasing the stage curtain slid open. “In the First Age of Remnas,” he began in a rich, musical voice, “Elvenfolk were granted dominion over the Summerlands, the country that knows no winter. We received the gift of the Sacred Silvers, grew wise and founded a kingdom based on law.” A puppet marched in from stage right. The pointed ears marked it as an elf.

Elvenfolk were noted for their great love of the arts. While it was one thing to write a novel or compose a ballad, it was quite another to have actors play out the events described on the pages. In order to preserve the wall between fantasy and reality, lest feeble minds confuse the two, acting was forbidden in the Elven Kingdom. However, forms of theater flourished that illustrated the stories being told through conduits other than live beings. Puppetry was one of the ways to get around the prohibition.

“The rest of the world was granted to the Seed Tribe.” A second puppet marched out from stage left. It was shaped like the elf puppet, but instead of pointed ears, its ears were rounded and stuck out from its head like handles on a jug. “Elvenfolk and Seedmen were the only beings on Remnas with souls and intellect. All else were the savage beasts of the First Age. The Seedmen bred with trolls and titans and in time learned to conquer and devour other beasts that once hunted them. Their thin blood caused them to slowly fade away as they gradually became the Ironblood races of the Second Age: the dwarves, the ogres, the beastmen and the Magefolk.” The Seedman puppet was yanked off the stage as if pulled into the Heavens and new puppets dropped down in his place as Edelbert read off the names of the new tribes.

A stumpy, short puppet for a dwarf.

A bulky, horned ogre puppet with a shock of wild crimson hair.

A puppet with the body of a man but the head of a wolf standing in for the beastmen.

A cloaked puppet representing the Magefolk.

Lenarsh knew the history of the First Age well. Nanavall taught her that the Elvenfolk had established their laws under the Feavion Kings early on, but that the Seed Tribe had fractured into small bands because of their constant infighting. When they were not defending themselves against the great beasts of the First Age, the dragons and other spectacular predators that they eventually hunted to extinction, they plotted against their petty kings and warred against their own kind over the smallest differences. Eventually, they began to acquire the characteristics of the creatures they preyed on, slowly transforming from one people into many.

Due to their propensity for violence and scheming, the Elvenfolk banished the Ironbloods, as they called the Seed Tribe, from the Summerlands. After losing their tolerance for outsiders, the elves saw no reason to involve themselves in the vast world beyond their borders. Theirs was an insular society, but it was stable and the Elvenfolk prided itself on being the one race that had survived through all the ages of Remnas.

As the world entered its Second Age, more racially fragmented than the First, the Elvenfolk grew even more suspicious of the outside world. They acknowledged the new Ironblood races, born from the Seedmen, as beings of intellect like themselves. But they were less tolerant of them because these newcomers had narrowed the gap in power between themselves and the elves.

The Seedmen, like the elves, possessed no fangs or claws, only wits and wile, but while the Elvenfolk lived upwards of a thousand years, the Seedmen lived mere decades. There was not much trouble a creature with a lifespan that short could cause, but the new Ironbloods took the best of the Seedmen, added fangs and claws, the strength to split boulders and the magical arts. Their life spans were greatly expanded as well, stretching from decades to centuries.

More powerful and longer lived than the original Seedmen, the new Ironblood races were a threat.

The lute sang under Edelbert’s fingers. “The Ironbloods fought bloody war after bloody war as the Elvenfolk watched on.” More puppets descended to the stage and began to enact an all-out skirmish. The dwarves hefted hammers against beastmen. Ogres clubbed mages and mages raised their arms as other puppets fell lifeless in a simulation of deadly magic. The elven puppet watched the fray.

The Ironblood puppets fought and fell until only an ogre puppet was left. A troop of ogre puppets marched in from both sides of the stage to line up like an army. These puppets were smaller in size than the first ogre.

The music shifted to an ominous melody. “The ogres, the most savage and violent of the Ironbloods, fought amongst themselves until a king appeared to unite their warring tribes. They called this savage the Tyrant King, the one who rules all with an iron fist. Unhappy roaming the desolate plains of the Wildlands, the ogres set their sights on the Summerlands. Like a plague, they descended. Our swords were useless against their tough hides, until King Keithwaine took the field with his sword of pure lunite.” The elf puppet raised a sword and cut down the large ogre puppet. The ogre army made a hasty retreat to the other side of the stage.

Lenarsh knew this part of the story well too. The ogres had briefly united under the banner of one leader. Their Tyrant King cut a path across Remnas, conquering the myriad kingdoms belonging to the physically weaker races and marched on to the Summerlands. In every tapestry she had seen depicting the story, the Tyrant King was a giant monster of a creature with bulging muscles and a war club like an uprooted tree.

As ogre hide was tough and their muscles thick, blades and arrows had a hard time breaking the skin. Ogres used clubs when fighting against their own tribes to shatter bones and rupture organs. Even the mightiest ogre could be felled if the blows were powerful enough, but elven weapons were forged with skill, not brute strength in mind.

As the invasion pushed inward and decimated the elven armies, King Keithwaine made a desperate gamble to save the realm. He challenged the Tyrant King to single combat. He met the ogre king on the Plain of Astralea, not twenty miles north of the royal seat, with his blade of pure lunite.

Lunite was a rare mineral native to the Summerlands that emitted its own light. Because lunite ore was never larger than a grain of wheat, it was rarely used in weapons. Hoping to frighten the Tyrant King into retreat with his “magic” Sword of Lightning, Keithwaine faced down the giant as both armies looked on. The Tyrant King scoffed at him and the duel began in earnest. The arrogant ogre bade the elven king to make the first strike.

Keithwaine slashed at his enemy and the ogre did not bother to block the blow. Miraculously, the lunite blade, forged by a long dead ancestor as a decorative piece, cut through his thick hide. After the mortal wound was struck, the ogre army fled in terror.

Edelbert intoned as the Elf King puppet bowed to the audience, “Peace was once again restored to the Summerlands. The Elvenfolk must be ever vigilant lest another Tyrant King appears amongst the Ironbloods.”

For the next three generations after the ogre invasion, all adult males were conscripted by the crown to work for one month each year mining for the precious lunite. Although pure lunite weapons remained rare, most quality blades contained some amount of the mineral to give them the incredible hardness required to impart grievous injury to the feared ogres.

No second invasion ever came to the Summerlands, but the peace of the realm was disrupted enough for the Elvenfolk to participate in the War of the Litch King at the end of the Second Age as a matter of survival. Joining with all the races of Remnas to battle a mage that learned to resurrect the dead, the Litch King was defeated and his Necropolis leveled, but many tribes of beastmen and Magefolk were wiped out completely. The magics unleashed during the conflict infused the earth and eventually gave rise to the sentient races of the Third Age: the rock-skinned Golem, the small insect-winged Sylphids, the Dryads with their bark like skin and mossy hair and the Ondine, living waters that assumed the shape of men.

Elven supremacy once again restored upon stage, the audience burst into raucous applause.

Chapter Four


Sarabelle and Gwendyth’s presence was like a balm to Lenarsh, helping her to better cope with the stresses of court life. It was good to feel included again. Every afternoon they met on the balcony of Lenarsh’s suite for a private luncheon. The day’s fare was light: cold meats, cheese and fresh fruits.

“Black sparrows have been spotted coming to and from Rivendown,” Gwendyth said as she speared a small block of cheese.

Lenarsh pushed berries around on her plate. “Father is corresponding with the King. I wonder why?”

It was a capital crime to harm, capture or otherwise impede a black sparrow. The birds were the preferred method for the King to correspond quickly with his vassals.

Gwendyth offered, “It could concern marriage. You are of an age, Lenarsh and you are a Talrun. The King would have to give consideration to a union between the scions of the Great Families, lest the balance of power tip against Feavion.”

“You mean,” Sarabelle interjected, “you are not yet betrothed?”

Lenarsh’s silence said it all.

“I have been promised to Gallis Jervais,” Sarabelle said. “I hope your eventual match is better than mine. I met Gallis two months ago and was quite disappointed to find him not but a callow boy. I want a real man who can excite me. A strong one who loves me more than anything in the world. The kind they write ballads about.”

Gwendyth scoffed. “Gallis is the same age as you are. He’s a good natured lad. It just goes to show your lack of experience with men. A woman is lucky to marry a good hearted, gentle sort. The kind of man you idealize, ruled by intense passions, will so often hurt you without even a care.”

“What kind of man is your husband?” Lenarsh asked Gwendyth.

“He is…” Gwendyth looked like she was searching for the right words. “A husband,” she finally decided. “He sits beside me at social functions, he waltzes with me at dances and he doesn’t shame me in public. He doesn’t hit me in private or bring mistresses into my home. He greets me when our paths cross and he has not forsaken my bed. We make small talk at dinner.”

“He is tepid tea,” Sarabelle said smugly.

“The point I’m trying to make,” Gwendyth said, “and you will better understand this once you are married, is that passion is a flickering flame. It dies in a strong wind. The real value in a relationship between a man and woman is to know that the other person will be there. I think to clothe, shelter and keep near a person is a form of love. The truest form of love perhaps. It’s acting out love even if you don’t feel it toward a person.”

“Acting out love without feeling or sentiment,” Lenarsh whispered. By that definition, Nanavall and her parents loved her dearly.

Sarabelle asked, “What do you want your husband to be like, Lenarsh?”

“I have never thought about it,” she admitted. “It’s not really something that I have ever imagined for myself.”

In truth, men were as exotic to her as the fabled lost treasure hoards of the ancient dragons. Nanavall forbade her from reading romantic ballads and kept her cloistered away from all but a few trusted servants. While she knew that love between men and women was prized and jealously coveted, she did not know exactly what it entailed. She’d seen pictures in books of embracing couples about to kiss, but it seemed there had to be more to love than that. Whenever she had asked about such things, Nanavall always said, “Don’t give that sort of thing a second thought until they put you in front of the altar. You can avoid a great deal of trouble that way.”

Sarabelle frowned. “You’ve never kissed anybody have you?”

Lenarsh suddenly felt very small and stupid. Nanavall had spent years educating her, but had taught her nothing of love and romance. She knew history, the arts, language and etiquette, but she lacked some vital spark.

She did not know how to be a person.

Gwendyth frowned. “What would you know of kissing, Sara?”

“I know,” Sarabelle said smugly, “that when you kiss a boy, all the boys want to kiss you. It’s like magic. If someone takes notice of you, everyone else does too because they want to find out what is so special about you. It’s the secret of popularity. Convince one person of something and you convince everyone. I was very popular back home.

“I have a plan to get out of marriage to Gallis. I will find a husband here, a better one that meets my needs. A sophisticated man of poetry and romance from a good family. Marry up, not down, you know. Once I work my wiles on such a man, my parents will have no choice but to let me wed him because he is simply too good a catch to let get away. All I have to do is charm one or two scions from the important families and I will be a highly sought after commodity.”

“I know you have always wanted to be the center of attention,” her cousin said tartly. “But one day you will get the wrong kind.”

“Pish-posh. I am always discreet. Besides a kiss or two never hurt anyone. Don’t tell me you’ve only ever kissed your husband?” Sarabelle batted her long eyelashes slyly.

“No,” Gwendyth admitted. “It’s not the kissing that’s the problem. It’s the other things it leads to.”

“I can’t even imagine having Sarabelle’s confidence,” Lenarsh said. Sarabelle preened at the compliment.

“It’s not confidence,” Gwendyth insisted. “It’s recklessness!”


***


That night Lenarsh received two significant pieces of news. At dinner, Lord Verdelung called for silence before the meal was served and made a startling announcement. “As you are all aware, the Lady Lenarsh is possessed of a powerful foresight. Word of her talent has reached the King’s ear. Ranarth Feavion himself has asked for my daughter’s hand in marriage and I have accepted his offer.”

The banquet hall broke into wild applause. Ranarth was a young king, barely into his second century of rule. Soon after taking the throne, his betrothed had unexpectedly passed away. He subsequently spent most of his time extracting tribute from the powerful families jockeying amongst themselves, each trying to outdo the other in hopes they might forge ties through marriage with the Unbroken Line. It seemed that Talrun had finally been the one to make the offer that Ranarth couldn’t resist.

Lenarsh received polite congratulations from the lords and ladies around her. After dinner, well-wishers mobbed her sister. She escaped from the banquet hall relatively unmolested. In the hall, Sarabelle cornered her to offer her best wishes on the announcement of her nuptials. Something about her tone seemed a little too tight, like she was not completely sincere. “This is a coup for you, Lenarsh. It’s to be expected that the King would take an interest in the marriage alliances of his chief vassals, and I knew you would marry high. Imagine it. You’re going to be a queen.”

“It’s all so unexpected. I can scarcely believe that I heard correctly,” Lenarsh said shyly. “I feel like I’ve been given an honor that I’m not worthy of.”

Sarabelle said, “I heard an interesting rumor that His Majesty had already chosen a bride from the Schulden family. They serve under the Rithen. Despite being one of the Great Families, Rithen’s coffers are nearly empty, but Schulden has deep pockets. It must have been idle gossip though.”

“I hope it is,” Lenarsh said softly. “Because otherwise, that girl will be devastated.”

“Lord Schulden is more likely to be the one utterly devastated,” Sarabelle crowed. “His house would have been elevated had the marriage taken place. They would have stood on par with the Great Families.” She suddenly leaned in close to Lenarsh and whispered conspiratorially, “And speaking of marriage, I have found my future husband.”

Lenarsh was unsurprised that Sarabelle was reporting success so soon. Whenever they were not together, her friend made every effort to put herself in the company of eligible young men. It was the second bit of news that shocked her.

“We are getting married tonight.”

“But there hasn’t been an official announcement,” Lenarsh protested.

Sarabelle giggled. “Well not officially. Not yet anyway. This is a private ceremony. We will marry in our hearts until we are able to announce our nuptials to all. My love has to convince his family to accept the match first.”

“What if he can’t?” Lenarsh asked seriously. Deep down, the idea was darkly thrilling. It made the idea of marriage so much more exciting than what hers was, a transaction between her father and the King for their mutual benefit.

“Then we will run away and marry without their blessing. He loves me so deeply he is prepared to give up everything to have me.”

“Who is he?” Lenarsh asked.

“I’ve promised not to tell anyone about him,” Sarabelle whispered. From the glint in her eyes, the girl knew she had Lenarsh’s full attention and regarded it as a victory. “We are meeting at midnight at the gazebo just beyond the pond.”


***


That night, in the darkness of Lenarsh’s bedchamber, Sarabelle’s confession pricked at her mind like a thorn embedded deeply under the skin. She lay still under the covers, turning the conversation over and over in her head. Sarabelle’s secret marriage occupied her thoughts more than the unexpected pronouncement of her own engagement.

She shifted under the thick blanket and closed her eyes. She imagined a tall, delicate man in a violet mantle and gleaming silver armor. She did not know what Ranarth looked like, but she was familiar with the unique features of the Feavion line from countless drawings and tapestries depicting their heroic exploits.


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