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Whew! Sorry it took so long, but you all heard about my accident with my laptop…

Enjoy the post! 😀

Bound to the Flame

Chapter II

Part I

                As soon as they reached the border, the masked and cloaked men returned Margery’s weapons, then their leader saluted her formally. Margery was about to bow in response, but before she could do so, the Ertraian guards had melted away into obscurity, vanishing into the green and brown of the deep forest. Feeling somewhat bewildered and more than a little ethereal, Margery turned Celad’s head down the glen and guided him slowly along the trails, back toward Arethwyne’s castle.

She crossed a stream on the way back, and paused to drink from it. She had set out before dawn, and now it was almost evening. She was starving, despite the fact that her honor guard had shared their luncheon with her on the march. Margery stooped and dipped her cupped hands into the flowing water, then drank. She remembered the day she had gone to Shaara and drunk from the Spirit Falls; no easy feat, as the falls were so high that the water fell in clouds of wind-driven spume and evaporated into droplets of misty spray long before it could fall into the river below. The only way to drink from the Fall itself was to climb one of the fingers of the Mirror Hand, or the jagged rocks of the cliffside itself. She had climbed the Forefinger, reputedly the most challenging climb, and the hardest to scale safely. She drew herself slowly from her reminiscences and threw one leg over the saddle. Nodding to Celad, she flicked the reins and the horse cantered off. She was lost in thought for the rest of the way home, and it was not long—or at least, it did not seem like long—before she was riding over the bridge that leapt from side to side of the mountain chasm in a single, majestic spring and onto the paved road to her father’s castle. The red, golden, and gray-blue shades of evening were beginning to fall as she cantered up to the gates and into the courtyard, taking just a moment before leading Celad to the stables to gaze back out of the gates at the glorious blossom of the sunset across the mountains. Then, she dismounted from Celad’s back and led him back to his stall, pulling down some hay and oats to feed him. She marched briskly up the path to the castle, entering through the kitchen door, walking through the kitchens and making her way up to the solar, where her family was eating dinner. Marena Dun Fayr, Queen of Arethwyne and Margery’s namesake and mother, rose to her feet and embraced her only daughter. “And how is my sweet little lass this evening?” She pulled a leaf out of Margery’s hair, laughing softly. “What did you do today? Did you rescue some poor cottager in distress? Did you follow the Agra to its sources?”

“Nothing that exciting, Mum,” Margery said, smiling and hugging back. “I just did some exploring.”

“Did you eat lunch?” Marena asked next.

“No, and yes,” Margery hedged. “I didn’t bring anything along with me, but I picked it up along the way.”

“Mmm.” Marena remarked, as if she wasn’t sure whether she should be pleased or displeased. “You thanked them properly for it, I hope.”

“I did.” Margery affirmed. Marena sighed.

“Well, at least I know you did learn something from me,” she said. Margery giggled, then covered her mouth with her hand.

“Sorry,” she said. Marena smiled, half-wistfully, and straightened up.

“Well, you’re probably starving again, so let’s eat before you faint from hunger.” Margery made a face; Marena laughed. “Of course you’re not that frail,” she said, laughing. “Did I tell you yet, Margery—we’re to meet at Cremlegge for an accord with the kingdoms of Elruun and Ertraia?” Margery’s head came up in an instant.

“Ertraia? Haven’t they been isolated for forty or fifty years?”

“Forty-two,” Marena said. “And no one really knows what to expect from the Ertraian clans—all we know about them is old hear-say—so I will expect you to be on your best behavior—you too, boys,” she added sternly, glaring at the three young men who sat on the other side of the table. The eldest, Gareth, grinned, mischievously.

“When are we ever not?” he asked. Margery groaned, rolling her eyes.

“Oh, maybe… all the time.” Gareth went on grinning like a mad rabbit.

“Oh, wait. You’re right,” he said, completely unconcerned. Aaron sniggered mischievously.

“We’ll remember that when we’re filching all the pies.” he said, nudging the youngest, Hamish, who gave one of the servants his best innocent, wide-eyed, melting look. “Then again, we may not need to.” Aaron added. Their father, Seamus, gave them a repressive look.

“Boys,” he scolded. Margery laughed, in spite of herself.

“You rascals,” she said. Gareth gave up on his mischief at a withering look from Marena.

“What do we know about Ertraia, Mum?” he asked.

“It’s been very isolated, though they probably had no choice but to be so,” Marena said. “What with the war over sorcery going on…”

“Mum, I’ve never really understood why people resent the Ertraians,” Hamish piped up suddenly. “I mean, they’re supposed to be very inoffensive folk, who keep to themselves quite a bit, but are a generally pleasant lot. True, they’re secretive, but they don’t cause any harm, and they don’t attack innocent folk randomly like some of the robber barons do. Why do some people abjure and molest and libel them so?” Marena passed the plate of sliced roast lamb to Margery as she replied to her son’s question.

“Well, to answer your question, Hamish, I’ll have to go back on history, and it’s a rather long and tangled story.”

“Ah, we don’t mind that, Mum,” Hamish said.

“And I want to hear it too,” Margery decided.

“So do I,” added Aaron. Gareth grinned.

“I’m always up for a good story,” he said.

“Go on, tell them, love,” the king said. Marena sighed, fidgeting with the napkin in her lap.

“Well, a long tale it may be, but for your sakes I will try to keep it from being tedious. That said, you may not like this tale much,” she warned. “It’s rather sad in parts, and it’s not yet complete—we don’t know all of what happened—but I think you should all know it. It would help you to understand exactly what is going on between our kingdoms today, and how we got where we are now. It’s a piece of our history that we hesitated to tell you before now, since it’s dark and disturbing—” Marena had the children’s full attention now, even Gareth’s—“but I think you are all ready now. By any measure, it’s certainly time you all knew the full story.” Marena took a sip from her glass of water and began.

“Years ago, there was such a thing as… magic in the land. There were magicians and sorcerers. Magic was known in our kingdoms, and it was widely and freely used. Wizards were held in high regard by people of every clan and walk in life; they were healers and protectors of the land, and the greatest of all the enchanters all came from Ertraia. It was the best place to pursue the study of magic, and the Ertraian royal family was not the least among the wizards of Ertraia. By the order of Clan Caerlen, the White Council was formed to regulate and oversee the study and use of magic, creating the rules in place at the time of the Great Peace. Any transgression was met with swift, decisive, and just retribution.”

“I don’t understand,” Margery interjected. “If the Ertraians were trying to promote the safe and legitimate use of magic, then why are people distrustful of the Ertraians and willing to attack them on the slightest provocation? Weren’t they the good guys?”

“Patience, Margery,” Marena said, smiling both wistfully and proudly at her daughter, happy with the knowledge that Margery had been listening to the tale thus far, but not yet having completed her explanation. “I haven’t told you the whole story yet, now, have I?” Margery flushed and hung her head. Marena lifted her daughter’s chin with one finger and smiled at her. “Have you not heard the proverb that history is written by the victors?” she asked. That had Gareth’s full attention in an instant—for once in his life.

“They were at war?” he asked, interestedly.

“Well,” Marena began again, “for many years, there was peace, and the magicians used their talents to help others, to protect the weak. Then, something changed, and a splinter group of heretical magicians turned on the White Council. They demanded to know why it was that they were not ruling the land. ‘Our duty is to service and leadership,’ said the head of the Council in reply, ‘not power and domination, and certainly not power for its own sake.’ In a rage, the dissenting magicians left the Council and their Order. They declared war on the Faithful, their brothers. Many innocent people were caught in the crossfire. Eventually, a third group, made up of ordinary people, in retaliation for the deaths of normal people, made war indiscriminately on both factions of magicians alike, despite the fact that on the one side the magicians were doing their best to protect the innocents, though the other could not care less. Many were killed; the wizards were almost wiped out. Ertraia, whose royalty has time out of mind been gifted with magic, offered a safe haven to magic users, provided that they swear a solemn oath to never use dark magic, on pain of death. Due to the fact that they still use magic and shelter others who use it, many people, not forgetting the casualties in the war, do not trust them, disliking as they are of all wizards and enchanters, both dark and light magic users alike. Ertraia has had, by necessity, to close its borders to many, and has become very isolated. They do not permit outsiders within their borders often anymore, and few that enter ever return, and this is the first gathering of the kingdoms and clans that they have agreed to attend in forty-two years.”

“If they’re so isolated, Mum,” Aaron asked, helping himself to seconds, “how did they hear of the gathering in the first place?”

“They do not allow outsiders to enter Ertraia itself,” Marena stressed, “except in very rare cases, in which case a supplicant must wait at certain points on the border for some high official or one of their patrols to meet with them and take them within the borders. Messengers, too, may come to those same points on the borders to deliver messages. At no time does anyone cross the borders unless they have a death wish. Besides, I dare say they have other ways of gathering information.”

“What are their life-ways like, Mum?” Hamish asked. “Do you know?”

“I only know what I’ve heard, old stories and such,” Marena said. “Their nation is rather less formal than ours in some ways, and stricter in others, from what I have heard. They do not make idle show, do not stand on ceremony as much as we do, and consider pageantry both pointless and tasteless.”

“Good,” Margery said, before she could catch herself. Seamus guffawed.

“There sits a lassie who balks not at all to speak her mind,” he laughed. “Is she not a treasure, Marena?” The queen hesitated for a moment, then she joined in her husband’s laughter.

“She is our most precious, beloved treasure,” Marena said, smiling. Margery blushed.

“I’m glad they don’t let riches blind them, I mean,” she explained. “There have been bad wealthy men. It’s not the wealth. It’s how we use it.” Marena smiled and nodded.

“Indeed. You have a rare wisdom that can not be taught, sweetheart.”

“So, can I wear my less formal dress?” Margery followed it up swiftly. Marena looked shocked for a moment, then she laughed.

“As long as you wear your nice dress when necessary, and certainly at the feast, then I don’t see why not,” she said.

“What else about them?” Margery continued, pouring herself more milk.

“As I said before, they do not often stand on ceremony, but they consider courtesy a great virtue. They are pleasant and soft-spoken, but not weak-willed; not much given to boisterousness or loquaciousness. Honesty is as important to them as it is to us. Storytelling is highly valued among them, especially when it involves the clans’ history, and education is more advanced than in most kingdoms outside Ertraia. This is when your hard-earned lessons in diplomacy, history, and literature prove useful, Margery.” Margery sighed. She wasn’t much of a scholar, preferring to learn on the spot, or to pursue less bookish avenues of knowledge.

“I’ve never been to an accord before,” Margery said, excitedly. “What will it be like?”

“Well, you’ll mainly be expected to interact with the young people of the other kingdoms, and discuss some of the issues that the older people will be dealing with—not that you’ll have to necessarily get that bit done—it depends on the others’ moods.” Marena sighed. “It’s been a long time since there was an accord of this size… If there’s another young prince or princess who shows interest in national matters there, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. He or she would be one to watch.” Marena’s eyes were distant. Margery edged a little closer to her mother.

“Mum? What is it?” Marena shook off her reverie.

“Nothing, darling. If you’re done eating, then you should begin your preparations… that is, if you actually want a say in your own packing.”