Kestra had awakened. She was in a place Rowe had described as his sanctuary. She had known none of this. Bronwyn was here, plus a stranger whom she didn’t know. Rhen had delivered her here somehow. He was full of surprises.
After a short rest, she awoke and looked for Rowe.
He wasn’t far; the massive warrior cleric was seated at a table, enjoying a warm mug of tea while he spoke quietly with Attius. A short while ago, they had talked Bronwyn (at least they thought they had — she had her own mind of course) into lying down to rest. They had a lot to do and Bronwyn had been through a terrible ordeal, though Kestra was not aware of all of it. Bronwyn might decide to rise at any time but for the moment she was in one of the bedrooms in the loft. Zayne wandered the pantry trying to decide what to sample. He had a solid form for the moment again, and he was never one to waste an opportunity.
Kestra could see Rowe’s hammers where he’d laid them next to the door. In his belt was his big knife, which he often used in combat in his off hand. But as was his custom much of the time now, he wore no armor. Instead he wore a rugged traveling jerkin over a white linen shirt. His sleeves were rolled up to avoid staining them when he offered his blood to Zayne. His boots were worn but very well made. Blood still spattered his face from the blow that had nearly claimed his life but for Bronwyn’s aid. It was impossible to say whether the blood was his own or Bronwyn’s. He simply hadn’t had time to clean up from the battle.
Rowe’s eyes flicked over to the couch where Kestra was now stirring and his mouth twitched in a slight smile. “Ah,” he said. “One of the ladies awakes.” Kestra thought his eyes must have been glowing because as he looked at her, the light faded and they looked normal. Prophecy was in his nature now; by his god’s will he seemed to always see just a moment into the future and so nothing ever surprised him any more.
“How long have I been out?” the young fae asked as she yawned and stretched a bit. “No matter, I’m just glad to be here, wherever here is.” She was dressed in the white, silver threaded silk chemise and stockings she normally wore beneath her traveling leathers. Her armor and equipment lay neatly folded and arranged on one side of the couch. Noting Rowe’s statement, she asked with a measure of excitement and anticipation, “Is Bronwyn here? Is she okay?”.
Rowe nodded. “She’s here. She’s better; I’ll let you ask her if she is okay when she awakens. Vinneas had done something really terrible to her to try to control her and we just had it removed.” Remembering Rhen’s warning, Rowe decided he would have to mislead Kestra. “Zayne, as always, did exactly as he promised.”
Zayne looked up from the pantry. “Hm?”
Rowe gave him an encouraging nod and a smile and Zayne shrugged and went back to his explorations. Rowe continued. “I owe Bronwyn my life. She took a sword thrust that had my name on it. I would have been killed, but she stepped in to save me. I need to thank her for that; she doesn’t know I had the power to burn the anyone who strikes me down to ash and to be reborn in an instant. As always, she gives everything for those she loves.”
Rowe looked meaningfully at Attius and showed him a small smile. “You are a very lucky man, Attius. And I didn’t say it before but, congratulations.”
“Don’t I know it,” Attius said with a brilliant smile. He stood just slightly shorter than Rowe, every inch of his body was lean, well toned muscle. His complexion the tone that is kissed by the sun, his hair as dark in color as his brothers’ but his eyes were a more gentle blue.
“Attius?” Kestra remarked with a bit of confusion, “I don’t believe we’ve met. I am Kestra Longstrider.” She offered her hand and said, “May I ask for what the congratulations are for?” Kestra had never heard Attius’ name mentioned in her presence, nor how he related to Rowe and Bronwyn.
The young man turned in his seat to face Kestra. He was enjoying the freedom he had with Rowe and the group, and he counted his blessings that things worked out between him and Rowe. “Yes, my name is Attius Arcassian. I am Valerious’ younger brother.” He addressed her questions in order.
“The other is for the future, a hope for this land and the people. I have been naive, so much has happened in my very family and I saw so little, and when I finally did it was almost too late.” Looking at Rowe he continued, “We can continue that conversation later.
“Rowe was referring to the upcoming birth if our child, Bronwyn is pregnant.”
Rowe nodded in support of Attius’ statements. The pain in Rowe’s eyes was clear, but it had lost it’s bitter edge. Perhaps none of his friends really knew how he’d felt about Bronwyn, her sacrifice, and how he watched as horrors befell his closest friend over the past two years. The obsession and pain he’d suffered by having to stand by and watch had twisted like a knife in his heart and but he’d shouldered it all alone.
When he discovered that Bronwyn’s heart had changed, not to love him less but rather differently, and when he realized what choices had been left to Bronwyn, he had also realized something critically important to himself. This had then cleansed the wound festering in his heart since he met Attius and came to understand what he meant to Bronwyn and all of them.
Kestra might not know now what happened between the three of them, but clearly there was a change in Rowe. Something that had been cutting him to the core for two years, and that had become like a poison to his spirit had been removed into the open.
Given his reactions and his single-minded purpose to save Bronwyn, it was no leap to understand he had loved her. Kestra had to know that. But here he was stepping aside in favor of Attius. It spoke volumes of the amount of trust he must have for Attius. It also spoke volumes for how well Bronwyn must have handled what had to have been an extremely delicate situation — one that Kestra must have slept through.
Kestra smiled at the news and was genuinely glad that some of the burden had been lifted from Rowe. She had wanted to let him know for so long that he wasn’t alone, but she had for some time been gone; away performing reconssesance and not spending enough time with her friends. There really had been no chance for them to speak; except perhaps for now.
“Congratulations,” she said to Attius. “It is nice to meet you. Though I do not know you, if Rowe trusts you and Bronwyn loves you, that is good enough for me.” Turning to Rowe she asked, “So, Bronwyn is free of Vinneus then, yes?”
Rowe nodded. “He had done something horrific to her in order to control her, possess her. I still don’t know what exactly it was, but in general it was some kind of parasite, both living and magical. But she is free of that thing now. It was a terrible ordeal and I’m glad you didn’t have to see it. But she’s healed now and is resting.”
He paused, then added, “You must be confused as to how you came to be here. It was your friend. I think he told us his name was Rhen. I have no idea how he found us, but it’s very impressive that he did. He’s taken a very keen interest in you, Kestra, and I think he wants to help both you and by extension the rest of us. He had to leave a while ago, but I think he’ll be around, at the very least to be near you. He must be a very good friend to you.”
She showed a bit of a devilish smile, “Yes, so far, so good.” She looked up. “Rhen’s much more than he appears to be, that is for sure. He’s the same person I told you about, the contact in Liam who helped me with the palace and pulled me out of Vinnius’ banishment spell. I like him, and he it seems on the surface genuinely likes me, but I hardly really know him. To be honest, I’d like to, but our mission is my paramount concern.”
Kestra stepped over to the table and took a seat. “That’s why I’m here. Rhen said he could bring me anywhere, so I chose you. I figured, no matter what, you’d be roaring to keep moving. Though, I’m happy to see you relax a bit. You look, well, like a bit of a burden is off your shoulders; which makes sense given the circumstances.” She paused, “So, where are the others?”
“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “Yet. More importantly, they don’t know where I am, so I doubt they’ll be able to find me. I’m going to assume they will regroup at home. When Bronwyn is strong enough, I’ll go there as my next step.”
He smiled and looked at Attius. “I know I already asked if you’d want to stay with my father and you decided you wanted to stay with us and help,” he said, mostly for Kestra’s benefit. “But going there might be a good opportunity for you to meet my father. Bronwyn, too, I think. I have magic that will help us travel around from there, should we need to reassemble our friends. From there, I think I know just what we need to do to find your brother Valarius.”
“I am with you, so long as you need me. There is a lot to repair in this world,” Attius said.
“Welcome abord Attius,” added Kestra. Turning to Rowe she asked, “As an aside Rowe, I was wondering if you had a few minutes while Bronwyn is recovering to talk about a few things. I feel a bit out of the loop since I’ve been out scouting or breaking into places and I’m not so sure what is going on for certain. Also, I have some personal questions on a few things. If you don’t mind?”
“Go ahead,” he said seriously. “Although on the personal questions, don’t be surprised if I then ask you a few in return.”
Zayne’s laughter filled the kitchen. The rummaging had stopped and before him was a feast of food. He raised his goblet in a toast to them before digging in.
Rowe grinned back at him.
“Sure,” she said. She got up and gestured to Rowe, “Lets take a walk then.” Turning to the others, “we won’t be far.”
That made Rowe wonder what she might possibly want to ask him that he couldn’t say in his own home. “It is safer here in the tree,” he told her, “but as you wish.”
Once they were out of earshot she turned to Rowe and said with a friendly smile, “Do you know why I readily volunteer to do the most audacious and dangerous missions for you? There are several reasons, but do you know them?”
“I had hoped it was because you were as dedicated to doing the right thing as I was,” he said with some surprise.
Kestra nodded, “That is true…now.” She paused a bit then said, “Three years ago, I left on what would translate from my people’s language as a warrior’s pilgrimage, a spirit walk of sorts to explore the outer world. My master encouraged me to look for opportunities to duel, adventure and well, experience life. Until my capture by Vinneus, I did just that. I was vain, arrogant, impulsive, provincial and painfully overconfident; and perhaps I still have a degree more or less of those qualities. Everything I did, I did however for very selfish reasons and for glory. But somehow along the way, despite this, I made friends. When you were willing to sacrifice all to save me, and Bronwyn DID do so; albeit for a higher purpose; I knew I had to truly earn the friendship so honestly and honorably given. So, yes I do this because I think it is right, because it is a challenge, and because of you my friends and especially for you Rowe. Because more than anyone here, you have earned my trust – and have given me yours. All of our long-time companions, from Lucan to Bronwyn have given me inspiration to do the right thing in each their own way.”
“That being said, I want you to know that through all this time of Bronwyn’s dissappearance, I’ve been there for you to talk to; and I’m sorry I didn’t communicate that well. But, I’ve always been gone on missions. I didn’t quite understand, nor can I really know, what you’ve gone through. But know that I am your friend and I will always listen in the days ahead if you need someone to talk to,” finished Kestra.
Rowe studied her face for a long moment, then looked up into the trees while he took some time to think about that. Sunlight spilled between the leaves of the great oak, giving everything a few scattered shards of light to illuminate the twilight beneath the canopy.
Rowe had hoped the pain he felt having to stand by and know that his best friend suffered and believing she did so for him — for love of him — was in the past now, and he had no intention of calling up those bad memories unless he had to.
He sighed and looked back at her. “Thank you for your concern, Kestra, but Bronwyn and I have been talking. Really communicating for the first time probably… ever. She’s showed me some things I had no idea of before and I think she understands what I’ve done and why.”
He gave Kestra’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m working through this. It hurts to have to give her up, but I’m not going to self-destruct. At least, not anymore.
“I think the best thing to do is to focus on the task at hand. We have to pull ourselves together, the whole team, and go salve Valerius. Vinneas now has eight wielders at his call, and there is nothing in this world that I know of that can stand against power like that right now. So we’ve got to find a way.”
Kestra replied, “We will, I mean we do have a destiny, right? Though, sometimes I think my desire for revenge against Vinneus, for what he did to me, is petty. I didn’t have it so bad compared to what he did to Bronwyn, not to mention countless others. He just wanted me in his ‘collection’. As bad as that is, it simply doesn’t measure up. I still would like to see him suffer, but now I suppose it is not for my own satisfaction, but for justice. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that.” She took in a bit of the outdoor air with a deep breath and the sun on her face, and briefly she looked like the innocent fae she once was. “I love the wilds…but we can go in now if you like, or was there something you wanted to ask? We can talk inside if you feel safer.”
“Just a comment, Kestra,” he said. “And a warning not to make the same mistakes I have.” He knew now that things were as they should be, but nevertheless had he seen what Bronwyn had felt months before she left, perhaps he wouldn’t have hurt so deeply and for so long.
Rowe looked her straight in the eye and said without reservation, “I know Zayne interrupted something when he went to find you and let you know we had to leave Lyum. I also know that you were with Rhen at the time. Listen to me, Kestra. If you think there may be something there between the two of you, do not hesitate to act on that any further than you already have. If you do, you risk losing it all. Take a chance, Kestra. Let destiny be your guide — or it will pass you by. That man sees something special in you. Don’t let him and yourself down by being overly cautious, or perhaps you’ll get to know all too well the same pain I have felt. Do you understand?”
Kestra looked a bit confused, “He’s asked me to join him. I think it was some kind of romantic proposal. But he was a bit vague on that point. I want to trust him and throw caution to the wind; but men have wanted me before and were not so fair seeming in their actions, only seeing my body and charm and not much else. I’d like to think Rhen want’s me for that something else, but I don’t know. With so little time knowing him; how can I know; how can you know? I don’t even know wnat joining him really means. You are saying I should take that chance?”
“You already were willing to,” he pointed out, “if you trusted him enough to let him… well to almost have sex with him. I don’t think you are a casual sex sort of person. If I’m wrong, then my mistake and I’ll butt out. But if I’m right, then I’m only pointing out the obvious; that you already have feelings for him, whether you recognize them or not.
“Look, I can’t give you any answers. I’m just saying that you might be missing something important if you don’t act on it. Because believe me, if you don’t act on love, it will pass you by. Destiny will not wait for you.”
“Whatever my original reasons to share myself with Rhen were, which I assure you they were practical; not ones of selfishness, lust or love; it turned out that I really like him. Or else I would not have appeared in his sanctum when the wielders attacked. Something in me, or the destiny that has thrown me around in these last years, brought me to him.” She looked back at Rowe, “I would like to join him, but I don’t know what that really means. That’s the problem. But despite that I think I’ll consider his offer. Because sometimes fate tells a story and there is no way to know the plot until you turn the page.”
He nodded. “Sometimes it requires a leap of faith. Let’s go back inside before the others start rearranging my home for me,” he said with a smile.
She smiled back, “That’s true.” As the walked back in she inquired, “I’d like to know a bit more about what is and has been going on. I have given a lot of faith to what all my friends have done; but I think being in the loop so to speak can help me do better. Like Zayne for instance. Where does he fit in to this whole situation?” She knew he would likely hear her. She didn’t want to talk behind his back and smiled when they walked in.
They sat down and rejoined Attius and Zayne at the table again.
“Zayne? Hm. I thought I had mentioned that.” He shrugged. “His bloodstone was what was in the box the Bronwyn had you deliver me. He’s become one of my most trusted friends. And I’ve put him through a lot of hell and a lot of demands and he still is nice to me.” Rowe grinned at Zayne. He’d tried to make it up to Zayne when he could by giving his friend what he wanted most; a body. “Thanks Zayne. I don’t say that enough.”
“Can you really say it enough?” Zayne said with a sly smile. He turned the full heat of his gaze to Kestra. There was a sensual and powerful heat to his eyes, not one of desire as he looked upon her, but pure raw power.
“I fit into this situation because I have been part of it from the beginning, and that is all I am going to tell you.”
Kestra didn’t like the way he looked at her. She felt, somehow and for some reason Zayne didn’t care for her much; but she could be wrong so she chose not to dwell on it. Gathering her will she looked back at him and said with a smile, “Well, now you’ve got me curious. Are we not all part of this whole thing together, dear Zayne?”
She walked up to the table and poured herself some wine, “Well, keep your secrets if you wish, I’m sure you have your reasons. Curiosity aside, it doesn’t truly matter to me one way or another. That you care about helping us is enough for me. So, for my part, thank you for what you have done so far.” She then took a seat at the table.
Rowe looked between them and said, “Well at any rate I told you how Zayne fits in, so now you know,” he told Kestra. “Right now we also have some challenges before us. We must gather us all together again. Then there is Valerius to rescue. I suspect the place to start would be the heart of the conflict in Vhaillon — at the capital.
“And this should influence what we do; the shooting star and our sudden rescue from lightning-hurling Wielders remains a mystery.” He looked to Zayne. “Unless you have a theory?”
Zayne’s smile faded as he listened to Kestra, but returned to him before he spoke. “Careful what you drink.”
He watched she raised the goblet to her lips and then continued. “I can see you are trying to be pleasent, and that you really intend no insult in your words. If I were not in a good mood myself I may take you up on your words. As it is you are welcome.”
Attius cleared his throat and poured two ales, one for himself and the other he slid to Rowe.
“Now as for theories,” Zayne said after refilling his glass, “If we think about the wielders, and I use that term loosely, should have killed us. It took a great power to pull us out.”
Kestra looked briefly at Rowe, conveying that she was a bit confused at Zayne’s initial reply; then back at Zayne as he made his last statement, “Obviously I got this wrong, but I thought that you were the one that whisked us out of there. Rhen said that it was very unlikely that I should have appeared in his home. The only one I could think of amongst us that had demonstrated anything like that level of power was you, though I did not tell him such. Could it have been Bronwyn, like what happened in the village?”
Rowe shook his head. “I don’t think it was her, Kestra. She was really weak and in bad shape. Also, at the time she was… well she was dying for taking a shot that should have otherwise ended my life.
“How great a power are we talking here, Zayne? Beyond mortal ability?” Rowe wondered. He picked up the ale Attius poured for him gratefully and raised it to Attius by way of thanks before taking a drink and waiting for Zayne’s answer.
“It would not be outside the realm of possibility that the gods are involved, but I have this crazy thought in my head, one that may be being overlooked here. Think of the direction up Rowe and the context in which it was given to you, there is where my thinking is at the moment.” He smiled widely as he drank from his goblet.
Rowe put down the mug and stared at Zayne for a long moment. “Up?”
Then the big cleric’s jaw dropped. “Up. Up! You mean it’s… it might be her?”
“It is not outside the realm of possibility.” He said as he raised his goblet to toast him.
“Kestra drink if you like,” Zayne, said. “I only thought it polite to cation you that Arcayn BloodMead may be a bit much for you. If you wish to try it by all means do.”
Kestra looked back at Zayne and said, “Well, last time you warned me about something, I didn’t take your advice and well…it hurt. So, when you say ‘watch out’, I only have a very painful experience to draw on. But it taught me one very, very valuable lesson. Patience when the situation doesn’t require action. In this case, I’ll nurse my drink. Thanks for the heads up. Speaking of up, by ‘her’ Rowe, you mean Tristan? If so, that is amazing!”
Kestra took a sip of her drink. The effect was, much to her surprise, quite powerful. She noted silently, “a little too much for me right now.” With that she poured herself some water and let the wine be.
Rowe was still agog at the reality of the idea. Tristan? Here and now? Or rather somewhere on this world? He shook his head to clear it. If it was really her, it raised a book full of questions. But he could as none of them until he knew if it was her or not.
They had to get together with the rest of the team, but he also needed to know if Tristan was out there — preferably before that evil king and his retinue did.
“Yes, more than amazing,” Rowe agreed. “We have to regroup, but we also need to know. If it was she that saved us, and also she that fell from the sky in that ball of fire, she could be hurt.”
“We should go after her of course. Do they know for certain we survived? I mean we could have an advantage in Vinneus and his ilk thinking we are dead. He already may think I am, as I was never seen by him in the fight and he thought he banished me to a dark dimension forever,” asked Kestra
“You were visible when you attacked, even if you went and hid after,” Rowe pointed out. “Also, we disappeared practically before his eyes. He’s not a fool. He won’t assume we’re dead. He seems to know magic when he sees it. Nor is it safe to assume that the same tricks we used before will work a second time. If I was him, I’d already be looking to acquire the magic and items necessary to detect us.”
Kestra replied, “So, he may be hunting us soon enough. Okay, in that case what do we do first? Go after Tristan?”
Rowe thought about it, then smiled. “Don’t worry. I have a plan.”