THE AWAKENING

                       Prologue

 

 

 

 

     With a clatter, the oval bronze mirror, a gift given to the Druids, skittered across the floor. Kestrel’s nostril flared, open and closed as she huffed out breaths, her anger, white hot, roiled inside her. Kestrel knew she had lost.

Staring at the lone dresser, one of the few accoutrements in this dark, musty underground sanctuary, was now broken. The half circle frame, which, until a moment ago, had held the bronze mirror, was snapped off with the venting of her anger.

Kestrel clenched her fists, knuckles somehow paler than her alabaster skin. In time, her anger passed, and she remembered. This is only a setback. In the end, I will be victorious!

     The faint light of the Druidic fires crackling in the torches illuminated the sanctuary, which rested below the Calendar. Their light flickered and danced across the back wall. Within their lambent light, etchings were visible.

     Kestrel shook her head; her long black hair parted to reveal beautiful, if stark, features. In the dim light, dark eyes strained to inspect the powerful contingency spell etched on the wet stone. The glass beads woven into her hair swayed as she shook her head at her unbelievable defeat. Here she was, the most powerful Druidess of the realm — forced to hide under the Calendar.

     Sylvanis may think she has won. Perhaps she has, for now. Kestrel could only imagine her surprise if she discovers the contingency spell.

     It was beautiful work — four days of etching and carving it into the stone wall and then enacting the spell. The process left Kestrel drained and in need of rest.
     It was only a matter of time before Sylvanis came for her. Kestrel’s armies were defeated and her Weres either killed or captured. Sylvanis or her Weres would locate her soon. She needed her wits about her, but after the daunting task of casting the last bit of her spell, she had very little left.

The sanctuary was not a fitting place for her, but it was the only safe place she could think of. The room belonged to the local leader of the Druid sept, but with the ongoing war, they had pressed most into service to one side or the other, and this room remained vacant.

     A low bed rested in the corner and was lavishly covered with wool sheets; it had the look of not being slept in. The now broken dresser rested against a wall, an oaken chair before it. A small chest for Druidic raiments sat at the foot of the bed.

Against another wall of the sanctuary rested a stone wash basin. Four torches hung from wall sconces near each corner of the room, dimly lighting the entire room. Truly, not a place for someone as special as herself, she thought as she looked around before returning to her work.

     She only had one last touch, and then she could sleep. Quietly, at first, she began the spell, her rich voice echoing in the small chamber. As her voice reached a fevered pitch, the wall with the etching shimmered away. An image of a new wall appeared in front of the original.

     It was subtle magic and one that would hopefully go undetected, at least undetected long enough for the contingency to go into effect. At that point, there would be nothing Sylvanis could do to stop it. Kestrel would save this world,- eventually.

She collapsed on the bed. No matter how weak the last spell had been, it still had drained every bit of strength she had left, and she had had little after four days of etching and casting a powerful spell.

     “Nil Las,” she muttered, and the Druidic fires snuffed out. She fell fast asleep.

 

 

 

     The Calendar stood upon the horizon, like large stone doorways to nowhere. It had been too long since Sylvanis eyes had rested upon the magnificent structures. It was sad it wasn’t under more pleasing circumstances.

     Her beautiful green eyes searched the large stone pillars and tables placed there long before she was born, searching for a different way for this to end. Standing there, she let the wind gather up her straw-blonde hair and dance with it as she continued to examine the Calendar. A lone feather tied within the strands of her hair tried to take flight upon the wind but failed to free itself. 

     She was a slight woman, short and petite. Her cream-colored dress stopped short of mid-thigh, leaving her shapely legs bare, a poor choice considering the frigid morning air. Light blue threading wove intricate designs sparsely throughout her dress, and a deer-horned hilted dagger tucked into her braided rope belt that was cinched tightly above her hips.

The monoliths looked gloomy and oppressive on a day such as this. Gray clouds hung motionless, a gray blanket for the cold world. Sylvanis knew, in time, the wind currents would push them to the east.

     It seemed almost perpetually cloudy here on the Isle since Kestrel had made her play for power. Nonsense, Sylvanis, you know it is always like this after harvest season. It would be unlikely to change anytime soon. Still, the dark clouds were a constant reminder of the stormy events this past year. She mounted her horse.

     Kestrel was there. Sylvanis had tracked her to the Calendar. Now, she waited for her there.

     “You don’t have to go alone, you know,” Calin said with a dour look on his hard face. He brushed his curly brown hair to one side so he could look up at her as she sat on her white horse. “She is still very strong, and could defeat you, no matter how unlikely you think that is.”

     Sylvanis smiled. Calin was a good man, and if she were not a Druidess at war, she might have taken him as a mate. For all his rough angles and hard looks, he was still an attractive man. He wore his brown hair long, which allowed his natural curls to elongate and they seemed to bounce as a metal coil would, though today the rain plastered it to his head. Calin was one of her Trues and the strongest one by far. Trues were the first of the Lycans to be created. The Pures followed those. The ones that were gifted with lycanthropy from a True. They commonly referred to those who received lycanthropy from a Pure as Weres.

      “I thank you for your concern, Calin.” He frowned at her use of his first name. She sighed; he was always so formal.

      “However, I sense I will be fine in the upcoming confrontation between myself and Kestrel.” She was pretty sure of that one; she had sensed it on the winds, and the breezes had eased her fears. “I cannot assure the same for you. In fact, I have sensed if I were to bring others, needless blood would be shed.”

      That, too, she had also sensed. She pulled her straw-blonde hair back and did a quick braid. She would need her vision to be unobstructed when she confronted Kestrel.

     “Well, I still do not like it, milady,” Calin said sourly. “If we sent in the Weres first, we might overtake her before she could respond.” Again, he peered up at her with his bright green eyes, as if he was trying to convince her with them.

     “Calin…” She paused and looked back at the Calendar. “I have never known you to be a stupid man, so please don’t make me think so now. Kestrel knows we are here; knew we were here long before we could even see the Calendar. And I am sure you already knew that.” She glanced at him from the side and saw him look down quickly. At least he had the decency to blush. Yes, she definitely would have taken him as a mate. Perhaps, if this truly was the end of Kestrel as she thought it would be, there might be time to do just that.

     “When I get back, we will talk of your promotion.”

     Calin’s gaze snapped back up at her, clearly puzzled. “Promotion?”

     Sylvanis stifled a laugh behind her hand, but said nothing. Calin continued to stare at her for a moment, as if trying to decide to ask her what she was talking about. After a time, he seemed to change his mind and asked instead, “You still intend to kill her, at least?”

     Sylvanis had thought long and hard about this. She had searched the wind and spoke at length with the earth for the answer to this question. She hated having to take a life, even one as tainted as Kestrel’s. The wind and the earth had been silent on this, and in the end, she was left with her own counsel.

     When she thought of all the battles waged, of all the lives lost, all the innocents forced to become Were… she didn’t believe there was another option. Kestrel had to pay for her crimes. She was too powerful to let live.

Sylvanis closed her eyes and let the wind caress her. She felt no recrimination. Yes, she would kill Kestrel. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak the words.

     Calin watched her, expecting she would give words to her intentions, but when she didn’t, he looked over his shoulder at the army waiting to strike. He could see the Pures, their large Were forms a head or two over taller than the regular Weres. Non-Weres and Weres dotted the land behind them.

     There were fewer now than there had been just half a year ago. The war had taken its due. Blood had been spilled and lives lost. He had lost friends, more than he dared count, though losing Conner hurt the most. Conner had been his dearest and oldest friend, a fellow True, and a war leader.

     His death had hurt their forces greatly, for when a True is killed, those who they have granted their lycanthropy to, lose it. Though most of his Weres, even with the loss of their lycanthropy, continued to fight for them.

It still hurt. Calin couldn’t help but wonder, though, if it hadn’t been for Conner’s death at the hands of Por and Answi, two of Kestrel’s Trues, how long this war would have continued. For when Calin had learned of Conner’s death, he had hunted down Por and Answi, and killed them. Which was no small feat as they were powerful Trues. But Calin’s fury and need to avenge Conner had won him the day.

     With the disposal of Por and Answi, their Weres, now bereft of lycanthropy, melted away like early morning frost after daybreak

     He didn’t consider himself arrogant, but he was more than a match for most people with the sword. If he shifted, he was almost unbeatable, and though he had been loath to use his Were form when sword fighting, he certainly would not take on two Trues in his human form.

     He looked to Sylvanis and noticed she had already departed toward the Calendar. Calin hoped this was not the last time he would look into those beautiful green eyes of hers. He would never voice his love for her, but love her he did, with all his heart.

 

 

 

 

     Kestrel’s eyelids flew open. “Las,” she uttered, re-igniting her torches. The outer circle had been breached, and that could only mean one thing. Sylvanis was here. A full day had passed since Kestrel had fallen asleep. The spells had taken their toll, but she felt rested now.

     Standing, she hesitated, unsure what to do. If I am to die today, I will die looking beautiful. Kestrel was beautiful, and was very aware of it, flaunted it, in fact. Her long black hair glistened like silk in the torchlight. It framed an enchanting face, high cheekbones, small, well-formed nose, an oval face and soft, full lips.

     Only upon careful examination could you sense something was not right about her. Her eyes… Her eyes were dark and empty. It is said the eyes are the window to the soul, and for Kestrel that was as close to true as possible, for her soul was empty, at least empty of everything but greed, and a hunger for power.

Her skin was light and soft looking, with a finely defined musculature, for she had never been afraid to get down and work when she had to. The long gown she wore clung to a rounded figure which was full in all the right places. The low neckline barely hid the full and inviting breasts she knew held men’s attention.
Men were such fools—bare some breast and you could keep their gaze where you wanted it to be and away from what you were actually doing.

     Sylvanis was also beautiful, but pretended to ignore it, which had always infuriated Kestrel when they were learning to become Druidess together. Sylvanis was, in many ways, her opposite.

Where Kestrel had a full, buxom figure, Sylvanis was lithe and slender. Kestrel’s dark hair and dark eyes were domineering features, where Sylvanis’ blonde hair and green eyes were inviting. Sylvanis always worked as one with nature to accomplish her goals, while Kestrel wrestled with nature to force it to work with her. It seemed almost fitting their lives were destined to be on opposite sides of this conflict.

     A wicked smile crept up on her lips as she thought of the deception she was going to pull on Sylvanis. She did not fear death, but she did not welcome it either.

     Her smile fled. It angered her she was beaten by lessers. She had almost won, but for that annoying lieutenant of Sylvanis. If he came here today, she would definitely kill him. He had single-handedly killed two of her best Weres, and with them, over half of her army. Most of those Por and Answi had turned into Weres had not been given a choice. When they returned to being human, they deserted.

     She should never have let Answi and Por go into that battle. She knew the risks. It had never occurred to her those two would lose to one lone Were. She ground her teeth at the thought of that loss.

Answi and Por were two of the Trues she had created with her magic to aid her in this conflict. Renwick, a third, had been captured. That didn’t surprise her. She figured Renwick was how Sylvanis had arrived so quickly. Renwick was never known for his bravery. It wouldn’t have taken them long to break him.

     She was unsure what had become of Syndor. He had disappeared several weeks ago, but his Weres had not changed back, so he was not dead.

     That was when the tide of the battle turned. They killed Answi and Por. Their Weres changed back, and then deserted. Left with few choices, she ran. She had run and finally come to this sanctuary where she waited to die. They will not defeat me today! This is not the end for me! That was what Sylvanis didn’t know. In the end, Kestrel would be victorious.

 

 

 

     Sylvanis trailed her hand across the rough stone of the outer circle of the Calendar. Up close, the Calendar looked like giant gravestones. Maybe that was just how she felt, she mused, like going into someone’s grave.

     To think it had come to this. Why Kestrel had become what she had, Sylvanis would never know. She had always been brash. Always wanted power. Sylvanis hadn’t believed Kestrel capable of everything she had done. Killing the Elder. Taking control of the Sect. It was not something anyone had expected of Kestrel.

     Then she secretly sent out her Weres to recruit, forcefully if necessary, more Weres. She had planned this for years and had kept it hidden from everyone, especially Sylvanis.

     It’s not that they had been close. They had gone through the rites together to each become a druidess and had shared many a late talk about the future.

     She knew now Kestrel thought of her as an enemy, and she supposed she was. The path Kestrel had chosen was a dark and destructive path, and Sylvanis meant to put an end to it.

     Kestrel knew she was here, Sylvanis was sure of it. Surprisingly, she hadn’t made an appearance yet. Why had it come to this? Had there really been no other way?

     With the Elder murdered, Sylvanis had gathered allies as quickly as she could… retreating… regrouping.

It had been a little over a year since that had happened and a bloody year it had been. Battles fought and ground gained and lost. Lives ended and lives ruined, all for some twisted belief that civilization needed to be stopped in order for nature to live. Sylvanis could only shake her head.

     She reached the altar stone as it started to rain. It was a soft, chilly rain, the usual for this time of year. A slight smile grew upon Sylvanis’ lips. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt it was nature’s way of telling her the stain of what she did tonight would be washed away–cleansed. Stepping around the Table, she began the descent into the sanctuary beneath the Table.

 

     Calin glanced to Adonia, his lips turning down as he watched her. Adonia stared at the Calendar as if she could to see what was happening; though, given her sharp eyes, she actually might.

     Adonia was pretty and almost always in hybrid form, a humanoid looking fox. Her fox-like features only made her more alluring. There always appeared to be a smile upon her face, as if she knew a joke, she didn’t want to tell anyone. Tonight, she wasn’t smiling. She shared a frown with him. At least he thought it was a frown. It was hard to tell with her canine mouth, but he knew she was just as worried about Sylvanis as he.

     The soft patter of rain on armor, reached his ears. First from the back of the army, moving forward to patter off his armor. He looked toward the Calendar and wondered if Sylvanis was feeling the rain and if she was warm. He realized it was a silly thing to wonder… but he wondered it all the same.

 

 

 

 

     Kestrel hated waiting. What is taking Sylvanis so long? She started to pace, but stopped. If Sylvanis saw her pacing, then she might suspect something. Glancing at the stairs that led up and outside, she could hear rain falling outside and was grateful she was not out in it. She didn’t mind the rain. It’s just that out here the rain was always so cold. Her musings ended as she saw the bare feet of Sylvanis, followed by the rest of her slim form, descending the stairs.

     “Good evening, Kestrel,” Sylvanis said when she reached the bottom of the stairs and looked first at her, then around the room, pausing briefly at the broken dresser stand.

Kestrel looked at Sylvanis and was struck suddenly by the look of grief on her enemy’s face. Grief? Grief from what? Could it be she was sad for having to come here and kill her? How dare she! Kestrel thought. She thinks she can come down here after defeating my army, chasing me here, and then show me pity! Sylvanis must have noticed the look in her eyes and realized her expression had been read. She held up her hands.

     “I do not pity you, Kestrel. You brought this on yourself. I just do not want to do it, even though I must. If there is any pity to go around, it should be for me. It is against my nature to take life. I have always worked to preserve it, but you willingly destroy it wherever you go, and that I cannot tolerate.”

     For a moment, Kestrel stared at her. How could this woman have beaten her? She barely came up to her breasts and if it came to a hand to hand combat, Kestrel no doubt could defeat her. Yet, here Sylvanis was, ready to take her life.

Little did Sylvanis know that Kestrel’s death would only ensure her victory in the long run. Kestrel turned away from Sylvanis so she wouldn’t notice the smile creeping onto her face. Kestrel glided to her bed and sat upon it.

     “So, it has come to this, has it? I won’t fight you. I know your army waits outside, and I’m sure if we were to battle, they would come to your aid.” The look on Sylvanis’ face showed surprise, as though her army would not intervene if they fought.

Kestrel considered attacking now. She thought about it for a moment and then discarded the idea. Sylvanis may have told them not to intervene, but that didn’t mean they would obey if they thought their leader was in trouble. And even if they didn’t intervene, if she was the victor, they would descend upon her like a wave crashing on the rocks. Though the taste of Sylvanis’ defeat would be sweet, she knew she wouldn’t live long to enjoy it. And if she did not die by Sylvanis’ hands, her spell might not work.

     Sylvanis approached her.

     “You know it didn’t have to be like this, Kestrel. If only you could have seen the falseness in your methods, we could have worked something out,” Sylvanis said, her voice barely a whisper as she moved closer to the bed, then took a step back, her hand grasping the antler horn pummel of her dagger, as Kestrel stood.

     “And be a slave to your will? You think I would ever do that? I am nobody’s second, especially not you, Sylvanis!” The dim light could not hide the redness of Kestrel’s face as her anger heated her cheeks. The sadness she saw in Sylvanis’ eyes curbed the anger, some.

     “I would never have done that to you, Kestrel, the free-spirited. Your heart has always been free and will always be free, or would have been, if you had just not been so bent on power.”

Sylvanis approached her again.

     “Now I am left with no other choice, and it pains me… deeply.” With that, Sylvanis turned and walked a few steps away and then turned back to Kestrel. The look of sadness disappeared, replaced by a look of determination.

     “Kestrel El-Clare, I hereby pronounce you guilty of waging war upon innocent people, of turning people into Weres against their will, and using nature to further your own need for power. For these crimes, I sentence you to death; may the earth receive you so your body will replenish the soil.”

     The laugh escaping Kestrel’s lips echoed in the sanctuary. “Innocent people?” Kestrel questioned after her laugh subsided. “There are no innocent people on this land. Using nature for my own gain? What about all those innocent people you mentioned? They strip this land of everything for their own needs! Those are the people who I waged war on. The ones who would destroy this earth you claim to protect!”

     For a moment, the sadness returned to Sylvanis’ eyes, but was gone instantly.

     “We have had this argument many times, Kestrel, and I will not be pulled into another one. The council has spoken, and I have agreed. The time has come for your sentence. Do you wish to fight it?” Sylvanis asked, raising an eyebrow. “You claimed you wouldn’t when I first arrived.”

     “No,” Kestrel answered. The fact she would have her revenge in the end made her quash the idea of killing this upstart right now. “I will not fight, as I said.” She returned to the bed and lay upon it, baring her chest. Her breasts lifted and fell with her breathing. She was surprisingly calm, considering she was about to have a knife thrust into her heart. But she refused to let Sylvanis see her upset.

     Sylvanis approached slowly and carefully, obviously expecting some ruse. She pulled the antler-hilted dagger from her belt. Looking down into Kestrel’s eyes, she paused, curious about what she saw there. Satisfaction? At her pause, Kestrel’s face blanked, and the look passed. Had she imagined it? What could Kestrel be satisfied with at this moment of her death? She decided to not give it another thought. A decision she was about to learn would be disastrous. Sylvanis brought the knife down and slid it between the two ribs close to the breastbone.

     Kestrel gasped a deep breath. Sylvanis watched as Kestrel glanced down at the hilt buried in her chest. Blood pooled around the wound, running off Kestrel’s side to make a larger pool between her arm and her side. Sylvanis watched with great sadness as the light of life dimmed in Kestrel’s once bright, shining eyes. A slackness fell upon her facial features as a long sigh of a breath escaped her lips.

     Sylvanis stared down at the hand still grasping the knife. It felt numb, as if it refused to feel what it had been forced to do. She willed her fingers to let go and was surprised they obeyed.

There was blood on her hand. She wasn’t happy about it. The sound of her breathing roared in her ears, the only sound in the sanctuary.

     Taking a moment to steady herself, she stepped over to the basin at the side of the sanctuary that was filled with water and dipped her hands in it. Scrubbing the blood from her delicate hands, she worked until there was no trace of it left. Walking back to Kestrel, she reached down, and pulled the knife from her chest. The wound was a dark tear leaking blood, a tiny stream looking for the path of least resistance.

     It surprised Sylvanis to find tears in her eyes. Taking a life, even one needing to be taken, was never a pleasant experience. It was something to be sorry for. Sorry there couldn’t have been another way, that maybe it could have been prevented in the first place… She shook herself; those kinds of thoughts lead nowhere, she reminded herself.

If it could have been prevented, it would have been. It’s the nature of life; it unfolds the way it wishes, the way it is supposed to unfold. She wiped the tears from her eyes and took one last look around the cave. It was time to get back to Calin. She smiled. She looked forward to a life with him. He would make a wonderful mate.

     As she turned to leave, something caught her gaze on the floor near the back wall. A gleam of light bounced off some metal, and it drew her to it.

     As she approached, she realized it was the bronze mirror that had been a part of the dresser. When she bent to pick it up, she noticed the reflection in the mirror did not show the back wall as close as it obviously was. Oh, no! A sinking feeling crept into Sylvanis’ heart. “Deireadh a chur,” she cried and waved her hand at the back wall. The image of it wavered, then disappeared entirely to reveal the actual wall behind it.

     Another wall with words carved into it. Powerful words. Powerful magic.

The words on the wall sent a cold tingle along Sylvanis’ spine. She should have known Kestrel’s defeat was too easy. Should have seen through the ruse. She paced about the sanctuary. The light from her spell seemed to flare brighter as the anger at herself and Kestrel mounted.

     Kestrel had cheated death, and now there was no way to stop her. Or was there? Could she not add to the spell? Could she not make similar arrangements? No. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. What Kestrel had done was not natural. She paced about some more. It came to her.

     “I can do the same thing, only different,” she murmured. Yes. That was it. But she was going to have to act quickly. The spell was still active, but not for long. She knew she didn’t have time to carve the words of the spell into the wall. However, she knew of a quicker way. One which would ensure the spell would be sealed and binding. She retrieved her knife and made a cut in her left hand, digging deep into the palm. Wincing at the pain, she took a moment to steady herself, closing her fist automatically in response to the burning pain. Now the blood oozed between her fingers.

     She moved to the wall and knelt at the last line of Kestrel’s spell. Her right hand brushed the loose rock from below the carving. She dipped two of her fingers into the blood leaking from her palm. As she wrote the words of the spell with her blood, she sang them aloud. Her clear, soft voice echoed throughout the room. The spell sounded like a dirge to the fallen, at first. As she neared the end of the spell, the song became brighter and louder. The dirge became a joyful song which ended abruptly. Sylvanis sagged against the wall as the words and power of the spell left her.

     She was losing a lot of blood; the spell had demanded it. She could heal herself. But what was the point? She knew what she had to do to finish the spell. Unsure how much time she had, she dared not go and tell Calin what she had to do.
A sad smile touched her lips. She wouldn’t be able to tell him, anyway. He wouldn’t understand, and he wouldn’t allow her to do it. But she needed to do it. Someone had to stop Kestrel. And that someone had to be her.

     She also felt responsible for what had happened. If only she had not fallen for the trick Kestrel had played. She should have been more observant, more cautious, more suspecting something was amiss. These self-recriminations plagued her, even though they would avail nothing. She had to correct the mistake, not chastise herself for it. That was exactly what she was going to do.

     Calin would understand, eventually. Once he read the spells on the wall, he would have to understand. They would all have to understand. It was a shame she would never get to take him as her mate; she thought with remorse.

She had delayed long enough, and time was running out. Lifting the knife high, she plunged it into her heart.

 

 

 

     Calin had waited long enough. Sylvanis was gone for far too long. Something must have gone wrong. He looked at Adonia and saw she was worried, too. Her fox eyes met his, and he knew she also felt the same.

That was all he needed. He spurred his horse forward at a gallop and heard a chorus of shouts and growls from behind him. He did not have to turn to know the entire army was on his heels. Adonia had mounted a horse as well and was on his right flank, just at the edge of his peripheral.

     They raced across the wet grass to reach the Calendar. Calin was off his horse and halfway to the entrance to the sanctuary before his horse even realized he had dismounted. His sword left its sheath, the scrape of his blade muted by damp. He took the stairs three at a time. Because the stairs were slick from the rain, he slipped, barely catching himself.

What he saw stopped him in his tracks. Adonia’s footfalls echoed behind him as she also raced down the stairs, almost knocking him over.

     “What is it, Calin?” Her hushed voice came from behind him, obviously wondering why he had stopped so suddenly. He could sense her move from behind him. “Oh.”

     Calin dashed across the cave, reaching the far wall, and fell to his knees. Sylvanis’ body lay in a pool of her own blood, her antlered hilted knife protruding from her chest. He scooped up her still body.

     “Sylvanis? Sylvanis?” he whispered, but he knew. He knew before he even reached her–she was dead. He hugged her body as tears fell from his eyes. Why had this happened? Why?

    “How? Why?” questioned Adonia. He turned his head to see her, not ready to let go of Sylvanis. She stood by a bed at the side of the room. The bed held the body of Kestrel. The crimson stain upon her chest and the stillness of her body revealed she was also dead. From what he could only guess.

     Kestrel had died first; her blood was drying while Sylvanis’ was still warm. So Adonia was right to wonder. How had this happened? From the look of it, Sylvanis took her own life.

     Calin shook his head. It’s impossible. She would never do that. She was a druidess, and she worshiped life, hated taking it. He struggled to believe she would have taken her own. Adonia stared at him, searching for answers. He could tell she had come to the same conclusion — Sylvanis must have taken her own life. But unlike him, she could believe it. She was more pragmatic than him. Anything was possible in her eyes. It was just the why of it she couldn’t figure out.

He watched her, Sylvanis cradled in his arms. Neither spoke, only staring at each other. He had often wondered what he would do after this war had ended. With Kestrel gone, it was ended now. He had never imagined Sylvanis would be gone as well.

     Adonia moved toward him, looking beyond him, toward the back wall. He glanced back at the wall, and for the first time, noticed the carvings on it. He had never been much of a reader, which Sylvanis had teased him about unmercifully. Again, the tears welled up in his eyes, but he willed them not to fall. It was hard enough to read, without having tears in his eyes.

     “What does it say, Adonia?”

     She was quiet for a time, reading the etchings. He watched as she squatted down to read something below the carved words. “Well, we have our reason, Calin… we have her* reason.”

     He hugged her limp body all the tighter as Adonia read what Kestrel had carved and then what Sylvanis had written with her own blood. Hugged her all the tighter because he could never tell her how much he admired her for her bravery. He could never tell her how much he loved her.

 

 

 

     Syndor watched as Calin and Adonia exited from beneath the Table. He had watched Sylvanis descend earlier. He continued to watch as Calin, and then Adonia, raced down into the opening. All the while, he stood motionless in a grove of trees close to the Calendar.

     His acute eyesight was just enough for him to determine who was coming and going into the sanctuary. He was a tall man, and slender. His olive-colored skin placed him from either the Greek isles or Egypt, if one would guess, and they would both be correct. He had been born from both lines. His father came from the isle of Crete, and his mother from Egypt.

He kept his dark hair short, for which he was thankful for today, considering how wet it was with all the rain. He disliked being wet, and in turn, cold. Nothing irritated him as much as having wet hair hanging into his eyes. The woolen shirt and breeches he wore were soaked through, which was also somewhat of an annoyance.

     He considered his options. He had to assume Kestrel was dead. With both Calin and Adonia walking out alive, it seemed only likely. They had left carrying a body, which he assumed was that of Sylvanis. As he waited for them to leave and take their army with them, he decided he needed to make sure Kestrel was, in fact, dead. If she wasn’t, she would be furious with Syndor because he had much deserted her. If she was alive, the chances are he might end up dead, but he needed to know, and the only place he would find answers was in the sanctuary.

     He waited in the rain a little longer to ensure Sylvanis’ people were all gone; after all, he could only get so wet. When he was sure they were no longer in the area, he left his hiding spot and jogged to the Calendar, and over to the stairs.

He slowly made his way down the steps. He did everything cautiously. It was his way. That was why he was still alive, while the others were all dead. That was why, when it looked very much like his side would lose, he disappeared. He was sure Kestrel had been furious with him, but he never liked to lose. So, he just removed himself from the playing field.

Syndor moved quietly into the cave. His snake eyes easily becoming accustomed to the dark. With a grace that belied his gangly features, he moved deeper to gaze about the room. He did not like to move around in his hybrid form but had learned early on he could shift his eyes to those of a snake, his were-form. He preferred to stay in his human form, unless he was fighting, which he tried to avoid.

     Not that he was a terrible fighter; He was a very skilled swordsman. It was just bad things could happen in a fight. No matter how good of a fighter you are, a stray arrow from some peasant could take you in the throat. That was why he liked to travel in human form. Peasants get jumpy when they see someone with snake-like features.

     Por had always been the opposite; he would run around looking like the boar he was, his tusks jutting out from his lower jaw. He loved scaring peasants and never thought one of them might just own a bow, or maybe two of them. Alas, Por was dead. His arrogance had led him to fight Calin, and no matter how strong Por was, Calin was unequaled in sword fighting.

The best way to get out of trouble was to never let it find you. Syndor was not an attractive man, but he had a way with people. He guessed it had to do with his eyes. People always said if you looked too long into his eyes, you would do anything for him. It certainly had gotten him out of trouble before.

     It surprised him to see Kestrel’s body lying on the bed. It looked as if she had not put up a struggle at all. This is surprising. If there was one thing Kestrel relished, it was a fight.

Staring down at her for a minute, he wondered what had happened here, when something near the back of the cave caught his eye. The light reflected off something on the ground and he moved to examine it. He looked at the floor of the cave near the back wall and saw a dark pool of liquid.
     He bent and dipped his finger in it and brought it to his lips. His forked tongue flicked out of his mouth to graze the liquid on his finger. It was blood, but not Kestrel’s. It must be Sylvanis’ blood. How odd. If he understood what happened by what he saw, Kestrel had died first, then Sylvanis. But then who killed Sylvanis?
     Syndor looked around the cave, searching for clues. His eyes ran over the back wall and stopped. His eyes darted back and forth as they read the lines of the spell and prophecy on the back wall. Now it all made sense. Syndor stood and moved back to Kestrel’s body.

     “You are quite devious, my dear. Quite.” Syndor couldn’t help but smile at his Lady’s way of cheating death.

     “I will watch over you. It’s the least I can do for abandoning you to your fate. However, it looks as if you managed to avoid your fate… for now.”

     Syndor moved to the bottom of the stairs and looked back.

     “Until we meet again, Kestrel. I will keep your secret safe for as long as I can.”

     He turned and climbed out of the chamber.