Prophecy Story Index

The Prophecy
Part Four
by Becky
January 1997

Part Four -- Truth
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Questions and Impressions
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Kellessan stood in the downstairs hallway, in the shadows, waiting for her prey. This Dorien had her worried. And so she had to speak with him, but not where his adoring audience would see and perhaps cause problems for her employers. She had watched as Dorien had disappeared into his room, then reemerged with a towel and soap. She had trailed him to the bathing room and now was waiting in the hallway for him to come out again.

The door opened and Dorien stepped out, still scrubbing at his hair with his towel, soap in his other hand, his clothes a little damp in spots. Before he even realized someone else was in the hallway with him, she grabbed him by the arm and hustled him out the back door to the outer breezeway. His soap and towel ended up on the hallway floor as he lost hold of them.

Once in the outer breezeway, she shoved him up against the wall and held him there with her hand. "All right, minstrel Dorien or whoever you are, do you realize just how much trouble you could have gotten us into in there? How much trouble we still might be in if Norseth has planted any spies in that group? Are you that much of an idiot?"

Dorien finally broke in, regaining his breath, green eyes wide. "Yes, I do know how much trouble I could have caused, but I didn't see anybody trying to stop me. Did you?"

She narrowed her eyes, hissing at him. "I certainly wanted to. I have no desire to see everyone in that tavern get killed, myself included." He tried to push away from her, but she pushed him firmly against the wall and continued relentlessly. "Patric is of the opinion that you're actually a bard, is that true?"

Dorien opened his mouth to deny it, but found himself agreeing. "Yes, I am a bard. I was Bard Tulan's protégé. He told me all the stories of the royal family. He didn't want them to be forgotten. He wanted the truth to be known and remembered someday when the time was right."

Kellessan yanked her hand away from him sharply and took a step back. "Tulan? The Royal Bard? You were his protégé?"

Dorien eyed her a moment, then went on slowly as he smoothed his tunic slightly. "Yes, he said there were only two who could be his special trainees. I only met the other boy a few times, but I knew he lived in the palace as well. It wasn't until after Norseth came and took over the palace that Tulan chose me. I didn't find out what happened to the other boy until much later when I found out that he had died during Norseth's attack on the palace. From the day Tulan chose me, he told me that the day would come when it would be time to tell the stories, the truth, the history. And when that day came, I was to tell them and then the true ruler of Rillanda would come forth and retake their rightful position."

Kellessan looked at him scornfully, lip curling. "Oh, really. And just where is this 'true ruler' of yours? Norseth has scoured the kingdom for years, wiping out any relative of the royal family, no matter how far removed. From what I hear, his dark magic has assured him that no one is left. The royal family all died that night, either being killed directly or died trying to escape to the countryside. It was the dead of winter. Surely any of those who got out of the palace froze to death in the snow."

Dorien nodded, looking at her appraisingly, answering slowly. "Yes, that is what we have been told to believe. But I believe differently. I believe the true ruler is still alive." He paused for a long, long moment, then whispered, "Isn't she, Linet?"

Kellessan just stared blankly at him for a moment, then broke into rude laughter. "You think that I'm the 'true ruler' of this barren, forsaken country? I wouldn't take it if it were given to me. There is nothing left to rule but a land of miserable, poor, broken people and destroyed, pillaged land. Nothing. Why, pray, would anyone want this joke of a country besides Norseth?"

Dorien began to redden with her sarcasm and cynicism. I was so sure! He forced himself onward, letting his hidden patriotism come out in stubborn, emphatic words. "This land and its people have known better, have been better, can be so once again with the right leader. Surely you can see that."

Kellessan shook her head, laughter still faintly echoing in her voice. "No, I cannot. Oh, there are always the few 'let's depose Norseth' bloodthirsty types, but never anyone who with enough sense in their heads to do any good."

Dorien continued implacably. "Tulan gave me the task of finding the true ruler. He told me that he knew someone escaped, that he helped them to do so. He was sure that someone is still alive. And it is my job, my duty, to find that someone."

Kellessan just looked at him, then snorted. "Bah! What rubbage. Good luck, music man. If someone is alive somewhere out there, they'd have to be idiots to let themselves be found and brought to the attention of Norseth. And besides, what makes you think you could find them? And if by some small stroke of luck you did find them, what makes you think they would want to rule this wretched country anyway?"

Dorien straightened, pride entering his voice along with the stubbornness and patriotism. "Because just as it is my duty to find them, it is their duty to take their place on the throne again. They have a duty to this land, to this country, to its people to bring peace back to us, to bring life back to us. And I know that when I find that person, he or she will understand that and join me in reclaiming Rillanda."

With that, he turned to the door and yanked it open, walking fiercely back out into the hallway, intent on getting back to his room. Kellessan strode after him and slammed him hard against the hallway wall, one hand gripping his tunic, the other sliding her short belt knife from its hilt. "Just a minute, you little..."

She had the knife at his neck when another voice, female, interrupted sharply. "Kell! Let him go!"

Kellessan looked down the hallway and saw Patric and Meg coming toward them. She let Dorien go and stepped back, jamming her knife back in its hilt in anger, muttering various choice words to herself. Dorien, eyes wide, remained frozen against the wall a moment, before pulling forward and straightening his clothes.

In a moment, Patric and Meg were at their sides. Meg said softly, "Kell, you promised to be nice."

Kellessan ignored her comment, instead just crossed her arms and glared at the minstrel. "He says he is looking for the 'true ruler' of Rillanda. Says Bard Tulan told him that he thought someone escaped the palace the night Norseth overran it."

Patric raised an eyebrow at Dorien. "Really?"

Kellessan continued. "He thinks I'm the 'true ruler,' Linet by name."

Meg looked up at Kellessan swiftly, then at Patric, before letting her eyes rest on Dorien. "Does Kell really look like a princess to you, minstrel Dorien?"

Dorien met Meg's eyes, chin raised slightly. "No, she does not. However, I know the signs of palace upbringing when I see them."

Patric raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. He looked down the hallway, where doors to rooms were shut, but could open at any time, then cleared his throat. "Perhaps, we, ah, should move this discussion elsewhere."

Kellessan swerved her eyes to look at him, and her jaw tightened. Patric ignored her.

Meg took Dorien's arm. "Come, let me get you something hot to drink. I'm sure Kell didn't think about how cold it can get in that breezeway with wet hair."

Patric and Kellessan followed silently behind them.

***************************

Several minutes later, they were in Patric's small office area in the back of the kitchen. Patric and Dorien had were seated on two of the three small chairs. Kellessan took up her customary position, standing with her back to the door, arms crossed, a small disproving scowl on her face, glaring at Dorien, who had his back to her. Meg handed out mugs of hot cider to those sitting, knowing from experience that Kellessan would refuse it.

Patric smiled at his wife as she sat next to him, then turned to look at Dorien. "So you knew Bard Tulan. Just how did you get to know him?"

Dorien found himself replying with the truth, feeling he could trust this man. "I was born in the palace and was fostered at an early age to the Bardic Academy and eventually to Tulan. He taught me everything me he knew, all the songs, the ballads, the old stories, and the histories. I was 14 when Norseth murdered the royal family and 15 when he burned down the Bardic Academy, killing Tulan in the process. My mother had died when I was very young and my father, a soldier, had been killed the year before by Norseth's soldiers. So after that, I ran, knowing that I wouldn't be safe. I took the lute you saw me play. It is very old, and it belonged to Tulan, the only thing I had left of him, the only thing I had left of anyone who cared for me."

Meg touched his shoulder sympathetically. "I'm so sorry, Dorien"

Patric waited a few moments, then asked, "What brought you out here, Dorien?"

Again, Dorien found himself telling them the true reasons. Why am I telling them all this? I don't even know these people. "Well, some months after Norseth came, Tulan told me that he had helped a few escape. He said that Norseth didn't notice at first with all the carnage going on that there were not enough bodies to account for all the royal family. Well, no one was about to inform Norseth of that fact. He was already cutting down every person he could find that could possibly have a claim to the throne. He even wiped out the entire village of Rosewood, just because he wanted revenge."

Meg blanched, turning her face away for a moment. "All those people..."

Dorien continued after a brief pause. "Anyway, when Norseth burned down the Academy, I tried to save Tulan, but he was too injured and was trapped under a heavy beam that I couldn't lift. He told me to take the lute and find the true ruler of Rillanda. He gave me a prophecy of Bornath and the notes on it gathered by two scholars to guide me. He also told me of a sign to show me who true ruler was, along with the names of whom he helped escape. The prophecy itself refers to a bespelled sword. The sign is a sword united by a circle."

He turned around suddenly and pointed an accusing finger at Kellessan. "Just like the cloak pin that your swordswoman wears."

Eyes widening, Kellessan's hand went to the top of her cloak, covering the pin instinctively.

Dorien continued as he stood and stepped over to her, meeting her eyes boldly. "That is why I said you were Linet, the true ruler of Rillanda. Because of that pin. If you are not Linet, then just where did you get that pin?"

Kellessan lowered her hand to her belt knife, steel back in her eyes. "I do not have to explain anything to you, music man."

Patric spoke up softly. "Dorien, I'm afraid you're wrong. I've known Kell for a very long time, and let me assure you, she is not the true ruler you search for."

Dorien turned to look at Patric, who had risen to his feet, a hand out to Meg to help her up as well. Because he turned away from her, he did not see the sudden panic rise and mix with the anger in Kellessan's eyes as she whispered, "No..."

Dorien sighed. "I had so hoped..."

Patric continued as Meg stood up beside him, a hesitant smile on her face. "Dorien, Linet's parents would be the true rulers of Rillanda."

Dorien nodded. "Yes, if they were still alive, they..."

Comprehension dawned on him as he watched Patric and Meg seemingly alter manner before his eyes. No longer bartender and cook, he saw King and Queen, finally recognizing the older versions of Stefan and Raven from the portrait he had seen in the Ancestor Hall. His mouth gaped open, and he dropped to his knees, head bowed. "Your Majesties."

Stefan chuckled and leaned down to draw Dorien to his feet. "I haven't been knelt to in some 15 odd years. I think I've outgrown it. Please stay on your feet, Dorien."

Dorien stood shakily and just looked back and forth between the two of them. How could I have missed it? It is so obvious now. I am so blind! To think that I thought the swordswoman was Linet and I had the King and Queen in front of me the whole time. They were serving me! Aaaahhhh! I'm such an idiot.

Raven touched his arm again, seeing the self-recriminating look on his face, speaking in her soft voice. "Don't be too hard on yourself. We've had a long time to perfect our roles. We fooled a number of Norseth's soldiers over the years and the few black mages that passed our way."

Dorien blinked, "How ... how did you do that?"

Stefan looked over Dorien's shoulder to Kellessan standing stiffly at attention at the door, jaw clenched. "Well, we had a secret weapon, or maybe I should call it our 'bespelled sword.' You were correct in identifying the cloak pin; it is the one that I have worn in times past. I did not realize it would be recognized as such. We believe that it has some kind of . . . magic or sorcery within it, something that we don't understand."

Dorien began throwing out questions. "Why does Kell wear it? Where is Linet? Why are you hiding here? Why are you letting the country suffer? Why...?"

Stefan held up a hand. "Just a moment, one question at a time. We will tell you what we can. Please, sit down."

Stefan, Raven, and Dorien all reseated themselves. Kell stayed by the door a moment longer, then said in a tightly controlled voice, "If my presence is no longer necessary, I will go about my rounds."

Stefan eyed at her a moment, then nodded. "Very well. Be careful, Kell, the winds are rather strong tonight."

Kell inclined her head briefly in respect, then disappeared out the door in a swirl of black cloth and metal.

Raven smiled gently at Dorien, laying her hand on his knee momentarily. "This must be terribly confusing to you, Dorien."

Dorien nodded slowly. "Well, yes, I guess it is, but it's also encouraging, to finally find you after searching so long. Please, tell me, what happened?"

Raven turned her eyes to Stefan, who nodded and began. "What happened. Such a long tale, my friend bard. To make it somewhat shorter, I will tell you only the condensed version. Tulan was to help Raven, myself and our two children to escape. Terel, as you know, was killed in a skirmish with a guard we ran into in a hallway. We continued on, getting to the stables and riding into the woods, managing to avoid Seth's troops. We changed our names and stayed in small country towns, mostly on the sea coast. We moved around a lot.

"It was ... difficult, forced to remain hidden and unknown while Seth was destroying the land, the people, everything that I had raised to protect, to guard. But I promised the King and Queen that I would live, that I would protect our future. There were so many times that I wanted to reveal myself, to confront Seth, but it was never the right time, the right place. Nor could I face him alone. Seth may be very much older than me, but he is also a very powerful mage and could strike me down without me getting anywhere near him. No, I had to find another way."

Raven took up the story. "That is where Kellessan comes in."

Dorien's eyes widened as he paled suddenly. "Kellessan? She is ... Kellessan? The Kellessan, swordswoman and mercenary? Oh, my... How could I have thought that she...?" At their affirmative nods, he swallowed and regained his composure with some effort. "Okay. But why her? What is so special about her?"

Stefan smiled. "Kell is also a mage, or at least she has the talent for mage craft. She does not advertise that fact, nor does she use it very often, but nonetheless, it is there. Very subtle, but very strong. It is because of her that the black mages have not been able to spot us on the rare occasions when they visit this tavern. Something about her ... protects us. It's hard to explain, just know that I speak the truth."

Dorien pressed. "And your daughter Linet? Where is she? And why does ... Kell wear the pin?"

Raven looked down at her glass, running her finger along the top edge, as she replied in a quiet voice. "We ... lost Linet several years ago."

Dorien looked shocked and he whispered, "Oh, I'm sorry, I--"

Stefan laid his hand over his wife's, then looked at Dorien. "Four years after Seth's invasion, we were living in a small mountain village. Seth's men raided it one night in a surprise attack. Linet was separated from us in the ensuing mess. We never found her. We're not sure what happened to her. If Seth had found her and realized who she was, then he would definitely have said something. We do know he takes slaves both for the palace in Brightstar and his own capital in Bornath. We believe that she is either in one of those places or that she was killed during the attack. So, you see, Dorien, we truly are the last of the royal house of Rillanda."

Stefan was quiet for a few moments, then he continued. "You asked about the pin. Yes, it is my pin, or rather my wife's family's pin. As I'm sure you know, the pin is handed down through the female line and is worn as a betrothal gift by the male. We found Kell quite by accident only a few years after we left the palace. She is the daughter of one of the palace guards, and, no, Kellessan was not her name then. She doesn't remember how she got out to safety, only that she did. We took her in and raised her. Her father was a skilled swordsman and passed that talent on to her. No one here knows who she is or how she knows us, only that she will work only for us. Most believe it to be some kind of bloodoath or honor duty or something she owes us or that she simply has chosen us. In truth, it is all of those and more.

"I gave her the pin to wear when we came here, after her mage gift became more noticeable. The pin seems to have several qualities. It shields her from Seth and his mages. And by wearing it, she can use it and her own powers, if you will, to shield us. It has been an essential part of keeping us protected from the black mages. She can also use it to encourage people to tell the truth when they are around her. She is like the daughter to us, not that she replaces Terel and Linet, but she is very much of a comfort to us."

Dorien nodded, then said slowly, "And now, what will you do?"

Raven lifted her head and met her husband's eyes for a long moment. Stefan tightened his grip on her hand, lifting her hand to kiss her fingers before turning back to Dorien, a faint grim smile on his face. "Before we left, Tulan told us that the day would come when we could reclaim our kingdom and that we would know when it was time. That time, I think, has finally arrived. You are not the first person to recognize us for what we are, but you are the first person to actively seek us out, the first to demand to us that we take up the struggle to reclaim what is ours. That is sign enough for me."

Raven added, "And for me. Rillanda and her people have suffered long enough."

Stefan continued. "Kell has been quietly gathering up a small force. She has searched out those who will be loyal to the true crown if given the chance, some of whom who were cadets during the time of the invasion who fled to safety. Some are children of soldiers and other relatives. And some are just townspeople who will fight for the land and for their families. She has small groups all over the countryside, small enough not to be noticed by Seth, but who together will make a nice compact fighting force to use against Seth's troops."

Dorien asked, "And Seth himself?"

Stefan paused, silent, obviously considering something. He looked toward the door of the room. "Seth. We will leave him up to our one last hope -- Kell. She is the only one who can beat him."

~~~~~~~
In the Fulfillment of Time
~~~~~~~

The object of their discussion pushed shut the stable doors, fighting the winds which had become stronger in the last few minutes, sending snow swirling madly around the buildings and few trees around them. Kell leaned against the doors for a moment, then shook loose snow off her black cloak, lowering her hood a moment later. After hanging her lantern on the peg near the door, she strode down the passageway between the stables, checking on the few horses stabled there. Stefan's dark brown gelding Lightfoot whickered a soft greeting to her before reclosing his eyes and going back to dozing. Raven's dusky-cream gelding Andiwyn didn't even stir from his sleep. She turned and looked across the way to her own black stallion Tavindel, who woke fully at her entrance into the stable. He stepped up to the door and lowered his head, entreating her for a touch or a gift of food.

Kell chuckled softly and scratched behind Tavi's ears. "You're just a big softy, aren't you, Tavi? That warhorse act is just a put-on, isn't it?"

Tavi shook his massive head, whuffling at her, seeming to disagree greatly. Kell chuckled again. Tavindel was a warhorse, a very protective and powerful one. And extremely intelligent. Kell wouldn't trade him for anything, even though a few mercenaries have tried from time to time. Tavi always seemed to have other ideas in any case, baring his teeth at anyone he didn't know who tried to come near him without permission from Kell.

Kell had acquired Tavi as a yearling just before coming to Dragon's Rest and trained him herself. The man she'd got him from had wanted to sell his better horses to Rillandans before Seth or his men came calling and took them for themselves. In Tavindel, he didn't know what he really had, other than a somewhat wild young stallion with a good potential if he could be trained. Kell, on the other had, had recognized a Teva-bred horse when she had seen Tavindel. His stride, the way he held himself, the proud tilt of his head, all had told her that he was the horse she was looking for. Without telling the horse breeder what he wanted to sell her, she quietly traded for Tavi and went on her way.

Tavi grew to a massive and impressive height and breadth, quite able to handle carrying her and perhaps one or two others, depending on their weight. She had spent many hours teaching him how to be guided by her knees and shifts in her body weight. She wanted to be able to fight with both hands while astride without having to worry about Tavi. Besides, she needed both hands for her sword anyway, considering that it was a two-handed, very large broadsword.

Kell had had plenty of fighting experience in the last several years, especially out here on the borderlands. A number of foreign and domestic mercenary groups had decided that the splintered Rillanda was a good place for pickings. Kell had joined up with a number of Rillandan mercenary groups, as well as many of the remaining soldiers of Randal's army to fight these other groups off. It was during those times that she had begun to form small fighting groups scattered around the countryside. Seeking out people loyal to Randal and the missing royal family was a difficult and dangerous task. Talking to the wrong people could spell disaster for many. So far, she'd been fortunate to find soldiers that she remembered from Brightstar. She had placed them in charge of the groups and created a string of people by whom they could communicate throughout the countryside

Kell patted Tavi's head once more and went on to check the rest of the horses, which belong to various travelers that were staying at the inn. She turned back to go to the door and paused at the stall nearest the door. Inside was a light brown mare with dark blue saddlebags that she did not recognize. The mare was quiet, but was watching her with steady eyes.

She entered the stall and soothed the mare with a practiced hand before looking at the bags. She pursed her lips. She must belong to that minstrel-bard-whatever he is person. With little thought of guilt, she opened the bags and looked quickly through them. I still don't trust him. She found only a few small notebooks, some paper, some ink and a few quills, and a standard eating knife. Most likely a spare. I saw him use one inside. Nothing dangerous, just typical bard stuff. She reclosed the bags and exited the stall. She took one last look around and headed out, gathering her lantern as she went.

Outside, the wind seemed to be even stronger. The cold cut through her cloak and heavy long-sleeve shirt that she had thrown over her indoor short-sleeve shirt and long loose-fitting pants. Only her leather boots, fitting closely around her legs, were proper for this weather. But she could even feel the cold seeping through the soles of them. She barred the stable doors and grabbed up her lantern from the ground near her feet, thankful that her mage gift could keep the light lit in this awful weather, otherwise it would be useless to even attempt to carry a light.

She trudged back through the small snowdrifts to the inn's back door into the kitchen. She hurried inside and shoved the door closed again, barring it tightly. She shivered once, feeling the remaining heat from the kitchen stove warm her insides. With a small wave and a thought she doused the lantern flame and set it on a nearby counter. She then shrugged off the hood of her cloak and stamped the snow from her feet, while she yanked off her leather gloves with her teeth.

She walked through the kitchen and out into the main room, seeing that it was empty. Everyone had either left or was in bed for the evening. She checked the front door -- locked tight. Good, Patric remembered. Didn't know if he would with all the ruckus going on. She turned toward the staircase to go to her room located just next to it to sleep. It has been a very long day. As she turned, a darkish figure on the stairwell made her jump nearly out of her skin. She had her sword out of her scabbard and held out in front of her before the figure spoke in a soft, hesitant voice.

"Kell? I'm ... sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

Kell sagged, adrenaline still pumping through her body, but still instinctively using the adopted cover name. "Meg. It's only you. I thought ... Oh, never mind. Why are you still up?"

As she slid her sword back into her scabbard, Raven, clad in a heavy wool robe, continued down the stairs, holding a covered candle in one hand, saying, "I was still awake and heard you come in. Is everything all right?"

Kell nodded. "Yes, I was just heading to bed." She paused for a long moment, then asked in a quiet voice, "What have you decided?"

Raven replied, "Patric would like you to get in touch with your ... friends and tell them that it is time to move. He suggests perhaps staying out of Brightstar itself, perhaps going to the outlying towns and villages for the moment."

Kell agreed stiffly. "Very well. I will get word to the necessary people."

Raven hesitated a moment, then continued. "Kell, it is time to do this. You know it as well as any of us, perhaps more than we do."

Kell eyed Rillandan's rightful queen for a moment. "That may be, my lady, but I still do not have to like it. I do not trust the minstrel. Why now? Why here? Why that tale? Who is he really? How did he manage to come to this tavern out of all the others and tell that story? I want answers."

Raven touched her arm. "There are always questions that we will never have the answers to, Kellessan. Perhaps you are correct in distrusting Dorien, but my heart tells me that he is worthy of our trust, that he speaks the truth, that the time to act is now. It has been 15 years, Kell. Don't you think that is long enough?"

Kell argued, shaking her head. "It is not the time I find fault with. It has been much longer than any of us anticipated or wanted. I have waited for years to have the chance to face Seth, to stop him, to rid Rillanda of him for good. It is the minstrel that I don't know how to interpret. What if he is not who he seems? What if it is a trap? What--?"

Raven interrupted gently. "You have to trust someone, sometime, Kell. He means us well. He is a bard, trained by Tulan, who was a loyal servant of the crown to the end. Tulan told us to keep safe and to live. He also spoke of the right time to return, that we would know it when that time came. That time is now. We must act, Kell, or all will be lost." She turned and went up the stairs, disappearing into the darkness. Kell watched her go, turning Raven's words over in her mind, finally coming, perhaps a little grudgingly, to agree with their decision They must act now or forever lose Rillanda.

Kell muttered to herself as she made her way to her room, "I can only hope that we don't later regret trusting Dorien."

***************************

Stefan woke up the next morning to find Raven cuddled close to his side, still asleep. He had woken briefly when she had crawled back into bed last night. He could only guess she talked with Kellessan when she came back inside. He hadn't been too coherent and so had just pulled her chilled body to his and fell back asleep.

His internal clock told him that they needed to get up and begin preparations for the morning meal. He started to slide out of bed, reluctant to wake his wife, thinking perhaps she might need the extra sleep. But as he moved, she stirred. Years of living on edge had her trained to wake instantly to the slightest sound or move. Not something she could train out of herself. She stretched slightly as he relaxed back into his pillow.

Smiling, he touched her cheek with a finger. "Good morning, love."

She returned his smile, turning her face to kiss his palm. "Morning to you too."

He inquired, "Did you talk to Kell last night?"

She turned onto her side, facing him. "Yes, I did. She said that she will send word to her ... friends about the plans to move." She fell silent, a shadow passing over her face.

He stroked her shoulder. "There is something more. What is it?"

Raven paused for a moment, looking for words, then just sighed and began. "She is ... somewhat ... displeased, I guess, about our trusting Dorien. She has many questions about why he came here, why now, why that tale, and so forth. I think she believes we are doing the right thing, but that we should not have revealed ourselves to Dorien, at least not so soon."

Stefan nodded slowly, one hand rubbing her back unconsciously. "I expected as much from Kell. She doesn't trust many people. And I have to admit that someone coming from the capital, claiming to be Dorien and knowing Tulan, well ... it is a little too neat."

Raven propped herself up on one elbow. "But I recognize him. I know I saw him at the palace, and with Tulan. He was Tulan's other personal student. And if I remember correctly, he also worked as the queen's page."

His eyes widened and he gripped her shoulder tightly for a moment. "That's where I recognize him from. The queen's page. I never met Tulan's other student, but I knew her page. He ran messages back and forth between us at times. Yes, I remember now."

She continued. "Well, so now we both remember him. Do you think Kell does?"

Stefan shrugged slightly. "I don't know. She was very young at the time. I would guess that he must be three or four years older than her. And at that age, boys and girls didn't play much with each other. They most likely never really met, other than in passing. Besides, it's not so much a knowledge of who he is that matters to her. It's more of 'can he be trusted?' Even with the truth inducement of the pin, it may not be enough to satisfy her. I would say that she will confront him again and again on his story until she is sure for herself that he is worthy of her trust."

Raven lowered herself back down to the bed, resting her forehead against Stefan's chest. After a few moments, she said softly, "I want to trust him, Stefan. I do trust him. I want Kell to trust him as well."

He looked down at his wife, pulling her close in an embrace, then let his eyes roam beyond her to the small frosty window at the far side of the room. He replied in a quiet voice, "Kell has protected our secret and guarded us for a long time. I would guess that it is difficult for her to give up holding that secret only to herself. She doesn't want to share it with someone else. It is her burden, her duty. She has been alone in that respect for much too long. It is time that she share it with someone else. I do think that Dorien is worthy of our trust. Kell will see that as well, when she is ready. Don't fret, my love, things will work out."

Stefan added quietly to himself, they must work out. There are no other options.

***************************

A little while later, Dorien rose early as was his wont. He glanced out the small window and discovered that the snowstorm had finally stopped. Everything he could see was covered with at least a foot of snow. He shivered in the early morning chill and changed into warmer clothing quickly, layering on as much wool coverings as he could and still be able to move around. Knowing inns as he did, he would guess that Raven would be up already, preparing breakfast. Normally the innkeeper husbands didn't help, but he had a suspicion that Stefan was a different sort of man.

He grabbed up a few things, then left his room and tiptoed downstairs, not wanting to wake up anyone still sleeping. He wondered briefly where the swordswoman slept. He scowled to himself. Guardian to royalty or not, famous swordswoman or not, she still rubs me the wrong way. And to think that I thought she might have been the heir I was looking for. The years of searching must be getting to me.

As he entered the common room, he heard the quiet clatter of forks and low conversation in the kitchen behind the bar. He hesitated, then stepped over and pushed open the swinging door, sticking his head inside the kitchen area to see only Stefan and Raven -- Patric and Meg, I must call them that. No point in getting too much attention too soon. He cleared his throat, "Good morning."

Stefan looked up from the small round table where he and Raven were eating their own breakfast before the help came down to begin breakfast for the rest of the guests. "Dorien, good morning. Come, join us. There's some hot coffee on the stove."

Dorien entered all the way inside, letting the door swish quietly closed behind him. He stepped over to the stove and picked up a large mug and filled it with coffee. He then joined Stefan and Raven at the table. Stefan pulled a chair over to the table and Dorien sat down, warming his hands on his mug.

Raven asked, "Would you like something to eat, Dorien?"

Dorien sipped at his coffee, then shook his head. "No, not quite yet, thank you. My stomach isn't quite awake yet. I'll wait until the rest of your customers come down."

Raven nodded and went back to eating her muffin.

A few moments later, the back door opened and Kell stepped inside. She shut the door and stomped the snow off her boots and shook it off her cloak, then pulled off her gloves. Dorien watched her, getting a better look at her in the light of day. Her bearing gave her the appearance of being taller than she really was, something that she most likely took great advantage of.

Kell finally looked up and stopped when she met Dorien's eyes watching her. Her blue eyes frosted over and narrowed immediately. She still doesn't trust me. Knowing her type, she's probably searched my bags, looking for evidence of guilt. Amazing how her eyes can change so fast.

Raven nodded toward the stove. "There's hot coffee on the stove, Kell."

Kell pulled her eyes away from Dorien and grabbed a mug, filling it with coffee. She took it to the table and sat down next to Dorien, sipping at the hot coffee, warming her hands around the mug. After a few seconds, she said in a subdued voice, looking at Stefan, "The message has been sent out. When do you want to leave?"

Stefan looked over at Raven, then back at Kell. "It will take us a few days to close things up here. I suggest that we leave in three days. That should give us enough time to settle with Arnad and Dinae. They should be able to handle things here during our absence. We can say a message came about a sick relative, and we have to leave suddenly."

Kell nodded her agreement. "Good. That should also let me prepare for our trip. I assume we are heading toward Brightstar. I will need to gather some supplies and such before we start out. Traveling in winter is not something you do lightly. We will have to take it slow."

Dorien asked, "What about these people that you know that are loyal to the true royalty? What exactly is going on with them?"

Kell turned her head to look at him steadily. She answered in a quiet voice. "As I'm sure Patric and Meg have told you, they are former cadets, old soldiers, and simple village folk, all who want to get rid of Norseth. They are loyal to the true royalty, though they don't know if there is any royalty left to by loyal to. They trust the word of those with more experience that there is something to fight for. If that trust is betrayed, our support would be vanish."

Dorien met her eyes, unflinching at the meaning beneath her words. He answered her as Stefan and Raven watched. "I swear on the memory of my teacher Tulan that I will do nothing to betray that trust, Kellessan."

Kell stared at him a moment longer, then grunted. "See that you don't, minstrel." Swigging down the rest of her coffee in one swift gulp, she rose smoothly to her feet. "I must begin preparations for our journey and so I will take my leave of you." She turned and disappeared back out the door, shutting it firmly behind her.

Dorien stood and went to the small window overlooking the stable. He watched Kell go into the stable and come out again in a few moments, leading a tall saddled black stallion. She mounted him in a quick movement, taking up the reins and touching her knees to his ribs briefly. They headed off toward the market of the town at a fast walk.

When he heard movement in the outer room, Dorien turned back to Stefan and Raven, who had risen and gone to the stove, preparing for the day. He excused himself, going back out to the front room to observe the people who were drifting in. He settled himself at a table near the fire and sat back to watch.

***************************

Three days later, Stefan, Raven, Kell, and Dorien began their traveling toward Brightstar. Kell purchased two pack mules that would carry most of the supplies. She had mapped their route in detail, marking the towns where it was safe for them to stay overnight. It should take 8, 9, maybe 10 days to get to Brightstar, if they travel for most of the day. The winter weather would slow them down some, but they were all seasoned travelers and should be fine.

As they traveled, she hoped to contact most of the leaders of her own 'army', as it were. Reports about Seth were routed to her, but they were usually pretty slow in getting to her. She wanted any up-to-date information they had. And she wanted to make sure they understand what was happening. Messages tended to become confused if passed at too great a distance for too long, and she wanted assurance that all was being prepared. However, she did believe her original message got through just fine. It was, after all, only two words: "Be ready."

~~~~~~~
Journey Tales
~~~~~~~

On the third day of travel, they stopped in the small town of Buren, a village was a better word for it. It was mostly just a shambled collection of huts for the peasants that turned out to watch their progression through the dirt-packed road between the houses. Kell led them to a broken down shack in the midst of town. She dismounted and went to the door, rapping in a short pattern. The door opened immediately and Dorien saw the weathered face of an older man appear.

The man smiled. "Ah, Kell. I had heard that you might be passing thru here."

Kell nodded. "You got the message then?"

The man replied. "Yes, we did." He looked behind her, "And these are friends of yours?"

Kell turned and gestured them forward. Stefan slid off his horse and helped Raven down as Dorien dismounted as well. They came up next to Kell, who introduced them briefly. "Patric, Meg, Dorien. This is Nic, a friend."

Nic smiled at them. "Please, come in, come in. No use standing on the street, giving everyone a show."

He led the way inside, Dorien hanging back to shut the door. The inside of the shack was clean, neat, and surprisingly spacious-looking, as compared to the outward appearance.

Nic gestured them all to seats. As they made themselves comfortable, Stefan looked around at the small accommodations, then at Nic as he sat across from them. "How long have you known Kell?"

Nic eyed Kell, grinning. "A few years. Met her sometime back and then again when she was looking for Willim, who I just happened to know the location of."

Kell settled, rather tensely Dorien thought, on the edge of a chair, and looked intently at Nic. "We're heading toward Brightstar. Is Willim still at Cantua, do you know? I will need his help."

He answered after a moment, pulling at his lip in thought. "Last I heard he was still there, even in the same house. Don't know that he has any reason to leave. His wife and daughter feel safe there and would probably refuse all suggestions that they leave."

She nodded once, satisfied. "Good. We should arrive there in two days' time, and I didn't want to have to go searching for him."

***************************

They stayed that evening at the edge of town in an abandoned one-room house. Kell tied up the horses in the attached covered shelter. When she went back inside, Stefan had started up a nice fire and Dorien was helping Raven put together a simple evening meal. Kell settled herself near the lone window, keeping one eye out for trouble as the other three gathered around the hearth.

Raven sighed, stretching her legs as she leaned back against Stefan's chest. "I haven't ridden this much in ages. I think my muscles forgot what it was like to ride for so long."

Stefan chuckled softly in agreement and petted her hair back with one hand.

Dorien smiled at the two of them, obviously still so in love after so long and so many trials. He threw a cautioned glance at Kell and was surprised to find her face relaxed for a few moments, a look of softness in her eyes and face as she gazed at Stefan and Raven. Then she felt his eyes on her and her face closed up immediately as she turned to look back out the window. He blinked, what the ... whatever.

His attention was drawn back to Stefan and Raven as the latter asked, "So, Bard Dorien, do you have another tale for us tonight?"

He inclined his head. "You have but to ask, my lady."

Stefan remarked wistfully, "I remember Tulan telling us stories. He had traveled so many places and seen so much history. When he would tell us those true tales of his, it was almost like we were there. It was so real."

Dorien became very quiet, looking down at his hands for several moments before saying quietly, "Tulan told me once, long ago, that I held a piece of history that no one else did. That piece has never been told as it has never been safe to let others know that I had it. Only Tulan knew."

Raven reached out and touched his arm, bringing his eyes up to hers. "What? What bothers you so much about this piece of history, Dorien?"

He looked into her eyes, searching for reassurance, then whispered, "I saw the final meeting between Seth and the King, Queen, Danilon, and your father. I was there."

Shocked silence followed his comment. Raven jerked back involuntarily, gasping. The fire crackled and snapped in the background. Kell narrowed her eyes in disbelief and suspicion.

Stefan touched his wife's arm, then looked at Dorien. "Tell us, Dorien, tell us what you saw."

Dorien swallowed hard and began. "There are hidden passageways honeycombing the palace. Very few know of them. Myself, Tulan, Tulan's assistant Camella, and your son Terel."

Raven interrupted, exclaiming, "You know where the library collection and the portraits are, don't you?"

He replied, a little thrown off track. "What--? Oh, yes, I do know. Camella does as well. She is around, somewhere, and will reappear when it is safe. Anyway, as I was saying, there are these hidden passageways. I didn't have enough time to get out of the palace when Seth invaded, so I hid in these passageways. I was scared. All I wanted was to get away from the soldiers. While moving along one tunnel, a panel beneath me suddenly moved and I slipped. Suddenly I found myself sliding down a slanted tunnel. When I stopped, I was in a dark narrow tunnel that I didn't recognize. And then I heard the voices..."

Dorien slid to an abrupt halt at the bottom of the inclined tunnel. He landed hard and had to bite his lip from letting out a cry of pain. "Ow, that hurt. Where am I? Great, I'm lost. Rampaging soldiers running lose in the palace and I have to get lost. Idiot."

He looked around, trying to orient himself. And then he heard a noise, several noises. "What? What's that? Voices? Maybe I can figure out where I am and get out of this stupid hole."

Crawling, he followed the noise until he began to recognize voices. "The King, the Queen, Councilor Andrel, and that advisor from Bornath, Danilon. And some other guy. Whoever he is, he does not sound nice."

Dorien saw filtered light up ahead and then saw the grate it was coming from. He hurried to it and peered out, his eyes quickly adjusting to the light change. "The throne room! And so far up..." Concern for his own problems vanished when the scene before him played out to his horrified interest.

Randel sat, outwardly relaxed, in his throne. Tayna was next to him, maintaining the outer calm that she had always had. Andrel stood beside and slightly behind him. Dani stood in a similar position next to Tayna. All were dressed in their most formal robes, crowns or circlets included.

In front of them stood Norseth. Dressed in chain mail and a heavy dark cloak, a hefty sword pommel over one shoulder, he gave the very picture of an aggressor. No one else was in the room. The sounds of fighting could be dimly heard outside the throne room, but no one else could enter. Seth had seen to that obviously.

Seth was speaking. "I have come to claim what is mine. You can surrender or you can die."

Randal said quietly, "And I have told you that we have nothing of yours. You are mistaken. We are a peaceful people--"

Seth cut him off with a wave, speaking as to an inferior. "Do not lie to me, Randal. Your Councilor Andrel took from me something dear over 20 years ago. I have come to reclaim her. My 'brother' Dani, I see, has already betrayed me by coming here and perhaps warning you. It is of not consequence. I want Gwyna."

Dani took a step forward. "And we have told you, 'brother,' that she died only a few years after arriving in Rillanda. You will not find her. You were blind to the truth of her fear of you when she left Bornath, and you are blind to the truth of her death now. She is gone, Seth."

Seth let out a roar of anger, his black eyes blazing intensely. He lifted his hand toward Dani in a sharp movement. "Be quiet!"

Dani was thrown against the back wall, slamming his head painfully and sliding down to the floor in a daze. After a few moments, he managed to get back to his feet again, holding on to the edge of Tayna's throne for balance. Tayna put her hand over his, a slight frown marring her calm features. He met her eyes and nodded once, indicating that he was okay.

Seth went on, turning to Randal. "I have taken Rillanda. You must step down. And tell me, where is your son and his family? I know that they must be around somewhere. You could save yourself the grief and tell me now."

Randal and Tayna looked at each other a moment, then joined hands and stood together in regal pride, knowing that this might be their last movement while alive. Randal said simply, "No."

Seth's eyes blazed again, but before he could move, Andrel stepped forward, slowly moving toward Seth, pleading in a strong voice. "No, please, Seth, stop this. Gwyna would not have wanted this. She loved you, as a brother once and had missed that love when it changed. She told me. Please, don't do this. The past is what it is. We cannot do anything to change that, but there is no reason to continue this."

Andrel came to a halt before Seth, unflinching at the hatred he saw in Seth's eyes. He knew he was about to die, but still he stood, unmoving, unyielding.

Seth's fist came up and hit him solidly across the jaw, followed by a blast of energy that sent him skidding across the floor. His body hit the bottom stair of the dais and stopped.

Dani moved swiftly down to the bottom of the dais, kneeling next to Andrel's body, and touching his face lightly, knowing that he was dead. He whispered the ritual words of parting, his voice choked but calm. "May you find peace on your journey, Andrel."

Seth turned back to Randal and Tayna, whose calm masks had slipped at seeing the death of their friend, their councilor. He said sharply, "Surrender."

Again, Randal replied, as he straightened, facing Seth. "No."

Seth raised both hands. "So be it."

A bright sharp light surrounded the King and Queen, so bright that Dani had to close his eyes and turn away. He looked back moments later as the light diminished and disappeared. Randal and Tayna stood unmoving for a moment, then slumped together on the floor. Dani knew without asking that they were dead. His eyes followed Randal's crown as it slid off his head and rolled, clattering, down the dais stairs to bump against Seth's feet. Dani looked back at Andrel for a moment longer, then stood.


Seth turned to look at him as Dani met his eyes without blinking, saying softly, "Is your victory complete now, Seth? You have slaughtered and killed hundreds in this insane desire for vengeance over something, someone, that never belonged to you."

Seth stepped closer to him. "Where is the son, Stefan, and his family?"

Dani shook his head. "I don't know. Hopefully they are long gone from here, safe from your hatred and evil."

Seth lifted a hand to strike at Dani, who didn't flinch as expected. He snarled incoherently at his younger half-brother through gritted teeth.

Dani just stood there, continuing. "You drove Gwyna away from the only home she had ever known. You killed Arven out of rage. You've now added many of the good people of Rillanda to that list, including the King and Queen and their Chief Councilor. You even killed your own father. I'm the only one left, Seth. Either kill me or depart Rillanda. I am not leaving here. This is my home now, with my family, my ... brother."

Seth roared and struck Dani hard, both with his hand and energy. Dani stumbled back a few feet, then fell to the ground, landing across Andrel's body. Seth stood still a moment longer, breathing heavily. Then he leaned down and picked up the crown at his feet. He fingered it a moment, then turned on heel, his cloak swirling out behind him. He yanked the doors open, noticing that the fighting had stopped. His guards came to attention at once, awaiting his orders.

Seth pulled off one glove and said diffidently, "Clean the throne room. Have the bodies put on display at the gate, stripped of everything. And start looking for the prince and his family, a wife and two children, I believe. They are missing. Find them." And with that he strode down the hall, disappearing into the shadows.

~~~~~~~

Dorien turned shakily to go, his brain not working anymore. The King, the Queen, Andrel, and Danilon, all dead. He had to bite back screams of terror when each were killed and was now trying not to cry. He silently made his way through the tunnels, using his determination to find a way out of this maze to distract himself from thinking about what he had seen.

Finally he found a familiar turning point and took that tunnel to the workroom off of Tulan's study. He stepped out of the small exit, closing the hidden door softly, latching it. Footsteps striding toward the room startled him, and he backed into the shadows, trying to hide. A figure carrying a lantern and a small pack appeared in the doorway, and in a few moments, Dorien recognized him as Tulan. He stepped forward into the light, letting himself be seen by his mentor.

Tulan frowned, walking over to him. "Dorien, what are you doing here? Where have you been? I thought you would have been long gone by now."

Dorien stuttered. "No, I got lost in the tunnels, trying to hide from the soldiers. I saw... I saw..." His voice broke down and his body started to shake again.

Tulan guided him over to a nearby bench, putting the lantern and pack aside, placing a hand on Dorien's shoulder. "Tell me, what did you see?"

Dorien began again. "I found a tunnel to the throne room, on accident. I saw Norseth. He ... killed King Randal, Queen Tayna, Chief Councilor Andrel, and the Bornathian advisor, Danilon, with some sort of magery or something." Tulan had him tell him the entire story and he got grimmer with every word. Dorien asked after he was finished, "Where are Stefan and his family?"

Tulan stood. "Safe. For the moment. At least most of them. Dorien, I am going to name you my protégé, and eventually, my successor. The other ... is dead. You are the last hope to keep the histories alive. And now you are holding a piece of history that no one else has. We will be all right. Seth will not attack the Bardic Academy, at least not at first."

Picking up the small pack at his side, Tulan strode down to his study. Dorien could hear him gathering a few things, stuffing them into the sturdy pack. He came back out and handed the pack to Dorien. "I want you to do something for me. Take this pack and put it in a safe place in the tunnels. If you ever have to leave Brightstar, take it with you."

Dorien stood, taking the pack gingerly. "What is in it?"

Tulan said softly, "Three very important books that Seth would love to get his hands on. They must remain safe and protected until the time is right for them to be revealed again. You will know when that is."

Raven had her face buried in Stefan's chest, crying softly again at the memory of her father, at the story of his death. Stefan's eyes were red and he held Raven tightly. Kell sat stiffly at the window, jaw clenched. Dorien thought he could make out a single tear track down the cheek nearest him. He cleared his throat, trying to banish the feelings of terror that memory could still provoke in him.

Stefan asked softly, "And then? What happened after that?"

Dorien looked down at his hands as he went on. "I hid the books, not knowing what they were at that time. I was in so much shock right then, I didn't care anyway. I had just seen four people murdered and then was told by Tulan that his other personal student, who I knew was Terel, was gone as well. It didn't really hit me until a week later what Tulan said about me being his protégé and successor. Things happened so fast. My father was killed in the invasion, although I didn't know about it until things settled back down again, about a month later, I guess.

"Tulan became my protector, keeping me safe and involved in studies. He somehow knew Seth wouldn't ignore the Academy for long. He was right. A year later, Tulan told part of the true history between Bornath and Rillanda. Seth's soldiers attacked and burned down the Academy, killing many of the older bards, scattering the rest of them, plus any of the students still around. Tulan was too injured by falling debris to leave. He gave me his lute, told me to get the pack, and leave, to begin looking for the true heir or heirs of Rillanda. I did as he asked, as he ordered. It hurt so much to know that he died in the midst of that burning building.

"I met up with Camella briefly before I left Brightstar. She found me some clothes and food to start me on my way and got me out of the city. Seth knew who I was and we thought it best if I was considered dead, having died in the fire. I was only 14, but I survived. I stayed on my own, searching, playing, listening, following hints of clues and bits of information that trickled my way. And now I'm here."

Raven lifted her head and wiped at her cheeks with her hands. "And the books, you still have them? What are they?"

Dorien nodded and pulled over his saddlebags, flipping them open to withdraw out three worn, much-handled books. "Yes, I have them. As for what they are, they are the journals of Arven, your mother Gwyna, and your son Terel."

~~~~~~~
Defense Strategies
~~~~~~~

The next morning, they continued on their way, heading toward Cantua, to meet up with more of Kell's troops, along with this Willim that she had mentioned. Stefan explained to Dorien that Willim was one of the personal bodyguards of the royal family, specifically of Terel and Linet. When not engaged in other duties, he and another guard named Jamas had been assigned to keep an eye on the twins when Terel and Linet were only 5 years of age.

Upon finally arriving in Cantua the next evening, Kell led them straight to a small out-of-the-way rundown tavern. She went inside, the others following slowly, feeling and looking out of place. She stopped and looked around, then continued through the small room, ignoring the few customers scattered about at various tables.

At the bar counter, Kell asked the bartender shortly, "Where is Willim?"

The bartender gestured with his chin to a door off to the side. "Back room, Kell. Take your guests with you. I think he's expecting you."

Kell nodded, satisfied, then motioned for the other three to follow her. She rapped sharply on the door and entered after she heard a response telling her to enter.

Once inside, Dorien looked around at the small cramped room, eyeing the three men that were awaiting them. He watched as Kell greeted the oldest of them, a tall, craggy-faced man, short blonde hair going gray, with eyes that had seen a lot of battles and a lot of pain.

Kell clasped the man's arm firmly. "Willim, it's been a while since I've been through here. How are Jaynell and Kasi?"

Willim smiled slightly. "As well as can be expected. Kasi finally married young Eduin here last year. I'll have a grandchild before next summer."

Kell returned his smile. "Good, good, Kasi deserves some happiness. And Jaynell?"

Willim continued. "Cooking and baking, keeping busy, you know Jaynell. And you, Kell, how are you faring? And who are your guests?"

Kell turned slightly, letting Willim get a better look at Stefan and Raven. "I think you know two of my guests."

The older man looked blankly at them for a second, then straightened abruptly to attention. "Forgive me, I did not recognize you."

Stefan put a hand out, touching Willim's arm. "It was never expected that you would. It has been much too long, Willim. Kell told us when she found you, and we were never more pleased than to hear you were doing well."

Willim inclined his head. "Thank you. Let me introduce my friends. This is Eduin, my new son-in-law. And this is Pelim, Jamas' boy."

Kell's eyes widened slightly, as she looked at Pelim, a tall blonde youth. "Jamas? You found him? Is he okay?"

Pelim answered in a soft voice. "Yes, he's fine. He wanted to come himself, but he stayed in Mirata to begin implementing your instructions."

Kell nodded. "Mirata. We will be going through there. Good. We'll see him then."

Willim smiled. "Take him my greetings. I myself have not seen him yet. Pelim simply showed up on my doorstep the other morning."

Kell replied, "I will."

Willim looked toward Kell's other guest. "And might this other young man be?"

Dorien took it upon himself to be introduced, stepping forward. "My name is Dorien. I am, or was, a bard. Tulan was my teacher."

Willim nodded once, squinting his eyes. "Yes, yes, I think I remember you now. Very good." Turning to Kell, he continued. "So, what is next, Kellessan? What is your plan for getting rid of Norseth?"

They spent the next several hours going over strategies and plans. Willim updated Kell on the manpower and strength of their small, but growing, resistance. They stayed there the night, and at dawn, they moved on, continuing to head toward Brightstar.

***************************

Dorien pulled up on the reins of Pelatta, or Pela, as he preferred to call his mare, for the third time in the past hour. Kell was leading their small group, Raven behind her leading one pack mule, himself next leading the second pack mule, and Stefan at the rear as they rode down a small path single file through the dark woods. The sun had set 15 minutes ago, and they were rapidly losing any light that might still be around, but Kell still refused to stop, not satisfied with any of the places she'd checked out. The closer they got to Brightstar, the more patrols they had to avoid.

He stretched his back muscles, trying to unkink them, waiting for Kell to decide what she wanted to do. He was exhausted from the riding. It has been two days since they had left Cantua, and they hadn't been in another town since then, avoiding them completely, or only Kell entering one to buy a few supplies.

Kell turned slightly, pitching her voice loud enough for them all to hear. "There's a small clearing up ahead that I've used before when I've traveled. It should be safe enough for us to stay there tonight." That said, she turned back around and continued forward, the three of them following her closely so as not to lose her in the gloom.

Several minutes later, they arrived at the clearing where it was obvious that others had camped before. Dorien dismounted slowly, standing shakily next to Pela for a moment as he tried to regain feeling in his legs. Bards are not supposed to do this. They're supposed to sit in some nice warm hall, singing, playing, talking, not ride themselves to death. Oh, get a grip, Dorien, no one ever promised you this was going to be easy. Kell already thinks you're worthless. Keep this up and she'll never talk to you, much less anything else.

He pulled himself straight and unsaddled Pela as he continued to think about the swordswoman, glancing over at her as she found a suitable place to tie the horses and mules for the night. She may be stiff at times, perhaps even cold. But she's loyal to Stefan and Raven beyond anything. And she does know, even though she may say she disagrees, that this is the right thing to do. There's something else though, something more, that I can't quite identify though. Whenever someone mentions Seth, her eyes, they turn to ice. He's done something to earn her vengeance and hatred, though no one has said anything about what that might be. Seth personally killed Stefan and Raven's family and destroyed so much of Rillanda, yet their eyes show only sadness, regret, and pain. But Kell...

He looked over at the swordswoman as she tied the other three horses and the two packmules to a nearby tree, then turned to come his way, her eyes hooded, as usual. She stopped in front of him, laying a hand on Pela's nose, stroking her softly.

She met Dorien's eyes for a long moment, then said in a low voice, "You ride well, minstrel, better than I expected. And you have helped Stefan and Raven with the tales that you tell them, giving them something to think about besides the upcoming confrontation."

Dorien blinked, startled to hear such kind words from her. That was more than she'd said to him the whole trip. And she even complimented him, twice! He recovered and inclined his head once. "Thank you, Kellessan. And, please, could I ask that you call me Dorien? If it wouldn't be too much trouble, that is."

Her mouth quirked to one side, almost a smile. "I'll think about it." She turned her attention to Pela. "Is she ready to rest for the night?"

Dorien nodded. "Yes, she is, thank you."

Kell took the reins and led the mare to where she had put the other horses. Dorien joined Stefan and Raven around to the small fire that Stefan was building.

After a small evening meal, they decided to go to get some sleep, at least in shifts. Someone had to stay on guard and Kell volunteered to go first, knowing the rest were exhausted. Stefan would be next, then Dorien, and finally Raven.

***************************

Raven yawned and forced her eyes open wider, trying to dispel the last remnants of sleep from her system as she pulled the blanket closer around herself. The pre-dawn light made it difficult to see yet, but it was better than full darkness. She sipped again from the hot coffee that she held. She looked back at her three companions, still asleep. Stefan slept fairly still and deep, as always, even on the hard, cold ground. Dorien moved restlessly around in his blankets, but asleep nonetheless. Kell, of course, slept lightly, always ready to jump to alertness at any unfamiliar sound. Her unsheathed sword laid next to her blankets, her hand resting lightly on the pommel.

Raven turned back to look at the trees again when she heard bushes and leaves rustle. She tensed, but only a small animal appeared, sniffing around, then disappearing back into the darkness again. She relaxed, trying to calm her nerves. I've done this every night we've been out. Why am I so nervous now? Maybe because we're so close to Brightstar? So close to Seth? She rubbed her eyes once, suppressing a sigh, and sipped again at her coffee.

A flock of birds, sounding vaguely startled and annoyed, suddenly took flight from the tops of the trees. Raven looked up, then stood, gripping Dorien's quarterstaff that he had pressed her to take. Something is out there, or someone perhaps? She opened her mouth to say something, not taking her eyes off the shadowed trees. A man burst into view, armed with a large broadsword.

Raven let out a scream, pulling the quarterstaff in front of her defensively. "Kell!"

Behind her she could hear Kell jump up in one smooth motion. Suddenly she was there, pushing her back. "Get back."

She did as she was told, backing up, bumping into Stefan who had also risen, holding his own sword at the ready. Dorien stood and Raven handed him the quarterstaff before backing up to stand near the horses. She didn't know how to use the quarterstaff or a sword, so they had arranged for her to stay near the horses. Tavi would protect her.

Dorien looked around their campsite warily. More men appeared from the trees. Dorien counted at least six of them, all armed with swords, plus assorted knives. There are probably more out there, hidden, waiting. Soldiers. Seth's soldiers. A patrol, maybe? Out to harass travelers?

The first man out began to speak, smirking at Kell. "Well, well, what do we have here? A little mid-winter traveling, hm? Not exactly the best time."

Kell answered carefully. "We are on our way to Mirata, family matters."

The soldier raised an eyebrow, chuckling lowly. "Mirata on family matters. Right, sure you are. Armed to the teeth to visit family? Seems a little strange if you ask me."

Kell continued, not lowering her sword. "It's a strange family. Is there something we can do for you and your friends?"

He grinned, moving closer. "Yeah. You can come with us to Brightstar. We have some questions we need to ask you."

She shook her head. "Nope, can't do that. These family matters can't wait. We'll be sure to drop by on our way back, though."

The soldier raised his sword, the grin dropping off his features. "I'm afraid I will have to insist. Norseth wants to have a little chat with you, Kellessan."

He moved forward and Kell met his sword blows quickly, parrying him away. "I'm afraid I'll have to refuse his invitation, for now, at least. I have other plans, sorry."

The other men moved in and began to attack. Stefan went forward to help Kell as he was fairly handy with a sword himself. Dorien stayed back with Raven, defending her and himself. The fight descended into chaos.

***************************

Dorien tried to keep an eye on the soldiers, plus Kell and Stefan. Kell quickly dispatched two of the soldiers and was working on her third. Stefan had just finished getting rid of one and was turning toward another. Dorien himself had his hands full fighting one soldier, sword against quarterstaff. His quarterstaff was of a particularly hard wood and normal fighting swords just didn't hurt it.

Out of nowhere, Raven appeared, tapping the soldier on the shoulder, "Excuse me." His attention was diverted for a moment and Dorien whacked him hard on the head with the quarterstaff. He fell to the ground, definitely unconscious, perhaps even dead. Dorien didn't want to know. Raven vanished back to where the horses were, trying to keep control of their riding mounts, except for Tavi who could take care of himself. The two terrified packmules, however, were fighting to get loose of their reins.

A movement near the trees caught Dorien's eye, and he turned to look as a man dressed in unrelieved black stepped out to the edge of the clearing. A mage. A black mage, no less. He swore softly, then followed the mage's eyes as they latched onto Kell. He recognizes the mage power in her, I bet. The mage raised his hands and began to speak quietly. A glow of light started to form around his hands. What am I going to do?

Dropping his quarterstaff, he grabbed one of his very sharp small daggers from his belt and yelled at the mage as he threw the blade. "Hey, you!"

The mage, startled out of his concentration, jerked once, the glow about his hands vanishing. He jerked again as the knife impaled itself in his chest. Dorien stood there a moment, watching the man's body hit the ground, blinking, a little surprised that the knife had reached its target unimpeded. His eyes shifted to meet those of Kell who had followed the path of the knife, then turned back to him. He smiled slightly, inclining his head. His smile faded quickly as her eyes widen, and she grabbed the dagger out of her belt sheath.

***************************

Kell had just pulled her sword back from the third soldier when Dorien's yell pierced the air. She looked over at him as he threw the knife, then wheeled to see it embed itself in a black mage's chest. She turned back to meet Dorien's eyes. He nodded at her politely. Her own eyes shifted past him and widened as she saw the soldier appear out of the trees behind him, sword raised, intent on killing Dorien.

She grabbed her dagger and threw it in one smooth practiced motion, yelling, "Down!"

Dorien dropped obediently, not questioning her motions, not bothering to ask. He fell to the ground, hearing the whiz of the dagger as it sliced through the air above him and the thud of its impact with the soldier's chest. He scrambled out of the way as first a sword fell beside him, then the dead soldier.

Suddenly, except for the whinnies of the horses, the air was silent around them. Dorien looked around from his sitting position in the dirt. Dead soldiers laid around them. Kell stood still, sword raised, listening intently for anything else. Stefan was quiet as well, waiting for her signal that it was safe again.

Finally she nodded, and Dorien breathed out again. Stefan leaned down and cleaned his sword on the cloak of a soldier. Kell did likewise, then turned to check the dead mage's body at the edge of the clearing. After a moment, Dorien pushed himself to his feet, wiping the dirt from his clothes. He picked up his quarterstaff and turned to help Raven calm the horses.

Kell and Stefan joined them after a few minutes, each leading one of the pack mules that had ran off during the last moments of the attack.

After pausing to collect her dagger from the dead soldier, Kell said quickly, "We have to leave now before anyone else comes along. Mages are usually aware of another mage's death, and someone will come to investigate shortly."

Stefan kicked out the remaining embers of the fire before joining the others as they mounted up and rode out of the clearing.

***************************

They rode hard and fast until midmorning, when they stopped to take a brief rest and eat something near the entrance of a cave before descending into the valley and various towns surrounding Brightstar.

After caring for the horses, Dorien collapsed onto a rock, stretching out his legs, wiggling feeling back into his toes. Stefan and Raven had gone inside the cave, hoping to get away from the chill in the air. Kell was checking the area before resting herself. He closed his eyes, lifting his face to the sun, wishing it was warmer. It had gotten warmer as they went further down into the valley, but it was still quite chilly, the coldness cutting through the layers of clothes he wore. Most of the time, the riding kept him warm enough so that he didn't notice. But whenever they stop, he felt it again.

Someone sat down next to him. He opened his eyes to see Kell staring at him intently, a somewhat perplexed and hesitant look on her face. He straightened up. "What?"

She smiled slightly. "Again you surprise me, minstrel, Dorien. You are quite good with that quarterstaff of yours, and with a knife as well. I had not noticed that mage there. Who knows what he might have done. I regret my earlier harsh words and mistaken impressions of you. I ... apologize."

Dorien blinked, then returned her smile. "Apology accepted. And thank you for saving my life from that soldier."

She nodded once. "You're welcome. Shall we declare a truce then?" She held out a hand to him.

He looked at it for a long moment, then looked up to meet her eyes. "One condition."

She stiffened slightly, eyes narrowing. "And that would be?"

He continued, grasping her hand firmly with his. "That we can be friends, or at least try."

She relaxed, nodding. "That kind of condition I can agree to. Friends it is."

A rustling sound in the bushes across the way from them made Kell whirl around, going to her feet quickly, hand preparing to go for her sword. A man, another soldier, stepped out, sword already out. He rushed her. Kell yanked her sword from the sheath and went after him.

Dorien grabbed up his quarterstaff and jumped into the fray as several more men appeared around them. There were more this time, and they were woefully outnumbered. The shouts and the ring of steel against steel brought Stefan and Raven rushing out from the cave. Stefan grabbed up his sword and jumped into the fighting as well. Raven stayed back in the shadows, keeping an eye out for any more black mages.

Her eyes were drawn to Kell as she swung her two-handed broadsword around at the two soldiers in front of her, eyes glinting in the light, teeth gritted with her efforts to fight again so soon after that morning's battle. Another soldier appeared out of the trees behind Kell and approached her, smirking, raising his sword to deliver a killing blow.

Time seemed to slow as Raven realized that Stefan and Dorien weare too far away to help and were far too occupied with their own fighting to even notice what was about to happen. No, no, no, I won't let that happen. I won't lose her too.

She rushed out into the light, shouting, "No! Linet! Look out! Behind you!"

Kell whirled to the side just as the sword sliced down where she would have been standing. Angered and fed up, she swept up an arm, letting loose a loud incoherent shout. "Enough!"

Energy crackled around the soldiers briefly, and they fell to the ground, twitching occasionally as they passed into unconsciousness.

Silence reigned for a few moments, broken only by Kell's heavy breathing as she tried to calm her racing heart and temper. Raven took a step back from Kell, unsure now of what was going to happen.

Dorien, however, had no such qualms. He strode over to Raven, grabbing her arm in his urgency. "You called her Linet! You told me Linet was dead! What is going on here?"

He released her without waiting for an answer and turned on Kell, going up to her, standing only inches away from her, saying angrily, belligerently, "You've all been lying to me all this time. Linet isn't dead. You are Linet."

~~~~~~~
Memories and Tears
~~~~~~~

Kell shoved Dorien back roughly with her free hand, then turned sharply and stalks off into the forest. He tried to follow her, but Stefan grabbed his arm, shaking his head. "No, I'll go."

After Stefan had disappeared into the trees after Kell, Dorien looked around for Raven, finding her sitting on a rock near the entrance of the cave. She patted the rock next to her. "Come, sit. I will tell you what you want to know."

He dropped next to her. "Kellessan, the mercenary swordswoman known all over Rillanda, all over ... everywhere, is Linet, last heir to the throne? I just can't... Why didn't you tell me? Why the secrecy? Didn't you trust me?"

Raven's mouth quirked at one side as she replied, "We do trust you, Dorien. It was Kell's decision to remain who she is now, a decision she made a very long time ago, on the day Terel died."

Dorien asked in a quiet voice, "Can you tell me about your escape from the palace, my lady? Tulan never was able to tell me exactly what happened. He was concerned about listening ears and such."

Raven was quiet for a few moments, staring into the crackling flames. Slowly she began. "It was so long ago. But I remember it so well. Yes, I can tell you, Dorien. It must be added to the histories how Terel died. I had never met Seth, only heard about him, from general news and later from Dani and my father. And then to have him suddenly declare war and invade Rillanda, all in anger over something my mother had done, or not done, so many years ago. It was almost too much for me to understand. And then he arrived at Brightstar, invading, killing. Randal and Tayna wanted us safe, gone from the palace before Seth came. And Tulan said he knew of a way..."

Andrel embraced his daughter one last time before releasing her into the arms of her husband. Then he squatted down to look at his two grandchildren -- Terel and Linet, so young, so innocent, so terrified at their lives being uprooted so suddenly. He could see the fear in their wide eyes. Terel looked more calm than Linet, but scared nonetheless.

He said softly, "Terel, Linet, you must go with your parents. You will be safe, I promise."

Linet asked in a small voice, "Will you be okay, Grandpa Andi?"

Andrel forced a tight smile. "I will be fine, Linet." He hugged them both hard, wanting them to remember the strength of his arms around them. He rose to his feet, moving away so Randal and Tayna could say their goodbyes as well. He looked over at Dani who had come to stand beside him solemnly. Andrel said softly, "You knew this would be the eventual outcome, didn't you?"

Dani replied after a moment. "I ... suspected it might be. I hoped it wouldn't, but..." He shrugged helplessly, resignedly. "Seth set this in motion a long time ago, before any of the rest of us even realized anything was happening. When he decided Gwyna was to be his wife, it was inevitable that something like this would happen. Gwyna would never have agreed to marry him, no matter how hard he pushed. And she would have run away even if you hadn't been there. All we can do now is hope to keep him busy enough to buy time for Stefan and Raven and the children to escape."

Andrel nodded silently.

Once all the hugs have been given and goodbyes said, Tulan took the small family out a hidden door in the throne room. Raven looked back as the door slid shut, raising her hand in silent farewell to her father, knowing instinctively that she would never see him again, not in this world at least. He raised his hand in return just before the door closed with a final muffled thump.

~~~~~~~~

Tulan led them down a long dark hallway, heading toward another passage that led to a back door of the palace, near the stables. To get there, they had to cross one main hallway, the most dangerous spot in this trip. If they were spotted...

Tulan carefully opened the door in the wall and looked out. It was clear. He gestured for them to follow him. They all tiptoed out, Stefan and Raven keeping a tight grip on their children's hands. They reached the other secret door only to discover that it was stuck. Stefan joined Tulan to slowly pull it open. Raven stood with her children, pulling her dark cloak closer around her body, shivering not out of cold, but out of fear.

Suddenly out of one of near cross corridors stepped a soldier, one of Seth's soldiers. He saw them and Raven only had time to gasp in surprise before he lifted his loaded longbow and released an arrow at them even as he neared them rapidly. It all happened so quickly.

Tulan and Stefan turned at Raven's gasp to see the soldier and to see Terel push Linet out of the way and take the arrow deep into his chest.

Linet's echoing cry of pure anguish tore into Raven's heart.

"Nooooooooo!!!"

Linet's eyes met those of the approaching soldier, and Raven, even in her stunned and sudden grief, swore she saw her daughter's eyes glow, then blaze, if only for a moment. The air around them crackled with power, carried on the wings of grief and rage. The soldier stopped, his bow clattering noisily to the floor, and his face turned a ghostly shade of white. He clutched at his chest spasmodically, then fell to the ground in a jumbled heap, obviously quite dead.

Anger spent, Linet fell down next to her brother on the floor, who was struggling to breathe. The rest knelt around them. Tulan reached out and touched Terel's forehead for a brief moment. He then looked up and met Stefan and Raven's eyes with a sad shake of his head. There was nothing he, or anyone, could do to save Terel's life.

Griefstricken, Raven gathered Terel into her arms. "I love you, Terel, my son."

Terel replied hoarsely, "I know. I love you too, Mom, Dad."

Raven released Terel for Stefan to embrace once more as well. And then there was Linet, who was simply unwilling to believe that Terel was dying. Her wide eyes and pale face told Raven that it was just too much too soon for Linet to take in.

Terel, all too mature for his ten years, looked up at Linet from his place cradled in Tulan's arms, and smiled sadly at her, whispering, "It's okay, Lin. I'm going to a better place. I will meet Grandmother Gwyna, Uncle Arven, and others there. They will take care of me. I won't be alone." Then his eyes shifted as he stared past them, quoting ominously. "Let the forging of the sword begin." And then he was gone.

Tulan laid Terel's body down gently, closing his eyes with his hand, whispering the ritual Words of Final Parting. "May you find peace on your journey." He stood, looking at the remainder of the royal family. "We must get you out of here now. Seth will not be long."

Stefan nodded, holding back the tears. There would be time enough for grieving later. Now it was time for them to live. Raven touched her son's face once more, then rose with Stefan, who had taken the unresponsive Linet in his arms.

Tulan touched Linet briefly, judging her condition. "She is in shock. She will recover in time."

They went through the secret door and took the dark passageway down. Finally they reached the hidden exit. Leaving the passage, they entered the stables and prepared two horses, one for Raven, another for Stefan and Linet.

After they were mounted up, Tulan said, "Go now. Hide and remain safe. The day will come when you can reclaim this kingdom. You will know when it is time. Luck go with you ... Your Majesties."

Stefan straightened automatically at that title, even as tears stung his eyes. Glancing back at the palace, he knew somewhere deep in his being that his parents, as well as Andrel and Dani, were dead or would be soon, most likely at the hand of Seth. He looked down at the blonde head of his daughter resting limply against his chest. He was the King, Raven the Queen, and he held the only Heir to the throne in front of him.

Tulan slapped the rumps of the two horses and they rode off into the darkness of the back city streets. Their last view of Tulan was of him standing alone in the stable entrance before he vanished back into the shadows.

Raven finished her tale in a subdued, tearful voice. "Rumors found us later of the bodies of the royal family on display at the palace in Brightstar. We changed our names to Patric and Meg, and Linet we called Kasi, after Willim and Jaynell's daughter, a friend of hers. We hoped to live long enough to escape Seth's anger and to reclaim the country. We moved around a lot, always a step ahead of his troops and black mages. But then, in a way, we lost Linet too. She was never the same after Terel's death."

Dorien asked, "When did she become Kellessan?"

Raven continued. "Several years after we left Brightstar, she wanted to start using the sword. Stefan and I were ... disturbed by this, but we decided to let her learn. It was better that we knew what she was doing, than to have her find someone to teach her without our knowledge. So she learned swordcraft. Before we moved to Yana, she left us for a time, letting us move there on our own. A few weeks after we bought Dragon's Rest, she appeared, looking as she does now, calling herself Kellessan. And so the legend of Kellessan, the swordswoman, was born."

***************************

Kellessan, formerly known as Kasi, formerly known as Linet, stormed out into the woods, ignoring Stefan's calls for her to stop, that he wanted to talk to her. She wanted to be alone. Her secret, their secret was out.

She stopped at an overhang that looked down onto the valley below. She pulled her cloak around her tightly, staring at the small villages in the distance and the tall spires of the castle in the background. She wished, not for the first time that she could truly forget the first part of her life. She was so happy, so content, so ... blasted naive. What a fool I was, thinking that nothing could go so wrong that Daddy or Mommy or my grandparents couldn't fix. The worse thing that ever happened to her was that she fell and skinned her knee once in the courtyard while playing tag with Terel.

Terel. Her soft sigh went unheard as she yanked on the cloak again, trying to ward away the chill in the winter air. The wind had kicked up, and it tugged at her cloak and whistled through her hair, blowing loose strands in her face. She had always depended on the coldness of winter to numb her tumbling emotions. For the most part, it had worked.

At least until now. Until Dorien had appeared.

Why did you have to die, Terel? Life was just barely getting started for both of us. Why did Seth have to kill so many that I loved? Grandpa Randal, Grandma Tayna, Grandpa Andrel, Uncle Dani, whom I barely got to know, and you, Terel.

She lifted her face, screaming into the wind. "It's so unfair!"

When Terel had died 15 years ago in the arms of his beloved mentor Tulan, something inside her had died as well. As soon as the shock had passed, she had swore revenge on Seth at the young age of 10 and had taken up the sword as soon as she could lift one. Her parents had been shocked at the change in her and had tried to dissuade her. But they had little, if any, effect. So, rather than see her hurt herself with a sword, her father had hired a progression of teachers as they moved from place to place.

Three years ago, they had moved to Yana and her parents had taken over the Dragon's Rest tavern. At that point, Kasi, daughter of Patric and Meg, became Kellessan, better known as Kell, the swordswoman, daughter to no one. Her parents let the deception stand, knowing that no one would ever believe that someone as soft-hearted and gentle as Meg could have a daughter as angry and bitter as Kell.

Kell had realized a long time ago that the one reason she had stuck around at the tavern was that she truly loved her parents, just as they loved her. She was unwilling to let anyone else protect them, for fear she would lose them as well. Deep down she admitted that in some ways she was still that terrified little girl who saw everything she knew vanish in the space of one night. She also knew that her parents were the only reason she hadn't marched into the capital, into the palace and confronted Seth for his crimes.

Oh, she would have had very little chance of success. Although she had been told that she had a tremendously powerful mage gift, her knowledge of how to use it was still fairly limited. She had relied on instinct to guide the power she could feel stirring within her. The ability to do more was always just beyond her reach. No, she could not beat Seth, not alone and unaided. But just the fact that he didn't know she lived would have been sweet enough to let her die with a smile on her face for outsmarting him. However, to reveal herself before would have exposed her parents and that was not something she was willing to do.

But now, they were heading toward Brightstar, their plans to overthrow Seth and retake Rillanda finally coming to fruition. True, she had been reluctant to include Dorien in their plans, at least at first, but she had come to trust him, to respect him even. Sighing, she turned to go back to the cave sight, to rejoin her parents and Dorien.

***************************

Raven sat on a log in front of the low fire Stefan had built for her before he and Dorien had trekked into the forest to find the pack mules. They had run off again, this time getting more of a lead. They had also removed the soldiers from the area, dumping them farther into the woods, where they would eventually wake up, most likely with pounding headaches and no memory of what hit them. She poked at the fire with a stick, stirring it, waiting for Kell -- Linet -- to return.

Raven wanted to talk to her, thought perhaps it was time to do so. Kell had been carrying too heavy of a load for far too many years. She had been determined to keep her parents safe. Raven knew her daughter feared losing them the same way she had lost everyone else she loved. Everything that she was now was aimed toward keeping them safe and unknown.

When her mage talent had reappeared again to stay years ago, they had been lucky to have been in a town of quiet sympathizers for the dead King and his family. Though never outwardly stated, most of the townspeople assumed, on account of their mannerisms, that they were nobles from Brightstar, perhaps close to the royal family. It had been only a few years after the massacre and things really hadn't settled down yet. A local mage had taught Kell, then known as Kasi, the basics of controlling and hiding her talent, shielding her presence and those of her parents with little thought. To all intents and purposes, the three of them were only peasants, traveling to find a new home. Only a mage of the highest ability would see otherwise, a mage such as Seth.

When the rumors had found them later of the bodies of the royal family on display at the palace in Brightstar, Raven and Stefan had wept again at the loss of their family. Linet had simply closed up and became a different person. They had taken on new names after their escape, hoping just to hide their presence for awhile. Very little changed about their basic personalities, at least not Raven's and Stefan's, who had become Meg and Patric.

Linet, however, had become Kasi, a quiet, secretive, sad little girl, who rarely spoke, who rarely played, who never laughed. Only her eyes told of her feelings, her inner self. At times they would blaze with anger; at other times, immense sadness and loneliness. But she never turned to her parents for help. They had tried to get through to her, but she resisted, withdrawing more at every attempt. And so, they had stopped, not wanting to lose what was left of their beloved daughter.

And then had come her desire to learn swordcraft. They had tried to protest that, but she was unmoving. So Stefan had hired a teacher wherever they lived. He had taken the lessons himself, letting Linet take them with him. He'd known basic swordplay and it had been a feasible excuse to say he wanted to be able to defend himself if he had to. He told the teachers that Linet was going through a phase. It had kept them from asking too many questions.

When her mage power had returned, it had been a surprise to them, but somehow not to her. They had found her a teacher for that as well, knowing that, untrained, she was more dangerous than trained. That was when she started wearing the cloak pin. The village mage who had served as her teacher had seen it on Stefan's cloak and told them that Linet was to wear it from then on, that it had the power to protect in it. Stefan had been surprised, but Raven had heard the story of the pin from Gwyna and understood immediately what the teacher was saying. She brought to mind the final lines said by the being of light who gave the pin to her ancestor so many centuries ago:

"And behold, the day shall come when this gift of love shall be worn by a giver, when the darkness descends from the north upon the land of Rill, when that giver is gifted with power to overcome."

And then they had moved to Yana. As Patric and Meg, they had taken over the dilapidated tavern named Dragon's Rest and began a new business. They had come without their daughter. Unbeknownst to them, she had decided to change again, into Kellessan, swordswoman, daughter of no one. With the change of name came the change of personality. The anger burning in Kasi's eyes became the shield Kellessan used to guard herself from the world, from her memories, from herself. She was still quiet, but now it was a more dangerous quiet, a calmness that instilled fear and respect in those around her. She watched everyone with all-seeing eyes, looking for faults, for dangers, for spies.

She had joined them after a few weeks with a new name, a new horse, and a new sword. Patric and Meg had hired Kellessan for her skills, giving her meals and lodging and a small weekly payment in return. And so they successfully settled into life in Yana. For three years, things had been going along fine.

Until Dorien came.

Hearing the stories had reawakened old memories and feelings of loss that she thought had gone. Only Stefan's strong arm around her had kept her from breaking down that first night. She had thought the pain she felt on that night was gone from her life. But Dorien's words had brought it back.

Stefan, she knew, had been disturbed for years about what was happening in Rillanda. He had seen what Seth had done to this land, to its people. He wanted to stop it somehow, but what could he do alone, against someone as powerful as Seth. He had tried in small ways to alleviate the sorrow and the pain Seth had created, but it was never enough. And whenever they started building a small network of loyal friends who had figured out just who they were, some of Seth's soldiers would come through town and disrupt their lives, forcing them to move on again, not wanting to cause trouble for the townspeople.

They had been in Yana the longest. Kell's ability to protect them from Seth's roving mages had been a great help. Magic was all but unknown in Rillanda, Bornath, and the surrounding countries. It had been dormant for so many years as it hadn't been needed. So aside from Seth, Kell was the only powerful mage around. She had been teaching herself for years how to use her powers. The village mage told her that once she knew the basics, the rest would come naturally and instinctively. And it had. No one aside of Stefan and Raven, and now Dorien, even knew she had mage talent.

Raven's musings were interrupted when she heard Kell's voice. "Where are the others?"

She looked away from the fire and over to the edge of the tree line, where her daughter stood, a hesitant and closed look on her face. She replied calmly, "They went to find the pack mules. Kell, come, sit by the fire."

Kell slowly made her way over and dropped cross-legged on the ground across from Raven. She stared into the flames for a while silently, cloak wrapped around her body like a shield.

Raven watched her just as quietly, trying to decide how to broach the delicate topic of their long-dead family without making her more upset. She knew that Terel was on Kell's mind again. She only got this quiet when she thought about her brother.

Kell beat her to it in a rare moment of softness. "Do you ever think about them?"

Raven replied gently, "Yes, I do, quite a lot."

Kell continued. "Do you ... miss them?"

Raven nodded. "Yes, I probably always will." She paused a moment, then goes on hurriedly, leaning forward a bit, entreaty in her eyes and voice, "Kell, the hurt is supposed to lessen. But you have to let the grief take its own course, not deny it by putting up walls of anger."

Kell lifted her blazing blue eyes on Raven, speaking in clipped tones. "Anger is all I have left. When ... he died, it took away the best part of who I am, destroyed something in me, I don't know."

She pushed herself to her feet jerkily and paced away from the fire tensely. Raven followed her movements, pleading. "Kell, please tell me what you're feeling. I want to help. Stefan and I both have wanted to help for so long. But you've never let us."

Her back still turned, Kell replied in a somewhat calmer voice. "I know that. But it wasn't something either of you could fix. What happened that night ... it changed me, forever."

Raven said softly, "I know that losing Terel as well as the rest of our family was terrible. Stefan and I hurt too. Terel was our son. But time helped to heal the grief we felt. Yes, we still hurt, like during Dorien's tales, but--"

Kell whirled around, interrupting angrily, fists clenched tightly at her sides. "Time will not fix this. You don't understand. No one does. I felt him die."

Raven blinked a few times in confusion and frowns slightly, puzzled. "Felt? What do you mean?"

Kell searched for words vainly, looking off into the distance of her memories, frustrated, her hands making aborted movements in the air. "I just... I can't really explain it. I felt the arrow. I felt him dying. I looked up at the soldier. I wanted him dead for hurting Terel. And something ... snapped inside me, broke open maybe is what I should say. And somehow the knowledge of how to stop the soldier's heart was there. And so I reached out and did just that. That scared me almost as much as Terel's dying did... And then when Terel finally died, I felt his spirit leave. And something was gone from within me, something I didn't even know was there. And there was something new ... different, and it terrified me. I realize now that Terel's death was the catalyst for this mage gift I have. What I am now is because Terel died."

Kell paused, regathering her thoughts. Raven didn't move from her position on the log, trying to understand what exactly had been present between her two children. Some kind of ... connection, maybe? According to Father's stories, Mother reacted the same way when Arven died. He said something seemed to die within her, though she eventually recovered and was happy with her life and the choices she made. But he said that there was something different, that there were odd moments of ... melancholy that would pass so quickly that he wasn't sure they happened. Was the same type of thing between Terel and Linet? Only his death somehow ... opened or released her mage talents.

Kell started to speak again in a tight, pain-filled voice. "How can I live with knowing that my ... gift, my ability to protect you, came from his death?" She thumped herself on the chest with a closed fist, in approximately the same spot the arrow had hit Terel. "I can still feel the arrow going through him. And it hurts; every day it hurts."

Tears started to slide silently down Raven's cheeks in mute sympathy to her daughter's unknown pain. If I had only known. All these years, she's been hurting so badly. If only she had told us.

Kell's eyes started to water as well, and she swiped the tears away impatiently as she continued. "I had finally pushed the hurt far enough away as to not get to me, but then Dorien had to stir up everything again. And now it's back, worse than before. I Don't Want To Hurt. I Don't Want To Remember." As she spoke, she hit her chest with her fist again, emphasizing the words angrily.

Raven pushed herself to her feet and grabbed Kell's hands in hers, holding them tightly, and looked up into her face. "I know it hurts. I know. But we have to remember them. Or we will never truly mourn them. And to mourn someone's loss is a sign that we loved them and we miss them. There is no wrong in that. You loved Terel."

Kell lowered her head to let her tears roll down her cheeks as she began to sob, her shoulders heaving, as the child within her asked heartbrokenly, "Why did he have to die? Why?"

Raven backed up to where the log was, sitting down gently, pulling Kell down with her, wishing she could draw her daughter into her lap and rock her as she did when she was still a little girl. "I don't know why he had to die. I wish I had an answer for you."

Kell fell gracelessly to the ground, folding her legs under her, and just pushed her face into her mother's lap, wrapping her arms around her mother's waist.

Raven petted Kell's blonde hair, smoothing the loose strands down, and rubbed her shoulders, whispering to her softly, "It's okay, Linet, I'm here, I'm here. Just cry."

The first real use of her true name in some 15 years by her mother brought a shudder to Kell's tall frame, but she didn't protest it, just cried out her sorrow at the death of her brother and her family, at the loss of the innocent girl she used to be, at the happiness that should have been hers.

After several minutes, Kell lifted her head, sniffing back residual tears. Raven used the edges of her own cloak to wipe her daughter's face. "Feel better?"

Kell nodded, shrugging. "Yes, I guess so."

Reaching back behind her, Raven picked up a small book and handed it to Kell. "This is Terel's journal. Dorien thought maybe you would like to read it. It may help you, I don't know."

Taking the journal, Kell ran her fingers over the leather binding, then looked up at Raven. "Thank you ... Mother."

Raven only smoothed a hand over Kell's blonde hair in response, smiling softly.

~~~~~~~
Terel's Journal (excerpts)
~~~~~~~

Stefan and Dorien still gone, Kell sat back against the side of the cave to read the journal while Raven set about making a small meal out of the food in the packs she and Stefan had unloaded before the attack. Kell stared at the cover for a moment, then took a deep breath and opened the worn book to the first page...

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Read all Arven's notes. Looked up the references he found. Amazed we have the same books/scrolls in our libraries. I agree with him. The three things must be people, not things. And they must be three different people. He said he must know what it means. So must I, Arven, so must I.

His second dream. I wonder...

Found the other book Arven mentioned he couldn't find in their library, simply titled Times. It was hard to read, but I found a reference: "When the treasure is stolen and the fated one ends, no return is possible." If the fated one was Arven, no wonder he wasn't allowed to find it. It prophesied his own death. How depressing. But who is the treasure?

Gwyna!

"Jewels are sometimes hidden in plain sight." Found that in my old book of Rillandan Proverbs.

Missing jewel found. Well, Gwyna was never found, so wasn't her. But she was in plain sight.

Mother! She was hidden in plain sight from Norseth. He never thought to look for Gwyna in a small village. He probably thought they would move as far away as possible. Grandfather is so smart!

"Jewel is from treasure. Sword is formed from jewel." I understand, I understand, I understand!!! I know what IT means, Arven. The symbols are people. Treasure=Gwyna. Jewel=Raven. Sword=??? Two parts down, one to go.

Something else I need to consider. Fate and Destiny. Or fated one and destined one. Fated one will begin, destined one will finish. If Arven was the fated one and he began interpreting The Prophecy, then that makes whoever finishes his work the destined one. Does that mean...? Too much to think about. Am going to let this rest for a bit. Need to think.

(writing style changes, indicative of long passage of time)

Okay. After much thought and study of other topics trying to distract myself from I what I somehow sense is the truth, I find myself pulled back to this. I must be the destined one that I find so often in various books and scrolls. Why does that make me feel so uneasy? Anyway, I'll just have to accept it and move on to the other questions that I have about it. I'll probably find any answers I need along the way.

Bespelled sword. Who (it must be a who) would that be? If the treasure is Gwyna and the jewel is Mother, then it seems that it is following a path that would lead to ... Linet.

This is just becoming too much. First me, now Linet. And the bad part is that every part of me says it must be Linet. But how? She doesn't even know how to use a sword.

Let's take this a step at a time. Bespelled implies mage talents. For the moment, let's forget the fact that Linet doesn't have any mage ability, nor is there any trace of such in our families. At least, not as far as any of us can tell. Can mage talents be ... bestowed? refound? learned?

I know that for mage ability to be used, some residual must be present somewhere, perhaps locked up somewhere deep. Something has to release it; whatever that may be, I don't know.

I know now that magery can be learned. Overheard the adults talking the other day. Uncle Dani said Norseth started studying something privately 4 years ago. Dani thought he saw some books on the black arts.

The black arts, the forbidden arts, the forbidden evil. "The time nears for understanding when the forbidden evil reenters Bornathia." Understanding of The Prophecy and its corollaries. It's coming.

Enough of mage gifts. Sword. Let's deal with that. Why would you call a person a sword? Arven mentioned revenge. Possible. Or it could be defense or protection. How does one make a sword? In a forge, pounding metal in a certain shape, then firing it in a furnace, then dipping it into cold water to harden it. You obviously can't do that to a person. Or can you?

"Bespelled sword will be forged by tearing apart." Trial by fire, by hard times?

A bespelled sword. A person hardened by life, destined for a certain task, armed with mage abilities. It must be Linet, no matter difficult it is for me to believe. I only worry about what lies in the future to change things so drastically that she will become such a sword.

I found the answer to my question today in the book Times. It wasn't something I wanted to find. I don't know why I didn't see it before. I don't why I was allowed to find it at all. Maybe I needed to be ready for it. "When the destined one ends, let the forging of the sword begin." I don't want to die, but if my death can set my sister on the path she must take to fulfill her role, her destiny, then I will accept my fate graciously.

War. It's come sooner than I thought.

I have told no one what I have learned. I don't want anyone to worry or try to prevent what I know must happen. Somehow dying doesn't scare me as much anymore. I found something else today in Destinies, probably put there just for me. "The king's treasure and the fated one wait for the destined one and those that precede him." Grandmother Gwyna and Uncle Arven are waiting for me to join them. I look forward to meeting them. I can only assume from the rest that others will die when Norseth invades, as I know he will.

Bespelled. I found another clue. Father wears this sword cloak pin. I asked Mother about it. She told me the story that has been passed down through her mother's family for generations. Then I went hunting in the reference books. I knew I had come across something about another sword somewhere. After hours of searching, I found it in Sayings of Seyna. "And the bespelled sword shall be enhanced by the encircled sword. And it shall protect and cloak their presence from the evil abiding in that land." The pin itself is ensorceled!

The pin will cloak their presence and hide them from the evil. Linet will have mage abilities. The pin is ensorceled. Does any of this make any sense? How is it all supposed to work? Does one generate the other? Does one amplify the other? Is the power permanent or temporary? Also, it is traditional that only men wear the pin, when it is given to them by their betrothed. How would Linet end up wearing it?

I found the answer later in Seyna. "And then the day shall come when the encircled sword shall be worn by the bespelled sword, daughter of no one, even as she protects those who gave her life." Something will happen to make Linet say she is the daughter of no one and then she will wear the pin. Perhaps it is the only link she will allow with our parents. Whatever the reason, this is the first real proof that the sword is a woman. And reassurance that my parents will live through the coming invasion. Thanks be to whomever had this written here.

"That which is given in love shall absorb love. For the day shall come when love will be a shield to protect from evil." From Rillandan Proverbs. Does it mean the pin?

Had a thought. Perhaps the pin as it has been worn over the years has somehow ... absorbed love from the wearer. Perhaps with a mage-gifted person wearing it that love is somehow transformed into some kind of shield. I feel like I'm reaching for something out of my grasp. Maybe I am. But I must continue. I must know.

I know the source of Linet's mage ability in Destinies. It is my death. "For the destined one must end for the sword to become powerful, as in the ending is the key to the beginning." I don't understand how or why, but I do understand what I read.

Norseth is getting closer to Brightstar. Adults are worried.

One last thought from Seyna. "The encircled sword, enchanted and blessed, shall remain until the foretold time has come for it has a duty to perform, protecting its destined wearer until the final event has occurred. Then it shall return." Vague and unsubstantial. I suppose like most prophecies, it will make better sense after whatever event it speaks of has occurred.

I have told Tulan where to find these notes, just in case... Norseth cannot be allowed access to them. Tulan gave me a long, long look, then nodded in sorrow. He has read Arven's notes, and somehow he knows what will happen, what must happen. At least I am no longer alone in my secret.

I had a dream last night. A terrible and wonderful dream. I think I saw the future. Norseth will be here tonight. He will lay to waste the land, Brightstar, and the palace. So many will die. I will die. Two paths are laid before the sword -- one to overcoming and life, one to obscurity and death. I pray she chooses the challenge of life and, with it, victory over Norseth.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

~~~~~~~
Confrontations and Restoration
~~~~~~~

When Kell looked up from the journal, Stefan and Dorien had returned, sitting with Raven at the fire, talking quietly. As she closed the book, Stefan looked up, meeting her eyes, an eyebrow raised in question of how she was doing. She smiled slightly to assure him that she was okay as she stood to her feet.

Kell said quietly, "We need to get moving. We can reach Mirata by dark if we go without stopping."

The others nodded, standing also, stretching slowly. Raven walked over to Kell, handing her a sandwich. "Here, I know you can eat while we go and you need to. You haven't had anything yet today."

Kell took it. "Thank you."

Stefan stopped by Kell, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Raven told us what you told her about Terel. I'm sorry. I never guessed."

Kell reached up and placed her hand on his. "It's okay. I never wanted you to know. It was my burden to carry, not anyone else's."

Stefan tightened his hand on Kell's shoulder momentarily. "You are my daughter, Linet, and I love you. Your burdens are my burdens."

Kell blinked a few times, then whispered, "I love you, too, Father."

Stefan pulled Kell into a brief embrace, then released her, going over to mount his horse, Raven by his side.

Dorien walked by Kell, heading for Pela, unsure of his and Kell's tentative friendship. Kell grasped his arm as he passed her, stopping him. "Wait, Dorien, please."

He looked over at her, his face blank. "Yes?"

She handed him the journal. "Here. You keep this. Thank you for letting me read it. I think it did ... help."

He took it, acting formal and unsure. "I'm glad it helped you, Kellessan."

Kell hesitated, then continued. "Look, I'm sorry. I've been ... who I am for a long, long time. I have a hard time trusting people. But I trust you, really. And later, tonight when we stop, we can ... talk."

He smiled slightly. "Okay. I'll hold you to that."

Kell returned his smile, letting go of his arm. "Okay. Let's go."

He gestured for her to go in front of him. "After you, my lady."

***************************

After several more hours of riding, they arrived in Mirata, darkness descending on them rapidly. Kell led them through the winding back streets, finally stopping at the back door of a posh-looking inn. Dorien raised an eyebrow, wondering how someone this wealthy could be involved in the underground retaking of Rillanda and escape Seth's notice.

Kell rapped at the door in some pre-arranged signal. The door cracked open and Dorien heard Kell whispering quickly to whomever was inside. After a few more moments, a few young men came out and took their horses and pack mules, leading them toward stables. Dorien grabbed his small saddlebags containing the journals and his lute case, not wanting either to be out of his sight.

They all headed inside quietly, led by a young girl up a flight of stairs to a large upper room. She showed them inside and then left, disappearing back down the stairs silently. Dorien turned to see Stefan, Raven, and Kell greeting a tall, slim older man with long graying blonde hair tied in a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. Dorien sat on a nearby bench, resting his muscles, rotating his neck around, waiting to see what would happen.

Stefan grasped Jamas' arm tightly. "Oh, Jamas, it is so good to see you. We saw Willim and your son in Cantua and they told me you had survived. I had never known for sure."

Jamas grinned. "Well, Your Majesty, I never was very easy to get rid of. It is good to see that you are well, my lord, and, you, too, my lady Raven. And this must be Kellessan, who I have heard so much about."

Kell raised an eyebrow. "Do you not know me, Jamas? Have I really changed that much? No, wait, I have changed. You have not seen me in so long. And since Willim, who sends his greetings, by the way, has not talked with you personally yet, there has been no way to tell you."

Jamas looked at her curiously. "Have we met before, swordswoman?"

Raven smiled. "Think shorter, younger, lighter blonde hair, and wide blue eyes."

James blinked after a few moments. "Linet? Little Linet?"

Kell nodded, smiling. "Yes, that was me. But please, now I am Kellessan, or just plain Kell."

Jamas smiled with her. "No wonder I didn't recognize you. You have changed. And not without price I am sure. But tell me, who is your other guest?"

Kell turned and gestured Dorien forward. "This is Dorien. He found us and convinced us that it was time to move. He was one of Tulan's students, along with Terel." She finds that for the first time in a long time that it doesn't hurt to say her brother's name.

Jamas nodded. "Dorien, yes, very well. Willim's messenger told me very little. Please, fill me in. What are our plans?"

The next few hours were spent going over plans for invasion of Brightstar with the least number of casualties and damage to the city. It would do no good to attack and win, but have no city left to rule from. The confrontation of Seth himself was left to Kell.

***************************

Dorien sat in front of the hearth in the empty front room. The fire glowed softly, still warming the room as it burnt down, the flames being the only light. His fingers glided idly across the strings, hitting a melody here and there as he composed in his head. A song of the journey to Brightstar, a song of Kellessan, the princess-swordswoman, the tragedy of her brother's death. Oh, this would make a grand epic tale once it is completed, if only I felt it was possible to let everyone know that Kell is Linet, which it isn't. Tulan, I can almost see the end of this, the good ending everyone wants to hear. I may be too close to it to do it justice, but I can at least try.

He looked up, still humming as footsteps descended the stairs, the glow of a lantern preceding whoever was coming. Kell's figure finally appeared, her face curious as she walked over to him.

She set down the lantern and sat next to him on the hearth. "I was looking for you. One of the servant girls said she saw you down here."

Dorien smiled, still strumming. "I had a melody running through my head, and it demanded that I play it. I didn't want to disturb anyone upstairs, so I came down here. What can I do for you?"

She looked down at her hands. "I promised that we would talk. And I keep my promises. I wanted to talk to you now, before I lost my nerve, if that's okay with you."

He set aside the lute. "Okay. What exactly did you want or need to talk to me about?"

She looked back up at him for a moment, then back into the dwindling flames. "About me. About who I am. About why I am. I know that Raven told you what I told her, but I feel I need to tell you more."

He just nodded. "Go on."

She drew a breath and began. "When Terel died, something of me died too. I became someone else entirely. That's why most who might have known Linet don't recognize her in me. Willim is one of the few who does. But then we met again several years ago, before I, as Kellessan, really became solid. If I had found Jamas at that time, he would know me as well. Willim and I decided to keep my identity from Jaynell and their daughter Kasi, to protect them, to protect my parents, and to protect me.

"I have been alone in my protection of my parents for a very long time. I never even told Willim where they were. Oh, he knew they were alive, but never where. We moved so much at the beginning to keep safe, to keep ahead of Seth's search parties. As I gained sword skill and mage abilities, I knew it was going to be my job to keep them safe. And only my job, no one else's. I don't know if I can learn to share that burden. It's been the one reason I have to keep going at times. I don't let other people get close to me, not anymore. I don't want to lose anyone else the way I lost Terel and the rest of my family."

Dorien laid a hand on her leg lightly, wary of being rebuffed. "Kell, I know what it is to lose someone you care about. I may not understand fully what it is to lose someone the way you lost your brother, but I do understand. And I heard earlier what your father said about burdens. And I agree with him. You are not meant to carry this alone, Kell." He paused to fidget before going on slowly, "And I have to admit that in the short time I have known you, I have come to ... care for you, a great deal."

She looked up sharply at that. Dorien swallowed hard at the look on her face, but forced himself to continue. He reached up and touched her cheek lightly with a few fingers. "I don't know how or why it happened. I only know it did."

She just stared at him stonefaced, unblinking, for several long moments. Dorien finally pulled away his hand, thinking perhaps he'd gone too far.

As he looked away, she whispered, "I know."

He looked back at her, hope sparking back into his eyes, then dying as she went on. "But I cannot allow myself to ... care for you in return, not yet, not until after Seth is gone."

Dorien straightened, his face closing up. He said tightly, "I ... see."

He started to get up, but her hand closed on his arm, stopping him. "Dorien, thank you. I will remember your words and when the time is right..."

He turned back to her, a smile on his lips and in his eyes, as he raised her hand to place a kiss lightly on her fingers. "When the time is right. I'll hold you to that as well, my lady."

***************************

Kell held her finger to her lips as they crouched in the stables, waiting for the right moment to continue. Raven looked around her, realizing they were entering the palace the same way they had escaped it so long ago. Stefan, next to her, squeezed her hand, and she turned her head to smile at him briefly. She looked back at Kell. Her long blonde hair was pulled tight into its ever-present braid and wrapped into a twist to keep it out of her way. She had her broadsword held in one hand as she peered out the stable doors toward the palace, waiting for the patrol guards to leave. They had left the horses and mules at a house on the outskirts of Brightstar with a supporter where they would be safe. Dorien had reluctantly left his lute and the journals there as well, realizing they would be safer there than with him.

Kell suddenly motioned them forward. "Go. Hurry."

Stefan and Raven took the lead, dashing across the several feet to the wall of the palace, Dorien and Kell close behind them. Stefan found the switch that opened the hidden door, praying it still worked. It did and they hurried inside, Kell shutting the door quickly, just moments before the guard reappeared around the corner.

Inside, Kell paused a moment, eyeing the darkness in front of them. She closed her eyes for a moment and muttered a few words. When she opened her eyes again, she lifted her sword, which started to glow softly. Dorien raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. Well, she is a mage, idiot, what did you expect?

Kell moved forward again, the others following her silently. They reached a door which Kell pulled open slowly. She poked her head out, looking around. The hall was empty. She stood aside, letting the others exit and go across the hallway to the other door. She followed along behind, then stopped, and took a few steps away from them, squatting down to touch the floor with one hand.

Dorien watched her then turned to Raven curiously, who was waiting behind Stefan as he opened the next door. Raven looked from her daughter to Dorien, saying quietly, "It is where Terel died."

Dorien nodded once, understanding. Kell stood after another moment, rejoining them without a word. They continued on.

***************************

Outside the palace, a horn rang loud and long across the town square, a pre-arranged signal for Kell's forces to advance, led by Willim, Jamas, their sons, and whatever other soldiers they could find. They began to engage Seth's troops in battle, both fighting to take back their land and to provide a diversion for Kell's small group to reach Seth unimpeded. For the moment, surprise was on their side and they had the upper hand. But it was up to Kell to win this battle, this war, decisively. If Seth remained undefeated, then Rillanda would never be theirs again.

***************************

Kell stopped and turned to Dorien. "Do you know where we are now?"

Dorien used the light from her sword to make out markings on the passageway wall, squinting his eyes, then nodding. "Yes, we're outside the hallway to the throne room. Are you sure you want to exit here? We could just as easily enter from within the throne room itself."

Kell shook her head. "No, he has the throne room protected. I can feel the shielding slightly. The front door is the only way in. Since the attack outside has begun, there should only be a few guards here, mostly for looks. Seth doesn't need any guards. He can protect himself from normal attacks quite easily."

Dorien sighed. "Okay. Lead on."

After dousing her sword light, Kell pushed open the hidden door quickly, rushing boldly down the hallway, surprising the two honor guards standing at the throne room doors. Instead of using either her sword or magic, she simply decked both of them, knocking them both out cold. The others joined her quickly. Kell shook out her hand for a moment, relieving the momentary pain. Dorien just looked at her.

She shrugged. "Painful, but effective." He nodded and gestured her to the throne room doors. She turned to look at the large ornate doors, and, taking a deep breath, shoved them open, letting them slam against the inner walls of the throne room. She strode in, broadsword raised defensively, eyes glowing in anticipative victory. Stefan and Raven followed her in, Dorien coming in last, pushing the doors shut, barring them from the inside. That done he turned and leaned against the wall near the doors, waiting.

Seth, alone in the room, had been on the throne when Kell had strode in. Now he rose from the throne lazily, sure of himself and his superiority over any aggressors, although no one should have been able to make it that far unchallenged.

Kell came to a halt in the midst of the floor facing the thrones, Stefan and Raven behind and on either side of her. Her eyes narrowed in anger, but she remained silent, taking in the appearance of Seth. She had only seen him from afar a few times when she had dared to venture into Brightstar. His black hair was only lightly sprinkled with gray, his ice blue eyes cold and uncaring, filled only with a desire for power and control. His frame was thin, easily overpowered physically. But considering the mage powers he possessed, he had no need of physical might. He should look older, he was in his late sixties. But he appeared to be no more than 45. She could only assume that he used his black magery to keep him young, at least as young as could be. There were limits. She preferred to use the powers she had only as a last resort, seeing them as a cop-out, an excuse for not having real abilities other than magic.

Seth stood still a moment, looking at them. Slowly, recognition appeared on his face. He spoke softly, a grim smile on his face. "You must be Stefan and Raven. I have searched for you for such a very long time. How good and how foolish of you to come to me."

He stretched forth a hand and a blast of light shot out toward Stefan. Kell moved quickly, slicing her broadsword in front of Stefan, augmenting its reflecting ability slightly. The bolt hit her sword and it bounced back towards Seth, hitting the wall behind him. He frowned slightly and threw another energy beam, this time at Raven. Kell repeated her move and the beam hit the wall on the other side of Seth.

Seth stopped, dropping his hand, contemplating Kell as she pulled her sword back in front of her, holding it at the ready. He tilted his head, then said lightly, "Ah, you must be Kellessan, the wondrous swordswoman I've heard so much about. I've looking for you as well. I had heard you were a mercenary for hire. Whatever they are paying you to help, it cannot possibly be enough to compensate for your death when I kill you."

She didn't move, just replied in a deadly calm voice. "Nothing you could give me can make up to what you have done to this land, to its people, and to our lives. And I cannot lose, I have good on my side."

He raised an eyebrow mockingly. "You have that on some kind of authority, I suppose?"

A ghost of a smile flitted across her face. "Something like that."

He only grunted, then his eyes found Dorien in the background, recognizing him immediately. "The missing protégé, Dorien. I was none too pleased to discover that you had escaped during the cleansing of the Bardic Academy."

Dorien growled softly. "Cleansing. You burned the buildings, scattered the students, and killed many, including Tulan."

Seth shrugged. "Such is progress. He was standing in its way."

Dorien tried to rush forward, but Stefan grabbed his arm. "No, he wants you to attack him. Let us handle this."

Stefan reached out and took Raven's hand, going over to join her on Kell's other side. Stefan looked up at Seth calmly, belying the nerves rattling away somewhere inside him. He said softly, "I give you one chance to surrender, Norseth. Rillanda is no longer yours to command. Our forces are taking over the city as we speak, defeating your soldiers. If you leave peaceably and return to Bornath, promising never to return, we will let you go."

Kell had grudgingly allowed Stefan to make one plea for peace. She was positive Seth would reject it, but Stefan had insisted that fighting must remain a final alternative, not the first choice.

As expected, Seth laughed once sharply, flinging his hand out, two bolts flying out from his fingertips. Kell slid forward, pushing Stefan and Raven back as she deflected the beams deftly. Seth grew angry and lifted both hands, glowing power swirling about his body. Dorien hauled Stefan and Raven back away from Kell to stand near the doors.

A fire fight of a sort ensued, light flashing back and forth between the two combatants. Most of the energy flying around was from Seth, coming from him and being reflected back by Kell's broadsword. However, when Dorien did look at Kell, he could see a light glow around her as well. He surmised that she was adding a little extra punch to some of the reflected energy, hoping to hit Seth with it.

As Dorien watched, his eyes were drawn to Kell's sword cloak pin. His eyes widened as it started to glow more than the rest of her, becoming a bright blue light in the midst of the white glows surrounding she and Seth. The blue spread slowly to cover her, then converged down her arms to slide down the sword.

Kell lowered the sword to point it at Seth whose eyes suddenly betrayed panic. The blue light concentrated on the point of the sword, pulsing. Dorien looked at Kell's face. Her eyes were closed, her face lifted to the ceiling. The light suddenly shot from the sword in one blast, hitting Seth square in the chest. The resulting light show forced him to look away or else be blinded.

When he was able to look again, Kell was lowering her head, opening her eyes, blinking a few times. Where Seth had been was only a light scorch mark. He was gone. Kell, however, was still surrounded by a glow.

An ethereal, somewhat feminine voice whispered into the air, apparently from nowhere. "The task has been completed. Balance is restored. Return."

The sword cloak pin vanished in a flash of light. Kell's cloak slid to the ground around her feet even as the glow around her body disappeared as well.

For several moments, silence reigned in the room, the distant sounds of victorious horns playing the Rillandan march heard from outside. Kell stooped and picked up her cloak, pulling it around her shoulders, fastening the loop and button that she had rarely used because of the cloak pin. She turned and strode over the Stefan and Raven, where they were still standing in front of the doors. She dropped to one knee, bowing her head, holding her sword out flat in front of her in a position of fealty.

After a moment she looked up at Stefan, the rightful and now true king of Rillanda. "The enemy has been vanquished. The land is now yours, my liege. Long live the King and Queen."

Dorien fell to his knee as well, near the wall, repeating Kell's words. "Long live the King and Queen."

Stefan stood straighter, trading glances with Raven silently. He placed a hand on Kell's shoulder. "Kellessan, daughter of no one, once and now again Linet, daughter of Stefan and Raven, we thank you."

There was an urgent knocking on the door, and Willim's booming voice. "Open the door this instant."

Kell and Dorien rose to their feet and remove the barricade, pulling open the doors. Willim and Jamas, along with several of the men and women from Kell's gathered forces, stood there. Between the two men was a woman of indeterminate age, holding two dark green cloaks with gold piping and highlights, plus the two royal Rillandan state crowns. She stepped forward, grinning broadly as she went to one knee before Stefan and Raven.

The woman looked up. "Your Majesties. I am Camella, once assistant to Tulan. Many years ago, I spirited these items away, keeping them safe for your eventual return to Brightstar."

Stefan took up one crown and placed it on Raven's head, adding the cloak around her shoulders, then pulled his own cloak on, before finally adding the crown to his own head. As the crown touched his head, everyone fell to one knee, heads bowed.

Behind them, Kell's eyes filled with tears as she raised her sword to the heavens, saying loudly, "Long live the King and Queen." Her words were repeated and echoed with ever-growing volume by those assembled in the hallway.

Dorien slid over to her and placed one hand on her shoulder, meeting her eyes with his own tear-filled eyes, as he repeated the chant. She reached up and gripped his hand tightly, not needing to say anything.

***************************

Several minutes later, Stefan and Raven presented themselves to people of Brightstar on the steps of the Crystal Palace. Shouts rose at their appearance. Stefan and Raven held hands tightly, raising them in victory and greetings to their people.

Stefan raised a hand for quiet and was quickly obeyed. He shouted loudly, hoping enough could hear him to spread his words. "Let the word go forth that the invader Norseth has been defeated and that this land once again belongs to Rillanda and its people. Let it be known that Stefan and Raven, as well as the Princess Linet, have returned to Brightstar as Rillanda's true and rightful rulers."

From behind them, Dorien pushed a very reluctant Linet forward. She scowled at him briefly before stepping forward, with what she hoped was a pleasant look on her face. They had found another cloak of suitable length for her, plus a light silver circlet. Raven and Camella had unbraided her hair enough for it to look more "princess" like. Dorien was keeping her sword. It had been decided that for the moment not to reveal her as Kellessan and Linet. Her double identity could come in useful sometime in the future, who knew for sure.

Kell looked out over the people of Brightstar, the people of Rillanda, and smiled a genuine smile of happiness. She was home, uneasy, but finally at home. And the spirits of those lost over the years, as well as her soul, could now rest in the knowledge that good had overcome evil, as it always would.

She raised her arm in greeting, then turned to Stefan and Raven, saying loudly, her voice triumphant and joyful, "Long live the King and Queen."

Her words were repeated and echoed by all assembled in the square, by any who could hear them. She imagined that it could even be heard in the distant hills. Stefan and Raven stood tall and straight, letting the shouts of acclamation from their people roll over them, welcoming them home.

~~~~~~~
Epilogue
~~~~~~~

Kellessan stood on the outside wall of the castle, watching the sun go down, sending its last rays over the newly budding flowers of spring. Many of the surrounding buildings would have to be rebuilt or restored in the next several years. The Bardic Academy was at the top on her parents' list as soon as soon as the needs of the people were cared for. Tonight the whole city, the whole country, was celebrating. King Stefan and Queen Raven, as well as their daughter Linet, had been restored to their rightful places. Royal Bard Tulan's successor Dorien was here to take command of the Bardic Academy, once it was rebuilt. And best of all, Seth was dead, with Opella installed as Regent of Bornath until her oldest son Balaeric comes of age. Opella was quite anxious for peace between their countries and was actually a very strong-willed, good person caught in the wrong circumstances. Neither her or the country of Bornath itself, were upset to see Seth gone.

Kell sighed and lifted her face to the breeze that blew across the top of the castle wall. She could hear the distant sounds of celebration from the banquet room and courtyard below her. She must join them a little later to show the people that the sole heir to the Rillandan throne was alive. She had never thought to be heir. Terel was meant to be the next ruler, not her. She never wanted it. But it was hers, whether or not she wanted it, from the moment Terel was killed.

But for right now, two months after retaking Rillanda, she still felt uneasy and out of place. She wasn't quite sure who she was. Once a young, innocent princess, with not a care in the world. Then a distraught young girl as everything she knew was pulled away from her. And finally, a vengeful, angry, bitter mercenary. And now she was expected to be a princess again. Dressed in the soft fabrics that her mother had gone to such pains to find for her, she just didn't feel right. At least she wasn't having to wear an actual dress, at least not yet. Her outfit was similar to what she normally wore, except that it was more flowing and made of richer fabric, instead of wool and leather. Her long blonde hair fell loose around her shoulders for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime.

And then there was the thin silver circlet on her head. The sign that she was Princess Linet. Just who was she now anyway? For now she was Linet. She must be. They had not really had time to discuss what to do about her identity as Kellessan yet. Dorien suggested that they hold on to it, just in case. Kell tended to agree with him. She knew that after moving and wandering from place to place for 15 years, it would be impossible for her to settle down in one place again. Her identity as Kellessan would let her roam away from the palace, away from the formalities. Linet, the royal princess, acted and even looked different than Kellessan, the mercenary. Dorien had even volunteered to go with her sometime if she felt she had to get away for awhile. He'd found that he liked the traveling now, as opposed to sitting inside the Bardic Academy, away from all the good sources of tales and stories.

As if her thoughts of him summoned him, Dorien pushed open the door leading the walkway and stepped out to join her, standing next to her in silence for some time before speaking.

Finally he began. "Deep thoughts on such a light-hearted day, Kellessan?"

She bowed her head, avoiding his eyes. "Some, yes. Hard to avoid them these days."

Folding his arms, he turned and leaned sideways against the short rock wall, trying to catch her eyes. "Tell me."

She looked out into the countryside, a small depreciating smile on her face "Just wondering who I am, where I belong, where I fit in. My parents seem to be adapting to all this just fine. But as for me ... well, I don't feel like royalty anymore. I don't feel like the heir to a kingdom."

He asked softly, "What do you feel like?"

She finally turned to meet his eyes, the smile on her face quirking to one side. "Like a well-meaning, but misplaced, mercenary, who is out of her depth."

Dorien returned her smile, chuckling. "Sounds about right. If it's any solace, I get the feeling your parents feel the same misplacement, and so do I. Just give it time. I can't promise that everything will be as it was, but I can promise that things will get better. In the meantime, however..." He reached out slowly and touched her cheek, then whispered softly, "The danger has passed. We have the time and leisure now to explore ... whatever we wish."

Kell hesitated a moment, then lifted her hand to cradle his against her cheek and then turned her face to kiss his palm, a gesture she'd seen her parents use for as long as she could remember. She smiled at him. "I think I would like that, Dorien."

Their shadows on the wall behind them merged together for a time, and then separated and disappeared, as they exited through the doorway to rejoin the celebration below.

***************************

Below, in the Ancestor Hall, now fully restored, the paintings retrieved from their secret hiding place, people from the surrounding town of Brightstar and from farther away had come to look at the paintings and portraits of Rillandan Kings and Queens of times past and remember their heritage. As they reached the end of the paintings, many stopped to wonder about the painting between Randal and Tayna's and Stefan and Raven's. Not a portrait of any Kings or Queens of Rillanda, they asked their guide of the two young people in picture.

Their guide, an older woman, one of the last remaining bards from the old times, replied in a quiet voice. "They are Andrel and Gwyna, the parents of our current Queen Raven. Andrel was a chief councilor to King Randal when Norseth invaded. He died with King Randal and Queen Tayna that dark night so many years ago, giving Prince Stefan, his wife, and their daughter time to escape. His wife died many years before, an early victim of Norseth. It is our honor and privilege to have this painting remain in the Ancestor Hall."

The group moved on, letting others through. The painting of Andrel and Gwyna seemed to radiate with love, which shone in the eyes and faces of the two young people. The painting itself would be cast in darkness except for single light behind the two figures, in the alcove, where a lone candlescone shone brightly, diffusing that darkness and chasing away the shadows.

- The End -


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