Prophecy Story Index

Songs of the Rose
by Becky
December 1997

The day had come for her to leave Rosewood, something she'd never thought she'd do. Growing up, she'd figured she'd live in the small town her entire life, maybe travel a little bit, but never very far. And never actually pack up and move. But tonight would be her last night in the house she grew up in, in her room. Tomorrow morning she would load her packed belongings into a wagon, take one last look around, hug her family goodbye, and then ... go. And who knew when she'd be back.

As she stood in the open field, a breeze blew across her cheek, carrying with it loose strands of dark hair. Absently she brushed them back as she stared at the still fresh mound of dirt just a few feet away. Two days ago she had stood here with the rest of the village and commended one of their own to the Light. The sickness and death had been so sudden, so shocking. Some had yet to recover from the blow -- she numbered herself among them.

Amidst the vast bed of late spring flowers, she stooped and touched the dirt mound with one hand, whispering. "Goodbye, my friend. I'm leaving Rosewood for the Academy, just like I promised I would. One of the neighbors will take me tomorrow morning." She paused a moment, her throat tightening as she forced herself to go on. "I don't know when I'll be back. Keep watch over the flowers, would you?" With the other hand, she wiped a few tears from her cheek, then pushed herself to her feet, taking a deep breath as she did.

Then Ryana, daughter of Melanas and Janessa, spoke one last phrase before turning to leave.

"May you find the peace you always sought on your journey home, Gwyna. I won't forget you."

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

The next day, in the mid-afternoon sun, Ryana stood alone before the gates of the Bardic Academy in Brighstar. Her eyes were wide and round as she stared at the elaborate structure of both it and the Crystal Palace in the distance just beyond. Palace guards dressed in dark green and gold stood at attention outside the Bardic Academy gates. Students of all ages milled around in the courtyard. A few assorted bards, identified by the blue bardic knot on their shoulders, walked with those students or with each other.

She closed her eyes a moment, taking a deep breath. Come on, Ryana, you can do this. This is what you wanted, right? Ever since you picked up the flute at age four, this is what you dreamed of doing. Remember that. Just be calm.

Upon opening her eyes and straightening her shoulders, she picked up her two bags walked through the gates into her new home. Or what she hoped would be her new home. According to what she'd heard, the teachers at the Academy never turned away any honest learner. And anyone with any kind of musical talent was always welcomed. People had always told her that she had a gift for music, but she had never been that sure, not having anything to compare her talent to, except for what Andrel and others had told her. She hesitated again at the doors, feeling unsure, biting her lip as she heard faint strains of music drifting through the open doorway.

"Ma'am?"

Jumping slightly, she jerked her head around to see a young boy, maybe ten years old. She forced herself to relax. "Yes?"

He smiled brightly up at her. "You look a little lost. Can I help you?"

Blushing, she nodded. "That would be wonderful." Greeting the stranger in town. Didn't that used to be my job? She went on, explaining. "I want to be a student here."

The boy frowned a moment. "A student? But ..." He pulled his jaw shut, flushing a little.

She laughed softly. "I look a little old to be a student, yes, I know. But I promised a friend that I would come here someday and learn all I could, then maybe become a teacher and help others learn." Her eyes look beyond him, moisture appearing in them. "And I want to keep that promise."

The boy watched her, understanding lighting his eyes, then held out a hand. "Here, let me take one of your bags. I'll take you where you need to go to ask to be a student." She gave him one of her bags and followed him into the massive building. He asked as they walked, "Do you play an instrument?"

She nodded. "Yes, the flute. I've been told I play well, but," she shrugged, "well, I guess I'll have to wait and see what the teachers here say."

A few turns later, the boy showed her into a large reception room where parents and children of varying ages stood talking to the teachers and bards at scattered tables. The boy set the bag against a wall. "They'll be safe here. I hope you like it here. I gotta go. I don't want to be late for my lessons."

She stopped. "Wait, I never introduced myself. My name's Ryana, what's yours?"

He threw her another wide grin, dark blue eyes sparkling. "Stefan. Nice to meet you, Ryana. Bye now." And with a wave he was gone, only the quickly fading sound of his running feet slapping against the marble marking his presence.

With another deep breath to fortify herself, Ryana headed to the nearest available spot among the tables. The woman behind the table smiled politely at her, silently encouraging her to speak. Ryana relaxed slightly and returned the smile.

"My name is Ryana, from the village of Rosewood. I would like to be a student at the Bardic Academy."

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

Hours later, Ryana flopped down onto the bed in her dormitory quarters. Fortunately for her, there were rooms available for single students. She didn't think she wanted to learn to share a room again, especially with someone much younger than she. Rolling onto her side, she stared at her bags where she'd dropped them against the opposite wall. I should really unpack. With a yawn, she curled up, wiggling into the generously thick comforter on the bed. But I'm so tired. She closed her eyes. Just a short nap, then I'll ...

Sleep took her before she could decide what she wanted to do next.

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

The next several weeks were fast-paced, confusing, and sometimes frustrating as Ryana learned the layout of the Academy and got used to the teachers of her classes and her fellow students. Feeling overwhelmed by the immense number of people in the city, she stayed mostly to herself at first. She was so much older than the other students, most of which were in their teens, she didn't feel that compelled to go out make too many new friends. But gradually, she began to talk to other students, slowly finding common interests and things they could talk and laugh about together.

Occasionally she saw Stefan in the hallways and chatted with him. It wasn't until Ryana noticed that the guards posted at the doors of the Academy came subtly to attention whenever Stefan passed them that she realized that the boy was important. And it was then that she'd remembered that the young prince's name was Stefan. When she'd made the connection, she'd been mortified, apologizing the next time she saw Stefan. He simply waved it off, wrinkling his nose a bit, telling her he didn't really care either way. Inside the Academy he was treated like any other student, and in confidence, he told her he liked it better that way sometimes. Still she was amazed and a little embarrassed as she remembered that it had been the prince, heir to the Rillandan throne, who had carried one of her bags that first day and led her where she needed to be.

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

Ryana climbed up onto the broad, flat rock, scooting around until she found a comfortable position, folding her legs under her and draping the long, full warm skirt carefully. The late evening air was just a touch chilly, just enough to warrant the long-sleeved sweater she'd thrown over her tunic before leaving the Academy. Every night for the past two weeks she'd come out here, to be alone, to look at the stars, to think of her family. She smiled. It wasn't like her family was that far away, but it seemed like it sometimes when she lay alone at night in her small room. It had been two months now since she'd seen them and she missed them dearly.

She reached down into her lap and lifted the velvet bag that held her small wooden flute. She knew she could get a flute of better materials made for her here, but she'd always liked the tone of the wooden one better for some reason. So she used it as often as she could. Raising it to her lips, she began to play softly, just little bits and pieces, nothing that was written anywhere. This wasn't practice; this was for fun. She let the mood take her where it would, just wanting to be free to play whatever occurred to her.

Before long, she found the melodies sliding into something familiar, something she hadn't thought of or played since the day Gwyna had gotten sick. She faltered to a stop and lowered the flute for a moment, staring at it as if it had betrayed her. She raised her eyes to the stars shining high above her, peeking out in places from between the high trees surrounding the Academy. In her memory, in her honor, I shouldn't forget this song. I shouldn't be afraid to play. I wrote it for her, about her, about who she was, about what was hidden behind her eyes that she could never tell me.

Lifting the flute again and closing her eyes, she played, swaying slightly as the haunting melody swirled lazily above her to commune with the stars.

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

As the soft, sad notes drifted through the trees and up to the sky, another soft sound entered into the peace of the night -- hoofbeats on the hard-packed dirt path that led toward the Academy. Scattered moonlight revealed a tall, tannish horse, with a cloaked rider atop the saddle. The rider pulled the horse to a gentle stop and shoved back the hood, revealing the rider to be a man with dark hair. He paused, listening, eyes closed as he felt the music reach inside him and evoke powerful feelings and thoughts: simple joys transmuted into new fear, betrayal, tears of sorrow for a great loss, a longing for home, bittersweet happiness.

The man shook himself and nudged his mount forward quietly, wanting to see who was playing such a heart-shattering piece. As he slowly edged out of the trees, his eyes focused on a petite figure seated on the low, flat rock that rested in the middle of the clearing between the Academy buildings and the forest. Dim moonlight floated silkily down in a glittering shaft to pool and dance around the rock, showing him that the figure was a girl, no, a woman with long black hair and dusky skin. Her eyes were closed, but the moonlight revealed silent tears winding their way down her cheeks. As the last mournful note died off into a soft echo, she lowered the flute to her lap and raised her face to the night sky, eyes still closed. A small smile curled on her lips, but other than that and the subtle rise and fall of her chest, she remained quiescent, as if absorbing the peace of the night into her soul.

I don't think I've ever heard or seen anything more enchanting, more breathtaking.

His horse whuffled into the solemn quietude, shifting, and the woman's eyes flew open in startlement. He glared down at his mount. Thanks, Kimi. You've just ruined a perfect moment. He thunked her neck with a finger in gentle reprovement, but the mare ignored him, as she always did. Sighing he dismounted quickly and walked toward the rock, Kimi trailing him, as the woman slid off in a rush, adjusting her skirts. He reached her before she could run.

"Wait, it's all right. I won't hurt you. I'm a bard."

She paused, eyes wide in the dark, a small wooden flute clutched in one hand, a dark bag of some sort in the other. "What? Who are you? I've never seen you before."

"I've been gone. I'm a journeyman. We travel a lot, gathering stories, telling stories, spreading news, that kind of thing." He flipped back the shoulder of one side of his charcoal gray cloak, revealing the dark blue bardic knot. "See?"

She swallowed hard and relaxed a bit. "Oh, okay. I wasn't expecting anyone to be out here."

He smiled. "Neither was I. Are you a teacher?"

She blushed and shook her head, "No, a student. A very late student."

He waved the last part off. "It's never too late to become a student. Tulan should have told you that already."

"Tulan? The Royal Bard? Well, I ... I haven't really met him. Not yet at least."

He raised an eyebrow. "Really. I thought Tulan made it a point to meet all the new students. How long have you been here?"

She shifted once, then replied. "A month. He gave a general welcome and invited us to come see him, but I, well, I haven't really had the time. I don't want to bother him. He seems like a busy man."

He smiled. "Tulan is a busy man, yes, but never too busy for his students, especially not one as talented as you. That song was beautiful."

She blushed again, looking away for a moment, then shook her head. "It's only bits and pieces of things, not a true song, nothing really worth noting."

"I'll have to disagree with that. Come, let me hand Kimi off to an Academy groom and then I'll introduce you to Tulan. What's your name, by the way?" He gestured toward the Academy building.

She blinked. "My name is Ryana. You don't have to introduce me. Really."

He waited for her to start walking. "I want to introduce you. I need to tell Tulan I'm back anyway. It won't be a problem." He smiled again and chuckled. "And, since I've forgotten my manners yet again, my name is Jeran." He paused to bow from the waist slightly. "It's very good to meet you, Ryana."

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

Ryana fidgeted as she stood in the shadows surrounding the doorway of Tulan's large office area. She could hear Tulan's voice inside as he talked to Jeran, welcoming him back from his long trip. She felt like banging her head against the nearest wall. Jeran! Of all the people to hear me fooling around outside. Why did it have to be him -- Tulan's top journeyman -- and son of the Rillandan ambassador. From conversations she'd had with some of the other students in the Academy, Ryana knew that Jeran was the closest in talent to Tulan. However, he preferred the freedom of being a wandering journeyman and had, thus far, turned down any offers to become a full bard.

She glanced behind her, wondering if she could slip off before any of the few people, music teachers mostly, in the workroom noticed she'd been there. Maybe Jeran wouldn't miss her. But she had given her promise to stay there, to wait until Jeran could bring Tulan out to meet her. Her parents had taught her to keep her promises, all of them, even the hard ones or maybe especially the hard ones. The two men's voices sounded suddenly closer and she looked up, watching them walk toward her.

Some part of the back of her mind started taking notes, observing them closely. Tulan she knew was in his mid-forties, unmarried which was a little strange since he was so handsome. But then she'd been told that he was more in love with music and history than he could ever be a woman. He was a tallish man, dark hair already silvering at the edges, plus a beard and mustache to complete the picture. If she didn't know better, he could have been the king as he carried himself with such regality and properness.

Her eyes shifted to Jeran, nearly the same height as Tulan, maybe a little shorter. Short dark hair, dark eyes, a cheery smile, an easy laugh, perhaps a few years older than her. He seemed very polite, cultured, intelligent, all-in-all very nice. Even if he did sneak up on me in the dark.

She straightened, smoothing her skirt reflexively, as the two men came to stand before her. She plastered a smile on her face and hoped it looked real, not really wanting this attention, but accepting it. What happened to that brave, adventurous little girl I used to be, going up to any stranger I saw and talking to them? Get a grip, Ryana.

Jeran gestured her forward. "Tulan, this young woman told me that you haven't met her yet. I thought maybe I'd remedy that immediately."

Tulan turned his gaze toward Ryana. "And right you should. You would be Ryana, a flute player, correct?"

Her eyes wide, she nodded. "Yes, sir. How do you know my name?"

"I try to know all the bardic students' names. Your teachers have told me that you show great promise in the musical composition arts, Ryana."

She touched her chest with one hand. "Me? I don't ... I don't think so."

Jeran fixed her with a glance, then turned to Tulan. "I found her outside playing some wondrously soaring piece of flute music. Like nothing I've ever heard."

Tulan's voice became intrigued. "Really. I would like to hear what you've written, if you wouldn't mind playing for me, my dear."

She hesitated, heart pounding. This is Tulan, the Royal Bard, the one whose song you learned years ago. She swallowed hard, opening her mouth to ask not to play. But her inner voice went on. You played his song for Gywna when you first got to know her. It is only fitting that you now play her song for him.

"Yes, sir. I'll play for you. It's not really written down anywhere, mostly in my head, and my heart too, I guess, coming from memories of a friend."

Tulan nodded. "The heart is where all true songs begin. Please." The three of them went back to his private offices, away from the others in the outside workroom. She settled nervously into a chair and drew forth her small wooden flute again, looking up quickly, waiting for a comment or two from Tulan or Jeran. Neither said anything, just smiled at her, waiting for her to begin.

Taking a deep breath, she placed the flute at her lips and closed her eyes. For you, Gwyna.

And she played, stumbling at first, but soon the music became her world and everything else vanished into nothingness as the notes soared in her, around her, through her. One by one her memories of her best friend and what little knowledge she had Gwyna's life beforehand flashed past her mind's eye. The symphony of sounds grew to have a life of its own, overshadowing everything, even her, using her as a conduit to express the life of one woman in song and harmony.

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

Tulan watched Ryana for the first little bit, taking careful note of how she gave herself over to the music, letting it live through her, letting it simply be, not wanting to control it, but wanting it to control her, to control itself. Then he shuttered his own eyes closed and listened to the story that the simple, yet complicated, melody was telling him.

Simple joy. Happiness. Love. Loss. Sorrow. Pain, so much pain. Hidden thoughts. Hidden memories. Bittersweet joy. Renewal of happiness. And loss again. Forever lost.

Ryana had been right. It wasn't really a song, but bit and pieces, small musical interpretations of parts of someone's life. But what wonderful bits and pieces they were. Simple and complex, soaring and melancholic, happy and sad, rewards and loss. So many things. When she stopped playing several minutes later, he just sat there, eyes closed, silent. Music to touch the soul. That is what she has created. And she doesn't even know it.

Tulan opened his eyes slowly and looked across at Ryana who was fidgeting slightly in her seat, her eyes wide and anxious, a corner of her lower lip drawn between her teeth. He smiled softly. "No worries, Ryana. Jeran was correct. What you played was truly wonderful. Exquisite. Like nothing I have heard before either. You have a unique gift, one that not many bards have, one that not even I or Jeran have. The ability to make the hearer feel exactly what the music tells them to feel. You are blessed. And we are blessed to have you here."

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

After that night, Ryana's student schedule was reevaluated, her classes changed to fit her talents and gift. Ryana found herself in smaller classes, with students she could more easily relate to, with classes that challenged her and delighted her. With reduced requirements for the basic music classes, she asked to take some side courses in other things, such as astronomy and the sciences. Stars had been her first love as a child and she wanted to learn all she could about them. She had known about the stories, legends, proverbs, and sometimes, prophecies, that most of the major constellations were associated with, but she had never known just how many. As she learned as much as she could, she found many favorites, top among them was The Rose, identified with love and romance, especially as it had inspired 'rose songs' ballads popular among the bardic students for untold years.

And she had always been fascinated with nature and how things worked, how various things would react to each other to produce something totally new. She loved to experiment with nature and now had a safe place to do so, with encouragement by teachers, especially Masters Breakie and Hemmerlin, and mutual enjoyment from fellow students.

During this time she worked with Tulan quite often, asking him about how he wrote his own masterpiece, Seyna. Using his advice, she began to actually compose and write out the song she would play about Gwyna's life. Her work didn't get a name until one year later after a comment from Jeran that the recurring theme of the piece sounded like one of the laments from ancient times. Ryana promptly named her work-in-progress Gwyna's Lament.

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

{Two years later}

Ryana found herself holding her breath as the last note of the song died off. The singer's voice receded into the distance. All was still and silent for a very long moment. Then the auditorium erupted into a rush of applause and loud calls of praise. Jeran opened his eyes and bowed to his audience, thanking them. As much as he performed, no one ever tired of his voice, one of the few clear and true tenors that existed in the Academy past the teenage years. Ryana herself knew she could listen to him sing for hours and still want more. It was like silk, so smooth, so warm, so rich, so . . . Oh, stop mooning over the man. He sees you as a friend, nothing more. You're just this country girl from Rosewood. He's a noble, bred to want something better. And he's already got half the girls in the Academy fawning over him wherever he goes. He doesn't need you doing it as well.

Even if you are falling in love with him.

Ruthlessly she shoved those thoughts and feelings aside. Friends. We are friends. Nothing more. Nothing less. Which it could be if you keep thinking like this, Ryana. Just cool it. She made her way to the edge of the auditorium, slowly pushing her way to the stage area. Jeran's song was the last piece of the Spring Music Festival. After that, the students of all parts of the Academy would be let go for a vacation from classes. Most would go home, if it was close enough. Some hung around. She was planning to go home in a few days, but she had a few other things to finish before she did so.

Finally reaching the stage, she waited at the side as Jeran greeted and talked with his many young female admirers. Never shy, Jeran thanked them all for their comments, gently redirecting any comments about possible crushes and romantic interest in him. He never wanted to hurt any feelings, but he didn't want to encourage anything either. As the girls dispersed, they walked by Ryana, sometimes smiling, sometimes smirking to themselves, or at her.

Ryana had realized early that she couldn't hide what she felt for Jeran very well. Her emotions had always floated to the top rather quickly, no matter how hard she tried to keep them hidden. Some of the girls in the Academy knew this and had watched to see if Jeran noticed, which, of course, he hadn't seemed to, so they were happy ... and smug. Ryana just ignored them the best she could and went on with life.

After all, she and Jeran had become fairly close friends in the two years since she'd arrived here. They could talk about nearly everything and did so sometimes. How many of them could say that? She'd rather have Jeran as a good friend than as a far-off, unrealized love interest any day.

Even if that's what he is sometimes.

Shaking her head mentally, she dragged her attention back to the present when Jeran laughed loudly and suddenly appeared at her side. "Ryana! Help! I think they're planning to haul me off."

She chuckled, eyes twinkling. "Can't blame them for that now, can you?"

His dark eyes sparkled with humor. "Hey! I thought you were on my side."

The young girls behind him giggled, covering their mouths and whispering to each other. Ryana winked at them. These were the youngest students, the new ones, not ones she had any problems with. She latched her arm through Jeran's. "Sorry, girls, Jeran's got duties today. Try him later tonight. I think his evening's free ..."

"Ryana!"

She laughed at the indignant look on his face, even as his lips fought to keep straight. Finally he gave in and starting laughing as well. He turned back to his admirers, smiling widely. "I'll see you around, girls. Have a good vacation."

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

Later that night, Ryana and Jeran sat on the flat rock out behind the Academy, something they did with regularity when the weather was pleasant enough. Sometimes Ryana would play her flute, trying out new pieces on him, working out new ideas for her ongoing work on Gywna's Lament. Other times Jeran would alternately hum and sing parts of songs that he picked up while traveling or that he'd made up. And quite often, they would play things together. They hadn't found anything they wanted to do in public yet, but they continued to practice together, learning each other's rhythms.

Jeran leaned back on his elbows, staring up at the stars. He shifted his weight for a moment, pointing up at a formation high above them. "That one there. Right above the tops of the trees. What's that one again? I can never remember."

Ryana, knees pulled to her chest, followed his finger with her eyes up to the night skies. "The Warrior."

"Oh, right. I knew that. That's the one that has that prophecy attached to it."

"A lot of them have prophecies or legends written about them, but yes, it has one. Actually there are several prophecies about it. But you're probably thinking of the one by Seyna."

"Yes. How does it go again? I love how you tell it."

She slid her eyes over to meet his, shaking her head. "You sound like a kid asking for a bedtime story."

He smirked. "Hey, can I help it that you tell good stories? You gonna tell me or what?"

She rolled her eyes. "The things I do to make you happy ..." Pausing a moment, she inhaled deeply, then relaxed. Resting her chin on her knees, she spoke in low, melodic tones, falling easily into the patterns of the older language of Seyna's time.

"Do you think it's true?"

Ryana turned her head, resting her cheek on her hands. "Hmm? Do I think that prophecy is true?" Jeran nodded. She sighed and looked back up at the bright constellation. After several moments, she said softly, "Sometimes, yes, I think it is true. And other times, no. It's a very powerful verse, filled with omens of darkness and that both worries and scares me as I have to wonder what horrible things might be coming to Rillanda. And then just the picture of the Warrior itself. So alone, apart, separated from others." She pointed up at the night sky again. "If you notice there are no other major constellations near it, just showing more that the Warrior must stand alone. The nearest one is the Minstrel who is looking toward the Warrior. Sometimes it seems to me that the Minstrel is reaching toward the Warrior, wanting to help, wanting to keep the Warrior from being so alone so much."

Jeran's voice was quiet as he quoted softly. "Music's cry and sword's fire expose the deepest truths and reveal the most hidden paths in life's journey. Together in battle, they cannot be overcome."

Ryana glanced back at him. "What?"

"It's a saying from Rillandan Proverbs, something I just remembered." He shrugged. "Seemed to fit somehow." He shifted and pointed to another point in the sky. "And that one? The one just rising above the hills. What is it?"

She smiled. "The Eternal Lovers. You know that."

He grinned back. "Yeah, just checking. Any stories about it?"

"Many. Another thing you know."

"Any favorites?"

She paused, lost in thought as she stared at the stars in the distance. "Yes, a few."

"Tell me one."

Ryana looked over at him, frowning slightly, then let her eyes drift back to the stars as she began to softly speak, eyelids slowly closing as she lost herself in her words.

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

Jeran just watched Ryana, listening more to her voice than to her words. For all that Ryana could quickly and easily read what others were feeling just by talking to them for a few minutes, she was oblivious to what he himself felt when it came to her. Growing up as an ambassador's son, he had learned at a young age how to hide his real emotions, burying them deep, putting on the polite smile and not letting anything else show in his eyes. Ryana had figured out soon enough what he did, but had never pushed, just let it be.

And now it seems like I've done too good a job at covering my own truths. So much so that she doesn't know how I feel, how much more I want to feel, for her.

During the last two years Jeran had found himself staying around the Academy and Brightstar more than he had in the seven years since he was given journeyman status. He stayed for one reason only -- Ryana. She was the closest friend he had aside of Tulan. And they were becoming closer friends every day. A year after they met, he'd realized what was happening, that he was falling for her, that he wanted so much more than friendship. But he hadn't seen that she wanted more, that she expected more, so he'd buried that down as well. At first it was nice, just being friends, good friends. Most of the girls at the Academy either wanted to date him because of either looks or connections, or they wanted to compete with him professionally, having nothing to do with him otherwise.

Having Ryana simply want to be his friend and peer was something new, something to be cherished, protected.

If only I'd known how she felt earlier. I feel like we've been wasting time.

A week or so ago, he had accidentally overheard some the younger girls in Ryana's classes talking amongst themselves about the crush Ryana had on him and how he was, fortunately, blind to it. After several long moments of arguing with himself, he'd stayed to hear if they said anything more. He'd learned that she'd developed this "crush" several months after they'd met and began doing things together as friends. And he'd learned that these girls believed that Ryana still had a crush on him. They thought she was hopeless, that she hung around him, faking the friendship, just so she could be close to him. They couldn't see how he could be interested in her. She wasn't of noble blood like he was or like they were.

What they didn't know was that he felt no compulsion to marry within his "station" as they would have it said. That had never been an issue. It was rarely even an issue among most of the Rillandan nobility. But he knew from studying history that in times of peace, the nobility got complacent and some would begin thinking that they were better than others in the country. Fortunately this was not true of their current rulers. From what Tulan had told him, Meragor, Randal's father, used to like to go out and mingle with the people of Brightstar quite often. And Randal and Tayna were lovely and gracious rulers, willing to listen to all that came to the royal court. Their son was even more willing. At times Jeran had to wonder if Stefan, now 12, didn't almost hate being the prince since it limited his lifestyle and what he could do as he was the only heir to the throne.

Jeran shook himself out of his musings, turning his attention back to Ryana who was just finishing her tale. He moved over to sit behind her, pointing over her shoulder, his mouth close to her ear as he whispered, "And that one?"

Her voice was quiet, almost too quiet, as she replied, "The Rose."

Not moving from his position from behind her, he shifted so that his legs, bent upwards, were on either side of her shoulders. "And what can you tell me about it?"

Leaning slightly against his leg in comfortable companionship, she stared up at it and murmured, her words floating out into the darkness.

From the first phrase, Jeran recognized it as the final lines of Cyrenia's Blessing, one of the oldest and most romantic pieces in the bardic library. He held his breath as she spoke, listening to the words he already knew by heart being said by the one who had stolen his heart. As the last word drifted away into silence, he reached up and drew his hand across her cheek, tucking her loose hair behind her ear. He felt her muscles twitch and stiffen in reaction, but she didn't pull away. He whispered softly, leaning forward to press his lips on her shoulder, "Ryana, my rose."

She gasped and straightened, pulling away from him. "What? What did you say?" She shifted, turning to look at him, only the twinkling stars and the half-moon lighting her features and her wide eyes.

He smiled and lifted his hand to stroke the back of his fingers across her cheek. "I said, 'Ryana, my rose'."

She swallowed. "That's what I thought... What do you ... mean by calling me ... that?"

He raised his other hand and gently cupped her face in his large hands, moving one thumb to rub across her lips once. "I think, no, I know I'm in love with you, my rose, my Ryana. I'm only sorry I didn't tell you sooner."

Her mouth dropped open and she blinked a few times, then whispered, "Oh."

Jeran grinned softly, gentle amusement in his eyes. "Oh? Is that all?"

"I ..." She blushed and smiled softly, leaning slightly into his hands. "I love you too, Jeran."

His smile widened. "Good. That saves us both time."

Ryana blushed harder, but didn't move or look away as he bent his head to hers. He slid one hand around to the back of her neck, tilting her head slightly as his fingers intertwined themselves in her long hair. Her eyelids fluttered closed and her lips parted slightly in invitation. Jeran brushed his lips across hers in a soft, barely there, kiss. When he pulled back, she opened her eyes and smiled up at him, lifting a hand to touch his lips with two fingertips. He kissed them, his dark eyes fixed on hers.

It was a start. And since they were finally on the same pathway, together, it was all they needed.

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

After that, Ryana found herself in a whirlwind of romance as Jeran had insisted that she let him court her properly. Giving only a token protest, she relented, secretly and sometimes not-so-secretly loving every minute of his attentions to her. Flowers, small gifts, dinners, walks, songs, poetry, he thought of everything and did it all. In addition, he would call her 'my rose' quite often. She didn't think she had ever enjoyed a nickname so much.

She brought Jeran home to Rosewood with her a few months later, wanting her family and friends to meet him. Her parents loved him on sight, as did Jona, already married and pregnant with her first child. Kavin, also married with a little boy and another child on the way, was a little more skeptical at first. Though Ryana was older than he, he still felt protective of her, just as he did of Jona. He wanted to be sure that Jeran was a good man and told Jeran that quite directly. Jeran simply told Kavin that he loved Ryana more each day and would do so until his last breath.

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

{One year later}

Hearth fire now burning brightly, Ryana stood up, raising her still-chilly hands to the flames to warm them as she looked around. The small two-room cabin was wonderful, just what she and Jeran needed for their honeymoon. She smiled to herself again. Honeymoon. The word still sounded new to her ears. As did the words husband, wife, and marriage. After Jeran had proposed two months ago, everything had happened so fast, so quickly. More of that same whirlwind that seemed to define their courtship. She chuckled lowly. "Maybe now life will slow down again. I think I need the break."

Something thudded into the open door behind her and she turned to see Jeran dropping their saddlebags on the wood floor. He asked, "A break from what?"

"From this fast-paced life you have us leading."

He laughed. "Ah, that. Well, I thought that's what this little getaway was for."

She shook her head in mock disgust. "A getaway. Is that what this is?"

He shoved the door shut and shed his heavy cloak, shaking the snow from his short hair. Hanging his cloak next to hers on the pegs by the door, Jeran walked over to her, wrapping his arms loosely around her waist, grinning widely. "Yeah, a getaway with the most beautiful woman I know who also happens to be my bride, or should I say my new wife."

Blushing at his words, Ryana looped her arms around his neck and stretched up to give him a hard and fast kiss. Then she pulled back slightly, a shy smile on her face. "I love you, Jeran."

His grin softening, he raised one hand to lightly run the back of his fingers across her cheek. "And I love you, my rose..." Leaning down and in for another kiss, Jeran added in a soft whisper, "My wife."

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

Life went on. Ryana finished her last classes and promptly became a teacher at the Academy, in music and several of the sciences. She also continued to work on Gywna's Lament, wanting it to be perfect before ever performing it in public. However, she and Jeran had started performing together during their courtship and that continued, just with other pieces that either one or both of them composed. Usually she would play flute and he would play the lute. Sometimes they would join the choral group, Jeran singing, and Ryana playing a flute descant to the vocal song.

As for Jeran, he still traveled during the spring and summer months throughout Rillanda, gathering stories and spreading news of what was happening in other parts of the country. Ryana accompanied him a few times in the first years of their marriage, but that changed quickly enough three years later when their first child, a boy, was born. They named him Benjamine. After that, Jeran stopped traveling altogether, finally accepting the promotion to full bard, letting others take over the journeyman bit.

Another three years passed and their second child was born, another boy whom they named Perryn. That was also the year that Stefan, now a handsome young man of 20, first met Raven, 17, during the horrible snowstorm of that winter. Ryana had kept in touch with Andrel and Raven over the years, seeing them whenever she would travel home to Rosewood. But her duties kept her fairly busy and she didn't have the time to go that often, even if it was only two or three hours away by horseback. Too long for her.

Andrel had become quite famous for his silverwork in the last several years, more so since Gwyna had died. Ryana sometimes thought that he had taken all the love he felt for Gwyna and poured it into his craft. She had not told him this when he would come to Brightstar and she could see him briefly during his trading, but she still thought it showed in his eyes. His daughter and his craft were the whole of his life now. And when he'd brought Raven with him to the Winter Dance that year, everything had changed in both their worlds. The Stefan that Raven said had spent the night on their floor turned out to be Stefan the prince who Ryana knew had fallen in love with Raven, the daughter of her childhood friend.

A year later after that, Stefan and Raven married and the kingdom rejoiced as one as they then had potential for the next heir to the throne. Which came along in the form of the twins, Terel and Linet, a year after that. When the twins turned one, Tulan began doing the history of Raven's family. When neither Raven nor Ryana could answer very many questions concerning Gwyna, he turned to Andrel, whom he hadn't wanted to speak to as he didn't want to cause him any pain from the memories of his wife, even though she'd been gone for 13 years by then. But Andrel had complied, telling him all he could.

And then he gave Tulan the journal.

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

Ryana poked her head around the open door of Tulan's office. "You wanted to see me, Tulan?"

The older man looked up from his desk. "Yes, Ryana, please, come in. I have something I thought maybe you'd like to see."

She walked in and sat down in the chair in front of his desk. "What is it?"

He held up a small dark burgundy-colored book. "Andrel gave me this yesterday when you were gone visiting Jeran's parents. He wanted to tell you about it himself, but he had to get back to Rosewood and asked me to share it with you."

Ryana took the book from him and opened it to the first page, reading the first line aloud. "I am 10 today. Mother got me this journal to write things down in that I think of. She said it can be for all sorts of things like important things, private things, silly things, or whatever. Neat." She flipped a few pages forward, then stopped, reading again, her eyes growing wide. "We found someone on the trail yesterday. A silversmith from Rillanda named Andrel. He somehow got lost and ended up in Nartha Forest. He's with us now in Darcabé." She looked up at Tulan. "Is this what I think it is? Gywna's journal?"

Tulan nodded. "Yes. I was talking to him about Gwyna's history a month or so ago and when he came by yesterday, he had that with him. Told me to keep it, to read it, to make a record of whatever I could use in it. I told him about the composition that you are still working on about Gwyna. He said to tell you 'thank you' and to share the journal with you, that maybe it would help fill in the missing pieces that Gwyna herself could never talk about."

She smoothed the cover of the worn volume with reverence. "Thank you, Tulan."

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

After letting Jeran know what she was doing, Ryana found a quiet place to read, letting Gwyna's words pull her into a life of long ago. What started as a simple place to write down childish thoughts and dreams and wishes soon became a place to pour out feelings of joy and sadness both. Then a place to express small fears of her older stepbrother. When Andrel entered the picture, love was all she could write about or even think about, even amongst the normal intrigue of the Bornathian nobility.

And when they had to leave and Arven, the much-loved brother she never spoke of to anyone, died, Ryana had tears streaming down her cheeks in response to the devastation and grief that even Gwyna's few words were filled with.

She smiled and laughed with memory at Gwyna's recounting of their first meeting, of the walks they took together, of the horseback rides they shared, of being the second person (Andrel being the first, of course) she told about her upcoming child, of helping her when she was pregnant, of picking out and sometimes making baby clothes, of being one of the first to hold the newborn Raven after Janessa had delivered her.

And then she grew somber again as she read the last few entries in the journal, of the time when the children of Rosewood took ill with Petuban flu, of how Raven was sick as well, one of the sickest if Ryana remembered correctly. She remembered that Gwyna had been confused at the lack of extreme worry in the parents. Ryana had told her that the flu was common, a childhood illness. Gwyna hadn't said anything further about it, though it was obvious, at least now, that she didn't understand. I should have asked. I should have seen that she didn't recognize it. But how could any of us have known . . . .

She looked down at the entries again, rereading them one last time as she smoothed the page, hoping that the tear stains wouldn't make the pen ink run.

That little nap was one she had never awakened from. Ryana could still recall with perfect clarity the frantic worry in Andrel's voice when he had appeared on their doorstep, telling them that something was wrong with Gwyna, that she was sick, that she wouldn't wake up. Both Janessa and Ryana went back with Andrel to the house. Janessa and Andrel spent most of their time with Gwyna, trying to find a way to bring down the too high fever, trying to wake her. Ryana, worried and scared that Gwyna would die, had tried to keep Raven occupied. The little girl, only seven years old, still had known something was wrong.

The next day, in early afternoon, the two of them were outside, sitting in the shade of a large tree, Raven in Ryana's lap. Raven had turned around and stared up at her with those large wide eyes and said softly, "Momma's not going to wake up, is she?"

Before Ryana had been able to say anything, the door of the house had opened and Andrel had stepped out into the sun. Ryana had met his eyes with trepidation and he had shaken his head once, then called out softly, his arms spread wide, "Raven? Daughter?"

Ryana had held on to her tears long enough for Andrel and Raven disappear back into the house. Then she had broken down, crying hard and long, only shifting once when her mother had sat down beside her on the grass, pulled her into an embrace, and added her tears to Ryana's.

In the present, Ryana looked up at the late afternoon spring sky, watching the clouds drift past in a leisurely pace. She took a deep breath, then let it out, releasing tension and old hurts. She closed the book and stroked the cover again. Now. Now I can finish what I began so many years ago.

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

It took Ryana the rest of the year and a month into the following winter before she finally finished Gwyna's Lament, but finish she did. And then she performed it, solo, as the final piece at the Mid-Winter Festival. The room was packed, most there just to hear Ryana play. Many knew of the song she had been working on ever since she had arrived at the Academy. A select few, outside of Tulan and Jeran, had even been privileged to hear bits and pieces of it. But no one had heard the entire thing yet, not even Jeran.

When she began to play on that very same flute she had played for Gwyna so many years ago, the large concert hall fell completely silent. No one spoke, no one moved. Ryana didn't notice, wouldn't have noticed even if there had been a thunderstorm inside the building. Her eyes were closed, her mind totally devoted to playing, her soul at one with the song.

The haunting melody wove its way around the high-ceilinged room, carrying with it more emotions than anyone could name, more feelings, more dreams, more hopes, more wishes. Tear tracks appeared on faces, but no hands moved to wipe them away. Frequently, smiles appeared amid the tears, underscoring the happiness that the song carried with it.

As the song ended and the final last few notes faded off, the silence didn't end. It went on until Ryana lowered the flute and blinked open her eyes, her own eyelashes wet with tears. Her eyes met those of Jeran's who was sitting in the front row, their boys on either side of him. He smiled at her, a quiet smile of pride, of love, of understanding.

And then he stood and began to applaud. Others joined him. The room soon roared with their praise. Ryana made herself stand, bowing her head, trying to ignore the embarrassed blush that crept across her cheeks. For you, Gwyna, this was all for you. Now you will never be forgotten.

Descending the stage, the first person to greet her was Andrel. He took her hands in his, holding them tightly. Ignoring the tears running down his face, he smiled at her, whispering, "Thank you."

She smiled back and pulled him into a warm hug, again so glad that this man was almost a brother to her. "You're welcome, Andrel. I wanted her never to be forgotten. She was too important, too loved, for that. She still is."

It wasn't to be realized until years later just how unforgotten Gwyna was, just how pivotal a role her life and her memory would play in the future of Rillanda and its people.

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

The following years brought more changes. Jeran and Ryana had their third and last child, a girl this time, whom they named Cristen. Andrel moved to Brightstar, into the palace, a year later becoming Randal's Chief Councilor. He spent so much time in Brightstar as it was anyway, visiting Raven and the twins, that it just made sense for him to be there all the time. And as he and Randal were so close of friends, the Councilorship came as a natural step.

Then there was Dorien -- Ryana's newest student -- a shy young boy of eight, son of one of Randal's soldiers, a boy who had lost his mother the year before. As soon as Ryana laid eyes on him, she knew she had found another whose gift for music was all-encompassing. In addition, he excelled in history, absorbing and remembering it like none other she had ever taught. With much encouragement and small nudges, she unburied his talents and started him on the path to becoming a bard. And with a few dropped words in Tulan's ear, she got the older man going in the right direction as well.

When the two finally met, accidentally, the fate of both was sealed. Tulan immediately took on Dorien as a personal student, not telling the boy that it was a sign from Tulan that Dorien was to be his successor in the post of Royal Bard. Ryana only smiled and went back to her other students, her part finished.

Tulan picked up another student that year as well, or so Tulan was prone to call her. Camella was a bright, cheeky, sassy little street kid that Tulan "adopted" nearly as soon as he had met her. She and Dorien didn't get along well at first, but quickly warmed to each other. Camella, older than Dorien by a few years and more streetwise by a few decades, decided that Dorien was her younger brother and that it was her job to teach him everything non-school related that he needed to know. That involved going out quite often in the underbelly of Brightstar and talking to other street kids, snitches, and any number of other shady characters. Neither Ryana nor Tulan approved of it, but Dorien always came back safely and Camella was always careful with whom she introduced him to, so the two adults let it continue. Neither knew then just how important it would later be that Dorien knew so well how to survive outside the safety of the Academy and palace walls.

A few years after that, Prince Terel, a surprisingly sharp and intelligent boy of seven, became Tulan's third student. Whereas Dorien was quick with music and words, Camella quick with streetwise intelligence and cunning, Terel was more interested in the abstract, with old history, ancient times, and prophecies. Terel had always been a little different from most other children in the palace. When he first began speaking, he used full sentences, instead of phrases. He had walked months before Linet. And he had started reading an entire year before her. It almost was like Terel was growing up quickly, too quickly, as if he had much to do in too short a time. His teachers didn't know what to do with him. He learned way too fast, outstripping the other students of his age by a huge margin. Tulan finally had to step in, withdrawing him from classes and becoming Terel's sole teacher. After that, there was no stopping Terel as he devoured books and knowledge as if he thought it would be taken away far too soon.

Later that year, in the winter, things began to take a slightly different direction. A stranger arrived in Rillanda, in Brightstar, on the night of the Winter Dance. Ryana didn't hear about it until the next day when she talked with Tulan, but apparently the stranger's name was Dani. And he was Gwyna's half-brother. The younger brother that Gwyna had spoken of so fondly in her journal.

He was also the half-brother of Seth -- the brother that Gwyna had not spoken fondly of at all. The one that had just become King of Bornath.

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

Jeran found Ryana in the Ancestor Hall, staring up at the portrait of Andrel and Gwyna, one hand resting lightly the lower part of its frame. He watched her for long moments, still entranced by her delicate beauty, even as she approached her fiftieth year. He didn't call her 'my rose' for nothing. My rose, my love, my life. What would I do without you? And what will we have to do in the coming few years to make sure neither of us has to do without the other? And that our children stay safe and protected? He walked softly across the room. His footsteps echoed in the long, empty, darkened hallway. A few torches were placed on the walls, dancing flames shoving away some of the darkness.

As he reached her side, she spoke quietly, sensing his presence. "She only wanted to be happy. That was all. She would never have wanted all this to happen."

Jeran laid an arm around her waist and drew her closer to him. "I know." He was quiet another moment, then continued. "I take it that you've heard then."

"That Seth has declared war on Rillanda? Yes, I heard. By now I'm sure everyone in the city has heard. That kind of news isn't something that will stay quiet very long."

"No, I suppose not."

Ryana sighed and turned her head into his chest. "What will happen now?"

With war comes loss, my rose, loss and pain. Seth will invade, will run down everything in his path, and eventually, he will take the Brightstar. That I know from remembering my father's words on war, my studies of history, my knowledge of Seth's greater forces, and from how Dani talks of him. He shook his head, moving his other arm around her to hold her warmly, answering her question differently. "I don't know. I think that depends on the King and what he wants to do. He's familiar with how Seth operates. And I would guess that Dani's advice will figure into this as well. He knows Seth better than any of us, better I'm sure than he really wants to."

"Dani. Yes. I feel sorry for him. He gave up everything he could have had just to try to help his own people. Then gave up what he did have there to come here, to help us. And now after only two years of living in relative peace, Seth had to force his way again, destroying that peace." She fell silent, then resumed in a quieter tone. "Sometimes, when I look at Dani, I can see such sadness in his eyes, such loss. I know he doesn't talk to anyone about his own life much, but his eyes, you can see in them such pain. I hurt for him."

Jeran nuzzled the top of her head. "I know, Ryana, we all hurt for him. None of us know why, but we do. But hopefully because he came here and has so much knowledge of Seth, we can stop anyone else from hurting as much as he does. As much as Gwyna did." He glanced up at the portrait of Andrel and Gwyna for a moment, then looked back down at his wife.

Ryana lifted her head and turned slightly to look up at Jeran. "I think she'd like that, Jeran, I think she would."

He pulled her in again, tight to his chest, kissing the top of her head before turning his eyes back to the portrait. What would you have done if you had known that Seth was this mad, Gwyna? Would you have stayed, married him, forsaken your own happy life, as Dani did? Or would you have still left? Still brought this war down on us, however indirectly? Or is this war written somewhere in the stars like some of the Scholars believe? Like I know Tulan believes.

He shoved away those thoughts and pulled away from Ryana enough to see her face. "Come. The children are waiting for us. They don't understand what's happening and they need to see you."

Ryana took a deep breath and forced it out slowly, then withdrew from his arms, letting him fold one of her small hands in his larger one. She smiled slightly up at him. "Let's go then. I think I need them to see them as well."

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

The following year passed in a whirlwind blur unequal to anything Ryana had ever experienced. Tulan worked on getting the portraits in the Ancestor Hall and the books from the great library to safety. Only he and a few others knew exactly where they were, but they would be protected from Seth when he arrived, which most had agreed was inevitable. He also began sending away bardic students and journeymen to safer areas, away from Seth's reach, some into the far countryside, some to Jourdain, their friendly neighboring country to the south. Jeran and Ryana, as well as a few others, refused to leave.

Randal's army, small as it was, worked hard to keep Seth's troops from advancing too quickly, giving the royal family and those in Brightstar the time they needed. But all too soon, Seth was at their gates, setting up camp around the edges of the city, pushing forward a little each day, overtaking them. And then the day, or rather, the night, of the invasion finally arrived.

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

Ryana knelt on the floor, looking up the faces of her three wonderful children. Benjamine, the oldest at 15, tall, strong, with looks that matched his father's, quiet, studious, words spoken with carefulness and precision. Perryn, her bright, happy boy, middle child, 12 years old, resembling her brother in some ways, Jeran's father in others, always kind, never cruel to anyone or anything. And Cristen, her youngest child at 7, her only daughter, with her looks and her mother's energy, already so nurturing, but with emotions that could flare from happy to sad at the snap of a finger. All precious. All beloved.

She took a breath and started to talk. "Remember how we talked about what would happen when Seth would come to Brightstar, to the palace?" All three nodded solemnly. She continued on, pushing away the rising sadness that stirred inside her heart. "Well, he's coming very soon, tonight. That means we have to do what we talked about. You have to be safe."

Cristen spoke up, her entire face a question. "Are you coming with us, mommie?"

Ryana shook her head. "No, sweetheart, I won't be. I have to stay here, to help Uncle Tulan. He needs my help to keep all the other bards and students safe. But your daddy," she looked up over the children's shoulders at Jeran standing behind them, "your daddy will be with you."

Cristen stamped her foot, her lower lip beginning to quiver. "But I want you to come too, mommie! Why can't you come? Why does the bad man want to hurt us?"

Ryana pulled her young daughter into her arms. "I'm sorry, Crissi. I can't come. Mommie has to stay here. But I know we'll see each other again. And I won't forget you, okay?"

Cristen nodded against her shoulder, where Ryana could feel tears seeping through her tunic. She stretched out her arms and the two boys joined in the group embrace, all hugging tightly. Ryana whispered, as she kissed each head where it was nearest her lips. "I love you, I love you, I love you. And I'll miss you all so very much. Think of me every day. Sing, play, help each other and your Daddy. And obey Daddy when he tells you to do something very important. Okay?"

Three voices replied in unison. "Yes, Mommie." Then each kissed her cheek, even her oldest, and told her that they loved her as well, that they would miss her, and that they would think of her all the time.

She released them, rising slowly to her feet. "Hurry now, get your cloaks and your packs." All three scattered to do as she asked and she was left alone with Jeran.

They had talked this over one very long night and decided that it was the best this way. Someone needed to stay with Tulan, someone experienced, that could help cover the absence of so many bards and journeymen who were spread out all over the country, seeking places of safety to already begin the movement against Seth. These bards and journeymen carried with them stories of bravery and courage that would help keep the spirits of the people up and their hopes high that Seth would be deposed soon. Seth would soon figure out why the Rillandans refused to bend to his will, but by then it would be too late. The revolt would start small and quiet, but it would build in strength as time went on, until a leader would appear to gather all the individual threads together and use that strength to fight Seth, to overthrow him, to defeat him.

But to protect them, someone had to stay. And either Jeran or Ryana were best suited to the task. Both Ryana and Jeran's first instincts were to have her and the children leave Brightstar, letting Jeran remain. However, Jeran, even at age 52, was more used to such long travel, more familiar with living on the road, even with three children with him. And so it was decided that Ryana would remain behind until such time that Brightstar was no longer safe and Tulan disbanded all remaining bards and those few students left, mostly children of guards and soldiers or belonging to families still living in Brightstar.

Ryana swallowed hard and stepped forward into Jeran's open arms. Instead of returning the embrace, she simply gripped the front of his heavy tunic with both hands, burying her head in his chest. He held on to her as tightly as he dared, laying his cheek on her hair, inhaling deeply, almost as if he was trying to absorb her into himself.

She whispered into his chest, her voice broken. "I don't want you to leave. I don't want to lose you. Any of you."

He petted her back, whispering back, "You won't. We'll always be with you. Let the songs of the rose be your torch, remember? No matter what happens, no matter what comes, no matter how far we may be from you, no matter how much time passes before we see each other again, our love will always, always, guide us back together again. Remember that, my rose. Always."

She nodded and raised her face to his, her eyes wet with tears. "Kiss me."

The kisses first covered her closed eyelids, trailed down both cheeks, the tip of her nose, then finally her lips, sealing his promise of reunion with softness and love. As Jeran broke away, he rested his lips against her forehead, murmuring, "I love you."

Ryana choked back a sob. "I miss you already."

"I know. Me too."

Another voice broke in hesitantly. They separated and Jeran turned to see Camella standing in the doorway, looking both embarrassed and hurried. He motioned for her to enter their apartment rooms. "Yes, Camella, is it time to go?"

She nodded jerkily. "Yes, time to go. Must hurry. Not much time left. Please."

Jeran called out, "Children. Come now. We have to go now." They came out of their rooms on command, each wearing their heaviest clothing, cloaks, and boots, and carrying their packs. Ryana hugged and kissed each one again, pushing back tears, determined not to have the last thing they see be their mother weeping over their departure. She wanted them to remember her being brave, even if she didn't feel that way inside.

Then Jeran was hustling them out the door, pulling his pack onto his shoulders as he did so. Ryana stepped up to him and they exchanged one last long look and one last hard kiss. Ryana lifted her hand and slid it across his cheek. He took her hand in his and gripped it hard before he brought her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers, reminiscent of their first kiss so many years ago. She smiled, tears welling up again.

He whispered, "Be brave, Ryana. And remember that I love you."

"And I love you."

"Until the stars guide us back together again, my rose."

"Yes."

And with that, he released her hand and turned away, striding down the hall to catch up with Camella and the children, not once looking back before he disappeared around a corner and was gone. Ryana stood in the doorway for a long, long time, listening until she could hear their footsteps no more. Then she raised the fingers Jeran had kissed to her lips, pressing them against her own lips tightly, then stretched them out to where she had last seen his figure.

Until the stars guide us back together again, my love, until then, farewell.

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

{One year later}

Ryana sat by her window, staring outside as the final rays of the sun disappeared far beyond the snow-covered treetops and low hills. A blanket was laid across her lap, warming her legs and feet, a stack of papers sat discarded and forgotten on the floor at her side. She had skipped sharing dinner with the few students and bards left in the Academy, preferring to be alone for the evening. Her heart was too heavy still from last night's tale; she didn't want to hear another. The night before, during the meal, Tulan had spoken of Gywna, drawing from his detailed notes from his many talks with Andrel, Dani, Ryana, and Raven. Someone, one of the newest students, on his way to dinner, had literally bumped into Seth in one of the hallways of the palace and had been scared to death of those ice pale eyes.

When the student had finally arrived, he had demanded again why Seth was here, refusing to believe what Seth told them any longer. According to Seth, Randal and Tayna were unfit, immoral rulers who sent spies and thieves to Bornath to undermine Seth's authority. He had come only to protect his own lands and to "help" Rillanda by ridding them of the taint of Randal's blood by seeking out any relatives to the royal family. At least that was his excuse for invading and killing any of the royal family, no matter how far removed, how young, or how old, he could find.

Instead of answering the student directly, Tulan had taken his regular route, replying in the form of a story, a true history. He and Ryana had shared one long look before he began. Both knew that the possibility that Seth with his mage powers might have ways to listen in on them. But this wasn't something Tulan could simply brush off. This was truth and it needed to be told, needed to be remembered. He told the story of how Gywna, peasant stepdaughter to the king of Bornath, fell in love with Andrel, a visiting silversmith from Rillanda. How before she could do anything about it, Seth, the true son of the king and the heir to the throne, was betrothed to Gywna, without her consent or desire. How she and Andrel decided to leave Bornath, with the help of Arven, her twin brother, and Dani, her half-brother, also a son of the king, though by a peasant woman, the son who was later disowned by the king. How Arven paid the ultimate price for Gwyna and Andrel's freedom. How Gwyna's heart was filled, broken, and partially healed in the following years.

Ryana hadn't said a thing during the tale, fixing her eyes on her plate, picking at her food, leaving when the meal was finished, escaping to her room. The story of love and loss had brought to mind her own similar feelings. She hadn't had any word from Jeran in over three months and she was worried, scared, sometimes terrified about what could have happened. She knew it was hard to get word into Brightstar, but Camella always had ways. If Camella hadn't heard anything, then no one had.

She shifted in her chair and reached down to pick up the small stack of papers from the ground, laying them in her lap and smoothing down corner creases. The top sheet was titled Gwyna's Lament: Final Draft. It was the only copy of the music left in the entire Academy -- at least the accessible parts. When Tulan had removed most of the library and the portraits in the Ancestor Hall, he had also packed away a lot of the music and some of the instruments. When Ryana decided that she had to stay, he found every single copy of Gwyna's Lament in nearly all of Brightstar it seemed and stored them, not wanting Seth to get his hands on them. If Seth knew of the song or had heard of it, Tulan didn't want him to figure out just who the composer was or that she was in the Academy.

Which left only her personal copy which she kept locked away in her room, safe from the prying eyes of the Bornathian soldiers. Ryana hadn't played it since the invasion and wasn't about to now. No one played it. Tulan had forbidden it. And not very many in the Academy were willing to disobey Tulan. And not on that matter especially. If Seth found out about the song and that Ryana was the composer, it wouldn't be only her that suffered. It would be everyone.

Ryana sighed and looked out of the window again, her fingers absently playing with the velvet bag containing her wooden flute. Oh, Jeran, I miss you. I miss you and our children. Where are you? Are you safe? Please be safe.

A small commotion below her third story window drew her attention. From a glance at the sliver of sun vanishing over the horizon, she figured it must be about curfew. She leaned forward, looking down. A group of soldiers stood at the doors of the Academy, all holding brightly lit torches. Another group stood some ways down, all also holding torches. Loud raucous laughter drifted up to her ears. She frowned. What is going on?

Then, to her horror, a soldier, one of the captains, threw his torch at the wall of the Academy, shouting for the others to do so likewise. Before Ryana could do more than gasp, the rest of the torches pelted at the walls. Fire streaked up the outside walls quickly, catching faster than Ryana thought possible. Shouts and yells of encouragement to the flames pierced the evening air. Among the words, Ryana picked out one that stuck with her for the rest of her life -- "cleansing." She jumped from her chair, shoving her velvet bag in one pocket and the papers in another. Grabbing her heaviest cloak and pulling on her boots, she ran from her room. Have to warn the others. Must get as many out as I can.

As Ryana reached the rooms of the other bards and students, she started banging on doors, yelling about the fire. She told them to grab anyone they could and get out, not to worry about anything else. She found Dorien as she went and she sent him to get Tulan, whose office was on the first level, at the back of the Academy, furthest from the fire and the rest of the rooms. There was a rear entrance that they could use, one she planned to use as well, since her current path took her that direction.

However, when she reached the hallways leading to Tulan's office, the ceiling and walls had fallen inward, blocking any access to Tulan's office areas. Barely noticing the crackling flames and thick smoke around her, she just stood there, shaking her head in mute denial, finally whispering, "No. Tulan. Dorien. No, no, no."

A hand grabbed her arm and she turned with a muffled yelp. It was one of the younger bards, Mateo, who had apparently followed her. With a grim look at the mess of burning timber, Mateo coughed out, "There's nothing we can do here. We have to get out of here. The fire is approaching here too quickly. We'll be trapped if we don't hurry."

"But ..."

"Either he made it out or he didn't, Ryana. But he wouldn't want you risking your life if he didn't. We have to leave. We have to stay alive. That's what Tulan would want. You know that."

She nodded, her eyes tearing more from smoke than anything else. "Okay. What way? It's so hard to see."

He looked around, then gestured behind them. "Back this way. One of the side hallways is still mostly free. There's a window we can get out through. Come on." With joined hands, they ran through the smoky hallways, their sleeves over their faces as they coughed and tried to breathe and see. Finally the window came into sight, the glass already broken out. Mateo helped Ryana out, then followed her, pushing her toward the city. "We have to split up here, for safety's sake. Head for Beggar's Market, Mazara House. That's where we decided to meet. Luck be with you, Ryana."

"You, too, Mateo. And thank you."

Dodging soldiers looking for survivors -- and bodies -- Ryana skulked through the shadows, glad that the daily stair climbing to her third story room gave her such good physical health. Restraining her lungs from coughing because of the smoke was the hardest, but somehow she did it until she was far enough away from the burning wreckage of the Academy. Then she stopped and leaned against an alley wall, coughing hard until she could breathe easily again. Slumping in exhaustion, soot and smoke covering her clothes and her skin, she let her eyes drift back to the direction that the Academy lay in. She could still see the smoke curling up into the cold night sky even as a new snow started to fall, dousing the residual flames. She wiped at her eyes, knowing she was probably only smearing the ash on her cheeks, but not caring.

Somehow, deep in her soul, she knew that Tulan had not survived that fire, that he was still inside.

And that now a 14-year-old boy had the command of the Academy's bards, journeyman, and students. She didn't know if he was ready. If any of them were.

If he's even still alive.

Pushing away from the wall, she started again toward Beggar's Market and Mazara House. Camella would be there and would know if Dorien lived and where he was. And with Camella's network, those that escaped the fire and the hands of the soldiers could be scattered and kept safe.

Until the stars . . . .

Her thoughts trailed off and she stopped abruptly, staring up at the sky, her eyes going to where the bright Warrior constellation would appear later in the night. Until the stars. She recited by rote. "For in that day shall arise a warrior of ancient ways, blessed by Light and cursed by time's flow... For in that day shall evil fall and Light prevail; for in that day shall time end and the circle begin anew." She paused, then whispered the line that went before those, one that was rarely quoted. "In your days of darkness, do not despair your life; in the flame of fire, do not forsake your songs." For in that day...

Her eyes skipped across the sky to where the Minstrel would normally appear, of lesser brightness and not as big, but still full of stars and light. Something that Tulan had told her only a few days ago after one of his less-than-pleasant encounters with Seth came to mind. Something that hadn't made too much sense then, enough for her to understand the general meaning, but not much more than that. But now ...

"Destiny's end and the fire of cleansing shall set warrior and minstrel on the path of renewal."

That had been it. Just that one line. He'd found it scribbled on a piece of paper that had been stuffed in the back of his nearly empty bookcase in his office. He'd been upset and was muttering and aimlessly straightening books and stacks of paper as Ryana sat patiently, waiting for him to calm down enough to talk to her. She'd watched as the slip of paper, disturbed by his hands, had fallen to the floor. He'd paused, frowned, then picked it, studying it for a long moment, then read it aloud to share its words with her.

She'd only had one glance at it, but that glance was enough for her to recognize Terel's handwriting. Then Tulan had called Dorien, telling him to put the paper with some books that he had and telling him to keep the pack near his room from then on, that it was important that he do so. Confused, Ryana had pressed for information and Tulan had told her that Dorien was keeping the journals of Arven, Gwyna, and Terel safe. That he would guard them from Seth until the time had come for Stefan and Raven to reclaim their rightful thrones.

Closing her eyes a moment in pain, Ryana whispered, "Oh, Tulan. You knew, didn't you. You knew what the 'fire of cleansing' meant. What else did you know? Why didn't you tell anyone else? Is that why you were so willing to tell Gwyna's story last night? Did you know what would happen? Did you think it had to happen?"

Taking a deep breath and reopening her eyes, she made herself go forward again. No time for memories, regrets, and questions now. She had to get to safety. She had to see Dorien and then she had to find her family.

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

Unfortunately, Camella didn't know where to find Jeran and the children. And there was no time to waste waiting around for word to come. She left that same night with Dorien, heading toward Rosewood, knowing that there they would find safety for a little while before they had to move on again. Her parents had both passed away peacefully several years earlier, before Seth came storming down on them from the north. Kavin and his family now occupied their parents' house and Jona had taken over the inn and stables that used to belong to Meg. They stayed only a few weeks in Rosewood, then moved on, each going their own way. Dorien was young, but he was strong, intelligent, and trained by Camella to survive on his own.

And so Ryana spent the next five years moving from town to town, village to village, keeping ahead of Seth's soldiers and black mages. All the while she was looking for her family, hoping they were still alive, thinking of them, remembering them. Occasionally, she would meet others on the run from Seth and rumors, stories, and some hard facts would be exchanged on the fate of others. Encouragement and maybe a meal would be shared. Time would be spent together to renew their spirits, then they would part again, doing their part in the effort to dethrone Seth by going among the Rillandan people and helping them stay strong, stay true, stay alive.

Then came the rumor that Seth had burnt Rosewood the ground.

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

Ryana stood on the edge of the town, her mouth hanging open as she stared at the blackened ruins of the once lovely Rosewood. Wind blew through the husks of buildings, cracked wood planks and shutters creaked, sometimes falling with a dull thud to land among the ashes. The smell of smoke hung heavy in the air, burning her nose. A large piece of wood that hung above a doorway abruptly slipped from the lone nail holding it up, slamming to the ground with a puff of gray ash. She looked at the building again, then gasped -- it was the inn, Jona's inn. Jona had painted a sign to go over the door, wanting the inn to have a name, even if it was only 'Rosewood Inn'.

Bringing her clenched hand to her mouth and biting down on her knuckles, she made herself walk through the narrow strip of cleared area, where the ash was light. There were houses she recognized, shops, carts. She didn't look any further than the buildings, not wanting to know what else she might find inside or around the corners, or under piles of wood, or underneath overturned wagons.

Finally she came to a stop, then slowly looked up. It was her parents' beautiful home. Or what was left of it. The top story had crashed downward, knocking out walls. Everything was black, covered in ash and soot. Nothing recognizable.

Nothing at all. No one could have survived.

She was alone.

At age 56, having already lived with the pain Seth brought with him for several years, having lost track of her husband and children, having traveled for the past five years with little or no contact with people that she knew, Ryana finally felt everything coming down on her. Fists clenched at her sides, tears stung her eyes and a few rolled down her cheeks as she stared at the remnants of her childhood strewn out before her like so much firewood.

"Ryana."

She stiffened. I know that voice. Can it ...? Could it ...?

"Mommie?"

She whirled around and gasped once.

Jeran, older, grayer, leaner, and Cristen, blossomed into a young teenager, stood there, hand-in-hand. She choked out, "Jeran. Cristen. You're alive!"

Cristen ran to her, throwing her arms around tightly, burying her head in Ryana's chest. Ryana hugged her just as tightly, running one hand through her daughter's short hair. "Oh, my little girl, you've grown up. I've missed you. I love you."

After a full minute of mutual comforting, Ryana released her daughter and looked at Jeran, who had walked over to join them. She lifted a hand and touched his cheek, smiled through her tears. "You're real."

He smiled back, pressing her hand to his face, kissing her fingers. "I'm real, my rose, very real."

She sobbed hard, letting him draw her into his arms. They embraced and rocked, laughing and crying, then drew apart to look at each other. He lifted both hands to hold her face and then kissed her forehead, her eyelids, her cheeks, the tip of her nose, and then her lips, like he'd done when they'd parted. Then he whispered, "I love you, Ryana."

"And I love you, Jeran. I missed you so much."

"Missed you too."

They pulled Cristen into a group hug, and then Ryana finally asked, "Where are Benjamine and Perryn? Are they ...?" She couldn't say the words, not now, maybe not ever.

Jeran smiled. "They're fine, last I heard. We had to split up a bit ago. It was safer that way. I'm sorry we lost touch with you. Some of Camella's contacts were discovered and there were some problems with safety. But Benjamine and Perryn are together, safe, still missing you."

Ryana closed her eyes, resting her head against Jeran's chest in a moment of silent thanks. Then the scent of smoke brought her back to her surroundings and the pain welled back up again. She lifted her head, looking around. "He burnt it all."

Jeran nodded. "I know. I heard. I came here, hoping to find someone alive, anyone. I didn't expect to find you." His eyes lit on the house behind Ryana. "Kavin lived here now, didn't he?"

Cristen turned to look, her eyes wide. "Uncle Kavin? But he can't be ..." Jeran pulled her to him, whispering into her hair. "I'm sorry, little one. So sorry that you had to see this." Cristen didn't answer, just closed her eyes and kept her face to her father's chest.

Ryana rubbed Cristen's back with one hand, then asked quietly, "Does anyone know why he did this?"

"Rumor has it that he finally discovered where Gwyna lived." He paused, then continued. "And that he's heard Gwyna's Lament and knows who the author is and where she used to live. Seth wanted revenge against those he thought kept Gwyna's secret and protected her all those years. And he wants to find you."

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

After that, Jeran and Ryana found a safer place for Cristen to be than with them. Cristen protested, not wanting to lose her mother again, but they didn't feel they could risk her being with them if Seth ever found them. Together they traveled around the country, continuing their self-appointed work of encouragement and news-givers, and news-carriers at times. Years went by and it almost seemed as if the people of Rillanda were becoming accustomed to Seth's rule, uncaring and ruthless as it might have been.

However, slowly an undercurrent of renewed hope and eventual triumph began to blow like a summer breeze throughout the country. Nothing very noticeable at first, just hints here and there. Then small gatherings where stories and tales were exchanged. Thoughts of rebellion popped up at taverns, sometimes quickly and efficiently smothered by Seth's spies, other times successful in inspiring town leaders into making small plans to go against Seth. The movements were jerky, small, uncoordinated, and put down with little effort by the enemy. But the feelings were there, were ready to be acted upon. Every defeat only gave the Rillandans more strength, more courage, and more determination that they would overcome Seth.

Many realized that what was needed was one person, one figure, who could rally everyone at once. Some tried to be that leader, but either lacked the charisma or the ability to lead and plan or the strength of will to hold together huge fighting groups effectively.

And then, six years after Seth burned Rosewood, a name suddenly appeared in bard songs.

Kellessan.

In the songs, she was a warrior of unparalleled skill with a powerful, ancient broadsword. Rider of a huge black stallion, built for war and conquest. Gifted with magery as old as the mountains themselves to be used against the evil in their land. Defender, protector, and fighter.

In life, her name was the name behind which all Rillandan gathered as one. By her hand and her words, the movement against Seth grew, until a short three years after her first appearance, Seth was overthrown and killed, Brightstar was retaken, and Stefan and Raven restored to their thrones.

Rillanda was free.

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

Ryana and Jeran stood with the crowds below Stefan and Raven as they joined their voices with others in triumph. She laughed with sheer delight as Jeran pulled her up for a hard, bruising kiss. Stefan, Raven, and Linet all still lived. In the background behind Linet, she had caught a brief glance of whom she believed was Dorien, older than she remembered, but still him. Camella, she knew, must be around somewhere. She had been the one person whom Ryana had no doubt would survive this whole horrible thing.

Surrounding the two of them were townspeople, most armed with swords, sticks, staffs, whatever they had been able to get a hold of to help in the fight. Ryana had guessed that no one in Brightstar had even known of the approaching forces until they had appeared at the city gates. Well, no one, that is, except Camella. Camella, she supposed, had been their contact inside even she hadn't done any of the actual fighting.

Amidst the people of Brightstar and the other nearby towns were the soldiers and sons and daughters of soldiers that had belonged to Randal's army. Also there were mercenaries from other countries -- Eirena, Jourdain, Pakara, and even, surprisingly, a few from Gurodel. Kellessan had wasted no reasonable effort to gather forces for her side. They had needed every person that was willing and able to fight that day. And when Stefan and Raven had appeared on the balcony, all Rillanda knew that Seth had been defeated -- for good.

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

The next morning, early, Ryana stood in front of the remains of the Bardic Academy. She had never been back to Brightstar after that night so long ago when Seth had his soldiers set fire to the great building. Jeran's arm tightened around her waist as she stared, moving her eyes aimlessly. The fire had roared up the outsides of the buildings, burning from the outside in, destroying layers at a time, toppling the walls, collapsing the floors on top of each other. Not much was left. One side wall was still partially standing, looking nearly untouched. It was where the hallway ran that connected the Academy to the Palace. Most likely Seth somehow kept that section from burning with his black magic, not wanting to burn down his residence. The outside gates were still intact, the insides blackened by the soot from the fire, but otherwise unharmed.

So much gone. So much to rebuild.

A voice came from beside, echoing her thoughts. "We will begin rebuilding next spring."

She and Jeran turned as one to see a grinning Dorien standing just a few feet away from them, Camella at one side. Ryana smiled widely, stretching out a hand. "Dorien, Camella, how good it is to see you again."

Dorien came to her and Jeran released her to let her hug her once-long-ago student, then Camella as well.

Then Ryana turned back to the ruins of the Academy, eyes seeing the beautiful building of the past and not the present destruction. She leaned back against Jeran's chest, pulling his arms around her waist, resting her hands on them. Smiling, she whispered, "Yes, we will rebuild. We will rebuild all of Rillanda." She felt Jeran's lips touch the top of her head briefly, then he straightened up, his arms still draped around her. His voice rang out clear and strong in the cold morning air as he recited words to an unheard rhythm and melody.

I sing of Rillanda. I sing of her people.
I sing of promises given and honored.
I sing of life. I sing of rebirth. I sing of joy.
I sing.

- The End -


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