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Aiuna's Demand
Part II

Chapter 7

     After five days of riding, they arrived at Elden Keep, stiff from the long stretch on horseback. Sylvie paused to run a comb through her auburn hair while looking over the front gate of the fortress. It was every bit as large as Calsley castle, but there was no beauty in the external design. It was created for function only. Each corner had turrets the size of trees, constructed of tan stones larger than a halfling. The structure looked new, and the plants climbing the side hadn’t been growing more than a decade or so. The sun filtered through the leaves, giving it an ominous light. Ruby shivered before looking to her mother.
     “Look at the beautiful purple ivy growing on that wall over there. I’ve never seen it so healthy,” Sylvie said. A gentle breeze blew past, carrying the scent of fresh flowers and trimmed grasses.  
     “It smells just like the garden at home,” Ruby said as Sylvie finished twisting her hair into a bun.  
     Chains rattled, and the portcullis rose. Inside, a friendly-looking old elf in green vestments gestured for them to enter. 
       Sylvie dismounted and guided the horse in by the reins. “Sylvie and Ruby Windsong. It is nice to meet you,” she said. 
     “Nice to finally have you here. We expected you last night and were getting a bit worried. I’m Brother Ularic. You must be starving after five days on the road. Come inside. We’ll have someone care for your horse and belongings.” 
     The portcullis slammed back into place with a solid crash, making Ruby jump and closing off their chance of escape. 
     “Did everything go smoothly on your journey?” Brother Ularic asked. 
     “Very much so. We were a bit surprised that we never saw anyone. Until Thalla brought us rabbit for dinner last night, anyway.”
     The smile lines in his face deepened as he laughed with his hand over his stomach. “Of course she followed you. She’s a warrior, but one of the good ones. I’m thankful every day she is part of our delegation,” he said. 
     Sylvie held her hand behind her to take Ruby’s. When her daughter didn’t take it, she turned. Ruby had stopped in front of a Hogweed one and a half times her size, hand extended  toward a branch spotted with blossoms. A full complement of white flowers bloomed at the top and hung over her like leaves on a tree. 
     Sylvie and the elf shouted at the same time. “Ruby, no!” 
     Her hand snapped back against her chest, and she turned to her mother, her eyes glistening. “I only wanted to smell it,” she said quietly. 
     “No, ma’am, you did not,” Sylvie snapped as she tugged her away from the garden. “You know better than to touch strange plants. Even the most beautiful things can have a dangerous side, Ruby.” She knelt down, bringing herself eye level with her daughter. “That”—she pointed—“is commonly known as Hogweed and can be used for many helpful potions and tinctures. However, if you touch it, the oils spread to your skin. Once exposed to sunlight, it burns skin like fire. I know at least two botanists partially blind due to this plant. Let’s go inside. I’ll come out with you later.”
     They walked up three steps and through a large stone archway that towered half the height of the trees. The doors were made of a heavy oak, with two large decorative rings in the front, big enough for a giant to grasp. They opened into an entryway decorated with dozens of colorful artworks and tapestries more beautiful than anything Sylvie had seen at Calsley. The long corridor had carved tables evenly spaced along each wall with pottery placed on top of each. Above them hung humongous abstract paintings in gilded frames. The artist had used different techniques to make a variety of textures and shapes on the canvas.
     Brother Ularic watched Ruby gaze at the paintings for a moment before speaking. “It is a style called abstract. In these works, the artist was experimenting with color and shape. We have a few farther down where he focused on textures.”
     “They’re beautiful,” Ruby said. 
     He gave them a few moments to appreciate the art, then led them into a dim room that only had two small slits for windows. A thin ray of light shined through each. Sconces and candelabras lit the space warmly. The cheery elf gestured to a sitting area in the center facing an unlit fireplace. 
     Sylvie sat first and gestured to her daughter as the brother nodded his head. “Make yourselves comfortable. Someone will bring you refreshments shortly.” He exited, and Ruby immediately shot to her feet to see everything closer. High above her head were a handful of large portraits of various elves, male and female, all dressed in crimson robes. Cleric Sylrel stared back from the canvas above the fireplace. 
     In general, followers of Dathos kept their distance from the Aiunites, but whenever Cleric Sylrel arrived, the king always threw a dinner party. She never understood the cleric’s importance but hoped to find out soon. 
     “Is he a king too, Mama?” Ruby asked as she looked at the over-sized painting of him.
     “He’s their cleric.” 
     “Why did the king need a cleric?” Ruby asked.
     A voice carried around the corner. “That is a great question.” Rokian Sylrel glided into view, his hands folded in front of him. “He didn’t. But he also knows that angering the Order could make things more difficult for him than they need to be. So, he tries to be civil. Welcome to Elden Keep. Thalla informed me you arrived without incident.”
Sylvie greeted him with her hand outstretched. “We did. No doubt thanks to her.” 
Rokian grinned through closed lips. “You are safe now. Rainier cannot touch you here. Please follow me.” He exited the room and walked down the long corridor. They crossed beneath a balcony and through an archway into a smaller room with padded chairs against the walls. In the center was a single table with a bench on each side and a carved wooden chair at the head. 
     A wood elf only slightly taller than Sylvie flashed Ruby a wide grin, showing all her teeth. 
     Rokian smiled as he sat. “I would like to introduce you to Renna. She prepares most of the food for us.” 
     Renna’s bright eyes fell on Ruby. “We are so glad you have joined us!” she said while taking a big step closer. The youngling’s gaze turned to the floor, and she took a step back to slip partway behind Sylvie’s skirt. Renna bit the corner of her lip and clasped her hands in front of her, then stilled her movements. 
     Sylvie gave Ruby a nudge. “Thank you,” Ruby said.
     “I didn’t mean to frighten you. We’ve just never had a youngling come to stay with us. What is your favorite food?” Renna asked. 
     “Sugar cookies,” she said. 
     Renna snickered. “What about for dinner?” 
     Sylvie appreciated that this was a major change for everyone involved, but she could not let her daughter become spoiled. It was a delicate balance, and as yet, Sylvie didn’t know their place within the Order. She responded before Ruby could. “Whatever is simplest will be fine. We don’t want to be a burden.”
     “Everything is simplest,” Renna responded with a smile. 
     Sylvie’s eyebrows crumpled, and she stared at Ruby, a stern expression on her face. 
     “I also love roasted rabbit and rye bread,” Ruby mumbled.
     Sylvie took a deep breath. “Really, anything you have prepared is fine.”
     Rokian folded his arms and raised his eyebrow as he watched the interaction. Renna grinned and flicked her wrist toward the table. “Done,” she said. “It pairs well with lavender lemonade. I hope you like it. If not, I’ve given you a few other options.”
     The smell of roasted meat drew their attention to the tabletop, which was full of more food than Sylvie had seen since the last party at Calsley. Someone emerged from a side door and set down plates and mugs. 
     Rokian took a seat at the head of the table. “Please, enjoy yourselves. We do not let Renna feed us like this every day, or none of us would get anything done,” he said.
     “She used magic,” Ruby whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear. 
     Rokian leaned closer as if to tell the youngling a secret. “We all do. With the exception of your mother, we are all gifted here.” 
     Ruby’s back straightened. “My mama is gifted. She’s Neuralia’s best alchemist!” 
     A small smile crossed Sylvie’s face. She had taught her daughter that it would always be ‘them against the world’, and Ruby held the teaching close to her heart. Ruby could be shy, but she always spoke up for Sylvie. It had gotten her in trouble a few times. 
     Rokian chuckled. “You are right, she is, but I meant with magic. We want to teach you how to use it. What do you think of that?”
     Sylvie stiffened. “Could we please discuss this before pulling Ruby into decisions?” 
     Ruby swallowed her rabbit fast, coughed, and took a quick gulp of her lemonade to wash it down. She knew better than to talk with her mouth full. “Are you going to teach me?” 
     Rokian laughted again. “Not me. We’ve summoned a terramancer to serve as your master. He will arrive in a few days’ time.” Ruby’s head tilted in confusion. “His gift is working with soil and stone. Like yours,” he said. 
     Small wrinkles gathered at the corner of Sylvie’s eyes as she smiled at her daughter. “You may use your gifts here,” she said. 
     Ruby jumped out of her seat and bounced up and down. The movement made her dark pigtails bounce back and forth over her shoulders. 
     Rokian’s eyes grew, then he leaned back and laughed. “We want you to use them at every opportunity. Our goddess commands it.”
     “Our goddess?” Ruby asked. 
     Rokian leaned closer to Ruby and spoke a bit softer. “You will be educated as a proper Aiunite scholar, but you will also be spending time in the temple. It is important to thank Aiuna every day for all that she has given us.” 
     Sylvie and her daughter had worshiped Dathos their entire lives, but Ruby had no problems turning away from him. She dropped to her knees and folded her hands in prayer. 
     Rokian’s jaw fell, and he lifted Ruby to her feet. “Aiuna prefers that we don’t kneel before her.” He smiled and extended a hand with a sugar cookie in it. “But, since you are so excited to begin, I would like to introduce you to someone.” 
     He side-stepped, revealing a dwarf only half a head taller than Ruby. She had a full figure with a well-defined waist that was typical of Sylvie’s limited experience with most female dwarves, and her fiery red hair was twisted into a crown. Her robes were the same crimson as Rokian’s, her waist cinched with a white cord instead of his black.
     “This is Sister Mayryn Goldtoe. She has graciously offered to escort you to your chambers and give you the tour after you have had some rest.”
     A pleasant smile stretched across Mayryn’s face. “Let’s take the two of ye upstairs, shall we?” She glanced at Ruby. “I’ll bet ye’d like tae see yer chambers.” She walked back in the direction of the main entryway. To her side was an intricately carved door that fit so snugly, it may as well have been part of the wall. She pulled it open, revealing a winding staircase in a space that looked like a second atrium. “It can be a bit of a maze until ye get yer bearings,” she said. As they ascended the stone stairway, she turned to glance over her shoulder. “I’m a traveler myself, and I find nothing better than coming home tae clean up and lie in a soft bed.” 
Mayryn opened a door and shooed Sylvie and Ruby into a room lit with a dozen sconces and a large candelabra by the door. The entire chamber was decorated in various shades of purple and silver. Sylvie’s jaw fell at the opulence. It was Rainier’s favorite color because it was rare, expensive, and coveted. Yet, the king himself didn’t even have this much violet in his private chambers. 
     Mayryn pointed to the wash bucket and linens resting on a table at the far end of the room. “In yer wardrobe ye will find clothing more appropriate for an Aiunite. Pile yer clothes in the basket so we can get them washed for ye. Get some rest. Tomorrow morning, I’ll come give ye the grand tour myself.” 
Sylvie set her face into a neutral position and took a deep breath, forcing down the tears of relief that threatened to spill onto her cheeks. “Thank you, Mayryn. We appreciate your hospitality.”

Chapter 8

     Both of the females were clean and wrapped in luxuriant white robes and slippers, staring at one another in disbelief. Ruby climbed into the bed and made her way to the middle on all fours before collapsing in a heap of pillows. Sylvie sat beside her and brushed the still damp hairs away from her forehead with her fingers. She handed Ruby the stuffed rat that had been the only belonging she felt was important enough to carry from Erysall. In minutes, Ruby’s chest rose and fell in a slow steady rhythm, and Sylvie let the tear slip over her cheek.        Regardless of what would happen to her as an ungifted, the Order would care for Ruby and give her more of a chance than she ever had at Calsley castle. 
     She slid off the bed and opened the wardrobe to find a set of finely stitched robes the color of tree bark. She’d never worn anything of this quality, and it was as if it had been stitched specifically for her. After tugging it over her head and fixing her hair, she slipped out the door. It closed with a quiet click behind her.
     Sylvie wandered down the quiet halls, looking at the carvings on every piece of furniture in languages she’d never seen. There were murals on the wall of great mages and scenery that seemed to move as she walked past. 
     Rokian gave her a start when he rounded a bookshelf in the second-floor library. “She fell asleep fast,” he said. 
     “I don’t think either of us have slept well in a very long time.”
     He sat in an over-sized green chair beside a large window. “You were looking for me. Please. Sit.” 
     Renna entered with a bottle of wine and uncorked it, pouring the dark red fluid into two long-stemmed glasses. Rokian breathed in the bouquet and leaned backward, gesturing to the second glass. 
     “Thank you for your hospitality, Cleric,” Sylvie said. 
     “Please call me Rokian. How is Ruby taking the transition?” 
     “Oh . . . all right  . . . well, thank you. She is doing all right, I think. We will see how it goes after she gets over the shock of it all. She’s never lived anyplace like this. I know it is rude to be this forward but—”
     “You want to know why we chose her,” he said. 
     Sylvie nodded. “There are plenty of half-elves with magic out there. Why trouble yourselves with us?” Her hand shook as she sipped, so she set the glass down on the table. 
     Rokian eyed her for a moment, as though waiting for something. “All elves have magic,” he said. “Usually mixed races are weaker, but they can all use it. It is only full-blooded humans that seem to be ungifted.” 
     Sylvie shrugged. “Her father was . . .” She paused and took a breath. “He died while she was young, and his family wants nothing to do with either of us. You know how Rainier is. He hates the gifted. So, I never learned anything about it.”
     Rokian bit the corner of his lip. “How to explain this . . .” He lifted his wine glass and watched the liquid swirl around. “What do you know about Aiuna?” he asked. 
     “I . . . Well, the teachings of Dathos . . .” Sylvie stared over his shoulder, her eyes fixed on something near the wall. 
     “Please speak your mind. Hiding your thoughts will do no good here.”
     Sylvie bit her lip and clenched her eyes shut. “They call her the mad goddess.” She paused to choose her words. “And we are taught that her motivations are . . . difficult to determine.” 
     Rokian snickered. “You wanted to call her dangerous, reckless, and selfish. That is all right. How are you to know differently? But the words you carefully chose instead are the correct ones. Her motivations are difficult to determine. Even for those of us who have spent a lifetime in worship, understanding her can be difficult. If not impossible at times.” He set down his glass and crossed one leg over the other. “Some call her mad because, on the surface, her choices can seem erratic. But she loves her younglings and wants the best for each of us, yet demands so little from most.” Rokian put down his glass. “Even for an immortal, it is strange that she can perform magic from every different school with ease. Most of the known gods have a specialty. Aiuna is the only one that has not yet shown us her limitations. It can be . . . intimidating.” 
     Sylvie took another sip of wine and placed her elbow on the armrest to rest her cheek in her palm.
Rokian’s face hardened. “Even though followers of Dathos are taught to hate us, we will not bar you from worshipping him here if that is what you wish. However, if you insist on Ruby continuing to do so, she must do both, which could be very confusing for her. As a human, you are exempt.”
Sylvie’s jaw clenched. “Do Aiunites have a problem with humans?” 
     “Please do not misunderstand. We worship her by using our gifts, and since you have none . . .” Rokian shrugged. “As I was saying, the Goddess sent us to retrieve both of you and has yet to tell me why. I expect that it is because Ruby is a terramancer. It is a rare gift and very dangerous if left unchecked. Llassar was limited as to what he could teach her in Erysall. Kailu claims to have witnessed three ground quakes in the season he was there.” Sylvie’s back straightened, and Rokian’s eyebrows shot up. “What is it?” 
     “Is that why you called a terramancer to train her?” Sylvie wasn’t sure if she should tell him. Her heart raced, but it wasn’t as if she had any choice but to speak. They would find out now that she was here. 
     “Sylvie . . .” Rokian said, gently touching her wrist to get her attention. 
     “I . . . I thought she was just starting with the terramancer,” she said, considering where else they would go if they had to leave. 
     “No one is going anywhere, Sylvie,” Rokian said. Sylvie shot to her feet. She definitely hadn’t said the thought out loud. “You are safe here. I understand this is overwhelming, but I need you to talk to me.” 
     “Can you read my mind?” she asked. 
     “That is my gift, but it is no secret. Although, for some reason, I cannot see all your thoughts. Which makes me even more curious,” he said. 
     It would be pointless to hide it. They had nowhere left to go. If they left the protection of the Order, Rainier would find them again and kill Ruby. Kill both of them.
     “She can control all the elements, Rokian.” 
     His jaw slackened, and he sat into the backrest. Hard. “There are less than a handful of mages that can use all four elements!” He moved his perfectly manicured index finger over his lips as he stared off into the distance, lost in thought. 
     “Is she going to be all right?” Sylvie asked as she squeezed one hand tightly over the top of the other. 
     Rokian looked up as though surprised to find Sylvie still in the room. “What was that?” he asked. 
     “Is she going to be all right? Can you fix her?” she asked.
     “There is nothing wrong with her!” he snapped. His jaw twitched before his face softened and he met her gaze. “She is a blessing. The Aiunites would never harm a youngling, much less one blessed by Aiuna so greatly.”  

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