In the light of the dawn, mist rose from the River Falas and curled over the meadows. Tendrils of moisture pillowed against the bases of the beehives until they looked like mountaintops above clouds.
Marisa desainLegan calmed the bees with a touch of her spirit. The fragment of a haraf stone about her neck pulsed, connecting her soul to her body through the bridge of her mind.
Black and red and white spiralled through the haraf stone; smooth and silky to the touch, it came from the shrine of Redain upon the shores of Lake Kalon, the sacred lake, and was different from the stones of this House of Falas. All the shrines upon the Shrine Road between Falas and Redain had different stones, different mixes of colours and textures. Nobody knew where they came from, but they gave power to those that wore them.
Sliding the combs out of the hive with her gloved hands, Marisa handed them to Branwen. The Anthanic servant, in her simple, smock-like dress, scraped the honey from the combs into a large basin — honey needed for wound dressings and poultices when the wounded returned from the battle.
Branwen’s crow-black hair was arranged in a simple plait that hung to her waist and contrasted sharply with the shimmering blonde of Marisa’s complicated hairstyle, which required constant delicate maintenance by skilled servants such as Branwen.
Neither woman spoke while they worked. Marisa, the haraf stone warm between her breasts, kept her mind focused on the task of calming the bees — their tiny souls pushed against hers as their honey was stolen — and Branwen maintained the vow of silence that all the Anthanic held to in the Houses of the Doves. The Anthanic were a strange people with many strange customs, but this one irritated Marisa the most. She felt besmirched by their piety, their obeisance to gods not their own; she wondered if she could hold to such a vow if the gods demanded it of her.
The white walls of the House followed the triple-spiral footprint of an ancient Anthanic shrine: tall walls, punctuated by large windows, with dark slate roofs above, curving around a central garden where the spring of the shrine bubbled constantly with pure water containing healing energy.
Powerful healers had travelled from all over the isles to give aid to the soldiers fighting against the Vascanar — as was their duty — but Marisa had another reason to come here to the House of Falas: Drustan.
She had stood and watched as a priest broke Drustan’s sword against the edge of an anvil. Drustan’s gaze never lifted from the shattered shards of his blade, the blade her father gave him when he reached manhood; his back straight, his shoulders tensed, his face a mask.
His eyes — he never looked at her. He did not acknowledge her existence. Turned his back on her, on the life they once shared, and walked away into the world beyond the Salt…
Would he have returned to fight for this land that cast him aside? Would she see him again?
The buzzing of the bees grew louder. Marisa cast Drustan from her mind to focus on the task at hand. Her powers with the creatures were limited; she was a healer, not a witch, and bees were difficult to control.
Branwen clucked her tongue and looked across the meadow towards the grey stones of the bridge spanning the River Falas in seven graceful arches.
Men’s voices reached Marisa’s ears despite the distance, despite the buzzing of the bees and the thickness of the forest. Anger and fear resonated in those cries. Marisa lifted her gaze from the hive. Was he here? Was he dead? Was he…?
The spell broke and the bees began to swarm. Marisa backed away from the hive and dropped the veil across her face, but Branwen simply clucked her tongue again.
A surge of power skated across Marisa’s mind.
This Anthanic servant did not calm the bees, she commanded them. The buzzing quieted; the bees ignored the interlopers in their midst, and the swarm disbanded into foraging workers flying out across the meadow to begin the task of replenishing the stolen honey.
Marisa opened her mouth to speak, to ask the question: who was this servant who had such witchly power over the creatures of the fields? But Branwen shook her head and pointed at the forest road.
The thudding beat of horses galloping, kicking up clods of earth. A bubble of sound that should not have reached Marisa’s ears at this distance. Powerful magic.
Branwen spoke. ‘I must leave. The battle is lost. The shrine will stand, but no blood should be spilled within it. You should leave too, Marisa Gentlehand.’
Gentlehand! A name given to Marisa by the Anthanic of the StormMarch. Awtyni in their tongue, she of the gentle hand, translated into Karisae by Branwen; who had never spoken in Marisa’s presence, but now spoke Karisae in a soft husky voice without a mistake in syntax or pronunciation.
‘Who are you?’ Marisa asked.
Branwen smiled. ‘I am … in your tongue … high priestess of this shrine. In my tongue I am Amthisraf, protector of the shrine.’
‘But you’re a servant.’
‘How else could I remain close to the shrine when you Karisae claim it for your own?’
‘You break your oath of silence.’
‘I am no longer bound by it.’ The smile left Branwen’s face. ‘We flee from this vinraf, this shrine-spring. No battle should be fought here. No blood should be spilled at this shrine.’ Lifting her chin she whistled, a long low note, which was picked up and repeated by others inside and outside the white walls of the House. A note that echoed through the air and raised goose bumps upon Marisa’s flesh.
Branwen placed the bowl of honey upon the ground and ripped the grey servant robes from her body, revealing tight Anthanic undergarments and blue tattoos that swirled across her arms and torso. ‘May the Weaver grant that we meet again, Marisa, lady of the Isle of Storms.’ She reached out and touched the haraf stone dangling from Marisa’s neck. ‘This stone does not come from this shrine and, therefore, you are not bound to this shrine.’ She held Marisa’s gaze with calm strong eyes. ‘You are not bound here, Marisa Gentlehand, this stone,’ Brawen pointed at the walls of the House of Falas, ‘is not your stone,’ she touched Marisa’s haraf stone again. Her gaze held Marisa’s for a moment longer, then she turned and sprinted away into the woods
Marisa stared after her. Outraged Karisae voices cried out as other Anthanic, men and women both, followed Branwen into the forest in a swirl of blue tattoos and discarded grey clothes.
The mournful whistle died away.
‘Slow, sire!’ A bellow from the bridge. ‘Slow!’
Marisa turned in time to see the King’s horse slip upon the stones of the bridge. Other horses plunged, trying to stop, rearing, falling, men leaping clear, at least one man thrown into the river with a splash.
Picking up her skirts, Marisa ran towards the accident.