The first hint that her library was in danger was the tingling of preternatural sense of the place of everything. Whatever the difference caused by the disturbance was it was so small she couldn’t immediately identify it, but something was undeniably out of place.
The second, was the sound of a footstep. Just one, light as a feather, the whisper of skin against cold stone. She spun, eyes searching the shadows between shelves, simultaneously looking for the intruder and for any damage to her work.
The third and final was a giggle, like the sound of bells. She was at once relieved – it wasn’t an enemy – and horrified – it was worse, it was family. “Nobernal!” she snapped, standing stiffly in the centre of her tower. “I’m not playing games with you. Go find someone else to bother.” She cringed, thinking of her younger sister’s sticky fingers pawing through delicate parchment, smudging invaluable words across irreplaceable pages. It made her heart seize, her throat close with terror.
Another giggle, but Nobernal did not reveal herself.
“I’m busy,” it was half admonition, half plea. “I don’t have time to play, okay?”
“You never have time,” came the sulky reply from the shadows somewhere. “Your books smell nice.”
“Don’t touch them!” Mudora gasped, horrified. “You’re being very rude right now. Come out here.”
“You didn’t say the magic word.”
Where was that damned child?! “I don’t need to say please to little rodents who come over uninvited and disturb me in my work.”
“Not please,” came the chiding response. “The other magic word.”
Mudora scowled at every crevice in the room as she slowly turned, searching for the young sentinel. What was she on about now? Mudora knew every word ever spoken, including all the magical ones, and not one of them could possibly apply to this situation.
She straightened, blinked, then pinched the bridge of her nose between ink-stained fingers and sighed. “Olly-olly-oxen-free.”
There was a rustle of feathers, the brush of skin on stone again, and before she could turn to face Nobernal the latter had engulfed her in a massive hug. Mudora hissed and pulled back, snatching at her sister’s hands and raising them to inspect. Nobernal wiggled her fingers and grinned at her from under her mop of dark hair. “Clean,” she said. “Like you said. I washed them three times.”
Mudora lowered the girl’s hands to stare at her, ire unexpectedly mollified by this uncharacteristic show of respect and obedience. “You listened.”
“Yes,” Nobernal said. “Because I thought maybe if I listened you would not be so worried about your books, and maybe if you were not so busy being worried, you would have time to play?” What had started as a statement ended in a question, and Mudora blinked owlishly at her again.
She turned to glance at the half-open books scattered around the room. Most of them had quills enchanted to run across the pages, but Mudora liked to watch them – sometimes the quills had opinions and there was no room for opinions in her collection – and more than a few books required her hand alone. Even this small delay had cost her, she would have to work double-time to make up for it. She glanced back down at Nobernal.
At her squeaky clean fingers and scrubbed face.
There was still a trail of mud through the front hall from the last time Sirana had barged in here – and when, exactly, was she supposed to find time to clean that up? – and a hole in the wall of the third floor from Khol’s unauthorized experiments with her quills. But Nobernal stood before her with her hands clean and her face scrubbed and could not have left any sticky fingerprints all over crucial pages.
She had listened.
“All right,” Mudora said, too overwhelmed to argue. “Not long,” she cautioned with a nervous glance at her books and quills. “But perhaps a few moments. In the woods, though, not in here.”
Nobernal danced delightedly and then turned and raced for the door. “Count to fifty!” she shrieked as she flew out of the tower and into the trees.
Clean hands or not, Mudora breathed a sigh of relief once she passed under the doorframe, then closed her eyes and slowly began to count.
“Nervous?” Valdyx asked. Clearly, she was not, as she sat in a chair, with her feet propped up on the table, cleaning no-one-wanted-to-know-what from under her fingernails with a small dagger.
“No,” Khol snapped, refusing to remove her eyes from the glowing runes carved into the stone table in front of her. Every now and then one would flicker and die and she would start muttering under her breath and moving them around. A large one near the centre flickered and died, and she snarled and slammed her fist down onto the table. “Shut up!” she added before Valdyx could comment.
“You shouldn’t be,” Valdyx noted.
“Then why are you here?” Khol replied acidly, though that was unfair and she knew it. She focused for a second on evening out her breathing to move the runes around to compensate for the loss of the large one.
Valdyx shrugged. “Win or lose, people die. I’ve got a job to do too, Khol. And unlike you I can’t pick sides.”
Another rune flickered out, and Khol moaned. “Why are they so fragile?” she cried, and quickly reversed her previous decisions and began building the runes anew.
“You’re too attached to your students,” Valdyx noted, as neutral as ever, but there was flicker of what might have been concern in her eyes. “They aren’t you. They can’t cast and fight and continue breathing all at the same time.” Khol did not reply, consumed for the moment by the flickering of the runes. Valdyx grunted and turned her attention back out over the field. Though she sat in the chair, she was also out there, streaking among the warriors, catching them as they fell and taking them to their rest. She paused in this work at another sisters’ side, and grabbed this one’s arm.
She ducked as Sirana took a swing at her with her massive, gleaming claymore. “Whoa there, oh giant one. Not an enemy!”
“Valdyx?!” Sirana gasped in horror, struggling to shove her helmet up so she could see her sister better. “I could have killed you!”
Valdyx gave her an amused grin. “You really couldn’t have,” she said. “Listen, I can’t chat, kinda busy, but you need to shore up your defences around the mages.”
Sirana paused with her helmet half-on, half-off her head to raise an eyebrow. “You are giving me combat advice? I thought you didn’t take sides in these wars?” She casually turned and ran a mortal through as the latter tried to stab her from behind. She caught him and lowered him gently to the ground to die.
“Not combat advice,” Valdyx clarified carefully, “family advice. Khol’s freaking out.”
Sirana’s curiosity crumbled into irritation as she straightened. “Damn her. I told her not to come.”
“You know what she’s like. Just shore up defences around the mages. She’s in panic mode now, and that’ll force her to be brilliant. Keep the mages alive and she’ll win this for you.”
Sirana scowled and swept her gaze across the battleground. “I hate defensive positions,” she muttered. “Not my style.” She turned back to Valdyx. “She’s really freaking out?”
“Would I be here if she wasn’t?”
Sirana grumbled and jammed her helmet back down. “Fine,” she said sourly. “We’ll go keep the bookworms safe.”
Valdyx nodded and waved, and then streaked off again to make up for lost time.
Back at the table, Valdyx smiled and continued cleaning her fingernails.
Anduriel smiled as she climbed the stairs into the small cottage. “You know,” she said dryly, “while I understand there is no such thing as a surprise visit to you, it would be nice if you humoured me from time to time.”
“I humour all of you often,” Revanas replied with a smile of her own. She rose to her feet and moved to take her sister’s forearm in a solid greeting. “But I’m good at it, so you don’t know you’re being humoured, so you don’t appreciate how often I do it.”
“Fair enough,” said Anduriel with a nod.
“Would you like me to pretend I don’t know why you’re here?”
“No,” Anduriel sighed. “I’d definitely know you were humouring me then.”
“Then to answer your question, I’m not avoiding you – any of you – and I’m not having another episode. I’m fine, and you’re all fine, and everything is fine.” She gestured for Anduriel to take a seat at the thick wooden table as she took hers on the opposite side. “Tea?”
“Yes please. If everything is fine, why haven’t we seen you lately? None of us have. Not even Nobernal, and I know you favour her.”
“I do not,” Revanas protested. “I love you all equally, you know that.”
“Aye,” Anduriel said with a wry tint to her smile, “just her a little more equally.”
“I know what it is,” Anduriel cut her off. “It’s because the rest of us are boring. Too set in our ways, too predictable. Nobernal lives in the present, more than the rest of us. You can’t predict her as well as the rest of us. She’s a bit of a wild card, and you favour those. Don’t deny it, I can see you blushing.”
Revanas managed a scowl that didn’t go to her eyes. “You’re full of it.”
“One of us is,” Anduriel replied demurely. “She’s worried, you know. That you’re mad at her.”
Revanas sighed. “I know, but I’m not.”
“So tell her that.”
“I can’t.” She tried to hide it, and perhaps had Anduriel been any of the others it might have worked, but there was legitimate pain in her voice.
Anduriel’s gaze sharpened and she set her teacup down. “Revanas,” she said slowly, seriously, “whatever it is, let me help. Let me in. Don’t shut me out again. Not like last time.” Revanas said nothing, kept her eyes trained on her teacup. “Revanas, that cost us both too much and you know it. Let me help.”
“You will,” Revanas said slowly. “You will help. I don’t want to let you, it will cost you – us – more than I can say, but I can’t stop you. I’ve looked for ways to…that’s why I’ve been…I’ve been working, Anduriel.”
“Something is coming,” Anduriel supplied, and Revanas nodded, grateful for the help in articulating it. “Something that can be avoided?” Revanas shook her head, and there was something like dread on her face. “Something that can be survived?”
Revanas shrugged. “That’s my goal,” she said quietly. “But things are…I cannot tell. Too many pieces in motion.”
Anduriel’s eyes narrowed as she considered this. For Revanas not to be able to predict at all, to not even be able to guess, was rare. In fact it only seemed to happen when… she caught her breath. “A new cycle?”
“Aye,” said Revanas, and her shoulders slumped. “A big one. A turning point.”
“But the last few haven’t really impacted us.”
“This one will,” Revanas said. “That much I know. And it will not…I have been doing what I can to—to manage it. To set my own pieces in motion while I can, to prepare for the eventualities I can identify. Contingencies upon contingencies upon contingencies. Prophetic dreams to certain mortals, influencing certain events to within an inch of the line drawn for me by Our Ladies. Close enough, Anduriel, that were they here I’m sure I would receive a talking to.” She managed a faint smile.
Anduriel leaned back in her chair and considered this. “Is…this conversation part of that?”
Revanas sighed and returned her eyes to her tea. “Aye,” she said. “But it is also because I…I wished for your company tonight. I wished to speak with you at least once before the cycle begins.”
Anduriel felt cold. “You speak as though we won’t have another chance.”
“Maybe we will,” Revanas said uncertainly. “There are many possible paths, and in some of them we do. But not as we are now. I need you to be ready, Anduriel. I believe you’re the only one who can…I need you to be prepared. And I need you to know that I’m sorry. For whatever comes after. Both for what I must cause, and what I cannot prevent. I need you to know that I tried.” She looked up and her face was set in an almost foreign expression of uncertainty and bald emotional need. “Whatever happens, remember that. Remember that I tried.”
“You’re scaring me, Revanas,” Anduriel said breathlessly. Her heart beat like a caged bird against her ribcage.
“Will you remember?”
“I will,” Anduriel said solemnly. “I promise.”
Revanas held her gaze for as long as she could stand, then nodded and turned away. “You have such pretty eyes,” she murmured sadly.
Anduriel stayed with her for the remainder of the night, until the tea in their cups had gone cold, and the light had fled the small kitchen. They did not speak again, and at some point she fell asleep at the table.
When she woke Revanas was gone.