Argent Stag, Silver Rose

Chapter Five: Grim Homecoming

I've known that there's been something wrong, somewhere, for a couple of weeks, but no matter where I've been, there's been no signs of any foul presence. Even so, despite the reassurance I'd received by finding the estates of the great lords intact and running smoothly--so far--the feeling of something wrong would not leave me.

Still, it was with a great sense of joy and anticipation--yes, very much that, for I longed once more to be with my sister, though now that I've been away from her, I have to wonder what madness has caught hold of me to create such impassioned desires--that I was able to once again look upon the stately structure of Hart Castle as I and my entourage approached my family's ancient home.

That joy, however, gives way to trepidation, then fear, as my sister's handmaiden rushes up to me and starts calling for me to quickly come.

"What's wrong? What's the matter?" I anxiously ask her as I slip from my perch atop Sable, faithful Cathal having dismounted already and left his horse in the care of a groom that rushed into the courtyard at our approach and he then takes Sable's reins.

I must admit, I'm not sure what disaster I expect from her countenance; I know only that here, at last, must be the reason why I have felt this feeling of dread.

I can faintly hear the sounds in the courtyard as I lie in my bed, the curtains drawn around it to shut out the painful light. I can even imagine what's happening, in a way, as though I can see it all.

Elaine worries her lip with her teeth, looking around anxiously. The whole keep seems too quiet, solemn; by now, everyone knows that the prince's sister is very ill. She plucks at Malaquin's sleeve, her face pale with fear.

"Please, Your Highness--it's Princess Madule. Please, you must come with me!"

"What's wrong with her?" I don't mean to snap, but I do, fear shooting up my spine. I'll let everyone around me handle things for now. I need to get to Madule.

I stride through the courtyard as swiftly as I can in response to Elaine's plea while the pretty maiden hurries along beside me, twisting her hands in her skirts in anxiety. "She's . . . she's fallen very ill, Your Highness. It came on so suddenly--one day she was fine, the next she was feeling a bit under the weather, and the next . . . she couldn't even rise from her bed." The maidservant gulps softly. "There . . . there are those who say it must be the plague again--but no one in the castle is sick, beside Her Highness."

"The plague?" I bark out the words, incredulous, a sudden, deeper stab of fear filling me. I can't help but stop in my tracks, spinning to stare at my sister's maidservant, my eyes wide. Heavens above! Maybe . . . maybe Grelain's accomplice was right? Maybe what I've allowed to happen has been cursed enough to drop this abrupt judgment down on my beloved sister. "How sick is she? Is she . . ." I trail off. I can't say the words, let alone conceive them. No, please! Not that. I can't imagine a world without her there with me.

Elaine stops short, staring back at me with her hand to her mouth; when she manages to speak, her voice is thin, faint. "She's very weak, Your Highness. She can't get out of bed, she can barely eat or drink . . ."

My twin's trusted maid suddenly narrows her eyes, her visage becoming that of an angered person. "And that priest--he's supposed to be a physician, but he's been bleeding her, Highness, saying that it's the 'only way to balance her humors'. And when he's not opening the poor princess's veins over a basin, he's sitting there praying and doing nothing else . . ."

"He what?" I'm sure they can hear my shout shaking the rafters all over Hart Castle. "What idiot allowed that to happen?"

I don't even wait for poor Elaine to answer me. I turn and storm off yet again, furious now. After Grelain's debacle, I certainly haven't trusted the Church. It would be too easy--No, I won't think about that. "Where the hell is Morwen? Why isn't she seeing to Her Highness?"

The very name conjures up the dear old matron. She was the one that served as our wet nurse to help mother out, then was our nanny, then finally became our preferred healer because she knows us intimately and our entire history of health. Of course, her contact with us became more and more limited as we got older, but whenever one of us was truly sick, Morwen was the only one we would allow to take care of us.

By now, I'm inside the castle and storming my way up to my sister's chambers. At least everyone's willing to let me go as I please. That's good. I'd probably would have to get nasty toward anyone that tried to stop me.

I vaguely note that Elaine shies away from me, nervous all over again. "Your council . . . they tried to argue against it, but Morwen . . . she was visiting her grandchildren. She's been back for a few days, but the priest--and the other churchmen . . . they haven't let her see Her Highness."

Dimly, I can hear a certain amount of commotion. It's hard to really focus; all I can think of at the moment is how uncomfortable I am. I can vaguely hear myself whimpering, "I'm so hot . . . so hot . . ." over and over, but I might be imagining that--a half-dream remembered from childhood.

I know I'm not imagining the parting of the curtains, the slight weight on the bed next to me, the unwrapping of the bandage around my wrist--or the sharp pain as the lancet reopens a thin, short wound in my flesh. The mumbled prayers have become almost a constant background drone in my room by now.

"They haven't?" Well, there's something to let feel my wrath, once I've assessed how bad this is. "Well, we shall see about that. Elaine, get Morwen. Tell her that I'm home and I demand her presence in my sister's chambers." I tug at the neck of my tunic; for some reason, the closer I get, the hotter and more anxious I feel. I dismiss it as a very strong concern for my beloved sister's well-being as I continue my swift pace through the hallways of Hart Castle.

"Yes, Your Highness," Elaine responds instantly with an unmistakable light of triumph in her eyes; she turns to hurry toward the chambers given to the gentle old woman who had cared for us royal children since birth.

Once I get to Madule's chamber's door, I give the sturdy portal quite the imperious knock. "I demand entrance, now. Let me in!"

I don't give a damned how busy they might think they are, I'm going to see my sister. Though there's a part of me that balks, a part that's the little boy that remembers how horrible the sickness of the plague is and fears having to live through that again. Still, it's not enough to do anything but make me hesitate just a slight moment.

The door creaks open a crack under Malaquin's fist--it's not even closed all the way, much less locked. There's a heavy scent of incense in the sitting room, and a candle--unlit at the moment, since it's midafternoon--rests on a table beside a thick, heavy book bound in dark leather.

I hear a pause in the murmured prayers; it seems like the person who's holding my hand over the basin turns away briefly toward the sound. My heart surges at the sound--Malaquin! My brother's home! I force my voice to work, despite the rawness of my throat and the dry, swollen, cottony feel of my mouth. I'm just not being given enough water, I know.

"Mal . . . Malaquin . . ."

Perhaps he remembers what it had been like to suffer this illness; perhaps he's afraid of it. I've been enduring it for days, feeling as though I'm reliving a nightmare from childhood, when I was so little and frightened . . .

If anyone can help my sister, it'll be Morwen. I pray to whatever divine power is sympathetic that it's not too late as I hear Elaine's retreating footsteps.

My Goddess . . . I gag at the cloying scent of incense, my stride into my sister's apartment momentarily halted as my body furiously coughs in protest at the closed, heavily scented air of the room. It takes me a couple of moments to get my traitorous body back under some semblance of control. When I do, I immediately make my way to the inner door like an eagle striking.

Someone's going to pay.

I try her bedroom door, fully intending to fair rip it off the hinges if it's closed against entry or fling it into the wall if it's not locked. First thing I'm going to do is open the damned window. My poor Madule! How can she breathe? I wonder.

I almost fear now what I will find when I step into the room where we had once been entwined in such ecstatic passion . . .

The door slams into the wall, shaking some of my little knickknacks on their shelves; a bottle on my vanity table falls over. I hear a gasp from my bedside and manage to turn my head; already I'm coughing weakly, the effort of calling my brother's name making it harder still for me to to breathe in the room that's so heavily scented with the thick incense.

Images swim and waver before my aching eyes, but I can still see. The priest rises from his chair at my beside, still holding my forearm in one hand, the lancet in the other. He's a tall scarecrow of a man, with a high-bridged, arrogant nose and sharp features. A heavy rope of polished wooden beads lies against the chest of his black clerical robe, holding the symbol of his faith just below his sternum.

I hear him gasp again, faintly; then he draws himself up haughtily. "Your Highness, please, keep your voice down and comport yourself quietly. This is a sickroom."

I think Malaquin can see the priest's hand, holding my arm over the basin; a layer of red coats the bottom of the bowl. Other than that, I don't think my brother can really see much of me; the bed curtains are drawn on both sides and the foot of the bed, and the priest's body is blocking my own view of the door.

"What are you trying to do? Kill her? For God's sake, man, give her some air to breathe instead of this . . . overly cloying smoke!" I can't make myself look at my dear, sweet sister just yet. I focus instead on the windows, throwing open the tight shutters to let some Goddess-blessed air swirl into the room.

That's when I turn and look . . . then stare in something like an uncomprehending horror at the drip of blood into the bowl. Drop by precious drop, glimmering darkly like the most precious of rubies . . . Her arm looks so pale.

I feel almost guilty for the light golden tan that the springtime sun has given me over the last five weeks.

I stand there, stunned. I can't believe this. Bleeding her? My voice sounds so far away, even to myself. "What do you think you're doing?"

"The sacred incense is the breath of God." He sounds so . . . stuffy. Just like the room felt before the shutters and window opened to admit that wonderful, clear breeze into the room; it cools my hot skin. The braziers in either corner at the head of my bed have been burning almost constantly, as has the fireplace.

The priest's voice comes again--an overly patient tone as if he's explaining something to a slow-witted child. "Restoring the balance of her humors and purging the illness by letting the blood, of course. Now, please, Your Highness, if you'll step outside . . ."

"And this room feels as if you're trying to call up the fires of Hell," I point out to the scarecrow-like priest. Already sweat's starting to dapple my skin, though the cool spring breeze helps with that. I shake my head at this . . . man. I'm not a healer; I was born and raised to be a ruler, yet even I know enough about healingcraft to know that this is almost the complete opposite what should be done.

Of course, his asinine suggestion only makes my anger start to rise to the surface again. "No, We don't think so, priest. Now tell Us, who sent you to attend to Our sister's illness?" I mean to take my temper out on the one responsible. "And close that wound on her, now. You've taken enough of the royal blood."

The priest's thin mouth gets even thinner at Malaquin's remark about the fires of Hell. "One must sweat out the fever to force the illness from the body," he says coldly; then he scowls at Malaquin's refusal to comply with his peremptory command.

"I was informed of the princess's illness and came at once to tend her, Your Highness," he answers; then he hesitates, as if he might disobey the command, but finally he sets the lancet aside and wraps the stained bandage around my wrist again, putting my arm back down next to my body and picking up the basin that shimmers with dark, dark blood.

"What are you going to do with that?" I snap at him. I don't like the idea that comes to mind, of him perhaps doing something to that precious fluid that would dishonor it. As the rather annoyed man steps from the bed, I take the opportunity to cross the carpeted floor from the window embrasure to get next to the bed and make my emerald gaze scan over my ill sister.

I know one thing right away. It can't be the plague, but something like it, yes. The priest should have fallen ill, closed up as long as he has been with Madule--and that thought makes me livid--and Elaine had said that only my beloved twin was ill. The plague took many lives, no matter how swiftly those affected were isolated, and the caregivers often felt the lash of the same scourge.

"Dispose of it properly, of course. It is tainted with sickness." And he promptly pours the basin of blood into one of the braziers. The smell is choking, enough to make me start coughing again as the copper-stinking smoke fills the air.

I can see my brother, now. He looks so handsome, so strong and healthy, his fair skin holding a warm golden glow from the days he's spent in the sun. I try to smile for him, and feel my dry lips crack with the effort.

I know that I must look horrible. My hair hasn't been combed, and lies lusterless on the pillow around my face; the most I've had since I fell ill was a hasty sponge bath, administered by poor Elaine at times when the priest wasn't in the room. My skin is so pale, but for the bright scarlet patches on my cheeks; I think my bones might be showing a little through the thin white flesh.

I can't help but choke on the horrid smell, covering my nose and mouth with both hands, the white gold signet glimmering on my finger. "Dear God! Did you burn her blood with the windows closed?" I can't help but ask the priest that in between coughing spells.

At least it's being disposed of in a way that isn't exactly profane, but it seems almost skirting the very old and heathen practice of blood sacrifice of animals or humans.

"Of course," the priest replies coldly, straightening his robes; at least he has the sense to step away as I approach my twin's bed.

I twitch in fury at the so-called man of God's response, but I keep my focus on my poor, ill Madule. Holding in my anger, I crouch down next to the bed while taking in a deep breath to further steady my raging emotions.

At last, I'm able to breathe relatively normally, the fresh, cooling breeze from the open window sweeping away the terrible stench. Looking back down at my precious sibling, I can't help but feel pity. She's so pale, a mere ghost of herself. Even the bloom of her extraordinary beauty has faded, ravaged by this illness and the horrid way it was supposedly treated. Ah, Madule, my sweet, I'm so sorry.

I reach down, my heart aching as I see the difference between my healthy, somewhat tanned flesh and her white, lusterless skin. We used to look almost alike . . . I gently take one of her limp hands in mine. I care not if it really is the plague; let me share her misery for not being a better guardian. Tears burn in my eyes, and it's not from the whiffs of acrid, blood-spawned smoke that are still there. I lift her hand to my lips and give her a kiss on the back of the far too hot flesh. My voice, when I speak to her, is a raspy whisper, "Morwen's coming. She'll take care of you, beloved sister."

I feel so ashamed. Surely he must be thinking that I'm not the lovely creature he left here only a little over a month ago; my beauty is destroyed by this dreadful disease. It's a terrible thought, that he might be disgusted by the sight of me.

Morwen's name makes me try to smile again; I missed the old woman desperately, but every time I had begged to have her sent to care for me, the priest refused. Every single time.

I hear the sitting room door open; Elaine appears in the doorway, a triumphant glint in her eyes as she glances toward the priest, then steps aside for my former nanny to enter.

The woman who had cared for Malaquin and myself isn't some witchlike crone, but a gentle old woman who nevertheless has all the commanding presence of a general and the bluntness of any country wife.

"Pah! What a stink! Has she not been bathed?"

That was Morwen for you.

I stiffen, my fear and concern for my twin, my other half, able to shift once more to absolute rage at this . . . further demonstration to me of the inept men that would foist this unbalanced God upon us all. I look to Morwen, very relieved to see her. "You met no resistance to your coming here, Morwen?" I want to know if anyone tried to stop her from answering my summons.

I'm so angry, I feel brittle, like I'll shatter at the slightest touch. "And no, I really don't think she was bathed much at all."

"Your Highness," says the priest in his frostiest tones, "I counsel against permitting this hag to attend your sister."

I turn my attention to the cleric and I match the ice in his voice with a dangerous edge of my own. "Duly noted. However, Father whatever-the-hell-name-you-may-have, We did not ask for your counsel. We do have counsellors to advise Us after all."

"Aye, I met 'em, and young Elaine there told 'em that if they were to stay in me way, they'd be answerin' to ye, lad." Morwen stumps nearer to the bed, giving the priest a regal glare. She's probably the only person alive at the moment who calls Malaquin "lad" and gets away with it. "Ah, no wonder the poor lass feels so dreadful. A woman's got to be clean and comfortable. Elaine, girl, heat up little Madule's bath. Be quick about it!"

Elaine darts into the bath chamber without a word of protest.

The priest stiffens, setting the basin down sharply. "You imperil her soul as well as her life, your Highness."

"At the moment, the only thing in peril is your own life. If you have managed to kill Our sister with your asinine methods of treatment, you shall feel Our wrath, man of God or not." I deliberately step away from the bed, stalking toward the skinny, scraggly-appearing cleric; Goddess help us all if this is how their God looks after His people. I've seen healthier looking peasants in the field.

I want to be as menacing as possible. I can't shake a feeling they--the Church--were hoping to ensure that my sister would die. After all, she's royal and a priestess of the Goddess--and I've made her essentially my co-regent. "After all," I softly murmur, sure to give the cleric a feeling that I enjoyed it, though I was far more frightened than anything else, "I've already bloodied my hands with the life-fluid of a man of God . . ."

"Your Highness!" the priest blusters, stepping back apprehensively. "Those methods are the only true way to heal, pleasing to God--"

"Bah," Morwen pronounces, opening the bed curtains; I wince painfully and close my eyes at the rush of light. I feel the cool, dry fingers of the old woman who'd cared for me and my twin since our birth touching my forehead, testing my temperature. "Yer God has a strange set of tastes, then. Keepin' the poor child locked up in this dark stuffy pit, when it's fresh air and sunlight she's needin' to heal. Elaine! Hurry on that bath, girl!"

"Hurrying, ma'am!" my maidservant calls back from the bath chamber.

"I'll be needin' yer strong arms and back to lift her, lad. Send the underfed crow back to his God and make yerself useful. And order some clean linens for the bed, while yer about it."

I'm already feeling a bit better for some reason. The priest is backing away apprehensively as Malaquin menaces him.

I really should do as Morwen suggests, but I'm not that cruel. Instead, I point directly to the doorway to Madule's sitting room--and thus to the door beyond. "Get you gone, ere We forget that We are dedicated to keeping the peace of this realm. And when you see your superiors, let them know that only Morwen and those We approve shall tend to Our twin. Anything else will be considered disobedience to this land's rightfully anointed prince. Have We made Ourselves clear?"

I want him out of there, away from Madule, away from doing any more harm. I also want the privacy to discuss my sister's condition with my former nanny. I don't trust this priest, and I'd rather not have him privy to anything we talk amongst ourselves.

The priest pales, nodding, and almost trips over the hem of his robes as he scurries to the door. A few seconds later, the outer door of my chambers slams shut behind him, and I feel very relieved that he's gone. It had been awful, having him there muttering his prayers and practicing his terrible excuse for medical treatment.

"The bath's ready, Morwen," Elaine calls, and the old woman nods in approval.

"Good," Morwen calls back. "Now see to changin' the bed linens, if ye would. Malaquin, lad, come here and pick yer sister up. We've all gotten older, and I'd be havin' a difficult time liftin' her the way I did when both of ye were the sweetest babes I'd ever beheld."

It's with a very relieved--and probably sinful--sense of smug satisfaction as I hear the door to my twin's chambers shut with a force that punctuates the cleric's retreat. Morwen's familiar, comforting voice, however, draws my attention to her and I nod in acknowledgment. "Be right there."

A couple of long strides takes me back to the bed where just a few short weeks ago I lay in blissful comfort with my twin. A twinge of melancholy fills me for a moment as I sigh, once more so aware of that bed perhaps becoming her final resting place.

I squat down and slip my arms around Madule's seemingly very fragile form, forced to hold my breath as a good whiff of what she's been allowed to become fills my nostrils and almost makes me choke. Still, I know the bath will take care of that.

Myself once more under control, I pull her to me, cradling her far too warm body against my chest. I stand then--and find the effort hardly anything, she's lost so much weight over these few terrible weeks. "Poor, poor Madule. I'm so sorry," I murmur as I carry her, this most precious burden, over to her bathing chamber.

Morwen looks me over as Malaquin lifts me, then shakes her head in disapproval and shouts to Elaine again as my maidservant hurries out to fetch fresh bed linens. "And see that water and some soup is brought! She's wasted away to near nothin' thanks to that fool in holy robes!"

I feel ashamed, seeing the flash of nausea on Malaquin's face as he comes close; I hated the reek of my own fevered body, and though I'd been helped to relieve myself with a modicum of cleanliness, my moon's blood had come and gone with hardly any attendance at all.

At least I'm wearing a nightgown, though it's stained and clinging to me with sweat; I manage the strength to put my head against his shoulder rather than letting it loll uselessly.

It's so hard to speak through my swollen, painful throat and mouth, but I can't help but murmur in relief; I'm safe now, I'm sure of it. "Malaquin . . ."

Morwen stands near my solidly built marble tub; the steaming water is fragrant with my favorite scented oil, giving off a sweet perfume of roses. She comes over to pull the nightgown away from me, ignoring the fact that it's not really proper to bare my body in front of my brother; she clucks in disapproval at the stains of blood, sweat, and waste on the gown and on my skin. "Bah! It'd be a service to the kingdom to hang that so-called physician. Just look at what he's done to the poor child!"

She points imperiously to the bath. "Set her in there, lad. And I think she'll be wantin' ye to hold her hand and comfort her. I'll be wantin' yer help in cleanin' her up."

I'm startled by how weak she is besides wasted away, and I shift my hold on her to better help her support her head against me--

--only to end up doing my best to juggle her around as Morwen very efficiently strips Madule of her filthy nightgown. I'm absolutely appalled at the condition my sister's been allowed to slip into, and I know she must be hating every moment of this. Madule is as fastidious as I am, as I know from long experience.

"Much as I might wish, I can't truly hang the man for doing his best, Morwen. You know that. However, if I ever find he was deliberately trying to make my sister's condition deteriorate, I shall hang him, priest or no." My voice is ice cold as I pronounce the soft words; I mean every syllable.

With all the care in the world, I bend over and set my sister into the rose-scented water, trying not to think overly much how pathetic she looks right now. I feel guilty that the weeks have been far kinder to me. "I'm not planning on going anywhere anon."

Morwen tosses the soiled gown into a corner with a mutter to herself to have Elaine take it with the bed linens to be burned, then gives Malaquin a long look. "Aye, 'tis true that ye'd have a hard time orderin' the ignorant beast hung without bein' proclaimed a tyrant, but I'm certain that ye could convince his superiors in the Church that his work would best be done up north."

If I could laugh without suffering, I'd do it. The southern and middle parts of the kingdom are quite hospitable; up north, where the mountains shoulder their way to the sky, the people are far less civilized--and very intolerant of outsiders with haughty ways and ridiculous ideas about medicine.

Morwen nods briskly as Malaquin sets me into the tub. "Good lad. She's not wantin' ye to go anywhere now that yer finally home. I can tell."

The steaming water feels so good--strangely, it doesn't aggravate my fever, but soothes it instead. Under the sweet rose fragrance, I catch a whiff of sharp, clean-smelling herbs, and I know that Morwen added a few other things to the bath to help.

My fingers curl around Malaquin's hand as our old nurse sets about cleaning me up, starting all the way down at my toes. She's always been meticulous and attentive to detail; she actually pares my nails down from their ragged length before moving along.

"How bad is it?" That's the one question that's been foremost in my thoughts as soon as I saw what a wasted wraith of her former self my beautiful, beloved twin had become. "Elaine told me that it's feared to be the plague, yet . . . No one else in the castle is sick with it, even now, correct? Not even that fool cleric, and I dare not attribute that to any sort of divine protection from his slain God.

"As for his superiors . . . Believe me, I'm going to investigate this entire matter. It seems as if the Church may be overstepping their authority. I suppose I should have expected that."

"Bad enough, lad," is Morwen's blunt answer. "Ye came just in time to get her away from that fool, and I still don't know how much damage is done just yet. Aye, it looks a great deal like the plague, but ye know as well as I do that it would have spread by now."

I glance at Madule, then gently pry her hand from my own. There's only one problem being very careful and setting an ill maiden into a tub of steaming, herb-laced water when you're wearing clothes. My shirt is soaking wet, though the warm water makes my slightly bronzed skin tingle. The only part of my poor shirt still dry is the back and the area about my shoulders. "I'll let you have my hand as soon as I'm done prying my shirt off me, Madule. Promise."

So comfortable am I with Morwen, and part of me is so comfortable with the fact that my sister and I have brought carnal love into the many dimensions of affection we have for one another, that I really don't even think twice about how it must look to be undisturbed in the nude presence of my own twin--and quite willing to strip down to just my trews in her presence.

I whimper softly as Malaquin gets his hand free from mine, though I know he's probably uncomfortable in that wet shirt. It's hard to think clearly sometimes in my feverish state, and I have to hold on tightly to the thought that he's not about to leave me again--he just needs to shed the saturated clothing.

Morwen eyes Malaquin, then snorts in appreciative amusement. "My, how you both have grown indeed, lad. Now take the child's hand before she panics on us, hmm?"

I can feel the gentle hands washing my legs clean; inevitably, the touch reaches my private regions--still marked with dried blood from my woman's time and the wastes that hadn't been cleaned away completely--and I close my eyes, knowing that the blush probably won't show through the red patches of fever-heat on my cheeks.

"Pah! Poor Elaine--she must not have gotten much chance to keep her little mistress clean, I see. I'd hang that priest for this alone, lad."

I close my eyes at her soft whimper; by the heavens above, I'm so sorry to have left you behind, so sorry to have left you vulnerable. In what has to be the fastest time ever, I strip the shirt from me, then drop it to the floor. Someone can take care of it later. It's only a shirt, not something as important as my precious silver rose.

I tug over a chair that Elaine must use to sit upon as she helps scrub my sister clean and perch upon it, curling my hand around Madule's thin little fingers. "Shh, my beloved sister. I'm right here. I'm not going to go," I reassure her, then turn my emerald gaze to my former nanny.

"You know how those 'men of God' are. They're afraid that anything feminine is tainted or accursed, or so it's been my observation from the sidelines."

I cling to Malaquin's hand almost desperately, glad for his presence. I had missed him so much, and when I fell ill, it was a pure nightmare to not have him near me. When we had been sick before as children, we had always comforted each other--even when the deadly plague had struck us both.

Morwen snorts, finishing with that area and moving upward. "Aye, you've the right of their way of thinking. Foolishness."

It's second nature for me to reach up and stroke her hand with my other one without even being conscious of doing so. I recall the fevered terror and how we clung to one another, even in the sickest moments, of the time the plague came close to crippling me and killing my sister, and I know my absence has made this worse for her. "That she had her monthly courses then would be something that the priest probably decided made her even more 'unclean'. He probably didn't touch her at all then."

That she has had her monthly courses makes me secretly very relieved, to be honest. Too many awkward questions . . .

"I never understood the attitude, Morwen. If not for that, I could easily have been one that follows their slain God, for He seems much like the Horned One, just a different face and name . . ."

"No doubt of it, lad. These men . . . they haven't the wisdom to understand what needs to be done. I'd have rested far easier if it had been a priest of the Goddess caring for her--though they're men, they have respect and understanding, not fear and loathing, for what's feminine." The older woman wrings out the washcloth to continue with my torso.

"Different face and name, and no balance. No true female counterpart to the male. 'Tis foolishness to separate the two." Morwen frowns suddenly, angrily. "Look you here!" She's pointing, but I don't have the strength to look myself. I feel her touch places on my arms and shoulders and chest. "Bruises where he's pinched her--probably to 'drive out the demon of sickness.' Bah!"

I look where the matronly woman indicates and I feel a chill go down my spine, my head shaking slightly in unwillingness to believe what my own eyes were showing me. "Someone will answer to me for this, have no doubt. A sick horse would have better treatment than this. Those that kept you from coming to Madule's aid are going to understand that I have not appreciated this, especially if they countermanded what my advisory council recommended."

I then look at Madule, into her glazed-looking eyes--eyes that should be the same bright, clear emerald that mine are. "Dear sister, did you even have time to let anyone know what your own wishes were?"

I dimly recall being pinched, and I know there are probably about two dozen little black-and-blue marks dotting my arms and shoulders and chest. I manage to make my eyes focus on my brother as he speaks to me, then frown a little, trying to frame a proper response rather than babbling in delirium.

"Glad to hear it, lad," Morwen growls as she washes my arms, pausing at one wrist to unwrap the stained bandage; she mutters angrily over the cut in the vein, then shouts for Elaine to bring her some bandages, salve, and pine tar.

Even though my maidservant's dashing about wildly to comply with the old woman's commands, she's smiling very broadly as she hurries into the room with a basket of the requested items.

My mind connects finally to my dry mouth, and I manage to answer Malaquin. "Tried . . . they wouldn't . . . listen . . ." My head lolls briefly against the rim of the tub as I struggle to tell him my suspicions, but all I can get out is "Wine . . ."

As Elaine dashes around and Morwen growls in disgust at the large bruised area where, time after time, the precious lifeblood of my twin was spilled, I gaze at my sister with tenderness, worry and compassion as she struggles to speak.

I'm not overly surprised to hear her confirmation, and my righteous anger becomes just that much more set. Then her head suddenly rolls to the side, and I swiftly place my hand against her head to keep it from striking the rounded edge of the marble tub. Her hair . . . it's so dull and brittle feeling as I caress her gently, listening to her struggle for a word.

"Wine?" I'm puzzled, and the first thing that comes to mind is that she's parched. She must be, and sitting in water might only worsen that. Looking up, I see that Elaine's gotten what my former nanny demanded and I'm quick to add my own. "Elaine, get your mistress some water with a bit of red wine in it. She needs to drink something after all that blood she's lost."

After setting the basket down for Morwen, my maidservant picks up the soiled nightgown. "Oh, no, Your Highness. She won't drink it. She kept saying that when she first fell ill. She had the last bottle she was drinking from locked away. I'll fetch her some water to drink, though."

Morwen frowns as she cleans and salves the cut in my wrist. "Strange, that she'd refuse to drink even though she's dry as a desert . . ."

"She won't . . ." A flash of a memory, of rich, deep red wine pouring from my flask in the dappled light of a glade in the woods, of my hand giving it to her . . . No, no . . . Could it be?

I stroke my sister's flushed face, looking at her, feeling cold inside. "Madule? If the wine were from my own flask, the one I've been drinking from as I've traveled home, would you consent to drink it?"

Of course, the liquid in my flask now isn't doctored or laced in any way. That I'm here and so obviously healthy can at least assure her that if this was something done deliberately, it wasn't perpetrated upon me.

I nod in response to Malaquin's question. I know I can trust his wine--it's the bottle that I was last drinking from that has my suspicion. It had to be the way they'd infected me. Nothing else made much sense.

Morwen finishes binding my right wrist, then gently takes my left hand from Malaquin to clean and bandage that wrist as well. "Elaine, take those linens and the gown out to the courtyard and have them burned. Fetch Malaquin's manservant and have him bring the wine flask. Then have him help you replace the mattress. It won't do much good to throw clean linens across a dirty mattress."

Elaine nods and hurries out, still grinning.

I can't resist, not seeing her lying there so helpless, a pale version of herself. I lean down and give her an apparently chaste kiss on her forehead. "When you're better, you can tell me what you know about that suspicious wine and who could have had access to it. For now, please, just get better. I--I--" Heavens above, my voice breaks in grief as I try to speak the next words of my thoughts. "Goddess, Madule, I don't want to go on without you here with me."

Perhaps if I were not in such an emotional state, I'd actually wonder why my sister's handmaiden is grinning so much in the first place.

I nod a little to show Malaquin that I heard him, then close my eyes again as Morwen finishes with my arm and begins washing my face. That feels wonderful, as the dried sweat is sluiced away by the sweet-smelling water.

"I'll need your help to wash her hair," Morwen informs Malaquin briskly. "She's got quite a lot of it, and it's all in knots and tangles."

"Of course. Just boss me around like usual, Morwen." I smile at the still-pretty matron; I'm kidding of course. "Tell me how'd you like me to help. I'm not a stranger to long hair, after all.

"Madule, you'll have to let go of me. If I'm going to be washing your hair, I'll need both hands."

Morwen was about twenty-five when she came to be our wet-nurse; she's in her middle years now, but her ash-blonde hair has gone completely silver-white, and the lines of care on her face give her an older appearance than her years.

I reluctantly let go of Malaquin's hair, but I keep my eyes open, watching him anxiously as he and Morwen go to work on my tangled, dulled hair, washing it with an herbal rinse. Morwen's strong fingers work the stuff into my scalp, making the skin tingle.

"Aye, I'll boss ye around. 'Tis safer than letting ye try to do things on yer own."

"And what's that supposed to mean?" I respond, slipping the dark strands of my sister's hair between my fingers, working out the worst of the tangles. I then drop my voice, suddenly very self-conscious; I'm still a lad, despite all that's happened recently. "I'm trying . . . I swear I'm trying to do my best . . ."

Morwen just smiles at me, reaching over to pick up a jar of scented cream. Her voice is quite gentle as she opens the jar to scoop out some of the pale pink cream to use on the knots in my twin's raven-hued mane. "I know ye are, lad, and it's a fine job indeed. Yer parents and yer uncle would be proud of ye both."

Not sure how to help next, I drop my hands to Madule's shoulders, giving her poor body one of those comforting rubs that I know she's fond of. I figure it's a wise course to let Morwen and the pink stuff deal with the knots in my sister's normally gorgeous mane. However, I can't keep from feeling a spike of pure joy at seeing that my beloved seems to be regaining some of her normal fire.

Still, I'm far from reassured at the kindly woman's words. "Would they? I'm sure my uncle would be cautioning even now to not make a mortal enemy of something like the Church. They may not have much power here in Aleona, but they are organized . . ."

I sigh happily at the shoulder rub, feeling Morwen's fingers in my ebony hair, unknotting the nasty snarls. I feel so much better already, so safe and comforted.

"Aye, he might be. Or he might realize how powerful the Church has become--too powerful--while ye were growin' up. Ye can't expect to handle that lot in fits and starts--ye need to put them firmly in their place." She's quiet for a moment. "Hand me a comb, lad."

"Of course," I reply, looking around. Ah, there. I don't stop what I'm doing with one hand, the fingers rubbing the too thin planes of Madule's shoulder, signet ring glimmering brightly against her wet, dark hair and my tanned skin. Taking a breath, I lean over and pick up the comb I spotted, though it makes me shift forward almost to the point where I'm lying across my sister's shoulder.

Straightening up with a sigh, I hand the intricately carved ivory utensil to Morwen. "I fear endangering the people I'm supposed to care for by being overly firm with the Church, but I can't in good conscience let them carry out this agenda they seem to think they have."

Morwen begins gently combing out the snarls; there are a few sharp tugs that make me whimper, but soon she's able to pull it through the thick, wet mane of my hair without a snag.

"That's right, lad. Ye need to step on them firmly, but don't be cruel unless they force it. If they've caused this illness, the people will rise against them anyway--do ye know how dearly the people love yer little princess?"

"I--No, I really don't," I admit, returning to giving Madule a soothing massage, my gaze drifting to look down at her. "I know that those of the old faith respect her, but I fear my own actions have done naught but make her a target of this supposedly pious force. Yet, I could not have done anything differently; I would do it all over again . . ."

Morwen continues combing and rinsing out my hair as she glances up at Malaquin. "They adore her, lad. She's as sweet and gracious with the servants as she is with the nobles--a generous and gentle mistress. Did ye happen to see how clean and neat the castle is when ye were comin' in? She had the whole place scrubbed from roof to cellar, and the servants are only too happy to follow her orders. She learned well from yer lady mother, rest her soul, just as ye learned how to be a fair and just ruler from yer uncle and yer father."

"I'll be sure to take a walk around and inspect the place. I'm afraid I was a bit . . . frantic . . . when I made my way through the castle from the inner bailey. I had to see if Madule was still truly alive or not . . ."

I'm not even aware of the caress I'm giving my sister's cheek--one that speaks far more of a lover's touch than that of a sibling's--at first, but at least I don't start and pull my hand away as if Madule had somehow turned fiery hot when I do realize what I'm doing.

Instead, I let my hand drift back down to rest on her shoulder. "Where the hell is Elaine with that? I'm sure you're positively dying of thirst, beloved sister."

"I think she'd like it if ye tell her what ye think of her skills as chatelaine," Morwen remarks pointedly, working out a last tangle in my hair even as Elaine hurries through the door with a cup of fresh water.

My maidservant holds the cup to my mouth, letting me sip from it; after the first sip, though, I whimper and try to turn my face away. It's so hard to swallow, my throat feeling as if it's been scrubbed with sand.

"Here, now, girl--her throat must be terrible sore," Morwen says crisply, rummaging in one of the many pockets of her skirts and coming up with a small vial. She measures a few drops of something into the water and swirls the cup to disperse it. "Let Malaquin give it to her now."

"Of course I'll tell you, beloved, what I think of how you've maintained our home, just as soon as I'm sure you won't leave me forever," I whisper to Madule, my lips very close to her earlobe. I'll be more than happy to do that, if only you'll stay.

I'm slightly surprised at Morwen's insistence that I be the one, but I know better than to argue with her. So I take the cup the buxom servant girl thrusts at my hand--and I do wonder at all her grinning. Still, I hold my tongue as I carefully tilt the cup against Madule's lips.

Another flash of a memory, of how lush and soft those very same lips had felt against mine, against my skin, moist and velvety, like a rose petal . . .

I swallow hard, that memory making me feel a heat that has nothing to do with illness and I force myself to concentrate on giving my princess a little sip of water at a time.

Morwen knows me very well, obviously. Even though I trust Elaine, it comforts me more to have my beloved brother care for me like this. I sip the water carefully, and the numbness that the matron's herbal extract brings is a relief that makes tears blur my vision.

I won't leave Malaquin. I won't. He needs me.

Morwen reaches down and pulls the plug from the bottom of the tub, letting it drain through the piping that channels down to the ingenious sewer system of the castle. Then she takes up a towel, wrapping my wet hair in it, squeezing the water out. "Lad, when we're done with dryin' her, I'll need to speak to you about curin' her."

I continue to offer the water to my twin a little at a time as the down to earth matron begins draining the bath and towels off Madule's hair. For whatever reason--most likely because it's actually clean again--I can see the deep blue highlights shimmering faintly within the damp strands. It's a sight that's enough to bring a small smile to my face.

"I'm completely at your disposal, Morwen. Whatever it takes to make her well again. I--I need her. She's my princess, the only other one that even comes close to what this realm needs."

My gaze drifts to the swirling waters as they speed down from my sister's tub. Hart Castle is a marvel, and this drainage system, as well as the pump system that pipes fresh water up to the floors of the castle are part of that. Long ago, invaders had come, bringing with them technologies like this. Though they eventually blended into us, their knowledge had made some improvements on what we had known. Now, of course, it's just "our" knowledge and "our" people.

Morwen waits until the bath has drained, then takes up another bucket of warmed water to sluice over my body, giving me a last rinsing. I feel so much better, my skin tinging and clean, carrying the fragrance of roses rather than the odor of unwashed flesh and sweat. She motions for Malaquin to help me lean forward so that she can get a towel around me, then has him lift me out to sit on the bench against the wall.

"Elaine! Fetch a skirt and blouse for the little princess."

Elaine sounds startled. "Morwen? Don't you mean a nightrail?"

"I say what I mean, girl. 'Tis clothes for outside that she'll be needing. See to it."

Morwen turns her gaze back to Malaquin as she dries me off. "It's going to take some difficulty, lad. If ye need her so, if ye want to keep yer sister by your side for years yet, ye must do exactly as I tell ye. Swear ye will do it."

So frail, so delicate. Once more I'm reminded strongly of her wasted state; she weighed so much more the last time I had held her in my arms. I can't resist the temptation to cuddle Madule as I transfer her from the marble tub to the bench on the opposite side.

Needless to say, I'm as startled as the handmaiden is by the command, and it must show on my face judging from Madule's words.

How can I refuse? Like it or not, my love resides with Madule and I fear a world without her there with me. I trust Morwen with a trust I give so very few others; she gave my sister and I some of the nourishment that was needed to keep up healthy infants. I can't see her betraying that trust, not to me, not to Madule.

"All right. I swear on the might of the Horned One I'll do what you ask me to do to cure my twin."

I love the feel of Malaquin cuddling me so gently as he helps me out of the tub, settling me on the bench. I blink at Morwen's words, surprised; what does she have in mind?

"Good, lad. Now . . ." The woman who's taken care of us since birth looks so serious as she dries me. "Ye must never tell another soul what I'm going to tell ye. 'Tis a well-kept secret, and it must remain so."

Elaine brings the clothing in, then discreetly leaves, closing the door behind her so that she and Cathal can change my bed without overhearing anything.

"In Hartwood, well past the place where ye underwent the feis, there's a little waterfall and a pool. 'Tis a sacred place, said to be blessed by the Goddess herself . . . a place of healing."

"I didn't know that such a place still existed where humanity could reach it . . ." My voice is low, soft, the surprise and awe of hearing of such a place sounding in its tone.

Then I get over the initial shock, my expression turning to a slightly critical one. "How are we going to get her there without tipping our hand?"

"Aye, it exists, true enough." Morwen takes up the undergarments that my twin's buxom servant has brought and begins to dress Madule. "The Goddess hasn't abandoned Her children, after all. As for how to get her there . . ."

She pauses and gives me a solemn look. "Ye'd have to take her there yourself--alone. I can give her something that should keep her strong enough to make the trip with ye. Even if someone tries to follow, or seek the place out after ye return, they'll not be able to. The Goddess will guide ye there."

"I understand," I tell the silver haired matron, then turn my attention to Madule. In between Morwen's tugging on some interesting-looking lace adorned piece of clothing, I give her cheek a caress with the tips of my fingers, just looking at her, the adoration I feel visible in my eyes.

I step back from her then, turning away, hair flowing over my shoulders as I walk over to the door to my twin's bedchamber. Tugging it open, I peek through--and see Cathal and Elaine not only making the bed ready for my sister but sneaking a kiss here and there on the sly.

Oh really? I hadn't realized there was an interest there. Not wanting to embarrass them overly much, I clear my throat in the hopes of getting their attention.

I do. It's a bit amusing to watch the pair jump back from one another as if they were scalded, then start carrying on in a very busy manner as if there was nothing going on. "Cathal, would you be so kind as to fetch me another shirt or tunic?"

"Of course, Your Highness. Right away," my dusky-blonde manservant replies, hastily retreating.

Smiling to myself, I step back and pull the door shut. I know he'll knock first and hand it to me through the doorway when he returns.

I close my eyes for a moment at the gentle caress, then open my eyes again to smile a little at him. I can see the love in his eyes; it warms me to the core, and I sigh sadly as he moves away from me, over to the door.

Morwen deftly eases me into chemise, blouse, and skirt, fastening buttons and tying laces loosely to make sure that I'm comfortable and that Malaquin won't have too much trouble when he reaches that forest pool.

The older woman stands up, giving Malaquin an amused look. "And did ye catch them doing something unseemly, lad?"

"Hmm . . . Depends on what you consider unseemly. They had paused in putting the clean sheets on the bed in order to share a kiss," I explain to Morwen, a slight grin on my face now. "I thought I'd give them the chance to recover themselves."

My statement's followed by a quick rap on the door. Opening it again, I have to step back as Cathal's hand almost forcefully thrusts a comfortable, loose fitting shirt at me. "Here, Your Highness."

"Thank you." I curl my fingers around the pale blue-gray cloth, then add, as he closes the door, "Why, Cathal . . . Someone would think you were in a bit of a hurry."

"Not at all, Your Highness," is his parting remark as the door latches shut.

Morwen chuckles, straightening out a few folds of my clothing. "Ah. Spring's definitely in the air . . ."

She chuckles again as Malaquin takes the shirt and steps back; then she bustles past him to open the door again. "Elaine, girl, fetch a warm cloak for the princess. And a pair of shoes, while you're about it. Cathal! See to it that a horse is readied for Malaquin."

Elaine's rather quick to bring the requested items, and I can see the blush on the cheeks of my buxom blonde maidservant. Morwen simply smiles and takes the cloak and soft half-boots, bringing them back over to me.

"Yes, it certainly seems to be." I chuckle as well, the sound of my deep tenor a harmonious undertone to the older woman's own amused laughter.

From the soft sounds of barely heard muttering, I don't think Cathal's thrilled to have to hoof it down to the stables and rouse the grooms to saddle up Sable. I'm sure he'll live if his amorous attentions are made to wait for just a bit longer.

Maybe that's the main reason why Elaine was grinning so? I have to wonder now about that. Still grinning in amusement myself, I turn my gaze to wander over Madule's beloved form. At least she's looking more like herself, though she's still so pale and so thin, and I feel another pang of anxiety fill me.

Morwen nods toward me. "Carry her out into the sitting room so we can get some food and drink into her before you go. If you're hungry, lad, you'd best have something now yourself."

I nod, tugging tight the final part of the lacing that closes up the neckline of my shirt and swiftly tying it. Tucking it into the waistline of my trews, I walk over to my sister and slip my arms around her. For just a moment, I look down at her, into her emerald eyes. How I love you . . .

With a hoist and barely a grunt of effort from me, I pick up Madule's too-light body and cradle her against my broad chest, snuggling her on the sly. I can't resist; I'm that joyful that she's still among the living.

As Morwen leads the way, I carry this precious armful into the sitting room of her suite, thankful that I didn't manage to come home too late.

I rest my head on Malaquin's shoulder as he carries me into the sitting room. He sets me down gently on one of my comfortably padded chairs; Morwen pulls a table over and brings over a tray that holds a bowl of hot, fragrant soup. She puts down the cup of medicinal water, then begins patiently feeding me as she did when I was only a very little girl.

"Ye arrived in time, lad. Goddess willing, ye'll reach the pool and undo what's been done to her before long."

"Yes, indeed." I watch our former nanny care for my sister for a moment or two, then glance over the room to see if there was anything more than the soup there to eat. It was something of a walk to reach the grove of the Sacred Marriage. It might be just as much a ride ere the evening is done. "I think she's willing. I survived the feis, after all."

Beside the soup, Elaine had thoughtfully brought some stew for Malaquin as well. I concentrate on swallowing--carefully--each spoonful that Morwen brings to my lips, and try to ignore the embarrassment of being unable to feed myself.

"Aye, that ye did. She smiles upon the two of ye, I think," the silver-haired matron responds.

"I hope so. We'll need all the help She deigns to give us now that we are no longer children and must play the parts we were born to play." I help myself to some of the stew and discover that I'm far hungrier than I had first thought. Ever since I was twelve, I've had quite the appetite and it hasn't abandoned me yet.

"What other things of note should I know about, Morwen? What else has happened while I've been away?"

The kind matron hums quietly as she feeds me and helps me drink from the cup. "Between yer council and little Madule here, there's been a few reforms put underway. I think those four fine lords are rather impressed by Madule's intelligence, this bein' a time when the Church has been tryin' to impress upon the people that women haven't got minds. Those four have been holding things together since she fell ill, but the Church still thinks it runs things and has been givin' them problems."

I shake my head slightly in disbelief. "What did the Council of Regents do? Sell Aleona to the Church, then, that they think they can do as they please?"

I had only seen that they controlled far too much land, and had far too many knights beholden to them for my own comfort. Too many of the fiefs they held have done mediocre to poor, and the only explanation I could find was because they were lands held by the Church. After Madule told me some of the attitudes they kept secret from me and I learned what to watch for, I saw that the children who were their wards were not treated as was their due, their lands' yield used for the glory of their God and not the support of the little lady or lord for whom it was intended.

All told, it was a pattern I disliked seeing, one that seemed to show a growing power base that could, in time, rival that of the Throne itself.

I couldn't let it continue.

"They let the Church have its way far too often, that's what." Morwen always did speak her mind quite openly.

I finally shake my head as she lifts another spoonful; she looks down at the bowl appraisingly. "Ye've put away barely enough to fill yer belly, but I suppose it shall have to do. Now be a good lass and don't be sick all over yer brother." She fastens the cloak around my shoulders, slips the boots onto my feet. "It's time to go now, lad."

"Thank you, Morwen. We both owe you yet again." I smile, then impulsively walk over and give my old nanny an affectionate hug, like I used to do those long-ago days before puberty hit and I sprouted like a beanstalk.

I turn loose of her, only to take up Madule in my arms once again. Perhaps she's a bit stronger, but I seriously doubt she'll be able to walk much of a distance at all. Girding myself for the foot-born journey, I hold my sister close. "I swear, I'll do my best to get you there. I need you, healthy and whole, beloved twin."

"Ah, lad, don't be silly. Ye owe me nothin', but if ye wish to repay me, then rule this land as fairly as ye can." My former nurse dabs at her eyes with the edge of her apron, then tucks a few packets of herbs into my belt purse. "Take these. They'll help her along the way."

After giving Morwen a final nod--and I must admit I wonder what it was she'd just given me--I stride out of my twin's quarters, the sounds of my bootheels on the sturdy floors of the castle echoing slightly. Madule and I both know this fortress as well as we know the backs of our hands, so it's nothing at all to call to my mind the swiftest path to take to get from the royal apartments down to the stables in the inner bailey.

I lay my head on his shoulder again, feeling so wonderfully safe with him as he carries me quickly and easily through the castle to the ground floor and the bailey. His horse is ready, and although people shy back nervously at the sight of me, Cathal doesn't flinch as he takes my weight long enough for Malaquin to mount his horse. Then the manservant lifts me up for my brother again.

I'm surprised there's no resistance at all, no group of people deluded or well-meaning that think I should be dissuaded from whatever I'm doing or that I must be mad.

It's almost too easy to get through the castle. Then again, everyone that saw me come in knows I was not in a mood to be trifled with. Perhaps the word spread to just stay clear of me for the moment.

My manservant's just about the only one I trust to keep my Madule safe as I climb up the saddle of my destrier and take my familiar place on Sable's back. Leaning down, gripping the saddle between my strong thighs, I carefully take my twin from Cathal's reaching grasp and then settle her on my lap. I don't feel comfortable having her ride behind me. I want to see her, make sure she's all right.

Yes, part of me just wants her sitting there. I won't deny that there's a thrill to that though, even with her as ill as she is.

"Your Highness?" I hear Cathal ask as he steps away.

"No, that's all. Find out what you can about my sister's illness, however. I know you of the staff know more than most give you credit for." Noting his look of disappointment, I give him a grin and a wink. "After your planned entertainment, Cathal. I'm not in that big of a hurry."

My manservant gives me a brilliant smile, then waves as I tap my spurless heels to Sable's flanks. Apparently Cathal's told the guard that I want out since the gatehouse is open to allow me to ride through.

Off we go, into the deepening twilight . . .

"Your Highness!"

It's that bloody priest again. I can glimpse him from the edge of my hood as Malaquin settles me across his thighs, one arm around me, the reins in the other hand. The priest has brought a number of nobles and a couple of other ecclesiastical types with him this time.

"What do you think you're doing, taking Her Royal Highness out of here?! She's terribly ill, Prince Malaquin! Are you trying to kill her?"

It's nice to hear that yelling coming from behind us now, as Malaquin rides out.

I don't even give them the consideration of an answer. Let them shriek all they want. I can feel that time's of the essence, and I cant's afford to waste it trying to explain myself.

One arm holds my twin close; my other hand keeps a loose grip on the reins. Sable's a very stable mount, not given to sudden panic or shying. The thunder of his hooves drums across the grass-covered knoll as we ride down its slope and to the farmlands that encircle the hill's base. Once past the agrarian land, we'll plunge into Hartwood Forest, then continue on as the Goddess may guide us.

I love the feel of her pressing against me, the smooth gait of my destrier making for some rather intriguing sensations between my sister and myself. Even so, just noting how thin she seems keeps the fact of her illness foremost in my thoughts.

"So far so good, beloved?"

I nod in response to Malaquin's soft words; the fresh air and the warmth of the afternoon sun feels so good, even though the light is so bright that I have to keep my eyes closed within the shadow of my hood. I manage to speak again; the numbness of my mouth and throat, given by the medicinal water, persists--mercifully enough.

"Won't . . . leave you . . . Malaquin," I get out slowly, softly.

The cool, green-dappled shadows of the trees welcome us into Hartwood; I feel a subtle change in the way Sable moves, as if he suddenly knows his path.

Chapter Four silver rose bullet Chapter Six

This page formatted and © 2001 - 2002 by Dianna Silver

"The Silverlands", "The Obsidian Tower", "A Character's Chronicle: Zoey's Story", "Alpha Psi", "Argent Stag, Silver Rose" and the "Rose Realm" all © 1997 - 2002 by Dianna Silver. Some material also © 1998-2002 by Krissy Ryan. "Shoujo Kakumei Utena", also known as "Revolutionary Girl Utena" and "La Fillette Revolutionnaire" all © 1997-2002 by Chiho Saito/Shogakukan, Be-Papas, Shokaku Iinkai, TV Tokyo, and Central Park Media

All Rights Reserved