Fate’s Star – Elizabeth Vaughan

Lord High Baron Verice leaned against the cool stone of the window sill and fought the cold inner rage that burned in his heart. He stared down into the gardens below as the men in the room behind him spoke of war. “You’re certain?” Captain Narthing asked in hushed tones. “Yes,” Pernard’s voice quavered. “The Barony of Farentell has fallen.” Verice heard the weariness in his friend’s voice; he shared his pain and grief. Someone in the garden below was humming a tune that Verice didn’t recognize. A faella’s voice, someone with a lighter heart than his at the moment. He wished them well of it, for it would not last long. The breeze caught a strand of his silver hair, and pulled it out of the window. Verice tucked it back behind his pointed ear and took in the scent of flowers and green growing things. Hard to think on death and war when such beauty lay just outside these walls. But that was his duty and the reason for his visit to Pernard’s manor. Verice turned his head back toward the room. “What of King Everard and his family? Any word?” Pernard, Captain Narthing and the others stood around the map table.

They all shook their heads in the negative. “None,” Pernard whispered. “All these months,” Verice sighed, looking back over the garden. “If they’d escaped, they’d have gotten word to me somehow.” Deep within, pain welled. A short life, made even shorter by violent death. Verice took a slow breath and closed his eyes. “Life is fleeting, life is pain, What need then to dance in the rain?” The verse floated up from the garden on the gentle breeze. Verice frowned, trying to spot the singer. Odd, such bitter words sung to such a joyous tune.

Rather like life itself. He straightened, shoulders back, his hand on his sword hilt and turned to face his people. All of his men, including himself, were armored in black leather and chain with weapons ready to serve. Pernard and his people were garbed in everyday attire, robes over tunics and trous. Verice wondered how long they would have the luxury of regular clothing. “Review the situation for us, Captain.” “Lord High Baron Verice of Tassinic, Lord Mayor Pernard of Anera,” Captain Narthing tended to use full titles in meetings such as this. He stood at the head of the map table as Pernard’s elven and half-elven warriors crowded around. “It’s been confirmed by sources within Edenrich, and by the reports of our scouts that have penetrated the border. The Barony of Farentell has fallen to the forces of the Usurper and the Baroness of the Black Hills.

” Dark mutters followed that statement. “They have laid waste to the land, burning towns and villages,” Narthing said. “The people have been killed, taken as slaves, or—” Narthing paused, then continued. “There are rumors that the Baroness is creating odium.” “Ancestors,” one of the warriors breathed. “Undead?” “We’ve only rumors,” Narthing said firmly. “That would explain the small number of refugees,” another mentioned. “And what refugees crossed over our border are for the most part hardened scum, or very desperate humans. They are causing difficulties all over Tassinic, stretching our City Watches,” Narthing said. “But the worst of that tide is probably past,” he added.

“There are exceptions,” Pernard protested. Narthing’s voice didn’t hold much apology. “We will deal with the humans fairly, until they prove otherwise. Interestingly enough, some of those fleeing are speaking of a prophecy of a Chosen One, that will restore Palins.” Verice snorted. Ancestors spare him that. Narthing continued, “But for right now, with so many maels in the regular army, the watches are spread thin. Lord Pernard, your lands share borders with Farentell and Summerford. Let’s see to the placement of your forces to the best advantage, eh?” Verice stayed silent. Narthing excelled at this; Verice’s services weren’t needed at the moment.

He already knew the ugliness of the reports that he was sharing. “The Kingdom of Palins seems intent on tearing itself to ribbons,” Pernard spoke. “What do we know of the other baronies?” “Lord Mayor,” Narthing said. “Of the eight High Baronies of Palins, six remain intact. To the best of our knowledge, Athelbryght has also fallen. If I may,” Narthing pulled out a large map of Tassinic, and spread it out over the table. “So far,” he said. “There have been skirmishes along our border, but nothing more than that. And they’ve usually withdrawn as soon as we arrive to confront them.” Narthing made no gesture toward Tassinic’s other border, the one with the Elven Kingdom of Valltera.

Verice approved. These people had enough worries for the moment. “They are testing us,” a warrior growled. “We thought them bandits, at first.” Pernard pulled forth a smaller map of his town and the surrounding farms. “So far, only two farmsteads have been attacked. The families there managed to flee, and they report seeing the banner of the Black Hills on the attackers.” “I am ordering that you pull everyone in your district within the walls,” Verice said. He held up a hand to fend off protests. “We can replace buildings, breed new herds.

It’s the maels and faellas I value above all else.” “We’ve stout town walls, thanks to your foresight, m’lord.” Pernard said. “It’s the farmers you must convince.” “I’ll speak to them.” Verice gave the mael a wry look. “And use more than words if there’s a need. Any so stubborn as to stay on his land is welcome to, but I will demand that the faellas and children be brought to safety.” Verice kept the meeting brief, making sure they understood the important points. Actual details would be worked out later.

For now, it was enough that they knew his plans to defend Tassinic. After enough time for questions, he called the meeting to a close and dismissed them. “We’ll reconvene shortly,” he commanded. “With the guildmasters and farmers and any others that wish to attend.” They bowed, and streamed out, talking in quiet undertones. He didn’t need to hear what they said; there was a lighter note to their voices. Satisfied, he turned back to the window for a moment. The singer was still in the garden, humming, again. The sound was sweet. “Lord Verice, perhaps you’d like to take some refreshment with me before the next meeting?” Pernard came to stand beside him.

“There’s something I’d wish to discuss privately, if you don’t mind. Some kav, perhaps?” “My thanks, Pernard.” Verice gestured out the window. “Perhaps we could stroll in your garden for a bit?” “You would do me an honor,” Pernard smiled. “The cuttings you provided have done very well. My roses are particularly lovely this year. And, may I ask, how do yours fare?” Verice’s heart froze. “I’ve no idea,” he clipped out the words. “I haven’t stepped foot in the gardens since—” he cut himself off, trying to control his anger. “Forgive me, m’lord,” Pernard apologized with a tilt of his head.

“I’ll have the kav brought to you.” Verice gave a swift nod and strode from the room. He stalked the corridors, his thoughts grim. Damn the Regent. Damn Elanore. Everard had been a rare human, with a sense of honor as strong as his own. He’d sworn fealty to the man, gone down on his knees to do it, a thing unheard of. An elf swearing allegiance to a human king. But Verice had known that Everard had been worthy of his oaths. Human lives were so short compared to his own.

Even worse, it seemed that Everard had been cut down by treachery within his own castle, by his own kind. Verice growled under his breath. Now here he was, an elven High Baron in a human kingdom, with civil war on one border, and the elven Court on another. Somewhere, his ancestors were mocking him. He stepped out into the garden, into the bright sun, and caught his breath. The area was walled in, and not large, compared with his gardens back home. But Pernard was clever in his use of the space he had, and the effect was lovely. An apple tree stood to one side, providing shade over a bench. Verice remembered when Pernard had planted the seedling. To the other side, a small path wound around a series of thick rose briars, made to look as if they’d overgrown the area, but in fact were carefully trimmed.

Verice took a deep breath, and forced himself to tread slowly and enjoy the serenity that the colors and scents brought. He’d just steal a few moments before— “Life is fleeting, life is pain. What need then to dance in the rain? What need then to sleep in the night, safe in the arms of my lover held tight?” Verice looked around, curious. The song was soft and low, clearly not intended for another’s ears. He didn’t know the words, but the tune was sweet, and the voice…he walked forward. “What need to love or laugh or sing, or bind you with my wedding ring?” He spotted a small foot peeking from under a tattered skirt, sheltered by the roses. It was fair, although bare and dirty. A faella, he guessed, although he couldn’t see her ears. She knelt, half-hidden under one of the bushes. He continued, barely breathing, not wanting to startle her, but wanting to see her face.

“Close or far, low or high, I shall love you ere I—” There was a gasp, a flash of movement. Verice paused in mid-step. “Forgive me, lady. I didn’t mean to—” The rose bush trembled and petals fell to the ground as the faella jumped up, and darted past him. He had a glimpse of tattered skirt, tunic and head scarf all of faded dull color as she fled. She was headed for the apple tree. The warrior in him rose and gave chase, his long legs eating up the gap between them. She’d grabbed for the lowest limb and pulled herself up, rose petals falling from her skirt. He reached up, capturing her ankle. She looked down, her brown eyes wide.

Her scarf caught in the branches, and her blonde hair tumbled down around her. Ancestors, this was no elven lass. His singer was human. The very idea made Verice pause, slightly stunned. Humans were rare in Tassinic, despite it being a Barony of a human kingdom. She was pure human, from the looks of her ears. Her brown eyes were large and startled, with flecks of gold in their lovely depths. “Who are you?” he demanded as she tried to kick her leg free. He held her easily, her skin warm against his hand. She froze, her lips parted…and then her stomach growled loudly.

She flushed and dropped her gaze, golden lashes against her cheek. Verice felt the loss. A clatter came from the garden entrance. Two servants were wheeling in a cart, Pernard right behind. Verice turned slightly to call to him. The woman kicked out, slipped from his hand, and vanished up the tree and over the wall. Verice barked out a laugh, more at himself than anything else. “M’lord,” Pernard called. “What do you think of my—is something wrong, m’lord?” “There was a human here, under the rose bushes. A woman.

” Verice turned to frowned at his old friend. “So much for the security of your walls.” “Ah.” Pernard relaxed, settling on a bench and pouring kav. The servants bowed themselves away. “All’s well, m’lord. We have sheltered some of the humans that fled Farentell. There are not many, mostly women and children. It was to be a temporary measure, but with the news you bring, I fear we will have to make more permanent arrangements. I was hesitant to mention it, because—” Verice frowned as he sat on the bench next to him.

“My preferences are known, Pernard, but I’ve never permitted humans to be treated unfairly.” “I know, m’lord,” Pernard offered a mug to Verice before pouring his own. “But with the recent attacks…” His voice trailed off. “I wasn’t certain how to approach you with the problem.” “Well, give Narthing the details, and we’ll make such provisions as we can,” Verice said. “I’m not inclined to encourage more of them to come here, but I’ll send no innocents back into that conflict.” Verice sipped the kav. “What Narthing didn’t tell your people is that there has been a buildup of troops along the border with Valltera.” Pernard sucked in a breath. “Why?” “I don’t know,” Verice said.

“I’ve let my contacts lapse within King Barathiel’s Court, and my diplomatic inquires have been responded to with vague diplomatic answers.” Pernard shook his head. “We don’t need this right now.” Verice snorted his agreement. “You said you had something else to discuss…” Pernard nodded, staring down at the mug in his hands. “M’lord,” he said slowly, not lifting his gaze. “It’s been months since the attack. Some of your other advisors and staff have asked me to talk to you about the castle and the keep.” “No,” Verice said. Pernard lifted his head, and Verice had to look away from the pity he saw there.

“Verice—” “No,” Verice said, and this time he let the venom show in his voice. “My orders stand.” “You cannot continue in this manner,” Pernard argued. “Do not think to presume upon our friendship,” Verice warned. Pernard went silent. “As to this assembly,” Verice said, trying to return to a reasonable tone. “How many of the farmers have you managed to gather, and who is likely to give me the most resistance?” Pernard took the hint. “All of them have gathered, and I fear they are all resistant. They’re a stubborn folk.” He glanced at Verice.

“Much like their Lord High Baron.” Pernard was correct. The gathering with the angry and terrified farmers was as tense and difficult as Verice anticipated. But halfway through the questions and arguments, Verice found himself thinking about her. About the woman in the garden. Pure humans were rare in his lands, and not permitted within his castle. Did that growling sound mean she was hungry? He frowned at the thought, causing the onion farmer in front of him to sputter and lose track of his speech. Annoyed with himself, Verice used the moment to cut through their protests and order that they take shelter within the town walls. While Narthing was summarizing the scouting reports in detail, Verice found himself thinking about her again. Pernard was surely generous with food; it was in his friend’s nature.

So, why was she hungry? She hadn’t picked the flowers, just sheltered there, singing. Annoyed with himself, he forced his attention back to Narthing’s words and the damned maps. Later, while inspecting the town walls and examining the defenses, the flapping of a flag caused to him to blink, and the sight of tumbling gold hair flashed before his eyes. He growled under his breath, causing the warriors around him to glance around for the source of his irritation. Even more annoyed with himself, Verice walked on. Finally, the day turning to evening, he stood next to his horse, ready to depart. “Send reports regularly,” Verice said to Pernard. “Let me know if those farmers give you trouble. If I have to, I will return with more men, and—” “Not necessary, Lord High Baron,” Pernard said. “On behalf of my district, I offer our thanks for your care and watchfulness.

” “Just see to them all, Pernard,” Verice said. “And have a care for yourself, old friend.” “I’d remind you that sauce for the goose works for the gander, m’lord,” Pernard said softly. “Have a care yourself.” Verice nodded, and put his foot in the stirrup. His horse shifted, and he gripped the saddle to mount— —and caught the scent of roses from the garden. He settled back to the ground with a thump, startling both horse and the warriors around him. “M’lord?” Pernard raised an eyebrow as Verice turned. “Take me to those humans.” Chapter Two Warna slapped another swaddling cloth into the tub of hot soapy water.

Whatever else, she’d not go back into that garden, no matter how lovely the flowers were. The fear of being discovered was a lesson well learned, she thought as she started scrubbing. As a child, she’d dreamed of elves and the Kingdom of Valltera, listened to stories about them and their magic. The reality was colder and harsher than she cared to think on. Although Tassinic was filled with more half-elven than anything else, not that she could tell the difference. Children’s voices rose, reciting their numbers. They were gathered together with their mothers, laughing at silly rhymes. Warna’s fears eased as she scrubbed another cloth. So nice to hear, instead of weeping and tears. So nice to be worrying about laundry, rather than hiding in the forests and listening for the tramp of soldiers.

Warna grimaced as she reached into the hot soapy water and pulled out yet another swaddling cloth. Caring for the children had its pleasant moments, but this was not one of them. Still, it had to be done. She scrubbed the cloth as clean as she was able, then added it to the rinse water. Lord of Light be thanked, at least they had hot water and soap. Amazing how grateful one was for the basics when you’d lost everything. Warna glanced around the cobblestoned yard. She’d already covered every available surface with clean laundry, and she still had more to dry. Thankfully, the sun was shining. She’d fled her home with naught but the clothes she wore.

She’d spent months alone, hiding in ditches and the woods. It had only been in the last few weeks that she’d met up with others fleeing the devastation. They hadn’t been certain they’d be welcome in Tassinic, but the people of Anera had offered them such shelter as they had, cleaning out one of the barrack’s barns. They’d bedded them down in the lofts with plenty of straw and blankets. It was supposed to be a temporary solution, or so it had been explained. But the conflict had followed them, and now Anrea had to see to itself. The barracks were still filled with warriors, but they were gone most of the day. They’d shelter, food, and the basics, thank the Lord of Light and Lady of Laughter. The children were warm and safe for now. They’d learn their numbers, eat their suppers, and sleep in safety.

And dirty yet another load of nappies for her to scrub.

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