Movement fills the castle as people rush around preparing for the arrival foreign diplomats. Word had only been sent a few days prior that the diplomats were on their way. The king had immediately ordered rooms to be readied and food to be prepared ahead of time. A welcome feast, he insisted, needed to be had. The understaffed castle struggled to keep up with the demands and are still working only hours before the diplomats are expected to arrive. Multiple guards were roped into aiding the maids and chefs with smaller tasks. Panic erupts through the castle as word spreads that the diplomats are here already. Whispers start up that these are no mere diplomats and to get the king immediately. A few guards are tasked with leading the newcomers to the waiting room.
The room is large but empty save for a couple of benches stationed across from each other to the right and left of the room. The two guards standing at attention beside one of the benches as much decoration as the sprawling rug and unlit iron chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling. A tall, elegantly dressed woman walks into the room first. She is haloed by the sun, its light ignites her blonde hair into a cascade of silken gold. The red of her dress shifts to black as she takes delicate steps across the stone. She is followed by a man as tall as her, his red suit matches her dress and is accented by gold thread along the borders. His black hair is short and his beard groomed into a light stubble that stretches over his long chin and jutting cheekbones. Beside the man is a younger one, a boy barely into his teens, wearing the same outfit. He looks to be the perfect blend of the two adults he is trailing after. Brown hair simultaneously flashing a bright red and retreating into a shadowy black. His hazel eyes a spiral of his mother’s green and father’s brown are set in a slightly rounder, softer version of his father’s angular features. He scans the room with the curious apprehension a child has when visiting a new place. His hand reaches out, fingers uncurling from a fist. He brushes the silk cloth of his father’s shirt, seeking comfort but he pulls his hand away before he can get any. His other hand, still clenched at his side, trembles slightly. The pinky sticks out and makes a small circle in the air before retreating back into the warmth of its companions. Another woman, younger than the first but still older than the boy, enters the room. Her own eyes, a mix of the ocean’s aquamarine and the light green of fresh leaves, dart from the faces of the guards to the doors on either sides. She steps quickly to the boy’s side and stops when the he does, drawing her hands behind her back and clasping the opposite wrists. The pitch blackness of her pants are a sharp contrast to the vibrant red of her companions’ clothes and the grey of her shirt brings to mind fog in the early winter mornings.
An old woman stands from the bench on the right side of the room. The hard brown fabric of her skirt scrapes the wood as she does so. In her hands she is grasping a walking stick a head taller than her. Her gray hair is thin and wispy, falling in loose strands over her shoulders. She takes a step forwards, the wrinkles around her eyes drawing tighter as she smiles warmly at the guests.
“It is good to see you again Ruling Lady Everette,” the woman greets in an aging voice.
“It is indeed, grandmother,” Lady Everette replies. Her voice is warm and lilting and she steps closer and allows herself to be drawn into a hug by the old woman. When she pulls away she sweeps an arm over to the three people behind her.
“My husband, Ruling Lord Umbren and our son and his Witch Protector,” she introduces. The old woman dips her head to each in greeting as their titles are said.
“These are my adopted sons and at times personal guards, Decker and Keyne,” she adds. The two guards bow deeply when their names are said. Decker is shorter than Keyne and Lady Everette, with mussed dirty blonde hair that end in vague spikes. His gray eyes always seem to dance, with mischief and mirth, his pale pink lips curling at the edges. His build is made for quick, light attacks and his prefered weapons, a rapier and throwing daggers, reflect this perfectly. In contrast Keyne is tall and stocky with long, muscles limbs. His brown eyes are dark and serious and his face rests in a neutral frown. He hits harder and slower than his brother, favoring halberds and axes and war hammers. Both men stand in such a way that attributes to the training they have gone through in the country’s army, relaxed enough to keep the visiting dignitaries at ease but with muscles tense enough to spring into action at the slightest threat. Hazel eyes run over the two men with interest. The boy makes a sign with his left hand, slowly drawing it up to beneath his ribs and flashing his first two fingers. His Protector’s eyes dart to his side before they slide over to the two men. Her lips thin into a tight line and she swipes her right hand back and forth over her thigh, fingers stretched out but kept together.
‘Danger.’ ‘Ignore it’
The old woman’s dark eyes follow the subtle interaction while smiling and nodding along with her granddaughter. She waves her hand in front of her, as if disregarding a statement made by the Ruling Lord. While she does so, however, she pauses and allows her middle and ring fingers to hover in the air at an angle pointed towards the pair. The two fingers dip slightly before her whole hand begins moving again.
‘I see (you).’
A sharp intake of breath comes from the boy and he dares a worried look at his Protector. The young woman appears unfazed, merely looks back at the woman with a quirk of her eyebrows. The two guards watch on, a level of amusement humming beneath the impassive planes of their faces.
“Ah I am so pleased to get a chance to meet my great grandson before I die,” the old woman comments as she steps forward between the two rulers.
“Baba you are not that old,” Decker inserts quickly. The old woman laughs, reaching back to pat his arm. Dark eyes meet wide hazel, the old woman regarding her kin. The boy stares back at her nervously. He shifts closer to his Protector who extends her arm and brushes her elbow against his.
“You are quite the handsome young man aren’t you?” the old woman asks with a soft smile. The boy blushes and ducks his head away from the attention. His mother beams, picking up on the approval in her grandmother’s voice.
“He is nearing his fourteenth birthday,” she brags. Her husband looks at her indulgently, mouth twisted into a mix between a sneer and a smile. A door opens s on the other side of the room and all heads turn to watch as another walks inside. He looks similar to the man already in the room though everything about him is darker in a way. His sharp, beady eyes focus on the Ruling Lady before sliding over her son and his Protector. They focus on the young woman for a while and though she wants to she does not flinch beneath his gaze. She does curl her right hand into a fist, leaving her thumb sticking out. She brings the hand up, gliding the thumb up and over her hip until the knuckles of her other fingers are resting on the bone.
She glances over at the guards’ snickers, her face warming as a dusting of pink appears on her cheeks. Green-blue eyes drift to the old woman smiling serenely in front of her. Her black eyes are dancing in amusement but she makes no comment, spoken or otherwise, as she turns to face the new man.
“King Beverly may I introduce my granddaughter, the Ruling Lady and her family?” she speaks up. Introductions and bows are passed around, the king pressing a kiss to the back of the young Protector’s hand. She smiles to cover up her disgust and signs ‘pervert’ again, adding two extra strokes up and down her thigh, changing the meaning to ‘predator.’
“Ah cousin it is so good to see you again!” the king announces as he moves to embrace the Ruling Lord.
“Beverly you have not changed at all since I last saw you,” the Ruling Lord replies, returning the action. The king gasps, as if offended.
“Since we last saw each other a decade ago I would hope I at least look a bit more regal,” he quips. The Ruling Lord strokes his chin thoughtfully for a while before shaking his head.
“Nope. Exactly the same,” he asserts. With a scoff the king turns away.
“You don’t know anything Darren,” he grumbles. The Ruling Lady watches the exchange, a puzzled and somewhat uncomfortable look appearing on her face. The old woman draws the boy in closer, motioning for his Protector and the guards to come closer. With curious and more than a little uneasy looks at each other they huddle around the old woman, leaning down to hear what she says as she begins whispering in the boy’s ear.
“Why don’t you lot go explore the castle while the adults and I talk about boring things hm?” she suggests. The guards reel back, opening their mouths to protest but are cut off by a sharp hand gesture.
“These two will need guides and I will be fine with the King’s personal guards,” she tells them. Decker heaves an overdramatic sigh but nods along with Keyne. The old woman smiles pleasantly and turns her attention to the still bickering cousins.
“Well now we are here for a very important reason and we should start up on that now, shouldn’t we?”
“Yes, indeed,” the Ruling Lady leaps at the chance to divert the men’s attention. “Dear why don’t you run off and play while your father and I talk?” Her eyes drift past her son and land on his Protector, reaffirming the constant order she has. The young woman inclines her head with a placating upturn of her lips, rolling her eyes when the older woman turns away.
The boy squints as the noon sun assaults him, finally breaking through the high buildings that surround the castle ground. Guard towers, Keyne had explained to him when asked, built years before the alliance that holds their two countries together. The guards that had been accompanying them for the day had left, called away by a higher ranking member of the country’s vast army. They were reluctant to leave but at the Protector’s instance they finally did so with the promise of returning as soon as they could, and the request that the pair stays in the modest garden. The boy scans the garden curiously, trying to pick out any flowers he recognizes. Beside him his Protector is twirling a twig between the fingers of her left hand.
“So Kareen what do you think?” his Protector asks in a low voice in case anyone is near enough to overhear them. The boy looks up at her curiously but she is not looking at him, her gaze directed at the moss covered wall barely visible behind a myriad of bushes and trees on the opposite end of the garden. Kareen shrugs absently.
“This place just feels,” he pauses while trying to think of the proper word. Lifeless. The word slips into his consciousness. The boy tilts his head to the side and ponders the word, eventually nodding and relaying it to his Protector. The woman snorts.
“It is a rather apt description,” she agrees. Aquamarine eyes sharpen as they look at her charge. Kareen looks back and she catches sight of the inky blackness that resides in the boy’s mind with him.
“Of course it only makes sense. They aren’t connected to the other side here like we are,” she waves her left hand vaguely in the air. I do not envy them.
“At least they are not plagued by witches and demons,” the boy jokes. He feels the pressure of a hand pushing against the back of his head and another simultaneously against his mind. He shakes his head against the sensations and walks further into the garden. The grass, wet from the previous days rains, yields to his steps. The air is still. No wind to push around the branches of the trees and make their leaves dance. It is unusually silent. Kareen blinks as the realisation hits him. There are no birds around, odd for the time of year if what Decker and Keyne were saying was true. And why would they lie about something so mundane. This is wrong.
“Yeah. Hey Audrey?” he begins. When he doesn’t continue the woman in question makes a curious noise in encouragement for him to continue. She turns to look for charge with furrowed brows, tucking a strand of honey blonde hair behind her right ear. He is standing a short ways away staring blankly at a brightly colored flower. The Protector hums thoughtfully, peering at her charge’s face.
“Hello you two, everything alright?” she calls out. No response.
“Young Lord?” she tries again. Flexing her arms she feels the tightness of her hidden weapon, the wire pressing into her flesh ever so slightly. There is a shudder of movement and Kareen is staring up at his Protector with wide eyes. Audrey can see the beginnings of tears in them and the inky shadows that threaten to overtake his mind. She surges forward, drawing the younger into her arms.
“I want to go home,” he breaths into her ear. Hiccuping a sob he wraps his arms around her and holds on tightly. The woman coos at him softly. Replying to his distress with comforting whispers and the promise that they will be home soon enough. The Protector loosens her control on the wires encompassing her arms, knowing that he could feel her tenseness. She listens as the boy’s crying fades. Though she feels the balance of power within in her charge change she does not release him.
“I do not like it here, Witch. Beyond being lifeless this place is utterly devoid of living beings. I fear for us.” The words, spoken softly and in a voice so unlike the boy’s own though it comes from his lips, sends a shiver down the woman’s spine. She nods, giving the boy one last squeeze before letting hm go and plastering an enthusiastic smile on her face.
“It’s getting late, I wonder where Decker and Keyne are,” she muses. The blackness fades from the boy’s eyes, disappearing entirely in one final blink. Clouds have begun to fill the sky. Blocking out the light of the fading sun. Voices raised in panic and outrage erupt into the air. Audrey whips her head around, eyes narrowed. She clenches her fists by her sides, the wires cutting into her arms. Kareen retreats behind his Protector even as his pupils block out the hazel of his eyes. The wind picks up around the pair. Forming a vague shield. They wait with baited breath as the voices grow louder. Wordless shouts that startle flinches from the Protector. The door leading to the garden slams open. Audrey throws her arm out, a thin nearly invisible black wire shoots through the air. Aquamarine eyes widen and the girl freezes. The wire stays suspended in the air, the dagger at the end mere centimeters from her charge’s mother’s throat. The Ruling Lady follows the chord back to its owner. Green eyes narrowed and mouth pursed in anger.
“Mother!” Kareen exclaims, as surprised as his Protector. The Ruling Lady’s attention shifts to her son. She notes the hand clutching at a silver shirt. Notices the tremble that runs through the girl as she tries to keep herself perfectly still, causing the shirt to ripple like waves.
“Ah you found him,” the king says pleasantly, peaking from behind the Ruling Lady’s shoulder.
“Dear one come here, it is time for dinner,” she urges. There is a faint tremor in her voice. Residual fear from not knowing where her son had gone and assuming the worst as mothers are wont to do. Kareen releases his Protector and steps away from her.
“Stand down,” he orders. Aquamarine darts to meet vibrant hazel. A sharp intake of breath and slowly, inch by inch, Audrey relaxes. The wire snakes back beneath her sleeve, the dagger disappearing last. The young woman places a shaking hand over her breast. Her heart is pounding so hard she fears, foolishly, that it will burst from her chest. She follows her charge back into the castle, taking deep breathes as she does so in a desperate bid to steady herself.
As they enter the dining room she notices Decker and Keyne, once again standing at attention by the old woman. She tilts her head to the side minutely at the annoyance easily visible on both their faces. The old woman catches her attention and the Protector is able to make out ‘peace’ and ‘danger’ amidst the rapid hand movements she is making while talking to the Ruling Lord. Audrey can feel the faint prickle of Kareen’s eyes on her as she replies, hitting her inner left thigh with her left fist. ‘Holding’ or more accurately ‘waiting.’ As with most signs its meaning changes depending on those privy to the conversation and the situation surrounding it. Witches, Kareen hears in the back of his mind, the only way to get a clear answer from them is from their most ambiguous of languages. The boy finds himself inclined to agree. Even with his knowledge of the signs. He is about to add to the unspoken conversation when the food arrives. Throughout the meal he senses his Protector making a wide variety of signs behind him. He watches the old woman carefully but sees no indication of a reply. He does, however, notice a few jolting, broken movements from her guards. Placing down his fork he leans back in his chair and rests his left hand over it. He taps his pointer finger against the table twice then sweeps his thumb out, away from his hand, then back in after a breath.
‘Test?’ He does not need to see his Protector to know her answer. A curling up of her lips into a sly smile. He watches as red begins to make its way over the two guards faces, their eyes locked on his Protector just behind him. He resists the urge to turn around and see what his friend could possibly be doing. Reaching up with his right hand he brushes down his throat, starting from behind his ear, disguising the action by scratching the area just after.
‘Tease.’ The barked laugh that escapes the woman as the gesture is repeated by the old woman and the guards is met with a withering glare by the Ruling Lady. Kareen hides his own laugh behind a sip of water. His hazel eyes meet the dark brown of his great grandmother’s and he is suddenly glad his mother dragged him all the way here. Though everything about this country puts him on edge.
As dinner continues the conversations die down. The adults, having drunk their fill of wine, are beginning to speak with a faint slur in their voices. The guards from both sides eye the remains of the meal with envy. On normal occasions they would be eating with their respective nobles, joking and talking, but this is as much a show of force as it is a diplomatic mission. And such behavior would be looked down upon in this setting. The Young Lord is not often with his parents during meals either, the times more often spent with various nobles of the richer households. Eventually the visiting rulers excuse themselves from the table. Citing the difference in time zones as an excuse. The king nods and smiles, asking his cousin to join him for a few moments. The Ruling Lord spares a glance at his wife, simultaneously asking permission and declaring his intent to go anyway. The woman inclines her head at him as she gathers her son.
“Goodnight. I will see you in the morning,” the Ruling Lady says as she ushers her son out of the dining room.
“Dear I ask that your son and his Protector meets me for tea before the sun is too high tomorrow,” the old woman announces. The Ruling Lady pauses in her steps and looks back at her grandmother.
“Indeed,” she comments. Her face is a blank mask that sends an uneasy shiver running down the Protector’s spine when she turns to follow. Keyne frowns and shares an uncertain glance with his brother. The shorter man is bouncing nervously on the balls of his feet, his hands twitching. The taller guard finds the restless energy radiating from his brother mirrored in himself. He nudges the other with an elbow, catching gray eyes in brown.
“Spar later?” he offers. Relief floods gray eyes and the shorter male nods enthusiastically. They follow the old woman out of the dining hall. Slipping through the server’s door they make their way through the castle hidden by the dust filled halls. Outside the night air is crisp with cold. Only the lights from the stars, faint as they are with the clouds doing their best to block them, shine in the darkness. Already the ground is covered in frost. It crumbles beneath the weight of the trio. Crunches loud in the stillness of the night.
The old woman’s house rests in the corner of castle grounds. Braced up against the wall that surrounds the castle the hut has been used by the residing Witch for generations. It is nearly overgrown with plants, most notably the wisteria whose flowers bloom a delicate crystalline blue. Transforming the simple wooden shack into a cascading waterfall of petals. Only the door is left untouched by the foliage that encompasses the dwelling. The doorknob is made of polished brass that glows with an inner light as the old woman draws closer.
“There is something more to their visit,” she says as she places her hand on the shining metal. Her guards shift uneasily at the words. There is no wondering who their adoptive mother is talking about. They walk into the house at her urging, following the old woman with wary eyes as she closes the door behind her. She waves a hand at the fireplace. Heat and light erupt within the house. She sinks into a chair in front of the newly formed fire. A sigh escaping her as the flames warm her chilled bones. Decker and Keyne take seats themselves, pulling chairs from the small dining room table and dragging them closer.
“I only met her a couple of times during her parents’ rule but I learned one thing about my granddaughter,” the old woman begins after a few minutes of tense silence. The fire crackles at her pause, spitting embers into the air. She catches them in the palm of her hands.
“She is not fit to rule Narachel,” she says the words gravely, “She is a fine woman and mother both. And certainly would do well in a noble’s house but not an entire country.”
“Too prideful. Competitive. I fear she will compromise the alliance between Narachel and Anaresh. It is tremulous enough with Narachel’s connection to magic and Anaresh’s focus on militaristic expansion but it is also for those reasons that this alliance can not fail.”
“Baba,” Decker starts quietly. The old woman’s eyes snap up to him. Her face is drenched in shadows cast by the flickering light of the embers in her hands. The shorter guard falls silent looking to his brother.
“What are talking about Baba?” Keyne asks tentatively. The old woman heaves a sigh scattering the embers. The fire sways and the room drops in temperature. She offers the men a smile.
“Oh never you two mind. Just the ramblings of an old woman,” she assures. Decker gasps playfully.
“Nonsense you are not that old!” he exclaims. Soft laughter rumbles through the house, warming all of them.
“I thank you dear,” the old woman says, “now I know you have a few questions about Narachel and her ways. Come on, out with them.”
“Why do they never use each other's names?” Keyne asks first. Speaking as Decker opens his mouth. He closes it with a click and nods, looking to the old woman with rapt attention.
“I am sure I told you this before,” the old woman muses, “When someone is born, it is said, that their parents are shown a vision of who that person is. Their parents then give them a Name. These Names are thought to hold power. If you know someone’s Name you have power over them. As such first names are not used in company and only the closest of friends and family are privy to someone’s Name. Traditionally when referring to people we use titles first, then titles and family names, then family names, and finally Names when referring to people. It all gets very complicated and I’m glad that I was elected to come here where we can just call people by their names.” A round of snickers follows her last statement.
“Who is the girl that is always with the, Young Lord? She was introduced as his Protector but what does that mean?” Decker asks.
“She is a young Witch employed to be his bodyguard. Most likely has been with him since he was born. She is well versed in the Witch’s code,” she explains.
“So is he,” Decker is quick to interject.
“That he is. Whether it is from him being a Witch himself or from her teaching him personally I am not sure.”
“If she did teach him, is that, I don’t know, bad?” Keyne presses. The old woman shakes her head.
“The code was intended to be used by Witches to communicate discreetly. We are the minority after all, and there have been many instances throughout history of our kind being killed by fearful citizens. During the darkest times a Witch would teach the code to a trusted friend or family member just to have some of that feeling of community back. I believe that if she did teach him the code it was so that they could talk to each other around his parents,” the old woman explains.
“Like you did with us.”
“Exactly. Now it is rather late and there is bound to be more excitement tomorrow,” the old woman says as she stands. Her adopted sons leap to their feat and hover around her as she makes her way to the back of the house.
“Goodnight Baba.” The men tell her.
“Goodnight boys,” she replies. The door closes with a click and the two guards are left standing in the shadows. They linger there for a few moments. Uncertain. Decker nudges his brother, breaking the stillness.
“You owe me a spar,” he whispers into the darkness. Keyne rolls his eyes.
“I did say something about that didn’t I?” The pair starts to walk back through the house.
“Mention it? You offered!”
“Mhm. Sure.” A gust of wind pushes past them, extinguishing the fire that was dying down in the fireplace. Decker shivers but draws a pair of daggers anyway. Kicking the door closed behind him, Keyne frees the halberd that had been resting on his back.
“Let’s make it quick. I hate the cold,” the taller man grumbles. It is Decker’s turn to roll his eyes. He tosses a dagger into the air and levels his brother with an amused look.
“All the more reason to draw it out. Generates heat,” he insists. He catches the dagger and points it at Keyne dramatically. His lips quirk upwards at the blankness of his brother’s face barely outlined by the light of the stars. Keyne swings the blade of his halberd around causing Decker to dance out of the way. The shorter guard can smell the sharp tang of metal as it passes just beneath his nose.
“Cutting it a little close there,” he laughs. The grip he has on his daggers tightens and he responds to the next swing by ducking beneath it and darting forward. He surges up, getting within his brother’s range and smiling cheekily. Keyne blinks at the flash of daggers that slide past his face on either side. He feels the press of lips, feather light, on the tip of his nose and scowls.
“Seriously Decker?” he growls. He lashes out with the pole of his weapon, catching the laughing male in the side.
“Thought you wanted to spar?” he grouches. Decker continues to laugh as he launches a dagger past the taller man. They both hear it hit the stone wall then fall into the grass.
“This is sparring,” Decker agrees. He releases a string of curses as Keyne responds by jabbing at the ground around him. The shorter male scrambles to find his footing on the damp ground again.
“Think I dropped my daggers,” he mumbles.
“You have more.”
“Sure I do. But I liked those ones.” Keyne spares a thought wondering how he can even tell the difference. The pair continue to move around each other. Purposefully missing every strike against the other. Even in the dark the two are able to fight like this without hurting each other too much. Decker especially comes out of these matches highly decorated in purpling bruises.