1

The Twin Law

swirl

“What do you think of Terion?”

The question caught Brianna by surprise, and she paused plaiting her long dark hair to stare at her twin. Mianna stood by the window, watching something Brianna couldn’t see. Tying a yellow ribbon in her hair, she walked across to the window.

Following her sister’s gaze, she saw the young man in question helping move the tables and benches into position around the outskirts of the village square, where the older villagers could watch the dancing that would occur in the middle.

Like everyone else in the village, she’d known him since she was a child, and she could easily recall a hundred facts about him.

He was kind and gentle, and always did the right thing. He’d rescued Mianna’s kitten from a tree when they were seven. He’d taken them for rides on his horse when they were thirteen, but he wouldn’t let Brianna jump over the hedge. When he’d caught them sneaking out of the house at fifteen, after Brianna had spent hours convincing Mianna that the chance to watch the dancing at the midsummer bonfire was worth the risk of being caught, he’d marched them straight back home, explaining with a twinkle in his eye that they’d soon be old enough to join in the dancing.

He was the sort of person who obeyed the rules without exceptions—even if it wasn’t fun. Squelching the feeling of irritation that bubbled up in her, Brianna forced a shrug. “He’s okay, I guess. Why?” She couldn’t really find any faults with him—not that her sister would agree with anyway.

When Mianna didn’t answer, she glanced up and caught a blush stealing across her twin’s face. Mianna turned back to the dressing table to pick up a brush. “No reason,” she said in an attempt to be off hand. “Are you going to wear the yellow dress? Because if you are, I’ll take the blue.”

Being the exact same size, both girls shared a wardrobe, and usually a discussion of who was to wear what was enough to start an argument that would eclipse any previous conversation. But Brianna, who had already planned on wearing the yellow dress, was not so easily distracted.

“You’re not trying to tell me you like him, are you?” she asked incredulously.

“Well, we’ve been working together in the mill,” Mianna said, her tone defensive. “We had some problems with the alignment of the millstones, and he’s been helping fix them. He’s really good with his hands.”

Brianna raised an eyebrow. “Good with his hands? Mia, you should hear yourself.”

“Bri, we can’t just sit around waiting forever. I want to get married, you know, and have babies.”

If her twin had punched her in the gut, she couldn’t have shocked her more. “So what, you’re just going to forget about Kylis?” she demanded.

“He’s dead, Bri, he’s not coming back,” Mianna said softly. “He wouldn’t have wanted us to stop living our lives.”

Brianna was silent, her heart quietly aching. No, Kylis was never coming back. He’d ridden off to battle, laughing and telling them that he’d be home before they knew it, so they’d better have the wedding celebrations ready and waiting for him. The image was so clear in her mind it could have been yesterday. She almost expected to see him walk in the door and demand to know what nonsense Mianna was talking about.

But when she counted up the days, it had been just over a year.

They should be thinking about celebrating their anniversary together. Not talking about Terion.

“How can you even think of anyone else?” Brianna asked, her voice choking on the emotion. How could anyone else ever fill Kylis’s place?

She stayed stiff as Mianna gave her a tight hug. “I’m never going to forget him, Bri, but I’m not going to give up on living my life because he isn’t around anymore,” she said gently. “And you shouldn’t either.”

The thought of living with someone else, having someone else’s children, hurt too much to even think about. They’d shared so many plans for the future together, the three of them. “I can’t, Mia.” She tried to explain. “Moving on… well, doing that means accepting that he’s g-gone.” As Brianna said the words out loud, it hit her. He was gone. Kylis was never coming back.

Ever.

Tears filled her eyes and threatened to overflow. She tried to blink them away, tried to stuff those feelings back where they had been, safely contained, to finish what she had planned to say. “I-I don’t think I can do that.”

The attempt failed, and the tears she had been holding in for a year burst out all at once.

She melted into Mianna’s arms, and her twin held her, rocking her back and forth, as she sobbed out months of grief that she’d kept hidden. Mianna had done her share of crying in the weeks following the news of Kylis’s death. Then, Brianna had been the strong one, holding her sister as she cried.

Now it was her turn.

When her sobs finally lessened, Mianna said quietly, “You’ve been holding that in for a long time, Bri. It had to come.”

She handed Brianna a handkerchief, and Brianna blew her nose loudly. “I could have avoided it a lot longer if you hadn’t gone and found someone else.” Her mood had improved enough that she could joke about it. A good sign.

Mianna didn’t joke back. “Bri, you could at least give him a chance,” she pleaded.

Brianna sighed. She owed her sister that much at least. “I’ll give him a chance,” she agreed grudgingly. “But if he starts giving me a detailed description of how he fixed the millstones, I’m out of there.”

Mianna threw her arms around her twin and squeezed her tight. “Thanks, Bri.”

“We’d better finish dressing, or the dance will be over before we get there,” Brianna said pointedly. Anything not to have to look into her twin’s eager, excited face.

Mianna danced off to put on the blue dress, smoothing the skirt over the layered petticoats, arranging the frills carefully. The narrow waist showed off her figure perfectly and would have made Kylis laugh and pull her close for a kiss, while cursing the artfully arranged flowers, each folded carefully by hand, that hid her cleavage.

Turning away from the sight and the thoughts, Brianna stepped into the yellow dress. It was last year’s style, the waistline higher than the one Mianna wore, but Brianna wasn’t bothered by fashion. The dress was her favourite, and she’d been wearing it the last time she and Kylis had danced together.

If only he hadn’t died. She and Mianna had both loved him, for he could be sweet and kind, and at the same time, dashing and adventurous. He always did the right thing, but his own version of it, not necessarily the accepted one.

Her sister hummed under her breath as she tied a ribbon around her head to hold her hair off her face. Brianna’s jaw clenched. She pulled at a tucked up bit of her skirt, smoothing it out with jerky movements.

Why did Mianna have to be so darn happy? Was she trying to make Brianna feel guilty? She’d said she would give Terion a chance, and she would honestly try. But he was just so… so… boring.

The truth was, there wasn’t one man in the village she would consider marrying. The trouble with living in Eryvale, nestled at the base of the ridge, was that all the best men, all those with courage and heart, died fighting the trolls. Most of them, of course, had the sense to get married and have a child first, or the whole village would have been wiped out long ago.

But she couldn’t expect Mia to wait around forever just because she was too exacting.

Born together, wed together.

Damn that stupid rule that said twins married the same man. It went against all the other rules of marriage, and made no sense at all.

Mianna danced across the room. “Can you button me up, Bri?”

Performing the requested service, Brianna listened to Mianna babble on about the food and dancing planned for the evening, her eyes shining. She turned and let Mianna button her up, grateful for the steady stream of words her sister uttered, leaving her with little to do except nod and agree.

By the time the twins came downstairs and walked across the grass to join the gathering in the village square, there was quite a crowd. People sat in groups at the long wooden tables, sharing stew and bread. Brianna and Mianna helped themselves to a large bowl and a crusty roll each, then found a seat at a table with some of their friends.

Sari showed off her baby, a tiny squalling, red, angry face with nothing endearing about it. Her husband, Breck, stood behind her proudly and ran and fetched her stew, water, or whatever she requested. Mianna cooed over the baby and was rewarded with a moment’s smile from the infant.

Probably just gas, Brianna thought sourly.

She turned away from her sister fawning over the baby, not wanting to see the longing in her eyes. Why did things have to change? Why couldn’t life just continue the way it had been for the last year, letting her ignore the fact that her future had been irrevocably altered?

“Do you want to dance?” Corlin’s voice at her elbow interrupted her melancholy thoughts, reminding her that even if there weren’t any men in the village she wanted to marry, there were still plenty she was happy to dance with.

Corlin was a good dancer and easy to talk to. It was a pity he wasn’t a few years older, or he might be a possible alternative to Terion. If Mia was so set on getting married, Brianna might at least look around so that she could have a say in it.

“Got some new blood in town, huh?”

“What?” Brianna stared at Corlin, confused.

He nodded to a table by the bonfire where a man sat eating some stew, awkward in his leather armour. “Turned up this evening. Reckon he’s going to try his luck over the ridge?”

“Probably.”

They had plenty of those sorts of visitors, itching to do battle with the trolls. They all went up over the ridge, but none of them ever came back. They all seemed to think it was some game, and that the danger must be exaggerated. Some even boasted that they would be the one to finally defeat the trolls.

As if.

As if all the good men and women, ones like Kylis and her father, had been somehow inferior. Emotion welled up in her and for a moment, Brianna was afraid she was going to cry again. The thought of breaking down in front of Corlin and the other dancers on the floor mortified her. She mumbled a need for a drink of water, and fled the dance floor.

And ran smack bang into Terion. He caught her as she stumbled, setting her on her feet and letting go before she could snap at him to do so.

“Hi, Brianna.”

“I know, Mia talked to me,” she answered quickly before he could say anything.

There was an awkward silence.

“I’m sorry, Brianna. I told Mianna not to say anything to you. I know you and I have never really clicked, but she said you would understand and… she and I… Well we…”

Brianna sighed. “I know. I told her I’d give it a chance. I can’t offer anything more than that,” she said roughly.

Terion nodded.

Again there was an awkward silence.

“Do you want to dance?”

“Sure, why not?” Anything was better than standing here not knowing what to say.

Terion danced well, and to her relief, he didn’t bug Brianna to talk. She was grateful enough that she gave him a kiss on the cheek as the music faded.

Mianna waited excitedly by the dance floor. “Well?” she asked.

“It was just a dance, Mia. Give me a little while to get accustomed to the idea.” Brianna tried not to snap, but Mianna’s face fell anyway, stirring more guilt.

To make up for it, Brianna hugged her sister. “He’s sweet, Mia. I can see why you like him.”

And she could. Terion was just what her sister was looking for. He’d make an excellent father, and he’d always be there for her. Not like Kylis. But would he ever make her heart beat that little bit faster as their fiancé had?

Could she settle for second best?

“Serrile, you just have to see this! You won’t believe it.”

Brianna looked up at the sound of Ethean, the village elder, calling out her mother’s name. He ran across the grass in bare feet, nearly tripping over his long brown robes, waving a leather-bound book in front of him.

In spite of her other worries, Brianna was intrigued. She’d loved Ethean’s visits when she was little, enjoying sitting on his lap and hearing tales from long ago. At nearly seventy, he was the oldest person in the village, his occupation as a scholar protecting him from fighting in the troll raids. Usually, he only found out about a raid when he wandered out of his cottage days later.

What did he have to tell her mother now? Her feet led her across the grass of their own accord to where the old man held the open book under her mother’s nose. “See, I told you we must have some sort of purpose here…”

“Trolls!”

The voice, floating on the wind, froze everyone in the village. Ethean got such a shock, he dropped his book.

Chilling screams followed the sound as the watchers in the pass died, sacrificing their lives so that those in the village might have a chance to survive.

A small figure, the runner, whose job it was to warn the village, ran across the open field, yelling frantically.

The sound unfroze Brianna and sent her racing back to the house to grab her sword, cursing the long skirts that would hinder her in the fight.

She sprinted to join the other villagers forming a wall on the outskirts of the buildings, staring at the half dozen hulking dark shapes that loped out of the dark gap in the ridge, and across the field.

Adrenalin surged through her veins.

Behind her, she heard Mianna’s panicked voice calling and a child wailing. Brianna’s resolve hardened. No trolls would make it through the line to chase the frightened children tonight. Not if she could help it.

“Ugrrrrhhh.” A troll raced directly towards her. His sword, twice the length of her own, swung down, moonlight glinting off the blade.

She tucked and rolled, springing straight back onto her feet and swinging her sword at his thighs in one smooth motion.

The edge of her sword cut into his tough flesh, slicing a gash the width of her hand.

The troll didn’t seem to notice. He swung at the visitor, who had surged into the battle. His leather armour was no match for the troll sword. Red blossomed on his shoulder, but he didn’t stop. He followed through on his strike, his height enough to send the blade arching up into the troll’s thigh, where it stayed, lodged hard.

This time, the troll roared in pain. He bent and cuffed the man with his hand, sending him tumbling backwards. The visitor didn’t move again.

Brianna let out her rage in a battle cry and launched herself at the troll’s back. The tip of her sword aimed at the space just under his ribs, one of the few vulnerable points.

The troll roared again, reaching around blindly to try to claw her off his back. Brianna held on with all her strength, squirming to keep out of reach of his hands. She twisted her sword with all her strength.

He bucked to one side, succeeding in throwing her clear, though not in dislodging her sword, which stuck out of his back like an arrow. As he wavered on his feet, Corlin and Ambria rushed in, slashing at his body wherever they could reach.

Swinging his fists wildly, the troll teetered towards where Brianna lay, the wind knocked out of her. His bulk loomed over her, and she scrambled to pull herself out of the way before he fell. A thud reverberated through the soil as he crashed to the ground behind her. She let out her breath in a gasp of relief.

Struggling to her feet, she stared at him for a few moments, but the troll didn’t move. Brianna reached for her sword, bracing her foot against his body to pull it free, then looked around for the next troll.

Forcing herself to ignore the villager bodies that littered the ground, she spotted a tall shape lurking in the shadows of a building. A growl forced itself out of her mouth. He had no sword and clearly wasn’t one of the fighters. His job was to find food or tools to steal while the others kept the villagers occupied.

Smaller than his counterparts, he would be an easy target.

He didn’t see her coming, he was so busy bending over a body on the ground, rifling through its clothing. The brown robes caught Brianna’s eye. Ethean.

The troll picked up the book the old man had been so excited about earlier, sending rage flooding through Brianna. He would pay for this desecration.

“Glahhhh.”

The sound gave her just enough warning to turn, but not enough to move out of the way as another troll barrelled down on her right. She swung her sword in desperation, knowing the small weapon could not block his larger one.

The troll grunted, his body spasming as he twisted around, his hands trying to reach the three arrows that had sprouted from the centre of his back. Brianna didn’t pause, sidestepping his flailing arms, and thrusting her sword into his belly.

Almost before his bulk had hit the ground, she’d turned back to the pillaging troll. But he was gone.

Brianna looked around frantically. Several dark shapes ran back towards the pass, sacks over their shoulders.

With a cry of rage, Brianna raced after them, but she had no hope of catching them. She stopped, half way across the field, breathing heavily, as they disappeared into the shadowy crack in the looming ridge.

She dared not follow them any further.

Instead, she turned back to the village.

Destruction lay everywhere she looked. Benches had been overturned in villager’s haste to escape the trolls and the once green square had been churned up by heavy troll boots. But the worst was the dark shadows that slumped with alarming regularity on the ground.

Her mother was already out, counting the bodies, assisting with the wounded. She should go help her. But instead, she walked towards Ethean’s body, slumped near the wall and bent over him.

She felt for a pulse in his neck, even though she knew it was hopeless. The pallid look on his face and the stillness of his chest told her everything she needed to know.

Why?

He was a scholar, not a fighter. He was a gentle man who had never harmed a fly. He hadn’t deserved to die.

Her eyes filled with tears.

She looked around at the other villagers, already moving on, picking up the pieces as if this was a regular occurrence.

Which it was. The trolls raided the village twice a year, on average, always exacting a heavy toll in bodies. It was a wonder there was anyone left to fight.

Mianna bent over a body in the light of a torch. Brianna watched as she placed a hand on the man’s chest, then directed Terion to carry him to the village square, where the wounded were being laid out.

She saw the look they exchanged, the tiredness in both their eyes.

It was all so wrong. Life could be extinguished in an instant, as Ethean’s had. As Kylis’s had.

And yet, that was part of Eryvale’s strength. The people here lived with passion and strength. It was as if knowing that all they could be sure of was this moment, caused them to grasp each moment with both hands, and hang on to it tightly. For happiness was fleeting this close to the ridge.

That was exactly why Mianna and Terion needed to be together. They needed to have their chance, before one of them was killed. There were no guarantees of tomorrow, only today.

But how was she going to manage it?

Many possible plans chased each other around her head as she helped carry the wounded and dead to separate sides of the square. She quickly rejected the idea that she should agree to marry Terion so that her sister could, searching for other possibilities. She deserved her own chance at happiness, just as much as Mianna did. But how could both of them have what they wanted?

The twin law was written into the trade treaty that the different villages had agreed to centuries ago when they decided to remain independent after the last king had fallen. Changing it would involve gathering together the rulers of over fifty small villages and larger towns. It was impossible.

And even though twins were rare, the idea of getting two wives at once would sway many rulers to vote to keep the law.

Convincing her mother to override the law for their village was just as fruitless. Eryvale could only produce so much of the food and materials they needed, especially when the trolls raided with such regularity, they were dependent on trade to provide what they couldn’t produce.

She grasped the legs of the body in front of her as Corlin grasped his shoulders. It was the visitor, the one who had intended to go on a suicide mission over the ridge. Well, it looked like he got his wish, he’d died a hero.

“Anyone who’s not tending to the wounded, go home and get some sleep.” Her mother’s voice floated across the square. “There’s no need to guard the pass tonight, the trolls won’t be back so soon.”

And that was when the idea came to her, so perfect, she wondered why she hadn’t thought of it earlier. A smile spread across her face as she filled in the minor details of the plan. Yes, Mianna could marry Terion, and she would take the chance to do what she had always dreamt of doing.

In the early hours of the morning, when they’d done all they could to help the wounded, she and Mianna crawled into bed, exhausted.

Her twin was silent for a while, then her voice said in the darkness. “Bri? About Terion…” Mianna asked.

“You’re right, Mia, he’s very sweet,” Brianna interrupted.

“I don’t want to rush you, but…” Mianna’s voice trailed off.

It only hardened Brianna’s resolve. “You’re right. We can’t sit around waiting forever.”

“Are you sure?” Mianna asked doubtfully.

“We need to live, not sit around waiting to die in the next troll attack,” Brianna said, her voice harsher than she had intended. “You deserve to marry the man you love.”

“So do you.” Mianna’s voice was quiet.

“He’s dead. I won’t wait until Terion is too.”

2

Runaway Twin

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The sun was high in the sky by the time Mianna woke the next morning. She wanted to turn and bury her head under the pillow to hide the images of last night that haunted her. So much pain.

But hiding from it had never helped anyone in Eryvale. Hiding was too close to giving up, and if you gave up, you were dead. So Mianna made herself sit up in bed.

The bed next to hers was empty. Not an unusual occurrence, for Brianna often woke before her to ride or practice with her sword. This morning, she was probably helping dig graves. Well, Mianna could at least do something to help her twin, she thought, as she looked at the bed, sheets flung back. Bri hated housework with a passion, but usually put up with her twin’s insistence on keeping their room neat. She was excused this morning.

Rising, Mianna made her own bed before crossing the room to make Brianna’s. Unease settled over her when she found a note on the pillow in her sister’s neat, no nonsense print. She skimmed the words and the unease blossomed into panic.

Dearest Mia,

I wish you much happiness with Terion. He’s a good man, and I hope he will give you the life you want. In fact, I’m sure he will.

But that life isn’t for me. I still cannot forget Kylis and even if I could, I just don’t feel the same way about Terion that you do. But it’s not fair that you should have to give up your dreams for me. Life is too short.

Don’t grieve for me sister, for I am also doing what I want. I have long wanted to do something to avenge Kylis, and though I can stand no hope of prevailing, at least the weight that has been on my chest since his death will be gone.

I love you. Be happy enough for both of us.

Bri.

“NO!” Mianna’s scream echoed around the room, bringing her mother running.

Unable to speak, Mianna thrust the note at her, and her mother skimmed it with the same rapidity that Mianna had. Then she read it again more carefully.

“When did she leave?” she asked.

“I have no idea.” How could she have been so deeply asleep that she didn’t hear Brianna leave? Had it been early this morning? The events of the previous night, and Brianna’s suspicious change of heart began to feel heavy in her chest. Had Brianna planned this, even then? How could she not have noticed?

Turning on her heels, her mother left the room. Mianna pulled on her dressing gown as she raced after her mother, running to keep up with her long strides. Down the stairs, out the back door, to stare across the open, blood stained fields, to the ridge.

There was no sign of Brianna.

“Surely the guards at the pass will have stopped her?” Mianna’s voice was high and panicked.

“I told them to take the night off. We’d lost so many men, and we’ve never had two attacks in quick succession.” Her mother’s voice was haunted.

Mianna collapsed onto the grass, unable to believe that her sister was gone.

No one ever came back once they crossed the ridge.

Every man, woman and child in the village trained to fight the trolls from the day they could hold a sword, but none were stupid enough to cross the ridge. They trained for the times when the trolls would make forays into the village, for who knew what reason. They managed to hold them back, just, but they always paid the price in the lives of those they cared about.

Only those who wanted to die actually willingly crossed the ridge. And now Brianna had joined them.

In an instant, Mianna understood why Brianna hadn’t cried when Kylis had died. The whole world faded around her. Numbness invaded her body, seeping from her heart into every part of her. Something like this just couldn’t happen without any warning. It couldn’t be true.

But it was. Brianna was gone. A fact that only became more apparent as the day wore on. It seemed so strange, that life continued when she felt so much pain. People gathered around her mother’s home, offering sympathy and food, but all Mianna wanted was to be alone.

She fled up to her room, but even more memories of her twin haunted her there. She kept turning around, expecting Bri to be standing beside her. Her heart ached.

Time, seeming totally irrelevant, passed without her being aware of it. She felt like she was just living in a trance, not willing to pull herself out of it. If she did, it would begin to hurt for real.

The soft knock on the door disturbed her hard won detachment. Ignoring the intrusion, she tried to regain the disconnection, but Terion’s soft voice asking, “Mianna, are you all right?” shattered it.

Sobs overtook her, her whole body shaking with them until she could barely breathe. Somehow, Terion was holding her, rocking her, lending her his strength by his silence. He made no attempt to say anything, for what was there to say? Nothing could make this right. Nothing could undo what had been done.

If only she hadn’t tried to convince Brianna to move on from Kylis. If she hadn’t mentioned her growing feelings for Terion, maybe Brianna would still be here.

She pushed him away. She couldn’t do it. How could she be with Terion, knowing their feelings for each other were what had sent Bri to her death? She would never be able to look at him again without seeing the loss of her twin.

“Mianna? What’s wrong?” Terion asked, confused.

“It’s all our fault. If it weren’t for… us, she’d still be here,” she choked out.

He said nothing to that, and she looked up to see a stricken expression on his face. “It’s not your fault. It’s mine. I should never have told you how I felt about you. I knew Brianna didn’t like me, so I should have kept quiet.”

Mianna shook her head. “It’s not anyone’s fault. It just is. And now we have to live with it.”

But how could she live without her twin?

She’d never expected to have to. They were supposed to live long, happy lives, then die together, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. Neither of them was supposed to ever have to live without the other.

In fact, according to legend, a twin was not supposed to survive the death of her other half. The emotional connection between them should cause her to want to simply give up on life.

Yet, though she felt devastated, she didn’t feel like giving up.

She took a moment to reach out to Brianna, to really search for her. As a child, she’d always been able to find her twin when they played hide and seek, and she’d always known when Bri was in any kind of trouble.

But she felt no sense of trouble surrounding her twin now. And…

She sat up, and wiped away her tears. “She isn’t dead.”

“Mianna?” Terion’s brow furrowed.

“I’m not crazy,” she assured him. “But she’s my twin, if she were dead, I’d know it. She’s not.”

“But… but she wouldn’t stand a chance against the trolls.”

“She didn’t go that way,” Mianna said with certainty. “She’s at the ferry pier.”

Terion jumped up. “We’ll go find her and bring her back.”

Mianna put out a hand. “We can’t Ter,” she said sadly.

“Why not?”

She hesitated, searching for the right words. “It’s not right for either of us, Terion. I can’t ask Brianna to marry you, but I can’t give you up either. And anyway, Bri’s the happiest I have felt her in a long time. She needs this. She needs to get away, to see the rest of the world. We always talked about doing it with Kylis. It’s fitting that she’s going to go now.”

Indecision warred on Terion’s face. “So what do we do then?”

Mianna took a deep breath. “We mourn. Then we get married, and live our lives.”

Terion’s eyebrows shot up. “But what about Brianna? Will she come back?”

“I don’t know. I hope so.”

*****

Brianna sat on the end of the pier, waiting for the weekly ferry to arrive. For a while, when she had sensed Mianna’s distress, she’d regretted her decision. She’d almost given up and gone home. But when Mia cheered up, she knew she’d worked it out. They’d shared a moment’s wordless communication, and she knew her twin would be all right.

Leaving her with no regrets, only anticipation of what was to come.

Bymere. The big city. The unknown and exciting.

What would she find there?

She passed the hour’s wait pleasantly in the warm sun, thinking of all the possibilities ahead of her. When she sighted the ferry coming down the river from its final port of call at a mining village, she jumped up and waved frantically, lest the ferryman miss her. Though the ferry passed her village every few days, it only infrequently stopped here.

Seeing her, the man waved and pulled up to the end of the pier, tying up the ferry before extending a narrow board to bridge the distance. Brianna balanced her way across with little fear and only took the ferryman’s hand to jump to the deck out of politeness.

Even the trip on the ferry was a new experience to Brianna She’d never gone further afield than the next village, half a day’s ride. As the ferry sailed down the river, they passed other villages, stopping at some to take on or deliver goods. Sometimes children ran alongside the ferry, waving excitedly.

It wasn’t until the ferryman unpacked his lunch box and the smell wafted over to her, that she realised she had neglected to pack her own food. She looked longingly at his home packed sandwiches, then pretended to look out over the railing when he glanced up.

“Did you bring lunch?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “I was so excited, I forgot,” she admitted. “I’m fine though, I’ll get something when we get to the city.”

“Well, my wife packed more than I can eat. She always does. Why don’t you help me eat it so I don't have to throw it over the side and waste good food,” he offered.

Brianna opened her mouth to politely decline, but her stomach rumbling interrupted her. She hadn’t eaten any breakfast either, since she had snuck out before dawn, so she was hungry enough already.

“Thanks,” she sat down next to him and took the offered sandwich.

“So, what are you hoping to find in Bymere?” the ferryman asked.

What was she hoping to find? She couldn’t really say, she wasn’t searching for anything but rather avoiding something. “I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Just thought I’d see what it was like. You know, before I settled down and all that stuff.”

The man smiled. “Do you have any friends there?”

Brianna shook her head, trying to look nonchalant. But inside, doubts began to rear their ugly heads. “I guess I’ll find an inn or something.”

The ferryman hesitated for a moment, then offered, “My brother has an inn at the harbour. I can take you there if you like and introduce you. If you have nothing else to do, he’s always looking for some help in the kitchen.”

It seemed almost too good to be true. “Why are you offering to help me?” Brianna asked suspiciously.

“Because you remind me of my daughter. And I would hope someone would offer her the same help if she were in a strange town far from home.”

Brianna relaxed, and smiled sheepishly. “In that case, then yes, that would be wonderful, thanks.”

3

Scent of Power

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Lyall stamped the mud off his boots and slipped back the hood of his cloak as he walked into the inn. The warmth inside was a welcome change from the rain splattered streets and for a moment, he allowed himself to let his guard down. He’d stayed in this inn each time he visited the city. He felt as safe here as he could anywhere this far from home.

Little had changed since his last visit, nearly twelve months ago. It was a Tuesday night and the common room was relatively quiet, only a few patrons enjoying a late dinner, and one lone bard playing a ballad half-heartedly on the dais.

A kitchen maid came over to him, looking bored and tired. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, dinner and an ale please,” Lyall asked, ever polite.

The woman nodded and headed back towards the kitchen doors.

Lyall’s attention was arrested by a sudden scent, so unexpected here that it took him a moment to process it. The scent of power. Instead of slamming him with spices as his father’s magic did, or the scent of roses that characterised his mother, this scent was fragile, yet fresh, with a hint of sweetness, vanilla maybe?

He looked around the room, switching to mage sight, taking more notice of the people he had all but ignored before. That would teach him to be complacent. But what was a mage doing here, so far from home? And was it a friend, or foe?

Was it the bard? The couple necking at the next table? No, their auras were dull, washed out and lacking any magical talent at all. Where could he find that elusive scent? He was just about to convince himself that he had imagined it, when it teased his senses again. The serving maid slapped his meal wordlessly down in front of him and there was no mistaking it. The blue-green glow from her aura blocked out everything else.

He switched back to normal vision, glancing up at her, trying to appear disinterested. She was young, barely into her twenties, and behind the bored expression he sensed something lurking. Something other than the magical power that emanated from her.

Involuntarily, his hand snaked out and grasped her wrist. She glanced down at him and he was surprised to see no fear in her eyes, only annoyance. “I’m not on the menu.”

“No, I…” Lyall was surprised to find himself embarrassed by her misunderstanding. The truth was, he had no idea why he had grabbed her like that, only that he wanted to.

She frowned at him and he realised he still had hold of her wrist. Reluctantly, he released it. “I’m sorry,” he said lamely.

She glared at him one last time before stalking off.

Lyall opened his mouth to say something but closed it again. He’d already made a bad first impression, he needed to stop and think out his next move, even though he wanted to chase after her then and there and demand answers.

Who was she and what was she doing here? Even though she’d left the room, the scent of her magic lingered, and Lyall had to stop himself inhaling deeply. The echo of her aura had left an imprint in his brain, one that wouldn’t be shaken, almost overpowering her physical presence. He tried to bring the image to mind but could conjure up little more than a thick, dark braid hanging down her back and a dirty white apron. He needed to see her again, to get a fuller picture in his mind.

He gave himself a shake. He needed to focus. He was here for a reason, and her presence screamed to every part of it. She shouldn’t be here, and he needed to find out where she’d come from.

There were no mages on the mainland. That was a long accepted truth. Every single mage, even those with only a hint of magic in their bloodline, had left the mainland over a thousand years ago. They kept an eye on the people remaining here periodically—it was exactly such a mission that had brought him here today—but until now, no reports of anyone with any magical ability at all had been heard. Not even a hint of their rivals who had also disappeared to places unknown.

Even stranger than her existence, if that were possible, was that she wasn’t just a flash in the pan. From her scent and her glowing aura, she was powerful, possibly even more powerful than he was, and he came from one of the leading magical families on the Isla Di Magi.

Who was she and what was she doing here? Were their rivals also watching for any sign of a return?

To his disappointment, she didn’t appear again that night. He did, however, manage to catch Syrid, the inn owner, when he came to clear away the table.

“Good evening, Lyall, haven’t seen you around in a while,” the man said in his usual manner. Lyall didn’t think he’d ever seen Syrid be anything other than friendly.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of visiting this fine town,” Lyall rejoined.

“Well, you haven’t missed much, nothing changes around here.”

“Except that you have a new serving maid?” He was being far too obvious, but his need to know overcame his usual reticence.

“Brianna?” Syrid asked. “She’s been here a couple of months now. Country girl thinking she’d try a taste of the big city. I’m not too sure it’s living up to her expectations, but she doesn’t seem ready to go home yet.”

Obviously it hadn’t occurred to the barkeep that the girl was more than she let on. Lyall filed the information away for future reference and decided that, personal interest aside, the girl merited his remaining for a few days to find out more about her. He nodded as disinterestedly as he could to Syrid’s disclosure and asked, “Do you have a vacant room?”

Syrid nodded easily. “Sure, always do for you.” He ambled over to the bar with Lyall’s empty plates, and then wiped his hands on his apron and handed Lyall a key. “Up the stairs, third door on your left.”

Lyall paid for his meal and the room, chatted for a few minutes about the weather, then excused himself and headed upstairs.

Alone in his room, he pulled off his mud splattered boots and slung his dark woollen cape over the end of the bed, wondering where to go from here. He needed to be cautious. If Syrid’s story was true, and she was just a country bumpkin, there was little chance that she even knew of her magical power, let alone knew how to use it. If not, if she was, in fact, a magical spy of some kind, then she could already be on to him.

He thought again of her face. She was too young, too… real, to be one of them.

Much as he wanted to believe that, years of training had taught him not to take chances. So before settling down for the night, he placed several enchantments on the door, the window, and the walls. If anyone so much as tried to peep into his room, he would know about it.

Satisfied that he had taken every precaution, he lay down to rest.

But sleep eluded him. He found himself unable to stop thinking about her and all the scenarios that could have led to her presence here. Finally, after nearly an hour of staring at the ceiling wondering, he sighed and sat up in bed, swinging his legs over the side. Might as well be doing something useful.

Magical snooping usually posed no risks here on the mainland, but with another mage in the vicinity, he needed to be more cautious than usual. Instead of leaving his body to enter the astral realms, he stepped out his door and walked down the corridor physically.

A hand, laid briefly on each door, was enough to confirm the absence of any magical protections with minimal risk. His sensitive nose sniffed for any wisp of magical power.

He was all the way along the corridor and almost back to his own room, but on the opposite side, before he smelled it. He stood in front of the door, his resting hand telling him of no enchantments. The vanilla scent was stronger here. She was inside.

He hesitated, just standing outside her door, hand resting on it, breathing in her unique smell. For how long he didn’t know. He felt the urge to knock on the door, but he had no idea what he would say. And he was a little afraid of making a fool out of himself as he had done in the common room earlier.

It wasn’t as if he were a total novice when it came to girls. He’d attended many dances and parties and, he hoped, was considered a friend by many girls. This, though, was different. This girl didn’t know anything about him, just as he knew nothing about her. The idea was terrifying and nerve-wracking.

And incredibly exhilarating.

He lifted his hand and knocked, once. As soon as his hand hit the door, he knew he’d made a mistake. What if she really was one of the others, and he ended up in a magical battle? What if she wasn’t but thought he was a fool to continue to pursue her when she’d made it clear she wasn’t interested. The urge to retreat to the safety of his room was strong, but something stronger kept him standing there as the door opened.

As soon as she saw him, she began to slam it shut again, but he managed to get his foot in the gap. “Please, give me a chance to explain.”

She hesitated and her expression changed slightly. She nodded curtly. “I’m listening.”

Words deserted him. “I just wanted to apologise,” he said lamely. “In the common room earlier. I’m sorry for grabbing you like that. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Great, he’d gone from not knowing what to say, to blabbering. He wouldn’t blame her if she slammed the door in his face. In fact, he moved his foot, expecting her to do just that.

A range of emotions flitted across her face as she hesitated. “Why did you do it then?”

That, he couldn’t explain. He couldn’t mention her magic until he found out whether she knew about it herself. But that was only one side of his reason anyway. Something else drew him to her, in addition to her magic. That, he could explain.

“I don’t know. I just… well, something about you…” he broke off and felt his face heat. That hadn’t come out quite the way he’d planned. He should have left. That would have at least saved him the embarrassment of acting so stupidly.

She raised an eyebrow, her face amused. “I get that a lot.”

Her point was obvious. “I guess you probably do,” he admitted ruefully, trying to ignore the fact that her brush off stung. “Anyway, I’m sorry for disturbing you, I just wanted to apologise.” He took a step back, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do. He was obviously too tired from the day’s travel to be intelligent and charming tonight.

“How did you know which room was mine?” she asked, catching him off guard.

He looked up at her and something of what he was feeling was reflected in her eyes. That, as much as his lack of ability to explain, caused him to stammer his answer. “I… um… I knocked on each one,” he admitted.

She smiled and the expression changed her face completely. “I’m Brianna,” she offered, holding out her hand in the universal gesture of friendship.

He couldn’t resist the urge to touch her again. “Lyall,” he returned automatically, and let his hand slip into hers.

The inevitable spark of one mage touching another shot through him, magnified by the attraction he felt towards her.

Her eyes widened and flew to his, the shock on her face confirming that it was a completely new feeling to her.

He stared into her eyes, fascinated by how they glinted green in the light of the lanterns, mirroring the colour he’d seen in her aura earlier. His earlier awkwardness faded, and he knew this was something more than just the surprise at finding a mage here on the mainland.

She jerked her hand back as though stung. Her expression changed so dramatically, that he instinctively stepped back, sure the door was going to hit his nose as she slammed it.

Had he pushed her too far? But she’d been the one to offer her hand to him. It was just the shock of their magic touching that had surprised her, that had to be it. If he gave her a little while to get used to the idea, she’d realise how amazing it was.

He wanted to tell her now, to explain it all, but he hardly knew her. And she didn’t know him. He needed to take it slowly. So he took a quiet breath and made himself say calmly, “Goodnight, Brianna.”

For a moment, he thought she wasn’t going to reply. Then she said quietly, “Goodnight, Lyall.”

He stepped back, and she hesitated a moment before closing the door. Crossing the short distance across the hall to his room, he was still conscious of her presence behind the other door. How would he sleep knowing she was so close?

He closed the door behind him and sank against it, knees suddenly weak.

He‘d just taken a great risk, one his father would have severely scolded him for. Seeking out a potentially hostile and powerful mage did not make any sort of sense. But that wasn’t the reason for his lack of ability to stand.

The way her magic had slid through him, as though it could see into every corner of his being, was unbelievable. He’d never experienced anything like it before.

Even after he moved to the bed and lay down, it was a long time before he could sleep.

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