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Arialene

By Tia's Grace

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~*~*~ Tia's story from before the first scourge attacks on Silvermoon. The first part of her story will have mushy gushy girly parts in it, because that's how I wanted the character to be in this time frame. Things will get considerably darker the longer the story goes on though. ***PLEASE post comments. :) I'd like to know what people think of the story! My deepest thanks to Leibowitz for being my sort of editor and co-writer, catching my minor mistakes and writing Antino far more than I could ever dream to.

Tianisa Manastrega fastened the ribbon of her straw hat under her chin in a pretty knot, opened the door from the kitchen, waved goodbye to the cook, and stepped out into the bright Azerothian sun. She smiled brightly, not an uncommon thing for the middle aged Blood Elf, and settled the bright blue bag that was set over shoulder. Tia closed her eyes and took a deep breath, exhaled deeply and started walking back to the village that she lived with her family. She had just met with the Lord’s daughter, Aranella, for a final fitting on her wedding gown and several other gowns. As Tia was the town’s seamstress, and arguably one of the best in all of Azeroth, she had been delighted to work on such an important gown. She mentally went over the multitude of details and measurements in her head as her feet carried her steadily home. As Tia reached the bottom of the dress, thinking of the embroidery work she wanted to do along the hem, the weight of the bag on her shoulder lifted. Jumping slightly, she turned and her face alit with love and happiness.

“Ye was thinkin’ about dressmakin’ again, no?” The tall redheaded male Blood Elf asked her, slinging the bag over his left shoulder and snaking his right arm around her waist.

Tia lifted the brim of her hat and looked up at her beloved husband.

“Yes, how do you always know Crudus?” She asked as he bent to kiss her.

“Well, fer one ye just came back from yer fitting with Lady Ara, and fer two you have yer dressmakin’ smile on ye face.”

“I have different smiles?”

“To me, ye do. But as long as we been together ye shouldn’t be too surprised at that.”

Tia smiled and settled into his side as they walked together down the path. She and Crudus had been merely children when they first met, him 65 and her 50, but they had been inseparable after they had met. They had married when Tia was only 85, which was quite the scandal at the time. However those that knew the couple knew they had been made for each other. They’d now been together for 150 years, married for 115 of those and were blessed with an impressive 3 children, Adrastia, Ophion and Nereus. Though, Adrastia and Ophion were both twins and little Nereus was their happy surprise. Tia sighed happily as she thought of her children.

Ophion was the oldest, though only by a matter of some minutes, and took his role of the oldest sibling very seriously. For the last decade he had been training along side his father in ways of fighting and protection. Unlike Crudus though, Ophion didn’t have the connection to Holy power that his father did. Regardless, he still committed himself to his training. Ophion was also the mirror image of Crudus save his hair being a few shades darker.

Adrastia was her daughter, her beautiful baby girl and was, predictably, every bit her mother’s daughter. Tia suspected it was because when they were little that she and Crudus focused on one child each that was the reason Ophion and Adrastia took after their parents so much. Adrastia was learning all of the intricacies of working with cloth and thread, which Tia was quite happy and proud of. Tia also appreciated the extra hands on the wedding dress for Lady Aranella. Adrastia didn’t share her mother’s talent for magic though and was also training in hand to hand combat with her brother. Tia didn’t quite approve of this training for her daughter, but held her tongue as she could never refuse her children.

“Copper fer yer thoughts, me love?”

Tia smiled up at Crudus and opened the door to their moderately sized home as they reached it.

“Was just thinking about the twins, how similar but different they are,” she replied, untying the ribbon under her chin and hanging the hat up on a peg by the door. “Speaking of which, where are they?”

Crudus set down her back and pulled her into his arms for a proper kiss. Tia smiled to herself, after all these years and still madly in love with each other. He’d still carry on like they were approaching their first century, rather than past their second.

“Well Phio (his nickname of Ophion) was going ta the blacksmith ta see about repairin’ his mace and Drasti said somethin’ ‘bout silk somethin’ havin’ arrived and went ta get it earlier. I dunno where Rus is, I suppose with his little friends,” he grinned wickedly. “So we are alone.”

Tia laughed and swatted his chest gently, though she was wary of that look. It was the same one that led to Nereus’ arrival, though her youngest was very much loved by everyone. Tia was worried that things might also get tough on him when his oldest siblings left for their own training outside of the village in a few years. The twins were 85 and little Nereus was a mere 15, so Tia did worry greatly about him.

Crudus began kissing her neck, making her giggle. “Crudus stop, not right now.”

"Ewwww! Ma!" a small voice cried out.

Crudus leaned back and Tia turned to see their youngest standing in the door way, soaked through and half covered in mud. She frowned.

"Nereus, what did you get into?" she asked, leading him back outside to clean him off.

~~~~~

Later that evening, everyone was back home and settling down to dinner, Tianisa fidgeted slightly with her napkin, waiting for Drasti to finish her dinner before broaching the next topic carefully. She looked worriedly at Crudus who smiled at her and grabbed her hand as she sat next to him. Society called for them to sit on opposite ends of the table, but they had never been much for society.

"Russy, give your plate to cook then go play upstairs please," she smiled as the boy leapt from his seat and ran into the kitchen before dashing up the stairs to his room.

Phio looked between his parents for a moment then at his sister and stood himself. "I need to go check on the riding birds then practice with my sword. Ma, Da,"

Tia smiled up at her oldest son and looked at Adrastia.

"What is it now?" her daughter asked, folding her hands in her lap.

Tia looked to Crudus, who started things off.

"Drasti, we want you to know that we will support your decision but we have had an offer that we feel we must urge towards you. You remember Madam Esperanza I hope?"

Adrastia nodded, frowning slightly. "What is this about?"

"In time, dear," Tia said. "Did you know she had a younger brother? A much younger brother, I shall add."

"No," Adrastia said, a few moments passed before realization dawned in her eyes. "No! This isn't fair, you didn't follow your arrangement."

"And I'm not making you do this. It will be your decision in the end, but I must insist that you meet with them at least."

Adrastia tossed her napkin on table and stood from the table, without a word she collected her cloak and left, the door slamming slightly behind her.

"Well, tha' went better tha' expected," Crudus said, looking at his beloved wife.

Tia moved some leftover vegetables around on her plate, looking worried.

"I hope she isn't too mad at us," she finally said.

"If she were tha' mad at us, she'd have slammed the door much harder," was his calm reply, standing up from the table and walking behind her. "Now.. where were we earlier."

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Tia winced as the door upstairs slammed shut, rattling the windows in their lower floor bedroom. She sighed and began to unpin her hair and remove her overdress from the night’s fancy dinner with, she snorted thinking about it, the Velasco-Cabrales siblings. Esperanza was close to Tia’s age, and Tia had made a dress for her at some point in the past. They both had led odd lives by societies standards, which may have been partially what brought them together as friends and allies.

Tianisa Alimentara Manastrega’s past was quite the interesting tale, to those willing to listen. Brought up Lady Tianisa Alimentara Amorrianna Cielo dej Dispatche, she had been arranged to marry another high ranking lord, produce an heir quickly and become the queen of social events. However, no one had accounted for the small Manastrega family to show up, which blew all the plans to bits for Lady Tianisa. Tia loved to work outside, even in her late age she could be found outside in a special little area that Crudus built for her.

Shortly after the Manastrega family arrived, Crudus’ parents worked as Rangers for the Dispatche family, there was such a nice day out and Tianisa set out to her favorite spot at her family home to work on embroidery all day. Tia’s love for making clothing was the first indication that she had little care for the rules that society had deemed appropriate or inappropriate for a lady of her station. Tia had heard reports of bandits in the area surrounding her manor, but thought little of it as she slung her workbag over her shoulder and snuck out a servant’s entrance. Crudus had seen her leave the manor and work her way off into the woods and followed behind her, thinking she was one of the servant girls. Tia had always dressed in a very plain, strategically ripped and patched dress to make her escapes from the manor easier.

As Tia reached her spot, Crudus caught up enough to see her features as she settled down in a nice patch of sun. Later, when they were married, he had told her she looked like an angel the first time that he had truly been able to see her. As Tia began pulling things out of her bag, one of the aforementioned bandits leapt down from a tree and began to approach an unsuspecting Tia. The bandit had a long piece of rope out and likely had very bad intentions towards the disguised noble. Crudus had sprinted towards the bandit then, pulling out his long sword he kept strapped to his back. He slammed into the side of the bandit, knocking him over and causing the now alert Tia to shriek with alarm. The two men began sparring as Tia backed herself against a tree, only to have another bandit jump down from that one and grab her! He began to pull her away as Crudus fought the first bandit until a surge of power went through Tia and she vanished and reappeared several feet away from the second bandit, right by her bag. Hesitating for only a moment she grabbed her bag, held it firmly by the handles and swung it around to whack the second bandit across the temple with a strangely loud and metallic clang. Crudus and the first bandit stared at her for a moment before Crudus thumped the first bandit with the hilt of his sword, smiling slightly as the bandit crumpled to the ground like a sack of flour. Tia laughed nervously a couple times before promptly fainting like a proper lady.

Tia was pulled from her memory by Crudus pulling off the heavily embroidered overdress she had finally unlaced and unbuttoned. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs for the first time that night and stretched her arms up.

“Remind me again why I wore that dreadful thing?” she asked, removing the last of her hair pins, sending her very long black hair cascading down her back.

He laughed and set the “dreadful thing” carefully on the bed next to his own dress clothes, knowing better than to just toss them over the chair like he had, only once, after they had just married. He had realized why Tia took so much care with things like that when she had made him remove all the wrinkles caused by such mishandling. Tia had moved to removing the heavy jewels that she wore in her ears and around her neck, wrists and fingers, leaving only the intricately woven silver band on her left hand.

“I need to work on Lady Ara’s dress some more tonight; we have the final fitting tomorrow. Then we’ll have to get all dressed up again for the wedding,” she frowned. “Can you go ask Drasti if she could help me? I know she is upset but I could use the help.”

Crudus raised an eyebrow at his wife.

“An’ why no’ you?” He asked her, an amused smile on his lips.

“You know perfectly well she blames me for the… events tonight. Though I will admit that I was certainly amused by the attitude of one Don Jorge Antino Martin Velasco-Cabrales, I don’t think Drasti shared my opinion though.”

He chuckled, “Especially the part where he swept the contents of the table onto Drasti’s lap while trying to remove tablecloth. Tha’ won him a lot of points with Drasti I’m sure.”

Tia signed mournfully. “That dress looked so nice on her too, it’s ruined now though. So, go ask her to come down here please dear.”

Tia disappeared into her workroom, making a mental list of everything that should be done that evening while Crudus watched her, smiling himself, before climbing the stairs to speak with his daughter.

(Sometime the next week)

Tia was sitting at her vanity table, brushing her long hair out before she would braid it to go to bed when she heard a strange scraping noise from outside. She frowned and put down her brush as it happened again. It sounded like something trying to climb up the wall outside. Adrastia’s room was directly above Tia and Crudus’, something he had insisted on when she turned 50.

“Crudus, dear, come in here,” she called out to him.

She heard him grumbling from the other room as he put down his cleaning equipment for shining his favorite sword.

“Wha’ now, did ya knot yer hair again?”

She waved a hand at him, “No, listen.”

After a few moments the strange scraping sound happened again.

“Wha’ tha,” Crudus murmured walking over to a side window to try and see what was making such a noise.

He paused for a few moments, watching, a angry looking frown gracing his face.

“It’s tha’ Antino boy,” he finally said, walking back into the other room and retrieving his sword. “Tryin’ to get to Drasti’s room.”

He began to head for the door.

“No, wait. Drasti is out at that party tonight, remember? Let’s just see what he does, if he’s trying to get into her room you’ll be able to go all macho man then.”

Crudus frowned and walked back into the room. Tia blew out the couple candles around the room and went to stand by the window with her husband.

“Wha’ is tha’ in his mouth,” Crudus asked, pressing close to the window for a better view.

“It looks like… like a rose?” Tia responded hesitantly, then laughed. “He’s trying to give her a rose by climbing up the side of the house apparently.”

Crudus snorted. “He’s no’ doin’ verra well.”

They stood together watching the younger male attempt time after time to scale the wall, both wincing at a particularly hard fall he took. After a long period of time had passed, Antino seemed to finally reach the windowsill. Crudus reached again for his sword to go upstairs and demonstrate his Alpha male self when they saw him fall down once more and pause.

“Well, the rose is gone now,” Tia said matter of factly.

Their eyes followed him as he ran limping off in the direction of his own home. Tia chuckled again and left the room, heading for the stairs.

“Wha’ are ya doin’ love?”

Tia began to climb the stairs quickly. “I’m curious now,” she replied.

Reaching Adrastia’s room, she pushed the door open and saw the suspect rose on the windowsill.

“Oh how sweet, that must have been his intention all along.”

Crudus grumbled some more from behind her, mumbling something about proper courtship.

“Now dear, I don’t think you of all people can lecture anyone on proper courtship,” Tia replied to his mumblings as she walked over to the window and picked up the rose. “Oh dear, it looks like the stem was damaged during one of his falls.”

Crudus leaned against the doorframe and rolled his eyes.

“I can see now why yer father hated me so.”

Tia set the rose back down and dug in her dressing gown pocket, pulling out a pretty green ribbon. Green was also Adrastia’s favorite color.

“I had gotten this for her for the wedding the day after tomorrow, but I think it might be better served here,” Tia remarked, more to herself than her husband, while tying the ribbon in a nice bow and replacing the flower on the sill.

She smiled at it, and then saw movement down below.

“Oh!” she cried softly and hurried to the door, pushing Crudus into the hall and closing the door quickly.

“Wha’,” Crudus began before the door opened. Tia pulled his arm closer to Nereus’ room, opening the door and closing it just as Adrastia reached the top of the stairs.

“Oh hello Adrastia, we were just tucking in Rus. Did you have a good time at the party?”

“Oh yeah, it was nice,” Adrastia replied distractedly, opening the door to her room and entering swiftly.

Tia and Crudus shuffled down to the door, wanting to see her reaction to the rose. Adrastia stood by the window, holding the flower and looking out. When she turned around, she had a small smile on her face which promptly vanished upon seeing her parents.

“Excuse you, I’m going to bed,” Adrastia told her parents, and shut the door.

Tia grinned.

“She’s beginning to like him,” she remarked.

Crudus grumbled beside her as they descended back into their own room.

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Tia stood before Phio, adjusting the dress jacket that she had just made him put on with a threaded needle between her lips. Sitting on her wrist, out of place with the rest of her fancy attire, was a cloth bulb filled with various pins and other threaded needles with assorted colors of thread. Phio stood perfectly still as Tia finished a seam with practiced ease.

“Ma, I really don’t have to go to this do I? I mean this sort of thing has never been important for…” Phio trailed off as Tia removed the needle from her mouth and gave her son her scariest ‘Mom’ look. He swallowed heavily and stood up just a little straighter.

“Nevermind,” he mumbled grudgingly.

Tia stood for a moment looking at her son before resuming her work.

“Social events are important, especially when the Lord’s daughter chose me for her dress. We are odd enough by societies standards with everything. When you grandmother granted me back my titles, status and our wealth, which you enjoy, it was under the agreement that..”

“That we would attend social events to give a good image of our family. I know Ma. I just don’t like it. Ow!”

“Oops, sorry,” Tia said, a small grin on her face. She and Phio both knew that she never stuck someone… unless they deserved it.

“Why doesn’t Dad have to go through this trial,” he asked her, obediently raising his left arm as she tapped it.

“Because I was taught a long while ago how to prepare meself for these things,” Crudus answered, walking into the room and pausing beside his son.

“Ready for inspection, me lady,” he announced, a playful spark dancing in his eyes.

Tia pushed Phio’s left arm and took a few steps back, smiling as she did. The black and silver of the jackets were perfectly matched in vine patterns along the arms with the crest of the Manastrega family (another gift from Tia’s mother) displayed on the front. Black coat tails fell to mid thigh behind both of the males with perfectly creased deep green pants and shiny black shoes.

“Excellent, you both look wonderful!” Tia smiled brightly before removing her pin bulb from her wrist and heading into her workroom.

Crudus chuckled at his son, who frowned down at his chest.

“Son, the sooner ye admit defeat, the better. Ye may know how to fight trolls and wolves, but ye not match fer yer mother.”

Crudus held out his right hand, which held a dress sword with a fancy and intricate Truesilver hilt that was attached to a belt that mirrored the intricate vine design on their sleeves. Phio’s eyes lit at the appearance of the sword, he had not been pleased he would be going unarmed to this… wedding. Phio shuddered, scared at how many women would be throwing themselves towards him, largely in part for his mother’s money. The Dispatche family was one of the richest in the neighboring Fiefdom and said name was also very highly recognized. Everyone in the village had been shocked that Tia the dressmaker was the estranged Lady Tianisa Dispatche.

Phio fitted the belt around his waist, situating the sword just right so it would walk with him. Tia reappeared then and scoffed.

“Crudus, I told you that I didn’t want you two carrying weapons, they would look horrible.”

“Aye, ye did love. Tha’s why I had these made. The silversmith even matched yer vinework, though he assured me it was no easy task.”

Tia huffed and walked over to a dress stand she had set out, draping another garment over it. Her own fancy overdress was still untied, as she always tried to wait until the last moment for Crudus to help tighten the laces of the corset underneath and the laces of the dress. Tia wore layers of finely embroidered green silk; the bodice of the overdress shared the same vines in silver thread, as was the theme of the family. Lady Aydreanna Dispatche had insisted on the vines as Crudus’ family were rangers and rangers had the supposed ability to appear and disappear in the woodlands. Tia hadn’t objected because she didn’t want to start a pointless fight with her mother, and she liked the vine design.

“Who is that for,” Phio asked, both he and Crudus both sharing the slightly confused expression.

“You’re date,” Tia replied, carefully smoothing the dark green fabric out.

Unlike Tia’s, this was devoid of the vine pattern but was still covered in Tia’s beautiful embroidery work. In place of the vines, this dress had a flower design in the same sharp silver thread. The top of the bodice was also cut lower than Tia’s as well as less of a train than the matriarch’s.

“My WHAT?” Phio asked, taking a step forward to stare at his mother.

“Oh don’t give me that, I knew you’d try to use the excuse of being persecuted by single ladies to try and leave prematurely. So I asked someone to come with you,” Tia responded.

She smiled as there was a soft knock on the door.

“Got it!” Adrastia called, floating to the door in her own gown.

Adrastia’s gown was the exact opposite as Tia’s. Her silk was a cross between a silver and a cream color with her vine designs being done in a green thread color. Drasti’s black hair had been pulled up with great care and a familiar green ribbon was threaded into it.

“Well, who is it?” Phio asked, bringing Tia’s attention back to him.

“Oh don’t be upset, I just asked Lady..”

“Seli!!” Adrastia squealed gleefully.

Tia turned her head up to see her son. “Her, I got her to come.”

She smiled as Phio’s face turned pale before blushing and hurrying out of the room, avoiding the gaze of his sister and his date. Crudus chuckled as he walked up beside Tia.

“Tha’ was a little mean,” he commented.

“Nonesense, those two are head over heels for each other but are both too stubborn to admit it to each other. Besides, Phio will be more relaxed with Seli because he won’t have to worry about her trying to come after our fortune,” Tia nodded. “They would be a good match.”

Crudus carefully kissed his wife’s temple and began to leave the room.

“Wait, you’d best do up my laces now. Once we get Seli ready we will need to leave, so I’ll need you to make sure Rus gets dressed. I believe he is still playing in his room.”

Crudus turned back around on his heel and walked behind Tia and began pulling the laces as he had done so many times before over the last century.

“Ye don’t need ta fit Russy?”

Tia shook her head.

“Unlike Phio, he’ll let me fit him before the day of the event.”

Crudus grinned, “Do ye give him much choice otherwise?”

Tia sighed, “No, I do suppose holding his toys hostage while I fit him is a bit of a one sided deal.”

Crudus laughed and worked his way down the back of the corset.

“How tight do ye want it?”

She smoothed her hands over her stomach, pulling the overdress sides together to see how they would fit.

“A bit more love, seems I’ve pudged up a little.”

Crudus wrapped an arm around her small waist and kissed her neck.

“Ye look beautiful as ever to me.”

She smiled then and caressed his hand.

“Uggh, Dad. Stop it,” said Adrastia as she and Selidraene came into the room.

Crudus grumbled behind her and finished doing up her laces. When he had finished, he grabbed her hand and kissed it.

“My lady,” he said and left to get their youngest together.

Tia smiled after him, her attention solely on her beloved husband.

“Ma, do you two really have to act like that all the time still? I mean, you’ve been together for over a century now.”

Tia flashed another of her ‘mom’ looks towards her daughter, and smiled at Selidraene.

“Now, let’s get you ready dear.”

~*~*~*~

After a few lessons of proper curtseys that the two young women should use when being greeted by the various nobility, Tia sent them off to the kitchen to see something small and light to eat. Seli looked visibly terrified and Tia hoped that maybe a little more alone time with Drasti might do her good.

“Adrastia, Antino should be here soon,” when the girl reappeared, each holding some bits of dried fruit or meat.

Adrastia rolled her eyes and sighed deeply.

“Let’s just hope there are no tablecloths at the dinner then,” Drasti replied. She then struck a dramatic pose and in her best male dramatic voice said, “For he is Don Jorge Antino Martin Velasco-Cabrales!”

Adrastia grabbed her skirts and slung them back and forth like she was holding a cape, in imitation of Antino at their dinner. Seli giggled uncontrollably next to her, her arms were wrapped around her waist in a feeble effort to control herself.

Adrastia continued in her dramatic voice. “Yes, for he is Don Jorge Antino Martin Velasco-Cabrales! Lord of a tiny brain to match his tiny-“

“DRASTI!” Tia scolded her, shaking her head and trying very hard to keep herself from laughing as well.

Seli however had totally lost it and was now bent over at the waist and crying from laughter.

“Oh, oh my sides!” Seli cried, and she sat down in a nearby chair.

The front door opened and the three women froze, Seli now fighting hiccups.

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The front door opened and Crudus said loudly, “I’m sure Adrastia is ready to go. I believe she has been awaiting your arrival.”

Adrastia rolled her eyes as she quickly smoothed her dress and tightened her hair ribbon.

Crudus then walked into their home, with Antino and Phio right behind him. Crudus walked up to his wife, picked up her hand and kissed it.

“You look beautiful, as always, my lady,” he told her again.

Tia smiled softly at her husband and swept her skirts out with her free hand to curtsy gracefully. She had added a circlet that spread across her forehead, the light caught the diamonds and emeralds, making them gleam against their Truesilver design.

“You flatter me, my lord,” she replied.

She rose, turned her head back to the young couples now behind them, and winked. Crudus then led her towards the door, where they turned to watch the others.

The four young elves stared after the older couple for a moment, all scared of what to do next. Adrastia was the first to act by sweeping her own skirts out and dipping down in a curtsy. Selidraene then jumped slightly and copied her friend, wobbling as she dipped down as well. Antino was the first to react to their formal greeting, stepping forward and placing a lingering kiss on Adrastia’s hand.

“Lady Adrastia! The sun hides her face in shame, outshone by your loveliness,” he told her, smiling brightly.

“And you quite handsome, Lord Antino,” Adrastia replied, fighting the strong urge to roll her eyes. Tia had coached both of the girls on what to say as well as a brief curtsey lesson after they had gotten Selidraene dressed.

Antino was wearing an ensemble similar to Phio’s, but he wore a red jacket with white flame designs and black pants. Adrastia smiled seeing that his clothing was neither so fine nor so perfect as her mother’s handiwork. Though it was nicely made, and fit him well, but no tailor shop could match her mother’s talent.

With a flourish, Antino pulled a small white box from his sleeve. As he bowed and opened it towards Adrastia, a warm radiance spilled out, lighting her face. Her eyes widened.

"A phoenix feather for you, light of my heart. A tiny token of my affection." He plucked it out, stepped forward, and threaded the plume carefully into her dark hair. It shone there like a comet in a starless sky.

Tia frowned in confusion. She'd seen girls wearing pretty phoenix-feather illusions in the city, but they hadn't been half so bright... and they were crushingly expensive. The Velasco-Cabrales family was far from rich. Where had Antino gotten one?

The boy was still talking. "It pales in comparison to you, my lady, but perhaps its flickering will be a safe distraction. Men will look at it, instead of your eyes, and be saved; for none could look too long at those two shining lights and not fall madly in love."

Adrastia was paying little attention. She spun in place watching the light from her hair make swirling patterns on the ceiling. "It looks so real..."

Antino smiled. "Of course it is. I plucked it myself!" He held up his hands to show them crisscrossed with painful red burns.

Adrastia stopped spinning, a worried look on her face. Black smoke was beginning to curl up from the feather. The pretty green ribbon ignited.

Tia stared at Antino. "You gave my daughter a hairpiece... made of magical fire?"

Adrastia reached for the plume and ribbon and shrieked as they scorched her hand. Antino sprung forward, but Crudus shoved him aside, grabbed the feather and ribbon, and threw them into the fireplace. The logs that were sitting in the fireplace, waiting to be lit on a cold night, immediately caught fire. Adrastia slapped herself on her head along with Crudus, making sure the magical flames had been doused.

Adrastia clutched her burned hand, her hair in smoking disarray. Tia took her daughter's shoulders and hustled her toward the kitchen. "Cold water," she muttered. "We need to get that hand under cold water right away." Crudus rounded on Antino, scowling angrily.

Antino bowed deeply, his tanned face ashen. "Honored sir," he said. "I beg the use of your roof."

Angry words rose in Crudus's throat, but he swallowed them in confusion. "You... what?"

"Sir. I have injured your daughter, and am in need of a high place from which to throw myself." He was still bowing, his words directed at Crudus’s shoes. "If you would direct me to the stairs, I would be greatly in your debt."

Crudus stared down at the boy's hung head, thinking. Antino held the bow stiffly, awaiting his reply. Crudus found his scowl softening. "You propose to leave my daughter without an escort to the wedding? Yer supposed to be courtin’ her, that would not look good for you."

Antino stiffened and straightened back up, a conflicted look on his face.

“No, I suppose it would not. Well I am sure Lady Tianisa can work some of her own magic on Lady Adrastia’s hair,” his shoulders slumped and he attempted to walk towards the kitchen to express his dismay at the feather fiasco. Crudus grabber his shoulder, turned him back towards the door and began to lead him outside.

“Ooooh, no ye don’t. Ye do not want to be in there right now, ye may get a rather nasty scorch yerself. And I don’t mean one from fire.”

Crudus shook his head as he led the younger Elf outside.

Ophion and Selidraene stood for a moment, staring at the front door. Seli was the first to react.

“Well that was quite the fiasco, I know Drasti is going to be quite upset for the rest of the night. Do you think your ma will be able to do something with her hair? I’m sure she will. I mean she was able to make me look like a proper lady and that couldn’t have been easy. Though with your mother’s clothing on I doubt that anyone could look poorly, she is just a master after all. Oh what is that you have is it for me? I hope it isn’t flammable. My hair is fiery enough on its own, though I suppose yours is too.”

Phio reached forward and grabbed her hand, and planted a soft kiss on the back. They both blushed and Phio straightened quickly.

“This is for you, yes. It was my Grandmama’s, I think it will look nice on you.”

He reached into the bag and pulled out another circlet, this one was also made of Truesilver and sparkled in the light. While Tia’s had been covered with fancy jewels, befitting her station as the matriarch, this piece was subtlety adorned with tiny diamonds and pearls. Selidraene’s eyes alit with shock and happiness.

“Oh wow, it’s very pretty!” She took the circlet from the cloth covering his hands and quickly jammed it on her forehead.

“Ow,” she muttered, as the metal caused a pin to scrape her scalp. “I hate hairpins.”

“Let me look,” Phio said, stepping towards her and carefully moving the hair to check the wound.

Seeing the nasty looking scratch, he racked his brain for the healing spells his father had taught them. While he had never flourished with big spells, something minor like this should be easy. Running a finger along the scratch he spoke the holy words, a soft white light shown on his hand as the flesh healed flawlessly.

Seli turned her head up towards him.

“Thanks Phio,” she said, smiling up at him, for once, not knowing what to say.

He smiled down at her, and began to lean forwards towards her.

“I HAVE A BALD SPOT!” Adrastia shouted from the other room. “I’ll KILL him!”

From outside the door came Crudus's annoyed voice. "Get back here, lad! I promise you, fetching her a WHOLE phoenix will only make things worse."

Phio and Seli both laughed at the response, each taking a couple steps back from each other.

“It looks nice,” Phio commented, blushing slightly.

“I should go see if they need help,” she replied, hurrying towards the other women.

As Tia carefully removed all of the burned hair and cunningly styled what remained to hide the charred spot. Seli ran outside to fetch some white roses and rosebuds that she and Tia then arranged in Adrastia’s hair to cover the burnt hair smell.

Satisfied that they had been able to cover the injured area, the three females finally emerged from the house. Phio and Crudus stood flanking Antino, ready to stop him from running off. They were passing around a slim silver case of bloodthistle rolls. As they lit them, Tia closed her eyes and inhaled the sweet smoke.

“Mmm, lovely,” she said, walking over towards Crudus. He offered her his arm, and in the free hand, his cigarette. The older couple began to walk together down the path to where two lavish carriages waited.

Phio held out the cigarette case towards Selidraene and Adrastia. Seli accepted one, while Adrastia took three. Phio held out a small firebox and both women leaned forward to light their cigarettes. Phio replaced the container into his coat pockets. He offered his arm towards Seli, and they began to stroll after their elders.

Adrastia stood still. She glared fiercely at Antino, taking a deep pull off her cigarette.

Antino turned toward her and performed a deep, courtly bow. He held the position, right arm carefully extended, black-booted feet precisely angled, like a figure from an etiquette manual. His dark hair had fallen forward, hiding his face. Adrastia stared down at the top of his head. At his gleaming, unmarred black hair. The coal of her cigarette glowed red as she inhaled. She plucked it from her mouth and held it at arm's length.

A smile quirked her lip. "My lord Antino," she said, "What would you do if I set your hair on fire right now?"

He did not move. "My lady Adrastia," he replied, "If you choose to set me alight, then I choose to burn."

For a moment, nothing moved but the curling smoke.

Adrastia turned and stomped away down the walkway. She turned back to see Antino still bowing. She sighed, and curtly extended her hand. "Come on. They're waiting for us."

He took her arm. She raised her nose in the air and studiously looked away. She would later firmly deny that she was smiling.

~*~*~

After the wedding, which was a quite lovely affair even if Lady Aranella looked anything but happy, the guests were shown into the large banquet hall with tables all in the back of the room and an area for dancing at the front. Tia led her family (and the two dates) over to the table that was marked with the Manastrega crest. Tia, Drasti and Seli all chatted happily about how well Tia’s dress looked on Lady Aranella, the bright yellow dress, the traditional color for noble brides, had been carefully offset with cream lace and a multitude of tiny pearls that dotted the various embroidery patterns. Tia received many compliments on the dress as well as a few young girls begging for their own dresses. Once all of the guests had taken their places, the dinner service began. Multitudes of servants appeared from the sides of the hall, all carrying very fancy boxes that were all tied with yellow ribbon.

“Oh joy!” Tia exclaimed, knowing what was contained in the boxes.

“What are those, mama?” Adrastia asked, a slight frown creasing her forehead.

Tia shook her head and waited for a box to be set in front of each one.

“Open them carefully!” Tia told the table, carefully untying her own ribbon. The rest of the table carefully followed suit, curious as to what first course would come in a box.

Tia flipped open her lid and quickly grabbed the mana wyrm that was inside.

“Mana wyrms!” Adrastia exclaimed happily. “I haven’t had a mana wyrm in years.”

Selidraene and Antino looked slightly confused on how to consume such a thing; Antino attempted to bite it and received a mana bolt to the tongue.

“No dear, you absorb it, like so,” Tia closed her eyes and a burst of blue light came from her hands as the wyrm disappeared. Tia smiled and sighed as the burst of magic filled her veins, invigorating her.

“Pull the power from the wyrm into you. Much like absorbing bloodthistle, but only with your hands. Concentrate on pulling it into you.”

Crudus’ hands glowed blue while Tia was speaking, breathing deeply as his own wyrm was absorbed. Ophion and Adrastia were the next to succeed as they had both had mana wyrms before on very special occasions. Mana wyrms were expensive creatures, but the absorption of a wyrm could last an Elf a month. After he absorbed his, Phio reached over to Seli and repositioned her hands as she struggled with her wyrm.

“You can hold it tight, you won’t damage it,” he said. “A firm grip is important.”

Adrastia whispered soothingly to her wyrm, leaning in close as it vanished. Antino struggled briefly with his, then seized it by the tail and briskly whacked its head against the table. He flashed a satisfied smile and absorbed the stunned creature.

Seli nodded and a few moments later the blue glow surrounded her hands. Seli took an unexpected deep breath and shifted in her chair. She began to talk to Phio then about how she’d never had a mana wyrm before and continued rambling on from there. As much as Tia loved Seli, she also had the ability to turn the younger elf out. Phio sat beside her seemingly enraptured though. Tia frowned, usually Phio was attentive but he actually looked like he was greatly enjoying listening to Seli. She turned her head away from her son when she felt Crudus put a hand on her thigh and softly squeeze. Her frown creased deeper, Crudus knew better than to act this way in public. When she looked up at Crudus, he leaned over and kissed her.

‘What is going on?’ she thought, thinking about what may have been causing such behavior.

Tia leaned back and began looking around; several other tables had all of the various couples kissing. She glanced to the head table, Lady Aranella was frowning too. Then Tia felt the wave of desire hit her.

“Oh no,” she murmured, wincing as Antino absorbed his wyrm with Adrastia sitting very close to him.

Lady Aranella’s new husband seemed to be looking extremely pleased. Tia leaned over to Crudus, fighting the urge to kiss him.

“It would be most pleasurable for me if you began counting, my love,” she told him in a low voice. “I shall return very soon.”

Crudus began counting, happily watching her as she got up from the table and hurried quickly over to Lady Aranella.

“My lady,” she began, pausing for a moment to curtsy. “What were those mana wyrms fed?”

Aranella’s eyebrows rose.

“I don’t know, I didn’t feed them. Do you think that is what is wrong?”

Lady Aranella’s new husband smiled wider, “I fed them. It was a blend I got from a trader. He said that the blend would cause luck and happiness for the whole night. So I bought a whole bag of it and fed it to all the wyrms.

Tia’s eyes widened, “Was it purple?”

He looked at Tia surprised, “Why yes, how did you know?”

“Oh dear Gods,” Tia said, covering her mouth. “You fed them all desire dust. You’ve… oh dear me.”

She turned and hurried back to her own table, wincing as she saw that both of the young couples were now oblivious to the rest of the world as the drugged mana wyrms worked their way through their systems. Still fighting the effects herself, she pulled both of the girls off the boys. Phio looked up in confusion and disappointment, but Antino's eyes flashed with anger.

"My lady," he said quietly, "I was under the impression that you intended to allow your daughter to love as she willed. You cannot stand in the way of passion."

Drasti squirmed under Tia's arm. "Yes, mother, please..."

Tianisa cut her off. "Not here, not now. We've been drugged. Desire dust in the worms. We're leaving." She began dragging the girls towards the exit, Phio and Crudus trailing after the females they so greatly desired.

Antino stood ramrod straight, his face a mask of dismay. His brow furled in concentration, he turned and seized a large silver bowl full of Telaari juice and enchanted ice. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and dumped the freezing concoction down the front of his pants. Trousers ruined and dripping, he marched steadfastly after the Manastregas.

Seli and Adrasti both fought Tia's firm grasp, trying to turn back to the boys. Once outside and awaiting their carriages to be brought forward, she tried to keep the situation under control but was fast losing her own resolve.

She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw the familiar carriages being brought up to them and had every intention of shoving the girls into the smaller carriage that she and Crudus had rode in together and putting the boys in the larger. That was until Crudus seemed to have grown tired of counting and swept up his wife into his arms, swiftly walked to the smaller carriage, told the driver, "Home!" and shut the door with them inside it. Tia craned her neck to see that the others were climbing into their own carriage. She could dimly hear them arguing.

"Antino, that ice won't melt, you know!," Drasti was saying. "You're going to do permanent damage!"

"I will safeguard your honor, my lady! No matter the... erk... cost!" There was agony in his voice.

"Antino. If I tell you to burn, you burn. If I tell you to strip... here, let me help you get those off..."

"Adrastia, that is not my... Ak!"

Tia frowned, hoping that maybe she could separate everyone out when they got back to their home. Or at least that was her intention until Crudus started kissing her and her thread thin resolve snapped.

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Tia woke the next morning with a long languid stretch, rolling over to lazily kiss Crudus on the cheek. Her husband responded by wrapping his arms around her and turning to kiss her forehead.

“Mmm, good morning,” Tia said, smiling uncontrollably.

Crudus attempted to run his fingers through her long hair, and was unable to get more than a few inches before catching on horrendous tangles. Tia sighed, not looking forward to the time it would take to brush out her ravaged hair.

“Tha’ was some mana wyrm,” Crudus commented after a few minutes, lazily stroking one of Tia’s ears.

“Mmm, yes. I haven’t had a desire wyrm in awhile. Since right before we had Russy... oh, fel!”

“Was’ wrong?”

“The children... they had wyrms too.”

They both sat bolt upright, sharing a horrified expression. Tia was the first to recover by throwing the silk sheets off and scrambling off the bed, tripping slightly over the bed sheets as she headed for her closet. She grabbed one of her simplest dresses, throwing it over her head without noticing that it was backwards. She grabbed a leather tie in her left hand while spinning her hair into a horribly messy bun in her right, and slid her feet into some woven sandals that she usually wore to the bath. She raced out of the room, a disheveled Crudus right behind her.

“Check on Drasti, I’ll check on Phio,” she said as they reached the top of the stairs, Tia heading to the left and Crudus just to the right.

Tia was reaching for the handle on the door when she heard a loud moan from the other side. Releasing it like a hot iron, she backed away quickly, mentally kicking herself for not thinking about what might be happening. She looked down the hall and tiptoed towards a worried looking Crudus.

“She ain’t in there,” he said.

“Phio’s in his. But he’s not alone,” Tia replied, turning to walk back down the stairs.

Crudus looked towards Phio’s door, “Wha’ you mean he’s not alone?”

He took a few steps down the hall before Tia grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“He’s with Seli,” she said. “And it’s not him I’m worried about.”

Crudus smiled and stood up a little straighter. Tia swore she heard him say “That’s my boy,” but Crudus would later tell her that she was just hearing things.

Tia headed back to her room, sighing when she finally realized her dress was on backwards.

“Change into riding clothes, we need to find Adrastia,” she told him, as he was already reaching for his tall leather riding boots.

Tia rushed into the closet, pulling on her riding pants and grabbing riding boots herself.

“Where do you think they could be?” Crudus asked her, helping pull off her dress as she shoved a foot into one of her boots.

“I thought we’d go to the Velasco-Cabrales estate first, maybe they are there. I just hope they are alright.”

Tia paused only for a few moments to redo her hair, making the bun look slightly less like she had only just woken up. They were opening the front door when they heard Adrastia’s firm voice just outside.

“I am NOT getting off Esperanza until I can be sure you won’t take off the moment I do!”

“Drasti, we must keep priorities well in mind.” Antino’s voice was low. “First, your safety. I have safeguarded that. Second, your good reputation. My own good name is a distant third. Do you wish your mother to wake to find you gone?”

Adrastia was seated behind Antino on a large black horse, with her back turned to where Tia and Crudus now stood; Antino’s attention was fully on Adrastia. As soon as she saw her daughter, Tia closed her eyes and sent a wave of magic out towards her. She breathed a sigh of relief when she detected protective spells around her daughter. She began to take a step forward to check on Adrastia when Crudus grabbed her shoulder.

“Don’t, just yet. I want ta see how he acts.”

Tia frowned up at him but took the moment to look over Adrastia. She still wore her dress from last night; Tia imagined that Antino would have had to have helped her back into at least her corset. She winced at the horrible state the dress was in, with a multitude of creases and wrinkles everywhere. Antino wore a considerably less formal red shirt and black breeches, his long hair falling loose beneath a wide-brimmed riding hat. A silver hilt at his side indicated that he had brought his sword with him, presumably to safeguard Adrastia and himself.

Adrastia snorted.

“Do you really think my mother will have terribly much to say? They were under the same influences we were. Despite your best intentions not to,” she said, scowling slightly. “Again, how do I know you aren’t going to take off and never be seen again the moment I go inside?”

Antino sprang off the horse and swept the hat off his head, pressing it to his heart. “Adrastia. I am not some fop from a wineshop. Not some callous knave, honorless and nameless! I am Don Jórge Antíno Martín Velasco-Cabrales! I am at your service, my lady, until you see fit to dismiss me.”

Adrastia fidgeted in the saddle, attempting to smooth out part of her skirt.

“Well I hope so, I certainly enjoyed your services last night,” she looked up and smiled at him.

Finally Crudus cleared his throat, causing both of the young elves to jump. Antino’s hand flew to his sword, then paused. As he saw Crudus, he smoothly carried the motion into a salute.

“Why don’t ye come inside?” Crudus asked, pushing the front door wide open.

Antino turned back to Adrastia. “The matter is settled for us, my lady.” With a flourish, he held up a hand to help her down.

Adrastia finally relented, taking his hand and sliding off the side of the very patient horse. When Antino released her hand to grab the horse’s reins, Adrastia turned on her heel and glared at him. Taking pity on Antino, Tia stepped forward.

“I’ll put her with our riding birds and Crudus’ horse, go on inside.”

Antino swept a deep bow. “My lady Tianisa. I pray the morning finds you well?”

Tia smiled at Antino. “Well enough now that my daughter is back. I was quite worried about her this morning. But, I can see you have taken good care of her. Shall I take...?”

Smiling, Antino patted the horse’s muscular neck. “Her name is Esperanza, my lady. After my beloved sister.”

“Well I promise she will be well taken care of by our stable hand.”

Tia expertly placed one foot in the stirrup and swung her other over, clicking her tongue to get the mare moving, leading her to their small stable.

“Ye ride a mare? Tis a bit odd,” Crudus remarked as the couple reached him.

“For stamina, sir. And good sense. My sister is of the opinion that at least one of us should have some.”

“I am not judging you, son. Just most Elves I know like stallions. I suppose a mare could be a wee bit more reliable at times.”

As they stepped into the door, Adrastia saw Phio standing at the foot of the stairs, looking like he had just been caught doing something wrong. Over his left arm was one of Tia’s dresses, in his right was a bottle of wine and balanced carefully in between was a small tray of food. Phio was dressed only in a pair of breeches that were only half laced up. Adrastia grimaced at the sight of her brother, while Antino threw him a grin and a salute.

“Ye better get upstairs befer your mother gets back,” Crudus commented, snapping Phio out of his shock. Phio nodded and quickly hurried up the stairs.

Crudus laughed and slowly turned back around to Antino and Adrastia.

“Drasti, go change out of tha dress. Ye better fix it befer givin’ it back to yer mother though,” Crudus told her, nodding his head in the direction of the stairs.

Adrastia opened her mouth to protest, but Crudus cut her off.

“I’ll make sure he stays while yer upstairs.”

Adrastia hesitated, looking up at Antino. He gave her a confident smile. Finally she squeezed his hand, and stepped forward.

“Be nice, daddy,” she said, and quickly hurried upstairs, pulling at her laces as she did.

Crudus frowned at her back.

“Her hair has been brushed?” Crudus asked, turning his attention back to Antino.

Antino’s smile faltered. “She insisted. The dress, as well, she asked my help with. I offered to fetch my sister, but... Ah. I am more accustomed to horses mane’s and corset removal than ladies tresses and putting things on.”

Crudus chuckled, “Tha’ girl is so much like Tia.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Tia asked, coming in the front door herself.

“Not at all love,” he quickly responded. “Just merely noticing how similar ye two are.”

Tia smiled up at him, walked over to him and kissed his cheek.

“Good answer dear.”

“Why don’t ye go get yer brush and begin working on yer hair, ye know it’s going to take ye hours.”

Tia sighed and nodded, heading for her own room.

“Be nice to him!” she called back behind him, wincing as she removed ties from her bun.

“Why do they think I won’t be,” he mumbled. He turned to find Antino frowning and contemplating his boots.

“What’s wrong, lad? Expecting me to fit ye for a hemp necktie?” Crudus grinned.

Antino coughed and stood at attention. “I am uncertain, sir. An unusual occurance. Things have happened... out of order, yes? I am not greatly experienced at courtship, though I pursue it with all the passion I have! But there are... steps to the dance. Verses to the song, a thread to the story. I have learned from such things, you see. But what happens now? Have I done wrong? Does honor demand we be enemies?”

Crudus interupted him with a guffaw. “I am no’ mad at ye son. Certainly not if Adrastia is as much like her mother as I think.”

Crudus walked over to Antino and threw an arm around his shoulders. “Ye don’t seem like the type to bed and run at all, so I am not too worried. Perhaps for yer sanity with my daughter, but we can keep tha’ between us.”

Antino let out a breath he had been holding. The tension in his shoulders relaxed. “You honor me with your trust, my lord.”

“Nah, I’m more worried about what yer plans are now. Dun want ye to feel like ye have to sweep her away quickly. I will say, ye break her heart, and I’ll take yer throat.”

Antino nodded grimly. “That is right and proper, my lord. I would do no less were any to harm my sister.”

The young elf looked serious as a judge. Crudus stifled a laugh in a fit of coughing. Clearing his throat, he glanced around to see if Adrastia had reappeared.

“I shall give ye one hint, and please dun take it to the extreme. Drasti’s favorite color is green. And she likes dogs. Especially the stuffed ones, for whatever reason.”

Antino nodded pensively.

Crudus sighed. “No, lad, don’t dye a dog green.”

“Certainly not, my lord. Dying the dog would be cheating. Rather, I think I see how to proceed. I have,” he coughed, “shown her my home, and safely returned her. Now, she must reply. Must let it be known in what light she sees me. The next step in the dance is hers.”

Suddenly, Adrastia appeared as she slid down the banister from the second floor, smiling as she did so. Now dressed in a comfortable pair of breeches herself with a blue shirt.

“You know, we really didn’t get to see much of your home,” she said, hopping off the railing and sauntering over towards him. Antino swept a bow and carefully kissed her hand.

Crudus rolled his eyes. “I hope yer sister likes Drasti.”

Antino smiled. “My sister hides her heart well, my lord. But when I speak to her of Adrastia, there is a smile in her eyes. Adrastia... we are not wealthy as counted by coin, and our home does not bear such wonders as the spires of Silvermoon. But I know a place where the river falls into a deep pool, and the trees above turn light and water alike to liquid emerald.”

Adrastia’s eyes softened as he talked, a silly grin growing wider on her face.

“Oh! Will you show me, Tino?”

Antino took her hand and turned to Crudus. “With your permission, my lord?”

A gagging sound was heard from behind them. Nereus had arrived back from his friend’s house, he and the other young elf boy both had their hands around their throats, pretending to be strangled. Crudus frowned, then hid a smile behind his hand. He quickly turned his back to the young couple.

“Upstairs, Rus.”

The two boys were quick to comply, racing up the stairs together.

Crudus turned back around, “Yes, by all means. Go, have fun. Say goodbye to yer mother first though, Drasti.”

Adrastia looked at Antino, smiled and dashed towards her mother’s room. Crudus shook his head slightly, a grin on his face.

“I hope ye know what yer doin’ lad, yer in fer a wild ride.”

“Better to die for love and honor, sir, than live for any else. I have no fear.” His stance shifted, as if he were heroically standing atop an invisible mountain.

Crudus grinned, “Let’s see if yer still sayin’ that after Drasti cooks fer ye.”

After a few minutes had passed, Adrastia reappeared in the parlor where Crudus and Antino were. Her hair had shifted, unbeknownst to her, shaking her head slightly as she bustled out.

“Why mother always insists on measuring me, I will never know. I don’t change that much day to day. Gods alone know what she needs that much plain linen cloth for either.”

Antino grinned. “Perhaps she plans to outfit a ship with sails. Shall we go, Adrastia?”

Adrastia paled slightly, “I’m not getting that fat am I? She rushes to the mirror on the side of the room, turning to see her figure. “She was fitting that linen around me.”

Antino quirked a quizzical eyebrow. “Growing fat? Let’s see.” He briskly marched up behind her and swept her up into his arms. “No, not a bit.” He turned and strode out the door, bearing the happily shrieking Adrastia like a new bride.

Crudus laughed behind them, and walked to the door to close it. He shook his head as he walked back towards Tia’s workroom. He leaned against the door frame, watching Tia as she began to pin bits of linen up on her dress model, her features focused and her hair still disheveled around her shoulders. He chuckled a little at her.

“What?” she asked, not looking up from her cloth.

“Ye don’t waste any time, do ye?”

She looked up then, a pointed look on her face. “Well, I want these things to be perfect. Gods know when things will progress, but the way she came in gushing about him, I’d wager several months more but not more than a year.”

Crudus closed his eyes and laughed again to himself.

“Hard to believe that she has changed so much since having her dinner dropped in her lap, quite literally.”

Tia smiled as she pinned another bit of cloth to the model.

“Indeed it is. Adrastia is so stubborn though, I’m almost glad she had her hand played for her last night,” Tia sighed. “I am going to hate fixing that dress though. There is a ball in a couple months that we’ve been invited to.”

Crudus groaned. “Tia, why? They are happy, they dun need more balls.”

Tia smiled up at him, “Because they need the social exposure, especially Antino. I don’t think he realizes the society shock he will get when they marry.”

“Ye say that like it’s already happened,” Crudus grumbled.

“You saw them today, you should know Adrastia is falling very fast for that boy. Now come here so I can measure you, that ball coming up will require new outfits. Hmm, I’ll also need to get Antino’s measurements. I want he and Adrastia to match better.”

Tia’s voice trailed off as her head filled with cuts and fabrics, eyes slightly glazed over as she whipped a knotted cord around Crudus’ frame. Her husband stood still as he had so many, many times before.

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Later that day, after Crudus had helped Tia brush all the knots out of her hair, the couple sat down together for a light meal. They were talking with each other over their glasses of fine wine when Selidraene came down the stairs, looking slightly annoyed and more than a little embarrassed.

“Hello Tia, Crudus. Phio is concerned that if he comes downstairs that you will be mad at him, especially Tia. Even though I have told him multiple times that I don’t think you both would be. It’s not like we did anything wrong, although I suppose by society’s rules we did because Phio is higher ranking than I am. Is this going to affect my training Crudus? I know that I am set to go over healing while fighting with you sometime in the next couple weeks. I don’t want that to be awkward. Oh, Tia I borrowed your dress, well Phio took it for me rather. I couldn’t very well fit into his clothes and didn’t want to try to get back into that dress from last night. Not that the dress wasn’t beautiful; I think Phio broke a lace though. But I’m sure with your skills you can fix it right up. So, should Phio come down? Or –“

Tia and Crudus stared at the rambling girl for a few minutes before Crudus shouted out, “Ophion! Get down here!”

After a few moments, Phio appeared on the stairs, walking very slowly. Crudus rolled his eyes and pushed himself away from the table. Once Phio was by Seli, she grabbed his hand and looked defiantly at Crudus.

“You cannot punish him, we were under the influence of that wyrm, whatever Tia called it. Lust dust or whatever. And if his attentions were not wanted it’s not like I would have stayed up there all day while we-“

“Enough! Seli,” Crudus said, taking a deep breath. “Ye will not let this affect yer training. Ye both must remained focused on yer studies. What ye do at night, I dun want ta know. What ye do during the day I will find out about. If I find out ye skipped training to go for a romp or somethin’, there will be hell to pay. I promise ye that.”

While Crudus was talking, Tia had closed her eyes and did the same magic test that she had done on Adrastia. She smiled slightly to herself and opened her eyes when she detected the same protective magics. While Tia may not be able to heal like her husband could, she did have powerful magic on her own.She focused her attention back on her son and Selidraene. Both were nodding their heads at Crudus’ orders. Tia rose from the table and walked over to Seli.

“Let’s get you into something that fits a little better than my old pregnancy gown,” Tia told her softly, slipping an arm through Seli’s arm.

“Maybe it was just wishful thinking on Phio’s part.” Seli looks back at Phio and turns red. She then quickly follows Tia upstairs.

Phio looked at his father with a smile on his face, Crudus watched them walk away before turning his attention back to Phio.

“Well, she is certainly a passionate elf, I dun think anyone can deny that about her,” Crudus remarked, swinging an arm over his son’s shoulders and leading him outside.

Back in Tia’s workroom, Seli stood still with her arms out as Tia measured her as she had Crudus and Adrastia.

“I really don’t think this is needed, although truth be told I’m not sure what it is for. I just need a very basic dress, Tia. I can even bring it back tomorrow if you want, it’s not like I live very far away. I hope you aren’t mad that he borrowed this dress; I actually think it is quite comfortable but I can see what you mean about it being a pregnancy dress since it has so much room in the front. I don’t know if I’ll ever have children, I mean it’s just so hard. But then you had three! How hard was it to have twins? Was Phio a hard child to deal with?”

She rambled on while Tia finished her measurements, nodding as she mentally noted the various measurements, which Seli took to be conversational nods.

“I measured you because I need to make you a new dress. There is a ball coming up in a few months that we will be attending. I am quite certain that you’ll be going with Phio,” Tia said, making some marks on a piece of parchment in a small book she had for her dressmaking.

“Another new dress? For me? You really don’t have to go through that much trouble. I mean, if it’s month’s away then there’s no guarantee that Phio will even want me to go with him.”

“If it is months away, then I still need to start now since I’ll be making yours, Drasti’s, my own and all the boys outfits too. And he’s been crazy about you for years; I highly doubt he’s going to go back into hiding now.”

“But it was all under the effects of that thing we had at the wedding. He probably is gonna go back to how he was before. When is this stuff supposed to wear off anyway? It’s not as bad as it was last night but I can’t wait for it to be gone so that he and I can sort this out without anything in our system.”

“About 6 hours after you took it, it wore off. Considering you two have been up there almost all day, and I know better that you weren’t just talking, I’d say he has probably been himself,” Tia says, selecting a few different colors of silk fabrics and holding them against Selidraene.

Seli blinks a few times and gets really quiet. “Only six hours?”

“There abouts, more or less by maybe an hour or two depending on how mana starved you are. Hmmm, I can’t decide if I should put you in navy or green again. That green did look stunning on you, but these dresses will be less formal and more movement friendly for a ball. High formal attire is always,” she sighed. “Painful”

“So, everything that he said or did today was all him? You’re not just trying to get my hopes up, are you Mrs. Tia?” Seli asked while trying to keep from moving around too much from the excitement of this news.

Tia holds up the two different fabrics one at a time against Seli, pursing her lips as she debates the two cloths.

"I think the green is just too pretty not to use," she nods, finally she looks up at Seli and smiles. "Dear, he's been infatuated with you for near half a decade now. I'm just surprised he was able to resist the dust."

“We both tried so hard to resist it too. I don’t think either of us wanted to make as much of a scene as Drasti and Antino almost made. You should have seen them in the carriage, though I guess it’s probably for the best that you didn’t see them. So, will I get to have more vines on this dress? I really like the flowers that you put on the other one but if I’m going with Phio then I’ll have to match him more right?”

“Hmm, maybe. Some vinework on the sleeves like what Drasti and I had,” Tia sighed. “I have my own ideas about Drasti and Antino from how they were acting this morning, but I’m trying not to think about that. It’s hard to see your children grow up so much in a night.Though, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t happy for them. And you, dear. You’ll treat my Phio well, I know.”

~*~*~*~ (Several months later, before the aforementioned ball)

“Breathe out, dear.” Tia braced herself against Crudus’s back as she tugged the green sash tight.

“Oof! Ahh, now I know what your corsets feel like.”

“No, dear, you really don’t,” Tia muttered as she checked the fit of his jacket and trousers. Phio stood beside his father, awaiting his own inspection with an air of resignation. Adrastia and Selidraene lounged on a nearby couch, still in their dressing gowns. Adrastia was arranging Selidraene’s hair, carefully affixing small silver pins and clasps studded with pearls. Selidraene ran her fingers over the pearls on the circlet that Phio had given her before. Adrastia’s hair was still hanging loose around her shoulders.

“Come now, I wear full armor all the time. Breastplate’s a lot heavier and harder than a corset.”

“A breastplate is designed to keep anyone from rearranging your insides, dear. A corset rearranges them for you.”

Seli giggles overhearing the debate. “Having worn both, I can assure you I’d rather be in the breastplate any day.”

Yellow autumn sunlight was streaming in through the curtains, sapping the sense of urgency from all but Tianisa. Per her instructions, they had all arrived to prepare for the ball several hours early. All, with one exception. Tia tsked with disapproval. “Drasti, where’s your boy gotten to?”

Adrastia chewed her lip. “I don’t know, mother. He usually shows up early! Unless a horse gets out of the barn and he has to catch it. Or a farmer has a problem with elementals. Or a dragonhawk starts a fire. Because he was trying to ride it. Or... I’m sure he’s all right.”

Crudus snorted, chucking softly until Tia slapped his chest to stand up straighter.

Seli rolls her eyes and laughs. “Or maybe there’s a kitten in a tree, or a lynx with a thorn in its paw or any number of the stories of bravery he likes to tell you to make you swoon over him.”

Adrastia pouted. “They’re true, Seli! At least, I know the Lynx one was, I saw the scratches. And maybe it is a little silly, but...”

Hooves crunched leaves in the street outside, and Drasti ran to the window. “He’s here!”

Seli rolled her eyes again. “Is he smoking?”

Adrastia leaned out the window, beckoning for Antino to come inside. She turned to Seli with a frown. “No, Seli. What, you think he was late because he stopped to buy Bloodthistle?”

“No, I meant, does it look like he’s been on fire recently?”

Adrastia scowled as Crudus and Phio stifled a laugh. Phio withered beneath his sister’s angry gaze. “I’ll just... go and get the door, shall I?”

Tia carefully fitted a few stiches to Crudus’ right sleeve, her focus on her work. She pricked Crudus more than once as he looked around to see what was going on. Boots thumped up the stairs.

Antino marched in, followed by a flustered Phio. Antino’s face was wet, and his hair hung damply to his shouders. He wore old riding clothes, and at his side was a cavalry saber in a battered black sheath.

Adrastia froze when she saw him, hand covering her mouth. “Tino! Are you okay? What happened?”

Tia looked up from her work and froze, her jaw falling open and staring at him. Crudus turned around to look at why so much fuss was going on, Tia’s needle and thread still stuck in his sleeve.

Antino cut a careful bow in Tia’s direction. “My lady Tianisa. The autumn’s beauty flares and fades, but yours is eternal.” He turned to Adrastia. “But you, my light, put the autumn sun to shame.” And next, to Seli. “Miss Selidraene, you...”

“Enough, Antino!” Tia cut him off. “There will be time for etiquette at the ball. What happened to you?”

“Ah. I beg your pardon for my tardiness. There was a... dissagreement with some Amani.”

Crudus’s hand went to the ornate sword at his side. “Troll attack? Where?”

“No, no!” Antino raised his hands, a placating gesture. “They were merely passing through! They do so several times a year to attend festivals in their ancient city. But this was out of season, and they got in the way of the harvest. There was a misunderstanding, offense was taken. Nothing a small duel couldn’t settle.”

Adrastia grabbed him by the shoulders and looked him up and down. “You’ve been dueling? Where are you hurt?”

Antino smiled. “Not at all, my evening star. It wasn’t a true fight, simply an argument between gentlemen.”

Crudus raised an eyebrow. “A gentleman troll?”

“Indeed, sir. The offense meant little to him. He was eager to be off, as was I, but his honor demanded he not concede defeat to a farmer. So they sent for me, I gave him a pretty red stripe across his chest, and we parted satisfied.” Antino ran a hand through his damp hair. “He made me sweat for it, though. Took a dip in the river afterwards, judging a minute more of lateness less an offense than an evening of manly musk.” He flashed a grin at Adrastia, who blushed, embarrassed for both of them.

“Well, I’m glad you’ve gotten your little adventure for the day out of the way early.” Tia elbowed her way between the two and shoved an armful of clothing towards Antino. “Now go get changed!”

Crudus drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the hilt of his sword. “Tino, son... any word on why the Trolls are on the move at this time of year?”

Tia put her hands on Antino’s shoulders and spun him around, pointing him in the direction of a spare room. “You two can talk about trolls later, for now I want him in those clothes. Drasti, go help him. Try to dry his hair as much as possible while I work on your brother.”

Antino smiled at Adrastia and swept an arm toward the door. “Shall we, my flower?”

Adrastia quickly stepped forward and caught the pile of clothes as it began to fall from his arms. “Yes, we shall, my troll slayer.”

Tia rolled her eyes at her daughter and began to tug at the sash Phio was holding around his waist, smiling a little when her son made a grunt. Seli looked over at Phio in pity before moving before the mirror to finish fixing up her hair.

Crudus tromped out the door. “I’ll be back in a moment, love.” He pulled the sheathed dress sword off his belt. “Just feel this dance might call for something a little more... practical.”

As Tia was finishing straightening Phio’s jacket, the errant elf and her swooning daughter reemerged from the spare room, with Crudus close behind. Antino had been fitted into his outfit, the red jacket a striking color against his black hair. Tia frowned looking at the young elf, as it seemed his wet hair was now completely dried.

“We used one of your flames to dry his hair, mama,” Adrastia told her, answering the unasked question.

Tia shrugged and motioned for Antino to come stand before her for his own inspection. As Drasti had been the one to help him dress, she had less work to do. She smoothed her hands over his shoulders, and tugged at the sleeves, expertly checking their lengths. Finally she smiled.

“Now, is this not a wonderfully made garment?” The matriarch looked quite pleased with herself.

Antino moved experimentally, rolling his shoulders in the finely tailored sleeves. He slid his feet in the steps of a dance, arms around an invisible partner, then, in a flash, drew his blade, lunging forward and spitting a phantom assailant. He sheathed his blade and flashed a smile. “You are skilled with your fingers, my lady. It is no wonder your husband loves you so!”

Everyone in the room froze and looked at Antino, Adrastia with a look of horror on her face. Antino, oblivious to the awkwardness, threw his arms wide. “See how well it moves! And the stitching, so small! Invisible! Splendid skill, no?”

“Indeed. Now, time for us to get dressed, Selidraene! Adrastia! Come!” Tia said, grabbing her daughter’s arm and pulling her towards her workroom. “Crudus! Come help please.”

Crudus grumbled about the uselessness of corsets as he trudged along after his wife. Phio and Antino were left alone in the parlor in a very awkward silence.

Antino smiled at Phio. “You are lucky to live with woman of such skill. Always with your mother tending to you with her clever hands.”

Phio closed his eyes. “You... don’t actually hear anything wrong in what you’re saying, do you?”

“Your sister, also, can work wonders with her...”

“Antino, please stop talking.”

“Ow! Daddy!” came Adrastia’s annoyed voice.

Shortly thereafter, the door opened and Crudus emerged, seeming very happy that he was done tending the women.

“They shouldn’t be too long, just have Drasti’s hair ta finish,” he grinned. “Luckily they don’t have to cover a bald spot this time.”

Phio snorted and checked the clasp on his sword belt.

“Why dun I get ye one of my swords, Tino? Tia will not let ye carry that with her clothes on,” Crudus said, striding towards a corner closet, gesturing Antino to follow him. Inside were racks of various swords in a multitude of metal colors and gem combinations, Crudus reached in and grabbed one with a silver hilt and a large ruby at the end.

“Dun think I’ve ever worn this one, here ye can just have it. Tia likes me in green too much. Somethin’ about my red hair,” Crudus said, looking upwards.

Antino hesitated. “You... honor me to greatly, my lord. I have done nothing to earn the gift of a blade.”

“Tis no matter, I know ye will take good care of it. Besides, it matches the circlet she be wearin’ tonight. One of her grandmama’s that Tia had put away. Dun know why we have ruby jewelry around when our colors are green and silver.” He held out the shining scabbard, urging it on the younger elf.

Antino took the sword gingerly in both hands. He looked down at the ornate silver scrollwork, the gleaming gem. It shone all the brighter against his tanned, calloused hands. “The colors of Velasco-Cabrales are black, red, and silver. But we have few rubies. I thank you, my lord.”

The men turned to more idle chat, discussing what may have been the reason behind the trolls’ strange movement earlier. Antino spun a theory of a chosen troll-whelp, born with the gift of prophecy, calling all his kind to him to realize his great destiny. Crudus and Phio thought something must have scared them. None of them said it, but they were all nervous now to see what happened.

Finally the door to Tia’s workroom opened and the matriarch came bustling out, her green skirts flaring out to either side of her, diamonds sparkling against her black hair. Adrastia was the next to follow, wearing a dress of red with silver designs on it to match Antino’s dress outfit. She swept quickly from behind her mother, her own skirts flowing gracefully against her movement. When she reached Antino, she curtsied deeply, the rubies on her circlet sparkled in the light.

“My lord,” she said, extending her hand in a smooth gesture.

“My lady Adrastia.” Antino bowed low over her hand, his hair falling in a black curtain. “Finally, all will see you as I do. The flame of my heart.”

Seli’s eyes rolled. Adrastia grinned at her. “That’s not scorn, Seli, that’s envy. Phio, take notes.”

Selidraene had also walked past Tianisa, her own green skirts kissing the floor as she swept them aside in a much more elegant and practiced curtsy than she had previously. Phio immediately grabbed her outstretched hand and bowed to kiss it. As soon as she had risen, he was offering her his arm and leading her outside.

As the couples walked toward the carriages, Phio leaned towards Seli’s ear and whispered something about his “spring flower blooming in autumn.” Selidraene punched him in the arm, but her blush was happy.

~*~*~*~

As they stepped out of the carriages at the estate of Lord Eni Gomontoya, Adrastia was fumbling to clasp Antino’s new dress sword onto his sash. Antino still held his well worn sword in his right hand. Tia reached out to take it from him when he pulled it away.

“Ah, my lady. To suddenly touch a man’s sword...”

Tia scowled. “You’re not complaining about Drasti handling your blade!”

“Well, yes, with matters between us as they are, she is rather expected to... is there a problem?”

Seli and Phio were choking on their laughter.

Crudus tugged on Tia’s arm slightly, “Come now Tia, let’s enter. By your grace, my lady.”

Antino finally convinced to leave his old sword in the carriage, the six swept towards the ballroom. The walkway was carpeted with autumn-red maple leaves, and as the sun sank in the west, spell-lights flickered into life, throwing dancing golden shadows across the lawn.

The line for the entrance advanced slowly, a herald calling out the names and titles of each noble to arrive. Adrastia fidgeted with a particularly unruly lock of hair, which refused to stay in place behind her ear.

Antino leaned towards her. “Does it trouble you, my lady?” he murmured. “Please, allow me.”

Before Adrastia could reply, she felt a slight tug. She turned to see Antino sliding a small dagger back into his vest, a curl of hair in his other hand. She sighed. “I swear, you do more damage to my hair than... what are you doing with that?”

Antino slipped the lock of hair into his breast pocket, smiling. “Keeping it safe, my lady, and close to my heart.”

Tianisa refused to turn around, holding an air of nobility around her that she saved only for these events. Both Phio and Drasti knew better than to upset their mother during times like these. Phio had passed the sentiment on to Seli, but Drasti wasn’t sure Antino had grasped what an angry Matriarch Tianisa was like.

They reached the announcer and Tia gave him the formal names of everyone in their party. In a practised gesture, Crudus held his hand out in a formal manner and Tia placed hers atop his, taking up her skirts in the other. Together they descended the stairs as other higher ranking nobility turned to acknowledge the well known Noble Elf. Phio and Seli were next to follow, as Phio was the eldest. Seli looked quite nervous as she concentrated on each step. Casting a nervous look to Antino, Drasti nudged him to hold out his hand so they could descend the stairs. Antino smiled confidently and took his position, precise as a diagram from an etiquette book... admittedly, one a century or two out of date.

As they stepped forward, the herald coughed. “Don Jorge Antino Martin Vel... um...”

Antino favored the room with a dazzling grin. “It is I, Don Jorge Antino Martin Velasco-Cabrales! And it is my great pleasure and honor to escort the beautiful Lady Adrastia Aiydreanna Cielo Manastrega!” He turned with a flourish, presenting his lady to the silent room.

A mortified Adrastia forced a smile to her lips and tugged his hand back down.

“Walk down the stairs,” she said through clenched teeth.

They began to descend the stairs, walking past a stunned and mortified herald towards a very angry looking Tianisa.

“Antino,” Tia hissed, “are you intentionally disruptive, or simply oblivious?”

He looked at her with surprise. “Defiant, my lady. One cannot please all of the people, to be sure. One should, rather, uphold one’s own honor and trust that those who matter will see. But if I have offended you, Madam Manastrega, then indeed I have done wrong.” He sighed sadly. “I knew we should have ridden my horse in through the window.”

Crudus leaned forward to speak softly to Antino. “Just follow Tia, and do not say anything. People soon forget minor things at these events, so it’s better to let them go so people can forget. Just keep yer trap shut for once.”

Antino nodded firmly, holding his head high and setting his shoulders as if he had been instructed to hold the walls alone against a thousand-man army. Tia sighed. At least his mouth was closed.

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Tia led the group of them around the room, politely making all the various introductions to other nobility in the room. A few fierce glares were given by Tia when some younger girls snickered at Antino, who was thankfully still silent. They reached the dais where the Lord, his wife and his daughter, Alanna, were seated. The young girl looked incredibly nervous as she smiled politely at the Manastrega group.

“My Lord,” Tianisa said, sweeping her skirts out wide in an elegant curtsy, as the rest of her group followed suit.

Lord Gomontoya smiled at the group, and rose up from his seat.

“Ah, my lady Tianisa. I was hoping that you might have a word with me. Perhaps we could have a dance?”

Phio stiffened beside Seli as the lord looked over his way, seeming to size up the young male. Adrastia tilted her head slightly toward her brother and softly murmured, “If mama could hold off other matchmaking lords for me, she can for you. Keep still though; we’ve had enough attention here already.”

Tianisa had heard Adrastia’s whisper, and spoke over her, hoping the lord would not hear.

“Ah, my lord, I would love a dance. I am pleased to see that you were able to get the Quel’Dorei Quartet to play... though I am quite curious about the strange platform you have above them.”

Lord Eni held out his arm to Tianisa, who took it as they walked towards the dance floor.

“Well, my lady, my dear Alanna very much wanted to have that new band, the Eversong Translocation Authority, such a ridiculous name, play at her party here. So I had this platform built that all the young ones can, appropriately I think, use the translocation orb,” he gestured to the shining globe on the side of the dance floor, “And dance to their own music without the rest of us being disturbed.”

Tianisa laughed softly, “What an excellent idea, my lord.”

Tianisa turned her head towards the four as she passed and nodded in the direction of the orb, silently telling them they could go dance if they wanted. Seli wasted no time in pulling Phio’s arm in the general direction.

Adrastia looked up at Antino to see his response. He smiled at her and shrugged, his jaw still firmly shut. Then he raised his right hand and began a flurry of complex gestures.

Drasti sighed. “It’s alright to speak to me, Tino. Quietly.”

“As you wish, my flame,” he whispered, leaning close. Adrastia found herself blushing as he pressed against her, his lips by her ear. “I know the fine old dances, the rhythms and harmonies, but this modern music is strange to me... above and below alike, I suspect. As I am ever your guard, you must be my guide.”

Adrastia smiled and shifted on her feet. “I will do my best, my lord.”

They sauntered off together towards the orb, walking much closer together than was considered proper for such an event.

Crudus, now alone, scowled slightly and went in search of something to drink, trying very hard not to glare at the lord now dancing with his wife. He did smile, watching his wife, with a fake smile held firmly on her face and (to him at least) an obviously forced laugh.

“Lord Fancypants must be pissin’ her off for her to be smiling like tha’,” he mumbled to himself, taking a sip of his drink.

The song ended, all of the respective dancing partners bowed or curtsied before leaving to floor. Lord Gomontoya and Tianisa walked slowly back, Tia carefully taking her leave when she saw her husband. Her forced smile faded with every step she took towards him. Crudus had a drink ready for her, and she took it without hesitation, swallowing half in one long sip.

“The nerve of that man,” she hissed at him, speaking very quietly. “Says that I should be pairing Phio up with someone who is of his class, not a nobody like Selidraene. Of course he wants Phio to marry Alanna, he wants more money. Greedy son of a half troll.”

Crudus grinned widely at his wife, carefully taking her hand and kissing it as she ranted. The touch seemed to help Tia’s nerves as she downed the last of her wine.

“This is going to be a long night; I’m going to have to make Phio dance with Alanna at least once so I don’t offend Lord Eni too much. We don’t want him as an enemy for something so petty as an arranged marriage. I know several families with eligible sons that are just as high ranking as Phio. He’s after our money, I just know it.”

Crudus took her empty glass and slid the hand he still held into the crook of his shoulder.

“Let’s dance, my lady,” he said, and led her onto the dance floor.

Several hours passed, the four younger elves were enjoying themselves on the upper platform while their elders enjoyed the soft music and polite conversation in the lower area. Young Lady Alanna was looking more and more mournful that she was unable to go join the rest of the younger elves, and Tia finally took pity on her.

“I’ll be right back,” Tia said to Crudus, and walked towards the orb.

Activating it, Tia was bombarded with the very loud chords of the Eversong Translocation Authority when she reappeared on the upper platform. Quickly covering her ears, she looked around for her charges for several minutes before sighing, and walking towards the stage. She stood at the bottom for a moment, debating how to best get the band to stop playing when the pretty young girl that was singing noticed her. Either recognizing Tianisa herself or knowing enough about nobility to recognize Tia’s jewels that marked her as the matriarch, the girl bent down to speak with Tia.

“May I borrow that?” Tia said, gesturing to the microphone, gathering her skirts and carefully stepping up onto the stage.

A hush fell around the room as Tia turned to the young audience; one young elf in the front bowed and said, “My Lady Manastrega.”

The rest of the group followed suit, which gave Tia a moment to notice where her daughter stood, sending a murderous glare towards her mother. Tia smiled at her and shook her head, attempting to calm her daughter’s anger.

“My young lords and ladies, I do apologize for intruding on your fun. I would be quite upset as well if an old Lady came up to stop the music. I come up here to beseech you for your help.”

A few murmurs went around the room, as well as a number of strange looks. Adrastia looked curiously at her mother.

“You see, there are so many fathers and mothers down below that are trying to set up matches with other families. Which, I know is just a horrible ordeal in itself. But caught in that fray, is Lady Alanna. Who convinced Lord Eni to host this area for you all. Might I ask that you all take an hour to go dance the horribly boring traditional dances that we old elves like so much? Then you all can come back up here. Perhaps the band needs a bit of a rest themselves?”

She turned around slightly, seeing the various instrument players flexing sore wrists, smiling at the elder elf.

“Besides, I’d love a few dances myself. While I am not the young elf I used to be, I still do not enjoy enduring the discussions I am forced into with some of your fathers.”

A small laugh went around the crowd and the young elves began moving towards the translocation orbs around the room to move to the lower part of the dance hall. Adrastia stormed up to her mother, Antino, Phio and Seli close behind her. Tianisa held up her hand as Adrastia began to speak.

“Do not speak disrespectfully here. I do not mind at home, but here we must maintain our image. It was either me come up here and request it, or Lord Eni would have come up soon and simply ended it entirely. This way, you will be free to come back up here when the dances downstairs are finished,” Tia said, looking at each of them.

She looked down at the floor and then at her skirts, and held out her hands for Ophion and Antino to help her down from the platform. They complied, and Tia smiled at them. She turned to Phio, a small sadness in her eyes.

“Phio, I do not want to make you do this, but I am afraid that I have little choice. You have several ladies wanting to dance with you. Well, their fathers rather. Lady Alanna is one of them. I’m sorry, but duty calls dear.”

As Tia walked away, behind her back Seli quietly fumed. She realized that she could make no objections to Phio fulfilling his mother’s request, and flattened ears were the only outward sign of her displeasure.

Adrastia placed her hand on Phio’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper. “Phio, you have to. I’m sure Seli will understand you don’t want to do this.”

Phio nodded. His face was a calm mask as they joined the short queue to descend.

As they appeared beside the main floor, Crudus worked his way over to them with a worried look on his face.

“Tia, we migh’ have a problem. Lord Eni wants us to dance.”

Seli looked over at him, “What kind of dance does he want you to do? Is it a certain one or does he want you to just go out there to get more people out there? Cause I’m sure that if you two were dancing then everyone else would be really nervous cause you two would be so great out there and no one else would want to look bad.”

Crudus grimaced, “Tia, he wants the petal dance.”

Tia’s eyes widened. “We don’t have the people for it! Drasti and Phio can’t dance it together, it would be scandalous.”

Crudus sighed. “I heard one of the passing ladies say that Lady Alanna has been taking dance lessons the last few weeks. I bet he’s trying to set up Phio.”

Tia looked absolutely furious, in a deathly low voice she whispered, “How dare he.”

Tia closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. “Well, unless we know someone who can do the Raccolta di foglie, we have little choice. This was all his planning, Oh how infuriating that man is!”

“Raccolta di foglie, the Harvest of Leaves? Do you do Western Descent or the Southern Lover’s Spin? I can do either, but I am more familiar with Southern, of course.”

They all turned to stare at Antino. Tia was the first to recover. “The... sout...You... what?”

Antino blinked, then shrugged. “With your leave, my lord Crudus.” Before any could respond, Antino stepped forward and swept an arm around Tia’s waist. Her eyes went wide as he pulled her to him tightly, seizing her right hand in his left and spinning her clockwise. The room spun and her legs went out from under her. She felt herself falling and almost cried out, but the fall slowed, and turned, and she found herself gently resting with her back on Antino’s knee, looking up at his smiling face, an inch from hers. The chandeliers cast his face in shadow, and his dark hair fell to tickle her cheeks. She gulped.

“Southern Lover’s Spin, my lady.” Antino politely helped her to her feet and backed away with a bow.

Phio grinned widely, Adrastia gazed at him even more adoringly while Tia looked quite pleased.

“You know, I’ve had enough of polite society for one night, let’s do this dance. Lord Eni can find someone else to bother with his daughter.”

Seli frowned. “I don’t understand, why is it such a big deal? It’s just a dance right?”

Tia put a hand on her shoulder, hoping to stop an incoming tangent by Selidraene.

“It’s the symbol given at the start of the dance that is the issue, not the actual dance. Though I suppose the dance itself is quite intimate as well. You start the dance with the other dancer’s partner. For example, I will start with Antino and Crudus with Adrastia. As we are the leaders of the family, were it Alanna and Phio, it would be me giving Phio to Alanna, which can, and likely would, be taken as giving my consent for Phio and Alanna to court.”

As Tia explained this to Selidraene, Crudus and Antino were removing their swords, which would be quite a hindrance during the dance and Adrastia had bent down with Antino’s dagger and was cutting some of the tiny stitches around the skirt of Tia’s dress.

“Hold still mama,” Adrastia told her mother.

Selidraene looked confused, and before she could ask, Tia answered her question.

“We call it the petal dance because of how the skirt looks while twirling. The fabric that is meant to just be an enhancement on the evening gown is allowed to open fully. So rather than getting just bits of color when you walk, the whole panel can be shown, and that is what Adrastia is doing.”

Phio stepped forward and took Seli’s arm, pulling her back slightly so the other couples could get ready. As Tia was removing the last of Adrastia’s stitches, Lord Eni appeared beside them with his daughter.

“Ah, Lady Tia. All ready for the Raccolta di foglie I hope? I know I always enjoy watching you dance, my lady. I thought you might need another dancer, as Lady Adrastia couldn’t possibly dance with her brother, but luckily Lady Alanna knows the dance,” he said, frowning as he saw Phio standing back with Seli.

Tia forced another of her smiles to her face, turning to face Lord Eni.

“Why yes, we almost are. Adrastia’s dress is almost ready. Give us, perhaps, five more minutes?”

Lord Eni’s frown deepened. “Surely you don’t intend to have your son dance the Raccolta di foglie with your daughter!”

Tia’s eyes flashed. “Of course not! Lord Antino will be dancing with Adrastia. Now, if you would please excuse us while we get ready?”

Not awaiting his reply, she turned back to Adrastia’s dress, carefully cutting more stitches. Lord Eni gaped at Tianisa’s back for a few moments, his mouth opening and closing several times before he made a dismissive grunt and walked away with a very relived looking Alanna trailing behind him.

“Try that out for me Drasti, excellent. I do love it when my full creations will be showcased though,” Tia said, while Drasti turned her hips back and forth, causing the skirts to shift.

Crudus stepped forward and offered his daughter an arm. “Shall we, my lovely daughter?”

Adrastia smiled, casting a loving look back at Antino as they began to cross the dance floor.

Tia sighed, bending her knees slightly to loosen them.

As the last of the couples cleared off of the dance floor, Tia cast a nervous look towards Antino. “You do realize what this will imply, though, with Adrastia? I do hope you had a moment to think about that.”

Antino smiled as he took his starting position. “I rarely find it necessary to take a moment to think, my lady.”

Tia’s jaw tightened, she looked down and moved her skirts a bit. “Just as I was concerned with the implication of me giving Phio to Alanna, with Crudus giving you Adrastia... well, it’s tantamount to saying that we offer her to you in marriage.”

Antino raised an eyebrow. “Is this not the case? Or must I pursue my courtship against the family’s wishes? Poems in the darkened garden, tragic duels with Phio and Crudus? Miscommunications and heart-wrenching arias? I would prefer not to have any of you as enemies, but if you wish...”

The slow opening chords of the dance began, Tia carefully gathered her skirts in her free hand as they slowly walked towards the advancing Crudus and Adrastia.

“Dear, you had my consent long before now. I am more curious why you haven’t asked her yet, to be honest. After this dance, most of the nobility will consider the two of you engaged. Is that your wish?”

Their left hands touched, and they slowly turned around each other. Antino was silent. Tia began to wonder if he had heard. A chord was struck, and they pressed together, back to back. His voice was in her ear.

“I am... uncomfortable with insinuation. Implication. Such subtle signals are not my forte. After the dance, I will take Adrastia to a certain place.” They spun to face one another. He took her hands, and they began to move down the dance floor, close together, mirrored by the other couple. “A place where the flowers open with the dawn. And then there will be question, and answer, and the matter will be certain.”

As the two couples met in the middle, the women pulled away from the men, toward each other. As the couple’s hands parted, the women met, back to back. The men each turned in place, once, slowly. The women spun faster, hands together, feet flying between one another, skirts twirling out together to form a single whirling form, half green, half red, the autumn leaf turning. One turn, two, a half turn, and they met the men again, Tia to Crudus, and Adrastia to Antino.

A female elf gasped loudly in the audience that had gathered all around the sides of the dance floor, watching greedily as the four spun the complicated reel on the wooden floor. Tia pressed closely to Crudus, her chin on his shoulder, eyes half-lidded as her feet traced the intricate, ancient motions. The crowd spun past her, their eyes shining. An older elf, smiling, drinking in their youth and passion. His wife, her eyes hard with envy at their easy motion, their place in the center of the floor. A young girl, barely old enough to attend, open-mouthed with delight at the romance of it all. A young man, staring as the dance grew more intimate, a spark of lust in his gaze, unwavering from... Adrastia? No... Tia. She smiled, and closed her eyes, and gave herself to the dance.

Tia leaned far back as his arms fitted safely around her waist, feeling his breath against her neck, then feeling him pull her back to standing once more. As they had done so many times before, Tia dropped her arms from his embrace and spun out, Crudus catching her free hand as the skirts on her dress parted to reveal the multitude of colors hidden beneath the dark green fabric.

The dance was a showcase of change, of pursuit turning to lust and finally to submission. As Crudus pulled Tia close once more, she raised her left leg, fitting her knee to the side of Crudus’ hip as the music came to an abrupt end. She pressed herself to his chest, and he buried his face in her hair, lost in each other.

An eerie silence filled the room as they broke away from the intimate pose they held. Tia leaned back, turning her head ever so slightly to Crudus.

Her lips barely moved as she whispered, “Catch me, I want to leave.” She lifted the back of her hand to her forehead and promptly pretended to faint.

She smiled inwardly as Crudus never let her falter, fluidly slipping his free arm under her knees and up into his arms.

“Bu’ alas, my lady is still quite fragile. I believe it is time for us to depart,” Crudus said, leaning forward to bow in the direction of Lord Eni.

Tia allowed her arm to slip down limply to add to her illusion of helplessness.

Behind her, Antino and Adrastia still held their final pose. Adrastia was on her back, Antino holding her mere inches off the floor. Their eyes glittered as they stared into one another.

“Seli,” Adrastia panted, “For Light’s sake open a window.”

Seli stepped forward, concerned, as Antino stood, hoisting Adrastia into his arms. “What’s wrong? Are you hot?”

Adrastia’s eyes remained locked on Antino’s. Antino was breathing heavily, and a grin was starting to spread over his flushed face. “Seli,” Adrastia hissed, “He’s taking me out a window in about three seconds and I don’t think he cares if he has to break iiiiaaaaaahhh!”

As Seli stood stunned, Phio sprinted for the wall. He flung open a tall double-window, letting in a wash of cool night air, a moment before Antino lept out into the darkness, Adrastia laughing wildly. For a moment, moonlight shone on red silk, and then they were gone.

Crudus quickly turned on his heel and walked in the opposite direction, still carrying the limp Tianisa in his arms, set on leaving the ball quickly as stunned silence still filled the room. The footsteps behind him told him that Phio and Seli were close behind. As he walked up the grand staircase, taking the stairs two at a time, his only concern was if Phio still had their swords.

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“Are you cold, my lady?”

“Mmm,” Adrastia mumbled happily as she lay on Antino’s chest. “Not at all. You’re so warm. I think maybe you really do have a fire in you, the way you always say.” With one finger, she idly traced a circle over his heart. “And it’s such a nice night. I wouldn’t have thought you could sleep outside like this in autumn.”

“Summer’s last song, they call it. The last breath of warmth before the leaves fall.” With her head on his chest, his voice was strangely resonant. Backed by his heartbeat, it was almost like music. Above them, the trees were black shadows in the pre-dawn dark.

Antino pulled the rough blanket closer over the two of them. Adrastia squirmed pleasurably and giggled. “I’m going to smell like horse. The dress, too... mother will be livid.”

“Come now,” Antino murmured. “Esperanza was kind enough to lend us her blanket. We could not leave her with nothing, no?” On the far side of the cool ashes of their small fire, his horse nickered in her sleep, rustling the folds of the gown laid over her.

“And besides,” he continued, slowly stretching, “It has been my experience that all the very best things in life will ruin your clothes.”

Adrastia shifted, turning her head to look to the east. “It’s getting light,” she sighed sadly. “The night’s almost over.”

Antino slowly stroked her hair. “Do not worry, my bird. One thing ends, so that something greater can begin.”

He stood. Adrastia sat upright on the ground, the blanket wrapped tightly around her, the breath catching in her throat. Antino charged headlong through life, she thought, so impulsive, trying to fill every day... but the one thing she wanted to hear had been so long in coming. Was it finally time?

He turned toward her, standing barefoot on the cool grass, his head bare, his hair falling loose around his shoulders. The rising sun behind him glowed red on his shoulders and the leaves of the trees.

“Adrastia...” he began. The light faded. A gray shadow passed over the world.

Adrastia’s face paled. “Antino... Antino, there’s something wrong with the sun.”

He spun round and stared. A dark cloud was rising, south and east. As he strained his eyes, he could see gaunt, winged forms moving in the deep shadow. There was a distant sound of marching... and, closer, a patter of more rapid footfalls, ragged running. Hunched shadows moved among the trees, drawing nearer.

“Antino, what is it? What’s happening?” Adrastia came slowly to her feet, clutching the blanket close around her.

Antino turned to his horse and gave a sharp whistle. The mare stood, shaking her mane, and trotted over to her master. “I do not know.” Antino’s voice was low and urgent. “We have little time. Can you ride bareback?”

“Yes, but... it will be awkward with two.” Adrastia patted Esperanza’s mane, peering with worry at the gathering dark.

“Not two. Just you. Up you go.” He boosted Adrastia onto the warhorse’s back. She looked down at him in confusion.

He pulled the saddle and tack down from the low branch where it hung. “Esperanza can run with two, but it would slow her. And there are enemies, close. Scouts.” He pulled his battered sword from the tangle of leather. “They must not report back. They would send fliers after us.”

She stared at him with shock and anger. “Antino, no. I won’t let you sacrifice yourself here! Come with me!”

“No sacrifice, Adrastia. Only tactics. There are no more than half a dozen, and I know these woods well. Go, warn the others. I will follow.” He pulled a leather pouch from the saddlebags. “Take this. Water, some food, bandages, dagger.”

She clutched the bag. As he turned away, she grabbed his hand. He froze, and looked up at her.

“Antino...” She choked. They had never said it before. “Antino, I love you.”

Dark eyes stared back at her. His voice was quiet. “Everything I do, I do for love.” He turned, and strode toward the sunrise, giving the mare a slap on the hindquarters as he passed. “Now GO!”

She galloped through the pale gray morning, dew flying from the mare’s hooves. Adrastia gripped the horse’s neck tightly, her thin shift whipping around her. She thought of her dress, abandoned on the grass. She thought of Antino. An hour ago, she had had so much, and now...

She looked at the small leather pouch clutched in her left hand. Carefully, timing her movements to the furious surging of the horse beneath her, she opened the flap and peeked at the contents.

A long knife, the handle well-worn ivory.

A water flask.

A pouch of nuts and dried fruit.

A ring, silver, with a ruby.

She plucked it out and held it tightly. So now she knew. Did that make it better, or worse? She blinked away tears. She hadn’t lost him. Foolish as he could be, he always seemed to make it through. He would survive. She would see him again. Soon.

And then he would need the ring. Best... best not to lose it, then.

She slipped it onto her finger.

The mare whinnied in alarm. Adrastia looked up in shock as a gray, winged figure plunged to earth before them. Yellow eyes in a batlike face glittered with malice, and it shrieked high and keening. Esperanza’s hooves churned earth as she turned, two more leathery fliers swooping toward her. Adrastia grabbed the knife, letting the pouch fall as she swung wildly at her assailants. Something tore, and dark blood spattered her white shift. One of the monsters cried, and flapped away in pain, but there was another, and another, a flock, a swarm. Talons seized her arms and pulled her away from the horse. The ground was falling away. She was flying, the trees below her so small, so far. She could see Antino, sprinting, his shirt stained red, three lurching beasts scrambling after him. He looked up as he ran, saw her. He called out, but she was too far to make out the words. He was screaming something, over and over. Then the beasts pulled her into a dark cloud, blinding gray all around, and he was gone.

~*~*~

Tia slowly brushed her hair, sitting at her vanity mirror. Even though they had all been out quite late, Crudus had been up at dawn in preparation for the training he had scheduled later that day. Tia had found after 100 years of marriage, she was simply unable to sleep without him, so she had risen as well and dressed for the day. The day felt strange, she had finally decided, and it made her uneasy. The sunlight streaming through their bedroom window was an odd color. It was almost an eerie grey she noticed, setting her brush down. She heard Crudus’ steps hurrying across the floor towards their bedroom.

“Tia, we’ve got to go. Something… Something terrible is coming. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said, a note of terror in his usually calm voice.

He walked quickly towards her, grabbing her wrist and pulling the stunned Tia after him. He paused in the parlor as Tia wrestled her wrist out of his grasp.

“Wait! I’ve got to grab something,” she ran back into her room, grabbing her largest bag from a hook on the wall and rushing into her closet.

“Tia! We don’t have time for clothes!”

“It’s not clothes!” she said, throwing aside a pile of underdresses that had been so neatly stacked. She grabbed a large wooden box that was behind it, shoved it into her bag and hurried back out to him. “I’ll not leave this behind.”

He grabbed her wrist once more as they hurried to leave the house, he paused at the door.

“Put a protection spell on the house,” he said, looking at her with a strange look in his eyes.

She hesitated, “I don’t have time, to do it properly takes...”

“Just do it!” he shouted.

Tia jumped and threw her magic out around her, encasing the property in a field of magic. She wavered on her feet for a moment; he wrapped an arm around her waist and led her outside. She looked to the south, and felt her jaw drop open. An army was coming. An impossible army, corpses and ghosts and nightmare monsters, rank upon rank, spreading across the southern fields like a blanket of decay. Gargoyles wheeled overhead, shrieking and diving, pulling helpless elves into the sky and letting them fall, screaming, into the undead horde below.

“Dear Gods in heaven,” she breathed. Crudus stood beside her, staring in silence.

Phio rode up beside them. Little Nereus sat before him on the bright red riding bird with tear tracks down his little face. Phio tossed Crudus the ruins for his horse and Tia’s riding bird. Tia slid the long sling of her bag over her shoulder, cradling the satchel under her arm as Crudus turned to her, looking very sadly at his wife. She looked up at him with confusion, before her face flashed with shock.

“No, NO!” Tia said, grabbing his shirt with her hands.

“I can buy you time, Tia, you must go.”

“No! I’m not going without you, please don’t do this Crudus.” Tears sprang at the corners of Tia’s eyes, staring up at her beloved husband.

He wrapped his arms around her tightly; she felt his own tears as he kissed her forehead.

“I love you, Tia,” he said, before quickly picking her up and placing her on her riding bird.

“I’ll meet you in Silvermoon, in the eastern Inn. Ride straight there, don’t stop,” he looked at Tia. “Don’t stop. Always and forever Tia.”

Tears streamed down Tia’s face, “Always and forever, Crudus.”

Crudus pressed a kiss to her wrist, grabbed the reins to his horse, throwing his leg up over the saddle he rode off quickly. Tia leaned forward and sobbed, Phio placed a hand on his mother’s back as he tried to turn the bird north so they could flee. Shaking her head, Tia grabbed the reins from his hand, slapping them against the bird’s neck and began to ride after her husband.

“Mama! No!” Phio shouted, following after her.

Tia reached an overlook, looking down at the advancing army. She spotted Crudus, off to the side up on a tree branch, watching the enemy approach with his warhorse tied to another tree. Tia’s breath caught in her throat; perhaps they would not notice one lone elf in a tree with so many others fleeing to the north. Then a hulking creature, ten feet tall, a dozen corpses stitched crudely together, appeared from the treeline. The abomination lumbered towards Crudus and plucked him from the tree like a fruit.

“NO!!!” Tia screamed, causing several figures mounted on blue flamed horses to turn towards her. One raised a blackened gauntlet, and two horses took off toward her.

Phio cursed beside her, grabbing the reins from them and turning the birds to run off. Tia glanced once more at Crudus to see the thing holding him plunge a jagged metal hook into his belly. Tia screamed again as Phio urged the birds into a run, his face deadly calm. Nereus had turned against his brother to hide his face, the little boy shaking in his own sobs.

Such pretty screams, yess... your grief is a thing of beauty. Tia choked. The voice was in her mind, twisting and burrowing into her like oiled worms. A fine banshee you’ll make. Come. Come to us.

Tia’s face was a white mask of shock. Her limbs would not obey her. Slowly, haltingly, she turned towards the trees. She choked on a sob. The stitched monster was dragging Crudus across the grass, her love’s blood leaving a long red stain. Two more of the flesh things had emerged from the forest, flanking a stooped, hooded figure. A green eye flashed beneath the cowl.

Yess... this way, my dear. Ahh, you love that one, do you? Good, good. Her arms felt like lead. She tugged at the reins, and her mount turned towards the abominations and their keeper.

Come. Come. I will make you one with your love. The hooded figure patted the monstrosity beside him with a bony hand. You will never be apart. Never. Eternity together. Or would you rather lose him? Rather die, alone? Come. Come.

Tia’s face softened. She could still be with Crudus. It sounded like such a wonderful idea. She felt the voice in her head smile.

“Mama! NO!” Phio yelled, seeing his mother advance towards the hooded figure.

Phio lurched forward and grabbed the reins for Tia’s bird, turned his own mount and urged it into a run. Tia wailed behind him, begging him to let go, to let her be with her beloved. As they ran, Tia felt the influence unraveling from her mind, like pale, slender roots pulling out of her. Color seeped back into her vision... she hadn’t even noticed it going gray. Phio steered their small group towards the crowd of fleeing elves. Screams and wails echoed throughout the fields they ran through, towards the spires of Silvermoon far in the distance.

Beside them, a shopkeeper bearing a chest of bottles stumbled, the glass crashing and shattering as he fell. Then, he was jerked upright, spectral chains seizing him and hauling him through the air, back towards the dark riders. “Dear Gods,” Phio breathed. Around them, more and more elves were taken, screaming as they were pulled away from the distant spires, back towards the onrushing horde.

Phio’s mount tripped over a root, and Phio and Nereus went sprawling on the ground. Tia’s head snapped around at the sound of her child’s cry. She slid off her own mount and ran to them. Nereus was holding a skinned knee, dirt covering his face, sobbing. She pulled him to his feet as Phio picked himself up, and together they began to run.

There was a rush of arrows passing above them, and Tia looked up. All along the wide path they, Rangers held purchase in the trees, firing arrows as quickly as possible at the incoming enemy. They were being picked off quickly, too quickly, by diving gargoyles and the mel grip of the riders. Tia risked a glance behind her. The hooded man was coming, seated high on his abomination’s shoulder, its twisted legs covering ground with deceptive speed. She heard the sound of a blade clearing a scabbard, and whipped her head to Phio.

“No! You will not fight, Ophion, you will run!” She gasped out to him, holding tight to Nereus’ hand.

Suddenly the younger boy was gone, grabbed by the ghostly chains.

“MAMA!” he screamed, flying backwards toward one of the dark soldiers.

The death knight caught him out of the air, a spiked steel gauntlet snatching him by the collar. The armored specter turned, seeming to hold Nereus up for the hooded figure to examine.

“Nereus!” Phio and Tia both screamed, Phio taking off at sprint towards his younger brother.

Tia started after him, scrambling over the bloodied field. Her foot caught on a fallen body and she fell, her ankle twisting awkwardly. She looked up to see the figure shake his cowled head. The soldier’s hands moved, quickly, efficiently, and a runed blade sprouted from her youngest child’s chest. Tia was frozen. Her mouth moved to scream but no sound came out. Her heart was in her stomach as the soldier tossed Nereus aside like a rag before parrying Phio’s attack with ease. Tia kicked free of the corpse, and stood. She took a staggering step forward, but her ankle failed, and she fell to her hands in the mud.

“No!! Phio!” She screamed again, hoping desperately for it to do some good.

Phio rained blow after blow on the armored figure. It’s runed blade moved mechanically, blocking each strike with an earsplitting clang... but slowly, just a little too slowly. A spark of hope flickered in Tia’s chest. Phio was too fast. He had the advantage! But the dark knight’s free hand was moving, mailed fingers forming strange gestures. A dim cloud was forming around Phio. His sword faltered, and he fell to one knee, coughing blood. The death knight spitted him through the chest almost casually, then turned away, leaving him to bleed on the field. Tia felt her world ending before her eyes.

She didn’t hear the the wagon that stopped beside her. “Lady Tia! Come!” someone shouted, and strong hands picked her up.

Tia struggled to get free, to get to her sons as the wagon lurched forward pulling her away. Dazed, she looked around. Sevrian, the town blacksmith was holding her firmly upright as the wagon shook and rumbled across the fields, destined for the safety of Silvermoon.

“It will be okay, my lady,” his wife told her. “Please stop screaming. Please, you’ll lose your voice.”

Tia stared back towards where her sons had been slain and sobbed, the last of her strength giving out. The abomination was marching away, Phio’s body dangling from one large hand like a broken doll. Tia gave up her struggle against the blacksmith’s firm hold, slumped to the floor, and wept. The only thing that gave her a glimmer of hope, was that her daughter had been with Antino. Adrastia would surely be safe in his care. For, with all his strangeness and eccentricities, he was a good protector. She closed her eyes and silently prayed.

~*~*~

When they reached the gate, the blacksmith’s wife fetched a healer for her ankle. Tia waited in silent grief, wondering what she would do now. How would she find Adrastia? She’d likely be with Antino, she finally reasoned. After rummaging around in her bag, she found a few gold pieces and paid the young Innkeeper, Treverian, from the village to look for Antino while she waited in the wagon, collapsed from exhaustion and pain.

Everything meant so little to Tia right now. She dared not sleep, knowing the image of her family’s deaths would be there, waiting, as soon as her eyes were closed. She tried to think back to the morning, when she’d stretched and turned over to snuggle against Crudus’ chest, his strong arms wrapping around her. She’d never do that again. Tia would have cried, but she had run out of tears.

She looked up at the sound of feet slapping on the gound. Treverian was returning, hopefully with good news.

“My Lady, I found Lord Antino, as you requested!”

Tianisa hopped down and trotted over to him, her ankle still tender from her healing.

“Take me to him,” she said, and she forced her weary body to move.

Tianisa ran through the streets of Silvermoon, eyes skimming over the multitudes of crying families that now lined its elegant streets. The mechanical sentries roamed the streets, laboring to keep some modicum of order in the crowded city. Enchanted brooms swept around huddled refugees and exhausted soldiers, sleeping where they had fallen. Elves surrounded the city fountain, filling makeshift containers with water, others dipping rags into the water to scrub dried blood from their skin. Treverian led her past the hot forges, with multitudes of men banging hammers on bits of metal and cooling swords hanging from every available slot. A male priest walked around the area, quickly blessing each of the weapons, perhaps hoping that Holy power would prove useful against the swarming enemy.

Treverian stopped, and Tia bent at her knees for a moment to catch her breath.

“There, he’s in that corner.”

Tianisa looked in the direction he pointed. A huddle of poor families had claimed a patch of ground to sit and lie upon, spread blankets and calm crying children. There were a dozen humans among them, looking nervously at the arcane sentinels or staring open-mouthed at the shining city all around. A familiar figure stood over them, speaking quietly, her voice alternately soothing and stern.

“Esperanza,” Tia gasped. Antino’s sister glanced at her in surprise, a flicker of relief passing over her calm face.

“Tianisa. It is good to see you... well.” She paused, dark eyes taking in Tianisa’s ragged, distraught appearance. “Alive, at least. Today, that is much.”

“Esperanza, where is your brother? Where is Antino?’ Tianisa demanded, stepping over the lap of one human females, hands clasped together in front of her as if begging for the information.

Esperanza wordlessly raised a hand, pointing. A slouched figure in ragged, bloodied clothes was arguing with a shining-armored spellbreaker. Tia staggered towards them.

“...not permitted in the city! Especially now! The shortlives must leave at once!” The spellbreaker’s voice was strained, official stiffness hiding terror.

The bloodied elf sighed, resting his left hand on the battered sword at his side. His right arm hang limp, dried blood black on the hand. “They owe fealty to my family, who owe fealty to Lord Gomontoya, who owes fealty to the Prince. And they are owed protection in return. Now leave the matter be and and get yourself to the front, or draw blade and let us settle this. I warn you, I am injured. I doubt I have the precision to merely wound you.” He wavered where he stood, but his hand stayed on the blade’s hilt.

Tianisa reached Antino, grabbing his arm in a tight hold, making him jump. Digging in her bag, she brought forth a bag of coins and shoved it towards the soldier. “Let them stay.”

The soldier paused for a moment, staring at her before taking the offered bag and slipping it in his pocket. “Two nights, no more,” he said, and walked away.

“Antino, by all the Gods where is Adrastia? You kept her safe, right? You promised me you’d keep her safe,” the frantic matriarch said, her frazzled hair adding an air of insanity to the normally calm elf.

Antino turned to her slowly, his face a blank mask. He slid his half-bared sword back into its sheath; she hadn’t even noticed him draw it. He made a careful, painful bow; one of his knees would not bend.

His hair, once shining, hung in a ragged curtain, hiding his eyes. It looked as if he had hacked it off with his blade. He rose slowly. She searched his eyes for a hint of her Adrastia’s fate, and sent a desperate prayer that she was somewhere safe, and in the City.

“My Lady Manastrega.” He stood stiffly, but his voice was strong and clear. “I have failed you. Your daughter is gone.”

Tia froze, her eyes held wide on his. “Wh-what?” She began to shake, tears springing to her eyes again.

“I am sorry. If you, or Ophion or Crudus, wish to call me to the field of honor for my failure, I stand humbly ready to accept.”

“Oh Gods, I’ve lost everything. I’m all alone,” she whispered, and collapsed against Antino’s chest as heavy sobs racked her body. Tianisa slid to the ground as her legs gave out, hands covering her face as she wailed mournfully. Tears filled her eyes, and the world blurred into a haze of grief.

~*~*~*~

Lady Tianisa Manastrega shook herself awake, gasping for air, and found herself drenched in a cold sweat. She breathed heavily as Crudus turned and wrapped his arms around her.

“There, there my love, just a bad dream, that’s all,” he said, kissing her shoulder and stroking her hair.

“Oh Crudus, it was horrible. Just... just horrible.”

She turned towards him and opened her eyes. Nothing. There was nothing there. She sat up, seeing rows of hammocks swinging with the current of the ocean.

Lady Tianisa wasn’t at home with her beloved husband. The dream was real, a nightmare that was her past. She was aboard the ship that had been bought by The Dragonhawk Brigade and she was waking after spending nearly a week asleep, exhausted from the strain of enchanting the vessel. The night was filled with the quiet creak of wood and leather, but no children’s laughter or lover’s whispers. No voices. Tia laid back down and cried silently into her pillow.

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The story's told, the race is run

The battle lost, the damage done

And who were five when tale begun

Are naught but lonely, weeping one.

She wakes among her sleeping friends

And slowly, her wounds heal, heart mends.

At, least, she hopes. She prays. Pretends.

But knows that nothing ever ends.

((It's been a real pleasure writing with you. We must do this again sometime, my dear!))

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