“Out Of Your Mind”

Author Note: This is a little story featuring Arun and Naomi as a small birthday gift for my wonderful friend Taija. It was inspired by a comment she made whilst beta-reading for me a long while ago about how she would deal with an unwanted presence in her mind via Bond spell, and after having this song stuck in my own head for the last three days, I thought it would be a fun thing to write!

***

‘Twenty-two bottles of milk on the wall, 

Twenty-two bottles of milk.

If one of those bottles should happen to fall,

Twenty-one bottles of milk on the wall.’

Arun’s feet were wet.

‘Twenty-one bottles of milk on the wall, twenty-one bottles of milk…’

He hadn’t exactly expected to be in this situation, but still.

‘If one of those bottles should happen to fall…’

The king’s boots shouldn’t leak.

‘Twenty bottles of milk on the wall.’

He caught himself flinching, but whether from the freezing bog he and his men were being led through, or the song stuck in his head, he honestly had no idea.

‘Twenty bottles of milk on the wall, twenty bottles of milk…’

Swallowing back an agitated sigh as the next, repetitive verse started over, he spared the small woman leading their group a quick glance before gritting his teeth and looking away again. He didn’t want her to know she was annoying him. He wasn’t even sure she knew he could hear her, but the cold tug of humour on the Bond every time she started a new verse made him think she knew exactly what she was doing.

‘Seventeen bottles of milk on the wall…’

She had been counting down from ninety-nine, which possibly wouldn’t seem like very much at all under normal circumstances. It wasn’t a long measure of time, when all was said and done, but it was driving him slowly crazy.

‘Eleven bottles of milk on the wall…’

She was downright infuriating. He knew he had annoyed her that morning –in fact, his entire existence seemed to annoy her no end- but this was another level of petty entirely. She wanted him out of her head, she wanted to Bond severed, and she had no understanding of how impossible that was. It seemed she was going to try and drive him out of her mind through sheer madness.

‘Eight bottles of milk on the wall…’

Well, good luck to her. She would have to give up eventually, and that would happen long before the Bond ever broke. She would realise it sooner or later.

‘If one of those bottles should happen to fall, five bottles of milk on the wall.’

Sooner, he hoped.

‘Three bottles of milk. If one of those bottles should happen to fall…’

He was cold, he was wet, he was tired, and he had long since had enough of Ffion. Why was it always so miserably dark and damp? Arun just wanted to go home, to feel warm, and for his life to be back under his own control again.

‘One bottle of milk on the wall, one bottle of milk….’

As it was he was just as stuck here as Naomi was with the Bond spell tying their minds and lives together.

‘If one of those bottles should happen to fall…’

He supposed that he should set an example and deal with it with as much dignity as he could muster.

‘Ninety-nine bottles of milk on the wall!’

“The Pitfalls of Participating”

Naomi sat on a bench to one side of the training hall, staring hard at her boots. It was her third day of official training in Chloris Garrison, and she had been excited about this for years now. Master Gerrard had been teaching her himself since she was six, but now at the age of twelve, she had yet to test her lessons against other opponents. Naomi had worked hard under his tutelage, to make him and her mother proud, but also to grow up strong so she could protect others. She had never beaten him at anything so far except for archery, and now starting her official training to become a Knight, she was ready to see how she measured up.

The only other people her age she knew were Adrienne, who wasn’t allowed to use weapons, and Tristan, who she wasn’t supposed to be friends with. It had been both nerve-wracking and thrilling to finally have a chance to test what she had learnt against other people!

Unfortunately, here she was at her third sparring session, and here she was, once again sat to one side as little more than a spectator. At first she hadn’t understood why none of the boys had wanted to train with her. The Master had tried to pair them off to practice, but each new recruit and found ways to decline being her partner and the Master had given in with much more ease than Naomi had been hoping for.

Disappointed, but not discouraged, Naomi had spent the first day watching the boys training, looking for strengths and weaknesses in all of them and cataloguing the information away for the next day. When the next day had come, however, she had again found herself stuck on the side-lines, watching them all going off in pairs and the Master doing very little to see her included. When she had approached him, tentative of the stranger and the way he seemed to look at her with such disapproval, he had told her he would find her a partner soon.

Again she had taken up her spot on the bench, watching the combatants and trying her best to figure out why none of them wanted to spar with her. That morning she had woken up wondering if it had something to do with her father. She was terrified of him, after all. It wouldn’t surprise her if everyone else was, too.

Now here she was once more, sat on the bench and watching the boys fight, wondering if this was going to be all she did for the next five years…

But that wouldn’t do at all! How could she become a Knight this way? How could she get stronger and protect the people if she never learnt anything new? She had to do something. She had to make them spar with her.

Taking a deep breath and plucking up her courage, Naomi stood from the bench and picked up a practice sword. Rolling her shoulders to loosen up, she picked two boys who were taking a breather between matches and made her way over to them. As she did, she felt the weight of the others staring at her, but tried to ignore it. She noticed the way some of them moved out of her way, others looking nervous and uncomfortable, and became immediately sure that it was because of who her father was –who she was- that was causing a problem. Feeling more secure, she tried her best to appear friendly, smiling at anyone who made eye contact. She didn’t want people to be afraid of her. She didn’t want to be like her father.

‘Hello,’ she said, stopping before the pair of boys she had spotted resting and chatting. ‘I was wondering if one of you would spar with me? I know we were paired, but if there’s three of us, one of us can rest in between each match.’

They both stared at her as though she had just vomited a unicorn.

Naomi cleared her throat quietly. ‘Um. It’s just that I’m getting a little bored kicking my heels back there, and since there isn’t enough of us…’

She smiled again, trying to encourage some sort of reaction other than the blank staring. It worked, but only in so much as they glanced at each other instead, almost completely ignoring that she was stood right there.

‘I’m not doing it, Todd,’ said the first one, his accent thick and Southern as he addressed his companion. ‘I said I wouldn’t and I meant it. You can if you want, but I’m not.’

‘Nu-uh,’ said the other quickly, his accent the same, and Naomi realised they must both be from Vale. ‘My Pa said it was wrong, and so did yours. It’s one thing to piss off my Pa, but uncle Matthias would kick both our arses if he found out.’

Naomi knew that everyone here was of the nobility in some way or another, but now she knew these two as being the son and nephew of Vale’s provincial lord. Matthias. Some small part of her mind thought this might be useful in some way, but she pushed it aside. She could do this herself, without resorting to influence and politics and all that other underhanded stuff her father used to get his way. She could do this herself.

‘You shouldn’t even be here,’ the boy called Todd turned to her bluntly then. ‘I don’t want to be rude, Your Grace, but everyone says so.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Naomi frowned. ‘Where else should I be, then?’

Perhaps they thought she wasn’t ready yet? If they were afraid of hurting her while sparring in some way, she supposed it would make sense for them to be concerned she wasn’t up to scratch with the rest of them, but somehow that didn’t seem right. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but the way they had all refused to partner with her, to even test her skill, and the way even the Master had shooed her off to one side without even checking how capable she was didn’t make sense.

‘I don’t know, doing embroidery or something,’ muttered Todd, shuffling quietly on the spot. ‘Easy things… girl things. Not this. You shouldn’t even be here.’

His words hit Naomi in the face like a bucket of freezing water. It wasn’t who she was that was bothering them. It wasn’t even who her father was!

This time it was her turn to stare. ‘Wait. Are you saying you won’t spar with me because… because I’m a girl?’

She looked around the sparring hall to see all of the recruits and stopped and were watching this exchange with interest. They all looked so uncomfortable, but they were clustering together like a secret club she didn’t belong to. For years she had looked forward to this, wanting so badly to have friends her own age, friends who shared her interests. It was a blow she hadn’t expected to find she was an outsider here, and all because of something completely ridiculous.

She felt a snap of anger, but tried to smother it quickly. She wasn’t like her father.

‘It’s not safe,’ Todd tried to explain, some of his hesitation melting away as he stood a little straighter. ‘What if one of us accidentally hurt you?’

‘Yeah,’ said Lord Vale’s son, also becoming much more confident in the face of her shock and hurt. ‘We can’t all hold back for you. You’re just a girl, and it’s safer for everyone if you aren’t here.’

‘Hold back?’ Naomi repeated incredulously.

Didn’t they know she had been training since she was six? Didn’t they even care? Some awful dark rage twisted in her gut as she realised that they didn’t care at all. She was just a girl. Suddenly she couldn’t stop herself from yelling furiously.

‘You couldn’t get a hit in even if I had one hand tied behind my back!’

Spinning on her heel, almost blinded by a fog of anger, Naomi began to march towards the exit. Who did they think they were? She was better than the lot of them! She had been watching them for the past three days and knew she could take every single one of them down in a match. She had just wanted to participate! To be part of the group and learn with them! Instead they were treating her like some sort of lost kitten and it was insulting!

‘Your Grace!’ The Master stopped her in her tracks, and she turned. She saw the fear in his eyes, replacing that cold, sneering look he had been giving her the past few days that she now realised had been because he too thought a girl had no business being here. Oh, how she hoped he would go up against a Tsumetese woman one day… that would teach him!

‘There’s no need to go to your father over this, I’m sure we can work out something…’

‘I’m not going to my father, I’m going to get a practice dummy,’ Naomi’s nose curled in disgust, and she gestured to the cluster of boys. ‘Obviously it’ll put up more of a fight than anyone else in here.’

She would keep up her lessons with Master Gerrard, and use the time here to watch others and their techniques, and practice until she became completely fluid. One day they would see her as an equal, she would make sure of it. For now though, this was the best she could do.

She turned again to leave for the storage cupboard, but stopped again and turned to where Todd was standing, his face now very red.

‘And one more thing,’ she snapped. ‘Embroidery isn’t easy, thank you very much. It takes a lot of skill, and I bet none of you could do it!’

 

“It’s a Girl”

‘It’s a girl!’

There was no joy in the midwife’s tone as she cried out the gender of the baby she had just delivered. It was a simple exclamation, partly out of habit, and partly for the sake of the maids, guards, and Court messenger hovering by the door. She didn’t care for the silence that followed her words, or the looks of disappointment and concern as the room of strangers looked at the tiny, messy thing she had just cut out of its mother. She had work to do, clearing the airway of the babe with a quick precision learned from many years of practice and making sure her charge was breathing with a sharp slap across the backside that caused the little thing to begin wailing healthily.

Satisfied that all was well with the child for the time being, she wrapped a blanket about the wriggling girl and moved to hand her to the nearest person. A huge soldier, who caught the baby almost automatically because he had little other choice, then looked in complete horror at the tiny thing as though he had been given a dragon instead.

‘I’m going to lose the mother if I don’t work quickly,’ the midwife snapped at him, not oblivious to the fact that the room had quickly emptied and only two of the maids were left, their heads hung in something akin to shame.

‘A girl?’ whispered one, not quite quietly enough. ‘He’s not going to be happy…’

‘They can always try again,’ reasoned the second, and for a split second the hapless soldier cradling the tiny newborn and the midwife shared a knowing look. There would be no second child for this woman. The damage was too severe, if she even survived.

Unsure if it would be a kindness or not, the midwife went back to the business of saving the new mother’s life. She was pale, despite her Tsumetese heritage, and sweat slicked her dark hair to her brow. She was no longer conscious, a mercy the midwife was glad for after all the tiny woman had been through the past day.

Politics mattered not to her. She was here to do a job, and that was to care for babe and mother both. If she could save the poor woman then she had to try, no matter what would follow. The girl would need her mother.

She worked diligently and with little concern for anything but the grievous wound the mother had taken to bring her child into the world. When she was almost done stitching and cauterising, however, she noticed the guard was still holding the squalling babe, doing his best to rock and shush her. She was surprised he hadn’t passed her to one of the women, as most Ffionite men would have done under such circumstances. Instead he had put down his spear and had taken up an armchair to one side of the room as he tried to comfort the child, and the midwife felt sorry that she hadn’t thought to tell him the little one would need feeding.

With a skilled hand, the midwife milked the still unconscious mother until she had enough to fill a small glass bottle. Fixing a rubber teat to the bottle, she handed it to the guardsman. He took it without so much as looking up from the crying bundle, and as though he had been doing it all of his life, encouraged the teat into the baby’s mouth.

She fought it for only a moment, then sighed near silently before taking her fill. The soldier chuckled, cradling the baby in his huge arms with a gentleness that seemed out of place with his scarred face and calloused hands, and leaned back in the armchair.

‘Well, little lassie,’ he murmured. ‘You’ve a storm in you, and no mistake.’

“Cruel To Be Kind”

‘But Mama!’

Midori looked at her daughter, green eyes big and pleading in her round little face, and tried to stay strict. It was difficult because she wanted to give Naomi everything she wanted, but there were just some things that weren’t practical at all. Not even safe, in this instance!

‘Naomi, I mean it,’ she said firmly, focusing on the deep scratches up the seven-year-old’s arms. ‘You cannot keep it, and that’s final.’

It was hard not to flinch at the utter betrayal on the child’s face at her words, and Midori didn’t miss the way she moved to stand protectively between her mother and the monstrosity she had apparently been keeping in her room for the past three moons. When Gerrard had come to tell her about the mysterious injuries Naomi had been collecting recently, her mind had automatically turned to darker places, to people harming her child, people who wanted her out of the way. She most certainly hadn’t expected to find Naomi had been keeping a Griffin in her chambers as a secret pet!

‘It doesn’t belong here, my darling,’ Midori tried to reason. ‘It belongs out in the forest, where it can grow big and be free.’

…Where it couldn’t further hurt the little girl who so adamantly defended it, she added in the privacy of her own mind. Where had she even found the creature? How had she managed to sneak it into the Keep without a single person noticing, even? It was about the size of a very large dog already, and for all Gerrard had told her Griffin weren’t given to killing people, Midori could see it had already attacked her daughter, and would likely do so again. Naomi, however, remained unmoved.

‘Mama, please!’ she begged, and Midori felt her resolve waver. ‘Please, please! I won’t ask for anything ever again!’

‘It ain’t yours to ask for, lass,’ Master Gerrard spoke up from where he was standing in front of the closed door, making certain no one could get in. She hated having to involve him in this, knowing full well that if they were caught he would be in a great deal more trouble than any of them, but she had no one else to trust here. Gerrard cared for Naomi, and he wasn’t afraid to be firm with her where Midori disliked it intensely, but she knew he stood to lose a great deal more than she did if he was found out by her husband, covering for her daughter.

Glancing across at him, Midori shook her head minimally, indicating to leave this to her, and he stood down. She turned back to her daughter and the snoozing creature behind her with a sigh.

‘If you want a pet, we could find you a puppy or a kitten, perhaps?’ she asked, wondering if the child was just lonely. Naomi didn’t have any friends her own age here in Ffion, and Midori was sure it must be difficult to only have Master Gerrard and Midori herself for company.

‘I don’t want a pet, that’s not why I want to keep it,’ the little girl shook her head vigorously, little brows furrowed and jaw clenched. ‘It was father’s fault! I saw him! He killed her mama out on a hunt, and he didn’t even care that she had a baby who would die! He just laughed!’

Well, that explained where she’d found it, at least. Her father had been taking her out on occasion to make a warrior out of her, which by all accounts had usually involved some kind of humiliation or cruelty for the child. Naomi was doing her best, and Gerrard said he was already so pleased with her progress in archery and fencing, but her father seemed less intent on helping her grow and far more interested in teaching her that he was in charge.

‘I nursed her,’ the little girl pressed. ‘I brought her back here to keep her safe and feed her, but she’s still not big enough to go back into the forest yet. She can’t fly, and she has to learn to hunt, but I don’t know how to get her back outside again…’

Midori looked back at Gerrard again and saw her own indecision mirrored in his expression. Of course Naomi had wanted to help the baby, of course she’d taken it under her own proverbial wing to raise it, and of course Midori couldn’t be angry with her for that, but it didn’t make the situation any easier.

‘Mama,’ her daughter pulled her attention back again, and she was surprised to see the hard determination in her little one’s emerald eyes. ‘Mama, if you and Master want me to send her back into the forest now, then I should just kill her. If she goes back outside by herself she’s going to die, so it would be more kind to do it quickly.’

Midori was so shocked by this, she was glad when Gerrard spoke once again. ‘Do you mean that, lassie?’

‘Yes,’ Naomi nodded. ‘I don’t want to be cruel like father. I don’t want to leave her to suffer.’

Gerrard seemed to consider this. ‘You’d do it yourself?’

‘Gerrard!’ Midori gasped, appalled that he was even considering this as a viable option. Her daughter was growing up so fast, growing up into a pillar of strength that she knew she would be proud of forever, but she was still just a child. Everyone seemed to forget that she was only seven!

‘No mama, I don’t want to be like him!’ Naomi cried out. ‘All father cares about is what other people think of him, but I won’t be like that! I won’t care what anyone thinks of me! I only care about doing what’s right, and letting her starve isn’t right! It isn’t!’

Unable to stand it anymore, Midori knelt down and opened her arms to her daughter. Naomi immediately ran to her, cuddling up as a child her age should be able, and allowed her mother to whisper placations and promises that everything would be alright. She expected Gerrard to be disapproving, but when she glanced across at him he simply shrugged one shoulder and sighed.

‘I can get a few of the lads in here tonight,’ he said. ‘Try and sneak the thing to the stables for now until I can ask for a bit of leave and take it out to learn how to hunt.’

‘Really?’ Naomi gasped, looking up at her teacher with wide eyes. ‘You’re going to do that? You really are?’

Gerrard wagged his index finger at her. ‘So are you, lass. This is your mess, and I ain’t cleaning it up alone, you hear? Now you go get what you need for the night so you can stay with your mama while your charge here is taken care of.’

Naomi whooped with glee and went running into the adjacent room where her clothes were kept. Watching her go, seeing the return of innocence in her behaviour, Midori smiled at the guardsman. It would be easy enough to get permission to take Naomi out into the forest for training purposes, and she knew he had friends in the garrison that would help him get the beast out of the Keep again. Still, he was taking a huge risk, and she wanted to thank him.

‘Don’t bother,’ he grumbled, cutting across before she could even finish drawing breath. ‘I think she’d have done it, killed it I mean, but as much as I want her tough, I don’t want her jaded any more than you do. There’ll be plenty of blood on her hands in years to come, and there ain’t no call to start early.’

Midori held her peace out of respect for him, but knew she might never be able to thank the grumpy swordsman for all he had done for her daughter already. It brought her a great deal of comfort to know that he would be there for Naomi if ever she couldn’t.

‘Look at the cussing thing, though,’ he tutted, indicating the sleeping Griffin, perfectly comfortable and at ease on Naomi’s bed. ‘It don’t give a single, solitary damn.’

Midori could only laugh quietly. ‘We should thank our lucky stars. Next time she might bring home a dragon!’

“A Champion Emerges”

Glancing down at the uncharacteristically silent child beside him, Gerrard chewed over just how best to handle the current situation. Naomi was watching the sword match being played out with a thoughtful expression, her brow furrowed deeply and mouth drawn together in a tight line. She wasn’t usually given to tantrums, despite her tender age, but it didn’t take much to see that she wasn’t happy in the slightest.
Her father had summoned her that morning, along with her lady mother and Gerrard himself, and declared that she was to begin training as a knight effective immediately. Both he and Lady Midori had known it was coming, but at only six years of age now, the little girl hadn’t truly understood what she was being told to do. When she had tried to ask in that inquisitive way of hers, her father had lost his temper in a manner Gerrard thought was ill-befitting a man of his station, for all it wasn’t the guardsman’s place to say so. Her mother had tried to defend her, which hadn’t ended well, and Gerrard hadn’t had a great deal of choice but to hold the distraught child back from her angry parents.
Lady Midori was a gentle woman, not raised to the sort of violence and turmoil her life had become, but she still braved the anger of her husband in defence of her daughter. She was from Tsumetai, where the balance of power between men and women was very different to here in Ffion, and she held herself with a great deal of dignity because of it.
Unfortunately she had very little power here, and eventually her husband delt her a vicious blow that knocked her to the ground whilst bellowing about her dishonourable conduct. She wasn’t able to do much more than watch with Gerrard as Naomi was dragged forward and given a swift lashing for questioning the will of her father. It had been hard to watch, the child not understanding what she had done to deserve it as she cried and screamed in pain, but Gerrard knew that to interfere would help no one in the end. It was hard, but to lead the life now laid out before her he knew the little girl was going to have to learn sooner or later. It was better now, he tried to convince himself, when she was chastised with nothing more than a birch switch a couple of times, and not in any real danger of injury.
When her punishment was done, her father had handed her over to Gerrard and told him to see to her education until she was old enough to enlist properly in six years. He tried not to show how relieved he was to be given charge of the girl, and wasted no time in taking her out of the Keep, still sobbing, and towards the garrison. Lady Midori, however, he had no choice but to leave to her still furious husband, and prayed to the Gods that the poor woman had the sense to hold her tongue and spare herself any further torment.
Gerrard frowned darkly, watching the sword match with only the barest interest. They would spectate for a while, give the lass a chance to calm down, and then he planned to take her to be fitted for clothes that would serve her better than the pretty dresses she was used to. She had stopped crying a while ago at least, but he could see a storm brewing in those eyes, and knew she was going to have it out sooner or later. When she did speak, it was far more quietly than he’d expected.
‘Will mama be alright?’
Gerrard looked back down at her again, but she hadn’t moved a muscle. She just continued to watch the swordplay with that deep little frown, and so Gerrard turned back to do the same.
‘She’ll be alright, lassie,’ he nodded. ‘She might not look it, but your mama is as strong as Tsumetese steel.’
The little girl nodded once, quite solemnly, then hesitated a moment before asking another question in that same quiet voice. ‘Does he hate us?’
It was a damn complicated question, that was the problem. Gerrard didn’t think much of her father, but he owed him allegiance, and it felt wrong to speak ill of him no matter how justified it was. Aside from that even, Naomi was only six. Was there any way to explain the situation to a six year old that she would understand? In a way that wouldn’t damage her forever? Not likely. He had to find a middle ground.
‘He’s your father,’ Gerrard answered simply. ‘What he thinks and feels isn’t your concern, nor mine. All you need to know is that when he tells you to do something, you just get along and do it, as well and as quick as you can.’
She looked at him now, her brow knit together tightly and her eyes alight with an anger not suited to someone her age. ‘Why?’
‘You’re a soldier now, lass,’ he said. ‘At least until you’re old enough to take up your father’s mantel, but until then you do as he tells you. That’s your lot, just as it’s mine. We do as we’re ordered and that’s all there is to it.’
‘I don’t think that’s right.’
Gerrard didn’t really know what to say to her, and instead kept his silence. She turned back to watch the fighting, less slumped than she had been previously, her little hands clenched into fists over her knees. The silence stretched on a while longer, but as the matched ended, the victor standing over his opponent decisively, she spoke again.
‘Mama says only cowards hurt people weaker than them.’
Trying not to look skywards for patience, Gerrard wished her mother would be more careful, but still some part of the guardsman felt a pride for both females. Lady Midori wasn’t going to be cowed by her husband, and she was already instilling the same sense of right and wrong into her child. It was going to be trouble, but if Naomi was going to learn how to command others then it would serve her well to have a strong backbone in the face of adversity. Gods knew she was going to have a lot of that before her time was done.
Taking a deep breath, Gerrard turned to the girl and touched her shoulder with his large, rough hand. She looked up at him again, her bottom lip trembling slightly as she tried not to cry.
‘That’s why you’ve got to be strong, lassie. You work hard and learn all you can, and you get strong,’ he nodded encouragingly. ‘Because there are bad people in this world, people who don’t think like your mama, and people who need to be protected from them. You get strong, lass, and you can make sure that the weak have a champion.’
‘A champion?’ she asked, green eyes wide.
Gerrard nodded again, giving her shoulder a squeeze. ‘That’s right. It’s your job to look after those that can’t look after themselves. Your duty. In this life that’s all that counts.’

“A Day of Ghosts”

The rains had come at last. There had been concern starting to bubble through the people of Koren as more and more time passed before the seasonal downpour began, threatening lives as well as livelihoods with the delay. Now striding through the palace halls, Lord Darius, the country’s regent, could hear the almighty clamour as the heavens opened at last, and felt a sense of immeasurable relief at the sound.

It was a weight off his mind, of course, but right now he had more pressing concerns than celebrating a victory that, frankly, had been completely out of his hands in any case. Namely his youngest nephew, Arun, the future King, and his apparent vanishing act from the history lesson he was supposed to be attending. For the third time this week.

Darius knew that there were a great many people who would make excuses for the young Prince, including the history tutor who apparently hadn’t any intention of reporting his missing student had it not been for an impromptu visit to the classroom. Darius wasn’t about to let it slide, however, and when he found the boy he was in for a shock.

He wasn’t a bad child, not really, but he pushed his luck far too often and these things were important. Who knew if there would come a day in Arun’s life when he would be faced with someone important and have absolutely no idea who he was talking to, simply because he had skipped the majority of history lessons growing up? It was downright careless, apart from anything else, and easily preventable.

Of course he realised it was dull, especially for a nine year old. Gods knew Darius had hated it himself, and he was never even supposed to have ruled the country, the unexpected and harrowingly consecutive deaths of both his older brothers leaving him the last living adult of their family. He had no choice but to take care of things until Arun was old enough, but he was determined that the boy was going to be as prepared as he possibly could be for the role he was expected to play in the meantime. He wouldn’t wish on his nephew the trials that had come to Darius himself as he’d attempted to learn how to govern even while he was expected to get on with it. When the time came Arun would be ready and capable, and if that meant dragging him kicking and screaming to his lessons, then that was exactly what he would do.

If he could find him, that was. Quickly losing his patience, Darius scoured the palace room by room, not wanting to alert anyone and cause a panic at Arun’s disappearance and fending off well-meaning Courtiers that kept stopping his search to point out the very obvious rain. If he didn’t know how much the boy disliked this weather he might have thought he was outside with everyone else. As it was, Arun was very like his father and was more of an indoors person. Fardin hadn’t had much stomach for the rain either, and often delegated visits to the snowy Tsumetai to Darius, and damp Ffion to their other brother, Gulzar.

The thought made Darius smile, thinking of his brothers and the sons they had left behind in his care. Rayan, Gulzar’s boy, was shaping up to be a fine swordsman, and would one day take up the mantle of Arun’s bodyguard and commander of Koren’s armies. He showed a restraint and diligence that Arun had yet to grasp, and if Darius was honest, might never blossom in the younger boy.

They were both so different, for all he loved them equally, but where Rayan was sedate, Arun was temperamental. Both felt their emotions deeply, of that Darius had no doubt, but the young Prince was already prone to emotional explosions that likely wouldn’t serve him well when he was King. He could only hope that with enough time Arun would be able to hide his feeling adequately, at least in public, and if not that he wouldn’t let them govern all his actions.

Arun really was a great deal like his late father, and that worried Darius, because it also meant he was a great deal like him as well. He was under no illusions that he allowed his heart to run away with him when he really ought to know better, but both Darius and Fardin had suffered for their romantic tendencies, and if there was a way to spare Arun the same woes then he would do it.

On some level Darius knew it was unfair to expect so much of a child his age, but it was better he grow up understanding the pressure he was under than trying to protect him from it. In the end it wouldn’t do the boy any favours to coddle him, and it would be far easier on him to grow confident with full knowledge of his responsibilities. It might make him arrogant, of course, but it would certainly be easier on him than being timid.

Assailed by memories of his brothers, Darius came to a halt in the hallway and sighed. He had been ruling for eight years now, and at last he was starting to get the hang of it, but he still had another twelve to go before Arun would be old enough to take his rightful place as King. He wished the boy had someone better to look to for guidance than him, wished he knew how best to help. It wasn’t supposed to have been this way, and there was only so much he could do for his nephew.

If Fardin had lived, if his sentimental heart hadn’t gotten the better of him, Arun would be free to grow up as himself. Darius couldn’t help but wonder if he was wrong to try and stifle the boy’s emotions, if it was cruel to try and force his obvious nature into something else? It was for his own good, that’s what he told himself, but was he really being truthful? The more he thought on it, the more he wondered perhaps it was his own fear of seeing his nephew hurt, of losing him the same way he had lost his brother in the future that drove this line of thought.

‘Are you giving up?’

Arun’s voice directly behind him made Darius pivot in surprise, and sure enough the boy was grinning up at him, yellow eyes alight with mischief. His hair was starting to get long again, he noted, as the boy swiped the thick black curls out of his eyes and tried not to laugh.

‘And just what do you think you’re doing?’ Darius asked, trying not to notice the more obvious similarities between Arun and Fardin, now brought right before him in sharp clarity. It was like looking back in time to his brother when he was a boy, playing jokes and causing trouble with that very same grin plastered across his face.

‘Following you,’ the boy shrugged. ‘I saw you leave the classroom.’

Darius wanted to slap his hand into his forehead at the notion, wondering why he hadn’t heard the cheeky rascal. His instincts were usually sharper than that! He managed to keep himself composed, however, and instead crossed his arms and stared down at the young Prince.

‘It’s interesting you should mention the classroom, boy. Would this happen to be the very same classroom that you should have been taking lessons in today, but were, in fact, not?’

‘I was bored!’ Arun admitted with a roll of his eyes and a completely unrepentant look on his face.

‘It’s not meant to be fun,’ Darius replied. ‘It’s work, and it’s important.’

‘Not that important,’ the boy reasoned. ‘People get announced before I meet them, and Rayan can just tell me who everyone is, anyway.’

Darius looked skywards and sucked in a deep breath with slow deliberation to buy himself time and the patience to not smile. He realised that lack of confidence was something Arun was never likely to suffer from, at least. It brought him a small measure of comfort.

‘Rayan won’t always be there, you know.’

The seriousness of his implication seemed to be completely lost on the boy, and he just shrugged again. ‘Well, I can just marry someone who knows this boring stuff then. That way she can always be there, even if Rayan can’t.’

‘Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out,’ Darius said. ‘Except that no one is going to want to marry a stupid King who can’t even be bothered to learn history.’

‘Of course they will,’ Arun scoffed, clearly amused at the idea. ‘I’m going to be very handsome when I grow up. Everyone says so.’

This time Darius couldn’t stop his laughter at the utter absurdity of the child. Perhaps there was a more to be said for his similarities with his father after all, the supreme confidence of the statement echoing Fardin on all levels. He looked fondly down at his nephew, obviously proud to have made him laugh, and ruffled his hair.

‘You need a haircut,’ he informed the boy, subsequently changing the subject. ‘You’re going to start walking into things if you aren’t careful, and you might just ruin that handsome face of yours in the process.’

Arun swatted his uncle’s hand away with a laugh, but then looked uncharacteristically uncertain. ‘I thought I might grow it. Like father.’

The laughter petered away at this revelation, and Darius had to silently acknowledge that today was going to be a day of ghosts. He could see that the boy was sensitive to raising the subject, worried that he might be denied, and Darius knew he didn’t have it in him to do that. Smiling at his nephew, he saw hope kindle plainly on his face, and motioned for him to turn. Arun did as he was told, and with practiced ease, Darius braided the mess of curls neatly out of the way and tied it off as he had often done for his oldest brother.

“Marked For Purpose”

Seated in the shade of the wooden arbour of the castle courtyard, Lady Midori enjoyed the warmth of the Ffionite summer as much as she was able. Her constitution was delicate, but despite that and being originally from the snowy continent of Tsumetai before her marriage, she found the warmth pleasant. She had to be careful, but she refused to spend half of the year cooped up inside the Keep alone. Instead, she would come out here and watch from the safety of the shade as her daughter Naomi played on the open lawns, enjoying the sound of her sweet laughter.

Now five years of age, Naomi had recently come into her magical skill and had learnt that she could make trails of flowers sprout up behind where she walked if she took off her shoes. She was currently dancing across the grass, laughing and singing, leaving swirling trails of daisies behind her. Midori smiled at the sight her daughter made, hair loose and skirts hefted above her knees as she twirled and waved to her mother in between her innocent activities.

Magic was rare in Tsumetai, even something frowned upon and regarded with suspicion by many. Naomi’s gift had come from her father, along with her bright green eyes and disobedient hair, and despite Midori’s discomfort with the first, she had grown quickly to love and accept it as just another wonderful part of her child. Gerrard, the guardsman that had been present at Naomi’s birth and silently taken it upon himself to care for her when Midori was unable, had been much more at ease with the magic and explained that the child would need to be taught soon how to use it safely.

It had also transpired that while magic was more common here in Ffion than in Tsumetai, Naomi’s gift had revealed itself far more early than was normal. The news worried Midori, but pleased her husband, something the little girl seemed rarely able to accomplish no matter how hard she tried. Midori knew her daughter would understand one day, but for now she felt a keen sympathy for her, growing up hated by her own father simply for being a girl.

It might not have been so bad had Midori been able to provide him with more children, but Naomi’s birth had removed all chance of that, yet more that the child was unfairly blamed for by her father. Now he was cold to them both, and there was very little either of them could do about it. Midori did everything in her power to make certain Naomi felt love from her, and Gerrard had become a sturdy pillar of support to them both, already an important fixture in the child’s life. She also had her uncles and aunts who doted on her, both here in Ffion and across the sea in Tsumetai, and so far she hadn’t seemed wanting. She might never know the love of her father, but she would still know love.

Watching her daughter spinning on the spot and giggling as flowers grew up rapidly around her little bare feet, Midori mentally chased away the shadows that had begun to plague her thoughts. The sun again felt warm on her skin, and she sighed, closing her eyes and tilting her head back to bask. She stayed that way for a while, listening to Naomi laughing and singing a strange little tune that seemed somehow familiar. It was only when Midori realised that Naomi was laughing and the song still played that she looked up in confusion.

Her daughter was still twirling around, but rather than just daisies there were other shrubs and plants growing up around her, magic coiling and singing with her voice. Midori gasped as her daughter became swept up by it, but before she could call her to stop, there was a huge, thundering sound, and the ground shook violently.

‘Naomi!’ she cried, coming to her feet, even as the magic blasted up beneath her tiny daughter and a huge explosion of rock and soil shot upwards, lifting the girl out of sight. Midori cried out in horror, terrified by the shriek Naomi made as she was raised by the rocky outcrop to a point almost level with the second floor of the Keep.

‘Mama!’ came Naomi’s startled little voice from far too high above her, loud now that the noise of moving land and singing magic had ceased. Suddenly her head popped over the side and Midori felt like she might faint. ‘Mama, I broke the garden!’

‘Oh Gods!’ Midori gasped, her hands over her mouth. ‘Oh, my darling, stay where you are! Don’t move!’

‘What the cuss happened?’

Midori whirled about to see Gerrard running across the courtyard, his eyes bulging slightly as he looked up to the great spike of rock and her daughter perched right on the top of it. He let out a low whistle as he stopped before it, clearly impressed, but Midori had no time for such things. Her little girl was only a breath away from falling to her end, and for all she loved her dearly, Naomi had a wilfulness that had also come from her father and was still hanging precariously over the edge.

‘It’s so high!’ she giggled, bouncing excitedly. ‘I can see the whole world!’

‘I seriously doubt that, lassie,’ Gerrard snorted. ‘You’d have to go a lot higher for that.’

‘I can go higher!’ came the horrifyingly fearless answer.

Midori suddenly felt her legs give under her and sank down to the soft grass faintly. Gerrard seemed to suddenly realise how distressed she was and winced apologetically at her. He was a good man and he had done such a lot for them both already, but Naomi needed no further encouragement to test things a five year old had absolutely no business testing.

Clearing his throat, Gerrard crossed his arms and called up in a serious tone. ‘Alright lassie, time to come back down.’

‘Nope!’ the child sniggered. ‘Come get me!’

‘I hope you ain’t talking back to me,’ he frowned. ‘Come on, now. That’s enough worrying your poor mama for one day.’

Midori suspected she was pouting if the little whine of disappointment was anything to go by, but she was too high up to be sure. Looking up made her dizzy and she covered her eyes, unable to watch any longer. No sooner had she done it than the ground shook again and a breath later she found her daughter cuddling up to her, trying to pull her hands down from her eyes.

‘It’s okay mama, don’t be scared. I’m sorry.’

Midori clutched her daughter to her like a lifeline, her heart beating far too quickly in her chest and her vision blurred and distorted from the sheer terror of what had just happened. She was shaking desperately, clearly far more distressed than the little girl in her arms. Naomi just seemed to be enjoying the attention.

‘Her father will need to know,’ said Gerrard quietly. ‘That much power is rare. Dangerous, even.’

Looking in horror at the guardsman, Midori instinctively covered her daughter’s ears, despite on some level knowing it was too late. Her little Naomi, dangerous? Gerrard looked sympathetically back at her and then the child in her lap. Midori only held her closer, wishing she could keep her safe forever from a world that seemed to have already marked her for purpose.