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Chapter Three- Into the Calm

12 September


"Your mentor didn't seem happy to let you go," Damien said as he trotted along beside Ashlyn. He never had the privilege of riding his own horse before, and he was still getting used to staying in the saddle.

The day was ideal for travel. The air was cool without being chilly, the sun was warm without casting a choking heat. They hadn't brought much supplies with them, but Damien never had much to begin with, and Ashlyn seemed to prefer light baggage.

A wide, golden gate now sat behind them as they traveled away from the city. Ashlyn had all the luggage attached to her horse, along with a picnic basket and a curious walking stick with a clear blue pendent on top.

"What is that for?" Damien pointed to the stick. "Are you crippled or something?"

"No," Ashlyn laughed, "I bring my focusing staff wherever I go. It helps tremendously."

"Helps with your magic?"

Ashlyn replied with a nod saying, "Power comes easily to me, but control is harder to achieve."

They both fell into silence for a long while before a lack of conversation began to bother Damien. "So, how does a human girl like you make ties with a bunch of Lor elves?" he asked.

"I was born somewhat near Gumber," she answered. "My mother lives there, she's a kind and compassionate elf."

"So, your father must be human I assume?"

"No." Ashlyn averted her gaze. "I was adopted. There is no father around for me."

"Oh. You're an orphan too then?"

"Well, not exactly. To be an orphan, one has to have lost their birth parents. I don't have birth parents."

"You're confusing me," he said, his dark brows skewing. "Everyone has birth parents, don't they?"

"Not me," Ashlyn said, forming a half smile. "I...I was created by a mystical, formless being called the Sepheras. Every age has its Sorceress—which happens to be me."

"Weird," Damien said. "And here I thought I was the freak amongst the two of us. No parents, just existence. What's that like?"

"I've come to learn that having parents isn't nearly as dire as having family. And family I have plenty of."

Around them, the trees grew thicker. Not far outside of Tauros began the southern realm of Gumberwood, a place dotted with the occasional elven abode. The two of them rode up to the river that coursed its way through the woodlands. When their path became blocked by one of the forks, a small, barely noticeable footbridge marked their way forward. Ashlyn clopped across the footbridge with Damien following behind on his mount. When they landed on the other side, the air shifted in the slightest sense. Damien not only found himself entrapped by endless, ancient trees, the way the wood felt was...magical. The pure air clung to his skin like dew and the smell of drifting leaves sat like a balm in his throat. He breathed in, tasting the forest air for the first time.

"This is soothing." He closed his eyes. Beside him, he could sense Ashlyn smiling.

"Yes, it's very calm here. I never realize how much I miss home until I come back."

The girl led him through the woods until the land leveled into a gentle plain of sorts. The land was still dotted with trees and structures, but the area of civilization spread past all vanishing points. Upon first glance, it was difficult for Damien to see the village that sat in solitude among the trees. Wooden houses blended in perfectly with the motif of the forest, but there it sat, the village that the Lor elves called home.

Ashlyn seemed ecstatic now as they rode through the village and turned onto a winding dirt path that steered off into a deep pocket of the forest. She brought Damien to the very end of that twisting road, until a seemly cottage cut them off. The cottage was serene, with potted flowers hanging along the porch. A wrap-around deck made the house appear large and beautiful, and to the side was a stable fit to hold a small handful of horses. Ashlyn got off and boarded her horse. Damien did the same, closing his steed inside the stable.

He grew more and more worried, though, as Ashlyn cared for their horses. What if the elves who lived here did not like outsiders? What if they turned him away, poked at him with harsh words?

"Do they know we're coming?" He voiced his concern. "Maybe they don't like unexpected visitors."

"Damien, you need to relax," Ashlyn said, brushing her horse. "This is my mother's house."

"Oh."

Upon knocking at the door, Ashlyn's adoptive mother, Calda, opened to greet them. A look of surprise came to the elf woman's face as she stepped out.

"Ashlyn!" Calda drew the girl in for a hug. "Se turessé! I wasn't expecting you to come this late in the year."

"I know, Mother. It was a bit unexpected for me, too."

Calda scanned the strange boy who stood with Ashlyn on the deck. "Is everything well?"

"Of course." Ashlyn turned, gesturing to Damien. "Mother, I'd like you to meet Damien, he's a new friend of mine."

"A new friend?" Calda smiled while coming forward. She reached for the boy's hands, causing him to flinch. It was obvious how Calda stared at the black veins along Damien's forearms.

"Do you need to have that looked at?"

"Uh, no." Damien put his arms down. "So, are we allowed to come in and out?"

"Of course." Calda chuckled and stepped aside to let the young ones in. After closing the door, she led Ashlyn and Damien over to her living area, outfitted with a few plush chairs and an elegant fur sofa. A stone fireplace surrounded the hearth and a bookcase sat beside it. "Can I get you some tea?"

"I would love some tea," Ashlyn was quick to answer. "A ten-hour trip most definitely calls for it."

“So, you came from Tauros, then?” Calda paced over to her kitchen. "I didn't realize the mages would have you traveling so much in your sixth year.”

"They had me go with them to Githal a few weeks ago," Ashlyn explained, "to help the injured and the fugitives there. That's where I found Damien, actually. Annael insisted that we bring him to Tauros so he could make a full and proper recovery. Dark magic, you see."

"Ah, so that explains his scars." Calda gestured to Damien's sickly arms. "A fine opportunity for you to heal them, Ashlyn."

"Oh, no, I don't trust myself to heal them."

"But you've been practicing, haven't you? " Calda dipped a large tea bag into her pot.

"I suppose," Ashlyn shrugged. "Magical healing is an interesting art but I don't enough have talent for it. I prefer your methods, Mother: the herbs, the teas, the tonics. It's what I already know."

"With enough time and practice you could be an accomplished healer, I'm sure of it." Then Calda turned to the boy. "And what about you, Damien? Are you from Githal?"

"Uh...no." Damien strained to form the words.

"He has no family," Ashlyn spoke for him. "He was a prisoner in Ëolnir before I found him."

"A prisoner?" Calda lifted her golden eyebrows. "For how long?"

Damien scratched his head. "Ten years, I think."

"By the Fates!" The woman poured the brewed tea into three clay mugs. "Did you escape? Is that why you were in Githal?"

“Um, I don't really remember.”

"I think his injuries came with a bit of amnesia," Ashlyn said, "but I'm sure he'll snap out of it soon."

"People's minds don't go snap." Calda laughed while serving the tea to her guests and sitting down at the table. She took a sip of the hot liquid, proving it wasn't poisoned or drugged. "But they do tend to heal over time. I would be happy to give you some herbs that will help."

"Herbs?" Damien winced.

"My mother is a healer," Ashlyn explained.

"But I just got done with healing," he said, confused. "I'm alive, right?"

"Yes," the girl giggled, "but if you want to remember—"

"I don't want to remember," he cut her off. "Gods, I would give anything not to remember." Ashlyn's lovely face fell, and Damien couldn't understand. He only spoke the truth, and the truth was far better than a lie. “I—I’m sorry.” He fell silent, sipped his tea.

Calda's blue eyes narrowed at the girl. "Did the Academy give you leave to be here, Ashlyn? I recall you already spent your visiting days this year."

Ashlyn's face fell even more. "Annael didn't exactly give me permission to bring Damien here," she said, "but I did promise to return in a few weeks."

"A few weeks! What do you plan to do here for that long?"

The girl sighed, lifting her eyes to the ceiling. "I thought the Tribunal might help Damien find a place to live."

"Oh..." Calda groaned, rubbing her forehead. "Your friend is a human, Ashlyn, why not bring him before the King of Tauros?"

"Because the King sends human orphans to the plains to be farmers," Ashlyn said. “Damien deserves better than that. I'm also human, and still the elves took me in."

"No." Calda gave her daughter a pointed look. "It's not the same, Ashlyn, and I trust you know that. The Tribunal would not help your friend."

"We don't know that to be certain," the girl argued. "My plan is to keep Damien here until they decide."

"Again, no."

"Oh, please Mother? Please let him stay. I'll take care of him, I will. You won't have to worry about giving him anything."

"Except a place to sleep, apparently."

"I was hoping you would say yes."

Calda folded her arms. "You came all the way here to dump an orphan into my hands? The last time someone gave me a displaced child, I nearly lost all my sanity."

"Mother, where else would he stay if not here? It's not like I can conjure a house out of thin air. I have tried before."

This made her mother lift her eyebrows in concern. "Ashlyn..." Calda leveled with the girl, "caring for young ones is a task more suited for adults who can find their way in the world."

"I know my way in this world just fine," Ashlyn frowned. "I'm a Sorceress, I can take care of anything, including a human."

"You need to be taking care of your studies, I won't let you give up your own tasks for this boy."

"But Mother, I promised to keep an eye on him."

"And I'm sure you'll find a way to." After a moment, Calda gave a motherly sigh. "What am I to do? I don't have the heart to turn away an orphan, but I won't keep him here indefinitely. If the Tribunal says no, you must promise to respect it."

"That sounds fair."

***​

When Damien had settled into his guest room for the night, he sat in a comfortable bed peering out the window. Outside he could see a tree nearly shed of its leaves. The stars and moon were hidden in the sky that night, casting a deep shade of black over the twisting branches. Damien would have liked to see the tree in full bloom, not just feathered.

A tap on his bedroom door sent him flinching.

"Is it you, Ashlyn?" he called, staring at the entryway.

"Yes, it's me," Ashlyn said from the other side of the door. "I just came to say good night."

"No one says good night to me. I thought you were in bed already."

Then his door opened, and Ashlyn looked at him tenderly as she stepped in. "Are you comfortable? How are your sheets?"

"My sheets are fine. I may have been a prisoner in Ëolnir, but at least I had my own bed." He sat still, waiting for her to leave. "And I got to sleep alone," he added, suspecting his cue was lost on her.

Despite his hint, Ashlyn came over and sat at the edge of his bed. “It may take some time, but I promise to find you a home here.”

Damien lifted a brow. “Did you really try to make a house with...magic?”

“Oh.” She laughed. “Yes, I sought to make myself a small sanctuary once using a field of barriers. But apparently, I can only cast one barrier at a time, so my idea was for naught.” She peered at him with soft golden-brown eyes. “Why don’t you want to remember? Don’t you want answers to your own past?”

Damien let out a grunt. "Whatever brought me to Githal, I know it wasn't good. Please, can I go to sleep now?"

The girl looked away and said, "Yes, of course. Rest well, Damien."

"At least I remember your name," he said as she rose and turned for the door.

Ashlyn let out another small laugh, and her eyes twinkled. "Good night, Damien."

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Lynea
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