The howling wind churned up the snowflakes into a blizzard, threatening to bury the village of Wishingsdale under its weight. In the largest house, on the edge of the village, illness had set in, as it had in many of the households in the small town. The youngest, a little girl of seven, had a terrible cough that would not go away, but the others were not faring much better.
"Mother, when are we going to get better?" asked Telkarnith. "When is the snow going to go away? It's already April, isn't it?"
"I don't know," answered Tevriel. "Your father is completely bedridden. I'm worried about him and I don't know if he's going to make it, and your sister is very weak as well. Kior seems to be doing alright, though. A healer was sent for weeks ago, but travelling through the snows must be difficult. I hope they arrive soon."
"A healer?" Telkarnith wondered with interest. "Do you mean a Hlayan witch-doctor?"
"Don't discount the Hlayans, young man," Tevriel chided him gently. "Their rituals and tongue may seem strange to you, but they understand more than most, and the spirits listen to them."
"I don't know about any spirits, but if it'll help my father and little Kay, I can hardly complain."
"Good," Tevriel said. "Now eat your broth and get some rest. You're doing well yourself, but you still need to conserve your strength and recover." She clutched up her patched green dress in her hands and swept out of the room.
"Yes, Mother," Telkarnith murmured as the door swung shut behind her. He sipped his broth quietly and curled up next to the window, thinking that it must be some sort of magic that kept the bitter cold from penetrating the fragile-looking glass. The snow reached all the way up to the base of the window and covered the landscape outside in a silent white blanket.
Much as he wouldn't admit so aloud, he had to hope that his father would be alright. He was only thirteen years old, and wasn't sure if he was ready yet to be the man of the house. In elder days, elves were traditionally considered adult at the age of thirteen, but Telkarnith wasn't sure how they could be prepared for the responsibility. His hands were too small yet to bear his father's sword.
Shaking his head with a sigh and setting aside his grim thoughts, Telkarnith drained his bowl of broth and curled up in bed again, slowly drifting off into a fevered, delirious sleep. In his dreams, he thought he heard his sister crying, and brief flashes of images that made no sense. Lightning on the green moon. A giant wolf in the snow. A spinning purple wheel. A clown in a rowboat. He could almost be grateful when he slowly woke to hear a commotion of some sort outside his room.
Coughing and shivering a bit involuntarily, Telkarnith crawled out of bed and headed for the living room, trying to see what was going on. His mother was there, speaking with a dark-skinned woman he hadn't seen before, wearing a heavy robe and carrying a number of strange fetishes. "Ah, here comes one of the young ones," the stranger said. "Come closer, my dear. I can help you. Do not fear passing your illness on to me. I wear a talisman to ward against sickness and disease."
"Are you the witch-doctor?" Telkarnith said, curiously coming close and examining her fetishes. Little bits of bone, feathers, and carved stones made up most of them. He had to wonder what they all were for.
"I am a shaman, young one. I have come to help. Once your family has been gathered, I will perform a ritual of purification over them. Here, you will need these." The shaman pulled out a twine necklace with several objects attached to it, including what appeared to be a clove of garlic.
"What's this for?" Telkarnith wondered, peering at it a bit before slipping it around his neck.
"This will assist in channeling the power of the spirits in my ritual," the shaman explained. "As well as to protect you from undesirable influences."
"Even the garlic?"
"That is to ward off vampires, of course. You never know where you might find them. They will step through the shadows and slip into your house to drink of your blood and your very soul, if you are not wary."
"Alright," Telkarnith said a bit dubiously. He hadn't seen a vampire his entire life, nor heard of any around here, but if she said they were a potential danger, he'd have to take her word on it.
"Go gather the others, Telkarnith," Tevriel said. "I have to help prepare for the ritual."
Telkarnith nodded and headed off down the hallway, poking his head into Kior's room and sending him on his way. Kaymellor, however, wasn't so well off. She lay in her bed, scarcely breathing except to cough and hack, and didn't even seem aware of his presence.
"Kay? Can you walk? Can you hear me?" he asked quietly, going up to her and trying to get her attention futilely. "Kaymellor?" He sighed softly, gathering her up in his arms. She was a slight thing, and didn't weigh very much to begin with, but the fever had taken a lot out of her. Stumbling a little, he carried her back to the living room and lay her gently down on the couch.
"Oh my," the shaman said, turning from painting Kior's face to examine the girl. "This one does not look good at all. I'm not certain that my abilities can still help her. She might be too far gone already. But I will do my best nonetheless."
Telkarnith said nothing, his face stoic and grim as he turned from the room to get his father. Zarnith Chelseer, the Third, was tossing and turning in his sleep, mumbling to himself incoherently when Telkarnith came in. His sword lay sheathed at the foot of the bed, never far from his side. "Father?" Telkarnith said tentatively as he approached the man.
It took a bit of doing to get his attention, the man grumbling and muttering so much that Telkarnith wasn't at first sure that he knew the boy was there. "Telkarnith." Zarnith finally opened his eyes and fixed them on him. "Get me some broth, son, would you?"
"Father, there's a healer here," Telkarnith explained. "She wants to perform some ritual to cure us."
"Bah," Zarnith said, slumping back into the pillows. "Damned witch-doctors and their voodoo. Go play along if you like, but I won't have anything to do with that malarkey."
"But what if it actually works?" Telkarnith protested. "It certainly couldn't hurt, could it?"
"Go on and have fun, but don't expect any real results," Zarnith scoffed. "And bring me some broth when you're done."
Telkarnith sighed and turned for the door, knowing well his father's stubbornness and that he wouldn't be budged by further arguing once he was set on something. Back in the living room, the shaman was finishing up painting blue and green markings on Kaymellor's face. His sister was still mostly unconscious and clearly unaware of what was going on. He had never seen her quite this bad before, but she had been steadily worsening over the course of the illness.
"Where's Zarnith?" Tevriel wondered, frowning. Her facial expressions contorted the colorful markings.
"He wouldn't come," Telkarnith told her.
"Bah, that stubborn man," Tevriel snorted, turning toward the shaman. "Can't we just drag him in here and do it anyway? I doubt he's still strong enough to really refuse."
The shaman shook her head sadly and turned to dabbing paint onto Telkarnith's face with her fingers. "I'm afraid it doesn't work that way, my dear. If there is someone in the circle whose spirit is actively resisting it and refusing to cooperate, not only will it not help them, but it will prevent it from working for the others as well."
"What about Kaymellor?" Tevriel asked. "I don't think she even realizes what's happening."
"On a conscious level, she does not, but I sense that her spirit is in dire need and knows that her time is short. Although her body lays here unawares, her spirit will join hands with ours and sing in time with our song. Are we ready to begin?" she said as she finished marking Telkarnith's face.
"I'd say I would not be ready without Zarnith, but for Kaymellor's sake, I would not delay any further to try to convince him." Tevriel sighed and shook her head faintly.
"Very well," the shaman said. "Take your places in the circle. Kneel, and relax. Close your eyes and let your spirit guide you."
Telkarnith did as he was bidden and knelt across from his mother, trying to relax and let go of some of his tension and worry as he let his eyes slide shut. Unlike his father, he was more curious about the strange Hlayan magic than distrustful and scornful of it. He didn't really see himself trying to become a shaman when he grew up, but he did want to learn more about it if he could.
Once everyone was in place, the shaman settled in and began to chant softly in the Hlayan tongue. Telkarnith picked up a whiff of a strange odor, perhaps incense. In his mind's eye, he saw a whirl of images flicker past, or perhaps it was merely his imagination as his mind wandered into a dreamlike state. There was Kaymellor, healthy and whole, smiling and vibrant as she had ever been. The others circled around as well, his mother, Kior, and the shaman, but his father was still absent. He could not understand the shaman's words, and they drifted into a melodic counterpoint on the edge of his awareness, like soft vocal music playing in the distance.
He could not later describe what he had seen in detail as waves of light and color enveloped him, the world seeming far more alive than it had ever been, as if he were getting the briefest glimpse into the true world, of which that which was generally called "reality" was merely a shadow. It was impossible to be afraid or nervous with the sense of unbroken peace and tranquillity embracing him. He had the distinct sense after a few moments that the four of them were not alone, as he sensed the presence of others. Perhaps animals of some sort, he thought from a glimpse of their shapes.
"Some will remain and some will move on," murmured an unfamiliar voice he could not identify.
"One will be great in war and of blade," said a second strange voice. "One will be great in house and in family."
He could not be certain which of the images was speaking, or even that they were speaking Kalorese at all, but he understood their words and meaning nonetheless. They had turned and were circling about Kaymellor like wisps of silvery smoke with vague faces, paws, and wings appearing throughout it.
"I'm not afraid," Kaymellor murmured. "I love you mother, brothers. Perhaps we will meet again in another life."
"Kaymellor?" Telkarnith said in alarm. He was certain that he had actually said it aloud in his surprise and concern.
"Don't worry about me," she said. "It's how it is. They will take care of me now. Tell father I love him."
"Kaymellor!" he cried out.
"Goodbye, Telkarnith." Kaymellor smiled at him warmly one last time, before vanishing, her image wisping into smoke before finally fading entirely.
Distressed, Telkarnith hardly noticed when the chanting slowly ceased, and he dared to open his eyes again. He thought he was breathing more easily now, but a look over to the couch at his sister's silent form wrenched his heart. She'd finally found her own peace from the terrible cough and fever. One might think that she was merely asleep, but for the fact that she was not breathing.
"Kaymellor..." Telkarnith whispered, staring at her for a long moment before looking at the floor quietly.
"I am sorry," the shaman said softly, placing a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. "I did not think I could save her. The illness had gone too far into her. She is at peace now. A brave soul, even to the end, and so young, too."
"There was nothing more that could be done," Tevriel murmured sadly. "I... I will have to tell Zarnith."
Kior started bawling, but Telkarnith remained silent. He wasn't sure if his eleven year old brother really understood what had just happened here, but he found that tears did not come himself. Not now. Perhaps later, when he really missed her, but now he could only be relieved that she was at rest.
"I will perform last rites for her if you wish when you are ready," the shaman offered. "But it would only be of comfort to those who yet live. Her spirit has already moved on."
"It can wait a bit," Tevriel said. "I must speak with my husband. There are others in the village who require your attention as well. If you would return here when you are done with the rest, it would be appreciated, though."
"As you wish," the shaman said, slowly going to gather up the implements of her trade to prepare to leave the premises.
"Telkarnith, why don't you go get you and your brother something to eat while I talk to your father?"
"Alright," Telkarnith said quietly, reaching over to squeeze Kior in assurance before turning to lead his younger brother off toward the kitchen.
"I'm not hungry," Kior muttered dejectedly as he sank into one of the seats by the table.
"Eat something anyway." There was a big pot of thin vegetable stew sitting over the fire being kept warm, and Telkarnith dished out bowls of it for himself and his brother. He was actually hungry for once, and didn't think that was quite enough, so he dug out some bread to go along with it. It was hard and tough, having been sitting around for a few days, but it was still good.
Kior dug into his stew and grabbed a bit of bread for himself as well, clearly hungrier than he claimed to be. They were quiet as they ate, not quite ready to talk about what had happened. They had hardly settled in to eat, however, when they heard shouting outside the kitchen.
"You let that witch-doctor place her curses upon this house?" Zarnith's voice boomed through the halls. "We are all doomed!"
Telkarnith thought his father must still be delirious. He hadn't seemed to think the woman had any real power before, and now he was blaming all misfortune upon her? He sighed softly and stared into his bowl as he ate slowly, trying to pretend that he didn't hear even as he listened as closely as he could.
"Zarnith, she helped us, really."
"At the cost of your souls?" Zarnith roared back. "You fool woman! You've doomed my heirs as well."
"I know it's just the fever talking. You don't really mean that. Why don't you try to get some rest? You aren't well."
"I told that boy to bring me some broth. Where is he?"
The kitchen door burst open and Zarnith stormed in, his eyes wild and his face flushed. Telkarnith tried to be small as he looked up in fright at the rabid man, not liking at all the way that his father looked at him.
"You boy," Zarnith barked, yanking out one of the chairs and dropping heavily into it. "Dish me up a bowl of that, and make it snappy."
"Yes, father," Telkarnith murmured, sliding out of his chair to grab another bowl for him.
"Honey, you should be in bed," Tevriel said, coming up behind Zarnith.
"Don't you honey me, woman," Zarnith snapped. "I know what you've been doing with the school teacher, too."
"Zarnith!" Tevriel gasped in shock, her eyes widening and looking positively scandalized.
"Go ahead and play innocent," Zarnith said, grabbing the spoon Telkarnith set before him with the bowl of soup and shakily trying to dish himself out some food. "I don't really care. Maybe this was all an attempt to cover it up. Maybe Kaymellor wasn't really my daughter after all. How long has it been going on, Tevriel? Tell me that."
"Zarnith, you shouldn't be saying things like this in front of the boys," Tevriel urged him quietly.
"Shouldn't I? Do they not deserve to know the truth as well?"
Kior started bawling anew, having forgotten all about his meal. Telkarnith stared into his own bowl, trying to pretend not to be there. He didn't know what she might or might not have been doing with the teacher, and wasn't sure how it was relevant anyway. The fever was clearly messing with his head.
"Zarnith, you're upsetting the boys."
"And they damned well should be," Zarnith snarled. He wound up spilling more stew than he actually got into his mouth. "You've sold yourself out, body and soul, and you've sold their souls as well, and for what? Life isn't worth that. I'd rather die pure. Search your soul, woman. Find what peace you can in it, because it may be all you have left."
Leaving his food half-eaten, he stumbled out of the kitchen again, continuing to ramble on incoherently to himself. Tevriel stood where she was, shaking a little as she stared at the door. Kior was still crying loudly, but Telkarnith was sure he didn't really understand what was going on here either, or what was really wrong with their father.
"Eat your soup, Kior," Telkarnith said aside to him quietly. "Don't mind father. He's just talking nonsense. The fever's made him crazy."
Kior slowly calmed down and returned to eating the remainder of his food half-heartedly. Still shaking a little, Tevriel got herself a bowl as well and ate quietly with them. Kior finished up his meal and slipped off out of the room, but Telkarnith remained, looking thoughtfully at his mother.
"What was father talking about?" Telkarnith asked quietly.
"Things he should not have been," Tevriel replied tersely, flushing a little herself, but not from fever. "Finish your soup and go back to bed. You need rest to recover your strength."
"Will you tell me sometime?" Telkarnith said with a bit of a sigh as he reached over to pop the last bit of bread in his mouth.
"Maybe later. Not now, please."
"Yes, mother." He drained the last of his soup in silence and shuffled off to his room again, but he didn't think he was going to sleep, not just yet anyway. He'd spent much of the last week asleep and really wasn't that tired anymore now. There was far too much on his mind, between the strange ritual, the passing of his baby sister, his father's crude behavior, and his mother's infidelity. If she'd just denied it, he would have just thought that his father was being paranoid and delusional, but the way she acted made him think there was some truth to it.
Zarnith did not come out of his room at all the following days, slipping deeper into fevered delirium. It was a week later that Tevriel sent Telkarnith to bring him another bowl of broth, when he found his father deep asleep, silent and unmoving. Quickly reminded of his sister's quiet repose, Telkarnith set aside the bowl and went to his father's side, nudging him gently and checking for breath, but the man was dead and gone.
"Father..." Telkarnith murmured softly, looking down at the once-strong man, the wasted body that severe illness had taken so much from. But there was no response, and no spirit to comfort him and reassure him not to worry. After sitting there quietly for several long minutes, he went and gathered up the bowl again and headed back for the kitchen.
Tevriel was in the kitchen busying herself with preparing what little food they had to stretch it as far as she could. "Wouldn't you father eat anything?" she asked upon seeing him with the bowl.
"No," Telkarnith said quietly. "He... he's gone."
Tevriel froze in mid-chop, staring off at nothing in particular. "First Kaymellor, and now Zarnith... I can only pray that this fevered winter does not claim anyone else."
"I'm sorry," Telkarnith murmured.
"I've feared it was coming, with how sick he was. But I didn't think it would be like this. I didn't think it would take his mind first before claiming his life."
"He was so angry," Telkarnith said softly.
"It was the fever talking," his mother insisted. "Zarnith wouldn't talk like that. He accused us of selling our souls, but acted as one possessed himself."
"But there was truth to what he was saying."
Tevriel sighed and absently scooped the chopped vegetables into the stew before slumping down into a seat next to him. "Telkarnith, you are young yet and there is much that you don't understand and probably won't for many years yet."
"Probably," Telkarnith conceded. "But I won't understand if you don't explain to me what you mean."
"We of the House Chelseer are considered prestigious, important, heirs of a great bloodline," Tevriel said, leaning back into her chair and staring off. "In a way, however, the humble humans of Wishingsdale are lucky. They can marry who they chose, and marry for love, and none will think them the worse for it."
"You didn't love my father?"
"I'm not saying that," Tevriel said, putting up a hand to still him. "I did not chose to marry him, but I did come to love him. He was a good man, and I will speak no ill of him. But were it my choice, I would not have chosen to marry my cousin, even removed as we were."
"So why did you do it, then?"
"The Heir of the Children of the Dragon's Blood is expected by birthright and tradition to wed another of the Dragon's Blood in order to produce a pureblooded heir. It would be unthinkable for a Chelseer to be allowed to marry a low-born human. As a Dragonblooded elf myself, and appropriately distantly related, I was selected to wed Zarnith the Third and bear his heirs."
"So, what, I'm expected to marry one of my own cousins too?" Telkarnith wondered. It was not the first he had heard of the idea, but the reality of it had not really hit home before.
"A distant cousin," Tevriel said. "Generally a member of the families Caldene, Kedaire, or Takhandomar, or a Chelseer of a more removed branch. An appropriate wife will be selected when you are of age if you do not find a suitable candidate yourself in that time. You're expected to at least sire your firstborn child with a Dragonblood. Any other bastard children, well, no one need know about them."
Telkarnith frowned. "So, was Kaymellor really my half-sister?"
"No," Tevriel said, shaking her head. "I was a good wife. I bore Zarnith three fine children, and did not shame him by presenting him another man's children as his own. He was a good husband, and he will be dearly missed."
She was right, he thought, in that he really didn't understand it right now. "So what will happen now?" he asked after a long moment.
"Now," Tevriel replied, letting out a heavy sigh. "Now I will call in the shaman to deliver their last rights, and pass along our family's sword to you. You are the patriarch of the Chelseer House now. You are the prince of the Dragon's Blood."
"Would father really appreciate it?" Telkarnith wondered. "He didn't seem to like the Hlayan and her magic much."
"It was just the fever. It made him say a lot of things he did not really mean, and he was quite upset about your sister's death and clearly blamed her for it, as well as me. But no one else here will be able to speak with his spirit and set him to rest. He did not die so peacefully as I might have wished."
"I grieve for your losses," the shaman said. "Where I had sought to bring life, I will now attempt to bring peace in death if I might."
She, Telkarnith, his mother and brother sat in a circle in the living room. The bodies had been removed; Telkarnith did not ask what had been done with them. He didn't really want to know. The heady smell of incense hung in the air, and he wondered just what sort of ritual she meant to do this time.
The shaman began to chant softly again in Hlayan, and Telkarnith let his eyes slide shut so that he might see more clearly with his mind's eyes. This time, only the shaman was with him, until a third figure slowly faded into view: his father. Zarnith felt miserable and unhappy, drained and dejected. He was no longer trying to fight or resist, but he still wasn't happy about it.
"So you've called me, witch-doctor. What do you want? Have I not suffered enough?"
"I can sense that you are restless, spirit. Left to yourself, you would haunt this place for years, unable to find peace. You are bound to this place and to those who were your family, and you do not know how to let go."
"And who are you to say otherwise? What I do with my afterlife is my own business, witch-doctor."
"Zarnith," Tevriel's voice said gently as her image coalesced nearby.
The ghost's expression softened a bit upon seeing her momentarily, but he quickly composed himself back into a scowl in her direction. "What do you have to say for yourself, woman?"
"Zarnith, I'm sorry. I apologize for my conduct. I never meant to cause you pain. You were never anything but a good and worthy husband, and a caring and dependable father. One could have never hoped for a better man to lead the household."
The scowl faded again slowly, to be replaced by a faint smile. "You flatter me, but I cannot really blame you for it all, dear one. Perhaps you never realized how much I did love you. You meant the world to me, Tevriel. But I could never hold a grudge against you. Apology accepted, my beloved." His image was already beginning to fade, but he turned to Telkarnith and went on, "Be well, my son. Bear my sword well. May you find someone as wonderful and caring as your dear mother."
"Goodbye, father," Telkarnith whispered, even as the remnants of the image drifted away as swirling smoke and were gone. Slowly he opened his eyes and returned his perceptions to the physical world.
"Just like that?" Tevriel said.
"Sometimes that's all it takes, my dear," the shaman said. "He wanted to let go, but he could not deal with what was holding him here. Your words let him release that and set him to rest."
"He really did love me..."
"Was there ever any doubt?" The shaman gave a small grin as she climbed to her feet. "Be well and live well. Your loved ones will be missed, certainly, but death is never really the end that many fear. It is for you, the living, to carry on, even as they would have wished you to. They will not be forgotten."
"Thank you, shaman," Tevriel said quietly.
"My work here is done for now. It is time for me to move on. Do not hesitate to call upon me should my services regretfully be needed again in the future."
When the shaman left again, the house felt a little emptier. Kior was crying again, but Telkarnith could find no tears to shed at the moment. Despite all the death, there was a sense of peace and calm about the vicinity. His head was clear and the fever had passed, but all the same he knew nothing would ever be the same again. He was a man now, by necessity, whether he was ready for it or not.
The next morning, Telkarnith woke to find a very familiar sword propped up beside the head of his bed in its sheath. He wasn't sure if his mother had placed it there, or if it had magically brought itself to him of its own volition. He crawled out of bed and picked it up, putting a hand on the hilt and drawing it out of its sheath slowly. It was large and unwieldy for him, but he found it to be surprisingly light and easy to handle. The rune-covered blade was glowing softly, and as he examined it, he heard a voice speaking in his head.
"Greetings, young Telkarnith," spoke a voice that could only be from the sword itself.
"Who are you?" Telkarnith said aloud.
"I am Zarnith Chelseer, the First. Ages ago, I bound my spirit into this magical sword so that I may lend my strength and knowledge to my future descendants. Your will is strong and your heart is true. Bear my power well, for you may need it in the years to come."
Telkarnith asked in his mind, "Can you hear my thoughts?"
"After a fashion," the spirit of the sword replied, a soft chuckle echoing through his head. "I will hear what you direct to me, but I will respect your privacy if you so choose. You need not fear me turning against you or betraying you, however. Such a thing would be inconceivable unless one of my bloodline were to turn to such heinous depths of depravity and madness that I would refuse to support such actions. But such a thing has never happened as of yet, and I hope that it never shall."
"So in a way, you found a way to live forever," Telkarnith thought despite himself.
"Immortality, after a fashion, you might call it that. But it does not come without a price, as nothing ever does. I sacrificed both my life and my death for the sake of my children and my children's children, so long as there are those of the Dragon's Blood who yet live. I have no existence beyond the sword and the one to whom I am bound."
"You are bound to me?"
"Yes. I have chosen you as my heir; do not think it is automatic based on your birth. Until such a time as you die, you voluntarily surrender your birthright, or your soul is corrupted beyond hope of redemption, I am your servant, your weapon, your right hand. Only you will hear my voice, and I will do everything in my power to aid you and advise you when needed or desired. No one will ever be able to take me from you or use you against me. Should you ever lose me for any reason, I will appear at your side again at dawn."
"I'm not sure if I'm ready for all this."
"You are more ready than you believe yourself to be. Search your heart, Telkarnith Chelseer. It will never steer you wrong."