A’Grih saw beyond the terrified, round face of a pitiful enemy into a soft face, a face of gentleness and kindness – and between them it seemed his hands rose in strange gestures. From the gestures rose beings, flowers, animals, stars and lights. Dancing, shimmering, appearing, disappearing. He lifted his real hand, stared at it, moved it – and around it moved ghostly shadows, shadows that with only a little concentration coalesced into beings, flowers, animals, stars and lights. He stared at the dwarf again. It was sweating, looking partly at the ghosts between them, partly staring into the depths of his eyes. “Enough!” it whispered. “Enough! Take the jewel and go! I can’t do this. I can’t know this. I’m not this.”

“But you are,” whispered A’Grih back, dazed. “My Source. I – I didn’t even know it could be a singular being like this. I didn’t even know I had a Gift. I didn’t know…” For a moment his heart sang – then the terror of what father would say engulfed him. He grabbed the brooch and ran back through the shadows, shaping them now with purpose to surround him, and the guards did not know where he passed them.

Mother squee-ed with delight when he entered the dining room. She rose so fast, her knife clattered to the floor, and the succulent chicken that was her breakfast splattered off the plate. “Grih-ling, my darling, you are back!”

Father lifted an eyebrow at him, probably in surprise that he was still alive. A’Grih stopped just inside the door, straightened and held out the brooch, and announced, “I have found a gift for the Lady E’kira.” And then he added, nervously, “and I think I have a magic Gift too.”

The second brow lifted. “Almost impressing me, runt. What sort?”

Mother took the brooch and studied him with hungry eyes.

A’Grih felt himself sweat and redden. “Illusion,” he mumbled.

Father laughed. “Well, I guess that’s worthy of a piece of elf hide. Leave the bauble here, and go practice your dainty tricks. Maybe the Lady will like it.”

A’Grih forced himself to just slightly nod, and back out of the room. He closed the door behind him, and let the shadows and tricks partly cover the sound of father’s well, I guess that was all we could hope for. And mother’s let him entertain Lady E’kira – it may appeal to her feminine side.

The Lady’s house was a little fortress; towers in stone guarding a mansion over three floors, and manned walls surrounding the property. Farmlands belonging to her stretched for miles around, and A’Grih was sore by the time they arrived. Mother insisted on riding, and of course father couldn’t walk beside her like a servant or common soldier, so they all rode – despite the goat legs of the males in the family not being particularly suited to it. The riding beasts were distant cousins, sentenced to the lowest caste for the crime of having four legs, rather than the more civilized form of two hands and two legs that most of the Solar people were blessed with. A’Grih had always tried to be kind to his beast; treating it to snacks and a gentler hand than what mother used on them.

His thoughts turned to that Source he had found in the Ashen hills. He promised himself that if he found it again, he would treat it at least as kindly as he treated the riding beast. He had been dreaming about the young dwarf every night, the softness, the scared and gentle eyes, like a newborn calf. But there was no way his parents would approve of it, so he sighed quietly and resigned himself to the fact that he might be Gifted – but he would never be able to use it to full power. He absentmindedly scratched the furry neck of the riding beast, and it grunted pleasantly.

He noticed mother looking at him, and he grabbed the reins again. She was tight faced and stern.

The guards bowed to father as they let the family in. He was wearing the open tailcoat, but had pinned all his medals to it, and beside him hung the ancestral sabre, heavily decorated with furs and feathers and a lock of hair from an elf. The story was that father had defeated one of the most ancient elves in single combat, and ripped the hair from its head, at the same time as the sabre sliced its throat.

Father brought them at once to the Lady E’kira in her great hall. She was standing on a staircase leading up to other parts of the mansion, a few steps up from the guests, so that she might keep an eye on the proceedings. Behind her were two guards with the hind legs of a wolf, chest plates gleaming on their wide torsos and muscles that rippled as they grasped their spears. Father stopped a step beneath her, mother stood beside A’Grih a step below that, with a hand firmly on the boy’s shoulder.

Father bowed and offered the Lady his sabre. “I hope my service is still to your liking, oh my commander.”

She touched the hilt with a long, slender finger. A short gesture of acceptance, and father put it back in its sheath. “Certainly,” the Lady said. “You have always done well. But I am getting on in years, and the most courageous I can do is be a planner of new battles and bring forth new generations of warriors.” She smirked and glanced behind herself at one of the guards, “thanks to these two, I am sure my offspring will be of superior quality.”

Father stepped to the side, and said, “fighters fight, but for the truly superior seed, you need a Gifted to fertilize it.”

Mother pushed A’Grih up a step, and he almost stumbled. Shaking, he lifted the brooch and let his Gift surround it, making it pulsate in colour, the red swirling, the gold sparkling, the whole brooch disappearing into blackness for a moment, and then returning to normal in his hand.

Lady E’kira graced him with a smirking smile and pinned the brooch to her cloak. “I find him acceptable. Enjoy yourselves.”

The stone room, covered with tapestries and wallhangings, was crowded with the up and coming, the veterans and the hangers on. Servants milled between them, clad in the Lady E’kira’s colours; black and orange, carrying trays filled with every delicacy under the Sun. The crowd whispered, rumoured, enticed and goaded, each voice competing with another. A’Grih looked around nervously. E’kira herself still stood halfway up the staircase to the second floor, quietly observing the proceedings. Her eyes touched A’Grih’s for only a moment before passing cooly onwards.

In the crowd was also a massive beast-form with a woman’s head and lion’s paws. A’Grih suspected it was someone’s pet or guard animal. It walked freely among the demons though, and somehow it made him sweat with fear.

The party had socialised for maybe an hour, when the Lady E’kira spoke up, clearly and neutrally. “My friends, my subjects, my colleagues and my mates, I have a very special guest here tonight.”

The crowd fell silent, but A’Grih could see them casting glances at each other – or up the stairs in case the guest was there.

She continued, “this guest is a Favoured of the Blessed Queen.”

Shocked gasps; a Favoured one? There were not many – they were Her servants, Her generals, Her handful of specially appointed. A’Grih felt slightly faint. Noone stepped forward – only the lioness-beast padded to the staircase and sat down on its haunches, with the tail curled around the paws.

Lady E’kira bowed to it.

To be continued…

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