Chapter Twelve

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FOG ROLLED OVER the land like a slow moving wave, crashing upon the populace and drowning the sun, tucking darkness firmly into place. It was beneath this chilling cloak of blindness that Isiilde and Marsais returned to the orphanage, seeking warmth and food.

Dinner was always entertaining at the orphanage. There were over a hundred children in Brinehilde's care, and they were a constant whirlwind of activity. Although the older children helped lighten the priestess' load by caring for the younger, Nuthaanians were not overly concerned with their children's safety. As a result, wrestling and rough housing were perfectly acceptable in the orphanage, barring use of sharp weapons. And so Oenghus was spending the evening being attacked by a swarm of screaming children attempting to wrestle him to the ground.

As Oenghus struggled with the pint-sized warriors, Marsais escorted Isiilde through his old manor. The building was rife with secret passages and hidden rooms, most of which had remained undetected since he'd vacated the house.

Forgotten belongings were untouched, tucked neatly inside unmarked storage crates. Isiilde helped Marsais sort through the containers, searching for anything of interest. He was thrilled to rediscover a number of trinkets. But one stood out above all the rest: a dusty, little music box. A forest of minuscule trees had been carved into the box's birch top, and their leaves seemed to sway in an unfelt breeze.

Isiilde opened the box. A joyful melody, reminiscent of chirping birds, leapt into the room. The box was empty of jewels, but it safeguarded another treasure: a folded piece of parchment. Curious, she removed it, carefully smoothing the paper. A keen-eyed woman with sharp ears looked out from the timeworn sketch. The woman was beautiful in her own, unique way—her features were neither soft nor elegant, but fine and proud, with fierce intelligence and beguiling eyes.

Marsais stilled, listening to the melody with closed eyes and a frozen heart.

"It's one of your sketches, Marsais. Who is she?"

Moving like an old man, he rose, walked over to Isiilde, gently removed the parchment from her hand and folded it, tucking it back into the box and shutting the lid without a word. With reverent care, he wrapped the box in an old shirt, and placed the bundle in his rucksack. Isiilde no longer wondered who the woman was.

Later on in the evening, Brinehilde asked Isiilde to calm the children. The nymph's melody drifted through the halls as she sang of blissful realms and slumbering dreams. And one by one, the children stumbled off to find their beds without protest.

A blanket of peace settled over the sleeping children, but Isiilde did not join them. A rare restlessness prevented her from sleeping. Her stomach ached. She felt strange and unsettled, so she left the warmth of her little room to find Marsais.

As she wandered the manor in search of her master, she found Brinehilde in the kitchens, conversing with one of the older girls as they prepared bread for the next morning. Brinehilde did not know where Marsais was, but she told her that Oenghus was outside in the Sylph's shrine. When Isiilde mentioned her ailment, the priestess sent her off with a mug of warm milk.

Isiilde found Oenghus sitting beneath an ancient oak on the bank of a placid pond. The heady scent of tobacco filled the air. Oenghus leant against the tree, sucking lazily on the long stem of his pipe.

Fog clung to the ground, its penetrating chill clutched her bones, knocking her teeth together. She hurried over to her protector, and snuggled beside him for warmth. He draped a heavy arm over her shoulders, tucking her in close.

She watched the fog curl over the still pond for a time, then glanced up at Oenghus. His eyes were shrouded with sadness.

"Are you all right, Oen?" she asked.

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