A Telling Blankness

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Philomena rode beside Tancred, who had Lord Cassius on his other side. The forest spread out around them. There was no whisper of power. Beautiful though this place may be, it was not a Darkwood.

In the scramble to take, secure and depart Breg, Philomena had scarcely had time to think about the Darkwood at Traumwald, and their sacred task, but the awareness had always been there. In the still place, and the dream of wind through leaves.

Cervin rode beside and slightly behind her. Drifting near the still place, she realised that she couldn't see his mind. The surprise pulled her back to to awareness, and she looked over at him.

"Is everything all right, my lady?" he asked.

Was he gifted? "It is nice to have you with us again," she said. 

Cervin dipped his head. "That's kind of you to say, my lady."

There were too many people around them. "Did you leave Lord Valentin well?"

"He is well," said Cervin, "though tired. He's gone to the country with Lady Ignatia."

Philomena nodded, feeling a stab of remorse that Lord Valentin had exhausted himself helping her.  "You said you grew up near a sacred forest?"

"I did," said Cervin. "Up near the spinal mountains."

"What is it like up there?" She poked at the blankness around Cervin like a bruise.

"Very like Deusetats, my lady. Green and peaceful, although there was some trouble with bandits in the mountains coming down to raid the villages."

Surely if Cervin were gifted she would have noticed it? They had travelled all the way from Querca to Monsilys together. She hesitated too long before responding unvonvincingly, "Oh, that sounds nice."

They broke for lunch and Philomena scarcely waited to dismount before she was drawing Cervin aside. When they were out of earshot of the soldiers, she burst out, "Cervin, why can't I see you?"

"What do you mean, my lady? I'm right here." But there was an elusiveness about his answer.

"In the still place. Are you gifted?"

"Ah." His nondescript features settled into a knowing expression. "A little, my lady. My folk call it the quiet gift. Nothing like what I suspect you and yours can do."

"Why didn't I notice before? How could I have missed that?"

Cervin smiled and rolled up his sleeve to reveal the darkwood bracelet. Of course. Now that she saw it, she remembered he had been wearing it during their flight from Breg. Cervin slipped the bracelet off his wrist and set it on the ground. His mind winked alight in her consciousness. "Lord Valentin suspected that you might have been communing with the spirits. He asked me not to wear the bracelet so that you wouldn't realise that the gift could be blocked."

"What?" Philomena blinked. Then she understood. "That ignorance gave the Empress the advantage in the negotiations," she said. If they had known about the power of darkwood, they wouldn't have counted on being able to influence the Empress that way.

"Only if you planned to use the gift against her," said Cervin. "Did you, my lady?"

Philomena cleared her throat. "You said your folk called it the quiet gift," she said.

"When you live near a Darkwood, a little of its magic can seep into you," he said. "When I wear this--" He ducked down and picked up the cuff, "--I can access some of the power that you command. Not enough to call it the gift, but a whisper of divinity. Enough to make you forget your suspicions about me in Breg Castle, and for me to discover the location of the smuggler's way."

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