Chapter 14: Depths
… and he still talks about how you will “magic him’ all over the world when you get back from the campaign, my dawn. He has, I fear, planned a world tour that is like to take years and drain you to a dry, mana-less husk.
The priestess smiled at the page as her quill scritched across the parchment, the words it left in its wake a bittersweet communion with her absent love.
As the months of the military campaign wore on, both brothers were less and less able to return to the manor, had minimal and dwindling time for anything that wasn’t critical to their mission. Leo’s last letter had been a week ago, and she promised herself that it was only because he found no time. He and Relare were sorely missed in the household, especially with a bitter and unhappy Emeria holding the reins, and the manor was left feeling somewhat tense and hostile.
Their favorite people, their beloved princes, were a marked absence that they all felt keenly. Perhaps none moreso than the little healer.
Rhoelyn sighed and set her quill down, reaching fingertips to her forehead to massage away the longing that her maudlin musings dragged with them. Curled across her silk-draped lap, ala’delar lifted his head and mewled at her, a question in the sound. His lady smiled sadly and lowered her hand to his back, gently brushing her fingers along the young saber’s scrawled markings, tiny firefly sparks trailing in the wake of her touch.
“I know, my wild little ember. I am trying… but I dreamed of him, last night. It was sweet and tender and…” The night elf sighed and looked out the window on the other side of the room, lifting her other fingers to the collar around her neck. The sensitive pads played along the edge of the soft silk, the latest gift from her love. “This place is not home without him here.”
A knock at the ensuite door interrupted her sulk, and she made her way out of her study and down the short hall to pull it open. Faeroh stood in the doorway, leaving her to blink at the taller night elf, her surprise on her face.
“Dori’delar? Ah… this is your suite as well. Why are you knocking?”
He frowned at her, reaching out to wrap his thumb and forefinger around her wrist. “Urgency. Now, come along.”
The priestess blinked again, her brow furrowing as she allowed him to draw her with him, his wide strides forcing her to jog to keep up while he hurried down the hallway that lead to the rest of the manor.
“What has happened? Is Alen-?”
“Our littlest elf is fine, but Faye says something is happening in the household that needs our attention,” he rumbled, leading them unerringly through the maze of hallways. “If she says it, then it’s definitely true.”
Rhoelyn nodded, reclaiming her arm from his grip so that she could move more efficiently. “But of course, Faeroh. I am with you.”
The pair darted through the manse, their steps as silent as if they walked the familiar shadows of the night-dark forest, and soon they were rounding the corners of the main hall, the wide, vaulted formal entry to the house yawning before them. It was filled with the family’s kal’dorei, a few dozen slaves standing in quiet lines while Emeria paced before them, big, stern Baritold and a half dozen guards arrayed against the wall at her back.
Rhoelyn glanced around and found Faye, her gilded eyes locking with the former sentinel’s. They could exchange nothing more than slight, worried nods before Emeria continued her address.
“There will, of course, be a minimal staff left here to care for the property in our absence, but the rest of us will travel to the main camp as soon as preparations can be completed.” The priestess blinked and glanced up at Faeroh, whose brows went up in matching surprise.
“I have detailed each of your roles and responsibilities in the camp,” the haughty lady said, turning to accept a few pages from Baritold. “My attendant will read the assignments shortly, but first let me say a few words of motivation.”
Rhoelyn’s brow creased, and she clasped her hands together by her belt as the lovely sin’dorei woman at the front of the room turned typically ugly and stern.
“If you think you will go to the wilds of Shadowmoon and sneak away from your keepers, put your feeble minds at ease. You will have an army of guards, every one of which will be clearly instructed to slay any who dare to try to leave. Better that than abandon you to the cruelty of the war outside this House’s generous protection.”
Faeroh’s snort was only loud enough for Rhoelyn to hear, but she ignored him, watching Emeria’s cold face as the golden lady paced. “And though we leave the manor, I have no intention of changing the strict regimens that I observe in order to help you rise above your unworthy heritage. I do not tolerate slothful behavior, here or elsewhere.
“We will go to Swelltide to serve the soldiers of our army, to unburden them from the day-to-day tasks so that they may more swiftly see to the defeat of the heathen rebels. We will go to ensure our favored sons are successful in all that they do for our sakes.” Their mistress paused, her icy emerald gaze scouring over every last one of the gathered assortment of quietly seething kal’dorei.
The little healer at the back of the room knew the moment that gaze hit her, for the lady’s eyes narrowed, and her lip twitched with a barely-aborted sneer. Emeria leaned back to Baritold to say something, and the majordomo’s eyes landed on her as well. Rhoelyn kept her face impassive when the sin’dorei bowed and stepped away, even though she quaked inside to realize he was walking around the gathering toward them.
“Faeroh,” she whispered urgently, setting a hand on his arm and looking up at the much taller druid, “please go take a position with our brothers and sisters. I believe I’ll be asked to leave, but he is always bad at noticing you.”
The druid grinned down at her. “By design, ridiculous little girl. That’s by design.”
Rhoelyn sighed softly and gave him a little smirk. “I should like it very much if you were to teach me that trick, dori’delar. What wouldn’t I give to… ah… earn less notice, around here.”
The words were said lightly enough, but the way her hands clasped and unclasped nervously across her stomach as she watched the blood elf approach told more about the true anxiety she felt. Faeroh rested a big, warm, comforting hand on her shoulder, saying softly in Darnassian, “My ways won’t work for you, I’m afraid. You sink your roots deep and stand straight and tall, shining.”
Her cheeks darkened self-consciously before she glanced up at him, and the ancient druid smiled to watch her lift a hand and rub at the warming skin. “Goodness,” the little healer muttered, “the things you say.”
Faeroh chuckled and winked before he stepped in amongst the lines of slaves and faced front like a good little minion.
Baritold didn’t so much as glance his way when the black-haired majordomo tromped to Rhoelyn’s recently-vacated side and sneered down his nose at her. She couldn’t help but shy away slightly as he leaned close, and she saw the cruel satisfaction in his angular face at the small sign of fear of him.
“You,” he growled quietly, grabbing her upper arm in a rough grip to arrest her while he put his lips close to her long ear, “were not invited to this gathering, chattel consort.”
“My apologies, majordomo,” the little priestess tried to whisper back, freezing carefully. “I was merely p-”
“Silence,” the blood elf hissed, giving her a little shake for good measure. When she saw Faeroh’s frown deepen, she shook her head slightly at him. “As you are here already, her ladyship requires that you wait for her in the solar. She will speak with you at her leisure. Come.”
Rhoelyn stumbled after him for the first few steps until Baritold finally released his grip. His rough handling, on display in front of everyone around them, left her feeling sick and demeaned as usual, but also embarrassed. Her collared brothers and sisters watched them together, and she wondered if the seething unrest she felt from them was shame that she so readily capitulated time and again.
Or perhaps that was only her own shame.
Whichever was true, it resulted in the healer lowering her eyes as she followed him away from the crowded entry, her cheeks warming in a self-conscious blush that didn’t fade until long after he’d shoved her into the Lady’s comfortable sitting room and locked the door behind him. The night elf sighed, her fingers lifting to play along the edge of the silk collar at her neck and run down the chain that dangled from its golden loop.
There was nothing to do save worry about the form of the Duskfall matron’s ire and wander the beautiful and comfortable sitting room, not daring to touch the draping silks or soothing velvets and certainly not daring to sit on any of the number of comfortable window seats or settees. A mistake made once, months ago, and a lesson learned. Her list of lessons learned was getting longer and longer where Leothir’s mother was concerned.
Anxious, the little priestess watched the door and wondered unhappily if she would soon have to add to that list.
Hours later, Rhoelyn startled when the solar door finally clicked open. She turned immediately away from the large window overlooking the veranda and the garden beyond, lowering her fingers from where they pressed against the cold, clear surface of the glass. Though her feet ached and her stomach growled for her long-missed lunch, her expression stayed cool and polite as she watched the golden-haired sin’dorei lady enter.
Emeria didn’t bother with niceties. She simply stepped into the room and closed the door, leaving her guards outside. At first, neither of them moved, the Lady staring down her haughty nose at the night elf in front of her, no small feat while looking up toward the taller woman.
“You heard what I told the others, nosy mutt?” It wasn’t a question. Not really. But Rhoelyn answered as if it were, obedient.
“I heard, Lady Emeria.”
Her strides short and sharp, the woman approached the little healer and quite simply reached up and slapped her. It was almost more symbolic than rage-driven, and Rhoelyn knew from experience that the blood elf was capable of much greater force. Still, she blinked in surprise and unpleasant shock, taking a step back, her heart hammering in her throat as she pressed a hand to her stinging cheek and stared at the smaller blood elf.
“You will not stick your ugly nose where it doesn’t belong again, chattel.” Emeria said the words with an almost conversational air, one at odds with her violent actions. “Too long have I tolerated all the ways you put yourself above your station. It stops now.”
“I-if I have offended you, I-”
“Be silent,” the blood elf snapped, and in her emerald eyes there was a hint of the rage that was so carefully banked. “EVER are you overstepping because you think you have protection. You believe you are somehow less flawed than all your kin because Leothir finds pleasure in your beauty?”
The heat in her gaze cooled to ice before she continued. “You are wrong. You’re to stay here at the mansion while the rest of us join Swelltide. My son does not want you or your little household of mutts there.”
Rhoelyn blinked at her, luminous blue eyes widening and brow furrowing. But she thought she had learned. She said nothing, simply waiting.
It was wrong, apparently, as Emeria’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve nothing to say to that?”
“I… n-no, Lady Emeria. I am… ah… I, of course, will do as my love wishes.”
The Lady sighed, a world-weary and disappointed sound. And then she whipped up a hand and slapped the slave once more. Harder. Her rage slightly less banked. The smooth insides of her many rings bruising and harsh. The priestess shuddered, willing back the pained tears that sprang to her eyes as she tasted blood.
“Your Lord, mutt.”
Her answer was a nod and a quiet, “Yes, Lady.”
And yet she didn’t repeat or acknowledge the correction. Instead, she simply lowered her eyes in that deferential way that Emeria liked, hoping to buy herself some time to think.
Her head swam, her heart aching more than her cheek from the violence in the room. She couldn’t lie to herself and pretend that she hadn’t felt a thrill at the idea of seeing Leothir, of joining him and no longer having to wait days and weeks and months for word of his health and wellbeing. So Emeria’s words stung if not in the way that the highborn lady intended.
The disappointed hope sunk heavy in Rhoelyn’s chest, but she didn’t doubt that she knew why Leothir might refuse to have Alen and their household join the base camp. Her lover, for all his mother wished it weren’t so, was transparent to his night elven mate, and she knew he would easily hesitate to see her or Alen or even Ryni and Faeroh in danger. Undoubtedly, if he’d ever even considered the possibility, it took very little effort for his mother to sway him into bidding they remain behind. Leothir would rather leave them in safety and miss all of them than bring them to his side to live in danger.
Rhoelyn was sure of it, and this made her immune to Emeria’s attempt to put her in doubt of his regard. But it didn’t make her immune to a pang of longing to see the man she loved.
“You don’t have to fear that you’ll be idle while we’re away, Rhoelyn.” Emeria’s voice was alarming only in its banked satisfaction, and the priestess pulled herself from her revery warily.
“Lady Emeria?” she questioned softly, almost daring to lift her eyes.
The golden sin’dorei stalked in a circle around her, hands folded against her ornate velvet sash. “You will fill Fayrial’s shoes as the headwoman of the household,” she announced, her emerald eyes narrowing on the back of the night elf’s head. “In the absence of the majority of the slaves, you will be expected to maintain the manor and the grounds in nothing less than perfect condition. I shall leave you a few hands to help you with this work. Your mutts, no less, certainly a workforce you’re accustomed to dealing with. Not that you have ever made yourselves useful before this.”
The healer said nothing to the backhanded admonishment, clasping her hands tightly together and trying not to let her brows furrow. She was no stranger to hard work, had no aversion to being busy despite how thoroughly Leothir had pampered her over the past year and a half. Some days – quite a few days – she missed the simple satisfaction of a freshly-turned flower bed around a gleaming moonwell, the soft-edged grey stone washed and wet. Ryni and Faeroh would fare equally well with work to do. And Alen w-
“The boy… he’ll be useless and a distraction to you,” Emeria mused almost to herself as she wandered away, and Rhoelyn’s head whipped up, her egg-shell blue eyes widening as her heart started a staccato hammer in her chest. “Perhaps I will bring him with me. He can fetch and carry, I suppose…”
The night elf gasped and threw herself to her knees, bowing her head as she knelt, a model of deference and a vision of sudden desperation. She didn’t see the lady’s dark, satisfied grin at her alarm.
“N-no! Please… Do not separate us, Lady Emeria. I… I beg you to rethink this.”
Leothir’s mother stopped and turned back to the humbled priestess, folding her arms across her silken bodice. “Even when you are learning your place, you misstep, mutt. Do not think to order me, and do not think that your pathetic pleas sway me. I have no great desire to babysit Leothir’s pet brat, but I will not have him interfering in the proper upkeep of this manor.”
“He will not,” the priestess pledged, leaning forward and raising her gaze. “I swear it, Lady. Alensyr will… P-please, do not take him to the warfront. Do not take my son from me.”
Emeria stepped forward and leaned down to grasp the chain dangling down Rhoelyn’s dress, tugging the night elf toward her with sudden vehemence. The blood elven lady’s face twisted in ugly disdain, and she snapped, “The child slave is no more your son than he is Leothir’s. I’m of half a mind to send him away to break you both of this unhealthy attachment.”
The priestess in her grip paled with fear, her fists clenching against the ornate carpets as she gaped up at the lady. Words flickered through her head, all wrong to show the proper humble attitude, the necessary slavish acceptance. All hard and harsh and protective. A mother’s words and not a slave’s. She pondered the guards outside the solar door and the path through the veranda and the gardens, the time it would take her to grab Alen and run, the ways she might use what little power she had to protect them both… and she knew with shuddering certainty that if she tried here and now, in the moment of panic that flooded through her, Emeria Duskfall would very gladly watch her die.
The best way to protect both Alen and Leothir was simpler. More honest. More demeaning.
Rhoelyn bowed her head and then her whole body as the sin’dorei released her, pressing her forehead to the floor. Her soft voice, thick with tears, carried just enough to ensure that her bondmother heard her when she begged, “Ask anything of me. I will do whatever you wish, Lady Emeria. Only leave Alen out of this thing between us. I know you understand well a mother’s love, and I am begging you to understand mine.”
Silence fell, then. Smug, satisfied silence from the lady of the house and shuddering, terrified silence from the priestess at her feet. Rhoelyn didn’t dare to look up as she felt Leothir’s mother’s stare.
“Finally.” Emeria said at length, her voice oddly gentle. “… begging me is the correct place for you.” Her smooth alto sharpened once more as she continued. “You will remember this moment, Rhoelyn. Etch it upon your heart. For it’s the first and last time you taste my forbearance.”
“Now look at me.” When the lady turned and stepped away, the night elf tentatively lifted her face, her cheeks wet with tears. Emeria walked halfway across the room and settled gracefully into her velvet-upholstered settee. She draped herself across it with calculated ease, but her hard gaze never left the little healer nor lost one bit of its edge of banked hatred.
“I will leave the worthless little boy with you; I don’t want him anywhere near me. But let me also inform you that I will never touch you again,” she said, looking idly at her perfectly manicured nails. “You, mutt, will know no pain from the chains, nor my hand, nor the post or any of my guards after today. No.”
When Emeria focused back on her and leaned forward, the cruelty twisting her face ruined all of her smooth beauty, and Rhoelyn shuddered.
“No, your punishments will go to the boy. Or to your chit with the ridiculous hair. Or to your giant of a manservant. Baritold will stay to oversee the manse’s upkeep, and should you fail in any way… they will hurt for you.”
The blood elf’s smile was an awful thing. “You see, Rhoelyn? I understand your motherly love quite well.”
That smile died suddenly into a sneer. “Now, get out. And if I see you skulking about the manor where you’re not invited again, you will learn the extent of my benevolent new resolve.”
The priestess said nothing. Could say nothing. Dared say nothing. She simply scrambled back to her feet and hurried away, throwing the solar door open with her heart in her throat.
She didn’t run until she was out of sight of Emeria’s guards. And she didn’t stop running until she’d closed the door to Alen’s nursery behind her and thrown herself to her knees at his bedside. Despite the shudders that wracked her trembling frame, she was all but silent as she laid her head down at his side while the little cherub slept, giving herself over to weeping and to praying.
And, eventually, when the terror had receded enough to start to give way to determination… to planning.