Iliana stood in the doorway of her home. It was dusk, she was nearly twelve, and the night was too good to waste. Right now, she was human. She was tall for her age and her hair was long and silvery. She wondered what it would look like when she changed. She wouldn't have to wait too much longer, she new. Not too much longer�
"Iliana," her mother called from the very back of the palace, magically enhancing her voice.
"Yes, mother." The girl was vexed, she wanted to go, now�she wanted to be free to run, the thing she most loved doing.
"Please don't stay out too long, you know what they say about these woods at night. The fairy people roam them. I don't want you involved with that nasty lot. They're evil and have no consideration for anyone but their own kind.
The girl sighed. You would think, being a mage, her mother would have changed her views. But no, she hadn't. She only used small magics, cooking magics, heeling magics. Anything else that required elementals, or creatures that were fay in nature, her mother refused to even think about using. If her mother knew anything about her little excursion tonight, she would absolutely go nuts. Even worse, if she found out about the gift that one of the elves had given her, straight out of the hands of one of their goddesses, she would die with shocked horror.
"Yes, mother, I'll be sure to be in early, then." Yeah right, and the sentaur flies!
She walked out the door and as soon as she was out of sight of the windows, she changed! She sighed as she allowed the transformation to take hold and work it's will. She knew what she would become, and reveled in the agility of it. She ran, then � ran!
The guard saw the animal, it was slowing down, it had obviously been running. It began to purr as it approached the guard station, The guard lowered his crossbow quickly, for he had raised it at the sight of the animal. Everyone in the palace had told him never to shoot the bobcat if it purred on its way out. The lady of the palace would behead any of them faster than you could think to flea her wrath. The guard wondered at the bobcat as it passed. Had it been given the gift of three changing? The gift that made one able to be half-human, human and any animal they chose? It certainly had the feel of magic around it. If this was the case, the human had gotten used to the bobcat form rather well, If you didn't know what to look for, you wouldn't even think that the bobcat was indeed a human, you would have sworn that it was just an animal of the forest. Did the lady herself know of this gift? He remembered someone coming to him in the night saying that the bobcat was to be left to its own devices, but he couldn't remember who it was. He highly doubted the lady knew, but the being had said that the lady would find out that it was her daughter and avenge her. Every guard in the palace heeded this warning, some with grudging ascents. The guard sighed as he watched the seemingly innocent bobcat pick up speed again outside the gates. Good luck, Iliana, if that is truly your name, be safe.
She changed again when she got to the little clearing. Now she had the legs and feet of the bobcat with her own body, human perched on them and the ears and wiskers, and triangular shape of the bobcat's face, but in those eyes was a very human intelligence. The triangle had been flattened a little, so that her nose was a bit broader than an actual cat's and the mouth was a bit wider, but other than that, not much had changed about her face. Her hair flowed down to her waist, where in human form, it flowed to her feet. She sighed, she wished her mother wouldn't say such things about her friends. The two fawns had been her best friends for the past three years. They had done things for her that they said they wouldn't do for nearly anyone else. She jenuinely enjoyed their company, and she couldn't see how they could be evil when they had done so much good for her. It just wasn't fair. She truly loved her mother, but this was one time where her mother vexed her greatly. She did not want to give her friendship with her fawns to the winds, she wanted to be part of those winds, as a runner. That was her greatest desire. To be a runner.
She heard laughter over by the water, and made her way to it. She saw her two friends, then, though they had not yet seen her. The female, one of the few there were, she had come to call fawna. She was always picking up plants, caring for them, holding them in her hands to examine them. It was also partly because she was the first one she had seen, and being in an unimaginative mood, combined her love of plants with what she was and came up with Fawna. The mail had come three days later, and brought an interesting speech pattern. She ended up calling him Pendle, he liked it, he said, and now would go by nothing else. His interesting way of speaking always made her smile.
The two fawns saw her then, and Pendle walked over Fawna following behind, holding a lillypad upon which sat a frog, croking as if he were sitting still. Fawna came up beside her, while Pendle came around in front of her. Iliana was astonished at the growth of the horns. Was it that time already? Summer�summer was coming, the half grown horns told her that. Spring was nearly gon, and summer almost here. Iliana sighed, soon it would be time to formally announce her life's dream to the household. Soon�nearly too soon. They were about her age, they had said, or close enough to it anyway. She knew, that they were actually much much older, but she did not say this. They knew she knew, and that was all that was needed. They were also shorter than her by a head. When their horns were full grown they were as tall as she was.
"End how are you this fine night little Iliena?"
She smiled, she knew that he was the only one, or one of the only ones allowed to do that. He had never been able to learn to say" an" right. He spoke well otherwise, but the letter A would sometimes cause him grief, most often when a consonant like M or N was present, but more often than not, in other places as well.
My mother is being her usual self, Pendle, my friend. Speaking of how you are evil, and how you have no consideration for others that aren't your kind. How she doesn't want me involved with you all."
Fawna sighed, the lillypad had disappeared from her small hands, presumably back to its watery resting place. "Your mother will find out sooner than later that her views are mistaken. There will come a time where she will have no choice but to use the very thing she now refuses to acknowledge. Her true powers are not being used, and the more that goes on, the more dangerous it is for her. Your mother may be the next in line for the throne, but that does not mean she is invinsible. It does not mean she is as incorruptible as she thinks she is."
Iliana knew her mother was heir to the throne, but her mother thinking her self invinsible and incorruptible, those frightened the twelve year old. That sounded like pride, something that could prove fatal in a mage. Something that Iliana knew all too well.
"So other then your mother vexing you with her misteken views on the faery kin, anything else of interest?."
"I thought I felt a guard wish me luck and tell me to be safe, but�"
"You did. He knows, he figured it out. He does not know where the gift came from, but he now knows, or suspects, at any rate that you have it." Fawna sighed, "I'm glad he does, he will now know what to look for as you pass. Do not cease purring, however. He is only one guard among many. He may not even be on watch when you return."
Iliana sighed, "I would never think of ceasing my purr, it has saved my skin more than once."
"Good," Pendle sighed with relief," If there is nothing more of interest, Shell we change the subject a bit?"
"There is nothing of interest. The palace intrigues still go on, the baroness is still as silent as ever, and the little boy who you've placed under my charge seems to be coming around nicely."
The intrigues of the palace were the usual things that went on in any court setting, the jockeying for the Queen's favors, the scandles that go on when people find that their lovers are untrue, and the dissolving and creating of alliances that could dissolve or remain intact with the passing of days or weeks. Iliana didn't exactly care for court politics, but sometimes she would summarize the highlights of a court session for her friends.
The baroness was a young woman, not much older than adult hood, who had lost three children. Some said she had gon mad. After the lost of her third child she of a night ceased speaking. She also ceased singing, which was a shame for her voice was like clearest crystal bells. No one, not even Iliana, knew why she had ceased to speak. Fawna and Pendle knew something she didn't, they knew many things that she did not. She no longer asked them about what they knew that she didn't. She was old enough and wise enough to know that if they wanted her to know something, they would tell her when they were ready and not before.
The little boy, who's name was Kyle, was a child that pendle had found half starved. A foreign child by the look of him, not much younger than Iliana. He too had not spoken a word in all the time he had been with Iliana, but he was eating more and had lost the starved look he had when Iliana was first charged with his care. He was a handsome child. His rugged good looks and lean frame made him the envy of most boys around here. His dark brown shoulderlength haer made him edn more the envy. There wasn't any other lad who had that sort of hair. All of the boys here were either redheads or blonds. Or somewhere inbetween there. No dark brown, though.
"That is good news indeed on Kyle." Pendle sighed., "I was hoping for him to speak, but I suppose we will heve to wait."
I am not sure he knows our language. He draws amazing pictures, and you are right, Pendle, he is not from around here. The lands he draws are full of meadows, rolling hils, and there is an ocean that is so big, that it cannot fit within the scope of the frame. The trees he draws that are to be there are breathtaking in their colors."
Pendle nodded, "I know the land from whense he comes, how he meneged to survive this long has me puzzled."
"I asked him to draw his experiences, he lit up when he knew I wasn't going to stop him from doing what he did best. I asked him by drawing him with pencils in his hands and sketch pads. He drew sylphs and umdenes. He also dru himself picking leaves on the trees he knew from his land that we had over here and eating them. He drew himself asking the driads to help him find edible roots and things that he could eat. I don't remember him drawing himself eating meat other than fish. Even then the fish he ate were few and far."
"A picture maker. They are rare in this land, but plenty in the land where he is from," Fawna said thoughtfully, "I do believe we may be able to find someone who will recognize our little lost one."
"With thet, then, we shell change the subject to something else. Heve you thought about whet you went to spend the rest of your life in pursuit of?"
"Yes, I have"
"Then tell us, or at least enlighten mee, would you"
"I want to be a runner."
Pendle had been slipping out of the clearing, he raised his reed flute to his lips as Iliana said her desire. It didn't surprise him, but it did his companion.
"She laughed, "Iliana the runner! Iliana, fastest runner in all of the five lands! You do realize you will be the first runner mage?"
"Iliana nodded, "I figured as much."
Fawna suddenly turned serious, "A runner, is this what you truly desire?"
"Yes, it is. I love running. I want to be one with the winds."
Pendle played on, his music weving itself into the very air. He knew that this was what Iliana had wanted, knew it from the time she was nine. Running had been her passion, her love. She had gone herself to the master of exercise and asked for a program to help develop her running form. He had abliged the child, somewhat half heartedly until he found out that she was indeed doing the exercises he had set her. Then he began discretely to sent her more and more advanced exercises. At ten, she was fully as developed a runner as children who had started at six, the youngest one could start training as runners. He then petitioned the gift that belonged to all runners, and was granted that petition. An elf had come to Iliana and had given her the runner's gift. The ability to change into three forms, human, half human with the bottom half the animal she chose, and the full form of the animal she chose. She had chosen the bobcat, the same form her runner master had been. Good choice as now it marked her as being under his formidable protection. Pendle knew that this particular master kept track of his runners. If he found that any of them had been hurt unduely, he would be finding out who had done it and why. He was one of the only humans who knew of Iliana's magic. Her mothere knew that Iliana was a mage, but she had yet to figure out that she was a runner. Pendle was glad that this master of bodys was trustworthy,, extremely glad. He played on as the two friends continued their conversation. He was out of sight by now, but not out of hearing.
"Have you any idea what they do? Have you any idea the games they play? Some things are dangerous enough to warrant mage gifts. Somethings are dangerous enough to need gifts such as the ability to change. But the life of a runner is the only path where fay folk are mandatory, where friendships like the one you have with us is not only encouraged, but cultivated.
"That's because runners don't have mage gifts. I do. I can do other things that runners can't. It is another reason my mother angers me. I have known I wanted to be a runner ever since I was nine, and asked for training in that craft. Ever since then, I have been trying to make friends with as many of you as possible. I know the prudence in having these friendships, but if my mother knew of them, she would forbid me to leave the palace. Or at least forbid me to leave while night was about."
Fawna sighed, that could pose some difficulties, yes. The sylfs, umdenes, and salamanders say they like you as well, Zephers and gnomes, brownies, nymphs, merfolk, all speak of the way you speak to them as equals, and not as a master to a slave, or master to servant. We shall see what we can do to keep your mother from impeding your progress in your desired path. I can see now why you wish to be a runner, there are too few like you in the lands,and the more upright and honest folk we have in the runners' ranks the better off we all are. And if the fastest runner is a powerful mage in her own right, perhaps that will make way for a greater increase in mages,which will bring the lands back into balance."
Iliana nodded, my thoughts are yours as well."
The male fawn played, Iliana and Fawna alone knew the piper, they alone picked up reed flutes and joined in his piping. Iliana taking over the melody from the male while the female took up the descant. The male now did the bottom harmonies.
Back in the palace the little boy listened to the harmonies of the reed flutes. He smiled. He knew one of the players was his sister, the other two he did not recognize, but he drew them. He looked at his drawing in astonishment. Fawns! He had heard of the creatures, but never seen one up close. This was also the first time he had let his instincts move his fingers across the page instead of them being under his direct control. He wondered at this, was he truly a picture mage as everyone thought he was? He tried it again. Give me the relationship between the fawns and my sister, he thought.
He drew, he stopped, he drew. He let instinct guide him, everytime a thought tried to intrude, he stopped to blank his mind again. When he was finally done and had opened his eyes, he was the second to know the names of all three players. Names he would keep from everyone save his sister. Names he knew he could call on as well. Fawna Iliana and Pendle. Friends for three years despite the efforts of his sister's mother to destroy the friendship.
Kyle sighed, he wondered if he should show this to Iliana, his sister. He couldn't think of her as a mother, she was too young for that. She had taken care of him, acted like a stern but loving elder sister, so that was what he began to think of her as. As his thoughts toward her deepened, his heart began to respond in the same way. He truly loved her now, as a brother would love a sister. He would seriously pound anyone into the ground who dared touch her in any way that was harming. He smiled. He may be a picture mage, but he was also a superb fighter. Swords didn't exactly please him, but he could use one. He preferred his body to any steel. Granted, both could be broken, but the body was much harder to break, than steel. He had his own choice of weapons on his person. Two throwing nives, a short dagger, a long sword and a dirk, all of which managed to make it to this strange land with him. He sighed again. He had placed both drawings on the table where they could dry. They were dry now, so he stacked them with his others. Frames would be in order shortly, for he didn't like loose canvases lying about.
The music stopped. He knew that this would be about the time his sister would return, early enough to please her mother, but plenty late enough to see her friends. He wondered if the fawns were the only fay friends she had.
"No little one, they are not," the voice came from behind him.
He spun tensing for attack, then relaxing as he saw who had addressed him. An elf, probably the very one who had gifted his sister. He sighed with relief, not knowing what else to do. He did not know this land's language, and he wasn't sure the elf knew his�wait, hadn't he just addressed him? It was worth a try, "Are they not?"
"No,friends has she in sylfs, zephers, brownies, gnomes, nymphs, umdenes, merfolk and salamanders. And, of course, us as well."
The boy nodded, "Obvious, this is, for in front of me you stand."
The elfe nodded, "Ryliegh Nightshadow they call me, and for you gifts I have."
"For me you bring gifts! If I may ask, why?"
"Love, you do, the one we call Iliana. Sister is she to you. For this, we give you the same gift she has. Also the ability to communicate with her we give to you."
Kyle's mouth nearly hit the floor. The ability to speak with his sister. What a joy that would be. He would actuly be able to make words instead of pictures. Words that she would be able to understand.
As for this other gift, he wasn't sure what to make of it. To be able to change. He had always loved flying. The firebird fascinated him, even though he had yet to see one in this land. Yet he wanted to be able to run with his sister, run beside her�
"Then the firebird it shall be. In half human form you will have clawlike hands as well as feet and you will still be able to fly. Unlike the cat, when you are in half human, your face will not change, but will remain burdlike in appearance with the beak as your nos and mouth. You will have the tail of the firebird in this form as well." The elf showed him, the tongue was flexible enough to allow for human speech.
Kyle nodded, he liked it. It reminded him of another creature he had read about somewhere, but he couldn't quite remember what it was.
"As for running with your sister, we have noted this. For this we give you two forms. The five change gift. The default will be the bobcat form, but you will also have the gift of your own form of the firebird. Only the runner master, your sister, and we will know of the firebird change you make."
Kyle nearly fainted. Five change! He ran it through his head Human, firebird form one and two, bobcat one and two. The runner bobcat the default and the firebird hidden beneath it. A sort of secret weapon if you will. He prefered his body to be a weapon�but a weapon of this much power? It frightened him a little, but after some thought he nodded.
"come with me, then and we will finish this elsewhere."
Six years later, Iliana was running. She ran like the winds nearly disappearing into their folds. She sighed, this wasn't her first mission, however, it was her most arduous and rigorous by far. She had learned a few tricks from other runners. All of which, thank the gods, were still alive.
"Iliana the runner." Fawna's laughing child's voice came back to her, "The fastest runner in the five lands!" Iliana sighed at the memory, those were happy times. Happy indeed. Her friends of nine years standing were still her friends. Still with her despite everything her mother had done to prevent it. Short of killing them off, her mother had forbidden her to leave the palace at night, forced her to wear charms that repelled the folk by their very existence and even had her sleep with rowan twigs in her windows. When she left to join the other runners, she was overjoyed. She could now speak freely with her friends and allies.
She ran, dodging behind trees as arrows flew from bos, she had thought Fawna was only half gesting about the game being played with the lives of runners, but the fawn had not gested at all. The game was in motion all right, and even more dangerous than many had pause to ponder. She was safer in some respects, and more vulnerable in others. The guard who had figured her out had been assigned to her at her request. She would have no other than Devin to guard her person. Only then did she figure out that he, too was a mage. Not a very powerful one, but a mage none the less.
She picked up speed, then, seeing her goal, the palace of the King of this particular land. She would regret this, she knew, but running across two lands in as many days tended to make one anxious and ready to rest. She slid in just befor an arrow sliced the space where she had just been.
"You made it, good." She opened her magic and let the three tubes fall into the guards hands.
He smiled evilly as he began to twist the tubes. He was nearly done when the cursed runner figured him out and snatched them away from him. She moved tward the gate and the guard herd the bow being drawn. Good, she was not safe yet, she would die this night.
Iliana heard the drawing of the bowstring and crouched, leaping the wall she felt a wind catch her and fling her past the more dangerous part of the wall. Her brother, what a gem he was. She landed on her feet, and looked back at the gate to find the guard's lifeless body in front of his post. The archer expecting her to be there had fired, killing the guard. She sighed. She was safe now, no one could tuch her here, those were the rules, and anyone who knew her runner master was loathed to break those rules. Even her brother was under her master's protection, he being a rather decent runner in his own right. He preferred to make pictures however, and that was his passion.
She then realized that the wind felt nothing like that of her brother's style. The wind was too soft, almost supporting her as it had flung her pas the ramparts. She laughed then. The Velvety winds again. The winds that most runners never had chance to see, let alone touch. She was the first to know of the winds, she was to first to figure that they were mage driven. She kept this secret, but she would now pass the word to the runners that the winds were to be trusted. Or at least the ones that felt like a warm comforting cloak about one's shoulders.
She made her way to the palace where king Theodore sat his throne. He was a good king, just and kind. He never took unfairly and pondered all sides before making a judgment or granting a request. As a result, his kingdom prospered.
She made it inside the palace and was amazed, not for the first time, at the elegance found there. She waved a passing servant and asked him to take her to the throne room.
"Lady, the king is busy�"
"I am his runner, sir, take me to the throne room please, I am tired from my run here, and may become angry more easily than usual."
"Your papers, ma'am?"
Iliana pulled her runners certificate of passing and showed it to the servant. She was used to this formality by now, so no longer grew angry when people demanded to see her papers.
The servant's eyes grew wide. Wasn't gunna believe me, eh? Serves him right. She hid a smile.
"Right this way mistress runner, forgive my skepticism."
"Forgiven, it is always wise to err on the side of caution in most circumstances."
He led her down several twisty turny hallways until they reached the throne room. She had forgotten that this palace was built as much for defense as for pleasure.
"Your Majesty," the servant said as he entered, "Your runner has arrived safely and wishes to speak with you."
The courtiers burst into applause and Iliana flushed. They knew of the game, too, them and what rejoicing it was to find a runner who survived mission after mission. She knew that many runners sent their animals on with their messages if their human spirits had fled the world for good. After the message was delivered the animal simply dissolved into so much mist. She had seen more of those than she wished to recall. One of them had been her good friend from the runner's compound, Malena. She cried, then, one of the few times she allowed herself to do so. Malena had been one of the better runners, and losing her was a blow, not just to Iliana, but to the entire runners' community. Iliana still had Malena's gift to her, an ocherina. An instrument made from a shell, and played like a flute. She had mastered the playing of it only after Malena's death, and now played it every night before sleeping. Hoping that somehow Malena would hear her. It saddened Iliana to know that she never really got to say a proper good bye to the runner before she was taken from them.
She walked, now in human form, down the isle to the throne, and dropped the now reformed tubes directly into the king's waiting hands.
He opened them to find that two of the tubes contained personal letters that needed no replies and the other tube�
"I am afraid you must stay here, my good and valued runner. If I send you back with this package, you will be noticed. It does not say so directly, however, I know this particular lord, and it would give him great satisfaction to see you six feet under, so to speak."
"I would have insisted on staying here, My good king, as I am utterly and completely spent. You forget that I have run the breadth of two lands in as many days, not something many others can boast. As a circumstance, I am exhausted and in need of a good long, hot bath. Oh, and my usual attendance. My muscles are already protesting."
"Take the bath, my trusted runner, and enjoy it. I will send a fresh runner out with the reply."
"When you do, tell them to trust the velvety night winds, they will guide any runner straight and true." She knew this for a fact, she also knew that the velvety winds were not her brother, but some other force or being. She had resisted them at first, but found that when she did she got hurt more often than not. Once she began following their guidance, she began to run more and more swiftly, and she would ever be a little more lucky, or they would help her avoid hard to see traps and snares. She sighed. She hoped they wouldn't mind her passing along the word, she also hoped the winds hadn't come too late.
She was whisked away by no less than four attendants to the bathing room favored by the runners and placed into an already prepaire bath, still steaming. She relaxed into the water forcing her muscles to relax. The massage began then, and did not stop until she was drowsing. Then the examination began, where the attendants examind every inch of her forms for injury.
"You are lucky, young Iliana, my dear. You made it here without a scratch. Your friend Kencade came in here half dead, or so it seemed. He did manage to pull through, but we weren't sure he would be able to run again."
"Poor Kencade," Iliana sighed with sympathy, "To not run would be for him, not to live. Is he able to run yet?"
"Yes, he is. He is not yet actively running the lands, but he is running the palace, and slowly extending his range that way."
"Good, at least he is still at the job he enjoys."
"I do believe it is time for you to sleep, Iliana, mistress runner."
"I would like to use the sedan, if you don't mind carrying me."
"Not at all, Mistress, not at all."
Iliana didn't even have to move, she was lifted into the chair, and was asleep before they carried her from the bathing room to her guest quarters. She didn't even wake when they dressed her in nightclothes.
]"Sister! Sister, come on, wake up!" Her brother's anxious voice pulled her from one of the sounder sleeps she had had in a very long time. She stirred, causing her brother to let out a relieved sigh, and then hug her.
"What is it my dear brother, why the anxiety?"
"The runner's sleep took you, I thought for sure you would�well�I was afraid you would be lost in it."
She cursed. The Runner's Sleep was a sleep that runners fell into if they over worked themselves, or if they hat caught something on the road and couldn't take proper care of themselves. Their body's shut down almost to the point of death until they were either rested or heald or both. The Runner's Sleep was especially dangerous for her, for it meant that even her magics were shut down. This meant that she would have to go to a secure work room and relieve the magical pressure within her before something disastrous took place.
"How long, dear Kyle, brother of my spirit, how long?"
"Two seven day cycles�"
"Work room, now."
"But Iliana sister,"
"Now, before I do something I regret." Her voice was low, menacing and brooked no argument.