An Amber Field Trip

Winding up the dusty road, a carriage approaches Raven's Nest at a good clip, the horses though tired, knowing their journey to be near its end. As the vehicle nears the gates, the sounds of many children talking can be heard over the noises of the carriage, laughter and occasionally a squeal either of excitement or of pain. The carriage slows as it pulls up, the sounds of children consequently louder, and the door opens. Latimer leans out, looking for Morrigan.

From the top of the fence, a large raven eyes the carriage and then Latimer with an air of long suffering before she takes flight and swoops through the open door of the barn. Several minutes pass before Morrigan comes out, the raven circling above her, dressed in the simple green trimmed white split riding tunic and leggings she wears when acting as royal Champion. She hesitates a moment as she nears the gate, giving the twin black wolves time to catch up with her, before she opens it and steps near to the coach.

“I admire your patience,” she says after listening briefly to the sounds from within. Beside her the wolves are not entirely sure they like all the energy spilling out of the wagon, but they stay put beside Morrigan. “How many are there?”

Latimer had stepped out of the carriage while Morrigan approached, and stands dressed in his typical clerical garb, smiling warmly at her. “Fair Day,” he greets her, and then gets a slightly rueful expression at her words. “There are, startlingly enough, only six in there. Yet they make enough noise for an entire congregation,” he answers, but his expression is more fond than irritated. “I must say I'm glad the trip here is as short as it is, or I would have to find another Royal Champion nearer the castle to introduce them to.”

The raven looks startled at the number and shakes its head before leaving again, this time retreating to the safety of the house through an open window.

Morrigan kneels down and ruffles the fur of one of the wolves. “Tsk, Reverend.” She smiles a touch, which is mostly what she seems to do. Rarely does she break out in wide sunny smiles. “You would have lied to them to shorten the trip? I am fair certain ‘tis against the rules somewhere.”

“Oh. Well, when you put it that way…” he chuckles.

“So….what exactly is it that I am supposed to be doing today?

Latimer clasps his hands behind his back casually, squinting into the sun behind Morrigan. “This is an opportunity for them to ask questions about the Furies, and about you, but mostly I think they want to see your birds and your wolves.” He glances down at the wolves at Morrigan's feet with a bemused expression. “And then introduce them to weapons, give them something to eat, and pack them all back in for the return trip.”

“Oh, is that all?” she says with amusement. “Good thing we baked yesterday.” She stands. “Well, bring them out. They won't see anything in there.”

Latimer nods, straightening into a more formal posture. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he remarks offhandedly as he opens the door. More noise spills out, and he puts his head inside. “Alright, everyone!” he pitches his voice to be heard above the kids, though he doesn't raise the volume, and silence falls. “We're here, as you know. Now everyone out, in order, and stand with your hand on the carriage.”

The Champion suppresses a chuckle and arranges her features in the usual business-like manner as six young boys climb out with commendable docility. All are dressed in identical green uniforms of royal pages, with identical haircuts and identical round eyes as they take in the wolves and Morrigan beside them.

They appear to range in age from 8 to 10. Each one puts at least one hand on the carriage, but their eyes are all for the wolves. Latimer stands back, watching them with an eagle eye until they are all out and he's able to close the door. For their part, the wolves eye them warily. They were used to one or two children at a time, but not a gaggle of them.

“All right,” he interrupts their wonder crisply. “As you all know, this is the Royal Champion, Morrigan.” His tone at the end of that statement indicates he's expecting something, and he is not disappointed.

“Fair Day, Royal Champion,” six young voices pipe up.

“And good day to you,” she says gravely. Morrigan gestures at the canines on either side of her and they move forward towards the children. “This is Caillech and Dormath,” she says. “You may pet them if you don't crowd them. They won't bite unless I tell them to.”

The boys hardly begin to move before Latimer reminds them in a mild voice, “Hands on the carriage.” All six freeze where they are, which allows the wolves to walk up to them unmolested. Three to a canine seems to be a good number, and the boys manage to pet with one hand while keeping the other on the carriage. Latimer stands and watches them, a faint smile on his
face, hands folded behind him. The breeze ruffles his clothes and the hair that had come out of the ponytail clip at his neck. He gives Morrigan a look that says so far so good.

Morrigan doesn't look like she doubted it for a minute, though she looks a little amused by the one hand on the carriage thing. She turns towards the house and whistles loudly. About 20 seconds later, the raven comes back out taking its time to get to her. It finally perches on the fence post beside her and cocks its head at her.

“Don't play that,” Morrigan scolds softly and the raven makes a sound that seems rather like a sigh but she bobs her head and watches the boys with the wolves.

The Champion watches for signs that the wolves have had enough and she claps her hands once, the ebony lupines immediately backing up beside her again. “They are not used to a lot of people like this,” Morrigan explains.

All six boys make some disappointed noise when the wolves move away, but they stay put. Latimer says quietly, “What did we say about boundaries earlier?”

One youngster with brown hair pipes up with, “All creatures need to take breaks.”

“Very good, Tanik,” Latimer answers. “Now I believe Morrigan also has a very special bird. Does anyone remember why it is so special?”

All sets of eyes go to Macha, and they all think for a moment before the same youngster answers, “Because it can talk?”

The raven preens and Morrigan smiles. She drops down on one knee to bring herself eye level with the kids. “Well, that is one reason,” she says as the raven glides down to Morrigan's extended arm. “But she is very smart. She reads and helps Princess Mordaleah and I make maps because she can see the land in a way we cannot. She is an excellent scout and helps me with all my herbal work, as well as helping with the other animals. She likes Philosophy and math and riddles and shiny things,” Morrigan adds with a light smile. “Like all of her kith.”

Macha glares at her for that last bit and Morrigan produces a sliver of fruit and feeds it to the raven after the arrogant avian deigns to take it. “Her name is Macha,” Morrigan adds.

Macha eyes the young ones. “So. Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

The kids, after the initial delight at the fact that the raven actually spoke, look at each other in consternation. Luckily they are too fixated on the bird and Morrigan to notice that Latimer is standing behind them with one arm crossed over his stomach holding his hand up to cover his mouth, trying not to laugh.

“Because… they both have legs?” ventures one boy, this one blond.

“Naw, Skan, it's 'cause they're both black!” announces another. A couple of the other kids laugh.

“Hey, Marek, that's stupid! Lots of desks aren't black!”

“It's not stupid!” protests the dark-haired boy, and he pushes the first one. “Don't c-”

“Ah-hem!” Latimer clears his throat from behind the group, and they all fall silent, turning to look at him as he levels a baleful eye at them.

Morrigan looks briefly down and brushes dust off her tunic to hide her amusement. She looks back up at the boys. “Give up? Macha, why is a raven like a writing desk?”

“Because you can't ride either one like a bicycle!” The raven caws a laugh. “I crack myself up.”

“Can we touch it, uh her?” asks the first one, a red-haired child who appears to be the youngest, looking at Latimer. The others echo some excitement at that idea.

“You'll have to ask Morrigan that,” he answers. “Or Macha.”

All six sets of eyes turn to look eagerly at Morrigan and Macha.

Morrigan looks at Macha, who turns and looks at the boys before flapping back to perch on one of the middle rails of the fence. “One at a time,” the raven says. “I do bite.”

Morrigan slips each of them a small sliver of various fruits. “She'll be your friend if you bribe her and tell her how pretty she is,” she whispers.

“I heard that!” Macha caws.

Some giggles follow both Morrigan's words and Macha's retort, as all six accept the treats and, one by one, go up and pet the bird. The young redhead, when he is done and has gone back to stand by the carriage, looks over at Latimer. “Are _you_ going to pet her?” he asks curiously.

Latimer shakes his head. “No, Evan, I've already petted Macha before.” After all the children are done and standing by the carriage again, Latimer prompts, “And?”

“Thank you, Morrigan. Thank you Macha,” they say to the raven. “Thank you Dormath and Cal—” mumble, mumble, not quite remembering both wolves' names.

“Caillech,” Morrigan supplies.

There is a sound of steel on steel and she looks over at the barracks several hundred yards from where they are currently standing. “There are drills going on if you are not in too much of a hurry to leave…” she says casually. “I understand if you are, of course….”

Shouts of denial cover anything else she might have said, as they all jump about excitedly and begin to head in that direction. “Order!” Latimer says sharply, and they all stop, perhaps obeying a bit more slowly this time, the blond Skan taking a couple more steps before turning to look back. “We don't run into a barracks-full of soldiers doing drills!” he says sharply. “Remember our agreement. Now, in line. Walk. They'll still be doing drills when you get there.

All the boys get into line, looking resigned, and wait for the adults to catch up and lead. Latimer looks to Morrigan. “After you.”

“I'm impressed,” she says as she passes him and then makes like she is inspecting the line.

Latimer mutters something in response, but too quietly to really catch. Still, he looks pleased, whether at the boys' behavior or at Morrigan's compliment, it's hard to tell.

“Very good,” she nods as she steps in front while Latimer takes the tail position. “This way.” Macha flies overhead a little ahead of them as they file past the corral that currently holds 12 steeds of midnight black, beautiful in the afternoon sun and yet there is no mistaking the look about them that says they are used to dealing death to their enemies.

“The mounts of the Furies,” Morrigan supplies needlessly. Everyone knew those horses, even without the crescent moon brand on their left flanks.

Oohs and ahhs abound. One youngster starts to go to the corral, but is quickly elbowed by another who casts a furtive glance at Latimer. Yes, his attention is still on them, rather than the horses. It seems to go right by the boys that Latimer has seen all this before, and is not consumed by wonder the way they are. He shakes his head in the negative, and none of the children ask to touch the horses. “Any questions about them for the Champion?” he says instead.

There's some consternation in the ranks, until one boy volunteers, “Is it true they can turn invisible? And that they eat the hearts of the people they kill?” Latimer looks again at Morrigan.

She halts and turns to face them, her hands clasped behind her back as she seems to appraise them each and everyone before answering.

“Well,” she says finally as if bestowing a great honor. “Since it's you….” She crosses her arms in front of her. “It would be a little silly to have horses that can turn invisible when their armored
riders cannot, don't you think?”

They clearly hadn't thought of that, making disgruntled noises at the logic of her answer. “But maybe the Furies can turn invisible, too,” another one posits. Heads nod, and they look at Morrigan again.

The Champion turns and waves over one of the Furies who has come to feed the horses. She is tall and dark, her raven black hair pulled back in a braid that hangs down her back. She looks a little older than Morrigan, but that is more of an effect of the life of a soldier than her actual age. Her hands are calloused from the years of holding a blade and handling a horse, her face weathered, but not hard really and her eyes are as sharp as Macha's.

“Ma'am?” she says when she approaches Morrigan.

“Brianna, these pages have a question for you, if you don't mind.”

She falls into a parade rest and looks down at the boys. “Ask.”

The boys look uncomfortable at the attention of both of the fairly intimidating women, some shuffling and whispering going on for a minute, and some pokes and prods at the brown-haired boy who made the initial statement. Finally, Latimer clears his throat again, and they all fall back into line. Then the black-haired Teren says, “We were wondering, I mean, Jon was wondering,” he gives the other boy an elbow to indicate which one, “if the Furies can turn invisible. Like their horses.”

“There is something of a rumor to that effect,” Latimer interjects, “probably having to do with the speed and suddenness of your attacks.”

Morrigan finds something of uncommon interest around the area of toe of her boot, leaving this entirely to Brianna. Brianna seems at a loss for a moment and purses her lips thoughtfully before replying.

“One should never rely on magic,” she says carefully. “Since it does not work everywhere. To be invisible and to have invisible horses would have its own problems, don't you see? Hoof prints would still show up. The sounds would still be there, and if what I have been told is true, the invisible person cannot see very well either. I know I couldn't fight effectively under those conditions.”

She looks at Morrigan, clears her throat and then looks back at the pages. “Does that answer your question?”

The boys seem nonplussed by the answer. “Why not?” one chimes up.

“Yeah,” another gets in, “why doesn't magic work everywhere?”

“And why won't you be able to see?”

Morrigan takes pity on her Fury and steps in. “The physical laws of some Shadows do not allow for the laws of magic,” Morrigan explains. “Prince Ulric or Prince Talesian would know more about such things than we do. As for the sight, that is a physics answer about the way light works and I am not sure I can put it into terms you can understand.”

She pauses. “Things that are invisible do not just vanish. They are still there, but the magic makes light act differently around them. It bends in a way which also affects your vision as the invisible person.”

The young voices start up again with their questions, but Latimer steps in again. “Enough of those questions for now,” he interrupts, stilling the tide. “Morrigan has told you who you might ask later if you're still really curious. And if you're all _really_ that interested in physics, I'm sure that subject could be added to your studies now…”

An instant chorus of denial ensues, and Latimer raises his eyebrows reprovingly. They fall silent after a moment. Latimer turns his attention back to Morrigan and Brianna. “I do have a question, however,” he says. The boys’ eyes get wide and they whisper and poke each other a bit, though Lat ignores them. “Why a crescent?”

Morrigan nods to Brianna's silent question and the Fury turns and heads back to her chores of the moment, to a chorus of polite thank you's from the children.

“It's the fading moon,” Morrigan answers. “The dying moon. A symbol of death and war and those that bring it. As are the black wolf and the raven. In some mythologies, the Furies were dispensers of justice, hounding the guilty to his death. The names of Macha and the wolves have similar connotations, as does my own.”

“Somewhat ironic, then,” he observes.

“Why?” Morrigan asks. “We do all those things when called upon.”

Six sets of eyes had jumped from Lat to Morrigan, and now back. Noting their movement, he pauses and chooses his words with care. “That one who deals death and destruction is also so skilled at preserving life,” he returns.

The eyes go back to Morrigan, awaiting her response. Morrigan meets his eyes. “Whenever I can.”

She smiles a little and looks down at the pages. “It is true. I am also a healer and a midwife. But it is another side of the same coin. Even on the battlefield we need healers.”

An uncomfortable silence falls for a moment, Latimer's thoughts far away and the children uncertain what to do or say next. They stir uneasily, and finally the bolder black-haired boy asks, “Can we see the sparring now?”

Latimer comes back to the present abruptly, blinking with some surprise. “Er, yes.” He pauses, collects his thoughts, and looks to Morrigan for confirmation. “I think we've seen enough here.”

“Of course,” she nods and turns to continue on around to the front of the barracks where the practice is.

Several of the Furies pause long enough to salute Morrigan before again taking up their matches, two involving swords, while another has three people squaring off with staffs. At the far end are two at the targets, practicing knife and ax throwing.

Latimer organizes the youngsters on the sidelines so they can watch without getting in the way. They have a fair number of questions now, about weapons and training. Being children of nobles growing up in the castle, they are quite knowledgeable about weaponry. They observe for some time before they finally begin chirping for a demonstration by the real Royal Champion.

Morrigan speaks to one of the Furies off to the side who then dashes into the room at the far end of the barracks. An assortment of weapons can be seen inside the open the door. When she returns, it is to toss the Champion a polished black staff, both ends tipped with silver and with a silver band around the center. Along the length is carved an ancient runic script that has a dull gleam to it, as if inlaid with a darkly tarnished silver. As she twirls it, the runes almost seem to slither. Morrigan walks off a ways and the three other staff wielders from the yard come out to join her.

Macha perches on a rail and watches the demonstration, and Latimer shushes the boys' excited talking, standing over them like a hawk over several mice, occasionally making reproving noises, or rebuking one of them quietly. “Remember, you watch with your eyes, not with your mouth,” he remarks, as they all begin to fall silent finally.

Staffs twirl, flash, and spin in the sun. It is clear to Latimer that Morrigan is starting slow so that his charges may follow the hand and foot work but then they speed up, the sounds of wood on wood becoming a sharp, quick, staccato.

Morrigan drops suddenly into a crouch, one leg extended to the side the opposite arm out for balance as she does a one handed sweep with the staff that drops two of her opponents onto their backs. Before they hit the ground, she is up, spinning, the staff flashing behind her back to block a blow from the third, snapping around into both hands to block off the follow-up strike and bringing the left end of the staff up sharply enough to disarm her still standing opponent.

The voices blur together as they talk excitedly to each other, except for the little red-haired boy who is watching Latimer. Lat catches the boy's glance and winks, smiling, and the child grins back. Then Latimer quiets the boys down so that dialogue can resume. “Do you have any questions in particular?”

The babble of voices starts to bubble up again, and Latimer claps his hands sharply to catch their attention again. “One at a time, please,” he reminds them. “Teren, we'll start with you.”

The boy singled out turns back to Morrigan. “Well,” he shuffles a bit nervously, glancing at the other boys, “We're all just wondering… can you teach us how to do that?!”

She leans against the staff at her side thoughtfully as she looks down at him. “Yes,” she smiles. “Eventually. The staff is actually harder to use than a sword. But I believe we have some staffs about your size - and practice swords if you'd rather. Your choice.”

The begging look that five of the boys turn to Latimer couldn't be denied by someone with a harder heart than his. He shakes his head in bemusement. “Yes, you may. One at a time,” he adds quickly. “In order. Each of you choose _one_ weapon.”

One by one, all five of the boys choose a weapon and go to stand bravely in front of Morrigan. Evan hangs back though, hesitating on choosing a weapon and letting all the others go before him.

Morrigan looks over them at Evan and then at Latimer curiously before she turns her attention to the ones before her. “You should know that you will likely go home with some bruises. You will earn them, but I shall attempt to keep them at a minimum, nonetheless.”

”Zahriah! The young squires with swords require shields!” she calls to the darkly exotic Fury inside the armory and there noise indicating the search for just that.

While they wait, Morrigan stars showing the staff wielders how to hold them and some basic moves.

Behind Latimer and Evan, Macha observes and then looks at the boy. “Are you not joining, young one?”

Evan looks at the bird, cocking his head slightly, almost birdlike and staring in her eyes. He shakes his head a little. “I don't know…” he glances up at Lat, then back at Macha. “Should I?” he asks her.

“He's afraid to!” says Skan loudly, and then laughs. “He's too much of a baby to do this!”

Macha levels a beady eyed stare at Skan. “Was I talking you, child?” she asks coolly.

Morrigan smacks him firmly with her weapon. “Methinks you should pay more attention to covering yourself,” she instructs upon regaining his attention. “Leaving yourself wide open like that during a bout is very dangerous, indeed.”

“He shan't need to worry about such things anymore anyway,” Latimer interjects, “as he will no longer be participating.” He gives Skan a significant look, and then waits for the offending youngster to - very reluctantly - put down his weapon and rejoin the sidelines. Latimer keeps an eye on him the whole time, the boy's objections dying unspoken every time he looked up to make them. Sullenly, he comes to stand on the sidelines some distance away, pretending not to watch.

Morrigan turns to his partner and begins demonstrating a new maneuver that will require their full attention for quite sometime to be able to pull off.

Latimer goes to one knee next to Evan and speaks quietly to him. “You don't have to participate today, but you know you will have to learn someday.” The boy nods slowly. “I promise that Morrigan won't bite you,” Lat adds. “I myself have never been bitten by her, and I've spoken to her many times, and have occasionally sparred with her.”

“Quite a few of the good Reverend's siblings have sparred with her and they're still walking,” Macha observes. “A few of them even lived with us and trained here for a few years. Ulric, Wilhelm, Jason… still walking.”

Macha hops onto a different rung to bring her eye level with the boy. “She has all kinds of things in there,” she offers. “Bows, throwing daggers and axes, spears, and some really strange things from out in Shadow.” She pauses a moment. “Although, better to stick to things you're familiar with. Forget strange things from beyond. But you could choose to try something different.”

Morrigan has meanwhile fallen into an easier method of sparring and demonstration since there are now an even number of participants. Latimer glances over at Morrigan. “I doubt very much that you will injure Morrigan today, or for many years even. You may try.”

Evan wanders over and chooses a weapon, a couple throwing daggers, picking them up and looking them over closely before moving over to stand waiting his turn. Latimer watches him for a moment, and then turns to his other stray charge. Skan is watching now, forgetting to be sullen, and Latimer lets him be for now, turning back to the group.

“I think that there were a few times that all of those people you mentioned were not walking, because of Morrigan,” he remarks quietly to the raven.

Macha looks up at him innocently. “I did not say they never had to crawl up the stairs, young Reverend. Just that they could still walk.”

Now,” he finishes with a significant smile. “Yes, I know.”

Two of the Furies have come to play list mistress for the four boys now sparring together and she walks over to Evan, nodding in approval at his weapon choice before gesturing for him to accompany her to the target range, where she demonstrates with her own daggers, their ruby hilts a blurred flash on their way to the target.

They work with the weapons for many minutes, until all the boys are tired. Then Latimer calls all to order by clapping his hands again to get the boys' attention. “We have taken up the Furies' practice time long enough. It is time to thank them for their help and…” he continues over the disappointed sounds, “have some lunch.” The noises take a more positive tone.

Morrigan comes over to join them. “If you will be so kind as to leave your weapons with Zahriah, we may proceed.”

She waits for them to leave them with the exotic woman, who trades a look and a discreet nod with the Champion.

“Now, follow Macha and she will show you where to wash up.”

The raven lifts off and stays low, flying at a leisurely pace back to Morrigan's yard. She lands in an apple tree growing beside near a rain barrel. On pegs beside that are several towels for their use.

Morrigan follows with Latimer. “Lunch is set up around back where we sometimes eat to enjoy the view of the ocean,” she says, watching the pages ahead.

“Thank you,” Latimer says. “I don't think they will appreciate it as much as I, but you never know.” He chuckles, walking with his arms crossed in an almost meditative pose. “I believe afterwards I’ll let them run around and play for a while somewhere safe where they won't get into things. Wear them out. Then maybe they'll sleep on the way back. Or at least,” he takes on a rueful look, “be quieter.”

Morrigan waves an arm in the direction of the open fields that surround her buildings. “There is plenty of room for that. Or there is always the beach. Young lord Evan was rather reluctant to participate. His interest lies elsewhere?” she adds.

Latimer sighs. “He had a very traumatic experience with playing with weapons when he should not have been, and is now quite frightened of them. Of hurting people.” He shakes his head, gaze unconsciously going back to the boys as they continue to stroll that direction. “He is of a different temperament than the others his age. I have considered sponsoring him to the Church in a few years, but he is young yet. He may change drastically between now and then.”

“True,” she nods, frowning faintly. “But he should face his feelings about this. Having a healthy respect of weapons is good and as it should be. But to fear even picking up a practice weapon…” She shakes her head. “Who are his parents? I am currently without a regular student.”

“He is not from Amber, but from Begma. He was sent here to remove him from the environment, to try to help him. He injured another boy quite seriously and quite by accident. Facing his fear is something we've been working on together, but it takes time.” He shrugs, and then considers her final statement. “He may enjoy coming here, actually, perhaps at first for a few months. If your offer was serious, I could check with his parents and find out if that would be permissible.”

She gives him a Look. “When am I not serious, Latimer? I'll even give him a puppy. Well, a wolf cub. They'll be weaned in another week or so. I left them in the barn today. No point in having Mom and Dad get overprotective.”

He laughs. “You are often too serious, Morrigan. You should smile more. It suits you.”

“It would ruin the whole 'Scary Woman' act,” she replies. “And I worked so hard on it too.”

“But thank you regardless for not bringing those out,” he refrains from saying 'wolf cubs' out loud as they are nearing the children. “I think that might have proved disastrous. I'll ask his parents and Evan, and see if it would work. I think it would be very good for him.”

They reach the boys, who are still playing in the water. Latimer claims their attention again and they lead them around to lunch in back. Out back is a long trestle table with benches on a wooden deck that juts out just a few feet over the hillside. The table is already set with platters of bite sized deer steaks and veggies from the garden and fruit and bread and cheeses. Macha meanwhile sits protectively perched on a covered basket.

All the boys settle down along the sides of the table, looking at the basket and guessing what might be in there but staying away. Latimer takes his place at one end while Morrigan sits at the other, and he calls the group to prayer, thanking the Unicorn and her higher aspect Order for the bounty that is given to each to continue their life's quest. All the boys give the acknowledgement and then dive enthusiastically into the meal. Morrigan waits until the initial assault has passed before getting small portions for herself, which she shares with Macha.

Evan sits at the end next to Morrigan and pesters her with all sorts of shy questions about what she had been showing him, and also tries to talk with Macha. The other boys share their time equally with trading tall tales of their adventures of sparring with Morrigan and the Furies, and also asking Morrigan questions constantly. Never mind that their adventures were very recent and not all that dangerous, they took on the attitudes of epic adventures in short order as they all vied for the distinction of being the most skilled and talented warrior.

She is somewhat bemused by the boys but she keeps it to herself and answers all their questions with the same seriousness she answers adult questions with. More than once she demonstrates a different hold to Evan with one of her daggers and lets him try it himself with the same dagger.

Latimer sits and eats quietly, letting the boys let off their energy, and only occasionally rebuking them for getting too rowdy or loud. He doesn't try to talk over the noise at all, apparently enjoying the view, company, and the food. Everything is consumed in very short order, with a most remarkable thoroughness.

Morrigan has them stack all the empties in the middle of the table before she sets the basket in front of her. Macha hops off and stands on the table, pretending to be bored silly. Lifting the edge of the napkin and peeking in, Morrigan looks down the table at the boys. “So. Who wants to guess what's in the basket?”

“Chocolate!” “Pastry?” “Cake! Cupcakes! Sugarcakes!!” “Pie!” “No, way. Tarts!” And so it goes for a while.

“They didn't know how a raven was like a writing desk. How are they supposed to know whats in your Basket of Mysteries?” Macha asks.

Morrigan tsks. “Impertinent fowl.”

She whisks the cover off the basket and slides it to Evan. Inside are cookies. Big cookies. Saucer sized cookies. Chocolate ones and vanilla ones and lemon ones and orange.

“There's enough for everyone to have one of each,” she says. “Pass the basket around and help yourselves.”

“Wow!” “Cookies!” “Orange! My favorite!” Each boy takes a cookie, passing it around. Latimer selects a lemon one, and then excuses them all to the field nearby to run around and play if they like. After perfunctory thanks, they all dart off, carrying their cookies and shouting. Very soon they are all re-enacting their duels with the Furies, and pretending to be the Royal Champion on her way to crush the forces of the Enemies of Amber.

Latimer and Morrigan are left behind at the table. He puts his half-eaten cookie down and takes a drink. “I didn't even do any sparring and I feel like I've gone through a wringer. How do you fare?” he asks her.

“Better than you,” she says with wink. “My part is pretty much over. You still have to ride back with them.” She gestures at the cookie basket. “Take those with you. I made enough for them to have four each and if they're left here, they'll just go to waste.”

He chuckles, nodding. “Thanks. Not many cookie eaters here?” He and looks around a bit. “This is quite the place you have created here. I'm trying to remember the last time I came here… and I'm afraid I can't. It must have been a while ago. Still, it amazes me how a place to prepare people for fighting and war can also bring such peace.”

“It has been awhile,” Morrigan agrees, rising. She moves over and sits on the rail, looking out to sea. “We don't really prepare them here so much as house them and their equipment here. I built this place many years before we started the Furies.” She looks at him and smiles faintly. “I never even intended to train anyone out here. Ulric was the first one. He really needed out of the castle for a while at the time.”

“An escape?” Latimer says. “Was that the purpose behind it? A retreat?”

“It's my home, Latimer. It always has been. Mordaleah is like a sister to me in many ways but she is not really. That place on the mountain is Oberon's family home. Not mine.”

Latimer looks at her for a moment, then nods. “Yes. I understand completely,” he answers after a time. “I, too, have had a difficult time feeling as though I fit in there.” He sighs, and shakes his head. “But those are thoughts for darker days.”

“But that is your family up there,” she points out. “Mine…well, they've been gone a long time.”

“I'm sorry your family is so far. Mine is always near. But it isn't in the castle.” He shakes his head, expression almost wistful. “It is the Church. It has been for as long as I can remember.”

“They are not far,” she says as a note of sadness creeps into her voice. “They are beyond reach. Dead.” She pushes her hair back that has come loose from its restraints and studies him. “How are you these days?”

“Well. Thank you.” He seems to mean it. “Hm. My ministry in the castle goes well enough I believe. I spoke to Prelate Abigail recently about some new duties she would like me to assume. I look upon them with both excitement and… some reticence.” He shakes his head again, looking out over the sea. “It seemed like my life was finally coming into balance again, and now… now it will be running amuck again.” He smiles, to himself. “We'll see how things go.”

“Ah, isn't that the way of things always?” she smiles. “What will you be doing?”

“She's asked me to assist Archdeacon Chadrek with his duties. To… apprentice with him, I believe,” he finishes with a mixture of pride and apprehension.

“Well, well,” she says, leaning back a little to look at him. “Congratulations. What's the proper form of Address for an Archdeacon?”

“Thank you,” he seems abashed at first, his ears turning a little pink, but then he laughs at her question. “You don't need to worry about that just yet. I'm still just a priest for a while. And even then I don't know that you'll have to call me anything special. Just Latimer. Same as always.”

“Nonsense. Around other people your titles should be used,” she says firmly. “You're a Prince and a member of the clergy. No matter a person's feelings about either of those things, or you, for that matter, the offices should have respect.”

“Respect doesn't necessarily come from titles though, Morrigan,” Latimer points out. “I understand what you're saying, and certainly my position as a priest is something I cherish, but I have found that if you have to enforce your title in order to command respect, you have already lost the battle, so to speak.”

“You don't have to. I consider it part of my responsibilities to teach people some manners occasionally.”

Latimer smiles, and shakes his head in bemusement.

She gives a short chuckle. “Tis alright. I know what you're saying. But I prefer to use a person's title especially around others.”

“Then for now, 'Reverend' is still most appropriate,” he answers. “And you, Morrigan? I hope you are finding peace still.”

She shrugs as she turns to watch the incoming tide. “Enough, I suppose. I keep too busy to notice.”

He looks concerned, frowning and clasping his hands on the table. “Is that peace in the world, or peace within yourself?” he asks gently.

“Not even I can bring to the world,” she says with a faint smile. “No, my turmoil is my own.”

Latimer nods. “I see. Of course, you should always know that part of my vocation is to be a listener. To all sorts of troubles.” He lets the rest of the thought dangle, not finishing it but knowing she would know what he meant.

“I know,” she says quietly. “But this is not one anyone can do anything about. I am… lonely, I suppose, and being around people does not help because it is not just anyone's company I want. It's alright,” she continues and reaches out to give his shoulder a squeeze. “It has gone on so long it is a part of me.”

He smiles, but there is sadness in it, reaching up to cover her hand with his, squeezing it gently in sympathy. “That is truly a sorrow to hear, Morrigan. I wish there were some way to change that.”

“Perhaps someday it will right itself,” she shrugs. “Time will tell. But thank you.”

Latimer nods. He is silent for a while, listening to the sounds of the distant sea and the silence. “I miss this, you know,” he says suddenly. “I'm not sure I really enjoy living in Amber. I was thinking of leaving again. After all, Lyonene is grown beyond any need for supervision. I wonder if that's why the High Prelate decided to approach me now.”

“She's a sharp one,” Morrigan observes as she leans down to rest her arms on the railing. “You might have the right of it. You know, you are always welcome to come visit. A retreat, perhaps or if Evan comes to study for awhile. I'm sure he would like that. I will, of course, put you to work, as always,” she reminds him with a smile. “Only day trippers get a free lunch out here.”

“Really,” he answers archly, and then grins. Standing up he extends a hand to her. “And what, do tell, would you put me to work doing?”

“This place doesn't take care of itself,” she points out. “Though a self repairing roof would be an admirable thing to have, I have yet to find a wizard that could make me one that didn't need them to check on it once in a while. You would think they would have that figured out by now, wouldn't you?”

Latimer laughs. “I'd think so, yes. But perhaps it such things are a test of our true commitment to Order and progress.” He begins a leisurely stroll in the general direction of the field of boys, but not in a direct course. “In any event, I don't think I would be able to help with anything for that except helping to repair it. And only if someone told me how. However, some have told me I do a fair job at cleaning. Wouldn't your Furies enjoy seeing a priest in an apron sweeping out the kitchen?”

She falls into step beside him with her hands behind her back. “I do not believe they would care either way. Everybody works. They've seen Princes shoveling out stalls. A priest scrubbing the kitchen would not even be commented on.”

“That settles it, then,” Latimer says clapping his hands and rubbing them together in anticipation. “I'll come to stay for a time next month, to give Evan some time to settle in if that is the case. I imagine he'll be much too busy to notice I'm here, which is all to the good, though I am fond of him. And you shall teach me everything you know about the use of a staff while I am here.”

She looks at him, blinks, and laughs.

“Everything I know in less than a month? Optomistic, aren't you?”

“I think it's in my position description,” he shoots back teasingly. A momentary pause. “Are you certain there aren't any other things that I may help out with apart from being a kitchen drudge?”

Morrigan shakes her head, still looking amused. “And don't worry. There will be plenty for you to do, young Reverend.”

“Well,” he answers, becoming more serious, “I was referring to things perhaps more in my areas of expertise. But… time will tell.”

“You mean in a religious capacity?” She frowns faintly. “I am not certain it is needed.”

Latimer gives her a sidelong look. “You may be surprised,” he says after a moment. “I even am sometimes, but… as I said, time will tell. My position is to serve, to teach, and to guide. People occasionally don't realize they want or need something until it is offered.”

“I suppose,” she shrugs. “We will have to wait and see. But do not be offended if they do not require these services”

“Offended?” Latimer's eyebrows go up. “Well… maybe just a lee-tle bitty bit…” he holds up two fingers practically touching. But then shakes his head. “No, I won't be, Morrigan. People have their own ways. I was merely saying that I am available. Priests are, after all, always on duty. Rather like princes and kings, I suppose.”

He falls silent for a moment, and then says more quietly. “May I ask you a very personal question, Morrigan? Something I've always been curious about.”

She pauses and considers a moment before nodding once. “Sure. You can ask. I can't promise up front I will answer though.”

“Fair enough,” he agrees, and then pauses to gather his thoughts clasping his hands behind his back again in an accustomed pose. “I suppose I am wondering, fairly enough you might agree, why you left,” he turns to look at her as they walk, grey eyes inquiring. “Are you happier here than… there?”

Morrigan sighs and kicks at the grass they walk through. “It wasn't a matter of choice at the time, we did what we had to and what I had to do was make sure my Shield Sister and her family escaped. But no, I cannot say in all honesty that I am. In some ways this is better, but the price I paid was too high. But it doesn't matter. I am here, this is my home now and I cannot go back”

“Would you if you could?” he asks quietly.

“I have taken oaths to a King here,” she reminds him. “And I always keep my word. I am not certain I have anything to go back *to* anyway,” she adds at almost a whisper as she turns to look out at the ocean they are now level with.

Latimer stops. “But you have already defeated yourself, then,” he answers gently. “I didn't ask about oaths or whether there is anything to return to. Simply whether you would. But I believe you have answered it, regardless.” He reaches out, carefully, to touch her shoulder in reassurance this time. “I would that I could help to ease your burden, Morrigan. The Way is often mysterious, even to those who study it for their whole lives.”

“Ancient oaths bind me, Latimer, as surely as if I were chained. Oaths I will uphold no matter how uncomfortable they are now, though they were easy when I made them, because that is the way I am. They are a part of me now.” She turns her head to regard him. “Please do not take this personally because I have utmost respect for what you do, but I have little use for dieities except to swear by.”

He smiles, sadly, and shakes his head. “I don't take it personally, no. And I understand about oaths, Morrigan. That wasn't my point.” Turning, he continues on their way, still slowly. “I, too, have sometimes conflicting oaths to negotiate in my life's course, as assuredly you know. The price of choosing the Church after… well, for choosing the Church. We all choose our own paths. I was merely curious. And… it pains me to see someone as sad as you are and not try to help.”

“I'm fine,” she says attempting to make him feel better. “As I said, it's part of who I am. Very few people actually see past that Scary Woman veneer to see it.”

“You don't hide it well sometimes, Morrigan,” he answers. “Or perhaps I should be… honored that you do not hide it from me. Either way, know I am always available.”

She gives him a wan smile and then turns to watch the pages. “I'm sending the weapons they used earlier with you. Zahriah has already packed them and tied them to the roof of the carriage; souvenirs of their visit.”

“Thank you again,” Latimer answers, turning to look ahead again. “This has been almost unexpectedly enjoyable, in that I wasn't sure how such a trip would go over with the boys, and if we would survive a day trip without me going berserk and ending up with children tied to various parts of the outside of the carriage.” He chuckles. “Perhaps we shall do this again, provided you are amenable?”

“I don't see why not. As long as I have plenty of warning. I hate springing surprises on Macha too much. They lose their effectiveness.”

He chuckles, looking around for the bird and spotting her in a tree a bit away. “Does she not take to surprises very much?”

She chuckles. “It is very amusing to watch her sulk and mutter. But I don't do it too much. I wouldn't want a grey raven.”

Latimer nods in agreement. “Although she might make a rather attractive dove,” he comments with a grin. A couple more steps and then, “And since you have had such good grace in letting me cross examine you, is there anything you'd like to ask me?”

She appears to consider that for a time and then chuckles silently. “Can I take a rain check? I cannot think of anything that is any deeper than, why aren't you married?”

Latimer blushes, but manages to laugh with his embarrassment. “That was not something I was expecting you to ask,” he admits after a moment. “You can take a rain check, if you'd like. Or I can attempt to answer that question for you.”

“Then I will take the raincheck,” she says with another chuckle. “No doubt you will be asked that other thing by others besides me. I'm surprised Mordaleah hasn't tried to set you up yet. It's a hobby with her or something.”

He shakes his head. “I suppose it hasn't really occurred to me in any serious sense. Sure many people I know are married, but… I guess I feel like my life is full as it is. I don't know if you'll understand this, but… I don't know if I have the capacity to love one particular person that much. And I am still young. But keep your rain check for later. Although I shudder to think of what you might ask if you have a chance to actually think about it.” He gives a very overly-exaggerated mock shudder at that.

Her look turns grave. “And well you should, young Reverend.”

She turns away before he can be sure if she is teasing him or not. “Macha! Go make sure Zahriah is done!”

The raven ruffles her wings and flies off, her muttering about “Herself” lost on the ocean breeze.

Latimer watches the bird in air for a time, then says out of the blue, “Do you think I should get married? Hypothetically,” he adds quickly, color beginning to appear in his face again.

“Ahhh… I did not mean to imply anything,” she says quickly. “Not everyone is marriage material and you are young. Plenty of time yet.”

Latimer laughs out loud now, causing a couple of the boys to look over at the two adults standing nearby. He keeps his voice a trifle lower to avoid being overheard over the background noises of the sea. “Here we are beginning to stumble over ourselves trying not to imply anything to the other. I think I'll have to call a truce on this topic. I only ask that you perhaps give me warning before you spring your prepared question on me.”

“Heh. I shall remind you that you owe me one,” she replies. “But for the record, had things been different, I would have married long before now, so I do support the idea.”

He nods in understanding. “Yes, well, so do I. For others. For me, mostly in theory.” His expression turns thoughtful, and his gaze goes to the group of kids playing without really seeing them, perhaps musing to himself now less than to Morrigan, crossing his arms meditatively. “I suppose I don't think I could commit enough of myself to one person. And frankly, I don't think it would be fair to that person… Never know when I'm going to be home, or if I'm going to be called away. Like a healer in some ways. All my projects keep me more than busy, and with assisting the Archdeacon….” He shakes his head after a moment, firmly, banishing the line of inquiry. “I don't think it's possible to find someone that patient. And I don't want to divide my loyalties still more.”

“You do not have to justify yourself to me,” Morrigan smiles. “Relax.”

“Hm?” Latimer is startled out of his reverie, looking at her in surprise, then looks sheepish. “Was I rambling? I'm sorry. You just got me thinking.”

“Then it was a productive afternoon for you, yes?” she says as she starts walking again.

Macha glides down and lands on the arm Morrigan extends. “Been ready for ages,” the raven says. “You worry too much.”

“I suppose that's it, then.” He looks over at the youngsters, most of whom have ceased their more strenuous exercises and are looking a little wilted. “They appear to have reached the level of containment,” he observes.

“Curses,” Morrigan says as she looks back at the table. “I will meet you at the carriage. We did not bring along the cookies. There should be some glasses of chilled juice waiting for them around front in the kitchen window. I thought you might want to let them wash up before you piled a load of sweaty boys in an enclosed space.”

Latimer nods. “Good thought. I'll let you fetch the cookies, and I'll herd them to the water.” Striding out into the field he claims the tired boys' attention and begins leading them back to the pump for scrubbing. The cold water revives some energy, and splashing ensues, but it is mostly contained. Apparently a few of the boys decided Latimer hadn't been enough of a part of the activities, as the next time Morrigan sees him, his robe and hair are decidedly damp.

Morrigan regards him from with mock consternation. “Why, Reverend. If you had told me you wanted to have a water fight, I would have been happy to arrange it.”

The boys behind him picking up their juices giggle and snicker at her statement, and Latimer gives Morrigan a look that says he's thinking very hard about the likelihood of tossing her into the water. “Maybe next time,” he answers instead, but with a gleam of humor that says he hasn't completely given up on the idea, which she meets with one of pure innocence.

They head towards the carriage as a group, the boys walking more slowly, their voices not quite as high and excited. She smiles at the pages as Macha lights on the post beside her. “It was a pleasure having you visit.”

A piping chorus of thank-you's follow Morrigan's statement, as one by one the boys climb up the steps and in. The vehicle bounces a bit as the squirmy occupants try to get settled. The last one to climb in, Evan stops on the step and turns back. “Thank you, Royal Champion,” he says in his child's voice. “I had a lot of fun.” Looking back at Latimer, he asks, “Are you gonna kiss her good-bye now?”

Morrigan almost laughs and she leans down to Evan's eye level. “One does not kiss the Royal Champion. It's in the rules.”

It's a good thing Morrigan took the question so lightly, as Latimer is looking quite dumbfounded at Evan. “Ah, yes,” he agrees with Morrigan after a momentary pause, but Evan has already been distracted by her and doesn't notice.

“I hope to see you again soon, young lord,” she says gravely and offers him her hand.

Evan takes it and does a fair imitation of a courtly bow over it, managing not to fall off the step, then climbs on up and disappears. Latimer sighs, turning and nodding to Morrigan. “It's been an experience,” he says, smiling at her. “They never cease to surprise me.”

“It's what they do best,” she replies and then steps back from the carriage. “Don't be a stranger. Give me a call after you have looked into what we discussed, please.”

“I will. Thank you again. And take care of yourself,” he adds as he begins to climb into the carriage. The door shuts and the driver begins to move away. Latimer waves out the window as they pass, and the carriage moves off down the road.

Morrigan waves and Macha takes off to give them an escort as far as the main road, properly ending their day at Raven's Nest.

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