THe Tainted Shrine

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Atham reached his sister's quarters and found her sitting with the High King, sipping on lavender tea and smoking pipes. Elsephere glanced up and gave him a smug smile as he entered.

“Atham! Dear brother,” she purred. “Won't you join us? I'm sure we can find you a beaker and a pipe somewhere.”

She gestured subtly to her servant Morgaine, who had been hovering silently in the corner. Morgaine flitted off to do her master's bidding as Atham gravitated cautiously to a chair. On reflection, his mother had not detailed much more than that his father and his sister had spent time together, which was hardly a crime.

“What mischief have you been getting into today then, son?” Eoghan asked with a gruff twinkle. “You had us worried half to death, what with the strange rumours coming from the front.”

Atham thought he saw Elsephere's mouth tighten. She had never been as open as she seemed, with him or with anyone else. Morgaine returned with a fine copper beaker and a brass pipe for Atham, bowing low as she offered him the pipe. He took it and went to load it, disconcerted to find it was already full.

Elsephere shot him a condescending look and he had to struggle to quell the irrational rage which rose unbidden into his chest.

“No mischief, Father,” Atham replied. “Mother and Alexius visited the border some time ago, and I thought it best to follow up, seeing as how there had been no response. Very unlike Commander Greys, as I'm sure you well know.”

“And?” Elsephere probed. She had always been prone to haughtiness with her elder brother, but today Atham was finding her positively insufferable.

“And, dear sister,” he replied. “Even a few hours delay could have cost us all our lives. The fort was deserted. We narrowly held it against some ticked off Caerphians who, I'm told, are very particular about their funerary rites, until the reinforcements mother sent arrived.”

Atham could barely suppress a triumphant smile as all trace of superiority dropped from Elsephere's face, replaced by terror and shock. Eoghan frowned deeply and put his pipe aside.

“What?” he demanded. “How could this happen? Did Greys desert us? Are you sure no natives slipped through?”

He was struggling to get to his feet, despite the weak protests of his slaves. Atham felt a pang as he watched the once-proud king fumble on swollen joints with cloudy eyes.

“It's alright, Father,” he said gently. “We made sure, and the fort is at full capacity now. We need to resupply them more frequently, or the same might happen again, but we are safe.”

Eoghan gave up the fight to right himself under his own steam and fixed a surprisingly sharp eye on his son, though he was far from the man he had once been.

“I shall need to assemble my council,” he mumbled. “Such a shame Greys was not up to the task.”

“I do not think Commander Greys deserted, Father,” Atham corrected cautiously. “All the supplies were still intact, the horses and mules still stabled. It was strange, as though they had simply slipped into nothing, one minute there, the next not. Alexius said that the fort was the exactly the same as the day he visited with Mother.”

The three of them sat in silence for several moments. The border wall held at bay a potentially unlimited flood of Caerphians. It barely held at the best of times, and attempts to build further reinforcements were met with sabotage or simply sank into the marsh. The wall they had had only lasted so long because of pure luck, the only stretch of ground for miles that could support structures. It limited the width and weight of the walls substantially, but Eoghan and Ithrien seemed set to die before allowing the border to be moved or give any ground.