A/N: _ …Christmas vacation seemed so brief! So brief a respite! Anyhow, please give your comments and observations. If you think there is a part that I have not explained clearly, please inform me. I have to wonder, do people even read my story? You people who read but never comment, yes you! I urge you to share your thoughts and opinion with me.

Most men might have scorned their wives if they were barren. But Gilder was never like that. He loved Tesla with breadth and height his soul could reach. He loved her when she was ailing – dying in her very sickbed. He loved her in her death – her very memory.

Tesla had done all she could to make Merle feel at home; she set out activities for them to do together – stitching, cooking, womanly things. And Merle tried to please her, pitying her for the hard life she had led. Still, it was not in Merle's temperament to like household tasks and she soon tired of them. She knew what Tesla wanted – a normal girl who would like…feminine tasks, one who would discuss boys with her. In the end, they got on quite peacefully, but Merle could never quite please her by accomplishing a hard swordplay combination.

Three years after Merle arrived, Tesla died. After that, Gilder ceased to live, not in the literal sense – he ceased to love life. Nothing contented or stimulated him. He stopped being her teacher and mentor that day and lost himself in a drunken stupor.

In her despondency, she turned to The Crones for guidance and they in turn accepted her and taught her their arcane knowledge – charms, potions, and such. Though they would never openly acknowledge it, the villagers would come to them for a love charm or a cure for the croups. But these were meagre things compared to what her mother's ability. Her mother was Gifted.

As she rounded the scanty forest trail on Snow, she gasped at the scene before her. Celia and Raven hung suspended from a large oak. Her stomach heaved and lurched. Celia's once silvered mane was now a charred mass, as was the rest of her petite frame. Like broken dolls, they dangled listlessly from the tree; their heads sagged limply onto their chests. Involuntarily, the tears began to roll down her cheeks. She whispered a mourning elegy to the women as the tears clouded her eyes.

Above the cackling of the fire, she heard unintelligible murmurings. She hastily wiped away the tears with the edge of her cloak, thinking fondly that Tesla would never approve. There were spectators from the village, as she expected, but there was also a figure standing apart from the throng. She leaned forward on Snow to observe the stranger. What she saw chilled to the core; her heart seemed to glaze over and she froze on the spot. It was the same minister as the one who so mercilessly murdered her mother. She could never forget those hated features – the broad forehead, the prominent cheekbones, the thin lips, the dark mane – he almost looked comely. Doubtless that was how he managed to sway these impressionable folk. Her heart leapt up. She felt light-headed as panic and adrenaline coursed through her. Her hand flew to the hilt of her sword. Two emotions warred within her – fear and horrible, horrible rage. Finally, her sense of caution won out, she, nevertheless, clutched at the sword hilt until her knuckles whitened.

As if he sense he was being observed, he looked up and stared directly at her. There was an awful, yet beautiful light in those boundless eyes. Those eyes knew no depth. At first glance, she thought his eyes were a dark brown. Now she saw that they were not merely dark brown; they were a beautiful dark russet. No, they were the color of the darkening dusk. They called out to her.

Come to me. There's a good girl. Good. Dismount now.

As she dismounted, Snow whickered. Merle snapped out of the spell. And spell it was, she was certain of it. Yes, this man was Gifted. Heart almost leaping out of her throat, she remounted Snow and urged her to a trot. She dared not look back. Even now, she felt the effects of the spell; it compelled her to go back. Her hand went to the dragon charm that hung in a pouch from her belt. If she made it to the Port Capella by nightfall, she would find shelter and safety there. Maybe he will not come after her. Maybe he did not remember her. Why would he want a mere girl like me? After she galloped a distance she deemed safe, she looked back. There, amidst the once tranquil blanket of forest was a column of smoking hazing over the cloudless noon skies.