A/N: Okay. Here's the repost. I've decided to take this story in a slightly different direction; Mira's story will have all the content that you've already seen, but Natalia's story is going to be included, too. The chapters will alternate; you can read one story, or both. I hope you enjoy.
354 AFA (After the Fall of Annette)
Natalia slipped up the path to the large country manor, her bare feet sliding every which way in the mud, her hand clasping a little girl, no more than four years old, by the wrist. Both mother and daughter were soaked to the bone by the storm that pulsed around them, and the little girl was in tears, frightened by the thunder and lightning.
"Mama! Mama, I'm scared!"
Natalia pushed the girl's protests from her mind and continued up the path, towing Mira behind her. "Just a little farther, and then you'll be in out of the storm," she panted to her daughter. She stumbled over a rock in the mud and nearly fell, hissing at the pain that split her side. She drew away the hand that was pressed there and tried to see it in the darkness. In a sudden flash of lightning, she saw her palm covered with black liquid that she knew was truly red.
"Mama, where's Ezmerald? Where is she, Mama?"
"She's at home, dear, safe and sound."
"But Mama, I want her here!"
"Darling, that isn't possible."
Finally, mother and daughter found themselves on the wide marble doorstep of the manor. Natalia wiped the blood from her hand on her cloak, drawing the garment close around her to hide her injury, and then raised her hand to knock.
The door flew open before her fist could land. An Elven woman stood framed in the doorway, white-blonde hair glistening in the light from inside and her silver eyes coolly taking in the pair on her doorstep.
"What is the meaning of this?" she finally demanded. "You are not welcome here, especially not on a night such as this. Bad omens come with travelers in such weather."
"I…" Natalia fell to her knees as pain suddenly wracked her body. "Take my daughter, fair Lady," she pleaded, pushing Mira forward with one hand. "I was taking her to the orphanage, for that will no doubt soon be her home, but I heard a voice… It told me to bring her to the white manor in the woods, that she would be safe here. That she would find a future."
"A voice directed you to my home?" The woman in the doorway frowned. "Such things are not unheard of, of course, but they are extremely unusual. What makes your daughter special enough to deserve a place in my household?"
"She is…marked. Show the nice woman your hand, sweetie," Natalia said, trying to smile at her daughter through her pain.
Mira had resorted to sucking on one thumb and staring at her mother in wide-eyed horror, unable to understand what was happening. At her mother's bidding, she offered the shining woman her left hand, where a gleaming eye had been etched in silver. Unlike the eyes of humans and elves, however, this eye had a slit pupil, like that of a cat, and was surrounded by what appeared to be scales, etched in the same silver. It was an intricate drawing, strange on one so young.
The woman's eyes widened at the sight of the mark. "Ah," she said softly. "So that is the way that Fate has cast this one's dice."
"She's not meant for it," ground out Natalia. "She needs to be kept away."
"Where is the beast? Surely it should be with its Keeper," said the woman, seemingly ignoring Natalia's protests. However, she turned her eyes to the woman again and said, in a surprisingly gentle tone, "Fate is not to be duped in such matters, dear woman. It is your daughter's destiny, whether she wishes it or not."
"Take her," gasped out the mother, pushing Mira forward again. "Take her, and keep her safe. I do not want her to have the life that I have lived." She swallowed and carefully held out her own left hand, where a mark identical to Mira's glowed in the darkness. "This life has lead to nothing but pain and betrayal for me, and death at the hands of my own comrade. We were never meant to be their masters, and they know that as well as we do."
The woman of the house reached out and drew Natalia to her feet, staining her own hands with the human woman's blood. "Let me see your wound, Sister of the Skies," she said, reaching out and drawing the cloak away from Natalia's side. As soon as her eyes landed on the bloody mess, she let out a hiss of sympathy. "There is nothing to be done for this. All of our arts could not save you." She bowed her head in apology. "I am sorry."
"Don't apologize to me, fair Lady," said Natalia. "It is not your doing that has brought me to this place. I ask only that you take my daughter, and work your arts upon her so that she remembers none of this night, nor of the mark that binds her to a fate she does not deserve."
"You wish to remove yourself entirely from her memories?"
Sorrow darkened Natalia's face, and her entire body slumped. "I do not wish for it to be that way, no," she answered quietly, "but I see no other path. I do not want her to know of the life she would be forced to lead, and… I do not want her to remember me this way, cold and dying on a doorstep far from our home."
"Mama!" cried Mira, latching onto Natalia's leg. "Mama, don't go away!"
The woman sighed. "I am Leona," she said, stepping back and leaving the doorway open. "I welcome you into my home."
Natalia pushed Mira forward, into the warm light of the manor, and stumbled after her daughter.
Immediately, servants seemed to appear from nowhere, bowing and curtseying to Leona as she surveyed the strange pair who now adorned her foyer. "Take the little one and get her warm and dry. Give her something good to eat and drink, as well, and put her to bed. She will be staying with us now. Alert me when she is asleep, if you will. I shall show our other guest to one of the sickrooms."
Leona led the limping Natalia through the hallways of the manor to a small, quiet room. Once inside, Natalia stripped away her cloak and outer clothing, until she was left in naught but her undergarments, though they were no dryer than her cloak had been. She was soaked and shivering, and her blood ran in rivulets down her side. Every moment that passed, she grew a bit paler, a bit closer to death.
"Tell me, Sister, how you came to be at this place," bid Leona, gesturing to the bed.
Natalia gratefully lowered herself onto the small bed, her left hand still clutching her side. "I was betrayed," she murmured, "by my own partner. We were on a mission, in the mountains of Agaise, and…it all went wrong." She shuddered. "There was an ambush, a man dressed all in black, a Keeper, but he had so many, and he controlled Fox, as well, or perhaps Fox just turned on me. I don't know. But he got me in the side…"
"You came here from Agaise?" gasped out Leona. "How did you survive this long?"
Natalia gave a thin-lipped smile. "I had to," she said. "I didn't have a choice. I left my daughter here. I had to make sure that she was safe, before I went to meet the gods." She drew a deep breath, and let out another hiss of pain. "Tell me, Your Majesty," she murmured, "is she safe?"
Queen Leona Talangdem, the immortal ruler of the realm of Korane, reached out to brush Natalia's sodden hair from her rapidly paling face. "She is safe," she assured the Keeper. "I shall do as you wish, Natalia Peil, and make sure that your daughter does not know of her path, or of your demise."
Natalia stared up Leona in shock. "You know of me?" she whispered.
"All the world knows of you now, Natalia. You are the Keeper who was betrayed, the first of your kind to make that fall from grace." Leona sighed in sorrow. "But you will certainly not be the last. Tell me quickly, for I fear our time grows short. What is your daughter's name?"
Natalia closed her eyes as a bone-deep exhaustion settled over her. She was so tired. She had worked so hard and traveled so far, all for her daughter. At least my efforts were not wasted, she thought.
"Mira," she said softly, the name just a sigh on her lips. "Her name is Mira."
Leona nodded, though Natalia couldn't see the gesture. "Rest in peace, Sister of the Skies," she murmured. She retreated from the room, closing the door behind her, and leaving Natalia Peil to die in peace.
In another part of the manor, the country house of the Queen of Korane, Mira Peil slept in peace as only young children can. Her right thumb was in her mouth, her left arm flung across the bed she had been put into, leaving the mark on her left hand to gleam in the darkness.
A slice of light cut the darkness as Leona opened the door and came to sit in the chair that had been left by Mira's bed. The child looked much different now. Worry had been smoothed from her face by fine food and clothing, a hot bath, a good bed, and whatever lies had been told to her about her mother's health. Clean, dry, and assured of her safety, the child looked like an angel. Leona knew she was anything but.
She gently reached out and took Mira's marked hand, holding it in both of her own. She closed her eyes, lips moving in a silent spell, and the silver light of magic bloomed around her, flowing down her arms and onto Mira's sleeping form. It sank into the girl's skin and vanished, leaving no sign of its presence.
When Leona finally released the little girl's hand, the storm had abated and it was nearly dawn. The queen was exhausted, though her flawless immortal features didn't show the strain she had suffered during the night.
"Just one more thing," she murmured. She withdrew a pair of fingerless gloves from her belt and gently slid one onto Mira's left hand, removed the girl's thumb from her mouth, and did the same with the right. She spoke a word of power, and the gloves flared silver; they would never be removed from Mira's hands unless Leona herself ordered or allowed it.
If there was one thing that Mira Peil could never know of, it was her mark and the fate it signified.