Home is Where the Heart Is

Brunhilde stood in the doorway in a white satin dress that fit her tightly. Her blue eyes were hard with anger as she glared at Kori.

Kori began to bristle a bit herself. "Well what do you mean, 'defile?'" she demanded, putting her hands on her hips. "I'm sorry you cannot accept me as my own person, Brunhilde, but I will pay my respects as a dutiful daughter should."

Brunhilde bit her lip and then said. "What makes you think he would welcome you here?"

"That is between us. If you also have something private to say, then I will leave."

Brunhilde swallowed and hesitated. The flickering torchlight played over her porcelain white face. But then her expression hardened. "Rudolph has been lying to you I suppose. If he lied and said that my husband wanted to contact you, then it was because Rudolph had some ulterior motive. Like embroiling you in a quest that could have got you killed."

Kori glared at her. "Backbiting does not become you, Brunhilde. Not at all. I am surprised that you would be so rude." She turned and swept out of the crypt.


00O00

The next day the Regent conferred on Kori a privilege of the Greater Nobility. Access to the indoor Twilight Garden where she and Erika could take a stroll around at any time. The plants here were exotic and strange, almost otherworldly. The vegetation and the leaves of the trees were a ghostly grey-blue. Kori knew that cuttings that had grown into the garden had been brought from another world. The glass dome of the roof above collected and preserved the heat of the winter sun, so that it felt like summer.

The sisters made their way through the glade and into a clearing where there were vibrantly coloured ponds. She and Erika sat down beside a pond of brilliant pink water. A tiny, silver face broke the surface of the pond. It had small dark eyes and lank, weed coloured hair.

"Oho Princesses," it said in a tiny squeaky voice.

Kori squealed in excitement. "Oh! Hello. You're a water sprite? How are you today?"

"I'm fine, but you're looking green in the cheeks."

Kori giggled and touched her cheek. "I'm a cambion."

"Speak with proper reverence," said Erika to the sprite in a cool voice. "We are both Sommernachts."

The water sprite cocked its tiny head. "Yes, your beauteous highness." It disappeared at that moment with a soft tinkling sound that only Kori could hear.

The sisters sat on the bank of the pond and began to talk of other things. Erika was to be painted by Albrecht Duerer, a renowned artist who had come to the castle to render the faces of the Greater Nobility.

"It would please me greatly if you were to be included in the gallery with us," said Erika. "Anyone should see that you have proven yourself worthy. We should speak to the Regent and at the very least, Duerer should paint me a quick miniature of you. It would please me greatly."

Kori nodded. "For you, Erika, I will certainly ask the Regent. I only regret that I've no money to pay Duerer for a miniature of you."


00O00

The sisters sought an audience with the Regent and at the appointed time, knelt before him in the royal audience chamber beneath the glittering light of the crystal chandeliers. Kori was in a state of nervous anticipation and hoped that she would remember her etiquette and speak with due formality.

The Regent gazed steadily at them as Erika made the suggestion. "Lady Korina, inclusion in the gallery is a privilege of the Greater Nobility and an added privilege means additional duty."

Kori nodded vigorously. "Absolutely right my liege. The chance to fulfil my duty is a privilege you have conferred on me." She gazed up at the Regent and his piercing green eyes seemed to bore into hers. "Before I came I had only my duty as a healer. Now I have a duty to the whole of the Dark Forest, not just one village. Until recently I could only dream of so much trust being placed in me."

"Very right and proper," said the Regent approvingly. "With that I have decided. Duerer shall paint your portrait and it shall be included in the official Sommernacht gallery for all time."


00O00

Kori spent the greater part of two days posing for the illustrious painter. He was very dramatic looking, with shoulder length blond hair and a strong Sea-Haven accent. He constantly ordered Kori to alter her pose: "You – lift your head!" or "Girl! Turn your eyes that way." Each time Kori did her best to comply and smile back at him which sometimes earned a rebuke. "Don't change your expression girl!"

Duerer often voiced his thoughts aloud, "I've never tried to capture this particular matte green tone before …I still haven't got the right balance… it needs more blue… the light glints off her nose and cheeks this way…"

The finished portrait was good and Erika loved it. Gerd inspected it and agreed that Duerer had definitely captured Kori's look. The portraits of both Erika and Kori were placed beneath a larger one that showed the late Lord Sommernacht and Brunhilde together. Kori spent some time gazing at it. They had certainly made a picture perfect couple, Brunhilde's very fair beauty complementing Lord Sommernacht's dark good looks. They both looked so happy in the picture. Kori felt a twinge of sadness that she had not been able to make peace with Brunhilde. Still, her own inclusion in the portrait gallery was an honour and she could think of it as an early birthday present. Kori's thirteenth birthday was approaching and while her birth had certainly not been a joyous occasion, this birthday was a turning point. She was now of the nobility and had a duty to defend the entire realm should the need arise.


00O00

Her interest in the subject piqued, Kori went to the library to research the topic of portrait painting and different styles that could be used. She lifted an old leather-bound tome on the portraits of Greater Nobility from the shelves and read about the most famous works, including those of the early Sommernachts and her other illustrious ancestors.

Suddenly she heard footfalls in the corridor outside and the sound of Siegfried's voice: "diplomats be hanged, Gerd, I have more interesting things to attend to. Like Leisel's new assistant. She's much more attractive than you would expect a boring librarian to be."

Then Gerd's voice: "There's such a thing as duty, Siegfried. You're supposed to attend to the diplomats, not flirt with a librarian."

"I'm your future King, I will do whatever I want."

Siegfried strode into the library, Gerd following close behind.

"Hello, hello!" he bellowed, his voice disastrously loud in the silent library. "How is the green-skinned darling of the Dark Forest?" He strode up to Kori and put his arms around her, kissing her on the cheek, taking her completely by surprise and making her heart beat faster in excitement.

"Siegfried," hissed Gerd.

"You stop hissing, this is a library," said Siegfried loudly, wagging a finger at his cousin. He picked up the book on art. "Anything interesting in here?" A piece of parchment fluttered from between the pages of the book. Kori's eyes widened. It was an exact replica of the note Lord Sommernacht had left her.

"Your Highness, that is a copy of a note left for me," she stammered, but to her dismay Siegfried had already picked it up and was reading aloud. "To my daughter? This is not the way Lord Sommernacht would write, it's like a girl trying to do a man's point of view."

"It's obviously not for you," said Gerd, attempting to take it from him, but Siegfried held it above his head. "Doesn't it look like Erika's handwriting? She always takes care to write prettily."

"She is his beloved daughter. I'm sure they were very alike in many ways," muttered Kori, looking at the floor. She really had not wanted anyone else to see the message. It was something very private, after all…

"For goodness sake, Siegfried," said Gerd, attempting to wrest the note from him with the result that they tore it in half between them. "Now look! Can't you ever behave yourself?"

"Erika must be playing a prank," said Siegfried.

Kori blinked. Why on Granat would Siegfried suppose something like that?

Gerd began to push Siegfried in the direction of the door. "Sorry about this, Kori. Come on Siegfried, you don't want father to be angry with you I suppose. The diplomats are waiting."


00O00

Kori was scheduled to travel back to the village on her birthday. She was aware that she would have to study even harder with Madeleine after being absent for two months. Her heart was heavy that she would be leaving Erika, but at least she was scheduled to return to Castle Gruenwald for the following summer and it was also arranged that she pay Vereticus a short visit in spring. It was a curious sensation, belonging to two worlds. The world of simple village life and the world of royalty. Kori thought back to Rudolph's words when they first arrived at the castle. He was right. Her life had indeed changed.

That evening Kori went to see Erika in her bedroom. She found Erika sitting on the great four poster bed and crossing the wide expanse of polished marble floor, she saw that her sister's eyes were bright with tears in the silvery lamplight.

Feeling anxious, she put an arm around her shoulders. "What's happened, dear Erika?"

"I – I am ashamed to say…"

"Don't be. I'm here and we can sort it out."

"Siegfried told you about the note…?"

"The note…? Oh yes." Kori sighed. "I'm afraid Siegfried read it. It turns out there was another copy hidden in the pages of a book about famous paintings and he just happened to see it. I would much rather it had stayed between us. It did feel private."

"I'm sorry I did not tell the truth," choked Erika.

"Sorry?" Kori was bewildered.

"I wrote the note because I could not bear it. I could not bear that you did not feel included in our household, especially since mother had not made the effort. It's what father ought to have written."

"You wrote…?" Kori felt as though a cold weight had smacked her in the face. Her father had not contacted her, the connection she had thought they had was not real and for all she knew, he had had no interest in her… She sat numbly for a moment, but she could not bear to see Erika cry and put her arms around her sister and gently stroked her back. "I have forgiven him," she murmured. She would not retract it.


00O00

The day dawned for Kori to leave Gruenwald to return to the village and she felt a sense of melancholy that she would not be back until the summer. Erika was subdued and as Kori packed, she loaded her sister with small gifts: little baubles, jewelled hairpins, books and scarfs. Finally she brought Kori a small box tied with a gold bow. "Here is your birthday gift."

"You are too generous, dear Erika," said Kori grinning.

"I will be generous if it suits me. Open it now," said Erika.

So they sat side by side on Kori's bed as she unwrapped the box. Inside lay a tiny silver locket and in the locket was set Erika's picture in miniature. Kori's mouth formed a silent "O" and she lifted the locket up by the chain, her eyes fixed on the depiction of her sister's haunting beauty. "Erika," she managed, "this is so beautiful."

"The Regent insisted there was no time for more portraits, but Duerer agreed to stay late and paint this in one sitting when I told him how important it was that I have it to give to you."

"How kind of him. I love it! Can I keep it?"

"That was the idea. Keep me close to your heart when you return to the village."

Kori placed the locket around her neck. "Come visit me."

Erika's face still held its characteristic stillness, but Kori thought she saw wistful longing cross her features. "If it were only my decision to make," she said in a low voice. "Still, I would like to try."

As Kori prepared to go, there was a frenzy of final orders, Rudolph striding through the hallways, servants scurrying in all directions and Brunhilde arguing with someone. Gerd stopped by to say goodbye, as Rudolph swept Kori from the room. Erika stood impassively by the door of the room, watching the chaos and saying nothing.

Just as Rudolph was insisting it was time to go right away, "for the gods' sake," Kori ran up to Erika to give her one last fierce embrace. Erika hugged her back and they kissed… And then Rudolph took her out of the castle and into the waiting carriage. There were two guards riding with them, one of them leading a pack horse with Kori's possessions. It had snowed heavily in the night, so not many were out in the courtyard to see them off. Kori hoped the guards that were with them had wrapped up warmly enough and she voiced her concern to Rudolph who assured her that the guards were quite capable of gauging these things for themselves. Soon they were out of the castle gates and turning in the direction of the village.

Kori clasped the image of Erika to her breast. "Remember me," she breathed.


00O00

Although Rudolph and Kori rode up to the cottage with something of a clatter, Rudolph calling directions to the guards and Kori laughing excitedly, Madeleine did not come out to greet them. Kori ran inside and found Madeleine in the kitchen, stirring herbs into a cauldron. Kori squealed and flung her arms around her. Madeleine smiled her eyes oddly bright. "I thank the gods you are back, Kori. Especially after that quest Rudolph arranged over the Wolf Cult. This brew cannot be left unattended, but there is food in the pantry."

"In a little while, dear Madeleine. Rudolph is outside. Don't you want to say hello?"

"I cannot leave the mixture unattended," said Madeleine sharply.

Kori went outside again. "Madeleine is too busy to come out and greet you. I think there's something wrong…" Kori shrugged and grimaced. What was the matter?

"Perhaps it's not safe to go inside." Rudolph ordered a servant to stow Kori's belongings in the cottage.

"I don't know why she would not be pleased to see you…"

Rudolph did not seem interested in the subject. It took a few minutes for him to say goodbye, promise to write and make plans to come and fetch her in the Spring to travel to Silberwald.

"Take care, dear niece. And congratulations again on being accepted into the royal circle. Not something just any demon-girl could achieve." With that he kissed her on the cheek and swung into the saddle and waved goodbye. Kori watched them ride down the dirt road which was soon swallowed up by the forest.

Kori returned to the cottage where Madeleine was still by the cauldron.

"Do you need help, Madeleine or should I unpack?"

"You unpack. I'll be fine."

Kori unpacked, but she knew something was wrong, so she returned to Madeleine to sit beside her. "If anything is the matter…"

Madeleine snorted. "The matter? Only that Rudolph played me for a fool. If I'd known what he was going to groom you for... A quest which could very easily have got you killed! 'Some semblance of your birthright' indeed!"

Kori did not like to see her angry at Rudolph. "I have a duty to the Dark Forest now the Royals have accepted me," she said in a small voice. "I had the power to defeat the Wolf Demon and with power comes duty. The Regent says so."

"The Regent does right by the job he has. The gods know I wouldn't want his job. I do not criticise him for his decisions. I was referring to your uncle. Rudolph was supposed to look out for you. Becoming a Sommernacht has not improved your life, it only put you in mortal peril."

Becoming a Sommernacht had improved her life. Kori opened her mouth to demur, but hesitated. The subject of Brunhilde's coldness and that of her father's inscrutability had saddened and confused her. But she now had a sister. She opened her locket so that Madeleine could see Erika's portrait. "I have Erika now. She is in my heart. I would not change that for anything. Once you know her, you feel like you'd do anything for her."

"A beautiful girl indeed. She does look very like you. Rudolph was right about that at least. I had wondered what she was like. She sounds like a remarkable character."

"I – I don't know whether my father ever wanted me and finding more out has just made me confused." Said Kori in a rush. "I thought he had written to me, but he hadn't and I don't even know whether or not he should have done. But Erika always did want me in the household. I'm glad I can be sure of that."

"Yet there are other things you can be sure of," said Madeleine.

When she had finished at the cauldron, she showed Kori the notes she had taken at the time of Kori's birth. Kori already knew the gist of the events, but it gave it a new depth to see Madeleine's meticulous records.

Rudolph had had the idea to capture the lesser demon so as to exact revenge for her violating his brother and he had demanded whether Madeleine knew how such a thing could be done. Capture had not been necessary. The lesser demon had appeared in mid-winter of her own accord at Madeleine's old place in the Sommernacht province of the Golden Fields.

Kori read Madeleine's words about the lesser demon:

Her unnatural physiology notwithstanding, it was clear she was about to have a baby. Her eyes gave off no brightness. They were like those of a dead thing, but I could feel them fixed on me. She spoke and her voice grated and rumbled by turns. "You are the Sommernachts' herbwoman? And you were keen to find me? Do not answer for here I am."

I pressed the question as to whether she felt remorse. She drew back her lips to reveal sharp teeth. "What does remorse change? I cannot face Lord Sommernacht and even if I could, he would not forgive. Memories and guilt will eat at me unless I can take a long rest, away from you all. I do not wish for my daughter to be a part of the demonic realm. You cannot grasp how terrible the Greater Demons are."

The lesser demon resided with Madeleine very briefly before giving birth. The parchment that detailed Kori's birth was the most worn from frequent re-reading.

She is such a perfect child. So good tempered, her brown eyes are so bright and her toothless little mouth always smiling. She is not mine, but I already wish she was. Will Lord Sommernacht accept her? I somehow doubt Brunhilde would.

The lesser demon had left soon after with a strange admonition:

"Do not look for me. Do not try to contact me. Where I go, you cannot follow. Know that the great ones will rise someday and when they do, my daughter had better be ready. I have laid the runes on her as only a birth mother can. In time she will have the power to fight the great ones, should she choose."

The lesser demon slunk out into the snow and was swallowed by darkness.

On a later sheet Madeleine had written: It has been decreed. She is my charge. I will call her Korina.

As the snow fell thickly outside, Madeleine put her arms around her charge and Kori snuggled against her to soak up succour as they had always been accustomed to do in quiet moments. Kori was at peace with the world.