Another geyser erupted spraying jets of steam and super-heated water several hundred feet in the air. Something that they had come to witness quite frequently ever since they got to the Ashlands.
“Are you sure that we are going the right way, it has been several days now and we’ve seen nothing out here except rabbits, pumice and dirt.” The Ashlands was not what Lania had expected. She expected black stone, sulphur and—ash. Parts of the terrain was quite barren and rugged with solid rivers of stone formed from the last lava flow. But this valley had fragrant dark soil topped by lush vegetation. She had once read that the minerals in volcanic earth was good for growing but she hadn’t believed it until she saw it herself.
“The army shouldn’t be stationed much further.” said Doranand. “We can see the trails from the supply wagons becoming more numerous. They will eventually converge into a camp.” “But whose camp? Theirs or ours?”
“Hopefully ours but if the inverse is true, we will know that we can’t be far off as the battlefield will be close enough. It will be just a matter of crossing it.”
“An easy matter for you with your muscles and fighting skills. I on the other hand...”
“Will be fine. I promised to protect you and I will Aliana.” he said touching her shoulder.
“Lania,” she whispered. “My name is Lania.” She said louder,
“I am sorry, I thought that was what I said.”
“It doesn’t matter. It is hard to differentiate. I am after all wearing her face.” she said miserably. She didn’t mean to whine, but she thought that when he had saved her it was because of her, her true self. But she was wrong. He was probably trying to preserve the only remaining replica of the woman he wanted to marry. She wasn’t that important. It shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t hurt. But it did. Very much.
She blinked away the tears before they came. Aliana never cried, nor would she. Her hands shook slightly and she dug through her satchel taking out the dull brown vial in which the queen’s elixir was in. He hadn’t given her everything to drink at once saving half the vial to help sustain her. Every other day or so, she would take a sip and that was enough to stop her from changing. After today, she had probably three more drinks and then she was dead. That is, if they couldn’t find a way to break the spell fully.
She took her hit and then placed the vial back into the bag. Only two more till she died.
“I am sorry.” he said once more. “It is hard but...it won’t be long before we fix this.” he said offering a small smile. Her belly did flip-flops looking at him. Those gods damn grey eyes. “Look.” he said placing his arm around her shoulder and pointed out in the distance.
“Are those tents?” she said squinting at the tiny triangular patches she saw in the distance.
“Not just tents, red tents. That’s our army.” his smile widened as he pulled her in for a tight hug. He was slimmer from his ordeals, but he still had quite a bit of muscle in his chest and arms and she could feel them all.
“What am I going to do when I get there? They probably hate me, hate Aliana. The earls especially. They may tear me to shreds.”
“Maybe not. By now they must have heard about Milos and they more than likely think that it was your doing. After what he did to Evan and the navy, you will probably be welcomed as a heroine.” he said letting her go.
The high she’d gotten from being in his arms melted away as she remembered the fate of the prince. He had committed suicide to prevent himself from being used by Moriah. It must have taken an enormous amount of strength to do that. Strength and character that not many leaders possessed. He would have made a good king.
“Maybe.” she said again but Doranand didn’t seem to notice the shift in her mood.
“We will be there in two hours at the most.” he said quickening his pace. She didn’t want to be left behind so she followed.
The closer she got she could hear the clash of steel against steel and the sounds of men dying being carried in the wind. The camp was fairly empty as most of the men were out fighting. The ones that had remained were sporting bandages of different sizes, some badly in need of changing. The more seriously wounded were lying on mats close to a central fire, with a single attendant trying attend to their needs.
She was pulled in that direction immediately grabbing bucket of water and a ladle along the way.
“Lania where you going?” said Doranand after finding that she wasn’t beside him.
“I am going to help.” she said stooping beside the first victim of war. Half his face was a motley purple and the other half thick with bandages. Flies had already started buzzing around his head.
“Most of these men were placed here because they are beyond help.”
“No one once living is beyond help Lord Doranand. Even if it is just to relieve pain, we should do it. You too were in a state beyond help, now look at you standing there.” she shot at him. His ears turned pink at the tips. You should be ashamed she thought. “Head wounds should be nursed in an upright position, so help me prop him up.”
He looked around them and spotted a log and a sheet. He then stooped beside her. “Will this help?”
“It will do.” she said taking the sheet and wrapping it around the piece of wood. “Lift his head.” Doranand placed his hand behind the man’s head. “No not like that. You can damage his spine even more if you do it like that. Let me.” she said pushing him out of the way. She placed both hands on a shoulder and used her arms to stabilise that head before lifting. Doranand then pushed the makeshift pillow under his head. “There that should be better, it will ease the pressure off his head.”
The maimed soldier grunted slightly and lifted a hand which she took and squeezed. “Everything will be fine.” she whispered.
“You are a natural healer.” said Doranand who was studying her.
“My mother grew herbs and my father ground them into medicine. They once owned an apothecary shop in Evan before they passed. I learned some of their skills. The rest I learned from reading.” she said blushing.
“Compassion too it seemed was taught.”
“Maybe,” she said bending over another man. This one was nursing a festering wound to the stomach. She placed the ladle to his mouth and he drank eagerly.
“Hey! You over there! What are you doing?” said the attendant who had spotted them for the first time.
“We are just trying to help where we can.” said Doranand standing to face the man.
“Lord Doranand, I mean Captain. Admiral... when you didn’t return we thought you were dead.” Lania didn’t raise her head, but continued to feed the hurt soldier.
“I made it back alive. Who is the commanding officer here?” he asked even though he knew the answer.
“Lord Baston has taken over the army in wake of the king’s death and the princess’ disappearance. He and the other earls I think are held up in conference in the Chrisoncor tent on the west side.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“It is good to see you alive Sir. And I am sorry about your father’s passing.”
“My father is dead?” he said shocked. “When?”
“A day ago. Spear through the chest. His men have taken his body back to Whitby for burial just this morning.” she heard the man walk off.
Lania stood. She wiped her hands in her clothes and looked at Doranand. Pain was etched in his face. He wasn’t dying but he looked like he wanted to. She took his hands and squeezed it slightly.
“We need to go forward.” she whispered as she looked in his eyes.
“Yes, yes.” he said clearing his throat. Without letting go of her hand he led them towards the west end of the camp.
“Apart from the green standard which floated from the top of the tent, shouting could be heard Lord Baston’s voice being the loudest marked that they were indeed in the right place.
Two guards were stationed outside the tent and they barred their way.
“I am Doranand of Whitby and I have come to have an audience with Lord Baston.” said Doranand.
“Lord Doranand is dead and His Highness cannot be interrupted right now, so move along.”
“Highness?” said Doranand. He knew that Baston was in charge but was surprised that he had taken on that title so quickly.
“Lord Doranand is clearly not dead as he stands before you and Lord Baston is still an earl seeing that I am clearly alive.” said Lania pulling her hair from her face and stared at the men.
“Princess Aliana.” gapped the men.
“Now may we pass?” the men uncrossed their swords and bowed their heads. “Thank you,” she said in an Aliana like fashion, strutted straight into the tent with Doranand in tow.
“Very convincing,” he said whispering in her ear.
“I try,” she said. But she didn’t feel very Aliana-like as the tent went stone quiet as the four earls of the land looked up at her.
“Impossible.” said Baston. “We were told that you were dead.”
“I am, but he isn’t.” she said inclining her head towards Doranand. “I will let him explain as my oath bans me from saying anything more.”