"Oof!" The Princess landed in an undignified heap on the cold Cullis Gate in the Mistpeak Mountains. As she and Benjamin Finn worked to untangle their limbs, both pink in the face from the cold and something more, Walter looked over the horizon with one hand to shade his eyes from the sun. Everything was muted with snow; it blew in spurts of dusty whirls, obscuring everything in the distance. In the afternoon light, without the pitch black rock of the mountains to guide you, as well as the spindly wooden bridges and paths built to lead travelers down to Brightwall, one could easily get so lost as to freeze to death where they stood. Aurora, now upright and tight-lipped as she studiously ignored Ben behind her, lit a fireball in her hand to warm the air a little.
"Careful with your magic, Princess," Walter warned. "There's no telling how the Dwellers will react when they see you, desperate as they are."
Aurora nodded and extinguished the flame. Roosevelt appeared by her side, having made a smoother landing along with Walter. She rubbed the dog's ears and he whined gratefully, shivering in the freezing temperatures.
The Cullis Gate had connected easily to that in her mother's magical sanctuary. When Aurora had initially tried to use the map while holding Finn's and Walter's hands, they had complained loudly of an uncomfortable sensation which led her to worry she would tear their arms off and take them with her. However, when she concentrated on the Cullis Gate on her own, she had transitioned easily back and forth for a few moments before trying to take Ben with her (when he suggested they test the theory on Roosevelt first, Walter had shoved him angrily into Aurora's grip before he could say another word). Aurora didn't think it cowardly of him to be afraid; she had been terrified the first time she used the Gate when she and Jasper were first exploring the Sanctuary nearly three years ago. Magic was frightening even for someone who could wield it as easily as breathing; she couldn't imagine the discomfort of being thrust into the hands of its power when you had no talent for it at all.
The Mistpeak Mountains made an impressive backdrop to their first foray into rebellion together, if not a pleasant one. As far as the eye could see all was craggy outline and shocking white, punctuated occasionally by veins of exposed stone as dark as the pitch of night. It was rumored a great Demon Door still existed somewhere in the Mountains; Demon Doors gave access to portals leading into other dimensions, usually constructed or discovered with magic by the Heroes of old. Time had washed away understanding of their purpose, but a respect for their power remained. As Aurora listened to the howling wind, she could have sworn she heard a deep groan riding its wave of sound down the side of the mountain. When Walter touched her shoulder, she jumped.
"There," he pointed upward and Aurora squinted to see through the blizzard.
At the top of a thin, winding path, what looked like a colorful standard fought valiantly against the wind. A jagged fence made of dark wooden pikes came into view as they approached, surrounding the Dweller camp with a sense of warning.
"Who goes!" A voice croaked over the storm, straining to be heard.
"Sir Walter Beck and the Princess of Albion!" Walter shouted back. Ben raised an eyebrow at Walter and he begrudgingly added in a mutter, "And Officer Benjamin Finn."
Roosevelt barked; Walter spluttered, "What? You too?"
Aurora shushed them, her eyes peeled for the front sights of rifles over the top of the fence. The gate in front of them creaked loudly.
"The Princess!" the voice scoffed disbelievingly. "What manner of fable is this?"
Aurora sighed, removing the hood of her winter cloak. With a flick of her wrist, she directed the wind's force at the gate, causing it to burst open. Behind it, the guards shouted with surprise, blown off their feet.
Aurora walked in casually, drawing her katana in a smooth shriek of steel. She held the tip to the trembling guard's chin; his wide eyes followed the line of the blade up to look into her face.
"This is no child's story, man," she told him in a scolding tone. "We're here to see Sabine. Take him this."
Aurora took out her mother's Hero Seal, currently hanging on a golden chain, from her pocket. She tossed it into the snow at his feet, sheathing her sword. With a hurried scramble, the man clambered up and grabbed the pendant before disappearing into the white-out up the hill. His fellow, momentarily nervous with indecision with one hand hovering over his own sword, took one look at Aurora's expression and quickly followed.
Walter came in after her, shaking his head. "You aren't going to make a very good impression, Aurora." She snorted.
"Once they hear about the possibility of food and warmth, I very much doubt they'll be too picky about how I introduce myself," she retorted. Walter did not deign to respond.
A few excruciatingly cold minutes later, the guards returned, slipping and sliding in the snow.
"You can come!" He told her in a gruff tone, "But surrender your weapons!"
There was a tense pause in which he and his comrade awaited her answer. Finally, with a smirk, Aurora obligingly began to undo her gun belt around her hips. Walter quickly handed over his own pistol and katana, gathering holsters, scabbards and belts in as helpful a pile as he could. Ben removed his two pistols with a flourish and a rifle off his back, adding them to the guard's outstretched hands. Then Aurora held out her arms.
While the guard watched, two pistols; a Hero's rifle; her mother's katana; two small belt daggers; and her Dragonbone hammer were all surrendered. Aurora dropped the last with a resounding thunk directly into the snow, knowing the men couldn't carry it. The first guard, who had piled most of their burden into his comrade's arms, made a brave attempt of it, his lips pursed. When the hammer didn't move an inch several purple-faced moments later, he huffed with resentment, glaring at the Princess over one shoulder.
"Allow me," she said smoothly, picking up the hammer with ease. They began their ascent up the hill. Aurora was careful to mask her gauntlets under her sleeves; it would be safer for everyone if they stayed on.
The village came into view slowly, as if it were reluctant to greet them. Ramshackle trailers with banners and retractable shades huddled in protective circles, the fabric worn and faded and the wooden walls patched. Women, men and children hunched in groups around fires that guttered in the breeze, their bodies covered with fabrics of rich browns, reds, and greens, dirty faces partially hidden in an effort to protect themselves from the cold. Hands with fingerless gloves were raised as if to impeach the fires for comfort they were unable to give. As Aurora and the others drew closer, those not sitting out in the open studied them with shocked, wide eyes before hurrying into their homes, the doors snapping shut behind them. The few who remained watched their procession with a weariness that was bone-deep, their misery so profound Aurora had to look away.
No one spoke to them as they carved a path up the hill; there were suspicious glances cast out of windows, before flimsy curtains were shut. Children too small for their age shivered and watched them with the eyes of beings much older before parents whisked them back home, whispering softly in the old tongue of the Dwellers, their voices rapid with urgency.
At the top of the hill, another pike fence had been constructed in a wide, imposing curve. As they closed on the gate, two guards appointed to it hurried to study each of them before reluctantly allowing admittance. Aurora still clutched the hammer in one hand and realized that, perhaps, her brandishing of it could explain the frightened looks she had received in the village. Noting a wary glare of one of Sabine's personal guard, she unceremoniously dropped it on its head, waving one hand as if to say, Take it. Of course, no one could. The gates opened with an audible creak before them, the wind whistling between the pikes and casting up ghostly spirals of snow. They marched in, boots crunching.
At the far end of the plateau, a tent far outstripping those below in grandeur framed a make-shift throne, where she could see a man sitting imperiously. A jagged point of mountain erupted upward behind him; all around, his most trusted people awaited them, obviously tense despite their casual layout and stances. There was a young man at Sabine's right, tall and dark, and another at his left who gave the distinctive glare of hired muscle. Scattered in a half circle that spread outward from Sabine's center were other men and women, all clad in the garb of Dwellers, their high fur collars ruffling against the cold over patched leathers, gleaming brass belts, and knee-high boots made of animal skin.
Aurora led her small troupe to directly in front of Sabine; she could sense Walter's edginess and desire to take point, but she subtly held out one hand. There would have to come a time when she took the mantel of being the leader – it might as well be sooner rather than later. Walter seemed to remember their earlier discussion about overprotecting her and settled somewhat, his brow still pushed down in a fearsome glare to ward off would-be attackers. Roosevelt padded at her other side, panting. Ben, as usual, made up the rear. When Aurora peered at him out of the corner of her eye, she saw he wore a jovial smile, but it was a thin layer stretched to cover his unease. He too seemed unhappy with their formation and she suppressed a sigh, irritated. Honestly, who did they think she was?
"Stop there," Sabine instructed, his voice a shock in the white silence. Aurora obeyed immediately, eyes steady to meet his.
The King of the Dwellers frowned, studying her. Aurora became aware of every aspect of her appearance – her messy dark hair, squashed under the cap of her leather fedora, its wide brim shading her eyes. Her mother's coat swished to stillness around her ankles, covering her back from the chill, its rich color contrasting nicely with her tight trousers and high boots. She felt uncomfortably naked without her katana, but she took comfort in the knowledge of her gauntlets, still hidden under her sleeves.
When she was done taking an inventory, Aurora felt free to take her measure of the King, curious about this man who had once been close to her mother. Walter had explained before setting off that Sabine would respond to nothing but that connection, as he had deeply respected Elizabeth and too fought once by the Queen's side. In Samarkand, Walter had said, where he'd bombed soldiers right out of the ground. Seeing now how small he was, Aurora had a bit of a difficult time believing it. He must of have been little more than five feet tall, but his eyes were sharp and appraising, unafraid of her and anyone she'd brought with her.
Sabine climbed down from his throne, accentuating his height while at the same time appearing more august as he circled her, clutching a wooden stick with some sort of glass orb adorning the top. Lining his jaw was a thick, white beard framed above by a mustache, their indication of age belied by the quickness in his gaze and fit, lithe movements of his body. A leather vest with a fur collar exposed a good part of his chest, where chains hung with round, brass pendants that rattled gently against his skin as he walked. His arms were clad with metal cuffs and bracelets, and he wore a strange sort of crown upon his head, the top of it capped with fabric and sporting a long, dusty feather that rippled in the wind.
"Hmmm," he muttered, stopping in front of her and scrutinizing her eyes. Nervously, Aurora felt herself begin to sweat under her coat. She hoped this would not turn to violence.
"So you are Elizabeth's daughter."
Aurora pressed her lips together, ignoring his address of her mother sans honorific. Now was not the time for such formalities, but it still burned on her tongue to correct him.
"I am," she replied instead, keeping her voice steady. Around her, the circle of Sabine's protectors contracted somewhat – out of defensiveness or curiosity, she could not tell.
Sabine halted their movements with one of his own, raising the Hero's Seal by the chain so that it turned slowly, midair, before stopping directly in front of Aurora's face. Once again, she met the Dweller King's gaze.
"And you bring that which has been thought lost to us since her death – you make an incredible claim of not only power, but intent to use it for the people's benefit."
Sabine held out the chain and Aurora raised her hand, ready to accept it. Slowly, he dribbled it down into her palm, his full mouth frowning.
"You offer revolution, Princess? You come in peace?" Sabine's hand closed her own fingers over the seal, his piercing eyes boring into hers. She nodded. Sabine's hand was rough and surprisingly warm. She felt herself tense at the contact; what was he building towards?
"Hmm," he pursed his lips, thinking. Then, suddenly, he moved.
Aurora saw the walking stick swing upward; Sabine's grip on her other arm tightening as he yanked down. Without thinking, she raised her left arm to defend herself, a gust of magic exiting her fingers to send Sabine's stave flying. Everyone around them began to yell. Automatically, Aurora fell to one knee, her head bowed in supplication.
"BE QUIET!" Sabine roared; slowly, his people subsided, one girl in particular struggling to keep her peace as she glared at the Princess kneeling on the ground. None of them trusted her.
"So you have magic, at least," Sabine said, pulling Aurora abruptly to her feet. The big man who Aurora had identified as "the muscle" retrieved his master's stave and returned it, before hulking back a few steps and glowering silently. Aurora regarded Sabine with a raised eyebrow.
"Did I pass the test?"
Sabine chuckled, "The first of many, yes, Princess." Internally, Aurora exhaled with relief. The fact that he addressed her such was a good sign.
"So, what do you think of your brother's work, Princess Aurora?" Sabine asked, casting a wide hand as if Logan's evil deeds were laid out on a rug. "Do you like our new home?"
"No better than I like the sight of my people suffering in Bowerstone Industrial, or the evidence of his tyrannical rule in any other part of the country, Your Highness."
Sabine waved one hand impatiently, "Don't call me that, it makes me sound ridiculous." He leaned to one side on his stave, his bottom lip pushed out thoughtfully. "And what do you intend to do about it?"
There was a long silence in which Aurora thought over her answer; to merely blurt out, "Start a war," would make her appear as blundering as many people thought her, what with her lack of public presence or battle training. Aurora might be a Hero and a good fighter, but she was no seasoned commander like her brother or Walter. If she was going to convince people onto her side, she was going to have to proceed with the assumption they would not take her seriously. She would have to show them she not only understood their trepidation, but accepted it with equanimity.
"To draw together those who believe as I do and take him down." She replied finally, hoping that would be sufficient. Walter was radiating tension behind her, clearly dying to interfere and resisting the impulse.
"What stops you from doing that now?" Sabine barked; "You are a Hero – what prevents you from ending your brother's tyrannical reign on your own?"
Incredulously, she replied, "You mean besides his incalculable armies?" Behind her, Ben snorted, then tried hastily to cover it up with a cough. Sabine's men and women glared at him reproachfully. Sabine smiled.
"That is alright," he told them, then turned back to Aurora. "So long as you recognize that your power does raise you above those you rule," he told her. "The day you forget that, my dear, is the day the throne suits you ill."
Aurora nodded, a little mystified. Sabine seemed as squirrelly as a bridge troll, dancing about and casting riddles instead of getting to the point. She hoped she made no missteps in her conversation with him.
Sabine clapped his hands and indicated she should come forward. Behind his throne, the tent opened to show vast accommodations – probably enough for everyone with them. A fire glowed softly in a pit of coals dug out into the ground; around it, several pillows were thrown down to sit upon. On the outer edges of the tent, cots made weary sentinels, their wooden legs rattling every so often as the tent rippled in the wind.
Aurora, Walter and Ben joined Sabine in the warm enclosure, folding down onto the cushions watchfully. Two of the men stood just inside the entrance, their backs turned to them, while the large man, the young one, and two women joined the group. One of the women was older, her face aged in that graceful way that blesses some women with a sense of vitality that goes far beneath the depth of their skin. Her eyes were quick and she seemed less hostile than her brethren, smiling a little when Aurora met her gaze. The other woman must have been even younger than Aurora; she radiated disapproving suspicion, shifting restlessly where she sat.
With a casual gesture, Sabine introduced each of his comrades, "This is Jaelle, she is an elder council woman of the Dwellers."
The woman who had smiled at Aurora dipped her head respectfully, her bright green eyes unwavering.
"Those are Besnik and Fonso at the door, two of my best warriors who were each of the last to attend university. Before your mother died, they were promised places in her army, but then Logan took over and they were cast out."
Besnik was beefy with a square face and dark, short hair. He nodded briefly at the Princess, his eyes lingering over Walter with an inscrutable stare. Fonso was reedy with long, light hair that was pulled back, his face as sharp as a falcon's. He barely acknowledged the group, focused on his post, but Aurora suspected he was not guarding against anything outside and chose to be very circumspect in her body movements.
"That is Aishe, Jaelle's daughter and a future council woman," Sabine smiled fondly, while Aishe did not move to greet them. Aurora was beginning to dislike her; the young woman seemed outraged by their very presence and was making it known through a curled lip and petulant stares.
"This is Boulder, my personal guard."
The huge man grunted in what could be interpreted as a friendly manner; he had a dark slash of facial hair across his upper lip and wore an open vest like that of his master. A frightening scar glistened in the light down one side of his face through a clouded eye that Aurora was not entirely sure could see. Atop his head was a purple hat with a wide, thick brim evidently intended to keep out the cold. She noted that his one good eye kept lingering over Roosevelt with a childish gleam, his hands curling open and shut in his lap.
"And this is my son, Nicu." Sabine's voice was almost choked with satisfaction. The young man Aurora had seen at Sabine's right smiled sheepishly, extending out his hand.
"Sorry about all this, Princess. Dwellers are suspicious folk at the best of times and they adore standing on ceremony."
"Don't speak as if you are not one of us, Nicu." Jaelle admonished softly, her voice a series of harmonic notes. Nicu grinned, evidently accustomed to her fussing.
"Of course not, Aunt," he agreed. He winked at Aurora, "But I know a thing or two about the burden of carrying tradition so calcified it can stand on one foot." Jaelle snorted and Aurora grinned, shaking his hand warmly. Sabine cleared his throat.
"That will be enough, Nicu," Sabine chided but his expression was twinkling. He loved his son dearly, that much was obvious. Aurora began to relax a little, encouraged by Nicu's teasing and the warmth it elicited from the others.
"Try tradition and legend, my friend," she answered wryly. "It is not easy filling in a Hero's shoes."
Looking directly at Sabine, she added, "I do not intend to be like my mother. I am myself and you must understand that now. Whatever you ask of me to prove my honor I will do, but I cannot be Elizabeth."
Sabine nodded, "Truer words never spoken, my dear. I don't expect you to emulate your mother, may the Gods rest her soul. But I do expect evidence of your loyalty to the people and to us."
That was to be expected, Aurora supposed. "What are you asking?" Walter finally spoke, unable to contain himself any longer. Aurora suppressed a sigh.
Sabine thought that over, rubbing his generous beard. "That is a good question, old friend. There is much to be done and much that we need."
Aurora shifted in her seat, trying to channel her impatience. She understood these kinds of conversational dances were a necessary evil of her role, but she did not relish it.
"Such as?" she inquired.
"Food, for a start," Sabine snapped. "We've barely survived these past few winters and soon there will be little left to eat but desiccated plant-life in the highest peaks of the mountain. It is thanks to the likes of Nicu, Besnik and Fonso that we have survived at all." He regarded his son proudly.
Nicu explained, "There are caves all over the Mistpeaks that lead to lower ground. By traveling through them, we can avoid most guard posts and hunt deer and other wildlife to survive. There are even some places in the caves where we have been able to plant gardens, closer to the top of the mountain where some light comes in. But it's still not enough and we risk death every time we venture further out than the entry gate."
Sabine nodded, "And a new threat has come into our midst: a company of mercenaries have taken up residence in the valley."
Nicu picked up his father's thread; "They threaten to take our women and kill our men; were it not for the harsh conditions on the Peaks and my father's explosives, we might not be alive."
"But I've used what resources I had to fight them back and now we are gambling on their assumption I possess more," Sabine said grimly. "Were they to return tomorrow, I could not protect us against their might."
"Why would they want to take over the mountains?" Ben wondered, looking around. Sabine glared at him before answering.
"Yes, our home is humble, but these mountains are a place of powerful resources. Their valleys are fertile with plants and wildlife and they house an intricate network of caves useful to the likes of thieves and murderers evading capture. Not to mention the wealth of minerals, stones, and metals in the Peaks."
"Pardon my confusion," Ben replied, "But mercenaries don't strike me as men who would burn with the desire to, say, work. Mining is not easy."
"No, it's not," Nicu agreed. "But Saker has enough men to pose a real threat not only to us, but to Brightwall. With those people in play…."
"…The mining could be done for them," Aurora finished, horrified. Nicu nodded somberly.
"Who is Saker?" Walter grunted.
"Their commander," Nicu replied, his face darkening. "He's a brute, he – " Nicu looked nervously at Aishe and Jaelle, his voice faltering. "Well, he wants a lot of bad things," he finished in a mutter, unable to meet the women's eyes. Aurora's gullet burned with acid at what was left unsaid. Those bastards.
"So, what you're telling us is that not only are you fighting Logan's straw-headed puppets for supplies, but Saker and his men as well," Ben chuckled, shaking his head. "Ah, Princess. Well, you said you'd do anything. I guess you'll have to."
Several hours of negotiation later, a deal had been struck. In order to secure the support of the Dwellers, Aurora was going to need to complete three tasks: Kill Saker and his men to keep those on both sides of the mountain safe, negotiate an agreement with Brightwall for food supplies to keep the Dwellers alive in time for the revolution (as Sabine quipped at one point, "Dead men make poor allies,") and for Aurora to bring Sabine an item that, as far as he was concerned, would forever prove her worth as a Hero.
"It's a magical item stored in a tomb beneath the university." He told her; Aurora raised her eyebrows at Walter.
"Tomb?" she repeated. Walter nodded.
"It was there from the days of old Heroes. Your mother built the university over their tomb as a symbol of both their legacy as well as a gesture to the people that those of all backgrounds deserved an education, not just Heroes."
Ben frowned, "Why was that significant?"
Walter and Sabine exchanged small smiles; Sabine chuckled, "Oh, to be young again," he sighed.
Ben flushed irritably. Nicu rolled his eyes. Aurora cleared her throat.
"Because the first universities in Albion were to educate Heroes, not regular people," she supplied succinctly. "Nobleman were educated, of course, but by private tutors. Noble women were taught to read and enough arithmetic to run their husband's households, but the rest of their education focused on music, dance, and other things important for their guests' entertainment. Mother's university was the first to offer specializations of the student's choice to anyone who wanted an education – male, female, poor or rich. Hero or not."
It was Walter's turn to be proud while Sabine crossed his arms with grudging respect. "Well, I can see that you've taught her well, Walter, but she still has work to do."
"And when it is done, so will you." Aurora retorted, coming to her feet. Nicu rushed to join her, gallantly trying to take her arm. Aurora was actually startled enough to allow him the liberty.
"Father, let me walk the Princess out and ensure she gets treated properly by the men."
Sabine nodded his approval, briefly clasping hands with Walter before offering Aurora a farewell.
"There is an old Dweller saying, Your Highness, that I think apt in this situation. Lel the tacho pirrow, an' it's pars kaired."
"What does that mean?" Ben asked.
"'Well begun, half done.'" Nicu replied, smirking at his father. Turning to Aurora, he said, "He's telling you to watch your step and not make any foolish mistakes."
"Nicu!" Jaelle scolded. Sabine ignored them all.
"Tread carefully, Hero." He told Aurora quietly. "For you walk a dangerous path and you take all of us with you."
Aurora nodded her understanding, feeling the tremble of nerves she had been carrying in her heart since she found out she had the power to stop Logan. She was about to walk out of the tent when she realized Roosevelt was not by her side; "Roosevelt?" She whistled for the dog.
Everyone began looking around them; suddenly, Sabine exclaimed, "Boulder!"
The guard froze; only the moment before, the man's face had been alight with glee, his mouth cracked into a smile. He knelt over Roosevelt, whose legs were raised upward to expose his belly with his head tossed back and tongue lolling. Boulder's hands stopped in their provision of the canine ecstasy that is belly-rubs and with a grunt came to his feet, frowning. Aurora stared, surprised to see such a big man undone to tenderness. Nicu suppressed a laugh.
"Dignity, Boulder!" Sabine chastised. He tsked disapprovingly and Boulder grunted sadly, kicking one toe at the ground.
"Shall we?" Nicu suggested, his white teeth exposed in a grin. Aurora nodded, clicking her fingers at Roosevelt, who followed with a happy pant and a parting smile for his new friend.