Love's Honor

Chapter Ten

Clouds continued to race across the sky, alternately allowing the sunshine to pierce the evergreen canopy and form pools of bright radiance onto the forest floor and plunging the deep woods into further shadow. The party of nobles and followers made their way along the well-worn dirt trail, finally letting their mounts take to a more relaxed stride now that they were well on their way toward the border of the Kaoru lands.

Saionji had set their earlier, hastier pace. At the head of the group, the emerald-haired chieftain had continued to be anxious to just get some distance between himself and the site of his near-humiliation. Only when they were deep into the forest that loomed over the river did Saionji's thunderous expression finally soften, and he let his gorgeous courser travel at anything slower than a trot.

Riding side by side, Touga and Utena had followed at the same pace, the group of warriors, men at arms and handmaidens arranged around them. Considering their rapid speed, they had traveled then in silence, the normal sounds of the woods broken only by the sound of hooves against the earth and the jingle of their tack.

However, the more leisurely walk wouldn't do either, Touga realized when he glanced up to see what he could of the sky through the deep green evergreen boughs high above. Frowning as he took note of the angle of the sunlight, he urged his mount forward and drew next to his friend. “Saionji.”

“Aye?” the verdant-maned chieftain responded, looking at the other man.

“Nightfall will catch us still on the southern edge of your lands,” Touga pointed out. “We didn't exactly bring with us equipment with which to camp. Is there any place there where we can shelter for the night?”

“There's a hunting lodge near the path once we reach the foot of the ridge,” Saionji replied, glancing skyward with a scowl. “Damn me for my impetuousness. I never even stopped to consider the possibility of being caught out in the dark.”

“No matter,” the redheaded nobleman said, his tone reassuring. “The lodge should be enough. I don't anticipate trouble on your lands. Do you?”

“Hardly,” the other lord muttered. “They may not trust me just yet, but I am chieftain. And they know better than to rekindle the feud between us.”

“I didn't mean your clan, Saionji.”

“Hrmph. If you meant bandits, outlaws and such ilk, then again they know better than that,” the curly-maned noble insisted. “Besides, one of the first things I did when Father took ill and I started ruling for him was to offer amnesty to anyone outlawed who could prove that they were unfairly branded criminal.”

“Indeed?” Touga asked, impressed by his friend's foresight.

“A number of manors had been mismanaged, sadly enough. But at the least, the number of outlaws within my forests have decreased.”

“I'm curious... How did you manage their cases?” the scarlet-maned chieftain queried.

Saionji glanced over at his foster brother, giving the other a sardonic smile while recalling the scene of only two days ago, where Touga had plead for mercy. “Fairly. Those wrongly accused were released while those with mitigating circumstances were given lenient sentences. I'm not totally ignorant of the concept of justice with mercy.”

“I never thought you were,” Touga assured him. “Well, then... We shall reach this lodge of yours come nightfall, correct?”

“Aye, though it will be close.”

“Pick up the pace some then, my friend. I'll drop back and tell the lady of our plans.”

“Very well,” replied Saionji. Gently tapping his heels against his horse's flanks, he pulled on ahead, his entourage of clan warriors speeding up to match his mount's gait.

At the same moment, Touga tugged lightly on his courser's reins. The stallion hesitated in its walk, allowing the boyishly-attired maiden to catch up. Drawing abreast of her, he gave his mount the signal to continue forward, saying, “Since it appears that we cannot reach Pinehaven before twilight, it's been decided that we'll spend the night in one of Saionji's hunting lodges.”

Utena nodded slightly, the feathers of her cap's cockade ruffling gently. Most nobles with holdings--even modestly extensive ones--had scattered about their lands small, slightly fortified but easily defensible shelters that, from the outside, appeared much like any other manor house dotting the landscape. However, such places had no fields, and the only peasants there were the caretakers that lived in cottages nearby. Such lodges were not permanent homes but rather temporary lodging for the lord and his entourage should he be traveling or hunting, the lord's rangers who watched over the game animals of the demesne's forests, or the lord's heralds if they were sent out to deliver a message. Though in the lowlands most hunting lodges were exclusively for the use of a lord, his family or his officers, Utena was aware of the fact that in the highlands, such places were considered the property of the clan as a whole and any clanmember could use the facilities as an emergency shelter.

“Very well,” she replied, smiling. “It would certainly be much better than either continuing to travel into the night or trying to sleep in only the shelter of the forest.”

“Indeed,” the scarlet-maned chieftain said in agreement.

Behind them, the ponytailed Wakaba kept her gaze fastened to the emerald shimmer of the Saionji prince's thick, curly hair. “Isn't he wonderful?” she sighed in admiration.

Next to her, both Shiori to her right and Tatsuya to her left frowned at her softly spoken words. Her violet eyes darting about their surroundings for what seemed to Ryu to be the hundredth time, Shiori lightly sneered, “That all depends. He's got a temper, and Lady Kozue almost ruined him.”

“It's not his fault that he's so misunderstood,” the younger brunette insisted, turning to glare at the other lady in waiting.

“Misunderstood,” Shiori repeated, her violet gaze dropping to stare for a moment at a ring upon her finger before glancing about the party's woodland surroundings yet again. “You do realize how hopeless this infatuation of yours is, don't you, Wakaba? After all, you're a mere servant while he's a great lord.”

The ponytailed brunette silently bristled in anger. Something about the other's tone of voice gave Wakaba the impression that Shiori somehow considered herself better than her fellow peasant. Brown eyes narrowing in fury, Wakaba opened her mouth to give Shiori a scathing retort.

A deadly hissing sound filled the air, followed by sickly hollow thuds and the screams of pain from man and horse alike, interrupting the brunette handmaiden. Looking around in shock, it took a short moment for the feathered shafts and the blood to register.

They were under attack!

Saionji bit back a shout, his right shoulder feeling as if it was on fire. Yanking hard on the reins of his mount, he turned to stare back at the initial damage the volley of arrows had done, ignoring the tickling sensation of blood running down his skin. Two warriors from each clan were down, their suddenly riderless horses bolting; the fact that they laid there silently testified to the deadly accuracy of at least some of the archers hidden in the brush around them. Another pair of horses foundered, the clansmen riding them jumping free and drawing their swords. “To the trees!” the green-haired chieftain shouted, paying little heed to the pain that burned across the top of his shoulder as he drew his own blade.

Steel whispered against wood as Touga bared his weapon. The first volley had apparently been aimed at the nobles' escort; it would be a good bet that the next would target them. Saionji had the right of it: they needed to get out of the road where they continued to present themselves as clear targets. “Take shelter, then find and kill them!” he ordered, his glance turning to the rose-haired maiden at his side.

Utena sat there astride her mare, her sea-blue eyes wide in horror. Ambushed just as her parents were! The lingering memory of those terrifying moments blended into the here and now, leaving her virtually paralyzed.

“Utena! Go!” Touga yelled, instantly concerned at seeing her apparently frozen in fear.

His voice cut through the haze, pulling her attention to him. For a fraction of an instant, she could see the image of a scarlet-haired boy of about ten winters overlaid upon the sight of the man he had become, the echo of his once-youthful voice striking a chord within her mind. Then she was fully back to reality, and with it returned both the memory of her promise to herself and her determination. No! I refuse to be helpless!

Pulling her shortsword from its scabbard, she gave voice to a battle cry and dug her heels against the flanks of her palfrey. The white mare leapt into action, heading for the brush alongside the road in the direction she'd noted some of the arrows had come.

Touga tugged on his courser's reins; the stallion wheeled toward where the boyishly-attired girl had disappeared into the foliage. Then came another hiss of feathered death; lord and mount both cried out as an arrow sank straight through the flesh above Touga's left knee into the horse underneath, effectively pinning him to his mount. Hissing in a breath in agony, he continued riding forward, determined to keep his focus on eliminating the threat--though every step of his stallion made his wounded leg flare up in renewed pain.

Around him, he could hear the telltale sounds of steel against steel. Looking to the left, he watched as Utena efficiently parried one of the attacker's blows then dispatched him with a backswing that flayed open his throat. Blood exploded outwards as the rose-haired maiden closed to engage another of the dark-clad strangers. Tossing aside his bow, the man drew a sword and met her halfway, their blades ringing against one another with the clash. Elsewhere, Touga could hear the sounds of combat, but none of his party was close enough for him to see how they were faring. Noting another of the attackers preparing to loose yet another arrow, the scarlet-maned chieftain ran him down with his courser as he went on the offensive. The first slash neatly cleaved the man's bow, sending the feathered shaft falling to the forest floor. The second swing ripped across the stranger's front, shredding his dark-hued leather jerkin and leaving a crimson line of cloven flesh in its wake.

The man stumbled back with a scream, then pulled free his own blade; another clash of steel as Touga's next blow was frantically parried by his foe, the man's empty hand pressed against the wound across his chest. Leaning over his stallion's neck was no easy feat due to the arrow protruding through Touga's leg limiting his range of motion. Agony and training combined to give him a focus as sharp as his blade.

Slapping aside the man's attempt at a jab, Touga stabbed back with a forceful blow in the opening presented. The man fell back to the ground, gurgling his last, his breast pierced through the heart. Pulling his sword out, Touga straightened up then pulled on the reins; the stallion swiftly turned to the right and together they moved closer to where Utena sat searching for more strangers to dispatch.

Nearby shouts and the ring of steel continued to echo through the evergreens as a trio of black-clad men appeared as if by magic to surround Utena. Momentarily surprised, both the pink-haired girl and the Kiryuu prince sat there as the men swarmed her, one taking hold of the bridle of her mount and the other two attempting to pull her from the saddle.

The feel of hands roughly grabbing her made Utena lash out in pure instinct; stabbing viciously downward, the young noblewoman was rewarded by the feel of her blade sinking deep into flesh accompanied by an anguished scream and the snap of bone.

The wounded assailant fell back. Her left hand yanking hard on the reins in an attempt to regain control over her palfrey, the boyishly-attired maiden slashed at the other man trying to yank her down. The stranger staggered back, releasing his hold; to do otherwise would have risked him losing a hand to his target's blade.

Touga closed the distance rapidly, thrusting downward at the dark-attired stranger who had dared attempt to wrest control of the lady's palfrey. Steel met steel with an echoing clash, the man parrying the Red Tyger's glittering longsword. The scarlet-haired chieftain grimly battled on, determined to cut the man down.

Sunlight flashed off silver metal as the man accosting the pink-clad girl drew his own sword and jabbed upward at her. Sucking in a breath, Utena forcefully leaned back; she found herself staring at the deadly blade scant inches away from her face while her hat tumbled to the forest floor and her hair fell around her in a cascade of rose-hued curls.

With a growl, the noblewoman shoved the sword away with her own weapon then pressed an attack. The exchange was brief but violent, ending when Utena deftly disarmed the man with a twisting thrust of her dirk then slashed his throat with the follow-through. The stranger fell with a sickly gurgling sound.

She turned her attention to the struggle next to her, aqua-hued eyes wide as she watched a blistering exchange of blows between another of the dastards and the Kiryuu prince. Urging her mare to a better position, Utena lashed out with her shortsword, burying it to the hilt in the man's back. Caught in a struggle for survival instead of taking part in a tournament or contest of honor, anything was fair game--including a stab in the back.

Touga stayed his hand, the scarlet-haired lord surprised to see his foe abruptly go rigid, the light of life in his eyes fading even as the Red Tyger stared at him. Looking beyond the dead body while it fell to the detritus-strewn ground, the Kiryuu chieftain blinked as he caught sight again of his feminine companion.

Blood-spattered, the crimson bright against her palfrey's light-colored coat and her pink-hued clothing, her hair was flowing loosely about her head and shoulders while her sea-blue eyes were alight with fiery determination. She appeared the very image of a battle maiden, one of the heavenly host come to earth to crush all who would oppose her. And in that very moment, he realized that she was no thornless rose that needed someone to protect her, to decide for her what was safe and what was not. Perhaps once, long ago, she truly needed someone to be a guardian.

She had grown up, blossoming into a woman that would make any highlander proud despite her lowland blood.

Just then, a thunderous battle cry sounded, off to the right. Focusing on the familiar voice and tearing his gaze from the enchanting lady, Touga allowed himself a slight smile. I do believe Saionji's having a bit of fun, he silently joked, trying to make light of the grim situation. Doing his best to ignore the throbbing pain in his pierced leg, he signaled his courser to make its way toward the sound. The jingling of tack and the thud of a horse's hooves told him that Utena was following his lead.

In all honesty, the emerald-haired prince was having a more amusing time of it now that the majority of the curs had been dispatched. His sword stained crimson with the blood of a quartet of strangers who were even now dead meat slowly cooling against the forest floor, he raised it high above his head as he galloped after the fifth would-be assassin he'd targeted. Rapidly approaching the man's back, he slashed viciously downward; leather jerkin and flesh alike parted at the slash of razor-sharp metal.

The man tumbled to the earth; ignoring the throbbing pain in his shoulder--easy to do with battle lust filling his awareness--Saionji jumped to the ground from his perch atop his courser and slammed down on the man's head with the hilt of his longsword. Grunting in satisfaction as his foe collapsed limply, stunned, the verdant-maned chieftain straightened up and quickly scanned his surroundings with his violet gaze.

No other threats were immediately apparent. The remaining Kiryuu and Saionji warriors were loosely ringed around the two handmaidens, one of the lowlander lady's men at arms with the other men. All of them stood at the ready, though nothing more emerged from the forest to engage them. Absently planting a booted foot on the downed man's bleeding back--should the man begin to stir with returning consciousness, the vibrations of his movement would alert the prince to take further action--Saionji stood still, straining his hearing as well as his sight.

A tense quiet settled over the scene. Discovering no clues to even more of the damned strangers appearing seemingly out of nowhere, the green-haired lord made a sound of satisfaction as he turned his attention to the one still-living man. Dressed in a tunic of dark green and trews of deep brown--both hues ones which blended well with the colors and shadow of the forest--with black leather boots and a jerkin of the same material giving some protection over the torso, a wide leather belt around his waist under which was thrust a wooden scabbard and a quiver holding a few black-fletched arrows strapped across his back above where he was bleeding, there was nothing about the dark-haired man to give away whom his master was.

The rustle of foliage instantly caught his notice; light glimmered darkly against red-stained metal as Saionji whirled to face the direction of the sound, taking a ready stance. The moment he saw it was Touga and the fey-seeming lowlander woman, he sighed in relief and relaxed. “Where were you? You missed all the excitement,” he mildly teased, his gruff exterior hiding the sudden concern he had as his violet gaze focused on the arrow protruding from Touga's lower thigh.

“Off for a relaxing ride in the woods,” the redheaded prince responded in kind to his friend's joke. Becoming serious once more, he glanced around. “No others?”

“Doesn't seem to be any more of the accursed dogs,” Saionji acknowledged. Glancing down, he gave the body at his feet a shove with the booted foot that had been resting on it. “Captured one. Hopefully we'll find out who set their hounds on us.”

“Any clues?”

“Not a one,” the verdant-maned chieftain said, snorting in derision. Taking a moment to clean the steel of his sword on the downed man's clothing, Saionji resheathed his blade then bent down to pull the still stunned man to his feet.

Touga blinked, noting the crimson spot staining the shoulder of his friend's tunic and the hole in the fabric there. “Saionji? How badly are you wounded?”

The lord addressed glanced up and raised his eyebrows. “What? You mean this?” he asked, nodding his head to the right, indicating the blood-stained area in question. “It's nothing, really. Got clipped by an arrow. Near as I can tell, I had a small chunk torn from me, but nothing vital. Though I do want to make someone pay for giving me a new scar to bear.” Saionji then turned his head, calling out to the trio of his remaining warriors, “Someone come hold this cur!”

Two of the clansmen broke away from the ring surrounding the women, hastening to answer their lord's summons. Though wounded, they moved with relative ease, a hint that any injuries were more likely not life-threatening ones.

Violet eyes narrowed in a vicious expression; his attention once again focused on his captive, Saionji gave the dark brunette man a violent shake. “Wake up, mongrel, and tell us who your master is,” he growled. The moment his retainers took hold of the prisoner, the emerald-maned prince let go of him and stepped back.

The immediacy of the moment began to fade, bringing with it a renewed awareness of the missile transfixing his leg. Agony washed over Touga, the pain an intense throbbing in time with his still-rapid heartbeat. Feeling suddenly faint, the Kiryuu prince closed his eyes and tightened his grip on the reins.

Watching the redheaded lord rapidly turn deathly pale, Utena swung down from her saddle. The moment her feet touched ground, she called out for Wakaba to join her. Of all the members of their party, the two handmaidens were the only ones not bloodstained in some manner. As the unusually sedate handmaiden hastened to dismount from her palfrey and run to her mistress's side, Utena swiftly drew next to Touga and stared up at him. “Let me tend to your wound, my lord.”

“You know something of chirurgery?” he asked.

“Aye, a little. 'Tis a handy skill when one travels often,” the pink-attired maiden responded, slipping a hand carefully between man and horse where the arrow pinned them to one another. “Wakaba, fetch me my kit,” she added the minute the brown-eyed girl drew near. Wakaba nodded and moved quickly to rummage through the saddlebags on the rose-haired noble's palfrey. Meanwhile, Utena continued to gently probe the wound.

Touga's stallion started, trying to pull away. Hissing in renewed agony, the Kiryuu prince abruptly felt even more lightheaded as he fought to keep his mount under control.

Utena swiftly withdrew her hand, her pale skin smeared with human and equine blood alike. “Come hold his horse steady!” she shouted to the other men there. At the same moment, Wakaba returned to the noblewoman's side, hands clutching a plain brown leather pouch.

The remaining Saionji and Kiryuu warriors, as well as Tatsuya, quickly dismounted and rushed over to give the oddly-dressed maiden what assistance they could. The men surrounded the injured courser, one grabbing hold of the animal's bridle.

“I said 'Tell me who your master is'!” Saionji yelled at his prisoner, tiring of the staring game between the stranger with dark brown hair and himself.

“Go rot in Hell for eternity, Saionji,” the man snarled in return.

“Tell me or suffer the consequences, mongrel,” the green-haired lord growled.

“Do your worst. I have nothing to fear from a gelded gryphon such as you. Everyone knows that the Kiryuu emasculated you,” the stranger replied with a smirk.

Saionji blinked, momentarily astounded at the man's effrontery. Just as most of the ruling chieftains of the highlands were given colorful nicknames, the Saionji prince had one as well based on his coat of arms. His shield being a silver one bearing upon it the image of a rampaging green gryphon facing to the left had given to the Saionji princes the unofficial title of the Verdant Gryphon. His father dead, that informal sobriquet was now Saionji's, just as the official titles and the power had become. That this bag of offal that called itself a human dared hint that part of his being held hostage entailed that he was castrated made Saionji lash out in pure fury. Snarling, he gave the man a resounding open-handed slap across the face.

Were it not for the two grim-faced warriors holding him, the darkly-clad stranger would have fallen to the forest floor with the force of the angry lord's blow. It took him a heartbeat to recover from the ringing in his ears, but when he did, he gave his captor a leering grin. Noting the fury burning in the noble's purple eyes, he knew it wouldn't take much more to push the chieftain over the edge. “It's true, isn't it,” he murmured in a low voice while still smiling coolly at the Saionji prince, “that the elder Kiryuu turned you into a woman just to give his son a better plaything?”

A white-hot rage washed over Saionji. Without a thought, his sword was pulled, then slashed viciously. Blood abruptly burst out in a pulsing crimson fountain as the stranger's dark-haired head fell to the ground. The pair of Saionji warriors let go of the decapitated body, expressions of startled awe on their faces while their chieftain yanked his blade from where it had lodged in the man's right shoulder. “I am no one's plaything,” he snarled to the dead body, wiping off his sword on a portion of the man's clothing not drenched in blood.

Nearby, Utena drew her dagger, her free hand reaching up to carefully hold the notched end of the missile transfixing the Kiryuu prince's leg. “Hold as still as you can, my lord,” she murmured, setting the edge of the dagger against the wooden shaft just under the black feathers. So close was the fletching to Touga's leg that the flat of her dagger's blade brushed against his bloodstained pants.

Sucking in a breath and holding it, the redheaded lord braced himself. She would have to saw through the shaft with the knife in order to remove the feathered end of the arrow, and that meant the wound being unavoidably moved. As the vibrations of the shaft made the throbbing agony worse, Touga let his breath out slowly, doing his best to just shrug it off. However, the dagger was sharp and the sawing didn't take long for Utena to reach a point where she could cleanly snap off the fletching. Dropping the mass of feathers and wood to the detritus-strewn ground, she wiped her blade off on her pink tunic's skirt and replaced the knife.

Glancing up at him, she gave the handsome lord an encouraging smile. “I know it's going to hurt, but this is the best way. There's barely a handspan between you and your horse, and the arrowhead's embedded deep enough into your courser that I can barely feel the bumps made by the points. If you can move your leg so that the arrow slides through, that'll leave me enough shaft to grab hold of in order to help remove the arrow from your horse.”

Touga nodded, understanding. He at least could comprehend what was happening and react in a way that facilitated the outcome that would be the best for all involved, whereas his courser Wind would only know that what was being done hurt and would have no concept that such action would benefit him. Glancing down, he frowned thoughtfully as he scanned the angle of the slender rod of wood with his cobalt-blue gaze. Bracing himself once more, he closed his eyes and forced himself to move his injured limb upward and away from his courser. A low groan of agony was involuntarily torn from him while more pain--and the odd sensation of tortured flesh returning to its proper place--lanced through him; he grimly continued slowly pulling his thigh off the arrow embedded through it. Wind neighed and jumped, ramming into one of the warriors trying to hold him. The violent jostling pulled the missile through the rest of the way with a faint wetly-sucking sound. Gritting his teeth in anticipation of the expected impact, the scarlet-haired chieftain dismounted the only way he truly could; he let himself fall to the ground, knocking the breath from him when he landed hard on his unwounded side.

The moment he was safely on the ground, Utena dropped to kneel at his side. Holding up a hand, she demanded of her waiting handmaiden, “The shears, Wakaba.” Feeling the cool metal of the instrument in her palm, the young noblewoman lowered her hand to poke the lower point of the forged iron shears through the bloodstained fabric above the entry wound. She quickly proceeded to cut the downed prince's trews from his limb then tossed the cloth to the side, her gaze focusing on the wound.

The twin holes were oozing, but otherwise the injury looked clean. Apparently Touga had managed to keep his leg relatively immobile while he was pinned. Handing the shears back to the wide-eyed girl hovering nearby, Utena asked Wakaba to go fetch her water bag, wanting to wash away the blood before attempting to further treat the injury.

“So how bad is it?” the redheaded lord softly asked the moment he had caught his breath. Raising himself up on an elbow, the ends of his bright hair pooling against the forest floor, he attempted to look at the wound as well.

“It appears you were lucky. I don't see any signs yet of contamination, and the edges of the wound are smooth, not ragged or torn.” Glancing up as a shadow fell over her, Utena gave her servant a smile and took the goatskin bag full of potable water from the other girl. “Let me clean it off so that I can see better what it is I'm doing...”

“Take your time, my lady,” Touga replied, gently chuckling. “It's not as if I'm going to be getting up any time soon.”

“A couple of stitches to encourage the skin to mesh and you'll be as good as new in no time,” Utena responded, fervently hoping that the wound wouldn't somehow fall prey to putrefaction. Pulling the stopper from the bag's neck, she gave the soft goatskin a squeeze, forcing out the clear liquid within. For good measure, she poured some more into each end of the injury, hoping the water would take with it any splinters that may have happened to be broken from the surface of the shaft; Touga moved his leg at her direction to let her get to the wound on the inner side of his thigh, closing his eyes and softly hissing as he did so.

While the rose-haired maiden and her rather subdued handmaiden were tending to the other chieftain, Saionji gestured to the two warriors near him to follow him. Still appearing awestruck, they murmured their acquiescence then trailed along after their lord as the verdant-maned prince strode over to where the others were holding Touga's courser. Pulling his dagger from its sheath on his belt, Saionji looked over the arrow still protruding from the animal's side. “Keep him as steady as you can,” he ordered, his voice gruff. The two clansmen hastened to do as their chieftain had bidden while Saionji took hold of the wooden shaft in his free hand.

Two quick slashes and a yank, helped along when Wind neighed and attempted to rear up, and the arrow was free of the horse. One of the Saionji warriors grabbed for the bridle, helping Tatsuya keep the animal from pulling his head free of the man at arm's grasp. A quick glance of violet eyes and a grim smile; the missile was intact, the arrowhead still attached to the shaft. With a sound of satisfaction, Saionji dropped the object from his grasp. He then raked his gaze over the other highlanders there. “Let the lady's man hold Wind. Spread out and find those we're missing.” As they nodded and walked off in various directions, the green-haired man added, muttering, “Let's see how bad it really is...”

It was the worst it could have been. After gently commanding Wakaba to bind Touga's leg tightly from a strip torn from the hem of the rose-haired maiden's pink-hued tunic before doing so, Utena then moved on to stitching up the courser's wound. Meanwhile, the remaining highlanders returned with only two of the runaway mounts and none of the missing men. All were dead, leaving them just over half their number alive and all but the three women wounded in some manner. A short discussion followed, during which it was reluctantly decided that the bodies of the dead would have to be left behind. Day was inexorably on its way to night, and should word reach the would-be assassins' master that they had failed in their task, they could face another fight. Should that happen, the nobles and their remaining entourage would be hard-pressed to defend themselves once more. Their best chance of survival would be to ride as fast as possible for the hunting lodge on the Saionji lands, as had been their original intent.

The moment they were all mounted again, a couple of the highlander clansmen helping shove Touga back up into the saddle, they were off, riding at a fast trot through the evergreens.
The fire was warm and cheerful, the dancing orange light shining on the small group of people gathered there. Though normally a time for relaxation and good-natured conversation, the events of earlier that day kept everyone in a dampened mood. A simple meal had been fixed with what had been available in the lodge's stores, and the first drink of the night had been a toast to the memory of the fallen. After that, all of them had eaten in silence, their minds on the ambush.

Poor Ryu, killed in the defense of his mistress and now his body lying in the forest, meat for the scavengers. Utena frowned slightly, dreading having to tell the young man's mother of her son's fate. Memories came unbidden, of her times with the brunette youth in her company, of the conversations and events they'd shared in her travels.

Taking a swallow of his wine, Touga glanced over at the melancholy-appearing woman. For him at least the pain, blessedly, was beginning to fade somewhat under the influence of the alcohol, though he certainly wasn't planning on getting drunk like some of the others. Utena sat there, her expression morose, finger rubbing idly against the side of a pewter goblet. “It's always tough, my lady, though as time goes on, it gets somewhat easier,” the redheaded lord said.

Utena blinked, then looked over at the man who spoke. “What does?”

“Dealing with the fact that people die in your service,” he gently replied. “Though the ones that no longer care are the ones to worry about.”

“I just keep wondering what to tell his mother...”

“Just tell her the truth,” Saionji said, his low voice for once having a soft tone to it. “It can't ever give her back her son, but to know that he died honorably should help some.”

“And I can't even send him back home for her to bury,” Utena sighed.

“On the morrow, my men and I are going to ride as fast as possible to Pinehaven, my lady,” Saionji responded. “I'm going to bring back enough to guard this place and send men into the Kaoru lands to bring them all home.” He paused, taking a sip from his cup. “I won't let any of them rot in the wilderness. They deserve better.”

“How's your shoulder?” Touga asked, flicking his dark blue gaze over to his friend.

“Stiff, but otherwise all right.” Saionji set the goblet down, then slowly moved his right arm through its entire range of motion, grimacing slightly at the pain. “Functional, anyway.”

“That's good.” Frowning, the redheaded chieftain looked to his bandaged leg. “I fear I'll be off my feet for a couple of days.”

“That's why you get to stay here, and why I'm going to bring enough men to guard this place,” the verdant-maned lord replied.

“But what if someone comes while he's gone?” Shiori asked, tilting her short-haired head slightly in curiosity. “That would just leave Tatsuya and Lord Touga's man to guard our lady, Lord Touga, Wakaba and me...”

“Can't be helped,” Saionji muttered, the hair on the back of his neck rising slightly as a shiver ran down his spine. Something about that question put him on edge, though he couldn't explain just what that something could be. Inwardly, he decided to leave his own men behind, risking the gallop from here to Pinehaven alone. He was on his own lands now, and should be safe.

“I'm sure we'll be fine,” Touga responded, nodding as the men around him echoed the sentiments. “The lodge is fortified and easily defended from the inside. And we are on Saionji lands; I trust you have regular patrols to look for any remaining troublemakers?”

“Of course,” the Verdant Gryphon replied. “Wardens as well as my warriors patrol my lands, watching for poachers, raiders and outlaws alike. Still, those men that ambushed us... Was it just me, or did they seem to come out of nowhere?”

“They appeared as if they were spirits, m'lord,” one of the three remaining Saionji men answered, hazel eyes wide. “One moment they were not to be seen, the next they were there, on the attack.”

“I don't like the fact that they were so close to the border with our lands,” muttered another of the surviving clansmen. “Why didn't the Kaoru discover them sneaking about?”

“Maybe the fact that they did just appear has something to do with it,” Touga murmured, gazing into his goblet thoughtfully.

“What are you thinking?” Saionji asked, recognizing the tone of his friend's voice.

“Magic... I wonder if they didn't have some sort of mystical help.”

“But who would want us dead enough...?”

“I'm not certain that we were the targets, Saionji,” the Red Tyger said. “Aye, our men died. Aye, you and I both were wounded. But some of those attackers were attempting to drag Lady Utena from her horse.”

“Ah...” Saionji replied, thinking back on the conversation with Lord Miki. Not wanting to mention that in front of the lady in question, he fell silent, purple gaze focused on the dancing flames. Perhaps then the attack was something instigated by Lord Akio in order to take into custody the lady whom he sought. For a moment, he regretted losing his temper and destroying the only means they had had to discover for certain who had ordered the attack, though the moment he recalled the man's words, he clenched a fist in renewed fury.

From the sound of the comment, Touga was certain his foster brother's thoughts had turned in the same direction his own had. Lord Akio was more than likely the person behind the incident, and the thought of the Phoenix somehow getting his hands on the slender warrioress made him grit his teeth. No, he certainly didn't wish to see Lady Utena somehow in Ohtori's power.

“M'lady, I think it's time Wakaba and I retired for the night,” Shiori said, setting down her goblet.

Turning her sea-blue gaze to her handmaidens, the woman in question nodded her head. The three of them were given one of the lodge's rooms to share, the two ladies in waiting assigned cots that were pulled from the closet and set up for them. A third cot, situated next to the entrance of the room, was awaiting Tatsuya--as the sole survivor of her guard, it was his place to sleep where he could bar the way to anyone coming to attempt to molest any of the ladies within. Knowing that it wouldn't be seemly to stay alone in a roomful of men, no matter how much she wished to keep the scarlet-maned chieftain company, Utena gracefully stood. “Very well. I shall join you, since I too am feeling weary from the day's events,” she replied. Taking a step forward, she paused and glanced back at the men continuing to sit around the fire. “Good night to you all. We shall see you on the morrow.”

The chieftains and the warriors all murmured in response, falling silent until the ladies were safely ensconced within the room given to them for the night. After a number of moments, during which the only sound that was heard was the crackling of the fire, Touga took another drink from his wine. “If the Phoenix is behind what happened today, he's going to pay for it.”

“You think he's the one?” Saionji asked.

“Those men were attempting to carry her off. It was obvious they were trying to pull her from her palfrey.”

“I wonder why he wants her so badly?” the emerald-maned chieftain queried.

“I don't know. But I'm beginning to wonder if her quest has something to do with it,” Touga answered.

“Why do you say that?”

“Magic... Her quest has the feel of magic to it, and I think those men had magic helping them.” He gazed thoughtfully into the heart of the flames. “She seeks the champion of Love, some man who is an example of the virtues sought after by those who revere Amor. But why?”

“She’s not told you what it's all about yet?” Saionji asked.

“No, not a word. Though truly, it's something I want to do for its sake alone.”

“Oh? I thought you were doing it to win her hand,” the Gryphon replied. “And only that reason, since you're so set on marrying her.”

“I've changed. I can't easily explain it, but I want to be this. I want to prove myself worthy as one who can do this task the champion must perform. When I was standing there, facing Lord Souji, it came to me... There's so much chaos and hatred in the world that I want to be one that stands against it, to be a shining beacon fighting against the darkness.”



“I think you truly have gone mad...”
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