Once Walked With Dragons

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Chapter Three

A few days after the incident at the stone ring, the travel party finally arrived at Varden Castle. Once everyone was safely inside the walls, the unpacking started. Afterwards everyone retired to their rooms for the night. The Ravens and Rorins retired to their respective barracks on the castle grounds. The barracks, in which the Ravens stayed, seemed rather empty, as only five Ravens currently occupied it.

Inside the castle, Lady Elayne was informing King Artemis and her father about the course of their journey. Though she seemed to be more subtle than she had been during the trip, she still made it very clear that she disliked the Ravens. The king listened closely to every word she said, and even though he trusted the Ravens greatly, he also took Lady Elayne’s word under consideration as she was Duke Prax’s daughter. Though he knew there weren’t much he could do; they were not his subjects.
Her father seemed a little more concerned, but his daughter was safe and that’s all that mattered to him.
Even though the Ravens would rather flee than fight the kingdom they were assisting, they would not appreciate being accused of things they most probably did not do.

‘Sharzak?’ Michael started, ‘You’re kidding right?’
‘I wish I was.’ Keara answered.
‘Wasn’t Sharzak the one who tried to rule over the Dark Elves?’ Alexander asked.
‘Yes. He was also the one who killed the first dragon.’ Michael added.
‘That doesn’t explain why he said he’d make our kin pay.’ Keara said.
‘The Dark Elves and Sharzak and his followers were allies, centuries ago. But things turned sour when he killed the reigning Queen whilst she was in Reverie, and attempted to take control of the Dark Elves.’ Michael explained.
‘No Dark Elf would willingly allow another to have power over them, except Drow royalty, of course.’ Keara spoke.
‘Exactly. And as our kin isn’t very tolerant, he was sentence to eternal imprisonment.’ Michael added.
‘But he wasn’t imprisoned. It wasn’t Sharzak in that tomb.’ Keara pointed out.
‘He must have escaped somehow before the sentence was carried out. They probably decided to imprison the next best.’ Michael thought.
‘Probably.’ Keara agreed, ‘But why would Sharzak want control over the Dark Elves anyway? No one likes us. He wouldn’t have had a lot of influence.’
‘I believe in that time, people thought quite highly of the Dark Elves. Our kin was well respected.’ Michael said.
‘So what changed?’ she wanted to know.
‘Everything Sharzak had done, trying to gain our allegiance.’ Michael said.
Everyone was silent for a moment, then Alexander sat forward in his chair, ‘But why didn’t they just sentence him to death and get it over with? Better yet, why didn’t they kill him the moment they found out what he had done?’
‘Because they didn’t know how to kill him.’ Michael said.
‘There isn’t a way?’ Jonathan tensed up a bit.
‘There is a way.’ Michael started, ‘But that secret;’ he paused for a brief moment, looking at Keara, ‘is hidden in the Archives; in Velmoura.’
‘In Surendorn?’ Keara knew.
‘Yes. At the Home of the Drow.’ Michael replied.
Surendorn was a place where no surface dweller ever ventured. It was a dark place, completely untouched by natural light. The Dark Elves lived in Velmoura. But they weren’t the only beings down there. Surendorn was the place where nightmares were born; where unknown creatures dwelled.
‘So we’ll never find it.’ Jonathan sat back hopelessly.
‘What do you mean we’ll never find it?’ Keara started.
‘The three of us can’t enter Surendorn, let alone Velmoura; we’ll get slaughtered on sight. Michael won’t let you go. And he won’t go by himself, either.’ Jonathan explained.
Keara stared at Michael; she knew that he knew much more than he was sharing.
‘How about we just worry about that when we get there?’ Keara suggested.
Silence fell in the common room. Shortly afterwards, there came a knock from the door. Jonathan got up from his chair and answered the door as it was obvious that no one else was going too; and he was nearest to the door.
Moments later, he returned with a servant of the king following closely behind him.
‘He has brought us an invitation.’
‘But we have already received our invitations for the masquerade.’ Alexander said, ‘And we’ll be there tomorrow.’
The servant stepped forward, ‘Indeed. But this is not an invitation to the masquerade. It’s an invitation to dinner tonight, in the throne room. The Rorins will also be there.’
‘An almost personal audience with the king.’ Keara said.
‘Ooh. How did we ever get so lucky?’ Joseph said sarcastically in a high-pitched voice.
Michael just elbowed his younger brother.
‘Lady Elayne and Duke Prax will also be there.’
‘Of course they will.’ Keara added.
‘May I tell the king you accept the invitation?’ the servant asked, ignoring all the comments that were being made.
‘Yes, you may.’ Keara answered.
The servant bowed and made his way out of the Raven barracks and back to the castle.
‘Looking forward to a proper meal.’ Joseph said with a big smile on his face.
Everyone simply looked at him.
‘What?’ he said defensively, ‘You’re all thinking it, I just said it.’

A few hours later, the Ravens walked into the throne room. There were more people present than they had expected, though they probably should’ve realized that Lady Elayne would have her entire entourage there; and they were all keeping their distance from her and her brothers.
Duke Prax, however, did not waste any time in approaching the Ravens and thanking them for his daughter’s safe arrival.
‘I do apologize for my daughter’s attitude. She is quite used to getting what she wants, and she doesn’t like being told what to do, even if it is for her own good.’ Duke Prax explained.
‘You don’t say.’ Joseph said sarcastically.
Keara just elbowed him in the stomach and gave him a look that meant he should keep his mouth shut.
‘It’s quite alright.’ Keara replied.
Duke Prax gave a slight bow and turned away to go sit down.
The king was talking to a Rorin, but invited him to join him in greeting the Ravens.
King Artemis took Keara’s hand and kissed it, ‘I’m glad you and your brothers came, Keara.’
Keara was not really used to such customs and felt herself flush when the king kissed her hand. Her brothers just chuckled behind her.
‘Thank you for the invitation, Artemis.’ she said when she had finally composed herself.
‘You are most welcome. We couldn’t very well have dinner without the heroes of the day.’
‘Heroes of the day?’ Keara didn’t understand.
‘Yes. You got Lady Elayne and her entourage here safely. The trip was successful.’
‘I wouldn’t exactly say it was successful.’
‘Everyone survived. That’s successful enough.’ Artemis said, and before she could argue his point, he said, ‘My brother has told me a great deal about you. You deserve more credit than you allow yourself to receive.’
‘Your brother?’ Keara forgot what she wanted to argue about.
‘Deryck.’ Artemis directed to the Rorin standing behind him. He stepped forward and stood next to his brother, ‘It seems he enjoys your hospitality more than those of the Rorins.’
‘Is that a bad thing?’ Keara wasn’t sure how she was supposed to interpret that statement.
‘It most certainly is not.’ Deryck said before Artemis could even open his mouth to speak. He took Keara’s hand and hooked in his arm with hers, placing his hand softly over hers where she touched his arm.
All she could do, was smile.
Deryck smiled brightly at her and lead her to a seat next to his own, ‘Please come sit next to me.’
Her brothers all lined up next to her.
‘You’re Deryck Varden?’ Keara asked incredulously.
‘Yes.’ he started, ‘I’m sure I mentioned my last name during the last few days.’
‘You most certainly did not.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay. At least now I can put a face to the name.’
‘You’ve heard my name before?’
‘Yes. Your brother talks a lot about you. It’s just that, when he does, you never seem to be around.’
‘I’m constantly travelling.’
‘I’ve noticed.’ Keara said with cheekiness tugging at the edges of her voice.
Everyone went to their seats as soon as the king was at his table. Lady Elayne sat down next to him, trying desperately to get his attention and at the same time, scowled at Keara who was sitting next to Deryck and so close to the king.
Artemis stood up and first welcomed everyone and thanked them for being there. He was grateful to the Ravens for putting their lives on the line for Lady Elayne, but she just snorted. Artemis ignored her and continued to tell everyone to enjoy their dinner and wine.
Everyone was indeed enjoying themselves; until Lady Elayne, who could no longer hold her tongue, exclaimed, ‘With all due respect, Your Majesty, how can you let that demon sit at this table and enjoy your hospitality?’
‘What demon, Elayne?’ Artemis wasn’t particularly interested in this conversation.
‘That one,’ she pointed at Keara, ‘with her demon brothers.’
‘How dare you!?’ Deryck exclaimed as he flew up from his chair, ‘Keara’s no demon. She’s the reason you’re still alive.’
‘Deryck,’ Keara said calmly as she gently took hold of Deryck’s arm.
He swung around and found himself staring into sad, hurt, angry, soulful yet dead purple eyes.
‘It’s okay.’ she said as he slowly sat down, still staring into her eyes.
‘But she...’ Deryck was cut off by Michael.
‘We’re used to it. People tend to get frightened of beings they don’t understand.’ Alexander said.
‘Maybe she thinks I’m a demon because she’s one herself.’ Keara said without twitching, ‘Because it takes one to know one.’
‘How dare you!?’ Lady Elayne exclaimed, ‘You have no right...’
‘That’s enough Elayne!’ Duke Prax forcefully interrupted her.
Lady Elayne looked at her father with pure shock in her eyes, ‘But she...’
‘I said that’s enough.’ his voice became like thunder.
She just lowered her head.
Keara looked at Lady Elayne with dark, dead eyes, ‘It seems we’ve overstayed our welcome.’ she got up and headed for the door, closely followed by her brothers. Joseph quickly grabbed some meat before joining them.
‘You most certainly have not.’ Artemis said, ‘Lady Elayne is about to apologize for her accusations.’ he looked angrily at Elayne.
Lady Elayne looked at her father, hoping to get support from him, ‘Well, Elayne, apologize.’
She shrugged her shoulders in defence, not believing that she should be the one to apologize.
‘That’s not necessary, Artemis.’ Keara gave Elayne a long look, ‘But perhaps, I’m not the one who is the demon.’ she turned and walked out the door.
Deryck quickly got up and went after the Ravens on their way outside. They were walking quite fast.
‘I don’t think people will ever accept us.’ Alexander said.
‘Until they’ve been in our shoes, they couldn’t possibly.’ Keara added.
‘Why do you say that?’ Joseph asked with a mouth full of food.
Keara turned to Joseph, and gave him a stupid look, ‘Did you just miss everything that happened?’
Joseph considered everything for a moment, ‘No.’
‘Then you know we have just been called demons.’
He nodded.
‘And until they have walked a mile in our shoes, that is all we will ever be to them.’
After a short moment of silence, Joseph started speaking again as they made their way to the Raven barracks, ‘We should’ve gotten more food.’
They all chuckled, ‘Haven’t you had enough already?’ Keara asked.
‘Yeah, but it was so good.’ Joseph complained.
Keara just shook her head.
‘Keara!’ a voice resounded from behind them.
They all stopped in their tracks, ‘Everyone heard that, right?’ Jonathan asked like a Nervous-Nelly.
Everyone nodded their heads.
‘Keara!’ the voice shouted again.
‘It’s Deryck.’ Keara said.
‘He really seems to like you.’ Alexander observed.
‘What are you talking about?’ Keara started, as though she had no idea what he meant.
‘We’ll leave you two alone.’ Michael said with a smile, ‘Perhaps he won’t think the same as most other humans do.’ he walked off, closely followed by the other three.
Joseph had intended to stay, but Alexander grabbed him by the collar and pulled him along with them back to the barracks. Keara headed in the opposite direction towards the courtyard fountains.
‘Keara!’ Deryck shouted again, believing that he had lost her.
‘Over here.’ she called calmly as she sat down on the edge of the fountains.
Deryck looked around frantically. When he saw her there, he rushed over to her, ‘Please don’t leave.’
‘What?’ she didn’t understand what he was talking about.
‘Please don’t leave because of what happened.’ he begged.
‘Why would you think we would leave over something as stupid as that?’ she started, ‘We only walked out on dinner.’
‘I know, but no matter what anyone says; my brother and I, we don’t want you to go.’ Deryck almost seemed to be falling over his words.
‘Does your brother really want us here?’
‘He defended you, didn’t he?’
‘True.’ Keara considered.
‘And he would’ve chased you out of the kingdom long ago if he didn’t want you here.’ Deryck said.
‘Your brother is not my king, Deryck; nor is any other being on this earth. He couldn’t chase us from here, even if he wanted too.’ Keara explained with a little more force than she intended.
‘Of course.’ Deryck knew it was true, ‘But at any rate, Artemis doesn’t see you or your brothers as evil beings.’
‘I know. But Elayne seems very keen on getting us on everyone’s bad side.’
‘She’s never approved of anything or anyone that’s different. Artemis trusts her father’s word more than he trusts hers. But regardless, as far as the Ravens go, he just ignores everyone’s opinion about you, especially hers. Trust me, he’s gotten rather good at that. He’s gotten rather good at ignoring her in general.’
Keara couldn’t help smiling at that.
‘I’m glad to see you smiling.’ Deryck’s face lit up suddenly, ‘In this world I know it must be hard for you and your brothers.’
Keara looked away from Deryck, turned around to face the fountain and crossed her legs on the edge.
She looked thoughtfully into the water. Deryck just sat on the edge of the fountain and watched her, wondering how such a girl could handle the hardships of the world against the elves and stay sane.
‘It’s not the first time I’ve been called a demon and I don’t think it will be the last.’ Keara said.
‘But she had no right to call you that.’ Deryck objected.
‘I expect it’s because of what she saw me turn into.’
‘She still didn’t have the right.’ Deryck said again, ‘What was that you turned into anyway?’ Deryck’s curiosity got the best of him.
‘I would tell you, but to be honest, I really don’t know.’
‘Yeah.’ Keara answered, ‘Michael says it’s something about my lineage. Something like, only the most powerful Dark Elf can turn into, whatever that was. And it only happens once in a millennia. The name of the creature is said to be so ancient that the elders of all the elven species don’t even use it anymore. Or at least, that’s what Michael tells me, so it’s probably just a story.’
‘Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it seems you don’t know very much about your race.’ Deryck was almost too afraid to utter those words.
‘That’s because I don’t. And I can’t tell you why, either. According to my father it has something to do with my genetics.’ Keara started, ‘Michael on the other hand, knows almost everything about every specie, which is apparently very normal. It seems every elf knows the basic history, except me.’
‘And this is all because of genetics?’ Deryck asked incredulously.
‘According to my father, yes.’
‘Who is human.’ Deryck pointed out.
Keara just looked at Deryck, ‘My father knows more about this kingdom than your brother will ever know.’
‘Fair enough.’ Deryck said, ‘But why don’t you just ask Michael to tell you more?’
‘Because he refuses to. He says it’s not the right time to tell me and Alexander says it’s Michael’s way of protecting me.’
‘But secrecy is often more dangerous than knowledge.’ Deryck said.
‘Especially with my kin.’ Keara added.
‘He has to tell you.’ Deryck sounded rather adamant.
‘You try telling him that.’ Keara started, ‘He’s more stubborn and hard-headed than I am. And that’s really saying something.’
Deryck gave a soft chuckle. To him, Michael didn’t seem stubborn, but then again, he didn’t know any of them all that well, so he had to accept the possibility that it might be true.
There was a moment of silence between them, ‘So, will you be going to the masquerade tomorrow night?’ Deryck asked nervously.
‘We all said we’d be there. Though you will all have to be content with our uniforms. We don’t exactly have party attire in the barracks.’
‘You’ll be there. That’s all that matters.’ Deryck smiled.
‘But after that, we will have to leave.’
‘What?’ Deryck’s voice pitch changed a little, ‘But you just said a moment ago that you weren’t leaving.’ Deryck started.
‘We’re not leaving because of your people, Deryck. We’re leaving because we wanna see our family.’
‘Your family?’ Deryck relaxed a bit.
‘Yes. We haven’t seen them in months; especially with escorting the nobles to the castle for the masquerade. And I think my brothers are really starting to miss their spouses and children.’
‘What about you?’ he asked.
‘I miss my mom and dad.’
‘I mean, isn’t there a husband waiting for you at home?’ Deryck asked, hoping that she would say no.
‘No. Joseph and I are the only siblings that aren’t married yet. Though he seems to have his eye on someone.’
‘And, do you have your eye on someone?’
She looked at Deryck with laughter in her eyes, ‘Not at the moment.’
Deryck breathed a sigh of relief, ‘When will you be back?’
‘I’m not sure. Why?’
Deryck shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant, ‘Just asking.’
After a moment of silence, she asked him, ‘So what’s the story behind the Rorins?’
‘It’s a long story.’ he answered.
‘And that’s a problem?’
He chuckled, ‘Of course not.’
‘So tell me then.’
‘Alright.’ Deryck made himself comfortable on the edge of the fountain, ‘Well, during my father’s reign, many men and women had enlisted to become soldiers. But during that time we were at peace. It wasn’t really that he didn’t need any more, but he did require certain people with a bit more experience outside the castle walls. People who could run errands and still knew how to use a weapon. Of course your family was there, but, I believe during that time, they were across the sea, fighting the king in those lands.’
‘I had been told he was rather corrupt.’ Keara added.
‘From what I hear, he was more than corrupt. And if your family hadn’t been there at the time, we would probably be in the middle of war right now.’ Deryck said, ‘But anyway, because your family wasn’t always available, my father established the Rorins; named after him.’
‘Who was the castle named after?’
‘After his great grandfather. He was the first of the Vardens to settle in Edlenna.’
‘Oh. So why did you become a Rorin?’
‘I like to travel, ever since I was little. Whenever my father would travel somewhere, I would go with him. I grew up, wanting to become a Rorin. And with my brother being king and all, there’s nothing better to do.’
Keara couldn’t help but giggle, ‘What about the Golden Crests?’
‘They belonged to my mother.’
‘Really?’ Keara sounded surprised, ‘My father told me that she had been a very peaceful woman.’
‘She was.’ Deryck said, remembering how sweet she had always been, ‘She was the peacekeeper. My father would often consult with her about situations before taking action.’
‘But then, why do the Golden Crests exist?’
‘To keep the peace.’ he answered simply, ‘The Rorins have always been the warriors, but without my father’s guidance, they weren’t always sure when to proceed peacefully. That’s where the Golden Crests came in. They were hand-picked by my mother; people who could defend themselves, but would first try a more peaceful alternative.’
‘But why are they called the Golden Crests, though?’
‘She always wore a golden crest around her neck as a symbol of her people.’
‘Her people?’
‘I never knew who they were. But because her values and that of her people intertwined with that of the Golden Crests, she decided to give them that name. Or at least that’s what my father told me. I was very young when she died.’
‘How did she die?’ Keara asked softly.
‘She was with your family, fighting the Corrupt King.’
Keara’s eyes widened, ‘And you don’t blame us for that?’
‘It wasn’t your family’s fault.’
‘That’s a nice thing to say.’
‘It’s true.’ Deryck paused, ‘Your family has always been painfully honest.’
Keara had to agree with that.
‘I know they would’ve done something if there really was any way to save her.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Keara said with genuine sympathy.
‘It’s okay.’ Deryck smiled softly at her.
‘And thanks.’
‘For what?’
‘For knowing the truth and not holding a grudge.’
‘You’re welcome.’ he smiled even more.
There was a moment of silence between them as they stared at the fountain, watching the reflection of the moon ripple as the water moved.
‘So,’ Deryck started, ‘Why is your family called the Ravens.’
She considered the question for a moment, ‘My father’s ancestors thought it was an appropriate name for the job we do. We go on the most dangerous errands; we are trained from the moment we learn to walk; from a very young age we learn how to become more powerful than those around us. Even the humans in our family are more powerful than most.’
‘What about your origins?’
‘My father used to tell us many stories about our origins. Most of them were bedtime stories; I don’t even know if they were true. But he used to say that the first Raven had decided to take matters into his own hands when he saw that the world around him had fallen apart during a time of war. He decided to do things that others were too afraid to do. Many family members had decided to join him, but many also shunned him. At first people regarded them as criminals, but upon seeing what they were doing, they became heroes.’
‘That’s quite interesting.’ Deryck remarked.
‘Yeah, I guess. I still kinda feel like it’s just a bedtime story.’
‘Well, I like it. And it seems quite accurate. It is after all what you do, isn’t it?’
Keara smiled, Yes.’
Deryck smiled widely.
They continued to talk until the moon was high up in the sky and midnight passed.

The next morning when Deryck woke up, he couldn’t wait to tell his brother about the wonderful evening he had with Keara. He got dressed and headed for his brother’s chambers. He knocked on the door and waited.
‘Enter.’ a voice called from the other side of the door.
Deryck opened the door, ‘Am I intruding?’ he asked peeking his head through.
‘No, Deryck. Come in.’ Artemis said.
He stood in front of a mirror, with a tailor flocking around him; making the final adjustments to the clothes he would be wearing this evening.
‘Happy birthday, Artemis.’ Deryck said as he approached.
‘Thank you, Deryck.’ Artemis said with a smile, ‘You should have your clothes fitted one last time before tonight. Just to make sure everything is still fine.’
‘Yeah, sure.’ Deryck had no intention of doing so, but agreed anyway.
Artemis noticed that Deryck was beaming from ear to ear, ‘You seem to be in a very good mood this morning.’
Deryck looked at Artemis with a smile on his face, ‘Really? Maybe that’s because I am.’
‘I take it you had a good evening.’ Artemis tugged at his clothes.
He didn’t much like being doted upon like this. It didn’t really matter to him what the clothes looked like as long as he had something to wear.
He was a tall, majestic man, with a short beard and piercing blue eyes. He never really wore the royal jewellery, which had been passed down from generation to generation, only the crown and a golden crest around his neck; and then, also only when it was required. He was a fair king; always trying to take everybody into consideration and giving everyone a fair chance to explain themselves in any situation.
‘I had a wonderful evening. We were sitting by the fountain, talking for hours.’ Deryck mused.
‘Who’s “we”?’ Artemis wanted to know.
‘Keara and I.’ Deryck answered.
‘You spent the evening with Keara?’ Artemis asked, surprised.
‘Yes.’ Deryck smiled, ‘We talked all night.’
‘And she didn’t shy away from you?’
‘Why would she? I didn’t treat her like a demon.’
‘No. But you acted like a little puppy in love.’
‘I wasn’t being that obvious.’ Deryck thought, ‘At least, I don’t think so.’
Artemis smiled, ‘You really are hopeless.’
‘So,’ Deryck decided to change the subject, ‘You looking forward to the evening’s festivities, birthday boy?’
‘It would be nice to relax for a change.’ Artemis admitted.
‘And have some fun.’ Deryck added.
‘You make it sound like I never have fun.’
‘Not since you became king.’
‘You try being king for a day. It’s not as easy as it looks.’
‘No thanks. There’s a reason why you’re the king and I’m not.’
‘Come on. Just for one day.’ Artemis seemed to joke, but also seemed to be begging his brother to take over his duties.
Deryck chuckled, ‘No thanks, big brother.’
Artemis sighed, ‘Very well.’ he said in mock defeat.
‘We should go riding again. Being on horseback always seemed to clear your head.’ Deryck suggested.
‘That sounds great, but, I just haven’t the time.’
‘Well, make time. I’ll talk to your advisors, see if they can clear your schedule.’
Before Artemis could protest, Deryck was out the door. He went looking for the royal advisors; the three people who helped keep the king’s life in order. Without them, he probably would’ve gone insane. Deryck was determined to get a free day with his brother, but it seems that not even the king can relax on his birthday. He had several meetings to attend and still had to counsel the commoners in every day issues.
Absolved that he would not be spending the day with his brother as he had hoped, he went off in search of the Ravens; more specifically, Keara. He knocked on the door of the Raven barracks, but no one answered. He peaked through the window, but couldn’t see anyone inside.
‘Where is everyone?’ he asked to himself, and in that moment, he panicked.
Maybe they had left. Keara had told him they would be at the masquerade this evening, but perhaps they had decided to pass on that, considering how they had been treated at dinner during the previous night.
But he soon found them in the training yard. It seemed some of the Rorins had taken a shine to the Ravens and their fighting skills and had asked to be coached to enhance their own skills. Keara was demonstrating a particular sequence with short blades she and Michael had often practiced when they were younger. A Rorin slowly went through the sequence with her, determined to get it right and managed quite well; until Keara picked up the pace. The Rorin stumbled and only just managed to stay on his feet.
‘It takes a lot of practice to get the sequence right at a fast pace.’ Michael observed.
‘No kidding.’ the Rorin said sarcastically.
‘You’ll get it eventually. Took us a while to get there.’ Keara said.
The Rorin nodded his head, ‘Thanks for the lesson.’
‘You’re welcome.’ Keara said.
‘I would stay and practice, but unfortunately, I have other work to do today.’ the Rorin bowed slightly and excused himself.
Michael produced two short blades and stood battle ready, ‘Shall we?’ he asked Keara.
She shrugged her shoulders and stood battle ready, waiting for Michael to make the first move. Michael stepped forward and they began the same sequence she had just shown the Rorin, but somewhat faster.
Deryck watched as they moved at a fast pace, looking almost like dancers moving across the dance floor, every move perfectly timed.
When they completed the sequence, they bowed to each other and put their weapons away.
‘Will you teach me that?’ Deryck asked as he approached.
‘Sure.’ Keara said with a smile.
‘Keep in mind that it’s not easy.’ Michael said.
‘I know.’ Deryck replied, ‘I was watching.’
‘You wanna go for a ride?’ Keara asked Deryck, looking up at him with a sparkle in her eye and a soft smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Before Deryck realized it, he was smiling, ‘I would love too.’
He forgot about everything else and followed her to the stables.
Her brothers went about their business, not asking any questions. Only smiling widely at the obvious infatuation of their little sister and the prince.
They didn’t really talk much, but they enjoyed the time together, riding through the fields. Keara enjoyed feeling the wind through her hair, though the bright light hurt her eyes a little. After a while, they stopped at a patch of trees. Keara dismounted and removed the water skin from the saddle, taking a sip of water before handing it to Deryck. He took a sip, feeling the water cool down his body that had been warmed by the sun. They sat down against one of the trees, just relaxing and talking for a little while, leaving the horses to graze.

Soon night fell and people started getting ready for the masquerade. Keara sat by her dresser, brushing her hair. She braided a few strands of hair and let the rest hang loosely over her shoulders. She even seemed to be humming to herself, something she hadn’t often done.
Michael stood in the doorway and knocked on the open door. Keara turned around.
‘You sound happy.’ he observed.
‘I had a good day,’ Keara remarked.
‘I’m happy to hear that.’
She just smiled.
‘You like him, huh?’
She didn’t answer, but it wasn’t necessary. Her cheeks flushed red.
Michael smiled. It wasn’t often that he saw Keara blushing, ‘Just as long as he treats you right.’
She smiled, feeling her cheeks warm even more. Her smile faded, ‘We have to talk about what ha6ppened in Ber Mara.’
Michael folded his arms, sighing, ‘We will; when the time is right.’
‘Something happened to me. I think the time is right.’
‘You’re not ready. I’m just trying to protect you.’
‘I think the time for that has passed, Michael.’
Michael fumbled with the seam of his shirt, ‘Can’t we talk about this some other time?’
‘When, Michael?’ Keara felt hopeless; she had practically begged him in the past, but still he refused. Could he not see how important it was for her to know?
‘You’ve been avoiding this subject since the day I transformed.’ she said.
Michael sighed, looking everywhere except at Keara, ‘Look, I understand your frustration. But sometimes it really is better not to know something. Believe me, I wish I didn’t know it.’
’But it is important for me to know. I have to know what happened to me; it could happen again.’
‘It probably will.’ Michael said softly, hoping she wouldn’t hear.
‘Are you serious? Michael, please.’ she pleaded.
‘I’m sorry, Keara. Not now.’ he said and walked away before Keara could protest anymore.

Evening came, and the masquerade began. The Ravens were just standing around, looking at all the nobles fluttering around the ballroom.
‘This is really weird.’ Joseph finally remarked.
‘Yeah.’ Keara agreed.
‘I’m not sure if I should be enjoying this or worry about being in the same room.’ Michael said.
‘I’m worried.’ Jonathan said, his voice pitched a little higher than usual.
A masked man came up to Keara. He was dressed in some of the finest fabric she had ever seen. And suddenly, she knew who it was. The Ravens had travelled almost as far to escort this man to the castle as they had, escorting Lady Elayne. Zola Fel, the Duke of Triska. He held out his hand to her.
‘Would you like to dance, Raven?’ he asked, in an accent so authentic, she almost didn’t understand him.
‘Um, uh, uh, um, no-no thanks.’ she stumbled over her words.
He bowed to her politely and went off to ask the next girl to dance.
She felt rather awkward. She didn’t really know what to do in situations like these. Growing up, they had had many parties and festivities, but it had never been quite so uptight as what they now saw before them.
‘Maybe we could sneak out the back.’ Alexander pondered.
Michael looked at him, ‘You sound like Joseph now.’
‘I agree with Alexander.’ Joseph said, half-putting his hand in the air.
The doorman announced a new arrival at the masquerade, ‘Prince Deryck Varden, of Edlenna.’
‘Isn’t there anywhere we could go where we’d have more fun?’ Keara asked.
‘What are you talking about? Your boyfriend’s here.’ Michael joked.
‘Good idea. Maybe he’ll know.’ Joseph said, excitedly.
Deryck looked around, hoping that Keara was already at the masquerade. But he soon realized that it would be no easy task finding her in such a huge crowd, as she was rather short, and everyone wore masks. And among such crowds, she usually kept to the shadows. He weaved through the crowd as fast as he could without appearing to be in a hurry; but was constantly stopped by a masked party-goer. After searching for several minutes, he considered just giving up, thinking that maybe she hadn’t arrived yet.
‘I’m gonna die if I just keep standing here.’ Joseph said, then looked at Keara, ‘Shall we walk around a little?’
‘Yes, I feel the same way.’ she answered, then she looked at the others, ‘How about you?’
‘I’m gonna stay here.’ Alexander said.
‘Yeah, me too.’ Jonathan agreed.
‘You two go have fun.’ Michael said, not really paying attention to his youngest siblings.
Keara and Joseph just shrugged their shoulders and went off. As they went along, Joseph kept grabbing something to eat from the tables. He had given Keara a glass of wine and taken one for himself.
It wasn’t long before the doorman announced the king’s arrival, ‘King Artemis Varden, of Edlenna, King of all the realm.’
Artemis started walking down the steps, with a lady on his arm. He greeted everyone politely and he answered all the mundane questions that came towards him.
‘I didn’t know Artemis was seeing someone.’ Joseph said.
‘I didn’t either.’ Keara said.
‘I was beginning to think you had decided not to come.’
Keara looked at the person speaking to her, ‘Deryck?’
‘Yes. I was having trouble finding you.’
‘Oh, that’s just because she’s so short.’ Joseph said, patting her on the head.
Keara just gave Joseph a look.
‘Well, anyway, I’m glad I found you.’
‘Are all noble happenings so uptight?’ Joseph asked.
‘Pretty much.’ Deryck answered without hesitation, ‘I never stay too long. It gets irritating after a while.’
‘Doesn’t sound like a bad idea.’ Joseph thought to himself, but loud enough for the others to hear him.
They walked around the ballroom, observing all the nobles and their strange ways, trying to avoid drawing any attention to themselves, though that was rather difficult because Deryck was with them.
As the evening progressed, Keara could see her older brothers quickly getting bored with the happening; and the wine wasn’t helping. She could only smile, for she knew exactly how they felt.
‘Shall we go have no fun somewhere else?’ Joseph asked.
‘Oh yes, let’s.’ Keara said.
They made their way out of the ballroom, trying to sneak through the shadows, hoping to remain unnoticed; Deryck especially.
‘Look.’ Alexander pointed in Keara’s direction, ‘They’re leaving.’
‘Good idea.’ Michael said.
The three brothers put everything down and also made their way out of the ballroom.
‘We were beginning to wonder when you were going to leave.’ Jonathan said once they were outside.
‘Why?’ Keara asked.
‘Because we didn’t want to leave when our two youngest siblings were still there.’
‘So what shall we do now?’ Joseph wanted to know.
‘I could get us some wine; then we could go and sit somewhere and build a fire.’ Deryck suggested.
‘Sounds like a plan to me.’ Alexander said.
‘Good.’ Deryck said, and taking Keara’s hand, walked off to find them some wine.
It took her a moment to realize what was going on. She had felt him taking her hand, but she had only noticed her legs moving when they were already some distance away from her brothers.
‘He is so smitten with her.’ Alexander observed.
They all chuckled.
Keara and Deryck soon reached the wine cellar, where he picked out several bottles, handing some to Keara and carried the rest himself.
The six of them spent the rest of the evening under the stars around a fire, drinking wine from the bottle and talking about everything and nothing.

The next morning, the Ravens were up early, feeling the effects of the wine, but were at least able to hide it.
Sometime during the evening, when they had decided to call it a night, Deryck had made his slow way back to his chambers and was sleeping off the hang over. But he awoke with a jolt. Keara and her brothers were leaving today and he at least wanted to see her again before she was gone. He grabbed a shirt and boots, running out the door, putting his clothes on as quickly as possible trying to avoid wasting any time. He stopped a short distance away from the gate, looking around but not seeing Keara or any of her brothers. For a moment he thought he was too late. He was about to turn around and head back to the castle when he heard the hung over voices of the Ravens heading towards the gate. He quickly headed towards them.
Keara was day-dreaming while her brothers were still talking about completely useless information.
‘Keara!’ he shouted.
She snapped out of her day-dream, but it took her a moment to realize where the voice was coming from and who it belonged to.
‘Keara!’ he shouted again.
She waved at him with a soft smile on her face; partly because she was happy to see him and partly because she was still feeling a bit hung over and putting on a big smile was more effort than she could manage. She pulled on the reins and Legacy came to a halt and Deryck stopped right next to them.
‘I thought I missed you.’ he said, a little out of breath.
‘You almost did.’
Her brothers stopped a few feet away, so as to not intrude on the conversation between Deryck and Keara.
‘I had hoped you wouldn’t leave this early. I enjoy spending time with you.’ Deryck admitted.
‘We have to leave this early if we want to arrive home before sundown. And there are some very important matters we have to discuss with our father as soon as possible.’ she explained.
‘Raven business.’ he knew, trying not to sound upset.
‘More or less.’
He smiled softly and said, ‘Be safe.’
‘Same to you.’ she smiled, ‘If you need us, you can send a message through the woods. We have informed your brother also.’
He just nodded.
She urged Legacy onward, but before she was even three feet away, he said, ‘Wait.’ and removed his necklace that was hidden beneath his shirt and handed it to her.
‘So you won’t forget me.’ it was the pendant he had worn the night he met the Ravens.
‘I don’t think that’s possible, Deryck.’
He shrugged with one shoulder, ‘Just in case.’
She looked at him, then at the necklace and put it around her neck. Then removed one of her favourite rings and handed it to him, ‘It’s my most prized ring. My mother gave it to me when I was just a child. Keep it safe for me until I get back.’
‘You bet I will.’ Deryck said, noticing that he couldn’t stop smiling at Keara.
Lady Elayne watched from a window as Deryck and Keara spoke. Her expression remained blank, but she never stopped watching them.
‘Goodbye Deryck.’ Keara greeted and motioned Legacy into a slow walk to join her brothers.
‘Goodbye Keara.’ Deryck stood there and watched them leave until he could no longer see them.
Keara kept looking at the necklace hanging around her neck, admiring it. She tucked it into her closed coat and joined her brothers. As soon as she joined then, they urged their horses into a run for they knew what lied ahead on their journey home and would prefer to avoid it.

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