The day had been something Caelia had never imagined she would ever face. She was awakened that morning in a cold, damp cell and startled back to her memories of the night before. She still had a few well-placed bruises to show for what had caused her overnight jail stay. Caelia studied the fire before her, poking at it with long sticks. Rhyli, her new-found traveling companion was much different from the pampered women she was used to engaging in her day to day routines. She smiled to herself. Rhyli was just the kind of woman that would have found herself locked in the stocks back at Aelhall. Probably would have been given a quick trial and then either executed outright as a nuisance, or marched off to work in Ael's mines. Caelia normally did not come into contact with people such as Rhyli. In fact, she had always been somewhat afraid of such close personal contact. Women of her status, in their silks and satins, normally handed out bread and charity pennies to such people.
Caelia always imagined that she understood the people and that she had sympathy for their plight, but now as she sat around a camp fire, far from the elegant hall and lax daily routine, mingling with a woman that would be in her lord's dungeon, she wasn't sure if she was as "worldly" as she had previously thought. It had been a long and frightening journey from a life she loved that brought her to this fire. A past life that could never be returned to her; one that was best forgotten. She knew she must somehow put her past behind her and move on to, who knew where. At the same time, Caelia had a burning within her to find a like-minded companion with whom she could talk about her life as she had always known it. She doubted that Rhyli would be a compassionate listener.
Caelia's thoughts drifted to her present circumstances. She shared a camp with a fugitive. In fact, she herself had most likely also become a fugitive through association, though she preferred not to test the theory. She was stuck with Rhyli, at least until she could learn a few more ways of the world – enough to survive on her own.
Why was someone after Rhyli? She could not imagine, though most likely Rhyli had stolen someone's horse… most likely the horse of some lord she knew. Whether Rhyli would confess to the crime or not, Caelia was stuck in the same boat. She would try to wrestle the truth from the girl.
A stiff wind picked up from over the trees. Caelia shivered and dug in her pack for a warmer cloak. She was glad she had been able to pack some of her belongings, though she discovered that transporting a heavy pack with clothes and valuables, over time, had become quite burdensome. Caelia got up and retrieved another pile of sticks for the fire. The smell of burning wood was somehow comforting, though she wished she had a nice warm mug of mulled wine to go with the fire.
Silently stepping into the ring of firelight, Rhyli returned to the fire from whence she had been. She was damp from a swim in a lake, but she was clean. Her adobe paint washed off, Rhyli's normally roguish look reappeared. Caelia smiled inwardly. Rhyli was trouble, but Caelia was beginning to like this girl, though she still planned to cautious in dealing with her. Caeilia's friends back home would be scandalized.
"So the Asian princess returns fresh as a flower!" Caelia laughed at the now clean woman before her.
Before Rhyli had a chance to retort, another figure stepped out of the shadows into the light of the fire ring. The man was blond with piercing blue eyes. He was plainly but neatly dressed, armed with a bow slung across his back. He stood looking at the scene with a casual air, one that said he felt comfortable in the circumstance in which he found himself.
"I give you good greeting, Lady Caelia Eld-ar of Aelhall!"
Caelia was startled. How did this stranger from the hills know her? She certainly could not remember ever meeting this handsome stranger. The thought chilled her.
"How do you know my name?"
"Ah, who could not know the name of such a lovely lady from the household of our dear exiled king, Ael?" The man folded his arms across his chest in triumph. Caelia looked to Rhyli who only stood there staring at the man and then back to Caelia.
"Rhyli, who is this man, and where did he come from?" Caelia fumbled under her cloak to find her dagger hidden at her ankle. She was presently seated and in a compromised position, but she knew Rhyli could take care of herself and would likely be quicker to act in the face of trouble than Caelia ever could.
"Sir, why do you say that Ael is the exiled king? He is simply lord of Aelhall. A good and kindly master, but not likely a king."
Rhyli smiled a half grin and replied, "This man is a peeping tom. He watched me bathe and then accosted me on my way back."
"Foul! I did not accost you but simply said hello. If I meant to accost such a lovely lady wearing men's attire, you would not likely mistake me. Besides, I came to warn you of your tailing traveler. And to answer your question, Lady Caelia, I say that Ael is the exiled king because he is in fact the exiled king. There is no mystery here. Ask anyone."
"Rhyli, is what he says true?" Caelia stood slowly as she asked the question. This was no time to be caught sitting down. Rhyli tossed her head back and laughed a hearty laugh before replying.
"You claim to be this `Lady Caelia' from Aelhall and yet you do not know the identity of your supposed lord and master? Yes, it is true. Ael is king. He was forced off the throne over three decades ago by our present `king' who decided he wanted things done a bit differently. My history is a bit vague though since it happened before my birth. From what I understand though, he was a good king and much loved. Why a usurper could be successful, I'll never know. It doesn't make any sense and is the greatest mystery of our day. As to our `friend' here, he appears to be harmless. He did in fact warn me of a tail we picked up somewhere. We should be wary. We'll have to decide what to do about this in the morning."
Rhyli settled herself down by the fire. From the recesses of her coat, she pulled out a pipe and tobacco and proceeded to relax into a hearty smoke.
Caelia stood in a daze. She had grown up in the household of the king. The true king. But she never knew it. How could this be? Why was such a common thing kept from her and her entire household all this time? How could she be so protected from the greatest `national mystery of our time' and be so naïve? Just two days ago she was lady-in-waiting to Ael's sister, eating delicacies from the larder of a kindly lord, sleeping in a soft feather bed, dressing in the finest clothes, and now she found herself rocked by disturbing new truths about Ael. On top of that, she was cold,
hungry, preparing for cold night around a campfire, sleeping on the ground. Her traveling companions were rogues and peeping toms. And not to forget they were fugitives and being followed. What was the truth about her past? Who was this man with them by the fire, why did he warn them? Who was tailing them? And even more disturbing, though for other reasons, where did Rhyli get that brooch?
"Well ladies, a fire in the middle of the woods is quaint and very `peasanty', but I for one prefer a warm hearth and soft bed, so I will bid you good night." Kal'en turned on his heel and began to waltz out of the light.
"Wait!" Rhyli jumped up and ran towards the man. "You say you are going to a warm hearth and soft bed, but you would leave us `defenseless' women alone in the woods by ourselves?"
Rhyli cocked her head and thrust one hand challengingly on her hip.
"My dear man-lady," laughed Kal'en, "all you had to do was ask! I thought maybe you two were out for a girl's night out for a camp around the fire! And furthermore, to call you defenseless is rather a stretch of the imagination, don't you think?"
Kal'en winked at Caelia. Rhyli's face reddened.
"You know very well our situation. And if you call me `man-lady' one more time, I will slit your throat!" Rhyli snarled, holding her hand over her dagger and glared at Kal'en.
"Very well then. We're only a little way from a good night's sleep. It's not far from where you washed yourself a little while ago. Only a stone's throw really. You disturbed my night fishing. Rather rude if you ask me!"
At this remark, Kal'en skipped to the side as Rhyli lashed out with her fist.
"Ah, ah, ah! No way for a guest to treat her host. Let's get going. It's getting cold out here."
The two girls set out in step behind Kal'en, Caelia leading her palfrey. They followed the path back to the lake where Rhyli had just washed herself. The lake was still and dark, and the surrounding forest was quiet. Even the night birds had quit their singing for the night.
"So what's the big deal with that brooch?" Rhyli studied Caelia's face in the half-light of the moon. "The one that you accused me of stealing back there in Prydell?"
Caelia studied Rhyli back, wondering what to say. Thoughtlessly patting the inner folds of her cloak to make sure her own brooch was safe, Caelia was unsure whether or not to tell any or all of the truth. The truth just seemed too weird.
"It's just that I once owned a brooch like it, that's all." Caelia looked at the ground beneath her feet as she responded. "We should hurry up. We're losing Kal'en."
The trio approached a farmstead. All was quiet, but Caelia could smell a peat fire. Caelia found the stable with fresh straw waiting and bedded Perseus down for the night. Entering the cottage, Kal'en directed the ladies to the upstairs loft over a huge stone hearth which was, in fact, burning a peat fire. He chose the small bedroom off the main room for himself. In the loft, the girls found a large straw-filled mattress and several clean blankets. The loft was cozy and smelled of peat smoke. Caelia was exhausted, so she sank thankfully onto the mattress and pulled a blanket over herself. She sensed rather than felt Rhyli do the same thing.
Sun streamed in through the tiny window in the loft. Caelia awoke to the smell of roasting meat. Rolling over she sighed and took stock of her surroundings. This time her memories of the previous day's experiences came back much more quickly. Standing up, she changed out of her previous costume and put on a more "practical" dress of black crushed velvet with matching hooded cloak. Descending the ladder she discovered Kal'en and Rhyli deep in conversation over a table laid out with roasted meat, bread and wine.
"So who are you anyway?"
Caelia asked this as she reached for some breakfast. Kal'en looked up at her with a smile.
"I suppose that is a fair question. I know who you are after all. My name is Kal'en Kintana. I am a residence of these woods most often, and like yourselves, a fugitive."
"What did you do?" Caelia asked as she wiped the crumbs off her mouth.
"Let's just say I have not been too impressed with the way our king makes policies and there are some people who don't like the fact that I disagree."
Kal'en walked over to Caelia with the wine jug.
"Yes, please. I am starving. It's been a while since I've had a decent meal." Caelia eagerly accepted another warm glass of wine and finished off her plate of meat and bread.
"Kal'en and I have been forming a plan as to how we can get rid of our tail. He or she is a supurb tracker, so there is no chance we will lose them or weary them. Kal'en here knows a little bit about sleuthing. He's been surviving all these years because of it. We will all set off from this cottage like we are off for a day's running. Once around the curve of that next hill, you and I will climb a large tree. Kal'en will keep the trail moving so our tail will keep going. We should get a good look at whoever this person is that follows but never shows himself. Anyway, once we're in the clear, Kal'en will `take care of' our problem."
Caelia swallowed. She didn't care to think about what Rhyli meant when she said take care of the problem, but she had no better plans as this was a first for her when it came to losing homicidal tails in the middle of the deep, dark woods.
"We should get going before the master of this abode returns."
Kal'en doused the fire, grabbed his bow and quiver and left the cottage. Caelia stared after him for a moment and then trotted off.
Calling ahead, she said, "Kal'en! You mean this is not your house?"
Laughing, Kal'en looked over his shoulder, "Of course not. I'm not, shall we say, a `landed' individual, so I must take advantage of those who are more blessed than I when the opportunity presents itself."
Sighing, Caelia ran to the stable for Perseus. Kal'en took the reigns and mounted.
"I'll take good care of her for you. As soon as it's clear, I'll come back for the two of you."
The trio set off down the road and around the bend as the plan dictated. The morning was bright and clear, and it promised to be a sunny warm day. The forest was filled with the singing of birds and the rustle of small animals as they looked for their morning breakfast.
As they neared a tall, ponderous oak, Kal'en leaned down close to the ears of the girls. "Our tail is on us as predicted. Shimmy up this tree and hold out there until I come back for you. Rhyli, you make sure Caelia here stays safe."
Eyes flashing again, Rhyli pulled the dagger from it's sheath, put it between her teeth and scooted up the tree like a natural.
"Thanks for the advice. I never would have thought of that myself."
Rhyli put down an arm for Caelia and helped her up the tree. Finding a secluded spot high enough up not to be seen but to see clearly themselves, they waited. The sounds of Perseus' hoofs distanced and they were left alone with only the sounds of the forest.
"I hope this Kal'en guy can be trusted. I will sort of need my horse. Are you sure he's not a horse thief or something?"
Rhyli glared at Caelia. "Keep quiet. The whole idea here is to let our tail pass us, not find us!"
Moments passed and soon they could hear the distinct sound of a horse coming down the road. Soon a large chestnut destrier walked into view. Through the leaves and branches, Caelia could see the horse was mounted by a man wearing light mail armor on his torso. The man looked to be ready for a fight but was also reasonably dressed for the road. His legs were unclad and his riding boots came up nearly to his knees. The man silently watched the ground as he came along.
He was intent on his trail. A large sword and mace hung from his saddle. The man's head was protected with a helm, but not something so cumbersome that the girls could not easily see the man's face.
As he raised his head, revealing his profile, Caelia gasped.