Prince Hokan, donning light armor, strode purposefully across the courtyard towards the Peacekeeper Academy. The school stood within the walls of Coghlan Castle, part of Cataire's capital city.
He came across a lean, balding man wearing a faded red woolen overtunic and halted, "Have you seen Ner yet today?"
The older man assessed the younger carefully, his grey eyes narrowing, "Your session with her should have started an hour ago. Why are you still dressed for combat?"
Hokan should have known the master would fail to answer his question in every way possible. The youth rolled eyes as green as the grass they stood on and blew out a breath, disrupting a forelock of brilliantly blonde hair, "My father, why else?"
The older man's look soured further, his salt and pepper eyebrows drawing closer still. Whether the youth's tone or his excuse was the reason was impossible to say.
The older man looked behind him and hailed a young boy wearing a muddied black overtunic.
The boy, who was no more than ten, scurried over, his round face worried, "Yes, Master Muski?"
"Find Trainee Lightfoot," Muski commanded in a growl. "She was supposed to be in the Training Yards an hour ago. Bring her here."
The boy ducked his head in acknowledgment and scurried off in the direction of the Training Yards.
Hokan and the master waited in tense silence for the boy to return. Hokan knew the reason for the master's mood. A good number of the masters had never taken a shine to him because of who he was. He was always missing classes. They thought he didn't take life as a Trainee in the Peacekeeper Academy seriously. It was a prestigious honor to be admitted, and some whispered that the only reason he had been let in was because his father was the High King.
Those were the old rumors. The renewal of the masters' disapproval of Prince Hokan was the result of a recent development. It involved the prince and Trainee Lightfoot. Many whispered that she would be wasting her talents.
Before Hokan decided to find words to address Master Muski's most recent objections involving his life choices, the boy sprinted back towards them.
The boy spoke quickly so he could catch his breath while they processed his words, "Master Yoshi says Trainee Lightfoot did not report to the morning session. He assumed you had already taken her, your Highness."
"I did not," the prince responded hotly and looked to the master as the source of this assumption, mistaking it as an accusation that he knew something of her absence. Hokan asked his original question again, more formally this time, hoping it would entice the man to give him a straighter answer,"Master Muski, you wouldn't happen to know the whereabouts of Trainee Lightfoot?"
Master Muski replied that he did not. "She only misses lessons when she's with you. Perhaps she is tutoring another Trainee," he suggested.
"No," the prince huffed. It was not common practice for Trainees to help each other. When they passed their final tests to become full-fledged Peacekeepers, they would be assigned to a specific town. They would more than likely be on their own with the locals. Trainees were encouraged to begin living a solitary lifestyle at the Academy to be better prepared for their placement.
There were exceptions to this rule. A trainee could become a Sponsor for a struggling member of the Academy. Sometimes it was as a way to encourage the weaker ones to wash out. Other times wealthy trainees who were doing poorly would pay fellow trainees to sponsor them so their ranking improved. On the rare occasion, relatives and family friends sponsored each other as a way to encourage both to persevere.
None of the above instances explained the relationship between the prince and the missing trainee. Prince Hokan was Lightfoot's sponsor in almost all of their written classes. It was because of how she was raised.
In return, Lightfoot helped him with the more physical portion of the program. Her build was slight, from a life of barely getting by, but make no mistake, she was the toughest fighter to ever come out of the Academy. She was supposed to take her final tests in a few weeks, get her shield and her placement. Up until last night.
It was why Hokan was worried. He was ready to jump to conclusions. Lightfoot would never skip a lesson, except to work with him. She must have been abducted...or something.
Master Muski was a cooler head. He suggested they try the Dining Hall to see if she had appeared for the midday meal.
Hokan followed the master's lead. It wasn't like Ner to miss a meal.
She wasn't there.
To make matters worse, the trainees there couldn't recall seeing her at breakfast either.
Master Muski suggested they try checking her bunk, "Perhaps she simply slept in." When Hokan looked skeptical, Muski said, "Maybe she's taken ill."
It was a long shot. Ner was up with the sun and had never been ill a day in her life. Hokan decided to humor the master and followed him to the Trainee Barracks.
The Trainee Barracks adjoined those of the Peacekeepers, both of which stood just outside the gates that led to the castle in the center of the city.
As they walked through the building, Hokan noted that Trainees lived in dormitories depending on their skill level. Older and more advanced students were allowed the option of a single room. An option, it seemed, Ner had taken.
Being the son of the High King meant Hokan was afforded luxuries other Trainees did not have. The most glaring one was that Hokan got to sleep in the comfort of his own room at the castle, not in these sparsely furnished barracks.
Trainee Lightfoot's room was on the second floor, with a large south-facing window that overlooked the hills and dales of the Lowlands. They were dappled with fields and forests and ended abruptly at the looming mountains that made up the border of the kingdom. It was a beautiful view, and the only thing remarkable about the room (which was about the same size as one of the prince's tinier closets).
The place was simple and barely furnished, with a pallet pulled up against the back wall. It abutted the chimney. No doubt to keep warm on cold nights.
Under the window was a small chest of drawers that held trainee uniforms. There were no personal effects, a trait Hokan had been told was consistent of a dedicated trainee. It was doubly true for Ner, but for different reasons.
The orderly room made it hard to tell what, if anything, had happened to Trainee Lightfoot. It took mere seconds for Hokan to come to this conclusion, but Muski was giving the room more consideration.
"Well?" Hokan demanded.
"Well, what, Highness?" Muski replied, still pensive, surveying the room.
"Can we conclude that Trainee Lightfoot has been kidnapped?"
"We cannot conclude that Trainee Lightfoot has not been kidnapped," Muski replied after some time. "Perhaps she simply wandered away."
Wandered away? That was what the old man had? "To where?" Hokan wanted to know. Muski knew of her origins. Everyone did. It was what made her so remarkable.
She wouldn't be in the city. Ner didn't like it there. Too many people. If she was anywhere, it would be the mountains where she had grown up. When she got her assignment as a Peacekeeper, she hoped it would be there.
Hokan faltered in his beratement of the master. Ner was never going to get a placement.
"You know," the master's tone was biting. "You just don't want to allow the idea life."
Hokan narrowed his eyes at Muski suspiciously, "Why are you so quick to dismiss the notion of kidnap?"
"Why are you so hasty to entertain it?"
Hokan nearly shouted with frustration. He should have known better to expect a real answer from a master. They only spoke in riddles or questions. They were impossible.
"You know that Ner and I are to be married." This was an accusation and not a question. He knew full well that the masters would hide her so she could become a full-fledged Peacekeeper and get her placement. She was their prize. They would risk the wrath of his father.
Peacekeepers may answer to the king, but masters answered to no man.
Muski nodded to the prince. He knew about the engagement. There was no one within a hundred miles who did not know. The news had been shared in the castle last night, but it had spread like wildfire.
It spoke volumes.
Marrying such a skilled trainee-Retiring such a skilled trainee-before letting her get her shield meant that her kingdom was so strong it they didn't even her. Only a fool would challenge such a powerful nation.
Many Peacekeepers were being Retired before their time. Lightfoot was not alone. Some had dropped out, accepting positions as Coursers, hoping that would save them from Retirement.
It was working, for now.
"I feel as though you are neglecting an important detail, sire," Muski's tone was scathing. "Lightfoot is an accomplished Trainee. A fact you know to be true. She would not be taken against her will, not without a fight. If there was a fight, there would be some evidence of that. Someone would have reported it at the very least, in the form of a noise violation or disturbance. There was no such report made. You know her well enough to know that her opponents would have been formidable if they were successful in carrying her off."
Hokan nodded. He knew Lightfoot didn't go down without a fight. Not quietly. For her to have been captured, there would have been a number of men involved. They would have been noticed. Lightfoot was good at throwing people around more than twice her size. Someone would have heard it.
The prince watched the master. The man had more on his mind than he had voiced. "I expect you have an opinion of your own?" He prompted.
"Have you entertained the possibility that she may have ran away on her own accord?"
"Why would she do something foolish like that?" Hokan responded. Peacekeepers led prosperous lives. In the social hierarchy of Cataire, they were as well respected as nobility.
"That would be a question only she could answer," Muski shrugged. "But," he added after a moment, "I might be able to make a supposition: Trainees study for many years and give up much. Perhaps she is not ready to be Retired so soon."
The prince changed topics, not wanting to acknowledge the doubt welling up inside him, "Just because there was no disturbance here, doesn't mean it didn't happen elsewhere."
The master nodded that this was true.
She wouldn't have run away because of the marriage proposal, Hokan told himself. They'd known each other since she was ten. He was one of the few people she was comfortable talking to. There were other ways to handle the situation if she felt so strongly against it.
She could have said no.
Masker Muski broke through the prince's thoughts, "Perhaps her heart belongs to another."
Now Hokan knew the master was having him on. The only people Ner talked to willingly, aside from the him, were a couple of Masters and a Medic.
Hokan wasn't about to give Muski the satisfaction of rising to the bait. He started for the door, "Get a scenthound in here before we lose her scent and the trail completely. She wasn't at breakfast. She was last seen at dinner. That's a large window of time to account for. She's got a decent headstart, regardless of her mode of departure. We've got a lot of catching up to do."
On his way back to the castle, Prince Hokan detoured to the stables to find Ner's horse still penned. That effectively squashed the nagging doubts Muski had managed to nurture with his runaway theory.
If Ner had wanted to run away, she would have taken her horse. The mare was strong. She could definitely put distance between herself and the castle on such an animal. It was exactly the reason Ner did not run away.
The prince sighed and ran a hand through his now tousled hair for the millionth time. It was a sure sign that he was stressed. He fought the urge to drag his feet the remaining distance to the castle's interior, where the royal family lived and worked.
If there was one thing he wasn't looking forward to, it was informing his father of Ner's disappearance. Hokan didn't anticipate it going very well. He knew his father liked Ner (better than his own son). It was why his father had suggested he marry a Peacekeeper. Hokan knew well enough to read between the lines.
Father would not be pleased. More than likely, he would even find some way for Hokan to be at fault for her disappearance.
The prince gave thought to interrupting affairs of state. The situation warranted it. He knew his father would think so, but only after he let Hokan feel the full fury of his wrath.
It was a lose-lose situation.
Hokan waited outside the Conference Chamber until they adjourned. He swooped in to ask for an audience with his father as the officials filtered out.
High King Tyr was sitting in a regal chair at the head of a long table, the centerpiece of the well-lit room. When Hokan entered, the king rose. He was a tall man--it was where Hokan and his brothers got their height from. The king was barrel-chested, giving the impression he was a much larger man. He was an imposing character, but it was his countenance that stopped men in their tracks. Was it the hard look in his ice blue eyes? Maybe it was the strong jawline that he'd passed onto all of his sons.
The high king shot Hokan a condescending look, the one he saved especially for his youngest son, shortly before brushing him aside and ignoring his existence.
Hokan expressed, in no uncertain terms, the urgency and importance of a matter the required his father's attention.
"I'll be the judge of that," Tyr responded in a bored tone, looking out the nearby window. His interest was caught, but only just. Hokan rarely addressed him with such conviction. He waved for his son to spill.
"Trainee Lightfoot is missing." Best to get right to the point.
The high king narrowed his gaze like a hawk after prey. "Missing how?" He wanted to know.
The prince explained what they knew so far: she hadn't reported to the morning session and she hadn't been seen at either meal so far today. Her room appeared undisturbed and her horse was still stabled.
With each piece of information the prince divulged, the king seemed to swell. An explosion seemed to be the only recourse.
Hokan stood firm and took it.
Of the hateful spew the king unleashed, most of it was stuff with which Hokan was familiar: how he was a failure as a son and, worse, as a prince of Cataire. "If you had been more attentive to her, she wouldn't have been afforded an opportunity to go missing!"
Hokan didn't make a response, though he wanted to. He and Ner spent every free moment together. When they weren't in class, and he wasn't doing prince-type things, they were studying or training, in his rooms, in the Academy, or beyond the Outer Wall. Her disappearance was not due to a lack of affection or attention.
"...if you weren't such a failure as a son-as a prince-she might not have run away!"
Hokan felt his knees threatening to buckle. His stomach churned with unease. Father and Muski had immediately assumed she'd run away. Why didn't anyone think she'd been abducted?
She'd only been captured once in her life, when Father pulled her from the mountains and brought her to the Peacekeeper Academy, boasting that she would be the greatest since the first. The only reason she'd been captured before was because Hokan himself had provided the distraction. She was untouchable otherwise.
He didn't want to believe it.
Lightfoot had fled of her own free will.
Hokan reflected what they knew so far. He kept coming back to that knowing looking in Muski's eyes back in her room. Why?
Hokan didn't live in the Barracks, it was one of the few perks of being the prince. His father forbade him from going to the Barracks because of the type of people who lived there. The Academy accepted people from all walks of life, if they demonstrated the desired skills. Father approved of the program, not the people in it.
Since Hokan had never been inside the Barracks and, as a result, Lightfoot's room, he wouldn't know what was missing. Muski had noticed. The master had an invested interest in the girl.
What would Ner take with her? She'd left the weapons and her clothes. Those were the only amenities in the room that belonged to her.
Hokan paused as the answer came to him.
She always took it with her whenever they went beyond the Outer Wall, just in case.
He hadn't seen in it the room. That probably meant she had it with her and she was somewhere beyond the Outer Wall.
Where would she go? She had the ability to go anywhere.
Hokan knew her preferred destination: the mountains. He didn't worry about her safety. She'd be fine there. She went whenever the Academy wasn't in session. She'd been raised there. The thing that bother him was why had she chosen now, of all times, for a field trip. They weren't between sessions.
Because of the proposal, the part of Hokan's mind that sounded like his father whispered.
But she always told somebody before she disappeared into the mountains, Hokan's rational side shot back.
He could understand that she would want the quiet to process things.
She'd already said yes. What was there to think about?
Was it all sinking in now--or, rather--last night? Was that why she'd run? Had she changed her mind about the whole thing? Why hadn't she brought it up with him? Why had she chosen to run instead?
Hokan knew Lightfoot from her first days at the Academy.
He'd helped to catch her when she was just a wild girl in the woods.
For the first two years they didn't even speak the same language, but he knew they were going to be best friends. And they were. Or, so he had thought. They did everything together. He taught her everything she needed to know about humans: their history, the kingdoms, social interaction--literally everything. She knew nothing about basic customs or etiquette, how to handle money or talk to strangers. In return, she educated him on her superior life skills: fighting, hunting, surviving.
The result was that they spent every waking hour together. She was the only person he trusted. She was the only person who treated him with any amount of respect. She was smart in unconventional ways--the kind of wisdom one acquires from spending a great deal of time alone, observing her surroundings. She had experienced more of life by surviving in the woods than most people achieved in their everyday lives. She was famous-the girl recovered from the mountains who went on to become the pride and joy of the Peacekeeper Academy. And yet, the only thing she wanted in life was to be forgotten. She wasn't bold or outspoken. She was timid, but resourceful. She preferred running to fighting. She was good at outsmarting her enemy.
She had a calming effect on Hokan. After being berated by his father for his inadequacies, Ner could improve his mood with one of her rare smiles, or by telling him that even though his father didn't appreciate him, he had useful skills. "Without you, I wouldn't be here," she often reminded him. "And who else would inform me in the politest of ways when I've failed to make correct change when buying pastries?"
She was level-headed. She didn't seem like the kind of girl who would run out on a marriage proposal. He'd made how he felt pretty clear-he knew she was no good at reading people. He suspected some partiality on her side-she'd said yes!
The only thing he couldn't reason out was why she'd run. What was the problem? If she had an objection, she would have told him, right? They told each other everything.
Ner didn't like to fight, but she would if she felt strongly about something. If she didn't want to marry him there were better ways for her to go about telling him. He thought about the other times she'd made him take back his words back. Other ways. Once she'd rubbed his face in horse manure. Another time she'd used her fists.
Words were not her strong suit. Sometimes she struggled with the Lowlander tongue, but he was fluent in Xenish now. He reverted to it when he needed to try to explain a foreign word to her.
What Hokan couldn't wrap his mind around was why she'd run if she'd said yes. She'd agreed to marry him and then took off. It made no sense, and she wasn't around to help him make sense of it.
A nagging thought occurred to him: what if she'd said yes to appease his father? She was turning sixteen next week, which was legal marrying age. She knew the high king wanted her in his family. She disliked the man just as much as Hokan, but like Hokan, she feared him. She knew that the high king would not accept rejection. Had she said yes because she couldn't say no and then run because it was her only way out?
As much as he hated to believe it, it was the only thing that made any sense.
Prince Hokan was so engrossed in his own thoughts, he didn't realize his father's tirade had stopped.
High King Tyr eyed his useless waste of a son as the young man stood silently before him. Hokan hadn't heard a word, he was off in his own world. Tyr considered ranting some more but knew it would do no good. Hokan was already nursing his wounds. The girl he loved, the girl he'd asked to marry him, shortly after saying yes and making him the happiest man in the world, had disappeared into the night.
Tyr attempted to regain his son's attention, "What's been done to retrieve her?" He knew his son was inept. They were losing valuable time. Lightfoot had been given her surname for a reason. They had no idea when she'd gone and the longer they sat here doing nothing, the farther away she could get.
The high king nodded as Hokan informed him that scent dogs had been sent to her room. Tyr was impressed to learn his son wasn't completely daft. He'd had the foresight to already send the dogs, good.
"The dogs didn't catch her last time," Hokan added. "They're just going to tell us what direction she's gone. You know she'll find a way to shake them."
Tyr nodded, "What do you propose?"
"I'd like to go after her."
"No," the king's answer brooked no argument. Send Hokan? It was hard to stifle a chuckle. The boy would never make it out there without Lightfoot to hold his hand. He'd get lost, or fall into a ravine and die. Hokan couldn't track. Tyr didn't even know if his son could survive out there alone. The idea was preposterous. Hokan was a prince of Cataire, a useless one to boot, but Tyr couldn't be sending his heirs out into the mountains to certain death. Even if he wanted to. It wouldn't look good.
"Send a Courser then," Hokan suggested.
The idea was not without merit. The king blew out a breath. Another reason that Hokan couldn't go after her was that it would look like she had run away (even though that is what had clearly happened). Hokan chasing after her was romantic, but foolish. Word would spread that they'd lost their treasured Peacekeeper. There would be repercussions, too many to waste entertaining for now. What mattered was that they got her back.
Discretion was paramount.
The lie that could explain her absence was easy: he'd sent her on a special mission. She'd been broken-hearted when he'd informed her that she wouldn't be taking her final tests and that instead she'd be getting married. Her mission, if successful, would allow her to receive her shield without taking the lengthy final tests, nor impeding the impending marriage.
It was possible she had not run away. Trainees did it on occasion, when they found they couldn't hack it at the Academy. Lightfoot had only ever excelled. Other Trainees returned home and sent a letter expressing their wish to withdraw from the Academy. Lightfoot had no home, and a child's comprehension of writing. She wouldn't be sending any letters.
The only other option seemed to be kidnap, but if someone was able to make off with Lightfoot in the dead of the night with nobody the wiser, than she wasn't as good as everyone thought she was. There was no one Tyr could think of who would prosper from such an act. The position of High King was for life, and when one passed, the next was elected by a panel of Lesser Kings. Tyr wasn't planning on dying anytime soon. No one would be so bold as to attempt to shorten his lifespan. High King Tyr was feared more than he was respected, and he liked it that way.
His reason for tying Lightfoot to his family was for intimidation. No one would challenge their position after he was gone because they had such a formidable warrior at their disposal. He could think of no one who would have the resources to capture the girl, or a need to. Cataire was prospering. The Lesser Kings weren't squabbling over grazing lands or horse thefts. Because they were surrounded by mountains, Cataire did not interact much with its border nation. They had a peaceful relationship with their one neighbor: Magen.
If anyone had been foolish enough to take her, Lightfoot would make them regret it. Retribution would be taken when she found her way back. The high king and the masters at the Academy were powerful people who no one wanted on their bad side.