Nana Darling looked up from the letter resting in her lap to see a fresh faced young page peering round the door to the dining room. The matriarch was propped up on the divan by the window, her mind drifting beyond the far mountains, circling the fates of her three wandering descendents.
“Yes Hopps?” she graciously responded, noting the smile on Rufus Hopps’ face at the personal recognition from Lady Katherine of Apollo.
“I’m terribly sorry to disturb you milady, but there is a woman standing outside the gates giving the guards a terrible time of it,” the young man explained as he came sidling into the room. Nana Darling fought a smile.
“Yes, she’s been giving them an earful since breakfast!”
“Well that sounds quite inconvenient,” the elderly woman replied gently. “Do tell me if I can be of assistance in any way.”
“Well that’s just it milady,” Hopps cautiously ventured, his hazel eyes creased at his own audacity. “We think you can. You see, she’s after a meeting with you ma’am, says she won’t go till she’s seen you.”
Nana Darling delicately raised her right eyebrow before placing her teacup gently on the saucer beside her.
“Do you know the lady’s name?”
“Greenwood milady,” Hopps replied instantly. “The name’s Greenwood.”
Nana Darling inhaled and the air rattled through her like an unwelcome draught: Winifred Greenwood! Of all the contemptuous denizens of the city, that woman simply had to be the worst in Nana Darling’s esteemed opinion. How the elderly woman wished she could have the nerve to send the unwelcome guest away, but such a woman she was not and so with a frayed smile she nodded graciously to the young page.
“I will meet with her in the drawing room Hopps, do be a dear and send for her will you?”
The page’s quick light footsteps drifted down the corridor until even they had dwindled into silence leaving Nana Darling chewing on her lower lip in deep thought. The last time she and Winifred Greenwood had met one another they had both left with trembling grimaces and severely furrowed brows. Had they been men and several decades younger then they would have certainly duelled, of this Nana Darling was sure.
With a heavy mind the old woman ambled through to the bright and airy drawing room beyond the personal chambers of the House of Apollo. She never received guests beyond the heavy double doors that guarded her family home. It was a pleasantly appointed spot and were it not for the large warthog head glaring down from his lofty perch above the mantelpiece then the old matriarch might have spent more time getting to know the large sash windows and the soft settees.
Barely ten minutes later and there was an urgent knocking at the door. Nana Darling cleared her throat and bade the knocker to enter. Muffled voices preceded a creaking sound as the door gently swung open revealing a ruffled Hopps standing before a red-faced old woman. Nana Darling set her brow in a hard expression before she nodded to the page.
“Out of the way you young whippersnapper,” the strong voice of the Greenwood matriarch bellowed through the demure drawing room.
“Yes Ma’am,” Hopps replied through gritted teeth, hastily seeing the visitor into the room before making a sharp exit leaving the two elderly women alone, staring one another down. If they were cats they would have been slowly circling one another, backs arched, tails fluffed up and growls emanating from deep within their aged throats.
“Winifred,” Nana Darling uttered softly.
“Katherine,” came the tart reply.
“Do sit down. Would you care for some tea?”
“I thank you, that would be most pleasant.”
Granny Whinny glanced about the drawing room, rubbing anxiously at the material of her fraying dress. It was the most presentable garment she owned and had been proudly worn to esteemed Acrabian occasions ever since the latest generation of Greenwoods had started tumbling about the ramshackle house, but here in this room, stood beside that woman, it seemed somehow dreary and misshapen.
The visitor walked slowly towards her royal counterpart and carefully took a divan, smoothing down her dress for stray sprigs of hay and dirt as she went. Nana Darling kept her icy blue gaze trained on Whinny’s creased eyes. Inwardly she cursed herself for allowing herself to feel pity for the other woman’s discomfort. She had to remain strong. It was the only way to survive this encounter without spending the rest of the week rankled and out of sorts.
Whinny lifted her tea cup. Nana Darling raised her own. In time the pair drank daintily from the steaming beverages, their suspicious eyes never leaving one another’s wrinkled wise faces. A stray curl had dislodged itself from Whinny’s hairpins and was bobbing gently in front of her left eye. The vein in Nana Darling’s neck started throbbing painfully, demanding to be rubbed. Still the women stared one another down. Eventually one of them would break the spell and until then, both knew they could make this game last for hours.
Whinny did not have several hours to waste away however; she needed to know what her adversary knew. She would concede defeat, this time.
“Kaio and Rachel are gone,” she finally spoke, her eyes lowering only momentarily to her tea, before seeking out the crinkled gaze of her companion.
“Do you know where she has taken them?”
“She?” Nana Darling uttered sharply. “What makes you think my granddaughter is the one who has led them all astray?”
Whinny chortled slightly and shook her head.
“Name me a time Katherine when our grandchildren have found themselves in some perilous situation that your girl did not get them into.”
“What of the time they found themselves stowed away on a smuggler’s ship heading for Karthor?” Nana Darling quickly responded; the incident had been on the tip of her tongue.
“Thais cannot be absolved of blame in that incident entirely Katherine. Be fair!”
“I might ask the same of you Winifred, both you and I know that your grandson led the girls into that catastrophe…”
“Lady Katherine you divulge too much,” Whinny interrupted calmly, forcing away the protective fire that burned into being in the pit of her stomach at the mere notion of a Greenwood’s honour being tarnished in even such a minor way. “The children, do you know where they have gone?”
Nana Darling let out a small frustrated sigh before she sipped slowly at her tea, resuming her cat like gaze on her unwelcome visitor.
“Katherine please,” Whinny whispered softly, revealing a desperation that mimicked Nana Darling’s own worries too closely.
“I know not where they have gone,” the royal matriarch replied, placing her teacup gently down before dropping her hands in her lap. “The girl was upset with her father. He left for the northern lands without her and by the next morning she too had gone.”
Silence swept through the room.
“The day before I found the children gone,” Whinny eventually began, her heavy eyelids drooping in guilt. “Thais asked me the way to the seer, Alucia Dal Am.”
Nana Darling’s thin lips parted in surprise.
“You did not tell her?”
“I did. She went immediately and met with the seer. What Alucia told your girl I do not know, but it set her upon this journey and with her my two young ones have gone as well.”
“Of all the foolhardy things to do Winifred this is by far the worst thing you have ever done!”
Nana Darling climbed to her feet with such speed and strength the coffee table rattled and tinkled under the weight of the tea tray.
“You think I am not aware of this Katherine?” Granny Whinny countered firmly. “The seer could not tell me what passed between her and the princess, but she did enlighten me with the fact that all three of them are in grave danger.”
“Oh this is all wrong,” Nana Darling exclaimed in anger and she looked from the seated humbled woman to the expansive glass of the northwards facing, willing the clouds to dispel and her granddaughter’s path to illuminate in the gloom.
“What of your grandson? Can you contact him?”
“Of course I can contact him,” Nana Darling replied weakly, her anger ebbing away to make way for a flood of concern. “But what good will that do? If I tell him his daughter sought out the seer his anger will cloud his better judgement and it is of the utmost importance that he sees clearly. I will not compromise his mission.”
“But their safety…”
“I am well aware of the children’s safety Winifred. What would I tell the king? He would not know their destination. He would be powerless to help them.”
“Then we do nothing?” Whinny demanded.
“Yes,” Nana Darling retorted sharply. “You have left us no choice.”
Silence once more, though this time Whinny rose to her feet, her determined eyes set in a scowl.
“I thank you for the tea Lady Katherine,” the formidable woman spoke clearly, before she turned on heal and walked determinedly towards the door, which sprung open upon her arrival.
“And I you for your company,” Nana Darling called after the guest before the door shut gently leaving her alone in the gloom of the weak winter sunlight. The elderly lady clutched at her tight chest and loosened her gown slightly. Anxiety was crippling her and deep within her a coldness was spreading slowly through her body. Nana Darling knew now how to anticipate a vision. With trembling hands the old woman lay back on the divan and closed her eyes, ready to let the stream of sights and sounds fill her mind.
Thais stood atop the high walkway staring down into the gloom of the forest floor. She didn’t like to imagine how high up they were, for if she knew then she might not have the courage to step into the large woven basket that formed the central part of an enormous rope and pulley system. Gray and Phable were standing at her side; the former in much higher spirits than the latter. Taelius Harbinger had been true to his word and as soon as the sun rose on the morning after the grand dinner Thais was escorted from her hut one last time.
“They will see you as far as Farlight,” the old man had assured Thais, who had hidden her disappointment even from the sensitive warlord. There were two problems with this man’s suggestion. Firstly, Farlight lay to the west, not north. On foot it would add days to an already daunting journey that might then lead to her capture once she reached the bustling town. Farlight was as crooked a settlement as could be found in the Northern Territories and for this reason boasted a swollen contingent of soldiers and guards. One royal toe across the border would soon end the girl’s dream of reaching Khaled-Dîn.
And secondly: Phable. His every action and expression drew mistrust from the princess. Walk with him five days walk to Farlight? Never.
“Thank you,” the girl spoke finally, forcing her true feelings from her expressive face into a well of worry she would address once she had got going. Better to fend off two young men than a whole camp of able warriors and a warlord famed for his brutality. “I would appreciate the company.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
Gray nudged past Thais with a beaming smile and opened the gate to the woven basket. The girl climbed in confidently and turned in time to see a dark look pass between Harbinger and his oldest son. Mistrust turned into deep suspicion in Thais’ heart and she knew that the sooner she could abandon the brothers the safer she would be. Harbinger may have said all the right words to sooth a wildly overreacting imagination, but he still could not be trusted.
Phable climbed heavily into the swaying basket and shut the gate behind himself. He lifted his hands to a series of ropes and readied himself for the descent. For the last time Thais looked up into Taelius Harbinger’s eye.
“I wish you well on your journey Helen Shortwood,” the cutting voice came. “But let this be known. The next time your stray into our territory, you will not walk out of it.”
“I thank you for nursing me back to health,” the girl forced herself to say before she looked away from the terrible warlord. She would not rest easily until she was a league away from his mutilated face.
No more words were spoken and with one last nod between father and son Phable started to pull firmly on the ropes. Jerkily the basket started to descend into the mist. Thais couldn’t hide her delight at the mechanism that made the contraption work and after she had worked up the courage she climbed to her feet to look down as the counterweight started to rise. Gray watched her amusedly.
“You’ve never seen anything like this before have you?”
“No,” the girl admitted truthfully. “You will have to explain to me how it works.”
“What? And have you city folk copy our designs?” Phable cut in aggressively. Thais turned round to glare at the young man. “It’s a secret. Father has forbidden us from telling you anything about the city.”
“Oh good,” the girl retorted icily. “I’m glad you do everything dear papa tells you.”
“Are the pair of you going to fight like this the whole way to Farlight?” Gray’s calming voice cut through the furious glares being passed back and forth by Thais and the older boy.
“That depends,” Thais grumbled.
“Dare I ask on what?”
“On whether your brother opens his mouth for the rest of the journey.”