Caithus Lee looked up from the slaughtered piglet to see the patrol arrive. He didn’t like the warriors of the guard and when he met them in the village he tended to give them a wide berth. In the gentle man’s eyes they were cold and callous. They rarely frequented the tavern, as drinking and merriment were the vices of lesser men and they had little time for the stories Caithus and his comrades bartered in. They had little time for anything save training and sustaining themselves to the point of optimum fitness. The healer did not find them too appalling on a personal level; indeed they were just men and often very righteous men. However, in order to delve to these levels of intimacy one would have to be a very just and righteous man oneself, which in Caithus Lee’s eyes would be a very boring existence.
As they approached the healer cast a look inside the house to see the hooded child sat in his surgery, her head hanging. Her two accomplices were gone, having acted their revenge upon his children and their pets before saving their own skin in flight.
“Cowardly felons,” the healer sighed, waving his arm to slow the approaching soldiers. If the princess heard the gallop of horses she would soon know of his treason.
She knows already man, Caithus sighed to himself. She is a bright sensitive child.
At the front of the approaching patrol was the Duct, who slowed to a halt and dismounted his horse. The rest of the way he led on foot, while his men followed behind. They were all tall, save for the smaller one at the back. Caithus watched this one, wondering when this new recruit had joined the garrison. He was newly finished at the Camp, where young men as young as eight spent the rest of their childhoods training. How long had this one been indoctrinated into the cold ways of the army? He was seventeen, perhaps eighteen and already he walked like them, moved like them, looked like them.
Such a waste, the healer sighed inwardly while he approached the Duct, a man he had spoken to on a few occasions. Thalender Goswain was a man of standing in the northern army and he had ensured he led the patrol to recover the king’s daughter.
“She is getting away!” the cry came from one of Thalender’s men. Caithus turned to see the cloaked child running from his doorway through the yard to a shrubbery of twisted gnarled bushes, which led onto a broad swathe of trees.
“Follow her,” came the Duct’s order and within seconds five of the patrol had followed the girl into the greenery. The child was small compared to the men and was easily able to out-crawl them through thick patches of prickly horned bushes. This way she darted and that way she scrambled, hearing behind her the ever-present threat of the approaching soldiers. She would not be able to run from them for very long, but every second she managed, would give Kaio and Thais more time to get away.
The healer sat on the steps of his house staring ahead at the men emerging from the bushes. With them they dragged the child, though what surprised Caithus was the ruthlessness of their actions. Dared they drag the king’s daughter in so rough a fashion? Truly they were cold men. As they neared the healer’s heart started to race, as the child being dragged toward his homestead was flame-haired. Was Princess Thais not fair like her father?
“You, healer,” the Duct called out before his men had brought the girl to their feet. “This is not the king’s daughter.”
“I can see that,” Caithus replied bemusedly.
“Your wife assured us you had the princess in your custody.”
“Yet this is not the girl we are looking for healer.”
“I know,” Caithus complained, his tone raised. “And you know my name Thalender, there is no cause for disrespect.”
“You have wasted our time,” the Duct accused darkly.
“I think you will find they have,” Caithus countered. “The girl had two accomplices. They killed my children’s piglet. While I was distracted they must have swapped places.”
By now the approaching men had escorted Rachel to the feet of their leader and announced rather unnecessarily that they had been pursuing the wrong girl, that they did not in fact have the king’s daughter in their possession.
“Show them your arm girl,” the healer told Rachel before the Duct had a chance to speak. Rachel lifted scared green eyes to meet Caithus’ kind blue ones and the man felt compassion for her bravery. This child had risked herself so that her friend might get away. Such spirit he could not attack. “Please,” he added more gently.
With a trembling hand the youngster pulled back her sleeves and revealed only small scratches where there ought to have been a bound arm.
“There,” Caithus exclaimed pointedly. “The girl who was sat in my surgery had a wolf bite in her arm. I healed it and bound it.”
Thalender’s expression was softening from anger to bemusement. Caithus quickly continued, “There is blood on my instruments, go and test it for you will find it elven. ‘Tis darker than most and will stain wood a deep emerald green. I assure you that girl was here!”
“Very well,” the Duct finally spoke grandly, before he looked at the child in his custody. “You, girl, where has the princess gone?”
Caithus’ eyes dropped to the youngster and willed her not to answer the rude barking man. How Thalender had become so unused to dealings with mere mortals was a disgrace to his position, but it was one Caithus would remain coy about. He had no desire to enter into a battle of wits with this cold man. As predicted Rachel said nothing.
“You will make this far worse for yourself if you do not tell us where she has gone,” the tall warrior demanded, though once more his command fell on deaf ears. “Aimos, Vector!” Two young men stepped forward from the patrol. “Take her back to the barracks and prepare to travel south. This one will speak.” Here the tall man cast Rachel a fierce glower. “If not to us, then she will to the king. Take her away.”
Caithus watched the girl be dragged away with a sad heart.
“If they treat you poorly girl,” he found himself calling after the child. “Then be sure to mention it to the king. I am sure Gallus the Great will be most distressed to hear of a child mistreated in the hands of his guard.”
As though his words controlled their very limbs, Caithus watched while the two men holding Rachel promptly let her arms go and allowed her to walk more slowly. The girl looked back and rewarded the healer with a small smile, which he returned.
“The guard is not in the habit of mistreating children,” Thalender growled, earning himself a whimsical glance from the healer.
“Good day to you Thalender and good luck on your hunt. Should you wish to take my advice then I suggest you search north of here. That is where I would hide if I were the princess.”
With this the healer shepherded his children indoors to wait for the patrol to take their leave with the hope that they would not shadow his yard again. Outside Thalender looked northward towards the tree line. He would need to consult the Green Palace before taking any further action. Thalender had always heard members of the King’s Guard state that their job would be ideal were it not for the trouble the princess caused them. The Duct of the northern guard had never quite believed that a young girl could cause warriors of such standing any concern, but now he doubted himself. Barely half an hour in his region and already he wished the princess out of it.
Let her stir trouble under someone else’s jurisdiction, the proud man thought to himself gruffly while he led his patrol away.
Thais and Kaio ran until their hearts could take no more and then they started walking. They had travelled an enormous distance and were sure the patrols would be far behind had they even realised the direction to look in. By the time the sun had started its descent in the sky the children were exhausted and they dropped down on the soft moss under the trees. For a moment they stared at one another, before they both started speaking at once.
“What did you do to lure the healer out?”
“How is your arm?”
For a moment the pair stared at one another once more before Thais started giggling, followed shortly by Kaio’s laughter.
“My arm is sore. I won’t be able to defend myself very well, but it will heal. Now you, what did you do to lure away the healer?”
Kaio’s cheeks went red and he hung his head slightly, ashamed of his actions, though they had been a necessary evil to ensure Thais’ escape.
“I crept around the back and lured one of the piglets toward me. It came easily enough, stupid animal. When it was near I slit its throat and threw it back toward the children. Their screams lured their father away. It was all too easy.”
Thais winced, but said no more of her friend’s act of cruelty, for it had ensured her freedom and she could not deny him her gratitude and poor Rachel of course. Just how Kaio and Thais were to manage without Rachel standing bravely between them they weren’t sure, but both were very sure that they would try their hardest not to wind the other up in respect for their friend. Rachel had sacrificed herself so that Kaio, who was her senior in terms battle worthiness, would remain to defend Thais in her weakened state.
“Kaio,” Thais spoke after an awkward silence. Her friend lifted his green eyes to her dark ones and nodded to show she held his attention. “The patrols will catch us the moment we leave these woods.”
“For our sake I hope you are mistaken princess,” the boy countered with a roguish smile.
“Kaio they will gut the countryside until I’m found, you know they will.”
“Then what do you suggest?” the boy asked, his eyebrows raised curiously. Thais lowered her dark gaze to his feet and shrugged her shoulders.
“As far as I can see, there’s only one option open to us.” The girl paused and looked Kaio in the eye once more. He held his jeering tongue and waited for her to speak once more. “We must travel through the Starlight Caves. They run underneath the foothills.”
Kaio’s eyes shot wide open and he instantly adopted a ready stance, as though at a mere mention the caves Thais had spoken off could creep up and attack him.
“Are you mad? The Starlight Caves?”
“Kaio we have no choice. They lead to the Misty Falls and from there we can make our way into the White Sea. It’s the only way.”
“Yes,” the boy agreed firmly. “The only way to get us killed perhaps. Thais have you any idea of the dangers in those caves?”
“Kaio I’ve heard the same stories you have. I know about the undercurrents and the rock falls.”
“Not to mention you can get lost in the maze of endless tunnels!” Kaio cut in dramatically. “Or the underground waterfalls thousands of feet high. And what of the sink holes and the stalactites? One wrong move Thais and you’ve lost your eye.”
“Kaio I know all this,” the girl sighed deploringly.
“Do you? Well if you can bare all of those then what of the cave dragons? Can you bare them so easily?”
“Kaio cave dragons are rare, I’m sure we could avoid them and if we can’t then we’ll have to fight them.”
“But why Thais? I would rather face the patrols than the cave dragons any day.”
Thais stared at her friend for a moment, her heart heavy. There were many reasons not to go into the Starlight Caves, yet these reasons seemed trivial in the face of the alternative. She was entirely sure that upon her capture and return to the Green Palace her father would curtail her freedoms far more than previously. This irked her, but it seemed a just punishment for her actions. This would be her only chance to reach the north and she was going to take any risks to reach her goal.
“You’re right Kaio, there are lots of reasons not to follow me into those caves,” the girl spoke at last, her face arranged in understanding. “I don’t expect you to follow me, but I am going. There’s no shame in going back to Titua. There’s no shame in leaving me to my journey, because in the end it is my journey. One I have to make. Please don’t let your pride stand in the way. If you want to leave then do so. I won’t think any less of you.”
Kaio looked deeply into the darkest of eyes and shook his head. Leave Thais to trawl through the Starlight caves alone? He was not such a boy. Though the caves scared him more than the wolves, more than the greymen and more than the patrols, the thought of Thais floundering on her own in the dark scared him the most.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he finally grumbled. “As though I could let you get lost in the Starlight Caves alone. I’m coming with you. But Thais, where are we going to find them?”
Thais looked westward and squinted through the trees where the sound of a stream could be heard.
“There are dozens of tributaries to the Denai running down these hills. Each one comes from underground. All we need do is follow one of them and we’ll find an entrance into the caves.”
Kaio followed the princess gaze, his skin creeping with the thought of entering the Starlight Caves. The stream was strong and close.
“Come on then,” he commanded with a wry smile. “If we’re going to find our deaths and shake them by the hand then let’s do it quickly. I hate waiting around.”
Thais laughed aloud and nodded, climbing to her feet to follow her friend through the trees toward the stream. Kaio had been right, it was a broad stream, which boded well for the pair of adventurers. A strong stream would lead to a broad entrance to the caves.
While the sun sunk beneath the hilltops Thais and Kaio fought their way through the thick bushes and tree, ever conscious of the stream and its meandering path. They spoke little while they walked, only pausing to comment on sounds one or the other had heard and wanted reassurance on.
After several hours they reached the point at which the stream dove underground, or rather, the point at which the stream poured from the hillock into the open air, for the children were moving upstream.
“There, there’s an entrance, all we need to do is follow the stream,” Thais exclaimed, kneeling down and pushing her face into the ground so that she might see further into the gloomy cave. Her attempt was futile as in the dim crescent moonlight there was little to be seen above ground, let alone below.
“Now what?” Kaio asked quietly, his own eyes lingering on the craggy opening to the cave. Thais turned to look at her friend and seeing his worried brow reached out to touch his arm.
“Now we hope it doesn’t rain or snow. If the water levels rise there won’t be any room for us to breath in there.”
“Thais are you sure about this? The White Sea isn’t too far away. We could chance it couldn’t we? We wouldn’t have to cross too much open country to get there,” Kaio suddenly exclaimed, his eyes desperately hoping that Thais would change her mind.
“You’re right Kaio,” the girl replied kindly. “It isn’t far to the White Sea, but the patrols know where we are. The hills between here and the Sea will be crawling with soldiers. We’ll never make it!”
“You don’t know that,” Kaio countered passionately.
“Look,” Thais sighed. “Like you say, it’s not far to the White Sea. It’ll probably only take us a few hours to get there if we travel through caves. So we won’t be in there very long.”
The pair looked at one another and for a moment Thais’ hand stayed wrapped around her friend’s arm. Holding onto him for longer than she ought, it reminded Thais of something important. Was this the time to walk alone?
“Kaio are you sure you want to come?” she finally asked softly. “There’s no shame in turning back. Remember that in the end I must walk my path alone. Who knows, maybe that time is now, maybe that’s why we lost Rachel. I might lose you too…”
“You won’t lose me Thais,” Kaio interrupted gruffly. “You would have to pry my dead fingers away to lose me. So stop talking nonsense and let’s get a fire started. I’m starving and I’m afraid it’s your turn to hunt tonight.”