Steam rose above Titua like billows of smoke. Though she was in unpleasant company and had endured an uncomfortable three-day ride, Rachel managed to smile brightly when she saw the city rising like a beacon in the distance. It was nearly dusk when Rachel’s honour guard led her into the city through the northern gate. The great north highway was bustling at this time of day. So much so in fact, that no one turned to stare at the bound girl brought forth by two large soldiers. Rachel held her head high nonetheless. This was her city. Let these country soldiers flounder in it.
“Our orders are to take you to the palace,” the one Rachel had come to call Nose spoke brusquely.
“Do you know the way or shall I lead?” the flame-haired girl asked innocently, her jibe going entirely unnoticed by these two. Spots, the other soldier, pointed towards the gleaming Green Palace in the distance. This was answer enough and on they rode.
There was a small element of fear snaking through Rachel’s confidence. She had heard the men speaking with someone at the palace through the ether last night. Everyone knew they were on their way and would be waiting for her.
Think of Thais, Rachel steeled herself. Thais and Kaio’s faces flashed into Rachel’s mind’s eye and she felt her resolve strengthen. She couldn’t betray her friends. She just couldn’t.
Once the trio had reached the palace Rachel was helped off the horse and her bonds were cut. She recognised the young man who helped her. He was a new recruit in the King’s Guard and had helped her once by giving her a leg-up onto the ledge beneath the library where she and Kaio were intending on surprising Thais.
Rachel remember his cheeky smile. What had been his name? Maydan, Maydor, Maythir?
“Maydir,” Rachel exclaimed as the memory returned to her. The young man looked up at the sound of his name and met Rachel’s eyes. For a moment he stared at her in confusion, before he remember her face. On his first day at the palace he had been pointed out the Greenwood cousins while they played a game with Princess Thais in the grounds of the Green Palace.
“Make sure no harm comes to them and help them when you can,” his captain had told him firmly. Maydir had asked why they required protection. “King’s orders.”
Looking now at the ragged little thing Maydir felt a deep anger stir within. The girl’s wrists were red and raw from the cruel bonds the soldiers had tied around them. Maydir looked up to see the soldiers that had held Rachel captive these last few days and scowled.
“I will take it from here,” he spoke firmly. He was far younger than these two, but spoke with an authority they could never hope to emulate. The differences between those posted in the King’s Guard and those posted in the far outposts of the kingdom were quite obvious when they were seen side by side.
Nose and Spots did not dare argue with Maydir and after glancing at a grinning Rachel, they turned their steeds around and rode straight out of the stables. Rachel watched them go with a feeling of relief. They had been a terrible bore those two.
“Thank you,” she sighed once the sound of the hooves had drifted away. Maydir had started leading her towards the far end of the stables where a small door led into the east wing of the palace.
“You have been in hiding with Princess Thais,” the tall young man remarked as they walked. It was not a question. Rachel held her tongue. Her vow started now. She would not betray her best friend. When no response came Maydir looked at Rachel’s stubborn expression and smiled. “Your silence is honourable, though I’m afraid it probably won’t last.”
Rachel started chewing the insides of her cheeks. What could they do to her? Thais’ father would never approve of them torturing her would he? No! Of course he wouldn’t, but they had other means in the palace, of this she was aware.
Maydir led the girl on in silence until they reached a small wooden door on the second floor on the western side of the building. Rachel had never been to this part of the palace before. She hadn’t expected to be led into a pleasantly decorated drawing room with the head of a large stuffed warthog above the mantelpiece. The fading evening light shone in through the large windows.
After ushering the girl in Maydir shut the doors behind her leaving the girl alone in this lovely room. Rachel rubbed anxiously at her dirty clothes and eyed the seats. She desperately wanted to drop down into the soft cushions of armchair closest to the fire, but manners prevailed and she merely stood by the window looking out onto the city. She didn’t realise how much she had missed it.
“’Tis a lovely view is it not?”
Rachel spun around with wide eyes to see Lady Katherine of Apollo had shuffled into the room as quietly as a master spy.
“Milady!” Rachel gushed and she quickly curtsied in front of Thais’ great grandmother. For a moment a small smile worked its way onto Nana Darling’s heavily wrinkled face.
“Come now Rachel,” she admonished fondly. “You have known me nearly half your life. You know you may call me Nana.”
Rachel nodded urgently and stepped backwards into the window panes. She hadn’t expected this. How was she supposed to lie straight to Thais’ lovely great grandmother? How could she do such a thing to the old woman?
Unfortunately for Rachel, things were about to get a lot worse.
“Rachel Greenwood! You stand away from those windows and show the manners we raised you with.”
“Granny Winny!” Rachel spluttered and she stared in shock as her own grandmother stalked into the room to stand beside Nana Darling. The youngster garbled incoherently while she looked from one formidable woman to the next.
The two elderly ladies walked into the room and sat down side by side on large settee facing the hearth. Rachel edged towards the armchair she had spotted earlier, but her grandmother knew what she was thinking.
“Don’t even think about it Rachel, look at the state of you!” Granny Winny barked. “You’ll stand here, in front of us.”
Rachel obeyed and came to stand before the two matriarchs, her head hanging. The two women were bristling slightly, looking to one another to see who would start with the questioning. Eventually Nana Darling conceded and nodded to her rival to show she could start.
“Is Kaio in one piece?” Winny asked her granddaughter bluntly. Rachel nodded quickly.
“Yes Granny Winny, last time I saw him.”
“And Thais, she’s well too is she?”
Rachel grinded her teeth together, but stayed silent. Winny noticed and glanced briefly to Nana Darling. They had expected this.
“Now you listen to me my girl,” the Greenwood matriarch spoke firmly. “I know you think we little old ladies are past it, but you’ve got another thing coming. You will talk to us Rachel, do you understand?”
The young girl’s eyes fell to her grandmother’s feet and stayed there determinedly despite her grandmother’s attempts to reclaim her attention.
“Rachel please.” The youngster looked up at these softly spoken words to find Nana Darling looking at her with concern in her kind face. “Thais is in terrible danger. I know you think you are protecting her and I know you have promised her you won’t say a word, but please, help us keep her safe.”
Rachel trembled slightly under those all-seeing eyes and nodded numbly. Thais’ wounded face forced its way into her mind’s eye once more and she shuddered.
“I can see this is hard on you,” Nana Darling was continuing. “Let me make it easier. I am going to say a few things and I want you to nod, that is all, just nod, when something I say is true.”
Rachel remained impassive, but she was listening keenly.
“You and Kaio escaped with Thais nearly three weeks ago did you not?” Nana Darling’s shrewd eyes watched while Rachel stared determinedly at the ground.
“Rachel,” Granny Winny warned. “You will obey Lady Katherine.”
“Winifred,” Nana Darling warned, her voice becoming quite sharp for a moment. “She is cooperating. I need to rephrase myself. Rachel, you and Kaio did not escape with Thais, but you followed her. Am I right?”
Rachel’s mind flew through her options lighting fast. Keeping Thais’ destination a secret was the most important thing. If she cooperated slightly, the two matriarchs might not push her so doggedly on those points. So the best thing Rachel could do for Thais was to reveal these small truths now, in order to conceal the large ones later.
The girl nodded ever so slightly eliciting a broad smile from Nana Darling.
“Very good. Thank you Rachel. Now then, before Thais left, she met with someone, did she not?”
Rachel felt her skin crawling, but she nodded.
“This person told her to go somewhere?”
Again a nod.
“And she followed this person’s advice without questioning it?” Nana Darling sounded slightly incredulous, which deepened when Rachel responded with a nod.
“You caught up with Thais before she reached her destination?”
Once more came the nod.
“She has not reached her destination yet?”
Rachel gulped slightly before she shook her head.
“She is travelling north, is she not?”
Rachel looked up to meet Nana Darling’s eyes before she shook her head firmly. The elderly woman held the girl’s gaze firmly for a few moments before she asked a new question.
“She is near the White Sea?”
Again Rachel held Nana Darling’s gaze, but this time she kept her head perfectly still.
“Rachel Greenwood I did not raise you to lie to your elders,” Granny Winny’s warning tone came. Rachel shifted uncomfortably in the twin gazes of the matriarchs, but she held her chin high.
“You didn’t teach me to be a grass either Granny Winny,” she finally spoke clearly. Winny’s eyebrows raised high on her forehead and Rachel expected braced herself for the telling off she was about to receive, but to her surprise it never came.
Granny Winny was nodding slowly instead and her eyebrows had thankfully returned to their normal positions once more.
“Katherine,” Granny Winny spoke at last. “She’s right. I didn’t raise her to break a promise to a friend. Stubborn as she is, she won’t tell us.”
Nana Darling almost smiled, before she nodded and climbed to her feet.
“We have heard enough. Thank you for your cooperation Rachel. Rest assured that you have not betrayed your friend’s trust. Now if you will excuse me, I must speak with the Confidence.”
Nana Darling shuffled from the room once more, letting a large smile spread across her face when she caught sight of Granny Winny striding across the room and pulling Rachel into a powerful embrace out of the corner of her eye. The elderly woman made her way straight to the Chambers of the Confidence where Gregorius Sectus was waiting for her. His expression was hopeful.
“You have news for Gallus?” he asked, while he led the way to his small study.
“He will not be pleased with what I have to say Gregory,” the elderly woman sighed. She happily accepted the comfortable chair Sectus was offering her beside his desk. “I am afraid you are going to have to give my grandson some very bad news.”
“Worse than the news his daughter was bitten by a wolf?”
“Oh yes,” Nana Darling sighed. “I have been keeping this news from him for too long because I thought it would be better in the long run. It is that sort of news.”
“Well come on then,” Sectus chuckled. “You had better tell me what it is.”
“You must tell Gallus that Thais is heading for the city of Khaled-Dîn,” Nana Darling explained quietly. “And that she is doing so upon hearing the advice of Alucia Dal Am the seer.”
Sectus’ face fell and his shoulders drooped.
“Oh,” he finally exclaimed. “It really is bad news. I did so hope you were exaggerating.”
“Gregory my dear boy,” Nana Darling replied with a twinkling smile. “When you get to my age you will have forgotten how to exaggerate.”
“Are you sure you want Gallus to hear this now?” the adviser asked worriedly.
“I have kept it from him for long enough. I am sure he will want to hear about this Gregory. Just…” The old woman trailed off and she lifted her fingers to her lips in concern. “Do be a dear and tell him gently won’t you?”
Sectus sighed heavily before he nodded.
“I will be waiting here for you upon your return.”
Gregorius Sectus nodded to the king’s grandmother before he went to stand in the corner of his study. He turned his back on Nana Darling and closed his eyes. The ether on his skin started to move and swirl while the lesser mage concentrated on casting part of his mind out into the ether plains. Sweat poured down his brow while he searched for Gallus in the vastness of the plains.
Finally, he located the king and he started to force the ether above a little patch of grass to take his shape. The man started panting while he strained to make the ether bend to his will. He could feel it taking shape, grouping together, preparing to cease existing in this location and take up an existence in an entirely new one.
Eventually he knew the ether he had prepared was ready, because the ether on his skin started to resonate and vibrate gently. With one last almighty push the exhausted Sectus transferred his mind to the ether figure forcing his body to follow.
Sectus inhaled deeply, his eyes opening unsteadily to this new environment. He gasped for breath and stepped forward unsteadily in the dark. He would have fallen had strong hands not guided him away from mishap. A water flask was presented to him, but Sectus had no time for such things. He bent over and wretched painfully while the particles in his body aligned themselves. The ether on his skin burned and his head thundered in agony. He could barely hear, barely see and certainly had no concept of which way was up or down.
The water was forced past his lips and slowly, very slowly, the world became a little less horrifying and a little more bearable. Sectus opened his eyes and finally met the concerned gaze of his king.
“Gallus,” the adviser managed through a wince.
“Good evening friend,” Gallus replied with a broadening smile. “Can I offer you something to drink? Perhaps something to eat?”
Sectus shook his head and swallowed some more water to settle his shuddering stomach. He looked from the king’s ashen face to the pile of parchments held in his ink stained fingers.
“I hope I have not interrupted you Gallus,” the adviser quickly offered. The king smiled and shook his head.
“I was writing a letter. Nothing that cannot wait till the morning.”
Sectus nodded, not quite believing his friend, but unwilling to push him regarding it either. He glanced around the fire and noticed an absence of men.
“Where are the others?”
“They have gone hunting. Though I must concede they have been gone for over two hours and I did hear a lot of commotion earlier. They may have happened upon some unfriendly locals.”
“If they were unfriendly before encountering Thalius and Avery they may be even more so afterwards!”
“Aye,” Gallus chuckled. “So then Sectus, you have news?”
The newly appeared man became suddenly serious and awkward. Gallus could see the man’s ether shifting and bunching together protectively around Sectus’ head.
“Ah,” the king sighed. “I am not going to enjoy this news am I? Tell me, did my grandmother tell you to break it to me gently?” Sectus smiled and nodded. “Well you had better tell me over a glass of Selmain’s strongest firewater then.”
A few moments later and Gallus had managed to procure a large tumbler full of amber liquid. Sectus sat down beside the kind around the fire.
“Do you want me to tell you straight away or string it out with some other news?” the adviser asked helpfully. Gallus took a large swig of the firewater and swirled it in his mouth for a moment before he swallowed.
“You had better tell me straight away I think.” For good measure however, the king downed the large tumbler and filled it up again before he indicated for Sectus to speak with a nod of his head.
“Your daughter is travelling towards the city of Khaled-Dîn,” Sectus spoke slowly, though he seemed suddenly confused by the calm nod his king gave him in return. “Of this you are aware I see. Uh…however…you are probably not aware of why she has decided to travel north. She…” Sectus shifted uncomfortably and his gaze dropped away from Gallus’ probing dark eyes. The king noted this and prepared himself for the worst. “It would seem friend, before leaving she did in fact seek out Alucia Dal Am…” Gallus choked. “Who told her to travel to the elven city.”
“She did what?”