Flight of the Five Swans

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Fear Chapter 4

Thaleia

The forest trail was not the quickest route to take to reach the border between Kyoria and Deturus, but it was guaranteed to be the most peaceful, as well as the safest. There had been little to no reports of banditry along this path for the past decade, possibly because of its veritable disuse. It passed through no major towns or villages, meaning that any travellers taking this route could not count on replenishing their supplies or finding comfortable accommodation along the way.

Nevertheless, this was the path chosen for the Kyorian party to travel. As theirs was a relatively small company sporting only twelve mounted guards in addition to the five princesses, the captain of the guard had decided to forego comfort for safety. This decision was unanimously corroborated by the princesses themselves, Thaleia foremost among them. She and her sisters all rather naively welcomed the idea of sleeping under the sky and eating around an open fire, thinking it to be a grand adventure.

“We’re like rangers!” Thaleia had enthused to her sisters on only the second day of their voyage. The princesses rode together in pairs in the very center of the company, Thaleia and Raia in front, followed by Callia and Eurielle, with Petra bringing up the rear.

“Or Robin Hood.” Petra said with more eagerness than she was wont to show.

“But without stealing from anyone,” Eurielle added with a laugh. Petra didn’t respond, and Thaleia shot her a suspicious look. She made a mental note to check that all of her belongings were present and accounted for once they had stopped for the night.

“It’ll be great research for my next story!” Callia mused and with that, she was off, talking a mile a minute and explaining her ideas for plot and characters. The other sisters listened eagerly, occasionally making suggestions. After awhile, Callia rifled in her saddlebag for a quill and parchment to write down some of their new ideas and thus distracted, their discussion petered out.

For the first five days of their voyage, the princesses maintained this routine of riding together during the day. Thaleia broke their custom midway through the sixth day. Having seen a set of animal tracks on the side of the path that neither she nor her sisters recognized, she fell back to ask one of the soldiers if he could identify the animal. As the guard had not noticed the prints at the time, she used one of Callia’s quills to scratch out a sketch of the markings she’d seen onto her hand. He also was ignorant as to the animal that had made them, but he pointed her in the direction of Alexandre, who had been trained as a ranger prior to joining the ranks of the Kyorian royal guard. The captain of the guard was able to immediately identify the tracks as belonging to a badger. Afterwards, Thaleia took to riding next to Alexandre in order to pick his brain about different tracks they saw throughout the day. She also asked him on several occasions to draw the tracks of animals that they might see, so that she would recognize them should they actually come across them in reality.

Following this breach, the rest of the princesses no longer lingered in exclusivity, either. Callia had fished out the book she’d brought detailing the edible properties of certain flora, and attempted to spot real-life samples of the pictures in the surrounding environment. Though this challenge initially began as a solitary activity, it was not long before Raia offered her services as tutor to her elder sister. The resident green thumb among the princesses, Raia was familiar with the majority of the plants for which Callia was searching, and was easily able to point them out when they were in sight. Two of the guards riding around the sisters, Killian and Niall, were pulled into the lessons as well, which turned the task of finding each new plant into a sort of game.

Eurielle and Petra, on the other hand, both took a leaf out of Thaleia’s book and attached themselves to different members of the royal guard for one-on-one instruction. Eurielle’s chosen tutor was a middle-aged man named Baelor, who was as well versed in identifying the sounds of animals as Alexandre was in recognizing their markings. As an added bonus, Baelor was no stranger to the endless barrage of questions Eurielle asked him, being himself the father to three girls under the age of fifteen. Thaleia and the rest of the princesses had already proclaimed themselves to be in veritable awe of the man’s endless patience with their youngest sister.

Petra, however, had taken to riding in the very back of the party with Osric, an older member of the guard who had previously worked as a trapper in his youth. As cheerful and garrulous as Eurielle, Osric was the last person that Thaleia would have expected to become Petra’s chosen riding companion. He was forever telling stories of his past, and he spent endless hours explaining in vivid detail the different traps that he had used for each kind of animal, as well as how to go about setting them. Thaleia marveled internally as Petra voluntarily rode beside him day after day, seemingly content just to listen to his long-winded accounts.

It wasn’t until they had been on the road for nearly a fortnight that Petra’s true motivation was finally revealed. When making camp after their twelfth day of travelling, Thaleia stumbled onto Petra kneeling just outside of the opening to the tent that she shared with Eurielle. Petra’s hands were busy tying a piece of rope into a series of complicated knots, and Thaleia had a jolt of realization. A rustling confirmed that their youngest sister was currently inside the tent, which all but confirmed Thaleia’s suspicions. Clearly, Petra was setting one of the traps described by Osric as an attempted prank on Eurielle. Thaleia was torn. Should she stop Petra? Warn Eurielle?

Seeming to sense her gaze, Petra looked up and saw her watching. She raised one finger to her lips in a ‘shhh’ gesture. Thaleia’s decision was made. Smiling slightly, she hurried to join the rest of the party around the campfire, where they sat awaiting that night’s dinner. Petra arrived moments later, and Thaleia could only assume that the trap had been set.

Suddenly, a slight shriek sounded from the direction of Eurielle’s tent, followed by the muffled thump of a person falling. Raia, Callia, and several of the guards stood and looked curiously in that direction. Petra sat calmly, seemingly unconcerned at the commotion. Thaleia tried desperately to keep a straight face—a task that became even more difficult when Eurielle stomped into view. The front of her dress was littered with smudges of dirt and leaves, the two largest stains indicating the places where her knees had evidently hit the ground. She stopped at the edge of the circle and placed her hands on her hips, her eyes sparking in anger.

“Petra!” she wailed, and Thaleia couldn’t hold it in any longer.

She laughed.

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