Chapter 13. Your Choice
With the silver moon as their guide, they rode stealthily into the night. Before departing, Alanis made sure to build an alibi, telling Harold she was turning in early as Faris had suggested. Most of the guards were gathered in the hall for supper, making her escape to the stables quite the easy feat.
Faris met her at the large tree, near the stables, atop his mount. He had equipped his armor since their last meeting and wore a sword sheathed at his hip. For a moment, Alanis second guessed her decision to leave with him. The cautious look in his eyes told her their meeting could bring danger. She could only guess what she was getting herself into with this man.
But there was no time for debate.
She gave the prince her trust with no explanation and took his offered hand, mounting upon his midnight steed with him. They sped off into the darkened plains, riding for an hour, though it felt longer as adrenaline pumped through her veins. There was no telling where he was taking her, but something deep inside told her she could place trust in him. She supposed it was the same feeling Tyrell spoke of, the magic of trusting one’s heart whenever her gift wasn’t an option.
“Look up,” Faris said, disconnecting Alanis from her thoughts. Her eyes followed the direction of his tilted head, to the sky ahead of them. In it, was a green ribbon of light. It flailed through the sky in a slow dancing movement, then began to lash as they raced towards it.
The sky above them ignited with a burst of green just as the light reached them. Alanis turned her head to see the light as it traveled south, watching as it faded until there was nothing but sky. She turned her head again, to watch the forming lights ahead. They spawned from the same point, from the peak of one of the grander mountains that belonged to the Mosre’Lori Range.
"Lahre Donti,” he said, looking back to gather her expression. She smiled, noticing how bright his eyes were under the dancing light. They were as green as the light above them, but in some ways richer.
It was funny that something so beautiful, adorned someone so cynical, she though.
“Some say that the Lahre Donti are caused by the touch of the Terra and the heavens. Hiore uf’reueth.”
Love’s touch, the caress of Terra and sky.
“Some say,” Alanis repeated, tugging playfully at his red-cloak she was holding to. “You seem to know a lot of ‘children’s stories’. Are you sure you’re not secretly fond of them?”
She was impressed he knew as much as he did about ‘The Ole God Language’ and to know such a beautiful tale surprised her even more. Perhaps, he wasn’t the cynical brute she had pegged him for.
“I thought it was appropriate,” he chided while turning his head. He wore a smug smile while adding, “I am entertaining a child after all.”
She twisted his cloaks with a chuckle and kept her retort silent, allowing the prince the final word.
They continued to ride, towards Mosre’Lori. Before they reached the base of the mountain he swooped his head to the side and tugged back on the reins. With two clicks of his tongue his mount slowed pace. When they finally stopped, Alanis caught a glimpse of torchlight in the distance.
“What’s going on?” Alanis loosened her grip along with her question.
“Don’t worry we’ll be fine,” he said while reining his mount to move towards the light.
His assurance did little to stifle the uneasy feeling that constricted in her gut. It grew worse as they trotted towards the small caravan. As they neared she could spot six of them, but there was no telling how many there were in the concealing dark. What she did know, was they were well out-numbered should something go wrong.
Faris dismounted and helped Alanis to the rocky ground beside him. She followed behind him as he walked to the group.
“Lord Ashton,” the dark-haired woman from the tavern spoke. Her twanging voice was as rich and exotic as the sultry pout that decorated her full lips. She flipped her long, black hair, along with her modest cape over her armored shoulders and stepped forward.
The fact that she was a working woman or a whore no longer concerned Alanis, she was greatly relieved that they were meeting an acquaintance of the prince and not some stranger.
“Yes, it is I,” he scoffed, “Mind the lord title, will you.”
The woman’s scowl lifted a bit until her eyes caught Alanis’ nervous stare from behind the prince.
“What took you so long, did the girl give you trouble?” she asked.
“Sneaking her out of Ati at this hour wasn’t a small feat. We left as soon as we could manage, be thankful I brought her with me.”
“The hard part’s just begun, my dear. Follow us to the keep.”
“You didn’t answer my question. Why does he want to see her?”
The woman lifted the hood of her cloak, draping it over her head before replying. “Your question shall be answered when you meet with—”
“Excuse me, but I’m not going anywhere with you,” Alanis spoke over her. She took a small step to stand side-by-side the prince. Her eyes examined the woman for a moment before she added, “Not until I know what’s going on.”
“Lani,” a familiar voice broke through the dark and shortly the speaker appeared.
“Anna?” Alanis lurched forward, breaking away from the prince’s side.
A blond beauty walked ahead, weaving through the small gathering. She stopped in front of Alanis. Combined with the light of the full moon and the flickering torches she could see that it was truly her, that it wasn’t her mind playing tricks on her.
“I can’t believe it. I didn’t think he’d bring you,” Anna spoke. Happiness rang in her cheerful greeting, but Alanis was too wary to be pulled in by nostalgia. The last time they met she was bonded and had shot Cassandra in the leg. Why was she here? Who were these people? She looked back at Faris and shifted her stare to Anna.
“What is this?” Alanis questioned nervously.
The dark-haired woman spoke before her friend could reply, “I don’t like this anymore than you, but your service has been requested by the commander. He’d like to speak to you, nothing more... nothing less.”
Commander—what are these people up to, Alanis wondered.
“Please hear what he has to say,” Anna countered, but Alanis wanted to know what she was getting into. Plus, she wanted to hear her story, like how she ended up with these people, and Justin’s whereabouts.
“I’ll...” Alanis stopped. She had wanted to say she’d think it over, but had a change of heart when the prince squeezed her shoulder.
He’ll be with me should anything go wrong, she realized. As long as he is with me I’ll be safe.
Her eyes scanned the group, stopping at Anna. There was no guile hidden beneath any of their faces. In fact, as she looked them over and calmed her nerves, she could feel that their intentions were pure, but felt a certain urgency amongst their collective aura. Like they were in desperate need of something.
She sighed, this would be another one of those times she would have to go with her heart and trust the prince’s judgment and the intentions of these strangers.
“I will talk with him. But I must have your word that Faris will accompany our meeting.”
The prince’s breath hitched, annoyed with her proposal no doubt. Too bad, you got me into this mess. You’re coming with me whether or not you please, she felt like saying to him, but could sense he understood that she meant business with the simple glare she gave in return.
“Whatever you want, but we must hurry before we are spotted by someone,” the leader replied and broke away from the group with no further discussion. Her followers joined her, disappearing into the dark. Alanis could hear the whinnies of their mounts as they dashed towards the mountains.
“That woman... She doesn’t trust me, does she?” Alanis asked as they walked back to Faris’ horse.
He helped her to the saddle and replied, “Lysa is like that with most outsiders. Don’t ask me why. She’s not the talkative type. Though, I suppose her near-death escape from Cove makes her question everyone’s intentions,” He saw the question in Alanis’ eyes and responded, ”Cove is a settlement in the south, like Larska.”
She nodded and thought of how badly Cassandra had treated her when they first met. She could imagine this woman had trust issues, like everyone else who had escaped a settlement. This time she was better prepared for whatever nastiness this woman could potentially serve.
Faris cut in with a laugh, “The only time I’ve heard her vocal was when I caught her beneath the commander, if you know what I mean.”
She certainly ‘knew’ what he meant, her blush was proof of it. He smiled at her ease and ushered his mount the base of the grand mountain, following the caravan into a darkened cave.
Her hands lifted to his shoulders and she leaned into him. “So there were never any whores, were there?” she whispered in his ear, realizing it was all some sort of front.
He laughed and pried her fingers from his shoulder armor. She pulled her hand away and gripped the saddle. His cold gesture surprised her after the breakthrough she thought they had made with each other earlier.
“I’d thank you to keep that information to yourself. I’ve got a reputation to look out for, you know.” he whispered sternly, careful to keep their conversation as private as possible in the cavern.
“Why? I don’t understand why you’d want people to think of you like that.”
“Why should I care what they think. It’s not like I was hurting or murdering anyone. Besides, it didn’t stop you from pestering me, now did it?”
“But I’ve seen you pay them gold.”
“If I were to distribute the king’s gold freely there would be questions. No one’s going to question a grown man about his sexual vises. That is, except for you.”
She sighed softly, grasping the small life secrets he had tried to share with her on their outings. She was blinded by the tales the others told about him, the tales ridiculing him for his indifference regarding the throne and mocking him for the women he bedded, or could not. Those storied blinded her and the others to the truth.
All this time he was laundering the kings gold to fund these people, for whatever reason that was. In a way his guise was brilliant, nobody had the gall to question it since it was such a taboo subject. In the end, the only person it hurt was him.
They arrived in the underground keep, it was amazing to think that they were somewhere beneath the Mosre’Lori Range. While Faris visited with Lysa, Alanis fed her curiosity by taking a lone tour through the hall she was left in.
The stone walls were lined with crimson tapestries. On the woven centerpiece was a golden sigil of a stag. And above it was a trail of seven stars. It was the same animal the earth goddess had mounted upon in her vision.
More signs, Alanis said to herself. It was unclear whether this was coincidence or fate. But it was definitely something.
The stone granite vaulted walls weren’t forgiving with nearby private talks and one in particular caught her ear.
Her eyes lowered to the whispers that carried over her shoulder and caught the gape of her old friend Justin as he looked up from Anna’s face. That answered one of her questions, she had wondered if they had split in their journeys. By the way his hands glided over her arms Alanis could tell that their relationship had grown since their last meeting.
Alanis took in the tapestry again as couple discussed who was going to confront her.
“Each of those stars is a settlement,” Anna spoke from behind, feeding from Alanis’ careful stare like she had so many times before.
Alanis smiled and dropped her stare to her friend. She almost forgot Anna was gifted at reading her even while she was silent.
"Seven of them,” Alanis whispered, she could remember a time when she thought Larska was the only one, that was nearly half a year ago.
“The prince came by several days ago and told Lysa that he was training the Oraur Lahre. I confronted him after I heard his story. Justin and I thought you’d be interested in what was going on here.”
And what exactly that was she did not know.
“You’re still with Justin, after everything he’s done to you?”
“He can’t help his past, same as you or I. Who could say that we wouldn’t have done the same thing if we were born without abilities. What matters is he’s changed and he’s willing to right his wrongs.”
“Are you still bonded?”
Anna gave a disappointed look, offended Alanis didn’t share her trust in Justin. Alanis sighed and lifted her stare back to the woven cloth ahead.
“I love him, Alanis,” she retorted stiffly with a step forward, “and no, we’re no longer bonded.”
Alanis kept her eyes ahead, admiring the embroidered stars as she spoke, “I’ve known you most of my life and not once have I heard you sound as sure as you do right now. So I’ll trust in your judgment and won’t say anything more about it.”
“Thank you,” Anna said while throwing her arms around Alanis, pulling her friend into a close embrace. They were together again, ‘The Elis Sisters’. Alanis could feel comfort knowing she was safe and happy, even if it was with Justin.
Anna pulled her chin from Alanis’ shoulder, her eyes brimming with tears.
“Remember, how we’d play in the old tower?” Anna asked, making no attempt to hide her tears, she’d always been the type to let her emotions surface without fear. Alanis always thought she was the stronger of the two.
“Of course I do,” Alanis answered, her hands lowered from Anna’s shoulders and clasped at her lapel nervously. “I’d always get stuck playing knight while you played the princess.”
Anna laughed and brushed away her tears. “I’ve lost count how many times you’ve rescued me throughout the years. I would have given up on life if you and Justin weren’t in it.”
“I’ll always be here for you, no matter what happens.”
“I know... I know, but I worry what your future will be like. You’re alone out there and something bad is on the horizon, not only for you, but for all of Terra. I’d feel better if there was someone looking out for you...”
Alanis turned her head, following Anna’s stare. Her eyes landed on the prince and Lysa. They were walking towards Justin, Lysa’s pace tapered with each step until she stopped leaving Faris alone.
Her thoughts shifted, was Anna suggesting ‘he’ watch over her? Ha! That would be a cold day in hell. He would make a lousy partner and it was clear that he had no interest in her after his wishy-washy actions. In fact, he hurt her every time she tried to get close to him. Their relationship was merely for his and her gain, a gain she had no notion of on both sides, and nothing more.
“I’ve got to tell you something...” Anna said with a step back.
What, there was more? The way her voice dropped brought on a rush of panic that made Alanis step towards her friend.
"I’m pregnant," she whispered and lowered her hands to her belly.
“What,” Alanis croaked. Her eyes lowered to Anna’s hands, where she kept them, not knowing how to respond to her news.
Alanis could tell she was scared, more so than she was for her. Her small hands shook as they hovered above her stomach. But that fear transformed as she cradled her stomach. A small, yet hopeful smile creased across her trembling lips.
“Are you sure? How can you know something like that, these people don’t have access to—”
“I’m a month overdue and—” she stopped then continued just as quickly with disbelief carrying in her voice, “I’ve dreamt about her.”
“Yes, the baby,” she answered, “I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve dreamt of her almost every night... In fact, it’s what made me realize I was late. You don’t have to believe me, I know how crazy I must sound.”
Alanis took her into her arms and held her tightly.
"I believe you,” she whispered into her ear. There would have been a time where she would have questioned her friends sanity, but she too had her fair share of dreams and visions, enough so to not discount them like the others would.
“There’s something else,” Anna whispered. Her voice was full of shame and relief. “I haven’t found the right way to tell him... I don’t know how he’ll take it.”
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” Alanis whispered. “He’s worked this hard to keep you safe so there isn’t anything to worry about.”
Alanis closed her eyes and held Anna close. Like her earlier promise, she’d be there for her no matter what and deep down she knew Justin would be too.
Faris accompanied her into the meeting hall. Alanis took seat at the table, opposite the commander. She looked him over, taking the opportunity to read him before he had the chance to introduce himself.
His name was Benjamin Frederick and he was the leader of the group of settlement radicals known as ‘The Crimson Order’. A group composed of escapees and fellow sympathizers, like Faris.
He wore a red cloak matching the prince’s, though his armor was stricken with the sigil of a stag. Her eyes travelled to his face, past his well-chiseled jaw to his piercing, blue eyes while he spouted his welcoming pleasantries to her. His eyes were fierce and strong, but she could sense the strength that resided inside them was due to his dedication to his followers.
He brought his hand to his forehead and brushing a stray sandy-blond lock that toppled in his view away. He then raked his fingers through his neatly cropped cut to the back of his neck. He left his hand there and nervously pinched the taught muscle connecting to his shoulder as he spoke.
“Anna’s told me a lot about you. In fact, she went on and on about you, quite honestly I’ve grown sick of it.” The commander’s joke was met with one of Alanis’ polite smiles.
“It’s taken a lifetime to grown the bond that we share, so I know how she can come off to someone she’s just met.”
He nodded. “She’s a good person and so is Justin. I know the hardships that you three went through were horrible,” he said. Alanis sighed, wondering what lies they had told these people to gain their trust.
“We’ve gone through a lot,” Alanis agreed, deciding to keep her knowledge of Justin and Anna’s deceit quiet. Outing them wouldn’t benefit anyone. Since he had saved Anna and broken their bond he was now an enemy of Larska, a traitor. In doing this he had become one of them in a sense.
“I know. That’s why I feel bad asking what I’m about to ask of you.” He dropped his hand from his neck and rested it atop his other that was propped on the tables end. “We would like you to join us in our movement,” he proposed, his eyes were still as he watched her reaction.
She turned to Faris, who was comfortably reclined in the seat beside her. He held his chin in a bored pose. He was going to be of no use to her.
“I’m confused. I’m not a warrior, you’d gain nothing by recruiting me.”
“That’s not what I hear. I’ve heard Faris is training you.”
“Yes but—not preparing me for battle. He’s training the basics and he can agree that I’ve got a lot to learn.”
“I have a question for you,” he said. The friendly tone that carried in his words earlier was lost, as was the welcoming look in his eyes. “Have you forgotten them, the people you’ve left behind? They’re still there, going through their final days, oblivious to their fate. The same fate you were fortunate enough to have escaped.”
“No.” Alanis reclined back in her seat, struck by his words in such a way that she felt guilty. “I haven’t.”
“Then you must join us. Don’t they deserve to live as freely as you or I?”
“She mustn’t do anything. This isn’t for you or anybody else to guilt her into. This is something she must prepare for or she could get herself killed, or worse.”
“Ah-ha, the master of excuses speaks.”
“I never expected this meeting would force her recruitment into ‘The Order’. If I had, I can assure you that she wouldn’t be sitting here at my side.”
“You know very well bringing her here was a huge risk. Why the fuck would we bring her here just to mingle with friends, what would that accomplish?”
“Very well, Benjamin,” Faris said. He lifted from his seat nudging Alanis’ shoulder as he rose, silently gesturing that they would take leave.
“Ben,” the commander corrected stiffly, “And don’t act like an ass, not when you know I’m right.”
“You want to free the settlements start by dropping your titles and ranks or the so-called people you’re working so hard on freeing will never be free.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve heard that excuse before. You’ll have to work harder on them to retain your title.”
They both glared across the table at each other. Alanis would have laughed at the commanders response, but could tell they were genuinely perturbed with each other. And she could quite possibly find herself walking back to Ati if she didn’t mind her manners.
“Let me speak,” Alanis broke their stare down with her soft request. “I can speak for myself.”
“Don’t I know it,” Faris quipped. What was that supposed to mean, that she was loudmouthed, she wondered but let the argument go for the sake of saving face in front of strangers.
“Yes,” the commander questioned. His eyes lit up, thinking he had won favor by the prince’s loose tongue.
“I was wondering what you would have to gain by recruiting me. I’m not powerful, as I’ve said before, and I’ve got prior commitments.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of your blessing and the journey you’re on. But there is power in that title you carry, a power that would bring hope to the ‘Crimson Order’. To know the goddess has placed favor in our movement would bring support, support that we are in desperate need of.”
“I’m not sure. It scares me that you’ve put so much faith into a title.”
Faris cawed, “That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard all night.”
The commander walked around the small stone table, unhooking the golden pin that adorned his raised collar. “My faith has been placed upon you, Oraur Lahre,” he said. His hand lowered with the brooch to her hand, gifting her the golden sigil of the rebellion.
Self-doubt ate at her while she gazed at the brooch. She was surrounded by real warriors who knew of suffering. For too long, she had known the comfort of the castle walls and depended on others for support. This would be a step into unknown territory for her, but a step into something that could make her stronger and mold her to carry her burden.
Is this something I can handle, she wondered.
“May I have time to think it over? I’ve things to get in order if I decide to join.”
“Take the night. I’ll be unreachable for a fortnight tomorrow afternoon.”
“A fortnight,” Faris joined, “Where are you off to?”
"Cove,” he answered.
“The southern settlement,” Alanis spoke over them.
The commander glanced over at her. “You know of it?”
“I’ve heard the name before, is all.” She lied.
The night she had given Alexander his sight back she had a vision, a vision through Justin’s eyes. During it, she was in Cove, a southern settlement that suffered power outages and was unbearably hot.
“We’ll give you an answer tomorrow morning,” Faris offered.
“Do me a favor, Alanis. Don’t let this fool make your choice, decide for yourself,” Benjamin said, leaving her to decide for herself. Little did she know, his advice was going to be hard to follow.
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